It all started when I was a shadow for a week.
Most of the lads went shadowing at factories or accountancy offices. One lucky geezer got to shadow the station master. And one poor sod was shadowing at the butchers, although that was less actual shadowing and more slicing up tripe at the back of the shop.
As for me, my old man was a gasman, a meter reader. “You could read numbers at the age of four lad, ain’t no point shadowing me. I’ve had a word with Joe Jenkins, biggest businessman in town, if not the whole of Buckinghamshire, and he says he can teach you a thing or two.”
I don’t know if my old man knew. I’m guessing not, or at least I like to think not. I was always too afraid to ask him just in case he said otherwise. I couldn’t bear the thought that my own father would encourage his own son to get involved in all that.
You see while Company House had Jenkins down as a carpet trader, it wasn’t the whole truth. Sure, he had a lot of carpets hanging around the warehouse, including the one I was lying face down on in my folks’ living room when I curled up in a ball weeping my eyes out at the end of the week.
You can wrap a lot of cash in carpets, you see. You need a big old’ lorry or seven to move them around the South. Stack a few up by the trailer door and in no time you’ve got yourself a little hidie hole at the front. Ain’t nobody gonna check them out either, well not in those days, and not when you’ve got most the bobbies in Buckinghamshire on your payroll.
No, I know what you might be thinking at this point. Joe Jenkins, master criminal? Never heard of the fella. Of course! It’s only the real master criminals who don’t get caught. Let’s put it in perspective though. Every criminal has a patch they control, OK? Heard of the Krays? They had a two mile by three mile patch in East London. Joe’s patch stretched 70 miles from up past Northampton all the way down to around the M25 – well there wasn’t an M25 in those days of course, and you know why? Joe never would have allowed it. He wouldn’t be giving those Essex and East End lads easy access to Slough and Heathrow, which was an important route for him to move stuff out the country.
You never would have guessed Jolly Joe was such a big shot from his gaffe. It was the biggest house I’d been in at that stage of my life alright. While it was all two up two down on my street, Joe had three up three down. He also had a pond in front, or was that just a puddle that didn’t drain? Can’t remember, though there was a fair bit of rain that week, which is how I got to leave all those footprints for the coppers to follow. Oh, and gravel on the drive. Never had seen that before.
“It’s so I can hear everyone approaching this place. Just in case,” Jolly Joe said to me with a wink on my first day of shadowing.
He really would wink a lot. Was probably one of his ways of keeping everyone onside. Like, obviously he’d wink when he was telling a bit of a porkie as people did those days like saying he got his giant fridge-freezer from the back of the lorry, but then even with a little statement like “bit nippy out today”, he’d flash you a smile and wink away.
Now, shadowing means following someone around as much as you can. The odd master criminal or two might not be too happy with all that, but not Joe. He showed me everything. Wasn’t all the glamour or danger that you might expect, to begin with at least, it was moving a grand here and there, doing a drop over there, chatting to associates on how to keep this official or that “sweet”. He showed me into the warehouse, and took me straight to where the carpets roll over to reveal the trapdoor to the basement. That was where he kept all his “good stuff” [wink]. Towers of cash running up the ceiling, a few paintings hanging around, a rifle locker and a hell of a lot of tellies.
Those days being those days, there wasn’t any of your drugs and automatic weapons at all. It was tellies and rifles. He got them all in acquisitions. The tellies that is. The way Joe pronounced it, acquisitions, it sounded all official and posh and everything, but basically it meant stopping the London to Manchester freight train late at night between Bedford and Rugby, and unloading a couple of TVs.
“Everyone’s onside with it” Joe explained, holding his wink so that I knew more was coming, “train drivers get a little cut, Northerners can claim for the lost tellies from the insurance co for more than they’re actually worth. We only take a couple each time, and my golden rule is nobody gets hurt. After all, I’m a gentleman, with a small g and a big m.” Then he winked.
One day, could have been the Tuesday, could have been the Wednesday, I asked him if I could go along to an acquisition as I was supposed to write an essay about the whole shadowing thing and list all the activities when I was back in school.
Joe looked taken aback.
“We do them at four in the morning, son. You need to rest for your shadowing.” He winked. “Who’s your teacher again?”
“Mr. Rogers,” I said.
“Ah ok, good to know”, he replied.
