Erica stood on the brake and brought her disreputable little car to a standstill. She then backed it the necessary yards, and stopped again. She inspected with interest the sole of a man’s boot, visible in the grass and gorse, and then considered the wide empty landscape and the mile-long straight of chalky lane with its borders of speedwell and thrift, shining in the sun.
“You can come out,” she said. “There’s no one in sight for miles.”
The boot sole disappeared and a man’s astonished face appeared in the bushes above it.
“That’s a great relief to me,” Erica observed. “I thought for a moment that you might be dead.”
“How did you know it was me? I suppose you did know it was me?”
“Yes. There’s a funny squiggle on the instep part of your sole where the price has been scored off. I noticed it when you were lying on the floor of Father’s office.”
“Oh, yes; that’s who you are, of course. You’re a very good detective.”
“You’re a very bad escaper. No one could have missed your foot.”
“You didn’t give me much time. I didn’t hear your car till it was nearly on me.”
“You must be deaf. She’s one of the County jokes, poor Tinny. Like Lady Middleway’s hat and old Mr. Dyne’s shell collection.”
“Yes. She used to be Christina, but the inevitable happened. You couldn’t not have heard her.”
“I think perhaps I was asleep for a minute or two. I— I’m a bit short of sleep.”
“Yes, I expect so. Are you hungry?”
“Is that just an academic question, or — or are you offering me food?”
Erica reached into the back of the car and produced half a dozen rolls, a glass of tongue, half a pound of butter, and four tomatoes.
“I’ve forgotten a tin opener,” she said, passing him the tongue, “but if you hit the tin lid hard with a flint it will make a hole.” She split a roll with a penknife produced from her pocket and began to butter it.
“Do you always carry food about with you?” he asked, doubtfully.
“Oh, always. I’m a very hungry person. Besides I’m often not home from morning till night. Here’s the knife. Cut a hunk of the tongue and lay it on that.” She gave him the buttered roll. “I want the knife back for the other roll.”
He did as he was bidden, and she busied herself with the knife again, politely ignoring him so that he should not have to pretend to an indifference that would be difficult of achievement.
Presently he said, “I suppose you know that all this is very wrong.”
“Why is it wrong?”
“For one thing, you’re aiding an escaped criminal, which is wrong in itself, and doubly wrong in your father’s daughter. And for another — and this is much worse — if I were what they think me you’d be in the gravest danger at this minute. You shouldn’t do things like that, you know.”
“If you were a murderer it wouldn’t help you much to commit another one just to keep me from saying I saw you.”
“If you’ve committed one, I suspect you don’t easily stop at another. You can only be hanged once. And so you don’t think I did it?”
“I’m quite sure you didn’t.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“You’re not capable of it.”
“Thank you,” he said gratefully.
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Oh! Oh, I see.” A smile actually broke through. “Disconcerting but invigorating. George an ancestor of yours?”
“George? Oh. No. No, I can tell lies with the best.”
“You’ll have to tonight. Unless you are going to give me up.”
“I don’t suppose anyone will question me at all,” she said, ignoring the latter half of his remark. “I don’t think a beard becomes you, by the way.”
“I don’t like it myself. I took a razor with me but couldn’t manage to do anything without soap and water. I suppose you haven’t soap in the car?”
“I’m afraid not. I don’t wash as often as I eat. But there’s a frothy stuff in a bottle — Snowdrop, they call it — that I use to clean my hands when I change a wheel. Perhaps that would work.” She got out the bottle from the car pocket. “You must be much cleverer than I thought you were, you know.”
“Yes? How clever does that make me actually?”
“To get away from Inspector Grant. He’s very good at his job, Father says.
“Yes, I think he probably is. If I didn’t happen to have a horror of being shut up, wouldn’t have had the nerve to run. As it was, that half hour was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. I know now what living at top speed means. I used to think having money and doing what you liked — twenty different things a day — was living at speed. But I just didn’t know anything about it.”
“Was she nice, Christine Clay?”
He looked disconcerted. “You do jump about, don’t you? Yes, she was a grand person.” He forgot his food for a moment. “Do you know what she did? She left me her ranch in California because she knew I had no money and hated an office.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Yes, I’ve heard Father and the others discussing it.”
“Oh. Oh, yes . . . And you still believe I didn’t do it? I must be very bargain counter in your eyes!”
“Was she very beautiful?”
“Haven’t you ever seen her, then? On the screen, I mean?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Neither have I. Funny, isn’t it. I suppose, roaming from place to place it’s easy to miss pictures.”
“I’m afraid I don’t go to the cinema often. It’s a long way to a good one from our place. Have some more tongue.”
“She meant to do me such a good turn — Chris. Irony, isn’t it? That her gift should be practically my death warrant.”
“I suppose you have no idea who could have done it?”
“No. I didn’t know any of her friends, you know. She just picked me up one night.” He considered the schoolgirlish figure before him. “I suppose that sounds dreadful to you?”
“Oh, no. Not if you liked the look of each other. I judge a lot on looks.”
“I can’t help feeling that the police may be making a mistake — I mean, that it was just an accident. If you’d seen the country that morning. Utterly deserted. No one going to be awake for at least another hour. It’s almost incredible that someone should have been out for murder at that time and in that place. That button might be an accident, after all.”
“If your coat turned up with the buttons on it, would that prove you had nothing to do with it?”
“Yes, I think so. That seemed to be all the evidence the police had.” He smiled a little. “But you know more about it than I do.
“Where were you when you lost it — the coat, I mean?”
“We’d gone over to Dymchurch one day: Tuesday, it was. And we left the car to walk along the seawall for about half an hour. Our coats were always left lying in the back. I didn’t miss mine till we stopped for petrol about halfway home, and I turned around to get the bag Chris had flung there when she got in.” His face suddenly flamed scarlet, and Erica watched him in surprise and then in embarrassment. It was moments later before it occurred to her that the tacit admission that the woman was paying was more humiliating to him than any murder accusation. “The coat wasn’t there then,” he went on hurriedly, “so it could only have gone while we were walking.”
“I don’t think so. I didn’t see any. A casual passerby, more likely.”
“Is there anything to tell that the coat is yours? You’d have to prove it to the police, you know.”
“My name is on the lining — one of those tailor’s tags, you know.”
“But if it was stolen that would be the first thing they’d take off.”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose so. There’s another thing, though. There’s a small burn on the right-hand side below the pocket, where someone held a cigarette against it.”
“That’s better, isn’t it! That would settle it very nicely.”
“If the coat were found!”
“Well, no one who stole a coat is likely to bring it to the police station just because the police want it. And the police are not looking for coats on people. They’re looking for discarded ones. So far no one has done anything about getting your coat. On your behalf, I mean. To be evidence for you.”
“Well, what can I do?”
“Give yourself up.”
“Give yourself up. Then they’ll give you a lawyer and things. And it will be his business to look for the coat.”
“I couldn’t do that. I just couldn’t, What’s-Your–Name.”
“Erica. The thought of having a key turned on me gives me the jitters.”
“Yes. I don’t really mind closed spaces as long as I know that I can get out. Caves and things. But to have a key turned on me, and then to have nothing to do but sit and think of — I just couldn’t do it.”
“No, I suppose you couldn’t, if you feel like that about it. It’s a pity. It’s much the most sensible way. What are you going to do now?”
“Sleep out again, I suppose. There’s no rain coming.”
“Haven’t you any friends who’d look after you?”
“With a murder charge against me? No! You overrate human friendship.” He paused a moment, and added, in a surprised voice: “No. No, perhaps you don’t, at that. I’ve just not met the right kind before.”
“Then we had better decide on a place where I can meet you tomorrow and bring you some more food. Here, if you like.”
“I didn’t mean that. I mean that you’re not meeting me anywhere.”
“Because you’d be committing a felony, or whatever it is. I don’t know what the penalty is, but you’d be a criminal. It can’t be done.”
“Well, you can’t stop me dropping food out of the car, can you? There is no law against that, that I know of. It will just happen that a cheese and a loaf and some chocolates will fall out of the car into these bushes tomorrow morning. I must go now. The landscape looks deserted, but if you leave a car standing long enough someone always pops up to make inquiries.”
She swept the refuse of the food into the car, and got in herself.
He made a movement to get to his feet. “Don’t be foolish,” she said sharply. “Keep down.”
He swiveled around on his knees. “All right. You can’t object to this position. And it expresses my feelings much better.”
She shut the car door, and leaned over it.
“Nut or plain?”
“Oh! The kind with raisins in it, please. Some day, Erica Burgoyne, I shall crown you with rubies and make you to walk on carpets rich as —”
But the sentence was lost in the roar of Tinny’s departure.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01