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The satan bug, p.15
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       The Satan Bug, p.15

           Alistair MacLean
 
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  It was a shed that had been obviously used as a workshop—to one side, below the filthy window, stood a massive work-bench with a rusty vice still bolted in position. If it wasn’t too rusted to turn and if I could find some cutting tool to jam into it, that vice would be useful indeed. Only, as far as I could see, there were no cutting tools of any description, no tools of any kind: as in the house, so here—the departing owners had been nothing if not thorough when it had come to the removal of their goods and chattels. The walls were completely bare.

  They had left only one thing, and that because it was quite useless—a square plywood box half full of rubbish and wood-shaving. With the aid of a piece of wood I managed to tilt the box and spill its contents on the floor. With the stick I stirred the jumble of odds and ends—pieces of wood, rusty screws, bent pieces of metal, twisted nails-and, at last, a very old and rusty hacksaw blade.

  It took me ten minutes to jam the blade into the vice—my hands were numbed to the point of almost paralytic uselessness—and another ten minutes to saw my way through the PVC binding my wrists. I could have done it in far less time but as, with my hands behind my back, I couldn’t see what I was doing, I had to go easy: I could have sawn through an artery or a tendon just as easily as through a wire and I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. My hands were as lifeless as that.

  They looked pretty lifeless too, when I’d severed the last PVC strand and brought them round to the front for examination, swollen to a size half as much again as normal with smooth, bluish-purple distended skin and the blood swelling slowly from torn skin on the inside of both wrists and most of my fingers. I hoped that the dark flaking rust on the blade of the hacksaw that had caused those cuts wasn’t going to give me blood-poisoning.

  I sat on the side of the box for five minutes, cursing savagely as the mottled purple of my hands slowly began to vanish and the circulation to come pounding back with the almost intolerably exquisite agony of a thousand barbed needles tearing at the flesh. When I could at last hold the hacksaw blade in my hands, I cut the PVC on my ankles and cursed some more, just as colourfully as before, till the blood supply in my feet came back to something like normal. I pulled up my shirt to have a look at the right-hand side of my chest and just as quickly and roughly stuffed the shirt back under the waistband of my trousers. A prolonged inspection would only have made me feel twice as ill as I was already: in the few clear patches in the thick crust of blood that covered almost all of the side of my body the grotesquely swelling bruises were already turning all the kaleidoscopic colours of the rainbow. I thought sourly that if the man who had used me for football practice had chosen the left instead of the right side of my chest he’d have broken all his toes on the Hanyatti. It was as well that he hadn’t.

  I had the Hanyatti in my hand as I left the tool-shed, but I didn’t really expect to have to use it. I didn’t go near the house—I knew I’d find nothing there except the footprints and that was a matter for Hardanger’s experts. From the front of the house a driveway curved away between dripping pines and I limped off down the weed-grown gravel. It would have to lead to a road of sorts.

  A few paces then I stopped and tried to think as best I could with my thinking equipment in the poor shape it was. Whoever had clobbered and tied me up might want it to be known that I had been temporarily removed from the scene: it was just as possible, for all I knew to the contrary, that he didn’t. If he didn’t then he couldn’t have been able to afford to leave my car where it had been and would have removed it. Where? What simpler and more logical than to hide Cavell’s car where he had hidden Cavell? I headed back to the garage.

  The car was there. I got in, slumped wearily back on the cushions, sat there for a few minutes, then climbed as wearily out again. If someone thought it would be to his advantage not to have people know I was out of commission, then it might equally well be to my advantage not to have that someone know that I was back in commission again. How this would be to my advantage I couldn’t even begin to guess at the moment, my mind was so gummed up by weakness and exhaustion and the beating I had taken that coherent thought was beyond me. All I knew was that I was dimly aware that it might be to my advantage and with the shape I was in and considering the lack of progress I was making I needed every advantage I could get. The car would be a dead giveaway. I started walking.

  The driveway led to a road that was no more than a rutted track deep in water and viscous mud. I turned right, for the good enough reason that there was a long steep hill to the left, and after perhaps twenty minutes I came to a secondary road with a signpost reading “Netley Common: 2 miles.” Netley Common, I knew, was on the main London-Alfringham road, about ten miles from Alfringham, which meant I’d been taken at least six miles from the A.A. box where I had been laid out. I wondered why, maybe that had been the only deserted house with a cellar within six miles.

  It took me over an hour to cover the two miles to Netley, partly because of the shape I was in anyway, partly because I kept hopping into bushes and behind the cover of trees whenever a car or a cyclist came along. Netley Common itself I bypassed by taking to the fields—empty of all signs of life on that teeming and bitter October morning—and finally reached the main road where I sank down, half-kneeling, half-lying, in a ditch behind the screen of some bushes. I felt like a water-logged doll coming apart at the seams. I was so exhausted that even my chest didn’t seem to be hurting any more. I was bone-chilled as a mortuary slab and shaking like a marionette in the hands of a frenzied puppeteer, I was growing old.

  Twenty minutes later I had grown a great deal older. Traffic in rural Wiltshire is never up to Piccadilly standards at the best of times, but even so it was having an off-day. In that time only three cars and a bus had passed me and as they were all full or nearly so none of them was any use to me. What I wanted was a truck with only one man in it or, failing that, a car with just the driver, although how any man alone in a car would react when he saw the wild dishevelled figure of a lifer on the lam or a refugee from a canvas jacket was anybody’s guess.

  The next car that came along had two men in it but I didn’t hesitate. I recognised the slow-moving, big, black Wolseley for what it was long before I could see the uniforms of the men inside. The car braked smoothly to a stop and a big burly sergeant, relief and concern in his face, was out and helping me to my feet as I stumbled up the bank. He had the arm and the build to carry weight and I let him take most of mine.

  “Mr. Cavell?” He peered closely into my face. “It is Mr. Cavell?”

  I felt I’d changed a lot in the past few hours but not all that much so I admitted I was.

  “Thank God for that. There’s been half a dozen police cars and heaven only knows how many of the military out looking for you for the past two hours.” He helped me solicitously into the back seat. “Now you just take it easy, sir.”

  “I’ll do just that.” I eased my squelching, sodden, mud-stained figure into a corner. “I’m afraid this seat will never be the same again, Sergeant.”

  “Don’t you worry about that, sir—plenty more cars where this one came from,” he said cheerfully. He climbed in beside the constable at the wheel and picked up the microphone as the car moved off. “Your wife is waiting at the police station with Inspector Wylie.”

  “Wait a minute,” I said quickly. “No hullaballoo about Cavell returning from the dead, Sergeant. Keep it quiet. I don’t want to be taken anywhere I can be recognised. Know of any quiet spot where I could be put up and stay without being seen?”

  He twisted and stared at me. He said slowly, “I don’t understand.”

  I made to say that it didn’t matter a damn whether he understood or not, but it wouldn’t have been fair. Instead I said, “It is important, Sergeant. At least I think so. Any hideaway you know of?”

  “Well.” He hesitated. “It’s difficult, Mr. Cavell——”

  “There’s my cottage, Sergeant,” the driver volunteered. “You know Jean’s away with he
r mother. Mr. Cavell could have that.”

  “Is it quiet, has it a phone, and is it near Alfringham?” I asked.

  “All three of them, sir.”

  “Fine. Many thanks. Sergeant, please speak to your inspector. Privately. Ask him to come to this cottage as soon as possible with my wife. With Superintendent Hardanger, if he’s available. And have you—the Alfringham police, I mean—a doctor they can rely on? Who doesn’t talk out of turn, I mean?”

  “We do that.” He peered at me. “A doctor?”

  I nodded and pulled back my jacket. The rain of that morning had soaked me to the skin and the blood seeping through from the bruises, much diluted, had covered most of the shirt-front in a particularly unpleasant shade of, brownish-red. The sergeant took a quick look, turned and said softly to the driver, “Come on, Rollie boy. You’ve always wanted to make like Moss and now’s your chance. But keep your finger off that damned siren.”

  Then he reached for the microphone and started talking in a low urgent voice.

  “I’m not going into any damned hospital and that’s final,” I said irritably. With a couple of ham sandwiches and half a tumbler of whisky inside me I was feeling much more my old nasty self again. “Sorry, Doc, but there it is.”

  “I’m sorry too.” The doctor bending over me in the bed in that police bungalow was a neat, methodical and precise man with a neat, methodical and precise voice. “I can’t make you go, more’s the pity. I would if I could, for you’re a pretty sick man in urgent need of radiological examination and hospital care. Two of your ribs seem cracked and a third is definitely fractured. How badly and how dangerously I can’t say. I don’t have X-ray eyes.”

  “Not to worry,” I said reassuringly. “With the way you’ve strapped me up I can’t see any broken ribs sticking into a lung, or out through my skin for that matter of it.”

  “Unless you yield to an irresistible compulsion to indulge in violent gymnastics,” the doctor said dryly, “we need not concern ourselves with the possibility of you stabbing yourself to death. What does concern me is the likelihood of pneumonia— broken bones plus the exhausting, unpleasant and very wet time you’ve been through provide an ideal breeding ground. Pneumonia together with broken ribs make for a very nasty condition. Cemeteries are full of people who could once have testified to that fact.”

  “Make me laugh some more,” I said sourly.

  “Mrs. Cavell.” He ignored me and looked at Mary, sitting still and pale on the other side of the bed. “Check respiration, pulse, temperature every hour. Any upward change in those—or difficulty in respiration—and please contact me at once. You have my number. Finally I must warn you and those gentlemen here “—he nodded to Hardanger and Wylie—”that if Mr. Cavell stirs from his bed inside the next seventy-two hours I refuse to regard myself as in any way medically responsible for his well-being.”

  He picked up his tool-bag and took off. As the door closed behind him I swung my legs off the bed and started to pull on a clean shirt. It hurt, but not as much as I expected it would. Neither Mary nor Hardanger said anything and Wylie, seeing that they had no intention of speaking, said, “You want to kill yourself, Cavell? You heard what Dr. Whitelaw said. Why don’t you stop him, Superintendent?”

  “He’s off his rocker,” Hardanger explained. “You’ll observe, Inspector, that not even his wife tries to stop him? Some things in this life are a complete and utter waste of time and making Cavell see sense is one of them.” He glared at me. “So you’ve been coming all over clever and lone-wolfish again, haven’t you? And you see what happens? Look at the bloody mess you’re in now. Literally. Look at it. And nothing to show. When in God’s name are you going to realise that our only hope lies in working together? The hell with your d’Artagnan methods, Cavell. System, method, routine, co-operation— that’s the only way you ever get anywhere against big crime. And damn’ well you know it.”

  “I know it,” I agreed. “Patient skilled men working hard under patient skilled supervision. Sure, I’m with you. But not here. No room for patience now. Patient men take time and we have no time. You’ve made arrangements for an armed watch to be kept on this house I was in and to have your sleuths examine the footprints?”

  He nodded. “Your story. Let’s waste no more time.”

  “You’ll have it. Just as soon as you tell me why you haven’t bawled me out for wasting valuable police time in searching for me and why you haven’t tried to use your authority to make me stay in bed. Are we worried, Superintendent?”

  “The newspapers have the story,” he said flatly. “About the break-in, the murders, the theft of the Satan Bug. We didn’t expect that last thing. They’re hysterical already. Screaming banner headlines in every national daily.” He pointed to a pile of newspapers on the floor beside him. “Want to see them?”

  “And waste more time? I can guess. That’s not all that’s worrying you.”

  “It isn’t. The General was on the phone—he was looking for you—half an hour ago. Six Gestetner duplicated letters delivered by special messengers this morning to the biggest concerns in Fleet Street. Character saying that his previous warning had been ignored: no acknowledgement of it on the 9 a.m. B.B.C. news. The walls of Mordon still stood, some rubbish like that. Said that within the next few hours he would give a demonstration proving (a) he had those viruses and (b) he was willing to use them.”

  “Will the papers print it?”

  “They’ll print it. First of all they—the editors— got together and contacted the Special Branch at Scotland Yard. The Assistant Commissioner got in touch with the Home Secretary and I gather there was some kind of emergency meeting. Anyway a Cabinet order not to print. Fleet Street, I gather, told the Government to take a running jump to itself and told the Government that it is the servant of the people and not vice versa, and that if the nation stood in deadly peril—and that on the face of it they certainly seemed to—the people had the right to know. They also reminded the Government that if they put one little foot wrong in this matter they would be out on their ears overnight. The London evening papers will be on the streets about now. I’ll bet the headlines are the biggest since VE day.”

  “The ball’s up on the slates,” I nodded. I watched Mary, her face expressionless and carefully not looking at me, button my shirt-cuffs— with both wrists bandaged and my fingers heavily scratched it was a bit much for me—and went on, “Well, it’ll certainly provide the British public with a conversational change from the football pools, what so-and-so said on TV last night and the latest rock and roll sensation.” I went on to tell him of what happened during the night, omitting my trip to London to see the General.

  At the end Hardanger said heavily, “Very, very interesting. Are you trying to tell me that you woke up in the middle of the night and—without telling Mary—started chasing and phoning around Wiltshire?”

  “I’m telling you. The old secret police technique— and you can’t beat it: get them at their sleepiest and most apprehensive and you’re already half-way there. And I didn’t go to sleep in the first place. I went without telling because I knew damned well it would go so much against all your training and instincts that you wouldn’t hesitate to use force to stop me.”

  “If I had,” he said coldly, “you might have a full set of ribs right now.”

  “If you had, we wouldn’t have narrowed this list so much. Five of them. I let drop to all of them that we were getting pretty close to an answer and one of them was scared enough to panic and try to stop me.”

  “You assume.”

  “It’s a damned good assumption. Got a better? For a starter I suggest we haul in Chessingham straight away. There’s plenty on him and——”

  “I forgot,” Hardanger interrupted. “You phoned the General last night——”

  “Yes.” I didn’t even bother to look shame-faced.

  “Wanted authority to hash about in my own way—knew you wouldn’t grant it.”

  “Clever devil, aren
t you?” If he guessed I was lying there were no signs of it in his face. “You asked him to check on this fellow Chessingham, his service career. Seems he was a driver in the R.A.S.C.”

  “That’s it then. Going to pull him in?”

  “Yes. His sister?”

  “She wouldn’t be guilty of anything other than covering up for her own flesh and blood. And the mother is in the clear. That’s for sure.”

  “So. That leaves the four others you contacted this morning. You’d put them all in the clear?”

  “I would not. Take Colonel Weybridge. The only certain facts we know about him are these: he has access to the security files and so would be in a position to blackmail Dr. Hartnell into co-operating——”

  “You mentioned last night you thought Hartnell was in the clear.”

  “I said I’d reservations about him. Secondly, why didn’t our gallant Colonel, like his gallant commanding officer, volunteer to go into the lab instead of me? Was it because he knew the botulinus virus was loose in there? Thirdly, he is the only one without an alibi for the time of the murder.”

  “Good lord, Cavell, you’re not suggesting we pull in Colonel Weybridge? I can tell you we had a pretty nasty time from both Cliveden and Weybridge when we insisted on fingerprinting their quarters this morning. Cliveden actually phoned the Assistant Commissioner.”

  “And got his head in his hands?”

  “In a gentlemanly sort of way. He hates our guts now.”

  “That helps. This fingerprinting of the suspects’ houses. Anything turned up yet?”

  “Give them a chance,” Hardanger protested. “It’s not one o’clock yet. Be a couple of hours before they finish tabulating their results. And I can’t pull in Weybridge. The War Office would have my scalp in twenty-four hours.”

  “If this lad with the Satan Bug starts chucking it around,” I said, “there won’t be any War Office in twenty-four hours. People’s feelings have ceased to be of any concern. Besides, you don’t have to throw him in the cooler. Confine him to his quarters, open arrest, house arrest, whatever you call it. Anything turned up in the past few hours?”

 
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