Code of Silence

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Chapter 21

I’d arranged to meet Alex at the university the next day, and so caught the campus bus which pulled into the stop near our student house. The university was quiet, although busier than I imagined it would be, as some of the foreign students had decided to hang around, the ones who couldn’t travel home easily.

I was on edge as I approached the café and spotted Alex in our usual corner, so I headed to the serving counter. The server told me that Alex had already ordered and said someone would bring the coffees over, so I made my way through the tables and chairs to the sofa.

“Hi, so it went well with your dad, then? His smiling face on the video made my day,” said Alex quietly, shifting over and moving a bag and jacket to the floor.

“Brilliant. He loved it.” I removed my hoody and slumped wearily into the plump leather cushions. “Couldn’t have done it without you though,” I said, raising my hand to offer a high five, but Alex wasn’t in the mood.

“How about you, had a good time back home?” I said, faking an exaggerated grimace. I wasn’t surprised at Alex’s short and sarcastic reply, which was followed by a firm punch to my arm.

Alex was worried, desperate to discuss the content of the email, and some of the potential links to the news report from the previous night. I’d also re-run the newsfeeds, which had been playing on my mind too. Alex showed me the email again on a tablet. Scrolling through it, I tried to take in the detail once more, and revisited the JPEG files.

Of all the attachments, it was the image of Anatoly Dragovich that stood out. I didn’t even have to check on my phone again, but Alex asked me to, just to be sure it was the same guy. It was as if we were gradually being drawn into something that was gathering momentum, although we weren’t quite sure what it was or how to step away from it. We knew about the disappearance of Theo’s father, and now there had been a murder. We were getting in too deep, our minds leaping to conclusions that could just as easily be unfounded or scarily real. We had to talk to Theo to try to make sense of it all.

I cleared a space on the table as the coffees arrived. “I’ve also sent the email to Khan, but what’s your take on it all?” said Alex, cradling the warm mug of coffee with both hands.

I was still scrolling back through the email on the tablet. “Not sure, really,” I said, checking around to see if anyone was listening in on us. “Don’t get all the legal stuff, or the company takeover bit. But maybe there is a connection between Theo’s dad and that Russian guy we bumped into. The organised crime bit scares me. Do you reckon Theo knows about any of it?”

Alex confirmed that Theo had been in touch, having seen the news piece, and had suggested that we go over to his house again.

“I haven’t spoken to him, but it’s not like him to suggest a get-together; maybe he’s a bit freaked out too,” said Alex, scrolling for Theo’s number.

Alex messaged Theo, who was pleased to learn we were both back in town and that we planned to come over. We left the café and headed to the car park, which was pretty empty. As we clambered into Alex’s car and reversed out of the space, I noticed a large black saloon car in the same row as us, but right in the far corner. The engine was running and a plume of exhaust fumes floated around the rear of the vehicle. There was no one in the driver’s seat as far as I could tell. I pulled myself together, dropping my rucksack onto the back seat. It would be easy to let my imagination run riot, but probably wiser to keep calm, speak to Theo and try to piece things together from there. I didn’t mention the other car to Alex.

As we arrived at Theo’s the gates clanked and juddered then swung open. From his den he could see the narrow road leading to his house and must have spotted the car. We heard footsteps inside and the front door being unlocked. Theo opened it and invited us in, locking it again behind him. I thought this was a bit strange, it was mid-afternoon and still light outside. Theo’s mother was at home this time and wandered through to introduce herself before we headed upstairs. It felt a little awkward. I just stood there trying to not to make eye contact for too long, then offered a handshake and said something sympathetic. She smiled but looked tired, her heavy eyes probably the result of countless sleepless nights. We headed upstairs with Theo and through to his room. He seemed a little edgy and fidgeted constantly with his phone.

Theo closed the door and we sat underneath the mezzanine level, Alex and I on a small sofa, Theo in the only other chair, a small table between us.

“How’ve you been?” asked Alex, placing the tablet we’d used earlier on the table.

Theo glanced towards the floor. “Not great,” he said, both hands clasped around his phone.

