The Satan Bug, p.3Alistair MacLean
“You did that in advance? Well, thanks for the compliment.”
“You were the number one suspect. But I never suspected you. All the same, I had to be sure. So many of our best men have gone over the wall in the past few years.”
“When do we leave?” I said. “Now?” Cliveden had just replaced the receiver on its rest. His hand still wasn’t very steady.
“If you’re ready.”
“I will be in a moment.” Hardanger was a past master at keeping his expressions buttoned up, but there was a speculative curiosity in those eyes that he couldn’t hide. The sort of look he’d give a man who’d just put a foot wrong. I said to Cliveden, “The guards at the plant? Any word?”
“They’re all right. So it can’t have been botuli-nus that got Clandon. The central laboratories are completely sealed up.”
“And Dr. Baxter?”
“Still no signs of him. He——”
“Still no signs? That makes two of them now.
Coincidence, General. If that’s the word I want.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said irritably.
“Easton Derry. My predecessor in Mordon. He vanished a couple of months ago—just six days after he was the best man at my wedding and he still hasn’t turned up. Surely you knew?”
“How the hell should I?” A very testy little man indeed, I was glad he wasn’t a civilian doctor and myself one of his patients. “I’ve only been able to get down there twice since my appointment … Anyway, Baxter. He left the laboratories all right, checking out slightly later than usual. He didn’t return. He lives with a widowed sister in a bungalow near Alfringham, five miles away. He didn’t come home at all last night, she says.” He turned to Hardanger. “We must get down there immediately, Superintendent.”
“Right away, sir. Cavell is going to come with us.”
“Glad to hear it.” Cliveden said. He didn’t look it and I couldn’t blame him. You don’t make major-general without developing an army mind in the process and the army mind sees the world as a neat, orderly and regimented place with no place at all in it for private detectives. But he was trying to be courteous and making the best of a bad job for he went on, “We’ll need all the assistance we can get. Shall we go?”
“Just as soon as I’ve phoned my wife to let her know what’s happening—if her phone’s been reconnected.” Hardanger nodded. I reached for the receiver but Cliveden’s hand was on it first, pressing it firmly down on its cradle.
“No phoning, Cavell. Sorry. Must have absolute security on this. It’s imperative that no one—no one—knows that anything has happened at Mordon.”
I lifted his wrist, the phone came up in his hand and I took it from him. I said, “Tell him, Superintendent.”
Hardanger looked uncomfortable. As I dialled he said apologetically, “I’m afraid Cavell is no longer in the Army sir. Not under the jurisdiction of the Special Branch. He is—um—allergic to authority.”
“Under the Official Secrets Act we could demand——”
“Sorry, sir.” Hardanger shook his head heavily. “Classified information voluntarily disclosed to a civilian outwith a government department is no longer an official secret. No one made us tell Cavell anything and he never asked us to. He’s under no obligation. And we want his cooperation.”
I made my call, told Mary that no, I wasn’t under arrest, that I was going down to Mordon and would call her later in the day. After I hung up I took off my jacket, strapped on a felt shoulder holster and stuck the Hanyatti into it. It was a big gun, but it was a big jacket with plenty of room in it, unlike Inspector Martin I didn’t go in much for the Italian line. Hardanger watched me expressionlessly, Cliveden disapprovingly: twice he made to say something, twice he thought better of it. It was all very irregular indeed. But so was murder.
The Army had a helicopter waiting for us, but the fog was too heavy. Instead we went down to Wiltshire in a big Jaguar saloon driven by a plainclothes policeman who took far too much satisfaction in leaning with all his weight on both accelerator and siren button. But the fog lifted as we cleared Middlesex, the roads were fairly clear and we made it intact to Mordon by just after midday.
Mordon is an architectural monstrosity, a guaranteed blot on any landscape. Had the designer—if it had a designer—based it on an early nineteenth-century prison, which it exactly resembles he couldn’t have achieved an uglier or more repulsive structure. But Mordon is only ten years old.
Grim, grey and gaunt under the darkly lowering October skies of that day, Mordon consisted of four parellel rows of squat, flat-topped concrete buildings, three stories high, each row, in its repellent forbidding lifelessness, for all the world like condemned and abandoned Victorian tenements in the worst slums of a great city. But a fitting enough façade for the work that went on behind the walls.
Each row of buildings was about a quarter of a mile in length, with about two hundred yards separating the rows. The space between buildings and boundary fence, five hundred yards at the nearest approach, was completely open, completely clear. No trees, no bushes, no shrubs, not even a clump of flowers. A man can hide behind a bush. He might even be able to hide behind a clump of flowers. But he can’t hide behind a blade of grass two inches high—and nothing higher grew in the bleak desolation of the grounds of Mordon. The term boundary fence—not a wall, people can hide behind walls—was a misnomer. Any World War 2 concentration camp commandant would have sold his soul for Mordon: with fences like those a man could sleep soundly at nights.
The outer barbed-wire fence was fifteen feet high and sloped outwards at so sharp an angle that the top was four feet out of line with the foot. A similar fence, only sloping the other way, paralleled the outer for its entire perimeter at a distance of about twenty feet. The space between those fences was patrolled at night by alsatians and dobermann-pinschers, trained man-hunters—and if need be, man-killers—answerable only to their own Army handlers. Three feet inside the second fence and actually below its overhang, was a two-strand trip-wire fence, of so fine a metal as to be normally almost invisible—and certainly would be invisible to anyone climbing down at nighttime from the top of that second fence. And then, another ten feet away, was the last fence, each of its five strands running through insulators mounted on concrete posts. The electric current passing through those wires was supposed to be less than lethal if, that is, you were in good health.
To make sure that everyone got the general idea the Army had put up notice-boards at ten-yard intervals round the entire perimeter of the outer fence. There were five different types of notices. Four of them, black, on white, read, “DANGER KEEP OUT BY ORDER”: “WARNING GUARD DOGS IN USE”: “PROHIBITED PLACE” and “ELECTRIFIED FENCES”: the fifth, a violent red on yellow, said simply: “W. D. PROPERTY: TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT.” Only a madman or complete illiterate would have attempted to break his way into Mordon.
We came on the public ring road that completely surrounded the camp, bore right by the gorse-covered fields and after a quarter of a mile turned into the main entrance. The police driver stopped just short of the lowered boom and wound down his window as a sergeant approached. The sergeant had a machine-pistol slung over his shoulder and it wasn’t pointing at the ground either.
Then he caught sight of Cliveden, lowered his gun, gave a signal to a man we couldn’t see. The boom rose, the car moved on, halted before heavy steel crash-gates. We left the car, passed through a steel side door and made our way into a one-storey block marked “Reception.”
Three men waited for us there. Two I knew— Colonel Weybridge, deputy commandant of Mordon, and Dr. Gregori, Dr. Baxter’s chief assistant in “E”’ block. Weybridge, though technically under Cliveden’s command, was the real boss of Mordon: a tall, fresh-faced man with black hair and an incongruously iron-grey moustache, he was reputed to be an outstanding doctor. Mordon was his life: he was one of the few with his own living accommodation on the prem
Cliveden and Weybridge made the introductions, then Hardanger took over. Generals and Colonels or not, Army establishment or not, there was no question from the word “go“ as to who was in complete charge. Hardanger made it clear from the start.
He said bluntly, “Inspector Wylie, you shouldn’t be here. No member of any county constabulary has any right to be inside those gates. But I doubt if you knew that and I’m sure you’re not responsible for your presence here. Who is?”
“I am.” Colonel Weybridge’s voice was steady, but he was on the defensive. “The circumstances are unusual, to say the least.”
“Let me tell it,” Inspector Wylie put in. “Our headquarters got a call late last night, about eleven-thirty, from the guardhouse here, saying that one of your car crews—I understand jeeps patrol the ring road all night—had given chase to some unidentified man who seemed to have been molesting or attacking a girl just outside your grounds. A civilian matter, outwith Army jurisdiction, so they called us. The duty sergeant and constable were here by shortly after midnight, but found nothing and no one. I came along this morning and when I saw the fences had been cut—well, I assumed there was some connection between the two things.”
“The fences cut!” I interrupted. “The boundary fences? It’s not possible.”
“I’m afraid it is, Cavell,” Weybridge said gravely.
“The patrol cars,” I protested. “The dogs, the trip wires, the electric fences. How about them?”
“You’ll see yourself. The fences are cut, and that’s all that’s to it.” Weybridge wasn’t as calm as he seemed on the surface, not by a long way. I would have taken long odds that he and Gregori were badly frightened men.
“Anyway,” Inspector Wylie went on calmly, “I made inquiries at the gate. I met Colonel Weybridge there and he asked me to make inquiries—discreet inquiries—to try to trace Dr. Baxter.”
“You did that?” Hardanger asked Weybridge. The voice was speculative, the tone neutral. “Don’t you know your own standing orders? That all inquiries are to be handled by your own security chief or my office in London?”
“Clandon was dead and——”
“Oh, God!” Hardanger’s voice was a lash. “So now Inspector Wylie knows that Clandon is dead. Or did you know before, Inspector?”
“But you do now. How many other people have you told, Colonel Weybridge?”
“No one else.” His voice was stiff, his face pale.
“Thank heaven for that. Don’t think I’m carrying security to ridiculous lengths, Colonel, for it doesn’t matter what you think or what I think. All that matters is what one or two people in Whitehall think. They give the orders, we carry them out. The instructions for an emergency such as this are quite clear. We take over—completely. You wash your hands of it—completely. I want your co-operation, of course, but it must be cooperation on my terms.”
“What the superintendent means,” Cliveden said testily, “is that amateur detecting is not discouraged, it’s forbidden. I suppose that includes me too, Hardanger?”
“Don’t make my job more difficult than it is already, sir.”
“I won’t. But, as Commandant, I must ask for the right to be kept informed of all progress and the right to be present when number one lab in ‘ E’ block is opened up.”
“That’s fair,” Hardanger agreed.
“When?” Cliveden asked. “The lab, I mean.”
Hardanger looked at me. “Well? The twelve hours you spoke of are up.”
“I’m not sure.” I looked at Dr. Gregori. “Has the ventilation system been started up in number one?”
“No. Of course not. Nobody’s been near the place. We left everything strictly alone.”
“If anything had been, say, knocked over,” I went on carefully. “Would oxidisation be complete?”
“I doubt it. Air’s too static.”
I turned to Hardanger. “All those labs are specially ventilated by filtered air later cleaned in a closed circuit special compartment. I would like this switched on. Then maybe in an hour.”
Hardanger nodded. Gregori, dark eyes worried behind his thick lenses, phoned instructions then left with Cliveden and Weybridge. Hardanger turned to Inspector Wylie.
“Well, Inspector, it seems you’re in possession of information you shouldn’t have. No need to issue the usual dreadful warnings to you, I suppose.”
“I like my job,” Wylie smiled. “Don’t be too hard on old Weybridge, sir. Those medical men just aren’t security minded. He meant well.”
“The paths of the just—that’s me—are made thorny and difficult by those who mean well,” Hardanger said heavily. “What’s this about Baxter?”
“Seems he left here about 6.30 p.m. last night, sir. But later than usual, I gather, so he missed the special bus to Alfringham.”
“He checked out, of course?” I asked. Every scientist leaving Mordon had to sign the “Out” register and hand in his security tag.
“No doubt about that. He had to wait for the ordinary service bus that passed the road end at 6.48. Conductor and two passengers confirm that someone answering to our description—no names, of course—got on at the road end, but the conductor is quite positive that no one of that description got off at Alfringham Farm, where Dr. Baxter lives. He must have gone all the way to Alfringham, or Hardcaster, the terminus.”
“He just vanished,” Hardanger nodded. He looked consideringly at the burly quiet-eyed man. “Like to work with us on this, Wylie?”
“It would make a change from checking up on the old foot-and-mouth,” Wylie admitted. “But our super and the Chief Constable might have something to say about that.”
“They could be persuaded, I think. Your office is at Alfringham, isn’t it? I’ll call you there.”
Wylie left. As he passed through the doorway we caught sight of an army lieutenant, hand raised to knock on the door. Hardanger cocked an eye and said, “Come in.”
“Morning, sir. ‘Morning, Mr. Cavell.” The sandy-haired young lieutenant looked tired, but his voice was brisk and alert in spite of that. “Wilkinson, sir. Officer in charge of the guard patrols last night. Colonel said you might want to see me.”
“Considerate of the Colonel. I do. Hardanger, Superintendent Hardanger. Glad to meet you, Wilkinson. You the man who found Clandon last night?”
“Perkins—a corporal of the guard—found him. He called me and I had a look at him. Just a look. Then I sealed ‘E’ block, called the Colonel and he confirmed.”
“Good man,” Hardanger approved. “But we’ll come to that later. You were notified of the wire-cutting, of course?”
“Naturally, sir. With—with Mr. Clandon gone, I was in charge. We couldn’t find him, not anywhere. He must have been dead even then.”
“Quite. You investigated the wire-cutting, of course?”
“No? Why not? Your job, surely?”
“No, sir. It’s a job for an expert.” A half-smile touched the pale tired face. “We carry automatic machine-guns, Superintendent, not microscopes. It was pitch black. Besides, by the time a few pairs of regulation army boots had churned the place up there wouldn’t have been much left to investigate. I set a four man guard, sir, each man ten yards from the break, two inside and two out, with orders that no one should be allowed to approach.”
“Never looked to find such intelligence in the Army,” Hardanger said warmly. “That was first class, young man.” A faint touch of colour touched Wilkinson’s pale face as he tried hard n
“Nothing that would help you, sir. I sent another jeep—there’s normally three on patrol at a time— round the entire perimeter of the fence to make a spotlight search for another break. But this was the only one. Then I questioned the crew of the jeep who’d made this wild-goose chase after the man who was supposed to have attacked the girl and warned them that the next time their—ah— chivalrous instincts got the better of them they would be sent back to their regiments. They’re not supposed to leave their jeeps, no matter what the provocation.”
“You think this episode of the distressed young lady was just a blind? To let someone nip in smartly and unobserved with a pair of wire-cutters?”
“What else, sir?”
“What else, indeed,” Hardanger sighed. “How many men usually employed in ‘E’ block, Lieutenant?”
“Fifty-five, sixty, sir.”
“A mixed bunch. Doctors, micro-biologists, chemists, technicians, Army and civilian. I don’t know too much about them, sir. We’re not encouraged to ask questions.”
“Where are they now? I mean, ’E’ block is sealed off.”
“In the refectory lounge. Some of them wanted to go home when they found ‘E’ block shut up but the Colonel—Colonel Weybridge—wouldn’t let them.”
“That’s convenient. Lieutenant, I’d be grateful if you’d lay on two orderlies or messengers or whatever. One for me, one for Inspector Martin here. Inspector Martin would like to talk to those ‘E’ block men, individually. Please make arrangements. If there are any difficulties you are free to say that you have the full authority of General Cliveden behind you. But first I’d like you to come along with us and identify us to your guards at this gap in the fence. Then tell all the guards, the men who man the jeeps and the dog-handlers to be at the reception office in twenty minutes. The ones who were on duty before midnight, I mean.”
Five minutes later Hardanger and I were alone at the break in the fences. The guards had withdrawn out of earshot and Wilkinson had left us.
The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes