Leila’s eager hands clutched at her overnight bag as she nodded along with every instruction Spencer and I threw her way. She still had her hair in last night’s up-do, having refused my offer to let it loose. Her reaction had been priceless when I had suggested helping her out of it upon our return from the party.
“Would you like me to take your hair pins out?” I asked, pulling Mr. Tickles–her favourite stuffed bear–from her bag.
“NO WAY!” she shrieked, shoving her leg through her pyjama bottoms. “I’m keeping them in forever!”
“Yes. Don’t fight me on this, Jess. My mind is made up.”
In the end, I hadn’t fought her on it and I certainly didn’t mention that during her night’s sleep, she had messed it up so that it now resembled a birds nest.
“Make sure you give Mummy your reading journal from school,” instructed Spencer, bringing my attention back to important matters.
“And tell her to read the note your teacher has left,” I added, pointing towards her bag.
It didn’t matter that such a thing didn’t exist. The note I was so desperate for Isy to read was actually from me with the intention of letting her know she was not alone. On it, included my email address, number and a very brief message.
I’m here for you,
This morning, Spencer had been given a date from Malcolm regarding Alister’s return. Five weeks and he’d be back in London which meant we had five weeks to bring the bastard down.
Simple as that.
“I will. Mummy always checks my homework anyway,” she ensured, waving us off with a kiss blown in two directions. One to us. One to Gatto.
Angela flashed us both a smile and parted ways on a polite, “see you shortly”, reversing out of the drive soon after. Spencer and I stood and smiled, feigning the confidence we so desperately desired and waited until they were out of earshot before we spoke.
“Now what?” he asked, keeping his smile intact.
“Now, we wait,” I replied, grabbing his hand.
Easier said than done.
The second Roger entered the restaurant saw the return of my sweating palms and shortness of breath. His usual attire of sweater-vests and pressed trousers greeted me warmly, though on this instance, it failed to initiate comfort.
“Jessica,” he greeted, smiling fondly. “You’re looking well.”
“Thanks. You too.”
The smile that followed as his gaze settled on Spencer was blinding. “You must be the boyfriend? Pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise. I’ve heard a lot about you, Roger.”
Spencer left his seat and extended his hand, resembling a man in the middle of a business transaction. In an instant, the two shook and seated themselves shorty after.
“How are things regarding the situation with your daughter?” asked Roger, genuinely concerned.
“Things are getting there,” replied Spencer, struggling to locate his positioning. “Forgive me. I’m unsure if Jessica has told you but I’m partially blind. The lighting in here is poor and I can’t see for shit.”
The man opposite simply laughed. “That’s quite alright. You’ll only need your ears for the next few minutes. And your taste buds. The bread in this place is amazing.”
As if on cue, the waiter came sauntering over, reeling off today’s specials. We each ordered a light lunch and waited until we were alone to begin conversation again.
“I suppose you’ll want me to get straight down to business?” asked Roger, reaching for his briefcase.
Out came a folder filled with documents, all organised neatly.
“I’ll admit, finding him was more difficult than I originally thought. He’s certainly taken every precaution.”
I smiled, feeling the need to pay him a compliment. “Nothing gets past you.”
“You know me, I don’t like to brag.”
Spencer smiled. “Do you have a name?”
“Surprisingly, he only changed his last name. Alister Dawson.” Roger glanced up from his papers and removed his glasses. “Does that ring any bells?”
“It doesn’t,” sighed Spencer, shoulders sagging. “Alister Dawson.” He repeated his name a few times, as if doing so would somehow rejog his memory.
“What’s his deal?” I asked, desperate for some insight.
Roger looked slightly pained, though answered regardless. “No past convictions. No run-ins with the police. Nothing.”
“As a whistle.”
I rubbed at my face, desperate to rejuvenate some feeling back into it. I felt numb, regardless of my efforts but didn’t allow it to dwindle any hope. Perhaps Roger had something else? One last bit of information that acted as evidence against Alister.
“There was one thing I found that links you both together,” he shared, again, looking at Spencer.
He flicked through a few files, selecting one from the middle and returned his glasses to the bridge of his nose. His ocean-blue eyes appeared magnified behind them and as his gaze momentarily rested one mine, I felt his anxiousness. Each of his sharp cheeks showcased a deep blush and, as though flustered, his right hand pulled on his collar. “The club you’re a member of…”
Roger cleared his throat. “Hmm. He’s also a member. Has been for eleven years.”
“That doesn’t make sense?” I interrupted, attempting rationality. “Surely Spencer would’ve met him at some point.”
“Not necessarily.” Skimming through the chunky text, he regarded the writing carefully. “His card hasn’t been used in over seven years.”
Spencer and I both frowned.
“That’s when I stopped going,” he informed, shaking his head. “Is his membership still paid for?”
“Yes, payment leaves his bank account at the end of every month. It’s still under Alister Dawson. Nothing links Alister Branning to that lifestyle.” He quickly glanced my way, offering me a tight smile.
“You’ve no need to explain, Jessica,” he scorned, making Spencer smile. “I’ve no business digging into your personal life and only did so to find a connection. I wear sweater-vests in 2019 for Christ sake. Do you really think I’m in a position to judge?”
“I like your sweater-vests,” I argued.
Spencer immediately cracked up, taking Roger along with him.
“You’re kind, Jessica. Really. But no women our age likes my sweater-vests.”
“Can I ask why you wear them, then?” asked Spencer, intrigued.
Roger let slip a small smile. “Because it’s who I am. If I’m to meet a woman one day, I want her to know from the get-go that my fashion tastes are somewhat outdated.”
Oh, Roger! Never change.
“Anyway…back to business.”
“Right,” agreed Spencer, struggling to shake off his smile.
There was silence for a moment before a question suddenly occurred to me. “When did he change his name?” I asked. “When did he become Alister Branning?”
The man whose love for sweater-vests was adorable looked at me, prolonging my anxiety. “Seven years ago.”
I shook my head. Something didn’t feel right. It was too much to be a simple coincidence. Alister changed his name and stopped going to Red around the same time as Spencer did. Why?
Out of nowhere, the waiter deposited our food on the table and proceeded to accompany each dish with this famous bread Roger spoke so fondly of. The smells were intoxicating but I couldn’t quite bring myself to enjoy them completely. Not until we figured out our next move.
“Where does this leave us?” I asked, once the waiter was out of earshot.
“I’m not entirely sure,” sighed Roger, ripping into a mini baguette. “I was hoping one of you had heard of him. That way, we could establish a motive.”
“Motive?” questioned Spencer, eyebrows raised.
Roger gulped. “Yes, there’s a reason behind him targeting you, surely?”
We remained silent, simply contemplating this notion.
“I suppose so,” I eventually spoke. “But we don’t recognise that name, so now what?”
“We see what Isy has to say,” countered Spencer, confusing Roger.
We both nodded. “She got in touch via a note. She’s asking for help.”
Roger’s eyes widened to the size of saucers. He was shocked by such news and even went as far as to stop eating his beloved bread to express so.
“I’m sure you know the circumstance better than me but be careful.”
I threw him a questioning look. “You don’t trust her?”
“The chance of it being a set-up is possible. You’re both smart people. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
Spencer tensed to my right, weighing up the possibility. Neither of us had considered Isy’s need to reach out as potential ploy to ruin our chances, but at this point we couldn’t out-rule anything. Isy was engaged to Alister and although my gut was telling me she needed help, perhaps her loyalties lay elsewhere?
“Thanks, Roger,” offered Spencer, gifting the tech-genius his warmest smile. “I appreciate you looking out for us.”
“Nonsense. You’re good people and you certainly don’t deserve to have your rights as parents questioned.”
With that, he smiled and dug into his food, prompting Spencer and I to do the same.
“You’re a good man,” he stated, breaking into a bread roll. “And Roger…” I added, keen to elaborate.
He quickly looked up, curious as to what I might say.
“Lunch is on us.”