Being the largest town in England with a population of over 200,000 people it is not surprising that there are many small shopping precincts scattered around Northampton. Mostly they consist of three or four small shops, perhaps a baker, a newsagent, a mini-mart selling basic groceries, and a post office or hairdresser. But each of the four main entrances to the town have much larger precincts, typically with a small branch of a bank, a cash machine, a pharmacy, one or two restaurants, commonly Indian or Chinese, a takeaway or fish and chip shop, and a few specialist retailers. These all benefit from heavily populated housing estates close by and passing trade from traffic entering the town.
The St. James area of town was no exception. Dominating the western suburbs, it was named after a twelfth century Augustin abbey. It was equally famous for its many shoe factories and contained the landmark Express Lift Tower, which was so tall it needed an aviation warning light. Some of the houses in the area were built before the Great War, and in fact an incendiary bomb was dropped on a house in 1917 killing a mother and her children. The world-famous Northampton Saints Rugby Union Club had its stadium there, and towards the western boundary a Y junction split the main highway towards the villages of Weedon and Harlestone. One of the larger shopping areas stood just East of the fork, and one of the shops was a local pharmacy, serving mostly the large housing estates surrounding it. Dealing mostly in prescription medicines but also toiletries and over the counter drugs such as mild pain killers and creams, it was not short of trade.
In the late morning after the body of Markovic was discovered, the sun was shining, and a lot of people were out. They included a tall slim black girl, perhaps fourteen years old who had entered the pharmacy with a prescription for her aunt. She was wearing a navy-blue blouse, blue denims, and white trainers. Her hair was long and jet black, tied with a yellow ribbon. She had been born in the area to a mother who had died of a drug overdose many years earlier, and a father who had abandoned her before she was out of nappies. An only child, her only relative was her aunt who had taken her in, saving her from a life of foster parents and children’s’ homes. But now her aunt was sick, and she found herself looking after the person who had looked after her when she was younger.
In a blue Kia, parked outside the pharmacy, sat McVey and Cameron. McVey was smoking his tenth cigarette of the morning and clutching a stainless-steel hip flask from which he was regularly sipping. He was in the passenger seat. ‘Is that her?’ he asked.
‘Yes, she comes same time every week.’ Cameron said. ‘She lives with her aunt in Stenson Street. Her aunt suffers from a lung condition and needs oxygen. Prognosis is she doesn’t have long, although she’s been at death’s door for two years.’
‘So, the girl must be wondering what will happen when the aunt dies. She’ll be left with nobody to look after her.’
‘Exactly, and the house is good for us. Out of the way but with easy access to Victoria Park. Two bedrooms, two rooms downstairs, and a cellar. No access from the back. It’s perfect.’
McVey took another sip from his flask, pressed the button to lower his window and flicked his cigarette out. ‘So how do we go about this? Is she using?’
‘Not yet, but money will do it for us. She needs it and she knows it. We’ll get one of the boys to help her out, make friends, maybe get her using. Then she’ll have to repay the debt. Should be easy.’ Cameron said.
‘A few weeks, perhaps a month.’
‘What was the source?’ McVey asked. ‘Seems too easy. Are you sure it’s not a set-up?’
‘Free school meals, regular meetings with social services, who not surprisingly are pushing to place her in foster care. Her Carer is on our payroll. We’ve used her before. She’s reliable.’
‘If the aunt is hospitalised then the house will become empty. Shouldn’t we wait?’
Cameron opened his window and breathed in fresh air. McVey stank like a brewery and he had inhaled enough secondary smoke to make him dizzy. He did not answer for several seconds while he composed himself. ‘It’s an idea, but it could be months, even years, before that happens. The old lady has been dying for the last two years, but she’s still above ground. Also, no telling what will happen to the house.’ He said.
‘Any other opportunities? We need more distribution to meet demand.’ McVey said, still not convinced.
Cameron turned to face him. ‘A couple, but this one is the easiest and the best. We can be moving three hundred wraps a day, twice that at weekends. We should move in on it boss.’
McVey lit another cigarette. The young girl came out of the pharmacy, medication wrapped in a paper bag, and hurried towards her home. McVey watched her until she turned out of sight into the backstreets. ‘Ok let’s do it.’ He said.
After the autopsy, Grey returned to her office on Brackmills. It was not her favourite place. From the outside, the building looked modern and spacious, but she had been cocooned in an eight by ten box right above the holding cells. There was no room at the main Guildhall station and so Thomas and his team had been given the first floor of the Justice Centre at the far end of Pavilion Drive. It was noisy, and as hard as the air conditioning tried, it could not completely remove the stench that wafted up from the cells below.
Reaching it by car could be a nightmare, especially in the early mornings when traffic heading towards the Barclaycard building jammed up tight for half a mile. Between five and six in the evenings, it was just as bad, but in the opposite direction. Trying to react to an emergency at those times was hopeless.
Thirdly her office had no natural light, and the faux teak and reeded glass panels that separated her from next door were so seventies they made her feel old.
It was not soundproof. Anybody in the next office or the corridor outside could hear every word, and ditto for her. Privacy was impossible.
Grey had just sat down at her desk when Jo Giordano knocked and entered carrying a clipboard. Grey looked up. As usual Giordano was dressed for the catwalk. Knee length black pencil skirt, white stand collar silk blouse, no stockings, black leather short heels. Thinking of her own prop forward thighs, Grey sighed with envy and said. ‘Morning Jo, how’s the search going?’
‘Slowly. The park is next to the college and academy. The students use it at lunchtimes and after classes. It’s full of old wrappers and coke bottles. Still, I’ve got twenty men on it so they should find whatever’s there.’ She did not sound hopeful.
‘What’s that in your hand, this week’s lottery winners?’
‘No, I bumped into DCI Thomas on the way in and he asked me to bring it to you. It’s the report on the mobile phone found on the body. It’s a burner, not registered to anybody, but it’s interesting.’ She said handing it over.
Grey took it and began scan reading it. ‘Christ, a lot of contacts. Looks like the techies have done a thorough job here. Somebody must have put a bomb up their arses. This kind of detail usually takes them days. Reverse directory look ups, names, addresses. Very nice.’
‘The addresses are closely knit too.’ Giordano said.
Grey raised both eyebrows and continued scanning. ‘Indeed. Interesting. What do you think?’
‘Dealer phone perhaps. Nearly all the calls out are to the same number. No trace of course.’
Grey scratched her nose. ‘Could be a County line. Are we looking at a drugs killing here?’ She asked.
‘He’s not known to us, but the number and location of those contacts are indicative. We have an address for him. Perhaps his house will give up a few pointers.’
Grey put the report down on her desk and picked up a pen. She began tapping it against her teeth. ‘Anyone come forward?’
‘Not yet and he wasn’t on any list. So could be a loner.’
‘I watched the autopsy earlier this morning with Thomas. Jane performed it, and we spoke to her afterwards. She told us he was not killed in the park, and Thomas reckons he was stripped naked, hung upside down before his throat was cut, cleaned up then dressed again. His body was empty of blood.’
‘Urgh, gross. That’s a lot of effort and sounds professional. Perhaps whoever did this was sending a message, a warning.’ Giordano said.
‘That was my first thought, and if we’re right and this is drug related, perhaps he was caught stealing. Jane says there will be blood wherever he was killed, and she collected fibres and hair. Hopefully we’ll get a DNA match.’
Her phone rang and she pulled it out of her pocket. ‘Thomas,’ she mouthed silently, ‘Ok, yes sir.’ She said, standing up and looking at Giordano, ‘We’re summoned to the inner temple.’
Grey and Giordano strolled along the first-floor corridor towards Thomas’ office. The decor did nothing to raise Grey’s spirits. The floor was finished in some kind of dull grey laminate which seemed to have seeped up the walls to about halfway where it was interrupted by a startlingly bright yellow intumescent rail, about six inches wide, before continuing upwards to the ceiling. The floor below, where the cells were, was decorated the same, much to her disgust, the only difference being in the doors. Here they were made of wood, down there they were reinforced steel.
Grey knocked on Thomas’ door and she and Giordano entered. Thomas was seated at his desk, jacket off, hung on the back of his chair, tie loose, the top button of his white shirt undone. His sleeves were rolled halfway up his arms. Grey noticed white hairs against black skin. Showing his age, she thought. He finished tapping away on his keyboard and then sat back with his hands together on the desk.
‘So, what do we know?’ He asked, looking at Grey.
Grey felt awkward standing there like a naughty schoolgirl, but Thomas did not invite her to take a seat. Sometimes, she decided, he could be an insensitive bastard, or perhaps he knew exactly what he was doing. ‘The phone might be interesting sir. It’s a burner and there are a couple of hundred contacts in it. We have some names and addresses, but a lot are unidentifiable. However, all the incoming calls came from an area concentrated around the Eastern district. Nearly all calls out are to the same number, also a burner and somewhere in the Rugby area. We think Markovic might have been a dealer, but it’s early days sir.’
‘That might explain the elaborate method, and why the body was moved, but if it is drug related, then there had to be a reason. Runners don’t invite trouble to their patch. They like to stay in the shadows, not bring us to their door. By the way you can both sit down’ he said cheerfully.
About bloody time, Grey thought. ‘Thank you, sir,’ she said as she and Giordano pulled a couple of chairs away from his desk and made themselves comfortable.
‘We have an address sir, so we will take a team there once we finish here. He hasn’t been reported missing, and we have nothing on him. He was clean, but perhaps a neighbour will be able to help us.’ Giordano said.
‘If the address proves genuine.’ Thomas said sounding as though he doubted it would. ‘Or it might be genuine but a cuckoo’s nest.’
‘Yes sir. The search team is busy combing the park, but it’s full of litter from the college students. To be truthful I don’t expect much from it.’ Grey said.
Thomas shrugged. ‘You never know, you might be lucky.’ He sat back and put his hands behind his head. ‘You know I can’t think of any organised gangs in that area, yet the murder has professional written all over it.’
‘Definitely unusual sir,’ Grey agreed, ‘and why move the body? That’s a risky thing to do.’
‘What do you know about the drug trade DI Giordano?’ Thomas asked, recognising her lack of experience.
‘I haven’t worked on any cases sir, but I know something about the chain of supply.’
Thomas nodded and turned his eyes on Grey. ‘DI Grey? What about you?’
‘Some sir, I know most of it comes from Columbia and Afghanistan.’ She said and sat back, waiting for one of Thomas’ self-indulgent lectures.
Thomas smiled and said, ‘That’s right, plus Mexico and more recently Myanmar. Harvest time is between March and June. That’s when the poppies are lanced. They’re simply pricked with a special tool and then left for a couple of days until a black liquid oozes out. This liquid which we know as Opium is collected on a kind of spatula and left to dry. The whole process is very labour intensive, no machinery involved at all, and each poppy only produces a tiny weight of product, but wages are low and profits enormous. The poppy farmers rely on what the drug lords pay them to feed their families, so to them it’s a way of making a living. About seven kilos are collected from every thousand square feet of crop. Doesn’t sound a lot but when you consider the hundreds of thousands of acres growing poppies, you realise it’s big business. Once a drum-full of opium has been collected, it’s mixed with hot water to form what we know as Morphine. Add a few chemicals and it becomes Heroin.’ He explained.
‘How does it get here sir?’ Giordano asked.
‘Mostly by road. Obviously we’re an island so it comes across the sea, but usually in trucks and usually camouflaged as something else. Once it gets here it’s collected by a middleman who sells it on to regional distributors. These are our County Line owners. They cut the raw product and mix it with paracetamol or caffeine, then sell it on to dealers. It’s the mixing that turns it into a white powder, or snow as it’s known on the street, before that it’s brown. The bags we find on the street are anywhere between twenty-five percent and forty-five percent pure.’
‘Why the wide range sir?’ Grey asked.
‘Sometimes it’s a question of profit, other times it a question of supply and demand. Like any crop, yield can be high or low depending on the weather. When yields are low the purity tends to reduce to protect supply.’
‘We know a lot yet can’t stop it.’ Grey said with a hint of cynicism.
Thomas raised both eyebrows and said, ‘Well it’s not all bad news. Customs seize tons every year, but you’re right, once it reaches the regions it’s difficult to stop, simply because of the sheer number of dealers. Trying to trace a County Line owner is like looking for Lord Lucan.’
Grey sighed in frustration. ‘So if this does turn out to be a drug related murder, we’re on a loser, and I’m SIO. Christ on a bike.’
Thomas smiled. ‘Just follow procedures, use your instincts and do your best. Nobody expects anything more of you.’
Tell Malan that, Grey thought to herself but said. ‘Yes sir.’ Chief Superintendent Malan was Thomas’ boss and he despised Grey to the extent that he had tried to sack her more than once. Only Thomas had stopped him, putting his own career on the line in the process. As SIO she was responsible for solving the Markovic case. If she failed it would give Malan more bullets to fire at her.
At midday Kubric received a phone call from his contact in the police informing him of the murder of Markovic. He had spent the morning pondering over the meeting the night before, trying to relive it, thinking about the words each dealer had used, the body language they had presented. One of them had been lying, of that he was sure, and the motive was obvious to him. Greed. One of them wanted to expand their little empire. In a way it was immaterial to him, he was their only means of supply and as long as he was supplying each district, he really didn’t care who controlled it. But it was clear that there was trouble in Boucher’s district and that could be disruptive if nothing else. And now Markovic had been murdered. He needed to consider what that meant, but first he needed to clean up the mess Markovic might have left behind. He doubted Boucher had found out that Markovic had been killed even though he was one of Boucher’s men.
He called Maric and told him to take a team to his house and clear it of any stock, cash and other evidence. He was to do it now, without delay, this very second. Get there and clean it up before the police arrived, assuming they had not already. Then torch it just in case. Call back when it was done. It would mean Boucher would lose a valuable nest, but it was unavoidable in the circumstances.
Kubric could not quell the nagging doubt that his supplier was betraying him. Was he supplying this interloper, and if so why? Or was it some out of town gang muscling in with their own supplier? How could he find out?
He decided to call the supplier. It was not the done thing, much discouraged unless a leak had been identified, but Kubric had to know, despite the potential penalties. A call carried a fixed cost of £50,000.00 but on top of that taxes might be charged if the supplier decided the call was, well, uncalled for, and put the operation in danger. Taxes could be in the form of broken bones or worse. Worryingly Kubric would not be told until a demand was received in the form of half a dozen heavies carrying baseball bats turning up at his front door. Special delivery, you might say.
Nevertheless, he had to know so used his VPN to call him up. There was no answer for several seconds and then there was a click followed by a modified voice. ‘Yes?’
The voice was a deep baritone, obviously put through some kind of bending device, which made it all the more terrifying to Kubric.
‘This is Cowslip, I need to ask you a question.’ He said, his voice trembling despite his determination.
‘You know the fixed penalty for calling. It had better be important.’
‘I know and it is. I have someone moving in on one of my districts. A man has been murdered, not a senior manager but nevertheless there is a connection with the district.’
‘What is the question?’
‘Are you supplying this interloper?’ There he hadd said it. He had asked the question. He held his breath and waited.
There was no answer for several seconds, then the voice said. ‘No.’ Followed by a click and then the line went dead.
Kubric breathed out slowly. He had his answer, but would he be punished for breaking protocol? The curt response was worrying but he had not threatened the security of the organisation so he could be fairly confident he would be safe. Had it been worth the money? He thought so. For the supplier to lie was unthinkable. He relied on trust; it was all he had.
Which posed the question, who was supplying this person or this group? He decided to call Boucher and let him know about Markovic. Unlike the protocol required to speak to his supplier he could simply call Boucher on his mobile. He pulled it out of his pocket, found him in his contacts, and pressed. Boucher answered after two rings. ‘Markovic is dead, murdered.’ Kubric said without preamble.
‘Merde. How, when?’ Boucher answered, sounding shocked.
‘Last night. He’d been assassinated. Throat cut, body dumped in Eastfield Park. I’ve sent a team to clean up the mess. Did he have stock on the premises?’
‘Of course. He was a distributor and he was trading from a house he’d taken over about a year ago.’
‘You’re going to need to plug the gap. You can’t afford to be short again this month, the penalties will be high, perhaps too high for you.’
‘Putain! You must give me time, I beg of you. Be assured I will deal with this, have no doubt.’ He said desperately.
‘The clock is ticking monsieur. Make sure you do. There will be no extension.’ Kubric said and rang off.