Three unmarked patrol cars and two vans were already lined up outside the station when Jerry arrived. Eighteen officers were shuffling their feet on the pavement, waiting to set off, all of them swaddled in stab-proof vests and high-viz jackets. It was 2:05 a.m., and so cold that it looked as if all of them were smoking.
DI French had called this Operation Weeper, and the cars and the vans were code-named Weepers One to Five.
Jerry parked behind one of the vans. DI French saw him arrive and came over to talk to him, and so he put down his window.
‘Right, Jerry,’ said DI French, with a sharp sniff. ‘Operation Weeper is a go. We’re going to catch the bastard in the act this time. We’ve got a reporter and a cameraman from BBC London News here too, so this is going to be something of a publicity coup.’
DI French was short and stocky, with grizzled grey hair and the look of a boxer who had retired after twenty unsuccessful years in the ring. He was wearing a tightly belted grey raincoat and his breath smelled of the cigarette that he had just thrown away.
He had been passed over time and time again for preferment, and these days he was only allocated cases which were more of a public nuisance than serious crimes. He was hoping that arresting and prosecuting Jokubas Liepa for stealing charity donations would win him media attention and public gratitude and a last chance of becoming a DCI. Jerry thought that no matter what he did he didn’t have a hope in hell of being promoted, but he kept that to himself.
‘OK, Jerry, you’ll go to Du Cane Court and give us the heads up as soon as he sets off. It’s him I want, Liepa. I don’t care about any of his minions. Once you know where he’s headed, Weepers One, Two and Three will box off the area and move in as soon as he’s lifted his first bag. Before we give him a tug, though, he must have lifted at least one bag, and it must be an official Cancer Research bag, not just any old black dustbin bag. Wait until he slings it into the back of his van, closes the doors and starts to drive off. Before that, don’t for God’s sake give him any reason to think that you’re tailing him.’
Jerry gave DI French the thumbs-up and said, ‘Got you, sir,’ as if they hadn’t already discussed this operation yesterday afternoon, over and over again, in tedious detail. DI French never grew tired of the sound of his own voice, and if he ran out of things to say, he would simply repeat himself.
Starting up his engine and turning around, Jerry drove back through the centre of Tooting and then north-east towards Balham High Road. The streets were deserted apart from two drunks staggering along Tooting Broadway. Jokubas Liepa lived in a top-floor flat in Du Cane Court, an expensive art deco block built in 1936 which had been the home over the years to numerous famous actors and singers and comedians. Hitler was supposed to have had his eye on it for his living quarters after he had conquered England, and that was why the Luftwaffe’s bombers had left it unscathed during World War Two.
When he arrived outside Du Cane Court, Jerry saw that three large Transit vans were parked nose-to-tail in the layby outside, two white and one pale blue. He drove past and parked a few yards further up the road, by the bus stop, so that he could see them in his rear-view mirror. He called DI French on his R/T and told him that he was in position.
‘OK, Jerry, roger that,’ said DI French. ‘Just don’t give him any reason to think that you’re tailing him.’
‘No, sir. I won’t.’
Almost twenty minutes had passed before a gang of eight or nine men came out from the entrance to the flats, all of them shaven-headed, and all of them walking with that aggressive shoulder-swinging strut that characterised so many criminals. Jerry sometimes wondered why they didn’t just wear a T-shirt saying I Am A Thug. Most of them were dressed in windcheaters or black leather jackets and jeans, although the tallest of them was wearing a long camel-hair overcoat with the collar turned up and a dark brown scarf wrapped around his neck.
This was Jokubas Liepa – Liepa the Weeper. He was handsome enough to be an actor, with sharply defined cheekbones and an angular jaw, although he was deathly pale and his deep-set eyes had a sinister glitter, so he probably would have been cast as a villain. His long dark hair was swept back into waves, which made him look even more like a thespian who had just stepped off the stage, instead of what he really was – a racketeer who had made a fortune by half-inching second-hand clothes.
‘Liepa’s on the move,’ said Jerry, into his R/T. ‘He’s getting into the pale blue van, registration RB02 UOH. He’s sitting in the front passenger seat.’
‘OK, Jerry, roger that.’
‘The vans are setting off now, all three of them. The first one’s done a U-ey and he’s heading back towards the Broadway. The second one’s turning left into Balham Park Road. Liepa’s turning immediately right into Elmfield Road. I’ll give him a few seconds and then I’ll be after him.’
Jerry waited until the pale blue van was out of sight, and then followed it into Elmfield Road. The bulb had gone in its nearside brake-light, so it was easy for him to identify it from a distance, although there was scarcely any other traffic around at this time of the morning. He switched off his own lights so that Liepa’s driver would be less likely to notice him in his mirror.
‘He’s turning south now on Cloudesdale Road, even though it’s a one-way street and he’s heading in the wrong direction. He’s only crawling along now, and that probably means that he’s looking out for charity bags on people’s doorsteps.’
‘Right,’ said DI French. ‘We can start boxing him in now. I’m going to position Weeper Two and Weeper Three on the streets running parallel to Cloudesdale Road on either side – one on Childebert Road and another on Foxbourne Road. Weeper One will drive up ahead of him on Bushnell Road, but heading in the same direction as he is, and stay ahead of him until he picks up a bag. Then it can stop and reverse and block him.’
‘Right, sir. Roger that.’
Jokubas Liepa’s pale blue van continued to creep southwards on Cloudesdale Road at about five miles an hour, but so far none of the residents had left charity bags out for them to steal. Jerry was just about to tell DI Finch that it looked as if both they and Liepa and were wasting their time when he saw Liepa’s single brake-light flare red, and his van came to a halt.
The back doors of the van were flung open and one of the leather-jacketed men jumped out. He jogged over to the second-to-last house on the left and picked up a bulging white plastic bag that had been left in the porch. Even from a distance Jerry could see that it carried the blue-and-pink ‘C’ symbol of Cancer Research.
‘Weeper’s a go,’ he told DI Finch. ‘They’ve picked up a bag – they’ve slung it in the back of the van – the doors are shut – they’re starting off again.’
‘That’s it, then, Jerry! Wait till Weeper One has blocked him, then hit him where it hurts!’
Jerry stayed about fifty yards away from the back of the pale blue van. It continued to creep forward until the van code-named Weeper One came speeding in reverse out of Bushnell Road, straight across the junction with Ritherdon Road, and collided with it. Even at this distance, with his car windows closed, Jerry could hear the smash of metal and glass. The pale blue van jumped up like a startled animal and the impact jolted it backwards at least five feet.
Whoever was driving the pale blue van, though, had quick reactions. As soon as Weeper One had crashed into it, he shifted into reverse and started to steer it backwards, stamping his foot so hard on the accelerator that smoke poured out from its tyres.
What he didn’t realise was that Jerry was right behind him. Jerry stamped on his accelerator, too, and sped forward, hitting the back of the pale blue van with a deafening bang. His air-bag blew up in his face, splitting his lip and almost knocking his front teeth out.
Half-stunned, he managed to force the door of his car open and climb out, although he fell onto his hands and knees on the pavement, and it was only by reaching out for the bars of a wrought-iron garden gate that he managed to heave himself up onto his feet. Three uniformed officers had left Weeper One and were approaching the pale blue van. One of them was armed with a Heckler & Koch semi-automatic carbine. The other two were carrying halogen flashlights and shining them into the van’s shattered windscreen.
‘Step out of the vehicle!’ one of them shouted. ‘Step out of the vehicle now and keep your hands where we can see them!’
The doors of the pale blue van remained shut, and there was no answer.
‘I said, step out of the vehicle!’ the officer repeated.
Two of the officers had now reached the sides of the van, while the officer with the carbine stood in front of it with his weapon raised. As one of the officers went to open the passenger door where Jokubas Liepa was sitting, the driver of the van revved the engine and the van surged forward with a scream that sounded almost human. The van hit the officer with the carbine with a thump, and carried him forward, half-stuck and half-clinging to its radiator grille.
It smashed into the back of the police van, Weeper One, and with a complicated crunch the officer was crushed almost completely flat below the chest. His carbine clattered to the ground and lay in the blood that gushed from his body like an ornamental fountain.
‘Back up! Back that van up!’ shouted one of the officers, hoarsely. ‘Jesus Christ, you’ve fucking killed him!’
But the leather-jacketed van driver opened his door and climbed out, holding up both hands in surrender. ‘Sorry, boss. Engine’s conked out.’
By now, though, the other officer had run back to Weeper One, jumped into the driving seat and started it up. He drove it slowly forward so that the crushed officer slid down from between the two vans, and his colleague could take hold of him and lower him onto the road.
Jerry picked up the carbine, sticky as it was, and approached the open driver’s door. Jokubas Liepa was still sitting in the passenger seat, his arms folded, staring straight ahead of him at the milky, opaque windscreen. If anything, he looked bored.
‘Liepa!’ Jerry shouted at him. ‘Get your arse out of there! Get your arse out of there now!’
Without turning to look at him, Jokubas Liepa opened his door and climbed out of the van, straightening his coat collar with an air of nonchalance. Jerry circled around the back of the van and confronted him.
‘Down on the floor!’ he ordered him. He was so shocked and angry that he was almost screaming.
Jokubas Liepa looked down at the pavement with distaste, and then back at Jerry.
‘You heard me!’ Jerry repeated. ‘Down on the floor! Arms and legs spread!’
‘I promise you that it was accident,’ said Jokubas Liepa. ‘My driver’s foot must have slipped on the pedal. I didn’t order him to do it, and that’s for sure.’
‘I said – get down on the fucking floor,’ Jerry told him, much more calmly this time, but he cocked the carbine to show that he was serious.
Jokubas Liepa shrugged, hitched up the knees of his trousers, and carefully laid himself face down on the pavement. ‘I promise you, it was total accident,’ he said again, lifting his head up so that his cheek wouldn’t be touching the concrete. ‘I am as distressed as you are.’
‘Shut it,’ said Jerry.
Just then, Weeper Two and Weeper Three came roaring around the corner from opposite directions. They blocked off the road and their officers came scrambling out.
The officer who had moved the van came up to Jerry looking grim.
‘I’ve called for a bus, Jerry. Not that there’s much fucking point.’ He covered his mouth with his hand for a moment, and then he said, ‘Whitey. I can’t believe it. It’s his little lad’s third birthday on Saturday and Maureen’s expecting another one in April.’
Jokubas Liepa raised his head again.
‘I’m sorry. It was accident.’
‘I’ll give you an accident where it hurts the most, mate,’ the officer snapped at him. ‘You’ll be coughing your balls up by the time I’ve finished with you.’