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The satan bug, p.7
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       The Satan Bug, p.7

           Alistair MacLean
 
“Corporal Norris, sir. You sent for me.”

  “Yes,” Hardanger said. “Take a seat, please. I’ve sent for you, Norris, to ask you some questions about the murder of Dr. Harold Baxter.”

  The shock tactics worked better than any amount of carefully delicate probing could have done. Norris, already in the purpose of lowering himself gingerly into his chair, sat down heavily, as if suddenly grateful to take the weight off his feet, and stared at Hardanger. The eyes widening in a gaze of shocked incredulity, the opened mouth would have been within the compass of any moderately competent actor. But the perceptible draining of colour from the cheeks was something else again.

  “The murder of Dr. Baxter,” he repeated stupidly. “Dr. Baxter—he’s dead?”

  “Murdered,” Hardanger said harshly. “He was murdered in his laboratory last night. We know for a fact, never mind how, that Dr. Baxter never left Mordon last night. But you checked him out. You say you checked him out. But you didn’t. You couldn’t have done. Who gave you his security tag and told you to forge his signature? Or maybe that someone did it himself. How much did they pay you, Norris?”

  The corporal had been staring at Hardanger in numbed bewilderment. Then the numbness passed and his native Yorkshire toughness reasserted itself. He rose slowly to his feet, his face darkening.

  “Look, sir,” he said softly. “I don’t know who you are. Someone pretty important, I suppose, a police inspector or one of those M.I.6 chaps. But I can tell you this. Say that to me just once again and I’ll knock your bloody head clean off.”

  “I believe you would, too.” Hardanger was suddenly smiling. He turned to me. “Not guilty, eh?”

  “He could hardly be that good,” I agreed.

  “I hardly think so. Forgive me, Norris. I had to find out something, and I had to find out fast. I’m investigating a murder. Murder isn’t a nice business and sometimes I’ve got to use tactics that aren’t very nice either. Understand?”

  “Yes, sir,” Norris said uncertainly. He was slightly mollified, but only slightly. “Dr. Baxter. How—I mean, who——?”

  “Never mind that just now,” Hardanger said briskly. “You checked him out. In this book here. Eighteen thirty-two hours, it says. That right?”

  “If the book says so, sir. That time stamp’s automatic.”

  “You took his security tag from him—this one?”

  He held it up.

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Didn’t happen to speak to him, did you?”

  “As a matter of fact, sir, yes.”

  “About what?”

  “Just the weather and the like, sir. He was always very friendly to us chaps. And his cold. About his cold. He’d a pretty bad one. Coughing and blowing his nose all the time.”

  “You saw him clearly?”

  “Course I did. I’ve been guard here for eighteen months and I know Dr. Baxter as well as my own mother. Dressed in his usual—checked ulster, trilby and those heavy horn glasses of his.”

  “You’d swear to it in court? That it was Dr. Baxter, I mean?”

  He hesitated, then said, “I’d swear to it. And both my mates on duty saw him also. You can check with them.”

  We checked, then left to return to the administrative block. I said, “Did you really think Baxter stayed behind last night?”

  “No,” Hardanger admitted. “He left all right— and came back with his pliers. Either alone or with someone else. Which on the face of it, would appear to make Baxter a bad ’un. But it seems that an even badder ’un disposed of him. When thieves fall out, perhaps.”

  “You thought the signature genuine?”

  “As genuine as any signature can ever be. No one ever signs his signature the same way twice. I think I’ll get on to the General in London straight away. An all-out check on Baxter might turn up something very interesting. Especially past contacts.”

  “You’ll be wasting your time. From the point of view of security Baxter was sitting in the hottest seat in Europe—boss of number one lab in Mordon. Every step he’s taken from the day he learnt to walk, every word he’s said since, every person he’s met—they would have checked and re-checked a hundred times. Baxter’s clean. He’s just too big a fish to get through the security mesh.”

  “So were a number of other characters who are now either in jail or Moscow,” Hardanger said grimly. “I’m phoning London now. Then checking with Wylie to see if they’ve turned up anything on that Bedford that was used as a getaway car. Then I’m going to see how Martin and the fingerprint boys are getting on. Coming?”

  “No. I’d like to check with the internal guards who were on duty last night and mooch around on my own a little.”

  He shrugged. “I’ve no jurisdiction over you, Cavell. But if anything turns up—you’ll let me know?” he added suspiciously.

  “Think I’m crazy? With a guy walking around with the Satan Bug in his vest pocket do you think I’m going to start a one-man war?”

  He nodded, still a little suspiciously, and left me. I spent the next hour checking with the six internal guards who had been on duty before midnight the previous night and learnt what I had expected to learn—nothing. All of them were well-known to me, which was probably the real reason why Hardanger had wanted me down in Mordon, and all of them had been on duty in Mordon for at least three years. All of their stories tallied and none of it helped at all. With two guards I made a minute check of all windows and the entire roof area of “E” block and I was just wasting my time.

  No one had seen Clandon from the time he left Lieutenant Wilkinson at the gatehouse, just after 11 p.m., till his body had been found. Normally, no one would have expected to see him, for after making his rounds Clandon retired for the night to the little concrete cottage he had to himself less than a hundred yards from “E” block. This cottage faced on the long glass corridor of the block, where, as a security precaution, the lights burned night and day. It was no great trick to guess that Clandon had seen something suspicious in “E” Block and gone to investigate. No other reason could have accounted for his presence outside number one laboratory.

  I made my way to the gatehouse and asked for the register book showing the names and nature of business of all those who had checked in and out of Mordon the previous day. There were several hundred of those altogether, but all but a very few of them were staff regularly employed there. Groups of special visitors to Mordon were not infrequent: visiting scientists from the Commonwealth and Nato countries or an occasional small group of M.P.’s who were given to asking awkward questions in the Commons and were brought down to Mordon to see for themselves the sterling work being carried out there on the health front against anthrax, polio, Asian flu and other diseases: such groups were shown exactly what the Mordon authorities wanted them to be shown and usually came away no wiser than they had arrived. But, on that previous day, there had been no such groups of visitors: there had been fourteen callers altogether, all of them concerned with the delivery of various supplies. I copied down their names and the reasons for their visits, and left.

  I phoned the local car-hire firm, asked for the indefinite hire of one of their cars and that it should be brought and left at the gates of Mordon. Another call to Alfringham, this time to the Waggoner’s Rest, and I was lucky enough to get a room. The last call was to London, to Mary. I told her to pack a suitcase for me and one for herself and bring them both down to the Waggoner’s Rest. There was a train from Paddington that would get her down by half-past six.

  I left the gatehouse and went for a walk through the grounds. The air was cold and a chill October wind blowing, but I didn’t walk briskly. I paced slowly up and down beside the inner fence, head bowed, gazing down at my feet most of the time. Cavell lost in thought, or so I hoped any onlooker would think. I spent the better part of an hour there, paralleling the same quarter mile of fence all the time and at last I found what I was looking for. Or so I thought. Next circuit round I stopped to tie my shoe-lace and then there was no more
doubt in my mind.

  Hardanger was still in the administrative block when I found him. He and Inspector Martin were poring over freshly developed batches of photographic prints. Hardanger looked up and grunted, “How’s it going?”

  “It’s not. Any progress with you?”

  “No prints on Clandon’s wallet, cigarette case or books of matches—except his own, of course. Nothing of any interest on the doors. We’ve found the Bedford van—rather, Inspector Wylie’s men have found a Bedford van. Reported missing this afternoon by a chap called Hendry, an Alfringham carrier with three of those vans. Found less than an hour ago by a motor-cycle cop in the Hailem Woods. Sent my men across there to try it for prints.”

  “It’s as good a way of wasting time as any.”

  “Maybe. Do you know the Hailem Woods?”

  I nodded, “Half-way between here and Alfringham there’s a ’B’ road forks off to the north. About a mile and a half along that road. There may have been woods there once, but they’ve gone now. You wouldn’t find a couple of dozen trees in the entire area now—outside gardens, that is. Residential, what’s called a good neighbourhood. This fellow Hendry—a check been made?”

  “Yes. Nothing there. One of those solid citizens, not only the backbone of England but a personal friend of Inspector Wylie’s. They play darts for the same pub team. That,” Hardanger said heavily, “puts him beyond the range of all suspicion.”

  “You’re getting bitter.” I nodded at the prints. “From number one lab, I take it. A first-class job. I wonder which of the prints belongs to the man who stays nearest to the spot where the Bedford was found.”

  He gave me an up-from-under glance. “As obvious as that, is it?”

  “Isn’t it? It would seem to leave him pretty well out. Dumping the evidence on your own door-step is as good a way as any of putting the noose round your own neck.”

  “Unless that’s the way we’re intended to think. Fellow called Chessingham. Know him?”

  “Research chemist. I know him.”

  “Would you vouch for him?”

  “In this business I wouldn’t vouch for St. Peter.

  But I’d wager a month’s pay he’s clear.”

  “I wouldn’t. We’re checking his story and we’ll see.”

  “We’ll see. How many of the prints have you identified?”

  “Fifteen sets altogether, as far as we can make out, but we’ve been able to trace only thirteen.”

  I thought for a minute, then nodded. “That would be about right. Dr. Baxter, Dr. Gregori, Dr. MacDonald, Dr. Hartnell, Chessingham. Then the four technicians in that lab—Verity, Heath, Robinson and Marsh. Nine. Clandon. One of the night guards. And, of course, Cliveden and Weybridge. Running a check on them?”

  “What do you think?” Hardanger said testily.

  “Including Cliveden and Weybridge?”

  “Cliveden and Weybridge!” Hardanger stared at me and Martin backed him up with another stare. “Are you serious, Cavell?”

  “With someone running around with the Satan Bug in his pants pockets I don’t think it’s the time for being facetious, Hardanger. Nobody— nobody—is in the clear.” He gave me a long hard look but I ignored it and went on, “About those two sets of unidentified prints——”

  “We’ll print every man in Mordon till we get them,” Hardanger said grimly.

  “You don’t have to. Almost certainly they belong to a couple of men called Bryson and Chipperfield. I know them both.”

  “Explain yourself.”

  “They’re the two men in charge of running Alfringham Farm—the place that supplies all the animals for the experiments carried out here. They’re usually up here with a fresh supply of animals every week or so—the turnover in livestock is pretty heavy. They were here yesterday. I checked on the register book. Making a delivery to the animal room in number one laboratory.”

  “You say you know them. What are they like?”

  “Young. Steady, hard-working, very reliable. Live in adjacent cottages on the farm. Married to a couple of very nice girls. They have a kid apiece, a boy and a girl about six years old. Not the type, any of them, to get mixed up in anything wrong.”

  “You guarantee them?”

  “You heard what I said about St. Peter. I guarantee nothing and nobody. They’ll have to be checked. I’ll go if you like. After all, I have the advantage of knowing them.”

  “You will?” Hardanger let me have his close look again. “Like to take Inspector Martin with you?”

  “All one to me,” I assured him. It wasn’t, but I’d manners.

  “Then in that case it’s not necessary,” Hardanger said. There were times, I thought, when Hardanger could be downright unpleasant. “Report back anything you find. I’ll lay on a car for you.”

  “I already have one. Car-hire firm.”

  He frowned. “That was unnecessary. Plenty of police and army cars available. You know that.”

  “I’m a private citizen now. I prefer private transport.”

  I found the car at the gate. Like so many rental machines it was a great deal older than its actual age. But at least it rolled and took the weight off my feet. I was glad to take the weight off my feet. My left leg hurt, quite badly, as it always did when I had to walk around for any length of time. Two eminent London surgeons had more than once pointed out to me the advantage of having my left foot removed and sworn that they could replace it with an artificial one not only indistinguishable from the genuine article but guaranteed pain-free. They had been quite enthusiastic about it but it wasn’t their foot and I preferred to hang on to it as long as possible.

  I drove to Alfringham, spent five minutes there talking to the manager of the local dance-hall, and reached Alfringham Farm just as dusk was falling. I turned in through the gates, stopped the car outside the first of the two cottages, got out and rang the bell. After the third attempt I gave it up and drove to the second cottage. I’d get an answer there. Lights were burning behind the windows. I leaned on the bell and after some seconds the door opened. I blinked in the sudden wash of light, then recognised the man before me.

  “Bryson,” I said. “How are you? Sorry to burst in like this but I’m afraid I’ve a very good reason.”

  “Mr. Cavell!” Unmistakable surprise in his voice, all the more pronounced in the sudden conversational hush from the room behind him. “Didn’t expect to see you again so soon. Thought you’d left these parts, I did. How are you, sir?”

  “I’d like a few words with you. And with Chipperfield. But he’s not at home.”

  “He’s here. With his missus. Turn about in each other’s house for our Saturday night get together.” He hesitated, exactly as I would have done if I’d settled down with some friends for a quiet drink and a stranger broke in. “Delighted to have you join us, sir.”

  “I’ll keep you only a few minutes.” I followed Bryson into the brightly lit living-room beyond. A log fire burnt cheerfully in the fireplace and around it were a couple of small settees and a high chair or two. In the centre was a low table with some bottles and glasses. A comfortable, homely scene.

  A man and two women rose as Bryson closed the door behind me. I knew all three—Chipperfield, a tall blond man, the outward antithesis in every way of the short stocky Bryson, and the two men’s wives, blonde and dark to match their husbands, but otherwise was a strong similarity—small, neat and pretty with identical hazel eyes. The similarity was hardly surprising—Mrs. Bryson and Mrs. Chipperfield were sisters.

  After a couple of minutes, during which civilities had been exchanged and I’d been offered a drink and accepted for my sore leg’s sake, Bryson said, “How can we help you, Mr. Cavell?”

  “We’re trying to clear up a mystery about Dr. Baxter,” I said quietly. “You might be able to help. I don’t know.”

  “Dr. Baxter? In number one lab?” Bryson glanced at his brother-in-law. “Ted and me—we saw him only yesterday. Quite a chat with him, we had. Nothing wrong with him
, sir, I hope?”

  “He was murdered last night,” I said.

  Mrs. Bryson clapped her hands to her mouth and choked off a scream. Her sister made some sort of unidentifiable noise and said, “No, oh no!” But I wasn’t watching them, I was watching Bryson and Chipperfield, and I didn’t have to be a detective to see that the news came as a complete shock and surprise to both of them.

  I went on, “He was killed last night, before midnight, In his lab. Someone threw a deadly virus poison over him and he must have died in minutes. And in great agony. Then that someone found Mr. Clandon waiting outside the lab and disposed of him also—by cyanide poisoning.”

  Mrs. Bryson rose to her feet, her face paper-white, her sister’s arms around her, blindly threw her cigarette into the fireplace and left the room. I could hear the sound of someone being sick in the bathroom.

  “Dr. Baxter and Mr. Clandon dead? Murdered?” Bryson’s face was almost as pale as his wife’s had been. “I don’t believe it.” I looked at his face again. He believed it all right. He listened to the sounds coming from the bathroom and then said with as much angry reproach as his shaken state would allow, “You might have told us private, like, Mr. Cavell. Without the girls being here, I mean.”

  “I’m sorry.” I tried to look sorry. “I’m not myself. Clandon was my best friend.”

  “You did it on purpose,” Chipperfield said tightly. He was normally a likeable and affable young man, but there was nothing affable about him right then. He said shrewdly, “You wanted to see how we all took it. You wanted to know if we had anything to do with it. Isn’t that it, Mr. Cavell?”

  “Between eleven o’clock and midnight last night,” I said precisely, “you and your brother-in-law here were up for exactly five dances at the Friday night hop in Alfringham. You’ve been going there practically every Friday night for years. I could even tell you the names of the dances, but I won’t bother. The point is that neither of you—nor your wives—left the hall for an instant during that hour. Afterwards you went straight into your Land-Rover and arrived back here shortly after twelve-twenty. We have established beyond all doubt that both murders took place between 11.15 and 11.45 p.m. So let’s have no more of your silly accusations, Chipperfield. There can be no shadow of suspicion about you two. If there was, you’d be in a police cell, not seeing me here drinking your whisky. Speaking of whisky——”

 
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