Translated by Jamie Bulloch
The Arab’s burning better than the woman. Must be down to the kaftan, Strittmatter thought. The flames were licking at his legs. He was desperately looking for somewhere to land in these inhospitable mountains. Anywhere. The main engine cut out for a second. The helicopter dropped.
The fire hadn’t yet reached the family photo beside the logbook. This hadn’t been an unusual job. His small but classy ‘VIP Helicopter Transportation Corporation’ often flew rich clients to spectacular sites in the Alps. In such magnificent surroundings, they were easier to schmooze. Ice and snow were particularly special for Arabs from the desert.
Shortly after a summer shower, the Arab and the woman in her elegant trouser suit had climbed into the back of Strittmatter’s Bell 206. The young woman smiled professionally as she handed over confirmation for the flight from Zürich to the Gemsstock mountain. There was a twinkle in her eye. She had brought the customary welcome gift, decorated with a fat bow in the colours of the private bank - a gigantic box of chocolates. Twenty minutes after take off the woman was on her mobile.
‘Fire!’ the sheikh screamed.
‘Where’s the extinguisher?’ the woman asked with urgency, but calmly.
‘Under the middle seat,’ Strittmatter answered much less calmly.
She pulled out the bright-red extinguisher, broke the safety seal and tried to spray foam onto the fire.
Strittmatter cast a brief glance over his shoulder. The helicopter was made of lightweight aluminium and the seats out of flame-retardant material. But the kaftan wasn’t fireproof. The Arab was ablaze, a wreath of fire in his hair. Screaming, the Arab moulded himself into the corner. Apart from ‘Allah!’ Strittmatter couldn’t understand a word. Earlier the Arab had spoken English. But mortal fear was suffered in the mother tongue.
He hammered his fist in vain against the shatterproof window. All that broke was the glass of his expensive, mechanical wristwatch. The fire extinguisher was empty and the woman’s frantic efforts were to no avail. Terrified, she shouted, ‘Land! Now! We’ve got to get out of here!’ From the corner of his eye Strittmatter saw her trying to put out the raging flames on her white blouse with her bare hands. They were spinning ever further downwards. In the steep mountains there were only bare rock faces, scree and ravines. Steady the chopper. Slowly. Where the hell could they land?
The helicopter dropped once again and juddered, hurling its passengers across the cabin. He wouldn’t be able to keep control for much longer, Strittmatter knew. His brow was slick with sweat and he let out a hacking cough. Black phlegm came up as the synthetic material of his shirt burned into his skin. The family photo went up in flames, first the edges, then his children, finally his wife.
They were still a hundred metres above ground when the engine cut out altogether.
A peaceful alp stretched out before the pilot. A squat hut, its two small, dimly lit windows staring back at him. Strittmatter saw black blobs on the pasture. Cows! They were lying languidly in the grass. When the helicopter exploded at 20.44, the docile creatures leaped up awkwardly and bellowed in shock.