The Satan Bug, p.19Alistair MacLean
The first message had been delivered at almost the same time to Reuter’s and A.P. and was very brief. The florid style was unmistakable. It read: “The walls of the home of the anti-Christ still stand. My orders have been ignored. The responsibility is yours. I have taped a virus ampoule to a simple explosive device which will be detonated at 3.45 this afternoon in Lower Hampton, Norfolk. The wind is W.S.W. If the demolition of Mordon has not commenced by midnight tonight I shall be compelled to break another ampoule tomorrow. In the heart of the City of London. The carnage will be such as the world has never seen. Yours is the choice.”
“Lower Hampton is a hamlet of about 150 people four miles from the sea,” the General said. “The reference to the wind means that the virus would cover only four miles of land and then be blown out over the sea. Unless the wind changed. The message was received at 2.45 this afternoon. Nearest police cars were rushed to the area and all people in the village and as many as could be reached in the area between the village and the sea were evacuated to the west.” He broke off and stared at the table. “But that’s rich farming land. There are many farms and few cars. It was not possible to reach them all in time, I’m afraid. A hurried search was made in Lower Hampton for the bomb, but it was worse than the needle in the haystack. At 3.45 precisely a sergeant and two constables heard a small explosion and saw fire and smoke coming from the thatch of a disused cottage. They ran for their car and you can just imagine how they took off.”
My mouth felt as dry as ashes. I washed some of the ashes away by draining half a large whisky in one gulp.
The General went on: “At 4.20 an R.A.F. bomber, a photo-reconnaissance plane, took off from a base in East Anglia and flew over the area. The pilot was warned not to fly below 10,000 feet, but it’s a clear evening up there and with the kind of cameras they have in the Air Force today there was no trouble in making a close reconnaissance. The entire area was photographed—from two miles up it doesn’t take long to photograph a few square miles of territory—and the bomber landed half an hour after take off. The pictures were developed within minutes and examined by an expert. That second paper shows his findings.”
It was even briefer than the first. It read: “Over a wedge-shaped area, with its point at the village of Little Hampton and its base two and a half miles of sea-coast there are no discoverable signs of life, either around houses and farm buildings or in the fields. Dead cattle in fields estimated between three and four hundred. Three flocks of sheep, also apparently lifeless. At least seven human bodies identified. Characteristic postures of both men and cattle suggest death in contorted agony. Detailed analysis following.”
I finished the second half of my whisky in a second gulp. I might as well have been drinking soda pop for all the taste or the effect it had. I said, “What’s the Government going to do?”
“I don’t know,” the General said tonelessly. “Neither do they. They will make a decision by ten o’clock tonight—and now they’ll decide even faster when they hear your news. It completely alters everything. We thought we were dealing with some raving crackpot, however brilliant that crackpot: it seems instead, that we’re dealing with a Communist plot to destroy the most powerful weapon that Britain—or any other country for that matter—has ever had. Maybe it’s the beginnings of a plot to destroy Britain itself, I don’t know, damn it all I’ve just come to the thought and I haven’t had time to think about it. Could it be that the Communist world is planning a showdown with the West, that they’re convinced that they can strike so hard and so savagely that there’ll be no possibility of retaliation? Not, that is, once Mordon and its viruses are out of the way. God only knows. I think I’d rather be dealing with a crackpot any day. Besides, Cavell, we don’t know that your information is correct.”
“There’s only one way to find out, sir.” I rose to my feet. “I see the police driver is there. Shall we have a chat with MacDonald?”
We reached Mordon in eight minutes flat only to be told at the gate that MacDonald had checked out over two hours previously. Eight minutes later we pulled up at the front door of his home.
Dr. MacDonald’s house was dark and deserted. Mrs. Turpin, the housekeeper, should not have been gone for the night. But she was. MacDonald had also gone, not for the night but for ever. Our bird had flown.
MacDonald hadn’t even bothered to lock the door when leaving. He’d have been in too much of a hurry for that. We made our way into the hallway, switched on lights and looked quickly over the ground floor. No fires, no still warm radiators, no smell of cooking, no cigarette smoke still hanging in the air. Whoever had left hadn’t left by a back window as we had come in by the front door. He’d left a long long time ago. I felt old and sick and tired. And foolish. Because I knew now why he’d left in such a hurry.
We went over the house, not wasting time, starting from the attic dark-room. The battery of expensive photographic equipment was as I had seen it before, but this time I was seeing it in a new light. Given sufficient facts and sufficient time even Cavell could arrive at a conclusion. We went over his bedroom, but there were no signs of hasty packing or hasty departure. That was strange. People going on a journey from which they have no intention of returning usually take a bare minimum of supplies to tide them over, no matter what their hurry. An inspection of the bathroom was equally puzzling. Razor, brush, shaving cream, toothbrush—they were all still there. MacDonald’s old colonel, I thought inconsequentially, wasn’t going to be any too happy when he arrived to identify MacDonald and found no one left to identify.
Even more baffling was the kitchen. Mrs. Turpin, I knew, used to leave every night at six-thirty when MacDonald arrived home, leaving his dinner prepared. MacDonald had been in the habit of helping himself and leaving the dishes for his housekeeper the following morning. But there were no signs whatsoever of any food preparations. No roasts in the oven, no pots of still warm food, an electric stove so cold that it couldn’t have been used for hours.
I said, “The last of the plain-clothes men on the search job would have been gone by half past three at the latest. No reason why Mrs. Turpin shouldn’t have got on with the cooking of dinner for Dr. MacDonald—and MacDonald strikes me as a character who would be very huffed indeed if he didn’t find his chow ready. But she prepared none. Why?”
“She knew he wouldn’t be wanting any,” Hardanger said heavily. “From something she heard or saw this afternoon she knew our worthy doctor wouldn’t be wanting to linger too much around these parts after she’d told him what she’d heard or seen. Which argues connivance at or at least knowledge of MacDonald’s activities.”
“It’s my fault,” I said savagely. “That damn’ woman! She must have heard me telephoning the General about going to Paris. God only knows how long she was standing there in the doorway, watching me, seeing the letter in my hand. But I didn’t see her because she was on my blind side. She must have noticed that and the limp and told MacDonald by phone. And what I was talking about. He’d have known straight away that it must have been me, limp or no limp. It’s all my bloody fault,” I repeated. “It never crossed my mind to suspect her. I think we should have a talk with Mrs. Turpin. If she’s at home, that is.”
Hardanger moved off to a phone while the General accompanied me into MacDonald’s study. I moved over to the big old-fashioned knee-hole desk where MacDonald’s correspondence and photographic albums had been discovered. It was locked. I said to the General, “Back in a minute, sir,” and went outside.
There was nothing in the garage that would be of any use to me. Backing on the garage was a large tool-shed. I switched on the torch and looked round. Garden implements, a small pile of grey breeze-blocks, a pile of empty cement sacks, a work-bench and bicycle. No claw-hammer, which was what I was looking for, but I found the next best thing, a fairly heavy hatchet.
I went back to the study with this and crossed to the desk just as Hardanger came into the room.
“You going to smash that desk open?” he de
“Let MacDonald object if he feels like it.” I swung the axe twice and the drawer splintered. The albums and the doctor’s correspondence with the World Health Organisation were still here. I opened the album at the page with the missing photograph and showed it to the General.
“A photograph our good friend didn’t seem to care to have around,” I said. “I have more than a vague, obscure feeling that it may be important. See that scratched out caption, something about six letters, some town certainly, starting with TO. I can’t get it. With any other kind of paper or with two different kinds of ink it would have been easy for the lab boys. But white ink on white ink on this porous blotting paper stuff? No good.”
“Not a chance.” Hardanger gave me a suspicious look. “Why is it important?”
“If I knew that I wouldn’t worry about what the caption was. Did you find our dear Mrs. Turpin at home?”
“No reply. She lives alone, a widow, as I found out from the local station after I’d called her number. An officer has gone to check, but he’ll find nothing. I’ve put out an all-stations call for her.”
“That’ll help,” I said sourly. I went quickly through MacDonald’s correspondence, picking up replies from his W.H.O. correspondents in Europe. I knew what I was looking for, and it took me only two minutes to isolate half a dozen letters, from a Dr. John Weissmann in Vienna. I handed them across to the General and Hardanger. “Exhibit ‘ A’ for the Old Bailey when MacDonald’s en route to the gallows.”
The General looked at me, his face old and tired and expressionless. Hardanger said bluntly, “What are you talking about, Cavell?”
I hesitated and looked at the General. He said quietly, “It’ll be all right now, my boy. Hardanger will understand. And it’ll never go any further.”
Hardanger looked from me to the papers and then back to me again. “What will I understand? It’s time I understood. I knew from the beginning that there was something I couldn’t touch in this damned business. You accepted this job with too much alacrity in the first place.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It had to be this way. You know I’ve been in and out of a few jobs since the war—Army, police, Special Branch, Narcotics, Special Branch again, security chief in Mordon, and then private detective. None of it really meant anything. I’ve been working for the General here non-stop for the past sixteen years. Every time I was heaved out of a job—well, the General arranged it.”
“I’m not all that surprised,” Hardanger said heavily. I was glad to see he was more intrigued than angry. “I’ve had my suspicions.”
“That’s why you’re a superintendent,” the General murmured.
“Anyway, about a year ago, my predecessor in security in Mordon, Easton Derry, began having his suspicions. I won’t go into the where and the when of it, but he came to the conclusion that certain highly secret items in the bacteriological and virus line were being smuggled out of Mordon. His suspicions became certainties when Dr. Baxter approached him privately and said he was convinced that certain stuff was going astray.”
“Dr. Baxter!” Hardanger looked slightly stunned.
“Yes, Baxter. Sorry about that, too—but I told you, plain as I could, not to waste time on him. He said to Derry that although it wasn’t the top secret stuff that was going—that was impossible to get out of ‘A’ laboratory—it was nevertheless pretty important stuff. Very important stuff, indeed. Britain leads the world in the production of microbiological diseases for wartime use against men, animals and plants. You’ll never hear of this when the Parliamentary Estimates for Mordon Health Centre are being passed, but our scientists in Mordon have either discovered or refined to their purest and most deadly forms the germs for causing plague, typhus, smallpox, rabbit and undulant fever in man: hog cholera, fowl pest, Newcastle disease, rinderpest, foot-and-mouth, glanders and anthrax in livestock: and blights like the Japanese beetle, European corn borer, Mediterranean fruit fly, boll-weevil, citrus cancer, wheat rust and heaven knows what else in plants. All very useful in either limited or all-out warfare.”
“What’s all this got to do with Dr. MacDonald?” Hardanger demanded.
“I’m coming to it. Over two years ago our agents in Poland began taking an interest in the newly-built Lenin Museum on the outskirts of Warsaw. So far, this museum has never been opened to the public. It never will be—it’s the equivalent of Mordon, a purely microbiological research station. One of our agents—he’s a card-carrying member of the party—managed to get himself employed there and made the interesting discovery that the Poles were discovering and refining the various bugs I just mentioned a few weeks, or at most months, after they had been perfected in Mordon. The inference was too obvious to miss.
“Easton Derry started investigating. He made two mistakes: he played it too close to the cuff, without letting us know what was going on, and he unwittingly gave himself away. How, we’ve no idea. He may even have taken into his confidence, quite unknowingly, the man who was responsible for smuggling the stuff out of Mordon. MacDonald, for a certainty—it would be too much to expect two espionage agents operating at the same time. Anyway, someone became aware that Easton Derry was in danger of finding out too much. So Derry disappeared.
“The General here then made arrangements to have me removed from the Special Branch and introduced into Mordon as security officer. The first thing I did was to stake out a decoy duck. I had a steel flask of botulinus toxin, strength one—it was so labelled, introduced into a cupboard in number one lab annexe. The same day the flask disappeared. We had a VMF receiver installed at the gates, for the flask contained not toxin but a micro-wave battery-powered transistor sender. Anyone carrying that and coming within two hundred yards of the gate would have been picked up at once. You will understand,” I said dryly, “that anyone picking up a flask of botulinus toxin is unlikely to open it up to see if it really does contain toxin.
“We picked up no one. It wasn’t hard to guess what happened. After dark someone had strolled across to a deserted part of the boundary fence and chucked the flask into an adjacent field—it’s only a ten-yard throw to clear all the fences. Not because they had any suspicions of the contents but because this was the way it would usually be done—you know how often spot checks and searches are made of people leaving Mordon. By eight o’clock that evening we had micro-wave receivers installed at London Airport, Southend and Lydd airfields, the Channel ports and——”
“Wouldn’t the shock of having been flung over the fence have smashed the transmitter?” Hardanger objected.
“The American watch company that makes these transmitters would be most displeased if one did break,” I said. “They can be fired from a high velocity naval gun without being affected in the slightest. Anyway, late that night we picked up a signal in London Airport. Almost inevitably it was from a man boarding a B.E.A. flight to Warsaw. We took him and he told us he was a courier, picking up stuff about once a fortnight from an address in South London. He’d never actually seen his contact.”
“He told you that?” Hardanger said sourly. “I can imagine how you made him volunteer that information.”
“You’d be wrong. We told him—he was a naturalised British subject—ex-Czech—that espionage was a capital offence and he thought he was turning Queen’s evidence. He turned it pretty fast, too. It was his supplier from Mordon we wanted to nail, so I was duly thrown out of there and have been haunting this damn’ address and neighbourhood for the past three weeks. We couldn’t get anyone else to do the job because I was the only one who knew and who could identify all the scientists and technicians in Mordon. But no luck—except that Dr. Baxter reported that the disappearances had stopped. So we seemed to have stopped that leak—temporarily, anyway.
“But according to Baxter and our Polish informant, that wasn’t the only leak. We had learnt that the Lenin Museum had developed viruses that had not been stolen from Mordon—but which had been produced in Mordon. Someone, obviously, was sendi
“All that expensive photographic equipment upstairs?” the General murmured.
“Exactly. There’s a camera expert due from London to look at his stuff, but his journey’s hardly necessary now. Look at those letters from Dr. Weissmann. In every one you will note that the dot from an ‘i’ or a full stop is missing in the first paragraph. Weissmann typed a message, reduced it to the size of a dot by micro-miniature photography and stuck it on the letter in place of some other dot. All MacDonald had to do was to pry it loose and enlarge it. And he, of course, did the same in his correspondence with Weissmann. And he didn’t do it for pennies, either.” I glanced around the richly furnished hoom. “He’s earned a fortune over the years—and not a penny tax, either.”
There was a minute’s silence, then the General nodded. “That must be the right of it. At least MacDonald won’t be troubling us any more.” He looked up at me and smiled without humour. “When it comes to locking stable doors after the horse has taken off, we have few equals. There’s also another door I can lock for you, supposing it’s any use to you. The caption that’s been scratched out in this album.”
“Neither.” He turned to the back board of the album. “This had been prepared for certain members of the W.H.O. by a firm called Gucci Zanolette, Via XX Settembre, Genoa. The word that has been scratched out is Torino—the Italian, of course, for Turin.”
Turin. Only a word, but he might as well have hit me with a sledge-hammer. It had about the same effect. Turin. I sat in a chair because all of a sudden I felt I had to sit, and after the first dazed shock started to wear off I managed to whip a few of the less lethargic brain cells out of their coma and started thinking again. It wasn’t much in the way of thinking, not as thinking went, for with the beating and the soaking I had received, the lack of sleep and food, I was a fair way below my best insofar as anything resembling active cerebration was concerned. Slowly, laboriously, I assembled a few facts in the befogged recesses of my mind, and no matter how I reassembled them those facts formed the same mosaic every time. Two and two always came out to four.
The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes