The Satan Bug, p.4Alistair MacLean
The barbed wire on the outer fence was strung between curving reinforced concrete posts like junior editions of modern city lighting standards. There were about thirty strands on the fence, with roughly six inches between each pair. The fourth and fifth strands from the bottom had been cut then rejoined with heavy grey twine tied round the barbs nearest the cuts. It had taken a pretty sharp pair of eyes to discover the break.
There had been no rain for three days and there was no trace of footmarks. The ground was damp, but that was still from the heavy dew of the previous night. Whoever had cut those wires had left long before the dew had begun to settle.
“Your eyes are younger than mine,” Hardanger said. “Sawn or cut?”
“Snipped. Cutters or pliers. And have a look at the angle of the cut. Slight, but it’s there.”
Hardanger took one end of the wire in his hand and peered at it.
“From left at the front to right at the back,” he murmured. “The way a left-handed man would naturally hold cutters or pliers to obtain maximum leverage.”
“A left-handed man,” I agreed. “Or a right handed man who wanted to confuse us. So a man who’s either left-handed or clever or both.”
Hardanger looked at me in disgust and made his way slowly to the inner fence. No footprints, no marks between the fences. The inner fence had been cut in three places, whoever had wielded those cutters would have felt more secure from observation from the ring road. The point we had yet to establish was why he had felt so secure from the attention of the police dogs patrolling the area between the two fences.
The trip-wires under the overhang of the second fence were intact. Whoever had cut that fence had been lucky indeed in not stumbling over them. Or he’d known their exact location. Our friend with the pliers didn’t strike me as a man who would depend very much on luck.
And the method he’d adopted to get through the electric fence proved it. Unlike most such fences, where only the top wire carried the current all the way, the others being made live by a vertical joining wire cable at each set of insulators, this fence was live in every wire throughout. The alarm bell would be rung by the shorting of any of those wires to earth, as when someone touched them, or by the cutting of any of the wires. This hadn’t fazed our friend with the pliers—insulated pliers, quite obviously. The two strands of TRS cable lying on the ground between two posts showed this clearly enough. He’d bent one end of one strand on to the lowest insulator of one post, trailed it across the ground and done the same with the lowest insulator on the next post, so providing an alternate pathway for the current. He’d done the same with the pair of insulators above these, then simply cut away both lowermost wires and crawled through under the third wire.
“An ingenious beggar,” Hardanger commented. “Almost argues inside information, doesn’t it?”
“Or somebody just outside the outer fence with a powerful telescope or binoculars. The ring road is open to public traffic, remember. Wouldn’t be hard to sit in a car and see what type of electric fence it was: and I dare say if the conditions were right he could have seen the trip-wires on the inner fence glistening in the sun.”
“I dare say,” Hardanger said heavily. “Well, it’s no damn’ good us staying here and staring at this fence. Let’s get back and start asking questions.”
All the men Hardanger had asked to see were assembled in the reception hall. They were sitting on benches around the hall, fidgeting and restless. Some of them looked sleepy, all of them looked scared. I knew it would take Hardanger about half of one second to sum up their mental condition and act accordingly. He did. He took his seat behind a table and looked up under his shaggy brows, the pale blue eyes cold and penetrating and hostile. As an actor, he wasn’t all that far behind Inspector Martin.
“All right,” he said brusquely. “The jeep crew. The ones who made the wild-goose chase last night. Let’s have you.”
Three men—a corporal and two privates—rose slowly to their feet. Hardanger gave his attention to the corporal.
“Your name, please?”
“You in charge of the crew last night?”
“Tell me what happened.”
“Yes, sir. We’d completed a circuit of the ring road, stopped to report everything O.K. at the main gate and then left again. It would be about eleven-fifteen, sir, give or take a minute or two. About two hundred and fifty yards past the gates we saw this girl running into the headlights. She looked wild, dishevelled like, her hair all over the place. She was half-screaming, half-crying, a funny noise. I was driving. I stopped the jeep, jumped out, and the others came after me. I should have told them to stay where they——”
“Never mind about what you should have done. The story, man!”
