Authors: Ruth Rendell
His voice had deserted him, but it was back now, deep and strong. “Who beside yourself has seen this letter, Mr. St. George?”
“Call me Brian. Everyone does. No one but my P.A. Veronica has actually seen it.”
“Keep it that way. Mr. Vine will speak to Veronica. At present silence is absolutely imperative. You will speak to these national newspapers and we will have a meeting with their editors later today.”
“Okay, if that’s the way you want it. It seems a crying shame, but I bow to the inevitable.”
“We shall ask British Telecom to put a trace on your phones,” Burden said, lifting the letter in gloved fingers and slipping it between plastic. “How many lines are there?”
“Only two.” St. George said it in the tone of a man who would like to have said “twenty-five.”
“These Sacred Globe people have expressed their intention of making contact again today. Everything that comes over the phone into these offices must be recorded. I shall send you an officer to take Mr. Vine’s place in due course.”
“By God, you’re taking things very seriously,” said St. George, still smiling.
Wexford got up. He said, “I expect you know it’s an offense to attempt to pervert the course of justice.”
“No need to look at me. I’m a law-abiding sort of chap, always have been, but I suppose I’m allowed to express an opinion, and in my opinion you’re making a grave mistake.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
Wexford could think of half a dozen nastier things to say, but he hadn’t the heart for any of them. Going down the stairs they passed a young woman coming up. She had black curly hair hanging to her waist and a scarlet skirt that measured about nine inches from waist to hem. The personal assistant, probably.
“I’m not going to hang about,” Wexford said. “I’m going straight to the Chief Constable. Meanwhile we’ll need a trace on all our phones.”
“Yes. I wonder how many B.T. can do. It won’t be an unlimited number. Who are these Struthers, Reg? Kitty and Owen? Why weren’t they reported missing?”
Donaldson opened the car door and they got in the back. Wexford punched out one of the numbers of the Mid-Sussex Constabulary headquarters in Myringham, then asked for the Chief Constable’s extension. He seldom saw the Chief Constable, most of his dealings being with Freeborn, the deputy.
Montague Ryder was a distant lofty figure who suddenly seemed approachable when, in response to Wexford’s insistence on urgency, he came to the phone and agreed instantly to a meeting as early as possible.
“I’ll go over there now, or once we’ve dropped you. I don’t think it’s odd the Struthers haven’t been reported missing, Mike. They’re probably a married couple living alone. I expect they intended going away on holiday. I’ve been wondering about the interval between Dora calling for a car at ten-thirty and Roxane at ten fifty-five, but this accounts for it. There wasn’t an interval, these Struthers called for a car around ten forty-five. The probability is they phoned Contemporary Cars to catch one of those trains between the eleven-nineteen and the twelve-oh-three …”
“Or to go to Gatwick. If it was a holiday they might have been going by air.”
“True. But whatever it was, if they left an empty house behind them, who would know they were missing? If they left a family member behind, he or she wouldn’t expect to hear from them. It would be odder if they
been reported missing. What is odd is that there were two of them and one of those two is a man maybe in the prime of life.”
“You mean, it’s harder to abduct such people than …” Burden tried to be tactful, but failed abysmally. “Well, than one on his—her—his own.”
“Maybe he’s an elderly man. They could both be in their seventies for all we know. I’ll have them checked out. The phone book may be enough. Struther’s not a common name in this neck of the woods. Are we going to say anything about this to the boy’s mother and grandmother and the girl’s mother?”
“What do they want, Reg? What’s this price of theirs?”
“I think I know.”
Wexford turned his face away and Burden said no more. He got out of the car and went into the police station. There, though there were others to do it for him, he looked up Struther in the phone directory himself. There were two Struths, fifteen Strutts, but only one Struther: O. L. Struther, Savesbury House, Markinch Lane, Framhurst.
He punched out the number. Four double rings and then, of course, one of those damned answering machines. Burden hated them. At least the greeting message on this one wasn’t facetious, not the kind that said, “Call me back if there’s money in it” or “If you want to take me out to dinner I’m on.” A man’s voice, which could have been middle-aged or old, but certainly wasn’t
young. The English it used was very correct, even pedantic. Courteously, it named the woman first.
“Neither Kitty nor Owen Struther is available at present to answer your call. If you would like to leave a message, please do so after the tone, giving your name, the date, and the time. Thank you.”
Burden thought it worth a try. He left a message, asking whoever might be there—a slim chance but a possibility—to contact Kingsmarkham Police as a matter of urgency. Then he got on to British Telecom.
The Regional Crime Squad’s Major Crime Unit, consisting of a detective chief inspector, one inspector, six detective sergeants, and six detective constables, all specially trained, was housed in an unpretentious building in Myringham. Once it had been a set of auction rooms. It was built of brown bricks with vaguely Gothic windows and a door around the side. Through these windows computer screens could usually be seen with people staring into them.
Wexford had passed it on his way to the Constabulary Headquarters, an altogether more impressive place put up in the eighties when architecture was beginning to take a turn for the better after the lamentable previous ten years. The headquarters, out on the Sewingbury Road, had an ambitious roof, a kind of terraced mansarding, with a large square tower in the middle, curved wings, and a pillared portico. On the lawn in front stood a statue of Sir Robert Peel, who as well as being the founder of the police force was said to have occupied a house at Myfleet for ten months between the autumn of 1833 and the summer of 1834.
The Chief Constable had a suite in the tower. An anteroom was full of the usual computer operators. One of them left her machine and took him through, knocking
on a brass-fitted mahogany door. Wexford had that feeling of the heart rising into the throat, though he wasn’t in the least nervous of Montague Ryder. It was rather that, at present, every happening seemed fraught with foreboding, every moment in passing time pregnant with dread.
He entered a huge room like a lounge in a good country hotel, armchairs, sofas, low tables, a big bowl of dahlias and Michaelmas daisies standing on an antique cabinet. Windows, designed less for opening and letting in light than for viewing panoramas, afforded the sight of green hills, deep valleys, and the distant rolling downs. Montague Ryder got up from where he had been sitting at a desk and came to Wexford with outstretched hand.
“I’ve been talking on the phone with Mike Burden,” he said. “I think he’s pretty well filled me in. You did right to hesitate, but we must tell those parents at once. Anything else isn’t feasible.”
He was a small man, slight but strong-looking, many inches shorter than Wexford. Abundant uniformly pale gray hair covered his head like a neat cap and his eyes were the same clear dove-gray.
“This is a bad business about your wife.”
Wexford nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Won’t you sit down?”
A green leather sofa accommodated them both, one at each end, facing each other. On the desk, a few feet away, stood a framed photograph of a pretty fair-haired woman with a child of maybe ten and another of eight. Wexford found he couldn’t look at it. He said, “These people, this Sacred Globe, will make contact again today. How or where we don’t know.”
“Burden told me. You were quite right to embargo newspaper coverage. I shall set up a meeting with newspaper representatives for later today, but I’ll do it, I shan’t need you at that.”
Wexford hesitated, then said, “I hardly suppose you’re going to need me at all, are you, sir? I mean, once I’ve given you the facts. You won’t want me on the case.”
Ryder got up. He was recognizably the kind of person who never sits still for long, a pacer, a fidget, a man with too much energy for the ordinary uses of daily life and one whom exhaustion probably hit at the end of each day. He said, “Would you like coffee? I’ll have it sent in.”
“Not for me, sir, thank you.”
“Right. I drink too much of the stuff anyway.” He perched on a chair arm. “You mean, of course, that I’d take you off the case because of your wife’s involvement. In other circumstances, that would be so, but I can’t here.” Perhaps for the first time ever, he essayed Wexford’s first name. “I can’t, Reg. We’ll call in the Regional Crime Squad, but even so I don’t have enough senior officers to dispense with you. I need you to lead this investigation. I’m putting you in charge of it.”
The first call from a national newspaper came in at 10:30. They wasted no time, Burden thought, referring the speaker and the two others who called within minutes to the Chief Constable’s office at Myringham. As far as he was concerned, the sooner they got on with that restraining press conference the better.
Where would it come to, that phone call from Sacred Globe? He presumed it would be a phone call. The post, after all, had come and there was no second delivery. A message by fax or E-mail would be too dangerous to send, its very existence a clue to the transmitter. So a phone call it would be. To the police station? To the
? Somehow he didn’t think so. One of those insistent national newspapers perhaps or the local authority, the mayor’s office, even the Constabulary Headquarters. No, not that
last. It would be somewhere they would least suspect, yet to someone certain to pass it on …
To one of Wexford’s daughters?
He’d see about a trace on Wexford’s home phone. And then he was going to take Karen Malahyde and the two of them go up to Savesbury House, home of the Struthers. If his message had been received, it hadn’t been answered. Probably there was no one there. He couldn’t place the house, couldn’t see it in his mind’s eye, but big country houses were two a penny around here. He’d probably know it when he saw it. If the Struthers had neighbors, there was a good chance of one of them having seen something.
Facially, Karen looked like a dedicated police officer. She had been promoted to detective sergeant the previous year. Her expression was serious, her dark eyes steady, but her face was too scrubbed-looking, her hair too grimly cropped, for her to be considered good-looking. That was above the neck. Below, she had all the attributes of a catwalk model, perfect figure, and legs, as Burden’s son John had once said, to die for. Burden himself didn’t think of women in those terms and had been congratulated on this negativity by Wexford who, perhaps ironically, praised his political correctness. Karen herself was almost too P.C. for Kingsmarkham, particularly in her dealings with men. He didn’t care whether she liked him or not, yet he rather fancied she did.
She was an excellent driver and it was she who drove the two of them. In Markinch Lane they were stopped by the police cordon, for the bailiffs were still busy breaking up tree houses and clearing occupants. When the sergeant in his yellow coat realized who it was he would have made an exception and let them through but Karen good-humoredly turned around and took an alternative route via the Framhurst byroad.
* * *
The village of Framhurst would be the most badly affected of all conurbations in the Kingsmarkham neighborhood. “Conurbations” was a Highways Agency word that had made Wexford laugh grimly, for Framhurst was no more than a village street, a crossroads, three shops, and a church. The school, built in 1834, had long since been converted into a house that its occupants whimsically called Lescuela.
Of the shops, one was an old-fashioned family butcher’s to which customers came from all over the neighborhood, another a general store, newsagent, and video library, and the third a tea shop with a striped awning and tables on the pavement outside. Framhurst had traffic lights at the point where Kingsmarkham Road crossed the one that passed between Pomfret and Myfleet. No one was sure how much of the new bypass would be visible from the houses that lined the village street, but there was no doubt about the coming destruction of the view from the hill to which that street led. The whole valley lay spread out below, woods, marsh, round, treecapped Savesbury Hill, and the River Brede threading through the light green and the dark green like a long crinkly strand of white silk.
Burden looked down on it. Of course you couldn’t see any of those people from here. You couldn’t see the pilgrims transformed into refugees, moving on with their bundles to pastures new. One day, not far off now, a twin-track road, three lanes each side, would change the entire face of that panorama, like a white bandage covering a long never-to-be-healed wound.
They found the house with some difficulty. It was concealed in shrubbery and tall trees and was invisible from the road. Its nearest neighbor was a cottage on the outskirts of Framhurst village. They went past the house,
realized they had gone too far, and turned around. A sign on the gatepost was overgrown with tendrils of wild clematis. Karen had to get out and pull away the leaves to disclose a name: “Markinch Hall” in almost obliterated letters with “Savesbury House” printed boldly over the top of it.
“Interesting,” said Burden. “I wonder if what-are-they-called, Sacred Globe, had problems finding the place.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Struther probably gave directions over the phone.”
The gates were open so they drove in and up a graveled drive bordered by cypresses with tall alders and sycamores making a backdrop behind them. Brick and timbered walls gradually appeared as the trees thinned, and the varied colors, red, yellow, and purple, of a well-tended garden replaced much of the green. The house looked like two houses joined together, the one ancient and picturesque, gabled and lattice-windowed, the other a tall Georgian with portico. The whole must be very big, Burden thought, big enough for several families and with outbuildings or even wings behind.