Undercover, p.2

Undercover, page 2

 

Undercover
 


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  I said to him: ‘Anything is better than what I’m doing now – anything.’

  He asked what shift I was on tomorrow and I told him I was early again. ‘Perfect,’ he said. ‘That gives you at least three hours before the Chief will call you in. Tomorrow morning stand on Chiswick Common Road, and at about seven thirty a blue Maestro will drive towards the High Road. You stop that car and check the driver’s documents. You’ll find he’s disqualified from driving and has a fake licence. Trust me, and when the Chief calls you up, you’ll either be in the charge room or interviewing the prisoner with me.’ Eammon wrote down the car number and a name on a Fuller’s beer mat that he’d ripped open. He shook my hand and said, ‘Don’t let me down now. See you in the charge room in the morning, and not a word to anyone.’ Then he patted me on the back and walked round to the other bar, and left me with my thoughts.

  For some strange reason, the chat with Eammon had really given me a lift. But how did he know such precise detail and why was he helping me? For now, all I knew was that to keep the Chief off my back, nothing was better than a crime arrest apparently off my own initiative. If he didn’t find out, then I certainly wasn’t going to tell him.

  I decided against joining the rest of the relief and instead went back to the section house, which was supposed to be my home.

  Two

  I was tossing and turning all night in fear that I would sleep through my alarm. My state-of-the-art, digital-radio alarm clock, fitted with a large snooze button, was perched on the wooden-topped stall that stood next to my bed. The alarm was a recent addition to the few personal objects I had in my room in the section house.

  I had the full-length poster of Fiona Butler approaching the tennis net, with her racket in her right hand. She was lifting her skirt with her left hand to reveal she wasn’t wearing any knickers under her white tennis attire. This poster filled the entire length of my bedroom door.

  I had a single bed, and had removed the police-issue orange-and-purple blanket and replaced it with a Paddington Bear duvet cover and pillowcase. Quite sad really, for a Metropolitan Police officer approaching his twentieth birthday. I had a black-and-white picture of my mum and dad, looking like film stars in the early 1960s, and some birthday cards from my younger brothers and sisters. It wasn’t cosy and it felt nothing like home.

  This was my sad room on the fifth floor of the Brentford section house. This was the hall of residence occupied by young male and female police officers, or occasionally older residents who had found themselves in marital difficulties and for whom this was their only solution.

  There was a sink in each room which was metal and had corrosion around the taps and smelt of urine. The fact of the matter was, most people used their sink as a lavatory as they couldn’t be bothered to walk the length of the corridor in the middle of the night to empty their bladder. It was far more convenient to take the two steps from one’s bed, step on your tiptoes and use the sink for a wee whilst running the cold water tap. Far from hygienic, but very practical and rewarding.

  The toilets consisted of two urinals that stunk to high heaven and two individual toilet cubicles, which were permanently soiled and not conducive to having a relaxing ten-minute, peaceful sit-down. The toilet paper was tracing paper and was lethal, so it was essential that you had your own roll of Andrex in your room. There was also a single bath, which had the enamel wearing off around the plug area and was never washed by the previous bath-goer. There were three individual showers, which were adequate; the shower curtains smelt rancid and I would only ever shower wearing flip-flops, but they were powerful and hot.

  My alarm was set for 5.05 a.m., but I had glanced at it regularly since 4.10. I was sure that I was going to oversleep and miss the opportunity of making my first arrest on the back of Eammon’s tip-off. I couldn’t face another turn in the bed and jumped out at 4.45, grabbed my towel and ran to the shower. This was the first time since I had finished at Hendon Police Training College that I was excited about going to work. I had a super-quick shower and got dressed in my uniform in no time. I normally left it until the last moment to leave my room, but I was starting up my car at 5.10.

  It was only a ten-minute drive from the section house past Kew Bridge and over Chiswick roundabout to the nick. I decided I’d make a short detour and check whether the motor that Eammon had described to me was parked on or around Chiswick Common Road. I’m glad I did, as the excitement it gave me when I spotted it was ridiculous. I was onto something; I had a cause, a reason to be. I was gonna nick someone. I would have to caution them, put the handcuffs on them. The control room would hear my voice, asking for the van to come and collect a prisoner. Yes, today was the day.

  I got to the parade room early – well early. I had already booked out a radio, one that I knew worked, not one of the dodgy old ones that I would purposely book out sometimes to avoid hearing the control room dispatching work.

  The inspector allocated beats, and although Chiswick Common Road wasn’t on the beat I’d been allocated I had to walk that way to get to mine, which as usual was at the edge of our territory. I walked out of the station with a bounce in my step.

  I had fifteen minutes to be in position. I didn’t want to be late; I couldn’t contemplate missing him. I was going to nab this fella and make it the first of many, many arrests for me.

  Like clockwork, the Maestro chugged along the road. The driver couldn’t have seen me stood behind one of the large horse chestnut trees that lined the pavement. In September conkers would fall in abundance from the branches; today, they provided the perfect screen for me to step out from. The look on his face resembled what I imagined would be the look of a train driver when someone stepped out in front of his or her train. There was instant shock and he brought the car to a stop.

  I went through all the pleasantries with the driver. I noticed how nervous he was, fumbling in his wallet for his driver’s licence. He handed me a very new, pristine paper licence. It had the correct colours and font, but the paper did not feel right. I looked at him as I rolled the paper between my thumb and forefinger. I said, ‘You going to tell me where you got this from, Mr Smith?’

  ‘I needed a licence ’cos I lost mine for three years for drink driving. I won’t fuck you about.’

  I told him I was arresting him for producing a fake driving licence and for disqualified driving.

  Before I cautioned him, I asked him if there was anything else he wanted to tell me. He pointed to the boot and said there was some ‘tom’ in there. I didn’t have a clue what he meant, but I opened the boot to find a yellow cotton moneybag containing all sorts of jewellery: necklaces, rings, bracelets and two big chunky watches. I could’ve shouted out loud – here was a bag of stolen jewellery. I later found out, without declaring I hadn’t got a clue, that ‘tom’ was short for ‘tomfoolery’, which meant jewellery.

  I nicked him for handling stolen goods and then called up the station asking for a van to convey a prisoner and myself to the nick. The control room immediately asked if I was with anyone else. I said I was alone. I had the prisoner handcuffed, a bag of tom and a forged driving licence, all before 7.45. I was so chuffed; it felt really good.

  The van driver pulled up, took one look at Mr Smith and said, ‘Harry, what have you been nicked for this time – I thought you were going straight?!’

  Three

  Chiswick Police Station was a lump of a building that sat on the corner of tree-lined Linden Gardens and the bustle of Chiswick High Road. It was a typical 1970s structure that added no class to the High Road, and no awards would have been collected by the architect. It served its purpose: it was full of uniform officers and detectives responsible for policing the streets and solving the crimes that were committed locally.

  This was my place of work, the first police station that I’d been posted to since I passed out from Hendon Police Training School. I should’ve been excited; I should’ve been the keenest officer ever to enter that station. Eager to walk the s
treets, greet people, help them. Eager to arrest as many people as I could, and make the streets of Chiswick a safer place. But that wasn’t me. I didn’t want to be there. And I don’t mean Chiswick – I just didn’t see myself as a police officer. I had never planned to be one, yet there I was, not even reached twenty years old, with a huge responsibility on my shoulders.

  There was a four-team system that operated to cover the twenty-four-hour period. The teams were called reliefs, and I was allocated to ‘C’ relief. There was a uniform inspector in charge of each relief and four sergeants. The remainder of the relief was made up of PCs, of whom there were about ten. The shifts were: earlies (6 a.m. until 2 p.m.), lates (2 p.m. until 10 p.m.) and night duty (10 p.m. until 6 a.m.).

  The relief pecking order was an established and engrained culture, and you had to understand and acknowledge your position in it. The lowest of the low were the probbies, the new probationary PCs who had been allocated to each relief. Then there were the walkers, those PCs who had yet to be given a driving course – who therefore, by default, spent eight hours a day walking their assigned beat. If they were lucky, during the last few hours of a night shift they might get picked up by one of the cars.

  The next in line was the van driver – he was the ‘elder’ of the relief who was often the person with the longest service. The van driver, as well as attending emergency calls, had the responsibility of collecting and transporting all the prisoners from wherever they were arrested to the police station. Our van driver always wore his police flat cap tilted to the back of his head. He kept the keys for the precious van on the aerial of his police radio, which was clipped onto the breast of his police tunic. He often smoked roll-up cigarettes, and bragged that he could roll one while taking a call at breakneck speed.

  The kings of the relief were the area car drivers. They were the PCs who had passed the advanced driving course, and who on each shift were allocated an operator to answer all calls over the radio and keep a detailed log of the calls the car had dealt with. These men loved nothing more than to drive at ridiculous speeds, to get to every call dispatched from Scotland Yard as fast as they could. The ones that were really up themselves would wear standard black driving gloves, which, when not on their delicate hands, would be hanging out of their tunic breast pocket.

  I had no aspirations to be any of these people, and some of them I felt sorry for. I appreciated their individual skills – after all, it’s not easy to steer a police car safely through the streets of London at ninety miles per hour. But to me they were caricatures, desperate to be known as the best. If truth be told, they would often get themselves to the call in lightning-quick time, but the driver was far from the best at dealing with the incident and often wouldn’t get his hands dirty. He would stay in the car and let his operator deal with whatever the incident was.

  The person who really made the relief tick was the leader, the man at the helm – the inspector on the team, or the guvnor, as he was referred to. In the short time I spent in uniform, it was always a male guvnor. My inspector was a man’s man, with hands like shovels and a big heart. And he had a story to tell. He had fought career criminals toe to toe in the 1970s and 80s, and was now in the twilight of his career. He had been ‘busted’ back to uniform after a colourful and traumatic career as a detective on the Flying Squad, amongst other postings. He had a misdemeanour whilst a detective inspector and his punishment was losing his position as a detective and reverting to being a ‘helmet’. Punishment enough for a career detective. But I must say, it never dampened his appetite for work or his desire to put the baddies away, and his enthusiasm was infectious.

  I grew fond of him, and he taught me a thing or two about the way to get a job done. He taught me the Ways and Means Act, which was not an Act of Parliament but rather the unofficial rules we adhered to so that a situation was dealt with, a person arrested or a crime solved. It was not always textbook, but it always got a result.

  I remember one September morning, it was about eleven o’clock and I was on my way into the front office of the police station. I’d been walking for the past four hours in the depths of Strand-on-the-Green, taking in the autumn air and the silence of the river. A call sounded over the radio about an armed robbery at the NatWest bank, where two suspects had made off wearing blue overalls. The guvnor ran to the tall grey gun cabinet that stood in the front office. He had the key on the duty inspector’s key ring. I saw him open the cabinet and grab two small revolvers and a fistful of bullets.

  He shouted for me to jump into his Austin Allegro. No sooner had I sat in the passenger seat than he threw me both guns, and put his huge fist over my lap and dropped the bullets. I looked at him in amazement and said, ‘What am I supposed to do with them?’

  He looked at me and laughed. ‘Load the fucking things, otherwise they won’t go bang.’ He leant over and released the barrel that held the bullets. I could see that there were chambers for five bullets. I was shaking as I placed them into the first revolver.

  I went to load the second one, and it dawned on me that there was only the two of us in the car and I was now loading a second gun. ‘Who is this one for, guvnor?’ He took a brief sideways look at me and said, ‘Just load it.’ As I loaded the second revolver, a voice crackled over the radio saying that the two men had last been seen going into the underpass of the A4 at Sutton Court Road. We were within fifteen seconds of there. He shouted at me to tell control we were taking the exit of the subway riverside. The Allegro flew across the A4 and screeched to a halt on the upslope of the subway.

  I was a nineteen-year-old boy, who had never before in his life handled a gun, and I was now sat with two I had loaded in my lap, listening to the female radio operator saying at least one of the male robbers was in possession of a sawn-off shotgun. Was I really in this situation? Should I actually get out of the car?

  The guvnor grabbed one of the revolvers and leapt out of the car, screaming at me to join him. I put the gun in my waistband and jumped out. He shouted at me to get the other gun. I showed him my waistband and he shouted that it wasn’t much good in there. We were now stood shoulder to shoulder on the upslope of the subway, both holding police-issue revolvers. I could hear the guvnor breathing heavily. I looked at him and said, ‘What do I do if they come up the slope, guvnor?’

  ‘Shoot them, and shout as loud as you can “Stop! Police!”’

  I took a deep gulp and prayed that I wouldn’t see two men dressed in blue overalls coming out of the safety of the underpass carrying a sawn-off shotgun. I prayed that I wouldn’t have to shoot someone, prayed that if I did that I would miss them but they wouldn’t shoot me. It’s amazing how many thoughts can rush through your head in seconds.

  I looked at the two-handed grip the guvnor had on his gun and tried to replicate it. As the seconds ticked by, the guvnor starting to creep down the slope and told me to follow him. We’d got to the right turn to the underpass when two teenage boys in smart school blazers came out. Both of them were visibly shaken and put their hands up in the air. The guvnor growled at them to lie down and asked if anyone else was in the underpass. Both boys said no but were apologising profusely. The guvnor then turned the corner to view the subway, and all that was there was a ray of sunshine illuminating the far end of an empty, robber-free subway. I could’ve shouted out loud I was so happy.

  The guvnor came over to me, put his arm around me and walked me up the slope back to the car. He took the gun from my hand and could see I was shaking. ‘I think you deserve a drink for that,’ he said. ‘Now get back in the car and let’s try and find these robbers.’ Thankfully, we never did find them.

  Four

  I realised that if I put the effort into my police work then I would reap the benefits. I now had a bounce in my step; my sole focus was to nick as many people as I could for decent criminal offences. I had a target – I now knew I wanted to be a detective. I didn’t want to wear the uniform, or ‘fancy dress’ as some of the older detectives used to call it.
I wanted to don a suit, work on the first floor of the nick, and rub shoulders with all the other detectives in the pub at lunchtime. I had Eammon’s words echoing in my ears: ‘If you talk to people nicely, you’ll be surprised what they’ll tell you.’

  I wasted no time in my quest, and it took me only three months and many, many arrests to get out of uniform and start my CID apprenticeship. There was an easy route to take, but that involved joining the Masons, and as a good Catholic boy with a lack of interest in boys’ clubs I declined that route. Instead, I stuck to hard work and nicking lots of villains. I worked with many seasoned detectives; I picked up good techniques from some and discarded many from others. It was on-the-job learning, and there was nobody in that police station that was working harder than me.

  My efforts were rewarded with an early posting to the crime squad. I was now able to wear my own clothes, and I started growing my hair long and trying to do everything to not stand out as a police officer. I started meeting contacts and sources in pubs, and listened to them tell me what was going on amongst villains in the area. We had a very simple technique, and it would be as effective now. We would do at least one search warrant a day, based on intelligence. We would crash through an unsuspecting villain’s door early in the morning, seize whatever we were there to find. Nick them, interview them, and convince them that it was in their best interests to help us out. Inevitably this would lead us to the information for the search warrant for the following morning. It was not rocket science, but it worked.

  I was beginning to make a name for myself, and had gained a good reputation as a thief-taker. I progressed to the district crime squad, where I was in competition with other prospective detectives: it was awash with testosterone. I kept my head down and was lucky enough to have some decent informants, but I was at a disadvantage because I had declined the offer to ‘join the square’. At that time, the CID was controlled by the Masons, and I’d chosen not to join. However, I was very fortunate that, against all odds, my hard work was rewarded and I passed an interview at the age of twenty-one to become a detective.

 
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