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The satan bug, p.27
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       The Satan Bug, p.27

           Alistair MacLean
 
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  “About all your friends that won’t be seeing their homes again for many years to come. About all the scum—the top scum, admittedly—of the criminal world, who have vanished so mysteriously in recent weeks from their haunts in London, America, France and Italy. All the top specialists in oxy-acetylene work, nitro-glycerine, combination twiddling and what have you. The world’s best at blowing and opening vaults and safes. We knew weeks ago, from Interpol, that those men had disappeared. We did not know that they had all been assembled together in the same place—here, in London.”

  The dark glowing eyes stared into mine. The breath whistled thinly between his teeth. His face was like a wolf’s.

  “The F.B.I. regard you as the best planner and organiser they’ve been up against since the war, Scarlatti. It’s quite a compliment, isn’t it? But deserved. You had us all fooled. This insistence on knocking down Mordon, this demonstration of the botulinus drug in East Anglia, this pretence that you were unaware that three of the vials you had stolen were of the Satan Bug strain, this apparent ignorance of the effects of the Satan Bug—you had us all convinced that we were dealing with a madman. We were sure that this threat against the square mile of London was to achieve the destruction of Mordon to satisfy the whims of a lunatic. Then we thought it was part of a Communist plot to destroy our last but most powerful line of defence. It was only a few hours ago that we realised that this threat against the heart of London, had one purpose and one purpose only—to empty the heart of London, to evacuate it so that not one person remained.

  “In this small area of London are a score of the greatest banks in the world, banks bulging with the negotiable currencies of fifty nations, banks with fortunes in bullion, banks with safe-deposits containing jewels that would ransom a dozen millionaires. And you were going to take the lot, weren’t you, Scarlatti? Your men and equipment have been hidden in empty buildings or innocent-seeming vans since last evening. All they had to do was to walk into the banks during the hours of darkness after the last man had vanished. There would be no trouble. Every one of those banks has a double security system—guards and automatic alarms that ring in any of the local police stations. But the guards had to leave, hadn’t they—they didn’t want to die from botulinus toxin? As for the burglar alarms, some of your men with access to the electricity board’s wiring diagrams—that would cause no trouble—pulled the switches, blew the fuses, tripped the overload coils or cut the cables supplying electric power to this area. Which is why the city is in darkness. Which is why no alarm bells would ring in the police stations. You’re with me, Scarlatti?”

  He was with me all right. His face was masked in hatred.

  “After that it was easy,” I went on. “I suppose you kidnapped that poor devil of a pilot earlier in the day. You bring the stuff here, load it aboard the helicopter and make a fast take-off for the continent: it was the only way, you knew the entire area would be cordoned off and that there would be no other way to get the stuff out. Your men would just stay put until the scare was over, mingle with the returning crowds and disappear. As for the banks, no one would find out anything till at least three o’clock this coming afternoon, which will be the earliest that people would be allowed to return to the area. And as this is now Sunday it would probably have been Monday morning before the discovery of the looted banks was made. By which time you would have been a couple of continents away. But not now. It’s as I told you, Scarlatti: this is the end of the road.”

  “You mean—you mean it’s all over?” Mary whispered behind me.

  “It’s all over. By ten o’clock tonight, long before the troops had finished clearing the area, there were two hundred detectives scattered at strategic points all over the city—in banks or close to banks. Hidden. With instructions not to move before 3.45 this morning. It’s after four now. It’s all over. Every single one of those men was armed, with the latest Merlin sub-machine gun loaned from the Army, with specific instructions to shoot to kill if anyone batted an eyelid. That noise we heard a couple of minutes ago—someone must have batted an eyelid.”

  “You’re lying.” Scarlatti’s face was twisted and vicious and his lips were working even when he wasn’t speaking. He went on in a hoarse whisper, “You’re making all this up.”

  “You know better than that, Scarlatti. You know that I know too much that is true for the rest not to be true.”

  He looked at me with murder in his eyes, then said softly and savagely, “Close the cabin door. Close it I say, or by God, I’ll end it all now.” He took two steps down the aisle, the vial of the Satan Bug virus lifted high above his head.

  I watched him for a moment, then nodded. He’d nothing to lose now and I wasn’t going to throw away Mary’s life and my own—not to mention the pilot’s—over a thing like that. I moved back and closed the sliding passenger door. My eyes, my gun never left him.

  He took another two steps forward, his left hand still high above his head. “And now your gun, Cavell. Now your gun.”

  “Not my gun, Scarlatti.” I shook my head and wondered whether he wasn’t after all mad, or whether he was just a magnificent actor. “Not my gun. You know that. Then you’d kill us all, while you escaped. As long as I have this gun you won’t escape. You may smash that vial but I’ll get you before the Satan Bug gets me. Not my gun.”

  He advanced again, his eyes wide and gleaming, the left hand moving back as if ready to throw. Maybe I was wrong, maybe he was crazy. “Your gun,” he screamed. “Now!”

  I shook my head again, he said something in a high, wild voice and his left hand came arching over his shoulder, the back of his hand facing me instead of the front as I would have expected. Darkness flooded the cabin as his bunched fist smashed the single overhead light, a darkness momentarily illuminated by two stabs of orange flames as I squeezed the trigger twice, an illumination and reverberating roar followed by darkness again and sudden silence, and in the sudden silence a gasp of pain from Mary and Scarlatti saying, “My gun is in your wife’s throat, Cavell. She is about to die.”

  He hadn’t been crazy after all.

  I dropped my gun on the composition floor. It clattered loudly. I said, “You win, Scarlatti.”

  “The main cabin switch,” he said. “By the left hand side of the door.”

  I groped, found it and pulled it down. The entire cabin flooded with light from a dozen lamps. Scarlatti pulled himself up from the seat beside Mary where he’d flung himself as soon as he’d smashed the light, lifted the gun from her neck and pointed it at me. I lifted my bent arms and looked at his left hand. The vial was still intact, he’d taken a hellish risk, but it had been the only risk left to him. I noticed where the upper sleeve of his left arm was torn, I’d come pretty close to getting him. And pretty close to ending it all for us, too. If I’d have hit him, the vial would have been smashed. But then, I had thought it was going to be smashed anyway.

  “Move back,” Scarlatti said quietly. His voice was controlled, conversational, he’d won his Oscar for the night and packed in the acting. “Right to the back of the cabin.”

  I moved. He came forward, picked up my gun, stuck the vial in his pocket and gestured with both guns. “The pilot’s cabin. Into it.”

  I went forward. As I passed Mary’s seat she looked up at me and smiled through the tangle of blonde hair that had fallen forward over her face. Her green eyes were masked in tears. I smiled back. As actors, not even Scarlatti could show us anything.

  The pilot was slumped forward over the controls. That explained the sound I’d heard just after Mary had exclaimed at the sight of me. Before coming to investigate, Scarlatti had made sure that the pilot wouldn’t be giving him any trouble. The pilot was a big man, with black hair, and the part of his face I could see was tanned and sun-lined. At the back of his head a little blood oozed through the dark hair.

  “Into the co-pilot’s seat,” Scarlatti ordered. “Wake that man up.”

  “How the hell can I?” Under the unwavering eyes of the
two pistol barrels I eased myself into the seat. “You coshed the poor devil.”

  “Not hard,” he said. “Hurry up.”

  I did what I could. I’d no option. I shook the pilot, slapped his face gently and spoke to him, but Scarlatti must have hit him harder than he thought. In the circumstances, I thought grimly, he hadn’t had much time for finesse. Scarlatti was becoming impatient and as nervous as a cat, staring out through the windscreens towards the hangar doors. For all he knew there was a regiment of soldiers or police out there in the darkness, he wasn’t to know that I’d begged and pleaded with the General and Hardanger to be allowed to go alone, secrecy and stealth not only offering the only chance of saving Mary’s life but also being far less liable to panic Scarlatti into indiscriminate use of the Satan Bug. I’d certainly done a great job.

  After five minutes the pilot stirred and awoke. He was as tough as he looked, for he came out of the unconsciousness fighting mad and it was all I could do to hold him off until the ungentle nudging on the back of his neck from Scarlatti’s pistol let him know he was picking on the wrong man. He twisted round in his seat, recognised Scarlatti and said a few words to him that left no doubt but that he came from the other side of the Irish sea. What he had to say was interesting but irrelevant and unprintable. He broke off when Scarlatti stuck the barrel of a pistol into his face. Scarlatti had an unpleasant habit of sticking pistol barrels into people’s faces, but he was too old to be cured of it by now.

  “Get this helicopter airborne,” Scarlatti ordered. “Now.”

  “Airborne!” I protested. “He’s not fit to walk, far less fly.”

  Scarlatti prodded him again. “You heard me.

  Hurry.”

  “I can’t.” The pilot was sullen and savage at the same moment. “It has to be towed out. Can’t start the engines in here. Exhaust fumes and fire regu-lations——”

  “The hell with your regulations,” Scarlatti said. “She can roll under her own power. Don’t you think I checked, you fool? Get moving.”

  The pilot had no option and he knew it. He started his engines and I winced as the deafening clamour echoed back at us from the narrow metallic confines of the hangar walls. The pilot couldn’t have liked it any more than I did: either that or he knew it was dangerous to linger. Whatever the reason he lost no time. He engaged the two giant rotors, moved the cyclic pitch to tilt the blades forwards and downwards and released the brakes. The helicopter began to roll.

  Thirty seconds later we were airborne. Scarlatti, more relaxed now, reached for a rack above his head and handed me a square metal box. He reached again and this time brought down an ordinary close-mesh string bag.

  “Open the box and transfer the contents into this bag,” he said curtly. “I advise you to be careful. You will see why.”

  I saw why and I was very careful. I opened the box and there, packed in straw, lay five chromed steel flasks. Under his direction I opened each in turn and with infinite gentleness laid five glass ampoules inside the net bag. Two with blue tops— two vials of the Satan Bug. Three with red tops— three vials of botulinus toxin. Scarlatti handed me another blue-topped vial from his pocket. That made six altogether. I placed that in also, gingerly gathered up the string bag and handed it back to Scarlatti. It was cold inside that cabin but I was sweating as if I were in a steam bath and it took an effort of will to keep my hands steady. I caught a glimpse of the pilot looking at the bag and I can’t say he looked any happier than I felt. He knew all right.

  “Excellent.” Scarlatti took the bag from me, reached back into the passenger aisle and placed the bag on the nearest seat. “You will be able to convince our friends that I am not only willing but ready to carry out my threat.”

  ”I don’t know what you are talking about.”

  ”You will. I want you to make a radio call and get in touch with your father-in-law and then give him a message.” He turned to the pilot. “You will keep circling above the heliport. We will be returning there shortly.”

  I said, “I don’t know how to operate the damned radio.”

  ”You’ve just forgotten,” he said soothingly. He was getting too confident of himself for my liking. “You will remember. A man who has spent his life in his country’s intelligence service and cannot operate a transmitter? If I take a walk back into the passenger cabin and you hear your wife scream do you think you will remember then?”

  ”What do you want me to do?” I asked savagely.

  “Get on the police wave-length. I don’t know what it is but you’re bound to. Tell them that unless they immediately release all my captured men—and the money they have—I shall be compelled to drop botulinus and Satan Bug toxins over London. I have no idea where they will fall, nor do I greatly care. Further, if any attempt is made to follow, trace or capture me or my men I shall use toxin regardless of consequences. Do you see a flaw, Cavell?”

  I said nothing at once. I stared ahead through the highspeed windscreen wipers into the rain and darkness. Finally I said, “I see no flaw.”

  “I’m a desperate man, Cavell,” he said with quiet intensity. “When they deported me from America they thought I was completely finished. Completely. A has-been. I was laughed out of America. I was—and am—determined to show them all how wrong they were, to bring off the biggest criminal coup of all time. When you intercepted us in that police car this evening much that I said was false. But this one thing was true: I shall achieve this ambition regardless of cost or shall die trying. I am not acting now. Nothing is going to stop me, nothing on this earth is going to thwart me at this very last moment. They should not have laughed at Enzo Scarlatti. I am in the most deadly earnest, Cavell. You believe me?”

  “I believe you.”

  “I shall not hesitate to do exactly as I threaten. You must convince them of that.”

  “You’ve convinced me,” I said. “I can’t speak for the others. I’ll try.”

  “You had better succeed,” he said evenly.

  I succeeded. After a few minutes twiddling and dial-twisting I managed to get through on the police wave-length. There was a further delay while the call was relayed and rerouted by phone and then I heard Superintendent Hardanger’s voice.

  “Cavell here,” I said. “I’m in a helicopter with——”

  “Helicopter!” He swore. “I can hear the damn’ thing. Almost directly above. What in God’s name——”

  “Listen! I’m here with Mary and a pilot of the Inter-City Lines, a Lieutenant——” I glanced at the man beside me.

  “Buckley,” he said harshly.

  “Lieutenant Buckley. Scarlatti has the drop on us all. He’s got a message for you, for the General.”

  “So you fouled things up, Cavell,” Hardanger said savagely. “God above, I warned you——”

  “Shut up,” I said wearily. “This is his message.

  You’d better listen.” I told them what I’d been told to say and after a pause the General’s voice came through on the earphones. No reproaches, no time-wasting.

  He said, “What chance that he’s bluffing?”

  “Not one in the world. He’s in deadly earnest. He’ll wipe out half the city sooner than fail. What’s all the banknotes and bullion in the world compared to a million lives?”

  “You sound as though you were afraid,” the General’s voice came softly.

  “I’m afraid, sir. Not just for myself.”

  ”I understand. I’ll call back in a few minutes.”

  I removed the earphones. I said, “A few minutes. He has to consult.”

  “That is understandable.” He was leaning back negligently now, one shoulder against the doorway, but the guns as steady as ever. He hadn’t the shadow of a doubt about the outcome now. “I hold all the cards, Cavell.”

  He wasn’t exaggerating any. He held all the cards all right, they couldn’t afford not to let him win. But far back in my mind was the first stirrings of hope that he might yet lose the last trick of all. A despairing one in a mi
llion hope, but then I was a man in the extremes of despair and willing to gamble on a one in a million chance. And it would all depend upon so many imponderable factors. Scarlatti’s state of mind, the confidence and fractional lowering of relaxation that might— just might—come with the knowledge that the day was finally his: Lieutenant Buckley’s acuteness, intelligence and co-operation: and my speed of reaction. The last was the biggest “if” of all: the way I felt, if Scarlatti could cope with an ailing nonagenarian, then he shouldn’t have much trouble with me.

  The earphones crackled. I slipped them on and the General’s voice came through. He said without preamble, “Tell Scarlatti we agree.”

  “Yes, sir. I’m most desperately sorry about it all.”

  “You did what you could. That’s over. Our first concern now must be to save the innocent, not to punish the guilty.”

  One of the earphones was knocked forward, none too gently, and Scarlatti said, “Well? Well?”

  “He agrees,” I said wearily.

  “Good. I’d expected nothing else. Find out how long the release of my men and money will take, when the police would expect to be clear of the area.”

  I asked and told him the answer. “Half an hour.”

  “Again excellent. Switch off that radio. We shall cruise around for that length of time and then descend.” He leaned back comfortably against the doorway and, for the first time, permitted himself to smile. “A small hold-up in the execution of my plans, Cavell, but the ultimate results will be the same. I cannot tell you how much I look forward to seeing tomorrow’s headlines in all the American newspapers which so contemptuously wrote me off as a nonentity and washed-up has-been when I was deported two years ago. It will be interesting to see how they set about eating their words.”

  I swore at him without enthusiasm, and he smiled again. The more he smiled, the better for me. I hoped. I slumped down in my seat, huddled in bitter dejection, and said sullenly, “Any objection if I smoke?”

 
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