Costain entered the service station and stopped when he saw Quill standing there, not even pretending to look at the chocolate bars displayed in front of him. Costain headed for the toilets, and Quill immediately followed, as if he didn’t care who noticed. Costain made astonished eye contact with him just before the door, turning to take in the SUVs he’d left on the forecourt outside, with Mick and Lazlo currently filling up the first two vehicles with diesel. No, nobody was watching. He closed the toilet door behind them.
They stood in the cubicle, with the door bolted: the seat gone, the toilet bowl blocked, everything smelling of shit, a single bulb making it all ghostly white. The cold made their breath bloom around them.
“What the fuck is Toshack doing?” asked Quill. He was speaking too loudly.
“I don’t know.”
“‘I don’t know, sir!’”
“I don’t know, sir. Do you want me to recite my rank, nick and surname, too, in case Lazlo pops in for some fags?”
Quill looked affronted, as if a detective sergeant had never talked back to him in his entire life. He seemed to choose his next words carefully and, thankfully, they were closer to a whisper. “You know how long it’s been for us lot on Operation Goodfellow? Four years now, from you first getting in with Pa Toil’s gang. And maybe you ought to have stayed in the Toil, because now you’re in Toshack’s sodding Chelsea tractor, leading this convoy or whatever it is, and him looking as if he might run for an airport any second.”
“He’s not going to do that.”
“How do you know, if you don’t even know what he’s doing?”
“’Cos he’s looking for somebody. He said we’ll be going house to house.”
“So you do know what he’s doing. But earlier you said you didn’t.”
“I meant that I don’t know what he’s doing in the wider sense, Detective Inspector. I don’t know who he’s looking for—or why. He went off on his own, and couldn’t find them, came back to the Bermondsey house, decided to take us lot with him. He’s off his head tonight, playing with his guns. He’s been at the supply.”
“What, now—as a little treat on New Year’s Eve?”
“His first time. Ask the second undercover, if you want.”
“I don’t want anything unpredictable tonight.”
“Well, what you want—”
Quill put a finger to Costain’s lips. “The top brass are pushing Superintendent Lofthouse to end this right now, understand? Right now, you are the lead UC in the least successful operation SCD 10 has ever mounted in the capital, and that, my son, is a fucking highly contested honor. The boom is going to come down tonight, or tomorrow or the day after. We have run out of money and good will, so the bastards are going to settle just for the small fry. Toshack will laugh his arse off at us again, get off any charges brought against him again, and just a few of his soldiers and toms and lads down the chop shop will get put away, but none of the fucking terrifying ones. The risks you and Sefton have taken for the last four years, and all the working hours of your comrades back at the nick, will have been basically about nothing. And if that happens, I will make sure that you burn. Now, what do you have to say to me?”
Costain licked his lips. Oh, piss off: that’s what he wanted to say. Don’t you think I can see it coming? You’re setting me up to take the fall for this. You’re going to burn me anyway. This fucking insane meeting, with no real excuse for being here, could have been achieved by a brush contact or a dead letter box. And never before had Costain dealt with a DI in charge of an operation who’d even known what he looked like. He’d been sold the lack of a handler this time on the basis that Lofthouse had her own way of doing things, and she had been given the freedom to pursue it this way because of all that Toshack had previously got away with. But now Quill was raising the stakes on him, deliberately pushing him. He made himself take a deep breath, then realized that was a mistake. The coke was roaring through him, putting him in charge, but he knew it made him paranoid too. He had no way any more of telling what was true, but, looking into Quill’s eyes, he knew he couldn’t trust him. “He’s not making a run for the airport. I know it. So tell Lofthouse that’s the opinion of the lead UC.”
“Sefton’s in there with you, does he share that opinion?”
Why do you want to know? “’Course he does. We’ve got a window. In this present state of his, Toshack might start talking about his supply and his connections at any moment, but while I could be listening, you’ve got me in here—”
“’Cos you’ve done everything so well already, haven’t you? You’re in his car and you’ve established access like that, but, over four years, the quality of the information—”
“You think I’ve gone native?”
“Oh, you don’t catch me out like that, sunshine. I wouldn’t dream of using such ill-considered language to a gentleman of West Indian extraction … who’d be on to Professional Standards like a shot.”
If I had a gun I’d put it on his forehead, see him sweat! “I’ve tried to tell you. He doesn’t talk about the bodies he’s dropped, his supply, how he absorbed the other gangs. When it needs to be done, he goes off on his own and nobody goes with him. He must hire freelancers, but we’ve never had a sniff of them. There’s been nothing heard over the lines, and obviously nothing from probably a dozen approaches you haven’t told me about, or you wouldn’t even be here.”
“So why do you think I am at fault, sir?” He let a little of the Guyanese accent creep in, the way a lot of soldiers did when they wanted to act hard. Blam! Quill flew back! Blam!
“Because you’re a wrong ’un.”
“Sefton will have corroborated all of this.”
But, of course, Quill didn’t have a word to say about Sefton. “Wrong ’un, I said, and Lofthouse shouldn’t have picked you.” Quill reached into the pocket of the enormous old overcoat that smelt of mints, and took out a Nagra tape recorder. A bloody Nagra—last century’s recording device of choice. “If I were you, I’d be highly motivated to grab one last chance.”
Costain considered the device for a long moment. “I don’t know when I’d get a chance to switch it on.”
“Do it now, then.”
Blam. Or else bow your head. Fuck it. Fuck him. Costain dropped his jacket onto the hook on the back of the door, pulled his shirt out of his trousers and reached around to attach the Nagra to his belt, at his back. He hadn’t used one of these devices in years, but he remembered the awkwardness of them. He found the little hook on top of the recorder, and flicked it to the On position. Then he tucked his shirt back in and put his jacket back on over it, careful not to touch the hook again. Judges took a dim view of interrupted recordings.
“I am a serving police officer,” he said, making eye contact with Quill, who seemed to be wondering if the UC would remember the necessary words, “who for the purpose of this operation will be known as Anthony Blake. I can, should a court require, produce my warrant card. The date is 31 December. The time is twenty-two-oh-four hours, and I have just switched on the tape.”
Quill nodded to him. “Two hours of tape,” he said. “Last chance—for all of us.” He unbolted the cubicle door. “If the suspect heads for the airport…” And then, mindful of the recorder, he gestured to Costain and then pointed upward with a grim little smile.
Then you make sure you go with him.
* * *
Costain allowed himself another minute after Quill had left. He splashed freezing water on his face. It made him start panting. Quill had set him up to fail. He needed a sacrifice, letting Costain burn. No, no, keep going. Get through it. Work it out.
He walked out on to the freezing forecourt, the warm breath billowing out of his mouth, to the sound of the convoy of SUVs revving their engines. UK Grime beats were pumping out through their open doors. A sample of the Clash looped in and out: “London Calling.” The Asian blokes at the tills were staring worriedly out at them.
Rob Toshack stepped out of the lead car, holding a pistol in his hand. He was beyond caring who saw it.
The Asian blokes dived for cover.
Toshack was red-faced and sweating. He was shivering like an old horse. For a second, Costain wondered if he would find Quill’s corpse lying somewhere out here.
No fear, now. Fear will kill you. Costain made himself become not the hiding, shameful traitor but the star of this picture. With a dirty great supportive soundtrack blasting from those cars, and now this guy with a gun, eyeing him worriedly, not betrayed—nowhere near it—just impatient, and a bit lost, high for the first time in his hard protective old life … This guy hadn’t just shot anyone.
“I was getting worried, Tony,” Rob Toshack explained. “We’re running out of time.”
“What?” Costain went over to the door of the lead vehicle and grinned at his boss. The star of this picture, yes, but never appearing melodramatic. Always the class joker, always relieving the tension that might one day kill him. “I was only having a shit.”
* * *
They raced through the London night, heading for somewhere on the North Circular, up near Neasden. Mick had to swing the car back and forth, every now and then, to avoid the potholes. Not much traffic this late on New Year’s Eve. Rob was keeping the SUV so hot inside that everyone was now in shirt-sleeves. Sefton had somehow managed to move himself up into the lead car, and was now sitting beside Costain. Which was just fucking perfect. The second UC was looking pretend-concerned for Rob, with that round, frigging black children’s television-presenter face of his. Chill out everybody; let’s all be friends and play a rap music game!
Costain made grudging eye contact with him. He held on to it a moment too long, taking some small pleasure in making Sefton start to react. What? Costain turned back to glance at Rob, at that worried drinker’s face, with something weak and unused about the muscles with which normal folk smiled. That lack of tension connected his loose jowls to those lost eyes. The king of London, the first ever. Even gangsters of old, like the Krays and the Richardsons, had had to deal with rivals. Toshack had made his money on drugs and brass, miraculous warehouse and container robbery and high-performance car theft. He was the man for whom it had fallen off the back of that lorry. Or, rather, just vanished from it. It was usually Toshack kit that got auctioned out of cardboard boxes in empty storefronts in the dead-eyed towns of the south coast.
In the last ten years or so, he’d seen off all his rivals or, more often than not, absorbed them. He held actual territory in the thirty-three boroughs, in an age when most Organized Criminal Networks found that much too stressful. He regularly had soldiers coming to him, ratting out their bosses, saying where the money bunched in market folds would be counted tonight. Because everyone knew that in the Toshack OCN you got to do all the posing and none of the getting shot at. It was at that point that Rob would make their bosses a peaceable offer, backed up by some sort of threat, the details but not the results of which were kept from his own inner circle of soldiers. The smaller boss then took the offer and vanished. Always.
Those incredibly efficient freelancers of his.
It made it doubly strange that tonight Rob was out on the warpath with his own people right beside him.
Absorbing soldiers from so many different gangs was how the Toshack set had come to be different from most OCNs, composed of people who’d known each other in the schoolyard, but diverse, like on TV where the producers could imply that these guys dealt heroin but not that they might be a tiny bit racist with it. Costain and Sefton had come aboard when Toshack had taken over the Toil to join Shiv and Mick and Lazlo, the League of Nations. Rob had looked after them, with so many loans and smoothings of the way, and also the taking asides for a little chat that started out with terror, then became about whiskey and good advice from this man who looked at you with eyes that said he’d been there.
Costain liked to feel free. “I’m this guy who’s got no karma,” he’d once said to Rob during one of those whiskey conversations. “Half of what people think there are laws about, there really aren’t. You can do what you like, but people are just afraid.”
“Amen to that, Blakey,” Rob had said, clinking glasses with him.
He loved the freedom Rob gave him. The freedom of someone who could still afford the diesel for a fleet of SUVs. The freedom of someone who was not a victim. Only now he was carrying a burden in the middle of his back that could bring them both down. One way or the other, this free lunch looked likely to end tonight. Costain glanced at his watch. His tape was going to last up to, what … midnight? What was he going to do? He’d put a certain something aside for when he got out of this, and he hoped to God that neither side had discovered that. Was now the time for him to cash in and run?
“What goes around comes around,” declared Rob. Then he turned to look at Costain and Sefton. “Well, that’s not always true, is it? Not necessarily.”
Costain pursed his lips. A sudden memory had been set off by those words, but Quill had planted it in him. Why he always thought he was going to get burned. Because he was the bad guy. The memory went like this: he was leaning closer to one Sammy Cliff, taking him into his confidence after the informer had again ranted on about how he felt about himself, describing himself in the most derogatory terms. “But it’s not about what you are, is it?” Costain had said, making his tone sound like the sort of kindly teacher he’d seen in old movies. “It’s about what you could be. One of the good guys—one of us—fighting the good fight against gang culture. I think it’s time I assigned you a code name, mate. I have been given five randomly generated subject names to pick from, so do you want to choose?”
Sammy had shaken his head, unable to stop himself from looking eager, he’d so wanted to be named.
“I think,” Costain had said, “I’m going to call you Tiger Feet.”
And then he remembered what had happened soon after that: Sammy Cliff hanging there, the burned remains of his feet, of his face.
Costain shoved that memory down again. “Nah,” he said, “you’re right there, Rob.”
“Depends,” said Sefton. “Depends on what he means. What exactly do you mean, chief?” Costain wondered if Sefton knew about the Nagra, if his fucking brilliant strategy now was going to be to ask loads of bloody questions. Like UCs never normally did.
“I mean that, for the last ten years, what goes around hasn’t come around for me. And it won’t come around now, Blakey, Kev, Mick. I’m going to get out of it this time too, like every other time.”
“Sure you are, Rob.”
“I got all of this ’cos of my brother. All down to him, oh yes.” He laughed gently, as if at some irony that Costain himself wasn’t aware of. “I’m not going to let it go.” He hit the button to lower the window, inviting a freezing blast of air in, and shoved the gun out. He fired it in the air and kept firing, with an absurdly precise gap between each shot, as if he was waving a flag that fired bullets. Maybe he expected similar from the convoy behind him, but Costain heard nothing. He imagined bullets falling into the streets of semis standing below the underpass. That demonstrated real freedom, but he could sense Sefton having the temerity to worry and fear and bridle at it.
Rob closed the window and turned back to them again, laughing. “I’m sorry, boys, I’ve had some of the other, so I feel a bit free and easy tonight. I used to do that down the shopping centers in Peckham, you know, walking along with a pump-action. Window of a business that’s giving us gyp, bang! The glaziers used to love me back then. I’d take down the Neighborhood Watch stickers, saying they no longer applied, and they never got put up again, because everyone was afraid of me. That was before your time, Blakey. It was just me … it is just me in this city, invulnerable.”
Sefton spoke up again. “Yeah, boss? We sort of took that as read. So why are you going on about it finishing?”
Costain felt his teeth grind at yet another question. Questions broke the flow of the other bloke telling you something. They weren’t part of a normal chat. They just raised more questions. Sefton was Quill’s favorite, but the little shit was acting like a bloody amateur.
But Rob had suddenly started yelling at Mick, the driver. “Right here, quick, down here!” And they were off down a slip road, the rest of the convoy blaring their horns and making other cars swerve out of their way as the convoy was forced to follow.
Costain glimpsed a gasometer and rows of neat little houses, some of them still with their Christmas lights up. They were somewhere in the Wembley area, he decided. He used to take his bike up here as a kid: these rows of homes all with their own little gardens, everything in the shadow of the stadium and the dirty great warehouse stores. Little people living here in the shadows of stuff. Rob was meanwhile giving directions to Mick, looking at a map on his phone, but keeping one hand cupped round it. Even now he didn’t want anyone seeing their destination.
They roared round a corner, past a square-built pub with a crowd of smokers outside who cheered without knowing what they were cheering. It was the first pub in three streets that hadn’t been boarded up. They took a left down a side street.
“That one,” Rob pointed. “Park up nice like. Don’t disturb the garden.”
The suburban street was fully lined with cars, so “nice” meant double parking. A home owner came out, calling that he’d need to get his car out later, but Rob vaguely waved the gun at him and he went running back inside. That was how they were rolling tonight, then. Costain felt the others were up for it, into it, experiencing some action with the boss at last—not just serving as his drinking buddies now. Rob led his soldiers to the door of a house, and they formed up outside, ready to rock.
Rob rang the bell. And then twice more. He turned to them. “Could someone—?”
The soldiers came forward to help, the big Russian trying to do it with one kick. The door went down in three, and then they were rushing inside. Costain hung back, Sefton alongside him, ready to let any shooting start ahead of them.
But, inside, the gang were wheeling about through a bare and freezing lounge and heading into a kitchen with no fittings and with broken windows looking out to the rear. There was thin carpet and a front parlor space with paintwork yellowed from cigarette smoke. “Doesn’t look as if anyone lives here,” said Mick. “Not even as a squat.”
“I know what it looks like, Michael,” said Rob. “Just search the place.”
So they turned out empty drawers lined with newspaper, and peered under what little furniture there was, the soldiers kicking about inside what looked like their nan’s house. Rob himself went upstairs, and Costain and Sefton—always at his shoulder—followed. Empty bedrooms. Nothing. “What are we looking for, then, boss?” asked Sefton. Always the questions.
“We’re making a noise,” said Rob, raising his voice as if to address the ceiling. “Making it clear we’re here. Loads of us to choose from.” He grabbed a shotgun and slammed the butt up into a trapdoor of what must be a loft, and the big lads helped him up inside it. But a few moments later he was back down again. “Get in there,” he said, pointing, “and root around a bit.” Costain studied Rob’s face as he marched past. He seemed to have come here with hope and then lost it.
