Our story begins in a smoky old room in a tired old building standing as the last sentinel of times past when the back streets in the centre of Northampton had been dominated by six story red brick monoliths, over a hundred years old, their brickwork weathered, window frames rotted, glass shattered, and slate roofs chipped and broken. They had been home to boot and shoe factories, the Temperance Hall, a flea ridden picture house, and the Masonic Hall, wherein carcinogenic smoke from white clay pipes had clogged up the lungs of generations of Masons. The cinema had been built on the corner of Princess Street, close to the medieval Greyfriars cemetery, which considering what went on in the dark double back-row seats, gave rise to much mirth from the more cynical secular townsfolk. All but this last reminder of Victorian grandeur had been demolished years ago to make room for a car park, bus depot, and a characterless shopping centre oozing irritating Muzac and drafty piped air. Now in a rush towards modernism, these too were all in danger of being knocked down to make way for the grand New Dream.
High ceiling, fancy coving, swirling patterns carved into the plasterwork, two crystal chandeliers hanging precariously on worn flexes. Like the room they had seen better days; bulbs had blown and some of the crystal was cracked and blackened. Dominating the decor on the ground stood an oblong table maybe twelve feet long and seven feet wide, made of walnut, the edges chipped, the surface scorched with rings from scolding coffee cups.
But no scolding coffee stood on the table that cold autumn evening. Instead bottles of whiskey and brandy, gin, and tequila, two shot glasses for each bottle, had been strategically placed in easy reach of those seated round it.
Eight people had gathered in high backed chairs of worn green leather. Seven males one female. Three each side, one at each end. Seating was in clockwise order of perceived seniority, although no one would openly admit to being less senior than anyone else.
At the head, a large man with broad shoulders, Adin Kubric, 60 years old, looking older. Lined face, cruel lips, aquiline nose, he was a veteran of the war in Bosnia. Charcoal grey suit, thin grey tie, white shirt unbuttoned at the top. He held a glass of whiskey in his right hand. His left rested lightly on the table balancing a thick cigar between thumb and forefinger from which a thin line of smoke floated slowly towards the ceiling.
To his left Maric Kovic, Kubrik’s second in command, a veteran in the struggle against the Serbs and Croats. Difficult to age, no neck, his head appeared to be attached directly to his huge shoulders, surprisingly small hands, his suit hanging on him like a lead shield. Intimidating piercing blue eyes signaled the danger he could be.
Next to Maric sat Boucher, head of the Eastern district. Aptly named, feared by his contemporaries, he was good with a knife and ruled without compassion. Of French origin he had made his name running heroin around the slums of Ile De France. Intelligent, ruthless, in Paris he had climbed up the ranks quickly, eliminating anyone getting in his way. Finally chased out of France by the Sûreté, he had gathered false papers and hopped over the channel to England five years earlier.
Next came Riley, head of Boucher’s security. A fit six-footer, lithe, a smart dresser, intelligent, ex SAS, he had met Boucher soon after Boucher had set up distribution in Northampton. Boucher had been the unwelcome intruder, gnawing away at the heroin market controlled by two Rumanian gangs, and it had been Riley who had dealt with them quickly, efficiently, without fuss when they had woken up to the threat and made their move. Boucher had been impressed. He recognised a kindred spirit. Now the pair were inseparable.
McVey sat at the bottom end, a concession to his ego accommodated by Kubric for the sake of face, although Kubric did not see him as an equal. McVey controlled the Western district. A Glaswegian, like Riley ex SAS, but unlike Riley, neither tall, lithe, nor smart in the sartorial sense. But shrewd, and ruthless, a heavy drinker and smoker who had built up his empire from scratch over a long period using fear and intimidation. A family man nevertheless, with two daughters and a fiercely loyal wife, he was a walking heart attack waiting to happen.
To his left sat Cameron his head of security. Cameron was not a fighting man, no military training, no police background, no special skills of that kind. But McVey saw him as loyal, observant, risk aware, and a genius with electronics. What he lacked in physical ability he more than made up for in organisational and technical skills. A thoughtful, mild thin teetotal man in his early forties he was McVey’s polar-opposite and trusted advisor.
Next to Cameron sat Diana Hall, a tall mid-forties heavy smoking brunette who had lived in the town all her life. Born in the Boroughs, a notorious disadvantaged area of town close to the Railway, she had first made her mark running whores and brothels, before switching to drugs after the police had largely shut down the street walkers and massage parlours she had controlled. She ran the Northern and Central districts. Respected by her peers Kubric nevertheless considered her a lightweight in his organisation. Hall was tall, seductive, and sat with legs crossed, revealing a long length of stockingless thigh.
Hall’s security came in the person of a volatile young man with knife scars on his face and neck, spiked fair hair, and several convictions as a youth for bodily harm of one sort or another. Kevin Foal was the son of Hall’s sister. In his mid-twenties, he sat fidgeting with a packet of cigarettes, constantly scanning the room, making no secret of the fact that he was bored by the whole occasion. His contempt for the meeting and those around it was obvious from the faded jeans, coffee-stained T shirt, and muddy Doc Martins he was wearing. Everyone else had made an effort, suits and ties and smart dresses.
Kubric stubbed out his cigar, took a long swig of whiskey, and stood up, resting both knuckles on the table.
‘My friends, I want to thank you all for coming tonight. I know we are all busy. We don’t meet often enough but when we do it’s always worthwhile.’ He began, hardly any trace of his native accent, his voice low and gravelly from years of smoking. He sighed before continuing. ‘Our business has prospered and we are growing now faster than at any time in our history. Our success has been based on trust, loyalty, a sense of comradeship, and above all security, but now we face a few problems. Let’s call them growing pains. Firstly, Boucher you were short this month. Can you explain why?’
Boucher shrugged his shoulders and said in his pronounced French accent. ’One of our employees succumbed to greed. What can I say?’
Kubric replied. ‘Did he pay his taxes?’
‘Of course. That goes without saying.’
‘Enough to deter him in future?’
‘Two broken arms, and a broken leg. Riley collected so it was done professionally.’ Boucher explained.
‘And the compensation?’ Kubric persisted.
‘Alas he had spent it.’
Kubric considered his answer for a moment and then said. ‘You will of course make compensation yourself, plus pay a fine for the lapse in security.’
Boucher blanched and seemed about to say something but then thought better of it and sat back, silent. After a moment he gave an almost imperceptible nod of assent.
Kubric continued. ‘Next, Marković has gone missing. He hasn’t been seen for two days. A mystery that threatens the very core of our business. That is principally why I have called us together. Make no mistake this is a serious development. So where is he? Again Boucher, he was your man, when was the last time you saw him, and what had he been working on?’
Boucher pushed back his chair and stood up. He gripped both lapels and took a deep breath as if he was about to begin a long statesman like speech.
“He was working with Riley trying to track down a name. Someone has been undercutting us, flooding the streets with inferior product, cut at less than fifteen percent. I sent Markovic to find out who it was. He has a nose for the street. Riley also was asking around our dealers trying to get a name but nobody was talking. Last time I saw him was two days ago. He was due to meet someone in EastField Park. Riley saw him go but he never came back. I’ve had people checking the area but they’ve found nothing.’ Having delivered his speech Boucher slumped heavily back into his chair.
Kubric’s gaze fell on Riley and stayed there. Riley noticed and stared right back. Finally Kubric asked, “Anybody with any ideas?”
McVey stood up, grunting at the effort. When he spoke his Scottish accent was almost indecipherable, his speech fast and staccato, like a machine gun spitting bullets.
’We’re all responsible for our own security. Why send him alone? If there was a threat he should have had back up. We must protect our own people and our own districts. Runners get scared without protection. If Boucher has allowed someone to muscle in on his territory, then that’s a sign of weakness. We can’t be seen to be weak. It puts us all at risk.”
Boucher sprung up out of his chair. “Attend! I cannot be held responsible for this. My security is as strong as anyone’s in this room. It is not unusual for someone to try to cut in, we’ve all had that problem in the past. Let me assure everybody round this table that I will deal with this. I will find Markovic and I will find who is responsible. I just need time.’
Hall said. ‘We don’t have time and we can’t be seen to be weak. This has been badly handled and we should have been told before now. A threat to one of us is a threat to us all. If Boucher needs help to stamp out this nuisance I’m sure we will all happily lend a hand.’
Others round the table murmured assent, but Boucher was enraged. He could see the thin end of the wedge. To his mind, Hall’s offer to help was a thinly disguised attempt to move in on his territory. Once her people were allowed in, they would never leave.
‘Non!’ He shouted, ‘I cannot permit this. I will deal with it; give me seven days and I will find Markovic and crush this ant under my own shoe.’ He said, eyes on Kubric, pleading.
Kubric had lit another cigar and poured himself another drink. Nobody said anything while they waited for him to speak. They could all see the opportunity and the risk but nobody dared speak out of turn. Nobody wanted to admit to starting a war, but they all wanted a bigger slice of the cake and now it might be on offer.
Finally Kubric said ‘Greed is a powerful motivator, but you’re all missing what’s staring you in the face.’ Kubric felt he could talk like this because it didn’t matter to him who controlled the territories as long as he controlled them. They needed him more than he needed them. ‘The danger here is not just to our colleague Monsieur Boucher. No, the danger is that this is organised, a coordinated attempt to move in on us. Start in the East, but how long before it moves to the South, the West? We must stop it now, before it grows. Cut it out like the cancer it is. Of course, we must all hope this is a renegade, a chancer, but...’ His gaze fell on the Frenchman.
‘Boucher you have 48 hours.’ He said with finality.
Boucher breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Now any other business? I understand you have a new nest Diana?’
Hall stood up and smiled. ‘Right in the middle of town. It will be a good hub. We will start slowly and watch for any suspicious activity, but if it is as good as it seems, it will give us easy access to the whole of the Boroughs.’
‘Young or old?’ He asked.
‘This one is young. An alcoholic. Our contact at the health centre put us onto him. It’s a small two bedroomed rented place in Louise Road. Perfect for us. Busy but not too busy and with good access to the Racecourse. People are unlikely to worry about comings and goings.’
‘Can this alcoholic be trusted?’
’No of course not, but we have him on a tight rein feeding his habits. Someone is in the nest 24 hours a day looking after him and making preparations.
‘Stock or cash or both?’
‘Mostly stock but there will be some cash kept overnight. Daily collections of course.’
‘Good. Distribution is important and the more hubs we have, the better.’
Kubric looked around the room. ‘Anything else?’
There was a collective shaking of heads. ‘Ok then. The meeting is closed. Remember ,security ,and keep your eyes open.’