Brother-in-law hung up his mobile. “That,” he said, “was Mr Ching.”
Across the table, brother-in-law’s smile sent my stomach into a dive. Every nerve screamed at me to flee. It was crunch time.
“Mr Ching, he like gamble. So much gamble. Poker, blackjack.” Brother-in-law smiled. “He one my best customer.”
“Oh, really?” I laid down the cards. Stay casual...
“Mr Ching,” said brother-in-law, standing firmly between myself and the door, “he coming here. He explain me that one girl at casino no like him.” Brother-in-law leered at me. “He want tips. Tips to... chat her.”
I gazed back, both horror and amusement bizarrely churning within. Seriously? I was meant to buy-into this claptrap? That some gambler wanted tips from a casino manager on how to chat-up a girl? I fought an irresistible urge to laugh.
“I’d best... get out of the way then,” I said, hoping to sound jovial.
Smile intensifying, brother-in-law sat back down. “Chacob,” he crooned, drawing my name out as far as it would go. “Mr Ching, he rich man. So rich man! But he like gamble. Too, too much gamble. So... why not gamble him?”
“I... I don’t have any money,” I said, my own smile an ailing line across my face. “And really I should be going.”
“Stay, stay. You no money? Fine. No problem.” Brother-in-law leaned forward. “Chacob, I lend you money. One thousand dollar, is ok?” Already he was counting dollar-bills onto the table. Seemingly endless dollar-bills...
The afternoon flashed through my mind: wandering Tao Dån Park, Ho Chi Minh’s summer clotting the air; idly chatting to a guitar-strumming Thai-duo; an invitation to lunch; a taxi ride to “brother-in-law’s”; the glorious home-cooked Vietnamese food; settling back to enjoy “band practice”, so cruelly interrupted by brother-in-law’s arrival home...
The instant I set eyes on him I knew it was time to beat a speedy exit. Brother-in-law had one of those charming, elderly faces, all smooth south-east-asian skin, perfectly black-dyed hair, sparkling eyes, and a smile that screamed robbery and exploitation.
“So long I work at casino,” he explained tragically. “So long, but no thanking. No reward, you understand?”
The casual offer to play cards had been a welcome relief to brother-in-law’s whiny reminiscence of an unfair life.
“Blackjack! You never play? So good game! Come, come, we show you.”
Only a few rounds in, I noticed the Thais were cheating. My realisation doubled them up with laughter.
“Go on!” I cried. “Tell me how you’re doing it.”
Brother-in-law smiled. “They read me,” he said. “See; watch.” With exaggerated sloth he dealt, grasping the deck, a finger tapping significantly on the side.
“Your finger?” I asked. The Thais laughed again.
“We teach, so you read dealer. Always know what card next.”
Ahh, but it was so easy...
And now the countless dollar-bills scrutinise me from the tabletop.
“Easy win,” brother-in-law reassures me. “I dealer, so you read. Easy.”
Mr Ching is ridiculous. A startlingly bad performer. Even the costume speaks caricature; thick glasses, slicked-back hair, pristine pinstripe suit.
“Mr Chacob all week at casino,” explains brother-in-law, introducing us. “All week lose money.” Hardly likely given my tatty backpacker’s garb, but Mr Ching only smiles and tuts, ducking his head in sympathy.
“You free for some blackjack, Mr Ching? Perhaps Chacob try win some money back?”
But, of course! Mr Ching loves blackjack.
So we play. And I win. I keep winning. Mr Ching grows angry. He’s better acting angry than acting Chinese-businessman.
“Oh, Mr Ching, so bad luck,” brother-in-law exclaims, reshuffling the deck. I survey the pile of banknotes before me in a daze.
Mr Ching erupts, spewing violent vietnamese – I imagine mandarin is a little beyond him. He opens his briefcase. Out pour dollars. “Play!” he screams. “I raise. Two thousand!”
More than a little scared, I cower into my chair while brother-in-law, a mask of concern, calms Mr Ching. He meets my eye.
“Chacob, I speak with you.”
In the privacy of the hall, brother-in-law drapes an arm about my shoulders, spelling-out the situation.
“Mr Ching raise you, but small problem.” He smiles apologetically. “Me, no more dollar.” His eyes sparkle wonderfully. “So, Mr Chacob; have you any dollar?”