Read an Excerpt
The cold breeze swept across the plain, carrying the butterfly on its drafts. The remarkable insect flitted about, climbing, diving, arcing high and low. It was a beautiful specimen, its wings colored a vivid yellow with a latticework of black, and unlike any in the region. It had an unusual name, too: Papilio panoptes.
The butterfly flew over the custodial road, over the electrified security fence, and over the rolls of barbed wire. Beyond the fence lay a field of wildflowers, stunning in their variety and color. There were no structures anywhere to be seen: no houses, no barns, no buildings of any type. Only the mounds of freshly impacted soil, barely distinguishable beneath the flower canopy, gave evidence of the recently completed work.
Despite its long voyage, the butterfly ignored the flowers. It did not seek their richly scented pollen or feast on their sweet nectar. Instead, it chose to fly higher, seeming to gain its sustenance from the air itself.
And there it stayed, a shimmering yellow flag against the pale winter sky. It did not land on a lavender bush to rest. It did not drink from any of the rushing streams that descended from the harsh, majestic mountains and ran across the fertile grasslands. In fact, never once did it venture outside the fence’s precisely established one-square-kilometer perimeter. Content to hover over the colorful fields, it flew back and forth, day after day, night after night, never eating, never drinking, never resting.
After seven days, a fierce wind, the nashi, visited from the north.The wind roared down the mountain passes and hurtled across the plains, gathering velocity and force and pummeling everything in its path. The butterfly could not fight the relentless drafts. Its circuits inside the perimeter had left it worn and vulnerable. A swirling gust picked it up, spun it round, and dashed it to the ground, shattering its fragile body.
A guard patrolling the custodial road caught the flash of yellow lying in the dirt and stopped his jeep. He approached cautiously, kneeling in the ankle-deep grass. It was not like any butterfly he had seen before. First of all, it was larger. Its wings were rigid, with jagged bits of a paperthin metal protruding from the silken skin. The fuzzy thorax was split in two and connected by a green wire. Mystified, he picked it up and examined it. Like all those who worked at the facility, he was first and foremost an engineer, and only reluctantly a soldier. What he saw left him shaken.
Inside the thorax was an aluminum-cased battery no bigger than a grain of rice, and attached to it, a microwave transmitter. Using his thumbnail, he sheared away the antennae’s skin to reveal a cluster of fiber-optic cables, thin as human hair.
No, he argued to himself. It could not be. Not so soon.
Suddenly, he was running back to the jeep. Words tore through his mind. Explanations. Theories. None made sense. An exposed stone caught his foot and he crashed to the ground. Clambering to his feet, he hurried toward the jeep. Every minute was vital.
His hand shook as he radioed his superiors.
“They have found us.”
Jonathan Ransom knocked the ice from his goggles and stared up at the sky. If this gets any worse, he thought to himself, we’re going to be in trouble. The snow was falling harder. A snarling wind snapped ice and grit against his cheek. The craggy, familiar peaks that ringed the high alpine valley had disappeared behind an armada of threatening clouds.
He lifted one ski, then the next, leaning forward as he climbed the slope. Nylon sealskins attached to the underside of his skis gripped the snow. Touring bindings granted him a walking stride. He was a tall man, thirty-seven years old, slim at the waist and broad-shouldered. A snug woolen cap hid a thatch of prematurely graying hair. Glacier goggles shielded wine black eyes. Only a determined mouth and cheeks rough with a two-day stubble were visible. He wore his old ski patrolman’s jacket. He never climbed without it.
Below him, his wife, Emma, clad in a red parka and black pants, labored up the mountainside. Her pace was erratic. She climbed three steps, then rested. Two steps, then rested. They’d only just passed the halfway point and already she looked done in.
Jonathan turned his skis perpendicular to the hill and rammed his poles into the snow. “Stay put,” he shouted through cupped hands. He waited for an acknowledgment, but his wife hadn’t heard him over the howling wind. Head lowered, she continued her unsteady ascent.
