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Contractormag 2842 Carolsylviacasino

Boiler troubleshooting and kidnappings

Feb. 6, 2015
That night, Sylvia and I just kept shaking our heads in disbelief. What was that about?  What was he up to? And more recently, standing in a nice warm boiler room, it wasn’t that much different. What was all that trouble about?  The building’s not going to freeze, there’s plenty of hot water, and life is good.

Do you ever feel like you’re kidnapped by your boiler job? You thought the day was going to be one thing, and it turned out to be quite another. You knew where you would be, and you ended up other places, like the supply house. And the supply house again. You intended to be home for dinner. You were counting on being safe in your bed for the night, and that just might not happen.

Pictured left to right, Sylvia, Tommy and Carol Fey in a Macau casino.

The last time I had a boiler startup from hell — all human error as usual, not the boiler’s fault — I was reminded of an adventure I had a couple years ago when I thought I was being abducted to China. 

The memory trigger was one of those news stories that you wonder why they even bother with it —maybe just filling space:

“Macau [part of China in some ways, but not completely] has emerged as the world's largest gambling center — far outstripping Las Vegas in terms of revenue — since China liberalized the territory's gaming industry in 2002... The economy in this former Portuguese colony has exploded in recent years and the skyline is now studded with dazzling new hotel-casinos built to tap into the mainland Chinese passion for gambling and their rocketing incomes.”

Coming home from my job in Antarctica a few years ago, I thought I’d just stop by China. Never mind that it’s not close. I didn’t yet know much about that hemisphere’s geography.

But I knew that I needed a visa to enter mainland China, and that I could get it in Hong Kong. You go to the visa office, turn over your passport (yikes!), and in a day or two pick it up with a visa attached for a one-time entry to China.

Before daylight I found my way to the visa office. The only other westerner in the place was a 20-something gal from Italy named Sylvia (pronounced Seel-ve-ah). We quickly figured that we had two major things in common:  we both spoke English and we had two days to kill before entering China. We were instant friends.

The first day we explored Hong Kong. But after all that urban high rise intensity, we were ready for someplace calm and quiet.

“How about Macau,” suggested Sylvia. “I’ve heard it was a Portuguese colony, and there must be a village and some interesting food.”

All that Macau brought to my mind was macaw the bird, which gave me an image of lush tropical jungles, and that sounded relaxing.

We hurried to the ferry terminal, the only way to get to Macau, and were disappointed to learn that tickets for the day were sold out. But out of nowhere a middle-aged Chinese man appeared, and introduced himself as Tommy. He told us in lovely English that his friends weren’t able to make the trip. Would we like to buy the extra tickets? Sylvia, who lived in China, examined the tickets, declared them good, and we traded cash for tickets.  We were on our way.

Boarding the ferry, Tommy appeared beside us, ushered us to our very nice first class seats, and announced, “I won’t be sitting with you, so I’ll see you when we get off and give you your return tickets.”

What? Sure enough, our tickets were only one-way. Why would he keep our return tickets? Did he want to sell them to us all over again? Why was he sitting in another part of the boat? Who was this guy anyway? What was he up to? There was nothing to do but wait and find out.

To our both relief and dismay, Tommy was waiting for us as we disembarked.

“I will be your guide,” he announced. “I will show you everything. What casino do you want to see first? There are buses from here.”

“No, no, we protested. We don’t want a guide. If you’ll just give us our return tickets…”  Was he trying to lure us into hiring him as our guide?

“There’s plenty of time for your tickets. I’ll keep them safe. I know the casinos. I have worked for them. What would you like to see first?”

“We really don’t want to go to a casino,” we protested. “If you’ll just give us our tickets, we’ll just go exploring on our own.”

“Oh no,” Tommy insisted pleasantly. “You are at the gambling capital of the whole world. It is bigger than your Las Vegas, no?”

We were catching on that Macau was not a quaint Portuguese village on an isolated Chinese island.

"I tell you what,” he said. “I have to go to the Bellagio for a bit of business, with this bag.  You come with me to see the casino. It is beautiful. Come, here is the bus.”

Sylvia and I stole a look at each other. Uh-oh, what kind of business is there to do in a casino? Why would a guy be doing with an empty-looking Nike sports bag? Are we his cover for something illegal? Are we involved with the Chinese Mafia or something? 

Regardless Tommy had our return tickets, tickets were sold out for the day, so despite our growing qualms, Sylvia and I boarded the bus with him.

First thing at the casino Sylvia and I hit on the same idea — gotta go to the bathroom. He couldn’t go in there with us.

We talked fast:

  • Who is this guy? 
  • What’s that bag for?
  • Is he using us for cover that he’s a tour guide? 
  • Maybe he works for the casino and gets paid for bringing in gamblers. 
  • How are we going to get away from him — with our return tickets?

We toured the casino. We didn’t gamble.

My imagination was racing. What if his mission was to deliver hostages — us — to…, well I couldn’t take the story any farther than that. Or what if there was a bomb in the bag or…

What if he got arrested and we got arrested with him? What if he was a robber and the bag was for his bounty and he was going to use us as his hostages.

Yes, he was going to do a stick-up, with us as hostages, and then flee. We would be accomplices. The casino security cameras and armed guard would find only us. Tommy, fast and smart and knowing the lay of the land, would be long gone. He would have the bag and we would be left standing holding the blame. We would have no way to say it wasn’t us, it was Tommy. Certainly that wasn’t his real name.  

I had another idea. For protection I would get a picture of him. That way I could show the authorities what he looks like. I told him I needed a picture to remember how much fun the three of us had. I pulled my camera out of my bag, stopped the next tourist, and asked him to take a picture of the three of us. I now had a picture of Tommy.

I had another idea. Perhaps he wanted us to buy him lunch and then he would go. No he wasn’t hungry. The three of us spent the afternoon strolling the shops. Night was coming, and we still had to get away. 

Sylvia had an idea. She grabbed her jaw, and pled her case to Tommy, “I have a really bad toothache and I have to go back to the hotel and lie down.”

Tommy reluctantly agreed, but still no ferry tickets. He loaded us onto a bus which we thought would go back to the ferry terminal, but after a bit we both saw a sign in English that said, “To mainland China.” Sylvia and I exchanged alarmed looks. 

My fears of what Tommy might be up to exploded into full-blown “kidnapping!” No that’s foolish, I told myself, I’m much too old for that. But Sylvia’s a very attractive young woman…

My all-day politeness was finished. I grabbed Tommy’s shoulder and nearly

screamed, “I cannot go to mainland china today.  I’m going there tomorrow.  I’m getting off this bus now.”

I stood up. Tommy stood up. Sylvia stood up. We got off the bus at the next stop. Then Sylvia and I got a bus heading back the other direction. Tommy came with us.

At the terminal Tommy opened his wallet, handed us our return ferry tickets, wished us a good trip, and walked away.

That night, safety tucked into our first class ferry seats and heading back to our comfy hotel beds, Sylvia and I just kept shaking our heads in disbelief. What was that about?  What was he up to?

And more recently, standing in a nice warm boiler room, with pumps humming and the building super smiling, it wasn’t that much different. What was all that trouble about?  The building’s not going to freeze, there’s plenty of hot water, and life is good.

Carol Fey is a technical trainer and writer, specializing in easy electricity, hydronics and troubleshooting books.  She also writes about HVAC work in Antarctica.  You can find her and her books at

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