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Ninth Life

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Algy was laughing when the machine touched down on the wet tarmac. He jumped out and tossed a canvas sack to Ginger. "There's your decoy jewels," he said cheerfully. "Biggles has got the real stuff—is he back yet?"

"Not yet, but he was going round the coast, wasn't he?" Ginger said. Algy nodded and left the machine to the ground crew. "Any trouble on the way back?"

"None at all, just had to fly low because of the weather." Algy glanced toward the cloud ceiling, still lowering; he had barely beaten it back to London, and rain stung his face as he ducked his head and headed for the building. Bertie came out to join them. "Made as much of a target of myself as possible. I think I was shadowed across the sea from Amsterdam, but I couldn't prove it."

"We were hoping Biggles would beat you back, old loaf," Bertie said as they went into the warmth of the side door and Algy shed his damp flying jacket. "The weather is socking in along the coast and we were getting worried."

"Worried about who, me or Biggles?"

"Both," Ginger said, swing the canvas decoy sack. "We don't have radio contact with Biggles right now, but that's not too surprising if he's having to fly low to beat the weather. Actually, with both of you late in, we were speculating you'd landed somewhere to wait it out. He might have done."

"With the jewels?" Algy said, alarmed. "I don't like that."

They reached Raymond's office, only for Algy to be brought up short by an unexpected and unpleasant surprise, rather like finding a hornet in the corner of the room. There was no mistaking the slim, upright figure with close-cropped, graying hair in a chair in front of Raymond's desk, one long-fingered hand draped lightly across the plain head of the utilitarian walking stick he used these days.

"Von Stalhein," Algy muttered. "What's he doing here?"

"Showed up while we were all poring over the weather report," Bertie said, adjusting his eyeglass. "I think it's a check-in of sorts, keep an eye on him and whatnot."

"Good to know someone's doing that, but what a bloody bad time for it."

Raymond saw them at the door and gestured them in. Von Stalhein rose swiftly and gave the three of them a brief, tight nod.

"Lacey, good to see you back," Raymond said. "Sorry to hit you with this when you've barely shed your flying kit, but when did you last make visual contact with Bigglesworth?"

"Is he missing?" von Stalhein asked, his voice clipped and face impassive.

Algy decided to ignore him if possible. "That would be in the Netherlands, sir. He was taking a longer route back, hitting the coast at Norfolk and flying south, while I made a target of myself as much as possible and flew straight across. But I was delayed with the weather. I should expect him in anytime."

"So would I," Raymond said. He gave von Stalhein a nod. "Sorry, we'll have to finish this some other time. You're free to go if you like."

They went out to the main office, where it turned out that Ginger and Bertie had been spending their time with a large coastal chart and push-pins, mapping the spread of the fog and heavy weather flowing in from the North Sea. Von Stalhein lurked along behind in his typical way. Algy put renewed effort into ignoring him.

"Well, that's a mess," he said, looking at the map. "I didn't realize it was that bad."

"Ceiling down to the ground all along the coast according to the maritime weather report," Ginger said. He looked tense. "Biggles must have put in somewhere, he's too savvy not to."

"If he set down on the beach, he's likely out of radio contact," Algy said.

"I'll send some calls out," Raymond said. "There's always maritime traffic, even in these conditions. Someone might have seen him."

"I can take a machine up and look," Ginger offered.

"All of us can," Bertie said promptly.

"And then we'll have three machines out of contact? Nothing doing," Raymond said flatly. "No one leaves the ground without my authorization. It's getting worse out there, by all accounts."

Indeed, rain lashed the windows, and it was barely possible to see across the runway. Algy's earlier triumph had faded into a hollow, cold feeling. Biggles couldn't have been forced down over the sea—could he? Maybe they were wrong about how the thieves were operating; perhaps there was a boat involved as well. In the cold water ...

"Buck up," Ginger said, nudging him. "It's Biggles, isn't it? He's been in far worse scrapes. Drink something hot, maybe have a kip in the back. You must be done in."

As the adrenalin faded, Algy became aware of how cold and exhausted he was. He'd been up all night, not to mention flying in white-knuckle weather conditions all the way back. "A cup of tea wouldn't go wrong. Someone call me if there's any word."

There was none, and grey morning wore on to a grey, dark afternoon. Someone brought in sandwiches that they only picked at. Von Stalhein continued to lurk about; but they seemed to have a mutual, unspoken agreement to largely ignore each other. Bertie made coffee.

Raymond came in, his face stiff. "There's been some news," he said, and Ginger, who had been lounging on the corner of Algy's desk while they tried to concentrate on a card game, sprang to his feet. "Not good news, I'm afraid. A Coastguard cutter spotted a wreck along the Flamborough headland. They're trying to put in for a better look and to check for survivors, but the surf's high and rough, so it's going to be difficult."

The mood in the room turned grim. Algy cast a glance at von Stalhein, who had been leafing through a magazine in the corner, but he was perfectly stonefaced, not a single scrap of emotion to be seen. Absolutely heartless, Algy thought bitterly. He wouldn't turn a hair if Biggles was shot down in front of him.

"That's far north of where he was supposed to be," Algy said. But he had fought the wind himself all the way across; he could see Biggles having been forced considerably farther north in an attempt to avoid the worst of it.

"Do they know the model of the 'plane?" Ginger asked.

"It's consistent with the size of the one Bigglesworth was flying," Raymond said grimly. "They'll wire us photos when they have some. I'm sorry, lads. Hold firm."

The next bad news hit with the photos, which showed up an hour or so later. The group closed in, spreading them out on Biggles's currently unused desk.

Algy had to steel himself to pick up one of the prints. It was still moist from the developer's bath, and partly obscured with flying surf, but there was no mistaking the shape of the tail—burnt out though it was.

Bertie was the one who said it. "That's Biggles's machine."

Algy cursed softly.

"It's not a sure thing, though—is it?" Ginger asked. "It's Biggles. You know how he is."

Algy found that he couldn't take his eyes off the photos, a bleak spread of destruction and death familiar to all of them from the war. The angle made it impossible to tell if there was a pilot in the wreckage, but Algy's long flying experience could read the nature of the disaster, the machine flying nearly at wavetop level to avoid the fog, caught by the unpredictable winds along the coast and flung into the rocks.

Even so, the pilot had made a valiant effort to set down safely on the beach. It was pure bad luck that had flipped the machine and set it ablaze.

Algy set down the photo with a shaking hand, only to have it picked up again immediately. Von Stalhein had moved in at his side, so quietly that Algy hadn't even been aware of him. Face perfectly impassive, he studied the photo as if trying to read its secrets. Algy, seething with fury and sick with grief, wanted to shake him to break that impenetrable stone-faced calm.

He looked up and was relieved, to an extent, to be met with fellow-feeling in the form of the shock and horror on the others' faces. They all had seen pilots die like that. It wasn't a pretty death.

"Someone's got to get out there," Ginger said. "He could be hurt."

"All of this was hours ago, old chap," Bertie murmured. Blinking rapidly, he took off his eyeglass and polished it.

"Permission to fly up and look," Algy said to Raymond.

"Permission not granted. It'll be dark soon. There are cars out, and they'll hopefully have men on the beach soon."

A chill, early dark closed over the airfield. By now no one was pretending to be doing anything other than remaining glued to the radio and the phones, waiting for news. The atmosphere was one Algy knew all too well from the war: the strung-out feeling of too much caffeine and too little sleep, the tight-wound tension and impotence of waiting.

Raymond stopped by frequently to update them. There were searchers out on the beach, but the storm was raging all along the coast, and the wreck had been dragged into the surf. There was still no sign of a pilot, although the machine had been positively identified by its serial number as the one Biggles had been flying.

"There's no reason not to drive up, is there?" Ginger asked. "Even if it's too dark and the weather's too lousy and wet to fly in. We could help."

"On that, I can't tell you yes or no," Raymond said. "The roads are a mess in the area, from what I'm hearing—flooding, downed trees. It'll likely you'll learn more here. At least you'll be the first to hear it."

"I'm flying up in the morning," Algy said flatly. "Regardless of weather."

"As soon as it's light, you've permission to go," Raymond told him.

As Raymond went back to his office, Algy noticed with a renewed surge of anger that von Stalhein, at some point, had sat down at Biggles's desk and was going through the photos of the burnt plane, methodically and slowly, his face cold.

"Get up from there," Algy told him viciously. "You've no right to sit there."

Von Stalhein carefully laid the photos back down. He rose, and with a murmured, "Excuse me," walked quietly out of the office.

Algy jumped to his feet.

"Don't," Bertie said softly. "Let him go."

"I'm tired of it," Algy flared. "Look at him. Cold as ice—he doesn't care a thing for Biggles, he never has! If there was even a scrap of human emotion in him, you'd think this situation would have brought it out, but it's not there, it never was."

He was breathing rapidly now. Some part of him, a calmer part, was aware that his rage had a source that had nothing to do with von Stalhein; the defected German agent was nothing but a convenient target. But it was also the culmination of years of frustration.

"I'm tired of watching Biggles throwing his heart at that carven stone statue's feet," Algy seethed. "I wish we could show him this—don't you? Good old Erich, untouched by human emotion."

He turned on his heel.

"Where are you going?" Ginger asked, springing to his feet.

"I won't be but a moment. I'm not going to start a fist-fight, if that's what you're worried about. I just need some air."

He stormed out.

By the time he got to the side door opening onto the tarmac, he had cooled down somewhat, and the chill of the wet night air helped bring him to his senses. It simply wasn't in his nature to hate, at least not for long—even under this level of provocation.

He did wish it was possible to show Biggles what the three of them had been seeing all day: von Stalhein's cool unaffectedness, as if even the possibility of Biggles dead in the cockpit of his machine was not enough to touch that ice-cold heart. He could feel his hands curling into fists again at the thought.

If only Biggles was alive to show anything to. But he was. He had to be.

It was dark outside the building. The runway floodlights were starkly bright, glittering in a halo of raindrops, but the side of the building was in shadow. There were some barrels and crates here, and it occurred to Algy as he looked around that he wasn't sure where von Stalhein had gone. He couldn't have run off entirely, could he?

There was a sound nearby, a low clatter that Algy took at first for a stray cat or something similar, but then there was a quiet, mumbled curse and he realized he wasn't alone.

"Von Stalhein?" he said. The sounds went abruptly silent.

Algy walked that way, and he was just in time to see von Stalhein leaning against the side of the building in the deep shadow behind a stack of barrels. The German was in the act of straightening up, although it was clear from context that he had been bent over, one hand on the side of the building. He was wiping the back of the other across his mouth.

"Are you sick?" Algy said, the words startled out of him.

Von Stalhein didn't answer immediately. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his mouth with it, then the back of his hand. His hands were visibly shaking, Algy saw with an increasing, dawning surprise that was rapidly wiping away the anger.

At last von Stalhein said, "Does it matter?"

When he turned, Algy glimpsed his stark pallor in the runway lights, sweat as well as rain beaded on his forehead and slicking the side of his face. He was still visibly shaking; it was clear that he had been trying to calm himself, but now shivers wracked him. He could barely stand.

And Algy understood at last what he was looking at. He didn't want to—but he couldn't deny the evidence of his eyes.

"Sit down," he said, his voice abrupt, but his hands were careful as he caught von Stalhein's arm and steered him to a crate under the overhanging edge of the roof. "You're going to pass out. Sit down—put your head down—yes, like that."

Von Stalhein went pliantly except for the steady, constant trembling. Algy pushed his head down, and he gulped shaky breaths. Without really thinking about it, Algy rested a hand on the back of his sticky, clammy neck, as he might have done for Ginger or Bertie to lend them a grounding touch, a bit of human comfort and warmth. Von Stalhein's skin was very cold.

"You're freezing," Algy said. Von Stalhein hadn't been out here long enough to catch that much of a chill. But Algy recognized what he was looking at. He'd seen it before often enough, after all. In the war, most often—but in men in the civilian world, as well. "Frayed nerves."

"I'm all right," von Stalhein said shakily. The words were bitten off in sharp jerks.

"No, you're not." Algy was quiet for a minute, thinking about what to do. He doubted if von Stalhein would enjoy being taken back inside and subjected to the scrutiny of the office. But then it was taken out of his hands when the door opened, light flooding out. Von Stalhein jerked violently, an all-over flinch. Now that his control had cracked, he seemed to be headed into a full-blown case of shell shock.

"What's happening?" Bertie asked from the doorway. He took a step outside, and as the light bathed the scene, took in what he was seeing—and went into his quietly focused mode. "Do you need anything?"

"Just give us a minute," Algy said. "We'll want some towels, a blanket perhaps—and hot, strong tea, if you could rummage some up?"

Bertie nodded and withdrew, leaving them alone under the shadow of the roof. It was no longer raining heavily, more of a pervasive damp that left water droplets on everything. Algy wished he'd thought to grab a coat before coming out. Von Stalhein didn't have one either.

His hand was still on von Stalhein's neck; he could feel the light tremors that continued to shake him. The scene assumed almost farcical overtones. Algy couldn't believe he was standing here in the rain trying to reassure someone who had been, until very recently, an enemy to them. But he was unable to discount the evidence of profound distress in front of him. He had seen this too many times in other men, the dead absence of reaction until the nerves all hit at once. It was not a lack of feeling that had caused the stone-faced frigidity he had observed earlier; it was too much of it.

"Look," Algy said softly. "This is Biggles, all right? The man really does have a charmed way about him. I won't believe he's dead until I see it."

Von Stalhein let out a breath, his forehead resting on his hand. "I haven't seen much evidence in my life of miracles," he said, muffled.

"Biggles has a way of making them happen. Listen, I don't suppose I could persuade you to come in. It's wretched out here, and you might feel better with tea and a sandwich in you."

Von Stalhein huffed something almost like a laugh. He stood, leaning heavily on his cane, and looked Algy in the eyes. He was a bit taller, and his eyes were strangely pale in the dim light, almost colourless. What they were not, however, was frozen; there was a murky confusion of emotion there.

"He's fortunate to have all of you," he said quietly.

Algy had no idea how to deal with that, from von Stalhein of all people. He opened the door instead. "Inside."

There were indeed towels, and tea, and Algy decided to take his own advice and eat half a sandwich he didn't particularly want.

And he was in the middle of that when there was a commotion outside the office. Algy had just started to rise to find out what was happening when the door opened and Biggles blew in, thoroughly wet and bright-eyed and cheerful, waving a sodden canvas sack. Algy was leaning on the desk next to von Stalhein, so he was close enough to hear a sharp, shaken intake of breath. Von Stalhein, who had been hunched over, abruptly sat up.

"Someone lock these up for me?" Biggles called, waving the sack. "I've had a day. Oh, Algy, good. I hoped you'd beaten the weather in." He seemed bemused to find himself immediately swarmed by his friends, hands on his shoulders and the sack all but wrestled away from him. Ginger shoved a sandwich into his hand. "Good man," Biggles said, "I'm starved."

"Where were you?" snapped Ginger, at the same time as Bertie said, "Your machine, old boy—"

"Yes, it's a total loss, I'm afraid. Long story. I ended up a bit north of where I was meant to be—"

"A bit?" Algy said. "You were almost up to bloody Scotland!"

"I can only plead that I seem to have lost my sense for dead reckoning, at least in that sort of murk. In any case, after getting down, I flagged a motorist and asked if I could borrow her car."

"And ringing ahead never occurred to you," Raymond said in a voice dry enough to peel paint.

"I was set on getting here in case the thieves beat me back and tried to stop me along the way," Biggles protested, his mouth full. "And with the storm blowing across the entire region, the one place I did stop—for petrol—had their lines down. I thought getting the jewels back was a higher priority than going on a telephone hunt."

Algy abruptly realized that he wasn't sure where von Stalhein had got off to; the lot of them had become preoccupied with Biggles, and von Stalhein had skulked off somewhere instead. Leaving Biggles telling the story in disjointed pieces, interrupted continually by the others, Algy slipped off as well—remembering to grab a jacket this time.

Somewhat to his surprise, he found von Stalhein more or less where he had expected. The former spy was sitting on the same crate where Algy had deposited him earlier, in the rain and the dark, with his face buried in his hands.

"This is getting to be a habit," Algy said, and von Stalhein jerked and straightened up. His face was composed, but he was breathing rapidly. "No, seriously, come in and say hello to him. He'll be glad to know you're here."

"He seemed busy," von Stalhein said. There was a slight crack in his voice.

Algy considered for a moment and then sat on the crate beside him.

"Look," he said. "In the war, there were two types who didn't make it through. One's the kind who went wild, drank all the time, took every risk. Biggles was like that for a little while, after Marie; it's pure luck he didn't go the way of some others I knew back then. But," Algy said, tilting his head to meet the pale eyes, "there's the other kind, the ones who locked it all down. Those ones, you never knew about; you just found them dead, sooner or later. I think he'd be upset if that happened to you. Do you see what I'm saying?"

"I wasn't expecting a lecture," von Stalhein said after a moment.

But after a moment he got up and went inside. Algy followed.

Things had settled down in the office somewhat. Biggles was sprawled on a chair with a plate of sandwiches in front of him, and looked up when they came in. The unalloyed delight on his face when he saw von Stalhein was still somehow irritating to Algy, but less so than usual. "They told me you were here," Biggles said.

Von Stalhein hesitated; he seemed almost unsure. Then he crossed the room to clasp Biggles's hand. "I remember once mentioning that those like me, we have nine lives," von Stalhein said. "I must be on my ninth by now, and so must you."

Biggles laughed, the sound bright and delighted, and it seemed to dispel the last of the gloomy atmosphere that had clung on in the corners of the office. "I don't think either of us has run through all of them yet."