"Well, look what I found out there," Algy said, directing his prisoner into the cottage at gunpoint.
Ginger and Bertie both jumped to their feet as von Stalhein regarded them with a flat, unimpressed look—at least inasmuch as he was capable of looking suitably bored and disdainful with one of his eyes swelling shut and the corner of his mouth bruised. Algy also had not come out the best; he showed clear signs of a scuffle, his shirt was torn, and there were leaves in his hair.
"Took this off him," Algy said, tossing an automatic to Ginger. "Caught him just packing up some sort of spy listening apparatus, which you'll find on that hill behind the hut, if one of you could go get it." He gestured von Stalhein to a chair. "Sit."
Looking put-upon, von Stalhein sat, and submitted sullenly to having his arms and legs tied to the chair. Ginger darted off to do as suggested.
"Be careful!" Algy called after him. "We don't know he's alone. Have a look in the woods while you're there, and keep a sharp eye out."
Ginger gave a brisk salute through the open door and vanished.
Bertie and Algy regarded their prisoner; von Stalhein stared back. Algy, however, detected an edge of some more sharp-edged emotion—anxiety, nervousness, stress—underneath the studied calm, and he pounced on it.
"What are you doing out here?" he demanded. "Did you follow us? Is anyone with you?"
Von Stalhein blinked, squinting. Algy's knuckles still stung from hitting him, but it had been very satisfying.
"I hope you didn't rattle his brains too badly," Bertie remarked. He went down to one knee to pat down von Stalhein's legs, and relieved him of a knife strapped to his shin underneath his trouser leg. "If we want to get answers out of him, y'know."
"I doubt he's lost the ability to talk," Algy said. He gestured at von Stalhein with the gun. "We'll have the answers out of you one way or another, so you might as well make it easy on yourself."
After a moment, tipping his chin up, von Stalhein said, "I'll talk to Bigglesworth, if he's here."
"You're out of luck there, old boy," Bertie said coldly. "He's dealing with the deuced—that is, he's on a mission of his own. We're holding down the fort in his absence."
After a brief pause, von Stalhein said, "And when will he be back?"
"Now see here," Algy said sharply, disliking the feeling that the prisoner was unaccountably steering the interrogation. "We ask you the questions, because you're the one tied to a chair, see? And if I were you, there's something I'd take into account."
He stepped forward. The automatic was lowered by his side now, but he had not returned it to his pocket. He leaned into von Stalhein's space, disliking the close proximity to the spy, the enemy, the frequently-changing turncoat who had been a thorn in their side for so many years.
"I think you ought to consider that Biggles, for whatever reason, has a soft spot for you, not that I can understand why—but none of us do. As far as I'm concerned, you're useful to us for what information you can give us, and nothing else. Given my rathers, I'd have plugged you in the woods. Whatever happens between you and the rest of us before Biggles comes back, he'll never know about—understand?"
He was aware of Bertie looking uncomfortable. In truth, Algy doubted if any of them had the coldblooded gall to shoot a man who was tied to a chair—and he was glad for it. But men judged others by their own example. Von Stalhein was exactly that coldblooded, Algy knew: cold as a snake. He had no reason to believe they were lying.
"Understand?" Algy pressed, and to drive the point home, he prodded von Stalhein's sternum with the muzzle of the gun.
Von Stalhein looked back at him, his gaze steady. He had lost his eyeglass in their brawl, and the bruised eye was sunk now in streaks of vivid color, the white of it bloodshot. The blood from his split lip had formed beads and begun to trickle; it must be bothering him immensely, especially given the man's habitual fastidiousness. Dirt smudged his pale face along with other traces of bruises, and Algy couldn't help noticing that there were blue smudges of sleeplessness under his undamaged eye. It seemed increasingly likely that he was working alone, which meant he had likely been keeping them under surveillance for days.
Was he actually trembling a little? Algy could hardly believe that the steely-nerved spy would show traces of fear, but it did appear that he was holding himself rigid against some kind of reaction.
After a long moment, long enough to go beyond courage into insolence, von Stalhein said quietly, "I understand."
Algy withdrew the gun and put it in his pocket. His palm was damp. He was coming to realize that he disliked playing the heavy.
Ginger came in with a briefcase. "I got his kit. Looks like some kind of listening gear. I'm sure the home office will have a field day with it. Your bosses won't like you losing their classified materials, will they?" He said it to von Stalhein with satisfaction.
Von Stalhein refused to answer.
"I saw no sign of anyone else in the woods or on the beach," Ginger added. "It does look like he's here by himself."
"Are you?" Algy asked. "Going it alone?"
Still no answer. Von Stalhein gazed straight ahead like a man preparing himself for torture, and ignored them.
It was soon clear that they'd get no cooperation out of him without further persuasive methods. Von Stalhein refused to say anything at all. Ginger and Bertie took turns doing sweeps of the wood above the cottage, the high point of land overlooking the sea, and the beach itself, and in no case did they find evidence of anything, although Bertie came back to say that it looked like von Stalhein had been sleeping rough in a falling-down hunter's shack on top of the ridge.
The evening wore on. It grew dark outside the cottage, with the damp chill that suggested rain was moving in. They stirred up the fire and lit a lamp.
It was becoming clear that having a prisoner was going to be deeply inconvenient. The cottage had only one room. This was fine when they were sharing with each other, but they couldn't talk over their plans with a spy in the room. Instead they made idle chitchat and glanced frequently in von Stalhein's direction. It was like having a very large, very dangerous wasp in the room.
"We're going to have to set a guard on him all night," Ginger said quietly. "Maybe Biggles can get something out of him when he gets back."
"Which won't be 'til tomorrow morning at the earliest, if not later if this heavy weather sets in," Algy said in irritation. "What a situation."
"At least we know he hasn't been able to report anything back to his handlers," Bertie pointed out. "We didn't find radio equipment on him or back at the shack."
Bertie went over to check on the prisoner while Algy and Ginger were arguing over whether to open cans of beans or stew to heat over the fire. Von Stalhein remained stiffly upright in his chair, gazing steadily at nothing in particular, but Bertie—with reluctant sympathy—noticed that he was shivering.
"Here now, are you cold?" he asked. Von Stalhein's unfocused gaze abruptly sharpened and settled on him. "We've got you a long way from the fire, and likely you're damp after being out all day in this bally coastal weather."
"Bertie, don't coddle him, for heaven's sake," Algy said impatiently. "If he's a little cold and damp, it's all to the good. It's not as if he'd have a care for our comfort if the positions were reversed. Likely he'd have dropped us down a well by now."
"Yes, all right, but it seems uncivilized to warm ourselves by the fire and eat in front of him."
"It's an interrogation, Bertie, it's not supposed to be civilized!"
It might have been his imagination, but Bertie thought he glimpsed the corner of von Stalhein's mouth twitch involuntarily, very briefly, before it straightened out into a hard, blood-stained line once again.
The blood really brought home the reality of what they were doing. Von Stalhein had, at some point, managed to twist enough slack in the ropes to wipe the corner of his mouth on his collar, or at least that was what Bertie assumed he'd done, though all he had managed to do was smear it across his cheek.
Bertie knew how formidable he was, but at the moment, he didn't look like a terrifying foreign spy. He looked like a tired, beaten, bruised man who was alone in a room with his enemies.
"Can't hurt to give him a drink of water, can it?" Bertie asked the others.
"You're really having trouble with this entire 'interrogating the prisoner' concept, aren't you?" Algy said impatiently, but capitulated. "All right, fine, give him water, but we're not feeding him!"
Bertie uncapped one of the canteens. "Care for a drink, old brick?"
Von Stalhein looked like he expected a trick, but he accepted the canteen held to his lips and took a couple of swallows. He choked a little on the last one and gagged.
"Sorry, didn't mean to almost drown you there," Bertie said, contrite.
"I'm fine," von Stalhein said tightly. He swallowed a couple of times and coughed, then gagged again, swallowing it sharply and sitting upright.
"Are you ill? How long's it been since you had a drink, anyway?"
"Bertie, he's been out in the rain, he can't possibly be dehydrated," Algy said from the fire. "He's trying to get you to let your guard down."
Bertie didn't answer; instead, as he capped the canteen, he stood looking down at their prisoner. He had no idea how to interpret what he was seeing, but he didn't think it was his imagination that von Stalhein looked ill. His pallor was more than might be explained by a night sleeping rough and a couple of bops to the boko, and the shivering was back, more pronounced this time, for all that he appeared to be fighting hard to conceal it.
A man could catch a bad fever under those conditions. Bertie was thinking that Biggles wasn't going to be best pleased to arrive and find that they had captured von Stalhein and then let him perish of pneumonia, but it wasn't just that. The thing that separated them from the bally Boche and Stalin's goons was that they didn't leave people to die tied to chairs. At least ideally not.
He touched von Stalhein's forehead with the back of his hand. Von Stalhein flinched so violently that he came close to tipping himself over, eyes going as wide as they could with the egg he was sporting.
"What are you doing?" von Stalhein hissed out.
"It's all right, chap, just taking your temperature." It occurred to Bertie that he wasn't entirely sure he'd know a fever if he felt one, but von Stalhein didn't feel hot; he felt cold. Perhaps the shivering was only from being chilled after all.
"I hope you're satisfied," von Stalhein said, shifting his shoulders in a way that made Bertie think oddly of a hunting hawk belonging to a boyhood friend of his, and the way it had ruffled up and then smoothed itself down when it was upset. Von Stalhein seemed taken more off balance by a light touch to his forehead than by the threat of facing a brutal interrogation.
Maybe all we need to do to torture him is wrap him up in a blanket and he'll tell us whatever we want, Bertie thought. The idea was amusing but also sad.
"Are you quite done over there?" Algy demanded.
The argument had been settled in favor of beans and stew, ladled onto tin plates. They ate by the fire, with frequent glances at von Stalhein, who seemed to be taking advantage of their distraction to look around a little and tug at his bonds.
"We have got to get some information out of him somehow," Ginger said quietly. "We can assume he's here for the code logbook, same as we are, but we don't know how much he's overheard; we need to know whether he's learned that we—"
The others frantically shushed him. Ginger scowled at them. "He can't hear us unless he's got ears like a bat," he whispered, but he forced himself not to glance at the tin box where the codebook, recovered from a beachside drop site, was hidden among their kit.
"What does it matter if we get the gen from him now, or wait 'til tomorrow?" Bertie pointed out reasonably. "Biggles can likely get him to talk, he's got a way with him, or we can take him back to the Chief and that'll be the end of it."
"It matters if there's an entire company of Reds landing tonight behind the headland and planning to sneak over here and slit our throats," Algy said grimly. "Maybe he's alone now, but who's to say they sent him without backup? He can't possibly be totally alone; even they wouldn't deal with a valuable field agent like that."
"Could be they're playing a longer game," Ginger said.
They spread out and examined the items they had taken from von Stalhein, but there was not much enlightenment to be found there; he was far too skilled to travel with even so much as a cigarette packet with Cyrillic lettering. They had taken his cigarette holder off him, along with a scattering of small personal items, a single remaining food ration, and, of course, the briefcase full of listening equipment, which they examined and put with their own kit after deciding that they needed to let the analysts deal with it.
And it was while they were distracted that von Stalhein made a break for it.
He was almost to the door before they noticed. Ginger yelped, Algy jumped to his feet, and Bertie drew a gun. Algy had already tackled him to the floor when the others got there, all of their full weight landing on top of him. Von Stalhein writhed a bit and then submitted to having his hands bound behind him with a sullen demeanor.
Ginger examined the bonds on the chair and, with equal parts annoyance and admiration, found them neatly cut. "He's got some sort of knife on him," he said. "Search him again."
They held him down and did this. Algy noticed the shivering that Bertie had mentioned. Von Stalhein's clothes didn't feel damp to Algy (he'd had more than enough time to dry out), but he was shaking like a leaf. Algy wondered with dark satisfaction whether it was cowardice rather than fear, if the reality of his situation had finally sunk in and he had understood that Biggles was nowhere nearby to intervene if they decided to give him what he had coming to him.
Von Stalhein lay flat and let them pat him down thoroughly, which involved removing lock picks from his jacket hem and a small blade from the heel of his shoe.
"Anything else?" Algy demanded. "Look at the way he's holding his left hand, Ginger. He's got something there for sure. Help me pull up his sleeve."
"No!" von Stalhein said sharply, speaking for the first time since they had taken him down.
Whatever he had must be valuable, because he fought them with unexpected strength. They had to literally sit on him and then slit his left-hand sleeve up to the elbow. But strangely, there was nothing tied to his arm, nothing in the fabric of the sleeve, although they felt it thoroughly.
"What is this?" Ginger asked, his tone puzzled.
Von Stalhein's forearm was purpled and swollen. The realization abruptly struck Algy that the way von Stalhein had been holding his hand—bent forward, fingers lightly curled—could have meant that he was concealing something, but could also just indicate that his arm hurt. Algy felt an odd, internal twinge. He had no problem seeing von Stalhein hurt through the enemy spy's own poor decisions, but it felt wrong to have accidentally broken his wrist and not noticed. Algy couldn't even think when he might have done it, unless von Stalhein had fallen on it at a bad angle during their struggle.
"We could tape this up," Bertie said. He touched the arm and von Stalhein, for all that he was being held down by three people, jerked violently. "Sorry!" Bertie said, looking genuinely upset about it.
Algy couldn't help thinking that, if the problem was a broken wrist, it had swollen in a strange way. There was a great blotch of purple bruise on the inside of the arm, broken blood vessels covering nearly half the length of his forearm, but it appeared to start from the crook of his elbow. Nothing about it looked like a regular broken arm to Algy.
"Let me see," he said, leaning over to grasp von Stalhein's arm by the wrist and turn it over. There was another slight flinch, more subdued. Algy pulled back the fabric of von Stalhein's cut sleeve and saw that the violent bruise went up his arm the other way as well. It appeared to radiate out from his inner elbow, where there was an inflamed pinprick.
Bertie whistled softly. "What is that?" he asked, screwing in his eyeglass to look more closely.
"It looks like snakebite," Ginger said.
Algy couldn't help being aware of how very still von Stalhein had gone, except for slight tremors that still shook him from time to time.
"Let him sit up," he said abruptly.
They climbed off him; von Stalhein remained on his face for a moment. Algy drew his gun; Bertie still had his out. After a moment, von Stalhein slowly pushed himself up to his knees, using only his right hand for this, with the left dragging limply on the floor. Algy wondered if he could move it at all. Von Stalhein made a sort of quick, graceful flip, that had those of his impromptu guard who were holding guns raising them to cover him, but all he did was turn around to sit with his back against the wall. He laid his right arm across his knees and regarded the three British pilots with a look of cool disdain. Only his left hand, lying limp beside him on the dirt floor with a cut-up sleeve, gave the lie to his frosty, supercilious air.
"What is that?" Algy said without preamble. "I would say it's a venomous bite, but I never saw anything swell up like that if it wasn't a poisonous snakebite, and there are no snakes in these isles. It's not a double puncture anyway." He raised his gaze from the limp and swollen arm to von Stalhein's cold blue gaze. Sometimes it felt like there wasn't a human being behind those eyes at all. "Did someone inject you with something?"
He wasn't expecting what he saw in those chill blue eyes: the quick flash of very human emotions, anger and shame, and the way von Stalhein dropped his gaze to look at the floor.
"What is it?" Ginger asked quietly.
It might have been the softness in his voice that got an actual answer.
"It's a very practical arrangement for ensuring control of state assets," von Stalhein said, his voice barely above a whisper. It seemed to Algy that his accent, barely noticeable at most times, had grown stronger than usual. "Particularly when loyalty is suspect."
"I don't understand," Ginger said.
Von Stalhein let out a breath. He raised his gaze abruptly, and there was a feverish, electric quality to it. "Are you really going to make me say it? That's a sort of cruelty I didn't think any of you were capable of." The corner of his mouth twisted in a bleak smile of sorts. "I probably ought to approve."
"Just get on with it," Algy said.
"Isn't it obvious? I can't believe the three of you are truly that naive." Von Stalhein's head dropped back against the wall of the cottage. "They gave me an injection before I left Russia. I have a set amount of time for this mission—and your group is, as usual, elusive. I need to return with my mission objective before the clock runs down, and receive the antidote, or face the consequences."
They all three stared at him. Bertie finally said, "What consequences?"
"What does it look like?" He gave his arm a little shake. "It starts, I'm told, with fever and chills, pain and nausea. I've experienced this much of it before. From there it progresses to—well. You'll find out, I'm sure, if you keep me penned."
They all looked at each other. Algy could see that his own horror was reflected in the others' eyes. "Where's the antidote?" he asked. His voice rasped in his throat. "Do you have it?"
"Of course not; what would be the point of that?" Von Stalhein actually huffed out a faint laugh. "I missed the rendezvous already, I'm sure, and it's not as if I had managed to recover the mission objective, thanks to you three and your damnable, stubborn ..." He blew out another breath and directed his next remarks to the cottage's low, smoke-darkened ceiling. "I was most likely already a dead man had I returned without it, but it's comforting, I suppose, to blame the three of you."
There was a brief, stunned silence. Then Algy said, "You're lying."
He had to be lying. Algy knew there was evil in the world, but he had never had it so blatantly stare him in the face in quite this bald way. And this man had every reason to deceive them.
Von Stalhein opened his eyes. He gave one of those strange little laughs again. "Yes, of course, I'm lying."
They dragged him up. He came pliably, as if his last urge to flee had left him. As they got him on his feet, Ginger tilted his head. He always had the sharpest ears of the three of them. "Is that a plane?"
"Biggles?" Algy said. He desperately hoped that it was, for all that he knew Biggles wouldn't take the risk of landing in that murk on the beach.
"No, that's the rendezvous I missed," von Stalhein said. He reeled in their grasp; it was as if every ounce of the reserve that had steeled his spine had given way at once. "You may as well not bother with an interrogation. It's likely I've nothing useful for you anyway."
He seemed to rouse a bit when, rather than putting him back on the chair and binding his hands, they deposited him in front of the fire. Algy sat in front of him and grasped von Stalhein's bruised chin in his hand, forcing the spy to look at him.
"How's it work?" he said sharply. "What stops it? Will a tourniquet help?"
"What?" von Stalhein asked, blinking at him in a dazed confusion.
"We may as well try it." Algy started to give instructions, but Ginger was already diving for supplies. Bertie vanished briefly and came back with a bowl of cold seawater.
"It's coming down cats out there," he reported, sitting down beside them. He took von Stalhein's hand and put it in the cold water. "I don't even know if Biggles can land in this."
"We'll not worry about that until we're faced with it," Algy said. Ginger came back with a clean flight scarf and a good, solid firewood stick. "Thanks," Algy murmured, and leaned over to bind it around von Stalhein's upper arm. The German blinked at him dizzily, and then gasped and sucked in a breath as a hard twist of the fabric tightened the band around the stick.
"Hurts? Good. Let it clear your head," Algy said. He had never been this close to von Stalhein in his life, and now he was halfway wrapped across the man's chest, both hands steadying the tourniquet on von Stalhein's upper arm. "So that you can tell us how to stop this. Is there anything, anything at all, besides that antidote you don't have? Can we at least slow its effects until someone can get a dose of the drug?"
"I—" Von Stalhein seemed to be halfway gone already. His hair, normally swept back in perfect precision, was matted in wet strands on his forehead. "There's no way that I—that is, I've never heard of—"
"Snakebite kit," Algy said decisively. "Do we have a cup in the first-aid supplies?"
"I'll see," Ginger said, rushing off.
"Get a blanket," Algy told Bertie, who jumped up and went to do that. Algy released the tourniquet to allow bloodflow back into the arm and checked its colour, pressing on von Stalhein's fingertips.
"I don't understand what you're doing," von Stalhein said.
"Don't you? Really?"
"I should say ..." He seemed to be searching for words. It was shocking how quickly he had gone downhill in less than fifteen minutes, as if the hope of escape—or rescue—had been all that was keeping him going. "I don't understand why."
"Don't ask foolish questions." It came out sharp, in part because Algy hadn't asked himself that question either. It was simply that the answer was too obvious to articulate. "It's—wrong, what they've done to you. Giving a man poison and sending him out to do work for you, under threat of death if he doesn't succeed—why did you even submit to something so deranged?"
Von Stalhein's head had dropped onto Algy's shoulder, as if he was flagging before their eyes. "I don't know," he said quietly. His eyes were closed. "It seemed .... at the time, it ..." He didn't say anything for another minute or two, while Ginger knelt beside them with the snakebite kit, and then he murmured, "It was a useful thing to do. Who doesn't want that?"
"People who don't want other people injecting them with poison," Algy muttered furiously. They cupped out the poison for a few moments, but it was clearly not doing much. And there was no reason it should, he supposed; it had been working its way into von Stalhein's system for days.
"Listen," Algy said, giving von Stalhein a sharp shake. The spy's eyes flickered open. He had slid down until he was halfway in Algy's lap, and seemed surprised to find himself there. "What can stop it? Tell us. Once you're gone to this point, what can reverse it other than the antidote?"
Von Stalhein took a couple of slow, labored breaths, as if there was a weight on his chest. "Nothing besides that. Nothing I know of."
Algy looked up, wide-eyed, at Bertie and Ginger.
"Biggles," Ginger said. "He could land in this. It's not outside his skills."
"It's dangerous," Algy said.
"Oh, come on," Bertie said. "You tell him why, he'll be here as soon as his wheels can leave the ground."
And it would mean breaking radio silence, opening all of them up to potential enemy action. They all looked at each other, and there was a moment of unspoken communion in which they were all perfectly and entirely on the same page.
"I'll take the crank radio up to the headland," Ginger said.
There was no chance they could get a signal out from down in this narrow cleft in the rocks. "Yes, all right, but take the torch and watch your step, all right?" Algy said. "It's your own choice whether to go."
"I know," Ginger said. He gathered the radio things.
"Wait!" Algy said. Leaning against him, von Stalhein was shuddering his way through some kind of small seizure. "One of us is going to spot for you. Ginger, we'll give you time to make it up top, then Bertie or I will come halfway up and signal you with torches from below, all right? We're not losing anyone in this murk."
"Yes, all right," Ginger said. He tapped his forehead with a torch and went out in the blowing, rainy dark.
Algy blew out a breath of pent-up frustration and twisted the tourniquet again, for all that he felt it was making no difference. Von Stalhein bucked a little at the pressure, and then he was still once again.
"What else?" Algy asked Bertie. "Give me some ideas!" Bertie just shook his head and resumed sponging down von Stalhein's forearm with seawater.
Von Stalhein came abruptly out of his dazed, semi-conscious state to a sort of dazed wakefulness. "What happened?" he asked blearily.
"It appears that we are calling in an emergency transport for you," Algy said with ice in his tone. "Let's just hope that a better pilot than you deserve won't crack up on the rocks out there." He adjusted his grip on the tourniquet, trying to hold it in a way that would cause less pain. He wasn't sure why, except that it felt thoroughly unfair right now to hurt him unnecessarily.
"Bigglesworth?" von Stalhein said. No one corrected him. "That's—I've seen that beach. He can't land on that."
"He's already landed on it at least twice, so shut up and let us concern ourselves with the logistics." Algy looked up at Bertie. "One of us had better go up and flash a signal to Ginger, make sure he hasn't fallen over a cliff in the dark. I can go."
"I'm on it," Bertie said, now in his disconcerting but coolly efficient mode, and he went out into the dark with a torch in hand.
"Be careful!" Algy shouted after him.
He was left alone in the cottage, with the dying fire snapping on the hearth behind him, and his team's most tenacious enemy collapsed across his knees, sweaty and limp, while Algy loosed the tourniquet on his arm once again. Von Stalhein turned his head to the side, his free hand scrabbling loosely at Algy's arm. Algy impatiently put it aside.
"I don't understand," von Stalhein said, very quietly.
"We're not like your friends, all right? Shut up and let me work."
He was, in all honesty, not sure if anything he was doing made any difference at all. But Bertie came back after a few minutes to say that Biggles had received the message, and Ginger would report the rest when he got down.
Algy closed his eyes briefly, then opened them with a fierce anger and leaned over von Stalhein. "If the best man and the best pilot that I know beats himself to death on the rocks out there, for you and your misplaced loyalty to your worthless handlers, who it's already clear wouldn't lift a finger to save you, I'll make you regret it," he snarled. "Take him for a minute, Bertie. I'll go out to mark the landing strip for Biggles."
He went with a handful of torches, a lighter, and some wadded-up magazines they'd probably regret the loss of later. The cold, spitting rain matched his mood. They hadn't planned for signal fires, but there was a good deal of beachwrack, and even in the rain he was able to kindle a few small, sputtering fires that grew as he fed fuel into their churning orange hearts.
Ginger came skittering down from the path to the headlands in a shower of rocks. "You heard?" he called.
"Bertie did, apparently. Is he incoming?" Algy almost hoped the answer was no. It would have left them in a pretty spot, but his best friend wouldn't have been at risk of beating himself to death on the rocks.
"He said the ceiling's high most of the way, and light him a path. He'll be here in a couple of hours."
"Make yourself useful," Algy told Ginger, throwing a sand-covered log into his arms. "Let's get this beach burning bright."
He went back into the cottage a few times, and took over from Bertie at one point, sponging down von Stalhein with cold seawater. The enemy spy was entirely out of it by this point, wracked with shivering that occasionally turned into full-blown seizures. Algy couldn't see how any possible flight to Russia could save him at this point, and simultaneously cursed the Soviets for their cruel efficiency, von Stalhein for being a dupe, and Biggles for getting him into this in the first place, while anxiously watching the sky for running lights.
He almost didn't see them. Biggles came in so low he kissed the tops of the waves, skimming across the fire-touched ocean to touch down with Biggles-perfect precision on the beach. They waved their torches in simulated landing lights, and Biggles braked to a stop in a shower of sand in front of a burning tower of beachwood.
"Contact and touchdown!" he called, jumping down from the plane to thump into the rain-wet sand. God, Algy thought, he had done that incredible landing with a near-impenetrable salt spray coating his windscreen. "Where is he? How are you? I have a present, but I need to go find the recipient. Algy, show me."
"Yes, this way," Algy said, leaving Ginger to tuck in the all-important plane. They went into the cottage, where Bertie looked up from his position in front of the fire with an all but dead-looking von Stalhein spread across his lap.
"Hullo, Erich," Biggles murmured. He had his goggles pushed back on his head, rucking up his fair hair, and he was still wearing a flight jacket coated in salt spray. He fumbled in the jacket pocket and brought out a small case. "I've a gift for you. Algy, give me a hand here—"
It was like a metal tool case. They snapped it open, and there was a bottle inside with some needles couched in gauze.
"What is this?" Algy asked.
"A little thing our government had lying about," Biggles said. His expression was cool and fierce. "I am told it's an antidote to the poison they gave him. I was only allowed to take one dose. Let us assume that it is enough ..."
Von Stalhein's eyelids fluttered as Biggles's hand closed about his upper arm. The whole arm was swollen now, and there was bruise-like mottling across his neck and the lower part of his face. He frowned a little, looking up in dazed confusion. "Bigglesworth," he said in a thickly blurred voice.
"Fancy meeting you here. Please be still for this, Erich." And von Stalhein was still, very still, with only the faintest of tremors running through him—Algy could feel it through his hands where they clamped on von Stalhein's arms, helping Bertie hold him down—as Biggles injected the dose into the swollen arm, on top of what must have been terribly painful, fluid-engorged flesh.
They sat for a few minutes beside the fire. Algy let go, but remained on his knees, waiting for an easing of von Stalhein's tensed-back position. Biggles had one hand on his wrist, the thumb stroking across von Stalhein's palm.
There was a sudden sharp jerk that shuddered through their patient, and then von Stalhein sagged into Bertie's lap, and Biggles leaned forward to inspect the injection site, and Algy turned to the fire and stirred it up, very determinedly turning himself to thoughts of tea.
Ginger came in from outside. "I've tied her down, but it's kicking up into a squall out there," he said. "I don't know if it's a good idea to try to take off before morning, and maybe not even then, depending on what the winds are doing. Er ... is ... "
"Doing better, from what I can tell." Algy set a kettle over the stirred-up hearth.
He glanced over his shoulder at Biggles bending over a limp and half-conscious von Stalhein, sprawled in the lap of a rather bemused-looking Bertie, and thought a few dire thoughts—some directed at von Stalhein, some at the ghoulish people who had sent him here.
Ginger went to lay out a modified version of their sleeping arrangements on the floor with Biggles's sleeping bag as well. By the time he was done, the tea was steeped and hot, and Algy found crockery enough for all of them. There was no milk, but there were heavy doses of sugar, courtesy of their stores.
Ginger and Bertie plied Biggles with hot cups of tea, which somehow left Algy holding a cup of heavily sweetened tea to von Stalhein's mouth, which he had just bloodied not a few hours before.
The spy took a few gulps, his head supported with Algy's hand curled around the sweat-damp base of his skull. He wasn't shivering now. He took a few breaths between sips of tea, and then said indistinctly, "Bigglesworth ..."
"Yes, Biggles this and Bigglesworth that; he's fine and he's here, so please drink this tea that I just wasted some of our sugar reserves to sweeten. It looks like a regular nor'easter is blowing into these islands, so if we're here for the entire day tomorrow, you may regret this extravagance."
But he held it gently, offering small sips, not smothering the man. He couldn't imagine what it would feel like to have your people dangle you out in the wind like that, dropping you all alone into the cold. And he didn't want to. The world Algy lived in was a world in which someone would land on the beach in a chill, blowing dark to help you. He couldn't imagine how far from that world one would have to be in order to consider a shot of poison in the arm a valid substitute for it.
"If you don't come back to England with us, I think he'd consider you deeply ungrateful," he said, not even sure what made him say it, but he felt another of those small huffing laughs before von Stalhein took another sip of sweetened tea.