The Arab’s burning better than the woman; must be the kaftan, thought Strittmatter. The flames licked his legs. He was desperately trying to land in the barren mountains. Somewhere. Anywhere. The main rotor cut out for a second. The helicopter lost height. But the fire still hadn’t reached the family photo, next to the bookings ledger.
This booking hadn’t been anything out of the ordinary. His small VIP helicopter service often flew rich bank clients to landing places in the Alps. The spectacular backdrop seemed to make it easier for them to schmooze. And for an Arab, the snow and ice must be really something.
Soon after the evening rain had stopped, the Arab and the woman in the elegant trouser suit had strapped themselves into the passenger row of his Bell 206, a seat between them. When she had handed over the booking confirmation for the flight from Zurich to the Gemsstock, the young woman had smiled professionally but with a twinkle in her eyes. She had been carrying the usual welcome gift with the big satin bow in the colours of the private bank. A huge box of Swiss chocolates. Of course.
Twenty minutes after take-off, just as the woman was making a call on her mobile, the fire inexplicably broke out.
The Arab screamed: ‘Fire! Fire!’
The woman asked: ‘Where’s the fire extinguisher?’ Urgent but calm.
Strittmatter answered in his emergency voice: ‘Under the middle seat.’
She slid the small canister out, pulled the security pin and sprayed the white foam into the fire. To no effect.
Strittmatter quickly glanced over his shoulder. The helicopter was made of lightweight aluminium and the seats of inflammable textile. But the kaftan was obviously not fire-proof.
The Arab was ablaze. A wreath of flames around his head. Moulded into the corner, screaming. Apart from ‘Allah!’, Strittmatter couldn’t make out what he was saying. The Arab had spoken English earlier. In mortal fear you go back to mother tongue.
He was desperately hammering at the shatterproof window with his fists. But the only glass that broke was that of his antique, mechanical watch.
The fire extinguisher was empty. Panicked, the woman shouted: ‘Land! Now! We have to get out here!’ Out of the corner of his eye, Strittmatter saw her using her bare hands to try to put out the flames burning through her white blouse.
They were spinning down faster and faster. In the vertiginous mountains, there were only sheer rock faces, scree banks and ravines.
Come on, baby, stabilise. Stabilise. Where the hell can we land?
The helicopter cut out again, juddered violently and slammed the passengers back. He wouldn’t be able to control the damaged machine for much longer. Sweat poured from him. A rasping cough, black phlegm. The synthetic material of his shirt burned into his flesh.
The family photo went up in flames, first the frame, then the kids, finally his wife.
They were still a hundred metres above ground when the familiar sound of the engine stopped completely.
An alpine meadow spread out gently before him; the two small, dimly lit windows of a cowherd’s hut looked up at him. Strittmatter saw the cows, lying in the grass, ruminating languidly. The helicopter exploded at 8.44pm. The good-natured beasts jumped up awkwardly and bellowed in distress.