So, before you know it Friday morning has come around. I say before you know it but it actually felt like the longest week of my life. All the lads off shadowing said the same, apart from the one at the butchers who didn’t say a single word for the next six months.
Anyways, Joe’d just put the phone down and suddenly he wasn’t looking all that jolly. Not in the slightest actually. His face was had gone as white as an old dame. I’ve seen him go into the kitchen, kick the shiny fridge freezer and curse.
When he’d calmed down he came over to me – I was waiting in the living room with the door closed pretending not to notice anything.
“Seeing as it’s the end of your week and you’ve been a proper stellar shadow and all, I’m gonna give you a little responsibility. You up for that?” he asked, and I knew he was much better already as the wink was back.
“Sure,” I said, thrilled to have earned his trust.
“It’s just a little job but it is very important to me,” said Joe. He raced into the kitchen and came back in no time with a piece of paper with an address scribbled on.
“Go here please, son. Ask to speak to a fella called Doug Thomas. Now make God damn sure it is Doug Thomas, alright. And say to him – remember this son, as I don’t want you to write it down ‘Joe says stop messing around, or else’.”
“Or else what?” I ask.
“Or else, or else,” he said, “let’s leave the little rat sweating about what it all means”, he muttered.
“Oh and how old are you again, son?”
“Hmm, if you come across any bobbies today by any chance, just do yourself a favour and tell ‘em you’re 15, will you?”
“Umm ok,” I said.
You can’t imagine the thrill I had when I left Joe’s house a few minutes later. He said I should go as soon as I’d helped unload a shipment of carpets at the warehouse. He left me with the key to warehouse too! I was touching my pocket to keep checking it was there and laughing.
So anyway, I’m thinking all the time how I could handle this little job just the way Joe probably would. It sounded a little dangerous, truth be told, with all the talk of the coppers, so when the van had shot off with the carpets all safely received, I took a little detour when locking up the warehouse and got myself a rifle, which I tucked under my overcoat.
And there I was, calm as you like, at Doug Thomas’s place, ringin’ the doorbell and pushing at the rifle so it didn’t bulge the jacket too much.
Then I heard a bit of motion behind the door and the calmness just evaporated. My heart went a flutter. Then it even went wooh-wooh and I began feeling dizzy. And sick.
“What you want?” asked a stocky middle-aged man who opened the door.
“Hi, err, Joe, Jolly Joe said…are you Doug Thomas?”
“Ey! Are you carrying?” he said, staring at my jacket.
I had no idea what to say, so I instinctively turned around.
“Nobody comes to Deadly Doug’s home carrying!” he shouted, “I’m getting you done for illegal possession of a firearm!”
It was scary, I’m not going to lie, getting cuffed and bundled into the police car, getting asked 100 times where I got the rifle by an angry inspector. Then the cell. That was something else.
Now lots of people suspected Joe used his connections to get me off. He must have just assumed his men inside the police were doing him a favour. He never suspected I’d gone undercover for a small group of honest boys in blue determined to dismantle his Buckinghamshire mafia. Not when I turned up a year later asking for a job. Not when I’d been on acquisitions and gotten details on his whole organisation and tracked how he got his money turned into jewels then flew it out to a safe in Switzerland.
I’m not gonna lie, he did me a huge help allowing me to shadow him like that. Don’t know why he did it really. Must have felt he could trust me. Maybe he thought I’d be as slow as my old man.
Anyhow, the moral of this story, at least I think, is that people can gain so much from just shadowing someone for a little while. I’d like to think that as I end my 44 years in Thames Valley Police – might have even been 50 if I hadn’t been made an early retirement offer I couldn’t refuse – someone could have shadowed me every day, and learnt something, and not in my case how a master criminal operates, but how we uphold the law for everyone through honesty, sheer hard work and a can-do attitude. And if we don’t, like all the bent coppers Jolly Joe paid off back in the day, we get rooted out in disgrace.
700 police officers in the conference hall rose to their feet to lavish applause. Well, 699 really, as one was only pretending to be a police officer. One 82-year-old, whose own hard work in the prison gym over 40 of the past 44 years made him look a good 20 years younger, had managed to sneak in with a police uniform he had bought online. Joe Jenkins took in every last detail of the retiring officer as he applauded at the back of the room and began to think where and when he would exact his revenge. He sent the speaker a little wink for good measure, but he was too busy soaking up the praise to notice.