Nothing Gained

Asia Literary Review Volume 26: Winter 2014

Jason Donahue liked foie gras well enough. For Howard Leitner, however, it seemed divine. The unctuous concoction was set inside individual Chinese soup spoons, allowing it to slide directly onto the middle of the palate before compliantly dissolving on the tongue. Leitner took in his serving much as someone else might take a shot of bourbon – with one swift motion. Before swallowing, he reached for his glass of 1988 Suduiraut and took a sip of the goldenrod liquid. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he let out an audible moan.

‘It’s criminal that I have to travel to the far side of the globe to find the best fucking foie gras,’ Leitner said, slowly shaking his head. He peered down through his reading glasses at an unfolded sheet of newsprint. ‘Listen to the review of this dish: “It was pan-seared and served with honeysuckle blossom, pear aspic, and gold flakes in small Lego-sized blocks. The sweet and tart pear flavors provided structure to the richness of the goose liver, while the hint of floral fragrance in the back of the nose gave it lift.” Damned right!’

Tony Widjaya, one of the two others seated around the dinner table, merely shrugged. ‘Foie gras follows money. So do you. Isn’t that why we are in Macau, Howard?’

‘Money is a commodity – simple, basic, fungible,’ Leitner replied and then pointed at his emptied spoon. ‘This, on the other hand, is art.’

Donahue spoke up with a chuckle. ‘Frankly, if any of us really gave a damn about art, we wouldn’t be investing in the casino business here. This city is the enemy of art. Wouldn’t you agree, Dominique?’

Dominique Flaubert, wearing oversized hooped diamond earrings, gave Donahue a frown and waved a corner of bread at him. ‘Well, no,’ she replied. ‘This place is more like an art enabler. Look at what the new money in China has done for the world’s contemporary art scene. These days, Sotheby’s needs China. Their best lots are brought here, even though they think that it is a case of more money than sense.’

‘More money than sense . . . that is why we are here!’ Leitner said emphatically, tapping the edge of the table in front of him to make the point. ‘A billion and a half people with just that problem. We can’t let Steve Wynn, Sheldon Adelson, and that Chinese mafia don keep minting all the easy money.’

He raised his wine glass for a toast. ‘With this deal, my Ascendancy Entertainment and each of your own names will be added to that very lucky short list.’

Donahue smirked as he and the others raised their glasses and tapped them together to register the sonorous chime of fine lead crystal. ‘Your name can be added, Howard. I’d rather my name and Dominique’s weren’t publicized. We’ve been pretty clear on that point, right?’

The quartet exchanged banter until the main dish of venison with morel mushrooms and pickled taro root appeared. The sommelier served a 1971 Penfolds Grange with gentle ceremony.

Again, Leitner breathed a satisfied sigh. ‘Except for steaks, the best food is definitely in Asia. The best Western chefs have restaurants here, whereas people in the West have no clue about really good Chinese food. There’s no comparison. China’s got it all, my friends.’

The others smiled and nodded politely.

Leitner then looked at Donahue. ‘I assume you’ve overcome your little problems and been able to move your group’s money into the escrow account?’

Dominique answered for him. ‘Yes, finally. I gave the instructions to our bank just this afternoon.’

‘So what took so long?’ Widjaya asked. ‘Ascendancy has been holding up a $1.5 billion deal waiting for your $120 million piece.’

Leitner chipped in, ‘Given how choppy things have been with Europe and how nervous the banks are, we were pretty anxious. Our bankers are not as enthusiastic as they once were about our project. We were starting to wonder if you—’

‘Yes, I know,’ Donahue interrupted, clenching his fist around his linen napkin. ‘Believe me, I’m in a pretty good position to know what the markets are like. The situation was not entirely in my control. Given who I am, I don’t have the latitude to operate as freely without borders as some others do.’ He raised his chin towards Widjaya.

‘The international funds transfer and money laundering rules have gotten very tight,’ Dominique clarified further.

‘Well, anyway, it’s done,’ Leitner replied calmly. ‘Thank you for that. I’m sure that Continental Enterprise will be pleased to know that all our funds are together and we can finally close on buying their stake in the Royale casinos.’

While Leitner and Widjaya turned their attention back to the venison, Donahue and Dominique stole furtive glances at each other.

‘However, there is one thing, Howard,’ Donahue said. ‘I thought I’d tell you directly before you found out from the bank.’

Leitner wiped the corner of his mouth with his napkin. ‘What’s that?’

‘You’ll see that we only wired in $100 million,’ Donahue said calmly. ‘Oh? Why?’ Leitner asked, setting his fork and knife down while he chewed. Widjaya continued sawing through another morsel of the deer. A piece of buckshot rolled out of the meat. He examined the tiny but lethal metal bead with the tip of his knife and pushed it to the edge of his plate.

‘Well, I figured that the balance of the money would be appropriate compensation for my contributions to this deal,’ Donahue said self-assuredly.

‘Beg pardon?’ Widjaya asked, squinting in disbelief. ‘A $20 million fee? What happened to the $3 million we agreed to?’

‘I think that twenty is a more suitable number,’ Donahue responded matter-of-factly, ‘particularly given that you owe everything to Beijing’s approval for this deal. I doubt that there’s much chance that you guys would be poised to buy a 25 per cent stake of an existing and highly profitable Macau casino without my efforts up north. Isn’t that why you privately approached me to help out, even after you chose not to hire Barker Reed on this deal?’

Leitner stared at Donahue in disbelief and laughed. ‘You can’t be serious, Jason! I did just fine on my own convincing those Beijing officials.’

Donahue leaned forward. ‘You act like no one else before you had ever thought to bribe the Chinese! Don’t be so naïve, Howard! It’s not just about throwing around money at that level. All the other better-known casino operators lobbying them were doing the same. No, sir. A true friend to a party official finds a problem he has and fixes it. For that, I went way out on a limb on this one.’

Leitner visibly seethed. ‘You’re not the one dealing with my huge upfront costs,’ he shot back, ‘or the threats from a bunch of hotheaded, drooling rivals. Besides, I’ve told you a dozen times why I couldn’t hire BR on this. Not after your US media banker fucked me into bankruptcy ten years ago when he was at Merrill. And do you have any idea how many times your US guys backed other casino guys against me in past deals? I take these things personally. Ascendancy Entertainment is me.’

Donahue simply shrugged. ‘That’s right, Howard. And this is your deal. It’s the one that can finally put Ascendancy into the top tier. But what about me?’

‘What about you?’ Leitner asked. ‘You’ve got your piece, everything we agreed to.’

‘Not quite, Howard. First you chose to work with another bank as advisor. Despite that, you came looking for my personal assistance with Beijing. And I obliged, at much reputational risk. I even put together a $120 million investor group in exchange for a bitty part of your 25 per cent equity stake. All told, that’s a hell of a contribution at a time when fundraising for anything is a challenge. I’m not a charity. What would a banker like me be without his bonus, eh?’

Leitner vigorously shook his head, unable to contain a temper shortened by a cocktail of jetlag and heady dining. ‘Bullshit! You’re a hell of lot more than just some fee-monger. You’re in pretty deep yourself, Donahue.’

‘You said it right, Howard. I’m not just any banker out to earn a fee. Not too many bankers have my kind of influence on both sides of the pond. How many people do you know who get routinely asked by the Chinese leadership to directly lobby the White House and Treasury Department to soften their stance on the renminbi? Meanwhile here in Asia, I raised a half billion-dollar REIT through BR to bail a few Chinese central government bureaucrats out of several dicey Shenyang properties – at an absurd valuation at the height of the market, I might add!’

‘You’re not the only one with that kind of access, Donahue,’ Leitner retorted.

‘Then why is it me sitting here chowing down foie gras with you, Howard?’ Donahue asked, raising his arms in mild exasperation. ‘Why aren’t you out toasting this deal with your other advisors? Is it because without my help you’d likely be back in Vegas explaining to a pissed-off board why another casino operator is signing a deal to buy Continental’s stake in Royale?’

‘Jason’s personal relationships in Asia are truly amazing,’ Dominique added.

Leitner abruptly shifted to face her squarely. ‘Yes, really, young lady?’ he growled. ‘Tell me what you and your lacy French panties know about relationships.’

Dominique flinched at the characterization. Donahue quickly clasped Dominique’s hand to stop her from responding. He reached over and put his other hand on Leitner’s wrist. ‘OK, OK, folks. Howard and Tony, let’s all take it back down a notch. We’re all still friends, yes?’

Leitner shifted back towards Donahue. ‘Since when do friends withhold $20 million from each other? What am I supposed to do, reach into my pocket and whip out that amount of money now from behind my dick?’

‘You can’t come up with another $20 million for this deal, Howard?’ Donahue asked, more from surprise than challenging him. ‘It’s a drop in the ocean for a deal of this size.’

‘With only a week or two before closing? Jason, I already told you that this investment is tapping out Ascendancy’s cash reserves. We’re putting $400 million of our own cash into it. There’s no way I’m going back to my partners to say that we are short another $20 million. I’m going to look like an ass. They already think that this is way over priced. And again, that’s beside the point. What you are asking for is totally out of line.’

‘Just ask your investment bankers to source another $20 million, Howard. Isn’t that what you’re paying them for?’

‘Not if it’s $20 million you’re trying to screw me out of, Donahue. You should know that I can’t tolerate this.’

‘You’re resourceful. You can make up the difference,’ Donahue said flatly. ‘So let’s move beyond the $20 million. It’s as good as gone. I deserved it.’ Then he chuckled lightly. ‘Besides, knowing my wife, she’s probably already found a home for the money at one of her favorite charities. And I would advise you against trying to stand between her and the fight to end adolescent suicides!’

‘Your wife?? What the hell are you talking about? I fucking hope that you’re shitting me, Jason.’

‘Listen, Howard,’ Donahue said, trying again to restore a measure of civility to the meal that he had knowingly stirred up, ‘sleep on it for a couple of days. This deal is going to be a home run for you. I think that you’ll come to appreciate my perspective given everything I’ve done.’

‘Your “perspective” is jeopardizing my deal,’ Howard grumbled.

Donahue simply shrugged again. Getting no further response from Leitner other than simmering rancor, Donahue turned to Widjaya. ‘Hey, Tony, keep your lucky bullet in your pocket. You’ll just scare the waiters if they see it.’

Donahue watched a dark smile crease Widjaya’s face. Donahue would normally have dismissed a counterparty’s stunt of fingering a 9mm bullet at opportune moments in tense negotiations as a silly piece of theater. However, Widjaya had the reputation to make it more meaningful.

Donahue’s background check had revealed that Tony Widjaya had grown up as the black sheep son of an Indonesian Chinese cement producer. The patriarch father had deemed that Tony’s mercurial temperament was unsuited to managing the family’s business. Left on his own with a pile of consolation money tossed to him by his estranged father, Tony had displayed enough grit and street sense to gut his way up to become one of the fixers for Tommy Suharto, the youngest son of the late strongman Indonesian president. He had fled the country when Tommy Suharto had been convicted and jailed for hiring a hit man to kill a prominent judge. Over the ensuing years, Widjaya had learned to speak English and Mandarin well, invested in businesses around the region and put himself into the service of rich and powerful people around Southeast Asia who needed reliable henchmen to handle selected business matters requiring extreme discretion.

‘And one more thing, Howard,’ Donahue said, turning his attention back to his counterpart. ‘Permit me to give you some friendly advice: You’ve got to stop publicly referring to Macau’s laws as Portuguese toilet paper and Stanley Ho as a Chinese mafia don. People in this town get really touchy about those kinds of thing. Lots of fortunes and livelihoods are owed to that man.’

Dinner ended shortly afterwards, with Leitner waving away the waiter and the dessert menu. After an agreement to talk in the morning, Leitner rose from the table, apologizing that his jetlag trumped manners. Before he walked off, he pressed an index finger against the table and looked coldly across at Donahue.

‘I want my $20 million, Donahue. No more reminders. You may think that I’ve got more to lose than you on this issue. Think again.’

After Leitner and Widjaya left the table, a waiter approached with the dinner check. Dominique pulled out a credit card. ‘Coming back to the hotel, Jason?’

‘No, not immediately. You go ahead. I’ll walk back. I feel like having a smoke.’

She leaned in and kissed his cheek. ‘You won’t be too late, will you?’

‘And miss the best part of my day? No chance.’ He looked at her warmly and kissed her cheek in return, raising his arm to cup the back of her head. He loved the soft feel of the brush of fine hair at its base.

She sighed as they drew back apart. ‘What are you doing with these people? They have no class whatsoever.’

Donahue took her hand and gave it a squeeze. ‘I know that they come off as an ignorant Jew and his orangutan thug. But don’t underestimate Howard Leitner. He’s a very sharp man. He’ll fall in line.’

She looked down at his strong, prominently veined hand holding hers. ‘He scares me. He doesn’t seem to be the forgiving kind.’

‘Don’t worry, Dominique,’ he responded confidently. ‘He needs us. He’s a babe in the woods in this part of the world. Look how much he’s had to rely on a sleazebag like Widjaya to find his way around.’

‘And why did you say that about Cheryl and her charity? You’ve never mentioned anything about any of the money going to her.’

‘Don’t be silly! Of course I wouldn’t get Cheryl involved in this.’

She frowned in the way that always drew him to her, a look at once both wise and vulnerable.

‘And you know better than to take his off-color comment about you personally, right?’ he continued. ‘I promise that I’ll make it up to you.’

‘I keep thinking about that contractor who was found dead in Las Vegas five years ago,’ Dominique mumbled. ‘What a brutal way to die. And his wife and kids were never found. His last job had been with Howard. I read that there had been some dispute over money, much less than $20 million. I thought that only gangsters and dictators behaved like that.’

‘Rumors; just rumors, Dominique,’ Donahue replied. ‘And we’re not just some two-bit contractor. Howard wouldn’t dare touch us other than to shake our hands in gratitude. He won’t mess around with us so long as we’ve got $120 million of our group’s money in this deal, all riding on our trust in him. His Ascendancy Entertainment is nothing compared to Barker Reed. And I practically run BR, even with that moron MacKenzie as CEO. Don’t worry, Dominique; Howard’s not in our league.’

Her concern dissipated only slightly. ‘In any event, with so much at stake, I still wonder why you’re doing it.’

He smiled at her, broadly and reassuring. ‘For the same reasons we’ve always done what we do at BR: for the money, for the sport of it, and simply because we can.’

Donahue watched her rise and leave the table. The scent of spice and lilac trailed her in invisible curls of aromatic confetti as her sleekness in the knee-length black dress sliced through the restaurant’s palette of royal blue and gold.

After waiting a few minutes to collect his thoughts, Donahue took the elevator down to the lobby of the hotel casino. Heading towards the exit, he passed a parade of Chinese prostitutes pacing back and forth in front of the foreign exchange money counters and kitsch-filled retail stores. Their exaggerated gait and makeup did little to cover the starkly vacant boredom that stiffened their faces. He also had to weave his way through an ambling mass of Chinese gamblers moving at half his pace. Most in the crowd had the familiar look of ordinary local people off the streets of modern China. Many of the men had disheveled hair and unpressed clothes, as if they had just risen from bed. The women had unevenly applied makeup. They waddled as they moved forward, pointing with brightly manicured fingernails. Donahue could tell that their wealth was still modest. The brightly lit casinos – modern-day opium dens – no doubt brought escape from cramped living quarters and mundane day jobs. For many, gambling was more than simply entertainment; it was ritualistic communion with the fickle gods of fortune. For too many it was an irrepressible urge, a surrendering to an almighty affliction. The desire to test their luck was an immutable force in their lives, as essential as the need to have dreams.

Dominique had noted to him that an increasing number of gamblers, particularly those heading to the VIP lounges on the upper floors, in recent years had the unmistakable trappings of sudden wealth. Spotting them was not difficult. The older men wore off-the-rack fashions straight out of Golf Digest. Many of the younger men wore the now-standard uniform of China’s nouveau riche princelings: Etro shirts, Hugo Boss jeans, John Lobb shoes, and conspicuously displayed Franck Muller watches. The women were invariably overdressed, carrying handbags that cost as much as an average Chinese migrant worker might make in two years. The clothing was undeniably expensive, but there was an oddity to the overall look. Styles clashed. Walking seemed perilous on ever higher heels. And occasionally, designer labels and price tags dangled from garments like out-of-season holiday ornaments, not having been properly removed before the items were worn in public.

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