Code of Silence

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Chapter 20

The window of my train carriage didn’t offer much of a view. Raindrops driven horizontally across the surface for the entire journey made sure of that. Just my luck that the weather had gone downhill, and at the end of the term, too.

I resorted to passing the ninety-minute trip with a nap, punctuated with social media and email updates. I’d messaged to tell my dad what time I’d be arriving, and fortunately a neighbour had offered to collect me from the station. Home was a walkable distance away, but I didn’t fancy the idea of trudging it in the miserable weather. I could tell from the blurred outline of the surrounding countryside that I was close to home. The shapes of familiar farm buildings and yards in the distance, corrugated storage units, large houses on huge plots, detached houses on avenues, then terraced rows and shops. The closer I got the more varied the architecture became. The station platform eased into view and then stood still.

I found my lift waiting in the car park. Preparing myself for some polite small talk I clambered in, holding my rucksack, and greeted Mrs Denton. It was weird. I’d lived there all my life, as had she, right next door to us, but this was the first time we’d been this close. Often my parents had socialised with the neighbours, but like any kid I had kept a low profile when it came to neighbourly chats. University was going well, her garden was recovering from a harsh winter and the weather was atrocious. Real small talk, I thought. My dad was doing well by all accounts. Still not able to talk but lots of improvements elsewhere. As we pulled up at my house, I thanked her. I did appreciate that she’d been there for both me and my dad, years earlier when my mother had passed away, and now for a second time. It got me thinking: perhaps I should make more of an effort to chat with her in the future.

I was excited. I grabbed my bag from the rear seat, found my house keys and let myself in through the front door. My dad was in the lounge, looking fragile but pleased to see me. We hugged as I knelt beside his chair. I discovered that the health visitor had just left so the place was in good order. Dad was looking smart although I thought he had aged since the last time I visited; I didn’t mention it. Speaking was still not possible, although the sounds he uttered had developed a little.

I offered to put the kettle on and make some hot drinks. He nodded, and made a thumbs up and a quiet noise. It sounded like he was trying to say please. We spent the evening watching sports highlights on television, me telling him how I was getting on with my course, the rugby club, new friends and all the usual updates. I reminded him he had an appointment with the doctor to review progress that week, and said that I’d take him there. I received handwritten notes on a pad from him. I’d read them, convey my response, and then there would be a pause while another note was created. It was a tortuous process.

The next note I received said: Let’s give it a go, then! I’d been telling him about the AI voice developments that Alex and I had been working on. We’d managed to finish the final pieces of work just ahead of the AI conference and had done some initial testing. I was hoping it would be useful for Dad, even if it wasn’t as cutting-edge as the stuff Theo was working on.

We agreed to spend the following morning going through it all and giving it a good test. It was early evening, but Dad tired easily. I helped him upstairs to get ready and settled him in his bedroom. I’d planned to catch up on some TV but found myself nodding off on the couch an hour or so later. The naps on the train had messed my body clock about, so I decided to head up to bed as well, checking briefly on Dad. My old room was always a comfort, and I was asleep in no time at all.

Waking early, I familiarised myself with the room again through squinting eyes. My dad was awake too and could just about cope with getting himself ready, so I went downstairs to sort out some breakfast. After a tidy-up I brought through the laptop and set it up on the kitchen table. The application we’d been working on was designed to be downloaded onto my dad’s tablet, and would enable him to access a wide range of speech sequences to cover as many situations in everyday life as possible.

There was an agreed template of recommended words that had been created by speech therapists over the years, and it was used in medical and scientific circles as the benchmark for most speech therapy work. Alex and I had decided to use just over two hundred and twenty of the individual words, and close to sixty of the sentences and phrases. These figures were below the academic recommendations, but in early testing they covered the essentials. I hoped they would be like a crutch, a temporary aid while my dad’s body and brain sorted themselves out.

We sat at the kitchen table as I started the demo. “To say something, just use the icons on the screen to select the words and phrases you want,” I said, as I sat beside him, steadying his hand.

“Cup of tea, please,” came the synthesised yet strangely familiar-sounding response. Dad turned to me, eyebrows raised, faking our high five with a huge grin across his face.

It was incredible to hear his requests being projected from the tablet with his own voice. I was amazed. I had worried that it would be a bit amateurish, given all the technology I’d witnessed recently, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t perfect either, but the results were much more than I’d ever hoped for. It was a reconnection of sorts; I hadn’t heard my dad’s voice for months now, aside of on the video footage we’d used. It worked on a practical level for my dad but on an incredibly emotional one for both of us too.

Dad’s eyes glazed over, his steady smile began to quiver. I could imagine how frustrated he was after all this time having to live in a body that didn’t work with a brain that was having to start all over again. I felt mixed emotions, but I was proud of what we had achieved. I sent a short video message and soundtrack of Dad and me to Alex, and we spoke later in the week at length on the phone, catching up on what we’d each been up to over the break and making plans for the remainder of it. I’d missed being around Alex but when we spoke I said I would stay one more night then return to campus where we could catch up, and maybe get together with Theo again.

I knew being back at home was always going to be a little strange for Alex. The twins were also due back at some point, but apparently had gone to France with friends for a few days, leaving Alex alone with both parents for the time being. Alex’s father had unexpectedly returned from Russia, and would be around briefly before heading to London on urgent business. Alex told me he seemed even more stressed than usual. Their mother had settled back into life in the stockbroker belt, trying to replicate the lifestyle she’d enjoyed so much in Moscow, and with good results. In theory, the twins being away provided the chance for Alex to catch up with both parents and be the focus of attention, but in practice that wasn’t how it had turned out.

As soon as he arrived home Alex’s father had locked himself away in the study on another deal, or something else super-important. Most of the time Alex’s mother was busy on the social scene, doing lunches or at various fitness classes. She had broken away with Alex for a surprise shopping trip on one occasion, insisting they sort some new clothes out before university started back again. But during the remainder of the week back at the family home Alex had simply caught up with old friends and used the downtime to relax, occasionally going for a run or taking the family dog for long walks on the surrounding woodland trails.

The term break was beginning to drag for us both, and only a week into it. The twins would be around the following day so Alex planned to stay another day or so, briefly catch up with them and then head back to campus for the remainder of the break. In the meantime, Alex’s mother and father were spending a couple of days in London. A perfect opportunity to use the peace and quiet to revise for the exams which followed the break, catch up on emails and mooch around the internet before crashing out.

The next morning I said goodbye to my dad but didn’t feel as bad about leaving this time as I headed for the station. The meeting with the doctors had gone well. There was positive progress being made and a good final recovery was predicted. It would take time. Months, years even, but the signs were encouraging. The medical staff had been impressed with our voice synthesis software work and how it would help my father’s quality of life until natural progress could be made.

I returned to my student house later that day pretty exhausted, and was looking forward to just chilling with a takeaway, a couple of cold beers and some time in front of the telly. Between lectures, rugby training, the voice synthesis project and the trips home, I was beginning to struggle. Fortunately, both my housemates were away so I had the place to myself. I thought about inviting one of the other rugby lads over to catch up but decided against it in the end. I probably wouldn’t be great company, and would no doubt be crashed out on the sofa half way through the latest boxset or the weekend sports news.

The delivery guy arrived by bike and I was relieved to see there were a few cold beers left in our fridge too, but it would have to be toast in the morning as the only milk in there didn’t look like it would leave the bottle that easily. Unfortunately, the TV scheduling had let me down and the only watchable sport was on satellite stations which we didn’t have at the house. I flicked through the channels and found some free-to-view stuff and began tucking into my Chinese takeaway. After a quick clear-up I got out my laptop, opened another beer and started to check emails while glancing at the latest results on the news channel.

My attention was flicking between the TV and laptop screen as my emails eventually downloaded despite our tragic broadband speeds at the house. I scanned through the ‘From’ column, deleting the spam that had evaded the junk-mail filter, glancing at a few, and then noticed one from Alex that had just arrived having been forwarded to me. On opening it my initial reaction was one of confusion, but quickly turned to pure shock as I read through the contents and began to take it in. It included a covering note from Alex, explaining that the forwarded email was urgent and that it had popped up from the browser that had been left open on their home computer. The attached email was marked ‘Confidential’ and was addressed to Alex’s father from his employers.

Skimming through the introduction it was clear that this was an important message. It was from the international law firm that Alex’s father represented. Reading through the first paragraph, I could see it was regarding a specific deal involving a company called Ekranotech and their CEO, Zoryn Radoslav. It was some sort of official update but marked as a cautionary note to the named senior staff involved in the transaction: Immediate and precautionary repatriation on a temporary basis is mandatory. The stern words jumped out of the email content.

As I read on, it appeared that Alex’s father had played a key part in the final negotiations when Ekranotech purchased a British software company called Varkasoft. There were highlighted points covering problems identified and the personnel it could affect. There was a significant allegation being tabled by Ekranotech, with the threat of further legal action should they prove that fraudulent activity had been evident. It indicated that not all of the technology assets agreed in the deal had been transferred, particularly one specific part of a Varkasoft subsidiary company.

The note was to highlight the key personnel involved and the latest developments. It indicated that the ex-CEO of Varkasoft may have been kidnapped and was being held somewhere in Russia. Mention was made of Zoryn Radoslav and another individual from Ekranotech, Anatoly Dragovich, an ex-employee. Dragovich was no longer a part of the business but classed as a highly dangerous individual, with possible links to serious organised crime in Moscow. The general tone of the communication was really serious, its intention confirmed as: Safeguarding our employees, and extracting them before the Russian state system takes over, at which point it would become difficult to guarantee the safety of individuals. All this was probably why Alex’s father had returned so suddenly from Moscow and was stressed out, and also why he’d then quickly headed off to London.

Scrolling through, I was totally absorbed, but became increasingly worried as the details sunk in. The JPEG attachments on the email were referenced and dated and I cautiously clicked on each in turn. They expanded into more detailed files, with several images. The first was labelled as Zoryn Radoslav, the second, Tony Varkanopolis. Wait a minute, Varkanopolis. That was Theo’s name: it had to be his father. Clicking on the next image gave me the biggest shock. Anatoly Dragovich. It was him. The big guy that I’d bumped into by the Vvox stand at the conference. The guy in the photo, making his call after Khan’s speech.

I felt physically sick as I slouched in the chair. Partially closing the screen, I clasped my hands to my face, brow sweating. I felt faint. It was a hell of a lot to take in, but things began to make sense. There was some sort of meltdown involving this deal in Russia. Theo’s dad was caught up in it and I already knew he’d disappeared. Alex’s father was also part of it, and had been asked to return home immediately. Another Russian had approached Theo in the UK and it wasn’t Dragovich. And now it sounded like the Russian mafia could be involved.

I was alone in the house, and for the first time in a long while I actually felt scared. Although I knew it was wrong, it made sense to forward the email to a different account for safety, and in case someone needed some evidence in the future. This would all be difficult to explain, but at least if someone read the content of the email there could be no argument.

I decided to see what information was available online about the takeover deal and those involved. There were sketchy details and press releases, a couple of media reports but nothing of any significance. Zoryn Radoslav seemed to generate a lot of publicity, mainly about himself being one of the top entrepreneurs in Russia, his face adorning most Russian business and news magazine links at some point in the recent past. There was a lot more media coverage in the British press about Tony Varkanopolis and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his disappearance. It was a struggle to find any useful information on Anatoly Dragovich, although there were some allegations that in his youth he was linked to the Russian mafia.

This mafia thread was intriguing and I began to explore it further with trepidation. This time there was plenty of information available, pages of it on the internet. Working through some of the more credible entries, it was clear that the Russian mafia, or the Vory as they appeared to known, were as powerful as the government itself. In fact, there were allegations from both inside and outside Russia that they were working together, just using different methods to get what they wanted: the government, with its suited representatives hiding behind corrupt laws; the Vory, a crime organisation that lived and died by its own rules and used brute force. The Vory had been around since the Russian Revolution and were effectively Russia’s equivalent of the Italian mafia. They originally formed as a force for ruling the criminal underworld within prison camps, later spilling over into modern society, their role being to govern the darkness in Soviet life that was beyond the reach of the KGB.

It was chilling stuff, but I was determined to read on. As with most large organisations they were being drawn to more modern ways of earning their profits. The Vory were no different from legitimate businesses and other organised crime groups around the world, and had embraced technology as part of their armoury. There were multiple accounts of cybercrimes in the more recent postings. I had heard about some of it from Khan and in the news, election fixing and data hacking, that sort of thing, but hadn’t given it further thought until now.

One particular article attempted to delve into recent hacking scams which could be traced back to Russia, although the conclusion about the culprit rested on the fence between the Vory and the Russian government. The Vory had developed a high level of expertise in technology and were thought to be active in the pursuit of various security-related technology breakthroughs.

I had seen enough; it went on at length, and would take all night to follow the many threads. But it was all bad news, particularly now that the email had confirmed what had been happening with the Ekranotech deal and Theo’s father.

I decided to settle down in front of the TV again with a hot drink. It was getting late and time to calm down a bit. It was strange being alone in the house, not as comfortable as it had seemed when I’d phoned up for the takeaway earlier and got ready for my chilled night in. Surfing through the television channels while checking my phone for a response from Alex, I was drawn to a newsfeed message. My heart leapt once again, then I immediately switched the TV to the twenty-four hour news channel. It had just gone 10.00 pm.

The news had started and the presenter was running through the headlines. As they returned to the main story, I sat forward and shuddered on hearing the announcement in more detail. A suspected murder of a Russian national had taken place in a park in London that evening. The attack was unexplained, as was the nature of the man’s death. The report began to suggest links with previous similar incidents in the UK. There was speculation about the possible involvement of the Russian government or organised crime groups in Moscow. My heart was pounding now, as an image of the bearded Russian victim flashed onto the screen.

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