Costain managed to investigate the back room downstairs on his own. Then he turned round to see that Sefton had entered. But nobody else. They could hear the sounds of the search continuing in every other room around them, carried out swiftly and offhand as every soldier wondered when he’d hear sirens approach to cut off their limited exit. Sefton closed the door behind him. “How do you want us to proceed, skip?”
“As the tribunal will hear from the tape, I then asked the lead officer in the field to inform me of his plans…”
Costain looked at Quill’s boy for a moment, then silently blew him a kiss. Sefton stared back at him—apparently astonished that Costain had somehow worked out that Sefton was just waiting for him to fail somehow, that he’d probably been already sending in carefully neutral reports that damned the lead UC only in the details. Quill hadn’t actually said that he’d backed up his version of events, had he? Costain was pleased to have finally got under Sefton’s skin. “I wouldn’t worry. You’ll be fine.”
“So you don’t have any … particular thing you’d like me to try on Toshack … Sarge?”
There came a shout from Rob himself in another part of the house. “Right! Next address!”
* * *
Quill sat in the back of an unmarked BMW, heading back to Gipsy Hill at speed, with his detective sergeant, Harry Dobson, in the seat beside him, talking into his Airwave radio. “The helicopter used the opportunity of Toshack’s stop-off at that address in Wembley to refuel,” he told Quill. “He’s now moving to resume surveillance by tracking the bug concealed on Sefton.”
“Tell him, if he loses them, he’ll be flying Fisher Price.”
Harry raised an eyebrow. “He’s about to, anyway, Jimmy. This is the last op, the service is getting cut and the crew are taking early retirement. Like with that Nagra you managed to get hold of when there was nothing else; we’re riding third-class here. So I’ll call him back with your message, shall I?”
“Oh, piss off,” said Quill. Harry had been with him since they’d been in uniform together. Quill liked having someone he could yell at but not have it matter.
“You really giving Costain another chance?”
“Nah, I was just trying to motivate the fucker. When this is over, he’s done. I’ll have him up on a charge, if I can. I do a bit of the necessary paperwork every lunchtime—gives me something to look forward to. If we’d had a better lead in there, or if Sefton had gone in first—”
“Sefton’s a DC, Costain’s a DS, and Sefton has backed up every single thing that shifty bugger’s said about the Toshack firm. You just don’t like him ’cos you’ve got your own lines drawn in the sand—”
“Laws, I like to call them. And where would we be without them? Where we are now, but a bit worse. He had eyes like frigging dinner plates, Harry. He knew I could see that, and all. When this lot falls apart, we’ll find there was info going the other way, knowingly or not, stuff that he’s been contributing to Toshack’s bloody twilight zone that we can’t get into. Bet you a fiver.”
“Blimey, you are serious.”
“Operation Goodfellow’s falling apart, and we’ve got this last shindig on triple time. It’s the last night of the Proms. When this goes under, Lofthouse won’t be able to fend them off no more. The axe’ll then come down, and undercover ops in London will end up being about some old dear telling a DCI what she heard down the bingo. It’s like Toshack threw us a few coins. There you go, lads, tip for being sodding useless. Now sling your hook.”
“Bet Sarah’s enjoying it.”
“Oh, yeah, Harry, she’s ecstatic. I think she’s visiting some distant cousin tonight. Maybe she’ll stay there.”
Harry laughed. “You’re never that lucky.”
Quill looked at him a bit sharply, then realized that he had done so and cuffed the DS across the shoulder before he could apologize. Do as I say, not as I do; they should have that written over the door at Hendon. He banged on the back of the driver’s seat, and saw her raising an eyebrow at him in the rear-view mirror. “Faster, love. We want to be back at the Ops Room for ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ don’t we?”
* * *
Shit, shit, shit!
Kev Sefton was his actual name, and right now he was carefully making himself look out of the window of the SUV because he couldn’t look at that bastard sitting beside him. The convoy had gone to two more houses, both within ten minutes’ distance of the first. They’d been empty, too. Both times Toshack had headed up into the loft while he got the soldiers to “bang about.” Sefton had tried to keep his mind on the job, but …
The bastard knew. He’d been on his back since he’d joined Goodfellow, and that was the reason Sefton didn’t know how Costain came to know about his “protected characteristic,” as the blunt jargon put it. He’d always stayed away from the Gay Police Association, the Black Police Association … He hadn’t thought much about why he should have joined them, or why he shouldn’t. He’d been out, sort of, at his last nick. A few of the lads had asked, so he’d told them. And then his DI, Pete Grieves, had, too, over a pint—deliberately nothing official. “I should think you qualify us for some sort of grant, lad, representing two minorities for the price of one,” he’d said. Sefton had laughed along, only realizing later how the conversation had left him feeling … he still didn’t know how he felt about it.
But there was meant to be a firewall between his present UC life and the nick where he’d first worked.
And, however he knew, Costain had decided that now, on the night the op was going to crash and burn, was the time to really have a go. He’d been at Sefton ever since he was brought in. That superior look in his eye, ’cos he was the real thing and Sefton was the fraud, the posh boy with the put-on accent. There were so many things Costain had stopped him from mentioning in his reports: so many little infringements that added up to a damning picture. “Let’s not mention how long I was alone in there, mate. I might have been a bit rough with him there, mate. Not worth mentioning the toms, is it, mate?” He was always so friendly during that thirty seconds, and Sefton always kept silent, and then the smile dropped away and the mask was back. He had rank on him, but that was no excuse. He’s put a gag on you, and you let him! You keep letting him!
It was obvious the man was using. Sefton suppressed his fury yet again. You did undercover one of two ways: you either stayed yourself, playing a part all the way; or you became something else, something that suited your undercover situation. I’m still me. But you’ve lost yourself. Undercover was a big deal for black coppers, because so many of the OCNs were of African ethnicity. Maybe you didn’t get to do all the management courses, maybe your experience became too narrow to attract promotion, maybe you were just a tool like a phone tap or a surveillance team, but it felt like the most meaningful contribution you could make. And that in a culture where, no matter what anyone said, your opportunities felt narrow anyway. But, when Sefton saw that glazed-eye coldness in Costain’s face tonight, he knew: This bastard’s going to bring me down with him.
Sefton’s mum had taught him something, from his earliest days of getting kicked about. “Wish good things at them,” she’d said. “Wish good things at them hard.” Then she’d make a serious, ridiculous face. He had kept that as a habit of mind, like not walking under ladders. He glanced at Costain now and wished paydays and promotion for the sod, contorting his face with the effort of wishing it.
“You all right, Kev?” asked Toshack. Which made Costain look round quickly, and satisfyingly. There, Mum, wherever you are now, it worked—sort of.
He instantly dropped the expression. “Come on, boss,” he said, in that West London accent he’d sold to Quill as a black kid trying too hard. The voice he hated, if he was being completely honest, because it reminded him of all the kids around him when he was growing up, but not of himself. It was a voice he’d learned to adopt. “We’ll move heaven and Earth for you, you know that?” Yes, sir, master—Toshack liked that, so Costain gave it to him. “But tell us who we’re after. We all want a drink at midnight, don’t we?”
There, the look on Costain’s face! Fabulous, darlings. ’Cos second UC Sefton kept daring to show initiative, and that was recorded on that bloody tape of his. Assuming Quill had actually passed it to him. And assuming he’d switched it on.
“You’ll get to toast the New Year at midnight,” Toshack reassured him. “Back at the house. If we don’t find it this time … it’s last orders for me, ’cos I’ll be gone soon after.”
Sefton looked just a bit worried and puzzled, but inside now he was yelling.
* * *
As the soldiers strode up the path of their last suburban semi, Sefton finally made eye contact with Costain. They hung back until everyone else had gone inside.
“Your call, skip,” he said to Costain, as the familiar crashing noises began inside.
Costain looked splendidly uncertain. His lovely criminal lifestyle was coming to an end, and he was going to have to either call it now or add to the pile of disciplinary charges. “Go on, then,” he said.
Sefton looked toward the house, then carefully took his mobile, with the tracer in it, from out of his other pocket. He texted one word to a number which, if called, would connect to a bloke who called himself Ricky, who would ask, “What’s up, Kev?”
The single word: Midnight.
Costain had placed himself between Sefton and the window, and now he pointed to himself. “I’m going to get him,” he said, “before it goes down.”
Sefton watched the lead UC, as he marched toward the house, and once again he sent all his bloody good wishes after him.
Copyright © 2012 by Paul Cornell