"Delito", the skipper snaps, peering over his stack of loosely-arranged papers. I look up. "What are you, six years old?"
"What? I… I didn't even do anything", I try, but the sergeant's eyes confirm my suspicion that my half-hearted lie was never going to be believed in a hundred years. I hang my head, mumbling a "Sorry, sarge", accompanied by the cacophony of laughter from the rest of my team. We had been doing a series of practical pranks on each other all week, and I managed to be the first person to get caught out, mid-prank.
The next few minutes are spent fiddling with my handcuff keys, as I'm releasing the handcuff that is linking Pete's arm to the radiator – just in time; the Inspector walks into the briefing room, and we all leap to our feet, whilst Pete is hiding the fact that he still has a cuff attached to his arm by placing one hand behind his back.
Some inspectors like to, er, inspect, but the unfortunately named Inspector Michael Hunt (he insists, for obvious reasons, on being called "Michael", rather than "Mike") has a slightly more relaxed take on things. He counts the number of faces, before waving us back down into our seats.
"Nice one, Delito", Pete nudges me. "I didn't see that one coming. Of course, I'll get my revenge – you'd better keep a cuff key handy…" he says, grinning.
It's been one of those freakishly hot days that sometimes happen even before the beginning of spring – the kind of day you'd seem to remember as a child, where you sneak outside into the sunshine without a jacket for the first time in the year, without any real risk of your mum shouting at you for it.
"Pretty light shift today", the inspector grunts at our shift Sergeant.
"Yeah. Couple of people on training, four are in court to testify on that bar brawl back in November, one's off ill, and a small group are on secondment to CO11; some sort of training ahead of the Olympics, I think", he replies.
"Righty-oh", the Inspector looks around the room. "There's still about a dozen of you, so let's wrap up this briefing and go hunting".
We're given our postings as usual, and for reasons unknown to me, I'm put on caged van duty. It's not a bad posting, really, but it's been a long time since I've been in anything but a panda or the area car.
"592 and 223", the skipper says, looking over at Pete and myself, "Before we get loads and loads of bodies in, could the two of you go and deal with an arrest inquiry? Take 483 and 723 with you".
When I heard the skipper say 723, I looked around the room; that's Jay's shoulder number; he had been out of commission for a long time after sustaining some pretty grim injuries on a shift we had been on together during the riots. I had started to wonder whether he was ever going to come back, but there he was, standing near the door at the back; the usual spot for any late-comers who don't want to advertise their delayed arrival into the briefing room. I lifted my hand in a little wave, and Jay nodded back with a small, almost imperceivable smile. Don't get me wrong; Jay can be an insufferable, miserable bastard, but he's a great cop, and the team is all the better for having him back.
When I finally made it out to the yard after the briefing, Jay was waiting for me. I half surprised myself in giving him a hug without thinking, but it seemed like the right thing to do. I may not have saved his life, perhaps, but I did prevent him from getting a more serious hoofing than he already did when we were ambushed back in August.
"You back properly?" I asked.
"For now. Doc says I'm back to normal."
"Doc says?" I protest, "What about Jay says?"
"Not sure, man. My left hand has a constant tingling in it, and I have some reduced hearing in my right ear", he said.
"I said..." he started, before catching my smirk. "Ah you bastard. You never change, do you?" he said, and planted a playful fist into my Metvest.
"Hey you know me", I replied.
"Anyway; Doc asked if I wanted more time off, but for serious, if I have to try playing through Assassin's Creed one more time, I'll go spare," he said, and held up his thumbs, as if showing me the imprints of his Xbox controller on the pads of his digits. They looked pretty normal to me.
"I know what you mean, guv", I said. "Welcome back anyway. Shall we go do this inquiry?"
I walked into the Borough Intelligence Unit based at our police station, and convinced them to print us off a copy of the arrest inquiry we were meant to go to.
"I've got the CAD", I said, triumphantly holding up the six sheets of A4 paper, still warm from the laser printer. "Who wants coffee?"
We all piled into the mess at the police station. I ordered a round of coffees (the ground stuff that we have to pay for, not that pitiful slop that comes out of the free machine), and Pete skimmed the CAD printout to see what we were up for.
"Right," Pete said. "Looks like we're looking for, eh, Stephanie Eng... Engu..."
"You what," I said. "I'm sure it was some dude we were looking for. "
"It says Stephanie," he said. "Oh, wait…"
"Jesus", I muttered, and grabbed the papers from him. "You plum... It says Stepháne. That's like Steven. And the last name is Nguimgo", I said, hoping my very best that I hadn't butchered the guy's last name too badly.
I continue scanning our report. "He's from Cameroon… Wanted for serious assault at work… He works in a warehouse… Wow," I paused. "Says here he smacked first his boss, then a coworker with a crowbar over an argument about some food in the break room fridge. Lovely fellow."
"Remind me why they aren't sending the BSU to deal with this guy", Bernard piped up; the first thing he had said all day. "Sounds like he's a piece of work, and at least those meatheads are padded", he concluded, before glancing over to Pete, who has been know to take all the secondments to the Borough Support Unit he can get. "No offence, of course."
"None taken", Pete said, but his face said otherwise. Bernard and Pete had had some sort of falling out over something or other. Again. They are both great police officers, but they are both too similar and too different to play nicely together.
"Anyway, last known address is where they send his pay-slips", I said. "So I guess we go take a look there. It's only a 10 minute drive. You guys want a lift with us, or are you taking a separate car?"
Bernard and Jay decided to grab a panda and make their way separately – not a bad idea; when you're on caged van duty, you can be called away in the middle of less important tasks, and it's a pain in the arse if you're stuck on the van as a passenger when that happens.
Thirty minutes later, we were outside a building of flats in a particularly grim ex-council estate, discussing between ourselves how to get into the building.
"Who's got a fireman's key", Pete asked.
"I do", and started rooting around in my met-vest for the short length of metal that opens nearly all estate outter doors, by inserting it into the hole marked 'fire' (normally up high, above the buzzers or door entry system), but it had gone missing.
"Gis here, then", Pete said.
"Someone's nicked it", I conclude. My fireman's key had been attached to the left pocket of my Metvest with a carabiner, but it was no longer there. I suddenly realised I had left my Metvest hanging on a sturdy wooden hanger on the outside of my locker at the police station a few days before. I had been dealing with a grim traffic accident, and had managed to convince the drycleaners around the corner to clean my vest for me, but it was still a bit damp, so I had left it out to dry out properly.
"Jeeze", Pete said, before walking back to the panda, rummaging around in the bag he keeps in the boot of the police car, and returning with a fireman's key. We were inside in no time. We could have rung the door-bell, of course, but when you're going to places on official duty - and especially if you're going on an arrest enquiry, it makes sense to not announce your presence until you're ready to do so.
It turns out the elevator was broken, so we had to take the stairs. On the way up, I was moaning about my missing fireman's key.
"This is the third bloody one I've lost", I said.
"You shoulda learned then, shouldn't you?", Jay said. "Nothing's safe in a police station".
He's right. It is completely bizarre, but the amount of stuff that goes missing at police stations is absolutely mind-boggling. Pieces of uniform are particularly prone to sprout legs and go walkies, but everything else seems to go missing as well, and nobody ever gets caught for nicking each other's stuff. Unfathomable.
As I came to the highlight of my rant; "How can people get away with nicking stuff in the building with the highest per-square-feet number of police officers in London", we arrived to the fourth-floor flat.
I'm not a huge fan of this estate. It is so far out of the way, neither our patrol cars nor those of the borough south of ours tend to be in the area. If you need assistance, it's not great. On this particular occasion, there were four of us, however. Pete is built like a brick outhouse, Jay is hardly a wallflower, Bernard does some sort of martial art ("I'm all Martial, no Art", he likes to say - I think the martial art in question is Krav Maga, but I'm not sure), and I'm rather useful when the proverbial push comes to shove, as well. 'We'll be fine', I concluded.
Pete took the lead, and rapped on the door with his knuckles, as I bent down and took a peek through the letterbox. I saw someone dressed in a towel move from the hallway into a room to the left-hand side.
"Police!" I shouted into the letterbox. "Open up!"
"Police!" I tried one more time. "I've seen you! If you don't come open the door right now, we'll find our own way in!"
Not a sound from inside the flat.
"Do these flats have rear entrances?" I asked the others.
"Not that I know. There may be a window going out the side, but there's no roof or anything they can climb onto, I don’t think", Bernard replied.
"Well then…" I said to them, before shouting through the letterbox one last time, banging on the door with the butt of my Baton. "If you do not open up right now, we'll have to open it for you"
"Do you need this door open, boss?" Pete asked.
"Yeah, I just said, didn't I? But we should probably go get the Big Red Key", I said, referring to the battering ram that's bolted down behind the driver's seat in the caged van.
"Fuck that for a sack of testicles", Pete said colourfully. "The lift's broken, isn't it?"
He took a step back, and give the door an almighty kick. It creaked, but stubbornly resisted the attack. Pete kicked again; This time, the door flew open. The top hinge had become undone as well, so as the door flew inwards, the whole door swayed back and forth briefly, before the screws let go of the rotten wood at the bottom of the door as well, and had the whole door tumbling inwards with a crash.
"Whoops", Pete said, mirthlessly, stepping aside for one of us to enter the house, the way the rapid-entry guys tend to do it. Jay, Bernard and I were dumbly staring at each other, not being sure who was going to go in first.
"Pantsies", Pete mubled, and made his way in through the door first.
"Mike Delta from 592", I transmitted quickly. "We've just breached the door to the premises of our last assigned. Going in now."
"Received", the reply came.
At least, if they never heard from us again, they'd know where to start looking.
I followed the three others into the apartment.
The door on the far side of the hallway opened, and a young, slim black man dressed only in poorly-fitting briefs came out of his room, shouting something, presumably at the other occupants of the flat, in a language none of us understood.
"Police!" Pete shouted, as if a six-foot six Metropolitan Police uniform-clad man wasn't clear enough. "We are looking for Stepháne". He said. "Please stay where you are."
The four of us went up the thin hallway quickly, checking room by room, to make sure nobody could run out the front door or vanish out of a window. In the kitchen, Bernard found the man I had seen through the flap. He had dropped his towel, and appeared to be only moderately successful at preserving his modesty with a frying pan. Bernard burst out laughing, and threw the man his towel.
"Sorry, I didnt' mean to laugh", he said. "Don't worry, cover yourself up, we just want a chat with you."
The man accepted the towel, wrapped it around him, and stood there, still holding the frying pan.
"Come with me", Bernard said, pointing to the door of the kitchen. The man looked confused, and shrugged.
"Please, this way" I said.
The man shrugged again, and Bernard gently took the frying pan out of his hand, and led him by the arm, out of the kitchen into the small living room across the hallway.
Bernard's actions are the result of many a hard-learned lesson: Kitchens are not a good place to talk to people who may be about to arrested. Apart from the frying pan the man had already been holding, I had counted at least six large knives, a meatcleaver and a couple of other potential weapons in the room as soon as we walked in the door. I don't know about you, but if I have to choose between being hit with a cast-iron skillet or a sofa cushion, I know what my preference is.
"What's your name" Bernard said after we had walked into the living room and encouraged the man to sit down in the sofa.
"Your name", Bernard tried again. "What is it?"
"Name", Bernard continued tirelessly. "My… Name… Is… Bernard." He said, pointing at his own chest, prodding his Metvest with every syllable. Then, he pointed at the man. "Your Name Is…?"
Bernard fished his handcuffs out of its holster.
"If I am not happy that I know who you are, I'm going to arrest you", he said, emphasising each word whilst jangling his handcuffs in the air, "On suspicion of assault, to ascertain your identity properly" The man suddenly remembered his name.
"Charles", he said. "My name is Charles".
"See", Bernard replied, sardonically, "That wasn't so hard was it? Do you have any ID, Charles?"
It appeared that Charles' command of the English language had improved drastically since the beginning of their exchange.
"Yeah, I do", he said. "It is in my room".
"Which one is your room?"
He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb.
Bernard nodded. "Where in your room?"
"Night stand," he said. "Drawer."
"Would you mind waiting here for me? Is it OK if I go find your ID for you?", Bernard said.
Charles nodded, and Jay and I waited around with him until Bernard returned waving a passport. Meanwhile, Pete was standing, wide-legged, keeping an eye on the man in the room at the far end of the hallway, and blocking the exit of anyone who might have tried to leave the house otherwise.
"When were you born, Charles", he said.
"September 14, 1973", he replied.
"Where in Senegal?"
"Has anybody ever told you that you don't look a lot like your passport photo?" Bernard asked him, as he passed me the small booklet.
It was one of the old-style passports, where the passport photos were essentially just stapled into place with fancy-looking staples. I looked at the passport closely; it was well-worn, but I couldn’t really tell whether it was genuine or not; and even if I had been an expert on Senegalese passports (I'm not), I wouldn't have been able to tell whether the photo had been replaced or not.
Pete and Jay had moved further into the flat, and by the sound of things, they were asking similar questions of the man who had been in the room at the top of the hall. They brought him into the living room, too. Based on the man's irate tirade, there was nothing wrong with his language skills.
"Flat's clear", Pete concluded, as he pushed the man brusquely into the living room. "This guy is a live one."
"What the hell is this man", he said. "You broke our fucking door!"
"Why didn't you open up?" Jay asked.
"I was afraid", he said.
"Of the police?"
The man didn't reply.
"Anyway, Charles, I just wanted to...", Jay said.
"Wait a minute", Bernard interrupted, pointing at the man we had found in the kitchen. "I thought you were called Charles".
"We are both called Charles", the man Jay had brought in snapped, as if it was the most obvious thing in the word.
We spent the next twenty minutes running both Charleses details through the police databases. Jay's Charles came back with a match.
"Have you ever been arrested Charles", Jay said. Both of them immediately shaked their head.
We spent another fourty-five minutes going back and forth, before reaching the unlikely but apparently accurate conclusion that, yes, Jay's Charles' name really was Charles Ba, and there was another Charles Ba, with the exact same birthday and place of birth, who had been arrested after he had been suspected of a hit and run offence in Essex three years prior; It turns out that the Essex-based Charles Ba had a distinctive scar on his face, but our London-based Charles Ba didn't. You can't make this stuff up.
By the time we had finally cleared up that the two people we were talking to were who they said they were, the four of us had been in the flat for what felt like precisely an eternity.
"So…" Bernard said to our duet of Charleses. "We are here to find Stepháne Nguimgo; do you guys know who he is?"
They shook their heads in unison.
"This house has three bedrooms; there are only two of you here. Who lives in the third bedroom?"
"Nobody", Jay's Charles volunteered.
"Mate, don't have a laugh; It's quite obvious that someone lives there, there's stuff there."
"Nobody lives there"
"Nobody. It's a guest room."
"Do you have a visitor at the moment?"
"So there is nobody living in that room?"
"Charles, how much rent do you pay?"
"Rent. The money you pay to live here," Bernard continued. By now, it was quite clear that both Charles spoke absolutely fluent English, but they kept 'forgetting' even simple words when it suited them. It happens all the time, and can be extremely frustrating. I guess this is why Bernard was talking to the men; I've never met a more patient officer in my life. "How much do you pay?", he repeated.
"Eighty pounds per week"
"How long have you been living here?"
"About five years."
"Do you pay the same?" Bernard turned to the other Charles.
"So between the two of you, you pay about £160 per week? For this place?"
He nodded, but less certain this time.
"Mate, this is a pretty good apartment. It's not council, is it?"
He shook his head.
"Who is your landlord?"
He shrugged. "I don't know", he said.
"You don’t know who your landlord is?"
"How do you pay him?"
"Cash, every week".
"Yes", Bernard said, and I sensed his patience was fraying just a little bit. "Do you meet him somewhere? Does he come here?"
"We send it in the mail."
"You send cash in the mail?"
"And it never goes missing in the mail?"
"You're lucky, then. I wouldn't generally recommend sending cash in the mail, you know. Not a good idea."
"To what address do you send the rent money? Bernard continued his line of questioning.
"I can't remember."
"Who normally pays the rent?"
"So you've lived here for five years, paid your rent every week, and sent it in the mail every week? So you've written down this address more than two hundred and fifty times, but you can't remember what it is, or who your landlord is?"
"Yes?" the man answered with the most obvious lie of the day.
Clearly, there was something really weird going on – the flat we were in was in a pretty dodgy estate, for sure, but the flat itself was pretty nice, and there was no way they were paying £160 per week for this place, between them. Now, if there was a third person involved who shared the rent duties, bringing the total to 240 per week, or about a grand per month in total… That would still have been cheap, but it sounded more likely.
"I don't believe you", Bernard said, completely straight-faced. Jay stifled a chuckle, and I had problems remaining quiet as well. It did sound like a pretty unlikely tale.
"Hey guys…" Pete said, as he walked back into the living room. To my embarrassment, that was the first time I had noticed he had left in the first place.
There was a small, neatly stacked pile of mail in his hands, all addressed to S. Nguimgo.
"What's this?" I asked Team Charles.
"I don't know", Jay's Charles lied.
Pete looked through the stack.
"They are bills and letters…" he said, as he was going through the stack. "All addressed to S or Stepháne… The newest one was post-marked two days ago, the oldest one about four weeks ago".
I took a quick look at my wrist-watch to confirm the date. Four weeks ago would have been around the beginning of February.
"So here's what I think, guys", I said. "There is a third person living here, but it's not Stepháne." I looked from Charles to Charles. "Instead, Stepháne is your landlord, and he comes here at the beginning of every month to pick up his rent and his mail. Is that right?"
Both men remained silent.
I sighed, tearing off a piece of paper from my notebook.
"If you don't want police showing up here every few days, I strongly suggest that you 'remember' where Stepháne lives. He's not necessarily in that much trouble, but we do need to talk to him, urgently. If you know anything, or if you run into him, please call us on this number", I say, and write down '101' in comically large numbers on the pad. "Or ask him to come talk to us at any police station."
"And now", Jay says, "I'm just going to have a quick look in that room where nobody lives, to make sure that nobody lives there. Would that be okay?" He looked from Charles to Charles, defying either of them to protest. They didn't.
As we were waiting, I found myself wondering if Jay really had valid grounds for search; Obviously, we have the right to search for people when we're executing an arrest enquiry, but searching a room where there obviously is nobody home? I figured I'd keep my mouth shut; if Jay thought he could warrant the search, then it was on him... On the other hand, we did have to find out whether our missing person actually did live here, and it would be good for the report to be able to add that tidbit.
Jay returned after only a few minutes, and handed me a piece of paper; it was a letter from a mobile phone company.
"Who is Boubacar?" I asked.
One of the Charleses mumbled something.
"Excuse me?", I snapped. I'd lost my patience with these two by now; we were two hours into a negative arrest enquiry, a process that normally only takes five minutes; You check the house - if the person you're looking for is there, you arrest them and take them to the station; if not, you leave five minutes later. This was getting a little bit ridiculous.
"It's my brother", said the Charles hadn't spoken any English at first.
"Do you know his date of birth?" I asked.
He gave it to me, and I ran Boubacar's details through the computer as well. He came back as wanted in suspicion of several counts of fraud, all committed in Birmingham.
"What does your brother do for a living, Charles", I asked.
He shrugged, and I tried to encourage him to tell me where his brother might be, but Charles claimed to know absolutely nothing. Eventually, I ran out of questions.
I looked up at Pete, then across to Jay and Bernard.
"Are we done here?" I asked. The uniform-clad trio turned away nearly in unison. I knew how they felt; we had wasted a monumental amount of on a completely fruitless arrest enquiry, when the borough was seriously short on staff for the day. Ridiculous.
As I started to leave, Jay's Charles piped up.
"Hey, who is going to pay for the door?" he said.
"You have home insurance, don't you?" I answered, and started digging around in my met-vest. Pete tapped me on the shoulder, and shoved the flyer I was looking for into my hand with a grin. Pete, who had a particular passion for kicking doors open? I was not particularly surprised to discover that he carried the information leaflet we hand out in these situations. I flashed a smile back and took the information flyer off him.
"Next time", I said, handing over the flyer, "When the police knocks on your door, try opening", I said. "It's cheaper."
We started walking down the four flights of stairs, a little bit despondent. That was a total of twelve hours of police constable time wasted for nothing.
Before we fully made it to the bottom of the flight of stairs, however, our bad moods were forgotten; a group of youths had been seen "fighting with sticks" (That means baseball or cricket bats, usually) in a nearby park, and there was no way we weren't going to be the first officers on scene.
"Show six-eight", Jay shouted into his radio as he and Bernard ran towards the Astra.
"Show eight-seven", I echoed, not a second later, as we leapt into the caged van, before flicking the lights and sirens on, and racing the Astra to the location
Matt Delito is a pseudonym for a policeman working for the Metropolitan Police. All Notes from the Frontline are not entirely “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” due to the sensitive nature of the business, but are all based on actual events. These days, he’s on Facebook and Twitter as well.
Matt has a book based on his Notes from the Front Line column out now - you can get it from Amazon, in paperback or on Kindle.
If you missed his previous columns on Giz UK, check them out over here.