Road Rage

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  • Edition: Revised
  • Format: Trade Book
  • Copyright: 1998-09-08
  • Publisher: Dell
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The woods outside of Kingsmarkham were lovely, dark, and deep. And they were about to vanish forever when the new highway cut through them. While Chief Inspector Wexford privately despaired about the loss of his hiking grounds, local residents and outsiders were organizing a massive protest. Some of them were desperate enough to kidnap five hostages and threaten to kill them. One hostage was Wexford's wife, Dora. Now, combining high technology with his extraordinary detecting skills, Wexford and his team race to find the kidnappers' whereabouts. Because someone has crossed from political belief to fanaticism, and as the first body is found, good intentions may become Wexford's personal path to hell.

Author Biography

Ruth Rendell is the author of eighteen Chief Inspector Wexford mystery novels, eighteen nonseries mystery novels, and eight pseudonymous Barbara Vine novels.  In addition to winning the Grand Master Award she has received numerous Edgar and Golden Dagger awards.  In August 1997 she was named a life peer in the House of Lords.


He 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 Contemporary 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?"

"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.

Excerpted from Road Rage by Ruth Rendell
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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