The Disciple of Las Vegas by Ian Hamilton is a high-octane financial thriller that introduces Ava Lee, forensic accountant and martial arts expert.
Fifty million dollars has disappeared into thin air from the accounts of one of the richest men in the Philippines, Tommy Ordonez. His one hope is Ava Lee—sleek, capable forensic accountant and sleuth. With the help of her Triad-connected partner, Uncle, Ava follows the money trail from San Francisco to Costa Rica to the casinos and illegal gambling dens of Las Vegas. Meanwhile, a vengeful adversary from Ava’s past has put out a contract on her life, and the shadowy hit man is close at her heels every step of the way. Will Ava recover the stolen cash without stepping into the crosshairs of a growing list of enemies?
When Ava Lee woke up, the first thing she felt was a sharp pain shooting through her neck and shoulder. She stretched, causing the pain to become more intense, and then slowly relaxed her muscles. She knew from experience that the lashing she had endured wasn’t going to cause any long-term damage.
She turned her head to look at the bedside clock. It was only 6 a.m. She had flown home to Toronto around midnight and had been in bed for less than five hours. She had thought that two melatonin capsules and a glass of Pinot Grigio would see her through the night, but the pain and a mind that was still a jumble of emotions were gnawing at her.
She lay quietly, hoping she could drift off again. After ten minutes she gave up and pulled herself out of bed. She kneeled to say a short prayer of thanks to St. Jude for her safe return, and then headed for the bathroom. Pulling off her black Giordano T-shirt, Ava turned so she could see her back in the mirror. The belt had hit her on the side of the neck and across her right shoulder, and then again on the same shoulder and partway down her back. The marks were a deep black and blue, yellowed at the edges. They looked worse than they felt, and in a few days they would start to fade.
Ava went into the kitchen, made herself a Starbucks VIA Ready Brew, and sat down at the small round table set against the window overlooking Cumberland Street and Avenue Road. She lived in the heart of Yorkville, the ritziest neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. Despite the early hour, the traffic below was barely moving as the January weather tried to decide if it was raining or snowing.
Normally she would have the Globe and Mail spread across the table, but she had been away for more than a week—travelling to Hong Kong, Thailand, Guyana, and the British Virgin Islands, tracking down and retrieving more than five million dollars that had been stolen from a client—and had cancelled the paper until further notice. So she opened up her laptop and turned it on to read the news online. That was a mistake.
After she signed on, Ava opened her email program, expecting to see messages from friends, a bit of spam, and not much else. She froze when she saw Uncle’s name in her inbox. Uncle was her Hong Kong–based partner, a man in his seventies whose idea of high-tech communication was a Chinese knockoff iPhone he had bought for less than forty dollars at the Kowloon nighttime street market and used strictly for making calls. He had sent her two messages in the past eight hours; she couldn’t remember receiving that many from him in the past year. She opened them. They were identical, simply stating that he needed her to call him. He didn’t say it was urgent. He didn’t have to—that he had sent two emails conveyed that fact well enough.
Ava groaned, went over to her hot-water Thermos, and made another coffee. She knew what he wanted to talk about. While she was in Guyana they had been offered a job by a Filipino-Chinese businessman named Tommy Ordonez. Ordonez was the wealthiest man in the islands. They had put him off so they could finish the job they were on. Ava had hoped he could be put off longer, because that job had turned nasty, with unforeseen complications. What was supposed to have been a straightforward tracking and retrieval of misappropriated funds had turned into extortion. She had prevailed, but not without difficulty, as the bruises and welts demonstrated, and not without stress, some of which still lingered.
Ava had turned off her cellphone the night before and thrown it into the bottom of her purse. She had intended to leave it there for a few days, or at least until she felt her head was in the right place. She went to retrieve it and saw that Uncle had called as well. She sighed. She had to call him back. She couldn’t ignore two emails and a phone message without insulting him. Insulting Uncle was something she had never done—and never wished to do. It was just past six in the evening in Hong Kong, and Ava knew she’d probably catch him at a massage, an early dinner, or his Kowloon apartment.
“Wei,” Uncle said. Ava could hear his little dog yapping and his Filipina housekeeper, Lourdes, telling it to be quiet. He was still at the apartment.
“You are in Toronto?”
“Yes, I got in late last night.”
“And you are okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“Good, I was worried about you . . . It is early there.”
“I couldn’t sleep, and then I turned on my computer and saw your emails.”
“We need to talk.”
Ava wondered if he thought she was being critical of his persistence, and she felt a bit uneasy about being perceived as even mildly rude. “No problem, Uncle. Is it about Tommy Ordonez?”
“Yes. He and his closest adviser, Chang Wang, each called me twice yesterday, after calling me twice the day before. I have been telling them they need to be patient.”
“And how did they react?”
“Uncle, you did tell them we never do two jobs at the same time, and that I was still working on one?”
“Of course, but it only seemed to frustrate them more. Especially Ordonez. He is a man who does not think he should ever have to stand in a queue or have someone else’s interests take precedence over his.”
“Did he say that?”
“He didn’t need to. Ava, the last time I spoke to him he could barely contain himself. I could feel him eating his anger, and I know that if he had been talking to anyone but me he would have exploded.”
Ava finished her second coffee and, holding the phone to her ear, went to the counter and emptied another sachet into her cup. “What do we know about the job, Uncle?”
“Not that much. Just that it is a lot of money, that it involves a Canadian real estate transaction, and that one of Ordonez’s younger brothers, Philip Chew, is involved. They want to meet us face to face to provide the actual details.”
“Is it a firm contract?”
“If we want to accept it.”
“You haven’t committed?”
“I thought it would be best for us to hear the full story before signing on.”
“What I don’t understand, Uncle, is why, with all the resources and power they have, they need us in the first place.”
She had asked that question when the job offer was first made, and it had generated an awkward response from Uncle. Now he was just vague. “They will explain everything when we are in Manila.”
“So you want us to go?”
“I told Chang Wang that we would discuss it with them, and they are insisting on doing that in person . . . I am told the sum of money involved is more than fifty million dollars. I think that is worth a trip to Manila, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course it is,” she said, and then realized that Uncle had twice referred to Ordonez’s right-hand man by both his family and given names. It was a form of respect he rarely used for clients, and she guessed there was some kind of bond between the two men. “This Chang, Uncle, do you know him well?”
“He is from Wuhan, like me, and over the years we have done each other many favours. I would still have ten men rotting in Filipino prisons if it were not for him, and he would still be waiting for permits to build cigarette factories in Hubei province if it were not for me.”
Ava was accustomed to Uncle’s Wuhan connections.
He had been born and raised in a village on its outskirts, and he and the other men from there who had escaped the Communist regime had remained intensely loyal to each other. “And Chang hasn’t confided in you about the nature of Ordonez’s problem?”
“His first loyalty is to Ordonez. We need to understand and respect that.”
“Earlier you mentioned that Ordonez was restraining himself when he was talking to you. I didn’t think you knew him.”
“Chang introduced us once, years ago, when I was at the top of my heap and he was scaling his. It was a passing encounter that seems more important to him than it is to me. I did not even remember the meeting until he mentioned it.”
Ava was now standing by the kitchen window. The falling rain was beginning to freeze onto it. She watched a car skid into the intersection below and slide into an SUV. She hated this kind of weather. At least Manila would be warm. “Can you buy us an extra day or two?” she asked.
Uncle hesitated. She knew he didn’t want to push her too hard. “I would like to get there as soon as possible. But if you need to spend more time in Toronto, then I will deal with Chang Wang and Ordonez as best as I can.”
“Will they walk away from the deal if we delay?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Well, I guess that’s something we shouldn’t risk,” Ava said.
“No, we should not. Their impatience could get the better of them.”
She did a quick calculation. “If I catch the Cathay Pacific flight late tonight, I can be in Hong Kong the day after tomorrow, early morning, your time. That at least will give me all of today to get caught up here, and I’ll have a sixteen-hour flight I can sleep through.”
“Good. We can leave for Manila the morning you arrive. I will have those flights booked. We can meet in the Wing lounge,” Uncle said. “I will let Chang Wang know right away that we are coming. Ordonez’s office is near the Ayala Centre in Makati City. The Peninsula Hotel is nearby. I will have them book us rooms.”
“Okay, I’ll call you when things are confirmed on this end.”
“Fine. And Ava, I think this is the right thing for us to do.”
She shrugged. “Ordonez is a big man and it’s a lot of money.”
“That does not mean we cannot still say no,” Uncle said. “We will go and talk to them, and then you and I can discuss what we want to do. I have to tell you, I have a feeling that it will be worth it in the end.”
“Now I have to call Chang,” he said.
As she hung up the phone, Ava tried to remember if she’d heard Uncle mention Chang’s name before, and came up blank. That wasn’t unusual. He had a network of friends and associates that spanned Asia, though his closest contacts were those who shared those long, deep Wuhan roots.
Is Ordonez from Wuhan as well? she wondered. She knew he was Chinese born, but nothing more specific than that. She’d find out soon enough, but her curiosity was far more aroused by the kind of problem a man as rich and powerful as Tommy Ordonez couldn’t handle himself.
The morning sun glistened on the South China Sea as the plane descended onto the man-made island that was Hong Kong’s airport.
She found Uncle at the rear of the Wing lounge, reclining in a Balzac armchair. He wasn’t any taller than Ava and was nearly as lean. From a distance he looked almost like a child swallowed up in the chair. He was more than seventy, she knew, but his skin was still smooth, with only the faintest traces of lines around his eyes and on his forehead. His close-cropped black hair was streaked with just a touch of grey. Uncle was dressed as usual in a simple black suit and a crisp white shirt buttoned to the collar. His monochromatic style was part convenience, part camouflage. It made him easy to overlook—just an elegantly dressed old man, except to those who knew.
Uncle had been Ava’s partner and mentor for more than ten years. They recovered bad debts for a living. Ava was a forensic accountant with degrees from York University, in Toronto, and Babson College, just outside of Boston. Before joining forces with Uncle, Ava had worked for a prestigious Toronto firm, but she had found the bureaucracy that came with working in a large corporation stifling. She had left and set up her own small business, catering mainly to her mother’s friends. When one of her clients was stiffed by a Chinese importer, Ava decided to collect the debt herself. In the process she met Uncle, who was chasing the same importer for a different customer. When their combined efforts proved successful, Uncle had suggested that Ava partner with him.
Uncle’s reputation brought a wide range of clients to the table. What he lacked was Ava’s accounting skills and the softer touch she could bring to the recovery process. Their customers were typically Asian, normally desperate, and often irrational by the time they signed up with Ava and Uncle. Their businesses were at stake, their families were being threatened by economic ruin, and they had already exhausted all the conventional methods of retrieving stolen funds. Uncle’s mantra was “People always do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Ava had become particularly adept at finding the wrong reason that would convince her targets to do the right thing, which in their case was return the money to its rightful owner. Ava and Uncle took thirty percent of everything they recovered.
When she spotted Uncle in the lounge, she glanced around to see if Sonny was with him. There was no sign of Uncle’s driver-cum-bodyguard. He was as big as Ava and Uncle put together, and more vicious than anyone she had ever known. He had travelled with them in the past, most often to China, where a show of strength was never misplaced. Ava assumed that Uncle wasn’t expecting to need protection in the Philippines.
She quietly approached his chair. His eyes were closed, and she thought he was sleeping until he said, “Ava, is that you?”
“I thought so. I could smell that Annick Goutal perfume you like so much,” he said, his eyes opening and a tiny smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “You look beautiful, as always.”
“But the clothes—” he said, motioning to her black Giordano T-shirt and Adidas track pants. “You need to change. They are going to meet us at the airport and take us directly to Ordonez’s office.”
“I figured as much. I have everything I need here,” she said, picking up her Shanghai Tang “Double Happiness” bag. “I’ll take a shower and put on something suitable.”
Ava walked into the lounge’s private change rooms. She showered quickly, put on a fresh bra and panties and a pink Brooks Brothers shirt with a modified Italian collar, then debated whether to wear a skirt or slacks. She didn’t know anything about Ordonez or Chang other than what she had read online in Guyana. To be on the safe side she opted for the trousers. A conservative look would never be seriously misinterpreted by powerful men.
She brushed her hair back and fixed it with her favourite ivory chignon pin. Then she applied some mascara and a touch of red lipstick. The last thing she did was slip her Cartier Tank Française watch onto her wrist. It had cost a small fortune, but she’d never regretted purchasing it. She loved its look and thought it established the perfect balance between serious and successful.
As she walked from the ladies’ room back across the lounge, she could feel all eyes turn in her direction. Her pace was measured, never hurried, and she held herself erect, confident of her time and place.
Uncle was standing near his chair, in conversation with a man who looked about his age but was six inches taller and at least a hundred pounds heavier. His head was completely bald and he had a large, round face with jowls that trembled when he spoke. He wore a Burberry plaid shirt and slacks that rode too high over his belly. She could see a diamond-encrusted Rolex on his wrist, an enormous jade and diamond ring on his wedding-band finger, and a ruby ring on his pinkie. The contrast between the two men couldn’t have been more striking. Yet as she watched them, she could see that the larger man was trying to make an impression on Uncle. She could read his desire to please in his body language, his rapid speech. Uncle was just listening, nodding every so often.
When he saw her, Uncle dismissed the man with a little wave of his hand and walked directly over to Ava. The man seemed startled to see her. Then he stared, his face impassive.
“I feel like some noodles,” Uncle said, touching her elbow to guide her towards the restaurant.
They both ordered noodles with har gow, traditional shrimp dumplings. There was a delicious aroma in the air that Ava couldn’t identify. “Snow pea tips fried in garlic,” Uncle said when she asked. “It is too early to eat them. They attack my bowels.”
As usual, he ate far more quickly than she did. She always wondered if his table manners were an indication of his true internal state, a contrast to the calm, placid exterior he showed to the world. “Who was that man you were talking to?” she asked when he had finished eating.
The question seemed to catch him off guard, and he closed his eyes briefly before answering. “He worked for me in Fan-ling years ago. Now he runs Mong Kok,” he said. Before she could ask more, the boarding call came for the flight and Uncle slid out of his chair.
They walked to the gate and found long, disorganized lines of diminutive Filipino women carrying as much baggage as airline rules would allow. “It is that time of year,” Uncle said. “Flights to Asia and to Manila are cheap, so all the domestics and nannies travel home now.”
Ava knew the ritual. She and Marian had had a Filipina yaya, or nanny, until they went to Havergal College for high school. Every two or three years Yaya would buy a couple of balikbayans—boxes the size of small coffins—and load them with T-shirts, running shoes, and canned goods to carry back with her to the Philippines.
“How many are there in Hong Kong these days?” she asked.
“More than a hundred thousand, I think. On Sundays they go to Central or Victoria Park or to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre to socialize. I do not think Lourdes has missed a Sunday in ten years.”
Uncle stared at the knot of people crowding around the boarding gate. “The Philippines would collapse economically without them. I read that there are about eight million overseas workers, and they remit money every month. If that is not the country’s largest source of income, I do not know what is.”
Uncle and Ava strolled past the lineup of people waiting impatiently to board the plane and showed their passports and first-class tickets to the Cathay Pacific attendant. When they boarded the plane, they were greeted by two attractive young flight attendants in cherry-red uniforms, who directed them to their seats. As Uncle settled into his, Ava noted that his feet just skimmed the floor.
As soon as the plane reached its flying altitude, Uncle eased his seat back. But before he could close his eyes, Ava asked, “Uncle, is Tommy Ordonez from Wuhan?”
“Not everyone we do business with is from Wuhan,” he said with a small smile. “He is from Qingdao.”
“And Ordonez is not his family name.”
“No, his real name is Chew Guang. He took the Filipino name after he started doing serious business in the islands. He is what they call a Chinoy, a Chinese using a Filipino name.”
Ava wasn’t surprised by the name change. All across Asia, in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines, economies were often controlled by resident Chinese. It created resentment among the indigenous populations, and in times of turbulence the Chinese were often targets of physical violence and looting. Changing their names was one way of trying to blend in, to disguise themselves from the xenophobes.
“Was he born in Qingdao?” Ava asked. She knew that Chinese people say they are from a particular city or province even if three generations removed.
“Yes, the eldest child in a family that includes two brothers and a sister. His father was an assistant brewmaster at the Tsing Tao brewery, and Chew apprenticed there when he was a young teenager. He was obviously smart and a very hard worker, because by the time he turned twenty-two he had been dispatched to the Philippines as an assistant brewmaster in his own right.”
“How long before he went out on his own?”
“About three years. He started at a small brewery with a brand he called Philippine Gold. The beer was not of the best quality but it was cheap, and cheap worked. Within five years Chew Guang had the number-one beer in the islands. It was around this time that he changed his name to Tommy Ordonez and began—with help from the local Chinese, most of whom also had Filipino names—to expand and diversify. Chang Wang joined him then.”
“And why did Chang keep his name?”
“He has no public visibility. He is the man behind the scenes, an operator, the key advisor, the one who helps Ordonez plot his business strategies and follow through on execution. He is a good man to have as a friend, and a monster when he is an enemy.”
“Apparently Ordonez’s brothers kept their family name as well.”
“There was no reason for them not to. They live in places where it does not matter. Philip, the one in Canada—the one who has the problems—is the youngest. The other one, David, lives in Hong Kong and is the point man for the Chinese market. He finds homes for their cheap booze and cigarettes.”
“From what I’ve read, the business isn’t just beer and cigarettes.”
“Not anymore. They own banks, trucking and cold storage operations, and the largest ocean freight business in the Philippines. But it is the beer and cigarettes that underpin it all. In China they have moved from exports to manufacturing, and that is where I helped—getting them the approvals to build cigarette factories and distilleries.”
“There is no home for those products in Canada.”
“Of course not. Canada, from what Chang told me, is a source of goods and raw materials that they can sell into Asian markets. They own two jade mines, a host of ginseng farms, and a quasi-legal abalone fishing operation, and they have bought thousands of acres of timber rights. They also own a trading operation that ships scrap metal, chicken feet, cheap cellphones, and a variety of chemicals to China. The Chews are not fussy about what they buy and sell.”
“But the problem they have involves real estate.”
“It does. They have been building up a real estate portfolio, mostly in and around Vancouver, where Philip lives. Mainly apartment buildings, shopping centres, that kind of thing.”
“It sounds like a very big business,” Ava said.
Uncle shrugged. “Ordonez is worth at least five billion U.S. dollars, but he and Chang still run the company as if it were a two-man show. They do not trust anyone other than themselves. Even Ordonez’s two brothers have limited authority, and now with their problems in Canada, that is not likely to change anytime soon. I asked Chang how they manage to keep on top of everything, and he laughed and said, ‘Fear.’ Ordonez is known inside the business as the Knife. Chang is the Sledgehammer.”
“There is nothing nice about either of them,” Uncle said, closing his eyes. “But most businesses are not built by nice people. You need a combination of greed, drive, brains, and paranoia. Between them, Chang and Ordonez have those bases covered.”
Copyright © 2012 Ian Hamilton
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Ian Hamilton has had a range of careers over the span of his life, from journalist to diplomat, but it wasn’t until a health scare that he sat down to write his first novel. Ava Lee was the heroine that came to him and so the series was born. Hamilton’s journalism has been featured in Maclean’s and Saturday Night Magazine. He lives in Burlington, Ontario, with his wife, Lorraine. He has four children and seven grandchildren.