18 000 ft above the Alps, 13 April 1999: Humphrey peered at the mountain ahead and his stomach churned. Charlie sat beside him in the pilot’s seat and said there was nothing to worry about so long as they remained calm and followed standard procedures. He flicked through a bank of switches and pulled on the joystick. Humphrey glanced at the wings and his stomach churned again. The aerofoils should have moved but they hadn’t. The plane was continuing on a steady descent. It was as if they were flying on autopilot and preparing to land. But they weren’t on autopilot and there was nowhere to land.
Humphrey knew the area well. They were approaching the Saint Bernard Pass. He could see the famous monastery, built by Saint Bernard a thousand years ago. Snow-capped mountains lay beyond.
He tapped Charlie’s arm.
‘That’s Mont Blanc over there.’
‘Yes,’ Charlie agreed.
‘We’re heading straight for it.’
‘I’m aware of that.’ Charlie’s voice remained calm.
‘Are you sure you switched to manual?’
‘But we’re not on manual.’ Humphrey’s voice rose. ‘If we were the aerofoils would have moved and we would have changed course. You’ve had three tries …’
‘A minor technical problem.’ Charlie thumped the control panel.
‘That won’t do any good,’ Humphrey protested.
‘It might.’ Charlie thumped the panel again. ‘There’s a computer in there … probably a loose connection. Stop fretting. I’ve been in far worse situations.’
Humphrey wondered what those situations might have been. He could think of nothing worse than flying over the Alps in a small plane that had developed a mind of its own.
He felt seriously stupid. Being too close to Charlie was dangerous. No one in their right mind would work for him. If he had not been so desperately short of money, he would never have taken on the present assignment.
A poorly paid university job was not enough to support his extravagant lifestyle. He needed a second source of income. Charlie paid well and the money was paid into secret bank accounts.
Charlie was the Western World’s ultimate Mr Fix-It. Government agencies and big companies called on him to sort out problems they didn’t want to handle themselves. Sometimes they lacked the resources. More often, they didn’t want their staff to get involved in projects that could land them in trouble.
In the process Charlie made enemies. People lost out when Charlie came on the scene and some went to extreme lengths to protect their interests. Humphrey resolved to keep well clear of him in future … if he had a future.
They were on their way back to London from Rome where they had attended a conference on cyber warfare. Charlie had gone to spy out the land. Humphrey had gone to deliver a paper on the encryption of security codes.
He narrowed his eyes with a growing sense of doom. Mont Blanc loomed ahead. A few years earlier, he had climbed it by the easy route. That had involved hiring a guide and setting off before daybreak. The climb is arduous and particularly arduous for someone who is overweight and not accustomed to strenuous activity. He was obliged to make frequent stops for rest but finally made it to the top.
The plane tilted slightly. A minor change had been made to their course. It was as if an unseen hand had taken control and was flying them to their deaths.
They were now on a collision course with the summit. Humphrey leant forward as patches of colour appeared against the glaring white of the snow. He identified them as climbers on the same route that he had taken. If nothing was done, they would soon be joining them.
The time for pussyfooting was over. Charlie could talk about standard procedures and the need to stay calm. This was not a standard situation. Staying calm could be fatal. Drastic action was called for.
‘We’ve been sabotaged!’
Humphrey yelled at the top of his voice and yanked at the cover of the control panel. The plastic snapped and the cover came away. A maze of wires confronted him. There wasn’t time to work out what they did.
‘Get ready to go onto manual.’
His hand shot out and he tore at the wires.
‘Right! Take over!’
Charlie pulled on the joystick. Humphrey expected to see the aerofoils move but, again, nothing happened. They remained in their old positions and the plane continued on its former course. He glanced at the mountain. Only seconds separated them from total oblivion. Charlie remained unperturbed.
‘Have you ever skydived?’ he asked.
‘No,’ Humphrey wheezed.
‘That doesn’t matter.’ Charlie leant over the back of his seat. ‘We’ll go tandem.’
He produced a parachute and Humphrey resigned himself to the inevitable. Charlie always had a way out. That was why he had survived so long. He arched his back as a harness was fastened around him.
‘Get ready to leave.’
A pair of goggles was slapped on his face.
‘Hold your breath.’
Charlie threw open the cabin door and dragged him out. A blast of cold air hit them and everything went with a rush. Humphrey felt weightlessness. His stomach seemed to be floating free. That was disturbing but it didn’t last long. Weightlessness was replaced by a sensation of swimming.
The air swirled around like water and buoyed them up. Humphrey had read about it in books and guessed they had reached terminal velocity. Put in simple terms, they were going so fast that air resistance was stopping them from going any faster.
