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Biggles Starts a Book Club

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Biggles took precautions; of course he did. He wasn't simply going to stroll over to von Stalhein's Kensington flat a week after coming back to London; that would be highly dangerous for both of them, and for von Stalhein in particular.

Instead he made himself accounted for at the Air Police offices—he was supposed to be tied up all day in meetings, but quietly ducked out; only Raymond knew that he was gone—and then took a circuitous route that involved half a dozen route changes. It was probably an unreasonable level of care, but he was not going to lead Soviet assassins to von Stalhein's door mere weeks after getting him free.

After making sure the building was not being watched, he went up to von Stalhein's flat with his package tucked under his arm, and tapped at the door.

There was a quick scuffling from inside and then silence. Knowing the man as well as he did, Biggles could all but sense a presence on the other side of the door, most likely with a weapon pointed at it.

"It's me, Bigglesworth," he said quietly. "I've taken care not to be followed."

There was an audible sigh from the other side, and the sound of locks being unlocked. Von Stalhein opened the door.

"Only you, Bigglesworth," he said with a look of faintly sardonic amusement, but stepped back to let him in, and locked the door after him.

Biggles surreptitiously took in his old enemy's appearance and the general air of the place. Von Stalhein was wearing a dressing gown; the automatic in his hand was glimpsed briefly before it went into his pocket. He looked gray and tired, and moved slowly with excessive care, in the way of the prematurely aged.

But the flat was not dreadfully shabby. There was bright sun through a window, cast onto a table with some papers spread around on it. Von Stalhein gestured him to a chair; there were two in the room.

"Will you have coffee? I haven't much in the way of refreshments for guests, but there is coffee, milk, and some day-old pastries from a place I have found on the corner. I don't go out much, as you might expect. Or—you'd prefer tea, wouldn't you?"

Biggles shrugged a little. "Coffee is fine; couldn't have got through the war without it. Thank you."

He accepted the cup he was given, noting it was clearly secondhand, a bit chipped, but clean. The place in general was very neat and bright. Von Stalhein was, at least, not living in squalor.

"What is it that you're doing?" Biggles asked, nodding to the papers on the table.

Von Stalhein took a seat at the table and reached for a cigarette in its ashtray, smoking gently in a long holder. "Translations. German and Russian to English—a bit of useful work to earn my bread, so to speak."

"Have you heard from your nephew?"

"I have word that he and his mother are seeking refuge in West Germany," von Stalhein said. He smiled briefly and tapped the ash off the tip of the cigarette. "Come, Bigglesworth, let us not pretend this is a social call. I expect you have need of intelligence from the other side of the Iron Curtain. What is it that you're working on this time? Diamond smugglers? Counterfeiters seeking to debase the British currency? Air pirates, perhaps?"

"Believe it or not, it is actually a social call of sorts," Biggles said. He took from under his arm the paper-wrapped package that he had brought with him and leaned forward to lay it on von Stalhein's table.

The former Soviet agent regarded it as if it was a snake coiled upon his table. "What's that?"

"So untrusting," Biggles chided gently. "Open it."

Von Stalhein gave him a narrow look and laid down the cigarette in its holder. He picked up the package, shook it, even put it to his ear before neatly unfolding the ends of the brown paper wrapper.

Beneath it were revealed the cheery covers of the books that Biggles had picked out in a Mount Street bookshop a couple of days earlier. Von Stalhein stared with a fixed look, as if he sought the key to a code he could not read.

"Jack Spade and the Heir of Atlantis," he said in a flat voice. He tilted the top book as if he thought it would spill a scrap of paper, perhaps, offering a hidden message.

"It's a ripping yarn," Biggles said. "A bit dated now, of course, but the author knows how to spin a tale. It's a good choice for a man with a lot of time on his hands. There are a lot of waiting hours in the Air Police job, and I've used these books to while away many of them."

Von Stalhein, now looking rather like an animal caught in a trap, looked under it as if he was expecting something other than what he had been told was there. "Jack Spade and the Affair of the Australian Emeralds. Jack Spade and the ... Bigglesworth," he said in a reasonable tone, "you cannot expect me to read these."

"Why not? I thought you must be in want of good entertainment."

"This is not—"

"I don't want to stay long enough to put you in danger," Biggles interrupted, rising. "It's your choice, of course, if you need a break from the translations and want to sample some of our indigenous literature."

"I think calling this literature is stretching the matter a trifle—"

"I'll be in touch," Biggles said. "Oh ... it's good to see you looking well, Erich."

He was out before von Stalhein could finish sputtering, thus leaving himself the last word.




He was back the following week with a fresh package of books. He'd have made a boob if von Stalhein was not an avid reader, but Biggles didn't think he was that poor a judge of men. No, this was a man who read avidly, and all manner of books; von Stalhein's voracious mind would quickly stifle on a steady diet of nothing but dry translations. It was Biggles's intent to present him with books he hadn't read before.

Von Stalhein let him in before he had even got through announcing himself. "Oh, wonderful," von Stalhein said with a look at the package under Biggles's arm. "It's to be a new form of torture, then."

"You didn't like the Jack Spade books?" Biggles asked, laying his package down upon the table. He averted his eyes politely from the half-open books and the dictionary lying thereon.

"Well, I read them," von Stalhein said.

"Did you? What did you think?"

"Do you really—Bigglesworth, you've been to Australia. You know it's nothing like this." Von Stalhein shook Jack Spade and the Affair of the Australian Emeralds pointedly at him as if its mere existence was his fault.

"The man hasn't traveled widely; that's no reason to discount his ability to write a stirring action scene."

"There are not dinosaurs on the Australian continent, Bigglesworth. On this, at least, I hope we can agree."

"But that's a mere fact of reality," Biggles argued, "and not a matter to stand in the way of a good action tale. How would that final escape in the Dornier DO-X have read if it was not being pursued by a rampaging Brontosaurus at the time?"

"Trust you to remember the exact model of the plane," von Stalhein muttered.

"I'll grant you that the description of the shallow inland lake covering a large part of the land mass might not have borne a strong resemblance to reality," Biggles decided to allow.

"And the woman?" von Stalhein asked unexpectedly.

"The—er—love interest? In the book?"

"Yes. The woman who ran off with the emeralds. What happens to her? I don't suppose the author has merely forgotten her. Though it wouldn't surprise me," he added under his breath.

"Oh, not at all," Biggles said, frantically doing a mental scramble through several dozen books that had been passed around the Mount Street flat with varying degrees of enjoyment. "She comes back in—er—Jack Spade and the Mark of the Cobra, I believe. I wouldn't recommend it particularly for authentic scenes of the Indian subcontinent. As you say, the man's clearly never been there."

"Yes, but she does come back? With the emeralds?"

"From what I recall, she pawned them to hire assistants for her attempted heist on ..." Biggles couldn't quite suppress his reaction to the words that escaped him. "—the secret gold reserve on the tip of the mountain at the southern point of India. Erich, stop laughing."

"I'm not laughing," von Stalhein said, straightening his face. "I'm just not accustomed to seeing you have strong opinions about geography."

"Very incorrect geography."

"Need I remind you that you brought these books here in the first place?"

"Yes, but I didn't know you'd want to read the India one!"

He'd said the wrong thing; von Stalhein's face carefully closed its shutters. "I wasn't saying I want to read it." Von Stalhein turned away, reaching not for the coffeepot this time—it was cool, with no sign of steam—but for a cheap-looking brown bottle. "You'll have a drink?"

"All right," Biggles said carefully. He accepted the strong-smelling liquor in the same mug that had held coffee the last time. "I don't suppose you're making a habit of this."

"What, not waiting for cocktail hour? Reading your beknighted books? It's a hard life, Bigglesworth," von Stalhein said dryly, and Biggles realized with a quick shock that he'd already had a couple, especially when von Stalhein flung himself with something less than his usual precision into the chair in front of the desk and picked up the package. "What's in here? More inspiring British national literature, I'm sure."

"A few different things," Biggles said.

Von Stalhein unfolded the paper ends with the same care as before, and carefully extracted the small stack of books within.

"The Day of the Triffids," he read off, flipping through the lot. "The Lord of the Rings. What is a —"

"Read the book and find out."

"What an outlandish cover."

"Ginger liked it," Biggles said, shamelessly throwing blame onto the person who had first brought the book into the flat, after which they had all enjoyed it and the rest.

"Oh, what a recommendation."




Biggles was back on the dot of a week from the last time, at which point he discovered von Stalhein had acquired a teapot in the meantime.

"I don't care for triffids in the slightest," von Stalhein declared, pouring tea.

"That's good to know, thank you," Biggles said.

Von Stalhein doctored his tea heavily with sugar and milk and a quick dash of brandy. "Hobbits, on the other hand—what's that?"

"A few more that we had lying around the flat," Biggles said offhandedly, presenting the bundle of books.

He had, in fact, gone through every single Jack Spade book in the flat (including stealing a few from Algy's room) to find all the ones with Mercy, the jewel-stealing, double-dealing, occasional spy for whatever random nationality the author decided to assign her ... in short, the straight-shooting hero's duplicitous love interest in the books, the strong drink that he just couldn't quit. In the last one, she was rescued from a drug dealer's mansion in the South Seas and declared her undying love for Spade. In the general line of the previous books, it probably wouldn't last, but the author (as per Algy's report) had dropped dead of a heart attack while writing at his retreat in the Caribbean a few years ago, so that was the last word. Biggles hadn't been able to find that final book with Mercy's love declaration; he vaguely recalled that Algy had thought it was frivolous nonsense and pitched it. But he had found the rest of them, including the Indian one with the randomly misplaced mountain that came after the Australia one.

"Ah," von Stalhein said. He took the package, didn't open it, and placed it neatly on the edge of the desk, beside an open translation dictionary. "But in all honesty, the depiction of battle fatigue in those books—Biggles, pay attention."

"I'm paying attention!" Biggles said, letting the Biggles pass uncommented. "Lord of the Rings, that's what we're talking about? The author fought in the Great War, you know. Or I suppose now it's more commonly known as the first of two, isn't it? Time does pass on ... Anyway, he did know what he was writing about, yet he was able to tell a good yarn around it. That's a rare talent."

"It is," von Stalhein agreed. He offered a cigarette.




Biggles had more trouble selecting books for the next trip. It was as if there was more weight on it now that he knew von Stalhein's tastes a bit better. He spent a long while in the bookshops near the flat, and finally he just had to fall back on his own likes and his general awareness of what von Stalhein would probably hate. Nothing that leaned too heavily on Germany or Russia as the villains, perhaps.

Given the time for shaking off tails, he arrived at von Stalhein's Kensington flat a couple of hours past the previous weeks' time.

"I would have offered tea, but I guess it's been oversteeped," von Stalhein said dryly. He poured coffee for both of them and adding a small jot of brandy to his own. "Biggles, I won't care for you if you say you don't like this Mercy woman. She's quite resourceful. I'd certainly have hired her, back in my espionage days."

"She does find her way around," Biggles allowed. He reluctantly offered his cup for a dash to be added as well.

"Is that all you have to say for her? You're the one who brought me these dreadful books in the first place. And they really are dreadful, by the way."

"I was really more thinking you might find the hero's exploits inspiring," Biggles muttered into his coffee.

"Oh, him? He does well enough, I suppose. I can see why Mercy's entirely gone for him. He's an upstanding sort of fellow, admirable really, but that's just to be expected, isn't it? It's the entire field the author is writing in. One just knows that sort of thing will come from heroes."

"Hey!" Biggles said. "It's not so easy to play the hero, you know."

"Well, in the normal way of it, obviously not, but one can't hope to be that square-jawed type who finds right and wrong entirely easy to sort, due to being the hero of the piece."

"But see here," said Biggles, who had found Jack Spade a very relatable sort, not overly endowed with hero qualities in the slightest, and actually one of the less forceful types of those adventure-fiction pulp heroes, often based on two-fisted American antecedents, that had overflowed the newsstands when he was a young man. "It's not so easy to cope with his entire background—is it, now? The loss of both parents at a young age, and the need to immediately pick up his adventuring career while struggling with both his own shell-shock and the loss of his—"

"But the woman, though. Mercy."

"You're still on about her," Biggles said, half-annoyed, half-admiring. There was certainly something to be said for loyalty, and von Stalhein had it in spades.

"Of course I am, who wouldn't be? She presents an admirable figure—no, don't look at me that way, Biggles. It's only that she's far more honourable and more loyal than she's allowed to be within the story, and one can tell it just from looking at her in the Australia story. She very nearly sacrifices herself in an Australian quagmire for him, Biggles, with kiwi birds trying to eat her. The fact that she takes the emeralds and runs thereafter—"

"As well she might do, being a fictional figure with no honour to lose." Biggles nudged the bundle of books closer to him. "Come, get these open. I have to be back soon."

Von Stalhein flipped through them, intrigued. "The Once and Future King," he said with interest. "Letters from the Earth. I don't know this Mark Twain fellow —and is this the last one with Mercy?"

"Don't get your hopes up," Biggles said wryly. "It's not the best ending for her."

"Stop telling me about it, then, Bigglesworth!"




He was back a week later to find a steaming cup of tea and also a slice of Battenberg cake.

"Yes, I went out," von Stalhein said absently. There was a book open in front of him; it appeared to be the Jack Spade book last delivered. "You had led me to believe this had a much more depressing ending. Are there further books in this series? I ask out of pure curiosity, though I'm sure you'll tell me anyway."

"No," Biggles said. "The author dropped dead at his desk, from what I hear."

"We should all go so well." Von Stalhein pushed the plate of cake between them. There was no smell of brandy from his cup, only a gentle twist of steam. "In any case, I'd welcome your discussion on what it is that's tragic about her ending. Or was it only that there was an ending at all?"

"Well, yes, that," Biggles said, embarrassed into realizing he'd thought about it at all. "But it's coming down in the world for her, isn't it? She gives up her life of globetrotting crime for love of that Spade chap."

"What makes you think she cared about giving it all up? Perhaps she only wanted somewhere to belong."

"She's very posh, Erich," Biggles said impatiently, realizing even as he did so that it was a ridiculous thing on which to stake an opinion. "She had a life of adventure and excitement. Why on Earth would she settle for—"

"Love of the one for whom she'd long been pining?" von Stalhein asked dryly.

"Folding up all the most interesting aspects of herself, becoming nothing but—"

"Whatever you make of her, as there are no books beyond this one. Her story stops here."

Biggles paused; he had, in fact, been unconsciously assuming that Mercy's story went on into the bleak future that he had imagined for her. But of course it did not. She was, as von Stalhein had said, only fictional, and there was no story for her but the story in this book.

"The author most likely thought she would be Spade's wife," he said rather weakly. "And keep house for him and whatnot."

"Maybe," von Stalhein said with a brief shrug. "He can think that if he likes. I like to think she'd have learned to fly a plane and carried on with him, or whatever she'd a mind to do. Anyway, she'd made her choice already."

"Her entirely fictional choice! Because she is not a real person!"

"Certainly. Of course." Von Stalhein refreshed their tea. "Are there any more earlier books in this series?"

"Rather a lot of them," Biggles admitted, defeated.

He was not sure what sort of self-inflicted disaster he had created, but a week later, he and von Stalhein were poking about among the books in a shop featuring books both used and new. It was probably a risk, and he knew it, but von Stalhein wore a disguise (a set of false whiskers and a floppy-brimmed hat) and collected a small armful of Jack Spade books offering even a whiff of Mercy, as well as quite a lot of the eponymous hero's adventures. Biggles paid for them, and then bought them lunch in a small cafe next door. And von Stalhein—Erich—smiled at him throughout.