Read Road Rage Online

Authors: Ruth Rendell

Road Rage (2 page)

That was when the tree people came.

Perhaps Debbie Harper’s picture alerted them to what was going on. Many of them belonged to no known official body. They were New Age Travelers, or some of
them were, and if they arrived in cars and caravans, none of these vehicles were parked on or near the site. Debbie Harper had disrupted the tree felling and only four silver birches had so far been cut down. The tree people drove steel bolts into treetrunks at a height calculated to buckle a chain-saw blade when felling began. Then they began building themselves dwellings in the tops of beeches and oaks, tree houses of planks and tarpaulin and approached by ladders which could be pulled up once the occupant was installed.

That was June and the site of the first of the tree camps was at Savesbury Deeps.

Debbie Harper, who lived with her boyfriend and three teenage children in Wincanton Road, Stowerton, gave interviews to every newspaper that asked her. She was a member of KABAL and SPECIES, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, but her interviewers weren’t much interested in that. What they liked about her was that she was a Pagan with a capital P, kept ancient Celtic festivals and worshiped deities called Ceridwen and Nudd, and posed for
Today
wearing just three leaves, not fig leaves but rhubarb, these being more appropriate for an English summer.

“We’re unhappy about the spiking of the trees,” Dora said on her return from a meeting of KABAL. “Apparently the chain saws can come apart and maul workmen’s arms. Isn’t that an awful thought?”

“This is just the beginning,” her husband said.

“What do you mean, Reg?”

“Remember Newbury? They had to get in six hundred security guards to protect the contractors. And someone cut the brake pipe on a coach carrying the guards to the site.”

“Have you talked to anyone who actually wants this bypass?”

“I can’t say I have,” said Wexford.

“Do you want it?”

“You know I don’t. But I’m not prepared to give up driving a car. I’m not happy about sitting in traffic jams and feeling my blood pressure go up. Like most of us, I want to eat my cake and have it.” He sighed. “I daresay Mike wants it.”

“Oh, Mike,” she said, but affectionately.

Wexford had broken his resolution not to go back to Framhurst Great Wood. The first time he went was to watch wildlife experts building new badger setts (with ramps and swing doors like cat flaps) in the heart of the wood. The tree houses in the second camp were already being built, which was perhaps enough to drive the badgers to their new homes. The second time was after the tree fellers refused to endanger their lives by using chain saws on trees whose trunks were embedded with nails or bound with wire. A few felled trees lay about. The Highways Agency was seeking eviction orders against the tree dwellers, but meanwhile another camp took shape at Elder Ditches and then another on the borders of the Great Wood.

Wexford climbed up Savesbury Hill, again, he told himself, for the last time, from where the four camps could clearly be seen. One was almost at the foot of the hill, one half a mile away at Framhurst Copses, a third on the threatened verge of the marsh, and the fourth and farthest away half a mile from the northernmost reaches of Stowerton. The countryside still looked much as it always had, except that a field in the neighborhood of Pomfret Monachorum was packed with earthmoving equipment, diggers, and bulldozers. These things were almost always painted yellow, he reflected, a dull, dead yellow, the color
of custard that had been kept in the fridge too long. Presumably yellow showed up better against green than red or blue.

He walked downhill on the far side, then wished he hadn’t, for he found himself up to his thighs in stinging nettles. Their hairy pointed leaves failed to sting through his clothes but he had to keep his arms and hands held high. The nettles filled an area as big as a small meadow and Wexford was thinking that if the road had to go somewhere it would be no bad thing for it to pass through here, when he saw the butterfly.

That it was
Araschnia levana
, he knew at once. Among all the tens of thousands of words that had been written lately about Savesbury and Framhurst, he remembered reading that
Araschnia
fed on stinging nettles in Savesbury Deeps. He advanced a little until he was a yard from it. The butterfly was orange-colored, with a chocolate-brown pattern and flashes of white, and the underwings had a sky-blue riverlike border. You could see why it was called the Map.

It was alone. There were only two hundred of them, perhaps now not so many. When he was a child people had caught butterflies in nets, gassed them in killing bottles, attached them to cards on pins. It seemed appalling now. Only a few years ago people who opposed bypasses were looked on as cranks, loony weirdos, hippie dropouts, and their activities on a par with anarchy, communism, and mayhem. That too had changed. Conventional figures of the Establishment were as determined in their opposition as that man he could now see peering out between canvas flaps through the fork in a tree branch. Someone had told him that Sir Fleance and Lady McTear had marched in a demonstration organized by supermarket millionaires Wael and Anouk Khoori.

Like most Englishmen he had his reservations about the
European Union, but here, he thought, was one instance when he wouldn’t mind an absolute veto coming from Strasbourg.

Toward the end of the month, the British Society of Lepidopterists created a new feeding ground for
Araschnia
, a stinging nettle plantation on the western side of Pomfret Monachorum. A journalist on the
Kingsmarkham Courier
wrote a satirical but not very funny piece about this being the first time in the history of horticulture anyone had been known to plant nettles instead of pulling them up. The nettles, naturally, flourished from the start.

The badger movers set about a similar reversal of the usual order of things. Instead of preserving habitats, they were obliged to destroy them. In opening and sealing up a sett that, if it remained in occupation, would have been in the direct path of the new bypass, they had first to cut away a dense mass of brambles. The growth of brambles had been vigorous, indicating it was new this year, springing from heavily pruned stock, and the prickly trailing runners were heavy with green fruit. They lifted the cut mass with gloved hands and found something lying beneath that made them recoil, one of them shout out, and another retreat under the trees to vomit.

What they found was the badly decomposed body of a young girl.

Kingsmarkham police had no real doubts as to who this was. But they made no announcement of their guess as to identity. It was the newspapers and television that named her, with few reservations, as Ulrike Ranke, the missing German hitchhiker.

She had been nineteen, a law student at Bonn University, the only daughter of a lawyer and a teacher from
Wiesbaden, and she had come to England the previous April to spend Easter at the home of a girl who had been an au pair in her parents’ house. The girl’s family lived in Aylesbury and Ulrike had set out to make her journey on the cheap. It had never been quite clear why. Her parents had supplied her with enough money for a return air ticket to Heathrow and her train fare. However, Ulrike had hitched across France and taken the ferry to Dover. That much was known.

“I don’t find it at all mysterious,” Wexford had said at the time. “I would have if she’d done what her parents told her to do. That would have been astonishing, that would have been a mystery.”

“What an old cynic you are,” said Inspector Burden.

“No, I’m not. I’m a realist, I don’t like being called a cynic. A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I’m not like that, I just don’t like mealy-mouthed hypocrisy. You’ve had teenage children, you know what they are. My Sheila used to do that stuff all the time. Why spend good money when you can do it for free? That’s their attitude. They need the money for music and the means of playing it, black jeans, and prohibited substances.”

It seemed he was right, for on the girl’s body, in the pocket of her Calvin Klein black jeans, were twenty-five amphetamine tablets and a packet containing just under fifty grams of cannabis. There was nothing on her to show that she was Ulrike Ranke and no money. Her father identified her. The man who had raped and strangled her two months before either had not recognized the contents of her pocket for what they were or had no use for them. The money that she had carried on her in notes, all five hundred pounds of it, was gone.

Framhurst Copses had not previously been searched. None of the countryside around Kingsmarkham had
come under scrutiny. There was no reason to suppose Ulrike Ranke had passed this way. Kingsmarkham was miles from the route she might have been expected to take from Dover to London. But someone had put her body in a woodland declivity and hidden her under the fast-growing tendrils of blackberry bushes. In the opinion of the pathologist and forensic examiners the body had not been moved, she had been killed where she lay.

Because there had been no search, there had been no inquiries either. But immediately the identity of the dead girl was announced, William Dickson, the licensee of a public house named the Brigadier (he called it a hotel), phoned the police with information. Once he had seen photographs of Ulrike Ranke in the
Kingsmarkham Courier
he recognized her as the girl who had come into his saloon bar in early April.

