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The satan bug, p.10
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       The Satan Bug, p.10

           Alistair MacLean
 
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I said dryly, “Maybe you should be working in number one lab instead of your husband. As an alibi, Hartnell, your story is too ridiculously feeble for words. Nobody in their right minds would believe it for an instant, which means maybe that I’m not in my right mind. I believe it.”

  Hartnell exhaled a long sigh of relief, but his wife said with a strange mixture of hesitancy and shrewdness, “It could be a trap. You could think Tom guilty and be lulling him into——”

  “Mrs. Hartnell,” I said. “With respects, you are abysmally ignorant of the facts of life as they appertain to the wilds of Wiltshire. Your husband may think no one saw him, but I can assure you that the way between here and Alfringham is alive with people between 10.30 and 11 p.m.— courting couples, gentlemen between pubs and homes upending their last bottles to prepare themselves for wifely wrath, old ladies and some not so old peering between not-quite-closed curtains. With a squad of detectives I could turn up a score of people by noon tomorrow—I’ll wager a dozen Alfringham citizens saw Dr. Hartnell waiting outside Tuffnell’s office last night. I’m not even going to bother finding out.”

  Mrs. Hartnell said softly, “He means it, Tom.”

  “I mean it. Somebody is trying to divert suspicion to you, Hartnell. I want you to remain at home for the next two days—I’ll fix it at Mordon. You’re to talk to no one—no one—during that time. Take to your bed if you have to, but talk to no one. Your absence from work, your indisposition will be thought peculiar in the circumstances and will make somebody think our suspicions are directed towards you. You understand?”

  “Completely. I’m sorry I was such a fool, Cavell, but——”

  “I wasn’t very nice myself. Good night.”

  In my car Mary said wonderingly, “What on earth is happening to the legendary Cavell toughness?”

  “I don’t know. Tell me.”

  “You didn’t have to tell him that he wasn’t under suspicion. After he’d told his story you could just have said nothing and let him carry on to his work as usual. A man like that would be incapable of hiding the fact that he was worried to death and that would have suited your purpose of making the real murderer think we’re on to Hartnell just as well. But you couldn’t do it, could you?”

  “I wasn’t like this before I got married. I’m a ruined man. Besides, if Hartnell really knew the evidence against him he’d go off his rocker.”

  She was silent for some time. She was sitting on my left hand side and I can’t see people who are sitting to my left but I knew she was staring at me. Finally, she said, “I don’t understand.”

  “I have three polythene bags in the rear seat. In one of them is a sample of dried red mud. Hartnell invariably takes the bus to work—but I found that mud, a peculiar reddish loam, under the front mudguard of his scooter: and the only place for miles around with that type of soil is a couple of fields near the main gates of Mordon. In the second bag is a hammer I found in his toolshed—it looks clean, but I’m betting that a couple of grey hairs sticking to the haft came from our canine pal Rollo, who was so grievously clouted last night. The third bag contains a pair of heavy insulated pliers. They’ve been perfectly cleaned, but a comparison, by electronic microscope, of some scratches on it and the broken ends of the barbed wire in Mordon should give some very interesting results.”

  “You found all that?” she whispered.

  “I found all that. Near-genius, I would say.”

  “You’re worried to death, aren’t you?” Mary asked. I made no reply and she went on, “Even with all that you still don’t think he’s guilty? I mean, that anyone should go to such lengths——”

  “Hartnell’s innocent. Of the killing, anyway. Someone picked the lock of his tool-shed last night. Unmistakable scratches, if you know what to look for.”

  “Then why did you remove——”

  “Two reasons. Because there are some policemen in this island who have been so rigidly indoctrinated with the belief that two and two must inevitably make four that they wouldn’t think twice of by-passing the Old Bailey and dragging Hartnell to the nearest old oak tree. The red mud, hammer and pliers together with Paul Revere’s moonlight ride—it’s pretty damning.”

  “But—but you said yourself that if he had been out last night there would have been witnesses——”

  “Eyewash. I called Dr. Hartnell a fluent liar but he isn’t in my class. At night all cats are grey. During the dark any motor-cyclist with heavy coat, crash helmet and goggles looks pretty much like any other motor-cyclist with heavy coat, crash helmet and goggles. But I didn’t see that there was anything to be gained by worrying Hartnell and his wife to death: if there was I wouldn’t have hesitated. Not with this madman running around with the Satan Bug. Besides, I want Hartnell not to be worried.”

  “What on earth do you mean?”

  “I don’t rightly know,” I confessed. “Hartnell wouldn’t kill a fly. But Hartnell is mixed up in something very fishy indeed.”

  “What makes you say that? You said he’s clear.

  Why——”

  “I told you I don’t know,” I said irritably. “Call it a hunch, call it something the subconscious mind cottoned on to and hasn’t yet got around to transferring to some place where I’ll recognise it. Anyway, my second reason for filching exhibits A, B and C is that whoever planted the goods on Hartnell and started him on his wild-goose chase is going to be more than a little worried himself now. If the police either cleared Hartnell or clapped him in the hoosegow, our friend would know where he stood. But with Hartnell mysteriously and suspiciously remaining at home and the police at the same time making no mention of having found exhibits A, B and C, the killer’s going to be kept wondering just what the cops are up to. Indecision. Indecision hampers action and hampering action buys time. We need all the time we can get.”

  “You have a low and devious mind, Pierre Cavell,” Mary said at length, “but I think that if I were innocent of a crime and the evidence proved beyond any doubt that I was guilty, I’d rather have you investigating my case than anyone alive. By the same token, if I were guilty of a crime and there was no possibility of any evidence pointing to me, I’d rather have anyone else in the world except you investigating it. Or so my father says and he should know. I know you’ll find this man, Pierre.”

  I wished I could even begin to share her conviction. But I couldn’t even begin. I was sure of nothing, nothing at all, except that Hartnell wasn’t the blue-eyed innocent he appeared, nor his good wife, and that my leg was aching pretty fiercely. I wasn’t looking forward very much to the remainder of that night.

  We were back in the Waggoner’s Rest just before ten o’clock. Hardanger was waiting for us in a deserted corner of the lounge along with a dark-suited unknown man who turned out to be a police stenographer. The superintendent was studying some papers and scowling away into the middle distance from time to time, but the craggy face broke into a beam of pleasure when he looked up and saw us. Mary, rather. He was genuinely fond of her and found it difficult to understand why she had thrown herself away on me.

  I let them talk for a minute or two, looking at Mary’s face and listening to her voice and wishing vaguely for the hundredth time that I had tape and film to record the soft lilting cadences of the voice and the facinating shift and play of expression in case the day should ever come when that would be all I would have left of her. Then I cleared my throat to remind them that I was still here. Hardanger looked at me, touched an internal switch and the smile vanished.

  “Turn up anything startling?” he asked.

  “In a way. The hammer that laid out the alsatian guard dog, the pliers that cut the wire and apparent proof that Dr. Hartnell’s moped was in the vicinty of Mordon last night.”

  He didn’t bat an eyelid. He said, “Let’s go up to your room.” We went, and once there Hardanger said to a man accompanying him, “Johnson, your notebook,” and to me, “From the beginning, Cavell.”

  I told him everything that had happened th
at night exactly as it had been, omitting only what Mary had learned from Chessingham’s mother and sister. At the end, Hardanger said, “You are convinced that it’s a frame-up on Hartnell?”

  “Looks like it, doesn’t it?”

  “Hadn’t it occurred to you that there might be a double twist to this? That Hartnell planted it on himself?”

  “Yes. But it’s hardly possible. I know Hartnell. Outside his work he’s blundering, nervous, unstable and an ass—hardly the basic material for the ruthless calculating criminal. And he’d hardly go the length of picking his own padlock. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’ve told him to stay at home meantime. Whoever stole the botulinus and the Satan Bug did so for a purpose. Inspector Wylie’s pretty keen to get into the act. Let him have his men keep a round-the-clock watch on the house to see that Hartnell stays put. Hartnell, even if guilty, wouldn’t be so mad as to keep the viruses in the house. If they’re elsewhere and he can’t get at them, that’s one worry less. I also want a check made on his supposed moped trip of last night.”

  “There’ll be a watch kept and check made,” Hardanger promised. “Chessingham tip you off in any way about Hartnell?”

  “Nothing useful. Just my own hunch. Hartnell was the only person I knew of in number one lab in a position to be blackmailed or coerced. The point is that someone else knows it too. He also knew that Tuffnell was from home. That other man is the man we want. How did he find out?”

  “How did you find out?” Hardanger demanded.

  “Tuffnell himself told me. I was here for a fortnight some months ago helping Derry check on a bunch of newly arrived scientists. I asked him to give me the names of all Mordon employees who were coming to him for financial assistance. Hartnell is only one of a dozen.”

  “Did you ask or demand?”

  “Demanded.”

  “You know that’s illegal,” Hardanger said heavily. “On what grounds?”

  “On the grounds that if he didn’t I’d enough information to put him behind bars for years to come.”

  “Had you that information?”

  “No. But a shady character like Tuffnell has always a great deal to hide. He co-operated. Tuffnell may have talked about Hartnell. Or his partner, Hanbury.”

  “How about other members of his staff?”

  “There are none. Not even a typist. In a business like that you can’t trust your own mother. Apart from them, Cliveden, Weybridge—possibly— Clandon and myself knew. And Easton Derry of course. No one else had access to the security files in Mordon. Derry and Clandon are gone. How about Cliveden?”

  “That’s ridiculous. He was at a War Office meeting till after midnight last night. In London.”

  “What’s ridiculous about Cliveden having this information and passing it on to someone else?” Hardanger was silent and I went on, “And Weybridge. What was he doing at zero hour last night?”

  “Asleep.”

  “Who told you? Himself?” Hardanger nodded and I went on, “Corroboration?”

  Hardanger looked uncomfortable. “He lives alone in the officers’ block. He’s a widower with an orderly to look after him.”

  “That helps. How about the other check?”

  “Seven others,” Hardanger said. “One, as you said it would be, was a night guard. Been there only two days—and his transfer was a complete surprise to him. Sent from his regiment to take the place of a sick guard. Dr. Gregori was at home all last night—he lives in a kind of high-class boardinghouse outside Alfringham and half a dozen people will swear he was there until at least midnight. That lets him out. Dr. MacDonald was at home with friends. Very respectable friends. Playing cards. Two of the technicians. Verity and Heath, were at the dance in Alfringham last night. They seem in the clear. The other two, Robinson and Marsh, were out on a double date with their girl friends. Cinema, café, then back to their homes.”

  “So you’ve turned up nothing at all?”

  “Not a damn’ thing.”

  “But how about the two technicians and their girl friends?” Mary asked. “Robinson and Marsh— they provide each other’s alibis. And there was a girl used as a decoy.”

  “Nothing there,” I said. “Whoever is responsible for this lot is far too smart to fall into the elementary error of self-supporting alibis. If either of the two girls was a stranger to those parts there might just be possibly something in it. But if Robinson and Marsh haven’t changed their girl friends since the last time we checked on them then they’re just a couple of harmless local girls. The superintendent here would have had the truth out of them in five minutes flat. Probably two.”

  “Two it was,” Hardanger agreed. “Nothing there. We’ve sent all their footwear to the lab for a check—that fine red loam soil gets into the tiniest cracks and would be a dead giveaway—but it’s purely routine. Nothing will come of it. You want a copy of all those statements and witnesses’ reports?”

  “Please. What’s your next move?”

  “What would yours be?” Hartnell countered.

  “I’d have Tuffnell, Hanbury, Cliveden and Weybridge questioned to see if they’ve ever spoken to anyone about Hartnell’s financial difficulties. Then I’d have Gregori, MacDonald, Hartnell, Chessingham, Cliveden, Weybridge and the four technicians questioned—separately of course—about the extent of their social life with the others. Whether they had ever been in each others’ homes is a question that might be tossed in casually. And I’d have fingerprint squads move into all their houses at the same time to print as much of every house as possible. You’d have no trouble getting warrants for that little lot. If X maintains he’s never been in Y’s home and you find prints proving him a liar— well, someone is going to have some interesting explaining to do.”

  “Including General Cliveden’s and Colonel Weybridge’s homes?” Hardanger asked grimly.

  “I don’t care whose feelings are wounded. This is no time to consider anyone’s hurt pride.”

  “It’s a long long shot,” Hardanger said. “Criminals with something to hide, particularly the connection between them, would never meet in each other’s homes anyway.”

  “Can you afford to ignore even such a long shot?”

  “Probably not,” Hardanger said. “Probably not.”

  Twenty minutes after their departure with the polythene bags I climbed out of the window, clambered to the ground via the porch, picked up my car where I’d left it parked in a side street and set off for London.

  CHAPTER SIX

  It was exactly half past two in the morning when I was shown into the library of the General’sWest End flat. The General welcomed me in a red quilted dressing-gown and waved me to a seat. He hadn’t been to bed—I could see that—the dressing-gown meant nothing, he invariably wore it inside the house.

  Six foot three and built to match, the General would never see seventy again, but his back was as straight, his complexion as fresh and his eyes as clear as a man thirty years his junior. He had thick iron-grey hair, iron-grey trimmed moustache, grey eyes and the cleverest brain of any man I’d ever met. I could see he had been doing some thinking with this brain and wasn’t any too pleased with the conclusions he’d arrived at.

  “Well, Cavell.” His voice was clipped, incisive, vaguely military. “You’ve made a pretty mess of things.”

  “Yes, sir.” He was the only man in the world who rated a “sir” from me.

  “One of my best operatives, Neil Clandon, is dead. Another as good, Easton Derry, is probably also dead, though only listed missing. Dr. Baxter, a great scientist and a great patriot—and how badly we need both—is dead. Whose fault, Cavell?”

  “Mine.” I looked at a convenient decanter. “I could do with a drink, sir.”

  “There rarely has been a time when you couldn’t,” he said acidly, and then, just one degree less acidic, “Leg acting up?”

  “A little. Sorry about this hour of night, sir. It was essential. How do you want it—the story?”

  “Straight, quick and from the
beginning.”

  “Hardanger turned up at 9 a.m. Sent in an Inspector Martin, heavily disguised as God knows what, to test my loyalty first. I suppose you thought that one up too. You might have warned me.”

  “I tried to,” he said impatiently. “I was too late. The news of Clandon’s death reached General Cliveden and Hardanger before it did me: I rang you up but your home and office phones were out of order.”

  “Hardanger did that,” I nodded. “Anyway I passed the test. Hardanger was satisfied and asked me to come to Mordon. Said he’d suggested it to you and you’d been reluctant. It must have taken quite a bit of doing to suggest something to Hardanger and leave him with the impression that he’d thought it up himself.”

  “It was. Never underestimate Hardanger. An outstanding policeman. He has no suspicions? You’re sure?”

  “That this was a put-up job? That it was you who engineered me out of the Special Branch and into Mordon, and then out of Mordon again? He has no suspicions. I guarantee.”

  “Right. The story.”

  I didn’t waste words. That was one of the very first things an agent learnt about the General— never to waste words with him. In ten minutes he’d all the relevant facts and he’d never forget one of them.

  “Almost word for word with Hardanger’s reports that have already been filed with me through official channels,” he commented. “Almost, I said. Good policemen concentrate only on relevancies. Your conclusions, Cavell?”

  “What about the investigation I asked to be made down in Kent, sir?”

  “Negative.” I swallowed some more whisky. I needed it.

  “Hardanger suspects Dr. Baxter to be a case of the biter bit,” I said. “You know that already—he phoned asking for a security check on Baxter. He suspects Dr. Baxter, probably accompanied by another man, broke into Mordon and that thieves fell out as a result of which Dr. Baxter met his death at the hands of his fellow breaker and enterer, an action that may have been either spur-of-the-moment or premeditated. What Hardanger doesn’t know is that it was Dr. Baxter who first reported to Easton Derry, directly and privately, that minute amounts of rare and valuable viruses were disappearing from Mordon and asked for an investigation, or that it was Baxter who, as a result of our requests, had me removed from Mordon so that I could carry on investigations in London under cover of a private detective’s business.

 
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