During the sunny, autumn months, the prevailing dry winds from the north turned Lantau Island’s lush, green vegetation into dry, brown tinder. It was at this very time of year that many Chinese families paid their respects to their departed ancestors. “Grave sweeping festivals” were held throughout the New Territories, where high in the mountains, numerous grave sites were situated, usually facing the sea, in order to afford those spirits resting there more auspicious vistas.
Weather reports scanned by rogue members of the Fire Department indicated an intense anti-cyclone over most of China, fostering sustained, extremely strong northerly winds. “A match at the right time at the right place could burn down a whole hillside in minutes,” someone lustily concluded.
Bob Murphy had flown Marc in to the team some months back. Bobby then found some lucrative work waiting for him in Macau with tycoon Victor Lee and decided to hang around the area, and earn a pile of extra spending money. Some assignments called for him to taxi rich Hong Kong clients to Lee’s Macau casino. His flight path took him right over Lantau Island. On a clear day, he could see all that was happening in the Tung Hang Mei valley far below. Lately he had noticed that the hill fires were becoming more frequent and intense.
Often the culprits were obvious: families running quickly downhill along the mountain trails, away from fires they had unintentionally caused by burning incense at the graves. Someone could get trapped in one of those valleys, Bob Murphy concluded. As a precaution, he outfitted his S-74 with a winch-driven helicopter bucket that could scoop up water from the sea below. This was standard equipment used by fire fighters in hilly terrains.
A week later, Murphy was ferrying two very attractive young Chinese starlets to Macau for an “audition” with Mr. Lee. Dirty old man, Murphy thought to himself. Lucky, rich, dirty old man, he corrected himself, in an afterthought. It was late at night. Hong Kong’s busy western harbor below sparkled with thousands of lights from the hundreds of ships and boats. On some of the smaller islands, tiny fires were burning, fanned by the strong winds. These same winds buffeted the helicopter, making the girls squeal anxiously.
Up on a distant mountain peak, miles away yet precisely upwind from their intended victims, a team of three men dressed all in black waited. A police helicopter flew overhead, scanning for illegals attempting to sneak into the territory under the cover of darkness. The chopper’s strong beam of light cut across the dark mountain ridge, barely missing the very spot where the trio lay crouched. Once more they rehearsed their planned path of retreat, made sure their boots were securely tied, and one more time, they confirmed that the wind was blowing in just the right direction.
“Let’s do this!” one commando urged.
For some reason, Bill Shanahan, the senior commander, felt that they should wait a little bit longer. His hesitation mystified the other two men. Bill was usually the gung-ho one and the one needing restraint.
“What’s wrong?” the other commando probed.
“Nothing’s wrong. Just thought to wait to make sure that they are…” Billy paused, “…they are all asleep down there, that’s all,” he lied.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of vigil, they lit their joss sticks. It was meant to appear that someone returning from grave sweeping had been there. The three commandos slipped quickly down the steep, rocky slope, taking care to make sure they remained upwind.
Down at the Noodle Shop’s property in the Tung Hang Mei valley, Alexa tilted her nose skyward and sniffed. She could smell the smoke. The team had spent weeks cutting a wide fire break all around their property and they kept constant vigil for fires that could spring up at any moment. Tonight, the forecast called for winds to gust in excess of fifty miles per hour. Whatever fires might start would surely spread rapidly. Fires even miles away would take only a few minutes to travel the distance. Sparks could travel even farther and faster.
Carefully scanning the horizon for any telltale flickers, they still couldn’t detect any flames. But the smell of smoke stubbornly persisted, coming from the north-north-east. “I’m getting the kids ready!” Alexa declared. Tamara helped her pack up a few things for the run down the hillside pathway to the safety of the beach, a half-mile away. Rusty double-checked his red leather bag of remedies. Simon and Matt quickly gathered the ham equipment and portable computers. Marc had the two kids on his shoulders and was making them giggle by bouncing and swaying them about. Mitch threw the most valuable paper items into a backpack: cash, passports, confidential reports, contact information. He then went out to scan the hillside one last time while the others readied for the journey to safer ground.
Still, there were no flames to be seen, but now the winds carried to their ears the maniacal sound of the crackling of dense brush being consumed by the yet-unseen fire. Mitch hollered to the others that he would follow shortly and went to final check the fire breaks, the ham tower, the gas bottles and the water source. All was in proper order. With the next intense gust, the winds drove the flames up over the distant hilltops. The bright orange line of fire seemed to stretch out for miles across the pitch black horizon around all sides of their valley. The dry valley was about to be consumed. He turned to hasten down the hillside when he heard a snap.
His left foot had caught between two rocks. It screamed in pain. Mitch tried putting pressure on that foot. It gave way, no longer possessing any strength. Fortunately, he had his stout hiking stick with him. He usually kept it with him on any journey off their clearing, as there were many venomous snakes lurking in the tall grasses. Leaning heavily on his stick, he hobbled slowly down the slope. No Olympic 100-meter records are in danger from me tonight, he told himself ruefully. When all seemed quite dark, suddenly a beam of light pierced the sooty sky above. A helicopter was overhead. Mitch yelled and waved like a man possessed, hoping to attract some attention. He did.
“Hang on, ladies!” Murphy instructed as he took his helicopter in a 180-degree turn and began a steep dive to the waters of Silvermine Bay two thousand feet below. His concentration was palpable, as he constantly made minute adjustments to the controls. Glad I practiced this, he thought, as he skimmed over the waters of the nearby beach, scooping up hundreds of gallons of sea water in the bucket that trailed behind his chopper on a cable.
By now, the flames were nearly upon Mitch. He could not outrun them. Bye, kids! He silently lamented. Before he could form another morbid thought, the roar of the flames was overcome by the roar of Murphy’s helicopter, bearing down on his target. Calculating speed, distance and wind direction as best he could in the split second, Bob released his load of life-saving water slightly before his S-74 had passed over the exact spot where Hawkins stood.
Momentum and wind would carry the water the rest of the distance, and then gravity would prevail. The force of the ton of water hitting him squarely knocked Mitch to the ground. It also knocked out all of the flames around him, providing him with a clear path of escape to the concrete walkway below.
As Murphy’s helicopter headed south and west, he surveyed the valley below him. There, on that tiny pathway that clung to the steep hillside, he could discern through the darkness, a half-dozen bouncing points of light, coming from the beams of the flashlights of the team as they fled from the advancing inferno. Sparks flew about them, like a swarm of fireflies.
“Murphy, do you copy?!” The radio transmission broke his silent concentration. “What is your flight plan?” Murphy explained he was en route to Macau with the two cute starlets, and that he had just seen a monster fire developing on the northeast slopes of Lantau Island.
“Abort that flight! We need an extraction, stat!”
“Victor will not be happy if he ends up all alone tonight,” Bobby Murphy observed.
“We’ll take care of Mr. Lee. There’s a launch waiting at the MuiWo ferry pier that will take the girls the rest of their way to Macau,” the control center reassured.
“What’s the plan?” the helo pilot inquired.
“It’s low tide, right? Land on the south end of the beach. There will be two red flares. We need to extract the Hawkins family. They’ve been marked for ‘elimination,’” the radio explained. Murphy let a low whistle escape his lips as he headed in a sweeping arc down the valley, over the rice paddies and on towards the waterfront. He was focused completely on the task at hand.
Days before, Billy Shanahan’s chest had constricted, as if being crushed by a giant, wielding a pair of his vice grips. He had come out of the briefing session where his CO had coldly given the command to “take out” Mitch Hawkins and his family. If they could not catch up with Mitch, they were to at least eliminate his family. The Fire Department was spinning out of control, desperate for a victory in their efforts to stop the Yang operations. They had crossed the line. Even Shanahan had a limit to the amount of rage and violence that he could stomach. He decided to flip. While outwardly preparing for his next, grim mission, inwardly his mind raced furiously to concoct a way to alert the First Responders.
Oliver! It dawned on Billy. The accountant Mr. Chung, in Macau, played both sides, cautious gambler that he was. For a suitable price, he’d deliver any message across enemy lines. Thus Murphy’s control center was alerted of the plan to “smoke out” the Hawkins. It’s worth the $5,000. I can’t go to sleep for the rest of my life thinking about Jack and Shelly’s grandkids being “eliminated”!
Billy Shanahan’s memories whisked him back to younger, innocent days. “Lean into
the pitch, Billy!” echoed Coach Jack Hawkins’ words from that vacant lot far away, and long ago, back in quiet West Bush. In the final analysis, the kindness and mentoring of Jack Hawkins prevailed in influence over the harshness and discipline of Shanahan’s father. Thus, he purposed to delay the operation as long as possible so the Noodle Shop could escape, all the while feigning that he was wholeheartedly committed to the plan of torching of the Tung Hang Mei valley.
“Package collected,” Murphy announced, after Alexa, Marc, Jimmy and Sally were safely aboard.
“Head to Joh’s yacht. Maintain radio silence,” Came the new orders.
Back in Queensland, Australia, Joh Bjelke-Petersen was profiting handsomely from the coal contract he had secured with the new Lamma Island Power Plant, which supplied electricity to the greedy skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island. He was indebted to unseen others for his success. In return, he made his giant coal-carrying ships available for whatever purposes might be needed. His only stipulation was that he was never to actually know about it. Like the beloved Sergeant Shultz of TV’s Hogan’s Heroes, Joh desired to affirm, “I know nothing!”
Officially, Bjelke Petersen knew nothing about Bobby Murphy landing his Sikorsky helicopter on the deck of the MV Flinders Range, which was scheduled to head out to Manila, Philippines later that night.
After Bobby’s passengers had all disembarked onto the ship’s deck, he remained in the cabin. When he was certain the evacuees were out of earshot, he radioed a question, “Should I fly back and search for Mitch?”
“Mitch perished in the fire,” was the terse reply.