The Satan Bug, p.18Alistair MacLean
“Much trouble in opening the steel box?”
“Not with the size of hacksaw I use, sir. We’ve just about tied it all up now, Inspector. Everything listed. If I might venture an opinion, you’ll find little of interest in the list.”
“Searched the whole house? Any basement?”
“Just about the filthiest coal-cellar you ever clapped eyes on.” Carlisle smiled. “From what I’ve seen of Dr. MacDonald’s personal tastes he doesn’t strike me as the type of man who would keep even coal in a coal-cellar if he could find a cleaner and more luxurious place for it.”
He left me to his finds. There were four albums. Three of them were of the innocuous squinting-into-the-sun type of family albums you can find in a million British homes. Most of the photographs were faded and yellow, taken in the days of MacDonald’s youth in the twenties and thirties. The fourth album, of much more recent origin, was a presentation given to MacDonald by colleagues in the World Health Organisation in recognition of his outstanding services to the W.H.O. over many years—an illuminated address pasted to the inside front board said so. It contained over fifty pictures of MacDonald and his colleagues taken in at least a dozen different European cities. Most of the photographs had been taken in France, Scandinavia and Italy, with a sprinkling from a few other countries. They had been mounted in chronological fashion, each picture with date and location caption, the last having been taken in Helsinki less than six months previously.
The photographs in the album didn’t interest me: what did interest me was one photograph that was missing. From its place in the album it had almost certainly been taken about eighteen months previously. Its caption had been all but obliterated by horizontal strokes made in the same white ink used for all captions. I switched on the light and peered closely at the obliteration. No question but that the place name had once started with a T. After that it was hard to say. The next letter could have been either an O or a D. O, I felt sure—there was no city in Europe beginning with TD. The remainder of the word was completely obliterated. TO … About six letters in length, possibly seven. But none of the letters projected below the line, so that cut out all words with p’s and g’s and j’s and so forth.
What cities or towns in Europe did I know beginning with the letters TO and six or seven letters in length? Not so very many, I realised, at least not of any size, and the W.H.O. didn’t hold its meetings in villages. Torquay—no good, letters projecting below. Totnes—too small. In Europe? Tornio in Sweden, Tondor in Denmark—again both relatively insignificant. Toledo, now—no one could call that a village: but MacDonald had never been to Spain. The best bets were probably either Tournai in Belgium or Toulon in France. Tournai? Toulon? For a moment or two I mulled the names over in my mind. I picked up the bundle of letters.
There must have been thirty or forty letters in the bundle, faintly scented and tied, of all things, with a blue ribbon. Of all the things I would have expected to find in Dr. MacDonald’s possession, this was the last. And, I would have bet a month’s salary, the most useless. They looked like love letters and I didn’t particularly relish the prospect of making myself conversant with the good doctor’s youthful indiscretions but just at that moment I would have read Homer in the original if I thought it would be any good to me. I untied the bow on the ribbon.
Exactly five minutes later I was speaking on the phone to the General.
“I want to interview a certain Mme. Yvette Peugot who was working in the Pasteur Institute in Paris in 1945 and 1946. Not next week, not tomorrow, but now. This afternoon. Can you fix it, sir?”
“I can fix anything, Cavell,” the General said simply. “Less than two hours ago the Premier put the entire resources of all the services at our disposal. He’s as windy as hell. How urgent is this?”
“Maybe life-or-death urgent, sir. That’s what I’ve got to find out. This woman appears to have been on very intimate terms with MacDonald for about nine months towards and after the end of the war. It’s the one period of his life about which information is lacking. If she’s still alive and traceable she may be able to fill in this period.”
“Is that all?” The voice was flat, disappointment barely concealed. “What of the letters themselves?”
“Only read a couple so far, sir. Seem perfectly innocuous though not the sort of stuff I’d care to have read out in court if I had written it.”
“It seems very little to go on, Cavell.”
“A hunch, sir. More than that. It is possible that a page has been abstracted from the security dossier on MacDonald. The dates on those letters correspond to the missing page—if it is missing. And if it is I want to find out why.”
“Missing?” His voice crackled sharply over the wire. “How could a page from a security dossier possibly be missing? Who would have—or have had—access to those dossiers?”
“Easton, Clandon, myself—and Cliveden and Weybridge.”
“Precisely. General Cliveden.” A significant pause. “This recent threat to Mary to let her have your head on a charger: General Cliveden is the only man in Mordon who knows both who I am and the relationship between myself and Mary. One of the only two men with access to security dossiers. Don’t you think you should be concentrating on Cliveden?”
“I think Hardanger should be concentrating on Cliveden. I want to see Mme. Peugot.”
“Very well. Hold on.” I held on and after some minutes his voice came again. “Drive to Mordon. Helicopter there will fly you to Stanton airfield. Twin-seat jet night-fighter there. Forty minutes from Stanton to Paris. That suit you?”
“Fine. I’m afraid I’ve no passport with me, sir.”
“You won’t require it. If Mme. Peugot is still alive and still in Paris she’ll be waiting for you in Orly airport. That I promise. I’ll see you when I return—I’m leaving for Alfringham in thirty minutes.”
He hung up and I turned away, the bundle of letters in my hand. I caught sight of Mrs. Turpin by the open door, her face expressionless. Her eyes moved from mine down to the packet of letters in my hand, then met mine again. After a moment she turned and disappeared. I wondered how long she had been there, looking and listening.
The General was as good as his word all the way through. The helicopter was waiting for me at Mordon. The jet at Stanton took exactly thirty-five hair-raising minutes to reach Orly airport. And Mme. Peugot, accompanied by a Parisian police inspector, was waiting for me in a private room there. Somebody, I thought, had moved very fast indeed.
As it turned out, it hadn’t been so difficult to locate Mme. Peugot—now Madame Halle. She still worked in the same place as she had done in the later months of her acquaintanceship with MacDonald—the Pasteur Institute—and had readily agreed to come to the airport when the police had made plain the urgency. She was a dark, plump, attractive forty, and had readily smiling eyes. At that moment she was hesitant, unsure and slightly apprehensive, the normal reaction when police start taking an interest in you.
The French police officer made the introductions. I said, wasting no time, “We would be most grateful if you could give us some information about an Englishman whose acquaintance you made in the middle forties— ’45 and ’46, to be precise. A Dr. Alexander MacDonald.”
“Dr. MacDonald? Alex?” She laughed. “He’d be furious to hear himself described as an Englishman. At least, he would have been. In the days when I knew him he was the most ardent Scottish—what do you call it?”
“Of course. A Scottish Nationalist. Fervent, I remember. Forever saying, ‘down with the old enemy’—England—and ‘up with the old Franco-Scottish alliance.’ But I do know he fought most gallantly for the old enemy in the last war, so perhaps he was not so terribly sincere.” She broke off and looked at me with an odd mixture of shrewdness and apprehension. “He—he’s not dead, is he?”
“No, madame, he is not.”
“But he is in trouble? Police trouble?” She was quick and clever, had seized at once
“I’m afraid he may be. How and when did you first meet him, Madame Halle?”
“Two or three months before the war ended— the European war, I mean. Colonel MacDonald, as he was then, was sent to examine a munitions and chemical factory that had been run by the Germans for years at St. Denis. I was working in the research division of the same factory—not from choice, I assure you. I did not know then that Colonel MacDonald was himself a brilliant chemist. I took it upon myself to explain to him the various chemical processes and production lines and it wasn’t until I’d finished the tour of the factory that I found out that he knew far more about it than I did.” She smiled. “I think the gallant colonel had rather taken a fancy to me. And I to him.” I nodded. Judging from the highly combustible tone of her letters she was considerably understating the case.
“He remained for several months in the Paris area,” she continued. “I don’t quite know what his duties were, but they were mostly of a technical nature. Every free moment we had we spent together.” She shrugged. “It’s all so long ago, it seems another world. He returned to England for demobilisation and was back inside a week. He tried to find employment in Paris, but it was impossible. I think he eventually got some sort of research job with the British Government.”
“Did you ever know or hear or suspect anything shady or reprehensible about Colonel MacDonald?” I asked bluntly.
“Never. If I had I would not have associated with him.” The conviction of the words, the dignity of manner, made it impossible not to believe her. I had the sudden hollow feeling that perhaps the General had been right after all and that I was just wasting valuable time—if, on bitter reflection, my time could be called valuable—on a wild-goose chase. Cavell returning home with his tail between his legs.
“Nothing?” I persisted. “Not the slightest thing you can think of?”
“You wish to insult me, perhaps?” Her voice was quiet.
“I’m sorry.” I changed my approach. “May I ask if you were in love with him?”
“I take it Dr. MacDonald didn’t send you here,” she said calmly. “You must have learnt of me through my letters. You know the answer to your question.”
“Was he in love with you?”
“I know he was. At least he asked me to marry him. Ten times at least. That should show, no?”
“But you didn’t marry,” I said. “You lost touch with him. And if you were both in love and he asked you to marry him, may I ask why you refused? For you must have refused.”
“I refused for the same reason that our friendship ended. Partly, I’m afraid because, in spite of his protestations of love, he was an incurable philanderer, but mainly because there were profound differences between us and we were neither of us old enough or experienced enough to let our heads rule our hearts.”
“Differences? May I ask what differences, Madame Halle?”
“You are persistent, aren’t you? Does it matter?” She sighed. “I suppose it does to you. You’ll just keep on until you get the answer. There’s no secret about it and it’s all very unimportant and rather silly.”
“I’d still like to hear it.”
“No doubt. France, you will remember, was in a most confused state politically after the war. We had parties whose views could not have been more divergent, from the extreme right to the very furthest left. I am a good Catholic and I was of the Catholic party of the Right.” She smiled deprecatingly. “What you could call a true-blue Tory. Well, I’m afraid that Dr. MacDonald disagreed so violently with my political opinions that our friendship eventually became quite impossible. Those things happen, you know. When one is young, politics become so terribly important.”
“Dr. MacDonald didn’t share your Conservative viewpoint?”
“Conservative!” She laughed in genuine amusement. “Conservative, you say! Whether or not Alex was a genuine Scottish Nationalist I cannot say, but this much I can say with complete certainty: outside the walls of the Kremlin there never existed a more implacable and dedicated Communist. He was formidable.”
One hour and ten minutes later I walked into the lounge of the Waggoner’s Rest in Alfringham.
I’d had a phone call put through from Stanton airfield and both the General and Superintendent Hardanger were in the lounge waiting for me. Although it was still early evening the General had on the table before him the remains of what appeared to have been a pretty considerable whisky. I’d never before known him to have his first drink of the day before nine o’clock at night. His face was pale, set and strained and for the first time ever he was beginning to look his age, nothing I could put my finger on, just the slight sag of the shoulders, the indefinable air of weariness. There was something curiously pathetic about him, the pathos of a man with a broad and upright back who had suddenly, finally felt the burden of the weight he was carrying to be too much.
Hardanger didn’t look a great deal better either.
I greeted them both, collected a whisky from old shirt-sleeves, who was safely out of hearing range, and gladly took the weight off my feet. I said, “Where’s Mary?”
“Out visiting Stella Chessingham and her mother,” Hardanger said. “More broken wings for her to mend. Your surly friend behind the bar is just back from driving her there. She wanted to give them what sympathy and encouragement she could. I agreed with her that they must both be feeling pretty grim after young Chessingham’s arrest, but said I didn’t think it either necessary or wise. This was before the General came down. She wouldn’t listen to me. You know what your wife is like, Cavell. And your daughter, sir.”
“She’s wasting her time,” I said. “On this occasion. Young Chessingham is as innocent as the day he was born. I told his mother so at eight o’clock this morning—I had to, she’s a sick woman and the shock might have killed her— and she’d have told her daughter as soon as the van called for Chessingham. They don’t need either sympathy or consolation.”
“What!” Hardanger leant far forward in his seat, face dark with rising anger, his big hand threatening to crush the glass clasped inside it. “What the devil are you saying, Cavell? Innocent? Damn it all, there’s enough circumstantial evidence——”
“The only evidence against him is the fact that he very understandably told a lie about his driving and that the real murderer has been sending him money under a false name. To throw suspicion on him. To buy time. Always to buy time. I don’t know why it is but it is essential for this murderer to buy time. He buys time every time he throws suspicion on everyone else, and he’s so outstandingly clever that he’s managed to throw suspicion on practically everyone: he tried to buy time when he kidnapped me this morning. The thing is, he knew months before the crime— money was first paid into Chessingham’s account at the beginning of July—that it was going to be necessary to buy time. Why? Why buy time?”
“You fooled me, damn you,” Hardanger said harshly. “You trumped up this story——”
“I told you the facts as I had them.” I was in no mood to placate Hardanger. “If I’d said he was innocent, would you have arrested him? You know perfectly well you wouldn’t. But you did, and that has bought us time, because the murderer or murderers will read their evening papers and be convinced that we’re on the wrong track.”
“You’ll be saying next that Hartnell and his wife are being framed, too,” he said gratingly.
“As regards the hammer, pliers and mud on the scooter, of course they are. You know that. For the rest, Hartnell and wife are guilty as charged. But no court’s ever going to convict. A man’s blackmailed into having his wife shout and wave at a truck. Damn all criminal about that. All he’ll get is a couple of years on the entirely unrelated charge of embezzlement—if the Army choose to press the charge, which I doubt. But again his arrest is buying us time: the murderer’s planting of hammer and pliers were another method of buying them time. They don’t know we haven’t bought t
Hardanger turned to the General. “Were you aware that Cavell was working behind my back, sir?”
The General frowned. “That’s pitching it a bit strongly, isn’t it, Superintendent? As for my being aware—damn it all, man, it was you who talked me into bringing Cavell into this.” Very adroit indeed. “I must admit he works in a highly unorthodox fashion. Which reminds me, Cavell. Dig up anything interesting about MacDonald in Paris?”
I didn’t answer for a moment. There was something off-hand, strangely indifferent in his manner, as if his mind was on other and more important things. I answered in kind.
“All depends what you call interesting, sir. I can give you with certainty the name of one of the men behind it all. Dr. Alexander MacDonald. And beyond all doubt he’s been a top-flight Communist espionage agent for the past fifteen years. If not more.”
That got them. They were the last two men on earth ever to go in for goggling, but they went in for it all the same. Just for a second. Then they stared at each other, then back at me. I told them in a minute flat what had happened. Hardanger said, “Oh, dear God!” very quietly and left to call a police car.
The General said, “You saw the police radio van outside?”
“We’re in constant touch with the Government and Scotland Yard.” He fished in an inside pocket and brought out two typewritten notes. “The first of those came in about two hours ago, the second only ten minutes ago.” I looked at them quickly and for the first time in my life realised that the phrase about blood running cold might have some basis in physical experience. I felt unaccountably cold, icy, even, and was glad to see Hardanger, back from ordering his car, bring three more whiskies from the bar. I knew now why both the General and Hardanger had looked so ill, so close to desperation, when I’d come in. I knew now and could understand why my trip to Paris had been a matter of relative indifference to them.
The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes