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The satan bug, p.26
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       The Satan Bug, p.26

           Alistair MacLean
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  Desperately I glanced round the tiny platform. Up the vertical ladder to the window cleaners’ catwalk or down to the electricians’? It took me all of half a second to realise I couldn’t do either. Not with one hand still out of commission and hope to reach either the top or bottom of the ladder before Henriques came through that door and picked me off in his own sweet time.

  Six feet away from the platform was one of the giant girders that spanned the entire width of the station roof. I didn’t stop to think of it, subconsciously I must have known that if I had stopped to think, even for a second, I’d have chosen to remain there and have it out with Henriques on that platform, gun or no gun. But I didn’t stop. I ducked under the waist-high chain surrounding the platform and launched myself across that sixty foot drop.

  My good foot landed fair and square on the girder, the other came just short and slipped off the thickly treacherous coating of soot deposited there by generations of steam locomotives. As my shin cracked painfully against the edge of the metal I grabbed the beam with my left hand and for two or three dreadful seconds I just teetered there while the great empty station swam dizzily around me. Then I steadied and was safe. For the moment. I rose shakily to my feet.

  I didn’t crawl along the girder. I didn’t pussyfoot along with arms outstretched to aid my balance. I just put down my head and ran. The beam was only eight or nine inches wide, it was covered with this dangerous layer of soot and the two rows of smooth rivet-heads running along its entire length would have been my death had I stepped on their slippery convexities. But I ran. It took me seconds only to cover the seventy feet to the great central vertical girder that disappeared into the darkness above. I grabbed it, edged recklessly round, and stared back in the direction from which I’d come.

  Henriques was on the platform by the grille door. His gun was extended at the full stretch of his right arm, pointing directly at me, but he was lowering it even as I looked: he’d seen me, all right, but too late to draw a bead before I’d vanished behind the shelter of the vertical girder.

  He looked around him, seemed to hesitate. I stood where I was, clinging on to the girder while some of the numbness drained from my right hand, and while Henriques was making up his mind I cursed myself for my folly. All the way up that fire-escape from street level I’d never once thought to look behind. The deaf mute must have been making a round of the posted guards, found the unconscious man at the foot of the fire-escape and drawn the inevitable conclusions.

  Henriques had made up his mind. The idea of the leap from the platform across to the girder didn’t appeal to him, and I couldn’t blame him. He swarmed up the iron ladder to the window cleaners’ catwalk above, moved over to a position directly above the girder I was standing on, crossed the catwalk rail and lowered himself until his feet were only inches above the girder. He dropped, steadying himself with his hands on the wall, turned carefully and started coming towards me, his hands outstretched like a tight-rope walker’s. I didn’t wait for him. I turned and started walking also.

  I didn’t walk far for there wasn’t far to walk. The beam I was on stretched to the other side of the main hall of the station and there it ended, vanishing into the grimy brickwork. There was no convenient platform here. No catwalk above or below. Just the beam vanishing into the wall. And sixty feet below the dull gleam of rails and hydraulic buffers. Just myself and the girder and the blank wall. The end of the road and no way out. I turned and made ready to die.

  Henriques had reached the vertical girder in the centre, had safely negotiated his way past it and was advancing on me. Fifty feet away he stopped and even in the gloom I could see the white glimmer of his teeth as he smiled. He had seen how it was with me, that I was trapped and quite at his mercy. It must have been one of the highlights in the life of that crazy man.

  He started moving again, slowly closing the distance between us. Twenty feet away he stopped, stooped, lowered his hands to the girder and sat down, locking his legs securely under the beam. He was wearing a very smooth line in Italian sacking and all that soot wouldn’t be doing it any good at all but he didn’t seem to care. He raised his pistol, holding it with both hands, and pointed it at the middle of my body.

