Authors: Alistair MacLean
The Satan Bug
There was no mail for me that morning, but that was no surprise. There had been no mail for me in the three weeks I'd been renting that tiny second-floor suite of offices near Oxford Street. I closed the door of the outer office by eight ten, skirted the table and chair that might one day house a receptionist if the time ever came that Cavell Investigations could run to such glamorous extras, and pushed open the door marked
Behind that door lay the office of the head of Cavell Investigations, Pierre Cavell. Me. And not only the head but the entire staff. It was a bigger room than the reception office, I knew that because I'd measured it, but only a trained surveyor could have told it with the naked eye.
I'm no sybarite, but I had to admit that it was a pretty bleak sort of place. The distempered walls were of that delicate tint of off-grey pastel shading from off-white at floor level to off-black just below the ceiling that only London fog and the neglect of years can achieve. In one wall, overlooking a narrow grimy courtyard, was a tall narrow window, washed on the inside, with a monthly calendar close by. On the linoleum-covered floor a square desk, not new, a swivel chair for me, a padded leather armchair for the client, a strip of threadbare carpet to keep the client's feet from getting cold, a hatrack and a couple of green metal filing cabinets, both empty. Nothing more. There was no room for anything more.
I was just lowering myself into the swivel chair when I heard the deep double chime of the bell in the reception-room and the sound of hinges creaking. " Ring and enter" the legend on the corridor door read and someone was doing just that. Ringing and entering. I opened the top left-hand drawer of my desk, pulled out some papers and envelopes, scattered them before me, pulled a switch by my knee and had just risen to my feet when the knock came at my inner door.
The man who entered was tall, thin and a close student of the Tailor and Cutter. A narrow-lapelled coat hung over an immaculately cut charcoal suit in the latest Italian line, and in his suede-gloved left hand he carried his other glove, black bowler, brief-case and, a few inches up his wrist, a tightly-rolled, horn-handled black umbrella. He had a long pale narrow face, thin black hair parted in the middle and brushed almost straight back, rimless glasses, an aquiline nose and on the upper lip a thin black line that, on closer inspection, still looked like a thin black line, miniaturization of the moustache brought to an almost impossible state of perfection. He must have carried a micrometer about with him. He looked for all the world like a top-flight City accountant: I couldn't see him as anything else.
" Excuse my walking straight in like this." He smiled briefly, three gold caps in the upper teeth, and half-glanced over his shoulder. " But it seems your secretary-----"
" That's all right. Please come in." He even talked like an accountant, controlled, positive, slightly over-precise in the articulation. He offered me his hand, and the hand-shake, too, was in character, quick, neat, giving nothing away.
" Martin," he introduced himself. “ Henry Martin. Mr. Pierre Cavell?"
" Yes. Won't you sit down, Mr. Martin?"
"Thank you." He sat down gingerly, very straight, feet together, brief-case balanced with scrupulous care across his touching knees and looked around him slowly, missing nothing, a faint smile not showing his teeth. "
Business not —ah—so very brisk these days, Mr. Cavell?"
Maybe he wasn't an accountant after all. Accountants, as a rule, are polite, well-mannered and slow to give unnecessary offence. But then maybe he wasn't feeling quite himself. People who came to see private detectives were seldom in a normal frame of mind.
"I keep it this way to fool the Inspector of Taxes," I explained. "How can I help you, Mr. Martin?"
" By giving me some information about yourself." He was no longer smiling and his eyes were no longer wandering.
"About myself?" My voice was sharp, not razor-edged, just the voice of a man who hasn't had a client in all the three weeks he's been in business. " Please come to the point, Mr. Martin. I have things to do." So I had. Lighting my pipe, reading the morning paper, things like that.
" I'm sorry. But about yourself. I have you in mind for a very delicate and difficult mission. I must be sure you are the man I want. That is reasonable, I think?"
"Mission?" I looked speculatively at Henry Martin and thought I could get to disliking him without too much trouble. " I don't carry out missions, Mr. Martin, I carry out investigations."
"Of course. When there are investigations to carry out." The tone was too neutral to take specific offence. " Perhaps I should supply the information. Please bear with my unusual method of approach for a few minutes, Mr. Cavell. I think I can promise that you will not be sorry." He opened his brief-case, brought out a buff folder, abstracted a stiff sheet of paper and began to read, paraphrasing as he went along.
" Pierre Cavell. Born Lisieux, Calvados, of Anglo-French parents. Father civil engineer, John Cavell of Kingsclere, Hampshire, mother Anne-Marie Lechamps of Lisieux. Mother of Franco-Belgian descent. One sister, Liselle. Both parents and sister killed in air attack on Rouen. Escaped fishing-boat Deauville-Newhaven. While still in late teens parachuted six times into Northern France, each time brought back information of great value. Parachuted into Normandy D-Day minus two. At end war recommended for no fewer than six decorations—three British, two French and one Belgian."
Henry Martin looked up and smiled thinly.
"The first discordant note. Decorations refused. Some quotation to the effect that the war had aged you fast and that you were too old to play with toys. Joined regular British Army. Rose to Major in Intelligence Corps, understood to have co-operated closely with M.I.6—
counterespionage, I believe. Then joined police. Why did you leave the Army, Mr. Cavell?"
