The Satan Bug, p.8Alistair MacLean
“Sorry, Mr. Cavell. Damned silly of me. Saying what I did, I mean.” Chipperfield’s relief showed in his face as he rose to his feet and poured more whisky into my glass. Some of it spilled on to the carpet, but he didn’t seem to notice. “But if you know we’ve nothing to do with it, what can we do to help?”
“You can tell me everything that happened when you were in ‘E‘ block yesterday,” I said. “Everything. What you did, what you saw, what Dr. Baxter said to you and you to him. Don’t miss out a thing, the tiniest detail.”
So they told me, taking it in turns, and I sat there looking at them with unwavering attention and not bothering to listen to a word they said. As they talked, the two women came in, Mrs. Bryson giving me a pale, shame-faced half-smile, but I didn’t notice it, I was too busy doing my close listening act. As soon as the first decent opportunity came I finished my whisky, rose and made to leave. Mrs. Bryson said something apologetic about her silliness, I said something suitably apologetic in return and Bryson said, “Sorry we haven’t been able to be of any real help, Mr. Cavell.”
“You have helped,” I said. “Police work is largely confined to the confirming and eliminating of possibilities. You’ve eliminated more than you would think. I’m sorry I caused such an upset, I realise this must be quite a shock to both your families, being so closely associated with Mordon. Speaking of families, where are the kids to night?”
“Not here, thank goodness,” Mr. Chipperfield said. “With their grandmother in Kent—the October holidays, you know, and they always go there then.”
“Best place for them, right now.” I agreed. I made my apologies again, cut the leave-taking short and left.
It was quite dark outside now. I made my way back down to the hired car, climbed in, drove out through the farm gates and turned left for the town of Alfringham. Four hundred yards beyond the gates I pulled into a convenient lay-by switched off engine and lights.
My leg was aching badly, now, and it took me almost fifteen minutes to get back to Bryson’s cottage. The living room curtains were drawn, but carelessly. I could see all I wanted to, without trouble. Mrs. Bryson was sitting on a settee, sobbing bitterly, with her husband’s free arm round her: the other held a tumbler of whisky and the tumbler was more than half full. Chipperfield, a similar glass in his hand, was staring into the fire, his face dark and sombre. Mrs. Chipperfield, on the settee, was facing me. I couldn’t see her face, only the fair hair shining in the lamplight as she bent over something held in her hand. I couldn’t see what it was but I didn’t have to. I could guess with the certainty of complete knowledge. I walked quietly away and took my time in making my way back to the car. I still had twenty-five minutes before the London train was due in Alfringham. The train—and Mary.
Mary Cavell was all my life. Two months, only, I’d been married to her, but I knew it would be that way till the end of my days. All my life. An easy thing for any man to say, easy and trite and meaningless and perhaps a little cheap. Until you saw her, that was. Then you would believe anything.
She was small and blonde and beautiful, with amazing green eyes. But it wasn’t that that made her special, you could reach out your arms in the streets of London in the evening rush hour and pick up half a dozen girls without really trying, all of them small and blonde and beautiful. Nor was it just the infectious happiness that left no one untouched, her irrepressible gaiety, her obvious delight in a life that she lived with the intensity of a tropical hummingbird. There was something else. There was a shining quality about her, in her face, in her eyes, in her voice, in everything she said and did, that made her the only person I’d ever known who’d never had an enemy, male or female. There is only one word to describe this quality—the old-fashioned and much maligned term “goodness.” She hated do-gooders, those she called the goody-goodies, but her own goodness surrounded her like a tangible, and visible magnetic field. A magnetic field that automatically drew to her more waifs and strays, more people broken in mind and body than a normal person would encounter in a dozen lifetimes. An old man dozing away his last days in the thin autumn sunshine on a park bench, a bird with a broken wing—they all came alike to Mary. Broken wings were her speciality, and I was only now beginning to realise that for every wing we saw her mend there was another the world knew nothing about. And, to make her perfect, she had the one drawback which kept her from being inhumanly perfect—she had an explosive temper that could erupt in a most spectacular fashion and to the accompaniment of the most shockingly appropriate language: but only when she saw the bird with the broken wing—or the person responsible for breaking it.
She was my wife and I still wondered why she married me. She could have chosen almost any man she’d ever known, but she’d chosen me. I think it was because I had a broken wing. The German tank-track that had crushed my leg in the mud at Caen, the gas-shell that had scarred one whole side of my face—Adonis would never have claimed it for his own, anyway—beyond hope of plastic surgery and left me with a left eye that could just barely tell the difference between night and day, that made me a bird with a broken wing.
The train came in and I saw her jumping down lightly from a compartment about twenty yards away, followed by a burly middle-aged character with a bowler hat and umbrella, carrying her suitcase, the dead image of the big city tycoon who spends his business hours grinding in the faces of the poor and evicting widows and orphans. I’d never seen him before and I was certain neither had Mary. She just had the effect on people: the most unlikely citizens fought each other for the privilege of helping her and the tycoon looked quite a fighter.
She came running down the platform to meet me and I braced myself for the shock of impact. There was nothing inhibited about Mary’s greetings and although I still wasn’t reconciled to the raised eyebrows of astonished fellow-travellers I was getting accustomed to them. I’d last seen her only this morning but I might have been a long lost loved one coming home for the first time after a generation in the Australian outback. I was setting her down on terra firma as the tycoon came up, dumped the cases, beamed at Mary, tipped his bowler, turned away, still beaming at her, and tripped over a railway barrow. When he’d got up and dusted himself he was still beaming. He tipped his bowler again and disappeared.
“You want to be careful how you smile at your boyfriends,” I said severely. “Want me to spend the rest of my life working to pay off claims for damages against you? That oppressor of the working class that just passed by—he’d have me wearing the same suit for the rest of my life.”
“He was a very nice man indeed.” She looked up at me, suddenly not smiling. “Pierre Cavell, you’re tired, worried stiff and your leg is hurting.”
“Cavell’s face is a mask,” I said. “Impossible to tell his feelings and thoughts—inscrutable, they call it. Ask anyone.”
“And you’ve been drinking whisky.”
“It was the long separation that drove me to it.” I led the way to the car. “We’re staying at the Waggoner’s Rest.”
“It sounds wonderful. Thatched roofs, oak beams, the inglenooks by the blazing fire.” She shivered. “It is cold. I can’t get there fast enough.”
We got there in three minutes. I parked the car outside a modernistic confection in gleaming glass and chrome. Mary looked at it, then at me and said, “This is the Waggoner’s Rest?”
“You can see what the neon sign says. Outdoor sanitation and boll-weevils in the bed-posts have gone out of fashion. And they’ll have central heating.”
The manager, at the moment doubling as receptionist, would have felt more at home in an eighteenth-century “Waggoner’s Rest.” Red-faced, shirt-sleeved and smelling powerfully of the breweries. He scowled at me, smiled at Mary and summoned a ten-year-old boy, presumably his son, who showed us to our room. It was clean enough and spacious enough and overlooked a back courtyard decked out in a poor imitation of a continental beer garden. More important, one of the windows overlooked the porchway leading into the court.
The door closed behind the boy and Mary came up to me. “How is that stupid leg of yours, Pierre? Honestly?”
“It’s not so good.” I’d given up trying to tell lies about myself to Mary, as far as I was concerned she was a human lie-detector. “It’ll ease up. It always does.”
“That arm-chair,” she ordered. “And the stool, so. You’re not using that leg again tonight.”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to. Quite a bit. Damn’ nuisance, but it can’t be helped.”
“It can be helped,” she insisted. “You don’t have to do everything yourself. There are plenty of men——”
“Not this time, I’m afraid. I have to go out. Twice. I want you to come with me the first time, that’s why I wanted you here.”
She didn’t ask any questions. She picked up the phone, ordered whisky for me, sherry for herself. Old shirt-sleeves brought it up, huffing a bit after climbing the stairs. Mary smiled at him and said, “Could we have dinner in our room please?”
“Dinner?” Shirt-sleeves stiffened in outrage, his face going an imposible shade redder. “In your room? Dinner! That’s a good ’un! Where do you think you’ve landed—Claridges?” He brought his gaze down from the ceiling, where he’d been imploring heaven, and looked at Mary again.
He opened his mouth to speak, closed it, kept looking at her and I knew he was a lost man. “Claridges,” he repeated mechanically. “I well, I’ll see what can be done. Against the house rules, mind—you—but—it’ll be a pleasure, ma’am.”
He left. I said, “There should be a law against you. Pour me some whisky. And pass that phone.”
I made three calls. The first was to London, the second to Inspector Wylie and the third to Hardanger. He was still at Mordon. He sounded tired and irritated and I didn’t wonder. He’d had a long and probably frustrating day.
“Cavell?” His voice was almost a bark. “How did you get on with those two men you saw? At the farm, I mean.”
“Bryson and Chipperfield? Nothing there. There are two hundred witnesses who will swear that neither of them were within five miles of Mordon between eleven and midnight last night.”
“What are you talking about? Two hundred——”
“They were at a dance. Anything turned up in the statements made by our other suspects in number one lab?”
“Did you expect anything to turn up?” he said sourly. “Do you think the killer would have been so dumb as to leave himself without an alibi. They’ve all got alibis—and damn’ good ones. I’m still not convinced there wasn’t an outsider at work.”
“Chessingham and Dr. Hartnell. How strong are their stories?”
“Why those two?” His voice was a suspicious crackle.
“I’m interested in them. I’m going to see them tonight and I wondered what their stories were.”
“You’re not going to see anyone without my say-so, Cavell.” His voice was pretty close to a shout.
“I don’t want people blundering in——”
“I won’t blunder. I’m going, Hardanger. The General said I was to have a free hand, didn’t he? Blocking my way—which you can do—is not my idea of giving a free hand. The General wouldn’t like it, Hardanger.”
A silence. Hardanger was bringing himself under control. At last he said, in a quieter tone, “You gave me to believe that you didn’t suspect Chessingham.”
“I want to see him. He’s not only acute and observant, he’s more than usually friendly with Dr. Hartnell. It’s Hartnell I’m really interested in. He’s an outstanding research man, young and financially irresponsible. He thinks because he’s clever with bugs he can be the same on the stock market. Three months ago Hartnell put all his cash into a fly-by-night company who’d splurged their adverts in all the national dailies. He lost the lot. Then he mortgaged his house a few weeks before I left Mordon. I believe he lost most of that too, trying to recoup.”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me before?” Hardanger demanded.
“It just suddenly came to me this evening.”
“It just suddenly came——” Hardanger’s voice cut off as if he had been strangled. Then he said, thoughtfully, “Isn’t that too easy? Jumping on Hartnell? Because he’s heading for the bankruptcy court?”
“I don’t know. As I say, he’s not clever at everything. I’ve got to find out. Both have alibis, of course?”
“Both were at home. Their families vouch for them. I want to see you later.” He’d given up. “I’ll be at the County in Alfringham.”
“I’m at the Waggoner’s Rest. A couple of minutes away. Could you come round to see us? About ten?”
“Mary came down this afternoon.”
“Mary?” There was surprise in his voice, suspicion that he didn’t get round to elaborating but, above all, pleasure. One good reason Hardanger had for not liking me too much was that I’d made off with the best secretary he’d ever had: she’d been with him three years and if any person could ever be said to be the apple of an eye like a basilisk it was Mary.
He said he would be around at ten.
I drove out to Hailem Woods with Mary sitting strangely silent by my side. Over dinner I’d told her the whole story—the whole story. I’d never seen her scared before, but she was that now. Badly. Two frightened people in a car.
We reached Chessingham’s house about a quarter to eight. It was an old-fashioned, flat-roofed, stone-built affair with long narrow windows and a flight of stone steps leading up to the front door over a moat-like trench that ran right round the house and gave light to the basement. High trees, sighing in the cold night wind, surrounded the house on four sides and it was beginning to rain heavily. It was a place and a night in keeping with our mood.
Chessingham had heard the car and met us at the top of the steps. He looked pale and strained but there was nothing in that, everyone who was in anyway connected with “E” block had every reason for looking pale and strained that day.
“Cavell,” he said. He didn’t offer his hand, but opened the door wide and stood sideways to let us in. “I heard you were in Mordon. Must say I didn’t expect you out here though. I thought they asked me enough questions today as it was.”
“This is a pretty unofficial visit,” I assured him. “My wife, Chessingham. When I bring along my wife I leave the handcuffs at home.”
It wasn’t funny. He shook hands reluctantly with Mary and led us into an old-fashioned sitting-room with heavy Edwardian furniture, velvet drapes from ceiling to floor and a fire burning in a huge open fireplace. There were two people sitting in high-backed arm-chairs by the fire. One was a good-looking young girl of nineteen or twenty, slender, brown-haired and brown-eyed like Chessingham himself. His sister. The other, obviously, was his mother, but much older than I had expected his mother to be. A closer inspection showed that she wasn’t really so old, she just looked old. Her hair was white, her eyes had that curious glaze you sometimes see on old people who are coming to the end of their road, and the hands resting on her lap were thin and wrinkled and criss-crossed with blue veins. Not an old woman: a sick woman, a very sick woman, prematurely aged. But she sat very erect and there was a welcoming smile on her thin, rather aristocratic features.
“Mr. and Mrs. Cavell,” Chessingham said. “You’ve heard me speak of Mr. Cavell. My mother, my sister Stella.”
“How do you do, both of you?” Mrs. Chessingham had that assured direct no-nonsense voice that would have gone well with a Victorian drawing-room and a houseful of servants. She peered at Mary. “My eyes aren’t what they used to be, I’m afraid—but, my goodness, you are a beautiful girl. Come and sit beside me. How on earth did you manage it, Mr. Cavell?”
“I think she must have mistaken me for someone else,” I said.
“These things happen,” Mrs. Chessingham said precisely. For all their age, her eyes could still twinkle. She went on, “That was a dreadful thing that happened out at Mordon today, Mr. Cavell. D
“Your son’s only connection with this affair, Mrs. Chessingham, is that he is unfortunate enough to work in number one laboratory. Our only interest in him is his complete and final elimination as a suspect. Every narrowing of the field is an advancement of a kind.”
“He doesn’t have to be eliminated,” Mrs. Chessingham said with some asperity. “Eric has nothing to do with it. The idea is ridiculous.”
“Of course. You know that, I know that, but Superintendent Hardanger, who is in charge of investigations, doesn’t know that. All statements must be checked, no matter how unnecessary the checking. I had a great deal of difficulty in persuading the superintendent that I should come instead of one of his own officers.” I saw Mary’s eyes widen but she recovered herself quickly.
“And why did you do that, Mr. Cavell?” I was beginning to feel sorry for young Chessingham, he must have felt foolish and ineffectual with his mother taking command in this fashion.
“Because I know your son. The police don’t. Saves seventy-five per cent of the questioning straight away. And Special Branch detectives can ask a great number of brutal and unnecessary questions in a case like this.”
“I don’t doubt it. Nor do I doubt that you could be as ruthless as any man I’ve ever known if the occasion arose. But I know you won’t on this occasion.” She sighed and shifted her hands to the arms of her chair. “I hope you will excuse me. I am an old woman and not very well and so I have some privileges—dinner in bed is one.” She turned and smiled at Mary. “I’d like to talk to you, my child. I have so few callers—I make the most of them. Would you like to help me negotiate those dreadful stairs while Stella sees to the dinner?”
The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes