Read Road Rage Online

Authors: Ruth Rendell

Road Rage (3 page)

“And the taxi came?”

For the first time Dickson looked less than proud of himself, the picture of rectitude and earnest integrity slipping slightly.

“I don’t rightly know. I mean, she said they’d said fifteen minutes, they’d said it’d be Stan in fifteen minutes, and when I went up to bed like half an hour I looked out of the window and she was gone, so I reckon he turned up all right.”

“Are you saying,” said Burden, “that she didn’t wait for him in here? You sent her outside to wait for him?”

“Look, this is a hotel, not a hostel …”

“This is a public house,” said Vine.

“Look, the wife had gone to bed, she’d had a heavy day, and I was clearing up. We’d had a hell of a day. It wasn’t that cold out. It wasn’t raining.”

“She was nineteen years old,” said Burden. “A young girl, a foreign visitor. You sent her out there to wait in the dark at eleven o’clock at night.”

Dickson turned his back. “I’ll think twice,” he muttered, “before I phone your lot with information next time.”

*   *   *

Later that day, after hours of questioning, Stanley Trotter, a driver for Contemporary Cars and a partner with Peter Samuel in the company, was arrested for the murder of Ulrike Ranke.

3

S
heila Wexford intended to have her baby at home. Home births were fashionable and Sheila, her father said with a kind of fond sourness, had always been a dedicated follower of fashion. He would have liked her to go into the world’s best obstetrics hospital, wherever that might be, some four weeks before the birth was due. When labor began he would have preferred the top obstetrician in the country to be present, along with a couple of caring medical assistants and a troop of top-of-their-finals-year midwives. An epidural must be administered after the first contraction, and should labor continue for more than half an hour, a cesarean be performed—a keyhole one if possible.

That, at any rate, was what Dora said his preference would be.

“Nonsense,” said Wexford. “I just don’t like the idea of her having it at home.”

“She’ll do what she likes. She always does.”

“Sheila isn’t selfish,” said Sheila’s father.

“I didn’t say she was. I said she did what she liked.”

Wexford considered this contradiction in terms. “You’ll go up and be with her, won’t you?”

“I hadn’t thought of it. I’m not a midwife. I’ll certainly go after the baby’s born.”

“Funny, isn’t it?” said Wexford. “We’ve come a long way in sexual enlightenment, the equality of women and
men, got rid of the old shibboleths. Men are present at the births of their children as a matter of course. Women breast-feed in public. Women talk publicly about all sorts of gynecological things they’d once have died before mentioning. But you can’t imagine that there’s anyone who wouldn’t balk, to say the least, at the idea of a father being present when his daughter gives birth, can you? You see, I’ve shocked you. You’re blushing.”

“Well, naturally I am, Reg. Surely you don’t want to be present at Sheila’s …?”

“Lying-in? Of course I don’t. I’d probably pass out. I’m only saying it’s an anomaly that you can be there and I can’t.”

Sheila lived in London with the father of her child, an actor called Paul Curzon, in a mews off Welbeck Street. The baby would be born there. Wexford, whose knowledge of London was shaky, checked it out in his
Geographer’s Atlas
, and found that Harley Street was near enough for comfort. Harley Street was full of doctors, as everyone knew, and hospitals too probably.

Contemporary Cars was housed in a prefabricated building of temporary appearance on an otherwise empty lot in Station Road. It had once been the site of the Railway Arms, a pub which was less and less frequented, its onetime customers finding beer prices exorbitant and drunk-driving laws draconian. The Railway Arms closed down, then was pulled down. Nothing else was built and there were those in Kingsmarkham who called the windswept litter-strewn site, fringed with nettles and surrounded by spindly trees, an eyesore. The arrival of the converted mobile home, in their eyes, hardly improved matters, but Sir Fleance McTear, chairman of both KABAL and the Kingsmarkham Historical Society, said that in view of the projected bypass it was the least of their worries.

Peter Samuel, the self-styled chief executive of Contemporary Cars, told everyone his business would soon be moving into permanent premises, but so far there had been no sign of this. The old Railway Arms site offered plenty of parking space for taxis and very convenient exits and entrances into the station approach. It was in these trailerlike offices with their stowaway tables, shower cabinet, and pull-down beds from former days on the road that Burden first interviewed Stanley Trotter.

At first Trotter denied all knowledge of Ulrike Ranke. His memory jogged by Vine’s quoting from William Dickson and mentioning the German girl’s accent, Trotter eventually recalled taking Ulrike’s phone call—taking the call, not driving out to the Brigadier. He had intended to do that himself, he said, but was due to pick up someone off the last train from London, so passed the job on to one of the other drivers, Robert Barrett.

The difficulty there was that when questioned, Barrett had no recollection of his movements on the night of April 3 beyond being sure that he had fares throughout the evening, it was a busy evening. The whole week had been busy—something to do with Easter, he thought. But he was sure of one thing: he had never, in the five months he had worked for Contemporary Cars, picked up a fare from the Brigadier.

Burden asked Stanley Trotter to come to Kingsmarkham Police Station. By then he had discovered that Trotter had a criminal record, previous convictions of no inconsiderable kind. His first offense, committed some seven years before, was breaking and entering shop premises in Eastbourne; his second, far more serious, was robbery, a definition that implied assault. He had punched a young woman in the face, knocked her to the ground, and kicked her, then taken her handbag. She was walking home along Queen Street, quite alone, one midnight. For
both these offenses Trotter had gone to prison, and would have served a much longer sentence for the second if his victim had suffered more than a bruise on her jaw.

But it was enough, or almost enough, for Burden. He had got Trotter to confess that he did in fact drive out to the Brigadier at 10:45 on April 3. Originally, he said, he had been too scared to admit it. He drove there, reaching the pub just before eleven, but the fare wasn’t waiting. If she had been there once she was gone by then.

At this point Trotter demanded a lawyer, and Burden had no choice but to agree. A sharp young solicitor from Morgan de Clerck of York Street arrived promptly and, when Trotter said he couldn’t recall whether or not he had rung the bell at the Brigadier, told Burden his client had said he couldn’t remember and that must be sufficient.

Outside the interview room Vine said, “Dickson said she was out in the street. Trotter wouldn’t have had to ring the bell.”

“No, but he didn’t know she’d be out in the street, did he? He’d have thought—anyone would have thought—she’d be inside the pub and have rung the bell as a matter of course. Are you telling me he’d have turned up at the pub at eleven at night and finding no one there just turned round and gone back to Station Road?”

“That’s what
he’s
telling you,” said Vine.

They went on questioning Trotter. The solicitor from Morgan de Clerck took them up on every small point while providing his client with an unending supply of cigarettes, though not a smoker himself. Trotter, a round-shouldered, thin, and unhealthy-looking man of about forty, got through twenty by the end of the afternoon and the atmosphere in the interview room was blue with smoke. The solicitor interrupted everything by inces
santly asking how long they intended to keep Trotter and finally asked if he was to be charged.

Recklessly, Burden, hardly able to breathe, gasped out a yes. But he didn’t charge him; he just kept him at Kingsmarkham Police Station. When Wexford got to hear of it he was dubious about the whole thing, but Burden got a warrant and Trotter’s home in Peacock Street, Stowerton, was searched for evidence. There, in the two-room flat over a grocery market kept by two Bangladeshi brothers, Detective Constables Archbold and Pemberton found a string of imitation pearls and a holdall of brown canvas bound in dark green plastic.

To Wexford it wasn’t much like the shoulder bag in Dickson’s photograph, nor did it conform to the description of his daughter’s bag Dieter Ranke had given the police. This one was an altogether cheaper affair and brown and green instead of brown and black. The Rankes were comfortably off, both parents professionals with significant jobs, and Ulrike, an only child, had wanted for nothing. Her pearls were a cultured string, carefully matched, an eighteenth birthday present for which her mother and father had paid the equivalent of thirteen hundred pounds.

“That poor chap will have to take a look at the bag,” Wexford said, meaning Ranke and thinking of himself and his daughters. “He’s still in this country for the inquest.”

“It won’t be so bad as identifying the body,” said Burden.

“No, Mike, I don’t suppose it will.” Wexford didn’t want to pursue that, he might say something he’d be sorry for afterward. “I’m told the Department of Transport are applying to the High Court for leave to evict the tree people.”

Burden looked pleased. The idea of the bypass had always
been attractive to him, largely because he thought it would put an end to traffic congestion in the town center and on the old bypass.

“No one made all this fuss in the old days,” he said. “If government decreed a road was to be built people accepted it. They took the entirely proper view that if they voted their representatives into Parliament they’d done their democratic duty and they must abide by government decisions. They didn’t build tree houses and—and
streak
—is it called streaking? They didn’t do criminal damage and cripple tree fellers who are only doing their job. They understood that a road such as this is being built
for their own good
.”

“ ‘He didn’t know what the world was coming to,’ ” said Wexford. “That’s what they’ll put on your tombstone.” He gave Burden a sidelong look. “Big demonstration tomorrow. KABAL, the Sussex Wildlife Trust, Friends of the Earth, and Sacred Globe, the whole lot led by Sir Fleance McTear, Peter Tregear, and Anouk Khoori.”

“It will just make more work for us. That’s all it’ll accomplish. They’ll still build the bypass.”

“Who knows?” said Wexford.

He didn’t question Trotter himself. Burden, harassed by Damian Harmon-Shaw of Morgan de Clerck, succeeded in getting an extension of twelve hours to the time he was allowed to keep Trotter. He knew that when that time was up he would either have to charge him or let him go as the Magistrates’ Court was unlikely to be persuaded by the evidence to issue a warrant of further detention.

The three Vauxhalls and the three VW Golfs used by Contemporary Cars were all examined. Peter Samuel put up no objection. The cars had each been cleaned inside and out at least ten times since April 3 and had each carried hundreds of fares. If there had ever been traces of
Ulrike Ranke’s brief occupancy of one of them, a hair perhaps, a fingerprint, a thread from her clothes, these had long ago been removed or obliterated.

“You haven’t any evidence, Mike,” Wexford said after he had listened to the tape. “All you have are his previous convictions and the fact that he went to the Brigadier and finding no one there, turned around and went home again.”

“He knows Framhurst Great Wood. He’s admitted going to the picnic area when his kids were young.” Trotter’s desertion of his wife and small children and his subsequent divorce, remarriage, and very rapid second divorce were other factors which had prejudiced Burden against him. “He knows the lane into the wood and he knows all about parking at the picnic place. The body was found two hundred yards from there.”

“Half the population of Kingsmarkham knows that picnic area. I used to take my kids there, you used to take yours. One might say it was pretty open of him to admit knowing it. He wasn’t obliged to.”

Burden said coldly, “I know he’s guilty. I know he killed her. He killed her for that string of pearls, the most easily disposable of all jewelry, and for the five hundred pounds she was carrying.”

“Do you know he was short of money?”

“His sort is always short of money.”

Dieter Ranke came to Kingsmarkham two hours before Burden’s extension was up. In the meantime he and Detective Sergeant Karen Malahyde had questioned Trotter again but made no progress. Ulrike’s father rejected the brown canvas bag after a cursory glance. The cheap pearl necklace found in Trotter’s flat provoked an outburst of anger. He shouted at Barry Vine, then apologized, then wept.

“You will now allow my client to go,” said Damian
Harmon-Shaw in a very smooth voice and smiling condescendingly.

Burden had no choice. “He’s got off scot-free,” he said to Wexford, “and I know he killed her. I can’t bear that.”

“You’ll have to bear it. I’ll tell you what really happened, if you like. When that miscreant Dickson had turned her out into the street Ulrike wasn’t at all happy being on that road with no other house in sight. If the pub lights were put out, there wouldn’t have been any light, it would have been very dark indeed out on the bypass. She waited for the taxi, but before it came another car stopped and the driver offered her a lift. A car or a lorry—who knows?”

“And she’d take it, in spite of the dangers?”

“Individual instances are quite different, though, aren’t they? People think themselves judges of character. They think they can tell what someone’s like from a face and a voice. It’s dark, it’s late, she’s cold, she’s no idea where she’s going to sleep that night, if she’s going to sleep anywhere, she doesn’t know when she’ll get to Aylesbury. A man comes along in a car, a warm well-lit car, and he’s a nice man, not young, a fatherly man who doesn’t make personal remarks, who doesn’t ask her what’s a lovely girl like her doing out on a dark night, but just says he’s on his way to London and would she like a lift. Maybe he says more, that he’s on his way to pick up his wife in Stowerton and drive her to London. We don’t know, but we can imagine. And Ulrike, who’s tired and cold and knows a decent older man when she sees one …”

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