July 24 - 20.52

 

The telephone conversation was received by one of the American Navstar satellites, which sent the recording, together with millions of other electronic data, to the secret computers of the National Security Agency in the Nevada Desert. There it was automatically scanned by computer software. In the endless stream of bits and bytes the digital eavesdroppers detected a word that was on the list of defined key terms, marked the spot, took out the ninety seconds before and afterwards and sent the recording to NSA analysts. The net tightened a little.

***

Anne’s message on Winter’s voicemail was from 20:41. Most likely a status report. Or to say that Al-Bader’s private Gulfstream was late again. ‘Hi, Tom. It’s me. Everything’s fine. We’re on our way with a twenty-minute delay, but the sunset is fantastic, unbelievable.’

The noise of rotor blades in the background.

‘I’ll call again when I’m back at the airport…’

Someone shouted, ‘Fire!’

‘Al-Bader’s on fire!’

 

Winter froze. A shiver ran down his spine. As if a lightning bolt had struck the back of his neck and discharged itself down his vertebrae into the stone floor. Muhammed Al-Bader was one of the bank’s best clients, a relation of the Saudi king. A global investor with holdings around the world. A liberal businessman. A target for fundamentalist groups. Al-Bader would occasionally meet his business partners in the Swiss Alps. This was the first time Anne had accompanied him.

 

Winter pressed the phone to his ear and strained to make out the message. First it sounded as if Anne was putting her phone down somewhere. Clunk. Then he heard her voice, tinged with a hint of fear that only someone who knew her well could discern: ‘Where’s the fire extinguisher?’ Something that sounded like ‘middle seat’. Probably the pilot. After a ‘Ffffssssshhhh’ sound that seemed to go on forever, Anne was suddenly cut off. Nothing but silence. Even the chirping crickets in his garden had stopped.

 

Winter sat down and stared at the large kitchen table. Without noticing the bottle stains and bleached patches on the massive piece of oak.

In his mind he pictured Anne fighting the flames inside the cramped helicopter. The sunset as backdrop. Helicopters are vulnerable, fragile, especially in the mountains and at night. But Strittmatter had always been reliable. Had he been flying or had he taken the day off and sent another of his pilots?

 

Winter listened to the digital recording again. And again. 20:41, twenty-minute delay, everything fine, sunset, Al-Bader on fire, fire extinguisher, hissing, end. Winter rang Anne’s number: no reply. Next he tried Strittmatter’s personal mobile. After three rings it went to voicemail. There was no answer on the VIP Helicopter Transportation Corporation business number either. Another answerphone. This time a friendly female voice told him that calls were taken during the office hours of 8:00A.M. to noon, and 1:00P.M. to 5:00P.M. The same message in English. Winter hung up. As if planes and helicopters only crashed during office hours.

 

The kitchen clock with its extra-large numbers for sleepy eyes showed 21:02. ‘No news is good news,’ Winter thought. It was a maxim he’d always lived by: communication was only necessary when the situation changed. Three dead ends later, the last resort was Ben, a friend from his days at police college and now head of security at Zürich airport. Fortunately he was on duty. Ben was paranoid too, a professional illness, which was why he was always on duty. He promised to call back in ten minutes; it gave Winter time to get dressed and make coffee.

 

After eight minutes the phone rang. Ben, with good and bad news. The good news was that they’d managed to locate the helicopter. It was stationary. Winter made a note of the coordinates. The bad news was that Skyguide air traffic control hadn’t been able to establish communication. ‘The pilot may have just popped outside,’ Ben added. ‘If there’s still no sign of life after a while they’ll send a rescue chopper. But at the moment there doesn’t seem to be one in the vicinity, I’m afraid.’

‘Christ. I get an emergency call and no one’s doing a thing.’

‘I know,’ Ben said. ‘They’re all sitting here in the control room on their ergonomically tested chairs, thinking: maybe it’ll all sort itself out, and if there’s no sign of life then it’s too late anyway and there’s no need to hurry. I’m sorry.’

 

Winter thanked him and hung up. He looked for a detailed map of the region. The coordinates were in a rocky area. Here the map was grey, with black, curly lines close together marking cliffs and steep terrain. The place was known as the Höllentobel, ‘Hell’s Ravine’. Purgatory. But how accurate were the coordinates? Luckily there was directory enquiries.

 

He had himself connected to the priest in Kargmatt, the nearest settlement. Presbyteries were usually well-positioned with a good view. The call was taken by a woman with a strong local dialect. Winter didn’t understand her name, but he got the impression that it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for the elderly woman to take calls at this late hour. As the area was in the country’s Catholic heartland he assumed he was speaking to the housekeeper.

‘Good evening, my name is Winter. I’m awfully sorry to disturb you, but I really need your help.’

‘The house of God is always open, Herr Winter.’

‘Thank you. A colleague of mine is on her way to the Gemsstock mountain, near your village.’ Anne was more than a colleague, but he had never admitted that to anyone. ‘She’s in a helicopter and called me earlier to say that it was on fire.’

‘Good heavens!’

‘Have you seen anything?’ Kargmatt was a kilometre or two from the Höllentobel. As an optimist, he didn’t want to use the words ‘helicopter crash’. Not yet.

‘My dear man, the ways of the Lord are inscrutable, but I’ll happily help you if I can.’ Winter began to doubt that the kindly housekeeper would be able to help him.

‘Can you see the helicopter?’

‘The helicopter?’

‘Yes,’ Winter replied, trying to keep a lid on his simmering anger.

‘Wait a second. I need to take a peek out of the window.’

Clunk. The telephone was put down on a hard surface. The same sound that Anne’s phone had made.

An age later: ‘Are you still there? I can’t see any helicopter.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘It is rather dark, sir.’

‘Have you seen a light?’

‘The light of the Lord shines…’

‘Or a fire?’

‘Yes, down in the Höllentobel. Jakob sometimes burns cleared branches down there.’

Winter stared into the distance. A pause. Then the housekeeper finally twigged.

‘Oh my God! You mean the helicopter crashed down there?’

Ignoring her question Winter delved further: ‘What’s Jakob’s full name?’

‘Jakob Zbinden.’

‘Does he have a telephone?’

‘I believe he does have a mobile phone.’

‘Do you have the number?’

‘In the card index we have the numbers and addresses of our entire flock.’

 

After what seemed like an eternal search, the housekeeper found Jakob Zbinden’s mobile number in the presbytery’s card index. The time was 21:17. The cowherd, who had to milk early in the morning, was probably in bed already. But Winter needed to be certain. Jakob answered after the second ring. A bad sign. ‘Jakob.’ Cool, terse, youthful and pronounced in an American way. Not exactly the country bumpkin under the protective wing of the Church that Winter had imagined.

‘My name’s Winter, I’m calling from Bern. I got your number from the presbytery. Please excuse me for phoning so late, but I’ve got an urgent question.’

‘Are you a journalist?’ Jakob asked aggressively. ‘Hot on the heels of a story?’

‘No, I’m not a journalist. One of my colleagues was on a helicopter in your area.’

‘I’m sorry.’ All of a sudden the cowherd’s tone was restrained.

‘What happened?’

‘The helicopter crashed in the Höllentobel.’

Purgatory.

 

***

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