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The satan bug, p.13
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       The Satan Bug, p.13

           Alistair MacLean
 
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  “So you had,” I agreed. “So you still have—even although I am getting pretty close to him. The killer I mean. And maybe he is after you next—it’s a thought to bear in mind.”

  “You cold-hearted callous devil,” he ground out. “In God’s name get out and leave me alone.”

  “I’m just going. Keep your doors locked, Doctor.”

  “You’re going to hear more of this, Cavell.” Now that I’d announced my intention of leaving and had stuck the Hanyatti out of sight, he was recovering courage. “We’ll see if you’re so damned tough when you’re up in court on an assault charge.”

  “Don’t talk rubbish,” I said shortly. “I never laid a finger on you. There’s no mark on you. It’s only your word against mine. Me, I’d take mine first any time.”

  I left the house. I saw the dark bulk of the garage where the Bentley was presumably housed, but I didn’t give it a second glance or thought. When people want a nice, inconspicuous, unobstructive car for a stealthy and unobstructive mission, they don’t go around borrowing Bentley Continentals.

  I stopped at a phone box and, on the pretext of wanting Gregori’s address made two unnecessary calls, to Weybridge first who couldn’t, as I knew he couldn’t, help me and to Cliveden who could and did. They were both pretty shirty about being disturbed at the crack of dawn, but they quietened down when I told them that I’d had to have the information immediately because my investigations had now reached such a critical stage that I might have the case tied up before the day was out. Both of them tried to question me on the progress I was making but I gave nothing away. That didn’t take much finesse, for I’d nothing to give away in any event.

  At 7.15 a.m. I was leaning on the doorbell of Dr. Gregori’s house: more precisely the house in which he lived, a good-class boarding house run by a widow and her two daughters. Parked outside the front was a navy blue Fiat 2100. Gregori’s car. It was still pitch dark, still cold and wet. I felt very tired and my leg ached badly so that I had difficulty in concentrating on what had to be done.

  The door opened and a plump woman, grey-haired and fiftyish, peered out into the darkness. This would be the landlady herself, Mrs. Whithorn, reputedly a cheerful and happy-go-lucky soul of devastating untidiness and unpunctuality, whose boarding-house was the most sought-after in the area: her reputation as a cook was enviable.

  “Who on earth is it at this time of morning?” Her voice held a good-natured exasperation. “Not the police again, I hope?”

  “I’m afraid so, Mrs. Whithorn. Cavell is my name. I’d like to see Dr. Gregori, please.”

  “Poor Dr. Gregori. He’s already put up with enough from you people. But I suppose you’d better come in. I’ll go and see if he’s up yet.”

  “Just tell me where his room is and I’ll find out for myself. If you please, Mrs. Whithorn.”

  She demurred a bit, then reluctantly told me where to find him. Five yards along the big hall, down a side passage and I was outside his door— his name was on it. I knocked and waited.

  I didn’t have to wait long. Gregori must have been up, but only just. He wore a faded russet dressing-gown over his pyjamas and his swarthy face was swarthier than ever—he evidently hadn’t yet got round to shaving.

  “Cavell,” he said. There was no particular warmth of welcome in his voice—people greeting the law at dawn are seldom in the most amiable frame of mind—but at least, unlike MacDonald, he was civil. “You’d better come in. And have a seat. You look worn out.”

  I felt worn out. I eased myself into the offered chair and looked around. Gregori didn’t do himself as well as MacDonald in the way of furniture, but then it probably wasn’t his furniture in the first place. The room I was in was furnished as a small study—his bedroom would be through the communication door in the far wall.

  A worn but still serviceable carpet, a couple of armchairs in the same category, one wall completely lined with bookcases, a heavy oak table with swivel chair, typewriter and piled-up papers and that was about it. In the stone hearth was the remains of last night’s fire, smooth white ash such as you get from burning beech.

  The room, though cold, was rather stuffy— Gregori had obviously not as yet succumbed to the English madness of flinging open windows under any and all conditions—and I seemed to smell some peculiar odour in the air, so faint as to be unidentifiable.

  “If I can be of any help to you, Mr. Cavell?”

  Gregori prompted.

  “Just routine inquiries, Dr. Gregori,” I said easily. “Most uncivilised hour, I know, but we feel that time is not on our side.”

  “You have not been to bed?” he said shrewdly.

  “Not yet. I’ve been busy—visiting. I’m afraid my choice of visiting hours doesn’t make me very popular. I’ve just come from Dr. MacDonald and I’m afraid he wasn’t at all pleased to be dragged out of his bed.”

  “No? Dr. MacDonald,” Gregori said delicately, “is a somewhat impatient man.”

  “You get on well with him? On friendly terms?”

  “A colleague shall we say? I respect his work.

  Why, Mr. Cavell?”

  “Incurable nosiness. Tell me, Doctor, have you any alibi for last night.”

  “Of course.” He looked puzzled. “I told it to Mr.

  Hardanger in person. From eight until almost midnight I was at the birthday party for Mrs.

  Whithorn’s daughter——”

  “Sorry,” I interruped. “Last night—not the night before.”

  “Aha.” He looked at me anxiously. “There have been—there have been no more killings?”

  “No more,” I reassured him. “Well, Doctor?”

  “Last night?” He half-smiled and shrugged. “An alibi? Had I known that an alibi would have been required of me I would not have failed to provide one. At what time, exactly, Mr. Cavell?”

  “Let us say between 9.30 and 10.30 p.m.”

  “Alas, no. No alibi, I fear. I was in my room here, working all night on my book. Work therapy, you might call it, Mr. Cavell, after the dreadful experience of yesterday.” He paused, then went on apologetically. “Well, not all night. From after dinner—about eight—till eleven. It was a good night for me in the circumstances—three whole pages.” He smiled again, differently. “For the type of book I’m writing, Mr. Cavell, a page an hour represents excellent progress.”

  “And what type of book is that?”

  “On inorganic chemistry.” He shook his head and added wistfully: “It is unlikely that the citizens will be besieging the bookshops in order to buy it. The reading public for my speciality is limited indeed.”

  “That the book?” I nodded at the pile of papers on the desk.

  “It is. One I began in Turin, more years ago than I care to remember. Examine it if you wish, Mr. Cavell. Not, I fear, that it would convey much to you. Apart from the rather abstruse nature of the subject-matter, it is in Italian—the language I prefer for writing.”

  I didn’t tell him that I could read Italian almost as well as he spoke English. Instead I said, “You type directly on to paper?”

  “But of course. My handwriting is that of the true scientist—almost completely indecipherable.

  But a moment!” He rubbed a thoughtful palm across a blue and bristly chin. “The typewriter. It may have been heard.”

  “That’s why I asked. You think it likely?”

  “I don’t know. My rooms were specially chosen because of my typing—must not disturb the other guests, you understand. There are no bedrooms either above or on either side of me. Wait now, yes, yes, I’m almost certain I heard a television programme next door. At least,” more doubtfully.

  “I think I did. Next door is what Mrs. Whithorn rather grandly calls her television lounge, but it is very poorly patronised, I fear, chiefly by Mrs.

  Whithorn herself and her daughters, and that not frequently. But I’m sure I heard something. Well, almost sure. Shall we ask?”

  We asked. We went along to the kitchen w
here Mrs. Whithorn and one of her daughters were preparing breakfast. The aroma of sizzling bacon made my leg feel weaker than ever.

  One minute was enough. An hour-long vintage film had been shown on television the previous evening and Mrs. Whithorn and two of her three daughters had watched the entire performance.

  The film had started precisely at ten and as they passed Dr. Gregori’s door into the lounge and after that had sat down they could hear him typing on his machine. Not loud, not loud enough to be annoying, but perfectly distinct. Mrs. Whithorn had commented at the time that it was a shame Dr. Gregori should have so little time for leisure and relaxation but she knew he would be eager to make up for the time lost at her daughter’s party, his first night off for weeks.

  Dr. Gregori made no attempt to hide his satisfaction.

  “I’m very much indebted to this elderly film shown last night. And to you, Mrs. Whithorn.” He smiled at me. “Your suspicions at rest, Mr. Cavell?”

  “I never had any, Doctor. But that’s how policemen must work—by the elimination of even the most remote possibilities.”

  Dr. Gregori saw me to the front door. It was still dark, still cold, still very wet indeed. The rain was bouncing high off the tarmac road. I was considering how best to introduce my now standard spiel about the remarkable progress I was making when Gregori himself said suddenly, “I am not asking you to betray any professional confidences, Mr. Cavell. But—well, do you think there is a chance that you’ll get this fiend? Are you making any progress at all?”

  “More than I would have thought possible twelve hours ago. Investigations have led me pretty far in what I believe to be the right direction.

  Very far, I might say—if it weren’t for the fact that I’m up against a brick wall.”

  “Walls can be climbed, Mr. Cavell.”

  “So they can. And this one will be.” I paused. “I don’t know whether I should have said what I did.

  But I know you will keep it strictly to yourself.”

  He gave me his earnest reassurances on that point and we parted. Half a mile away I stopped at the first call-box and got through to London.

  “Been to bed yet, Cavell?” the General greeted me.

  “No, sir.”

  “Don’t feel too badly about it. Neither have I.

  I’ve been very busy indeed making myself unpopular dragging people out of their beds in the middle of the night.”

  “No more unpopular than I’ve made myself, sir.”

  “I dare say. With any results?”

  “Nothing special. Yourself, sir?”

  “Chessingham. No record of a civilian driving licence having been issued to him at any time.

  This may not be definite—it may have been issued to him in some place other than his own country although this would be unusual. As for his Army record, it turns out, strangely enough, that he was in the R.A.S.C.”

  “The R.A.S.C.? Then the chances are that he did have a licence. Did you find out, sir?”

  “The only fact that I have been able to establish about Chessingham’s Army career,” the General said dryly, “is that he actually was in the Army.

  The wheels of the War Office grind uncommonly slow at any time but in the middle of the night they grind to a dead halt. We may have something by midday. What we do have now are some rather interesting figures supplied us less than half an hour ago by Chessingham’s bank manager.”

  He gave me the figures and hung up. I climbed wearily into the car once more and headed for Chessingham’s house. Fifteen minutes’ drive and I was there. In the bleak half-light of dawn, the square-built house with its sunken basement looked more dreary and forbidding than ever. The way I was feeling didn’t help matters any. I squelched my way up the flight of worn steps over the moat and pressed the bell.

  Stella Chessingham appeared. She was neatly and attractively dressed in a flowered housecoat and her hair was smoothly brushed but her face was pale and the brown eyes were tired. She didn’t look very happy when I told her I wanted to see her brother.

  “I suppose you’d better come in,” she said reluctantly. “Mother’s still in bed. Eric’s at breakfast.”

  He was. Bacon and egg again. My leg felt weaker than ever. Chessingham rose to his feet and said nervously, “Good morning, Mr. Cavell.”

  I didn’t wish him good morning back. I gave him my cold impersonal stare, the kind only policemen and head waiters are allowed to use, and said, “I have to ask some more questions,

  Chessingham. I’ve been up all night and I’m in no mood for evasions. Straight answers to straight questions. Our investigations during the night have opened up some very interesting lines of inquiry and the main line leads straight here.” I looked at his sister. “Miss Chessingham, I have no wish to distress you unnecessarily. It might be better if I interviewed your brother alone.”

  She looked at me with wide-open eyes, licked her lips nervously, nodded and turned to go.

  Chessingham said, “Stay here, Stella. I have nothing to hide from anybody. My sister knows everything about me, Mr. Cavell.”

  “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” The voice to match the stare. “If you wish to stay, Miss Chessingham, you may. Please remember afterwards that I asked you to go.” Both were pale now and very apprehensive indeed. On the basis of my ability to terrify people I could have had a job with a Central European Secret Police at any time.

  I said, “What were you doing last night, Chessingham? Round about ten o’clock, shall we say?”

  “Last night?” He blinked. “Why do I have to account for my movements for last night?”

  “The questions come from me. Please give an answer.”

  “I—well, I was at home. With Stella and Mother.”

  “All night?”

  “Of course.”

  “There’s no ‘of course’. No visitors, no outsiders to testify to your presence here?”

  “Just Stella and Mother.”

  “Just Miss Chessingham. At ten o’clock your mother would be in bed.”

  “Yes, in bed. I’d forgotten.”

  “I’m not surprised. Forgetting is your strong line. You forgot to tell me last night that you had been in the R.A.S.C.”

  “The R.A.S.C.?” He sat down at the table again, not to eat, and from the slight movements of his arms I could tell that one hand was gripping the other pretty strongly. “Yes, that’s right. How did you know that?”

  “A little bird told me. The same bird told me that he had seen you driving an army vehicle.” I was sticking my neck out but I’d no option. Time was not on our side. “You said you couldn’t drive.”

  “I can’t.” His eyes flickered to his sister and then back to me. “There’s a mistake. Someone is making a mistake.”

  “That’s you, Chessingham—if you keep denying it. What if I can produce four independent witnesses by nightfall who will swear to it that they have seen you driving.”

  “I may have tried once or twice. I’m—I’m not sure. I haven’t a driving licence.”

  “You make me sick,” I said in disgust. “You’re speaking and behaving like a moron. You’re no moron, Chessingham. Stop beating about the bush and making a fool of yourself. You can drive.

  Admit it. Miss Chessingham, your brother can drive, can’t he?”

  “Leave Stella alone.” Chessingham’s voice was high, his face pale. “You’re right, damn you, I can drive—after a fashion.”

  “I suppose you thought it very clever to abandon that Bedford van outside your house two nights ago? On the assumption that the police would never believe anyone capable of doing anything so obvious?”

  “I was never near that van.” His voice was almost a shout. “I swear it! I swear I was never near that van. I got frightened when you came round last night and I said anything I could to—to strengthen my innocence.”

  “Innocence.” I laughed my nasty policeman’s laugh. “The photographs of Jupiter that you said you took. How did you take them? Or di
d someone else take them? Or did you rig up an apparatus to take the pictures automatically while you were away at Mordon?”

  “What in the name of God are you talking about?” He was getting frantic. “Apparatus? What damned apparatus? Search the house from top to bottom and see if you can find——”

  “Don’t be so naive,” I interrupted. “Probably buried deep in the woods anywhere within fifty square miles of here.”

  “Mr. Cavell!” Stella Chessingham stood in front of me, her hands so tight that they were shaking, her face mad. “You’re making a terrible mistake.

  Eric has nothing to do with—with whatever it is.

  This murder. Nothing, I tell you! I know.”

  “Were you with him after half past ten the night before last? In his observatory? If you weren’t, young lady, you don’t know.”

  “I know Eric! I know he’s completely incapable of——”

  “Character testimonials are no good to me,” I said brusquely. “And if you know so much perhaps you can explain to me how £1,000 comes to have been deposited in your brother’s bank account in the past four months? Five hundred pounds on July 3rd, the same on October 3rd.

  Can you explain?”

  They looked at each other, sick fear in their eyes and making no attempt to conceal it. When Chessingham managed to speak, on his second or third attempt, his voice was hoarse and shaking.

  “It’s a frame-up! Someone is trying to frame me.”

  “Shut up and talk sense,” I said wearily. “Where did the money come from, Chessingham?”

  He paused for a moment before replying, then said miserably, “From Uncle George.” His voice had dropped almost to a whisper and he was glancing apprehensively ceiling-wards.

  “Decent of Uncle George,” I said heavily.

  “Who’s he?”

  “Mother’s brother.” His tone was still low. “The black sheep of the family, or so it seems. He said he was completely innocent of the crimes with which he had been charged but that the evidence against him had been so overwhelming that he’d fled the country.”

 
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