The Satan Bug, p.25Alistair MacLean
“I’ll rest and sleep when I’ve killed Gregori,” I said. “I’m going to kill him tonight. First I get Mary back. Then I’ll kill him.”
“Mary will be all right, Cavell.” Mary in that madman’s hands, that was what had sent Cavell’s last few remaining grey cells tottering over the brink, he thought. “He’ll let her go, he’ll have no reason to do anything to her. And you had to do what you did. You thought that if she stayed there with us in the cider house she would die. Isn’t that it, Cavell?”
“I’m sure the superintendent is right, my boy.” The General was walking on my other side now, and his voice was quiet because loud voices excite the unhinged. “She won’t be harmed.”
I said rudely, to both, “If I’m round the bend, what the hell does that make you two?”
Hardanger stopped, tightened his grip on my arm and peered at me. He knew that those whose minds have gone off the rails never talk about it, for the simple reason that they are unshakably convinced that their minds are still on the track. He said carefully, “I don’t think I understand.”
“You don’t. But you will.” I said to the General: “You must persuade the Cabinet to go on with this evacuation of the Central London area. Continuous radio and TV broadcasts. They’ll have no difficulty in persuading the people to leave, you can believe that. It shouldn’t cause much trouble—that area’s pretty well unlived in by night, anyway.” I turned again to Hardanger. “Have two hundred of your best men armed. A gun for me, too—and a knife. I know exactly what Gregori intends to do tonight. I know exactly what he hopes to achieve. I know exactly how he intends to leave the country—and exactly where he will be leaving from.”
“How do you know, my boy?” The General’s voice was so quiet that I could hardly hear above the drumming of the rain.
“Because Gregori talked too much. Sooner or later they all talk too much. Gregori was cagier than most, even when he was convinced that we would all be dead in a minute he still said very little. But that little was too much. And I think I’ve really known ever since we found MacDonald’s body.”
“You must have heard things that I didn’t hear,” Hardanger said sourly.
“You heard it all. You heard him say he was going to London, if he really wanted the bug set loose in London to have Mordon destroyed he’d have stayed in Mordon to see what happened and have had some stooge do the job in London. But he has no interest in seeing Mordon destroyed, he never had. There’s something he has to do in London. Another of his never-ending red herrings—the Communist red herring, of course, was purely fortuitous, he’d no hand in that at all. That’s the first thing. The second—that he was going to achieve some great ambition tonight. The third—that he had twice saved Henriques from the electric chair. That shows what kind of a man he is—and I don’t mean a criminal defence lawyer of the U.S. Bar Association—and what kind of ambition he has in mind: I’ll take long odds not only that he’s on the Interpol files but also that he’s an ex big-time American racketeer who has been deported to Italy—and the line of business in which he used to specialise would make very interesting reading, because the criminal leopards, even the biggest cats in the jungle, never change their spots. The fourth thing is that he expects to be clear of this country in twelve hours’ time. And the fifth thing is that this is Saturday night. Put all those things together and see what you get.”
“Suppose you tell us,” Hardanger said impatiently.
So I told them.
The rain still fell as vertically, as heavily as ever, just as heavily as when we had left that farmhouse some hours previously, where the torrential rain in conjunction with the quick evacuation of the area had robbed the botulinus toxin of all victims other than the unfortunate policeman who had died so terribly before our eyes. Now, at twenty minutes past three in the morning, the rain was ice-cold, but I didn’t really feel it. All I could feel was my exhaustion, the harsh stabbing pain in my right ribs that came with every breath I took and the continuous rending worry that, in spite of the confidence I’d shown to the General and Hardanger, I might be hopelessly wrong after all and Mary lost to me for ever. And even if I were right, she might still as easily be lost to me. With a conscious and almost desperate effort of will, I turned my mind to other things.
