Fishpond Road snakes around Bellinge on the eastern boundary of Northampton between the A43 and A45 highways. Running off it left and right are small cul-de-sacs and terraces. Built in the seventies the houses range from small two up two down boxes to individually designed detached family homes with four bedrooms and double garages.
Sitting next to it is Little Billing, once a small hamlet outside of town, but now swallowed up by the inexorable spread of new developments to become just another district on the eastern border. Slightly run down and tired, the area is a poor relation to its big brother and close neighbour, the village of Great Billing, home to the minted, suited and booted, once owned by the renowned Elwes family who had built the Great Hall. A pub carrying the family name still stands in the High Street.
Bellinge and Little Billing were happy hunting grounds for Boucher. Takings had been consistently high and growing for the past couple of years, right up until the last two weeks when they had suffered a sudden drop. Rita had been able to narrow it down to two neighbourhoods, one in Faracre, the other in Ashmead. Boucher wasted no time in instructing Riley to put an end to whatever was going on. But before he could act, Riley needed to understand exactly what was going on. Was it someone stealing, in which case the punishment would be swift and severe, or had competition suddenly sprung up, in which case the punishment would be more considered, but ultimately equally swift and severe.
The only way Riley could find out was by observation, and so it was that at six a.m. three days after Markovic was murdered, he was sitting behind the wheel of his black Mercedes C Class saloon, watching the comings and goings along Fishpond Road. Trade was slow at that time of the morning, but it would pick up as customers began their day with their morning fix. It gave him the chance to try out different locations before resting on the best spot from where he could watch the streets but avoid being noticed. The last thing he needed was to spook customers or be spotted by whoever was responsible for the slowdown in takings.
The car was comfortable, but it had no built-in toilet or fast food takeaway so Riley expected to have to take frequent breaks during the day. But that was fine, it would give him opportunities to change his spot. Outside it was windy but bright. The sun was rising in a clear cloudless sky, only occasional jet vapours decorating an otherwise endless expanse of blue. Birds were singing, mostly sparrows and starlings, but also wagtails, robins, and blackbirds. It was chilly but getting warmer as the sun rose. Traffic was light and pedestrians few, just occasional bleary eyed early risers trudging to collect the morning papers.
Riley expected most of the action to come from the direction of Faracre. The street contained two nests, one a small two-bedroom terrace house owned by an old lady suffering from vascular dementia. Her only next of kin was her daughter, a single woman in her mid-forties who could not hold down a full time job and look after her mother at the same time. That made the trade off easy. The dealer paid for her mother’s care in exchange for the use of the house for distribution. The arrangement suited both parties, a win-win.
The other was a much larger property where business was conducted by mail order. The stock was held in the garage which was guarded twenty-four hours a day. Inside the garage was kitted out like a small business. A desk, toilet, sink, racks holding stock, a computer, printer, fax, it had everything a social media operation needed. Adverts were placed on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, people placed orders online or by phone, and supplies were distributed from the garage. Of course, the adverts did not show bags of heroin, that would have been stupid. Instead shirts, shoes, and trousers were on show, but they were all fronts for scag. It was a simple operation but too exposed for Riley’s comfort. Adverts could be tracked or taken down without notice. Where was the reliability in that model? Much better to use runners on the street. If they were taken out, they could be replaced easily.
Riley had photographs on his phone of all the runners in the district, and the first one turned up just before seven. A small white girl, about eleven years old dressed for school in a white blouse and grey pleated skirt. A brown satchel hung from one shoulder, a newspaper sack from the other, and she rode a blue mountain bike that looked too big for her. Riley watched as she went door to door delivering papers, but every now and then reaching into her satchel to find a small packet which she inserted into the paper before pushing it through the letter box. Riley was impressed. The girl was clearly experienced and knew what she was doing.
After about an hour most of the runners were out. They were an eclectic mix of young an old, all looking as though they had every right to be there, none looking out of place. The younger ones of school age would soon thin out, leaving the adults to keep the supply going. Riley noticed that some addresses received more than one delivery.
The morning padded out slowly with nothing unusual happening. Riley was able to identify all the runners from their digital records, and he noticed no strangers. What was going on? He decided to take a break for lunch and drive to the Costa on Riverside Park. He parked his car close by and walked the few yards to the entrance. There was a small queue which gave him the opportunity to choose from a wide selection of sandwiches and a mind-boggling array of coffees.
He sat down at a window table and pulled out his mobile. Boucher answered on the third ring. ‘Anything?’ He asked earnestly.
‘Not yet boss. Nothing unusual so far and no strangers about.’ Riley reported.
Boucher let his frustration show in his voice. ‘There must be something. There is a reason why takings are down goddammit. Look harder!’
Riley remained cool and spoke quietly. ‘I’m on it boss. If there is anything, I’ll find it. I’m going on foot this afternoon. Maybe I’ll see more that way.’
‘Are both houses trading?’ Boucher asked.
‘Looks that way. Deliveries looked normal. Every runner identified.’
‘Housekeepers might be skimming then. You need to check them out.’
Boucher was beginning to irritate Riley. He was making the same point over and over, using different words. It was bordering on disrespect and that was something Riley would not tolerate. He decided to stay silent.
‘Do you hear me Riley?’ Boucher insisted.
Riley rang off. He had heard enough. Boucher sounded like a desperate man but now was not the time to panic, now was the time for cool heads.
Back at Brackmills Grey was at her desk. She had skipped breakfast at home but had bought a bacon bap and a cappuccino from the canteen. She had devoured the bap and was sipping the coffee when her email alert pinged. She opened the new mail to reveal a report from Technical Services which showed the locations of calls made from the contact telephones found on Markovic’s mobile. She already had the list of numbers, and names for about ten percent of them, but now she had times and locations of calls made from those phones, and what really made her sit up and take notice was that they all came from a small area on the eastern border of town, Bellinge.
She was about to walk along the short corridor to ask Thomas if she could hire some temporary help when her mobile rang. She pulled it out of her pocket and checked caller ID. It was Thomas on the line.
‘I’ve just finished speaking with the union rep, asking him how he’d feel if Giordano volunteered to do some back-office jobs. She seemed keen to make herself useful when I spoke to her. He was agnostic provided she worked voluntarily, and we didn’t put any pressure on her. I’m guessing you could use some help.’ Thomas said.
‘You must by psychic sir. I was just on my way to your office. I was going to ask if we could pull someone in temporarily to help but Jo would be perfect. I’ve received a report on Markovic’s mobile phone. It looks like there’s a geographic pattern amongst the contacts and we’re going to need to call some of them. Jo might be able to help with that.’ She said.
‘Sounds like a plan. Have a word with her but whatever you do ,do not pressure her in any way. Make sure if she comes in, she does it voluntarily.’ Thomas warned.
‘I will sir. I’ll see how she is when I visit her later.’ Grey said, excited at the prospect. She rang off and resumed working her way through her emails.
As the afternoon approached the weather turned cloudy. The early sunshine completely disappeared behind an endless screen of lumbering leaden cloud. From where Riley stood on the corner of Faracre the stratus looked capable of drifting down to ground level and immersing the planet in a thick black fog. No aeroplanes were visible, although he could hear them, and even the birds appeared to be hiding from the threatening sky. The wind had dropped, and the traffic had thinned out.
He had decided to walk the length of Fishponds Road, stopping every now and then at what he considered to be strategically important spots where runners should be busy making deliveries. Occasional collections were allowed but frowned upon in case the nests should attract attention. That was to be avoided at all costs. Profitable nests took months to set up and a raid followed by closure always disrupted trade for several weeks.
Riley had been watching a thin Asian youth dressed in black jeans and maroon hoodie. He had seen him three times earlier in the day, and now he saw him again talking to the occupant of a small shabby house on the opposite corner. He decided to cross the road and walk straight past him before quickly heading for his car so that he could observe without being so conspicuous. He put his head down and strode out, reaching his car in less than a minute.
He settled in behind the wheel and took out his phone. He wanted to take photographs of the youth to send to a contact in the police. Hopefully, he would be able to find out his name. He was not in the gallery Riley had, so if this teenager was dealing, he was not one of Boucher’s. He took half a dozen shots using the zoom function. Riley checked them for clarity. They were fine.
When he looked up Riley saw an exchange. The youth had pulled a bag out of his pocket and handed it over to the householder. From a distance it looked like a bag of scag, but Riley wasn’t sure. He snapped away with his phone, trying to capture the moment. The youth moved on, walking at a brisk pace towards the newsagent in the next street. Riley switched on the ignition and inched forward, keeping his target in sight.
He disappeared inside the shop. Riley pulled in a few yards away but kept the engine ticking over. A few minutes later the hoodie reappeared carrying a newspaper. To any bystander his actions might look innocent enough, but Riley recognised the signs. He followed the youth as he hurried along towards Coneygree, a small cul-de-sac running off the main road. Fortunately for Riley the teenager did not glance back, or he would have been forced to accelerate away. He parked opposite the turning into Coneygree and watched, camera ready.
The cul-de-sac was not very long, no more than twenty or so properties either side plus four at the end spreading the width of the street. From where he was Riley could see every property clearly. He saw the hoodie walk briskly to one of the end houses on the right, reach into his pocket, and place whatever he extracted between the folds of the newspaper before posting it into the letterbox. Riley captured it all on his phone. He scrolled through each picture and smiled at their clarity. No doubt now, the guy was a runner.
Riley pulled away deep in thought. He was sure the youth was dealing, and almost certain the newsagent was running him, but neither of them was part of Boucher’s network, so the question remained, who was supplying them? He decided to park up close to the newsagent and continue his surveillance. Was the youth his only runner or were there more? Surely there were more, the amount the takings were down pointed to three, perhaps four full time runners.
He decided to go in and buy a paper. He manoeuvred his way out of his car, zapped the lock, and strode towards the small shop. He feigned interest in the window display, pulled his phone out of his pocket, and held it to his ear. Alternatively talking and listening he entered the shop and began to browse the shelves. The shopkeeper, a puffy faced mid-fifties Asian, was busy at the till, checking out a customer while chatting about the football. Riley decided to take a chance. He moved a little closer and took two quick snapshots before putting the phone back in his pocket. He breathed a sigh of relief; the shopkeeper had not noticed. He picked up a newspaper, took it to the counter, fished a couple of coins out of his pocket and handed them over, loosely saluting the shopkeeper with the rolled-up paper before turning to leave.
It was at that moment that Riley caught his breath in shock. Through the shop window, he saw the youth talking in earnest to an older smartly dressed man. Riley ducked behind an aisle and watched as they continued their conversation. It was important that he was not seen, but that would be inevitable if the pair came into the shop.
‘Can I get you anything else sir?’ The shopkeeper asked. Riley cursed himself. He had completely forgotten that he was clearly visible to the shopkeeper. He coughed and picked up a bag of wine gums. ‘Just browsing.’ He answered without taking his eyes off the pair.
The conversation between them continued, heads slightly bowed, close together. Riley was becoming increasingly anxious. He was sure the youth would eventually enter the shop, and that did not worry him, but if the older man came in, he was in trouble. He walked up and down the aisle, trying to look interested in the stock, conscious of the shopkeeper’s eyes on him, and at the same time trying to remain out of sight of the pair outside. He wanted to take a photo, but the shopkeeper would surely notice.
Finally, after what felt like half an hour but had been only a couple of minutes, the older man patted the teenager on the shoulder and moved off. The younger man entered the shop. Riley avoided him and stepped outside, looking left and right. There was no sign of the older man. Riley took a deep breath and strode back to his car. He needed to report in.
Whatever was going on here was more complicated than it had appeared at first, much more, because Riley had recognised the older man.
It was Cameron, McVey’s sidekick.