The Überlingen Collision Affair

briefcase

© Kyle Thompson

2 July 2002 – London

“Are you out of your fucking mind?” MI6 operative Ian Dennis could hear himself asking that question in his mind over and over again. How the hell was he supposed to find the courier’s briefcase amid the widely scattered wreckage of the Tupolev passenger jet? The horrendous mid-air collision with the 757 cargo plane could have sent it anywhere and by rights it and it’s classified contents should have been destroyed.

“The case is covered with genuine faux leather to be sure Dennis, but that conceals the titanium shell. Our man paid a small fortune in bribes to get in on board in Moscow so rest assured, it would survive the crash. It was designed to do just that.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Wilks. But why? This was supposed to be a milk run from Moscow to Barcelona. The courier was part of a UNESCO committee escorting a bunch of children on a school trip to Costa Dorada.”

“Thank you, Dennis. I am familiar with the facts of the Op.” A casual observer would conclude that Richard Wilks was in ill temper because what Ian had called a “milk run Op” had gone terribly sour but in actuality, he was always disgruntled. At age 72, he was one of the last of the old guard at MI6, his career as a field agent having spanned three decades. He was a young agent at the start of the cold war and he had a hand in the fall of the Berlin Wall (though very few were aware of that fact). Truth be told, he hated life behind a desk, but he had been forced to it at age 60 due to a botched hip replacement after being severely wounded in shootout in Sangi, Pakistan.

“Your security clearance does not justify you knowing the full details of the courier’s Op, Dennis. Your job is to go to Überlingen in the guise of an adviser to the German Air Accident investigators, retrieve the briefcase, and return it to London. You are not under any circumstances to attempt to open it.”

“Yes sir. But how the hell…excuse me, how am I supposed to find it?”

“The case has been rigged to emit low-level radiation in the event that it has not been delivered to its destination on time. You will be issued a small detector disguised as a cell phone. It has an effective range of eight kilometers so I imagine you’ll need both luck and skill to achieve your goal.”

“Yes sir. I understand.”

“Very well. See the secretary for the details and your equipment. Good luck, Dennis.” Anyone else would have stood and offered a hand, but Wilks merely looked back down at the papers he was shuffling across his desk while Ian stood uncomfortably on the other side.

“Thank you, Mr. Wilks.”

The old man didn’t respond or even bother to look up, so the thirty-two year old MI6 man turned and exited his office, relieved to be out of the presence of what some of the younger agents called “the Badger.”

That was two days ago and ever since arriving at the small town on the German-Swiss border, he had been hiking all over the rough terrain where the remains Russian passenger plane had been scattered wielding his cell phone (in addition to being a radiation detector, it really could make and receive calls) like a “Star Trek tricorder.”

He didn’t know a great deal about the role he was supposed to be playing and at first he was concerned that, being hip deep in German investigators with a complement of Russians being thrown in, his cover would evaporate like spring water in the Sahara. Fortunately, Wilks had made arrangements with his German counterpart to give him a great deal of autonomy on the assignment with few if any questions asked. He still had to stay away from the Russian air accident investigators as he was convinced at least one of them was an intelligence operative. Somehow, they must have found out about the courier but too late to stop the flight from leaving. Oh God, did they arrange the accident?

The two aircraft had collided at near right angles to each other with the 747’s vertical stabilizer slicing completely through the Tupolev’s fuselage just ahead of the wings. The courier was seated near the front of the plane. It fell sooner than the rear section which continued to drive forward until the engines stalled. The wreckage was dispersed over several kilometers and since the collision occurred at almost 11,000 meters, the small titanium case could have ended up a very long way from here. It would be just his bloody luck if it had fallen into Lake Constance or Obersee Bodensee as the Germans called it.

Ian had gone into the trees having searched most of the main wreckage both to play a hunch and to take a leak. Having watered one of the local trees, he headed in the general direction of the lake. The morning had been cool when he first started out, but now it was late afternoon and approaching 25 degrees C, which made his jacket a liability and sunset was still two hours away.

As he was pulling his jacket stylishly (or so he imagined) over his right shoulder, he heard the Nokia in its pocket ping.

“Bloody hell, it found something.”

Ian fumbled with the jacket and managed to extract the device. Changing the mode so the visuals rendered a rough directional map, he saw that the case was either in the lake directly ahead or on its shore. Ten minutes later he realized both that the case was indeed on land and that it was moving. Someone had found it.

He had a Glock 26 strapped to one ankle and two extra magazines attached to the other. Probably just one of the other searchers picked it up or maybe a curious local, but it wouldn’t do to take any chances. He needed his hands free so it was easier to wear the jacket than to carry it. There was a highway near the shore. If whoever picked up the case had a car, he could lose it again.

As he got closer and the sun descended steadily toward the western horizon, he switched the phone’s sound off. He was only a few hundred meters away now and the case hadn’t moved in the last thirty minutes. There was a car but it was concealed and off the highway. Hatchback. Probably a rental. Looked to be…

“Oh damn. Scuba equipment. The fucking thing really was in the water. But then how…?”

He saw a figure exit the driver’s side of the car. It was an Asian woman, young, barely out of her teens by the look of her. Dressed like a student on holiday. He recalled adverts at his hotel in Überlingen recommending sport diving in the lake. How the hell did she know where to find the case?

“Oh crap. She has a detector. Must be. Which means we’ve got a leak.”

He watched her. She seemed to be waiting. Maybe for sundown or maybe she was meeting someone. With sunset only a half hour away, Ian got his answer. A second car pulled up and two men got out.

“The Russians.” He recognized two of the “investigators” from Moscow. This was getting worse all the time. He edged closer hoping to hear their conversation. If she was working for the Russians, why did they bring in an Asian operative rather than someone who would blend in more easily?

“You have it?”

“I wouldn’t have called you otherwise, would I?”

uberlingen

Representation of the orientation of aircraft right before the collision of Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937 and DHL Flight 611 on 1 July 2002.

Ian found it interesting that they were all speaking Russian. He supposed the woman was a freelancer the Russians were using but she could be one of their own. He removed the Glock from his ankle holster.

“The case then.”

“My money.”

Ian was right the first time. A freelancer. They clearly didn’t trust each other and with their attention focused on the transaction, he felt he could move in without being noticed. While the one Russian and the woman were talking, the second agent was slowly circling to her right, getting closer to the car. He’d opened his jacket. The first agent had walked back several steps. They were planning to kill her. She seemed not to notice but she made an almost imperceptible head movement for just an instant to her right.

Then she lunged forward, her right hand moving like a blur. She was pressed up to the first Russian now with her hand in his gut. As the second Russian was drawing his handgun, she turned the first so he acted as a shield, drew her own weapon and fired three times. The Russian, now on the other side of her car, fell out of sight.

She let the first man drop and Ian saw a widening blotch of red at his mid-section and a knife handle protruding. Then she calmly withdrew the knife, wiped it clean on another part of the man’s shirt, replaced it in its hidden scabbard and then checked his vitals. She stood and ignored him after that so he must have been dead. The woman had her firearm, a Chinese issue QSZ-11 by the look of it, in her right hand. From Ian’s position near the back end of her car, he could see the second downed Russian as she walked past the front end.

The Russian stirred and his eyes fluttered. If she assumed he was dead…

As she rounded the hood, the Russian abruptly raised his gun, but at the same moment, Ian stood and fired. The man made a lousy target as he was still nearly prone on the ground but Ian put three into his left ribcage and at least one round must have hit the heart.

Her reflexes were excellent and by the time Ian had pulled his trigger for the third time, she had aimed and fired off her first round striking the Russian in the center of his chest. For an instant, her cool expression changed to what might have been surprise, but he was more concerned about the QSZ-11.

“Don’t move. Drop your weapon.” He was standing out in the open pointing the Glock at her chest while her firearm was still pointed downward. She didn’t seem like she was stupid, but she still might risk trying to take him out if the stakes were high enough.

Instead, she proved her intelligence by tossing her handgun two meters toward him, away from the Russian’s reach in the now very unlikely event he was still alive.

“Your Russian is very good. You must be the MI6 agent.”

“Your English is very good. Keep your hands where I can see them.” Ian slowly walked toward her. He hadn’t planned on taking a prisoner and had no idea what he was supposed to do with her. He thought interrogation would like to have a go at the woman, but he’d somehow have to get her to a secure location before that could happen. After all, he was sent here just to retrieve a piece of luggage.

He stopped. “Step toward me.” Her hands still in plain sight, she walked slowly until she was near the back end of the vehicle. “Stop right there. Face the car and put your hands on the top. She did so, probably while trying to figure out if Ian was going to kill her.

He stepped behind her as if he was going to pat her down but instead he hit her on the back of her head with the butt of his Glock hard enough he hoped to render her unconscious for a minute or so.

Then he searched her and in addition to the knife and two spare magazines for her gun, he discovered a garrote, and a second smaller handgun. Ian found some tow line in the back of the car and he used them to secure the woman who was starting to return to consciousness. He cut part of a jacket, presumably her’s and used it as a gag.

Then he admired his handiwork. He was right about her age. She was young and could easily pass herself off as a Uni student. She was also completely professional and ruthless. As he was tying her, the right sleeve of her top came up and he saw an unusual tattoo on her forearm. It gave him the impression of a gang sign rather than some private bit of artwork she fancied putting on her body. He memorized the design so he could look it up later.

Ian had always been taught to blend into any environment. He was definitely fit, but on assignment he dressed to conceal that fact. He already had the beginnings of a receding hairline and the hair he had was thin, dark blond, and utterly unstylish. He was more reminiscent of Casper Milquetoast than James Bond, but that was part of his effectiveness.

She, on the other hand, was absolutely gorgeous. She could have been a professional model or movie actress. Even dressed casually and wearing no makeup, she would attract attention in any situation. Hardly the look of a spy, but then again that could be her effectiveness. Who would expect a glamorous looking young Asian woman of being a cold-blooded killer?

While he had been appraising her, she’d fully regained consciousness. She didn’t try to move or make any sounds. She only looked at him.

“Well my dear, I’m afraid I must be off.” He reached into the back of the car and pulled out the titanium case. Beside it, he found another cell phone like his and discovered it was a second detector. “I’ll just be taking all of this with me. Sorry about your situation, but I’m sure someone will be along eventually to collect you and your two deceased partners.” Ian thought he was being humorous and expected her to register annoyance, but she remained impassive.

Ian pocketed the second detector, replaced the Glock in the ankle holster, put the Russian weapons and her own on the floor of the car beneath the steering wheel, picked up the case and went back the way he came. He did think to grab a flashlight he found in her vehicle’s glove box since it was now dark and he’d be going over uneven terrain in a heavily wooded area.

He used his phone as a phone for once and called a secure number. It was still risky using the cellular system, but he didn’t really want the local police to find what he’d left behind. He uttered a series of seemingly random letters and numbers once the phone was answered, the man on the opposite end issued a challenge message and he responded validating each other’s identities. He described the location where he’d left the agents and their vehicles. German intelligence would have to be brought in which wouldn’t have been Ian’s first choice, but it was their country. At least the Asian operative would be contained.

As Ian trotted uneasily through the dark forest, the case in his left hand rattled. He spared a moment to slow down and look. The lock had been broken. He assumed the agent hadn’t opened it and that the damage occurred during the crash or on impact after it fell. If the seal had separated and the case had been underwater, the contents could be ruined.

Not his problem. He was sent to get the case and he had it. Ian tripped and almost fell but while off balance he slammed the container against a tree and it popped open. Papers were flying everywhere. “Oh fucking crap!”

He stopped, being thankful there was no wind, and used his flashlight to collect all of the papers. Fortunately, most of them remained in the case and he had counted exactly twelve that escaped. With those retrieved, he closed the case, but now the latches were totally disabled. Ian had to wrap one arm around the case to hold it closed while still gripping the flashlight with the other.

QSZ-11

QSZ-11 semi-automatic pistol.

It was nearly an hour later when he made it to the clearing again. Beyond, it was another fifteen minutes to where he’d parked his car. Ian was all in by the time he reached into his pocket for his keys. There were still a few people out working by lights driven by portable generators, but most of the investigators where back at where the collected evidence had been stored going over it in painstaking fashion.

He felt sorry for all of those school children whose lives ended far too soon but he put that aside. He had to finish the job. Ian carefully put the case on the passenger’s seat, climbed in the car and shut the door. He let himself rest for a moment enjoying the darkness and quiet. Then his phone pinged. Incoming text message.

Ian looked but it wasn’t his phone. It was the other agent’s and it was in chat rather than the text message service. Clever. Chat messages aren’t saved.

Good show, MI6. Mission not to take case away from you. Mission to keep it from Russians. Accomplished. Enjoy victory. We'll meet again. Xiao.

That must be her name. If she texted him, she was free. But who was she and why was her mission to prevent the Russians from the case’s contents? If he ever saw her again as she said, he’d have to ask her.

I wrote this for the Photo Challenge #201 hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to use the photo at the top of the page as the prompt for authoring a poem, short story, or other creative work.

Since I had already written another Ian Dennis story earlier today, he was on my mind, and the photo made me think of a spy stealing secrets in a briefcase and then having the case spill everything out.

To get a hook, I re-read all of the chapters in The Mauritius Robbery Affair series and then recalled the involvement of Xiao who belongs to a mysterious Chinese cult of assassins called Qian which has existed for centuries. In the Mauritius chapter Messenger, Ian reveals that as of 2017, he had met Xiao on exactly three other occasions in the last 15 years.

That means they first met in 2002 when Ian would have been in his early 30s and Xiao would have barely been out of her teens (she assassinated her first target when she was 17 years old). Before getting into some of my more serious commentary, I just want to mention that I had to find the user manual for 2002 model Nokia cell phone.

In looking for a likely event that would have brought them together for the first time, I discovered the 2002 Überlingen mid-air collision. It was a horrible and needless tragedy. One of the aircraft was a Boeing 747 cargo plane with two crew on board. The other was:

Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937 was a chartered flight from Moscow, Russia, to Barcelona, Spain, carrying sixty passengers and nine crew. Forty-five of the passengers were Russian schoolchildren from the city of Ufa in Bashkortostan on a school trip organized by the local UNESCO committee to the Costa Dorada area of Spain. Most of the parents of the children were high-ranking officials in Bashkortostan. One of the fathers was the head of the local UNESCO committee.

I had to figure out a way for a briefcase to survive the mid-air collision and fall so I made it very durable, then had a timer inside that, once the time limit was exceeded, if it hadn’t been disarmed, would emit low-level radiation detectable by special devices. That meant there’d be a chance the case and its contents survived the accident and that it could be located.

So Xiao let herself be hired by the Russians to retrieve the case and whatever secrets it was supposed to contain (I implied that even the Russians might not know for sure) but her real mission was to kill the Russian agents and (possibly) arrange for the British to regain control of the briefcase. She needed the case as bait to lure the Russians in first however.

I left a bunch of mysteries intact since I may want to explore them in the future.

I mean no disrespect to those who died in the collision or their families. It is also a terrible thing that the Swiss air traffic controller who was largely held responsible for the accident was murdered in February 2004 by a Russian whose wife and two children who were aboard the passenger jet. There have been a number of television programs and an American movie based on the Überlingen mid-air collision, so I’m not the first to fictionalize the event.

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