Read Road Rage Online

Authors: Ruth Rendell

Road Rage (6 page)

The Entomologists introduced themselves and Wexford told them about
Araschnia
. Anecdotes on the theme of rare butterflies spotted in unlikely places were interrupted by the arrival of Freeborn accompanied by Peter Tregear. The Deputy Chief Constable took it upon himself, like a primary school headteacher, to count heads.

“If we’re all here we may as well begin.”

“We’re surely not going to walk, are we?” said Anouk Khoori.

Wexford couldn’t resist: “They haven’t built the road yet.”

“And let us hope they never will,” said Arcturus, as if the earthmoving equipment wasn’t busy a couple of miles on the other side of Savesbury Hill even while they spoke. “Let us be positive. Let us remember hope is one of the cardinal virtues.”

It wasn’t a very long walk that the party undertook. They took the footpath across the meadows from Pomfret Tye and at Watersmeet, where the Kingsbrook flowed into the Brede, Arcturus was able to point out, under the clear golden water, clinging to a round gleaming pebble, the mosaic cylinder of the yellow caddis. Mrs. Khoori was disappointed. It wasn’t big enough for her taste.

Half a mile along the river, perhaps not so much, Wexford could see the old mill building that Jeffrey Godwin had converted into the Weir Theatre. Dora wanted to see that play
Extinction
and no doubt Sheila would come down for it … He switched his mind from that train of thought. Janet Braiswick, of the British Entomologists, was walking with him and he told her about the goldcrests. He told her about seeing scarlet tiger moths when he was a boy. She told him how as a child in Norfolk she had once, but only once, seen a swallowtail in the fens.

They came to the nettle plantation at Framhurst Deeps, treading softly now, even Anouk Khoori, silent and anxious. The sun was hot, it was butterfly weather, and they waited and watched almost reverently but no Map butterfly appeared. No butterfly at all rose from the long grass and the oxeye daisies that whitened the meadows like summer snow.

The dismantled badger setts were studied, for here at this point the bypass would run, through
Araschnia
’s nettles, through the outskirts of the wood, and into Stringfield Marsh. In the distance Wexford could see the latest camp, the cluster of houses put up by tree dwellers. Eviction notices had been applied for but not yet issued. Meanwhile the tree dwellers had spiked every oak, ash, and lime in a half-mile stretch. Perhaps Sir Fleance McTear wanted to avoid the controversy these spikes might evoke or the indignation of Mrs. Khoori, who was known to disapprove of all protest that was not a matter
solely of the written or spoken word, for he suggested they turn back and make a small detour to take in the area designated for the new badger setts.

They were too far away to hear, still less see, the diggers working at the start of the site. Much too far to see the guards brought in by bus to protect the construction workers, the watching tree people, the witnesses. This was no more than a nature walk, Wexford thought, reminiscent of distant schooldays when Kingsmarkham infants were brought to these meadows to see the dragonflies and the water beetles. He asked Janet Braiswick when she had last seen tadpoles in an English pond, but she couldn’t remember, only that it was at least thirty years, when she had been a small child.

At five they were all back in Pomfret. Sir Fleance suggested tea in a local tea shop, at least a cup of tea if no one wanted to eat, but this proposal met with no enthusiasm. They were all depressed by what they had seen, they were saddened. Even Freeborn, Wexford noticed, was subdued. He and Anouk Khoori were country dwellers who never went out into the country, who had been obliged to do so today, and had in some strange way been frightened by what they saw, by its existence and its ephemerality.

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes …

They would rather not have seen it and then they could have pretended it wasn’t there, just as he had thought he wouldn’t go back so that he also could pretend. Avoid that place, don’t pass that way, avert the eye, until there were no more ways to pass or places to be in …

And now he might as well go home. He remembered then that he would be alone at home. Well, he had plenty to read. He could start on those George Steiner essays
everyone said were wonderful. And at some point there was always television, accompanied by a small single malt. Dora would probably phone about seven. She wouldn’t expect him to be home much before seven, but she would phone then because whoever cooked for Sheila, and there was certain to be someone, would put dinner on the table at half-past.

The house was hot and stuffy. Today it had felt more like July than early September. He opened the French windows, drew a chair up to the garden table, went back into the house for beer from the fridge and the book of essays:
No Passion Spent
. Was it necessary to begin at the beginning or could he dip? He thought it would be fine to dip.

The French windows blew shut. He wouldn’t hear the phone but Dora wouldn’t phone before—well, ten to seven. At a quarter to seven he considered eating. What should he eat? When Jenny Burden went away she left her husband homemade frozen dinners in the freezer, one for every day of her absence. Wexford wouldn’t submit his wife to such slavery, but he didn’t like cooking; the fact was he couldn’t cook. Bread and cheese and pickles for him, and maybe a banana and ice cream. Soup first, Heinz tomato. Burden said that this was every man’s favorite soup …

When it got to ten past seven and Dora hadn’t phoned he began to wonder. Not to worry; to wonder. She was a punctual meticulous woman. Perhaps they had people round for drinks and she couldn’t just slip away. He would postpone eating until he’d spoken to her, and he turned off the gas under the soup.

The phone rang at seven-fifteen.

“Dora?” he said.

“It’s not Dora, it’s Sheila. Where have you been? I’ve
been phoning and phoning. I phoned your office and you weren’t there, I phoned home over and over.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t expect a call till seven. How are you? How’s the baby?”

“I am fantastic, Pop, and the baby is perfectly fine, but where is Mother?”

“What do you mean?”

“Mother. We expected her by one at the latest. Where is she?”

5

H
e had done all the things one does in these circumstances: phoned hospitals, checked at the police station what road accidents there had been that day—only a car going into the back of another on the old bypass—phoned next door and talked to his neighbor.

Mary Pearson hadn’t seen Dora since the afternoon of the day before but she had seen a car parked outside that morning. At about ten forty-five, she thought it was. Maybe a few minutes earlier.

“That would be for the eleven-oh-three,” said Wexford.

“She was allowing herself a lot of time.”

“She always does. Was it a black taxi?”

“It was a red car, I don’t know the make, I’m afraid I don’t know about cars, Reg. I didn’t see her get in it.”

“Did you see the driver?”

Mary Pearson hadn’t. She sensed at last that something was wrong.

“You mean you don’t know where she’s got to, Reg?”

If he admitted it the whole street would be talking within the hour.

“She must have told me but it’s slipped my mind,” he said, and added, “Don’t worry,” as if she would worry and he wouldn’t.

Kingsmarkham Cabs used black taxis, so Dora hadn’t gone with them. And she couldn’t have used Contempo-
rary Cars because they were out of action from about ten-fifteen until just after midday. So much for the caution he’d forgotten to give her, yet for which there had been no need …

He phoned All the Sixes, Station Taxis, and every local company he could find in the phone book. None of them had picked up Dora that morning. He was beginning to have that feeling of unreality that comes over us when something utterly unexpected and potentially terrible happens.

Where was she?

Now he wished he had been discreet, had told Sheila some lie as to her mother’s whereabouts, for he had to phone her again and say he had no idea what had happened, he had no clue. Holding old-fashioned ideas about postparturient women, he thought shocks would be dangerous, an upset would dry up her milk, fear would delay her recovery. It was too late now.

Sheila wailed down the phone at him. “What do you mean, you don’t know what’s happened, Pop? Where is she? She must have had some ghastly accident!”

“That she has not had. She’d be in a hospital and she’s not.”

He could hear Paul saying soothing things. Then the baby began to cry, strong, urgent staccato screams.

It can’t be true, was what he wanted to say, this can’t be happening. We are dreaming the same dream, nightmaring the same nightmare, and we shall wake up soon. But he had to be strong, the paterfamilias, the rock.

“Sheila, I am doing everything I can. Your mother is not injured, your mother is not dead. These things I would know. I’ll phone you as soon as I know more.”

He went into the kitchen and poured the soup down the sink. It was nearly half-past eight and dusk, darkness coming. An oval orange moon was climbing up behind
the roofs. He asked himself what he would think if this was someone else’s wife.

The answer was easy: that she’d left him, gone off with another man. Women did it all the time, women of all ages, after many years of marriage or a few. As a policeman, he’d ask that husband if such a thing was possible. First he’d apologize, say he was sorry but he had to ask, and then he’d inquire about her friends, any particular man friend.

The husband would be affronted, indignant. Not my wife, my wife would never … And then he would think, remember, a chance word, a strange phone call, a coldness, an unusual warmth.

But this was Dora.
His
wife. It wasn’t possible. He realized he was reacting just like the husband of his experience, his small fantasy. My wife would never … Well, Dora
would
never, and that was all there was to it. It was insane to think like that and he was ashamed of himself. He had no strange phone calls to remember, devious behavior, unguarded coldness, feigned warmth. It wasn’t just that she was Caesar’s wife, she wouldn’t want to.

He poured himself an inch of whisky, then returned it to the bottle. He might have to drive somewhere. Instead he picked up the phone and dialed Burden’s number.

It took Burden seven minutes to get to him. Wexford was grateful. He had a funny thought that if they’d been Italians or Spaniards or something, Burden would have put his arms around him, embraced him. Of course he didn’t do that, just looked as if the thought had crossed his mind also.

Wexford made them tea. No alcohol tonight, just in case. He told Burden the whole story and described what he had done, the hospitals, the taxi companies, checking the road accidents.

“It’s hopeless going to the train station,” Burden said. “There’s never anyone there. The days are gone when there was someone to check your ticket and watch you go through. I suppose she’d even get her ticket out of the machine?”

“She always does. They’ve got a new one that takes credit cards.”

“What does Sylvia say?”

Wexford hadn’t even thought about his elder daughter. It would be true to say that for the past two or three hours he had forgotten her existence. A flood of guilt swamped him. Always he tried desperately to pay her the same attention he paid Sheila, to need her as much, to love her as well. Sometimes this had the effect of making him pay her
more
attention and give her more consideration, but now in a crisis all that had fled, had disappeared as if he had made no such resolve, and he had behaved like the father of an only child.

He said abruptly, “I’ll phone her.”

It rang and rang. The answering machine came on, Neil’s voice with the usual formula. Exasperated, Wexford wasn’t going to give his name and the date and time of day—what nonsense!—but just said, “Please phone me, Sylvia. It’s urgent.”

Dora must be with
them
. Everything was coming clear. Some dreadful thing had happened, an accident, or one of the children had been taken ill. He hadn’t asked hospitals about Sylvia’s children. Dora had been told before she could phone for a taxi and had gone to them—yes, been fetched by one of them. Sylvia had a red car, a scarlet VW Golf …

“Would she have gone like that?” Burden asked. “Without telling you? If she couldn’t get you wouldn’t she have left a message?”

“Perhaps not if it was”—Wexford looked up at him—“bad enough.”

“You mean, she’d have wanted to spare you? What are you thinking, Reg? Someone terribly injured?
Dead?
One of Sylvia’s boys?”

“I don’t know …”

The phone rang. He snatched it up.

“What’s so urgent, Dad?” Sylvia was cool, pleasant, sounding more contented than usual.

“Tell me first if you’re all all right?”

“We’re fine.”

He couldn’t tell whether his heart sank or leapt. “Have you seen your mother?”

“Not today, no. Why?”

After that he had to tell her.

“There must be some perfectly simple explanation.”

He had heard those words a thousand times, had even uttered them. He said he would call her back as soon as he had news.

“Thanks for not asking if she could have left me,” he said to Burden.

“It never crossed my mind.”

“I’m wondering if she decided to walk to the station after all.”

“In that case, what about the red car?”

“Mary just saw a red car. She didn’t know it was a taxi. She didn’t see Dora get into it. It might have been any car parked outside.”

“What are you saying? That she set out to walk to the station and something happened to her on the way? She collapsed or …”

“Or she was attacked, Mike. Attacked, robbed, left there. There have been a lot of strange goings-on in this place lately: that masked lot on the rampage, the breaking
into Concreation, that business at Contemporary Cars this morning.”

“D’you want to go out and follow the route she’d have taken?”

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