Read Road Rage Online

Authors: Ruth Rendell

Road Rage (7 page)

“I think I do,” Wexford said.

His daughters might phone in his absence, but he couldn’t help that. Burden drove. The only route Dora could reasonably have taken was along roads that were built-up all the way. There was no stretch of open country, no area of waste ground, no alley to pass through, and only one footpath to take as a shortcut. It had been a misty morning, but the sun had come through bright and strong by ten-thirty. People would have been about, in the street, in their front gardens.

Before they came to Queen Street, Burden parked and they explored the footpath. It led between the backs of shop yards and the backs of gardens, was overhung with trees on both sides. A couple of teenagers were standing up against a garden gate, kissing. There was no one else, nothing else. Burden drove across the High Street, entered Station Road, the station approach.

“It’s not possible, is it?” Burden said, turning around outside the station.

“I ought to be relieved.”

“Let’s say she walked it, and I reckon she must have if none of the taxi firms took her. Could she have met anyone on the way who gave her some sort of news so grave or so important as to distract her from going to London?”

“That’s the idea I had about Sylvia all over again, isn’t it?”

“Well, could she?”

Wexford thought about it. He looked at the houses they passed, some of whose occupants he and Dora knew, well or slightly, but none were friends. The United Reform
Church, the Warren Primary School, a row of shops, then roads that were purely residential. Some acquaintance comes running out of one of these houses, calls out to Dora, rushes her indoors, pours her heart out, appeals for help … Denies her the use of a phone? Frustrates her visit to a new grandchild, the longed-for granddaughter? Compels her attention for
eleven hours
?

“No, Mike, she couldn’t,” he said.

All the stories he had ever read of people going missing, all the cases of missing people he had ever come across … He thought of them now. The woman who had gone into a supermarket with her boyfriend, left him waiting at the fish counter to go herself to the cheese counter, and was never seen again. The man who went out to buy cigarettes but never returned. The girl who checked into a Brighton hotel in the evening but who wasn’t in her room in the morning, was nowhere. All those others who just weren’t where they should have been at some given time, who had disappeared without clue, without trace.

Still, it was only eleven hours. A day, he thought, a whole lost day. In his house the phone was ringing. Sheila. No, he had no news. He told her—absurdly—what he had told Mary Pearson, not to worry.

“Don’t say there must be some perfectly simple explanation, Pop.”

“That’s what your sister said. Maybe she’s right.”

Burden offered to stay the night with him.

“No, you go home. I won’t sleep, anyway. I don’t suppose I’ll go to bed. Thanks for coming.”

He didn’t say aloud what he was thinking. He let Burden go, watched him go, and went back into the dark house, switching lights on. She must be dead, he said to himself, then said it to the empty room.

“She must be dead.”

He amended it to: She must be dead or badly hurt. And not found. Somewhere she lay. There was no other explanation for her not phoning him or phoning one of the girls or somehow getting a message to him. Then he thought of the note that might have been left for him, the note that blew off the mantelpiece or fell down behind the furniture. He crawled about the floors, looking for the scrap of paper that would explain everything, tell all. Of course there was no note. When had Dora left him notes?

The small whisky he had poured back into the bottle he poured again. Someone else could drive him if need be. Need wouldn’t be tonight, he knew that by some kind of intuition.

Everyone knew. Because of his phone calls of the previous night and because Burden got in first, they all knew. They didn’t expect him but he went in because he didn’t know what else to do.

He had slept in the armchair for about an hour. Then he got up, had a shower, made himself a mug of instant coffee. You can phone hospitals at any hour, so he phoned a few, all ones he had phoned the evening before. No Dora Wexford had been brought in. He phoned both daughters and found that they had been talking to each other half the night. Sylvia was going to London to give Sheila support once she had found someone with whom to leave her sons, school being still out for the summer holidays. Would Dad like Neil to come and stay with him? Dad would not, but he said it politely.

“No, thank you, my dear. You’re very kind.”

He had been at the police station for an hour, not doing anything, sitting at his desk when Barry Vine came in to say there had been a phone call from someone wanting to report a missing boy, a teenager. Vine, who
wouldn’t normally have been anxious to regard a boy of fourteen, six feet tall, gone from his grandmother’s house for twenty-four hours as missing, thought the circumstances justified special attention.

“What circumstances?” said Wexford.

“This boy was going to London. He was going to the station in a cab.”

“My God,” said Wexford softly.

“Do I get the grandmother down here, sir?”

“We’ll go to her.”

Rhombus Road was two streets from Oval Street where Burden had come with Lynn Fancourt on the previous day to check on the fare Trotter said he had fetched from Kingsmarkham Station. Since then Wingate had confirmed Trotter’s statement: he had been picked up from the station at about eleven, having come off the ten fifty-eight train, and deposited in Oval Street at eleven-twenty. Wexford and Vine passed his door, turned left and left again, and parked outside 72 Rhombus Road.

It was a street of small terraced houses, put up at the end of the nineteenth century, as so many in Stowerton had been, to accommodate workers in the chalk quarries and their families. All were now owner-occupied, affordable by young couples and first-time buyers. Most front doors were painted various bright colors, flowery window boxes attached to sills and front gardens concreted over to give room for one parked car.

No car stood in front of 72, which though not shabby retained its original glass-paneled front door and sash windows, had flower beds full of chrysanthemums and Michaelmas daisies and a gravel path. The door was opened by a woman who looked far too young to be the grandmother of a fourteen-year-old. She had frizzy dark hair, pulled back with two barrettes from a pale freckled
face that appeared as if makeup had never touched it. Denim dungarees were loose around her waist and over the checked shirt. Her eyes were frightened, too wide open.

“Come in, please. I’m Audrey Barker. Ryan is my son.”

They went into a small, exquisitely tidy living room that smelled of lavender polish. The woman who had got up from her armchair was in her seventies, plump, white-haired, in a heather and green tweed skirt and a sweater set the color of the scent.

Wexford said, “Mrs. Peabody?”

She nodded. “My daughter came this morning. She came as soon as she knew about the muddle we’d got in. She’s not well, she’s just got out of the hospital, that’s why Ryan was staying with me, because she was in the hospital, but as soon as we didn’t know—I mean, as soon as we knew …”

“Why don’t you sit down, Mrs. Peabody, and tell us about it from the beginning?”

It was Audrey Barker who answered him. “Basically, my mother thought Ryan was going home yesterday and I wasn’t expecting him till today. We should have phoned and checked, but we didn’t. Ryan himself thought yesterday was the day.”

“Where do you live, Mrs. Barker?”

“In south London, Croydon. You get the train from Kingsmarkham and change at Crawley or Reigate. You don’t have to go into Victoria. Ryan had done it a good few times. He’s nearly fifteen and he’s tall for his age, taller than most grown men.” She evidently thought they were condemning her, though their faces were quite blank. “He could have walked to Kingsmarkham Station,” she said.

“It’s over three miles, Audrey. He had his bag to carry.”

Vine steered her back to the previous morning. “So Ryan was going home, Mrs. Peabody, and you thought he ought to have a taxi to the station. Is that right?”

She nodded. Slowly she clenched her fists and held them in her lap. It was a controlling gesture, a way of containing panic.

“The stopping train is the eleven-nineteen,” she said. “The bus would have got him there an hour ahead of time and the next one would have been too late. I said why not have a taxi. I’d give him the money, it would be my treat. He’d only once been in a taxi before and that was with his mum.” Her voice slipped a bit. She cleared her throat. “He didn’t know what to say so I phoned up. It was a bit before half-past ten, five-and-twenty past ten. I asked the man for a taxi for a quarter to eleven. That was to give Ryan time to buy his ticket. A nice bit of time, I don’t like rushing. Oh, I wish I’d gone with him—why didn’t I, Audrey? I was just too stingy to pay the fare back again.”

“That’s not being stingy, Mum. That’s common sense.”

“Who did you phone, Mrs. Peabody?”

She thought. One hand went up and briefly covered her mouth.

“I said to Ryan to do it. Phone up, I mean. But he wouldn’t, he said he didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t push it. I said, Find me the number in the book, the local yellow pages book, and I’ll do it. He gave me the number and I did it.”

“Wrote the number down, do you mean? Or brought you the phone book and pointed at it, or what?”

“He just said it. I put the phone on my lap and he said the number and I dialed it.”

“Can you remember it?” Wexford asked, knowing how hopeless this was, registering her bemused shake of the head. “It wasn’t double six, double six, double six, was it?”

“It was not,” she said. “I’d remember that.”

“Did you see the car? The driver?”

“Of course I did. We were waiting in the hall, Ryan and me.”

They would be, Wexford thought, they would be there on the spot waiting, these two inexperienced taxi-takers, the old woman and the boy, he could picture them. Mustn’t keep the driver waiting, have you got the money ready, Ryan, and a fifty-pee piece for his tip? Here he is now, you want to go to the station, that’s all you have to say to him, now give your nan a nice kiss …

“He came on the dot,” said Mrs. Peabody, “and Ryan picked up his bag and that bag they all wear on their shoulders, a back-something, and I said lots of love to Mum and to give me a kiss and he did. He had to bend right over to kiss me and he gave me a big hug and off he went.”

She began to cry. Her daughter put an arm tightly around her shoulders. “You’re not to blame, Mum. Nobody’s blaming you. It’s just all so mad, there’s no explanation.”

“There must be an explanation, Mrs. Barker,” said Vine. “You didn’t expect Ryan till today, you said?”

“They start back at school tomorrow. I thought he was coming the day before they started but him and my mother, they thought it was two days before. We should have phoned, I don’t know why we didn’t. I did phone when I got home from the hospital. That was Saturday and I was sure Ryan said it was Wednesday he was coming home but now I reckon what he said was, I’ll be home all day Wednesday or something like that.”

“So you weren’t worried when he didn’t turn up?” said Wexford.

“I wasn’t worried till first thing this morning. I phoned Mum to check up on his train. It was a shock, I can tell you.”

“It was a shock for both of us,” said Mrs. Peabody.

“So I got the next train down here. I don’t know why, it was just instinctive, to be here with Mum. Look, where is he? What’s happened to him? He’s not what you’d call big, but he’s very tall, he’s not stupid, he knows what he’s doing, he wouldn’t go with some man who offered him something. I mean, money, sweets, he’s
fourteen
for God’s sake.”

Dora’s a grown woman, Wexford thought, a middle-aged woman who knows what she’s doing, who wouldn’t go with any man who offered her anything …

“Have you got a photograph of Ryan?”

On the verges of Framhurst Great Wood men worked all day, under the supervision of a tree expert, at extracting metal spikes from the trunks of oaks, limes, and ashes at chain-saw—felling height. One of them injured his left hand so badly that he had to be taken as a matter of urgency to Stowerton Royal Infirmary where it was feared at first he would lose two fingers. The tree people in the high branches were peaceful and silent, but those in the treetop camp at Savesbury Deeps bombarded the workmen with bottles, empty soda cans, and sticks. From the top of a noble sycamore someone poured a bucket of urine onto the head of the tree expert.

Clouds had been gathering since lunchtime and the rain began at three. It descended delicately at first, pattering on a million tired summer-weary leaves, increasing in volume until it became a deluge. The Elves, as some called them, retreated into their tree houses, drew up their
tarpaulins, while some of them descended into the tunnel they had dug to link Framhurst Bottom with Savesbury Dell. Lightning lit up the Elves’ nests in the high branches and a great gust of wind shook the trees so that their trunks swayed like the stems of flowers.

Over the whole panorama of woods, hills, and green valleys (as seen from the air) the wind, weighted with heavy rain, flew in great silvery gray sweeps that glittered when the lightning came. The thunder rolled, then clattered with a sound like trees falling or heavy objects flung down on top of one another from a great height.

The workmen and the tree expert went home. Down in Kingsmarkham, Wexford also went home: a brief visit to check on his forlorn hope that there might be something significant or even vital on his answering machine.

He found both his daughters there.

The three-day-old Amulet lay in Sylvia’s lap. Sheila leapt up and threw herself into his arms.

“Oh, Pop darling, we thought we ought to be here with you. We both thought that simultaneously, didn’t we, Syl? We didn’t hesitate, we didn’t
think
. Paul drove us down. I didn’t even bring the nurse—well, I couldn’t, could I? Where would we put her? And I don’t really know anything about babies, but Syl does, so that’s okay. And poor, poor you, out of your mind about Mother, you must be!”

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