Planes don’t just vanish. Petra de Villiers told herself that. Spy satellites follow the movements of everything on Planet Earth. America and the other big powers know what’s going on. They must have seen what happened to her father’s plane. If they didn’t then they weren’t as clever as they made out.
The Boeing-717 left Paris for Toronto and failed to arrive. It was carrying delegates to a conference on globalisation. Petra’s father arranged the conference. He had damning evidence that global power was falling into the hands of a small number of ruthless individuals seeking world domination. He called them The Cabal
Petra had no doubt The Cabal existed. Once, it had seemed distant, like the things she learnt about at university. Now, it had taken on a frightening reality. Her father’s plane was almost certainly sabotaged. As heir to the de Villiers fortune she was at great risk.
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.