Undercover, page 7
Don handed me my pint. I took a big gulp and looked at him and said, ‘I’ve got a feeling this job’s going to fall out of bed.’ I knew then that I wasn’t going to tell him what had been said until we were both safely on the plane back to Gatwick.
I’d play this one out in my own way. I would ensure that the only people I would be talking to following the scheduled briefing would be Don and the taxi driver who took us from our hotel back to the airport. I would explain that the targets had got cold feet about meeting me. It would only be two people that knew the truth about why we never completed the trade for the heroin.
Once I’d made my mind up that Don and I were flying back to the relative safety of London, I allowed myself to relax and forget what had just happened. I had made the decision that I didn’t want to deploy in Belfast. It was me and me alone that was calling the shots. I liked working on my own – I thrived on it – and felt confident in my own ability. That wasn’t an issue. But Belfast was different; it was on another level. Being on my own here, with the possibility that I would have no backup, was a risk I wasn’t willing to take. Belfast had made me feel isolated and out of control, even though it was only a short distance across the water. I was out of my comfort zone, surrounded by people I didn’t know and had never had to rely on to get me out of a sticky situation.
The failure of this operation would be placed squarely on my shoulders, but that would be something I would have to deal with. I knew that not all jobs would end this way and I had other jobs to be getting on with. I couldn’t dwell; Belfast was now a thing of the past, and it was history. I needed to concentrate on my next job.
I tucked my car away just off Church Hill Lane in Woodford Green, knowing I was early. I sat in my car and sipped the strong takeaway latte that I had insisted the Cypriot café owner put two extra shots into. It tasted bitter, but gave me the boost that I craved following the tedious journey that morning. In ten minutes, I was due to be picked up and transported to Snaresbrook Crown Court to give evidence. As I waited, I closed my eyes and allowed myself to remember the reason I was sat where I was …
I was in my car outside a café just off Green Lanes, waiting to meet two Albanians. This part of North London was well-trodden territory, controlled by the Turks. Their restaurants, grocers, coffee shops and bakeries formed a large part of the local community. It was known as Little Turkey, and it was amazing how over the years the Turks and the Greek Cypriots had learned to forget their grievances and live as neighbours. Though it is fair to say that most of the Greeks had moved further up the road to Palmers Green, and Green Lanes was now a mix of Turks and Kurds. These communities had their differences and there were constant battles over the heroin business, which was connected to Kurdish separatists in south-eastern Turkey. I had known this place for many years, and it posed a constant challenge for an undercover officer.
To this day, I believe the Turkish gangs are one of the most difficult to penetrate. I had once been told that if a Turk or Russian gangster tells you today is Monday, make sure you check your diary or a calendar. They will look you in the eye and be as convincing as your local priest, but it will, in fact, be Tuesday. I had experienced this in my early days working undercover, mingling in the very cafés and restaurants that surrounded me as I sat there in my car. The area hadn’t been a happy hunting ground for me, and I wasn’t filled with confidence.
I put this to the back of my mind and ignored the numerous men that came out of the café to take a good look at me, snarling at me as they sucked long and hard on their cigarettes. I could hear their voices saying to themselves: What is he doing here, on our territory?
I sent a text message to Endrit, who at the weekend had told me to be at this café. I was five minutes late, but had decided not to sit inside and wait. I’m here, is all my message said. I hadn’t met Endrit yet, but we had spoken on the phone. His English was good, and he had told me he was from a place called Tropojë in the north of Albania. Whether I believed him was another thing.
You see, I knew from my many visits to Albania that Tropojë was an infamous place – steeped in history, with a reputation for being the wildest place in the country. It was virtually beyond the control of the government, almost a no-go area. It was surely a cunning ploy by Endrit to imply that he was from this area, knowing that no one in their right mind would try and cross him.
I loved Albania; I thought it was a stunningly beautiful country. It was a very proud nation, and had suffered many hardships over the years. The capital, Tirana, was expanding, and the number of cars with British plates that drove on the city’s crazy roads was significant.
As I sat there waiting, I found myself thinking about the two people that the Albanian nation had adopted as its own daughter and son. The first was Mother Teresa, and her picture was to be found in the most unexpected places. In the criminal court in Durrës, a painting of her adorned almost the entire wall behind where the public sat. There were souvenirs of her in all the shops. She had been born in Skopje, in what is now Macedonia, and her family moved to Tirana in 1934. She became the country’s most famous daughter for all the fantastic charity work she did throughout the world, and she is loved to this day.
A far-stranger adopted child of the country was Norman Wisdom, the famous English comedian. When his popularity waned in the UK, the Albanians continued to love him. It was an affection that had spanned many decades. During the Communist dictatorship, when the public in Albania wasn’t allowed to watch many films, Norman Wisdom films were some of the very few allowed to be viewed. He became an outlet for the Albanian people, and a sign of laughter and hope. The country loved the comedian so much that, when he died, the government declared a national day of mourning for him.
I’m not quite sure why my thoughts had turned to these two individuals – possibly because there was such a huge contrast to the character I was about to meet. I knew he would be made of different stuff, and I certainly wasn’t expecting any charity or laughter from Endrit in the next few hours.
My phone rang as I locked eyes with the Turkish man who had spent the last five minutes staring at me. It was Endrit’s voice, but he was calling from a new number. ‘Where are you, Joe?’ he said.
‘I’m sat in my car outside the café.’
‘Good. We will pull up in thirty seconds in a VW Golf. Follow us.’ The phone went dead before I could ask a single question. Throughout this short conversation, one of the Turkish men continued staring at me, and as I put my phone onto the passenger seat he knocked on my window. I lowered it as he blurted out, ‘Who the fuck are you staring at, mate?’
I continued staring at him as I put the car into drive and said, ‘No one.’ I pulled away and began to follow the Golf, and I could hear him shouting ‘Fuck you’ as I closed the window.
As I followed the Golf, I noticed there was a thickset male with close-cropped black hair sitting in the passenger seat – I presumed Endrit was the driver. The passenger had his window slightly open; I could see ash from continuous smoking strewn on the rubber seal where the window joined the door. I followed them further up Green Lanes until we came to a large grocery shop on the corner. I pulled up behind the Golf and parked. Endrit got out, came over to me and opened my door. The other man walked straight into the grocery shop whilst speaking on his phone. Endrit shook my hand and said, ‘Joe, it’s good to meet you. Sorry about that café.’ He pointed at the man on the phone and continued: ‘He didn’t want to bump into someone who may have been in there.’
As we walked towards the grocery shop, I could smell the gorgeous aroma of freshly baked bread. Endrit said, ‘This place does the best coffee and pastries.’ I thought he said the word ‘pastries’ like a true European; I hadn’t expected that word to come out of his mouth.
Endrit paused at the entrance and said, ‘Joe, one more thing. If Agim asks, I’ve been out with you before, in Brighton, OK?’ I nodded at him and smiled to myself. I now knew that Endrit must be be
We walked through the shop, under an arch and along a hallway that led to a small square room. There were two old Turkish men sat at a table playing Tawula; they didn’t even look up as Endrit and I walked in. In total there were only about ten tables in the room, and Agim was sat at the quietest table in the corner. He was still smoking, although an elderly lady who sat alone at one table shouted at him in Turkish. He took one more lug on his cigarette, then stubbed it out on the back of an empty packet that I presumed he had just squashed on the table. He spoke in Albanian to Endrit, who then asked me if I wanted Turkish coffee. I told him I’d rather pull my own teeth out, and asked for a latte with an extra shot. Endrit walked the few steps to the counter to order our drinks.
Agim looked at me as he broke off a piece of the packaging from a fresh pack of cigarettes and started flossing between two of his bottom teeth. I looked at them, thinking that a deep polish of his railings really would be money well spent. They were badly stained from years of coffee and nicotine. He continued his flossing as he stared at me, and managed to dislodge what looked to me like a piece of meat. I watched as he inspected it between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. He seemed pleased with himself. He gave it one more look before he popped the tiny morsel back into his mouth.
All three of us sat at the small round table. There was a small terracotta pot of demerara sugar, and a glass salt cellar with a silver top. It was half full, and I could see pieces of rice nestled amongst the salt. Endrit had brought the coffees over to the table, and he and Agim shared a copper pot containing the unfiltered Turkish coffee. Agim poured the thick coffee into two small cups that sat on battered saucers. It is essential that you let the coffee settle in the bottom of the cup; otherwise you get a mouth full of ground coffee, an experience that had put me off Turkish coffee forever.
Endrit then said, ‘Agim wants you to know that his English isn’t so good. If there are things he doesn’t understand, he will ask me. I have told him how we know each other.’
I nodded but didn’t say anything. Agim then spoke broken English in a gruff voice. The first words he uttered were: ‘Is Brighton nice, plenty of girls?’ I nodded at him, and he laughed aloud and continued: ‘I like girls.’
I studied his face. I guessed he was about thirty-five years old; he had crow’s feet around his eyes and his hairline was receding. He had a large crescent-shaped scar just underneath his right eye, and I wondered how he’d got it. I lifted my coffee cup and said, ‘Gëzuar.’ Both men lifted theirs, laughed and said, ‘Gëzuar. Cheers.’
Agim then looked at me. ‘I have two things you might want – the white and I also have the brown, but the brown can cause me problems around here.’ I understood exactly what he meant, as for him to be selling heroin at a reasonable level in and around Green Lanes could cause him significant problems with the Turks. I wanted to declare from the start that I was after white.
‘I’m after good-quality cocaine. I want it regular and I want it to be a consistent quality. I don’t know how much you boys can move?’
Agim told me I didn’t need to worry about how much they could move – it would not be a problem. Then he stood up and said, ‘Come with me.’ He started walking across the small room to a door beside the two old men playing Tawula. I followed him without a care in the world.
This small wooden door led to a hallway. On the left was another door, which he opened. It was a communal toilet, and there was a key on the inside that Agim used to lock the door. He pulled a string cord, which activated the light in the windowless toilet.
The two of us were almost toe to toe, and I could see his face in far more detail. His thirty-five years on this earth had probably been tough ones, and they had taken a toll on his features. He took a cigarette from the fresh packet and lit it with a cheap lighter. He looked at me as he took a deep, long suck, held it for too long and then exhaled. I hated cigarette smoke, particularly when it was blown in my face. I said nothing and waited for his next move.
He hesitated momentarily before he said, ‘My English may not be so good, but I can tell when a man is scared. You can feel the fear, and I now know you are not. In this world we must be careful. You are a friend of Endrit, so soon we may be friends.’ His English was broken, but it was better than he had made out.
He went into the toilet cubicle and began to urinate all over the seat and into the pan. Then he took another drag on his cigarette before flicking it into the toilet. I unlocked the door and shouted back, ‘Don’t forget to wash your hands!’ I knew there would be little chance of this. I would try and remember not to shake his hand when we parted company.
As I walked back to the now-empty table, I knew this had been a test for me. A test to see if I had the bottle, to see if I was scared of these two ‘mad Albanian men’ from Tropojë or wherever they were from. The fact of the matter was, I didn’t care who they were or where they were from. I was going to be better than them. I would try and stay a step ahead, and beat them at their own game. I felt I was going in the right direction.
Agim walked back into the room a few minutes after me, and I could see him wiping his right hand on the right leg of his jeans. He sat down and put three phones on the table. I stopped myself from asking for his number.
I looked across at him and said, ‘Agim, I want two to three kilos a week, and I would like to get things going soon. But first, I’d like to get to know you better and take you to a restaurant I like.’ I handed him a restaurant’s business card. ‘Two thirty tomorrow. The food is great. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a long drive back to Brighton, where I should have been an hour ago.’
Endrit had just returned to the room, and I explained I had to go. I stood up and hugged him, purposely holding him longer than felt comfortable, as I knew Agim was watching intently. I patted Agim on the shoulder, thanked him for the coffee and said I looked forward to seeing him tomorrow.
I savoured the wonderful smell of bread baking as I walked through the grocery shop to my car. I knew Endrit would be answering many, many questions from Agim in my absence. I had not planned ahead for that meeting and I’d had no idea how I expected it to go, but I was pleased with how it had turned out. I would be meeting them tomorrow on my territory.
Two months later I was in Finsbury Park, in a restaurant owned by a very good friend of Agim and Endrit. I had become close to the two men since our first meeting, and had purchased reasonable amounts of cocaine from them. Today I was going to purchase two kilos.
We sat at the back of the dark restaurant, with the only sunlight coming from the opened rear door, which Agim used when he went out to smoke one of his constant Marlboro cigarettes or to speak in Albanian on one of his three mobile phones. If things went to plan, it was the last sunlight he would feel on his face for a long time, and this played on my mind.
He came back into the restaurant and sat down. He looked deep into my eyes as he sipped the remnants of his lukewarm espresso and took a last strong pull on the cigarette that he should have finished outside. He exhaled, and I could smell the disgusting combination of years of smoking and coffee on his breath. It made me angry – not the fact that he’d told me the gear wouldn’t be here for another half hour, but the fact I could smell, almost taste, his breath.
He shouted to the restaurant owner to lock the front door. He leant forwards from the dirty old sofa we were sat on, and said he had something he wanted to tell me.
I was relaxed, remarkably so. I knew from all the ‘trades’ I’d previously done that the day when larger amounts of drugs were brought out could be very tense. People got jumpy, nervous and often very aggressive. To me, the fact I was sat alone in a locked restaurant controlled by a man who had previously been described to me as ‘the biggest Albanian player in Nort
Agim said in his broken English, ‘You know what, Joe? Us Albanians are crazy people. Take me and you. Say last night we go out and have a fight. This morning we drink coffee or raki, we shake hands and we are friends again. But there is something wrong in our minds in the way Albanian people are made. Because you know, Joe, if ever you insult my family, the name of my family, or you double-cross me … I will kill you.’ He spat these last four words out, and a splash of his putrid spittle landed on my right cheek. I wanted to wipe it away but I wasn’t going to move my eyes from his; it was important I showed no fear, no reaction to this threat. I believed every word this man had said. I believed he had killed before and would have no hesitation in killing me, but I wasn’t frightened. He continued: ‘And, Joe, if I don’t kill you then my son will. And if he doesn’t, it is his son who will kill you.’
I let him finish, I held his thoughts in my head longer than I held his stare. Then I said, ‘You know what, Agim. When you and I sit around a table eating the best fish taken from the sea in Durrës in your beautiful country, and our families are sat with us, and we are drinking the success of our long business together, you will forget about such thoughts.’
The restaurant owner put a jug of raki on the table with three grubby tumblers. I poured three large shots and toasted to ‘our future’, and we clinked glasses and Agim repeated those words.
I knew there would be no future; there would be no family meals together, no business partnership. It was my job to help lock this man up, put him behind bars, to prevent him killing anyone else who might insult his family or double-cross him. And I certainly wasn’t going to allow him to do it to me.