Red Mist, Stage 2, Chapter 2
Updated: May 14, 2020
“Hey Max, I mean Mack, over here,” Stockton Clay called out from the center of the Sheraton Grand Los Angeles lobby.
Max Koga stepped out of the elevator, dressed in a creased charcoal grey suit, white shirt and no tie. “Did I keep you waiting?” he asked.
“Nope. Right on time. You ready?”
Koga gave him a thumbs-up sign. “I’ve been looking forward to this all day.”
They walked through the front doors, and headed to the US Bank Tower, the venue for the Song Motors dinner.
Located on Fifth Street, the US Bank Tower was among the tallest buildings in downtown Los Angeles. Taking up the seventieth floor of the cylindrical edifice was Skyspace LA, home to the state’s tallest observation deck. A popular tourist spot, complete with a glass slide and a virtual reality center, the entire facility was rented out to big corporations a few times a year for special events. During the ten-minute walk from the Sheraton to the US Bank Tower, Stockton gave Koga a rundown on the automotive journalists expected to attend, those who were friendly and which ones were to be avoided.
“Usually, the older they are, the snobbier, so try not to interact with anyone who looks north of sixty,” he suggested.
They were met at the entrance of the building by a young Caucasian man in a tuxedo who led them through a side entranceway to a waiting elevator. He leaned in and pushed the button to the seventieth floor.
"Enjoy your evening,” he said as the elevator doors closed.
The snug carriage shot up like a rocket. When it slowed to a stop and the doors opened, Koga and Stockton stepped into a spacious circular room with windows lining the walls, providing a 360-degree view of the city. An older woman sat behind a large folding table at the entrance.
“Welcome to the Song Motors dinner. May I see your invitations?” she asked.
Stockton handed her two envelopes. After looking them over through her reading glasses, she picked out a couple of name tags.
“Mister Clay and Mister Katana. All tips have been taken care of. Please enjoy,” she said.
Stockton collected the tags, handed one of them to Koga, and led him onto the observation deck, where a young Asian woman in a cocktail dress handed each one a glass of champagne. The view was breathtaking. Not only could one look directly down at Staples Center, the home of the Lakers and Clippers basketball teams, but the Santa Monica Pier, which was more than fifteen miles away, and even Catalina Island, about fifty miles due west, were visible.
The entire floor was bustling with people. Most of the journalists and influencers were clumped together in groups of four or five, huddled in light conversation. Koga’s eyes locked onto a gang of six gathered near the glass slide, where an Asian man, dressed in a black tuxedo, held court.
Koga recognized Xavier Qiu from the photos Raja Singh had provided. The Chinese businessman stood just shy of six feet and looked to be in his early forties, with a handsome face that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Hong Kong action flick. Next to him was a Caucasian woman, dressed in a form-fitting one-piece that showed off her lithe, athletic build. Her auburn brown hair fell to the small of her back, as she smiled at her admirers with full lips.
“Stockton, go on ahead. I’ll catch up to you later,” Koga said, heading toward Qiu.
He took up a position at the back of the pack where Qiu waxed on about the company’s future product, called the MachStar, in flawless English, saying how it was going to revolutionize the super car genre.
Time for some fireworks.
Forcing his way between two gray-haired gentlemen, Koga walked right up to Qiu. “I’m Mack Katana, with Automobile Digest,” he said, holding a business card out with two hands. “I’m a big admirer of your company and your new car.”
“Please call me Xavier,” Qiu said, taking Koga’s business card and briefly glancing at it before shoving it under his tuxedo coat.
Koga handed another business card to the woman at his side. “It’s nice to meet you too. Mrs. Qiu?”
She laughed. “No, I’m Cynthia Blackwood, executive assistant to the president,” she said, taking the business card and shaking Koga’s hand.
The surrounding journalists flashed disapproving looks to each other, as one stepped forward. “I don’t know who you are, but we were in the middle of a conversation,” he said.
Ignoring him, Koga said to Qiu, “So, Xavier, I just wanted to ask where you got the money to start such a big company from scratch. Can you shed some light on this?”
“We have a group of generous investors,” Qiu answered.
“And they are?” Koga pressed.
Qiu’s smile faded. “Who are you with again?”
“Automobile Digest, the largest automotive publication on the planet.”
“Well, Mister Katana of Automobile Digest…interesting name by the way…our laws in China do not require us to reveal our financial sources, so I’m afraid I have no comment regarding that matter.”
“I see, but there have been rumors, and please forgive me for being so blunt, that Song Motors has ties with, um, the Chinese mafia. Do you care to comment?”
Qiu’s eyes scanned the faces of the others in the group. One man had his mouth agape, while the rest of them quietly backed away.
“I suggest you re-check your sources because what you are saying is ridiculous and untrue. Now, if you’ll excuse me, dinner is about to begin,” he said, gently pulling Blackwood away by the arm.
Koga watched the couple walk toward the dining area, when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“You certainly aren’t shy, are you?” Stockton said. “Now Xavier Qiu hates our guts, and we lost any chance at an exclusive.”
“I thought he already hated your guts. Didn’t he threaten one of your journalists?” Koga reminded him.
“Yeah, good point. I guess no harm done then.”
“Well, I need a drink. Can I get you something from the bar?”
Stockton shook his head. “I’m fine. I’ll save you a seat next to me.”
The Garden Bar specialized in beer and wine, but for the Song Motors event, it had been converted into a full bar with a premium selection of scotch, including a seventeen-year-old bottle of Hibiki and a twenty-year-old Belvenie single malt. Behind the counter was a young bartender, no doubt an aspiring actor, wearing a black bowtie.
“Yes, sir, what can I get you?” he asked.
“A glass of Warbringer, neat,” Koga said.
The bartender topped a large glass with the American whiskey and placed it in front of Koga, when a man walked up next to him and leaned an elbow on the bar counter. Max nearly missed it, but on the back of the man’s wrist was a tattoo. Most of it was hidden under the cuff of his sleeve, but there was no mistaking the small pincers and stinger of a scorpion.