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The satan bug, p.20
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       The Satan Bug, p.20

           Alistair MacLean
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  I rose heavily to my feet and said to the General, “It’s like the man says, sir. You speak more truly than you know.”

  “Are you all right, Cavell?” There was sharp anxiety in the voice.

  “I’m falling to pieces. My mind, such as it is, is still on its hinges. Or I think so. We’ll soon find out.”

  Torch in hand, I turned and left the room. The General and Hardanger hesitated, then followed. I suppose they were exchanging all sorts of apprehensive glances, but I was past caring.

  I’d already been in the garage and shed, so those weren’t the places to look. Somewhere in the shrubbery, I thought drearily—and it was still raining. In the hall I turned off into the kitchen and was about to make for the back door when I saw a flight of steps leading down to the cellar. I remembered vaguely that Sergeant Carlisle had made mention of this when he and his men had been searching the house that afternoon. I went down the flight of steps, opened the cellar door and switched on the overhead light. I stood aside to let the General and Hardanger into the cellar.

  “It’s as you said, sir,” I murmured to the General. “MacDonald won’t be troubling us any more.”

  Which was not quite accurate. MacDonald was going to give some trouble yet. To the police doctor, the undertaker and the man who would have to cut the rope by which he was suspended by the neck from the heavy iron ring in the overhead loading hatch. As he dangled there, feet just clear of the floor and brushing the legs of an overturned chair, he was the stuff that screaming nightmares are made of: eyes staring wide in the frenzied agony of death, bluish-purple face, swollen tongue protruding between blackened lips drawn far back in the snarling rictus of dissolution. No, not the stuff that dreams are made of.

  “My good God!” The General’s voice was a hushed whisper. “MacDonald.” He gazed at the dangling figure then said slowly, “He must have known his time was running out.”

  I shook my head. “Someone else decided for him that his time had run out.”

  “Someone else——” Hardanger examined the dead man closely, his face giving nothing away. “His hands are free. His feet are free. He was conscious when he started to strangle. That chair was brought down from the kitchen. And yet you say——”

  “He was murdered. Look at the streaks and marks in that coal dust a few feet from the chair, and that disturbed pile of coal with lumps kicked all over the cellar floor. Look at the weals and the blood on the inside of the thumbs.”

  “He could have changed his mind at the last minute,” Hardanger rumbled. “Lots of them do. As soon as he started choking he probably grabbed the rope above his head and took the weight until he couldn’t hang on any more. That would account for the marks on his thumbs.”

  “The marks on his thumbs were caused by twine or wire binding them together,” I said. “He was marched down here, almost certainly at gunpoint, and made to lie-down on the floor. He may have been blindfolded, I don’t know. Probably. Whoever killed him passed a rope through the ring and had the loop round MacDonald’s neck and had started hauling before MacDonald could do anything about it. That’s what caused all that mess in the coal dust—MacDonald trying to scrabble madly to his feet as the pressure tightened round his neck. With his thumbs bound behind his back he made it with the assistance of his executioner, but it wouldn’t have been easy. It only postponed death by seconds, the man on the end of the rope just kept on hauling. Can’t you see MacDonald almost tearing his thumbs off in an effort to free them? By and by he would be on tiptoe—but a man can’t stand on tiptoe for ever. When he was dead our pal on the heaving end got a chair and used it to help him lift MacDonald clear off the floor—MacDonald was a big heavy man. When he’d secured him there, he cut the twine on MacDonald’s thumbs and kicked over the chair—to make it look like suicide. It’s our old buy-time-at-any-price friend. If he could make us think that MacDonald did himself in because he thought the net was closing round him, then he hoped that we would believe that MacDonald was the king-pin in this business. But he wasn’t sure.”

  “You’re guessing,” Hardanger said.

  “No. Can you see a never-say-die character like MacDonald, not only a highly decorated officer who fought in a tank regiment for six years but also a nerveless espionage agent for many years after that, committing suicide when things started closing in on him? MacDonald thinking of giving up or giving in? He wouldn’t have known how to go about it, most probably. MacDonald was well and truly murdered—which he no doubt richly deserved to be anyway. But the real point is that he wasn’t murdered only so that our friend could cast more red herrings around and so buy more time: he had to die and our friend thought he might as well make it look like suicide while he was about it in the hope of stalling us further. I was guessing, Hardanger, but not any more.”

  “MacDonald had to die?” Hardanger studied me through a long considering silence then said abruptly, “You seem fairly sure about all this.”

  “I’m certain. I know.” I picked up the coal shovel and started heaving away some of the coal that was piled up against the back wall of the cellar. There must have been close on a couple of tons of the stuff reaching almost as high as the ceiling and I was in no condition for anything much more strenuous than brushing my teeth but I had to shift only a fraction of it: for every shovelful I scooped away from the base almost a hundred-weight of lumps came clattering down on to the floor.

  “What do you expect to find under that lot?” Hardanger said with heavy sarcasm. “Another body?”

  “Another body is exactly what I do expect to find. I expect to find the late Mrs. Turpin. The fact that she tipped off MacDonald about me and didn’t bother preparing dinner because she knew MacDonald wouldn’t be staying for dinner owing to the fact that he would be taking off for the high timber shows beyond all doubt that she was in cahoots with our pal here. What MacDonald knew, she knew. It would have been pointless to silence MacDonald if Mrs. Turpin had been left alive to squawk. So she was attended to.”

  But wherever she had been attended to, it hadn’t been in the cellar. We went upstairs and while the General went to talk for quite a long time on the scrambler radio-phone in the police van that had followed us from Alfringham, Hardanger and I, with the assistance of two police drivers and a couple of torches, started to scour the grounds. It was no easy job, for the good doctor, who had done so well for himself in the way of furnishing his house, had also done himself pretty well in the way of buying himself privacy, for his policies, half garden, half parkland, extended to over four acres, the whole of it surrounded by an enormous beech hedge that would have stopped a tank.

  It was dark and very cold with no wind, the heavy rain falling vertically through the thinning leaves of the dripping trees to the sodden earth beneath. The appropriate setting, I thought grimly, for a search for a murdered body: and there’s an awful lot of searching in four acres on a black and miserable night.

  The beech hedge had been trimmed some time during the past month and the clipping piled up in a distant corner of the garden. We found Mrs. Turpin under this pile, not very deep down, just enough branches and twigs over her to hide her from sight. Lying beside her was the hammer I had failed to find in the tool-shed and it required only a glance at the back of her head to know the reason why the hammer was there. At a guess I would have said that the person who had tried to stove in my ribs had also wielded the hammer on Mrs. Turpin: my ribs, like the dead woman’s head, bore witness to the insensate and unreasoning ferocity of a broken and vicious mind.

  Back in the house I broached MacDonald’s whisky supplies. He wouldn’t be wanting it any more and as he’d carefully pointed out to me that he had no relations and therefore no one to leave it to, it seemed a pity to waste it. We needed it, badly. I poured out hefty tots, one apiece for Hardanger and myself, the other two for the police drivers and if Hardanger took a dim view of this theft of property and contravention of standing orders by offering intoxicating liquor to policemen on duty he kept it to h
imself. He finished his whisky before any of us. The two policemen left just as the General returned from the radio van. He seemed to have aged a year for every minute since last I’d seen him, the lines about the nose and mouth more deeply trenched than ever.

  “You found her?” He took the offered glass.

  “We found her,” Hardanger acknowledged. “Dead, as Cavell said she would be. Murdered.”

  “It hardly matters.” The General shivered suddenly and took a deep gulp of his whisky. “She’s only one. This time tomorrow—how many thousands? God knows how many thousands. This madman has sent another message. Usual Biblical language, walls of Mordon still standing, no signs of demolition, so has advanced his timetable. If demolition doesn’t start on Mordon by midnight he’s going to break a botulinus toxin ampoule in the heart of London, at four o’clock this morning, within a quarter of a mile of New Oxford Street.”

  This seemed to call for some more whisky. Hardanger said, “He’s no madman, sir.”

  “No.” The General rubbed his forehead wearily. “I told them what Cavell found out, what we think. They’re in a complete panic now. Do you know that some national dailies are already on the streets—just before six o’clock? Unprecedented, but so is the situation. The papers seem to be very accurately reflecting the terror of the people and are begging—or demanding—that the Government yield to this madman—for at the time of printing everyone thought it was just a crazed crackpot. Word of the wiping out of this segment of East Anglia is just beginning to come through on constant radio and TV news broadcasts and everyone is terrified out of their wits. Whoever is behind all this is a brilliant devil: a few hours and he has the nation on its knees. It’s the man’s frightening speed of operation, the lack of time-lag between threat and carrying out of threat that’s so terrifying. Especially with every paper and news broadcast plugging the theme that this madman doesn’t know the difference between the botulinus toxin and the Satan Bug and that it may very well be the Satan Bug he uses next time.”

  “In fact,” I said, “all those who have been moaning and complaining so bitterly that life is hardly worth the living in the shadow of a nuclear holocaust have suddenly discovered that it might very well be worth living after all. You think the Government will give in?”

  “I can’t say,” the General admitted. “I’m afraid I rather misjudged the Premier. I thought he was as windy as they come. I don’t know now. He’s toughened his attitude amazingly. Maybe he’s ashamed of his earlier panic-stricken reaction. Maybe he sees the chance to make his imperishable mark on history.”

  “Maybe he’s like us,” I said. “Maybe he’s been drinking whisky, too.”

  “Maybe. He’s at present consulting with the Cabinet. He says that if this is a Communist scheme he’ll be damned if he gives in. If the Communists are behind it, he says the last thing in the world we can afford to do is to give in for though not yielding to their demands that Mordon be demolished may bring death to many, yielding to their demands will bring eventual death to all. Myself, I think that attitude is the only one, and I agree with him when he says he’s ready to evacuate the city of London before he gives in.”

  “Evacuate London?” Hardanger said in disbelief. “Ten million people in ten hours. Fantastic. The man’s mad. Impossible.”

  “It’s not quite as drastic as all that, thank heaven. It’s a windless evening, the met. office forecasts a windless night and it’s raining heavily. It seems that an airborne virus is carried down to earth by heavy rain, having a much greater affinity for water than for air. The experts doubt whether in windless rainy conditions the virus will get more than a few hundred yards from its point of release. If the need arises they propose to evacuate the area between Euston Road and the Thames, from Portland Street and Regent Street in the west, to Gray’s Inn Road in the east.”

  “That’s feasible enough,” Hardanger admitted.

  “Place is practically deserted by night anyway— mainly a business, office and shop area. But this virus. It’ll be carried away by the rain. It’ll pollute the Thames. It may get into the drinking water. What’s to happen—are people to be told to refrain from washing or drinking until the twelve hour oxidisation period is up?”

  “That’s what they say. Unless the water has been stored and covered beforehand, that is. My God, what’s going to come of it all? I’ve never felt so damned helpless in my life. We don’t seem to have a single solitary lead into this business. If only we had a suspicion, the slightest pointing finger as to whom was behind all this—well, by heaven, if we could get to him I’d turn my back and let Cavell here get to work on him.”

  I drained my glass and put it down. “You mean that, sir?”

  “What do you think?” He glanced up from his glass then stared at me with his tired grey eyes. “What do you mean? Cavell? Can you point a finger?”

  “I can do better than that, sir. I know. I know who it is.”

  The General was a great disappointment as far as reaction went. He always was. No gasps, no wide-eyed stares, no emotional pyrotechnics. He murmured: “Half of my kingdom, Pierre. Who?”

  “The last proof,” I said. “The last proof and then I can say. We missed it and it was staring us in the face. At least, it was staring me in the face. And Hardanger. To think the country depends on people like us to safeguard them. Policemen, detectives. We couldn’t detect the holes in Gruyére cheese.” I turned to Hardanger. “We’ve just made a pretty thorough search of the garden. Agreed?”

  “Agreed. So?”

  “Hardly missed a square foot?” I persisted.

  “Go on,” he rumbled impatiently.

  “Did you see any signs of freshly-built masonry? Huts? Sheds? Walls? Fishponds? Decorative stonework? Any thing?”

  He shook his head, his eyes wary. I was going off my rocker. “Nothing. There was nothing of the kind.”

  “Then what happened to all the cement in the empty cement bags in the tool-shed? The ones we saw when we found the tarpaulin there? It didn’t vanish. And the few breeze-blocks we saw? Probably only the remainder of a fair stack of them. If outdoor masonry work wasn’t a hobby of MacDonald’s, then what would be the most likely place to find such masonry work? In a dining-room? In a bedroom?”

  “Suppose you tell me, Cavell?”

  “I’ll do better than that. I’ll show you.” I left them, went out to the tool-shed and hunted around for a crowbar or pick. I could find neither. The nearest was a small sledge. It would have to do. I picked it up along with a bucket, went into the kitchen where the General and Hardanger were waiting for me, filled the bucket at the kitchen sink and led the way down the stairs to the cellar. Hardanger, apparently oblivious of the presence of the dead man dangling from the ceiling, said heavily, “What do you propose to demonstrate, Cavell? How to make coal briquettes?”

  The telephone rang in the hallway upstairs. Automatically, we all looked at each other. Dr. MacDonald’s incoming calls might be very interesting. Hardanger said, “I’ll answer it,” and left.

  We heard his voice on the phone, and then my name being called. I started up the stairs, conscious of the General following me.

  Hardanger handed me the phone. “For you. Won’t give his name. Wants to speak to you personally.”

  I took the receiver. “Cavell speaking.”

  “So you are on the loose and the little lady wasn’t lying.” The words came over the wire like a deep, dark and throaty whisper. “Lay off, Cavell. Tell the General to lay off, Cavell. If you want to see the little lady alive again.”

  These new synthetic resins are pretty tough so the receiver didn’t crush in my palm. It must have been pretty close, though. My heart did a long slow summersault and landed on its back with a thud. I kept my voice steady and said, “What the hell are you talking about?”

  “The beautiful Mrs. Cavell. I have her. She would like to speak to you.”

  A moment’s silence, then her voice came. “Pierre? Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry——”
Her voice broke off abruptly in a gasp followed by a scream of agony. Silence. Again the dark whisper, “Lay off, Cavell,” and then the click of a replaced receiver. I replaced mine, the receiver making a sharp staccato rattle against the rest. My hand was the hand of a man with the ague.

  Shock or fear or both may have frozen my face into an expression of normalcy or maybe the make-up on my face didn’t transmit expression too well. Whichever it was, they didn’t notice anything amiss for the General said, “Who was it?” in a normal curious tone.

  “I don’t know.” I paused and went on mechanically, “They’ve got Mary.”

  The General had had his hand on the door. Now he dropped it to his side in a ridiculously slow-motion gesture that took almost ten seconds while something in his face died. Hardanger whispered something, something unprintable: his face was like a stone. Neither of them asked me to repeat what I had said, neither was in the slightest doubt as to what I had meant.

  “They told us to lay off,” I went on in the same wooden voice. “Or they’d kill her. They have her, all right. She spoke a few words and then screamed. They must have hurt her, badly.”

  Hardanger said, almost desperately, “How could he have known that you had escaped? Or even suspected? How——”

  “Dr. MacDonald is how,” I said. “He knew— Mrs. Turpin told him—and the killer learnt from MacDonald.” I stared almost unseeingly at the General’s face, a face still impassive, but with all the life and animation gone from it. I went on, “I’m sorry. If anything happens to Mary it will be my fault. My own criminal folly and negligence.”

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