I'm sitting on the number 4 bus; minding my own business; eating a Bounty bar, and catching up on the tech world. That morning, my iPad had informed me in no uncertain terms that I should download the newest monthly issue of Wired, and who am I to deny the recommendations from what functions as my brain most of the time?
In the few minutes or so it took to feed the cat, grab a shower, and wolf down a couple of fried eggs, the new issue had downloaded. Okay, so while my mother is correct in her observation that paying more than sixty quid a month for internet is borderline insane, I do love my Line Bonding. She eventually accepted my argument that yes, I definitely need 32Mbps download speed to upload my weekly column to Giz UK. Where would we be without the gullibility of parents?
Halfway through an enthralling article, I was torn back to real life when I overheard a phrase from the two gentlemen in front of me on the bus:
"...explosives, don't you?" the broad-shouldered man with the blue tracksuit and the cream baseball cap says.
I used my uncanny police spidey senses to replay their last few seconds of conversation (Ask any police officer; we can all do it: If you catch something important over the radio, you somehow, magically, are able to recall the past 5-6 seconds of what happens on the radio, even if you were in another conversation at the time. I have no idea how it works, but it is supremely useful), and came up with "You do have the explosives, don't you?"
"Yeah," the man with the washed-many-times-over black tracksuit replied. "In the bag with the tear gas and guns."
Now, on one hand, I am extremely skeptical. No terrorist worth his salt would mention explosives and guns on a public bus, would they?
On the other hand, if there was an attack on my beloved city today, and it turned out I was on the bus with the scumbags wot did it earlier in the day, would I be able to live with myself?
It's true what they tell you in training at Hendon: To spot an off-duty policeman on public transport, look for the person with their face in a newspaper and earbuds blasting music to drown out the world around them. Nothing good comes from overhearing or overseeing something whilst off duty.
And yet... I can't un-hear what I've just heard.
A couple of stops later, the two men left the bus.
I sighed; threw my iPad in my bag, grabbed my iPhone's Bluetooth hands-free kit, and followed them from a little distance. The bag the black tracksuit was carrying a small hold-all that looked quite heavy.
I pressed send on my phone, and before it even had time to ring on the other end, it was answered.
"999, what is your emergency?"
"This is Matt Delito, PC Mike Delta 592. Police please."
A police operator came on the line.
"Caller is Matt Delito, phone number 07..." the operator summarised for the benefit of the recording that would be referred back to later, in case there were any questions about my 999 call.
"Mr Delito, what is your emergency?"
"I'm following two IC3 men, around 30 years of age. One is wearing a cream baseball cap and a blue tracksuit. White trainers. Medium build. The other is built like a wardrobe, wearing a black tracksuit. The man in the baseball cap is carrying a blue Adidas hold-all. I overheard them saying that the hold-all contained guns, explosives, and tear gas."
"Where are you?"
"In a sec -- They were on the number 4 bus, partial index ending in Papa Oscar Whiskey, you may be able to get some video footage of them from the bus."
"Thank you. Where are you?"
"Walking north on Field Inn Reach. I'm following them from a distance."
"Great. Please stay on the line," the operator replied, his fingers typing up all the information received at great speed.
"Turning left, left, into Church Place Avenue."
"Received," the operator says.
I take a look at my phone. Oh... Shit...
"Shit, I'm running really low on battery on this phone."
"Er? How low?"
"Very. As in, it might disconnect any second."
I spot something that might save us.
"What Airwaves channel can I use to reach you guys?"
"Pan London 2, please, I'll listen out for you" the operator replied.
I walk up to the person I had spotted; it's a PCSO writing out a ticket to a cyclist for something or other.
"Come with me right now," I tell him, keeping one eye on the duo casually strolling up the road.
"My name is Matt Delito, I'm a police officer, I need to call in an important call, but I'm out of battery, and I need your radio."
"I can't give you my radio."
"Then come with me."
The man hesitated.
"Seriously!" I say, and show him my warrant card. "This could actually be a case of life and death."
"I'm sure he feels terrible." I look over at the cyclist. "Do you regret whatever you did?"
He nods, without looking regretful in the slightest.
"Will you do it again?"
He shakes his head, in a semi-sarcastic way, giving the unmistakeable impression that he has no intention of not doing it again, whatever it may have been.
"Good boy." I say, and grab the PCSO by his stabvest. "I'm following those two men. They cannot see your uniform, but I do need your radio. Please."
"Mate," the cyclist says. I finally recognise him as someone I've arrested for something or other at some point. I'm feverishly searching my mind when, and what for. I see that he's standing with his hand reached out, holding something. I look down. It's a mobile phone. "Use this," he says, and nods at the PCSO. "Mister PCSO 7341, here, will have my address on this fucking ticket he's insisting on writing me. Please send it back to me when you're done?"
So far today, I've read about string theory on my iPad; I've run into a pair of possible terrorists; I have a PCSO who refuses to help me, but a cyclist who is about to get a £30 fine and who I've arrested at some point hands me his phone on good faith? This is turning into quite a day.
"Thank you." I say, and grab his hand. "Thank you."
I run up the street clutching the phone, re-dialling 999.
It takes a little bit of getting passed around until I'm on the blower with the operator again, but I've managed to catch up with the two men again, just as they've turned down another road.
"Trojan support is on location," the operator says, confirming that officers with loud weapons are in the area. "And SO15 are on their way as well." Counter terrorism? Lovely. This is turning into quite the morning.
"I will patch you through to them, but we really need to get you a radio."
"Actually, can you call up PCSO 7341 in this borough? I saw him just a minute ago -- he has a radio, I think."
"Sure thing, I'll get him to come to you. He needs to stay out of sight, however."
"I agree," I say drily.
After a little bit of to-ing and fro-ing, I'm ducking into a shop, where the PCSO is waiting for me. As soon as he spots me, he is sheepishly handing me his radio and covert ear piece.
"Thank you" I said.
"I'm so sorry..." he said.
"Don't worry mate" I said. "There's no way I'd give away my radio to anyone either, I know exactly where you're coming from."
Finally patched into the Airwave network with a proper police radio, I'm able to be of some more assistance, giving a running commentary of what the two men are doing to the armed response team that are loitering only a couple of streets away.
"What are they wearing?", "What did they say, exactly?", "What hand is he using to carry the bag? Is the bag closed or zipped shut? Can you see anyone else near them? Did they speak with an accent?" -- the dispatchers and armed response units have a thousand and five questions for me, and I'm answering as best I can.
After twenty minutes of seemingly aimless meandering through town, the two men sit down at a cafe, at one of the two tables outside.
"Are they near the door?"
"Is there anyone else seated outside?"
"So we have two men, and a bag placed on the ground near the wall of the cafe. Please describe the men in detail."
So there I am, leaning against a low wall about 20 meters away from the men, describing them for the fifth time, in pain-staking detail. It seems a bit over-kill, but then I expect that if you have the opportunity to be well-prepared before you do an armed arrest of two men, you'd take it. This was only a couple of years after the Menezes shooting at Stockwell, after all.
"What is on the table?"
"Two cups served by the cafe."
"Two cups of what?"
"Tea? I don't know, but I can go over and ask them, if you like," I say.
"Negative, Delito. Do not go and ask them."
Oh dear. I guess this wasn't the greatest time to crack a joke.
"Yes yes. I think they are hot drinks, that's all I can say. There's also a small vase with a red flower on the table."
"Do either of the men have their hands in their pockets?"
"Is the road clear?"
I look up and down the road.
"Yes yes, no cars in sight."
"Okay, we will start the operation within thirty seconds. If either of the men move, if anyone sits down at the second table, or if any vehicle comes down the road, immediately transmit 'cancel cancel'."
It's not a bad day -- in fact, it's a rather lovely morning, full of promise of sunshine and couples in love going for a walk in the park. The odd fragment of a tune drifts to me on the wind, but that's the only sound that can be heard.
"Still clear, Delito?"
"Okay, we are sending two vans. Get yourself safe."
'Safe' is a relative term when there is an expectation of a gun fight, but I knew what they meant. The stuff they do in cop shows, where they hide behind an opened car door doesn't work; you need to be behind a reinforced concrete wall, or behind the engine block of a car. Especially, perhaps, if you, like me, aren't wearing your ballistic vest. I duck down behind the Land Rover parked next to me, but I keep peering over the top of the bonnet; there's no way I was going to miss the action.
Two slightly dingy-looking transit vans appeared -- The dark blue one was driving slowly from the far end of the street, and the white one started turning down the wrong way down the one-way system. They arrived at exactly the same time, stopping about five metres apart.
The men were completely oblivious until the two vans pull to a graceful halt. Suddenly, I hear 'go, go, go' over my radio, and sliding doors on both sides of both vans open, with a small but rather impressive-looking army of armed police officers pouring out of both vans. One of the men is still holding their coffee cups as they go flying to the ground.
When there's a risk of firearms, they don't mess about -- understandably enough, really -- both of them are face-down on the ground and in cuffs first, and are getting searched whilst one of the officers are rambling through the arrest procedure.
"You do not have to say anything, but..." I tune out; I know this bit. I walk over to the officers, holding up my warrant card and police radio; I don't particularly fancy ending up face-down on the pavement myself.
"You Delito?" the sergeant asks.
"Check him," he snaps, and two of the armed officers suddenly grab me, push me against the van, and do a quick search of me.
"Gimme," he says, holding out his hand to my warrant card. One of the officers snatches it out of my hand, and passes it to the sergeant. He takes it, and radios something somewhere.
I don't think I've ever thought of checking the veracity of a warrant card before, I realise, and am impressed by the thoroughness of these guys. It makes sense, I suppose; it wouldn't be the first time a terrorist has called in a fake threat; waits for the police to arrive, before sending in a suicide bomber. Luckily, that's not really the kind of stuff that happens here in the UK.
"He checks out," the skipper said, and his men let me go. "Sorry about that; we can't be too careful."
"Hey, thanks for not putting me on the ground," I say, looking over at the two men who are sitting with their backs to the cafe wall; one of them has blood streaming down his face, presumably from a broken nose.
One of the officers is checking the bag.
"Airsoft guns," he says. "Some sort of explosives. And military-issue CS gas."
"That's what I've been telling you," the man in the blue tracksuit and bleeding nose screams. "We're playing tonight."
"You are going to want to think twice about talking about tear gas, explosives and guns on public busses, my friend," the skipper shouted. "But first, I want to know where you got these explosives and the CS. You do realise that these are restricted items, right?"
Two caged vans turned up to take the men away, and I was questioned by the Trojan units for a while.
"Good work Delito," the skipper said, finally.
"Hey, I'm sorry they were just airsofters. I thought something more serious was afoot."
"Don't apologise. That's what we're here for. The guns may be legal, but the explosives and CS is almost certainly obtained in some shady way, and I'm sure the CO15 boys would like to know more about where these kids managed to get their hands on it."
I nodded, and looked up to find the PCSO standing there. I smiled.
"Mike Delta receiving Mike Delta 592," I transmitted using the PCSO's radio.
"Please log me off this radio, I'm handing it back to 7341."
"Received. Thanks for your help, 592."
"You're welcome, out."
I handed the radio back to its rightful keeper, before joining the Trojan units in the van, to the nearest police station for a comprehensive morning of statements and paperwork.
When I finally do make it to work, I check out a police car to go drop the cyclist's phone off at his house. He seems surprised to see me when I open the door, but takes his phone with a nod.
"Why did you lend me your phone?" I had to ask.
"Hey, I do what I do for a living. You do what you do. But some times, you're the good guys, you know what I'm saying?"
I nod, and dig out my wallet, giving him £30.
"What's that for?" he asks.
"To cover your phone bill," I say.
He knows as well as I do that calls to 999 are free. Of course, it was a pure coincidence that the fine he incurred that morning was £30 for cycling through a red light.
"Thanks. Want a spliff?" he grins.
"Don't push it, buddy," I smile back, before giving him a quick little wave and getting back into the police car
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.