“Well, we came up to her, sir. She’d mud on her face and her coat was torn. I said—”
“Ever seen her before?”
“Would you recognise her again?”
He hesitated. “I doubt it, sir. Her face was in a fair old mess.”
“She spoke to you?”
“Yes, sir. She said——”
“Recognise her voice? Any of you recognise her voice? Can you be quite sure of that?”
Three solemn shakes of their heads. They hadn’t recognised her voice.
“All right,” Hardanger said wearily. “She pitched the tale of the damsel in distress. At the psychological moment someone conveniently betrayed his presence and started running. You all took off after him. Catch a glimpse of him?”
“A glimpse, only, sir. Just a blur in the darkness. Could have been anyone.”
“He took off in a car, I understand. Just another blur, I take it?”
“Yes, sir. Not a car, sir. A closed van type, sir. A Bedford.”
“I see.” Hardanger stopped and stared at him. “A Bedford! How the devil do you know? It was dark, you said.”
“It was a Bedford,” Muirfield insisted. “I’d know the engine anywhere. And I’m a garage mechanic in civvy street.”
“He’s right, Superintendent,” I put in. “A Bedford does have a very distinctive engine note.”
“I’ll be back.” Hardanger was on his feet and it didn’t need any clairvoyance to see him heading for the nearest telephone. He glanced at me, nodded at the seated soldiers and left.
I said, pleasantly enough, “Who was the dog-handler in number one last night?” The circuit between the two barbed-wire fences were divided into four sections by wooden hurdles: number one was the section in which the break-in occurred. “You, Ferguson?”
A dark stocky private in his middle twenties had risen to his feet. Ferguson was regular Army, a born soldier, tough, aggressive, and not very bright.
“Me,” he said. There was truculence in his voice, not very much, but more waiting there if I wanted it.
“Where were you at eleven fifteen last night?”
“In number one. With Rollo. That’s my alsatian.”
“You saw the incident that Corporal Muirfield here has described?”
“’Course I saw it.”
“Lie number one, Ferguson. Lie number two and you’ll be returned to your regiment before the day is out.”
“I’m not lying.” His face was suddenly ugly. “And you can’t talk to me like that, Mister Cavell. You can’t threaten me any more. Don’t think we don’t all know you were sacked from here!”
I turned to the orderly. “Ask Colonel Weybridge to come here. At once, please.”
The orderly turned to go, but a big sergeant rose to his feet and stopped him.
“It’s not necessary, sir. Ferguson’s a fool. It’s bound to come out. He was at the switchboard having a smoke and a cup of cocoa with the gatehouse communications number. I was in charge. Never saw him there, but I knew about it and didn’t worry about it. Ferguson always left Rollo in number one—and that dog’s a killer, sir. It was safe enough.”
“I haven’t.” He was scowling, sullen. “Last night was the first——”
“If there was a rank lower than private,” I interrupted wearily, “you’d stay in it till the end of your days. Use what little sense you have. Do you think whoever arranged this decoy move and was standing by with his pliers ready to break in did it unless he knew for certain you wouldn’t be on patrol at that particular time? Probably after Mr. Clandon finished his 11 p.m. rounds visit to the main gate every night you went straight into the gatehouse for your smoke and cocoa. Isn’t that it?”
He stood staring down at the floor in stubborn silence until the sergeant said sharply, “For God’s sake, Fergie, use your loaf. Everybody else here can see it. So can you.”
Again silence, but this time a sullen nod of defeat.
“We’re getting someplace. When you came here you left your dog—Rollo—behind?”
“Yes, sir.” Ferguson’s days of truculent defiance were over.
“What’s he like?”
“He’d tear the throat out of any man alive, from the general downwards,” Ferguson said with satisfaction. “Except me, of course.”
“He didn’t tear out any throats last night,” I pointed out. “I wonder why?”
“He must have been got at,” Ferguson said defensively.
“What do you mean ‘got at’? Did you have a look at him before you turned him into his compound last night?”
“Look at him? ‘Course not. Why should I? When we saw the cut outer fence we thought whoever done it must have caught sight of Rollo and run for his life. That’s what I would have bloody well done. If——”
“Fetch the dog here,” I said. “But for God’s sake muzzle him first.” He left and while he was away Hardanger returned. I told him what I’d learned, and that I’d sent for the dog.
Hardanger asked, “What do you expect to find? Nothing, I think. A chloroform pad or something like that would leave no mark. Same if some sort of dart or sharply tipped weapon with one of those funny poisons had been chucked at him. Just a pinprick, that’s all there would be.”
“From what I hear of our canine pal,” I said, “I wouldn’t try to hold a chloroform pad against his head if you gave me the crown jewels. As for those funny poisons, as you call them, I don’t suppose one person in a hundred thousand could lay hands on one of them or know how to use them even if they did. Besides, throwing or firing any sharp-tipped weapon against a fast-moving, thick-coated target in the dark would be a very dicey proposition indeed. Our friend of last night doesn’t go in for dicey propositions, only for certainties.”
Ferguson was back in ten minutes, fighting to restrain a wolf-like animal that lunged out madly at anyone who came near him. Rollo had a muzzle on but even that didn’t make me feel too confident. I didn’t need any persuasion to accept the sergeant’s word that the dog was a killer.
“Does that hound always act like this?” I demanded.
“Not usually.” Ferguson was puzzled. “In fact, never. Usually perfectly behaved until I let him off the leash—then he’ll go for the nearest person no matter who he is. But he even had a go at me this afternoon—half-hearted, like, but nasty.”
It didn’t take long to discover the source of Rollo’s irritation. Rollo was suffering from what must have been a very severe headache indeed. The skin on the forehead, just above eye-level, had a swollen pulpy feeling to it and it took four men all their time to hold the dog down when I touched this area with the tips of my forefingers. We turned him over, and I parted the thick fur on the throat till I found what I was looking for—two triangular jagged tears, deep and very unpleasant looking, about three inches apart.
“You’d better give your pal here a couple of days off,” I said to Ferguson, “and some disinfectant for those gashes on his neck. I wish you luck when you’re putting it on. You can take him away.”
“No chloroform, no fancy poisons,” Hardanger admitted when we were alone. “Those gashes— barbed wire, hey?”
“What else? Just the right distance apart. Somebody pads his forearm, sticks it between a couple of strands of barbed wire and Rollo grabs it. He wouldn’t bark—those dogs are trained never to bark. As soon as he grabs he’s pulled through and down onto the barbed wire and can’t pull himself free unless he tears his throat out. And then someone clouts him at his leisure with something heavy and hard. Simple, old-fashioned, direct and very very effective. Whoever the character we’re after, he’s no fool.”
“He’s smarter than Rollo, anyway,” Hardanger conceded heavily.
When we went up to “E” block, accompanied by two of Hardanger’s assistants newly arrived from London, we found Cliveden, Weybridge, Gregori and Wilkinson waiting for us. Wilkinson produced the key to the heavy wooden door.
“No one been inside since you locked the place after seeing Clandon?” Hardanger asked.
“I can guarantee that, sir. Guards posted all the time.”
“But Cavell here asked for the ventilation system to be switched on. How could that be done without someone going inside?”
“Duplicate switches on the roof, sir. All fuse-boxes, junctions and electrical terminals are also housed on the roof. Means that the repair and maintenance electricians don’t even have to enter the main building.”
“You people don’t miss much,” Hardanger admitted. “Open up, please.”
The door swung back, we all filed through and turned down the long corridor to our left. Number one lab was right at the far end of the corridor, as least two hundred yards away, but that was the way we had to go: there was only the one entrance to the entire block. Security was all. On the way we had to pass through half a dozen doors, some opened by photo-electric cells, others by handles fifteen inches long. Elbow handles. Considering the nature of the burdens that some of the Mordon scientists carried from time to time, it was advisable to have both hands free all the time.
We came to number one lab—and Clandon. Clandon was lying just outside the massive steel door of the laboratory, but he wasn’t any more the Neil Clandon I used to know—the big, tough, kindly, humorous Irishman who’d been my friend over too many years. He looked curiously small now, small and huddled and defenceless, another man altogether. Not Neil Clandon any more. Even his face was the face of another man, eyes abnormally wide and starting as one who had passed far beyond the realms of sanity into a total and terror-induced madness, the lips strained cruelly back over clenched teeth in the appalling rictus of his dying agony. And no man who looked at that face, at the convulsively contorted limbs could doubt that Neil Clandon had died as terribly as man ever could.
They were all watching me, that I was vaguely aware of, but I was pretty good at telling my face what to do. I went forward and stooped low over him, sniffing, and found myself apologising to the dead man for the involuntary wrinkling distaste of nose and mouth. No fault of Neil’s. I glanced at Colonel Weybridge and he came forward and bent beside me for a moment before straightening. He looked at Wilkinson and said, “You were right, my boy. Cyanide.”
I pulled a pair of cotton gloves from my pocket. One of Hardanger’s assistants lifted his flash camera but I pushed his arm down and said, “No pictures. Neil Clandon’s not going into anyone’s morgue gallery. Too late for pictures anyway. If you feel all that like work why don’t you start on that steel door there? Fingerprints. It’ll be loaded with them—and not one of them will do you the slightest damn’ bit of good.”
The two men glanced at Hardanger. He hesitated, shrugged, nodded. I went though Neil Clandon’s pockets. There wasn’t much that could be of any use to me—wallet, cigarette case, a couple of books of matches and, in the left hand jacket pocket, a handful of transparent papers that had been wrapped round butterscotch sweets.
I said, “This is how he died. The very latest in confectionery—cyanide buttersco
“He’ll find that sweet and possibly one of those butterscotch papers covered with cyanide. I hope your chemist isn’t the type who licks his fingers after touching sticky stuff. Whoever doctored this sweet knew of Clandon’s weakness for butterscotch. He also knew Clandon. Put it another way, Clandon knew him. He knew him well. He knew him so well and was so little surprised to find him here that he didn’t hesitate to accept a butterscotch from him. Whoever killed Clandon is not only employed in Mordon—he’s employed in this particular section of ‘E’ block. If he weren’t, Clandon would have been too damn’ busy suspecting him of everything under the sun even to consider accepting anything from him. Narrows the field of inquiry pretty drastically. The killer’s first mistake—and a big one.”
“Maybe,” Hardanger rumbled. “And maybe you’re oversimplifying and taking too much for granted. Assumptions. How do you know Clandon was killed here? You’ve said yourself we’re up against a clever man, a man who would be more likely than not to obscure things, to cause confusion, to cast suspicions in the wrong place by killing Clandon elsewhere and then dragging him here. And it’s asking too much to believe that he just happened to have a cyanide sweet in his pocket that he just happened to hand to Clandon when Clandon just happened to find him doing what he was doing.”
“About the second part I don’t know,” I said. “I should have thought myself that Clandon would have been highly suspicious of anyone he found here late at night, no matter who he was. But Clandon died right here, that’s for sure.” I looked at Cliveden and Weybridge. “How long for cyanide poisoning to take effect?”
“Practically instantaneous,” Cliveden said.
“And he was violently ill here,” I said. “So he died here. And look at those two faint scratches on the plaster of the wall. A lab check on his fingernails is almost superfluous; that’s where he clawed for support as he fell to the floor. Some ‘friend’ gave Clandon that sweet, and that’s why I’d like the wallet, cigarette case and books of matches printed. There’s just a chance in a thousand that the friend may have been offered a cigarette or a match, or that he went through Clandon’s wallet after he was dead. But I don’t think there’s even that chance in a thousand. But I think the prints on that door should be interesting. And informative. I’ll take a hundred to one in anything you like that the prints on that door will be exclusively of those entitled to pass through that door. What I really want to find out is whether there’s been any signs of deliberately smearing, as with a handkerchief or gloves, in the vicinity of the combination, time-lock or circular handle.”
The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes