The Satan Bug, p.2Alistair MacLean
He stared at me for a long moment, eyes hostile behind thick glasses, then reached again into his brief-case and brought out five flat packets of treasury notes, laid them neatly on the table before him and glanced up at me. “Two hundred and fifty pounds. Exactly.”
“Maybe the London branch of the council should get itself a new secretary,” I suggested. “Was it myself or the council that was to be defrauded of the extra £150?”
“Neither.” The tone came with the eyes, glacial both of them. He didn’t like me. “We offered a fair price, but in a matter of such importance were prepared to meet extortion. Take your money.”
“After you’ve taken off the rubber bands, stacked the notes together and counted them out, fifty fivers, in front of my eyes.”
“My God!” The cool meticulous speech had gone and something almost savage came to take its place. “No wonder you were kicked out of so many jobs.” He ripped off the bands, stacked the notes and counted them off separately. “There you are. Fifty. Satisfied?”
“Satisfied.” I opened my right-hand drawer, picked up the notes, address and flask, dropped them into the drawer and closed it just as Martin was finishing the securing of the straps on his brief-case. Something in the atmosphere, maybe an extra stillness from my side of the table, caused him to look up sharply and then he became as immobile as myself, except for his eyes, which continued to widen until they seemed to take up all space behind the rimless glasses.
“It’s a gun all right,” I assured him. “A Japanese Hanyatti nine-shot automatic, safety-catch off and indicator, I observe, registering full. Don’t worry about the scotch tape over the mouth of the barrel, that’s only to protect a highly delicate mechanism. The bullet behind will go through it, it’ll go through you and if you had a twin brother sitting behind you it would go through him also. Your forearms on the table.”
He put his forearms on tbe table. He kept pretty still, which is the way people usually do when they’re peering down into the barrel from a distance of three feet, but his eyes had gone back to normal quickly and he didn’t seem all that worried that I could notice. This troubled me, for if any man had the right to be worried it was Henry Martin. Maybe this made Henry Martin a very dangerous man.
“You have an unusual way of conducting business, Cavell.” No shake in the voice, just a dry contempt. “What is this, a hold-up?”
“Don’t be silly—and don’t you wish it were. I already have your money. You asked me earlier if I took you for a fool. The time and circumstances didn’t seem right for an immediate answer, but I can give it to you now. You are a fool. You’re a fool because you forgot that I worked in Mordon. I was security chief there. And the first job of any security chief is to know what goes on in his own bailiwick.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“You will. This vaccine here—it’s designed to give immunity against which particular virus?”
“I’m only an agent for the Council for World Peace.”
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that all the vaccines, up till now, have been made and stored exclusively in Horder Hall, Essex. The point is that if that flask came from Mordon it contains no vaccine. It probably contains one or other of the viruses.
“Secondly, I know that it is normally impossible for any man, Council for World Peace sympathiser or not, to take top secret viruses out of Mordon, no matter how clever or surreptitious he is. When the last man has left the laboratories fourteen hour time clocks come into operation and the opening combination over-riding those is known to only two men. If anything has been taken it has been taken by force and violence. That demands an immediate investigation.
“Thirdly, you said the Foreign Office was solidly on your side. If that’s the case, why all this cloak-and-dagger approach to me to smuggle vaccine through? The diplomatic bag to Warsaw is the obvious answer.
“Finally, and your biggest blunder, my friend, you forgot the fact that I have been engaged in one form or other of counter-espionage for quite some time. Every new body or organisation that’s set up in Britain automatically comes under the microscope. As did the Council for World Peace when it set up its headquarters here. I know one of the members, an elderly, stout, bald and short-sighted character who is the complete antithesis to you in every way. His name is Henry Martin and he’s the secretary of the London branch of the council. The real one.”
He looked at me steadily for a few moments, not scared, his forearms still resting on the table, then said quietly, “There doesn’t seem to be much more left to say, does there?”
“What are you going to do?”
“Turn you over to the Special Branch. With you goes a tape of our conversation. Just as a routine precaution I switched on a recorder before you came into this room. Not evidence, I know, but the address, flask and your thumb-print on fifty fivers will be all the evidence they require.”
“It does look as if I made a mistake about you,” he admitted. “We can do a deal.”
“I can’t be bought. Not, at least, for fifty miserable fivers.”
A pause, then softly, “Five hundred?”
“A thousand? A thousand pounds, Cavell, inside the hour.”
“Keep quiet.” I reached over the phone, laid the receiver on the table and began to dial with my left forefinger. I’d reached the third number when a sharp knock came to my office door.
I let the receiver lie and got to my feet, making no noise. The corridor door had been shut when Martin had come into my room. No one could open that corridor door without the bell chiming. I’d heard no chime; there had been no chime. But somebody was in the outer office now, just outside my door.
Martin was smiling. It wasn’t much of a smile, but it was there. I didn’t like it. I moved my gun and said softly, “Face into that corner, Martin, hands clasped behind your neck.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” he said calmly. “That man outside the door is a mutual friend.”
“Do it now,” I said. He did. I crossed to the door, standing well to one side, and called out, “Who’s there?”
“Police, Cavell. Open up, please.”
“Police?” The word carried familiar overtones, but then there were a great number of people around who were able to imitate a great number of voices. I glanced at Martin, but he hadn’t moved. I called out, “Your credentials. Under the door with them.”
There was a movement on the other side of the door, then an oblong cardboard slid into view on the floor. No badge, no credentials, nothing like that, just a calling card bearing the words “D. R. Hardanger” and a Whitehall telephone number. The number of people who knew that this was the only form of identification that Superintendent Hardanger used would be very few. And the card matched the voice. I unlocked and opened the door.
Superintendent Hardanger it was, big, burly, red-faced, with the jowls of a bull-dog, dressed in the same faded grey raglan and black bowler that he’d worn in all the years I’d worked with him. I caught a glimpse of a smaller man behind him, a khaki-clad arm and leg, no more. I’d no time to see more for Hardanger had moved his sixteen stone of solid authority four feet into my office forcing me to take a couple of backward steps.
“All right, Cavell.” A flicker of a smile touched the abnormally light blue eyes. “You can put that gun away. You’re quite safe now. The police are here.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, Hardanger, but I’m no longer working for you. I have a licence for this gun and you’re in my office without permission.” I nodded towards the corner. “Search this character and then I’ll put my gun away. Not till then.”
Henry Martin, hands still behind his neck, turned slowly round. He grinned at Hardanger, who smiled back and said, “Shall I search you, John?”
“Rather not, sir,” Martin said briskly. “You know how ticklish I am.”
I stared at them, from Hardanger to Martin, then back again. I lowered my
“I’m genuinely sorry about this, Cavell,” Hardanger said in his rough gravelly voice. “But necessary. How necessary, I’ll explain. This man’s name really is Martin—John Martin. Of the Special Branch. Inspector. Recently returned from Toronto. Want to see his credentials or will my word do?”
I crossed to my desk, put the gun away and brought out the flask, money and slip of paper with the Warsaw address. I could feel the tightness in my face but I kept my voice quiet.
“Take your damned props, Martin, and get out. You, too, Hardanger. I don’t know what this stupid charade, this farrago of rubbish, was for and I’ll be damned if you can make me care. Out! I don’t like smart alecs making a fool of me and I won’t play mouse to any man’s cat, not even the Special Branch’s.”
“Easy up now, Cavell,” Hardanger protested. “I told you it was necessary and——”
“Let me talk to him,” the man in khaki interrupted. He came round Hardanger and I could see him clearly for the first time. Army Officer, and no subaltern either, slight, spare, authoritative, the type I’m allergic to. “My name is Cliveden, Cavell. Major-General Cliveden. I must——”
“I was cashiered from the Army for taking a swing at a major-general,” I interrupted. “Think I’d hesitate to do it again now I’m a civilian? You, too. Out. Now.”
“I told you what he was like,” Hardanger muttered to no one in particular. He shrugged his shoulders heavily, thrust his hand into the pocket of his raglan coat and brought out a wrist-watch. “We’ll go. But first I thought you might like to have this. A keepsake. He had it in London for repair and it was delivered to the General’s office yesterday.”
“What are you talking about?” I said harshly.
“I’m talking about Neil Clandon. Your successor as security chief in Mordon. I believe he was one of your best friends.”
I made no move to take the watch from the outstretched hand.
“‘Was’, you said? Clandon?”
“Clandon. Dead. Murdered, if you like. When someone broke into the central laboratories in Mordon late last night—early this morning.”
I looked at the three of them and then turned away to stare out through the grimy window at the grey fog swirling along Gloucester Place. After a time I said, “You’d better come in.”
Neil Clandon had been found by a patrolling security guard shortly after two o’clock that morning, in the corridor beside the heavy steel door leading to number one lab in “E” block. That he was dead was beyond dispute. What he had died of was not yet known, for in an establishment staffed almost entirely by doctors no one had been allowed to approach the dead man. The strictness of the rule was absolute. When the alarm bells rang it was a job for the Special Branch and the Special Branch alone.
The senior guard had been summoned and had approached within six feet of the body. He had reported that Clandon had been violently ill before dying, and that he had obviously died in convulsions and great agony. The symptoms had all the hallmarks of prussic acid poisoning. Had the guard been able to get the typical bitter almond smell, this, of course, would have put the tentative diagnosis beyond reasonable doubt. But that, of course, had been impossible. All guards on internal patrol had to make their rounds in gas-tight suits with a closed circuit breathing apparatus.
The senior guard had noticed something else. The time clock setting on the steel door had been altered. Normally it was set to run from 6 p.m. till 8 a.m. Now it was set to run from midnight. Which meant that access to number one lab would be impossible before 2 p.m., except to those who knew the combination that overrode the time lock.
It was the soldier, not Hardanger, who supplied this information. I listened to him and said, “Why you? What’s your interest in all this?”
“Major-General Cliveden is the second-in-command of the Royal Army Medical Corps,” Hardanger explained. “Which automatically makes him the director of the Mordon Microbiological Research Establishment.”
“He wasn’t when I was there.”
“My predecessor has retired,” Cliveden said curtly, but the underlying worry was clear to see. “Ill health. First reports naturally came to me. I was in London. I notified the Superintendent immediately. And on my own initiative I ordered an oxy-acetylene team from Aldershot to rush there: they will open the door under Special Branch supervision.”
“An oxy-acetylene team.” I stared at him. “Are you quite mad?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Cancel it, man. Cancel it at once. What in God’s name made you do that? Don’t you know anything about that door? Apart from the fact that no acetylene equipment in existence could get through that special steel of that door inside hours, don’t you know that the door itself is lethal? That it’s filled with a near-lethal gas? That there’s a central insulator mounted plate inside the door that damn’ well is lethal—charged with two thousand volts?”
“I didn’t know that, Cavell.” His voice was low.
“I’ve only just taken over.”
“And even if they did get inside? Have you thought of what would happen then? You’re scared, aren’t you, Major-General Cliveden, you’re terrified at the thought that someone has already been inside. Maybe that someone was careless. Maybe that someone was very careless, maybe he knocked over a container or cracked a sealed culture tank. A tank or container, for instance, with botulinus toxin—which is one of the viruses both made and stored in number one lab. It takes a minimum of twelve hours exposure to air to oxidise the toxin and render it harmless. If anyone comes into contact with it before oxidisation, they’re dead men. Before midday, that is. And Clandon, had you thought of him? How do you know the botulinus didn’t get him? The symptoms are exactly the same as those of prussic acid poisoning. How do you know the two guards weren’t affected? The senior guard who spoke to you—if he had been affected, the botulinus would have got him as soon as he’d taken off his mask to speak to you. He’d have died in agonies a minute later. Have you checked that he’s still alive?”
Cliveden reached for the phone. His hand was shaking. While he was dialling, I said to Hardanger, “Right, Superintendent, the explanation.”
“Two good reasons. The first was that you are number one suspect.”
“Say that again.”
“You’d been sacked,” he said bluntly. “Left under a cloud. Your opinion of Mordon’s place in the scheme of things was well known. You have a reputation for taking the law into your own hands.” He smiled without humour. “I’ve had plenty of experience of that from you.”
“You’re loony. Would I murder my best friend?” I said savagely.
“You were the only outsider who knew the whole security set-up in Mordon. The only one, Cavell. If anyone could get into and out of that place it was you.” He paused for a significant moment. “And you are now the only man alive who knows the combinations for the various laboratory doors. The combinations, as you know, can only be altered in the factory where the doors are made. After your departure, the precaution of changing was not thought necessary.”
“Dr. Baxter, the civilian director, knows the combinations.”
“Dr. Baxter is missing. We can’t trace him anywhere. We had to find out fast how the land lay. This was the best way. The only way. Immediately after you left home this morning we checked with your wife. She said——”
“You’ve been round at my house.” I stared at him. “Bothering Mary? Questioning her? I rather think——”
“Don’t trouble,” Hardanger said dryly. “You’d get no satisfaction from breaking in false teeth. I wasn’t there, sent a junior officer. Silly of me, I admit, asking a bride of two months to turn in her husband. Of course she said you hadn’t left the house all night.”
I looked at him without speaking. His eyes were exactly on a level with mine. He said, “Are you wondering whether to haul off at me for even s
“She’s no liar. You forget how well I know her. And she didn’t tip you off because we disconnected your phone, both home and here. We also bugged this phone before you arrived this morning—I heard every word you said to Martin on the phone in your outer office.” He smiled. “You had me worried for a few minutes there.”
“How did you get in? I didn’t hear you. The bell didn’t go off.”
“The fuse box is in the outer corridor. All very illegal, I’m afraid.”
I nodded. “I’ll have to change that.”
“So you’re in the clear, Cavell. An Oscar for Inspector Martin, I should say. Twelve minutes flat to find out what we wanted to know. But we had to know.”
“Why? Why that way? A few hours leg-work by your men, checking taxis, restaurants, theatres and you’d have known I couldn’t possibly have been in Mordon last night.”
“I couldn’t wait.” He cleared his throat with unnecessary force. “Which brings me to my second reason. If you’re not the killer, then you’re the man I want to find the killer. Now that Clandon is dead, you are the only man who knows the entire security set-up at Mordon. No one else does. Damned awkward, but there it is. If anyone can find anything, you can.”
“Not to mention the fact that I’m the only man who can open that door now that Clandon is dead and Baxter missing.”
“There’s that too,” he admitted.
“There’s that, too,” I mimicked. “That’s all you really want. And when the door is open I can run along and be a good boy.”
“Not unless you want to.”
“You mean that? First Derry, now Clandon. I’d like to do something.”
“I know. I’ll give you a free hand.”
“The General won’t like it.” No one ever called Hardanger’s ultimate superior by his name: very few even knew it.
“I’ve already fixed it with the General. You’re right, he doesn’t like it. I suspect he doesn’t like you.” Hardanger grinned sourly. “Often the way with relatives.”
The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes