Rory Rogerson is 67; an overweight, unfit, retired ‘protection officer’ (that’s PC for hired muscle). He is also a prolific and, by his own reckoning, successful author of crime fiction.
Penny (60) is his headmistress wife and Charlie Watkiss is the bloke next door.
Together, they make a formidable team!
Rory (ret’d). Chapter three, part two.
The receptionist directed me to a side room that was equipped with four internet-connected PCs. I sat in front of one of them and did a couple of searches. The first was for brothers called Bill and Alan. Nothing. I then did a reverse look-up on the telephone number Billy had called from first then put the address into a search. Again, nothing conclusive. However, a scan of recent local news articles revealed a similar affair, but the police investigation produced no results. I checked deeper looking for similarities. This one had no alarm system so access was easier, but the pictures of the rooms that had been ransacked were very much as I had found the rooms in my house. The report said that nothing had been taken and there was little actual damage apart from at the point of entry into the house. As I was, the victims had been contacted and instructed to return some property that belonged to whoever was directing the operation, though they never found out who it was. Neither, the report suggested, did they ever find out what it was the culprits were actually looking for!
Dejected, I walked back to where I had left Penny. Her seat was empty. She wasn’t there, though her handbag was still hanging on the back of the chair, partly covered by the light jacket she had worn in. I panicked. I asked other diners if they’d seen anything, but of course, no-one had. Not unreasonably, each couple and group was totally immersed in its own reality, its own conversations, its own affairs and wouldn’t have noticed someone moving about – unless there was unusual noise or violence. Even a light scuffle would surely have been noticed by someone, if only the waiting staff. I stopped one of the waitresses. Her name-badge announced her as Janine.
“Janine,” I said, “The lady that was sitting here with me, my wife. Did you see her leave?”
“When was that?” she asked.
“Sometime in the last fifteen minutes,” I said, “I left her to go and use the internet and take a phone call, and now she’s not here.”
“We’re busy running around looking after our tables, Sir, and wouldn’t notice anyone just getting up and leaving. Maybe try the maître d’?”
I almost ran to the restaurant entrance where the maître d’ had his station.
“Can I help Sir?” he asked in that special tone reserved for people with job titles like maître d’ or sommelier; a tone that was guaranteed to test to its limits my ability to retain a phlegmatic composure..
“I hope so,” I replied, “I left my wife at the table you seated us at earlier and went through to reception—”
“I am aware of that, Sir. I saw you leave my restaurant.”
“Is there a problem, Sir? Your waitress for table 26 is Janine. Is she giving satisfaction?”
“Can I finish what I wanted to say, please?” I asked as calmly as I could.
“Apologies, Sir. Please do proceed.”
“When I returned to our table—”
“About three minutes ago, Sir. I observed your return.”
“Again, good. My wife was not there when I returned. Her handbag and jacket were there, but she was not.”
“Perhaps Madam went—”
“My wife never goes anywhere without her handbag – not even to the Ladies’ room. Were I to see my wife without her handbag anywhere outside the confines of our own home, I doubt I would even recognise her.”
“Quite, Sir. Nonetheless…”
“Is there another way out of the restaurant?” I wanted to add ‘you patronising swine’ but thought better of it.
“The fire exit, of course, but that’s not been used today.”
“How can you be sure?”
He pointed to a row of lights across the top of his lectern. “Third light from the left, Sir. Lights up with a buzz whenever the fire exit door is opened.”
“Could it have happened and you not notice?”
He looked at me quizzically. “Sir?” he asked.
“Could you, perhaps, have been absent from your station or otherwise occupied and not noticed it?”
“With respect, Sir, I’d be more likely not to notice the unexpected amputation of my right arm than that. It is my job to notice, my function to observe, my very purpose to be aware. Not to do so would amount to a dereliction of my duty.”
I really wanted to do something to knock this man from his smug, self-satisfied pedestal. Instead, I said, “Surely you have breaks occasionally. What happens when you need to use the toilet?”
“On those occasions, Sir, my place is taken temporarily by a senior member of the waiting staff. I could not conscience leaving my station without having a replacement in place.”
“Let me make sure I’ve got this right. She was there…”
“You did, Sir. Then you returned.”
“And when I returned she wasn’t there.”
“That is what you told me, Sir.”
“But there’s no way she could leave without your knowledge.”
“I have to have that assurance, Sir. Absent my vigilance, the hotel would be at risk of diners leaving my restaurant without settling their bill, Sir. Unthinkable.”
“And you agree that she’s not there now,” I offered calmly, congratulating myself on the way I was keeping my cool against insurmountable odds.
“There, Sir, I would wish to offer an alternative scenario.”
“What scenario?” I asked, my ire rising.
“With respect, Sir, the evidence of my eyes suggests strongly that your good lady wife is, indeed, seated at table 26 where you left her.”
I turned and looked into the body of the restaurant. There, seated at table 26 and looking straight at me, smiling and waving, was my wife.
“Thank you,” I said to the maître d’ adding, in my head, a few other things I wanted but was too polite to say, and removing his right arm with my laser gaze just to see if he did, in fact, notice.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Penny said when I returned to the table.
“I thought you’d been kidnapped, or worse,” I replied.
“I just needed the ladies’, that’s all.”
“But you didn’t take your handbag,” I complained, “You never go anywhere without your handbag. That’s why I thought you’d been taken. Why did you leave it?”
“I needed to go urgently, and the strap had got caught up in the gap between the rods in the chair back. I didn’t have time to untangle it.”
“I’ve been frantic with worry!”
“Sorry.” She paused then looked up at me. “Hang on. Why am I apologising? I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“No, you haven’t. This business has me all on edge. I’m the one should be sorry.”
“So, what did you find?”
I took her through what I’d discovered from my searches – which didn’t take long, as I’d actually found only dead-ends.