Jonathan sidestepped his way down the slope. It was steep and narrow, bordered on one side by a sheer rock face and on the other by a plunging ravine. Far below, perched on a sweeping hillside, the village of Arosa in the eastern Swiss canton of Graubünden was intermittently visible, winking from beneath the strata of fast-moving clouds.
“Was it always this hard?” Emma asked when he reached her side.
“Last time you beat me to the top.”
“Last time was eight years ago. I’m getting old.”
“Yeah, thirty-two. A regular dinosaur. Just wait till you’re my age, then it’s really all downhill.” He dug into his daypack for a bottle of water and handed it to her. “How are you feeling?”
“Half dead,” she said, hunching over her poles. “Time to call the Sherpas.”
“Wrong country. Here they have gnomes. They’re smarter, but not half as strong.We’re on our own.”
“Sure about that?”
Jonathan nodded. “You’re just overheating. Take your cap off for a minute and drink as much as you can.”
“Yes, Doctor. Right away.” Emma removed her woolen cap and drank thirstily from the bottle.
In his mind, Jonathan had a picture of her on the same mountain eight years earlier. It was their first climb together. He, the newly minted surgeon fresh from his first posting in Africa with Doctors Without Borders; she, the willful English nurse he’d brought back as his bride. Before they started out, he’d asked her if she’d climbed much before. “A little,” she’d answered. “Nothing too serious.” In short order, she’d clobbered him to the top, showing off the skills of an expert alpinist. “That’s better,” said Emma, running a hand through her untamed auburn hair.
Emma smiled, but her hazel eyes were rimmed with fatigue. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“For not being as fit as I should be. For slowing us down. For not coming with you these last few years.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m just glad you’re here.”
Emma lifted her face and kissed him. “Me, too.”
“Look,” he said more seriously. “It’s getting ugly out here. I’m thinking maybe we ought to turn back.”
Emma tossed the bottle to him. “No way, buster. I beat you up this hill once.Watch me do it again.”
“You willing to put money on that?”
“Oh yeah?” Jonathan took a drink, thinking that it was good to hear her talking trash again. How long had it been? Six months? A year even, since the headaches had begun and Emma had taken to disappearing into dark rooms for hours at a time. He wasn’t sure of the date. Only that it was before Paris, and Paris had been back in July.
Pulling back his sleeve, he ran through the functions on his Suunto wristwatch. Altitude: 9,200 feet. Temperature: 10° Celsius. Barometer: 900 millibars and falling. He stared at the numbers, not quite believing his eyes. The pressure was dropping through the floor.
“What is it?” Emma asked.
Jonathan stuffed the water bottle into his rucksack. “The storm’s going to get worse before it gets better. We need to make tracks. You sure you don’t want to go back?”
Emma shook her head. No pride this time. Just resolve.
“Alright then,” he said. “You lead. I’ll be on your tail. Give me a second to adjust my bindings.”
Kneeling, Jonathan watched as a track of snow tumbled over the tips of his skis. In seconds, the skis were covered. The tips began to quiver and he forgot all about the bindings.
Warily, he rose. Above his shoulder, the Furga Nordwand, a wall of rock and ice, shot a thousand feet to a craggy limestone summit. Prevailing winds had piled loose snow against the base of the wall, forming a high, broad embankment that appeared choked and unstable. “Loaded,” in the mountaineer’s parlance.
Jonathan’s throat went dry. He was an experienced mountaineer. He’d climbed in the Alps, the Rockies, and even for a season, the Himalayas. He’d had his share of scrapes. He’d come through when others hadn’t. He knew when to be worried.
“Do you feel it?” he asked. “It’s getting ready to rip.”
“Did you hear something?”
“No. Not yet. But . . .”
Somewhere out there . . . somewhere above them . . . the sound of distant thunder rolled across the peaks. The mountain shuddered. He thought of the snow on the Furga. Days of unremitting cold had frozen it into a mammoth slab weighing thousands of tons. It wasn’t thunder he heard, but the noise of the slab cracking and breaking free from the older, crustier snow beneath it.
Jonathan stared up at the mountain. He’d been caught in an avalanche once before. For eleven minutes he’d lain beneath the surface, entombed in darkness, unable to move a hand, even a finger, too cold to feel that his leg had been yanked out of its socket and twisted backward so his knee was inches from his ear. In the end, he’d survived because a friend had seen the cross on his patrolman’s jacket a moment before he’d been swept under.
Ten seconds passed. The rumbling died. The wind slackened and an eerie quiet reigned.Without a word, he unwound the rope coiled round his midsection and fastened an end around Emma’s waist. Retreat was no longer an option. They needed to get out of the path of the coming avalanche. Using hand signals, he motioned that they would be taking a path directly up the face and that she was to follow closely. “Okay?” he signaled.
“Okay,” came the reply.
Pointing his skis up the hill, Jonathan set out. The face rose steeply, following the flank of the mountain. He kept a demanding pace. Every few steps he glanced over his shoulder to find Emma where she should be, no more than five paces behind. The wind picked up and shifted to the east. Snow attacked in horizontal slats, clawing at the folds of their clothing. He lost all feeling in his toes. His fingers grew numb and wooden. Visibility dwindled from twenty feet to ten, and then he couldn’t see beyond the tip of his nose. Only the burn in his thighs told him that he was moving uphill and away from the ravine.
He crested the ridge an hour later. Exhausted, he anchored his skis and helped pull Emma up the final few feet. Lifting her skis over the edge, she collapsed in his arms. Her gasps came in spasmodic gulps. He held her close until she found her breath and was able to stand on her own.
Here, in the saddle of two peaks, the wind pummeled them with the fury of a jet engine.The sky, however, had partially cleared, and Jonathan was granted a fleeting view down the valley that led to the village of Frauenkirch, and beyond it, Davos.
He skied to the far side of the ridge and looked over the cornice. Twenty feet below, a chute of snow plummeted like an elevator shaft between outcroppings of rock. “This is Roman’s. If we can get down here, we’ll be okay.”
Roman’s was part of the local lore, named for a guide killed by an avalanche while skiing down it. Emma’s eyes opened wide. She looked at Jonathan and shook her head. “Too steep.”
“We’ve done harder.”
“No, Jonathan . . . look at the drop. Isn’t there another way?”
“But . . .”
“Em, we get off this ridge or we freeze to death.”
She moved closer to the lip, craning her neck to get a good look at what lay below. She pushed back, her chin resting on her chest. “What the hell?” she said, not half meaning it.“We’re here. Let’s do it.”
“Just a little drop, a quick turn, and it’s all cake. Like I said, we’ve done harder.”
Emma nodded, more certainly now. And for a moment she gave the illusion that nothing was out of order, that they weren’t flirting with frostbite, and that she’d been looking forward to testing herself against this near-suicidal chute all along.
“Okay then.” Jonathan removed his skis and peeled off the skins.
Gripping one ski like an ax, he cut a three-foot-square slab of snow and dropped it over the edge. The slab struck the incline and tumbled down the mountain. Here and there, trails of snow dribbled lazily, but the slope held firm.
“Follow me down,” he said. “I’ll mark the trail.”
Emma came alongside him, the tips of her skis dangling over the cornice.
“Get back,” he said, hurrying to put on his skis. She had the look. He didn’t even need to see her to know it. He could sense it. “Let me go first.”
“Can’t let you do all the heavy lifting.”
“Don’t even think about it!”
“Last one down, remember?”
“Hey . . . no!”
Emma pushed off, hung for a moment, then dropped to the slope, skis striking the ice with a sizzle. She landed awkwardly and traversed the chute at lightning speed, her downhill ski slightly askew, pressed hard against the snow. Her hands were too high; her body too far over her skis. Her entire figure looked ungoverned, out of control.
Jonathan’s eyes shot to the rocks bordering the chute. Turn! a voice shouted inside him.
Ten feet separated her from the rocks. Five. The next instant, she executed a perfect jump turn and reversed her direction. Jonathan relaxed.
Emma raced across the chute and made another flawless turn. Her hands dropped to her side. Her knees flexed to absorb any hidden bumps. All signs of fatigue had vanished.
He raised a fist in triumph. She had done it. In thirty minutes, they would be seated in a booth at the Staffelalp restaurant in Frauenkirch, two steaming cafés Lutz in front of them, laughing about the day and pretending that they’d never been in any danger. Not really. Later, they would go to the hotel, fall into bed, and . . .
Emma fell making the third turn.
Either she caught an edge or she turned a half second too late and nicked her skis against the rocks. Jonathan’s stomach clenched. Horrified, he watched as she carved a scar down the center of the chute. Her hands clawed at the snow, but the incline was too steep. Too icy. Faster she went. And faster still. Striking a bump, her body was flung into the air like a rag doll. She landed with one leg twisted beneath her. There was an explosion of snow. Her skis shot into the air as if launched from a cannon.
She began to starfish, arms and legs akimbo, cartwheeling head over heel.
“Emma!” he cried out, launching himself down the chute. He skied with abandon, arms flung wide for balance, his body taut, attacking the hill. A veil of mist crossed the slope, and for a moment, he was lost in white, visibility nil, with no idea which way was up or down. He straightened his skis and shot through the cloud.
Emma lay far down the slope. She had come to rest on her stomach, head below her feet, face dug into the snow. He stopped ten feet away from her. Stepping clear of his skis, he took high, bowlegged strides through the powder, his eyes hunting for a flicker of movement.
“Emma,” he said firmly. “Can you hear me?”
Slinging off his daypack, he fell to his knees and cleared the snow from her mouth and nose. Placing a hand on her back, he felt her chest rise and fall. Her pulse was strong and steady. Inside his pack was a nylon mesh bag holding a spare cap, mittens, goggles, and a Capilene shirt. He folded the shirt and placed it under her cheek.
Just then, Emma stirred. “Oh, shit,” she murmured.
“Stay still,” he commanded in his emergency room voice. He ran a hand along her pants, starting at the thigh and working down. Suddenly, her face contorted in agony. “No . . . stop!” she cried.
Jonathan pulled his hands away. A few inches above the knee, something pressed sharply against the fabric of her pants. He stared at the grotesque bulge. There was only one thing that looked like that. “It’s broken, isn’t it?” Emma’s eyes were wide, blinking rapidly. “I
can’t wiggle my toes. It feels like a bunch of loose wires down there. It hurts, Jonathan. I mean the real thing.”
“Keep calm, and let me take a look.”
Using his Swiss Army knife, he cut a slit in her ski pants and gingerly separated the fabric. Splintered bone protruded from her thermal underwear. The material around it was wet with blood. She’d suffered a compound fracture of the femur.
“How bad is it, really?” Emma asked.
“Bad enough,” he said, as if it were only a hairline fracture. He shook out five Advil and helped her take a sip of water. Then, using adhesive tape from the first aid kit, he secured the tear in her ski pants. “We need to get you on your back and facing downhill. Okay?”
“First, I’m going to splint your leg. I don’t want that bone moving anywhere. For now, just stay still.”
“Christ, Jonathan, does it look like I’m going to walk anywhere?”
Jonathan walked up the slope to retrieve her skis and ski poles. Placing one pole on either side of the leg, he cut a length of climbing rope, tied off one end, and wrapped it round and round the thigh and calf. Kneeling by her side, he handed her his leather wallet. “Here.”
Emma clamped it between her teeth.
Jonathan slowly tightened the rope until the poles embraced the broken limb. Emma sucked in a breath. He tied off the other end of the rope, then turned her on her back and rotated her body so her head lay above her feet. After that, he spent a minute fashioning a hill behind her back so she could sit up. “Better?” he asked.
Emma grimaced as a tear sped down her cheek.
He touched her shoulder. “Alright, let’s get some help up here.” He took the two-way radio from his jacket. “Davos Rescue,” he said, turning out of the wind. “I need to report an emergency. Skier injured on the south side of the Furga at the base of Roman’s. Over.”
Silence greeted his call.
“Davos Rescue,” he repeated. “I have an emergency requiring immediate assistance. Come back.”
A blizzard of white noise answered. He tried again. Again, there was no response.
“It’s the weather,” said Emma. “Go to another channel.”
Jonathan flipped to the next channel. Years ago, he’d worked as an instructor
and ski patrolman in the Alps, and he’d programmed the radio with the frequencies of every emergency rescue service in the area–Davos, Arosa, and Lenzerheide–as well as the Kantonspolizei, the Swiss Alpine Club, and Rega, the helicopter rescue outfit known to skiers and climbers as the meat wagon.
“Arosa Rescue. Skier injured on the south side of the Furga. Immediate assistance required.”
Again, there was no response. He brought the radio closer. The power light flickered weakly. He banged the radio against his leg. The light blinked and went dark. “It’s dead.”
“Dead? The radio? How’s that? I saw you try it last night.”
“It was fine then.” Jonathan clicked the instrument on and off several times, but it refused to come to life.
“Is it the batteries?”
“I don’t see how. I put in a fresh set yesterday.” Removing his mittens, he examined the inside of the set. “Not the batteries,” he said. “The wiring. The power unit’s not attached to the transmitter.”
“I can’t. Not here. I’m not sure I could even if I had the tools.” He tossed the two-way radio into his bag.
“What about the phone?” Emma asked.
“What about it? It’s a big-time dead zone up here.”
“Try it,” she commanded.
The signal icon on Jonathan’s cell phone showed a parabolic antenna cut through with a solid line. He dialed the number for Rega anyway. The call failed. “Nothing. It’s a black hole.”
Emma stared at him a moment and he could see that she was working hard to keep it together. “But we’ve got to talk to someone.”
“There’s no one to talk to.”
“Try the radio again.”
“What for? I told you, it’s broken.”
“Just do it!”
Jonathan kneeled beside her. “Look, everything’s going to be okay,” he said in as calm a voice as he could muster. “I’m going to ski down and bring back help. As long as you have your avalanche transmitter, I won’t have any problem finding you.”
“You can’t leave me here.You’ll never find your way back, even with the beacon. You can’t see twenty feet in any direction. I’ll freeze. We can’t . . . I can’t . . .” Her words trailed off. She dropped her head onto the snow and turned her face so he wouldn’t see that she was crying. “I almost had it, you know . . . that last turn . . . I just was a little late . . .”
“Listen to me. You’re going to be fine.”
Emma looked up at him. “Am I?”
Jonathan brushed the tears from her cheek. “I promise,” he said.
Reaching into his rucksack, he found a thermos and poured his wife a cup of hot tea. While she drank, he gathered her skis and placed them in the snow behind her, forming an X so he could spot them from a distance. He removed his patrolman’s parka and laid it over her chest. He took off his cap and placed it over Emma’s, pulling it down so that it covered her neck. Finally, he fished the space blanket from the rucksack and gingerly slid it beneath her back and around her chest. The word “HELP”was spelled across it in large fluorescent orange letters, meant to aid in cases of air evacuation. But there would be no helicopter flying in today.
“Pour yourself some tea every fifteen minutes,” he said, taking her hand. “Keep eating and above all, don’t fall asleep.”
Emma nodded, her hand gripping his like a vise.
“Remember the tea,” he went on. “Every fifteen–”
“Shut up and get out of here,” she said. She gave his hand a last squeeze and released it. “Leave before you scare me to death.”
“I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”
Emma held his eyes. “And, Jonathan . . . don’t look so unsure of yourself. You’ve never broken a promise yet.”
Three hundred kilometers to the west of Davos, at Bern-Belp airport outside the nation’s capital, snow had been falling since morning. Menacing Arctic CAT snowplows rumbled up and down the runways, making mountains out of the gathered snow, ugly parodies of the Alps, and depositing them at the head of the taxiway.
At the west end of runway one-four, a cluster of men stood huddled together, eyes trained to the sky. They were policemen waiting for a plane to land. They had come to make an arrest.
One man stood slightly apart from the others. Marcus von Daniken was fifty, a short, hawkish man with black hair shorn to a grenadier’s stubble and a grim, downturned mouth. For the past six years, he’d headed up the Service for Analysis and Prevention, better known as SAP. It was SAP’s job to safeguard the country’s domestic security
against extremists, terrorists, and spies. The same role was performed in the United States by the FBI and in the United Kingdom by MI5. At that moment, von Daniken was shivering. He hoped the plane would land soon.
“How are conditions holding?” he asked the man next to him, a major from the Border Guard.
“Another ten minutes and they’re closing down the field. Visibility’s for shit.”
“What’s the plane’s status?”
“One engine down,” the major said. “The other’s overheating. The aircraft just turned onto final approach.”
Von Daniken searched the sky. Low above the runway a set of yellow landing lights blinked in and out of the mist. Moments later, the plane dropped out of the clouds and into view. The aircraft was a Gulfstream IV flying out of Stockholm, Sweden. Its tail number, N415GB, was known to the intelligence agencies of every Western nation. The same aircraft had transported Abu Omar, the radical Muslim cleric spirited off the streets of Milan, in February 2003, from Italy to Germany, and finally to Egypt, to undergo interrogation at the hands of his countrymen.
It had also carried a German citizen of Lebanese descent, one Khaled El-Masri, arrested in Macedonia, to the “Salt Pit” prison at Bagram Air Force Base, outside Kabul, Afghanistan, where it was eventually discovered that he was not, in fact, the same Khaled El-Masri who was sought in connection with terrorist activities.
One success. One failure. It was the going rate these days, thought von Daniken. The important thing was that you stayed at the table and kept playing.
The aircraft hit the tarmac hard. Ice and water sprayed from its tires. The engine roared as its bafflers moved into place.
“Smug bastards,” said a thin, nearly gaunt man with longish red hair and a professor’s round spectacles. “I can’t wait to see their faces. It’s about time that we taught them a lesson.” His name was Alphons Marti, and he was Switzerland’s minister of justice.
Marti had represented Switzerland as a marathoner in the Seoul Olympics in 1988. He’d come into the stadium dead last, legs rubbery from the heat, bobbing and weaving like a drunk on a three-day bender. The emergency medical personnel had tried to stop him, but somehow he’d pushed them away. One step past the finish line, he collapsed and was immediately transported to the hospital. To this day, there were those who viewed him as a hero. Others had a different view, and whispered about an amateur masquerading as a professional.
“No mistakes now,” Marti continued, gripping von Daniken’s arm. “Our reputation is on the line. Switzerland does not permit this kind of thing. We are a neutral country. It’s time that we take a stand and prove it. Don’t you agree?”
Von Daniken was old enough and wise enough not to answer. He brought the radio to his mouth. “No one hit their lights until I give the order,” he said.
One hundred feet away, hidden behind a checkered barrier, a minor fleet of police vehicles waited for the signal to move in. Von Daniken glanced to his left. Another barricade concealed an armored personnel carrier holding ten heavily armed border guards. He had argued against a show of force, but Marti would have none of it. The justice minister had waited a long time for this day.
“Pilot has requested to deplane,” said the major from the Border Guard. “The tower is directing him to the customs ramp.”
Von Daniken and Marti climbed into an unmarked sedan and drove to the designated parking spot. The others followed in a second vehicle. The Gulfstream veered off the runway and approached the customs ramp. Von Daniken waited until the plane had come to a complete halt. “All units. Go.”
Blue and white strobes lit the slate sky. The police cruisers sped from their hiding places and surrounded the plane. The personnel carrier lumbered into position, a soldier bringing the .50-caliber turret gun to bear. Commandos in assault gear spilled out of the vehicles and formed a semicircle around the plane, submachine guns raised to their chests and aimed at the doorway.
All this circus because of a simple telefax, thought von Daniken, as he climbed out of the sedan and checked his pistol to ensure that there was no bullet in the chamber and that the safety was in the on position.
Three hours earlier, Onyx, Switzerland’s proprietary satellite eavesdropping system, had intercepted a telefax sent from the Syrian embassy in Stockholm to its counterpart in Damascus giving the passenger manifest of a certain aircraft bound for the Middle East. Four persons were aboard: the pilot, the copilot, and two passengers. One an agent of the
United States government, the other a terrorist wanted by the law enforcement authorities of twelve Western nations. The news was passed up the chain of command within minutes of receipt. One copy was e-mailed to von Daniken, another to Marti.
And there it stopped. One more piece of intelligence to be digested and graded “No Further Action.” Until, that is, the flight in question radioed Swiss air traffic control reporting an engine malfunction and requesting emergency clearance to land.
The jet’s forward door swung outward and a stairwell unbuckled from the fuselage. Marti hurried up the steps, with von Daniken behind him. The pilot appeared in the doorway. The Justizminister produced a warrant and offered it for examination.“We have information indicating that you are transporting a prisoner in contravention of the Geneva Convention on Human Rights.”
The pilot barely glanced at the legal document. “You’re mistaken,” he said. “We haven’t got a soul on board besides my copilot and Mr. Palumbo.”
“No mistake,” said Marti, shouldering past the pilot and entering the aircraft. “Swiss soil will not be used for the practice of extraordinary rendition. Chief Inspector von Daniken, search the plane.”
Von Daniken walked down the aisle of the aircraft. A lone passenger was seated in one of the broad leather seats. A white male, about forty years old, head shaved, with a bull’s shoulders and cold gray eyes. At first glance, he looked like an experienced man, someone who could handle himself. From his window, he had a clear view of the storm troopers surrounding the plane. He didn’t appear unduly concerned.
“Good afternoon,” said von Daniken, in good but accented English. “You are Mr. Palumbo?”
“And you are?”
Von Daniken introduced himself and offered his identification. “We have reason to suspect you are transporting a prisoner named Walid Gassan aboard this flight. Am I correct?”
“No, sir, you are not.” Palumbo crossed his legs and von Daniken noted that he was wearing boots with a sturdy toecap.
“You don’t mind, then, if we search the aircraft?”
“This is Swiss soil. You can do what you please.”
Von Daniken directed the passenger to stay in his seat until the search was completed, then he continued to the rear of the plane. Plates and glasses were stacked in the galley sink. He counted four settings. Pilot. Copilot. Palumbo. Someone was missing. He checked the lavatory, then opened the aft hatch and inspected the baggage hold.
“No one,” he radioed to Marti. “The passenger compartment and cargo area are clear.”
“What do you mean ‘clear’?” demanded Marti. “That can’t be.”
“Unless they have him stuffed inside a suitcase, he’s not aboard the plane.”
Von Daniken made a second circuit through the cargo area, testing for hollow compartments. Finding nothing, he closed the aft door and returned to the passenger compartment.
“You’ve checked the entire plane?” asked Marti, standing with his arms crossed next to the captain.
“Top to bottom. There are no other passengers aboard besides Mr. Palumbo.”
“Impossible.” Marti shot an accusing glance at von Daniken. “We have proof that the prisoner is on board.”
“And what proof is that?” asked Palumbo.
“Don’t play games with me,” said Marti.“We know who you are, who you work for.”
“You do, do you? Then I guess I can go ahead and tell you.”
“Tell us what?” demanded Marti.
“The guy you’re looking for . . . we let him off thirty minutes back over those big mountains of yours. He said he’d always wanted to see the Alps.”
Marti’s eyes widened. “You didn’t?”
“Might have been what jammed up the engine. Either that or a goose.” Palumbo looked out his window, shaking his head in amusement.
Von Daniken pulled Marti aside. “It appears that our information was incorrect, Herr Justizminister. There’s no prisoner aboard.”
Marti stared back, white with anger. A current passed through him, rattling his shoulders.With a nod to the passenger, he left the aircraft.
A lone commando remained at the door. Von Daniken waved him off. He waited until the soldier had disappeared down the stairs before returning his attention to Palumbo. “I’m sure our mechanics will be able to repair your engine with the shortest possible delay. In case the weather continues and the airport remains closed, you’ll find the Hotel Rossli
just down the road to be quite comfortable. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience.”
“Apology accepted,” said Palumbo.
“Oh, and by the way,” said von Daniken. “I happened to find this on the floor.” Leaning closer, he dropped something small and hard into the CIA officer’s hand. “I trust you’ll pass along any information that concerns us.”
Palumbo waited until von Daniken had left the aircraft before opening his hand.
In his palm was a man’s torn and bloody thumbnail.