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The satan bug, p.6
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       The Satan Bug, p.6

           Alistair MacLean
 

  There was a long pause, then I said to Gregori, “If the Satan Bug or botulinus is loose in this lab, how long would it take to affect the hamster?”

  “Fifteen seconds,” he said precisely. “In thirty seconds it will be in convulsions. In a minute, dead. There will be reflex muscle twitchings but it will be dead. That’s for the Satan Bug. For botulinus only slightly longer.”

  “Don’t stop me from going in,” I said to Cliveden. “I’ll see what happens to the hamster. If he’s O.K., then I’ll wait another ten minutes. Then I’ll come out.”

  “If you come out.” He was weakening. Cliveden was nobody’s fool. He was too clever not to have gone over what I had said and at least some of it must have made sense to him.

  “If anything—any virus—has been stolen,” I said, “then whoever stole it is a madman. The Kennet, a tributary of the Thames, passes by only a few miles from here. How do you know that madman isn’t bent over the Kennet this instant, pouring those damned bugs into the water?”

  “How do I know you won’t come out if that hamster does die?” Cliveden said desperately. “Good God, Cavell, you’re only human. If that hamster does die, do you expect me to believe that you’re going to remain in there till you die of starvation? Asphyxiation, rather, when the oxygen gives out? Of course you’re going to come out.”

  “All right, General, suppose I come out. Would I still be wearing the gas-suit and breathing apparatus?”

  “Obviously.” His voice was curt. “If you weren’t and that room was contaminated—well, you couldn’t come out. You’d be dead.”

  “All right, again. This way.” I led the way out to the corridor, indicated the last corridor-door we’d passed through. “That door is gas-tight. I know that. So are those outside double windows. You stand at that corridor door—have it open a crack. The door of number one lab opens on it— you’ll see me as soon as I begin to come out. Agreed?”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “This.” I reached inside my jacket, pulled out the Hanyatti automatic, knocked the safety catch off. “You have this in your hand. If, when the lab door opens, I’m still wearing the suit and breathing apparatus, you can shoot me down. At fifteen feet and with nine shots you can hardly fail to. Then you shut the corridor door. Then the virus is still sealed inside ‘E’ block.”

  He took the gun from me, slowly, reluctantly, uncertainly. But there was nothing uncertain about eyes and voice when finally he spoke.

  “You know I shall use this, if I have to?”

  “Of course I know it.” I smiled. But I didn’t feel much like it. “From what I’ve heard I’d rather die from a bullet than the Satan Bug.”

  “I’m sorry I blew my top a minute ago,” he said quietly. “You’re a brave man, Cavell.”

  “Don’t fail to mention the fact in my obituary in The Times. How about asking your men to finish off printing and photographing that door, Superintendent?”

  * * *

  Twenty minutes later the men were finished and I was all ready to go. The others looked at me with that peculiar hesitancy and indecision of people who think they should be making farewell speeches but find the appropriate words too hard to come by. A couple of nods, a half wave of a hand, and they’d left me. They all passed down the corridor and through the next door, except General Cliveden, who remained in the open doorway. From some obscure feeling of decency, he held my Hanyatti behind his body where I couldn’t see it.

  The gas-suit was tight and constricting, the closed circuit breathing apparatus cut into the back of my neck and the high concentration of oxygen made my mouth dry. Or maybe my mouth was dry anyway. Three cigarettes in the past twenty minutes—a normal day’s quota for me, I preferred to take my slow poisoning in the form of a pipe—wouldn’t have helped any either. I tried to think of one compelling reason why I shouldn’t go through that door, but that didn’t help either, there were so many compelling reasons that I couldn’t pick and choose between them, so I didn’t even bother trying. I made a last careful check of suit, mask and oxygen cylinders, but I was only kidding myself, this was about my fifth last careful check. Besides, they were all watching me. I had my pride. I started spelling out the combination on the heavy steel door.

  A fairly complicated and delicate operation at any time, the operation of opening that door was made doubly difficult by reinforced-rubber covered fingers and poor vision afforded by slanted goggles. But exactly a minute after I’d begun I heard the heavy thud as the last spin of the dial energised the powerful electro-magnets that withdrew the heavy central bolt: three complete turns of the big circular handle and the half-ton door eased slowly open under the full weight of my shoulder.

  I picked up the hamster’s cage, eased in quickly through the opening door, checked its swing and closed it as swiftly as possible. Three turns of the inner circular handle and the vault door was locked again. The chances were that in so doing I had wiped off a fair number of prints but I wouldn’t have wiped off any prints that mattered.

  The rubber-sealed frosted-glass door leading into the laboratory proper was at the other end of the tiny vestibule. Further delay would achieve nothing—nothing apart from prolonging my life, that was. I leaned on the fifteen-inch elbow handle, pressed open the door, passed inside and closed the door behind me.

  No need to switch on any lights—the laboratory was already brilliantly illuminated by shadowless neon lighting. Whoever had broken into that lab had either figured that the Government was a big enough firm to stand the waste of electricity or he’d left in such a tearing hurry that he’d had no time to think of lights.

  I’d no time to think of lights either. Nor had I the inclination. My sole and over-riding concern was with the immediate welfare of the tiny hamster inside the cage I was carrying.

  I placed the cage on the nearest bench, whipped off the cover and stared at the little animal. No bound man seated on a powder keg ever watched the last few minutes of sputtering fuse with half the mesmerised fascination, the totally-exclusive concentration with which I stared at that hamster. The starving cat with up-raised paw by the mouse-hole, the mongoose waiting for the king-cobra to strike, the ruined gambler watching the last roll of the dice—compared to me, they were asleep on the job. If ever the human eye had the power of transfixion, that hamster should have been skewered alive.

  Fifteen seconds, Gregori had said. Fifteen seconds only and if the deadly Satan Bug virus was present in the atmosphere of that lab the hamster would react. I counted off the seconds, each second a bell tolling towards eternity, and at exactly fifteen seconds the hamster twitched violently. Violently, but nothing compared to the way my heart behaved, a double somersault that seemed to take up all the space inside the chest wall, before settling down to an abnormally slow heavy thudding that seemed to shake my body with its every beat. Inside the rubber gloves the palms of my hands turned wet, ice-cold. My mouth was dry as last year’s ashes.

  Thirty seconds passed. By this time, if the virus was loose, the hamster should have been in convulsions. But he wasn’t, not unless convulsions in a hamster took the form of sitting up on its hind legs and rubbing its nose vigorously with a couple of tiny irritated paws.

  Forty-five seconds. A minute. Maybe Dr. Gregori had over-estimated the virulence of the virus. Maybe this was a hamster with an abnormally tough and resistant physique.

  But Gregori didn’t strike me as the sort of scientist who would make any mistakes and this looked like a pretty puny hamster to me. For the first time since entering the room I started to use the breathing apparatus.

  I swung the top of the cage back on its hinges and started to lift out the hamster. He was still in pretty good shape as far as I could tell, for he wriggled from my hand, jumped down on to the rubber-tiled floor and scurried away up a long passage between a table and a wall-bench, stopping at the far end to get on with scratching his nose again. I came to the conclusion that if a hamster could take it I could too: after all, I outweighed him
by about five hundred to one. I unbuckled the straps behind my neck and pulled off the closed circuit breathing apparatus. I took a long deep lungful of air.

  That was a mistake. I admit you can hardly heave a vast sigh of relief at the prospect of keeping on living yet awhile just by sniffing cautiously at the atmosphere, but that is what I ought to have done. I could understand now why the hamster had spent his time in rubbing his nose with such disgusted intensity. I felt my nostrils try to wrinkle shut in nauseated repugnance as the vile smell hit them. Sulphuretted hydrogen had nothing on it.

  Holding my nose I started moving around the benches and tables. Within thirty seconds, in a passage at the top of the laboratory, I found what I was looking for, and what I didn’t want to find. The midnight visitor hadn’t forgotten to switch out the lights, he’d just left in such a tearing hurry that the thought of light switches would never even have crossed his mind. His one ambition in life would have been to get out of that room and close both doors tightly behind him just as quickly as was humanly possible.

  Hardanger could call off his search for Dr. Baxter. Dr. Baxter was here, still clad in his white knee-length overall, lying on the rubber floor. Like Clandon, he’d obviously died in contorted agony. Unlike Clandon, whatever had killed him hadn’t been cyanide. I knew of no type of death associated with this strange blueness of the face, with the outpouring of so much fluid from eyes, ears and nose, above all with so dreadful a smell.

  Even to look was revolting enough. The idea of making a closer approach was more repugnant still, but I forced myself to do it anyway.

  I didn’t touch him. I didn’t know the cause of death, but I had a pretty fair idea, so I didn’t touch him. Instead I stooped low over the dead man and examined him as carefully as was possible in the circumstances. There was a small contused area behind the right ear, with a little blood where the skin had been broken, but no noticeable swelling. Death had supervened before a true bruise had had time to form.

  A few feet behind him, lying on the floor at the base of the wall farthest from the door, were fragments of a dark blue curved glass and a red plastic top—the shattered remnants, obviously, of some container or other: there were no signs at all of what the container had once held.

  A few feet away in this wall was an inset rubber-sealed glass door: behind this, I knew, lay what the scientists and technicians called the menagerie— one of four in Mordon. I pushed open the door and went inside.

  It was a huge windowless room, as large, almost, as the laboratory itself. All the wall spaces and three room-length benches were taken up by literally hundreds of cages of all types—some of a sealed-glass construction with their own private air-conditioning and filtration units, but most of the standard openmesh type. Hundreds of pairs of eyes, mostly small, red and beady, turned to stare at me as I entered. There must have been between fifteen hundred and two thousand animals in that room altogether—mostly mice, ninety per cent of them mice, I should have guessed, but also about a hundred rabbits and the same of guinea pigs. From what I could see they all seemed in fair enough health: anyway all of them had clearly been affected in no way at all by what had happened next door. I made my way back to the lab, closing the communicating door behind me.

  Almost ten minutes I’d been inside now, and nothing had happened to me yet. And the chances were remote that anything would happen now. I cornered the hamster, returned him to his cage, and left the lab to open the heavy steel outer door. Just in time I remembered that General Cliveden would be waiting not far from the door ready to fill me full of holes if I emerged still wearing the gas-suit—Cliveden would be understandably trigger-happy and could easily miss the fact that I’d removed the breathing appparatus. I climbed out of the gas-suit and opened the door.

  General Cliveden had the automatic at eye level, at the full stretch of his arm, pointing towards the widening crack of the doorway and myself. I don’t say he was happy at the prospect of shooting me but he was ready enough for it all the same. And it was a bit late now to tell him that the Hanyatti had a hair-trigger. I said quickly, “It’s all right. The air is clear inside.”

  He lowered his arm and smiled in relief. Not a very happy smile, but still a smile. Maybe the thought had come to him too late in the day that he himself should have volunteered to go inside instead of me.

  “Are you perfectly sure, Cavell?” he asked.

  “I’m alive, aren’t I?” I said irritably. “You’d better come inside.” I went back into the lab and waited for them.

  Hardanger was first through the door. His nose wrinkled in involuntary disgust and he said, “What in hell’s name is causing that vile smell?”

  “Botulinus!” It was Colonel Weybridge who supplied the answer and in the shadowless neon lighting his face seemed suddenly grey. He whispered again: “Botulinus.”

  “How do you know?” I demanded.

  “How do I——” He stared down at the floor and looked up to meet my eyes. “We had an accident a fortnight ago. A technician.”

  “An accident,” I repeated, then nodded. “You would know the smell.”

  “But what the devil——” Hardanger began.

  “A dead man,” I explained. “Killed by botulinus. At the top of the room. It’s Dr. Baxter.”

  No one spoke. They looked at me, then at each other, then followed me silently up the lab to where Baxter lay.

  Hardanger stared down at the dead man. “So this is Baxter.” His voice held no expression at all. “You are quite sure? Remember he checked out of here about half-past six last night.”

  “Maybe Dr. Baxter owned a pair of wire-cutters,” I suggested. “It’s Baxter all right. Someone coshed him and stood at the lab door and flung a botulinus container against this wall closing the lab door behind him immediately afterwards.”

  “The fiend,” Cliveden said hoarsely. “The unspeakable fiend.”

  “Or fiends,” I agreed. I moved across to Dr. Gregori who had sat down on a high stool. He had his elbows on a bench his face was sunk in his hands. The straining finger tips made pale splotches against the swarthy cheeks and his hands were shaking. I touched him on the shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, Dr. Gregori. As you said, I know you’re neither soldier nor policeman. You shouldn’t have to meet with those things. But you must help us.”

  “Yes of course,” he said dully. He looked up at me and the dark eyes were smudged and with tears in them. “He was—he was more than just a colleague. How can I help, Mr. Cavell?”

  “The virus cupboard. Check it please.”

  “Of course, of course. The virus cupboard. What on earth could I have been thinking of?” He stared down at Baxter in fascinated horror and it was quite obvious what he was thinking of. “At once, at once.”

  He crossed to a wooden cupboard with a glazed front and tried to open it. A couple of determined tugs and then he shook his head.

  “It’s locked. The door’s locked.”

  “Well.” I was impatient. “You have the key, haven’t you?”

  “The only key. Nobody could have got in without this key. Not without force. It—it hasn’t been touched.”

  “Don’t be so damned silly. What do you think Baxter died of—influenza? Open that cupboard.”

  He turned the key with unsteady fingers. No one was looking at Baxter now—we’d eyes only for Dr. Gregori. He opened both doors, reached up and brought down a small rectangular box. He opened the lid and stared inside. After a moment his shoulders sagged and he seemed different altogether, curiously deflated, head bowed very low.

  “They’re gone,” he whispered. “All of them. All nine of them have been taken. Six of them were botulinus—he must have used one on Baxter!”

  “And the others,” I said harshly to the bowed back. “The other three?”

  “The Satan Bug,” he said fearfully. “The Satan Bug. It’s gone.”

  CHAPTER FOUR

  The management refectory canteen at Mordon had something of a reputation among the m
ore gourmet-minded of the staff and the chef that had prepared our lunch was right on form: maybe the presence at our table of Dr. MacDonald, a colleague of Gregori’s in number one lab and president of the mess, had something to do with it. However it was, it seemed that I was the only person with an appetite at all that day. Hardanger only picked at his food and neither Cliveden nor Weybridge made hardly any better a showing. Gregori ate nothing at all, just sat staring at his plate. He excused himself abruptly in the middle of the meal and when he came back in five minutes he looked white and shaken. Probably, I thought, he’d been sick. Violent death wouldn’t be much in the line of a professor specialising in the cloistered work of chemical research.

  The two fingerprint experts weren’t there. They were still hungry. Aided by three other detectives recruited locally through Inspector Wylie they’d spent over an hour and a half fingerprinting the entire inside of the laboratory and were now collating and tabulating their results. The handle of the heavy steel door and the areas adjoining the combination lock had been heavily smeared with a cotton or linen material—probably a handkerchief. So the possibility of an outsider having been at work couldn’t be entirely excluded.

  Inspector Martin came in towards the end of the meal. He’d spent all his time until then taking statements from the temporarily jobless scientists and technicians barred from “E” block and he wasn’t finished yet by a long way. Every statement made by those interviewed about their activities the previous evening would have to be rigorously checked. He didn’t say how he was getting on and Hardanger, predictably, didn’t ask him.

  After lunch I accompanied Hardanger to the main gate. From the sergeant on duty there we learnt who had been in charge of the checking-out clock the previous evening. After a few minutes a tall blond fresh-faced corporal appeared and saluted crisply.

 
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