The Brigadier was on the old Kingsmarkham bypass, one of those madhouses put up in the late thirties, pseudo-Tudor, thickly half-timbered, apparently huge but in fact only one room deep. A car park behind was overshadowed by a very large prefabricated building, designed as a dance hall (Dickson called it a ballroom). The car park was surfaced in macadam but all around the house and the area in front was graveled. Very unpleasant to walk on, as Detective Sergeant Barry Vine remarked to Burden, worse than a shingle beach.

“It was just before closing time on Wednesday, April third,” Dickson said when the two policemen came in.

“Why didn’t you say so before?” said Burden.

He and Vine were sitting at the bar. Alcohol had been offered and refused by both. Vine was drinking mineral water, which he had paid for.

“What do you mean, before?”

“When she went missing. Her picture was all over the papers then. And the TV.”

“I only look at the local,” said Dickson. “All I ever see on the telly is sport. Folks in the bar trade don’t get a lot of leisure, you know. I’m not exactly overburdened with quality time.”

“But you recognized her as soon as you saw her in the
Courier
?”

“Nice-looking chick, she was.” Dickson looked over his shoulder, reassured himself of something, and grinned. “Very tasty.”

“Oh, yes? Tell us about April the third.”

She had come into the bar at about ten-twenty, a young blond girl “dressed like they all dressed” in black but with some sort of jacket. An anorak or parka or duffel, he didn’t know, but he thought it was brown. She had a shoulder bag, a big overstuffed shoulder bag, not a backpack. How could he remember so well after nearly three months?

“I’ve got a photo, haven’t I?”

“You what?” said Vine.

“There was a hen party going on,” said Dickson. “Girl getting married at Kingsmarkham Registry Office on the Thursday. She asked the wife to take their picture, her and her friends round their table, and she handed her this camera, and just as the wife took their picture this German girl came in. So she’s in the picture, in the background.”

“And you’ve a copy of this photograph? I thought you said it wasn’t your camera?”

“The girl—the bride, that is—she sent us a copy. Thought we’d like to have it, seeing as it was in the Brigadier. You can see it if you want.”

“Oh, yes, we want,” said Burden.

Ulrike Ranke was well behind the group of laughing women and out of the brightest lights, but it was plainly
she. Her coat might have been brown or gray or even dark blue but her jeans were unmistakably black. A string of pearls could just be glimpsed lying against the dark stuff of her blouse or sweater. The canvas and leather bag on her right shoulder looked overfull and heavy. She wore an anxious expression.

“When I saw that picture in the
Courier
I said to the wife to find that photo and the minute I set eyes on it I realized.”

“What did she come in here for? A drink?”

“I told her she couldn’t have a drink,” Dickson said virtuously. “I’d called for last orders. It was knocking ten-thirty. It wasn’t a drink she wanted, she said, she wanted to know if she could make a phone call. Comical way of talking she had, like an accent, couldn’t get her tongue round some words, but we get all sorts in here.”

It never ceased to surprise Burden that the British, the vast majority of whom can speak no language but their own, are not above mocking those foreign visitors whose command of English is less than perfect. He asked if Ulrike had made her phone call.

“I’m coming to that,” said Dickson. “She asked to use the phone—called it a ‘telephone,’ long time since I’ve heard that expression—and said she wanted a taxi. That’s who she’d be phoning, a taxi firm, and did I know of one. Well, naturally, we get a lot of calls for taxis out here. I said she’d find a number by the phone, we got a card stuck up on the board by the phone. I said she’d have to use the pay phone, I wasn’t having her using the one in the office.”

“And did she?”

“Sure she did. She came back in here. The clientele was all gone by then and the wife and I was having a clear-up. She started telling us how she’d hitched a lift
from Dover in a lorry. The driver had dropped her off here, he was parking for the night in a lay-by. I said to the wife I reckon she was lucky he
did
drop her off, good-looking young kid like that.”

“She wasn’t lucky,” said Burden.

Dickson looked up, startled. “No, well, you know what I mean.”

“She called a taxi? D’you know which one?”

“It was Contemporary Cars. It was their card stuck up by the phone. There was other numbers on a bit of paper but that was the only card.”

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