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Strait Flush Ch 2 Monday 2011
Strait Flush Ch 2 Monday 2011
Rick's was one of the trendy bars that foreign businessmen took their new girlfriends to, located three blocks from Li's office. It was airy, lined with a waist-high counter and decorative stools. Large leafy plants separated the tables and divided the room into sections. A sizable aquarium stocked with tropical fish sat near the entrance. The backwall was awash with neon. The bar itself traditional teak and brass. It wasn't too crowded to see everyone.
Tom glanced around the room as he walked in, most four-seat tables in the interior were taken by young businessmen, no different from the ones seen earlier today, only with looser ties and laughing, chattering faces. Several women were at the bar and among the tables. The ever-present Australians with their windblown blonde hair and rough, suntanned arms and faces. Several Europeans, a few Americans. Still mostly Asian.
A movement caught Tom's eye as he spotted Li waving to him, grinning ear to ear. Tom steered between the humanity and shook hands again with Li. A pitcher of Foster's and two mugs were on the table. Li must've just arrived. The Chinaman poured the foamy beer into Tom's mug, then to his own as Rossi sat down across the booth. Both had plants directly behind their backs.
"Ah, Rick's" started Tom. "Not the same atmosphere as the Rick's in Casablanca."
"You've been to Casablanca?" Li looked puzzled, although he shouldn't thought Tom, as much as I get around.
"I meant the Bogart movie. Casablanca."
"Oh, yes. Yes. Casablanca! I thought for a moment.." Li was laughing.
"I know, no confusion intended. We Americans have a term for that actor. Do you know what it means to Bogart someone?" Tom was still smiling as Li shook his head. "It means you're not sharing something, or you're keeping something to yourself." Li's expression changed, but Tom disarmed him with a grin. "Well, you know how to prepare me for the bad news, Li." Tom sipped his beer.
"Please. Mr. Rossi. It is not bad news."
"I know, but you know I am a cautious man."
"But willing to take small risk and depend upon yourself for good fortune, Tom. Otherwise you would not be in position today. You still be store manager somewhere waiting for ten years to retire." Li's pronunciation was perfect, but somehow some words still get left out, thought Tom. Still better than my Mandarin.
"OK, Li, what is the deal?" Li took a sip of his Foster's.
"It is this. I have a friend in Malaysia that needs some materials. He is supplying these to Burma. The seller is in the Middle East and has no buyer, or at least he is not going to keep the material in the local markets."
"Li, we're dancing without steps, here. Is this computer stuff? Who is who?"
"Tom, we are talking about a half million US for you. Keep this in mind. No tax."
"I'll keep that in mind. Now the product." Li took a deep breath.
"The product. The product is not computer stuff, Tom. The stuff is weapons."
Tom sat back and stared disbelieving at his Chinese friend as Li took another sip of beer. They broke eye contact and Rossi sipped his own again.
"Weapons! Boy, that's a far cry from electronics. And I'm supposed to be the expert here?" Tom leaned forward again, bringing his voice to a hushed tone.
"Yes, Tom. Please hear me out. The Kuwaitis have a large stockpile of Iraqi small arms that were taken by freedom fighters and other sources, but they do not want to have them in the wrong hands. I am assuring the Arabs that they will not remain in the region."
"So we've become arms smugglers."
"We are not smuggling to criminals, Tom." Of course, thought Rossi. The Burmese.
Li knew what he was doing when he approached the American. He knew of Tom's dislike for governments such as those of Pol Pot, Amin, Noriega and Hussein, as well as his sympathies for oppressed populations. While the Burmese Civil War made no headlines in the US, it was always on the back pages of the Asian dailies. The 30-year-old war between the simple, peace-loving Karen tribe and the Socialist Rangoon government had come to a point. Finally the country was forced into a free election amid street violence, in which the democratic form was chosen. The heads in Rangoon admitted defeat, but postponed the changeover until peace was restored. In the last six months, several street uprisings, often created by the government, gave the existing powers the time it needed to make the winning candidates disappear. Forever. None of the world powers cared. The Karen tribesmen had long existed on their own form of democratic government, which was effective and peaceful, unlike the corrupt regime to the north. The troops sent to disperse the tribe were met with a motivated grass-roots army, poorly equipped and trained, but with surprising spirit and organization.
The Kuwaitis surprised Tom. It was still early March. The Gulf War was winding down, the joint coalition forces had just secured Kuwait after a month of air attacks on Baghdad and other military targets, followed by a crushing five-day ground strike through Kuwait. Tom had been glued to the TV set during those times, paying special attention to the Marine forces and their tremendous obstacles.
The world opinion of the Kuwaitis had changed from being a friendly oil-producing state to a victim of a brutal dictator. Now Tom began thinking of the Arab nation in a different light. Even after all we've done, they want to go behind our backs and make a profit.
Isn't economics what war is all about? It was oil. Like it was rubber plantations before.
And saving face, showing the world that there are still superpowers, and good guys can beat the bad guys. At least the armed forces called the shots this time, until the TV showed this sanitized war actually was what is was; waste. Total waste. Tom mused theories and dispelled them at the same time.
"If you don't want to do it, it may be lost. The Burmese need these weapons badly. You know that this shipment may push the Burmese government into stepping down. Tom, we have the power to change a history and end a war that has lasted for thirty years."
"How many weapons? What types? Do you have a plan for all this?"
"I am not completely sure of the size of the load. A small freighter. A large airplane, perhaps. I understand that these are all small arms and ammunition, as well as other items or military value, er..packs, I believe."
"And the Kuwaitis have these stored somewhere in Kuwait?" Li knew that Tom was hooked.
"I believe so. The American and Arab forces are searching through the country, looking for stragglers and arms supplies. If we do not act quickly, the weapons will be discovered and the moment lost. The Kuwaitis want to move the weapons to another point, away from the hot spots, either Abu Dhabi or Dubai, but it is a long trip for several small boats in waters that are heavily guarded."
"And I am to go to the weapons site, inspect the weapons with my expertise and swing a deal with the Arabs. The price is settled? What if some of the weapons are broken or unusable, do we get discounted and still take the load for parts?"
"That is very close to the plan, but there is more. You will need to arrange transportation back."
"To Hong Kong?"
"To Singapore. The buyer will be there and pay you with cash. You may take your share then after the transportation is paid. The Burmese have influential Malaysians that are paying two million dollars for the weapons. The Arabs want one million to sell. We pay for transportation and other expenses and split the profit. The Malaysians will worry about getting the arms across the Mallaccan Straits and overland through Sumatra. There are pirates in the Straits and it is not safe to carry far by boat. It is not our concern, only to get the shipment to Singapore."
"Well, it is my concern if the weapons fall into the wrong hands."
"We can only do what we can do. Is the basic idea OK with you?"
"I'm not bothered by the politics of it all, but the risk bothers me. First, since I'm putting my neck on the line for this, the transportation should come out of your share. I will get it as cheap as possible. Second, where are we going to get the initial one million in cash?" Tom was moderately wealthy, as was Li, but this was a sizable amount.
"I have contacts that will loan us the money. It is a very short-term loan, so the interest is very low. If we can get the deal completed within a week, it may not cost anything."
Tom thought for a moment, sipping his beer.
"OK, what's the plan?" Li beamed and pulled from his jacket a Cathay Air ticket folder and placed it next to the pitcher. Inside was a ticket to Dubai. For tomorrow at 1015.
"I still get the feeling that you're Bogarting on me, Li. I guess I'll find out."
"Here is the plan, Tom..."