Authors: Ruth Rendell
Not Trotter but Peter Samuel. It was a little after noon. He had come back to the offices in Station Road to find his receptionist bound and gagged and tied to a chair, the place turned over, and the petty cash stolen.
Barry Vine went down there with Detective Constable Lynn Fancourt. The door to the mobile home was open and Samuel was standing on the steps.
Inside, it was a squeeze for the four of them. Tanya Paine, whose job it was to answer the phones, the one for the cars and the one for potential fares, sat on the pulldown bed rubbing her wrists. The cord that tied her had been tightly bound around her wrists and ankles. A pair of tights had been used as a gag and another to blindfold her. She wasn’t hurt but was frightened and shaken, a young woman in her early twenties, white-faced under the heavy makeup, her elaborately done long hair coming down from its chignon where the gag and blindfold had been tied.
“I’d been driving a client to Gatwick,” Samuel said. “I was on my way back. Couldn’t make out why I hadn’t had a call from Tanya here. I mean, it was unheard-of, an hour going by without a call. I thought maybe the phone was down. So I come back here. I mean, I never come back here, not till my dinnertime, but being as I hadn’t had a call not in all of an hour and a half …”
“All right, sir, thank you very much,” said Vine. “Let’s hear from Miss Paine. Just one man, was it, Miss Paine? Did you get a look at him?”
“There were two,” said Tanya Paine. “They had black
masks on with holes for their eyes and mouth. Well, not masks, hoods. It was like the pictures in the paper of that lot that broke into the bypass builders’ place. And one of them had a gun.”
“Are you sure of that?”
“Of course I’m sure. I was scared. I was dead terrified, actually. They opened that door and came up the steps and shut the door and the one with the gun pointed it at me and said to get in here. So I did—well, I wasn’t going to argue, was I? They made me sit in that chair and one of them tied me up. At gunpoint. I hadn’t got no choice, it was at gunpoint.”
“What time would that have been?”
“Ten-fifteen, ten-twenty, something like that.”
“And you were gagged and blindfolded?” said Lynn Fancourt.
“I don’t know why. I couldn’t see their faces, anyway, not with them masks. They blindfolded me and I couldn’t see a thing. I heard them moving about. Then they shut the door on me, that door, and I couldn’t hear either. Oh, well, I heard the phone ring a few times, I could hear that. They was here a good while after they tied me up, a long time, I don’t know how long it was before I heard the door bang.”
The room where they were had originally been the bedroom of the mobile home. To the built-in furniture, pull-down bed, hanging cupboard, and two foldaway tables had been added a fireside chair and two Windsor Wheelback chairs, to one of which Tanya Paine had been tied. Beyond the door was the kitchen, equipped with microwave, fridge, and cupboards with counters, and beyond that the living area, currently used as the office. With both interior doors shut not much of what was going on in the office could have been heard by a gagged and blindfolded woman shut in the bedroom.
Vine and Lynn Fancourt looked it over. “Contemporary” as a title for this company was something of a misnomer. The two telephones were the only evidence of modern technology. There was no computer and no safe.
“We don’t need no safe,” said Samuel. “Twice a day I bank the takings, once at dinnertime and once at three.”
“So what was in the petty cash box?” asked Vine, holding up an empty tin that long ago had contained cream crackers. He held it in a clean handkerchief between thumb and forefinger, though whatever fingerprints that might have been there had by then been irrevocably smudged by Samuel’s and Tanya Paine’s handling of it.
“Maybe five quid,” said Samuel, “and that’d be pushing it. I’d got my takings on me and the same would go for Stan and Les. They’d bring them in round about midday and I’d bank the lot.”
Vine shook his head. It was a long while since he had heard of anything so slapdash. Tanya Paine came out, her hairdo reassembled, her lipstick renewed.
“I thought you’d want to see me the way they left me,” she explained, “before I repaired the damage. There was three pounds forty-two in that cash box, Pete. I checked it out on account of thinking I’d pop out for a cappuccino and a Mars bar when Stan came back and I’d not got no change myself. Three pounds forty-two exactly.”
They had taken it. But had they been looking for something else? A drawer had been pulled out from under the counter where the phones were. A book of receipt stubs was on the floor. The VAT book had been opened and left face downward. But policemen get to know when a place has been ransacked or, conversely, made to look as if it has been ransacked. This effort to deceive had not even been wholehearted. The two masked men had come for something Contemporary Cars had, but, as Vine said to Lynn on the way back to the police station, it
wasn’t three pounds forty-two and it wasn’t some vital document among the VAT inputs.
“What were they doing then for what she calls a long time after they’d left her tied up in there?”
“I don’t know,” said Vine. “The chances are, though, that it wasn’t the long time she says. She was scared, understandably so, and it seemed like a long time. It was probably a couple of minutes.”
“So they tied her up, shut the two doors on her, took the petty cash, and dropped a few things on the floor to make it look like a search? And they had a
“That’ll have been a toy or a replica. No one was hurt, it’s a small sum that’s missing, there was no damage—and we’re never going to find those two, you know that.”
“That’s a bit of a defeatist attitude, Sergeant Vine,” said Lynn, who was twenty-four, new from her training, and ardent.
“You watch it, young Lynn. I don’t mean we’re not going to check the place over and see if the prints are those of any villain known to us. We shall observe the usual routine, but there’s been rather a lot of this sort of thing lately, though I’ll admit the masks and the gun are novelties.”
When Burden heard of it he immediately seized on the fact that one of Contemporary Cars’ drivers was Stanley Trotter. One of the two intruders could even have been Stanley Trotter.
“Tanya Paine would have recognized him,” said Vine. “Anyway, why would he need that? He was on the spot or could be. He could look for whatever it was without tying the girl up.”
“Where is he now?”
“Down there, I reckon. They all come in at midday with their takings. They’re all there. Well, not Barrett, he’s away on his holidays.”
Burden went down to Station Road, accompanied by an enthusiastic Lynn Fancourt. Tanya Paine was back on her phones, apparently none the worse for wear. She sent them through to the kitchen area, where Trotter was sitting in front of the black and white television set, eating a hamburger and with a plate of chips on his knees.
“Maybe you’d like to tell me where you were between ten and midday,” Burden said.
Trotter took a bite out of his hamburger. “The station trade,” he said with his mouth full. “And when that come to an end after the ten-nineteen’d come and gone, I got a call from here to fetch a fare from Pomfret. Masters Street, Pomfret, number fifteen, to be precise, which I took to the station, picked up a fare as was waiting, and drove them to Stowerton, and by then it’d have been half-eleven, so I had my tea break. I was back in the cab by ten of twelve and I hung about down by the station, but when I never got no more calls from here, I thought, Funny, that’s very funny, that’s never happened before.”
“I come back here, didn’t I?”
“I’d like the name of the fare you picked up in Pomfret.”
“I don’t know his name. Why would I? Tanya said to go to fifteen Masters Street, Pomfret, and that’s what I done.”
Burden asked Tanya Paine for the fare’s name. Presumably she kept a record. She looked at him blankly.
“I’d have to write them down.” She spoke as if writing by hand was comparable to mastering some difficult language, Russian, for instance. “Pete’s thinking of getting a computer,” she said, “if he can pick one up secondhand.”
“So you’ve no idea how many calls come in or who from?”
“I never said that. I know how many. I sort of jot it down.”
She showed him a sheet of paper on which perhaps thirty or forty dashes had been made in pencil.
“What about the fare you picked up at the station after that?” Burden asked.
“I took him to Oval Road, Stowerton. Number five or it might have been seven. He’ll remember me and so will the Pomfret chap.”
Trotter fixed Burden with a stony glare. He didn’t look guilty, though. He looked as if he had nothing to hide. Burden was unable to imagine how the incidents of the morning at Contemporary Cars could have any connection with the murder of Ulrike Ranke, but that was what police work was about, discovering connections where none seemed to exist. He went back to the office where Tanya Paine had retreated. Squinting into a small hand mirror, she was applying violet-colored mascara, her lips pursed and her nostrils narrowed.
“Is it possible,” he said, “that one of the two men who tied you up could have been one of the drivers here?”
“Pardon?” She turned around and passed her tongue wetly across her lips.
“The two men,” he rephrased it, “could one or both of them have been known to you? Did you have any sort of feeling of familiarity?”
She shook her head, stunned by this new turn the inquiry was taking.
“Did they speak?”
“One of them did. He said to keep quiet and I would be okay. That’s all.”
“So you didn’t hear the other one’s voice?”
Again that amazed shake of the head.
“The other one, then, he was masked and you didn’t hear his voice. You can’t really say he couldn’t have been
known to you, can you? If you couldn’t see his face and didn’t hear his voice, it could have been someone you knew very well.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Tanya Paine. “I’m confused now. They tied me up and gagged me and it was
and I want counseling, I’m a victim.”
“We can arrange that, Ms. Paine,” said Lynn sympathetically.
Burden took Lynn Fancourt down to Stowerton with him where they established that no one from number five Oval Road had been brought by taxi from the station that morning. Nobody was at home at number seven, so they had either gone out again or Trotter was lying, an alternative Burden preferred to believe. A woman at number nine told them her neighbor was called Wingate, but she had no idea whether he had been fetched from Kingsmarkham Station that morning or where he was now.
The Pomfret fare, if he existed, might still be in London or Eastbourne or wherever the train had taken him, but more than three hours had elapsed, so it was equally likely he was back again. Lynn rang the bell at fifteen Masters Road, a between-the-wars bungalow with a view over the bypass site.
The woman who answered the door had been doing some interior decorating. She had magnolia gloss paint on her hands, her jeans and shirt, and streaks of it in her hair. She looked cross and hot. No, she hadn’t got a husband. If Burden meant her partner, he was called John Clifton, and yes, he had gone to London that morning on the 10:51. A taxi had taken him to Kingsmarkham Station, but she hadn’t heard him phone for it, she hadn’t seen it come, and she had no idea which firm it was or who was driving the car. John had called out good-bye and said he was off and—
“What’s happened to him?” she said, suddenly alarmed.
“Nothing, Miss …”
“Kennedy. Martha Kennedy. You’re sure nothing’s happened to him?”
“It’s the taxi driver we’re interested in,” said Lynn.
“In that case, perhaps you’ll excuse me. I want to finish these bloody doors before John gets back.”
Burden said they would call again later. The door was shut rather sharply in his face. On the way back to Kingsmarkham they passed Wexford, who was driving himself to Pomfret Tye for his meeting and tour with the Deputy Chief Constable and the conservationists.
The day, which had started dull and misty, was such a day as all lovers of the countryside should be given for their viewing of natural wonders. Or perhaps should not be given, should be denied, lest the soft air, the sunshine, the blue sky, and the rich green of vegetation give too painful and nostalgic an edge to a pastoral loveliness that must soon pass away. Better for all, Wexford was thinking, if the day were dull and cold and the sky the color of the concrete soon to spread itself across these hills, these deeps and marshes, and bridge on stark gray pillars the rippling waters of the Brede.
Today the butterflies would be out, the tortoiseshells and fritillaries as well as
, and wild bees on the eyebright and the heather. There were goldcrests in the fir trees of Framhurst Great Wood. He had seen a pair of them once when on a picnic with Dora and the girls, and he and Sheila had looked, though looked in vain, for the nest that is like a little hanging basket. Dora—he had meant to phone her at lunchtime, in spite of what he’d said about her phoning him in the evening. But he hadn’t, he’d decided to wait. By now she would have seen
the new child, his granddaughter Amulet. Alone in the car, he laughed out loud over that name.
Freeborn hadn’t yet got there, much to his relief. If the Deputy Chief Constable had arrived first he would have had something snide to say about it, even if Wexford himself had been on time, even if he had been early. Somewhat to his dismay, Anouk Khoori, chairperson of the Council’s Highways Committee, a woman with whom he had crossed swords in the recent past, was representing the local authority. She was fetchingly dressed in a yellow T-shirt with green jodhpurs and green boots, her bright blond hair tied up in a black and yellow bandanna, and she was exercising her wiles on Mark Arcturus of English Nature, smiling into his eyes, one scarlet-tipped hand resting on his sleeve. All smiles ceased when she became aware of Wexford’s presence and she gave him a very brief frosty glance.
Wexford said in his best stolid policeman voice, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Khoori. A fine day.”