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Blood Brothers

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Algy stared bleary-eyed out over the tarmac as the Dove came down in Bertie's usual landing, fast and precise. He scanned the machine with a war-trained eye and saw a spray of bullet holes near the main door behind the wing, a few more peppering the wing itself, tiny marks but enough to tell a terrifying story. But Ginger had telephoned half an hour ago saying that Biggles had woken up in hospital and spoken to him for a few minutes, and he was believed to be out of danger. Algy kept that thought foremost in his mind as the Dove came to a halt and two men climbed down. Bertie, in the lead, smiled and came towards him, only the deep hollows under his eyes belying the unruffled calm of his expression. He clapped Algy on the arm in greeting.

"Got them all safely in dock now, old chap," he began. "How are things here?"

"I had Ginger on the horn a few minutes ago, he says the skipper's awake and talking," Algy answered, and Bertie's smile became a shade warmer. "And there's a reception committee for you in the office." He scanned Bertie again. "Are you all right?"

"Right as rain," Bertie said brightly. "Let's see the jolly old reception committee."

Algy looked at the man who was limping several paces behind Bertie like an evil shadow. Von Stalhein's face was set in its usual grim angry lines. He was unshaven and his suit looked like he'd slept in it for a week and then rolled through a muddy hedge in it a few times as well. Algy scanned him up and down and said nothing, jerking his head for him to follow.

But the Customs officials and stern-faced Intelligence men who were waiting for them wanted to speak to Bertie first, and von Stalhein stood motionless just outside the doorway of the inner office, his gaze scanning all over the room as if he were taking note of every detail to report to some spymaster. Algy had intended to leave him alone, but the aloof, uncaring air about him drove words from his mouth.

"You've got what you wanted at last, and I hope you're satisfied."

"What I wanted?" von Stalhein echoed. "It was not I who shot Bigglesworth."

"It might as well have been," Algy said, words suddenly boiling up in him. "He went out there because of what you said to him, because you went off half-cocked and then couldn't even manage your own affairs but had to bleat to him to get you out of the mess you made of it, and now he's on the operating table in Nancy and here you stand without a scratch on you."

Von Stalhein's only response to this was his usual icy, untouchable stare. "Have you had any more news of him?" he asked after a pause that could be felt.

Algy glared. "The news is, he was shot through the chest. You know, for years and years Biggles has been going on about what a brilliant spy you are, and I've been telling him he's deluded. At least now he knows I'm right. If you were half the agent he is you'd have sorted this on your own."

Von Stalhein gave him a baleful look but said nothing. Scenting blood, Algy went on, "I hope you know what to do if you get any more letters from enemy agents Biggles might feel he's under some sort of obligation to help. We've got work of our own to do without having you trying to pull his strings and play on his misguided trust in you. Or is this all some great plan? That business with your friends in Berlin put me and Bertie both in hospital, and this time you've half-killed Biggles—you couldn't beat us in a fair fight, but now that you're pretending to be our friend you're doing an excellent job getting us all killed."

Von Stalhein's lips went back in a snarl and he said, low and precise, "In that case you'd better watch out, hadn't you? Especially now when Bigglesworth is not around to do your thinking for you."

Algy opened his mouth to respond, quivering with anger, but at that moment Bertie came to the door and said, "Erich old chap, they're ready for you now," and von Stalhein jerked, tore his gaze away from Algy and set off at his limping stride to join Bertie in the office. Algy watched him go with the focussed attention he might give a venomous snake in the room with him. The officials beckoned him over and von Stalhein stood at parade-ground attention before the desk. A minute later Bertie came out to join Algy, closing the door so that Algy could no longer hear what was being said. If he was really lucky, Algy thought, they'd decide von Stalhein's irregular jaunt was so irregular that they'd revoke his permission to live here.

"I don't know how you stood it, heading out there to retrieve him," Algy said, cheated of his prey and turning in frustration on Bertie instead. "That first time in Russia—well, the first time I was willing to go with it, Biggles wanted it so badly and I thought maybe it would do him good to get it all out of his system. And Raymond authorised it, it was a proper piece of work. But this time he went headfirst into the custard all by himself. It's not Biggles's job to fish him out, but off he raced anyway. And then there's the girl. You weren't there for it, you didn't see what she did to him—but that's Biggles all over. And after all that she goes and uses him to smuggle a king's ransom in stones across the borders and gets him into a whole new kind of trouble."

"Quite the lady," Bertie said judiciously. "She seemed very happy to see Biggles. This jewellery business—well, I suppose I might have expected it, after the story Biggles had from her about her family's treasure and how she didn't want the Reds getting their greasy paws all over it. Would have been better if she'd told us straight up, though."

"Would have been better if she'd stayed in the past where she belonged."

Bertie smiled tolerantly. "You didn't see the skipper's face just after we found her. Erich's too. Dreams come true doesn't touch it. No, he doesn't regret it even with that mess last night, you can count on that, Algy my lad."

"What actually happened?" Algy said quietly. "If you don't mind."

"I only saw glimpses of it. They'd both been hunted for most of a week, according to Erich—just after I left the Soviets came for Biggles and he only just got away, and they'd been hiding out together until I arrived. The last leg of the flight was sticky, searchlights and archie all over the place as I was coming in, and there was a reception committee on the ground, but I saw Biggles's landing lights so in I went. They opened up on me just after I'd landed, I was swinging around to take off again when the machine-gun started up and I saw them. Biggles went down like a ninepin, terrible. He was shouting to Marie and Erich to keep going, but they both turned around and went straight back through the fire to him and carried him to the machine. I didn't think the girl had it in her, to be honest, but she was amazing. Used to be a nurse, and a jolly good thing too. I heard her giving Ginger and Erich orders like a sergeant-major while I was taking off, no question but she saved his life then, got the bleeding stopped and all that. Ginger came up with me to get the route sorted and radio ahead so there'd be a bloodwagon waiting for us, and the other two nursed Biggles the rest of the way to France. It was touch and go, but the doctor at the hospital said it was the quick response from Marie that saved him." He gave a delicate shudder like a horse trying to get a fly off its shoulder. "I detailed a man to give the cabin a quick scrub before we left France, but it'll need a proper cleanup after that."

Algy took a deep breath. "OK. Thanks. D'you want to grab a bite and a cup of tea while I go over the landing papers and get the Dove all squared away? You look like you could use it."

"Just lead me to it, old boy, lead me to it."

With a final sharp look at the office door, Algy headed off as he had indicated to make sure Smyth would give the Dove a proper going-over. He went into the main cabin and recoiled from the lingering smell of blood, finding it all too easy to picture the scene Bertie had described. He worked through his tasks methodically, and when Smyth had the Dove well in hand he went back to the office. Bertie was sitting leaning back in a chair, gazing out across the tarmac, but when Algy came in he straightened and smiled a greeting.

"I'm a new man now," he told Algy. "They're still giving poor old Erich the third degree in there—" he jerked his head at the adjoining office, "but they must wind down eventually and then we can get moving."

"Once I've got all these papers squared away we can be off," Algy said. "You look like you could use a spot of blanket drill."

Bertie gave him a vague glance that Algy knew meant he was worrying about something, and Algy left him to it and got all the logbooks and documents filed properly. He was just finishing the job when the door opened and the officials went out, leaving von Stalhein alone in their office. Algy glanced in suspiciously, but von Stalhein was not prying through the desks but stood still with his back to the door, as if he was expecting the officials to realise they'd made a mistake and come back to arrest him.

"Come on out of there," Algy told him. "These are police premises, you can't be in here without someone to keep an eye on you."

Von Stalhein startled and turned around quickly, took a deep breath and marched briskly out of the room without looking at Algy. As he emerged, Bertie stood up.

"All done? Then let's get back into town."

Algy looked from Bertie to von Stalhein. "I'm sure von Stalhein can make his own way back."

"Nonsense," said Bertie, giving Algy an odd look. "It's not out of our way."

Von Stalhein hesitated for a few seconds, then gave Algy a smirk. "That would be most kind of you."

"There, you see. Come on, let's get moving."

Fuming, Algy hurried down the stairs from their offices, then had to stop when Bertie did to wait for von Stalhein, who was descending more slowly with a hand on the rail. They left the offices and headed across to the yard where Algy had parked the Bentley at two in the morning when he'd come in to wait for Bertie's return. Again von Stalhein lagged, and Algy turned to frown at him, noting his grubby suit and thinking about how much he didn't want to have to clean the Bentley's upholstery again. The blazing morning sunlight showed up odd brownish patches all over the black wool of his jacket and trousers, especially his sleeves. Algy stopped.

Von Stalhein caught up with him, a little out of breath and with an odd distant expression on his face that Algy recognised with disquiet. He touched a finger on one of the patches on von Stalhein's right arm and felt the familiar congealed stiffness of the fabric.

"That's blood."

Von Stalhein stood still, staring somewhere beyond Algy, all too obviously looking into his memory at a scene that Algy had been picturing for most of the night. Algy's mental image of it shifted suddenly, now seeing the rear cabin of the Dove with Biggles bleeding all over von Stalhein's arms as he and Marie fought to save him.

"You're covered in blood."

Unexpectedly, von Stalhein said, "I tried to sponge it off at the hospital, but—" He trailed off, eyeing Algy warily, and began to walk after Bertie. He stumbled as he went and righted himself with visible effort, pulling away as Algy cautiously offered him an arm. They reached the car and von Stalhein collapsed into the rear seat, his head tilted back exhaustedly. Algy closed the door for him and went around to the other side. Bertie was there, watching the interchange.

"Good show, old chap," he said quietly. "I thought he was a bit quiet for my taste. Those Customs fellows really should have waited before giving him the third degree."

"He's practically dripping with Biggles's blood."

"There wasn't any time to do anything about it," Bertie said. "We rushed Biggles to the hospital, then Marie's jewel issue came out, and the French police weren't happy about having Erich in the country at all, he really hasn't made any friends at all there and even after I called Marcel they were pretty sticky about it, and the best thing was to get the whole problem aloft and back home again. We did wait until we knew Biggles was out of danger. Erich wouldn't go before then—no more than I would." He looked at the slumped figure in the rear of the vehicle. "And they both looked pretty frayed at the seams before any of this. He had a bad time of it out there. Biggles was worried about him."

"I suppose," Algy murmured, "Biggles would be pretty miffed if we ditched him now, wouldn't he?"

"That's about the shape of it, yes."

"D'you want me to drive?"

"No, I'll take the wheel. You keep an eye on our Prussian friend."

Algy got into the back with von Stalhein, who turned his head sharply at the new arrival, then sagged back again as Algy sat down. Algy gave a wry smile. "Yes, it's only me."

Von Stalhein looked at him. "I—do not permit me to cause you any inconvenience—I—"

"We had a call from Ginger," Algy told him. "Biggles was awake and talking after the operation. He was in good spirits. Ginger and Marie are both staying with him for a while longer. When you're up to it, you can help us get Marie's paperwork sorted out."

Von Stalhein muttered something under his breath in German, an oath or a prayer. He closed his eyes again and sat motionless while Bertie began to drive. Every so often he would look up as if not entirely sure where he was, then subside again, but he did not speak. Algy found he could remember being in a similar state after flying too many patrols back-to-back. The drive back to Mount Street passed in silence, and Bertie parked the Bentley right outside the door. Von Stalhein looked up again and blinked.

"I can make my way home from here," he pronounced, his tone oddly meek. It was how he spoke to Biggles these days, with none of the bitter edge that Algy was familiar with. Apparently, Algy thought, in Biggles's absence he was promoted to the same role in von Stalhein's world. With that realisation came clarity about what he should do now.

"Don't be absurd," Algy answered. "You're coming in with us. You're not fit to be left."

Interestingly, this roused von Stalhein, a flash of the man Algy was more accustomed to. "I've managed every other time you've left me for dead."

"Don't tempt me," Algy murmured.

Von Stalhein struggled out of the car. It was fortunate that Algy, familiar with this state of physical and mental exhaustion, had gone around to him, because he had to seize von Stalhein's arm to keep him upright. Besides the blood, his suit was damp all over and sodden around the seams as if he'd been immersed in water some hours before and had only partly dried it. He was shivering.

As he was usually held in reserve on the missions, Algy was accustomed to being the one who put the pieces back together at the end, when Biggles or Ginger or Bertie, or all three of them together, returned successful but worn to the bone, perhaps injured, perhaps grieving, perhaps having not slept or eaten for days. Then it fell to Algy to tie up the loose ends and get them safely into dock. The pattern was familiar enough now; it was just the person who was different.

Von Stalhein did not, as Ginger sometimes did, fall asleep sitting up with a fork halfway to his mouth, nor did he reel off a list of jobs for Algy even as Algy bandaged him up and set food in front of him—that was Biggles. He was uncomplaining and even easier to cope with than Bertie, apart from the fact that he kept addressing Algy in German instead of English.

"Do you even know where you are?" Algy asked in German as he placed a mug of hot sweet tea in front of him. "Drink that," he added.

Von Stalhein gazed drowsily around him. He'd rarely been to Mount Street, tending to meet Biggles either at his own flat or in a restaurant. "Of course I know where I am," he said finally, in English. He looked around again, drank the tea, and shivered harder.

"Don't tease him," Bertie said. "Come on, old fellow, let's get you out of those wet things and into bed. Did you swim that river in your clothes?"

"Fell," von Stalhein said briefly. He got up when Bertie put a hand under his elbow, and obviously more than half asleep, allowed them to usher him to the bathroom without any further conversation either in English or German.

When von Stalhein awoke he had no clear notion of where he was or how he'd got there. The room was unknown to him, the sounds unfamiliar, the pattern of light through the curtains was all wrong for his own home. It was not until he turned his head and saw a sketch of a Sopwith Camel hanging on the wall that he began to remember what had happened, and with that remembrance, realise where he must be. He remembered Czechoslovakia, the hospital in Nancy, the flight back to England, debriefing with the British officials, Lacey haranguing him, the car... but after that his memory was in fragments, flashes of recollection like a searchlight touching on an aircraft, losing it, touching it again. Lacey had made him come in. Undressing, someone making him drink something warm and sweet, strangely worried voices. Being put to bed.

He sat up and looked around properly. Judging from the photographs on top of the chest of drawers and the precise neatness with which everything was kept, he surmised that this was Bigglesworth's own room. But the pair of navy silk pyjamas he was wearing—he had no memory of putting them on—fitted him too well to be Bigglesworth's. Lacey's or Lissie's, at a guess. The only untidy things in the room were his own clothes, and even they were folded, the suit jacket hanging on the back of a chair and the shoes neatly placed together.

His head ached, but dully, in a way that he suspected would be remedied by food and drink. His body ached too with the reverberations of the past weeks still running through him. His heart—like the other aches, it was duller, muted and calmed by the rest and quiet and the relief of safety. He stretched slowly and then stood up, tottering like an old man for a minute before he recovered. Someone had left a pair of slippers on the floor. Something about that consideration made him halt, and he had to stand for a full minute gazing blankly at the drawn curtains before he could move again. He put the slippers on and opened the door. It was daylight, morning, and he had no idea how long he'd slept, but judging from the water-clock of his bladder it was long. Nobody came near him while he found his way to the bathroom. A pale, unshaven and deeply lined face looked back at him from the mirror. He frowned at it, and wondered if he dared borrow a razor without asking first.

Deciding against it, he returned to his room and looked again at his clothes. They had all been laundered, pressed and mended, the suit smelt faintly of the cleaner's and the few items from his pockets were stacked neatly on top. He was amazed they'd been replaced in his room without waking him.

Footsteps outside the door brought him back to his feet, heart racing before he was able to calm himself. "You awake?" came a casual voice.

It was Algy Lacey. "I am awake," von Stalhein replied cautiously.

The door opened and Lacey came in. "You're looking a bit better," he said.

Von Stalhein blinked at him, trying to muster his thoughts. "What time—when—how long was I asleep?"

"You arrived here mid-morning yesterday," Lacey answered. "It's nine now. Don't you remember—no, perhaps you wouldn't." His brown eyes studied von Stalhein intently, almost medically. "You were just about done in. Bertie said you'd been on the run for weeks. Are you feeling better now?"

"Yes, thank you," von Stalhein said automatically.

"Good. If you want a wash, borrow whatever you need in the bathroom."

"You cleaned my suit."

Lacey put a hand on the black wool jacket on the back of the chair, then let go. "There's a place around the corner that's good at getting blood out of things." He stared across the room, not looking at von Stalhein. "Bertie told me a bit more about what happened. Did you realise you were hit?"

Von Stalhein startled. "No—no, I wasn't hit, that was his blood."

"You were hit as well. We found out when we were cleaning you up yesterday. Twice. Not much more than grazes, either of them, but not all that blood was his. Your left hip—that was just a graze—and your calf, that was a bit deeper, we had the doctor out to take a look but he said it looked worse than it was. Did you really not know?"

He had been aware of his leg hurting, but had assumed it was from his fall in the river and the last frantic desperate rush. He shook his head. "I was thinking of... other things."

Lacey gave a snort. "I suppose you would have been. All right. D'you want to wash and dress, or just have some food and go back to bed? You look like you could still stand to sleep for another day."

"I would be happy to return home now—I am grateful for what you've done, but—"

"You can stay," Lacey said definitively. "I'll get some food going." He paused, then looked directly at von Stalhein. "Look, about what I said yesterday. The thing is—" he paused, then said flatly, "I don't pretend to understand why Biggles likes you, but he does. There's nothing he wouldn't do for you, he's proved that pretty conclusively, and so—so you can stay. But for the love of Mike, after this will you please live a quiet, boring life and not get into any more dangerous situations? Because he'd want to go and rescue you again if you did, and the only way I'd be able to stop him is if I went myself instead. So stick to going out to dinner with him and I'll be happy."

There was a ring of sincerity in his voice that made von Stalhein pause and consider his answer carefully. At last he offered his right hand. Lacey looked at it and hesitated. It was not an offensive hesitation; there was a weight to his gaze and his stillness that told von Stalhein that he was being considered with seriousness and thought. Then he gripped von Stalhein's hand with his own, a firm brief grasp. Von Stalhein did not risk a smile, but he bowed his head in acknowledgement and said, "I would be happy to do so."