Hong Kong - Fifteen Years Ago
Forty-three-year-old lawyer Garret Southam, gazed pensively out the window of the Hong Kong Business Aviation Centre, a small airfield that catered to an exclusive clientele where private planes could get in and out discreetly and efficiently. Standing erect in his perfectly tailored blue suit that could not mask his powerful physique, he resembled that quintessential James Bond in his prime: Sean Connery. Physically and financially, he was a distant cry from the unkempt, scrawny broke teenager that arrived at the British colony decades ago.
His concentration was broken up by a sudden tug on the arm by his daughter. “Is that the one, Daddy?” asked the eleven-year-old, broomstick blonde Olivia excitedly, pointing to a plane taxiing on the runway toward them.
“No, not that one. But it will be soon,” replied Garret in a warm sonorous baritone that still contained a small vestige of his British accent.
From down the hall, a young Chinese girl squealed in a familiar voice, “Olivia, Olivia! What are you doing here?”
Garret and Olivia pivoted to see ten-year-old Abby Sung scrambling toward them. Waddling behind was her rotund and bling-adorned father, Tommy.
Abby was the Chinese version of Olivia. Both girls were jailbait and, in a few years, Garret and Tommy would need baseball bats to fend off all the hormone-crazed guys that would be chasing their daughters.
Olivia hugged Abby. “I’m here to see my mommy.”
“Me, too!” cried Abby.
Narrowing his grey blue eyes, Garret’s face tilted up to the cloudless sky. “Well, we won’t have to wait too long. I’m pretty sure that’s her plane landing over there.”
He cocked his head to Tommy and said in a hushed voice, “I thought Jocelyn was coming in tomorrow.”
Tommy shrugged. “Chin pulled a rabbit out of his hat. This flight was fully booked, but somehow he got her on board.”
Garret squeezed a fist to mask his sudden chill. “I wish our wives would stop trying to save the world. Going to Thailand right after a tsunami was hardly a smart idea. They could have had a building fall on them or gotten typhoid.”
“Would you rather they stayed home and played mahjong?” Tommy grinned. “Besides, what’s the point of having a trophy wife if you can’t show her off? Having them do charity work is good for business.”
Even Garret had to snicker. It was impossible to stay serious with always happy and gregarious Tommy around. “You’re incorrigible, Tommy.”
“As if I knew what that meant, Mr. Fancy Pants Lawyer,” snorted the high-school dropout Tommy.
“It means...” But, before Garret could finish, Olivia and Abby began waving and jumping in delight as the plane taxied closer to the arrival bay.
“Hi, Mommy. Hi! Welcome back,” shrieked the excited girls in their high-pitched penetrating voices.
“It’s about time,” muttered Garret. “We have some things to discuss.”
He frowned in Tommy’s direction, whose head bobbed solemnly in agreement, muttering as if he were speaking to a clandestine operative. “Yes, we do. Does Mary know?”
“She will soon. How about Jocelyn?”
“Same here. She’ll love it, though. We’re moving to Los Angeles. Disneyland, here we come!” Tommy danced a little two-step. “Are you sure you want to move back to London?”
“Can’t stand the beastly Americans. Never could.”
“The plane’s coming. It’s almost here,” shouted Abby.
They all spun around to focus on the plane crawling down the runway toward them. It seemed like an eternity to the young, screaming girls who hadn’t seen their mothers for seventeen days.
BOOM! BOOM! The plane exploded! Instead of a plane on the tarmac, a long cylindrical inferno was burning out of control. Flames shot thirty feet in the air and, even through the large glass window, cries of anguish sounded briefly before being snuffed out by the sprouting billows of black smoke and conflagration.
Nobody could survive the fiery apocalypse. Pandemonium erupted inside and outside the terminal.
As Garret held her close to his chest to prevent her from running outside, Olivia pelted her father, crying hysterically, “Mommy! Mommy!”
Abby dove into Tommy’s arms, sobbing. “No, that’s not Mommy. It’s not Mommy! That’s the wrong plane.”
BOOM! The plane split in half.
BOOM! The plane exploded into smithereens.
All jolliness and decorum disappeared. Devastated eyes of Garret and Tommy bore grimly into each other, suspicious and afraid beyond human belief. They knew it was not the wrong plane. It was exactly the right one.
They both knew it, and they both knew they were responsible, but damned if they would or could admit anything to anybody at any time…especially their daughters.
An explosion of this magnitude had likely destroyed everything, including the supposedly indestructible black box. But, even if the flight data recorder survived, it would never be found.
With Tommy quaking beside him in the shabby hall of a fifth floor tenement in Hong Kong’s poverty-stricken Shan Shui Po District, Garret pounded on the simple plaque on the door that announced the existence of the Good Shepherd School.
A slight man in his early thirties, George Reid, opened the door and arched a startled eyebrow at the sight of the odd couple: an immaculately clad businessman and a portly wanna-be Casanova.
George and Sarah Reid, husband-and-wife missionary teachers, operated the small private English language school out of their apartment. While they could make a lot more money by teaching in one of the expat schools, both of them had a burden to care for Hong Kong’s poverty-stricken and underprivileged. None of their thirty-two students had much money and none was demanded or even requested. Tuition was “free” or by “freewill offering,” which could mean a bag of oranges or a cooked chicken or, on rare occasions, a thousand dollars from an occasional benefactor. George and Sarah had always operated on the principle that, “The Lord will provide” and, somehow, at the end of the month, the rent was paid, their bellies were full, and they had enough to make sure the students had adequate school supplies.
The Reids were previously in a rural area close to Shanghai where George’s father and grandfather had also been missionaries. They loved the small village but the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing by the Chinese government on June 4 and 5, 1989, as well as rising oppression against Christians, made them realize that China had become too dangerous. So they packed up their few belongings and their two-year-old son Noah and moved to Hong Kong, which was still under British control.
The move also allowed the Reids to include a greater Christian component in their teaching curriculum, something they were afraid to do in China. This was not for their own sakes, but they were deeply concerned for their students. There had been stories of Christians being jailed or sent to disappear in anonymous labor camps and the Reids didn’t want to risk the futures of their pupils.
Without adequate funds to have a separate space for a school, the Good Shepherd School was integrated into their fifth-floor elevatorless apartment. With an open door policy, they never knew who would should up. It might be grimy illegals, dope addicts, or working girls trying to get out of the life. Or, as happened almost every day, some of the grateful denizens of the area would drop off some fresh veggies, a chicken, or some still-warm baked pastries.
But this odd pair of middle-aged men, one in a tailored suit, one looking like a peacock pimp, was a first.
Not that that would influence or fluster George. Without a hint of surprise at seeing the new arrivals, George inquired pleasantly, “You look a bit lost. May I help you?”
“We’d like to speak to Master Wu, please,” said Garret. “I’m Garret Southam and this is Tommy Sung. We are friends of his.”
If you are friends of the sifu, you certainly haven’t come from around here. George noticed the urgency in Garret’s voice and responded, “He’s meditating. Please come in and have some tea. He’ll be awake within an hour.”
“It’s imperative that we speak to him now. In private,” Garret said, failing unsuccessfully to mask the urgency in his voice.
“We need his help,” pleaded Tommy. “Please, please, please.”
George scanned the duo with fresh eyes. The tone in Tommy’s voice revealed a disturbance and, even though the staid Brit tried to mask his emotions in front of the American, Garret’s troubled eyes and tense posture impressed upon George a severity and desperation.
“I understand. Please come in.”
Inside the closed bedroom, Master Wu, Garret and Tommy sat cross-legged on the floor. While Master Wu’s face remained emotionless as Garret and Tommy poured out the painful story, inwardly, his heart was breaking. The story had unfolded beyond his worst fears.
Twenty years ago, Garret, Tommy and Chin Chee Fok were Master Wu’s prize students. However, Chin, seduced by visions of opulent grandeur, formed the Golden Tiger Triad. Master Wu tried to dissuade Garret and Tommy from joining, but the allure of easy prosperity was too much.
Only when Garret and Tommy got married and had Olivia and Abby did their consciences change. Even so, it took years before they had the guts to leave Chin. Surprisingly, when told of their plans, Chin was most understanding. They would leave when their wives returned from Thailand.
How gullible could they be…
“We should have listened to you,” confessed Garret.
“We want to go after Chin, and we need you to help us,” Tommy stated emphatically. “Now.”
Master Wu’s brow furrowed. Even though it had been years since he had seen them, they were still his students and he would never abandon them. Master was still master, and disciple was still disciple. Inhaling, he said quietly, “Chin has poured gasoline on your hearts and the fire within you rages. But are you ready to wage war with the Tiger Master?”
It was a rhetorical question. Garret and Tommy both knew that they could never match Chin’s resources.
“But we can’t let him get away with it,” burst out Tommy.
“You and Garret will be almost immediate casualties. Your daughters need you. Who will take care of them if you are dead?”
“When then, Master Wu?” asked Garret.
Master Wu was firm. “Not until your daughters are fully grown.”
The two men knew why the master had chosen that time far into the future. Other than for siring children, normal relationships with women had little interest for Chin. Forbidden fruit was his sexual preference. Master Wu was telling them that they had to wait until Olivia and Abby would no longer be attractive to Chin.
A bitter, but wise pill.
“But there is something more. The two of you must go back to work for Chin.”
“What?” exploded Garret.
“That’s crazy,” said Tommy.
“All warfare is based on deception,” said Master Wu simply. It was a quote from General Sun Tzu’s “Art of War,” the ancient Chinese military treatise that was foundational to Master Wu’s teaching.
Garret and Tommy resisted the urge to walk out. They had rejected the master’s advice before and their wives had paid the price.
“We can send Abby and Olivia away for schooling but what do we do for fifteen years until they are grown?” asked Garret.
“Won’t work for me. If I go back, eating and drinking is about all I do,” said Tommy.
“How about you, Garret?”
Garret’s voice hardened. “I could make time if that’s what it takes. But by the time the girls grow up, I’ll be well over fifty. I couldn’t keep up with Chin. He hasn’t let up, and I’ll never catch up.”
“Not you,” said Master Wu. “I have someone else in mind.”
They heard the slamming of a door closing on the outside of the bedroom.
“Noah, what happened to you?” they heard a woman scream in worry and frustration.
They heard a boy brag, “You shoulda seen the other guys. Bam. Bam. Bam!”
“Fighting’s not excusable, son,” said his father sternly.
Master Wu, Garret, and Tommy stood up. Master Wu opened the door and the three saw a scrawny thirteen-year-old boy with one helluva shiner lying on the couch.
Sarah, carrying an ice pack, shook her head. “Master Wu, what am I going to do with Noah? He’s getting into all kinds of trouble with the things you teach him.” She put the cold, plastic sac on Noah’s bruised eye.
“I promise, Master Wu, I didn’t start it. Honest. They were stealing Jenny’s buns, you know the lady with the cart down the street. You know how hard she works. I couldn’t let them get away with it. Right? Right?”
“Not exactly right, but it’s a start.” Master Wu glanced at Garret and Tommy. He saw Garret’s breaths quickening and could sense Tommy’s body stiffening.
His dark hazel eyes flashed a clear message.
Noah is the one.… Trust me.