Biggles was in the hangar checking over the Pup when irregular dragging footsteps made him look up from the flying-wires like a pointer scenting a hare. Von Stalhein was not merely passing by; he turned as he saw Biggles, as if he had been searching for him. Biggles straightened alertly.
"Brunow, how fortuitous," von Stalhein said, approaching until he was right beside Biggles, leaning against the fuselage and giving the Pup a practised survey. "Not a bad machine, this. You used them when you flew for the other side, I suppose."
"No, we flew Bristols," Biggles said with simulated ease, trying to hold all the details of Brunow's RFC career in his head. Casual conversation with von Stalhein was almost certain to be a trap of some sort. "These don't have the legs of a Bristol, but they're very nimble in the air."
"You have had unparalleled opportunities to compare the machines," von Stalhein said dryly. "Do you still prefer these to our Pfalz scouts and Halberstadts?"
"It's the pilot that makes the difference," Biggles parried. "But the Pfalz in particular is an excellent machine."
"The pilot makes the difference," von Stalhein echoed. He gave his curious mocking smile. "How true that is. You puzzle me, Brunow. Von Faubourg tells me you are dismayed by my, shall we say, lack of confidence in you. But you are not a fool. A man who turns his coat when it becomes expedient may turn it again. A man who would fight against his homeland may be a useful tool, but he cannot deserve respect from those of us who are steadfast in our love of our fatherland."
"My family is from Austria," Biggles argued reflexively, though he felt a certain sympathy with the point. Presented with a German pilot who had expressed a desire to fly for the British instead, he would have felt disgust. But he had been catechised on this question by Raymond, and then cross-examined in Berlin. "I am not fighting against my homeland."
Von Stalhein's smile broadened as he took aim at the obvious weakness of this argument. "If not now, then before. You were not a conscript into the British forces. You volunteered. And then you turned on them. That gives me a picture of one kind of man." He rested his elbow casually on the side of the Pup. "But then there is your conduct with Mayer. Not one man in a thousand would do what you did then." His voice was as cool and dispassionate in praising Biggles as it had been in condemning him. "Mayer described your actions more fully than you did, and I had no hesitation in seconding von Faubourg's recommendation of the Iron Cross. And so I am puzzled by a man who first turns his coat for money and expedience, and then carries a wounded comrade through the desert all day without water. I have made a study of human nature, and I have rarely encountered a man who changes his nature so totally."
Biggles felt cold all over despite the desert heat. He had made little attempt to act as he supposed Brunow would, thinking himself safe since nobody here had ever met Brunow. And even if he had considered what Brunow would do, he would rather have blown his cover than left Mayer to die after the crash. But if von Stalhein had considered what sort of man Brunow must have been, and compared that with Biggles's present conduct, he could not help noticing the contrast.
"I am happy to be serving Germany now," he attempted, then wondered if that was something Brunow would say. He shook himself mentally. Second-guessing yourself in a duel was the fastest way to go down in flames.
"Your conduct here has been impressive," von Stalhein answered. "Thus my confusion. So I took the liberty of reading your file." He ran a hand caressingly along the edge of the cockpit. "The phrase 'conduct unbecoming to an officer and gentleman' hides such a fascinating variety of sins, does it not? Everything from cheating at cards to falsifying reports. Or other more personal offences."
That part of Brunow's file had not made for enjoyable reading. Biggles had been assured when he was questioned in Berlin that all was in the past, that he would have a fresh start in the German air force and any embarrassing incidents would be forgotten. It was not precisely a surprise to discover that this was not true, but it was hard enough having to act the part of a German officer without also having to play a libertine.
"Le vice Anglais," von Stalhein went on with a return of his ironic smile. He was very close to Biggles now, but Biggles refused to back away from the man. His steel-blue eyes were fixed on Biggles's face. Leaning his cane against the fuselage he reached out with slow deliberation and cupped Biggles's cheek in his hand. "Or do you prefer 'the love that dare not speak its name'? Perhaps this is the key to unlock the mystery of your character. Such men can be brave soldiers, but they can also be strangely unpredictable."
Von Stalhein's hand was cold and dry, but surely it would soon be warmed by the heat rising from Biggles's skin. He could scarcely breathe. Technically, Brunow had been cashiered for other reasons, but these liaisons had been behind it all, unspoken to avoid embarrassment to others. If he denied it now and pulled away, would von Stalhein be certain he was not Brunow? "I didn't--"
"The English are given to such things, but even they choked on your methods, did they not? It is customary to find another who is willing, not someone too junior or drunk to object." His hand slid down and tightened on Biggles's neck. "But then of course, when you did, he betrayed you, and the Service threw you out. Perhaps this is what truly explains your change of coat from green to grey."
Those details had not been in the files Biggles had read, though Lud's gossip had alluded vaguely to it. That von Stalhein had better files on his supposed identity than the Air Board did was disturbing. If it was true, no wonder Brunow had been sore.
"That's in the past now," he said hoarsely. "I'm here to fly." He pushed von Stalhein's hand away roughly, just short of a blow. Von Stalhein seized his wrist in an iron grasp, fingers biting into the tendons. But it was when his grip softened that Biggles felt a shiver run down his spine.
"Remember that I know what you are," von Stalhein said in a voice almost low enough to be called a purr. Biggles had no idea how to act for this, what he should act for this. He couldn't, wouldn't look away from von Stalhein's penetrating eyes. "Don't repeat your mistakes here. Instead you should confine yourself to those who are a match for you."
"And do you think you are a match for me?" Biggles heard himself say. He would not retreat, not with von Stalhein so close, so intent upon him. The old Flying Corps tradition came to his rescue. If head-on collision was inevitable, the German must be the one to turn away. He moved even closer, aware that he was almost pressing von Stalhein against the fuselage, bare inches separating their bodies. If he was truly as lame as he pretended to be, he would be unable to force Biggles back; if he moved with the speed and skill that Biggles had witnessed the other night, he would betray himself.
But von Stalhein was undoubtedly a match for him, because instead of retreating or betraying himself he met Biggles in head-on collision, seizing him and pulling him in, one hand low on his back, the other behind his head, and kissed him hard and deeply on the mouth.
Panic and sudden urgent desire met and caught fire in Biggles's heart. If this was the collision that ended his career, he would make sure he didn't go down alone. Von Stalhein's mouth was cool, his lips dry and desert-cracked. Biggles did not hesitate to change that, letting his whole body press von Stalhein against the machine, dope and petrol fumes mingling with von Stalhein's shaving soap and sweat. He had kissed other boys at school, had kissed Algy before this mission, and those had all been good, but nothing had been like this before, this intoxicating mixture of danger and desire, the desire to win, the desire to force von Stalhein to reveal himself, to break through the implacable facade and discover what lay underneath. With one hand he gripped the side of the Pup, forcing them tightly together, the other he wrapped around the nape of von Stalhein's neck, let his fingers tug at the short-cropped hair. Von Stalhein seemed lit by an equal determination to find him out, and the kiss was like a dogfight, circling and circling and each trying to get on the other's tail, force the other into some moment of weakness. Biggles was breathing fast, but so too was von Stalhein, and he felt a quiver go through the lithe body against him. Felt the wiry muscles of a man who rode hard and fought hard, not a man who struggled to rise from a chair. What he was revealing to von Stalhein, he could scarcely begin to guess, but he could hardly suspect Biggles of rejecting this sort of desire now.
Suddenly von Stalhein jerked his head back and pushed Biggles away as if he were on fire. "Leutnant Brunow," he snapped, but his voice was still breathy and uneven, his usually pale cheeks flushed. Biggles clicked his heels together and bowed, willing his legs not to tremble beneath him, his gaze still riveted to von Stalhein's face.
"Attend to your machine. It is dirty."
"Jawohl, mein Hauptmann."
Von Stalhein pushed off the machine and reclaimed his sticks; if Biggles hadn't been watching him hungrily he would not have seen that von Stalhein took one athletic step before remembering to hobble with his supports. He brushed deliberately past Biggles's shoulder as he made his way out of the hangar. Biggles did not move until he was well out of sight. Then, weak at the knees, he stumbled back to the Pup, resting his hands on the side of the cockpit and bending forward to catch his breath. The frame was still warm from von Stalhein's body, and Biggles could still smell him in the air.
He blinked and slowly straightened up, trying to clear his head, trying to understand what had happened. If that had been a test, had he passed? Had he failed? The only thought that was clear and distinct in his mind was that if von Stalhein should decide to repeat the test, he would prefer it to be in a bedroom with a door that locked.