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The satan bug, p.9
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       The Satan Bug, p.9

           Alistair MacLean
 

  When we were alone Chessingham said: “Sorry about Mother. She does tend——”

  “I think she’s a wonderful woman. No need to apologise.” His face lightened a little at that. “About your statement. You said you were at home all night. Mother and sister will of course vouch for that?”

  “Of course.” He smiled. “They’d vouch for it whether I was at home or not.”

  “I’d be surprised if they wouldn’t, after seeing them,” I nodded. “Your mother could say anything and she would be believed. Not your sister. She’s young and inexperienced and any competent policeman could break her down inside five minutes. If you were in any way involved, you’re too smart not to see that, so your story has to be true. Can they vouch for the entire night—up to eleven-fifteen, say?”

  “No.” He frowned. “Stella went to bed about ten-thirty. After that I spent a couple of hours on the roof.”

  “Chessingham’s observatory? I’ve heard of it. No one can prove you were up there?”

  “No.” He frowned again, thinking. “Does it matter? I haven’t even a bicycle and there’s no public transport at that time of night. If I was here after ten-thirty I couldn’t have made it to Mordon by eleven-fifteen anyway. Four and a half miles, you know.”

  “Do you know how the crime was carried out?” I asked. “I mean have you heard? By someone making a diversion to allow someone else to cut through the fences. The red herring got away in a Bedford van stolen from Alfringham.”

  “I’d heard something like that. The police weren’t very communicative, but rumours get around.”

  “Did you know that the van was found abandoned only one hundred and fifty yards from your house?”

  “A hundred and fifty yards!” He seemed genuinely startled, then stared moodily into the fire. “That’s bad, isn’t it?”

  “Is it?”

  He thought briefly, then grinned. “I’m not as smart as you think. It’s not bad, it’s good. If I were driving that van I’d have had to go to Alfringham first for it—after leaving here at ten-thirty. Also, if I were the driver, then I obviously couldn’t have gone to Mordon—I’d have been making my supposed getaway. Thirdly, I wouldn’t have been so damned stupid as to park it at my front door. Fourthly, I can’t drive.”

  “That’s pretty conclusive,” I admitted.

  “I can make it even more conclusive,” he said excitedly. “Lord, I’m not thinking at all tonight. Come up to the observatory.”

  We went up the stairs. We passed a door on the first floor and I could hear the subdued murmur of voices. Mrs. Chessingham and Mary talking. A Slingsby ladder led us up into a square hut affair built in the centre of the flat roof. One end of the hut was blanked off with plywood, an entrance covered by a hanging curtain. At the other end was a surprisingly large reflector telescope set in a perspex cupola.

  “My only hobby,” Chessingham said. The strain had left his face to be replaced by the eager excitement of the enthusiast. “I’m a member of the British Astronomical Association, Jupiter Section, and a regular correspondent for a couple of astronomical journals—some of them depend almost exclusively on the work of amateurs like myself—and I can tell you that there’s nothing less amateurish than an amateur astronomer who’s been well and truly bitten by the bug. I wasn’t in bed till almost two o’clock this morning— I was making a series of photographs for The Astronomical Monthly of the Red Spot in Jupiter and the satellite Io occulting its own shadow.” He was smiling broadly in his relief now. “Here’s the letter commissioning me to do them—they’ve been pleased with some other stuff I’ve sent in.”

  I glanced at the letter. It had to be genuine, of course.

  “Got a set of six photographs. Beauties, too, although I say it myself. Here, I’ll let you see them.” He disappeared behind the curtain which I took to be the entrance of his darkroom and reappeared with a batch of obviously very new photographs. I took them. They looked terrible to me, just a bunch of greyish dots and streaks against a fuzzily dark background. “Not bad, eh?”

  “Not bad.” I paused and said suddenly, “Could anyone tell from those pictures when they were taken?”

  “That’s why I brought you up here. Take those to the Greenwich observatory, have them work out the precise latitude and longitude of this house and they could tell you within thirty seconds when each of these photographs were taken. Go on, take them with you.”

  “No thanks.” I handed back the photographs and smiled at him. “I know when I’ve already wasted enough time—and I’ve wasted far too much. Send them to The Astronomical Monthly with my best wishes.”

  We found Mary and Stella talking by the fireside. A few civilities, a polite refusal of a drink and we were on our way. Once in the car I turned the heater switch up as far as it would go but it didn’t seem to make any difference. The switch probably wasn’t attached to any heater. It was bitterly cold and raining heavily. I hoped the rain would ease.

  I said to Mary, “What did you find out?”

  “I hate this business,” she said intensely. “I hate it. This sneaking underhand approach to people. The lies—the lies to a lovely old person like Mrs. Chessingham. And to that nice girl. To think I worked all those years for the superintendent and never thought——”

  “I know,” I said. “But you have to fight fire with fire. Think of this double murderer. Think of this man with the Satan Bug in his pocket. Think of——”

  “I’m sorry. I really am sorry. It’s just that I’m afraid I was never cut out to be—well, never mind. I didn’t find out much. They have a maid—that’s why dinner was ready shortly after Stella rose. Stella lives at home—her brother insists on it, insists she spends all her time looking after her mother. Her mother is really pretty ill, I gathered from Stella. May go at any time— though she’s been told by her doctor that a transfer to a warm climate, like Greece or Spain, might add ten years to her life. Some dangerous combination of asthma and a heart condition. But her mother doesn’t want to go, says she’d rather die in Wiltshire than vegetate in Alicante. Something like that. That was all, I’m afraid.”

  It was enough. It was more than enough. I sat without speaking, thinking maybe the surgeons who wanted to give me a new foot had the right of it, when Mary said abruptly, “And you? Learn anything?”

  I told her what had happened. At the end she said, “I heard you telling the superintendent that you really wanted to see Chessingham to find out what you could from him about Dr. Hartnell. What did you find out?”

  “Nothing. Never asked him.”

  “You never—why on earth not?”

  I told her why not.

  * * *

  Dr. Hartnell and his wife—they had no children— were at home. Both of them knew Mary—we’d met, socially, once, during the brief time Mary had been staying with me when I lived in Mordon— but they clearly didn’t regard our visit as a social call. Everyone I was meeting was nervous, very much on the defensive. I didn’t blame them. I’d have been nervous too if I thought someone was trying to hang a couple of murders round my neck.

  I went through the spiel about how my visit was only a formality and the unpleasant experience I was sparing them by coming myself instead of letting one of Hardanger’s men do the questioning. Their activities in the earlier part of the evening were of no interest to me. I asked them about the later part and they told me. At nine-thirty, they said, they had sat down to watch television— specifically, The Golden Cavaliers, a TV version of a successful stage play that had just finished a long run in London.

  “Did you see that?” Mary broke in. “So did I. Pierre was out late last night with a business friend and I turned it on. I thought it was wonderful.” For some minutes they discussed the play. I knew Mary had seen it and I knew she was finding out whether they also had really seen it and there was no question but that they had. After some time I said, “When did it finish?”

  “About eleven.”

  “And then?”

 
A quick bite of supper and bed,” Hartnell said.

  “By, say, eleven-thirty?”

  “By that, at the latest.”

  “Well, that’s perfectly satisfactory.” I heard Mary clear her throat and looked across casually. Her steepled fingers were resting lightly in her lap. I knew what that meant—Hartnell was lying. This I couldn’t understand—but I’d infinite faith in her judgement.

  I glanced at the clock. I’d asked for a call at eight-thirty and now it was exactly that. Inspector Wylie was on time. The bell rang, Hartnell spoke into the phone then handed it to me. “For you, Cavell. The police, I think.”

  I spoke, holding the ear-piece fractionally away from my head. Wylie had a naturally carrying voice and I’d asked him to be good and loud. He was. He said, “Cavell? Ah, you told me you were going to be there so I took a chance. This is urgent. Nasty spot of bother at Hailem Junction. Close tie-up with Mordon, if I’m not mistaken. Very unpleasant indeed. Can you get down there immediately?”

  “As soon as I can. Where’s Hailem Junction?”

  “Not half a mile from where you are. The bottom of the lane, turn right and pass The Green Man. Just there.”

  I hung up, rose and hesitated. “That was Inspector Wylie. Some trouble at Hailem Junction. I wonder if I could leave Mary here for a few minutes? The Inspector said it was something unpleasant——”

  “Of course.” With his alibi accepted Dr. Hartnell was almost jovial. “We’ll look after her, old man.”

  I parked the car a couple of hundred yards down the lane, took my torch from the glove box and turned back towards Hartnell’s house. A quick look through the lit window and I knew I had nothing to fear from that quarter. Hartnell was pouring drinks and all three seemed to be talking animatedly, the way people do when the strain is off. I knew I could rely on Mary keeping them talking there indefinitely. Mrs. Hartnell, I noticed, was still sitting in the chair she’d been occupying on our arrival, she hadn’t even risen to greet us. Maybe her legs were troubling her—elastic stockings aren’t as undetectable as some manufacturers would like to think.

  The garage was locked by a heavy padlock but the master locksmith who had been responsible for a tiny part of the training of myself and a score of others in the now distant past would have laughed at it. I didn’t laugh at it, I was no master locksmith, but even so I had it open in less than two minutes. I hardly cut myself at all.

  Somewhere along the line Hartnell’s ill-advised plunge into the stock market had compelled him to sell his car and now his sole means of transport was a Vespa scooter, although I knew he used a bus to and from Mordon. The scooter was in good condition and looked as if it had been cleaned recently, but I wasn’t interested in the clean parts, only the dirty ones. I examined the machine closely and finally scraped off some of the dried mud under the front mudguard and put it in a polythene bag, which I sealed. I spent another two minutes looking around the garage, left and locked it.

  Another quick check on the living-room showed the three of them sitting round the fire, drinking and talking. I made my way to the tool-shed behind the garage. Another padlock. From where I was I was now completely hidden from the house so I took the chance of having a good long look at the padlock. Then I picked it and went inside.

  The shed was no bigger than seven by five and it took me no longer than ten seconds to find what I was after. There had been no attempt to conceal anything. I used another couple of polythene bags, closed and locked the door behind me and made my way back to the car. Soon afterwards I parked the car in Hartnell’s driveway. Hartnell answered the doorbell.

  “That didn’t take you long, Cavell,” he said cheerfully as he led me into the lounge. “What was——” His smile died away as he saw my face. “Was there—is there something wrong?”

  “I’m afraid there is,” I said coldly. “Something very far wrong. You’re in trouble, Dr. Hartnell. I’m afraid it looks to me like pretty bad trouble. Would you care to tell me about it?”

  “Trouble?” His face tightened, but there was the shadow of fear in his eyes. “What the devil are you talking about, Cavell?”

  “Come off it,” I said. “I put some value on my time if you don’t on yours. And it’s because I refuse to waste my time that I’m not going to hunt around for any fancy gentlemanly words to express myself. To be brief and blunt, Hartnell, you’re a fluent liar.”

  “You’ve gone too far, damn you, Cavell!” His face was pale, his fists were clenched and you could see that he was actively considering having a go at me which, as a medical man forty pounds lighter than I was, he should have recognised as an unpromising course of action. “I won’t take that line of talk from any man.”

  “You’ll have to take it from the prosecuting counsel in the Old Bailey, so you might as well have some practice in getting used to it. If you saw The Golden Cavaliers last night, as you claimed, you must have had the TV set balanced on the handlebars of your scooter. The police constable who saw you passing through Hailem late last night made no mention of a TV set.”

  “I assure you, Cavell, I haven’t the faintest idea——”

  “You make me ill,” I said disgustedly. “Lies I can forgive but stupidity, in a man of your calibre, no.” I looked at Mary. “About this play, The Golden Cavaliers? ”

  She lifted her shoulders, in discomfort and distress. “All TV broadcasts in southern England were badly affected by electrical disturbances last night. There were three breakdowns in the play and it didn’t finish until twenty minutes to twelve.”

  “You must have a very special TV set indeed,” I said to Hartnell. I crossed to a magazine stand and picked up a copy of the Radio Times, but before I could open it Hartnell’s wife spoke, a tremor in her voice.

  “You needn’t bother, Mr. Cavell. Last night’s play was a repeat of Sunday afternoon’s. We saw the play on Sunday.” She turned to her husband. “Come on, Tom, you’ll only make it worse for yourself.”

  Hartnell stared miserably at her, turned away, slumped down in a chair and drained his glass in a couple of gulps. He didn’t offer me any but I didn’t add lack of hospitality to his list of faults, maybe the time wasn’t right. He said, “I was out last night. I left here just after ten-thirty. I had a phone call from a man asking me to meet him in Alfringham.”

  “Who was the man?”

  “It doesn’t matter. I didn’t see him—he wasn’t there when I arrived.”

  “It wouldn’t have been our old pal Ten-per-cent Tuffnell of Tuffnell and Hanbury, Consultants-at-Law?”

  He stared at me. “Tuffnell—do you know Tuffnell?”

  “The ancient legal firm of Tuffnell and Hanbury is known to the police of a dozen counties. They style themselves ‘Consultants-at-Law.’ Anybody can call themselves ‘Consultants-at-Law.’ There’s no sueh thing so the bona-fide legal eagles can’t take any action against them. Tuffnell’s only knowledge of law comes from the fairly frequent occasions on which he had been hauled before the Assize judges, usually on charges of bribery and corruption. They’re one of the biggest money-lending firms in the country and by all odds the most ruthless.”

  “But how—how did you guess——?”

  “No guess that it was Tuffnell. A certainty. Only a man with a powerful hold over you could have got you out at that time of night and Tuffnell has that hold. He not only holds the mortgage on your house but also your note of hand for another £500.”

  “Who told you that?” Hartnell whispered.

  “No one. I found out for myself. You don’t think you’re employed in the laboratory with the highest security rating in Britain without our knowing everything about you. We know more about your own past than you know yourself. That’s the literal truth. Tuffnell it was, eh?”

  Hartnell nodded. “He told me he wanted to see me at eleven sharp. I protested, naturally, but he said that unless I did what I was told he’d not only foreclose on the mortgage but he’d have me in the bankruptcy court for that five hundred pounds.”
r />   I shook my head. “You scientists are all the same. Outside the four walls of your lab you ought to be locked up. A man who lends you money does so at his own risk and has no legal recourse. So he wasn’t there?”

  “No. I waited a quarter of an hour, then went to his house—a whacking great mansion with tennis courts, swimming pool and what have you,” Hartnell said bitterly. “I thought he might have made a mistake about the meeting place. He wasn’t there. There was nobody there. I went back to the Aifringham office and waited a little longer then came home. About midnight, it was.”

  “Anybody see you? You see anybody? Anybody who can vouch for your story.”

  “Nobody. Nobody at all. It was late at night and the roads were deserted—it was bitterly cold.” He paused, then brightened. “That policeman—he saw me.” His voice seemed to falter on the last words.

  “If he saw you in Hailem you could equally well have turned off for Mordon after leaving it.” I sighed. “Besides, there was no policeman. You’re not the only one who tells lies. So you see the spot you’re in, Hartnell? A phone call for which we have only your word—no trace of the man alleged to have made it. Sixteen miles on your scooter, including a wait in a normally busy little town—and not a living soul saw you. Finally, you’re deeply and desperately in debt—so desperate that you would be willing to do anything. Even break into Mordon, if the financial inducements were high enough.”

  He was silent for a moment, then pushed himself wearily to his feet. “I’m completely innocent, Cavell. But I see how it is—and I’m not all that a fool. So I’m going to be—what do you call it— detained in custody?”

  I said, “What do you think, Mrs. Hartnell?”

  She gave me a troubled half-smile and said hesitantly, “I don’t think so. I—well, I don’t know how a police officer talks to a man he’s about to arrest for murder, but you don’t talk the way I should imagine they do.”

 
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