Authors: Ruth Rendell
Ryan Barker, or his grandmother representing him, had phoned from Stowerton at 10:25 for the 11:19, Dora from Kingsmarkham at 10:30 for the 11:03, Roxane Masood at 10:55 for the 11:36. Why was there a gap of twenty-five minutes before they responded to another call? Because no calls came in? Because none came in from one person alone and they felt unable to handle two passengers? (He winced at that, at that word “handle.”) Because they had only two drivers working with them? It was possible too that one of them was one of the drivers, leaving the other to deal with the phone …
And then what? Ryan Barker might not have been too sure of the way to the station. His driver might have taken him almost anywhere within, say, a five-mile radius before he realized. But Roxane Masood would have known within five minutes, Dora much sooner. Wexford didn’t think his wife would simply have accepted, have wept, have pled. She would have tried to do something. Not to the extent of jumping out of the car, not that.
He clenched his fists, squeezed his eyes shut. Verbal protest, no doubt. A threat to leave the car. They must have taken steps to guard against such an eventuality. There must have been an accomplice waiting at, say, the first stop, red traffic light, halt sign, road junction. Then the rear door is opened, the accomplice enters, another one of those toy or replica guns brandished …
Yes, that was how it was done in each case. But why?
Look at the alternative. Kidnap three people picked out of the street in broad daylight? It would have to be in daylight because there was never anyone about after dark.
These days there never was. People stayed at home in front of television, or if they went out, went in cars. They even drank at home and pub after pub was closed. Like the Railway Arms. Beer was expensive and you couldn’t go to a pub by car, anyway, not with the current laws as to driving over the permitted limit. This way, the way the kidnappers had done it, there was no suspicion, no resistance, no struggle until the route became unfamiliar, and then, with the accomplice at hand, it would have been too late.
Another reason for that twenty-five-minute gap might be that they wanted women because women were physically less strong. And, even in Ryan Barker’s case, it was a woman who made the call. If she told them the fare would be a fourteen-year-old boy, that wouldn’t be enough to deter them. So they had a girl, a teenage boy, and a middle-aged woman as their hostages, and the last named happened to be his wife.
hostages, surely? There couldn’t be any other reason.
Another why remained. None of the three had any money, not real money. He and Dora were more or less comfortably off, Roxane Masood’s father was prosperous, but Wexford doubted if he was in the millionaire league, and Ryan Barker’s family seemed in straitened circumstances, if not positively poor. What ransom therefore could they be looking for?
Sometime during the night he made himself a cup of tea and fell asleep in the chair for an hour. A bit later he made coffee, went to the front of the house, and watched the dawn come. The dark sky began to grow pale at the horizon, a rim of lightening that was not quite light. Upstairs Amulet gave one cry before Sheila silenced and comforted her with the breast. Dark clouds shifted and
positive light, pale green and gleaming, showed clear and cold.
With the coming of dawn over the bypass site, the Under Sheriff for Mid-Sussex, Timothy Jordan, moved in on the Savesbury Deeps camp with his bailiffs. It was the largest of the camps and its occupants had been served with eviction notices some time before.
The protesters were either in the seven tree houses on the site or sleeping in hammocks strung between the oak, ash, and lime trees which predominated in this area. Before the sun came up Jordan had them corralled inside a circle of yellow-coated policemen. He woke them by announcing with the aid of an amplifier that he had a court order granting him possession of the land and that they should vacate it. The amplifier was essential because the forest birds’ dawn chorus was so loud: jug-jug, tweet-tweet, tu-witta-woo.
Meanwhile, in Sewingbury, the fleet of buses were picking up security guards from the old army camp and ferrying them to the site north of Stowerton where the earthmoving would begin in half an hour. In Framhurst Great Wood, inside the secret tunnel, whose existence they supposed unknown to all but the members of SPECIES, six people who regularly slept there were rousing themselves from sleep. The other end of the tunnel came out near the foot of Savesbury Hill.
The last of the six to emerge were a self-styled professional protester called Gary and the woman who had been his companion since they were both fifteen and whom he called his wife. No one knew her name but everyone called her Quilla. Gary had never trimmed his blond beard and it hung nearly to his waist. His clothes would have been more appropriate and have attracted less comment if the date had been 1396. He wore breeches, cross
gartered, and a brown canvas tunic and Quilla a long cotton gown. They turned back for blankets because the morning was chilly, and came face to face with a German shepherd dog. At the Savesbury end the bailiffs and police had penetrated the tunnel mouth.
Once Gary and Quilla were out Timothy Jordan sent a tunneling expert known as the Human Mole into the tunnel to check it was empty and then put a guard on each end. Another bailiff, called the Human Spider, shinned up the tallest tree toward the house in its top branches. A rain of chopped wood, tin cans, and bottles descended on him, for a while impeding his progress. On the ground Jordan’s men began pulling people out of the bender tents and emptying them of their contents before ripping the structures apart.
Somehow the quieter and more organized bands of protesters had got to know about it and a growing number of them assembled outside the security line, KABAL, SPECIES, and Heartwood. When they saw one of the big rough-coated dogs come out from the tunnel mouth they began a low angry chanting.
Up in the tree the Human Spider encountered a woman on the threshold of her tree house and as the two of them struggled with each other fifty feet up, the crowd chanted, “Shame, shame, shame!”
Patiently and in silence, Gary and Quilla assembled their property, which had been flung out of the tunnel. They looked as if about to go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury with a Pardoner and a Wife of Bath. Neither of them would have touched, still less owned, anything made of plastic, so they stuffed their clothes, their blankets, their pots and pans, into old-fashioned jute sacks. Quilla began to sing the madrigal “April Is in My Mistress’s Face,” and the other dispossessed protesters joined in, with the tune if not always the words.
Up in the tree the woman whom the Human Spider had laid hands on had either fainted or, more probably, staged a faint, and hung limp between the two men who supported her. They began to lower her down the ladder, a perilous exercise, as her passive resistance gave them no help.
“Shame, shame, shame!” chanted the crowd. Gary and Quilla sang:
“April is in my mistress’s face,
And July in her eyes hath place.
Within her bosom lies September,
But in her heart a cold December.”
By now the sun had risen, a fiery ball between black rails of cloud. The birds’ calling was more subdued. Jug-jug, tu-witta-woo … A sharp gust of wind blew through the treetops.
On reaching the ground the woman who had appeared to faint sprang from the arms of the men who had brought her down. She was dressed in rags, some of which flowed and others which wrapped her like a mummy’s bandages, and now, as she stood there and raised her arms to the crowd in a gesture of triumph or encouragement, her tattered garments streamed and fluttered in the wind. She ran to Quilla, embracing her and crying.
“We’ll go to the Elder Ditches camp,” said Gary. “I’ve had it with tunnels. You can show us how to build a tree house, Freya. We’ll build a big tree house for the three of us.”
“I am a tree,” cried Freya, once more spreading out her arms.
“We’re all trees here,” said Gary.
* * *
While Wexford’s daughters made the kind of breakfast for him that he never ate, fussed over him, and begged him to rest, Burden went into work half an hour earlier than he need have done. His mind was full of Stanley Trotter. No amount of argument was going to convince him Stanley Trotter wasn’t involved in this up to his neck and deeper. The man had murdered Ulrike Ranke and now he was engaged in a conspiracy to kidnap. It was probably a perverts’ ring. The German girl had been raped before she was strangled and Burden believed this was developing into some sort of elaborate sex crime.
He had been at his desk ten minutes when a call was put through to him from the front desk.
“The editor of the
to speak to someone in authority. The governor’s not in yet.”
“I suppose I’ll do,” said Burden.
“He said you failing the governor.”
The editor, who had been there for some years now, was a man called Brian St. George. Burden had met him once or twice, often enough apparently for St. George to feel justified in calling him by his Christian name in full.
“I’ve just received a funny sort of letter, Michael. Come in the post just now. It was the first one my personal assistant opened.”
If St. George had a P.A., Burden thought, he was Sherlock Holmes.
“What do you mean, a funny letter?”
“Maybe it’s a hoax, but somehow I don’t reckon it is.”
Trying to keep sarcasm out of his voice, Burden suggested St. George tell him the letter’s contents.
“Or do you think you’d better come down here, Michael?”
“Tell me what’s in it first.” Suddenly Burden had a warning feeling, what Wexford called
“Don’t handle it too much. Read it to me without handling it if you can.”
“Okay, Michael. Will do. Funny, isn’t it? A letter in these days. I mean, a phone call, a fax, E-mail, whatever, but a letter! Wonder it wasn’t brought in by a guy on horseback.”
“Could you read it?”
“Right. Here goes. ‘Dear Sir, We are Sacred Globe, saving the earth from destruction by all means in our power. We are holding five people: Ryan Barker, Roxane Masood, Kitty Struther, Owen Struther, and Dora Wexford …’ They have to be wrong there, don’t they? I mean, that’s your boss’s wife, isn’t it? Since when’s she been missing?”
“Okay. ‘… Owen Struther, and Dora Wexford. They are safe for the moment. You will not find them. We will be in touch today to tell you our price for them. Inform all national newspapers and Kingsmarkham Police for maximum publicity. We are Sacred Globe, saving the world.’ ”
Burden said quietly as Wexford came into the room, “We’ll come to you now and take possession of that. In the meantime tell no one. Is that understood? No one.”
he sheet of paper was A4 size, Wexford guessed, 80 grams weight, plain white, the kind you can buy by the ream from any office supplier. Once the letter would have had to be handwritten, later typed—and typing was almost as great a giveaway as handwriting. Now, with computers, detection was nearly impossible. The expert would probably be able to say which software had been used, which word-processing program, and that was all. No spelling mistakes anymore, no capitals in error for lowercase, no slipped letters, no chipped digits.
There might be fingerprints, but he doubted it. The writer had folded the sheet once and then, in the same direction, once more. The envelope it had come in lay beside it. Most laser printers are unable to print envelopes but a program is available for printing envelope labels and this facility had been used. It was, he thought, dreadfully anonymous.
They sat around Brian St. George’s desk, the letter lying in the middle of the leather inlay. St. George was immensely pleased with himself, a complacency he had stopped trying to deny. He kept smiling wonderingly, amazed at the plum of a story which had come his way.
He was a cadaverous gray man with a hatchet face and a big belly that hung like a half-filled sack from his bones. His pale gray chalk-striped suit was in serious need of dry cleaning. A woman may wear a crew neck or an open-collared
shirt under a suit but on a man this gives the appearance of his being half-dressed, and it was a long time since St. George’s sweatshirt had been the white it was when it started life. He could hardly keep his hands off the letter. They strayed toward it and he pulled them back, like a boy teasing an insect.
“I suppose I can photocopy it?” he said.
“You can have that P.A. of yours in here to copy it by hand,” said Burden. “But it’s not to be touched.”
“They’re not used to copying by hand.”
“Do it yourself then.” Wexford had never previously encountered the editor of the
that he could remember and he didn’t much like what he saw. “Which national newspapers did you have in mind to release this to?”
“The lot,” said St. George, suddenly nervous, fearing the worst.
“You can do that, but with the strict embargo that nothing is to appear until we give the go-ahead. That goes for the
too, naturally …”
“Yes, but hold hard a minute, publicity’s the best thing out in a case like this. You want publicity. You’ve a lot more chance of finding these people if everyone knows what’s going on.”
“Nothing at all till we give the go-ahead. I hope that’s understood. This is a very serious matter, the most serious you’re ever likely to be involved in. Mr. Vine will stay here with you to see my instructions are carried out.”
“It is your wife, isn’t it?”
Wexford didn’t reply. He had read the letter on the desk: “… Ryan Barker, Roxane Masood, Kitty Struther, Owen Struther …” and then, when he reached his wife’s name, the four syllables had come at him and struck him like a blow, black hard letters leaping off the sheet. His eyes had closed involuntarily. He hoped
now he hadn’t recoiled, actually stepped back, but he feared he had. Feeling the blood recede from his face, feeling as if it retreated like a withdrawing tide into the center of his body, he had had to sit down suddenly.