by Captain W. E. Johns



IX.                   THE CASE OF THE FLYING CLOWN  (Pages 131 – 144)


This story was originally published in THE BOY’S OWN PAPER – Volume 76, issue 6, dated March 1954 published by the Lutterworth Press.


“Air Commodore Raymond, of the Special Air Police Section at Scotland Yard, watched morosely as Biggles and his police pilots filed into his office and found seats.  “Don’t look so worried, sir,” said Biggles sympathetically.  “It’ll all come right in the end”.  Raymond’s reply is “One of these days it won’t come right, and my thirty years of conscientious work will be forgotten in the public’s howl for somebody’s blood”.  Raymond shows Biggles a photograph of an old-fashioned biplane in flight.  Between the wings, struts had been formed into a cage.  In the cage was a tiger.  The weight was counterbalanced on the opposite side by a clown hanging from a wing-top.  Pasted on the picture was the caption: Air Thrills Unlimited.  The New International Air Circus opening in Paris next week”.  Biggles looked at it, shook his head and passed it to Ginger.  “Even with a slow-flying kite and stabilizing devices, that can be no picnic for the pilot,” remarked Ginger, passing the photograph on to Bertie Lissie.  Raymond says the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation started a probe into the affairs of a former armaments king and mystery man called Jacob Ironmaster.  Ironmaster is a strange and eccentric man, a misanthrope who appears to hate everybody.  He was deformed in an accident when a youth and he is the financial backer of this Air Thrills Circus, which was formed in Germany.  The British security people sent Wing Commander Jimmy Strickland to answer an advert for a super stunt pilot to keep an eye on things and he is now dead.  The show is now due to open in Paris at the same time as the World Peace Conference and the members of the Conference have accepted an invitation to attend the opening performance.  The show is international and includes Russian Cossacks.  To shut it down would cause international friction.  Strickland was killed in a plane crash and he was pulled out by a mechanic named Jones who is at Raymond’s office now.  Jones tells them that Strickland’s dying words were “Tell them to stop Nemo in Paris”.  Nemo is the flying clown, he does wing-walking, whilst his stooge, Nix, does the flying.  Jones says that everyone hates Nemo and he never takes his make-up off.  Raymond wants Biggles to apply for the now vacant stunt pilot job.  Biggles smiled cynically.  “Thank you very much.  I never did like stunting”.  “This is a special occasion” says Raymond.  “After all, Strickland was a friend of yours.  You’re not going to let his murderer get away with it?  You can take the others with you.  It might help you to get the job if you said you could supply your own mechanics.  They could guard your machine against sabotage”.  Biggles nodded.  “All right, sir, you win.  I’ll go and get organised”.  (A new paragraph starts after a break).  “The night was hot, for Paris in high summer can be very hot.  The atmosphere in the trailer caravan which Biggles had shared with his comrades for three days, since he had taken over the stunt pilot’s job, was stifling”.  Algy says there is something about Nemo and Nix that gives him the creeps.  Biggles wonders how the Peace Conference is to be sabotaged.  “I have a feeling that if some devilment has been cooked it will happen in the grand finale, when Nemo and Nix do their low-level stunt act over the procession and Nemo stands on a wing and pelts the spectators with paper balls.  Biggles is aware of somebody outside.  He opens the door to find a lion called Major.  The lion tamer, Paddy O’Shea calls it back.  Biggles gets chatting with Paddy about Nemo and it is clear that Paddy doesn’t like Nemo.  Paddy remembers when he was only a boy seeing Nemo fall from a high trapeze and go right through the safety net.  The crowd laughed thinking it was part of the act.  Nemo didn’t die but has lived with a hunched back hating everyone ever since.  It so happens that Paddy’s nephew, Mike Casey, is the operator of the wireless and Biggles wants to hear what is being said between Nemo and Nix when they rehearse tomorrow.  Nemo opens the caravan door and tells them all to go to bed as it’s a busy day tomorrow.  “The clown’s body seemed to have been telescoped, so that his arms appeared unnaturally long, like those of an ape.  He moved as though his body were made of rubber; but perhaps the most disconcerting feature was the harsh voice that grated through the lips painted in a grotesque smile”.  When he leaves, Biggles tells the others that he has realised that Nemo is Ironmaster himself.  (A new paragraph starts after a break).  “The next day, the rehearsal went forward with the efficiency of a well-planned military operation.  Biggles ran through his own act, which included a mock combat.  At the end came the big moment.  The arena was cleared except for the black-painted biplane of Nemo and Nix”.  Biggles goes to the radio room where Bertie is listening in.  Casey having been sent away by Nemo.  They hear Nemo tell Nix “The scum that laughed when I went through the net won’t laugh to-morrow.  I’ve waited a long time for this”.  Biggles says Nemo is going to drop something on the peace conference.  “He’s mad, driven insane by an obsession of hate because people laughed when he had the accident that ruined his life”.  Algy wants to tip Marcel Brissac of the Surete off but Biggles says you can’t arrest a man because you think he’s going to do something outrageous.  Biggles says when Nemo does his act tomorrow, he, Biggles will be flying the plane.    (A new paragraph starts after a break).  “Twenty-four hours later, the Peace Delegates are in the grandstand and there is a crowd of more than ten thousand people present.  Nemo comes out to the black aircraft, with a white haversack hanging on his shoulder, and then he is followed by the white-masked figure of his pilot.  Ginger starts to perspire knowing that Nix was actually locked in his dressing room with Algy standing guard over him.  Nemo walks out on the wing while Biggles starts the engine.  Nemo asks Biggles over the radio “Why didn’t you do your usual handsprings before you got in?”  Biggles, pretending to be busy with the controls, did not answer.  When Nemo turns his back, Biggles grabs Nemo’s haversack and cuts the sling, then he puts it on the floor of the cockpit.  “Take it easy, Ironmaster, the game’s up” said Biggles crisply.  Nemo pulls out and automatic.  “At that moment Biggles was as near to death as he had ever been: and he knew it.  He could think of only one thing to do”.  Biggles jerks the throttle wide open to throw Nemo off balance and then takes off to avoid the aircraft hitting the crowd.  Staying at fifty feet to avoid Nemo shooting him and then parachuting to safety, Biggles watches the clown again raise the gun.  He puts the machine in a slow roll and Nemo falls.  (A new paragraph starts after a break).  “The public never knew the truth about the accident.  Rumours flew, of course, and the story was front page news the following day.  But accidents at air displays are not uncommon and the incident was soon forgotten”.  Most of the sympathy was for the clown.  “But what the crowd would have thought had it learned that his haversack contained a gallon jar of vitriol (sulphuric acid), which apparently he intended to shower on the Peace Delegates is another matter”.