Read An Unkindness of Ravens Online

Authors: Ruth Rendell

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Non-Classifiable, #General

An Unkindness of Ravens

An Unkindness of Ravens

Wexford, Book 13

Ruth Rendell

1985

ISBN 0 09 160200 9

Also by Ruth Rendell

To Fear a Painted Devil

Vanity Dies Hard

The Secret House of Death

One Across, Two Down

The Face of Trespass

A Demon in My View

A Judgement in Stone

Make Death Love Me

The Lake of Darkness

Master of the Moor

The Killing Doll

The Tree of Hands

Chief Inspector Wexford novels

From Doon with Death

A New Lease of Death

Wolf to the Slaughter

The Best Man to Die

A Guilty Thing Surprised

No More Dying Then

Murder Being Once Done

Some Lie and Some Die

Shake Hands for Ever

A Sleeping Life

Put On by Cunning

The Speaker of Mandarin

Short Stones

The Fallen Curtain

Means of Evil

The Fever Tree

To Sonia and Jeff

1

 She was a neighbour. She was an acquaintance of Dora’s and they spoke if they met in the street. Only this time there had been more to it than passing the time of day.

‘I said I’d tell you,’ Dora said. ‘I said I’d mention it. She had that strange look she sometimes has and, to tell you the truth, I was awfully embarrassed.’

‘What did she say?’ Wexford asked.

‘“Rod’s missing” or “Rod’s disappeared”—something like that. And then she asked me if I’d tell you. Because of who you are, of course.’

Detective chief inspectors have better things to do with their time than waste it listening to the complaints of women whose husbands have run off with other women. Wexford hadn’t been in the house five minutes before he decided that was what had happened. But she was a neighbour. She lived in the next street to his. He ought to be glad really, he thought, that it hadn’t the makings of a case for him to investigate.

His house and this one had been built at the same time, in the mid-1950s when Kingsmarkham was growing out of being a village. And structurally they were much the same house, three bedrooms, two receptions, kitchen, bathroom and downstairs loo. But his was a home, comfortable and full of lovingly collected things and this was—what? A shelter to keep the rain off, a place where people could eat, sleep and watch television. Joy Williams took him into the front room that she called the lounge. There were no books. The carpet was a square surrounded by mustard yellow vinyl tiles and the furniture a three-piece suite covered in grainy mustard-coloured synthetic leather. The 1935 fireplace, which in his house had been replaced by one of York stone, accommodated an electric fire of complicated design, part Regency, part medieval, and with a portcullis effect at the front. Above it hung a mirror framed in segments of green and yellow frosted glass, a fine specimen of Art Deco if you liked that sort of thing. The only picture was a composition in coloured silver paper of two cats playing with a ball of wool.

‘She’s rather a colourless person,’ Dora had said. ‘Doesn’t seem interested in anything and always seems depressed. I don’t suppose living with Rodney Williams for twenty years has done much for her.’

Joy. Dora had said rather apologetically that it was a misnomer. She was a woman whose whole self had turned grey, not just her hair. Her features had once been good, were probably still good, only her awful complexion, lined, pitted, pinkish-grey, rough and worn, masked them. Apparently she was forty-five but she looked ten years more. Up until his arrival she had been watching television and the set was still on, though with the sound turned off. It was the biggest set Wexford had ever seen, at any rate in a domestic setting. He guessed she spent a fair proportion of her time watching it and perhaps felt uneasy when the screen was blank.

There was no seat in the room that did not face it. He sat on the end of the sofa at an angle, turning his back. Joy Williams’s eyes flickered over the flashing figures of skaters taking part in some contest. She sat on the extreme edge of her chair.

‘Did your wife tell you what I .. . ?’

‘She said something.’ He interrupted to save her the embarrassment he could see already mottling her nose and cheeks with dull red. ‘Something about your husband being missing.’

Joy Williams laughed. It was a laugh he was to hear often and get to know, a harsh cackle. There was no humour in it, no gaiety, no amusement. She laughed to hide emotion or because she knew no other way of showing it. The hands in her lap stretched and clenched. She wore a very wide, heavily chased platinum or white-gold wedding ring with an even more ornate platinum or white-gold engagement ring containing amid the pits and pyramids a minuscule diamond.

‘He went on a trip to Ipswich and I haven’t seen him since.’

‘Your husband’s a sales representative, I think Dora said.’

‘With Sevensmith Harding,’ she said. ‘The paint people.’

She need not have added that. Sevensmith Harding were probably the biggest suppliers to builders’ merchants and home decorating retail stores in the south of England. Sevenstar matt and silk emulsion coated a million walls, he thought, between Dover and Land’s End. He and Dora had just had their second bedroom done up in it, and if he wasn’t much mistaken the paintwork in Mrs Williams’s own hall was the newest shade in Sevenshine non-drip high gloss, Wholewheat.

‘He covers Suffolk for them.’ She began pushing the rings up and down.

‘It was last Thursday he went—well, yesterday week. It’s the twenty-third now, that must have been the fifteenth. He said he was going to Ipswich to stop the night and start first thing in the morning.’

‘What time did he leave?’

‘It was evening time. About six. He’d been home all afternoon.’

It was at this point that Wexford had his thought about the other woman. It would be a good three and a half hour run from Kingsmarkham to Ipswich even via the Dartford Tunnel. A salesman who was legitimately going to drive to Suffolk and could have started at four instead of six would surely have done so.

‘Where did he stay in Ipswich? At a hotel presumably?’

‘A motel. Outside Ipswich, I think.’

She spoke listlessly, as if she knew little about her husband’s work and took no interest in it. The door opened and a girl came in. She stopped on the threshold and said, ‘Oh, sorry.’

‘Sara, what time did Dad go when he left?’

‘Around six.’

Mrs Williams nodded. She said, ‘This is my daughter Sara,’ pronouncing the name so that the first syllable rhymed with ‘car’.

‘I believe you’ve a son too?’

‘Kevin. He’s twenty. He’s away at university.’

The girl stood with her arms over the back of the yellow plastic armchair no one was sitting in, her eyes fixed on her mother in a more or less neutral way, though one that tended towards the hostile rather than the friendly. She was very slender, fair, with the face of a Renaissance painter’s model, small-featured with a high forehead and a secretive look. Her hair was exceptionally long, reaching almost to her waist, and with the rippling appearance hair has which is usually done up in plaits. She wore jeans and a tee-shirt with a design on it of a raven and the letters ARRIA superimposed over it.

She picked up a photograph in a chrome frame off the only table in the room, a bamboo affair with a glass top almost hidden by the sofa back. Passing it to Wexford, she stuck her thumb at the head of the man sitting on a beach with a teenage boy and a girl who was herself five years before. The man was big, tall, but out of condition and running to fat around his middle. He had a huge domed forehead. His features, perhaps because they were dominated by this bare dome, looked insignificant and crowded together, the mouth a lipless slit stretched into a smile for the camera.

Wexford handed it back to her. She replaced it on the table, let her eyes linger on her mother for a moment, a curious, faintly contemptuous look, and walked out of the room. He heard her feet going upstairs.

‘When did you expect your husband to come back?’

‘The Sunday night, he said. I didn’t think much about it when he didn’t. I thought he’d stayed another night and he’d be back Monday, but he wasn’t and he never phoned.’

‘You didn’t phone the motel yourself?’

She looked at him as if he had proposed to her some gargantuan and complex task quite beyond her capacity, writing a fifty-thousand-word thesis perhaps or devising a computer programme.

‘I wouldn’t do that. I mean, it’s a long-distance call. I haven’t got the number anyway.’

‘Did you do anything?’

She laughed the dry humourless cackle. ‘What could I do? Kevin was home for the weekend but he went back to Keele on the Sunday.’ She spoke as if action in such a matter could only be taken by a member of the male sex. ‘I knew I’d have been let know if he’d had an accident. He’s got his name on him, his bank card and his cheque book and ever so many things with his name on.’

‘You didn’t phone Sevensmith Harding, for instance?’

‘What good would that have done? He never went in there for weeks on end.’

‘And you haven’t heard a word from him since? For let’s see—eight days, you’ve had no indication where he might be?’

‘That’s right. Well, five days. I expected him to be gone the first three.’

He would have to ask it. After all, she had called him in. As a neighbour to confide in certainly, but primarily as a policeman. Nothing he had heard so far made him feel even a preliminary inquiry into Rodney Williams’s whereabouts was called for. Looking at Mrs Williams, the house, the daughter, the set-up, he could only wonder with an unkindness he would never openly have expressed even to Dora why the man had stayed so long. He had run off with another woman, or run off to another woman, and only cowardice was holding him back from writing the requisite letter or making the obligatory phone call.

‘Forgive me, but is it possible your husband could be—’ he sought for a word and came out with a mealy-mouthed one he despised ‘—friendly with some other woman? Could he have been seeing another woman?’

She gave him a long, cold, unshocked look. Whatever she might say, Wexford could tell his suggestion had already crossed her mind and done more than cross her mind. There was something in that look which told him she was the sort of woman who made a point, a principle almost, of avoiding admitting anything unpleasant. Push it away, suppress it, get out of the habit of thinking, don’t wonder or think or speculate, for that will make you unhappy. Don’t think, don’t wonder, turn on the telly and in mindless apathy stare at the screen until it’s time for bed and the doctor’s little Mogadon that comes on a permanent prescription you pick up at reception.

Of course, he might be doing her an injustice. All this was only in his imagination. ‘It’s just a possibility,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry I had to suggest it.’

‘I don’t know what he does when he’s away days and nights on end, do I? All our married life he’s been away selling as much as he’s been home. I don’t know what floozies he’s had and I wouldn’t ask.’

The old-fashioned word suited the room and Mrs Williams’s grey, Crimplene-clad, scurfy respectability. For the first time he noticed the thick sprinkling of dandruff, like a fall of flour, on the shoulders of her blouse. He had given her a solution which to most women would be the least acceptable, but she, he thought, was relieved. Did she suspect her husband of having been up to something illegal so that something immoral would be seen as a happier alternative?

You suspect everyone and everything, he told himself. You policeman!

‘Do you think we ought to do anything?’

‘If you mean by that should you report him as a missing person and the police take steps to find him, no, certainly not. The chances are you’ll have word from him in the next few days. If you don’t, I think your best course will be to see a solicitor or go to your Citizen’s Advice Bureau. But don’t do that before you’ve been on to Sevensmith Harding. The likelihood is you’ll find him through them.’

She didn’t thank him for coming. He hadn’t even been home yet, he had called on her on his way home, but she didn’t thank him or apologize for taking up his time. He looked back and saw her still standing on the doorstep holding the door, a very thin angular woman in fawn blouse and unfashionably cut dark green trousers with bell bottoms and a high waist. Her front garden was the only one in Alverbury Road with no spring bulbs out, not a narcissus to relieve the bit of lawn and the dark yew hedge.

It was a cloudy evening, bright as noonday still, April cool. This little honeycomb of streets was like an orchard in springtime, puffs and clouds of pink and white blossom all over the gardens and drifts of petals already lying on the pavements. A great weeping cherry, pink as ice cream, had taken over his front lawn.

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