Mai-Lin had been wrong about Eldon. He did care, but not in the same way as Roland Chieu. And when he saw the little dog leave as if she had a special destination in mind, Roland immediately followed . Now sure this was just the sort of pet Mai-Lin would have in her hidey-hole apartment, Roland hurried after the little brown and white dog. And didn’t the little dog seem to know where she was going? Yes, Roland was pretty confident that it would lead him to where Mai-Lin Song had set up a second safe house after setting a fire in her own the building. But keeping up with her determined gate meant jostling for position in a sea of five O’clock office workers bound for trains and home. It got him more than one dirty look and he didn’t need to be noticed or remembered. The good news was that crowds had other things on their minds; home or the nearest bar where they would wash off the stink of work with a beer or a single shot of something stronger.
He was guessing, of course, Roland had no idea what other people did in high-rise buildings, and there was no wife, no girl-friend to go home to, either. Well, nothing that didn’t involve the exchange of money for an hour or two. Bert Song had seen to that.
Bert. His boss and the only family he had known since his arrival in New York, a fourteen-year-old with a student visa in his hand. He had twenty American dollars, some coins in his pocket and a letter from his parents agreeing to the terms in the foreign exchange student program between Hong-Kong and the U.S.
With nothing to do but trail after Mai-Lin’s dog, Roland wondered what his life would’ve been like had he stayed in Hong-Kong. Always at the top of his class, it was his social skills his parents weren’t so sure of; so they hired a tutor to pump him full of American phrases and idioms. The tutor was expensive, but Roland was their only son, and when he was accepted into the U.S. student exchange program, he promised to be helpful to his foster parents and write home every week.
Having been coached on what to expect when he landed, Roland thought the queue at Customs could be tweaked for a better performance and seeing an opportunity for a paper on the subject, he mentally tabulated key points he would later submit to MIT.
An artificially amplified voice in the kiosk said to slide his visa onto a machine. The uniformed woman compared the visa to the boy standing on the other side, nodded, stamped the visa and said, “Welcome to the United States. Have a nice vacation.”
He thought about correcting the misconception; he wasn’t here on vacation, but the woman was already waiving to the next person in line so he moved again to another queue for the exit.
Someone would be here, they said, to meet him and take him to Brooklyn and his foster parents. Roland scanned the line-up of people holding cards with names in several languages, but seeing none of the cards with his name on it, he shrugged and deleted that option from his list and went through the double doors of the exit and into the bright sunlight of a spring day in Brooklyn, New York.
Cars, buses and mini-vans rolled up to the curb, people piled in and other people piled out. He waited for someone to call his name, but after exactly twenty-seven minutes, Roland mentally crossed off #2-someone will pick me up at curbside, and went to the next item titled; In case no one is at the airport to meet me. He took out his cell phone and called the number he’d been given for contacting Mr. Song. When a man answered, Roland asked in English to speak with Bert Song.
“Ha,” said the voice, “This is Chinese American Club, kid. Mr. Song doesn’t live here. What you want?”
“My Name is Roland Chieu. I am a foreign exchange student from Hong Kong and guest of Mr. and Mrs. Song. Someone was supposed to pick me up at the Brooklyn airport.”
“Speak Mandarin, eh? Good. Now, I don’t know anything about picking you up at the airport, kid. But Mr. Song is a very busy man. You’re exchange student, eh? Then you speak English pretty good, eh? You got a pencil and paper?”
“Yes, I ….” He was about to tell the man that he didn’t need to write it down, but the man kept talking until he was finished.
“Got it, kid?”
Roland said he did and thanked the man with the promise to come by the Chinese American club when he was settled.
He found the right bus to the train station and he boarded, saw where to put in his coins and found an empty seat.
If his arrival didn’t quite go as he expected, Roland didn’t mind. His parents might have said differently, but Roland was always happiest on his own, and considered what his parents called quirky habits as resilience in the face of a problem. Everything was doable in Roland’s young mind, and the idea of living with a well-respected business man like Bert Song as foster father suited him just fine. Maybe Mr. Song would want him to stay, maybe he would find a place for him in his business, and Roland’s parents could stop worrying about their socially awkward son.
How his status went from exchange student to adopted son was the result of a lag in news on an earthquake that killed his civil engineering parents. Bert dealt with the idiosyncrasies of Chinese bureaucracy but finally had to tell Roland that his parents were dead. Bert insisted on paying for their funeral, and had photos of both parents sent as mementos for Roland. Though his grief was real, Roland was practical enough to see his predicament; he could go back to China where he had no one, or be adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Song.
Roland was preparing letters to submit to universities specializing in robotics when Bert proposed a more profitable option; as son and heir he could learn Bert’s business from the ground up, and eventually inherit it all. And when Bert opened his books for the seventeen year old, Roland saw his future laid out before him in dollar signs. Of course, working from the ground up meant leaning on a reluctant client, which escalated to a broken arm or leg here and there, until just the sight of Roland and his signature silk scarf opened wallets, cash silently crossed palms, and debts were paid in full. Roland tried not to make the killings a habit, but what could he do? He had a boss to please and Roland never questioned any other kind of life.