The high-walled courtyard where I’d been standing for the past three hours was dark and deserted, as dark and deserted as the heart of London itself. Evacuation of the centre of the city, the temporarily homeless going to prepared halls, ballrooms and theatres, had begun shortly after six o’clock, just after the last of the offices, businesses and shops had closed: it had been hastened by radio broadcasts at nine o’clock saying that, according to the latest message received, the time for the release of the botulinus toxin had been advanced from four a.m. to half past two: but there had been no hurry, no panic, no despair, in fact there would have been no sense of anything unusual happening had it not been for the unusual number of people carrying suitcases: the phlegmatic Londoners who had seen the City set on fire and suffered a hundred nights of mass area bombing during the war weren’t to be stampeded into anything for anybody.
Between half past nine and ten o’clock over a thousand troops had combed their methodical way through the heart of the city checking that every last man, woman and child had been moved to safety, that no one had been inadvertently overlooked. At half past eleven a darkened drifting police launch had nosed silently into the north bank of the river and put me ashore on the Embankment, just below Hungerford Bridge. At midnight troops and police, all of them armed, had completely sealed off the entire area, including the bridges across the Thames. At one o’clock a power failure on a large scale had blacked out the better part of a square mile of the city—the square mile cordoned off by troops and police.
Twenty past three. Fifty minutes after the timed release of the botulinus toxin. It was time to go. I eased the borrowed Webley in its ill-fitting holster, checked the knife that was strapped, handle downwards, to my left forearm, and moved out into the darkness. I’d never seen a picture of, far less visited, the new helicopter port on the North Bank, but an Inspector of the Metropolitan Police had briefed me so exhaustively that by the time he had finished I could have found my way up there blindfolded. And that, to all intents and purposes, was exactly what I was. Blind-folded. Blind. In that blacked-out city and on that weeping overcast night, the darkness was just one degree short of absolute.
I had been told that there were three different ways up to the heliport, perched on the roof of the station, a hundred feet above the streets of London. There were two lifts, but with the power failure those would be out of operation. Between those lifts was a glassed-in circular staircase without a shred of cover from top to bottom, using which would be as neat a way as any of committing suicide if there was a reception committee waiting and I could not see Gregori as a man who would leave his main line of approach unguarded. And then there was the third way, the fire-escape on the other side of the station. That was the only way in for me.
I walked two hundred yards from the courtyard along a narrow cobbled lane. When the wall gave way to a high wooden fence I reached for the top, pulled myself up, slipped quietly down on the other side and set off along the railway tracks.
The reference book compilers who assert that Clapham Junction has more sets of parallel tracks than any place in Britain wouldn’t go around making silly statements like that if they’d tried this lot on a pitch black October night with the sleety rain falling about their ears. There wasn’t a single piece of ironware in the whole interminable width of those tracks that I didn’t find that night, usually with my ankles and shins. Railway lines, wires, signalling gear, switch gear, hydrants, platforms where there shouldn’t have been platforms—I found them all. To add to my discomfort the burnt cork that had been so heavily rubbed into my face and hands was beginning to run, and burnt cork tastes exactly as you would expect it to taste: and when it gets in your eyes it hurts. The only hazard I d
I found the fence on the other side of the track easily enough, just by walking into it. Once down in the lane on the other side I turned left and made my way towards the fire-escape which came down, I had been told, into a small recessed court. I found the court, crossed the entrance and flattened myself against the far wall. The fire-escape was there all right, just barely discernible twenty feet away against the fractionally lighter darkness of the sky, gaunt and stark and angular and zigzagging upwards out of sight. The first two or three flights of the fire-escape were invisible, lost against the darkness of high walls beyond.
For three minutes I stood there, showing as many signs of life as a wooden Indian. Then I heard it—even above the drumming of the sleet on my sodden shoulders and the sound of water running in the gutters, I heard it: the slight shuffle of a shoe on the pavement as someone changed his cramped position. The sound didn’t come again, but then I didn’t need to hear it again. Once was enough. Someone was standing directly under the lowermost platform of the fire-escape and if he turned out to be the soul of innocence doing it for his health’s sake it would be surprising, to say the least. It was also going to be unfortunate for him, but he wouldn’t be caring much when he was dead.
Finding this man here didn’t give me any feeling of dismay and frustration because of the possible threat and setback he offered, all it afforded me was the sense of profound satisfaction and relief that could not be described. I had gambled, but I had won. Dr. Gregori was doing exactly what I’d told the General and Hardanger he would be doing.
The knife came free of its sheath and I brushed the blade with the ball of my thumb. It had a point like a lancet and an edge like a scalpel. It was only a very little knife, but three and a half inches of steel can kill you just as dead as the longest stiletto or the heaviest broadsword. If you know where to hit, that is. I had a fair idea where to hit, and how. And at anything up to ten paces I was twice as accurate with a knife as with a gun.
I covered sixteen of the intervening twenty feet in just over ten seconds, making no more sound than the moonlit shadow of a drifting snowflake. And now I could see him, quite clearly. He was directly under the first platform of the fire-escape to get what shelter he could from the rain. His back was to the wall. His head was bowed, as if his chin was resting on his chest, as if he was half-asleep on his feet. He’d only to glance sideways under raised eyelids and he’d have had me.
He wasn’t going to remain so obligingly unseeing for an indefinite period. I twisted the knife until the blade pointed upwards, then found myself hesitating. Even with Mary’s life in the balance I found myself hesitating. Whoever this character was I’d little doubt but that he deserved to die anyway. But to knife an unsuspecting and half-asleep man, however much he deserved it? This wasn’t the war any more. I slid out the Webley, quiet as a mouse tiptoeing past a sleeping cat, caught the barrel and swung for a spot just below the dripping brim of his hat, just behind the left ear, and because I was feeling illogically angry about my uneasiness in knifing him I struck him very hard indeed. The sound was the sound of an axe sinking deep into the bole of a pine. I caught and lowered him gently to the ground. He wouldn’t wake up before dawn. Maybe he’d never waken again. It didn’t seem to matter. I started up the fire-escape.
There was no hurry, no haste, in my going. Haste could be the end of it all. I went up the steps slowly, one at a time, always staring upwards. I was too near the end of the road now to let rashness be the ruin of everything.
After the sixth or seventh flight of steps I slowed down even more, not because my leg and queer shortness of breath were troubling me, which they were, but because I had become suddenly aware of an area of diffused light in the darkness of the wall above me, where a light had no right to be. There shouldn’t have been any light anywhere, for all the lights of Central London were out.
If ghosts were allowed to have black faces— though I suspected mine was getting pretty streaky by this time—then I went up the next flight of steps like a ghost. As I approached the light I could see that it came not from a window but from a grille-work door set in the wall. Cautiously, I raised my head to the level of this door and peered inside.
It was on a level with the massive iron girders that spanned and supported the roof of the station. At least a dozen lights were burning inside the station, small, weak, isolated sources of illumination that served only to emphasise the depth of the gloom that lay over most of the huge and cavernous building. Six of the lights were directly above sets of hydraulic buffers at the end of tracks, and I suddenly realised why they were burning there: some lights are essential to the safe operation of a railway station and those must have been battery-powered lamps designed to come on in the event of a power failure. A prosaic enough explanation and, I was sure, the correct one.
I looked for some moments at the geometric tracery of soot-blackened girders that dwindled and vanished into impenetrable darkness at the farthest reaches of the station, then put a slight experimental pressure on the door. It gave under my hand. And the damned thing squeaked, like a gibbet creaking in the night wind. A gibbet with a corpse on it. I put the thought of corpses out of my mind and withdrew my hand from the door. Enough was enough.
But the door was sufficiently open to let me see a couple of vertical iron ladders leading away from the steel platform just inside. One led upwards to a long gangway immediately below the vast skylights, the other down to another gangway about the level of the highest of the lights inside the station: the former would be for the window-cleaners, the latter for the electricians. It was a great help to me to know that. I straightened. At least six flights of stairs to go yet before I started getting really interested.
The arm that locked round my throat and started throttling the life out of me belonged to a gorilla, a gorilla with a shirt and jacket on, but a gorilla for all that. In those first two hellish seconds of immobilised shock and pain I thought my neck was going to snap, and before I could even begin to react something hard and metallic smacked down on my right wrist and sent the Webley flying from my grasp. It struck the iron platform and then spun off into space.
I never heard it land on the roadway beneath. I was too busy fighting for my life. With my left hand—my right hand was momentarily paralysed and quite useless—I reached up, caught his wrist and tried to tear his arm away. I might as well have tried to tear a four-inch bough from an oak tree. He was phenomenally strong and he was squeezing the life out of me. And not slowly.
Something ground savagely into my back, just above the kidney. The unspoken order was clear as day but for all that I didn’t stop struggling, a few more seconds of that pressure and I knew my neck would go. I smashed my right foot against the grille door and sent us both staggering back against the outside platform rail. I felt his feet leave the platform as the rail struck him about hip-level, and for a moment we both teetered there on the point of imbalance, his arm still locked around my neck, then the pressures on neck and back were simultaneously released as he grabbed desperately for the rail to save himself.
I staggered away from him, whooping painfully for breath, and fell heavily against the next flight of steps leading upwards. I landed on my right side, just where the ribs were gone, and the world darkened and dimmed in a haze of pain and if I’d then let myself go, relaxed even for the briefest moment and yielded to the body’s clamorous demands for rest, I should have passed out. But passing out was the one luxury I couldn’t afford. Not with this character anyway. I knew who I had now. If he’d wanted merely to knock me out he could have tapped me over the head with his gun: if he’d wanted to kill me he could have shot me in the back or, if he’d no silencer and didn’t want noise, a tap on the head and a heave over the rail to the roadway sixty feet below would have served his purpose equally well. But this lad didn’t want anything so quiet and simple and painless. If I was to die, he wanted me to know I was dying: fo
Half-lying, half-standing against the steps, I twisted to face him as he came at me again. He was crouched low and he had his gun in front of him. But he didn’t want to use that gun. Not if he could help it. From a bullet you died too quickly, unless, of course, you were very careful with the placing of the bullet. Suddenly I knew this was just what he had in mind, the muzzle was ranging down my body as he searched for the spot where a bullet would mean that I would take quite some time dying, unpleasantly. I straightened my arms on the step behind me and if the scything upward sweep of my right foot had caught him where I had intended Henriques wouldn’t have worried me any more. But my vision was fuzzy and co-ordination poor. My foot glanced off his right thigh, swept on and struck his forearm, jarring the gun from his hand: the gun carried over the edge of the platform and clattered down a couple of steps on the flight below.
He turned like a cat to retrieve it and I was hardly any slower myself. As he leaned over the top step, scrabbled for and found his gun, I jumped and caught him with both feet. He grunted, an ugly hoarse sound, then crashed and cart-wheeled down the steps to the platform below. But he landed on his feet: and he still had the gun.
I didn’t hesitate. If I’d tried running up the remaining flights to the heliport on top of the station roof, he’d have caught me in seconds or picked me off at his leisure: even had I managed to reach the top, assuming that the days of miracles were not yet over, secrecy and silence would have vanished and Gregori would be waiting for me, I’d be trapped between two fires and everything would be over for Mary. It would have been just as suicidal to go down and meet him or wait for him where I was: I’d only the knife strapped to my left forearm and my numbed right hand was not sufficiently recovered to ease it out from its sheath, far less use it, and even had we both been weaponless, even had I been at my fittest and best, I doubt whether I could have coped with the dark violence of that phenomenally powerful deaf mute. And I was a very long way from my fittest and best. I went through the grille door like a rabbit bolting from its hole with a ferret only half a length behind.
The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes