The Satan Bug, p.12Alistair MacLean
“He may not know it is the Satan Bug.” I’d never seen the General like this before, hesitant and uncertain under the grimly worried mask. “We can’t assume he does.”
“I can. He knows. Whoever it is, he knows.
You’re going to keep this out of the papers?”
“It’ll buy us time. He must have publicity, as you say.”
“How about the actual crime itself? The break-in, the murders?”
“It’ll be in every paper in the country tomorrow— it’s already on the streets. Local Wiltshire correspondents got the tip-off early this evening. After that there was nothing we could do about it.”
“The reaction of the populace should be interesting.” I finished my whisky and rose. “I’ll be getting back, sir.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ll tell you, sir. I should start on Bryson and Chipperfield but I’d be wasting my time. They won’t speak, they’ll be too terrified for their kids’ lives and besides, I’m convinced they wouldn’t have seen either the man who gave the orders or the men they carried inside. I’m going to start over again with the number one lab people. A couple of phone calls to Cliveden and Weybridge. Hinting darkly, trying to provoke a reaction. Then a visit to Chessingham, Hartnell, MacDonald, Gregori and the technicians. Nothing smart or sophisticated or clever. Put the wind up, suggesting I know more than I do. All I want is a basis for one tiny suspicion of any of them and I’ll take him into a deserted cellar and take him apart till I have all the truth.”
“What if you’re wrong about him?” The General seemed to be staring fixedly at a point just over my shoulder.
“I’ll put him together again. If I can,” I added indifferently.
“We have never operated it that way, Cavell.”
“We’ve never had a lunatic with the power to wipe us all out, either.”
“That’s so, that’s so.” He shook his head. “Who’s going to be the first object of your attentions?”
“MacDonald. Why MacDonald?”
“Doesn’t it strike you as curious, sir, that of all the major dramatis personae, the only one without shadow of suspicion against him is Dr. MacDonald?
I find that very interesting. Maybe he forgot to frame himself when he was so busy framing everybody else, planting suspicion away from himself.
This is an uncommonly dirty world and I automatically suspect those as pure as the driven snow.”
The General gazed at me in a long silence, then glanced at his watch. “You might just manage a couple of hours’ sleep when you get back.”
“I’ll get all the sleep I want when I get the Satan Bug back.”
“A man can go only so long without sleep, Cavell.” The tone was very dry.
“It won’t take me long, sir. My promise. I’ll have the Satan Bug back in Mordon in thirty-six hours.”
“Thirty-six hours.” A long considering pause.
“With any other man I’d laugh in his face. I’ve learnt not to laugh in yours. But—thirty-six hours!” He shook his head, the General had been brought up in the old school and he was too polite to tell me that I was a fool or a braggart or a liar or all three.
“The Satan Bug, you say. How about—— How about the murderer?”
“Recovering the viruses is all that matters.
Whether the killer is himself killed or handed over to the cops doesn’t seem that important. Let him look out for himself.”
“I’m more worried about you looking out for yourself. Be very careful, Cavell—a hard thought for you to take, but he may be a cleverer and more dangerous man than yourself.” He reached out and touched me gently below the left shoulder. “I suppose you wear that Hanyatti in bed at night. You know you have no authority from me to use it?”
“I point it at people just to frighten them, sir.”
“Giving people heart attacks doesn’t come under the heading of frightening them. I won’t detain you, boy. How’s Mary?”
“Well, sir. She sent her love.”
“From Alfringham of course.” He forgot for the moment that I was about his only subordinate who didn’t curl up under his level stare, and let me have it with both barrels. “I’m not sure I like my daughter—my only child—being mixed up with something like mis.”
“I needed—I still need—someone I can trust.
That’s Mary. You know your own daughter as well as I do; she hates the business we’re in but the more she hates it the more impossible it is to keep her out of it. She thinks I shouldn’t be allowed out alone. She’d have been down in Alfringham within twenty-four hours anyway.”
The General looked at me for a moment then nodded heavily and showed me to the door.
Dr. MacDonald was a big heavily-built man in his late forties, with that well-leathered and spuriously tough look you quite often find among a certain section of the unemployed landed gentry who spend a great deal of time in the open air, much of it mounted on large horses in pursuit of small foxes. He had sandy hair, sandy eyebrows, sandy moustache and the smooth, full, tight, reddish-tanned face indicative of a devotion to the table, a well-stocked cellar, a fresh Gillette every morning and an incipient heart condition. In his own rather arrogant and fleshy way MacDonald was a pretty good-looking and impressive character but, at the moment, he wasn’t looking his best. Not that anyone would be when rubbing sleep from gummed eyelids and welcoming the unexpected caller at 6.15 a.m. on a pitch dark, raining and bitterly cold October pre-dawn.
“Welcoming” perhaps was not the right word.
“What the bloody hell do you mean by coming hammering on my door in the middle of the bloody night?” MacDonald demanded. He clutched a dressing-gown more tightly about his shivering bulk and managed to prop an eye wide enough open to identify me in the faint wash of light coming from the porchway behind him.
“Cavell! What the devil’s the meaning of this?”
“I’m sorry, MacDonald.” Civility. Turning the other cheek. “Terrible hour, I know. But I must talk to you. It’s most urgent.”
“Nothing so damn’ urgent that you have to come hauling a man out of his bed at this time of night,” he said furiously. “I’ve already told the police all I know. Anything else you can see me about in Mordon. Sorry, Cavell. Good night! Or good morning!” He took a long step back and swung the door in my face.
I’d no more cheeks to turn. The sole of my right foot caught the door before it engaged on the latch and I kicked it open. Violently. The sudden transfer of weight to my bad leg didn’t do my left foot any good at all but it was nothing compared to what it did to MacDonald’s right elbow, which was where the flying door must have caught him, for when I passed inside he was clutching his elbow with his left hand and doing a dervish dance with language suitably geared to the occasion: he’d packed in the plummy Debrett accent in favour of broad Scots. For what he had to say, it was much more impressive. It was ten seconds before he was properly aware that I was standing there.
“Get out!” The voice was half-snarl, half-shout, the face twisted in malevolence. “Out of my house at once, you——” He got started on my forebears, but I cut him short.
“Two men are dead, MacDonald. There’s a madman on the loose with the power to turn that two into two million. Your convenience doesn’t enter into it. I want answers to questions. I want them now.”
“You want them? And who are you to want anything?” The heavy lips were curled into an expression that was half-sneer, half-grimace of pain and the Oxford-Sandhurst drawl was working again. “I know all about you, Cavell. Kicked out of Mordon because you couldn’t keep your big mouth shut. You’re only a so-called private detective, but I suppose you thought there might be better pickings going here than in the dirty little divorce cases you people specialise in. God knows how you managed to push your way into this but as far as I am concerned you can push straight out again. You have no authority to ask me anything. You
I hadn’t any credentials to show him so I showed him the Hanyatti instead. It might be enough, bluster is usually a façade that conceals nothing. But it wasn’t enough. Maybe there was more to Dr. MacDonald than I had thought.
“My God!” He laughed, not one of those laughs with a silvery tinkle of bells. An unpleasant laugh. “Guns! At six in the morning. Whatever next? Cheap melodramatic rubbish. I’ve got your number now, Cavell, by God I have. A little ring to Superintendent Hardanger will soon fix you, mister cheap little private detective.” Outside the demands of his job he was obviously no stickler for accuracy: cheap I may have been but I was a good couple of inches taller than he was and at least as heavy.
The phone was on the table beside me. He took two steps towards it and I took one towards him. The muzzle of the Hanyatti caught him just under the breast-bone and I stood aside as he jack-knifed and fell to the floor. It was brutal, high-handed, completely unjustifiable on the face of it and I didn’t like it one little bit: but I liked even less the idea of a madman with the Satan Bug in his possession. I had to use every second I had. By and by, when it was all over, I’d apologise to MacDonald. But not now.
He rolled around for a bit, clutching his mid-riff with both hands and whooping in pain as he tried to drag air into his lungs. After a minute or so he quietened down and struggled to his feet, still clutching his stomach, breathing very quickly, very shallowly, like someone who can’t get enough oxygen quickly enough. His face was grey and puffy and the bloodshot eyes held an expression that was pretty close to hatred. I didn’t blame him any.
“This is the end of the road for you, Cavell.” His voice came in hoarse gasps punctuated by half-sobbing inhalations. “You’ve gone too far this time. Unprovoked assault——”
He broke off, flinching, as he saw the barrel of the Hanyatti arching towards his face. Both hands were flung up in instinctive self-defence and he grunted in agony as my free hand caught him in the midriff again. He stayed down longer this time and when he finally dragged himself, trembling, to his feet, he was in pretty bad shape. His eyes were still burning mad but there was something else in them now as well. Fear. I took two quick steps towards him, lifting the Hanyatti high. MacDonald took two corresponding steps back then collapsed heavily on a settee as it caught him behind the knees. His face held rage and bewilderment and fear, lest I hit him again: It also held hatred for both of us, for me because I was doing what I was doing, for himself because he knew he was going to do what I said. MacDonald wasn’t ready to talk but he was going to all the same and both of us knew it.
“Where were you on the night Baxter and Clandon were killed?” I asked. I remained on my feet, the Hanyatti ready.
“Hardanger has my statement,” he said sullenly.
“At home. I’d had three friends in for bridge. Until almost midnight.”
“A retired scientific colleague. The local doctor and vicar. Good enough for you, Cavell?” Maybe he was getting some of his courage back.
“Nobody more skilled at murders than doctors. And priests have been unfrocked before.” I looked down at my feet, at the smooth grey sweep of a wall-to-wall carpeting: if a man dropped his diamond tie-pin in that nap he’d have to call in a tracker dog. I said with no particular inflection, “Fancy line in floor-coverings you have here, Doctor. Five hundred quid wouldn’t have bought this little lot.”
“Being clever or just insolent, Cavell?” He was getting his courage back. I hoped he wasn’t going to be so foolish as to get too much of it back.
“Heavy silk drapes,” I went on. “Period furniture. Genuine crystal chandelier. A pretty big house and I’d wager the whole house is furnished on the same scale. The same expensive scale. Where does the money come from, Doctor? You do the pools? Or just a bingo expert?”
For a moment he looked as if he were about to tell me to mind my own damn’ business, so I half-lifted the Hanyatti again, not much, just enough to make him change his mind. He said stiffly, “I’m a bachelor with no dependants. I can afford to indulge my tastes.”
“Lucky you. Where were you last night between nine and eleven p.m.?”
He frowned and said, “At home.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.” Apparently he’d decided that stiff indignation was his safest line.
“I was alone.”
“All night. My housekeeper arrives at eight each morning.”
“That may be very unfortunate for you. No witnesses for last night, I mean.”
“What the devil are you trying to tell me?” He seemed genuinely puzzled.
“You’ll know soon enough. You don’t run a car, do you, Doctor?”
“As it happens I do.”
“But you come to Mordon on an Army bus.”
“I prefer it that way. It’s no concern of yours.”
“True. What kind of car?”
“A sports car.”
“What kind of sports car?”
“A Bentley Continental.”
“A Continental. A sports car.” I gave him a long look but it was wasted. He was staring down at the carpet, maybe he had lost a diamond tie-pin there. “Your taste in cars is like your taste in rugs.”
“It’s an old car. Second-hand.”
“When did you buy it?”
He looked up abruptly. “What does it matter? What are you trying to get at, Cavell?”
“When did you buy it?”
“Ten weeks ago.” He was giving the carpet the once-over again. “Maybe three months ago.”
“An old car, you say. How old?”
“Four years. They don’t give away four year old Continentals for box-tops. They give them away for about £5,000. Where did you get £5,000 from three months ago?”
“I didn’t. I paid £1,000 down. The rest over three years. It’s the way most people buy their cars you know.”
“An extended credit scheme aimed at capital conservation. That’s for people like you. For people like me they call it hire-purchase. Let’s see your hire-purchase agreement.”
He brought it: a quick glance showed that he had been speaking the truth. I said, “What’s your salary, Dr. MacDonald?”
“Just over £2,000. The government is not generous.” He wasn’t blustering or indignant any more. I wondered why.
“So that after taxation and living expenses you couldn’t possibly have as much as a thousand left at the end of the year. In three years, £3,000. Yet, according to this agreement, you’re going to pay off close to £4,500—balance plus interest—in three years. How do you propose to accomplish this mathematical impossibility?”
“I have two insurance policies maturing inside the next year. I’ll get them for you.”
“Don’t bother. Tell me, Doctor, why are you so worried, so nervous?”
“I’m not worried.”
“All right, so I’m lying. I am worried. I am nervous. The questions you are asking would make anyone nervous.”
Maybe he was right at that. I said: “Why should that make you worried, Doctor?”
“Why? He asks me why.” He glared up at me then went back to looking for his diamond pin. “Because I don’t like the trend of your questioning. I don’t like what you’re trying to prove. No man would.”
“What am I trying to prove?”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head, not looking up. “You’re trying to establish that I live beyond my means. I don’t. I don’t know what you’re trying to prove.”
I said, “You’ve got the old tartan eyes this morning, Doctor, and if you don’t mind me saying so you stink of stale whisky. You have all the signs of a man who had a hea
“I usually have a night-cap before retiring,” he said defensively. He was still staring at the carpet but his interest lay not in any tie-pin but in not letting me see his expressions on his face. “That doesn’t make me an alcoholic. What’s a night-cap?”
“Or two,” I agreed. “But when a night-cap turns out to be the better part of a bottle of whisky, it ceases to be a night-cap.” I glanced round the room then said, “Where’s your kitchen?”
“What do you——”
“Damn it, don’t waste my time!”
I left the room and found myself in one of those gleaming stainless steel monstrosities that started out to be an operating theatre and changed its mind at the last moment. More evidence of money. And, on the gleaming sink, more evidence that Dr. MacDonald really had had an extended night-cap. A bottle of whisky, three-fifths empty with the torn lead seal still lying beside it. A dirty ashtray, full of mashed-up cigarettes. I turned as I heard a sound behind me. MacDonald was standing in the doorway.
“All right,” he said wearily. “So I was drinking. I was at it for two or three hours. I’m not used to those things, Cavell. I’m not a policeman. Or a soldier. Two horrible, ghastly murders.” He half-shuddered: if it was acting, it was brilliant acting.
“Baxter had been one of my best friends for years. And why was he killed? How do I know the killer hasn’t another victim lined up? And I know what this Satan Bug can do. Good God, man, I’d reason to be worried. Worried stiff.”
The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes