Code of Silence

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Chapter 11

It was a bitterly cold January morning in central Moscow, snow lined the perimeter of every concrete surface, neatly manicured and packed to the side to reveal a cold dry greyness. Tony stepped out of his cosy hotel into the brittle air, clapped his gloved hands together in series of muffled thuds that offered little warmth, and made his way swiftly to the car that was waiting to whisk him off to the Varkasoft offices. His mind was now completely focussed on business, and the work he wanted to complete before finally stepping down from Varkasoft.

As the sale had taken shape, it had become clear to Tony that the investors who were prepared to back the deal were also powerful people. For Radoslav to do the Varkasoft deal using their money he’d had to allow them to have their say in the process, or it wouldn’t have happened at all. Much of the multi-million dollar funding was being invested on behalf of others, so it was critical that the transaction was clean, and that there were no surprises that could come back and haunt them. Radoslav had, on the face of it, tried to make sure that all potential issues, no matter how small, were known about, but the one thing Tony remained unsure of was the role played by Anatoly Dragovich.

At the Varkasoft offices across town, Radoslav stood at the picture window in the executive suite looking out over the frozen grey city. His mind was on Dragovich, too. It had been in the early stages of setting up Ekranotech when he had first met Dragovich, introduced at a social gathering by a mutual contact. Anatoly Dragovich was known as a fixer. Someone who got things done despite the well-known difficulties and complications of the Russian state system. He was instrumental in clearing blockages where Radoslav had reached a dead end, seeming to know which people to approach, what sort of solutions to try, and ultimately made sure that things happened. He’d become involved with Ekranotech within months of its inception, and eventually was hired by Radoslav as an Operations Officer, although Dragovich declined to have a business card confirming this. Dragovich simply got the job done, and Radoslav asked very few questions as he wrestled to control the rapid growth of his business over the coming years.

Around the time Radoslav decided that he wanted to fund the Varkasoft takeover with investor’s money rather than his own, he began to look a little more closely at the areas where he felt there might be some risk. Dragovich’s activities naturally fell under his spotlight. For several years he’d relied on having the ability to ‘unleash the Dragovich’ as he joked, knowing the results would be quickly achieved. Now he was regretting having turned a blind eye to it all.

The problem was, that as an early employee Dragovich had been granted an Ekranotech shareholding, so simply getting rid of him wasn’t going to be easy, or cheap. He would be an expensive problem to solve and that would raise questions with the investors. And, of course, Dragovich also knew a lot – too much – about how Ekranotech had navigated parts of the Russian state commercial minefield. Radoslav discussed the problem with his advisers, and it was suggested that Dragovich’s shares be diluted to a lower level of shareholding. That way he’d still be able to benefit from the deal, which might placate him, and it wouldn’t cost Radoslav as much to get rid of him. When the investors ploughed money into the new venture, Dragovich could also be quietly moved aside, and eventually out of the business with his payoff.

This seemed like the solution to the problem, but Radoslav was going to have to sort this one out himself. Knowing that it wouldn’t go down well with Dragovich, the bank decided to step in to help see it through, ensuring Radoslav stayed clear of any boardroom battles. Sure enough, Dragovich was furious on discovering his fate, but he’d been persuaded to stick around to show solidarity, with the intention that after the deal had completed he would leave, together with his payoff. It was not as much as he might have gained in future years as the business prospered, it was still a decent slice.

Radoslav had met with Tony at his Moscow hotel the day before, just after he had arrived in Russia, with the news that the priority was for Tony to manage the changeover and oversee Dragovich’s departure. He needed Tony to learn about anything Dragovich was currently working on before confirming that his services were no longer required, and then to ultimately show him the door. Radoslav was confident that Tony was unaware of the murkier side of Ekranotech and the history between himself and Dragovich, and would treat his task simply as an executive reshuffle, something he’d carried out many times before and one that would have to be handled sensitively yet firmly.

***

Arriving at the offices in his chauffeur-driven car, Tony quickly settled into his handover role with a renewed focus and an appetite to get things done. It fulfilled the gap in his life that he was having to adjust to, after years of dedication and hard work. Of course, he had plans to start something new in the shape of Vvox, but it would be good to be involved in the relative familiarity of this handover project, at least for the short term. He saw this as a temporary role and had the luxury of having enough money in the bank to be able to drop it like a red-hot poker if things did not go well. And things were about to not go well.

Tony started out reviewing all areas of the business with a team assembled from employees of both his old company and that of the new owners. It quickly became clear that something wasn’t as it should be, and he began to investigate some heavy areas of spending, previously explained vaguely to him as ‘strategic corporate budget costs’ by an Ekranotech accountant. These were huge sums of money, often cash payments, authorised and sanctioned by a name he was not familiar with, and no matter who he referred to in the company he couldn’t locate the individual in question.

The payments had been occurring randomly since Ekranotech began, gradually becoming larger over time, yet there was very little evidence to trace them with, other than bank account numbers and international bank codes. When he and his former team members asked their Ekranotech colleagues to help shed light on these payments, they very quickly seemed to run out of answers; it appeared no one was aware of them, yet the amounts ran into millions over the previous years. Tony surmised that the only person who could possibly provide more information about them was Dragovich or, indeed, Radoslav himself. As Dragovich had been asked to temporarily stand down from active duty, there was only one person that could answer Tony’s questions.

Tony met Radoslav first thing the next morning in the boardroom, facing him across the width of the long glass and metal table. With the help of his team, Tony had created a file of information tracking the unusual payments. All amounts, dates, bank codes and the minimal detail about the reason for each payment were noted down together with copies of emails, and confirmation that no one in the organisation had an explanation for them.

Tony felt his anger rising. He prided himself on running a profitable and ethical business and it appeared that it had just been swallowed up by a predator that was operating on the edge, if not completely illegally. Tony had asked two trusted colleagues to attend the meeting with him, partly as backup on the detail but also as witnesses should the tone of the meeting deteriorate.

Tony spoke in a quiet but assertive tone, summarising his findings and then sliding the file of documented evidence across the table to Radoslav.

“Zoryn, please help me out on this. I’ve been in business a long time but this one has stumped me. There are millions of dollars involved, and in each case the trail starts with Dragovich and ends with an unknown individual approving the amounts involved, and an unnamed bank account. I’m sure you’re aware that this raises all sorts of questions, regarding the ethical nature of the way business is conducted, not to mention those that will almost certainly arise from the investors who made this deal possible.”

Radoslav opened the cover of the file, then paused, his cold stare still fixed firmly on Tony. It was neither a look that indicated anger nor one that suggested he might capitulate and confess.

“This is not the start either of us imagined, Tony,” Radoslav said solemnly, his displeasure now clear as he casually closed the cover of the file. “You sit here in front of me accusing me of, well, I’m still unclear about what I’ve done to attract this interrogation. You know nothing about the Ekranotech business, yet you think that because something is not as clear as you might expect it to be, it is in some way underhanded.”

Tony knew that he’d touched on a sensitive issue.

“Listen to me, Tony,” said Radoslav, leaning closer into the table as if to be within striking distance. “If you are looking for an explanation of any underhanded activity, I suggest you refer back to our discussions over V-Works and the AI voice algorithm work you shared with me. The same voice technology that conveniently disappeared into thin air by the time we concluded our deal. I’d be interested to hear your explanation of that before I bow to your request to clarify who signed a cheque for what, over a period where it was none of your God damn business!” Radoslav’s face reddened, microscopic droplets of saliva sprayed from his lips as his voice cracked in anger.

Tony responded immediately, leaning forward himself now, and replied calmly. “Zoryn, we spoke about many things over the weeks and months, and if you picked up on anything and assumed it was something more than it actually was, then that’s not my problem. V-Works was exactly as we discussed. It is about potential, no guarantees and certainly no specifics regarding AI algorithms or coding.”

He sat back. It was stalemate. Tony’s adviser to the left of him shifted uneasily in his seat; the atmosphere in the boardroom was intense.

Finally, Radoslav broke the deafening silence. “Tony … Tony,” he said, breaking into a broad smile and easing back in his chair. “My dear Tony, apologies for raising my voice, this is not how we should be so early in the new relationship. First, we need Anatoly Dragovich to come in. It’s time for him to explain things in detail and I’m sure that will put your mind at rest. Once we’ve had his side of the story then it’ll be an appropriate time to cut him loose; we’ve covered that off and I don’t foresee any problems. I’m certain you’ll be reassured that the business and my investors are fully protected, and we can continue with building this new company together.”

With that, he pushed his chair back and rose from it. Leaning forward with the whitened knuckles of his clenched fists for support, he faced Tony across the glass table top.

“Tony, trust me. I know that is a lot to ask as we’ve only just begun working together, but I’m not about to upset our investors, or anyone else for that matter, with any notion of foul play or inappropriate behaviour,” he said. He straightened up and slid the file back across to Tony. “Please have your team make up another copy of your findings for me, and let me call in Dragovich so we can conclude this properly. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for another meeting and I must leave. We’ll speak later, yes?” he said. It was a statement, not a question. With a barely contained expression of contempt, he nodded sharply, then turned abruptly and strode out of the room.

Tony hadn’t heard anything to put his mind at rest and remained uneasy, glancing sideways to his colleagues then back to the pack of disturbing information in front of him. He slowly revisited the various documents, before turning to his colleagues again. He spoke in a hushed voice. “Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s hear what Dragovich has to add and then I’ll make a decision. Do a copy for Radoslav, please, and leave it with his PA, and I’ll let you know the next steps. That’s all for now, thank you,” he said calmly. He stood up and buttoned his suit jacket. “I’ll be in touch.”

That evening Tony was awoken by a firm knock at the door of his third-floor hotel room. On opening the door he was pushed firmly backwards into the room and sent sprawling onto his bed, torchlight piercing his eyes. There were at least three, maybe five of them. Some sort of special forces unit from what he could make out: they wore black combat-style clothing, had covered faces and were heavily armed. Tony was terrified. His mind had already been running through scenarios about whether he’d stirred up a hornet’s nest with his findings at Ekranotech. Had he uncovered something that should have been left well alone? Was this how big business was really carried out in Russia, or was this whole thing connected to something bigger and more sinister than just Ekranotech Industries?

The lead officer spoke in very broken English, confirming Tony’s full name to which he nodded, and gasped, “Yes,” resisting his natural urge to protest, to fight. He knew this situation was dangerous. He was told to get dressed immediately, forget all of his belongings and leave with the men at once. “You will come with us for questioning. This is a serious matter and we require full cooperation. You must hurry. Quick!” instructed the officer, pointing around the room and issuing further orders to his men.

Tony grabbed whatever clothes he could: suit trousers, jumper, his heavy winter coat, and the shoes he’d worn that day. Another officer had already picked up his wallet, passport and mobile phone, stuffing them into Tony’s laptop bag along with the laptop itself. Tony was then marched from the room, and down the illuminated fire escape staircase leading from the corridor that his room was on.

The external fire exit door was barged open by the lead officer. Tony was bundled into the back of a waiting black van, an officer either side of him. Another took the driver’s seat, and one sat in the third row behind Tony. A fifth officer joined them a few minutes later, jumping in beside the driver with another bag full of Tony’s possessions. The door slammed. Tony felt a gloved hand pass to his right from behind. Felt it wrap around, covering his mouth and nose. A powerful pungent odour and a stinging in his throat.

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