Road Rage (Chief Inspector Wexford Series #17)

Road Rage (Chief Inspector Wexford Series #17)

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by Ruth Rendell

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As Road Rage begins, Chief Inspector Wexford is walking through Framhurst Great Wood, just outside his beloved town of Kingsmarkham, for what he tells himself will be the last time. He can no longer bear to look at the natural beauty that will soon be despoiled by the construction of a new highway. Wexford rather despairs of the project; his more sanguine wife, Dora,…  See more details below


As Road Rage begins, Chief Inspector Wexford is walking through Framhurst Great Wood, just outside his beloved town of Kingsmarkham, for what he tells himself will be the last time. He can no longer bear to look at the natural beauty that will soon be despoiled by the construction of a new highway. Wexford rather despairs of the project; his more sanguine wife, Dora, is active on a committee to save the threatened land. Others are more desperate to achieve their end, and their means include the taking of hostages, including Dora, and the threat to begin murdering them. How Wexford and his dedicated team of police officers race against time to learn the identity of the kidnappers and discover the whereabouts of the hostages will rivet readers who delight in following the intricate details of an intensive police investigation. But, as in every Ruth Rendell novel, the mortal drama raises political and moral questions that are not resolved with the closing of the case, and that apply far beyond the limits of Kingsmarkham.

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Editorial Reviews
Ruth Rendell can never be accused of writing cozy English mysteries. Even her more traditional detective novels starring Inspector Reginald Wexford are set in a gritty, contemporary Britain beset by unemployment, racial tension, and urban crime. In the absorbing and timely Road Rage, ecoterrorists protesting a new highway bypass take five hostages -- including Wexford's wife.

—Dick Lochte

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Chief Inspector Wexford Series, #17
Product dimensions:
6.34(w) x 9.33(h) x 1.30(d)

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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 terriblehappens.

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.

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