Busted by David Owen
“How do you know this?” he asked.
I looked at Detective Inspector Brookes, at his sceptical countenance, brow furrowed over grey eyes, mouth turned down.
“And these sources are reliable?”
Detective Inspector Brookes was in his late thirties, stocky, probably ex-rugby player, now a prominent member of the Criminal Investigation Unit in Derby. We’d met on several occasions through information I’d passed on regarding cases he was likely to be interested in. He’d been involved in the arrest of a child grooming gang by passing on information I’d given him to the Child Abuse Team, and received a commendation for his work, so he owed me at least a good listen.
“Give me names?”
“Of the contacts?” I chuckled. “No chance. I might need them again.”
“Names of the officers?”
I shook my head. “Not yet. Better if I don’t.”
He tapped his fingers against his lips, disturbed. “Difficult to act without. I need to verify information.”
“You’ll have to believe me.”
“Not good enough, Brian. I need a search warrant to enter premises and to get that I have to persuade a magistrate to issue it.”
“You have reasonable grounds.”
“Should be enough. Investigative journalist. My name’s known. Good reputation.”
He hesitated, nodding slowly. “Normally, I’d say yes, but how do I explain we’re doing a drug bust but not through the Drug Squad? If you’re wrong, I’ll have tarnished those men’s reputations and my name will be dirt in this district.”
“I don’t think I’m wrong.”
“You don’t think?” He glared at me. “If this is bad info, I have to face those officers you’re suggesting are corrupt. Tell them I thought they were crooked. This is no small favour you’re asking.”
“I understand, but I’m ninety-five percent sure it’s legit.”
He sighed sarcastically, snorting. “Ninety-five percent sounds good, but the missing five percent?” He drummed his fingers on the table, looking at me. “Ok. Leave it with me. I’ll make a few calls. I promise nothing, but I will consider carefully.”
“Take care who you call.” I stood and shook his hand. “Don’t warn them.” He glared at me. I could do no more.
“If you hear anything more – anything – let me know immediately. We’re playing with fire.”
“Especially if you can give me names.”
The following night I stood, shivering on a street corner, standing in shadows, waiting for Detective Inspector Brookes. I looked up from my phone. The street was quiet; a cat paused at the pavement edge before darting across the street to the other side and disappearing over a wall. The lights of televisions flickered in windows. A few upstairs bedroom lights glowed through drawn curtains. I looked down the street. The house I was interested in was not in my field of vision. I didn’t want someone peering out and spotting me. I took a couple of photos of the street, posted them to Karen, my girlfriend and confidante, and slid the phone into my jacket pocket.
The lights of a car showed at the opposite end of the street, drawing closer, as if its occupants were searching for an address, or a person. As the headlights played over my face, the car pulled into the kerb next to me. I was ready to run. The window slid down, and Detective Inspector Brookes’ face appeared. I relaxed.
He tutted. “The things I do for you!” He opened the door and stepped out, then the rear doors of the car opened, and three enormous men stepped out of the car.
I looked at DI Brookes.
“I’ve pulled in some favours. But God help you if you’re wrong. These guys don’t like mistakes.”
“Cops?” I asked
Brookes nodded. “Course.” He chuckled. “Not quite the thugs they look. Undercover specialists. But not this district. I pulled them down from Mansfield for the night. No way I could use anyone from Derby and tell them we’re going after bad cops, their colleagues. People they work and drink with every week.”
I nodded. “Okay.” I looked at them. No wonder they were undercover. Little old ladies wouldn’t invite them in for a cup of tea and biscuits. They were all over six feet, broad, muscular shoulders, unshaven. Hard men. I would cross the road to avoid them if I saw them heading my way.
“Got the names of the top people for me?” asked Brookes.
“Not yet. We need to pull in the dealers, get them to talk, if possible.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Then I’ll give you the names of the cops that I’ve got. But you know it’s better for your case if you get them from the suspects, not from me.
Brookes stared at me for a moment, then nodded. “Number 49?”
“Yeah.” I replied. “They keep the stash upstairs. A safe built into the wall, covered by some painting of a woman on a beach.”
Brookes gave a huge sigh. “Brian, Jesus. Busting into a house I have no real info on, apart from what you say, and I may have to rip a safe out of a wall to get it open. If this whole thing blows up in our faces, I will hold you deeply responsible.” He poked a finger painfully into my shoulder to emphasise the point.
“I know.” I could hear the strain in my voice. “But I believe my sources. I have names of three police officers in the Derby area who are working drug lines, getting a cut. There’s a line coming in from Nottingham with a few police there cooperating in a similar way. I’m certain. I don’t know the Nottingham guys’ names yet but hopefully you get them tonight, but the whole Derby distribution centre operates from 49.”
Brookes wiped a hand across his mouth. “Too much unknown in this case of yours, Brian. I’m not certain this is a good move.”
I stood silently, aware of the four pairs of eyes glaring at me. I hoped I was not wrong. “DI Brookes, this is going to be huge. Police in both Derby and Nottingham working together with drug lords, taking a kickback for turning a blind eye?” I nodded at the stern faces. “The council made public announcements recently saying they want extra resources put into stopping County Lines from operating. “There’s a likely commendation in this for you all if we do this right.”
Brookes grunted. “Yeah, Councillor James’ initiative.”
I nodded. Councillor James had made a press statement only a couple of weeks earlier that he was disgusted by drug barons using children to operate County Lines, transporting drugs from major centres to smaller areas, increasing their reach; he wanted it stopped, would seek additional funds from the Government to help. It was a big issue. National interest. Brookes couldn’t ignore it.
“I’m not even thinking about commendations. I’m worried about this going bad.” He nodded. “Right, let’s get this finished with.”
“Too right,” said one of the thugs.
Brookes turned and walked down the street, crossing the road so that he would be opposite 49, able to look at the front entrance. The four of us followed.
A chill wind blew down the road. A couple appeared, walking in the opposite direction, too engrossed in each other to notice us. We were keeping as close to the walls of the houses as we could. The street was an ordinary terrace, old houses with no front gardens, the doors opening straight onto the pavement. The houses were small, each having one downstairs window and one upstairs. The road wasn’t a major thoroughfare so there was little traffic. Ideal for clandestine dealings. There were streetlights, but well-spaced, leaving pools of gloom between them. Brookes paused in one such pool, his eyes on the house across the road. Number 49. A light was on in the downstairs room. It flickered occasionally, indicating that a television was on.
We watched for a full five minutes. Nothing changed. The wind gusted and I shivered. Finally, Brookes reached into an inside pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “Right, let’s serve the warrant.” He glanced at me. “You’d better be right!”
We crossed the road and paused at the front door. 49. My heart thudded in my chest. My mouth felt dry.
Brookes turned and pointed at each of the men in turn. “You – straight through to the back. You – wait inside the front door, stay there. You – stay with me.” Then he turned to me. “You stay outside until I call you in.”
I nodded. He didn’t want me getting in the way. I was happy with that. If the dealers inside kicked off, I wasn’t going to be any help.
Brookes turned back to the door, pushing the handle gently, testing it. He turned back again to us, nodding. “Unlocked.”
With gentle pushing, the door slowly opened: no noise. Brookes took a step inside, listening. I couldn’t see anything much from behind the broad backs of the officers and guessed they were stepping into an entry hall.
Suddenly they were moving. A door banged open. The four disappeared inside. “Police. Stay where you are!” was yelled several times. The men were in and the door slammed shut, leaving me alone in the street.
I waited, tense, expecting violent responses to flood out of the house, but all I heard was silence. I glanced up and down the street. No one outside their homes. No curtains flapping. The entry had been discreet. No one else knew a thing. I sneaked out my phone and took a couple more pictures. I’d need them for the story. I forwarded them to Karen. As I waited, my nervousness grew. Had I been given duff information? Had I been set up? Had they been pre-warned and done a runner? Dozens of negative scenarios flashed through my mind, making me question my sources. Sure, the good stories always gave a buzz, but before those came the doubts. Always doubts. Dealing with criminals and grassers always meant you couldn’t be a hundred percent sure of what you were being told.
When you were right, you’d get smiles back at the office and a pat on the back, but God help you if you were wrong. Silence and staring from colleagues, the Editor’s door opening like a portal to hell. The summons to enter, past the staring faces. Wrong was a hundred times worse than right.
The front door opened.
A police thug peered out at me and beckoned me in with a movement of his head. I stepped up to the door, took a last look up and down the street, and pushed in past him. I looked back. “Everything go ok?” I asked quietly.
He didn’t respond except with a nod of his head to indicate I should move further into the house, in through the door ahead of me.
With a grim sense of something wrong, I moved to the door, the giant close behind, his hand in my back gently pushing me on, adding to my feeling of despair that this was a lost case. The hallway didn’t seem to serve any real purpose other than as a place to hang coats. There were no welcoming pictures or bits of furniture, just a bare passage with a dark stairway at the end, and a closed door to the right.
I pushed the door open, expecting the sour face of Brookes to confront me. Instead I stopped dead.
The silence had led me to believe no one was in. But three strange faces stared at me from a sofa.
The television was still on, though the sound was muted. It was directly on my right in the corner of the room, beside the window. Facing it was a small sofa, on which were crammed the three men, their hands in their laps, shoulders squeezed tight against one another. Apart from a small, three-bar electric fire, there was no other furniture in the room, making it bare and uncomfortable. Not even a carpet or rug on the floor, just a grey concrete base. Not a comfortable place to live.
“Recognise them?” asked Brookes. He leaned against the wall opposite the door I’d just come through. He looked relaxed, quite pleased with himself. Another of the policemen stood at the window, his backside resting on the sill.
I shook my head. “No idea,” I replied, looking at them carefully. If I’d expected thin, swarthy, roughly-dressed parasites, the type you’d expect to deal drugs, I would have been wrong. These were young, healthy, well-dressed men. Wouldn’t have looked out of place working at a bank.
“Their names are Jameson, Carter and Hunter.” Brookes raised an eyebrow at me, encouraging recognition.
I probably would have known the names immediately if I hadn’t been flustered. They did sound familiar, but the recognition passed over my head for a moment. “Nope,” I said, unsure.
Brookes smiled. “Think a bit harder.”
The sound of footsteps descending the stairs caught my attention. I turned to Brookes, questioning but he raised his hands to placate me. Nothing to worry about, it suggested.
The third police officer, the one guarding the back, pushed into the room, making it uncomfortably overcrowded. Someone else was in the house, but Brookes seemed aware and unconcerned. The situation niggled me. There was something not quite right here, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
The footsteps on the stairway stopped as the unknown guest reached ground level but he – or she – didn’t enter the room immediately.
“You know who that is?” I asked.
Brookes nodded and winked. Winked? Like he was playing a game!
“What’s going on?” I asked
“Jameson, Carter and Hunter,” repeated Brookes.
It hit me. “The implicated police officers!” I blurted out. “They were here? These are the police who let the drugs gangs operate with impunity?” I was ecstatic. This was perfect. “Have you found the drugs upstairs?” I asked, almost hopping with excitement. To have found the alleged police hiding in a safe house with the drugs was unbelievable. It would hit national news.
The door opened. I twisted around then took a step back, recognising the man who entered.
I was stunned. Why would he come on a police bust?
The Councillor smiled. “I’ve read your articles. They’re good. You do excellent research, Brian. I liked your article of a few weeks ago about domestic abuse. Superb work.”
“Thank you,” I felt a little unsure of him referring to me by my first name, as if he knew me. I’d only ever ‘met’ him at a distance at Council functions and meetings. Never spoken directly to him. Then I realised that he wasn’t here to watch the bust. He’d been inside before we’d arrived.
My exhilaration faded quickly. “What’s going on, Councillor?”
He sighed. “Known for a while you were looking into the County Lines problem, Brian. You were doing good work, making it more prominent, making my name a little more… in the public’s face – if you know what I mean.” He tutted. “But then we find out you’ve got hold of police names – and that’s… not such good news. The public don’t want to lose faith in their police, do they?”
My blood froze as I realised. “You’re giving police protection. To the barons? You’re controlling it?” My mind was in turmoil. “But what about the campaign to stop all this? It’s all a lie!”
“No, no, Brian. I want to stop the County Lines. I don’t want innocent children used – and I need to do something, because it’s a national scandal. Everyone’s interested, watching what we do. But let’s be honest, we’re never going to eradicate drugs. Too many people want them, so it’s best to ‘manage’ it, don’t you think? Keep it away from children and delivered where there’s no public danger.”
“And take your cut?” I was disgusted. It showed.
He smiled and bowed his head. “Expenses to cover, Brian.”
I took a moment and looked round the room at the faces surrounding me. All deathly quiet, just watching. I pointed at one of the giant thugs. “These the Nottingham crew?”
James nodded, confident in his position. “We kept this all in-house. Just our crew. No need for the authorities to worry themselves.”
“What about the warrant? A magistrate knows.”
“Fake, Brian.” He held it up, blank!
I grew angry, despite my precarious position. “Bit silly you putting all this together, for my benefit? I can identify you all.”
“Not really. Who are you going to tell? I spoke to your editor this morning. Good friend of mine. He has no idea exactly where your investigation is leading. Seems you keep your cases close to your chest. Knows nothing about any police corruption. I checked your background. You live alone, no wife or children. Bit sad, Brian. No one to care if you don’t come home tonight. You see, Brian, we’re a tight-knit group. That’s why I’m here. My boys have to know I’m with them. We stand together. Show support.”
I stared at him, at a loss for words. “So, what happens now? To me?”
Councillor James, grimaced. “That’s an interesting dilemma, don’t you think?”
The phone in my pocket buzzed. All eyes swivelled at the sound.
“My girlfriend,” I said. “I’ve told her I’m here. I emailed pictures of this house. She knows everything.”
The men all glanced at each other, uncertainty showing on their faces for the first time.