Chapter 7 — Saigon Roulette

“And it certainly would not have been the government of Viet Nam. They have just scaled up Cholon’s corruption schemes to a national level, rigged it in their favor and are living off the rake.”

“Rake?”

“You know, the fee to the ‘house’ for getting into the game. They don’t actually play in the game but they run the game and take a cut.”

“No, I don’t know about that. I’ve only ever played poker for chips and toothpicks; and since I got here, with cigarettes.”

“Cigarettes! Who are you playing with?”

“Msg. Surgeon and Pigeon and Bell and one of Pigeon’s friends. We get a table at the NCO club.”

“I shouldn’t have to ask. Bah Minh and I got Surgeon to promise to cut down his smoking so we keep a carton in her desk and give him a pack a day but he’s smoking more than that. I gather you lose at poker to him.”

“Yeah, but there are pool tables and I beat them at pool and at ten cents a pack it’s not high stakes.” And I don’t smoke except when I drink beer. So I don’t smoke up the profits in between pool games.”

“Well the stakes that Thieu and his gang play for aren’t cigarettes, unless it’s shiploads of them. Their games run to the millions, maybe tens of millions of dollars.”

“How do you know this?”

“Father.

“He has to deal with it all the time and the black market makes collecting for freight difficult to say the least. If he can’t get freight prepaid in piasters he’ll get a contract payable in dollars. So it’s to the shippers advantage to prepay.”

“And he shares this with you? His daughter? My father would never let on anything about his finances or business.”

“After I took courses in economics at university, I asked him about how finances in Viet Nam work when I got home. He says he’s grooming me for the business.”

“What about your brother? He seems the likely choice.”

“He has no interest in ships. He is a soldier at heart. He likes war strategy and he plays chess very well. I haven’t beat him in years. Neither has father.”

“Who enforces your father’s contracts. I mean when shippers don’t pay or are too slow? or insist in paying in piasters?”

“Well, it doesn’t happen often but when it does he enforces his own contracts.”

“I would think one of Thieu’s main jobs as head of government would be to enforce contracts. I mean along with war powers that’s one of the legitimate roles of government that even arch-conservatives agree on.”

“You assume this is like a functioning, European government. One of Thieu’s many ventures is to operate a collection agency and he takes 50%. Would you hire his agency for 50%? What guarantee is there that he would see any of the money?”

It was seeming she did know more than she let on. A lot more.

“So how does he enforce his contracts?”

“He learned from the Corsicans in Marseilles years ago. And he has friends. That’s all I know about it.”

“Your father, he must have to buy fuel and equipment in dollars on the international market. Where does he get dollars?”

“That’s one reason he charges in dollars for freight that isn’t pre-paid. But you’re right, he can’t buy internationally using piasters.

“He has to buy fuel in dollars unless he buys it here.”

“By here you mean Saigon?”

“In Viet Nam anyway.”

“So why not buy fuel locally?”

“Because it’s much more expensive, even without the tax. Some people pay tax and some people don’t. If my father was on Thieu’s good side not only would there be no tax but he would be able to buy dollars at half price from the government and buy fuel wherever he wanted. Thieu is trying to force him to buy from one of the fuel monopolies Diem’s family runs. Thieu gets a kickback.”

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