"I must say, Bigglesworth, this is something I haven't enjoyed for a long time." Von Stalhein worked around the rope holding Biggles to the chair, testing each knot for strength, then carefully sliding one slim finger between the rope and Biggles's skin to check that he hadn't pulled it tight enough to cut off blood circulation. Even in the heat, his hands were cold. "I am sorry for the indignity, but after your many escapes I am not taking chances." There was a bitter edge to his voice, which Biggles regretted. Each time he saw von Stalhein, it seemed there was less and less remaining of the urbane and brilliant officer of Zabala. He feared that one day soon he would look into those steel-blue eyes and see only a monster, a man beyond hope.
"You think this time it will be different?" Biggles responded lightly. Visions of a ship in Norway, a castle in Finland, a hut in China, the many places von Stalhein had captured and then lost him before, flashed before him; as he looked up at von Stalhein he knew the visions were shared.
"I will make it different. There. Do let me know if you need anything. I daresay your friends will be along soon." He brushed some dust from Biggles's shoulder ostentatiously, then stood behind him just out of sight.
Biggles sat back on the chair. Von Stalhein had made his headquarters deep inside a cavern this time. Biggles had been trying to locate it, though not, for preference, by this method. He had been marched along a passage hewn in the rock and through a curtain to this chamber which was furnished as an office, crudely but comprehensively. There was a desk with a small oil lamp on it, the only source of light apart from the distant daylight transmitted along the passage. Only one way in and out, and that heavily guarded; it was not going to be easy to escape from here.
Behind him he heard rustling, a click and the flare of a match, then smelled smoke. "Would you care for a cigarette?" von Stalhein asked.
"Thank you, yes," Biggles said, wondering if von Stalhein might free his hand. But instead von Stalhein moved around beside him. He opened his case again and removed a second cigarette and, holding Biggles's gaze, placed it delicately between his lips. He reached out and touched the tip of his own cigarette against it to light it, sending a thin coil of smoke into Biggles's face.
He retreated only a step away and Biggles inhaled and tried to let the smoke calm him, but with von Stalhein standing over him and his hands tied, relaxation of any kind was quite impossible. He wondered if he should try to provoke von Stalhein in some way, and if so, to what. But after watching him smoke for a minute, von Stalhein seemed to shake himself, went over to his desk and settled down to write something. Biggles watched his hand move swiftly over the paper. Reports, no doubt he had his share of reports as Biggles did back home. A couple of villainous-looking men entered and von Stalhein spoke to them curtly in Russian.
"I hope you told them to shave," Biggles said once they had left. "And fasten their belts properly. Prussian discipline seems a little lacking here."
Von Stalhein merely glared at him and continued writing, twisting his cigarette holder around and around between the fingers of his left hand, the gesture giving the lie to his calm posture, his eyes flicking frequently from the desk to Biggles.
When Biggles's cigarette was almost down to the filter, von Stalhein rose and took it from him and stubbed it out neatly, then returned to his desk. Biggles listened and watched. Sooner or later there would be an opportunity, and he had to be ready to take it, because von Stalhein was right. Algy, Ginger and Bertie would come for him, and when they did, von Stalhein was sure to have a trap laid for them.
"What will you do when my friends arrive?" Biggles asked, in case von Stalhein was in a chatty mood.
"You will find out soon enough. My men are ready."
"They didn't look very ready," Biggles retorted. "What's that?"
There were sounds echoing down the corridor. Von Stalhein jumped to his feet like a spring suddenly released from tension. Biggles tried to crane his neck to see down the corridor. A gunshot ricocheted against the rocky walls and there was a shout. He thought he recognised Bertie's voice, and he gave an answering cry.
"I'm in here!"
Von Stalhein whirled on him. "I should have gagged you as well!"
Biggles tugged at the rope helplessly. Von Stalhein stood with automatic in hand at the entrance to the office. There was an explosion and Biggles thought he saw some of von Stalhein's men running and heard another whoop from Bertie.
Suddenly there was a rumble from the corridor. It grew and grew, and the daylight faded. Von Stalhein began to rush into the corridor, only to hurl himself backwards as great boulders came crashing down before him. Choking dust billowed up and the distant daylight vanished altogether, leaving only the flickering lamp on the desk. Biggles saw von Stalhein try to force his way through the rain of stones, but fall back half-stunned.
"Stand back, you idiot!" he shouted, but his voice was barely audible above the roar. He lifted his gaze to the roof of the chamber, but it seemed sound enough. It was the passage that had collapsed, not the chamber.
"You imbeciles! You cowardly fools!" von Stalhein was yelling down the cave, through the rockfall. "Stand your ground!" Biggles thought he heard gunshots through the din, but could not tell where they came from.
The roaring of falling rock died away, though the thick clouds of dust still filled the air. Biggles coughed and spluttered, and heard von Stalhein doing the same closer to the rockfall. He blinked desperately, unable to wipe the dust from his eyes, and spat a mouthful of debris from his lips. There were thumps and gasps from the clouds of dust around von Stalhein; as the dust settled Biggles saw that he was heaving the obstructing rocks aside at a frenzied, furious pace, still muttering imprecations against his men.
"Did they trigger that on purpose?" Biggles asked curiously after a time. "You're going to hurt yourself if you keep that up," he added as von Stalhein hauled at a huge boulder, then had to throw himself sideways as the rocks it was supporting fell on him.
"The cowardly dogs, yes, they did." He sank down onto a boulder and sat staring at the blockage, still coughing and gasping in the dust.
"They brought the roof down and fled when my friends showed up, without even waiting for you," Biggles said. "Well, well. You are unlucky in your men." He cleared his throat. "If you untied me, I would be able to help clear those rocks. It's not a job for one man and I have no more wish to be trapped here permanently than you do."
Von Stalhein turned to look at him in the flickering lamplight. It made strange shadows on his dust-streaked face. "I doubt we could clear it even working together," he said, unexpectedly mild. "It's several metres thick of rock."
"Also I would like to get the dust out of my eyes," Biggles said frankly. "It is not, after all, as though you need fear my escape now."
Without a word von Stalhein stood, crossed the rocky chamber and began to release the ropes holding Biggles to the chair. As soon as his hands were free, Biggles drew out his handkerchief and wiped his face clear of dust, sighing with relief as he was able to clean his eyes. He offered the linen to von Stalhein, who took it after a moment's hesitation and wiped his own face, where sweat and dust had streaked together, giving him the look of a particularly dishevelled tiger.
Biggles watched the dust. It was moving in a way that suggested there were free currents of air entering the chamber, and he took a grateful breath. Being trapped in a cave with von Stalhein was trouble enough without having to worry about the air running out too.
"I don't suppose there's any risk of your men returning to free you, is there?" Biggles said. "You cannot have picked or trained those men yourself. How can you do anything when you can't trust the man at your side?"
Von Stalhein stepped away from him without answering, and went back to examine the rockfall. Biggles gave the chamber a quick survey, and was pleased to find a small barrel of water as well as more candles and, inevitably, weaponry carefully secured. "You provisioned this yourself, didn't you?"
"It was my office."
Biggles joined von Stalhein at the heap of rocks. "Underground was never my strong point," he said ruefully, "but we'd better get digging."
After an hour of strenuous labour, they had a passage somewhat under a yard long at the top of the rockfall, through a place where the passage roof was still sound above. Biggles was hot, tired and sore, but he made no complaint. Von Stalhein was working like a machine, his lean arms lifting rock after rock and passing them to Biggles to clear down the pile, his formerly crisp drill shirt plastered to his skin with sweat. Eventually he paused to rest, and Biggles did the same with some relief.
"There are sounds on the other side," he observed to Biggles after passing him the water. "I think your friends are coming for you."
Biggles looked at him steadily. "They probably are. And your friends, it seems, have abandoned you. I think in time I will have to ask for your surrender, Hauptmann."
"Only you call me that, these days," von Stalhein said unexpectedly. "I am Comrade Stalhein now." His tone was very neutral, as if he had learned to fear who might be listening. Then he added, "I could hold you hostage for my own freedom. Have you forgotten that I am armed and you are not?"
"It would be an empty threat," Biggles said with a short laugh, remembering a wire fence in Liberia. "If you could kill me in cold blood, you would have by now. And if you did, do you really think my friends would permit you to escape? You would find yourself captured without a doubt."
"Captured? No. Lacey would not let me leave alive, if I shot you."
Biggles snorted. "Perhaps not." It was not a scenario he spent much time contemplating. After all, should it occur, it would no longer be his responsibility to handle. But he suspected von Stalhein was right.
"You'll forgive me for not giving you my surrender just yet," said von Stalhein at last. "You've rubbed my face in my defeat quite sufficiently already."
"Don't complain, it doesn't suit you. You no longer have to fight me. You choose to do so anyway, using dirty rusted weapons. You shouldn't be surprised if they break in your hand."
In answer von Stalhein began to heave at the rocks again, this time at an even faster tempo, so that Biggles was soon panting to keep up with him, all the more glad he had never been tempted to join the infantry. Von Stalhein heaved at a particularly large rock and there was an ominous rumble ahead.
"Careful!" Biggles called. "Go higher up, that one's no good."
"I can see what I'm doing!" von Stalhein snapped back at him, and heaved again. The rumble grew louder, and several large pebbles came bouncing down across von Stalhein's back. There was a grating sound like giants scraping iron-shod boots above their heads.
"Get back, it's coming down!" Biggles shouted. Instead von Stalhein twisted forwards, arms braced as if to try to catch the falling rocks. Biggles lunged upwards, seizing von Stalhein bodily, then threw himself backwards. They fell together in a tangle of limbs and stones, landing in a tumbled heap inside the chamber again, gasping.
"Are you hurt? What on earth possessed you to do that?" Biggles snapped. A few last rocks came bumping down after them and he put up his arm to fend them off. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
"What business of yours is it what I do?" von Stalhein retorted, not troubling to move from where he lay. Biggles could feel his chest heaving for breath after that frantic struggle. "You've destroyed my life time and time again, why should it matter to you what happens to me?"
Biggles raised himself up on one elbow, his other arm still pinned under von Stalhein's body. "Don't talk like a fool," he said. Von Stalhein stared up at him wild-eyed, and the expression of mingled fury and pain on his face drew words from Biggles almost without thought. "Of course it matters. You were one of the finest officers I've had the honour of fighting. Seeing you with these scrapings from the sewer is like watching a Spitfire broken up for scrap." He moved his hand to von Stalhein's face, wiping away dirt and sweat from his forehead, brushing a strand of hair back from his eyes, a smear of blood from his cheek. "Do you really hate me so much you would destroy yourself for nothing rather than see sense?"
Von Stalhein's eyes were riveted to Biggles's face. "Yes," he said in a voice choked with some indefinable emotion, rage or pain or love. He pulled Biggles down on top of him in a fierce grip, kissed him once with feverish heat. "Don't you see," von Stalhein snarled, his words addressed to the side of Biggles's neck, "don't you see, this is all I have left now. The wars have taken everything, you have taken everything, home, family, honour, even my name, it's only when I'm fighting you that I know who I am."
Biggles found his mouth and silenced it with tongue and lips, with heat and the taste of dust and stone and blood, sliding his hand under von Stalhein's head to cushion him against the rocks, wrapping his arms around him as if trying to contain an explosion. Once all they had to say to each other had been a duel of lies. This bloodstained truth was far harder to navigate. He raised his head to say, "War stains everyone it touches. I'll fight those I must, because it's all I know how to do, but there's no reason on this earth I should fight you, if only you would damn well stop." He punctuated his last three words with hard kisses. "Our countries aren't at war any longer, and there are too few of us left now to go killing each other."
"Too few of what?" von Stalhein demanded, his hand sliding roughly down Biggles's back.
"Officers and gentlemen," Biggles replied. "People who remember how it used to be." He lowered his head again so that his cheek was against von Stalhein's, gave him one final kiss, then pulled back, staggering to his feet, drawing von Stalhein with him. They stood facing each other, and Biggles brushed dirt and dust from von Stalhein's shoulders.
"That means nothing now," von Stalhein said, his eyes averted. "The glorious Bigglesworth swooping to the rescue--no. That path is utterly destroyed. Leave me to find my own damnation."
Biggles smiled and kept brushing away the dirt. "You should know me better than that by now," he said. "I never leave anyone behind."
"Is that a threat or a promise?"
"That," Biggles said, "is up to you to choose. You know I mean what I say. I'll be here when you're ready."
He turned away deliberately. He had seen von Stalhein turn savage before, when the fury and disappointment of defeat weighed heavily upon him, but the man deserved the chance to recover his poise. He waited until he heard the flare of a match and smelled von Stalhein's brand of cigarettes. Von Stalhein wordlessly offered him another and lit it for him. They stood side by side for a minute, staring at the rockfall that walled them in, and eventually Biggles said, "We can try again."
"You'll keep trying until you die, won't you," von Stalhein said softly. "I hope your friends are in time. I don't think I'd care to watch that."
"If they know I'm in here, they won't give up," Biggles said. "No need to worry about that. You'll get out of here."
"That's not what I'm worried about." Von Stalhein tapped on the end of his cigarette with an elegant gesture, and Biggles smiled despite himself.
"That's how I knew you were Major Sterne, you know," he said. "That little habit of yours. It's very distinctive."
"I thank you for the advice," von Stalhein replied. "Next time I want someone to impersonate me, I shall make sure he does that."
Biggles laughed and ground out his cigarette on the stone floor. "I think that rockfall opened something up there, the draught is stronger. I'll go up top this time, you brace me from below, and we'll see if we can get any further."
Von Stalhein put a hand on his arm suddenly. "Be careful." His lip twisted. "My survival depends on you not dying in the attempt. I don't think Lacey would accept my excuses."
"I'll bear it in mind."
They worked slowly and steadily this time. About half of the passage they had made before was still there, and with careful labour they extended it another yard along. At the end, Biggles gave an experimental shout, in case Algy or the others were there, but he couldn't tell whether the sounds he heard were an echo or an answer.
They paused to rest again, sitting on some loose rocks at the bottom of the pile. Biggles leaned back wearily, and found he was resting against von Stalhein's side. He considered moving, but before he could do so, von Stalhein put a hand on his shoulder, and for a time they sat in silence. Then von Stalhein moved suddenly forwards, saying, "Your hand is bleeding."
Biggles hadn't even noticed it until that moment, but he saw that he had cut his left hand quite deeply, fortunately across the back rather than the palm. Von Stalhein took his hand to examine the cut, then produced his own still-clean handkerchief, folded it with precise movements and bound it carefully around the wound, staunching the blood. He stared down at Biggles's hands for a moment too long. "They don't look like you could wreak anywhere near as much havoc upon my life as you do," he murmured. Biggles considered the image his smaller hands made in von Stalhein's long-fingered grasp and laughed.
"They serve," he said. "Come on, let's get to work."
He climbed up again, and this time he heard it clearly: Bertie's familiar voice, calling, "Biggles? Are you there?"
"I'm in here!" he shouted back, and behind him, he heard von Stalhein's sharp intake of breath. When he glanced back over his shoulder, he saw that von Stalhein had drawn himself up, his previous relaxation gone, intimacy gone. This odd interlude, Biggles realised, was over now: it was back to business as usual.
"I don't want to keep fighting you, Erich," Biggles said, for what it was worth. "If you would only understand that--"
"If I would only surrender, you mean," von Stalhein retorted harshly. "I've had quite enough of that, thank you."
They cleared a few more rocks, and Biggles could see daylight on the other side. "Here!" he shouted. "We're here!"
"Who's 'we'?" came Algy's voice in return. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine. Von Stalhein's with me." Two sentences that he would not have expected to follow one after the other. Both were true, though from the way von Stalhein's tension had increased, he doubted they would be true for much longer.
He heard Algy's exclamation and some muffled conversation. He kept working to clear their passage through, but Biggles was aware that von Stalhein was only working half-heartedly now, looking around constantly for a method of escape. Biggles kept an eye on him. The moment of crisis would come soon, as soon as they had a route all the way out. He didn't think, after all this, that von Stalhein would seriously try to hurt him, but he couldn't be quite sure.
But in the meantime, he cleared stone after stone, passing them down to von Stalhein below, and caught his first glimpse of Algy on the other side, just a corner of his face through a hole the size of a football.
"There you are," Algy said, peering through. "Take it easy now, we don't want to lose it all at the last minute."
Painstakingly, they worked to widen the gap, and von Stalhein clambered up on the shifting heap of rocks behind Biggles, taking his turn to peer through towards daylight. A shaft of light fell on his face, and Biggles sighed at the cold, closed expression he wore. His eyes were shifting constantly, studying Biggles, Algy, the rockfall. He moved up a little higher and there was another clatter of rocks shifting beneath them.
"Spread your weight out," Biggles said sharply, "you'll unbalance it."
"Keep still!" Algy shouted from the other side, and there were some more muffled words as he spoke to the others behind him.
"There's no sense in killing us both now," Biggles said urgently to von Stalhein. "Have some sense."
"I'm not trying to kill us both," von Stalhein retorted, an ambiguous statement if ever Biggles had heard one. Before Biggles could stop him, he pulled himself up a little higher and gave a boulder a hard shove. It rolled down on the opposite side, and Biggles heard a shout from Algy. He lunged for von Stalhein, and as he moved the entire heap of rocks shifted.
"Biggles!" Algy yelled over the din. Then a fierce hand had closed on his arm and he was tumbling down the opposite side, towards the light. He tried to reach for von Stalhein, whether to capture him or to help him he wasn't sure, but a rock caught his elbow and he gave a cry of pain. More dust billowed up, he rolled and felt that he was about to be swallowed by the moving rocks when a strong grip pulled him clear. Blinking and squinting through the dust, he caught a glimpse of Ginger pulling Bertie away and looked around frantically for Algy. A moment later he saw him staggering beyond the rockfall. Biggles made for him and they all scrambled a little way along the passage, away from the still-moving rocks and choking dust, where Biggles sank to the ground.
He heard boots thudding close by him, rapid, irregular, and tried to get to his feet but was too winded and choked with dust to do more than stagger a few steps before doubling over again coughing.
By the time the dust had cleared and they were all standing up and checking each other over, there was no sign of von Stalhein in the passage.
"Where is he?" Algy said. "Is he under that lot?"
He and Ginger stared at the final rockfall, but Biggles was facing outwards, looking at the bleak landscape just visible at the mouth of the tunnel. Dimly, they all heard the sound of an engine starting up.
"The miserable blighter, that's our car!" Bertie shouted.
Algy tore off in pursuit, Ginger following, but by the time they were out on the hillside, the car was almost out of sight.
"Are we trapped here?" Biggles asked mildly.
"The gang left some vehicles on the far side of the hill," Ginger told him. "We can probably make use of one of them. Not quite a fair trade, but it'll do."
"We go to all that trouble to dig him out," said Algy, "and he knocks us down, runs off and pinches our car. That's gratitude for you."
Biggles stared at the cloud of dust rising against the sky as their car vanished into the distance, then looked down at his hand with a laugh. "He's left me his handkerchief."