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The satan bug, p.22
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       The Satan Bug, p.22

           Alistair MacLean
 
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  “So Easton Derry—or what’s left of him—lies down in that cellar now,” the General said quietly.

  “Yes. I’m only guessing now, but they’re pretty safe guesses. Apart from the records MacDonald wanted, Gregori also wanted something—the combination of number one lab door which was known only to Derry and Dr. Baxter. I think they arranged for MacDonald to ask Derry to call at his house, saying that he had something of importance to tell him. Derry came, and when he passed through MacDonald’s door he was already as good as dead. Gregori, who would have been waiting hidden, gun in hand, saw to it that he did die. First of all they took the keys from him, the keys to the safes in Derry’s house where the records were kept: the security chief had always to carry those keys on his person. Then they tried to make him tell the combination of number one lab door. At least, Gregori tried—I don’t see MacDonald having any part in this, although he must have known—or seen—what was going on. While Gregori may not be a crackpot, I think he must be some sort of psychopath—a man with a streak of sadistic blood-lust a yard wide. Look what he did to Derry, to the back of Mrs. Turpin’s head, not to mention my ribs and hanging MacDonald alive.”

  “And defeated his own ends,” Hardanger said heavily. “He tortured and mutilated Derry so savagely that Derry died before he could talk. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find out who this fake Gregori is. A man with his records and techniques is bound to have a record. Given his prints and cephalic index Interpol in Paris will identify him within the hour.” He leaned forward, gave instructions to the sergeant.

  “Yes,” I said. “It won’t be hard. But it’s not important now. Having killed Derry before he could talk, Gregori had to find another way into number one lab. First of all they searched his house—and I would bet, incidentally, that they searched his private effects also and came across a photograph showing Derry as the best man at a wedding. My wedding. The General is in the photograph too, of course. That’s why they kidnapped me, then Mary. They knew. Anyway, they unlocked the safe, abstracted the dicey page from MacDonald’s dossier—and had a damned good look at the other dossiers while they were there. They found out about Dr. Hartnell’s financial troubles—and decided he could be blackmailed into helping them by acting as decoy from the break-out from Mordon. For, having failed to get the lab combination from Derry, Gregori had to devise a new plan to get the viruses.”

  “Break-out?” Hardanger frowned. “Break-in, you mean.”

  “Sorry, break-out.” While Hardanger sat there in the semi darkness in the back of the car looking at me with an expression I didn’t much care for, I told him the theory I’d expounded to the General in the early hours of that morning, about how two men had been smuggled into number one lab in crates, one disguised as the criminal ‘X’, the other as Baxter, both leaving at the normal time and handing in their security tags, while the real ‘X’ stayed there till eleven o’clock, first killing Baxter with the botulinus toxin, then Clandon with the cyanide butterscotch before breaking out, complete with viruses, through the wire fence.

  “Very very interesting,” Hardanger said at the end. Professional interest and pique were in voice and face. He said, “My God, and you spoke of Easton Derry playing it too close to the cuff. I suppose you got a kick out of leading me up the garden path, damn you.”

  “I didn’t lead you,” I said. “You went by yourself. We were on parallel paths, anyway.” I tried to think how, but I couldn’t. “The break-through came from you, not me. It was you who had the suspicions about the completeness of MacDonald’s dossier.”

  The car radio crackled suddenly. The owner of the Vanden Plas, a doctor making a call, had gone to the local police station after we had left him and added the interesting fact that his tank had been almost empty. Hardanger curtly ordered sergeant and driver to keep their eyes open for the nearest garage, then turned to me. “Well, go on.” He was only half-mollified by my last remark and I didn’t blame him any for his annoyance.

  “There’s not much. Gregori not only found out about Hartnell’s entanglements with Tuffnell, the money-lender, but he also made the discovery that Hartnell, as mess secretary, was embezzling mess funds. Don’t ask me how. After that——”

  “I can tell you,” Hardanger broke in. “Too damn’ late as usual,” he added disgustedly. “MacDonald was mess-president in Mordon and finding out the financial trouble Hartnell was in would have made him suspicious. As president, of course, he would have access to the books—and he checked.”

  “Of course, of course.” I was as disgusted as Hardanger. “I knew he was president. Just too damn’ obvious, I suppose. Good old Cavell. Anyway, after that Hartnell was at his mercy—and knowing from Hartnell’s dossier that Hartnell was bound to come under the microscope, he confused things still further by dumping the hammer and pliers used in the break-out in Hartnell’s place, smearing some red loam on his moped for good measure. If not Gregori, one of his assistants. Red herring number one. Red herring number two— posing as a mysterious Uncle George he made payments into Chessingham’s account weeks in advance of the crime. He knew, of course, that bank accounts would be one of the first subjects of police scrutiny.”

  “Red herrings,” Hardanger said in bitter complaint. “Always those accursed red herrings. Why?”

  “To buy time. I’m coming to that.”

  “And then the two killings in Mordon and the theft of the viruses just as you suggested?” the General said.

  “No.” I shook my head. “I was wrong on that.”

  The General looked at me, his face not saying very much but saying a great deal all the same, and I continued, “My idea was that one of the number one lab scientists killed both Dr. Baxter and Clandon. Every single thing pointed unmistakably to that. I was wrong. I had to be wrong. We’ve checked and re-checked and every single scientist and technician in that lab had an unbreakable alibi for the night of the murder— unbreakable because they were true. Two men were smuggled in all right—maybe even three. I don’t know. We do know Gregori must have quite an organisation working for him. Three is possible. Say three. Only one of those men left at the usual knocking-off time—the one disguised as Baxter. The other two remained, but ‘X’ didn’t—he also took off at the normal time and arrived home to establish a nice cosy alibi for himself. ‘X’, of course, was almost certainly Gregori—MacDonald was a sleeping partner in this business. Gregori may or may not have taken the viruses with him— probably not, in case he was caught in one of the occasional spot-checks. Anyway, he certainly left behind him one botulinus ampoule—and one cyanide coated butterscotch. You will remember that none of us has been happy at the idea of Clandon meekly accepting the butterscotch from a potential suspect in the middle of the night.”

  “But the botulinus, the cyanide. Why?” the General demanded. “They were completely unnecessary.”

  “Not the way Gregori saw it. He ordered them to tap Baxter on the head and break open the virus ampoule as they left. Once outside the lab one of them probably acted as decoy while Clandon, who had been watching the corridor from the house, came haring across gun in hand. While he pointed his gun at one of the men the other appeared from behind and took his gun off him. They then forced the cyanide butterscotch into his mouth. God alone knows what Clandon thought it was: he was dead before he could find out.”

  “The fiends,” the General murmured. “The ruthless fiends.”

  “All done to give the impression that the killer was known to both Baxter and Clandon. And it certainly worked. The third major red herring and it put us completely on the wrong track. Buying time, always buying time. Gregori has a genius for deception. He fooled me, too, about the first phone call that was made to London at ten o’clock last night. He made it himself. Red herring number heaven knows what.”

  “Gregori phoned?” Hardanger looked at me, hard. “He had an alibi for the time the call was made. You checked personally. Typing a book, or something.”

  “You can’t beat Cavell when
it comes to hindsight,” I said sourly. “The sound of a man typing undoubtedly came from his room. He’d prerecorded it on tape and switched on the recorder before he left via his ground-floor window. There was a peculiar smell in his room and a pile of white ashes in the fireplace when I visited him in his rooms in the early hours of this morning. The remains of the tape.”

  “But why all the red herring——” Hardanger began, when the voice of the sergeant in the front seat cut in.

  “Here’s a garage now.”

  “Pull in,” Hardanger ordered. “Make inquiries.”

  We pulled off the highway, the driver switching on his police siren. A noise to waken the dead but it didn’t waken up the filling-station attendant on duty. The sergeant up front didn’t hesitate. He was outside and into the brightly lit office within five seconds of our skidding to a halt. He came out almost immediately afterwards and disappeared round the back of the filling-station, and that was enough for me. I piled out of the back seat, Hardanger at my heels.

  We found the attendant in a garage at the back of the station. He had been expertly bound and gagged by someone who had not stopped to consider the price of Scotch tape. The same someone, for good measure, had also cracked him over the back of the head with something heavy, but the attendant had recovered from that—more accurately, he had regained consciousness—by the time we got to him. He was a burly middle-aged character, and what was probably a normally red face anyway was crimson from rage and his struggles to free himself.

  We cut the tape round wrists and ankles, pulled it none too gently off his face and helped him to a sitting position. He had some highly homicidal observations to make and even in our desperate urgency we had to allow him that, but after a few seconds Hardanger cut in sharply.

  “Right. That’ll be enough. The man who did this is a murderer on the run and we’re police officers. Every second you sit and curse increases his chances of escaping. Tell us about it, quick and sharp.”

  The attendant shook his head. I didn’t have to be a doctor to tell that he was still pretty groggy. He said, “A man, middle-aged, swarthy-looking character, came in here for petrol. Half past six, it was. He asked——”

  “Half past six,” I interrupted. “Only twenty minutes ago. Are you sure?”

  “I’m certain,” he said flatly. “He’d run out of petrol for his car, a mile, maybe two back, and he must have been hurrying some for he was pretty much out of breath. He asked me for a gallon in a can and when I turned to find one he let me have it over the head. When I came to I was in the garage in the back and tied as you saw me. I didn’t let on I was conscious. The first thing I saw was another man with a gun pointing at a girl—a blonde. The other guy, the bloke who had crowned me, was just backing the boss’s car out of the door and——”

  “Make, colour and licence number of the car?” Hardanger snapped. He got them, and went on, “Stay here. Don’t move around. That’s a nasty crack. I’ll radio the Alfringham police and there’ll be a car out here pretty soon.” Ten seconds later we were on our way, leaving the attendant holding his head and staring after us.

  “Twenty minutes,” I said, half listening to the sergeant speak rapidly and urgently into the telephone. “They’d have lost time pushing the car off the road to fox us, then they had a long walk to the garage. Twenty minutes.”

  “They’ve had it,” Hardanger said confidently. “There’s a half-dozen police cars patrolling in the next thirty miles or so and they know those roads as only local county policemen do. And once one of those cars gets on Gregori’s tail—well, he’ll never shake them off.”

  “Tell them to set up road-blocks,” I said. “Tell them to stop him at all costs.”

  “Are you mad?” Hardanger said shortly. “Are you out of your mind, Cavell? Do you want your wife killed? Damn you, you know he’ll use her as a living shield. As it is, she’s safe. Gregori hasn’t seen a policeman—except that fellow on traffic duty—since he left MacDonald’s house. He’ll be half-believing now that we have called off the search. Can’t you see that, man?”

  “Road-blocks,” I repeated. “Set up road-blocks. Where are the cars going to tail him to—the heart of London? Where he’s going to release his damn’ botulinus. Once in London they’ll lose him, they’re bound to lose him. Don’t you see, he has to be stopped somewhere? If he’s not, if he’s let loose in London——”

  “But you yourself agreed——”

  “That was before I knew for sure that he was headed for London.”

  “General,” Hardanger appealed. “Can’t you make Cavell——”

  “She’s my only child, Hardanger, and an old man shouldn’t be asked to decide life or death for his only child,” the General said tonelessly. “You know as well as any man what I think of Mary.” He paused, then went on in the same level voice. “I agree with Cavell. Please do as he suggests.”

  Hardanger swore bitterly under his breath and leaned forward to speak to the sergeant. When he had finished, the General said calmly, “While we’re waiting, my boy, you might fill in a few remaining pieces in the jig-saw. I’m in no condition to fill them in for myself. The question the superintendent is always coming up with. The red herrings. All those red herrings. Why?”

  “To buy time.” I was in no condition to fill in jig-saws myself, but what was left of my mind was still working just well enough to appreciate the reason behind the request—to try to take our minds off the car in front, the trapped and terrified girl at the mercy of ruthless and sadistic killers, to reduce the tearing anxiety, to ease the destructive tension that was slowly pulling tired minds and bodies to pieces. I went on, fumbling along mentally, “Our friend in the car up front had to buy time. The more false leads we followed and the more blind alleys we blundered into—and there were plenty—the more time it would take us to get around to inquiring in the really dangerous places. He overestimated us, but for all that we moved faster than he had expected—don’t forget that it’s only forty hours since the crime was discovered. But he knew that sooner or later we would get around to making inquiries in the one place he feared—MacDonald’s. He knew he might have to dispose of MacDonald sooner or later. And the later the better for within a few hours of MacDonald’s death a sealed envelope in a bank or police-station would be opened and then we’d be on to him like an express train. Whatever Gregori’s ultimate intentions are he would obviously have preferred to carry those out while still a respectable member of the Alfringham community instead of a wanted murderer on the run from half the police in Britain.”

  “It’s difficult to threaten the Government—and the nation—with the law breathing down the back of your neck,” the General conceded. The old man’s detachment, his iron control, was almost more than human. “But why did MacDonald have to die?”

  “Because of two things. Because he knew what Gregori’s ultimate end was and if MacDonald had lived to tell it, all his, Gregori’s, plans would have been ruined. And because of Mrs. Turpin. MacDonald was a pretty tough character and he might not have talked even when the police got on to him—after all, although he almost certainly had no hand in any killing, he was pretty deep in the mire himself. But Mrs. Turpin would have made him talk—if not, she’d have talked herself. Madame Halle gave me to understand in Paris that MacDonald was pretty much of a philanderer—and philanderers don’t change their ways easily. Not before eighty, anyway. Mrs. Turpin was a good-looking woman—and her fiercely protective attitude towards MacDonald was a dead giveaway. She was in love with him—whether he was with her I couldn’t guess and it doesn’t matter. If things had gone wrong she’d have had MacDonald turn Queen’s evidence and lower the boom on Gregori by betraying his plans. I think his evidence might have been so important, so vastly important, that either she or MacDonald or both would be convinced that at the most MacDonald would have received no more than a light sentence. With all hopes of his money from Gregori gone, I don’t think MacDonald would have hesitated between turning Queen’s ev
idence—if it was important enough he might even have received a free pardon—and being held as an accessory to murder for gain, which still calls for a walk to the gallows in this country. And if he had hesitated, Mrs. Turpin would have made up his mind for him.

  “My guess—it’s only a guess but we can check at Mordon—is that Mrs. Turpin phoned MacDonald at the lab immediately after I had left and that Gregori either overheard or was told what had happened. He probably accompanied MacDonald home to see how the land lay—and it didn’t take him a couple of minutes to find out. The heat was on MacDonald and that could have been fatal for Gregori. To prevent that, Gregori had to make it fatal for MacDonald and Mrs. Turpin.”

  “All neatly buttoned up, eh?” Hardanger said. His face was dead-pan, he was still a fair way from forgiving me.

  “Net tightened and completely closed,” I agreed. “The only trouble is that the big fish has already escaped and what’s left is useless. But one thing we know. We can forget all this rubbish about demolishing Mordon. If that was Gregori’s plan it wouldn’t have helped or hindered him in the exexcution of it if MacDonald had talked, for the whole country knew of it already. Whatever it is is something on a much bigger, much more important scale, something that might have been foiled, probably would have been foiled had we known of it in advance.”

  “Such as what?” Hardanger demanded.

  “You tell me. I’m done with guessing for the day.” And I was through with guessing and talking for the day, except when necessity absolutely demanded it. Slumped back in the warmth and comfort of the deeply-cushioned seats, reaction was beginning to set in. The anaesthetising effect of the need for non-stop action and urgent thinking was beginning to wear off, and the more it wore off the older and more worn I felt. And the more pain. I thought of the widely-held belief that you can’t feel more than one pain at one time and wondered what misinformed idiot had started that one. I wondered what part of me was causing me the most pain, my foot, my ribs or my head, and came to the conclusion that my ribs won, by a short head. Was that a pun? The driver was reaching over ninety on the longer stretches of wet road, but he drove so smoothly and skilfully that even with my fear and anxiety for Mary I think I was beginning to doze off when the loudspeaker up front began to crackle.

 
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