The Doomsday Conspiracy

Chapter Seven


0800 Hours
The next morning Robert approached a clerk behind the Europcar desk.
"Guten Tag."
It was a reminder that he was in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. "Guten Tag. Do you have a car available?"
"Yes, sir, we do. How long will you be needing it?"
Good question. An hour? A month? Maybe a year or two? "I'm not sure."
"Do you plan to return the car to this airport?"
The clerk looked at him strangely. "Very well. Will you fill out these papers, please?"
Robert paid for the car with the special black credit card General Milliard had given him. The clerk examined it, perplexed, then said, "Excuse me." He disappeared into an office and when he returned, Robert said, "Any problem?"
"No, sir. None at all."
The car was a grey Opel Omega. Robert got onto the Airport Highway and headed for downtown Zurich. He enjoyed Switzerland. It was one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Years earlier, he had skied there. In more recent times, he had carried out assignments there, liaising with Espionage Abteilung, the Swiss intelligence agency. During World War II, the agency had been organized into three bureaux; D, P and I, covering Germany, France and Italy, respectively. Now its main purpose was related to espionage operations conducted under cover of United Nations diplomacy, from the various UN organizations in Geneva. Robert had friends in Espionage Abteilung, but he remembered General Hilliard's words: You're not to get in touch with any of them.
The drive into the city took twenty-five minutes. Robert reached the Diibendorf downtown off-ramp and headed for the Bolder Grand Hotel. It was exactly as he remembered it: an overgrown Swiss chateau with turrets, stately and imposing, surrounded by greenery and overlooking Lake Zurich. He parked the car and walked into the lobby. On the left was the reception desk.
"Guten Tag."
"Guten Tag. Haben sie ein Zimmer fur eine Nacht?"
"Ja. Wie mochten Sie bezahlen?"
"Mil Kreditkarte." The black and white credit card that General Hilliard had given him. Robert asked for a map of Switzerland, and was escorted to a comfortable room in the new wing of the hotel. It had a small balcony that overlooked the lake. Robert stood there, breathing in the crisp, autumn air, thinking about the task that lay ahead of him.
He had nothing to go on. Not one damned thing. All the factors in the equation of his assignment were completely unknown. The name of the tour bus company. The number of passengers. Their names and whereabouts. Are the witnesses all in Switzerland? That's our problem. We have no idea where they are or who they are. And it wasn't enough to find some of the witnesses. You must find every one of them. The only information he had was the date: Sunday, October 14th, and the place: Uetendorf.
He needed a handle, something to grab onto.
If he remembered correctly, all-day tour buses left from only two major cities. Zurich and Geneva. Robert opened a desk drawer and took out the bulky Telefonbuch. I should look under M, for miracle, Robert thought. There were more than half a dozen tour companies listed. SUNSHINE TOURS, SWISSTOUR, TOUR SERVICE, TOURALPINO, TOURISM A REISEN ... He would have to check each of them. He copied down the addresses of all the companies and drove to the offices of the nearest one listed: Tour Service.
There were two clerks behind the counter, taking care of tourists. When one of them was free, Robert said, "Excuse me. My wife was on one of your tours last Sunday and she left her purse on the bus. I think she got excited because of seeing that weather balloon that crashed near Uetendorf."
The clerk frowned, "Es tut mir viel leid. You must be mistaken. Our tours do not go near Uetendorf."
"Oh. Sorry." Strike one.
The next stop promised to be more fruitful.
"Do your tours go to Uetendorf?"
"Oh, ja." The clerk smiled. "Our tours go everywhere in Switzerland. They are the most scenic. We have a tour to Zermatt, the Tell Special. There is also the Glacier Express and the Palm Express. The Great Circle Tour leaves in fifteen ..."
"Did you have a tour Sunday that stopped to watch that weather balloon that crashed? I know my wife was late getting back to the hotel and ..."
The clerk behind the counter said, indignantly, "We take great pride in the fact that our tours are never late. We make no unscheduled stops."
"Then one of your buses didn't stop to look at that weather balloon?"
"Absolutely not."
"Thank you." Strike two.
The third office Robert visited was located at Bahnhofplatz, and the sign outside said SUNSHINE TOURS. Robert walked up to the counter. "Good afternoon. I wanted to ask you about one of your tour buses. I heard that a weather balloon crashed near Uetendorf and that your driver stopped for half an hour so the passengers could look at it."
"No, no. He only stopped for fifteen minutes. We have very strict schedules."
Home run!
"What was your interest in this, did you say?"
Robert pulled out one of the identification cards that had been given him. "I'm a reporter," Robert said earnestly, "and I'm doing a story for Travel & Leisure magazine on how efficient the buses in Switzerland are, compared with other countries. I wonder if I might interview your driver?"
"That would make a very interesting article. Very interesting, indeed. We Swiss pride ourselves on our efficiency."
"And that pride is well deserved," Robert assured him.
"Would the name of our company be mentioned?"
The clerk smiled. "Well, then I see no harm."
"Could I speak with him now?"
"This is his day off." He wrote a name on a piece of paper.
Robert Bellamy read it upside down. Hans Beckerman.
The clerk added an address. "He lives in Kappel. That's a small village about forty kilometres from Zurich. You should be able to find him at home now."
Robert Bellamy took the paper. "Thank you very much. By the way," Robert said, "just so we have all the facts for the story, do you have a record of how many tickets you sold for that particular tour?"
"Of course. We keep records of all our tours. Just a moment." He picked up a ledger underneath the counter and flipped a page. "Ah, here we are. Sunday. Hans Beckerman. There were seven passengers. He drove the Iveco that day, the small bus."
Seven unknown passengers and the driver. Robert took a stab in the dark. "Would you happen to have the names of those passengers?"
"Sir, people come in off the street, buy their ticket and take the tour. We don't ask for identification."
Wonderful. "Thank you again." Robert started toward the door.
The clerk called out, "I hope you will send us a copy of the article."
"Absolutely," Robert said.
The first piece of the puzzle lay in the tour bus, and Robert drove to Talstrasse where the buses departed, as though it might reveal some hidden clue. The Iveco bus was brown and silver, small enough to traverse the steep Alpine roads, with seats for fourteen passengers. Who were the seven, and where had they disappeared to? Robert got back in his car. He consulted his map and marked it. He took Lavessneralle out of the city, into the Albis, the start of the Alps, toward the village of Kappel. He headed south, driving past the small hills that surround Zurich, and began the climb into the magnificent mountain chain of the Alps. He drove through Adliswil and Langnau and Hausen, and nameless hamlets with chalets and colourful picture-postcard scenery, until almost an hour later, he came to Kappel. The little village consisted of a restaurant, a church, a post office, and a dozen houses scattered around the hills. Robert parked the car and walked into the restaurant. A waitress was clearing a table near the door.
"Entschuldigen Sie bitte, Fraulein. Welche Richtung ist das Haus von Herr Beckerman?"
"Ja." She pointed down the road. "An der Kirche rechts."
Robert turned right at the church and drove up to a modest two-storey stone house with a ceramic tiled roof. He got out of the car and walked up to the door. He could see no bell, and knocked.
A heavyset woman with a faint moustache answered the door. "Ja?"
"I'm sorry to bother you. Is Mr Beckerman in?"
She eyed him suspiciously. "What do you want with him?"
Robert gave her a winning smile. "You must be Mrs Beckerman." He pulled out his reporter's identification card. "I'm doing a magazine article on Swiss bus drivers, and your husband was recommended to my magazine as having one of the finest safety records in the country."
She brightened and said proudly, "My Hans is an excellent driver."
"That's what everyone tells me, Mrs Beckerman. I would like to do an interview with him."
"An interview with my Hans for a magazine?" She was flustered. "That is very exciting. Come in, please."
She led Robert into a small, meticulously neat living room. "Wait here, bitte. I will get Hans."
The house had a low, beamed ceiling, dark wooden floors and plain wooden furniture. There was a small stone fireplace and lace curtains at the windows.
Robert stood there, thinking. This was not only his best lead, it was his only lead. People come in off the street, buy their ticket and take the tour. We don't ask for identification ... There's no place to go from here, Robert thought grimly. If this doesn't work out, I can always place an ad: Will the seven bus passengers who saw a weather balloon crash Sunday please assemble in my hotel room at 1200 tomorrow morning? Breakfast will be served.
A thin, bald man appeared. His complexion was pale, and he wore a thick, black moustache that was startlingly out of keeping with the rest of his appearance. "Good afternoon, Herr ...?"
"Smith. Good afternoon." Robert's voice was hearty. "I've certainly been looking forward to meeting you, Mr Beckerman."
"My wife tells me you are writing a story about bus drivers." He spoke with a heavy German accent.
Robert smiled ingratiatingly. "That's right. My magazine is interested in your wonderful safety record and ..."
"Scheissdreck!" Beckerman said rudely. "You are interested in the thing that crashed Sunday afternoon, no?"
Robert managed to look abashed. "As a matter of fact, yes, I am interested in discussing that, too."
"Then why do you not come out and say so? Sit down."
"Thank you." Robert took a seat on the couch.
Beckerman said, "I am sorry I cannot offer you a drink, but we do not keep schnapps in the house anymore." He tapped his stomach. "Ulcers. The doctors cannot even give me drugs to relieve the pain. I am allergic to all of them." He sat down opposite Robert. "But you did not come here to talk about my health, eh? What is it you wish to know?"
"I want to talk to you about the passengers who were on your bus Sunday when you stopped near Uetendorf where the weather balloon crashed."
Hans Beckerman was staring at him. "Weather balloon? What weather balloon? What are you talking about?"
The balloon that
"You mean the spaceship."
It was Robert's turn to stare. "The ... spaceship?"
"Ja, the flying saucer."
It took a moment for the words to sink in. Robert felt a sudden chill. "Are you telling me that you saw a flying saucer?"
"Ja. With dead bodies in it."
Yesterday, in the Swiss Alps, a NA TO weather balloon crashed. There were some experimental military objects aboard the balloon that are highly secret.
Robert tried hard to sound calm. "Mr Beckerman, are you certain that what you saw was a flying saucer?"
"Of course. What they call a UFO."
"And there were dead people inside?"
"Not people, no. Creatures. It is hard to describe them." He gave a little shiver. "They were very small with big, strange eyes. They were dressed in suits of a silver metallic colour. It was very frightening."
Robert listened, his mind in a turmoil. "Did your passengers see this?"
"Oh.y'a. We all saw it. I stopped there for maybe fifteen minutes. They wanted me to stay longer, but the company is very strict about schedules."
Robert knew the question was futile before he even asked it. "Mr Beckerman, would you happen to know the names of any of your passengers?"
"Mister, I drive a bus. The .passengers buy a ticket in Zurich and we take a tour southwest to Interlaken and then northwest to Bern. They can either get off at Bern or return to Zurich. Nobody gives their names."
Robert said, desperately, "There's no way you can identify any of them?"
The bus driver thought for a moment. "Well, I can tell you there were no children on that trip. Just men."
"Only men?"
Beckerman thought for a moment. "No. That's not right. There was one woman, too."
Terrific. That really narrows it down, Robert thought. Next question: Why the hell did I ever agree to this assignment? "What you're saying, Mr Beckerman, is that a group of tourists boarded your bus at Zurich, and then when the tour was over, they simply scattered?"
"That's right, Mr Smith."
So there was not even a haystack. "Do you remember anything at all about the passengers? Anything they said or did?"
Beckerman shook his head. "Mister, you get so you don't pay no attention to them. Unless they cause some trouble. Like that German."
Robert sat very still. He asked softly, "What German?"
"Affenarsch! All the other passengers were excited about seeing the UFO and those dead creatures in it, but this old man kept complaining about how we had to hurry up to get to Bern because he had to prepare some lecture for the University in the morning ..."
A beginning. "Do you remember anything else about him?"
"Nothing at all?"
"He was wearing a black overcoat."
Great. "Mr Beckerman, I want to ask you for a favour. Would you mind driving out with me to Uetendorf?"
"It's my day off. I am busy with ..."
"I'll be glad to pay you."
"Two hundred marks."
"I don't ..."
"I'll make it four hundred marks."
Beckerman thought for a moment. "Why not? It's a nice day for a drive, nicht?"
They headed south, past the picturesque villages of Immensee and Meggen and through Luzern. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful, but Robert had other things on his mind.
They passed through Sarnen, and Briinig, the pass leading to Interlaken. They sped past Leissigen and Faulensee with its lovely blue lake dotted with white sailboats.
"How much further is it?" Robert asked.
"Soon," Hans Beckerman promised.
They had been driving for almost an hour when they came to Spiez. Hans Beckerman said, "It is not far now. Just past the next town, Thun."
Robert felt his heart beginning to beat faster. He was about to witness something that was far beyond imagination, alien visitors from the stars. They drove through Thun, and a few minutes later, as they neared a grove of trees across the highway, Hans Beckerman pointed and said, "There!"
Robert braked to a stop and pulled over to the side of the road.
"Across the highway. Behind those trees."
Robert felt a growing sense of excitement. "Right. Let's have a look."
A truck was speeding by. When it had passed, Robert and Hans Beckerman crossed the road. Robert followed the bus driver up a small incline, into the stand of trees.
The highway was completely hidden from sight. As they stepped into a clearing, Beckerman announced, "It is right there."
Lying on the ground in front of them were the torn remains of a weather balloon.