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The satan bug, p.14
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       The Satan Bug, p.14

           Alistair MacLean
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  I glared at him. Double-talk at 8 a.m. after a sleepless night wasn’t much in my line. “What are you talking about? What crimes?”

  “I don’t know.” Chessingham sounded desperate. “We’ve never seen him—he’s phoned me twice at Mordon. Mother has never mentioned him—we didn’t even know he existed until recently.”

  “You knew about this, too?” I asked Stella.

  “Of course I did.”

  “Your mother?”

  “Of course not,” Chessingham said. “I told you she never even mentioned his existence. Whatever he was accused of, it must have been something pretty bad. He said that if Mother knew where the money came from she’d call it tainted and refuse it. We—Stella and I—want to send her abroad for her health and that money is going to help.”

  “It’s going to help you up the steps of the Old Bailey,” I said roughly. “Where was your mother born?”

  “Alfringham.” It was Stella who answered, Chessingham didn’t seem capable of it.

  “Maiden name?”

  “Jane Barclay.”

  “Where’s your phone? I’d like to use it.”

  She told me and I went out to the hall and put a call through to the General. Almost fifteen minutes elapsed before I returned to the breakfast-room. Neither of the two appeared to have moved from the positions in which I left them.

  “My God, you’re a bright pair,” I said wonderingly. “It would never have occurred to you, of course, to pay a visit to Somerset House. What would be the point? You knew you would be wasting your time. Uncle George never existed.

  Your mother never had a brother. Not that that will be news to you. Come on now, Chessingham, you’ve had time to think up a better explanation than that one. You couldn’t possibly think up a worse one to account for the £1,000.”

  He couldn’t think one up at all. He stared at me, his face grimly hopeless, then at his sister, then at the ground. I said, encouragingly, “Well, there’s no rush about it. You’ll have a few weeks to think up a better story. Meantime, I want to see your mother.”

  “Leave my mother out of this, damn you.”

  Chessingham had risen to his feet with such violence that his chair had gone over backwards.

  “My mother’s a sick woman and an old one.

  Leave her alone, you hear, Cavell?”

  I said to Stella, “Please go and tell your mother I’m coming up in a minute.”

  Chessingham started towards me, but his sister got in the way. “Don’t, Eric. Please.” She gave me a look that should have pinned me to the wall and said bitterly, “Don’t you see that Mr. Cavell is a man who always gets his own way?”

  I got my own way. The interview with Mrs.

  Chessingham took no more than ten minutes. It wasn’t just the most pleasant ten minutes of my life.

  When I came downstairs both Chessingham and his sister were waiting in the hall. Stella came up to me, big brown eyes swimming in a pale and frightened face and said desperately, “You’re making a fearful mistake, Mr. Cavell, a terrible mistake.

  Eric is my brother. I know him, I know him. I swear to you that he is completely innocent in everything.”

  “He’ll have his chance to prove it.” There were times when I didn’t find any great difficulty in hating myself and this was one of those times.

  “Chessingham, you would be wise to pack a case.

  Enough stuff to last you for a few days at least.”

  “You’re taking me with you?” He looked resigned, hopeless.

  “I’ve neither the warrant or the authority for that. Somebody will come, never fear. Don’t be silly as to try to run. A mouse couldn’t get through the cordon round this house.”

  “A—a cordon?” He stared. “You mean there are policemen round——”

  “Think we want you to take the first plane out of the country?” I asked. “Like dear old Uncle George?” It was a good enough exit line and I left it at that.

  * * *

  The Hartnells were to be my next—and last—call before breakfast that morning. Half-way there I pulled up at an A.A. box on a deserted wooded stretch of road, unlocked the booth and put a call through to the Waggoner’s Rest. By and by Mary came on the phone and after she’d asked me how I felt and I’d said fine and she’d more or less called me a liar, I told her I would be back in the hotel shortly after nine o’clock, to have breakfast ready for me and to ask Hardanger to come round if he could.

  I left the phone booth and although my car was only a few yards away I didn’t dawdle any in reaching it—the cold grey rain was still sheeting down. For all my haste, though, I suddenly stopped with the door half-open and stared through the rain at a character coming down the road towards me. From a distance of less than a hundred yards he appeared to be a middle-aged well-dressed citizen wearing a raincoat and trilby, but there all resemblance to a normal human being ended. He was making his way down the rain-filled gutter by hopping around on his right foot, arms outstretched to balance himself, kicking a rusty tin can ahead of him. With every combined hop and kick a gout of water went spraying up in the air.

  I watched this performance for some time until I became conscious of the rain drumming heavily on my back and soaking through to my shoulders. Besides, even if he had escaped over a high wall, it was still rude to stare. Maybe if I were buried long enough in the wilds of Wiltshire, I, too, would take to playing hopscotch in the rain. Still with my eye on this apparition I eased quickly into the driving seat pulling the door to behind me and it was not until then that I discovered that the purpose of the hopscotch merchant was not to demonstrate the standard of loopiness in rural Wiltshire but to distract my attention from the back of my car where someone had been hiding crouched down on the floor.

  I heard a slight noise behind me and started to twist but I was far too late, the black-jack must have been chopping down even as I heard the sound. My left foot was still on the wrong side of the steering column and, anyway, he was on my left or blind side. The black-jack made contact just below and behind my left ear with what must have been considerable force or accuracy or both for the agony and the oblivion were separated by only a hairsbreadth in time.


  It wouldn’t be accurate to say that I woke up. The term “waking up “implies a fairly rapid and one-way transition from a state of unconsciousness to that of consciousness and there was nothing either rapid or one-way about my progress through the twilight zone that separates those. One moment I was greyly aware that I was lying on something hard and wet, the next the awareness was gone. How long a time elapsed between the intervals of greyness I’d no means of knowing and even if I had my mind would have been too fuzzy to appreciate it. Gradually the spells of awareness became longer and longer until, eventually, there was no more darkness but I wasn’t all that sure that this was in any way an improvement or a desirable state of affairs for with returning comprehension came an all but paralysing pain that seemed to hold my head, neck and right hand side of my chest in an immense vice, a vice with some burly character inexorably tightening the handle. I felt the way a grain of wheat must feel after it had passed through a combine harvester.

  Painfully I opened my good eye and swivelled it around until I located the source of the dim light. A grilled window high up on one wall, just below the roof. I was in a cellar of some kind, of the semi-sunk basement type featured in Chessingham’s house.

  I’d made no mistake about the hardness of the floor. Or the wetness. Rough unfinished concrete with shallow pools of water on it and whoever had left me there had thoughtfully dumped me right in the centre of the largest puddle.

  I was lying stretched out on the floor, partly on my back, partly on my right hand side with my arms behind my back in a ridiculously strained and uncomfortable position. I wondered vaguely why I chose to lie in this awkward position and found out when I tried to change it. Somebody had made a very efficient job of tying my hands behind my back and from the numbness in my fo
rearms it was a fair guess that he’d used considerable weight in the tying of the knots.

  I made to gather my legs under me to jerk myself up to a sitting position and discovered that they wouldn’t gather. I just couldn’t move them. I used their immobility to lever myself upwards to a sitting position, waited until the coruscating lights dancing before my eyes faded and vanished then peered forward and down. My legs were not only tied at the ankles, they were secured to a metal upright of a wine-bin which took up practically the entire length of the wall beneath the window. And not only was I tied, but I was tied with PVC plastic flex. If I’d needed any confirmation that a professional had been at work, I didn’t any more. Even a gorilla couldn’t snap PVC and nothing less than a pair of hefty pliers could possibly undo the knots: ringers were quite useless for the job.

  Slowly, carefully—any rash movement and my head would have fallen off—I looked around the cellar. It was as featureless and just about as empty as any cellar could ever be—the window, the closed door, the wine-bin and me. It could have been worse. No one pouring in water to drown me, no one flooding the confined space with a lethal gas, no snakes, no black widow spiders. Just the cellar and me. But bad enough.

  I hitched myself forwards towards the wine-bin and tried to snap the wire securing me to it by jerking my legs back as violently as I could but all I did was to add another pain to the overfull quota I had already. I struggled to free my hands, knowing before I began that I was only wasting my time, and gave up almost as soon as I had started. I wondered how long it would be before I died of starvation or thirst.

  Take it easy, I said to myself. Think your way out of this, Cavell. So I thought, as best I could without my head hurting the way it did, but it didn’t seem to do much good, all I could think of was how sore and uncomfortable I was.

  It was then that I saw the Hanyatti. I blinked, shook my head and cautiously looked again. No doubt about it, the Hanyatti, the top of the butt just visible three or four inches below and to the side of the left-hand lapel of my coat. I stared at it and it still didn’t go away. I wondered dimly how the man—men, certainly—who had dragged me there had missed it and it slowly came to me that they hadn’t missed it because they hadn’t looked for it in the first place. Policemen in Britain don’t carry guns. I was—more or less—a policeman. Hence I didn’t carry a gun.

  I hunched up my left shoulder and reached my head as far down and to the left as possible, at the same time pushing the lapel away with the side of my face. On the third try I got my teeth to the butt but they just slipped off the rounded surface when I tried to get a purchase and lift the gun from its holster. Four times I repeated this manoeuvre and after the fourth attempt I gave up. Contorting my neck into that strained and unnatural position would have been uncomfortable enough in any event: added to the effects of the blackjack the only result this contortion was having was to make the cellar swim dizzily around me. At the same time the manoeuvre brought a sharply piercing pain to my right chest and I wondered drearily whether any of my ribs had been broken and were sticking into a lung. The way I felt I was prepared to believe anything.

  A brief rest, then I had twisted up until I was in a kneeling position. I bent sharply from the waist, my head coming close to the concrete floor to give gravity an assist in freeing the Hanyatti from the holster. Nothing happened. I tried again, overdid the violence of the forward jerk and fell flat on my face. When my head finally cleared I repeated the process and this time the gun finally slid from the holster and clattered to the floor.

  In the poor half-light of the cellar I knelt and peered anxiously at the gun. A character with a sadistic enough turn of mind might have considered it highly amusing to empty the gun and replace it in the holster. But I’d been spared the humorist. The loading indicator registered nine. The magazine was full.

  I squirmed round on the floor, picked up the Hanyatti with my bound hands, slipped the safety catch and dragged the gun around to my right side as far as the unnaturally twisted position of my left shoulder would allow. The folds of my jacket kept getting in the way of the automatic but I strained and pushed until I could see about three inches of the barrel protruding beyond my side. I bent my knees and hitched myself forward until my feet were within fifteen inches of the muzzle.

  For a brief moment I considered trying to shoot through the PVC that bound my ankles. But only for a brief moment. Buffalo Bill might have done it, but then Buffalo Bill had had binocular vision and I felt pretty certain he’d never performed any of his sharp-shooting feats in dim half-light with numbed hands bound behind his back. The chances were a thousand to one that the net result achieved would be the anticipation of those two London surgeons who wanted to remove my left foot. I decided to concentrate instead on the eighteen inch length of four twisted strands of PVC that attached my legs to the wine-bin.

  I sighted as best I could and squeezed the trigger. Three things happened, instantaneously and simultaneously. The recoil from the gun together with the unnatural position in which I was holding it, made me feel as if my right thumb had broken: the reverberation of the sound in that confined space had the same effect on my eardrums: and I felt a wind ruffle my hair as the ricocheting bullet, soundless in flight in that echoing intensity of sound, came within half an inch of ending my problems for good and all. And a fourth thing happened. I missed.

  Two seconds later I fired again. No hesitation. If there was a watchdog upstairs taking his ease he’d be charging down the cellar steps in a matter of moments to find out who was breaking up his happy home. Not only that, but I knew if I stopped to consider the chances of the ricochet being that half inch lower this time I never would get around to pulling that trigger.

  Again the close thunder of the explosion and this time I was sure my right thumb had gone. But I hardly cared. The wire binding me to the wine-bin was neatly severed in half. Buffalo Bill couldn’t have done it any better.

  I twisted, grabbed one of the wine-bin supports with my all but useless hands, hoisted myself shakily to my feet, rested my left elbow on a convenient shelf and stood there waiting, staring at the door. Anyone coming to investigate would have to pass through that door and, as a target, a man at six feet was going to be a much simpler proposition altogether than a wire at eighteen inches.

  For a whole minute I stood there motionless apart from the trembling of my legs, straining to the utmost what little the gunshots had left me of my hearing. Nothing. I risked a couple of quick hops out to the centre of the cellar and peered up through the high window in case my gaoler was playing it careful and smart. Again nothing. Another couple of hops and I was by the door testing the handle with my elbow. Locked.

  I turned my back on the door, scrabbled around with the muzzle of the Hanyatti until I’d found the lock, and pulled the trigger. With the second shot the door gave abruptly beneath my weight—it says much for the state of mind that I’d never even checked the position of the hinges to see whether the door opened inwards or outwards—and I fell heavily through the doorway on to the concrete passage-way outside. If there was anyone waiting out there with the hopeful intention of clobbering me, he’d never have a better chance.

  No one clobbered me because there was no one waiting there to clobber me. Dazed and sick I pushed myself wearily to my feet, located a light switch and clicked it with my shoulder. The naked bulb, hanging at the end of a short flex above my head, remained dead. It could be a dud lamp, it could be a blown fuse, but my guess was that it meant no power at all: the air in that cellar had the musty lifelessness that bespoke long abandonment by whoever had once owned the house.

  A flight of worn stone steps stretched up into the gloom. I hopped up the first two steps, teetered on the point of imbalance like a spinning top coming to rest but managed to twist round quickly and sit down before I toppled. Once down, it seemed the safe and prudent thing to do to keep my centre of gravity as low as possible by staying there, and I made it to the top of the stairs by jackknifing upward
s on the seat of my pants and the soles of my shoes.

  The door at the head of the cellar stairs was also locked but it wasn’t my door and I still had five shots left in the Hanyatti. The lock gave at the first shot and I stumbled out into the hallway beyond.

  The hallway, high, wide, and narrow, featured what estate agents euphemistically call a wealth of exposed timbering—black, ugly, adze-cut oaken beams everywhere. Two doors on either side, both closed, a glass door at the far end, another beside me leading presumably to the rear of the house, a staircase above my head and an uneven parquet floor thickly covered with a dust streaked by the confused tracks of foot-prints leading from the glass door to the spot where I was standing. The finest feature of the hall was the fact that it was completely deserted. I knew now I was alone. But for how long I didn’t know. It seemed a poor idea to waste even a second.

  I didn’t want to smear the tracks in the hall so I turned to the door beside me. For a change it was unlocked. I passed into another passage that gave on the domestic quarters—larder, pantry, kitchen, scullery. An old-fashioned house and a big one.

  I went through those apartments, opening cupboards and pulling drawers out on to the floor, but I was wasting my time. No signs here of hasty abandonment like the keepers skipping out from the Flannan Isle lighthouse, the ex-owners had cleaned out the lot when they lit out. They hadn’t left as much as a safety pin, not that a safety pin would have been found of much value in cutting the PVC that bound hands and ankles.

  The outside kitchen door was unlocked. I opened it and hopped out into the still heavily falling rain. I looked around me, but I could have been anywhere. An acre of overgrown garden completely run to seed, ten foot high hedges that hadn’t felt a clipper in years, and dripping pines and cypresses soughing under a dark and weeping sky. Wuthering Heights had nothing on it.

  There were two wooden buildings not far away, one big enough to be a garage, the other less than half the size. I hopped my way towards the latter for the sound reason that it was the nearer of the two. The door hung crazily on twisted hinges and creaked dismally as I put my shoulder to the splintered wood.

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