The FCR or Force Control Room at Wootton hall received upwards of 1,200 calls a day. Open 24 hours, 365 days a year, it never closed and like the casinos in Las Vegas, had no clocks. The dozen or so operators answered emergency and non-emergency calls, filtered them between those that required action and those that did not, and allocated those that did to officers throughout the county.
It took experience and knowledge to do the job properly, especially in a politically sensitive age when a single delay or wrong decision by a call respondent could result in heads rolling at the very top of the organisation.
BAME callers, pensioners, and children were especially sensitive, and it was not surprising that staff were instructed to treat them with empathy and urgency. So when Alicia Monk, a fourteen year old from the St. James area called with a slightly hesitant and strange story about her aunt’s house being invaded, not by armed intruders, but by someone she owed money to, the FCR respondent listened carefully and acted quickly.
The call clearly justified action, but who to give it to? Was it a case for uniformed officers, or CID? The clincher was the girl’s use of the word ‘invaded’. CID, but it was pure chance that Giordano answered, normally one of the admin staff would have taken the call. She listened carefully as the control respondent explained and her instinct told her it was worth looking into.
She was at her desk, sitting next to Grey when the call came in.
‘Interesting call. A young girl, Alicia Monk from St.James has called in saying her aunt’s house has been invaded by someone she owes money to.’
Grey was busy working out the surveillance roster and did not focus on what Giordano had said. ‘Invaded; that’s a bit strong isn’t it? Is it the Russians?’
‘She’s only fourteen, but she’s obviously worried. She said the house belongs to her aunt.’
‘Yeah who owes money. Probably a bailiff.’
‘No, the girl said she owes the money, not her aunt.’
Grey looked up from her roster. ‘How can a fourteen-year-old run up a debt big enough for the bailiffs to get involved?’
‘We don’t know that it is the bailiffs. Might be someone more sinister.’
‘Yeah and it might not. Christ we’ve got enough on our plate without getting sidetracked by a hysterical teenager. Can’t uniforms deal with it?’
‘They could, but Malan is going to be apoplectic if it turns out to be something and finds out we failed to look into it.’
‘Yeah and Thomas is going to blow a gasket if he finds out I’ve gone babysitting instead of hunting for a murderer.’
‘I could go. It’s not likely to be dangerous.’ Giordano offered.
‘Oh yeah, that would be great. Cop with broken arm who should be at home convalescing, sent to home invasion. I can just picture the headlines. You gonna pay my severance money?’
‘At least I could come with you.’
Grey threw her pen onto her desk, stood up, pulled her jacket from the back of her chair, and slipped it on. She let out a deep sigh and said, ‘No, I’m on it. You’d better stay here and make those calls. I shouldn’t be long. I’ll see the girl, apologise to the bailiff, and get back as soon as I can. If Thomas asks you don’t know where I am. Ok?’
Giordano looked disappointed but said ‘Yes ok. I’ll cover for you.’
The wind was gusting at around 40 miles an hour when Grey stepped out of the Brackmills centre. Cursing, she tried to hold her hair in place with one hand while fishing in her pocket for her car keys with the other. She jogged to her car, zapped the lock, tugged the door open and slid into the driving seat. In the glove compartment she stored a small compact case containing a mirror, a hairbrush, and some lipstick. She reached over, pulled out the case, unzipped it and extracted the mirror. After a quick inspection she quickly brushed her hair, and satisfied, repacked the case and started the engine.
It was a bright sunny day despite the wind and the traffic was light as she drove out of Brackmills onto the A45 slip road and turned left onto the main Bedford Road into town. On her left, Midsummer Meadow, site of the outdoor baths that townsfolk enjoyed for seventy-five years until 1983, and the laundry chimney, built in 1862, all that is left of the town’s once bustling laundry centre. On her right car dealerships dominated; Volvo, BMW, Kia, Skoda.
Further on towards the town centre a stone wall bordered Beckets Park, with a history going back to 1164 when Thomas Becket drank from the well on the edge of the park just before his trial. In the early seventeenth century it was a flat horse racing track, and now contains a large marina on the river Nene that runs through it. At the top of the hill she turned left and drove downhill along Victoria Promenade, site of the cattle market which closed at the turn of the century, and on which Morrison’s Supermarket now stands. From there a short distance to the Castle Railway Station, newly designed by someone Grey had long decided was mentally challenged; customers had to climb stairs to buy a ticket, and then go back down stairs to catch a train. Hey ho, from there it was a short run over West Bridge, and on to the St. James area.
Stenson Street was a small link between the main drag and Greenwood Road. Its name was unique in Great Britain, but properties were distinctly ordinary. Two- and three-bedroom terraced houses, opening directly onto the pavement outside, they were absent of any redeeming features. Just flat fronts with a window downstairs, a front door, and two windows upstairs looking out onto the houses opposite.
Grey turned off the main drag but took another ten minutes before finding somewhere to park. She checked herself again in the rear-view mirror before stepping out and walking the few hundred yards to the girl’s house. By the time she arrived the wind had messed up her hair again.
There was no bell or knocker on the dark blue wooden door, so she rapped the letterbox as hard as she could. After a few seconds she heard footsteps before a small black girl opened it as far as the security chain allowed and looked at Grey with enquiring, slightly fearful eyes.
Grey smiled, held out her badge and said, ‘Hello, my name is Sheila. I’m a detective with the police. I think you called us earlier. Are you Alicia?’
The girl nodded and took a few seconds examining Grey’s badge, but satisfied, she released the chain and opened the door. ‘Please, come in.’ She said.
Grey followed her into a small lobby that led to a large lounge-diner. A grey three-piece suite flanking a faux gas coal fire dominated the centre of the lounge, with a flat screen television off to the side nearest the dining area. The floor was vinyl planks in a light wood design, and the walls were covered with plain magnolia anaglypta, broken up by framed pictures of past holiday destinations. It would have been quite pleasant and cosy except that sitting on one of the easy chairs was an old lady wearing an oxygen mask attached to a large black cylinder. She appeared to be asleep.
‘My aunt,’ said the girl, ‘she won’t disturb us, she’s always like that, we can talk here.’
It occurred to Grey that the place had not been invaded as far as she could see, so what did the girl want? She sat down on the sofa and the girl sat on the chair to her right. ‘So, Alicia, how can we help you?’
‘My aunt is dying.’ She began.
‘I’m very sorry to hear that.’
‘When she dies, I’ll be all alone. I have no parents, and I’ve been living here since I was very young. Now I look after my aunt. As you can see, she’s not capable of looking after herself.’
‘I understand, and that’s very brave of you. When you called us you mentioned that your home had been invaded. What did you mean by that?’
Alicia hung her head as if ashamed to tell, but then seemed to find some inner strength and met Grey’s enquiring eyes. ‘It began about a week ago. Every week I go to the chemist and collect my aunt’s medicine. Last week as I was leaving the store I was approached by a young white boy, a few years older than me, and we got chatting. He seemed nice, and I thought he fancied me, even though he was older. He bought me a coffee.’
‘But something happened after that?’ Grey asked.
The girl nodded. ‘I don’t go to school anymore. I go to the park most days, just for a break really. It’s pretty depressing sitting indoors all day.’
Grey nodded. She imagined it must be soul destroying for the young girl.
‘Anyway, the next day I bumped into him in the park and we talked as we strolled around. There’s a cafe nearby and he bought me a coke and a sandwich. I told him I was worried what was going to happen to me when my aunt died. I have no money and I’m frightened I’ll end up in a home.’
‘What about Social Services? Can’t they help?’
The girl nodded. ‘I see them once a fortnight and they’re very understanding but what can they do? I can’t support myself; a home or fostering are the only options.’
‘So, this young man, did he suggest a solution perhaps?’ Like becoming his bitch, Grey thought. Was he a pimp? There was a big market for underage teenage girls.
’He offered me money. ’Alicia said.
‘But he wanted something in return?’
Alicia broke down in tears, hanging her head in despair. Grey let her cry for a few seconds and then passed her a tissue. ‘Take your time. Whatever you tell me will remain between us.’ She said.
‘I needed the money, so I agreed when he offered. I thought he was trying to help me. He seemed so understanding. He said there was plenty more when I needed it. He said he felt sorry for me, and I believed him.’
‘But something has happened to make you change your mind?’
‘Yes, at first I wasn’t worried. I thought he was just a kind person trying to help me. It was obvious to me that he liked me despite being a lot older, and I was flattered, but then he asked me if he could use the cellar for storage, and occasionally this room as an office. I told him that would be impossible because my aunt needs constant care. It was then he started to change, demanded his money back, but I didn’t even realise it had been a loan. I thought it was a gift.’
‘How much did he give you?’
‘Five hundred pounds, and he promised more when I needed it.’
‘Alicia, has he threatened you?’
‘Not physically, but his whole attitude has changed, and he has insisted he at least uses the cellar to store his stock, even though I told him he can’t.’
Grey thought for a moment. As much as she sympathised with this young girl, what she was describing was not criminal. Perhaps she had misunderstood this benefactor, or at least that would be his defence even if she had not.
She said, ‘I understand this must be very upsetting Alicia, but I’m not sure what I can do to help. After all, you agreed to accept the money. I think the most I could do is to speak to this man and try to make him see reason. Would you like me to do that?’
Alicia shook her head vehemently. ‘You don’t understand, that’s not why I called you.’
Grey was at a loss, what did this girl want from her? ‘I’m sorry Alicia, I’m not following you. Can you explain?’
With that the girl stood up so quickly that for a moment Grey thought she was going to throw a tantrum, but instead she brushed the wrinkles out of her jeans and said. ‘Follow me and I’ll show you.’
Surprised and intrigued, Grey stood up and followed the girl as she headed for the stairs leading to the cellar. Alicia switched on a light halfway down before jumping the last two steps onto the screened floor.
‘It’s here.’ She said, pointing to a large cardboard box the size of a domestic fridge. On the side was printed ‘computer equipment, handle with care’.
The cellar was about half the size of the room above, perhaps twelve feet square, with rough brickwork on the walls and a concrete screeded base. The light was a single fluorescent. Grey approached the box, which was open at the top, and peered inside. What she saw made her gasp. Stacked tightly together were bricks of opium, one on top of another, wrapped in freezer bags sealed at the top, but even so she could smell the unmistakable ammonia-like odour seeping out of the packets. Grey guessed there must be close to fifty kilos in the box. Each kilo, once turned into Heroin, had a street value of close to £250,000, so the box contained a haul of around £12million.
‘They’re drugs, aren’t they?’ Alicia said.
‘Yes, they are. How long have they been here?’
‘He brought them this morning, told me not to come down here, but I guessed what they were. That’s why I called you. I don’t want to get mixed up in this. I’m frightened for me and my aunt. I shouldn’t have taken his money. I’m sorry.’ Alicia said and burst into tears again.
Grey said ‘You’re not to blame. Let’s go back upstairs and talk. You have nothing to worry about, you’re not in any trouble. You did the right thing in calling us.’
She led the girl back up the stairs and into the lounge. Her aunt, gaunt, lined face, grey hair, slumped uncomfortably in the easy chair, had not moved since Grey had arrived. She could hear her breathing, strong but laboured, through the mask. Grey wondered how the girl kept her clean and whether she ever went to bed or just remained in that chair day and night.
Alicia followed her, tears streaming down her face, and Grey gave her what was left of her packet of tissues. ‘Shall I make us some tea?’ She asked.
‘We don’t have any.’ The girl said, ’too expensive.”
‘Oh, ok, well listen Alicia, I’m going to have to call someone to help us now that I’ve seen what’s in your cellar. Is that ok with you?’
‘They won’t take me away will they? I have to look after aunty.’ She said, suddenly panicking.
‘Don’t worry, we will look after you both. There’s nothing to be concerned about.’
Grey pulled out her mobile and called Thomas. He needed to be informed and she needed to know how to handle this. He answered quickly and she gave him a brief explanation before asking him to help. He agreed without argument and said he would bring a child protection officer with him.
Grey asked. ‘What is this man’s name Alicia?’
‘And did he say when he would be back?’
‘This evening. He said he had some customers coming round.’
‘Tell me, how do you cope with bathing you aunt? And do you put her to bed at night?’
‘A carer comes round twice a week and helps me clean her up, but she can’t get to the toilet so we have to put her in nappies. At night I let the chair down and put a blanket over her.’
‘Wouldn’t she be better off in a home?’
Alicia looked frustrated by the question. ‘And then what would I do? I have nowhere else. My aunt probably does need twenty four hour care, but I provide that, and it means I can live an independent life. Not much of one I admit, but it’s better than relying on foster parents.’
Grey nodded. As hard hearted as what she had seen over her years with the police had made her, she could not help feeling for this poor child. What a life, and what a hopeless situation the poor girl was in through no fault of her own. But what could she do? She was not a social worker and the only solution the authorities would offer was one the girl did not want.
Thomas arrived twenty minutes later with a middle-aged female protection officer, a box of tea bags and a pint of milk. Grey made the introductions, and the protection officer went into the kitchen to make the tea while Grey showed Thomas the haul in the cellar.
A few moments later they were back in the lounge. Thomas found a seat adjacent to Alicia and asked about her interactions with social services. ‘I go twice a month to Billing Road and see my case officer, Mrs. Ward. She’s been a big help in making sure I get the benefits my aunt is due, but she wants me to put my aunt in a home and I don’t want that.’
‘No and I can understand why,’ Thomas said, ‘but if you look at the future, you need an education, your aunt does need full time care, and you need a life outside of these four walls.’
‘I know, but my aunt needs me.’ Alicia said, tears welling up again.
‘To be honest Alicia, I think your aunt needs professional nursing care. You do a fantastic job, nobody could do more, but you know deep down that you need to live your life. There’ll be nothing to stop you from seeing her every day.’
‘I suppose you’re right. I just feel so bad about leaving her.’ Grey watched the interchange and was amazed at how the suddenly the girl was listening, taking in every word Thomas was saying. She wondered if it was because he was black, or whether Alicia looked upon him as some kind of wise old man.
‘Can you tell me how long you’ve been seeing Mrs. Ward?’ Thomas asked.
‘She’s new, about a month, I think. Before her it was Mrs. Field, but she left to have a baby and they put Mrs. Ward on my case.’
‘I see. And this Micky said he would return this evening?’
‘Yes, about seven I think.’
‘Now listen to me carefully Alicia. I think if you and your aunt stay here, you will be in great danger. In your cellar is a large quantity of pure Opium. I suspect Micky is a dealer, and he befriended you so that he could use your house as a base for his business. So, I would like to move you both to a safe place, at least until we have had a chance to deal with him, and then we can see what’s best for you both.’
The officer came in with a tray of tea-cups and handed them out.
Grey took a sip and said. ‘How would you feel about that Alicia? It will be for your own protection.’
Alicia nodded and said. ‘It’s why I called you. I was so frightened.’
‘Well no need to be now. We can organise an ambulance for your aunt, and you can go with her. Then we will find somewhere safe for you to stay. We have lots of safe places to choose from, and a police officer will be there to give you security all the time.’
The young girl nodded. Grey looked at her aunt who appeared to not have moved at all, then with a raised eyebrow at Thomas. He nodded and Grey called for an ambulance.
Thomas asked the ambulance service to make sure that when it arrived it would be noticed. The driver made a good job of it, sirens blazing lights flashing, to all intents and purposes it looked like an emergency to anyone watching. Paramedics rushed out of the ambulance and ran to the door where they were met by Alicia. She ushered them inside where Thomas and Grey were waiting. They spent about half an hour examining Alicia’s aunt before carrying her out on a stretcher and speeding away again with sirens at full blast. Alicia and the childcare officer went with them. Thomas and Grey remained in the house.
‘Classic cuckoo operation. Very ill house-bound aunt, vulnerable, needy child, inconspicuous house with plenty of storage space. Girl worried to death about her future and along comes our Micky with the answer to all her prayers. Money, security, suddenly she can see a future. Only problem is he wants to use her house as a base for his drug dealing business.’ Grey said.
‘Yes, and he’s coming back tonight expecting to find her here. We need to make sure we’re prepared. Call Giordano and get her to arrange a SOCO team and an arrest squad who can pick up this callous bastard when he gets here. Tell them to be discreet. I don’t want anybody spooking him, so no vans, no uniforms, and no groups. Absolute discretion and tell them to hurry up. We have work to do.’ Thomas said.
Thomas nodded. ‘She’s the obvious link. How else would he have found her? I want a full background check on her current and past cases. I want credit checks, copies of her bank statements, spending patterns, what she owns, and anything else relevant, and I want it fast. Get Giordano onto it. Meanwhile have her picked up. Use uniformed officers, make it embarrassing. If this woman is abusing her position and pimping, she’s going down for a long time and I want everyone to know it.’
‘Micky is likely to be a small cog sir.’
‘Perhaps, but we have to start somewhere, and this is a lot of heroin to be handled by a small time nobody. No, I think our Micky has a direct line to a main man, and I want to know who he is.’ Thomas was wringing his hands. Grey had never seen him display so much emotion. Was it because of the girl’s age, or because she was black, or a bit of both? ‘These bastards picking on poor vulnerable children, corrupting them, forcing them into addiction, prostitution, treating them like pieces of meat, we need to stop them, and make no mistake DI Grey, stop them we will.’ He said, his expression grim and determined.
Grey muttered assent and called Giordano, repeating the instructions Thomas had given.
‘Sounds like he’s on a mission.’ Giordano said
‘You better believe it. We’re staying here waiting for SOCOs. Let me know when Ward has been brought in.’
‘I’m on it.’ She said and rang off.