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The signpost was unhelpful. Some faint characters on one of its blistered arms informed the seeker after knowledge that Lumsden lay to the west, reached, presumably, at the end of a dubious-looking lane. The other arm indicated the direction of Pittingly, a place Mr
Amberley had never heard of. However, if Lumsden lay to the west, Upper Nettlefold o ught to be found somewhere in the direction of the obscure Pittingly. Mr Amberley switched off his spot-lamp, and swung the car round, reflecting savagely that he should have known better than to have trusted to his cousin Felicity's enthusiastic but incomplete directions. If he had had the sense to follow the usual road he would have been at Greythorne by now. As it was, Felicity's 'short way' had already made him late for dinner.
He drove on rather cautiously down a bumpy lane flanked by quickset hedges. Wreaths of autumn mist curled across the road and further exasperated him. He passed a road winding off to the left, but it looked unpromising, and he bore on towards Pittingly.
The lane twisted and turned its way through the Weald. There were apparently no houses on it, nor did Pittingly a place towards which Mr Amberley was fast developing an acute dislike materialise. He glanced at his watch and swore gently. It was already some minutes after eight. He pressed his foot down on the accelerator and the long powerful Bentley shot forward, bounding over the rough surface in a way that was very bad for Mr Amberley's temper. Pittingly seemed to be destined to remain a mystery; no sign of any village greeted Mr Amberley's rather hard grey eyes, but round a sharp bend in the lane a red tail-light came into view.
As the Bentley drew closer its headlights, piercing the mist, picked out a motionless figure standing in the road beside the stationary car. The car, Mr Amberley observed, was a closed Austin Seven. It was drawn up to the side of the road, its engine switched off, and only its side and tail-lights burning. He slackened speed and saw that the still figure in the road was not that of a man, as he had at first supposed, but of a female, dressed in a belted raincoat with a felt hat pulled low over her forehead.
Mr Amberley brought his Bentley to a standstill alongside the little Austin and leaned across the vacant seat beside him.
'Is anything wrong?' he said, not without a touch of impatience. Really, if on the top of having lost his way he was going to have to change a wheel or peer into the bowels of the Austin's engine, it would be the crowning annoyance.The girl he guessed rather than saw that she was quite young did not move. She was standing by the off door of the Austin with her hands thrust into the pockets of her raincoat. 'No, nothing,' she said. Her voice was deep. He got the impression that something was wrong, but he had not the smallest desire to discover the cause of the underlying agitation in her curt words.
'Then can you tell me if I'm on the right road for Greythorne?' he asked.
'I don't know,' she said ungraciously.
A somewhat sardonic gleam shot into Mr Amberley's eyes. 'A stranger to these parts yourself, no doubt?'
She moved her head and he saw her face for a moment, a pale oval with a mouth he thought sulky. 'Yes, I am. Practically. Anyway, I've never heard of Greythorne. Good night.'
This was pointed enough, but Mr Amberley ignored it. His own manners were, his family informed him, abrupt to the point of rudeness, and the girl's surliness rather pleased him. 'Tax your brain a little further,' he requested. 'Do you know the way to Upper Nettlefold?'
The brim of her hat threw a shadow over her eyes, but he was sure that she glowered at him. 'You ought to have taken a turning to the left about a mile back,' she informed him.
'Damn!' said Mr Amberley. 'Thanks.' He sat back in his seat and took out the clutch. To turn the car in this narrow lane was not easy. He drove on till he was clear of the Austin and began his manoeuvres. After considerable trouble he got the Bentley round, its head-lamps illuminating the girl and the Austin in two brilliant shafts of light. As the car swung round she flinched, as though the sudden blaze of light startled her.
Mr Amberley saw her face, chalk-white, for a moment before she averted it. Instead of straightening up the car he kept it stationary, his foot hard on the clutch, his hand mechanically grasping the gear-lever. The headlights were directed full into the smaller car and showed Mr Amberley something queer. There was a small hole in the windscreen, with splinters radiating out from it in a star shape. He leaned forward over the wheel, staring. 'Who's in that car?' he said sharply.
The girl moved quickly, shutting the interior of the Austin from Mr Amberley's keen scrutiny. 'What has it got to do with you?' she said breathlessly. 'I've told you the way to
Upper Nettlefold. Why don't you go?
Mr Amberley pushed the gear-lever into neutral and put on his brake. He got out of the car and strode towards the girl. Now that he was close to her he saw that she was goodlooking, a fact that did not interest him, and exceedingly nervous, a fact that aroused all his suspicions.
'Very silent, your companion?' he said grimly. 'Get away from that door.'
She stood her ground, but she was obviously frightened.
'Will you please go? You have no business to molest me in this fashion!'
His hand shot out and grasped her wrist. He jerked her somewhat roughly away from the door and peered in. A man was sitting in the driver's seat, curiously immobile. His head was sunk on his chest. He did not look up or speak.
The girl's hand shook in Mr Amberley's hold, which had slowly tightened on it. The figure at the wheel did not move.
'Oh!' said Mr Amberley. 'I see.'
'Let me go!' she said fiercely. 'I it I didn't do it.'
He retained his grasp on her wrist, but he was looking at the dead man. The clothing, a dark lounge suit, was disarranged, as though someone had rifled the pockets; the striped shirt was stained with red, and a dark stain ran down the front of the waistcoat.
Mr Amberley put out his free hand to touch the slack one inside the car. He did not appear to feel any repulsion. 'Not cold,' he said. 'Well?'
'If you think I did it you're wrong,' she said. 'I found him like it. I tell you I wasn't even here!'
He ran his hand down over her coat, feeling for a possible weapon. She began to struggle, but found that she was quite powerless in his grip. His hand encountered something hard in the right pocket. Without ceremony he pulled out a small automatic. She stood still.
Hatred vibrated in her voice as she said:
'If you take the trouble to inspect it you will find it's fully loaded. The magazine holds seven. It isn't cocked.'
'Are you in the habit of carrying loaded guns?' he inquired.
'That's my affair.'
'Undoubtedly,' he agreed, and lifting the gun sniffed gingerly at the end of the barrel. He let go her wrist and slipped out the magazine. As she had said, it held seven cartridges. Pulling back the breech, he satisfied himself that it was empty. Then he snapped the magazine home and handed the gun to the girl.
She took it in a somewhat unsteady clasp. 'Thanks. Satisfied I didn't do it?'
'Quite satisfied that you didn't do it with that gun,' he replied. 'Probably you didn't do the actual shooting, but you know something about it.'
'You're wrong. I don't know anything. He was like that when I found him.'
'No yes, I mean.'
'Make up your mind which it is to be,' he recommended.
'Damn you, leave me alone!' she flashed. 'Can't you see I'm upset and don't know what I'm saying?'
His cool glance swept over her. 'Since you put it like that; no, I can't. You seem to me remarkably self-possessed. Come on, out with it! Was the man dead when you found him?'