I'd throw him out later. Right now I was too intrigued. How much more did he know—and how? I said, " Poor prospects."
" You were cashiered." Again the brief smile. " When a junior officer elects to strike a senior officer, policy dictates that he should choose a man below field rank. You had the poor judgment to select a major-general." He glanced at the paper again. " Joined Metropolitan Police.
Rapid rise through the ranks—one must admit that you do appear to be rather gifted in your own line—to position of Inspector. In last two years seconded for special duties, nature unspecified. But we can guess. And then you resigned. Correct?"
"On a record card, 'Resigned' looks much better man ' Dismissed.'
Which is what you would have been had you remained another twenty-four hours. You do appear to have what amounts to a genius for insubordination. Something to do with an Assistant Commissioner, I understand. But you still had friends, quite powerful friends. Within a week of your resignation you had been appointed as head of security in Mordon."
I stopped what I was doing, which was squaring off the papers on my desk, and said quietly, " Details of my record are readily available, if you know where to look. But you have no right to possess that last item of information." The Mordon Microbiological Research Establishment in Wiltshire had a security rating that would have made access to the Kremlin seem simple.
"I am perfectly aware of that, Mr. Cavell. I possess a great number of items of information that I shouldn't. Like the additional item that I know that, in keeping with your record, you were also dismissed from this post. Like yet another item—the real reason why I am here to-day: I know why you were dismissed."
The accuracy of my first deduction in the detecting business, that my client was an accountant, spoke ill for my prospects: Henry Martin wouldn't have recognised a balance sheet if it had been handed to him on a silver salver. I wondered what his line of business might really be: but I couldn't even begin to guess.
"You were dismissed from Mordon," Martin went on precisely, " primarily because you couldn't keep a still tongue in your head. Oh, nothing to do with security, we know that." He removed his rimless glasses and polished them thoughtfully. " After fifteen years in your line you probably don't even tell yourself half of what you know. But you talked to top scientists, directors, in Mordon, and you made no secret of your opinion of the nature of the work in which they were engaged. You are not the first person to comment bitterly on the fact that this establishment, referred to in Parliamentary estimates as the Mordon Health Centre, is controlled exclusively by the War Office. You knew, of course, that Mordon is concerned mainly with the invention. and production of microbiological organisms for use in war—but you are one of the few who know just how ghastly and terrifying are the weapons that have been perfected there, that armed with those weapons a few planes could utterly destroy all life in any country in the space of a few hours. You had very strong opinions about the indiscriminate use of such a weapon against an unsuspecting and innocent civilian population. And you made your opinion known in many places and to many people inside Mordon. Too many places, too many people. So to-day you are a private detective."
" Life's unjust," I agreed. I rose to my feet, crossed to the door, turned the key in the lock and pocketed it. " You must realise, Mr. Martin, that you have already said too much. The sources of your information about my activities at Mordon. You're not leaving here till you tell me."
Martin sighed and replaced his spectacles,
" Melodramatic, understanding but totally unnecessary. Do you take me for a fool, Cavell? Do I look a fool? What I told you I had to tell you to gain your co-operation. I will put my cards on the table. Quite literally."
He drew out a wallet, found a rectangle of ivory cardboard and placed it on the table. " Mean anything to you?"
It meant a great deal. Across the middle of the card ran the legend.
"Council for World Peace." At the bottom right-hand corner: "Henry Martin, London Secretary."
Martin pulled his chair close and leaned forward, his forearms on my desk. His face was intent, serious.
" Of course you know about it, Mr. Cavell. I don't think I exaggerate when I say that it is by far the greatest force for good in the world to-day. Our council cuts across race, religion and politics. You will have heard that our Prime Minister and most members of the cabinet belong.
I do not wish to comment on that. But I can state that most of the church dignitaries in Britain, whether Protestant, Catholic or Jewish, are members. Our list of titled members reads like Debrett's, of other distinguished members like Who's Who. The Foreign Office, who really know what's going on and are more afraid than any, are solidly on our side. We have the support of all the best, the wisest, the most far-seeing men in the country to-day. I have very powerful men behind me, Mr. Cavell. He smiled faintly. " We even have influential members in Mordon."
All he said I knew to be true—except that bit about Mordon, and maybe that had to be true, to account for his knowledge. I wasn't a member of the council myself, not being the right type for inclusion either in Debrett's or Who's Who, but I knew that the Council for World Peace, a society semi-secret in its nature inasmuch as it recognized that diplomatic negotiations were best not conducted through newspaper headlines, was of only the most recent origin but already regarded through the western world as the last best hope for mankind.
Martin took the card from me and slipped it back in his wallet. "All I am trying to say is that I am a respectable man working for a pre-eminently respectable body."
"I believe that," I said.
" Thank you." He dipped into his brief-case again and brought out a steel container about the size and shape of a hip-flask. "There is, Mr. Cavell, a militarist clique in this country of whom we are frankly terrified, who promise to wreck all our dreams and hopes. Madmen, who are talking, every day more loudly, of waging a preventive war against the Soviet Union. Germ warfare. It is highly unlikely that they will win their way.