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The satan bug, p.28
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       The Satan Bug, p.28

           Alistair MacLean
 
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“None at all.” He put one pistol in his pocket and handed me cigarettes and matches. “With my compliments, Cavell.”

  “I don’t carry exploding cigars around with me,” I growled.

  “I don’t suppose you do.” He smiled again, he was really going to town tonight. “You know, Cavell, bringing this off gives me an immense satisfaction. But almost as much I get from outwitting an opponent like yourself. You have given me more trouble and more nearly caused my downfall than any man I have ever met.”

  “Except the Income Tax Inspectors of America,” I said. “Go to hell, Scarlatti.”

  He laughed. I drew heavily on my cigarette and at that moment the helicopter shuddered slightly as it lifted over some rising current of warmer air. This was my opening. I twisted in my seat and said to Scarlatti, half-peevishly, half-nervously, “I wish to God you’d sit down or hang on to something. If this chopper hits an air-pocket you might be thrown back on top of those damn’ toxins.”

  “Relax, friend,” he said comfortably. He leaned his back against the doorway and crossed his legs. “You don’t get air-pockets in weather like this.”

  But I wasn’t really listening to him. And I certainly wasn’t looking at him. I was looking at Buckley—and then I saw Buckley looking at me. Not a movement of the head, just a sideways shift of the eyes that Scarlatti, behind him, couldn’t see. He lowered one eyelid in a low wink, no question, the big Irishman caught on fast. He dropped one hand negligently from the controls and laid it on his leg. He rubbed his hand down his thigh till the fingers stretched out horizontally over his knee-cap. And then his fingers dipped sharply into a vertical position.

  I nodded twice, slowly, staring out the windscreen so as not to give any significance to the action. It wouldn’t have meant anything to even the most suspicious and by now Scarlatti was too confident and content to go looking for signs of trouble where none existed. He wouldn’t be the first man who relaxed too much when the game seemed overwhelmingly as good as won—and finished up at the losing end when the final whistle blew. I glanced at Buckley and saw his lips frame the word “Now.” I nodded a third time and braced myself.

  Out of the corner of my eye I saw Scarlatti shift his position slightly as Buckley eased the helicopter a fraction upwards. His legs were still crossed. Suddenly Buckley thrust the cyclic pitch right forward, at the same time banking heavily, and Scarlatti, completely off-balance, pitched headlong forwards almost directly on top of me.

  I’d twisted and half-risen to my feet as he came lurching towards me. My roundhouse right caught him a fraction too high, just on the breastbone, and his guns went flying wildly to clatter against instrument panel and windscreen.

  Scarlatti went berserk. Not viciously fighting mad but completely berserk. Knees, feet, teeth, fists, head, elbows, he used the lot on me, smashiing me back in my seat and utterly ignoring the blows rained on him in return. He growled and screamed alternately like some wounded animal, battering at me with frightening power and speed and with everything he could bring to bear. I was twenty years younger and twenty pounds heavier but I couldn’t even begin to hold him. I felt the blood begin to hiss dangerously in my ears, my chest felt as if a giant vice were crushing it in half, and then, seconds before I knew I was going to pass out, the insensate battering suddenly stopped and he was gone.

  Dazed, bleeding, half-crazed with pain, I tore myself out of the seat and went after him. The helicopter was still in its dive and Scarlatti was scrambling desperately up the aisle pulling at the seats to give him purchase against the force of gravity. And he could use only one hand: the other held the bag with the botulinus and Satan Bug viruses. Momentarily crazed Scarlatti may have been—almost certainly was—but there was still one corner of his mind working: he could no longer threaten us directly with the Satan Bug for, seconds after the release of the viruses the helicopter, with a dead pilot at the controls, would have crashed into the streets of London with Scarlatti, the only person left alive aboard it, hopelessly trapped.

  He reached the door before I was half-way up the aisle. He grabbed the handle and tried to slide it open, but found it impossible against the pull of the plummeting plane. He braced his feet against the seat next to Mary’s and hauled with all the power he had, his swarthy face crimsoning with the effort. Slowly, inexorably, the door began to slide open: and I was still six feet away. Then abruptly, the floor levelled as Buckley brought the craft back on even keel, the door flew open and Scarlatti staggered and fell. A second later I was on him.

  I wasn’t worried about Scarlatti. I was worried about what he held in his hand. I tore it from him, viciously, hearing one of his fingers break as it was caught in the mesh, then he’d leapt to his feet and I was fighting for my life—and fighting for it with one hand.

  He was silent now, his face the face of a madman, and he was going to kill me. He caught me by the throat, shoved me violently backwards. I thrust my left foot behind to gain enough purchase on the side of the cabin to thrust him off and Mary screamed. My foot met no resistance, there was nothing behind me, only the open door. Instantly I flung wide both arms and stiffened my back and shoulders. Both forearms smashed with cruel force against the raised metal edges of the doorway and the upper edge was like a guillotine against the back of my neck. Momentarily the world was a red haze shot through with blinding flashes of light and then it cleared. Mary, sitting in the doorway seat just beside us, was staring at me with terror-stricken eyes, green and enormous in the dead-white face. And Scarlatti still had me by the throat. His face was inches from mine.

  “I warned you, Cavell,” he shouted hoarsely. “I warned you. There’ll be a million dead tomorrow, Cavell. A million dead, and you killed them. You, not me.” He sobbed, sunk his hooked fingers deeper into my throat and started to thrust me out into the sky and the darkness.

  There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t even use one of my hands to fight him off, take away any one point of my supports and I’d be through that doorway. In front of me was Scarlatti’s face and whatever he had been in the past I knew he was insane now. My rigidly out-thrust arms were beginning to bend inwards at the shoulders, rubbing along the raised metal edges of the door, and my shoulders were afire with agony as Scarlatti thrust me farther and farther out into the darkness. I could feel the cold wind rushing by, the rain drumming against my back and side with the force of a howling storm. This was the way some people die. I tried to open my left hand so as at least not to take the Satan Bug down with me when I fell but I couldn’t even do that, my fingers were caught in the meshes and jammed against the metal.

  It was then that Mary broke through her terror-ridden thrall. She was tied to the arms of her seat but her feet were free and suddenly she jackknifed herself and kicked up with both legs with all the strength that was in her. She was wearing Italian shoes and for the first time in my life I put up a prayer of thanksgiving for those sharply pointed monstrosities. Scarlatti cried out with pain as they caught him just behind the right knee, his leg sagged and for the one moment that was the only moment I would ever have, his grip on my throat slackened. With a convulsive jerk of arms and neck I braced myself forward, my left leg swinging high, and he staggered backward. And then I was clear of the door, chopping aside his snarling crouched figure as I passed him and ran up the aisle.

  I didn’t run far. Buckley was coming through the doorway at the other end, a gun in his hands. I wondered dimly what in the name of God had kept him until now, it shouldn’t have taken more than ten seconds to set the helicopter on automatic pilot and scrabble around for a gun after he’d straightened out, and then I realised that no more time than that had passed since he had straightened out the helicopter. It had only seemed like an eternity, that was all.

  He saw me coming, threw the gun to me. I caught it, taking care even at that moment not to let it strike anywhere near the viruses. I whirled, gun in hand, but Scarlatti wasn’t coming for me any more.

  He was standing quietly by the doorway, still doubled
over with pain. His eyes were on me, but they didn’t seem crazed any more. He straightened slowly and said, “Don’t bother to fire, Cavell.”

  “I won’t fire,” I said.

  “End of a dream,” he said conversationally. He was standing close to the doorway, the wind and the rain were driving in hard against him, but he didn’t even seem to notice it. “Maybe this is the way the dreams of people like myself always end.” He paused, then looked at me almost quizzically. “You never really expected to see me in the Old Bailey?”

  “No,” I said. “I never really expected it.”

  “Can you see a man like me on trial for my life?” he persisted.

  “I can’t see it,” I said.

  He nodded, as if in satisfaction. He took a step nearer the open doorway, then turned again. “But it would have been nice,” he said, “to see what they would have said in the New York Times.” His voice was almost sad. Then he turned away and stepped out into the darkness.

  I cut Mary loose and chafed the blood back into her hands while Buckley went forward to contact the police and call off their Flying Squad cars. After a few minutes we both went forward, as Buckley drifted down towards the heliport, and I picked up the phones.

  The General said, “So she is safe.”

  “Yes, sir. She’s safe.”

  “And Scarlatti is gone?”

  “That’s it, sir. Scarlatti is gone. He just stepped out of the plane.”

  Hardanger’s voice broke in, harsh and gravelly as ever. “Did he fall or was he pushed?”

  “He fell.” I hung up the phones. I knew they would never believe me.

 


 

  Alistair MacLean, The Satan Bug

 


 

 
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