Ava Lee woke to the sensation of lips kissing her forehead. She opened her eyes to semi-darkness and saw her girlfriend, Maria, hovering over her, her face in shadow. Ava extended her arms, but Maria shook her head and passed over the phone. “He says his name is Michael and that he’s your brother,” she said.
“I didn’t hear it ring,” Ava said. “And he’s my half-brother, from my father’s first wife. The one I told you I met in Hong Kong.”
“I think he first phoned half an hour ago. I didn’t answer it then. He’s called back every ten minutes since.”
Ava glanced sideways at the bedside clock. It was just past eight a.m., eight in the evening in Hong Kong, where she assumed the call originated. She reached under her pillow, pulled out a black T-shirt, and slipped it over her head. Then she held out her hand for the phone. “I’ll talk to him out here,” she said, rolling out of bed and walking to the kitchen. “Michael?”
“This is an early call.”
“I’m sorry. I spoke to Dad last night,” he said, his voice strained. “He said he met you at the Toronto airport and explained that we are having some problems here. He said you were going to call me.”
“I was, later today.”
“I have to go out in about half an hour and I won’t be available for the rest of the evening. I didn’t want to wait until tomorrow for us to talk.”
“Daddy said there was an issue in Hong Kong. He didn’t say any more than that, and he didn’t tell me it was so urgent.”
He sighed. “I’m sorry.”
Ava sat at her kitchen table and looked down onto Yorkville Avenue. Her condo was situated in the very heart of Toronto, and the Yorkville district was one of the city’s trendiest, but at eight on a weekday morning the streets were devoid of shoppers and restaurant goers. Farther away she could see that Avenue Road, a main north–south artery, was jammed with commuter traffic. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“We’re in a bit of a mess.”
“Who is we?”
“My partner, Simon To, and me.”
“Explain what you mean by a mess.”
The line went silent. All Ava could hear was deep breathing, as if he were trying to gather together his thoughts and his emotions. “We own a franchise operation: some convenience stores and high-end noodle shops. We were looking at putting one of each into a large new retail mall in Macau, either renting the space or buying it. We were midway through negotiations when the developers asked if we’d like to up the ante, if we’d like to invest in the entire project. It’s something we’d always thought about, accumulating some real estate. Simon didn’t see how we could go wrong putting money into Macau. So we did.”
“How much money?”
“A hundred and fifty million.”
“U.S. dollars?” Ava said, shocked.
“No, Hong Kong.”
“So about twenty million U.S.?”
That’s still a lot of money, she thought, but in Macau it won’t buy much land. “So you took a minority share?”
“Yes. As I said, it’s a large project.”
“So what’s gone wrong?”
“The development has run into all kinds of delays and we’ve been trying to pull our money out. They won’t let us. In fact, we’re getting leaned on to put in more.”
“And you don’t want to?”
“We can’t, and our bank is all over us about the hundred and fifty million.”
“The real estate developer is from Hong Kong?”
“No, he’s Macanese.”
“You obviously have a contract.”
“Have you spoken to lawyers?”
“Do you have any idea how time-consuming and money-eating a process it is for a Hong Kong company to pursue one based in Macau?” he said, a trace of impatience in his voice.
Maybe you should have considered that before you did the deal, she thought. “So what do you think I can do?” she asked.
“Communications between them and us have been getting more difficult by the day. My partner can’t talk to them without losing his temper, and every conversation I have with these people just seems to make things worse. We need a fresh set of eyes and ears. We need a new perspective.”
“Michael, what did Daddy tell you I did for a living?” Ava asked.
“He said you were a problem-solver.”
“All I do is collect bad debts.”
“If things keep going the way they are, I’m afraid this could become one,” he said, his voice heavy.
“You don’t mean that,” she said.
“No, not really. We just need to find a way to negotiate ourselves out of this situation.”
“And you think I can do that?”
“Dad says if anyone can, it’s you.”
“It isn’t my usual line of work.”
“I don’t care, and we’d pay a fee.”
“I couldn’t charge one,” she said.
“Ava, please, whatever it takes to get you here, I’ll do it. We’re at an impasse.”
How strange is this? Ava thought. She had met Michael Lee exactly once, and then for only a few minutes in a Hong Kong restaurant, and now he was inviting, almost begging her into his life.
Ava was the younger daughter in their father Marcus Lee’s second family. He had married three times, and in the tradition of wealthy Chinese men, supported and loved each of his families. His first wife had given him four sons, of whom Michael was the eldest. It was understood that Marcus’s business and the bulk of his wealth would ultimately reside with the first family, and that Michael would become head of the entire clan if anything happened to Marcus.
Ava’s mother, Jennie, had given Marcus two daughters and a volatile relationship. It had become so fractious that Marcus eventually moved them to Vancouver, a city Jennie Lee couldn’t abide. She’d lasted two years there before taking Ava and her sister, Marian, to Toronto, where the girls were raised and educated. Marcus eventually had taken a third wife. She had given him two more children, a girl and a boy, and they now lived in Australia.
Jennie Lee had never worked. Marcus bought them a house and cars, paid the bills, and looked after the girls’ educations. He still talked to Jennie every day, and he visited Canada every year for a two-week stay. This year had been unusual. He had joined Jennie, Ava, Marian, and Marian’s husband and two daughters on a two-week cruise through the southern Caribbean, and then returned to Toronto to stay for another week with Jennie. He was still at her house, in the suburb of Richmond Hill to the north.
Ava’s mother had never been jealous about the first family. She knew that the first wife and her family would always be pre-eminent. All she asked was that Marcus be fair in his treatment of her and the girls. And he always had been. He talked to Jennie about his four sons from the first marriage, so she knew about them and had made their names known to Ava and Marian. But none of them had ever met until the week before.
The thing that Ava didn’t know was how open Marcus Lee was about her and Marian with the rest of his extended family. She would have assumed that Michael knew they existed, but it was still a surprise when he approached her in the Hong Kong restaurant and said he recognized her from pictures their father had shown him. He had known exactly who she was, and he seemed eager to start a relationship.
Ava found it unsettling. It was one thing to understand and accept the complicated layers of Marcus Lee’s life and to know where you fit among them. It was another to confront the physical reality of someone who until then had been just a name, just a shadow.
“Michael, I got home only yesterday. I’ve been on the road for more than a week. Is there anything I can do from here?” she said.
She sighed. “Email the contract to me and I’ll look at it right away.”
“It’s all very basic stuff. I don’t see how that can help.”
“Michael, let me be the judge of that. After I’ve gone through it we can talk.”
“Okay,” he said, still sounding reluctant.
“And by the way, how much does Daddy actually know about your problem?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I expect I’ll be talking to him today. I don’t want to be indiscreet.”
“He knows about the size of it but I haven’t discussed all the details.”
“Then neither will I.”
“Look, I promise I’ll read the contract as soon as I get it, and then we can talk,” she said.
“I’ll email it right away and I’ll call when I get back from this function. It will be around midnight.”
Ava closed the phone. The sun was glistening off the windows of the condos across the street, taking, she imagined, the chill out of the spring air. It was her favourite time of year in Canada: the world coming to life, full of promise. The last thing she felt like doing was getting on another plane for Hong Kong. After scurrying around Wuhan in China, London, Denmark, Dublin, New York, and then London again, chasing money and forged art, she felt she deserved more than one day in Toronto.
She thought about going back to bed, but Michael’s problem was now bouncing around in her head. She turned on her laptop and scanned her email. As she did, a message arrived from Michael with the heading Contract. She opened the message and the attachment and scrolled down. Michael was right; it was a standard agreement.
They had partnered with a company called the Ma Shing Realty Corporation, which had secured a reasonably large plot of land on the Cotai Strip of Macau, the so-called Las Vegas of the East, with casinos such as the Venetian and Wynn. The plan was to build a shopping centre to service the casino customers. Michael and Simon would be given space for a convenience store and a noodle shop and thirty percent ownership of the complex in return for their investment.
On balance, Ava thought it looked like a well thought-out deal. Macau was booming, its sixteen casinos generating more income than Las Vegas’s hundred or more. She knew Chinese gamblers. Their money would be pumped into the tables, not hotel rooms, big-name boutiques, or expensive restaurants. Convenience stores and noodle shops were more their style, so the concept seemed sound. She checked the timeline. Ground should have been broken more than a year ago. Michael and Simon should already be occupying their spaces.
She went over the contract a second time, examining the wording, which was quite loose. There were no penalties if Ma Shing did not meet specified dates. There was also no exit provision for Michael. It didn’t say that his money was locked in, but there was no clause in the contract to trigger taking it out.
If her father hadn’t asked her to help and if Michael hadn’t been her brother, she probably would have told him that his best option was to be patient and wait for the centre to get built. But they both seemed so distressed that Ava wondered if something else was in play.
And then a thought occurred to her: Whose money is really at risk here? She reached for the phone to call Richmond Hill and then paused. Her father had been vague the day before, saying only that Michael had a problem. What more was he likely to say? Well, all I can do is ask, she thought, as she punched in the number.
Her mother answered on the fourth ring.
“You’re up so early?” Ava asked.
“Daddy has gone for a walk. I made him coffee and toast before he left.”
“I wanted to talk to him about Michael.”
Jennie Lee sighed. “Such a mess.”
“Has Daddy told you what’s going on?” Ava asked, realizing that maybe she didn’t have to talk to him.
“I’m not sure that—”
“Michael just called me and then he sent me some information.”
“So you should have everything you need.”
“Except I can’t make much sense of it.”
“You need to speak to your father.”
“I can’t imagine that he’ll tell me any more than he did yesterday.”
“And that’s not enough?”
“No. For one thing, I want to know if he’s involved in this investment.”
She could hear her mother inhaling and wondered whether she was holding a cigarette to her lips or airing out some tension. “He’s not involved—at least, not directly.”
Ava felt a door opening and barged through. “Michael said he borrowed the money they put into it. Did Daddy secure the loan?”
“No, but he might as well have.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know how much I should tell you.”
“You should tell me absolutely everything if you want me to help.”
“That’s what I told your father, but he’s a little embarrassed about the situation.”
“He doesn’t think Michael and his partner did proper due diligence. He said that on his own, Michael is quite conservative and not much of a risk taker. His partner, Simon To, is another story. He’s aggressive, rude, and at times too greedy. Your father thinks that Simon talked or pushed Michael into this thing.”
“If the shopping centre gets built, it isn’t that bad a deal,” Ava said.
“But they don’t have time to wait.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your father said they’ve breached a loan covenant at the bank. The bank is demanding its money back. If they don’t come up with it, the bank will put them out of business.”
“Businesses go under all the time. If Daddy didn’t secure the loan then they have no recourse with him.”
“You don’t understand,” Jennie Lee said slowly. “They used Daddy’s bank to get their loan. Even though he hasn’t guaranteed anything, he expects the bank to start squeezing his business very soon. At the very least he thinks they will restrict his working line of credit. They could even refuse to renew the line of credit, and it’s scheduled for a review in three months.”
“He can find another bank.”
“Yes, he probably can, but that doesn’t address the depth of obligation he feels towards Michael,” Jennie said, and paused. “Ava, there’s no way that Marcus Lee will stand back and let his son’s business go under. It would bring so much shame upon the entire family. He’s spent his life building a reputation, and he couldn’t bear to see it sullied. He’d sell everything he owns and give it to Michael rather than let him fail in such a public way.”
Ava was taken aback by the passion and certainty in her mother’s voice. She also noticed a tinge of anger. Michael Lee had no fans in Richmond Hill. “You do know that we’re talking about twenty million U.S. dollars?” Ava asked.
“Enough money to ruin your father,” Jennie said.
“And his ability to support the family?” Ava said.
“I don’t want to think about that. Your father will do what he thinks is best. It won’t change how I feel about him.”
Ava thought about her mother and about the two aunties and half-siblings she had never met. “I guess I’m going to Hong Kong,” she said quietly. “Even though I’m not sure there’s anything I can do.”
“You’ll figure out something when you get there.”
“I am very proud of you.”
Ava paused, not sure how to respond. “Look, tell Daddy I called and that I spoke to Michael and I’m heading over there.”
“Will you phone him before you leave?”
Ava felt a presence behind her and turned to see Maria standing naked in the doorway of the bedroom.
“No, Mummy, there isn’t any need.”
“But if he calls you, you won’t tell him—”
“I won’t say anything about what we discussed.”
“I love you.”
“Love you too,” Ava said, and closed her phone.
“And I love you as well,” Maria said.
Ava stared at her and smiled. “Isn’t it time you got dressed for work?”
“Yes, I’m going to Hong Kong. It’s family business that I can’t avoid.”
“What time?” she said, her disappointment rippling across the room.
Maria shook her head of thick, curly black hair. “Then I’m going back to bed,” she said. “Join me.”
Copyright © 2012 by Ian Hamilton