Authors: Douglas Stewart
Also by Douglas Stewart:
The Dallas Dilemma
M.O – a collection of crime short stories (contribution)
Under the pen-name Cameron Ross:
Case for Compensation
Villa Plot, Counterplot
A Family at Law (with Gavin Campbell)
Roulette-Playing to Win (under pen-name Brett Morton)
Shipping at Risk (Contributor)
Piraten (German Edition of Terror at Sea)
The Brutal Seas
Terror at Sea (Revised and Updated version of The Brutal Seas)
First Edition Published in 2015 by
12 Strathallan Crescent, Douglas, Isle of Man IM2 4NR British Isles
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Publisher’s Cataloging-in-Publication data
Stewart, Douglas Lindsay.
Hard place / Douglas Stewart.
1. Detectives --England --London --Fiction. 2. Drugs --Fiction. 3. Gangs --Fiction. 4. London (England)--Fiction. 5. Mystery and detective stories. I. Title.
PR6069.T4587 H37 2015
Cover design by Alison Graihagh Crellin
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Also available in eBook.
To the serving police officers who have been so supportive and to all my family for their constant support and encouragement.
Though the idea for the plot was inspired by a successful police operation, this is a work of fiction and all characters and their actions are the result of my imagination and are not based on any real people. Any resemblance to real persons is unintentional. Locations may have been modified or changed from reality for a variety of reasons.
The slender figure slowed his pace as he approached 22 Westbrook Drive. The suburban street was empty; he was alone. Or so it appeared. Outside the line of 1930’s semi-detached houses was the usual array of ageing Fords, beat up Honda saloons and tradesmen’s vans. Most of the front lawns had been converted to concrete for off-street parking.
When he had sussed out the neighborhood, he reckoned nosy owners snooped on their neighbors, watching out for deliverymen taking advantage of that randy bit at number 19. Anything to break the humdrum monotony of life in this suburban backwater. But no lace curtains would twitch now. Not at gone 2:30 a.m. The good folk of Westbrook Drive were asleep.
But Erlis Bardici in number 22 was not good. Not even nearly.
The midnight visitor knew Bardici was evil, a killer and enforcer for a drug baron’s empire. Not someone to mess with—not if you fancied retiring to sun and sangria in Spain. Or even slippers by the fire in South London.
As the small figure paused outside number 20, he saw a light glowing next door. Keeping close to a hedge, he peered cautiously at the thick curtains in the downstairs front room, lit from within. Damned night owl! On the positive side, there it was, his target for the night: the Range Rover parked on what had once been the small grass lawn at number 22.
Still crouching in his all black gear in the lee of the hedge, he pulled latex gloves onto his slim fingers. From his pocket, he produced a small radio bug, the size of a fly. He wasn't nervous. Certainly not scared. As a veteran of undercover work in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, his talents had been sharpened to the finest point. Back then, operating from his base outside Belfast, the gadgetry had been cruder, nothing as sophisticated as this little marvel, which would track the Range Rover. Since then, he had worked in Bosnia, Pakistan, Colombia, West Africa, freelancing wherever someone would pay for his experience and expertise. And not always on the side of the angels though that part of his life he kept tight and close. But there was no room for complacency. Not with Erlis Bardici.
Tonight, he was flying solo—breaking with police protocol, all that health and safety crap. Except that the crap was there to protect his health and safety. To hell with that! Desperation at Assistant Commissioner level had warranted breach of protocol. He was a deniable—in copper jargon, a snout or chis—a covert human intelligence source. For the Met to run him off the books was rare and risky. It meant putting bollocks on the line, as Ratso, his DI pal, had confided. Not that Ratso would have called him a chis. To Detective Inspector Todd “Ratso” Holtom, he was a snout or a friendly, a talent for hire when needs must.
When doing a job by the book, he’d have team support, including a couple of uniforms to distract, reassure, or mislead a suspicious householder. After the last snafu, he’d told the Met where to shove the team. If you want the job done, I’m going in alone. No more relying on coppers too young to shave. But flying solo was different. Get caught? No soft landing. You’re on your own, son. Denials all round. He knew the rules. Say nothing. Go quietly. Take your licks. Even jail.
He had been selected for special duties because of his anonymous appearance, his slender form and his height at only five feet seven. Back then, he’d always acted alone. Teams were only as good as the weakest link, so sod ’em. The last operation had been screwed up by a pimply faced copper more suited to reading comics than covering someone’s arse at the dead of night.
He glanced again at the lighted window. There was no sign of movement—just the faint sound of a late-night movie. He took in the peeling paintwork around the front door. All quiet. Time to go.
He advanced a few paces until all that stood between him and the front door was a few feet of concrete. Inwardly, he cursed the manufacturers of modern cars. Gone were the days when the wide expanses of metal offered innumerable places to fix a device. Nevertheless, he knew what he was doing, knew the point where the tracker could be concealed.
With a sudden darting movement, he ducked down behind the silver of the Range Rover’s boot. In a couple of nimble movements, he was flat on the ground, slithering snake-like under the chassis. It was a moment he always loved—savoring the smell of the tires, the fuel, the exhaust and the dried mud under the wheel guards. It took him back—different places, same smells.
He wriggled toward the front suspension and the place where the magnet would work. Starting tomorrow, every journey would be tracked, every destination plotted. He pressed his heels into the concrete, seeking leverage. He felt good about it. With any luck, the tracker would bring down Erlis Bardici, perhaps to a suitably brutal end. God knows the Albanian bastard had dished out enough stuff for too long.
He ran his gloved hand under the chassis, seeking the small spot he wanted. He knew every inch of the vehicle’s underside. Knew it even better than he knew Charlene’s underside … and he had savoured that often enough.
Somewhere in the distance, he heard the siren of an emergency vehicle but it faded away. As he lay on his back, wriggling the last inches, the street was lit by a passing car. He held his breath, wondering if it would stop at the only house where the occupant was still awake. It did not. But moments later, in the silence of Westbrook Drive, the front door of number 22 opened with a sound like the crack of a rifle. The concrete surrounding the car was illuminated.
He heard footsteps. Slow. Deliberate. Cautious. Then he saw the feet. Heavy duty CAT boots in brown. A less experienced operative would have panicked.
Not Neil. Not Neil, a veteran of undercover in Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq. He lay still, his breathing soft and measured.
Surely the man just wanted some fresh air? Or as fresh as it gets so close to the Heathrow flightpath.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the feet move toward the driver's door. My God! If he's going for a drive, then I'm stuffed. But no. The feet kept moving, toward the boot. They moved out of sight. Then they stopped.
“Come out!” The English was heavily accented. No surprise there. He knew the man was Albanian.
Shit! Had he been spotted? Worse still, had someone shopped him? A copper turned by the Albanians? The last snafu had been put down to sodding luck. And now … a second time?
“Come out.” The guttural, throaty tone was heavy with menace.
He started to slither back but not before he had planted the tiny device, leaving the second in his pocket to be found.
Clapham, South London
Todd “Ratso” Holtom walked briskly along Glebeside Lane, his MP3 beating out a U2 number. And I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Bono’s rasping voice brought out the soulfulness that he so obviously felt. Ratso agreed with every word, every sentiment. In his personal life, he knew what he wanted. Simple pleasures—supporting Fulham, playing or watching cricket and doing his bit with patients at the Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire.
That was the easy part.
It was in his life as a detective inspector that he hadn’t found what he was looking for.
Boris Zandro. Just the Albanian’s name made his footsteps pound harder, his determination more intense. He trod the London pavements most days and as often as possible. It showed in his tall, lean but muscled frame, his long legs filling his jeans to good effect.
Boris Zandro. I’m coming to get you. Because it’s you I’m looking for.
Ratso’s eyes were alert, the eyes of a skilled police officer well used to working on surveillance or undercover. Not that he was undercover now. He was glad to be out of that scene. Too much hassle—changing cars, work locations, number plates, IDs. Living a lie.
The morning rush-hour traffic threaded its way toward the Red Zone of Central London. He glanced at the procession. Good morning, lemmings. For him, getting to work was quality time. Ratso spurned a car, preferring to grab a Tube and walk a couple of miles. He could read the movie reviews, do a crossword, or study the cricket scores while his Blackberry and iPhone were neutered by the tunnels. It was also a good opportunity to anticipate the day ahead—the morning briefings; the reports of last night’s events; joshing with his Scottish sergeant about the Rangers’ heavy defeat at home. Plan the next moves in the long struggle against the untouchable Boris Zandro.
But that was the best and worst of life as an officer in SCD7—part of the Specialist Crime Directorate tackling Serious and Organised Crime. SCD7 was today’s name. With the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition now bedded in, who knew what it would be called next week or even tomorrow. Someone had said it might be SCO7—OCC (Organised Crime Command). Really rolls off the tongue, that does. Everything was changing and not necessarily for the better. He mentally shrugged off the alphabet soup. Whatever they called it, in his mind, his role was twenty-four-seven. And sad git that he was, he liked that. Loved it, maybe. Married to the job. That was what Clara, his last long-suffering lover had said before she quit. But she was wrong. It was worse than that—or better. SCD7 made all the demands of a rampant mistress, dominating every waking moment. Even sleep was no escape. In your dreams took on a whole new meaning after you’d faced an Albanian with a machine gun, been battered with an iron bar by two Nigerian dope peddlers or fought off an attacker flailing a samurai sword that threatened to slice you like salami.
The drug barons. Like Boris Zandro. Zandro with his rumoured huge deal, his swansong, maybe.
The barons were always there, sticking up two fingers at PC Plod. They had no need to laugh up their sleeves. They were above that. Massively rich, careful, cunning and invariably detached from the daily routine of distributing Class A to the masses, Zandro was a seeming pillar of society. When he was not jetting off on his Gulfstream or cruising aboard his eighty-million-pound yacht, Zandro lived in his mansion in North London.
Even now, as Bono moved on to Where the Streets Have no Name, Todd Holtom’s knuckles clenched and his firm jaw jutted forward as the smug face of Boris Zandro taunted him, grinning like a giant toad. Can’t get me, you cop wankers. You can prove nothing.
Yet Ratso wouldn’t give up his job, not for anything—not even because of the stench in the Cauldron at the end of a hot, sweaty day. This was the nickname for the room where too many detectives sat in cramped basement conditions. A solitary plug-in air freshener struggled to cope, while two electric fans shifted the dust between the stacked files and empty pizza cartons.
Last night had been upbeat. Erlis Bardici’s Range Rover was about to be bugged. Was that just last night? It seemed an age ago. The bloody iPhone on his bedside table vibrating, intruding on his quality time with Nadine. Pissed her off something rotten. The young Swiss waitress had been the latest to hope for equal billing with his job. No chance. She’d had enough of cancelled plans, of him disappearing without warning. But Neil’s text coming in when they were at it was too much. Coitus interruptus, the legal boys called it. Or was it in flagrante delicto? Maybe both. Damned iPhone.
As he’d paid for her taxi, she hadn’t actually said, Piss off, Todd, get a life but her glacial eyes had delivered the unspoken message.
Whatever. Ratso Holtom adjusted his padded leather bomber jacket against the stiff northeasterly and quickened his pace.
The message had been important though. Operation Clam was moving again. Little Neil Shalford, a great mate and piss artist, had sent a text confirming he had just parked close to Westbrook Drive. Operation Clam! Getting Zandro was moving again. The Albanian had seen off the previous attempt to nail him a few years before. But now Assistant Commissioner Wensley Hughes had approved Neil going solo. High risk. Rare, maybe even unique. The uniqueness had been born from desperation to get the device planted; Operation Clam had been going nowhere.
Little Neil Shalford … his great mate with the sharp wit and an ego as big as Belfast. No team. No backup. One man trespassing beneath the car of a sadistic killer. Little Neil. Alone and bollock naked if he were caught. Then would follow the spin, the lies and cover-up. He stopped for a friendly word with a dosser and slipped a quid into his upturned cap before hurrying on, his mind tormented by thoughts of Neil. Was he alive or dead?