The Satan Bug, p.21Alistair MacLean
The General said, “What are we going to do, my boy?” The voice was tired and listless to match the dullness that had replaced the soldierly tire in his eye. “You know they are going to kill your wife. People like that always kill.”
“We’re wasting time,” I said harshly. “Two minutes, that’s all I need. To make sure.”
I ran down to the cellar, picked up the bucket and tossed half its contents against the opposite wall. The water spread and ran down quickly to the floor. As a cleaning agent it was a dead failure, making hardly any impression whatsoever on the ingrained coal dust of a score or more of years. With the General and Hardanger still watching uncomprehendingly I threw the remainder of the bucket’s contents against the rear wall, where the coal had been piled so high before my recent excavation. The water splashed off and ran down into the coal, leaving the wall almost as clear and clean and fresh as if it had been built only a few weeks previously. Hardanger glared at it, then at me then back at the wall again.
“My apologies, Cavell,” he said. “That would be why the coal was piled so high against the wall— to conceal the traces of recent work.”
I didn’t waste time speaking, time was now the one commodity we’d run clear out of: instead I picked up the sledgehammer and swung at the upper line of breeze work—the lower portion was solid concrete. One swing only. I felt as if someone had slid a six-inch stiletto between my right ribs. Maybe the doctor had been right, maybe my ribs weren’t as securely anchored as nature had intended. Without a word I handed the sledge to Hardanger and sat down wearily on the upturned bucket.
Hardanger weighed sixteen stone and in spite of the calm impassivity of his features he was just clear mad all the way through. With all the power and vicious determination that was in him he attacked that wall of breeze as if it were the archetype of all things evil on earth. The wall hadn’t a chance. On the third stroke the first block of breeze was splintered and dislodged and within thirty seconds he had hammered in a hole about two feet square. He stopped, looked at me and I rose to my feet like the old, old man I felt I was and switched on my torch. Together, we peered into the peephole.
Between the false wall and the real cellar wall behind there was a gap of under two feet and jammed at the bottom of this narrow space and half-covered with broken masonry, chips and dust from the fractured breeze-blocks lay the remains of what had once been a man. Broken, twisted, savagely mutilated, but still undoubtedly the remains of a man.
Hardanger said in a voice ominously calm and steady, “Do you know who this is, Cavell?”
“I know him. Easton Derry. My predecessor as security chief in Mordon.”
“Easton Derry.” The General was as unnaturally controlled as Hardanger. “How can you tell? His face is unrecognisable.”
“Yes. That ring on his left hand has a blue Cairngorm stone. Easton Derry always wore a ring with a blue Cairngorm. That’s Easton Derry.”
“What—what did this to him?” The General stared down at the half-naked body. “A road crash? Some—some wild animal?” For a long minute he stared down in silence at the dead man, then straightened and turned to me, the age and weariness in his face more accentuated than ever, but the old eyes bleak and icy and still. “A man did this to him. He was tortured to death.”
“He was tortured to death,” I said.
“And you know who did it?” Hardanger reminded me.
“I know who did it.”
Hardanger pulled a warrant form and pen from an inside pocket and stood waiting. I said, “You won’t need that, Superintendent. Not if I get to him first. In case I don’t make it out in the name of Dr. Giovanni Gregori. The real Dr. Gregori is dead.”
Eight minutes later the big police Jaguar braked hard to a stop outside Chessingham’s house and for the third time in just under twenty-four hours I climbed the worn steps over the dried-out moat and pressed the bell. The General was close behind me; Hardanger was in the radio van, alerting the police of a dozen counties to be on the lookout for Gregori and his Fiat, to identify, follow but not for the present apprehend:Gregori, we felt, wouldn’t kill until desperate and we owed Mary at least that slender hope of life.
“Mr. Cavell!” The welcome Stella Chessingham gave me bore no resemblance to the one I had received from her at dawn that morning. The light was back in her eyes, the anxixety vanished from her face. “How nice! I—I’m so sorry about this morning, Mr. Cavell. I mean—it is true what my mother told me after they’d taken him away?”
“It’s perfectly true, Miss Chessingham.” I tried to smile, but with the way I felt and with my face still aching from the hasty scrubbing away of the now useless disguise before leaving MacDonald’s house, I was glad I couldn’t see what sort of attempt I’d made at it. As far as our respective positions were concerned, compared to twelve hours ago, the boot was on the other foot now, and with a vengeance. “I am sincerely sorry but it was at the time necessary. Your brother will be released tonight. You saw my wife this afternoon?”
“Of course. It was so sweet of her to come to see us. Won’t you and your—um—friend come in to see Mother? She’d be delighted I’m sure.”
I shook my head. “What time did my wife leave here?”
“About five-thirty, I should say. It was beginning to get dark and—has something happened to her?” she ended in a whisper.
“She’s been kidnapped by the murderer and held as hostage.”
“Oh, no! Oh, no, Mr. Cavell, no.” Her hand clutched her throat. “It—it’s not possible.”
“How did she leave here?”
“Kidnapped? Your wife kidnapped?” She stared at me, round-eyed in fear. “Why should anyone want——”
“For God’s sake answer my question,” I said savagely. “Had she hired a car, taxi, bus service— what was it?”
“A car,” she whispered. “A car came to pick her up. The man said you wanted to see her urgently …” Her voice trailed away as she realised the implications of what she was saying.
“What man?” I demanded. “What car?”
“A—a middle-aged man,” she faltered. “Swarthy. In a blue car. With another man in the back seat. I don’t know what kind except that—of course! It was a foreign car, a car with left-hand drive. Has she——”
“Gregori and his Fiat?” the General whispered. “But how in God’s name did he know that Mary was out here?”
“Simply by lifting the telephone,” I said bitterly. “He knew we were staying at the Waggoner’s Rest. He asked for Mary and asked if she was there and that fat fool behind the bar said why no, Mrs. Cavell wasn’t there, he himself had just driven her out to Mr. Chessingham’s house less than a couple of hours ago. It would be on Gregori’s way, so he stopped by to see. He’d everything to gain, nothing to lose.”
We didn’t even tell Stella Chessingham goodbye. We ran down the steps, intercepted Hardanger changing over from the radio van to the police Jaguar, and almost bundled him into the car. “Alfringham,” I said quickly. “The Fiat. He took it after all. I didn’t think he would take the chance——”
“He didn’t,” Hardanger ground out. “Had a report just now. He ditched it in the village of Grayling, not three miles from here, in a side street—and not twenty yards from the local constable’s cottage. The constable was just listening to our radio broadcast, lifted his eyes and there it was.”
“Empty, of course.”
“Empty. He wouldn’t have ditched it unless he’d another lined up. An all-station alert is out for stolen cars. It would be stolen in Grayling, hardly more than a hamlet, I understand. We’ll soon find out.”
We soon found out and it was ourselves that did the finding. Just two minutes later, running into Grayling, we saw a character doing a sort of war dance on the pavement and flagging us down with a furiously waving brief-case of sorts held in his right hand. The Jaguar stopped and Hardanger wound down his window.
“It’s monstrous,” the man with the
“What’s the matter?” Hardanger cut in.
“My car. In broad daylight! Stolen, by God!
I was just paying a call in this house and——”
“How long were you in there?”
“Eh? How long? What the hell——”
“Answer me!” Hardanger roared.
“Forty minutes. But what——”
“What kind of car?”
“A Vanden Plas Princess 3-litre.” He was almost sobbing with rage. “Brand new, I tell you. Turquoise. Three weeks old——”
“Don’t worry,” Hardanger said curtly. The police Jaguar was already in motion. “We’ll get it back for you.” He wound up the window, leaving the man standing behind us, open-mouthed, and spoke to the sergeant in front.
“Alfringham. Then the London road. Cancel the call for the Fiat. It’s now a turquoise Vanden Plas Princess 3-litre. All stations. Locate, follow, but don’t close in.”
“Blue-green,” the General murmured. “Blue-green, not turquoise. It’s policemen you’re talking to, not their wives. Half of them would think you were talking about their Christmas dinner.”
“It all started with MacDonald,” I said. The big police car was hissing along the wet tarmac, the pine trees lining the road cartwheeling back into the pitch darkness behind, and it seemed easier to talk than to sit there going quietly crazy with worry. Besides, the General and Hardanger had been patient long enough. “We all know what MacDonald wanted, and it wasn’t just to serve the cause of the Communist world. Dr. MacDonald had only one deeply-felt and abiding interest in life—Dr. MacDonald. No question but that he was a genuine dyed-in-the-wool fellow-traveller at one time—Madame Halle did not strike me as a person who would make a mistake over anything—and I don’t see how he could otherwise have formed his contacts with the Communist world. He must have earned a great deal of money over the years—you’d only to look at the contents of his house—but he spent it fairly judiciously and wisely, not splashing it around too much at a time.”
“The Bentley Continental he had,” Hardanger said. “Wouldn’t you call that splashing it around a bit?”
“He’d that expense well covered, with a watertight explanation. But,” I acknowledged, “he got greedy. He was getting in so much money during the past few months that it was burning a hole in his pockets.”
“Working overtime sending samples to Warsaw and information to Vienna?” the General asked.
“No,” I said. “Blackmailing Gregori.”
“Sorry.” The General stirred wearily in his corner seat. “I’m not with you.”
“It’s not difficult,” I said. “Gregori—the man we know as Gregori—had two things: a beautiful plan and a stroke of very bad luck. You will remember that there was nothing sub rosa about Gregori’s arrival in this country—it sparked off a minor international crisis, the Italians being hopping mad that one of their top-notch bio-chemists should turn his back on his own country and go to work in Britain. Somebody—somebody with more than a smattering of chemistry and a fairly close resemblance to Gregori—read all about it and saw in Gregori’s impending departure for Britain the opportunity of a lifetime and made his preparation accordingly.”
“The real Gregori was murdered?” Hardanger asked.
“No question of that. The Gregori who set off from Turin with all his worldly wealth stacked in the back of his Fiat was not the Gregori who arrived in Britain. The original Gregori met with a very permanent accident en route and the impostor, no doubt with a few judicious alterations to his features to make his resemblance to the now dead man even closer, arrived in Britain in Gregori’s car complete with clothes, passport, photographs—the lot. So far, so very good.
“Now the bad luck. Apart from the reports of his work, the original Gregori was completely unknown in Britain—as a person, that is. There was probably only one man in Britain who knew him well—and by a one in a million chance Gregori found himself working in the very same laboratory as this man. MacDonald. Gregori didn’t know that. But MacDonald did—and knew that Gregori was a fake. Don’t forget that MacDonald had for many years been a delegate to the W.H.O. and I’ll wager anything you like that the original Gregori held a similar position for Italy.”
“Which accounts for the missing photographs in the album,” the General said slowly.
“The two of them—MacDonald and the original Gregori—standing arm in arm, no doubt. In Turin. Anyway, probably after weighing up the situation for a day or two, MacDonald told the spurious Gregori that he was on to him. We can guess what happened. Gregori would have produced a gun and said that it was just too bad but that he would have to silence him and MacDonald, nobody’s fool, would have produced a piece of paper and said that that would be just too bad because if he died suddenly his bank—or the police—had orders to open immediately a sealed envelope containing a copy of that paper, which would contain a few interesting facts about Gregori. Gregori would then have to put his gun away and they would have made a deal. A one-way deal. Gregori to pay MacDonald so much per month. Or else. Don’t forget MacDonald was now in a position to pin a murder rap on Gregori.”
“I don’t get it,” Hardanger said flatly. “It doesn’t make sense. Can you imagine the General here having two men working for him on the same project in, say, Warsaw, men who were not only unknown to each other but completely at cross purposes and potentially at each other’s throats. I’m afraid, Cavell, that I have a higher opinion of Communist intelligence than you seem to have.”
“I agree with Hardanger,” the General said.
“So do I,” I agreed. “All I said was that MacDonald was working for the Communists. I never once said that Gregori was or that this Satan Bug has anything to do with Communism. It was you and Hardanger who made that assumption.”
Hardanger bent forward to see me better. “You mean—you mean that Gregori is just a raving crack-pot after all?”
“If you still believe that,” I said nastily, “it’s time you had a long holiday. There was a very powerful and pressing reason why Gregori wanted the viruses and I’ll stake my life that he told MacDonald what it was. He would have had to ensure his co-operation. If he’d told MacDonald that he just wanted to take off with the botulinus I doubt if MacDonald would have touched the business. But if he’d offered him, say, £10,000, MacDonald would have changed his mind pretty fast, that being the kind of man MacDonald was.”
We were fairly into Alfringham now, the big police Jaguar with its siren switched on, doing twice the legal speed limit, dodging in and out among the thinning evening traffic. The driver was an expert, the pick of Hardanger’s own London men, and he knew exactly how much he and the car could do without killing the lot of us in the process.
“Stop the car!” Hardanger interrupted me suddenly. “That traffic policeman.” We were closing rapidly on Alfringham’s one and only set of traffic lights, apparently hand-controlled at what passed for Alfringham’s rush hour. A policeman, white cape glistening in the lamp-lit rain, was still standing by a control box attached to a lamp-post. The car stopped, and Hardanger, window wound down, beckoned the man across.
“Superintendent Hardanger, London,” he said abruptly. “Did you see a bluish-green Vanden Plas Princess pass this way this evening? An hour ago, slightly less?”
“As a matter of fact I did, sir. He was coming at a fair lick on the amber and I saw he would be on the intersection when it was red. I blew my whistle and he stopped just after he’d passed the second lights. I asked the driver what he thought he was up to and he said his back wheels had locked on the wet road when he tried to brake and when he took his foot off he was frightened to brake again, or brake hard, because his daughter was asleep in the back seat and might have been injured if he’d stopped too suddenly and she’d been flung forward. I looked in the back seat and she was asleep. Sound asleep, even our voices didn’t wak
“Exactly,” Hardanger roared. “Now you’re realising. Can’t you tell the difference between someone sleeping and someone being forced to fake sleep with a gun in her side? She slept on, forsooth,” he said fiercely. “You miserable nincompoop, I’ll have you drummed out of the Force!”
“Yes, sir.” The policeman, eyes staring unseeingly over the roof of the Jaguar, stood at rigid attention, a dead ringer for a guardsman on parade about to collapse with the thumbs still at the seams of the trousers. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Which way did he go?” Hardanger demanded. “London, sir,” the policeman said woodenly.
“It would be too much to expect you to have taken his number, I suppose,” Hardanger said with heavy sarcasm. ”
“xow 973, sir.”
“Consider yourself reinstated,” Hardanger growled. He wound up the window and we were off again, the sergeant talking softly into the hand microphone. Hardanger said, “Bit rough on him, I suppose. If he had been smart enough to notice anything he’d have been twanging his harp by now instead of playing about with his traffic light buttons. Sorry for the interruption, Cavell.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. I was glad of the interruption, glad of anything that would take my mind off Mary, Mary with a killer’s gun in her side. “MacDonald—I was speaking of MacDonald. Money mad—but also a pretty shrewd character. Very shrewd—he must be to have survived so long in the espionage racket. He knew the theft of the botulinus—I’m certain Gregori never mentioned his intention of taking the Satan Bug as well— would start off an intensive probing into the past life of all the suspects—those working in number one lab. He may also have suspected that his own espionage activities were liable to start a re-check on all scientists. He knew that all the known details of his life were down on his security record card and he was pretty certain that one or more of those details, the ones referring to his immediate post-war activities, wouldn’t stand up to rigorous examination. He knew the security chief, Derry, held those records. He told Gregori that there would be no dice, no co-operation, unless he saw that record first. MacDonald had no intention of being the fall guy in subsequent police investigations.”
The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes