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The satan bug, p.23
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       The Satan Bug, p.23

           Alistair MacLean
 
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  First came the identification sign then the message, “Grey Humber saloon, answering description of wanted car, number not identified, has just turned left from London road to ‘B’ road to avoid block at Flemington cross-road, two and a half miles east of Crutchley. Am following.”

  “Flemington cross-roads.” The voice of the sergeant in the front seat, an Alfringham man, held a rising note of excitement. “He’s on a blind road. It doesn’t lead anywhere except to Flemington and then back on to the main London road about three miles farther on again.”

  “How far are we from what’s the name of the place—Crutchley?” Hardanger demanded.

  “Near enough four miles, sir.”

  “So that would make it between nine and ten miles to the junction where Gregori must rejoin the main London road. This side road through Flemington, the one he’s on. How long is it, how long would it take him?” “Five or six miles, sir. It’s pretty twisty. Maybe ten minutes if he kept his foot down and took chances all the way. The road is full of blind corners.”

  “Do you think you could get there in ten minutes?” Hardanger asked the driver.

  “I don’t know, sir.” He hesitated. “I don’t know the road.”

  “I do,” the sergeant said confidently. “He’ll make it.”

  He made it. The rain was sluicing vertically down, the roads were slippery, straight stretches were at a premium and I think we all added a few more grey hairs to our quota that night, but he made it. He made it with time to spare. From the constant stream of reports pouring in from police cars pursuing Gregori it was quite evident that the man at the wheel was anything but a skilful driver.

  Our car braked to a halt, parked broadside on across the Flemington road, completely blocking the exit on to the main London road. We all climbed quickly out of the car while the sergeant trained the powerful roof spotlight up the side road in the direction from which Gregori’s stolen Humber would appear. We took up position in the pouring rain behind the Jaguar and, as a precaution, about ten feet back from it. In that blinding rain a misted windscreen or ineffective wipers could prevent the driver of a car travelling at high speed from seeing the Jaguar until it was too late. Especially if the driver was as incompetent as claimed.

  I took a good look around me. Dick Turpin couldn’t have chosen a better spot for an ambush. The top and one side of the right-angle T junction were completely covered in dense beech woods. The third side of the T, illuminated by the still blazing headlights of the Jaguar, was open pastureland with a tree-lined farmhouse about two hundred yards away, and at less than half that distance, a barn and scattered farm-buildings. I could just make out a light from one of the windows in the farmhouse, blurred and misty through the heavy rain.

  There was a deep ditch on one side of the Flemington road and I considered hiding myself there about the point where Gregori’s car would be forced to pull up, then rising and heaving a heavy rock through the driver’s window thereby eliminating fifty per cent of the opposition before they could even start anything. The only trouble was that I might also eliminate Mary—the fact that she hadn’t been in the front seat when Oregon had passed through Alfringham was no guarantee that she wasn’t there now. I decided to stay where I was.

  Over the sound of the rain hissing whitely on the tarmac and drumming heavily on the roof of the car, we could suddenly hear the steadily rising note of an engine being revved up furiously and far from skilfully through the gears. Seconds later we caught sight of the first white wash of its headlights, the barred beams shining eerily through the boles of the beeches and the pale rods of rain. We dropped to our knees behind the shelter of the police Jaguar and I eased out the Hanyatti, slipping the safety catch.

  Then all at once, to the accompaniment of a high-pitched grating of gears and mad revving of the engine that wouldn’t have got its driver very far at Le Mans, the car was round the last corner and heading straight for us. We could hear it accelerating as it came out of the corner, just over a hundred and fifty yards away: then came the abrupt cessation of engine noise succeeded almost immediately by the unmistakable tearing hissing sound of locked wheels sliding on a wet road. I could see the headlight beams of the approaching car swing wildly from one side to the other as the driver fought to retain control and I instinctively tensed waiting for the crash and the shock as the car ploughed into the side of the Jaguar blocking its path.

  But the crash and the shock did not come. Owing everything to good luck and nothing whatsoever to good management, the driver managed to pull up less than five feet from the Jaguar, in the middle of the road and slewed only very slightly to the left. I straightened and walked up to the side of the police Jaguar, my eye screwed almost shut against the glare of the Humber’s headlights. Sharply outlined though I was in that blinding wash of light, I doubted whether the occupants of the car could see me—the spotlight on the roof of the Jaguar was a powerful one and shining directly into Gregori’s windscreen.

  I’m no Annie Oakley with a gun but at a distance of ten feet and a target the size of a soup-plate I can hold my own with the worst. Two quick shots and the headlights of the Humber shattered and died. I walked round the front of the Jaguar, the others following, as a second car—the pursuing police car—pulled up behind Gregori’s. I was still rounding the nose of the Jaguar when the two right hand doors of the stolen car were flung wide and two men scrambled quickly out. For one second and one second only I had the game in my hands, I could have gunned them both down where they stood and the fact that I would have had to shoot one of them through the back wouldn’t have worried me at all, but like a fool I hesitated and was slow in bringing up my gun and then the second was gone and so was my last chance, for Mary was out of the car now, jerked out with a brutal violence that made her gasp in pain, and was held in front of Gregori while his gun pointed at me directly over her right shoulder. The other man was a squat broad-shouldered and very tough-looking Latin type with a pistol the size of a sawnoff cannon held in his hairy left hand. His left hand, I noticed. It had been a left-handed man who had used the wire-cutters to break out of Mordon. Here, probably, was the killer of both Baxter and Clandon. Nor had I any doubt but that he was the killer, when you’ve seen enough of them you recognise one instantly. They may look as normal, as happily innocuous, as the next man, but always, far back in the eyes, lies the glint of empty madness. It’s not something they have, it’s something they don’t have. This was such a man. And Gregori? Another? He was the same Gregori as I’d ever known, tall, swarthy, with grizzled hair and a quizzical expression on his face but at the same time a completely different man. He no longer wore his glasses.

  “Cavell.” His voice was soft, colourless, conversational almost. “I had the chance to kill you weeks ago. I should have taken it. Negligence. I have known of you for a long time. I was warned of you. I didn’t listen.”

  “The boy friend,” I said. My own gun was hanging by my side and I stared at the barrel in that hairy left hand: it pointed straight at my left eye. “Left-handed. The killer of Baxter and Clandon.”

  “Indeed.” Gregori tightened his grip round Mary. Her fair hair was wildly dishevelled, her face streaked with mud and there was the beginning of an unpleasant bruise above her right eye—she must have tried a breakaway on the walk between abandoned car and garage—but she wasn’t scared much or if she was she was hiding it. “I was rightly warned. Henriques, my—as—lieutenant. He is also responsible for some other slight accidents, aren’t you, Henriques? Including the slight damage to yourself, Cavell.”

  I nodded. It made sense. Henriques the hatchet-man. I looked at the hard bitter face and the empty eyes and I knew Gregori was telling the truth. Not that that made Gregori any more innocent. It just made him more understandable; master criminals of Gregori’s class almost never touched the physical side of their business.

  Gregori glanced quickly at the two policemen who had come out of the pursuing car and gave Henriques a quick jerk of the head. Henr
iques swung his gun and lined it up on the two policemen. They stopped. I lifted my own gun and took a pace nearer Gregori.

  “Don’t do it, Cavell,” Gregori said evenly. He pressed the muzzle of his gun into Mary’s side with such violence that she moaned with the pain of it. “I won’t hesitate to kill.”

  I took another step forward. Four feet separated us. I said, “You won’t harm her. If you do, I’ll kill you. You know that. God only knows what it is that you have at stake, but it’s something almighty big to justify all the work and planning you’ve put in, the killing you’ve done. Whatever that is, you haven’t achieved it yet. You wouldn’t throw it all away just by shooting my wife, would you, Gregori?”

  “Take me away from this horrible man, Pierre,” Mary murmured. Her voice was low and not steady. “I—I don’t care what he does.”

  “He won’t do anything, my dear,” I said quietly. “He doesn’t dare to. And he knows it.”

  “Quite the little psychologist, aren’t you?” Gregori said in the same conversational tone. Suddenly, completely unexpectedly, his back braced against the side of the car, he sent Mary catapulting towards me with a vicious thrust of both arms. I broke ground to lessen the impact, staggered back two steps before steadying us both and by the time I’d put her to one side and was bringing my gun up again Gregori was holding something in his outstretched hand. A glass ampoule with a blue sealed top. In the other hand he held the steel flask from which he’d just abstracted it. I looked at Gregori’s impassive face then back at the ampoule in his hand and I could feel the sudden moisture between my palm and the butt of the Hanyatti.

  I turned my head and looked at the General, Hardanger and the two policemen behind me— both the General and Hardanger, I saw, with heavy pistols in their hands—faced front again and looked at the other two policemen under Henriques’ gun. I said slowly and distinctly, “Don’t do anything, anybody. That ampoule in Gregori’s hand contains the Satan Bug. You’ve all read the papers today. You all know what will happen if that glass breaks.”

  They all knew, all right. We’d have made the figures in any waxworks look like characters with the St. Vitus’s dance doing the Twist. How long would it be, Gregori had said yesterday, before all life in Britain would become extinct if that refined polio virus escaped? I couldn’t remember. But not long. It didn’t matter much, anyway.

  “Correct,” Gregori said calmly. “The crimson top for the botulinus virus, the blue top for the Satan Bug. When Cavell was gambling with his wife’s life just now there was an element of bluff involved. I would beg you to believe that I am not bluffing. tonight I hope to achieve something that I have set my heart on.” He paused and looked at us all individually, his eyes glittering emptily in the glare of the police searchlight. “If I am not permitted to go unmolested then I cannot achieve this object and have little wish to prolong this life of mine. I shall then smash this ampoule. I would beseech you all to believe that I am in the most complete and deadly earnest.”

  I believed him implicitly. He was as mad as a hatter. I said, “Your lieutenant. Henriques. How does he feel about your casual attitude towards his life?”

  “I have once saved Henriques from drowning and twice from the electric chair. His life is mine to dispose of as I see fit. He understands that. Besides, Henriques is a deaf mute.”

  “You’re insane,” I said harshly. “You told us yesterday that neither fire nor ice, seas nor mountains, can stop the spread of the Satan Bug.”

  “I believe that to be essentially correct. If I have to go it matters nothing to me if the rest of mankind accompanies me.”

  “But——” I paused. “Good God, Gregori, no sane man, not even the most monstrous criminal in history, would ever dream of such, of such—— In the name of heaven, man, you can’t mean it.”

  “It may be that I am not sane,” he said.

  I didn’t doubt it. Not then. I watched him, gripped with fear and fascination such as I had never known, as he handled the ampoule carelessly then stooped swiftly and laid it on the wet road, under the sole of his left shoe. The left heel was still on the ground. I wondered briefly if a couple of heavy slugs from the Hanyatti would drive him over backwards, jerking his foot off the ampoule, but the thought died as it came. A madman could juggle carelessly with the lives of his fellow-men, but I had no justification of madness. Even had there been only one chance in ten million of being executioner instead of keeper, I could never have taken it.

  “I have tested those ampoules in the laboratory— empty ones, I need hardly say,” Gregori went on conversationally, “and have discovered that a pressure of seven and a half pounds is sufficient to shatter them. Incidentally, I have taken the precaution of providing concentrated cyanide tablets for Henriques and myself: death from the Satan Bug, as we have observed from experiments on animals, is rather more prolonged than death from botulinus and most distressing. You will each come forward one at a time and hand me your guns, butt foremost, at arm’s length. You will take the greatest care to do nothing that might upset my balance, so transferring my weight to my left foot. You first, Cavell.”

  I reversed the gun and handed it to him slowly and deliberately at the full extent of my arm, taking excruciating care indeed not to upset his balance. Our complete defeat, the fact that this madman and murderer would now escape and almost certainly achieve what evil and desperate ends he had in mind, just didn’t matter a single solitary damn then. The only thing that mattered was that Gregori’s balance should not be in the slightest upset.

  One by one we all handed our guns over to him. After that he ordered us all to line up while Henriques, the deaf mute, passed along behind us searching swiftly and skilfully for further weapons. He found none. Then, and not until then, did Gregori carefully remove his foot from the ampoule, stoop, pick it up and slide it back inside its steel jacket.

  “I think conventional weapons will serve us now,” he said pleasantly. “One is so much less liable to make mistakes of a—well—a permanent nature.” He picked up two of the guns that Henriques had piled on the bonnet of the Humber, checked that the safety catches of both were off. He beckoned to Henriques and spoke rapidly to him. It was a weird sight—because there was no sound— Gregori doing his speaking with exaggerated lip movements, in complete silence. I know a little lip-reading but could make out nothing: possibly he talked in a foreign language, not French or Italian. He stopped speaking and Henriques nodded comprehension, looking at us with a queer anticipation in his eyes. I didn’t like the look one bit: Henriques struck me as altogether a very nasty piece of work. Gregori pointed one of his guns at the two policemen who had been in the pursuing car.

  “Off with your uniforms,” he said curtly.

  “Now!”

  The policemen looked at each other and one said through clenched teeth, “I’ll be damned if I will!”

  “You’ll be dead if you don’t, you fool,” I said sharply. “Don’t you know what kind of men you are dealing with? Take it off.”

  “I won’t take my clothes off for any man.” He swore bitterly.

  “It’s an order!” Hardanger barked savagely, urgently. “It won’t give him much more trouble to remove your uniforms when there is a bullet between your eyes. Take it off,” he finished with slow and heavy emphasis.

  Reluctantly, sullenly, the two officers did as they were told and stood there shivering in the cold heavy rain. Henriques collected the uniforms and threw them into the police Jaguar.

  “Who operates the short-wave radio in this Jaguar?” Gregori said next. I felt as if somebody had run a skewer through my middle and given it a twist: but I had been expecting it, all the same.

  “I do,” the sergeant admitted.

  “Good. Get through to headquarters. Tell them that you have taken us and are proceeding to London. Tell them to call all police cars in the area back to their stations—except, of course, those on routine patrol duties.”

  “Do as he says,” Hardanger said wearily. “I
think you’re too intelligent to try any fancy stuff, Sergeant. Exactly as he says.”

  So the sergeant did exactly as he was told. He didn’t have much option, not with the muzzle of one of Gregori’s pistols grinding into his left ear. When he had finished, Gregori nodded his satisfaction.

  “That will do very well.” He watched Henriques climb into the stolen Humber. “Our car and the one belonging to our two shivering friends here will be driven into the woods and their distributors smashed for good measure. They won’t be found before dawn. With the search called off, the other police car and those two uniforms we should have little trouble in clearing this area. Then we switch cars.” He looked regretfully at the Jaguar. “When your H.Q. catch on to the fact that you are missing this car is going to become very hot property indeed. That leaves only the problem of what to do with you.”

  He waited until Henriques had disposed of both cars, gazing out with empty disinterest under the dripping brim of fedora, then said, “Is there a portable searchlight in this Jaguar? I believe such equipment is standard. Sergeant?”

  “We have a battery-powered light in the boot,” the sergeant said stolidly.

  “Get it.” Gregori’s eyes and mouth crinkled into a smile, the kind of smile a tiger trapped in the bottom of a pit shows when the man who dug the hole trips and falls in beside him. “I can’t shoot you, though I wouldn’t hesitate if that house were not so near. I won’t try tapping you all on the head because I doubt if you would submit quietly to that. I can’t tie you up for I’m not in the habit of carrying on me sufficient ropes and gags to immobilise and silence eight people. But I suspect that one of those farm buildings there will offer all I require in the way of a temporary prison. Sergeant, switch off the car headlamps and then lead the way with your light to those buildings. The rest will follow in double file. Mrs. Cavell and I will bring up the rear. The gun in my hand will be pressed against her back and should any of you try to run for it or otherwise cause trouble I shall merely pull the trigger.”

 
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