  There was nothing I could do. With my hands at my back, bracing myself against the wall, I stiffened in futile preparation for the slamming rending impact of the shock. I stared at his hands and imagined I could see the fingers whiten. In spite of myself I winced and closed my eyes. Only for a second or two. When I opened them again he’d lowered the gun until his hand was resting on the beam and was grinning at me.

  For sheer calculated sadism and feline cruelty I’d never met its equal. But I should have known it, I should have expected it. The monstrous madman who had forced a cyanide sweet down Clandon’s throat, who had strangled MacDonald alive at the end of a rope, who had pulped in the back of Mrs. Turpin’s head, who had tortured Easton Derry to death—and, for good measure, had stove in my ribs—such a man wasn’t going to pass up the exquisite pleasure of watching me die by inches, even although for once, the dying was to be by terror of the mind instead of agony of the body. I could visualise those empty eyes now hot and greedy for the suffering of others, I could almost visualise the wolf-like slavering of that twisted grinning mouth. He was the cat, I was the mouse, and he was going to play with me until he had extracted every last ounce of pleasure from his macabre game. And then, regretfully, he would shoot me, although he would still have that one last joy of seeing me fall and being smashed and mangled on the steel and concrete far below.

  I had been very afraid. I’m no hero when I see that death is certain, when my murder is certain, nor do I believe anyone else is. I had been close to physical paralysis with that fear, and that numbness had extended to the mind, but now the petrifaction of body and mind vanished in a suddenly overwhelming warm flood of pure anger, anger that my life and the fate of Mary should be at the mercy of the whims of a sub-human creature like this.

  I remembered my knife.

  Slowly I brought together the hands behind my back until they were touching. The fingers of my right hand, painful still but no longer numb, reached up under my left sleeve and closed on the haft of the knife. Henriques lifted his gun again, pointing it at my head this time, his lips lifted back in a snarling smile, but I just kept on working away slowly till the knife was clear of the sheath. It was too soon for the deaf mute to kill me yet: there was still a great deal more of innocent pleasure to be extracted from his harmless game before he grew bored and blew the last whistle on me by leaning on the trigger.

  Henriques lowered the gun a second time, shifted slightly to lock his ankles even more securely under the girder and dug into his jacket pocket with his left hand. He brought out a packet of cigarettes and a book of matches. He was smiling like a crazy man, because this was the zenith, the towering pinnacle of refinement of torture, the killer taking his luxuriantly insolent ease while the trembling terror-stricken victim waits, not knowing when the last moment will come, but knowing it must inevitably come: and he’d thought it all up by himself.

  He got a cigarette into his mouth, bent over a match to strike it. The gun was still in his right hand. The match flared and for half a second of time he was blind.

  Steel flickered and gleamed briefly in the weak backwash of light and Henriques coughed. The knife buried itself to the hilt in the base of his throat. He jerked violently, arching over backwards, as if a heavy electric shock had passed through the steel girder. The gun flew from his hand and curved earthwards in a long crazy curve. It seemed to take an age to fall and I couldn’t look away from it. I didn’t see it land, but I saw sparks on the line below as steel struck steel.

  I looked back at Henriques. He’d straightened and bent slightly forward and was staring at me in perplexity. His right hand reached up and pulled the knife clear and in a moment his shirt front was saturated in the pumping blood. His face twisted in a snarl, a snarl already tinged with approaching dissolut
ion, and he raised his right hand up and back over his shoulder. The blade no longer gleamed in the lamplight. He leaned back to give impetus to his throw, and then tiredness came into the dark and evil face and the knife slipped from his dying hand and clattered to the concrete below. The eyes closed and he slipped to one side, slipped right over until he was beneath the girder and held only by his locked ankles. How long he hung like that I couldn’t later say. It seemed a very long time. And then, at last, in a weird slow-motion sequence, the ankles slowly unlocked and he fell from sight. I didn’t see him fall, I couldn’t see him fall. But when at last I did look I saw him far below, his broken body hanging limply over the gleaming ram of a gigantic hydraulic buffer. For Henriques’ sake, wherever he was now, I hoped the shades of his victims weren’t waiting for him. I became vaguely aware that my cheek muscles were aching. I had been smiling down at the dead man. I had never felt less like smiling.

  Sick and dizzy and trembling like an old man with the ague, I made my way back across the girder by crawling on my hands and knees. I took me a long time I think, and I’ll never be clear how I managed the six foot jump from girder to platform, even although it was easier this time for the chain was there for my hands to catch. I staggered through the grille door to the fire-escape and half-lowered myself, half-collapsed on to the platform. The night air of London had never smelted so sweet.

  How long I lay there I don’t know. I can’t remember whether I was conscious or not most of the time. But it couldn’t have been long for when I looked at my watch it was still only ten minutes to four.

  I pushed myself to my feet and made my way wearily down the fire-escape. When I reached street level I didn’t even bother looking for my Webley, it might have taken me long enough to find it, and the chances were that some part of its mechanism had been damaged in its long fall. I would have been very surprised if the guard I’d disposed of hadn’t been carrying a gun. I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t know what make of automatic it was but it had a trigger and safety catch in the usual position and that was all I wanted. I started to climb the fire-escape again.

  I made the last two flights to the roof of the station on my hands and knees. Not from the need of stealth or secrecy, I just couldn’t make it any other way. I was as far through as that. I rested for a bit with my back to the wall of the passenger lounge, then walked slowly across the concrete to the hangar in the far corner.

  A faint wash of light shone weakly through the open doors: it would be invisible from below, for the hangar doors opened on to the centre of the heliport. The light came not from the hangar itself but from what was inside it—the big twenty-four-seater Voland Helicopter that the Inter-City Flights were now operating on their new routes.

  I could see the control cabin thrust away over the nose of the helicopter, and it was from there that the light was coming. I could see the head and shoulders of the pilot, hatless and in a grey uniform jacket, in the left-hand seat. In the right-hand seat sat Dr. Gregori.

  Circling the hangar I came to the side door and pushed it back slowly on its oiled tracks. It made no sound. The base of the short flight of portable steps leading up to the open passenger door in the centre of the helicopter’s fuselage was less than twenty feet away. I pulled the automatic, safety-catch off, from my coat pocket and crossed to the steps. If you could have heard a blade of grass growing then you could have heard me going up those steps.

  The passenger cabin was also lit, but the illumination was poor—one single overhead lamp in line with the door. I poked my head cautiously through the doorway—and there, not three feet away, sitting with wrists bound to the arm-rests of the first of the backward-facing seats, was Mary. The bruise above her eye had swollen to duck-egg proportions, her face was scratched and deathly pale, but she was wide awake and staring directly at me. And she recognised me. With my soot-blackened and battered face I must have looked like a man from Mars, one, moreover, who’s just managed to walk away from the smashed-up remains of his flying saucer. But she recognised me immediately. Her lips parted, her eyes stared wide and I at once raised finger to mouth in the age-old gesture of silence. But I was too late, I was a lifetime too late. She had been sitting there in the black thrall of a hopeless and defeated misery and grief, with the bottom dropped from her life and nothing left to live for, and now her husband, whom she surely knew to be dead, had returned from the land of the dead, and the world was going to be all right again and if she had not reacted, immediately and instinctively, then she would not have been human.

  “Pierre!” Her voice was part shock, part hope, all wonder and joy. “Oh, Pierre!”

  I wasn’t looking at her. My eyes were on one place only—the entrance to the pilot’s cabin. So was my gun. From up front came the sound of a dull blow, then Gregori appeared, one hand clutching a gun, the other above his head to steady himself as he peered through the low archway. The eyes were narrowed but the rest of the face still and cold. The gun, curiously, was hanging by his side. I shifted mine slightly till it centred on his forehead and increased the tension on the trigger.

  “The end of the road, Scarlatti,” I said. “And the end of my long wait for you. There’ll be nobody coming here tonight. Only me, Scarlatti. Only me.”


  “Cavell!” Gregori hadn’t realised who I was until I had spoken and now the swarthy face paled and he stared at me like a man seeing a ghost which, for Gregori, was exactly what I was. “Cavell! It’s impossible!”

  “Don’t you wish it were, Scarlatti? Into the cabin and don’t try lifting that gun.”

  “Scarlatti?” He didn’t seem to have heard my order, the second shock had staggered his mind already reeling from the first. He whispered, “How do you know?”

  “Five hours since Interpol and the F.B.I. gave us your life history. And quite a history it is. Enzo Scarlatti, one-time graduate research chemist who became the big-time Czar of American crime in the Mid-West. Extortion, robberies, killings, machines, drugs, the lot—the great king-pin and they could never lay a finger on you. But they got you in the end, didn’t they, Scarlatti? The usual, income-tax evasion. And then they deported you.”

  I advanced two paces towards him, I didn’t want Mary in the line of fire when the war started.

  “Right into the cabin, Scarlatti.”

  He was still staring at me, but his face underwent a subtle change. The man’s resilience, his powers of mental recuperation, were fantastic. He said, slowly, “We must talk about this.”

  “Later. Inside. Now. Or I’ll drop you where you stand.”

  “No. You won’t. You’d like to, but not yet. I know when I look at death, Cavell. I’m looking at death now. You wish me to come and sit down in a chair and then you will kill me. But not until I am in that chair will you kill me.”

  I took another step towards him and his left hand came into view. “This is what you are frightened of, isn’t it, Cavell? You were afraid that I might have one of those in my hand or on my person that would smash when I fell. Isn’t that it, Cavell?”

  That was it indeed. I stared down at the ampoule in his hand, the little glass vial and the sealed blue plastic top. He went on, his face strained and tight, “I think you had better put that gun down, Cavell.”

  “Not this time. As long as I have this gun pointing between your eyes you won’t try anything. The moment I put it down you let me have it with your own gun. And I know now what I didn’t know before. You won’t use that ampoule. I thought you were insane, Scarlatti, but I know now you were only using the threat of insanity to terrify us into doing what you wanted. But I know you now and I know your record. You may be crazy, but you’re crazy like a fox. You’re as sane as I am. You won’t use that thing. You value your own life, the success of your plans, too much.”

  “Wrong, Cavell. I’ll use it. And I do value my life.” He glanced quickly over his shoulder and then turned back to me. “Eight months now since I entered Mordon. I could have had the vaccine out any
time I liked. But I waited. Why? I waited till Baxter and MacDonald had successfully developed an attenuated strain of the Satan Bug, a strain still deadlier than the botulinus toxin but with an oxidisation life of only twenty-four hours. I waited till they had come across the precise combinations of heat, phenol, formalin and ultra-violet to produce a killer vaccine for this weakened strain.” He held the vial between finger and thumb. “In this glass, the attenuated Satan Bug, in my bloodstream the inactivated micro-organisms we have produced against it. The cyanide was bluff—I don’t need cyanide. You will understand why Baxter had to die—he knew about the new virus and vaccine.”

  I understood.

  “You will understand, also, that I am not afraid to use it. I will——”

  He broke off, the swarthy face suddenly cold and grim. “What was that?” I’d heard it too, two short bursts of harshly metallic sound, like a riveter’s gun, only five times as fast.

  “Why, don’t you know? That was the Merlin Mark 2, Scarlatti. The new type of rapid-fire machine carbine issued to Nato forces.” I looked at him consideringly. “Didn’t you hear what I said? There’s no one else coming tonight. Only me.”

  “What are you saying?” he whispered. I could see his knuckles whiten as his left hand clenched involuntarily over the glass vial. “What are you talking about?”

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