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The satan bug, p.17
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       The Satan Bug, p.17

           Alistair MacLean
 
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He looked at me. He was trying hard not to believe me but he wasn’t sure. There was nothing tough about Hartnell.

  “Let’s try it the easy way first, though,” I said. “Let’s try it by reminding you that there’s a madman on the loose with the Satan Bug threatening to wipe out God knows how much of England if his conditions aren’t met—and his first demonstration is due any hour.”

  “What are you talking about?” he demanded hoarsely.

  I told him what Hardanger had told me and then went on, “If this madman wipes out any part of the country the nation will demand revenge. They’ll demand a scapegoat and public pressure will be so terrific that they’ll get their scapegoat. Surely you’re not so stupid as not to see that? Surely you’re not so stupid that you can’t visualise your wife Jane with the hangman’s knot under her chin as the executioner opens the trap-door. The fall, the jolt, the snapping of the vertebrae, the momentary reflex kicking of the feet—can you see your wife, Hartnell? Can you see what you are going to do to her? She is young to die. And death by hanging is a terrible death—and it’s still the prescribed penalty for a guilty accessory to murder for gain.”

  He looked up at me, dull hate and misery in the sick eyes. In the half-light of the cellar his face was grey and there was the sheen of sweat on his forehead.

  I went on, “You realise that you can retract any statement you make to me here. Without witnesses, a statement is valueless.” I paused and dropped my voice. “You’re deep in this, aren’t you?”

  He nodded. He was staring at the floor.

  “Who’s the killer? Who’s behind all this?”

  “I don’t know. As God is my judge, I don’t know. A man rang me up and offered me money if I’d cause this diversion. Jane and myself. I thought he was crazy and if he wasn’t something stank about it … I refused. Next morning £200 arrived by post with a note to say there would be £300 more if I did what I was told. A—a fortnight went by and then he came on the phone again.”

  “His voice. Did you recognise his voice?”

  “It was deep and muffled. I’ve no idea who it was. I think he was talking with something over the mouthpiece.”

  “What did he say?”

  “The same as his note. There would be this other £300 if I did as he asked.”

  “And?”

  “I said I would.” He was still looking downwards. “I—I had already spent part of the money.”

  “Received the extra £300?”

  “Not yet.”

  “How much have you spent of the £200 you received?”

  “About forty.”

  “Show me the rest of it.”

  “It’s not here. Not in the house. I went out last night after you had been here and buried the remainder in the woods.”

  “What was the money in? Denominations, I mean.”

  “Fivers. Bank of England fivers.”

  “I see. All very interesting, Doctor.” I crossed to the bench where he was sitting, screwed my hand into his hair, jerked his head savagely upwards, jammed the barrel of the Hanyatti into his solar plexus and, as he gasped in pain, brought up the barrel and thrust it between his teeth. For ten seconds I stood like that, motionless, while he stared up at me with eyes crazy with fear. I felt slightly sick.

  “One chance is all you get from me, Hartnell,” I said in a low voice. “You’ve had that chance. Now the treatment. You rotten contemptible liar. Expect me to believe a crazy story like that? Do you think the brilliant mind behind this would have phoned asking you to make a diversion knowing very well that the chances were high that you would at once go to the police, put them and the Army at Mordon on their guard and so ruin all his plans? Do you think this man, in an area where automatic exchanges are not yet installed, would have spoken to you when any operator with time on her hands could have listened in to every word he said? Are you so naïve as to imagine that I would be so naïve as to believe that? Do you believe this man, with a genius for organisation, would leave everything, the success of all his plans, dependent on the last-minute factor of the strength of your greed? Do you believe he would pay in fivers, which can as often as not be traced and which could also have, if not his prints, then those of the cashier issuing them? Do you expect me to believe that he would offer £500 for the job when he could get a couple of experts from London to do it for a tenth of that. And, finally, do you think I’d believe your yarn about burying the money in the woods at night—so that come the dawn if you were told to dig them up by the police you would be unable to find them again?” I stood back, taking the gun from his face. “Or shall we go and look for that money now?”

  “Oh, God, it’s useless.” He was completely crushed, his voice a moan. “I’m finished, Cavell, I’m finished. I’ve been borrowing all over the place and now I’m over two thousand in debt.”

  “Cut the sob-story,” I said harshly. “It doesn’t interest me.”

  “Tuffnell—the money-lender—was pressing me hard,” he went on dully. He wasn’t looking anywhere near me. “I’m mess secretary at Mordon. I’ve embezzled over six hundred pounds. Someone— God knows who or how—found out and sent me a note saying that if I didn’t co-operate he’d lay the facts before the police. I co-operated.”

  I put the gun away. The ring of truth is far from having the bell-like clarity some innocents would believe, but I knew Hartnell was too beaten to prevaricate further. I said, “You have no clue at all as to the identity of the man sending the note?”

  “No. And I swear I don’t know anything about the hammer or the pliers or the red mud on the scooter.”

  My leg was now hurting so badly that they’d given me a police car and police driver but even so I didn’t enjoy the trip across to Dr. MacDonald’s house. Time was running out and all I could see was a brick wall. That evening there would appear in all the evening papers a carefully worded account of how two Mordon scientists had been arrested and charged with murder and that the final solution of the theft of the Satan Bug was only hours away, and while it might, we hoped, lull the suspicions of the real killers, it wasn’t advancing our cause very much. Blind men in a fog at midnight. And no leads, just no leads at all. Hardanger was going to open an intensive investigation in Mordon to find out who might have had access to the mess accounts: probably, I thought bitterly, only a couple of hundred people or so.

  I was met at the door of Dr. MacDonald’s house by his housekeeper. She was in her middle thirties, more than passably goodlooking and gave her name as Mrs. Turpin. Her face was like thunder, the face of the faithful retainer powerless to defend her master’s property against ravage and assault. When I showed my false credentials and asked to be allowed in she said bitterly that another prying nosy-parker more or less couldn’t do any harm now.

  The house appeared to be alive with plainclothes policemen. I identified myself to the man in charge, a detective-sergeant by the name of Carlisle.

  “Found anything interesting yet, Sergeant?”

  “Hard to say. Been here over an hour, starting from the top, and we’ve found nothing that strikes me as suspicious in itself. Dr. MacDonald does seem to do himself pretty well, I must say. And one of my men, Campbell, who’s dead keen on all this art rubbish says that a lot of the pictures, pottery and other junk about the place is worth a fair bit of anyone’s money. And you ought to see the dark-room he has in the attic: there’s a thousand quid’s worth of photographic equipment there if there’s a penny’s worth.”

  “Dark-room? That might be interesting. Never heard that Dr. MacDonald was interested in photography.”

  “Lord bless my soul, yes. He’s one of the best amateur photographers in the country. He’s the president of our photographic club in Alfringham. There’s a cabinet through in his study there that’s fair loaded with trophies. He makes no secret of that, I can assure you, sir.”

  I left him and his men to their search—if they couldn’t find anything neither could I—and went upstairs to the dark-room. Carlisle hadn’t exaggerat
ed any, Dr. MacDonald did himself as well in the way of cameras as he did in the other material things of life. But I didn’t spend much time there, I didn’t see how cameras came into the business at all. I made a mental note to bring an expert police photographer down from London to check the equipment in the one in a thousand chance that something might turn up, and then went down stairs to see Mrs. Turpin.

  “I’m really most sorry about all this upset, Mrs. Turpin,” I said pleasantly. “Just pure routine, you know. Must be a pleasure for you to look after a beautiful place like this.”

  “If you’ve got any questions to ask, ask them,” she snapped, “and none of your smart-alecky beating about the bush.”

  That didn’t leave much room for finesse. I said, “How many years have you been with Dr. MacDonald?”

  “Four. Ever since he came here. A finer gentleman you wouldn’t find anywhere. Why do you ask?”

  “He has a great deal of valuable stuff here.” I listed about a dozen items, ranging from the magnificent carpeting to the paintings. “How long has he had those?”

  “I don’t have to answer any questions, Mr. Inspector.” The helpful type.

  “No,” I admitted. “You don’t. Especially if you wish to make things unpleasant for your employer.”

  She glared at me, hesitated, then answered my questions. At least half the stuff MacDonald had brought with him four years ago. The rest he had bought at fairly regular intervals since. Mrs. Turpin was one of those formidable women with a photographic memory for all the more monumental irrelevancies of life, and she could more or less quote the date, hour and the weather conditions at the time of the delivery of each item. I knew I’d be wasting my time even trying to confirm her statements. If Mrs. Turpin said such and such was so and so, then it was and that was all there was to it.

  This certainly helped to set MacDonald in the clear. No sudden suspicious influx of wealth in recent weeks or months, he’d been buying on this lavish scale over a period of years. Where he got the wherewithal to buy on this lavish scale I couldn’t guess, but it hardly seemed important now. As he’d said himself, as an independent bachelor without relatives, he could afford to live it up.

  I moved back into the sitting-room and saw Carlisle coming towards me with a couple of large files in his hands.

  “We’re giving Dr. MacDonald’s study a thorough going-over now, sir. Listing everything, of course, but I thought these might interest you. Seems to be some sort of official correspondence.”

  It did interest me, but not in the way I expected. The more I turned up about MacDonald, the more innocuous he seemed. The file contained carbon copies of his letters to and replies from fellow-scientists and various scientific organisations throughout Europe, mainly the World Health Organisation. There was no doubt from these letters that MacDonald was a highly gifted and highly respected chemist and microbiologist, one of the top men in his own field. Almost half of his letters were addressed to certain affiliations of the W.H.O., particularly in Paris, Stockholm, Bonn and Rome. Nothing sinister or unpatriotic about that, this would be unclassified stuff and the frequent co-signature of Dr. Baxter on the carbon was guarantee enough of that. Besides, although it was supposed to be a secret, all the scientists in Mordon knew that their mail was under constant censorship. I glanced through the file again and put it aside as the phone rang.

  It was Hardanger and he sounded fairly grim. What he had to say made me feel grim, too. A phone call to Alfringham had stated that if police investigations weren’t suspended for twenty-four hours something very unpleasant was going to happen to Pierre Cavell, who, as they would be aware, had disappeared. Proof that the caller knew where Cavell was would be forthcoming if police investigations were not halted by six o’clock that evening.

  It wasn’t the first part of it that made me feel grim. I said, “Well, we were expecting something like it. With all the threats I was dropping at the crack of dawn today they must have thought that I was making too much progress for their comfort.”

  “You flatter yourself, my friend,” Hardanger said in his gravelly voice. “You’re only a pawn. The call wasn’t made to the police but to your wife at the Waggoner’s Rest, telling her that if the General—he gave his full name, rank and address—didn’t pull in his horns then she, Mary, would receive a pair of ears in the mail tomorrow. The caller said that he was sure that though she had been married only a couple of months she would still be able to recognise her husband’s ears when she saw them.”

  I felt the hairs prickle on the back of my neck and that had nothing to do with any imagined sensation of ear-cropping. I said carefully, “There are three things, Hardanger. The number of people in those parts who know we have been married only two months must be pretty few. The number of people who know that Mary is the General’s daughter must be even fewer. But the number of people who know the General’s true identity, apart from yourself and myself, can be counted on one hand. How in God’s name could any criminal in the land know the General’s true identity?”

  “You tell me,” Hardanger said heavily. “This is the nastiest development of the lot. This man not only knows who the General is but knows that Mary is his only child and the apple of his eye, the one person in the world who might be able to bring pressure to bear on him. And she’d bring the pressure, all right: the abstract ideals of justice don’t matter a damn to women when their men’s lives are in danger. The whole thing stinks, Cavell.”

  “To high heaven,” I agreed slowly. “Of treason— and treason in high places.”

  “I don’t think we’d better talk about it over the phone,” Hardanger said quickly.

  “No. Tried tracing the call?”

  “Not yet. But I might as well waste time that way as any other.”

  He hung up and I stood there staring at the silent telephone. The General was a personal appointee of the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. His identity was also known to the chiefs of espionage and counter-espionage—it had to be. An Assistant Commissioner, Hardanger himself, the Commandant and security chief at Mordon—and that ended the list of those to whom the General’s identity was known. It was an ugly thought. I wondered vaguely how General Cliveden was going to enjoy the next couple of hours—I didn’t require any powers of telepathy to know where Hardanger would be heading as soon as he had put down that phone. Of all our suspects, only Cliveden knew the General’s identity. Maybe I should have been paying more attention to General Cliveden.

  A shadow darkened the hall doorway. I glanced up to see three khaki-clad figures standing at the head of the outside steps. The man in the centre, a sergeant, had his hand raised to the bell-push but lowered it when he caught sight of me.

  “I’m looking for an Inspector Gibson,” he said.

  “Is he here?”

  “Gibson?” I suddenly remembered that was me.

  “I’m Inspector Gibson, Sergeant.”

  “I’ve something here for you, sir.” He indicated the file under his arm. “I’ve been ordered to ask for your credentials first of all.”

  I showed them and he handed over the file. He said, apologetically, “I’m under orders not to let that out of my sight, sir. Superintendent Hardanger said it came from Mr. Clandon’s records offices and I understand it’s highly confidential.”

  “Of course.” Followed by the sergeant who was flanked by a couple of hefty privates, I walked into the living-room, ignoring the outraged glare of Mrs. Turpin who had belatedly appeared on the scene. I asked her to leave and she did, glowering savagely.

  I broke the seal and opened the file. It contained a spare seal for re-sealing the cover and a copy of Dr. MacDonald’s security report. I’d seen the report before, of course, when I’d taken over as head of security from the vanished Easton Derry, but had paid no particular attention to it. I’d had no special reason to. But I had now.

  There were seven pages of foolscap. I went through it three times. I didn’t miss a thing the first time and if possible even
less the next two. I was looking for even the tiniest offbeat jarring note that might give me even the most insubstantial lead, Senator McCarthy sniffing out a Communist had nothing on me, but I found not the slightest trace of anything that might have been helpful. The only odd thing, as Hardanger had pointed out, was the extremely scanty information about MacDonald’s Army career, and to information Easton Derry—who had indeed compiled the report—must have had access. But nothing, except for a remark at the foot of a page that MacDonald, entering the Army as a private in the Territorials in 1938, had finished his Army career in Italy as a lieutenant-colonel in a tank division in 1945. The top of the following page held a reference to his appointment as a government chemist in north-east England early in 1946. This could have been just the way Easton Derry had compiled the report: or not.

  With the blade of my penknife, and ignoring the sergeant’s scandalised look, I pried open the buckram corner holding the top left hand corners of the pages together. Under this was a thin wire staple, the kind of staple that comes with practically every kind of commercial stapler. I bent the ends back at right angles, slid the sheets off and examined them separately. No sheet had more than one pair—the original pair—of holes made by the stapler. If anyone had opened that staple to remove a sheet, he’d replaced it with exceptional care. On the face of it, it looked as if that file hadn’t been tampered with.

  I became aware that Carlisle, the plain-clothes detective-sergeant, was standing beside me, holding a bundle of papers and folders. He said, “This might interest you, sir. I don’t know.”

  “Just a moment.” I clipped the sheets together again, pushed them into the file-holder, resealed it and handed it back to the army sergeant who took himself off along with his two companions. I said to Carlisle, “What are those?”

  “Photographs, sir.”

  “Photographs? What makes you think I’ll be interested in photographs, Sergeant?”

  “The fact that they were inside a locked steel box, sir. And the box was in the bottom drawer— also locked—of a kneehole desk. And here’s a bundle found in the same place—personal correspondence, I would say.”

 
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