He recalled that terminal velocity, for the human body, is about one-hundred kilometres-an-hour. Or, was it miles-an-hour? He didn’t care. The exact speed wasn’t relevant. The main point was that terminal velocity is measured in the direction of down. They were hurtling towards the ground at a speed that would have devastating consequences if nothing was done to slow them down.
He opened his eyes and felt oddly better. The sensation was now more of hovering than falling. The air was clear and the afternoon sun shone on a peaceful scene below. Fear gave way to fascination. It was surprisingly busy down there. The mountain road was packed with vehicles making their way up to the pass.
He saw buildings that looked like tourist chalets and made out details. Then a sudden jerk told him that the parachute had opened. The air no longer felt like water. They had stopped falling and had started to glide. He had experienced the sensation before. It was a bit like going down a steep hill on a bicycle.
His thoughts returned to the monastery. In times past, the monks operated a search and rescue service. They had dogs that dug stricken travellers out of snow drifts. They were called Saint Bernards and had small casks of brandy about their necks for people to revive themselves. He guessed the dogs had been replaced by a modern rescue service and expected to see vehicles with flashing lights.
None appeared. They continued on their glide and Charlie took them towards one of the chalets. They passed over a car park and landed on a patch of grass at the far end. There was a bit of a jolt but little else. A woman and child turned to watch. Otherwise, no one showed the slightest interest.
Charlie turned to Humphrey.
‘Your tie is crooked.’
Humphrey straightened it.
‘Put a comb through your hair.’
Humphrey did as he was told. He could scarcely believe he was still alive. They had been seconds from disaster. If they had stayed in the plane, they would both be dead.
Charlie folded the parachute and returned it to its pack.
‘Don’t look so glum.’
Humphrey managed a smile.
Charlie shouldered the pack.
‘It’s getting busy. We had better book in.’
‘Yes. We’re not going to spend the night out here.’
Humphrey followed him towards the chalet. It was scarcely believable. Charlie was behaving as if life-threatening incidents were an everyday occurrence. All you had to do was stay calm and follow standard procedures.
Half-a-dozen languages were being spoken at the reception desk. Charlie could have chosen anyone but stuck to English.
‘I need accommodations for two persons?’
He spoke in a broad American accent. Humphrey guessed he would be using his American passport and hoped his wasn’t needed.
The receptionist consulted her computer.
‘Our only current availability is a suite of rooms with common bathing, masseuse and recreational facilities …’
The price was staggering. Charlie wasn’t fussed.
‘That sounds just fine.’
He produced a bankcard. Humphrey watched as the transaction was approved and the card returned. Registration forms were pushed in their direction.
‘I shall need to copy your passports.’
‘My colleague is Danish,’ Charlie said. ‘Does he need to show his?’
‘An identity card or passport is acceptable for EU citizens.’
Humphrey pulled out his Danish passport and kept his Australian passport hidden. He was legally entitled to both. He suspected that Charlie wasn’t entitled to any of his. Right now he was James B. Heckman, a businessman from Detroit. In Rome he had spoken with a posh English accent and had used the name George Hanbury-Brown.
Their suite was spacious and the view magnificent. Humphrey wasn’t surprised that the price was steep. They had paid as much for one night as most people would pay for a week. Charlie took it in his stride. He was at home wherever he went. It wasn’t difficult to imagine him kipping down in a dangerous slum or living it up on a luxury yacht owned by a billionaire. He dumped the parachute in a cupboard and went across to the drinks cabinet.
‘How about a beer?’
Humphrey slumped into a chair.
‘Something stronger would be more appropriate.’
‘In what way?’
‘It might steady my nerves.’
‘What’s the problem?’
‘The way we got here … it was a trifle unnerving.’
‘We arrived safely.’
‘That’s not the point.’
‘Yes, it is. Outcomes are what matter.’
‘We’ve not finished yet.’ Humphrey loosened his tie. ‘The people at the desk … won’t they find it odd?’
‘Find what odd?’
‘The way we arrived … it was hardly conventional.’
Charlie surveyed the contents of the drinks cabinet.
‘They must have seen us,’ Humphrey continued.
‘They see lots of paragliders.’ Charlie removed a bottle of whisky and two glasses. ‘As far as the people here are concerned, we came up on the bus.’
Humphrey remained unconvinced.
‘Isn’t it usual to alert the authorities?’
‘The civil aviation authorities. Shouldn’t we inform them that our plane developed problems and we were forced to bail out?’
Charlie gave him a scathing look.
‘I’m not in the habit of informing anyone of my problems.’
He poured two glasses and handed one to Humphrey.
‘Get that under your belt and stop worrying.’
Humphrey raised his glass and savoured the bouquet. The whisky was very good. The bottle would have cost a small fortune. Working for Charlie had its good points. He pondered the possibilities. A more permanent relationship could get him out of teaching and into a more agreeable lifestyle.
Shouting interrupted his thoughts. People were crowding out onto the terrace and gathering around the telescopes that had been put there for the convenience of guests. Cries rang out in a multitude of languages.
Charlie picked up his glass and sauntered over to the window.
‘Looks like there’s been an accident, Humph.’
‘Probably our plane,’ Humphrey replied.
Charlie shielded his eyes.
‘It appears to have scored a direct hit on the summit of Mont Blanc. There’s a lot of smoke. It must have caught fire. We were carrying a lot of fuel so that’s not surprising. Everything will be totally destroyed. Our luggage will be burnt to a cinder.’
‘You sound pleased.’
‘Most definitely. People in my line of business avoid drawing attention to themselves. There is nothing to identify me with the plane and nothing to say you were on board.’
‘But, there will be an inquiry.’
‘Someone might have seen us bailing out.’
‘That is conceivable.’
‘They could check the hotel register. I used my Danish passport. That’s real. It’s not one of those fakes that you carry.’
‘Stop worrying Humphrey.’
Charlie returned to his chair.
‘Our presence here is perfectly explainable. We didn’t give a car registration number so an investigating officer will assume we came up on the bus. Bus companies issue tickets, without recording names, so there is no way of proving otherwise. Tomorrow we shall leave by bus and vanish into obscurity.’
The chalet served buffet meals. Charlie placed a modest portion of fresh trout on his plate and added a modest portion of boiled potatoes and green salad. He eyed Humphrey’s huge plate with disapproval.
‘You’ll die before me.’
‘I think that unlikely.’
‘I’m old enough to be your father and twice as fit.’
Humphrey managed a faint smile.
‘Some people think you are my father.’
‘That’s because your mother insisted on having your birth certificate made out in such a way that it recorded your paternity as Father Unknown.’
‘She did it to upset my grandfather.’
‘It doesn’t matter why she did it, Humphrey. You can’t go on stuffing food into yourself without paying the ultimate price. Obesity leads to an early grave.’
‘I’m not obese.’
‘You are heading that way.’
Humphrey returned some of the contents of his plate to the buffet table. Charlie wasn’t his father but he had been his mother’s lover. That was when they were counter-intelligence agents working for the Australian Government.
Charlie changed the subject.
‘That plane was sabotaged.’
‘Yes,’ Humphrey agreed.
‘I set it on autopilot and couldn’t get it off. It was like being on duel controls. I had the feeling a second pilot had taken over and there was nothing I could do about it …’
His voice petered out and he nudged Humphrey’s arm.
‘We have company.’
Humphrey followed Charlie’s gaze to a man heading towards the buffet table. Olaf Magnusson had delivered a string of papers at the Rome conference and was an acclaimed expert on cyber warfare. He arrived by their side and was piling his plate with oysters when he noticed Humphrey.
‘Dr Hansen. What are you doing here?’
‘We dropped in after the conference,’ Humphrey said.
Olaf looked past Humphrey and his face turned from rosy pink to ashen white when he saw Charlie. His hand went limp and oysters slipped from his plate.
‘We decided to return by bus,’ Humphrey explained.
Olaf stared at Charlie and more oysters fell to the floor.
Charlie reached out a hand.
‘George Hanbury-Brown,’ he announced in his posh English accent. ‘Dr Hansen and I decided to take in some of the scenery.’
Olaf shook his hand limply.
‘I recall seeing you in Rome, Mr Brown.’
‘Hanbury-Brown,’ Charlie corrected.
‘Yes. Please forgive me. I find your English names confusing.’
Olaf’s accent had begun to sound more Danish than American. Humphrey recalled that he came from Bornholm Island and had won a scholarship to an American University at the age of sixteen. The boy genius had become a world expert on artificial intelligence.
‘I attended your lectures on digital imagery,’ Charlie said. ‘I am interested in the work you are doing to record ancient monuments before they fall into total ruin. Dr Hansen and I visited Pompeii and were horrified by what we saw.’
‘Yes. It is distressing,’ Olaf agreed.
‘An entire city was caught in a moment in time when Vesuvius erupted two thousand years ago,’ Charlie continued. ‘Archaeologists excavated it. Now, it is falling into ruin. It would have been better if Pompeii had remained buried. A priceless glimpse into the past is being lost. Future generations will condemn us for what we have done.’
Olaf’s eyes bulged and he began to stutter.
‘I … I had no idea that you shared my views.’
He stared back and forth.
‘I am currently working on a project to record the monuments digitally. The world has moved ahead since the Pompeii excavations. Everything is aimed at forensic investigation and …’
He stopped in midsentence. Humphrey glanced towards the door. A man had entered. His arrival had a stunning effect on Olaf. He glanced in the man’s direction then turned on his heels and walked away without saying another word.