Her little car was buffeted by strong winds as she drove up the busy motorway towards Manchester. Steely grey skies drizzled just enough rain that her windscreen wipers juddered annoyingly as they swept the few droplets of water away. Huge lorries overtook each other, filling the inside two lanes. Lorries were speed limited to 60 miles per hour, but there would be 1 or 2% difference between the fastest and the slowest. Motorists sat in an endless miserable queue of traffic in the outside lane, travelling only marginally faster. The sheer number of vehicles meant it was bumper to bumper all the way from the Midlands to the North of England.
Night brought an orange glow: illumination from the lights above. Headlights reflected in the puddles and off every vehicle. Heavy goods vehicles threw up huge plumes of blinding spray, with the red lights of the driver in front as the only point of reference to keep on the road. Lara was in a trancelike state, just following in procession, watching out for brake lights as traffic ground to a halt.
Reaching the junction she needed, Lara pulled off the motorway and into the service area. A sign directed traffic to the right for fuel, straight on for refreshments and left for a hotel. She turned left. The car park was filled with shiny new fleet rental vehicles used by sales representatives and other businessmen and women who travelled all over the country, touting their wares. Row after row of medium-sized family cars from respected German manufacturers, in sensible colours: black, silver, grey and navy blue. Some had suit jackets hanging in the back, ready for business in the morning.
Parking her cheap French car that was nearly 10 years old, it looked worse than ever now that the spray from the long drive had given the white paint a thick coating of dirt up the sides. You could hardly read her back numberplate and her hands got covered with filth when she opened and closed the boot to get her overnight bag out.
After checking in to the hotel and finding her way to her room, she looked at herself in the mirror. She wouldn't need to do much to pretend to be exhausted and in a bit of a state tomorrow. Rounding off a long drive, the rooms had paper thin walls: a man snored loudly on one side while a woman made over-enthusiastic unconvincing sex noises on the other. She would have thought that it was somebody watching porn on TV except she could hear the bed thudding into the wall.
Dropping her key-card at the reception desk in the morning, there was no need for her to check out. The bland chain of traveller's hotels had no room service, minibar or other services for their guests. There was no bill to settle as she'd paid for her stay in advance.
Tired, hungry, stressed, without make-up: she was looking perfect for the day's goal.
Punching an address into her sat-nav, she was directed to an industrial estate on the outskirts of Greater Manchester, near a large satellite town. Many large corrugated metal sheds were spread over an area of several square miles, served by a warren of private roads. This was one of the largest warehousing and distribution hubs in the UK, handling stock for many national retailers as well as much smaller businesses too.
Lara knew precisely where she was going, having consulted a map of the estate at the entrance, but she left her car and continued on foot. She passed several bus stops and made a mental note of their route numbers and the bus company that provided the service. The large estate was divided into several different parts, with side roads allowing access to the units that subdivided the enormous sheds. Each unit had its own loading bay and a door into the reception and office areas.
Finding the unit she was looking for, the loading bay was deserted but there was a light on in reception. The red LED on a keypad showed the door was locked and there was an entryphone. A dog-eared piece of paper in the window of said: "Post/courier: *81#". Lara typed it into the keypad. The LED flashed green and the door lock buzzed. She stepped inside and there was a 'beep-bop' electronic noise.
She approached the unmanned reception desk. Part of the desk could be lifted up to get behind it and through to a short corridor with 3 doors. The door at the far end was open, but she couldn't see any further inside. One of the other doors opened and a man stepped out. He closed the door behind himself and walked up to the desk, looking quizzical.
"Can I help you? We weren't expecting anybody today." he said.
"Yes, I'm hoping you can help me. I've travelled a long way." Lara replied.
"Oh? Where have you come from?"
"You must have set off very early."
"I stayed in a hostel in Manchester last night and then got the first bus out to the estate this morning" she lied.
"You must be very keen to see us about something."
"Yeah, it's about an order."
"An order? We haven't sold anything for months."
"I know. That's why I'm here."
"Look. I'm very sorry but we've ceased trading. We haven't even got any stock any more. I'm just here doing some administrative work."
"My boyfriend and I are desperate. We've been going through hell since you shut down."
"You do know why we shut down, right?" the man asked.
"I heard something."
"What do you want?"
"I want to buy FRL." Lara replied
"That was a special order item." the man said, his eyes narrowing.
"Randy! I'll take it from here" said a female voice at the end of the corridor. A woman came from the left hand side of the open doorway, stirring a spoon in a mug. She walked down the corridor and set her drink down on the front desk, lifting up the part to allow access.
"Follow me, my love." the woman said, giving Randy a long look as she walked past him and down the corridor. She turned left into a kitchen with a metal sink, water-cooler and a round table with 3 chairs around it. "Take a seat" she said, gathering a few papers that were on the table and putting them upside down under a blue notebook. "I'm Pauline. Who are you?" the woman asked.
"My name's Lara."
"Do I know you?"
"You might know my boyfriend's name. He bought from you regularly."
"What do you want?" Pauline asked, firing off quick blunt questions with a blank impassive expression.
"You know all my stock has been seized. It's all been tested. My solicitor has got a copy of the results. You've got everything you need. What more do you want?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Look. I need to speak to my solicitor. I've already been co-operative and everything is in my statements. I think it's time for you to leave."
"You think I'm a policewoman?" Lara asked, shocked.
"Or a journalist. I don't know. Either way, I'd like you to leave."
"Look you fucking bitch. My boyfriend's dead, OK. He's fucking dead. I want to know what the fuck FRL is and where you were getting it from." Lara yelled, anger suddenly surging up from deep inside. Her eyes blazed with rage and she stood up so fast that the chair she had been sitting on crashed over backwards. Randy leapt out of the office and stuck his head around the corner.
"It's OK, Randy" said Pauline. "Sit down and be quiet" she said with a smile curling up at the corners of her mouth. She looked like a predator toying with its prey.
Lara slowly pulled the other chair round the table without breaking eye contact, scraping the legs noisily across the concrete floor. She sat down and folded her arms, glaring ferociously back at Pauline.
"You're really clueless, aren't you?" Pauline asked rhetorically, chuckling to herself. "Is your boyfriend really dead?"
"You don't seem to care."
"That's not true. Everything we ever sold was marked 'not for human consumption' with a big skull and crossbones, but yet I'm probably going to end up in jail."
"Yes, but it will be for conspiracy to supply a controlled substance, not for manslaughter."
"Oh, so you do know something" Pauline feigned a shocked face.
"All I know are the charges brought against you. I don't know what FRL is or where you were getting it from."
"Ha!" Pauline suddenly laughed. "Nobody knows what FRL is. That's the fucking point. Do you want to know the little joke we had in the warehouse?"
"Tell me" Lara said, gritting her teeth. She desperately wanted to punch this woman in the face but she knew that she had to bottle her feelings or else she wouldn't get a single bit more information until the trial.
"Fuck Real Life. That's the joke. Do you know what the V part is?"
"Version. Whenever we used up a batch, we'd make up another lot using whatever we had in stock. A cocktail. We didn't know what we were selling any more than the junkies knew what they were buying."
"So you knew you were selling to addicts? You knew people were taking the drugs you were selling?"
"If an addict's not buying from us they're buying from a street corner or direct from China. I'm just a middleman. Supply and demand" said Pauline matter of factly.
"Your drugs killed my boyfriend."
"You don't know that though, do you? Be honest."
Lara's eyes betrayed her. She broke her stare for a fraction of a second and Pauline saw a flicker of doubt cross Lara's face.
"He stopped ordering from you 6 weeks before he disappeared."
"How much was he taking?" Pauline asked.
"I don't know. He was spending £25 each time."
"Different things cost different amounts. I don't remember all the prices of everything we sold."
"I've got an invoice here" said Lara, producing a photocopy with Neil's name and address redacted.
"Half a gram." Pauline said.
"Where does it say that?"
"Right there. 0.5g. That's 0.5 grams."
"Enough to kill him."
"I couldn't say. I'm not a doctor. But it's not enough to last a junkie for 6 weeks."
"He could have quit and relapsed."
"Well if he did, he didn't get his drugs from me. By your own admission he hadn't bought anything from us for 6 weeks when he disappeared. When did he die? What drugs did he have in his bloodstream when he died?"
"You'll find out when you're put on trial, murderer!" Lara spat. "I bet you've never had to look your victims in the eye, you heartless bitch."
Pauline sat calmly with icy coldness, looking at Lara, considering her.
"If your junkie boyfriend bought drugs directly from China, as I suspect he did, cutting out the middleman, then he would have been getting 99% purity."
"What do you mean?"
"We would add an excipient to the products we sold, to bulk it out. If your boyfriend was buying half a gram from us, that would be the same as buying 5 grams direct from China."
"So you're saying what you can get from China is 10 times stronger than what you sold?"
"At least. The Chinese chemists are always coming up with new stronger drugs too. He could have ended up with something a hundred times stronger than anything we were selling. A completely novel compound unknown to anybody here in the UK. He was a human guinea pig. If he only wanted half a gram, the Chinese labs would send him a free sample of their latest creation to get him hooked."
"You disgust me" Lara said, her eyes filling with tears. Her head swam with all this new information and she was overwhelmed. She didn't know who to be angry with, who to blame. It was all too much to process.
She'd had thoughts that she wanted to hurt Pauline, or at least scream abuse at her. She wanted her to know how much damage she'd done. She wanted justice. Lara couldn't think about that at that moment. She stumbled to her feet and out of the warehouse. Outside she sucked in gasps of cold air, hyperventilating.
The unit opposite was a garage and had its loading bay door open. Two cars were lifted up on inspection stands and were being worked on by mechanics. A man in dirty overalls came over.
"Are you OK?" he asked.
Lara looked at him but couldn't quite hold herself steady enough to speak.
"Do you need an ambulance?"
"No. I'll be OK. I just need to get away from here" she said, starting to walk off in the direction of where she parked.
The mechanic went back to the workshop, taking off his oil-stained gloves. A moment later, he emerged from the garage driving a car.
"Do you need a lift?" he called through the passenger window.
Lara stopped walking and thought about it for a moment.
"My car isn't far. Just by the entrance to the estate."
"Jump in anyway. It'll save you 5 minutes walk."
There was a moment of silence as they pulled away. The mechanic was sat on a clear plastic bag that protected the driver's seat. He kept his eyes on the road.
"What was that all about?" he asked as they pulled up behind Lara's car.
Lara looked at him, but she didn't reply.
"I work opposite. I've seen the police in there quite a few times, pulling out loads of stuff bagged and tagged as evidence. Everybody on the estate knows they're scumbag drug dealers. There are housing estates in Manchester where they beat the living shit out of any heroin dealers they catch. These 'legal high' places selling on the Internet seem to be getting away with murder."
"You're not wrong about that. Thanks for the lift." said Lara.