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Chapter 27 - A Journey by Night

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Author Topic: Chapter 27 - A Journey by Night  (Read 13 times)
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« on: December 20, 2022, 10:46:40 pm »

For the first few miles, while they were still in the traffic, Prenderby contented himself with keeping the disguised Rolls in sight. It would be absurd, he realized, to overtake them while still in London, since they were acting in an unofficial capacity and he was particularly anxious not to arouse the suspicions of the occupants of the car in front of them.

He went warily, therefore, contriving always to keep a fair amount of traffic between them.

Martin was exultant. He was convinced by his own theory, and was certain that the last act of the Black Dudley mystery was about to take place.

Prenderby was too much absorbed by the details of the chase to give any adequate thought to the ultimate result.

Abbershaw alone was dubious. This, like everything else connected with the whole extraordinary business, appalled him by its amazing informality. He could not rid his mind of the thought that it was all terribly illegal—and besides that, at the back of his mind, there was always that other question, that problem which had caused him so many sleepless nights since his return to London. He hoped Martin was right in his theory, but he was sufficiently alarmed by his own secret thought to wish not to put Martin’s idea to the test. He wanted to think Martin was right, to find out nothing that would make him look elsewhere for the murderer.

As they escaped from the tramway lines and came out into that waste of little new houses which separates the city from the fields, they and the grotesque old car in front were practically alone on the wide ill-lighted roads.

It was growing cold and there was a suggestion of a ground mist so that the car in front looked like a dim ghost returned from the early days of motoring.

As the last of the houses vanished and they settled down into that long straight strip of road through the forest, Prenderby spoke:

‘How about now?’ he said. ‘Shall I open out?’

Martin glanced at Abbershaw.

‘What do you think?’ he said.

Abbershaw hesitated.

‘I don’t quite see what you intend to do,’ he said. ‘Suppose you succeed in stopping them, what are you going to say? We have no proof against the man and no authority to do anything if we had.’

‘But we’re going to get proof,’ said Martin cheerfully. ‘That’s the big idea. First we stop them, then we sit on their heads while they talk.’

Abbershaw shook his head.

‘I don’t think we’d get much out of them that way,’ he said. ‘And if we did it wouldn’t be evidence. No, if you take my advice you’ll run them to earth. Then perhaps we’ll find something, although really, my dear Martin, I can’t help feeling—’

‘Let’s kick him out, Prenderby,’ said Martin, ‘he’s trying to spoil the party.’

Abbershaw grinned.

‘I think we’re doing all we can do,’ he said. ‘After all it’s no good letting them out of our sight.’

Prenderby sighed.

‘I wish you’d decided to overtake,’ he said. ‘This is a marvellous road. It wouldn’t hurt us to be a bit nearer, anyway, would it?’

Martin nudged him gently:

‘If you want to try your speed, my lad,’ he said, ‘here’s your opportunity. The old lady has started to move.’

The other two glanced ahead sharply. The Rolls had suddenly begun to move at something far beyond her previous respectable rate. The red tail-light was already disappearing into the distance.

Prenderby’s share in the conversation came to an abrupt end. The Riley began to purr happily and they shot forward at an ever-increasing pace until the speedometer showed sixty.

‘Steady!’ said Martin. ‘Don’t pass them in your excitement. We don’t want them to spot us either.’

‘What makes you so sure that they haven’t done so already?’ said Abbershaw shrewdly, and added as they glanced at him inquiringly, ‘I couldn’t help thinking as we came along that they were going very leisurely, taking their time, when there was plenty of other traffic on the road. As soon as we were alone together they began to move. I believe they’ve spotted us.’

Prenderby spoke without looking round.

‘He’s right,’ he said. ‘Either that or they’re suddenly in the deuce of a hurry. I’m afraid they’re suspicious of us. They can’t possibly know who we are with lights like these.’

‘Then I say,’ cut in Martin excitedly, ‘they’ll try to dodge us. I’d get as near as you can and then sit on their tail if I were you.’

Abbershaw said nothing and the Riley slowly crept up on the other car until she was directly in her head-lights. The Rolls swayed to the side to enable them to pass, but Prenderby did not avail himself of the invitation. Eventually the big car slackened speed but still Prenderby did not attempt to pass.

The next overture from the Rolls was as startling as it was abrupt. The little rear window opened suddenly and a bullet hit the road directly in front of them.

Prenderby swerved and brought the Riley almost to a full stop.

‘A pot-shot at our front tyre,’ he said. ‘If he’d got us we’d have turned over. Martin, I believe you’re on the right tack. The cove is desperate.’

‘Of course I’m right,’ said Martin excitedly. ‘But don’t let them get away, man, they’ll be out of sight in a minute.’

‘Sorry,’ said Prenderby obstinately, ‘I’m keeping my distance. You don’t seem to realize the result of a tyre-burst at that pace.’

‘Oh, he won’t do it again,’ said Martin cheerfully. ‘Besides, he’s a rotten shot anyway.’

Prenderby said no more, but he was careful to keep at a respectable distance from the Rolls.

‘They’ll start moving now,’ said Martin. ‘We shall have our work cut out if we’re going to be in at the death. Look out for the side turnings. Do you know this road at all?’

‘Pretty well,’ said Prenderby. ‘He’s heading for Chelmsford, I should say, or somewhere round there. I think he’ll have some difficulty in shaking us off.’

The big car ahead was now speeding away from them rapidly and Prenderby had his hands full to keep them anywhere in sight. In Chelmsford they lost sight of it altogether and were forced to inquire of a policeman in the deserted High Street.

The placid country bobby took the opportunity of inspecting their licence and then conceded the information that a ‘vehicle of a type now obsolete, and bearing powerful lamps’ had passed through the town, taking the Springfield road for Kelvedon and Colchester some three minutes before their own arrival.

The Riley sped on down the winding road through the town, Martin cursing vigorously.

‘Now we’re sunk,’ he said. ‘Missed them sure as Pancake-tide. They’ve only got to nip into a side road and shut off their lamps and we’re done. In fact,’ he went on disconsolately, ‘I don’t know if there’s any point in going on at all now.’

‘There’s only one point,’ cut in Abbershaw quietly. ‘If by chance they are going somewhere definite—I mean if they want to get to a certain spot in set time—they’ll probably go straight on and trust to luck that they’ve shaken us off.’

‘That’s right,’ said Martin. ‘Let’s go on full tilt to Colchester and ask there. No one could miss a bus like that. It looks as if it ought not to be about alone. Full steam ahead, Michael.’

‘Ay, ay, sir,’ said Prenderby cheerfully and trod on the accelerator.

They went through Witham at a speed that would have infuriated the local authorities, but still the road was ghostly and deserted. At length, just outside Kelvedon, far away in the distance there appeared the faint haze of giant head-lights against the trees.

Martin whooped. ‘A sail, a sail, captain,’ he said. ‘It must be here. Put some speed into it, Michael.’

‘All right. If we seize up or leave the road, on your head be it,’ said Prenderby, through his teeth. ‘She’s all out now.’

The hedges on either side of them became blurred and indistinct. Finally, in the long straight strip between Marks Tey and Lexden, they slowly crept up behind the big car again.

‘That’s her all right,’ said Martin; ‘she’s crawling, isn’t she? Comparatively, I mean. I believe Abbershaw’s hit it. She’s keeping an appointment. Look here, let’s drop down and shut off our head-lights—the sides will carry us.’

‘Hullo! Where’s he off to now?’ It was Michael who spoke. The car ahead had taken a sudden turn to the right, forsaking the main road.

‘After her,’ said Martin, with suppressed excitement. ‘Now we’re coming to it, I do believe. Any idea where that leads to?’

‘No,’ said Michael. ‘I haven’t the least. There’s only a lane there if I remember. Probably the drive of a house.’

‘All the better.’ Martin was enthusiastic. ‘That means we have located them anyway.’

‘Wait a bit,’ said Michael, as, dimming his lights, he swung round after the other car. ‘It’s not a drive. I remember it now. There’s a signpost over there somewhere which says, “To Birch”, wherever “Birch” may be. Gosh! No speeding on this road, my children,’ he added suddenly, as he steered the Riley round a concealed right-angle bend in the road.

The head-lights of the car they were following were still just visible several turns ahead. For the next few miles the journey developed into a nightmare. The turns were innumerable.

‘God knows how we’re going to get back,’ grumbled Michael. ‘I don’t know which I prefer; your friend with the gun or an attempt to find our way back through these roads before morning.’

‘Cheer up,’ said Martin consolingly. ‘You may get both. Any idea where we are? Was that a church we passed just now?’

‘I thought I heard a cow,’ suggested Abbershaw helpfully.

‘Let’s catch ’em up,’ said Martin. ‘It’s time something definite happened.’

Abbershaw shook his head. ‘That’s no good, my dear fellow,’ he said. ‘Don’t you see our position? We can’t stop a man in the middle of the night and accuse him of murder without more proof or more authority. We must find out where he is and that’s all.’

Martin was silent. He had no intention of allowing the adventure to end so tamely. They struggled on without speaking.

At length, after what had seemed to be an interminable drive, through narrow miry lanes with surfaces like ploughed fields, through forgotten villages, past ghostly churches dimly outlined against the sky, guided only by the glare ahead, the darkness began to grey and in the uncertain light of the dawn they found themselves on a track of short springy grass amid the most desolate surroundings any one of them had ever seen. On all sides spread vast stretches of salting covered with clumps of rough, coarse grass with here and there a ragged river or a dyke-head.

Far ahead of them the old black car lumbered on.

Martin sniffed. ‘The sea,’ he said. ‘I wonder if that old miracle ahead swims? A bus like that might do anything. That would just about sink us if we went to follow them.’

‘Just about,’ said Michael dryly. ‘What do we do now?’

‘I suppose we go on to the bitter end,’ said Martin. ‘They may have a family house-boat out there. Hullo! Look at them now.’

The Rolls had at last come to a full stop, although the head-lights were still streaming out over the turf.

Michael brought the Riley up sharply. ‘What now?’ he said.

‘Now the fun begins,’ said Martin. ‘Get out your gun, Abbershaw.’

Hardly had he spoken when an exclamation came down the morning to them, followed immediately by a revolver shot which again fell short of them.

Without hesitation Martin fired back. The snap of his automatic was instantly followed by a much larger explosion. ‘That’s their back tyre,’ he said. ‘Let’s get behind the car and play soldiers. They’re sure to retaliate. This is going to be fun.’

But in this he was mistaken. Neither Whitby nor his companion seemed inclined for further shooting. The two figures were plainly discernible through the fast-lightening gloom, Whitby in a long dust coat and a soft hat, and the other man taller and thinner, his cap still well down over his face.

And then, while they were still looking at him, Whitby thrust his hand into his coat pocket and pulled out a large white handkerchief which he shook at them solemnly, waving it up and down. Its significance was unmistakable.

Abbershaw began to laugh. Even Martin grinned. ‘That’s matey, anyway,’ he said. ‘What happens next?’

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