After an absolutely ridiculous morning of doing blue-light runs from one end of the borough to the other, it seemed like all the customers had decided to give it a rest for the day; as soon as I sat down for lunch on this particular blue-skied Saturday, my radio fell silent, and for once I was able to just sit, chill, eat my sandwich, and enjoy a cup of tea.
It's one of the (very few) things I miss about an office job: Back when I was in sales, I knew that the time between 12:30 and 13:30 was holy: It was lunchtime, during which no clients will be pleased if you call them, so you may as well toddle off to the pub, with no real risk of being disturbed. As a police officer, you never really know when the next call is going to come in; and whilst a Sierra-grade usually leaves with you enough time to at least finish your cup of tea, if an urgent India-graded call comes in, it's time to drop a fiver on the cafe's table, and bolt out of the caff and into the panda.
Anyway, I just was just sucking down my last sip of tea and finished reading the 'newspaper'. I say 'newspaper', because this cafe only keeps the Daily Mail, and I've got to be honest; If the ketchup bottles had been in English instead of in Turkish, I'd rather have read and re-read the ingredients than having the Daily Mail whine at me about how terrible immigrants are and how dangerous cancer is. My friends and I have a regular pub game which involves coming up with the most contradictory would-be Daily Mail headlines. The best one we have so far is 'Gay illegal immigrant cures cancer'... If anyone can come up with a better one, please do leave it as a comment to this story.
My phone rings, and I flip open the little pouch I keep it in. It's my sister.
"Hey Michelle", I say, cheerfully.
"Hey Matt - Are you on duty?"
"Where are you?"
"The Inn Cafe"
"I'm just around the corner! Do you have a minute?"
I say yes, and she tells me where she is. I drive over there, and spot her standing next to a car.
"When did you get a motor?" I ask, as I give her a quick hug.
"I didn't! This is a car club car," she smiled, waving her membership card in the air at me.
"Oh, fab. Great idea!" I say.
"Yeah, they're pretty good. I just wanted you to take a look at something." she said, pointing at the wheel of the car.
"Oh?" I say, and bend down to get a closer look. I spot the tyre, and realise what it was she wanted me to take a look at. It's nearly completely worn down. I walk around the car, and see that three of the tyres are downright illegal, and the fourth tyre is on its last legs as well.
"Should I be driving that?"
"Well, if you did, you'd be breaking the law," I say, "So no..."
My sister sighs.
"Yeah I figured that much," she says. "Damn it, I meant to do a round of shopping today."
"Did you try calling them?" I asked.
"The car club!"
"Oh. No, I didn't!"
"Maybe they have another car for you."
She fishes her phone out, and dials a number. I overhear part of the conversation, and I can see my sister getting frustrated with the guy on the phone. At one point, I start understanding what they are saying, and I hold my hand out. She hands me the phone.
"Hey," I say. "I am constable Delito - this car is really not in any fit state to be hired to anyone, I'm afraid."
"Yes, Mrs Delito said that much", the man on the other end of the phone says, "But the notes I have in front of me say that the tyres were changed yesterday."
"I'm afraid your notes must be wrong, then." I say.
"They can't be - the logs are usually really good. We have our own people that go and change the tyres of all the cars, and this one was changed yesterday."
"Hmm. How many times has the car been taken out since the tyres were changed?" I ask.
"Well, if you're sure the tyres were changed, then I propose that you take a closer look at where the cars have been; looks like someone took the brand new tyres off, and swapped them for old ones."
I ring off, after suggesting that the car club takes a closer look at the GPS logs for the car, and figures out if the car was ever stopped near a garage for an hour or so, before offering my sister a lift to another nearby car club car, so she can still get her shop in.
"It's really quite clever isn't it," she muses.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, when you get a hire car, they usually only check if things are missing, but they never really know whether something has been replaced."
"You'd be surprised how often that happens", I offer.
"Yeah. There is a massive black market in this sort of thing; people will take an expensive prestige car out for a test drive, or perhaps they rent a car for a couple of days, and then they'll take some of the expensive components - like the airbags or tyres - and replace them with dummies or worn parts."
"Yes way. The particularly evil thieves will take it even further, and they'll replace brand new, really expensive parts from the engine with cheap chinese knock-offs. So what they'll do is they'll buy a part for a couple of hundred pounds, swap it out with a genuine part, and then flog the genuine part for much, much more than the counterfeit part costs. With that money, they just go and buy more counterfeit parts."
"Surely they would get caught?"
"You'd think so, wouldn't you," I said, shaking my head slowly, as I pull up next to the car club car. "But the thing is; even a counterfeit part will keep working for perhaps ten thousand miles, and there'll be no way of telling exactly when the part was replaced. By then, hundreds of different people will have rented the car, and nobody knows who might be guilty of actually stealing the parts in question."
"Wouldn't the mechanics notice when you hand the car back?"
"Well, I guess that's the beauty of it, from the criminals' points of view - when was the last time someone actually went through and checked every part of an engine when you hand the car back? Besides, on modern cars, most of the engine is hidden away between plastic decorative pieces, so even if there were a gleaming new exhaust manifold or turbocharger bolted to the car, chances that it gets spotted - even if they were to look inside the engine bay - are extremely slim."
"How bloody evil is that?!" my sister laughed.
"Ha," I smiled in return, "Pretty evil indeed. Luckily, it's a pretty elaborate con, so I don't think there's that many people doing that sort of thing."
"But then, how would you know?" she asked.
"Excellent point - for all I know, someone's nicked all the original parts out of this Astra," I laughed. "That would certainly explain why the turbocharger is blowing like no tomorrow." I press the gas pedal, and a loud hissing sound confirms that something isn't quite right under the hood. "Mind you, you'd be hard pressed to find parts that are worse than the ones that were originally installed in this heap of shite in the first place, so I doubt anyone would bother."
Together, we check the car club car; this one has brand new tyres - they can't have more than a couple of hundred miles of wear on them, at the most.
"Well that's a relief," Michelle says, and invites me around for a couple of beers later that weekend.
I climb back into the Astra, and park up for a minute. Stealing tyres off cars - bloody clever stuff, really. Driving back to the location of the other car club car, I see that a mobile tyre-changing car is already parked there, and that a mechanic is in the process of switching the fully-worn tyre with a new one.
"Hey there," I greet him.
"Hey?" he says, a little perplexed about a police officer appearing out of nowhere.
"They're a bit threadbare, aren't they?" I note, nodding toward the tyre he is removing from the rim.
"I changed these bloody things yesterday, too", he says. "Looks like some low-life came and nicked the tyres right off the rims."
"Yeah. We only use Bridgestone tyres on all of these cars." he said, and pointed at the worn-out ring of black rubber on the ground. "I've never even seen that brand before."
I take a closer look; Nope, not a brand that I recognise either.
"Hey, if you switched these yesterday, that means there's probably a very limited number of places this car has been in the meantime." I say.
"Yeah, that's probably right."
"So, if you wanted to catch these guys, you should make a police report - I'm happy to help with that side of things. I'm guessing it's got to be some of our local small-time hoodlums who did this, and the traffic guys probably know them. All you'd have to do is to hand over the GPS track of the car for the past 24 hours, along with the names and contact details of the drivers; sounds like it would be a pretty simple case."
"Maybe?" the mechanic said, not looking convinced.
As far as I can tell, the car club never did file a police report, and it looks as if whoever swapped the brand new set of Bridgestones with a rotten old set got away with it. As a police officer, it causes my soul to burn just a little bit: In a tiny, extremely annoying, and completely unavoidable way, someone had committed the perfect crime
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.