Lower Piccadilly, Level Fourteen.
Oliver checked the map on his phone and took a sharp left. As far as tips went, this one had been pretty bare on the details. A geo-pin, accompanied by two lines of text:
Parked autocab with heap of bags in backseat. Man sitting there for hours not getting out.
Maybe seen this guy on the news?
It was probably nothing, but someone might have called the police already. It would be a tidy bit of footage in time for the morning news. The location was practically on Oliver’s doorstep, and what good was chronic insomnia if not for early morning tips?
Oliver glanced down the street before cutting across half way.
Above him, the auto-rails criss crossed the airspace, like someone had taken a blunt pencil and methodically shaded out the sun. Last night’s rain was rapidly adding a fresh coat of black stains on his shoes; soaking his left foot from a torn sole.
Oliver activated the mic on his collar as he walked, wedging in his earpiece and pulling out a hand-held stabiliser for his phone. He slotted the last two together with one hand, the plastic notches slipping a little on his thin gloves.
No matter the level, London at five-thirty in the morning was always freezing and miserable. If it wasn’t the gales up top, stripping skin from bone, then it was the damp coiling fog, thick and sour. Neither was worth being awake for, but seven years chasing the non-stop news cycle had immunised Oliver to erratic sleeping hours. He kept his phone alarms on loud, just in case a tip or a source came through. It was something that drove his girlfriend nuts… though her own pager weren’t exactly conducive to normal sleeping habits.
They had argued about that too.
“When my pager rings, someone is literally dying Ollie. When your phone rings, it’s some bullshit about lobbyists that can wait until morning!”
Well babe, thought Oliver, who found himself prone to self-narration whenever out on the job alone: at least this tipster waited until we broke up before texting this early.
He sighed, breath crystallising like an exhale from a cigarette.
Maybe it was time to grow his hair out, for extra insulation. He had worn it buzzed short for years; it was easier on the water bill.
Switching the phone over to camera mode, Oliver began recording as he approached the parked cab. It’s engines were off, and the entire car was soaked in a film of condensation. The tipper had been right – it had been here for at least a few hours.
There was a figure slumped against the passenger seat window, a dark silhouette through the windscreen.
Oliver frowned, drawing level with the car.
The figure didn’t seem to see him.
“Hey,” he called, rapping on the cab’s hood.
The sound bounced off concrete and gravel, hungry and hollow like an empty water drum. Oliver glanced up and down the deserted pavement. There was a traffic camera just across the street, and a line of shuttered shop windows behind him; an overflowing to their right.
Oliver knocked again, this time on the glass.
“Mate, y’alright in there?”
Oliver could see where the guy’s hair was pressed against the glass, face tilted down and away. Something uneasy tightened in the pit of his stomach, and Oliver wiped at the fogged window with his free hand, camera tilted to avoid the reflection on the glass.
At first, he thought the man was asleep: his eyes were closed, face slack. But then Oliver noticed the dark blood beneath his nose, a tidy line of it all the way down past his mouth.
“Oh shit,” he muttered, banging hard on the window, “Oi. Oi, wake up!”
Oliver went for the door handle, pulling hard.
He didn’t expect the door to slide open without resistance, so wasn’t prepared when the man in the passenger seat fell bodily out of the car, face-planting straight onto the curb with one leg still in the footwell.
Oliver leapt backwards.
Flicking out the stabiliser’s plastic feet, Oliver slapped his still-recording phone onto the hood of the cab and dropped to his heels at the stranger’s side. Oliver turned the guy onto his back, and his head stiff and joints locked against the asphalt. Without the tinted glass in the way, the blood was much brighter than before, trailing thick and dark from the young man’s nose, past his mouth and along his chin.
Heart racing, Oliver pulled his right glove off with his teeth and pressed two fingers to the guy’s throat.
The bottom dropped out of his stomach.
Oliver went for his phone, keeping the camera recording even as he activated the call function. He stuffed his glove into his jacket pocket as the call rang.
“Hello? Yes. I need to report a stalled-out autocab with large suspicious packages,” he said.
“And a dead body.”
Oliver knew he had about fifteen minutes before the police arrived.
The first thing he did was to check that everything was being saved, live, to the cloud. The second thing he did was to set up a disposable button-eye cam on the nearest lamppost, with a view of the car and the body. Oliver wondered absently when corpses had become so blasé: perhaps all those visits to the mortuary had inoculated him early in his career. He stared down at the dead man.
He looked to be in his early twenties, with a blunt chin and short, wet-sand hair. He wore a plain shirt in familiar corporate blue: the diamond logo of Arden Pharmaceuticals neatly embroidered on the collar.
Oliver took a dozen more photographs, uploading a few profile shots to The Sentinel’s intranet to cross reference with their own database of images and tags. The tipper had mentioned seeing him on the news: the algorithm would take a good crack at it.
As it turned out, Oliver needn’t have bothered. There was a plastic ID clipped on a lanyard to the man’s belt loop. Oliver rummaged in his pockets and managed to find a pen. He used it to flip the ID carefully over.
Timothy Hersch, it read, between a terrible headshot and a series of numbers.
Oliver took a photo of the ID, then panned the video over the inside of the car again. The light was getting marginally better as they edged towards six o’clock, but it was still fairly dark. Sucking air between his teeth, Oliver flicked on the flash, and inched around the lip of the roof, holding out the phone so it could get a nice shot of the duffle bags sitting in the back of the car (which Oliver hoped were not bombs timed to go off, and if they were bombs, that no one he hated in the office would be grabbing the byline for this story).
He was about to pull back from the car when he saw a glint of something reflective caught in the dip of the front seat.
“God, what the hell,” he muttered, trying to keep clear of Timothy’s legs and avoid touching anything in the car at the same time. He leaned down for a closer look, phone tilting on its gyroscope.
It was a syringe.
Oliver stared at it. Then back at the body of Timothy Hersch stiff on the curb, knees bent as if he was still seated; gravity having merely shifted after death.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding,” he muttered, pulling free of the car and crouching back down next to the body.
The man’s arms were bent at the elbow, shirt damp from the ground and scrunched from when Oliver had turned him over in a hurry. One arm was held further out than the other, palm up on the ground.
And sure enough, there, near the crook of his Timothy’s elbow, was a tell-tale puncture mark.
It was faintly pink, even on long-cold skin. Oliver frowned, mind whirring, and took a few more close up photos. He looked again at the duffle bags in the back of the cab. Had this guy decided to shoot up on the way home and overdone it? Why risk doing it in a bloody taxi and being caught on surveillance camera?
Oliver didn’t tamper with crime scenes if he could help it, but the skin behind his palms were itching to know what was in those duffle bags. The tipper had made a note of them — which meant they would have been close enough to the cab to see them. Had Tim still been alive then?
Oliver checked the timestamp for the tip: 04:51am.
He glanced up and down the deserted street. Oliver had just resolved to open one of the duffle bags — and damn any hypothetical explosives — when a police car came tearing off the elevated motorway above them. Its sirens were off, but the lights were on: doing the MET’s saddest impression of enthusiasm and staining concrete to blue and red.
Oliver blew out his cheeks, stepping away from the cab. He quickly sent off a text to Violet, one of interns in the office: have u heard of Timothy Hersch? photo + ID attchd, pls check for recent news ASAP!! Thx heaps.
Then Oliver refocused his phone camera, checked his mics and readied his best shit-eating grin.
There were no fancy new electromagnetic rails this far down, so the police cruiser had to make its way manually through the streets, coming to a stop just behind the cab. It hovered there, engine running.
“Morning officers,” he said, making a mock salute at the brim of his beanie, “sorry for the early wake-up call.”
The two uniformed coppers gave him twin looks of baleful, decaffeinated resentment.
“Save it Roskopf,” said the woman, pulling on latex gloves as she rounded the back of the cab, “and move away from the crime scene please.”
Oliver moved a little further back, one palm up, the other still holding his phone.
“Is there any point asking you to stop filming?” said her partner, who was carrying a heavy scanner in one hand.
His coat collar was popped against the morning chill, dark blond hair still bearing the shape of a hastily removed beanie.
“Nope,” said Oliver cheerfully, “you know me better than that, Nicholas. You do your job and I’ll do mine.”
The constable ignored him.
Claudia was checking the body over with quick practiced motions to the throat, mouth, wrist and eyes. She looked up at them and shook her head. Unlike her partner, Claudia’s hair was immaculate, a glossy bun tied off at the base of her neck. Oliver couldn’t even see any bobby pins, which he knew from Vegas to be an impressive feat.
“No, he’s long gone,” she said, “OD’d, judging by the syringe on the passenger seat. When did you find the body?”
“When I called it in,” said Oliver, “so about twenty minutes ago.”
“And what were you doing out here so early?”
“Got a tip,” Oliver replied blithely, “checked it out. He looked asleep. Tried knocking on the cab door.”
Oliver pointed at the patch of window that had been wiped clear by his elbow.
“Saw the blood on his face and he wasn’t responding. Thought I might have to break the window open, but the door wasn’t locked. He just fell out, stiff as a board. Checked for a pulse and there wasn’t one so I called you lot. And here we are.”
Beside her, Nick had donned on his own gloves and was checking the back door handle of the cab. He pulled it open after a moment to reveal the grey duffle-bags. He shot Oliver a sharp look.
“Did you touch these?”
“That was my statement, by the way,” Oliver continued, “I can send you the recording so there’s no need for —”
“Nice try. You’re gonna have come to the station with us,” Nick interrupted, “and answer the question. You didn’t touch these, did you?”
“And potentially hinder the good work of our most revered institution, the first and only arm of government? Who do you think I am!” exclaimed Oliver.
Neither Nick or Claudia looked convinced.
“I didn’t touch it, jeez,” said Oliver, “might have been a bomb or something.”
“Bomb?” said Claudia.
Nick returned to his scanner.
“Doesn’t look like it,” he said, “give me a second.”
From this angle, Oliver couldn’t get a good shot of whatever was on Nick’s scanner read-out. He shifted to his right, and was promptly stopped by an elbow to the chest.
“Don’t think so buddy,” said Claudia, taking the scanner from Nick as he passed it back.
“If i’m going to be blown to pieces, I want to get a good shot of the explosive first,” said Oliver, holding his phone aloft, “if I die maybe I’ll still get on the byline. Go on Nick! Open your present.”
“Ollie,” said Nick, “shut up.”
He pulled on the zipper of the closest duffle.
For a second, no one moved – just the sound of a plastic zip slowly un-teething. Then Nick reached into the bag, turning down the fabric to reveal the corner of a matte-black container. It was a nondescript, standard cubic carrier box, with grooved sides and plastic handles that flipped out from the lid. Oliver looked from the box to the dead body on the ground.
“Please tell me that is not what I think it is,” said Claudia.
Nick undid the latches of the container and lifted the cover.
“…fucking hell,” he said.
There, sitting in neat tessellating rows, were about thirty slim vials of CM15.
“Holy shit,” breathed Oliver.
There was easily thirty thousand pounds worth of the drug in the one bag. The last time Oliver had seen such a large quantity of CM15 in one place was when they had been covering a story on a production site out in Leeds — and he had been flanked by five security guards at the time. The vials here were clearly market ready: they were all fitted with the distinctive grey-blue mouth pieces that would lock into a domestic filtration cylinder.
Judging by the syringe and the corpse, it was clear that none of this batch was headed for their intended purpose.
Oliver took in the four other duffle bags, blood pounding in his ears with the adrenaline rush that only came with a good, untold story.
A hand came down across his phone, covering the lens.
“Turn that off. I’m serious!”
Nick was already speaking into his earpiece, brows furrowed as he slapped the lid back onto the container and zipped up the bag.
“Yeah, yeah we need another car down here to secure the scene, preferably before people start coming into work. Suspected OD, probably Glass judging by the…yeah. Yeah, we found…easily two hundred retail vials here, but we have to test the…Arden employee, or at least he has the uniform and ID of…wait what?”
Claudia didn’t remove her hand, so Oliver stuffed the phone back in his pocket, giving her a palm-up gesture of acquiescence. He kept the mic on, and shot his disposable camera a quick wink when Claudia turned away to examine the body again.
“So what do we think happened here?” he asked.
“None of your business,” said Claudia automatically.
“I reckon Timothy couldn’t wait to sample the goods and decided to have a bit of a celebration by himself en route to wherever this stash was headed,” continued Oliver, peering into the car, “you should check the pre-programmed destination of this autocab. GPS records should tell you where it was last, right?”
“I don’t need you to tell me how to do my job, thanks,” said Claudia, placing the syringe into a clear evidence bag.
“And was there a break in?” Nick was saying, eyes fixed on Timothy, “did you…right. So you think he might have come five levels down to…Yeah, well the timing is a little too coincidental. Uh huh. Yeah, okay. Okay, will do.”
He raised both eyebrows at Claudia.
“Mitch and Rizavi are headed over. They’re closest, but still on the Nineteenth.”
“The Yellowstone offices?” said Claudia, “still? Was the fire that bad? Is everyone okay?”
“No, no, everyone’s fine. They just found some shit outside,” Nick said, with a meaningful glance at Oliver, who had up until that point been doing his best to blend into the grey concrete around them.
Claudia shot him an unimpressed look.
“Garner says to bring all this,” Nick gestured at the piles of liquid money sitting in the cab, “back to the station, ASAP. I told him it was just the two of us, though.”
“It’s fine, just stick to the monitored routes,” said Claudia, “do we have any of those giant evidence bags?”
Nick dashed back to the cruiser and returned a moment later with folded squares of clear plastic. Oliver watched as they heaved the duffle bags one by one into separate evidence bags, sealing them at the mouth each time.
“Want some help?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Claudia, “stand right there and don’t move. You’re going back to the station with Nick. I’ll baby sit the body until the team gets here.”
“Oh come on,” groaned Oliver, “I already told —”
“We need to see the tip,” said Nick.
“Convenient. We’ll need your phone.”
“Now, hang on,” said Oliver sharply, “don’t even try that with me. Happy to cooperate but you can’t take my phone.”
Oliver was stalling for time, he knew, but that was the problem with the disposable cameras: once the phone went out of range, it would stop uploading footage. Oliver had maybe five hundred meters at most before the transmission cut out.
The two officers laid the last duffle bag in the back of the cruiser.
“Great,” said Nick, “‘cooperate’ and get in.”
“I usually need coffee first,” Oliver said, trying for seductive, “before I — ow — fine, okay, okay.”
Nick had grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved him in the direction of the passenger door. Damn. Oliver sat heavily into his seat. He gave Nick the finger and an exaggerated pout. Nick just rolled his eyes and slammed the door shut, rounding the hood to get into the driver’s seat.
The clock on the dashboard read 06:25.
Nick got in and started the car. They peeled away from the curb, and there was a soft thluck sound as all four doors locked. Everything smelt of air freshener.
“Do up your seat belt,” said Nick.
“Can we stop at a drive-through if I do?” asked Oliver.
Nick said nothing.
Oliver sighed dramatically and did up his seat belt.
“Mum always lets us stop off at the drive through,” said Oliver.
“Are you going to be like this the entire ride up to Twenty?” said Nick through gritted teeth.
Oliver pretended to give the question some thought. He waited for the clock tick over to 06:27.
“Yep,” he said, popping the consonant like a piece of gum.
© Frances Wren 2019, all rights reserved.