He began to update us on developments. His mother and sister’s visit to the Foreign Office just before the term break hadn’t been very productive. The Russian embassy representative had been involved, but claimed to know very little about the circumstances of his father’s disappearance, although had acted concerned. Theo suggested he’d only done so to protect his position against diplomatic expulsion, rather than through any desire to resolve their problem.

Questions that the National Crime Agency and Foreign Office minister had sent to the Russian government had not received a response so far, but apparently this was normal and it would have to be followed up. Theo’s family hadn’t been able to speak to his father, and weren’t even sure where he was being held. He had hoped that the news piece from a few days ago might raise the profile of the case again, but he was worried by the details that were now emerging.

Alex shared the email with Theo, who spent some time scrolling through, letting the detail sink in. As he handed the tablet back to Alex across the small table, I asked whether he recognised anyone in the images, apart from his father. Taking back the tablet, he opened the attachments. “Don’t recognise the first guy, but if he’s the Ekranotech boss I’ve heard a lot about him. In fact, the Russian guy who came to see me at the conference said he was from Ekranotech; that’s the only connection I have, but it wasn’t this guy.” He paused on the second image, the one of his father, biting his lower lip and blinking hard before moving on. Theo swiped to the third image and stopped, looking across at me.

“This is the guy you saw at the conference, isn’t it?” I nodded. “He’s been here this week,” said Theo. “He said he was a consultant connected with Ekranotech too, or something like that, looking for information.”

I was shocked by this revelation, but tried to play it cool. The guy could be linked to organised crime in Moscow, the Russian mafia even, and he’d been right here on Theo’s doorstep.

“It was my mother who answered the door, but she didn’t let him in. Said they’d been to the police and that we weren’t supposed to comment at this stage for legal reasons,” he said, as he passed the tablet back to Alex. “When she said the police were due back later to discuss the news about the Russian murder enquiry the guy made an excuse and left quickly; that was the last she saw of him.”

I’d handed Theo my phone again with the photo I’d taken. Theo returned it, nodding that it was definitely Dragovich who had visited the house.

The three of us sat in silence for a moment. This was all getting a bit too much. Theo was not himself, not the same guy we’d met with a week or so earlier, who’d revelled in showing off his den and all the clever tech gadgets, the guy who’d recently launched his amazing Vvox software to the world.

Theo stood up and moved round to stand behind his chair, gripping the back of it, knuckles whitening. “I thought I was moving forward but this has thrown everything up in the air. The family are doing as much as they can but it’s such slow progress. I can’t get on a plane and go and see my father because no one can tell us where he is,” said Theo. He blinked back tears.

Alex stood and offered Theo a box of tissues from the table. I wasn’t sure what to say, briefly glancing at Alex. Theo was becoming really upset.

Theo continued, voice quivering now. “I haven’t told anyone about this until now, but it gets worse. I’ve been going over to the university to finish off some Vvox stuff, and just to get out of the house really. Anyway, it’s pretty quiet at the moment so it’s been good to use the facilities, there are a few people around doing thesis work and stuff.”

I leant forward, listening intently.

“So, I was leaving the other evening, and in the car park I was approached this big guy, the Russian in your photos, the same one that came here.”

“Oh my God, he must have followed you there!” I said, making eye contact with Alex, who looked as startled as I felt.

Theo nodded. “It was quiet and we stood outside. He knew my name and introduced himself as being from Ekranotech and said that he had some important news about my father. He asked me to speak with him for a moment and then walked me over to his car, which was next to mine. As we got in, he said it was confidential. It all seemed polite and professional so I wasn’t too worried at the time. And I was ready to listen to anything that might help me find out about what’s been happening with my father,” he said, arms tightly folded across his chest.

He told us how Dragovich had explained that he was in a position to be able to help Theo locate his father, and potentially even secure his release. This was along the same lines as the proposal made by the bearded Russian that Theo had met at the conference. Theo said it all seemed to be genuine enough, and made sense. “But this guy was different,” Theo said. “More confident. It was almost as though he was more senior, a bit like speaking to the owner instead of the person behind the counter in a shop. Only on another level.”

Dragovich had said he was prepared to help, if Theo was able to help him obtain the AI voice technology coding that had stirred up the legal wrangling they’d read about in the email. As an incentive Dragovich’s employers would pay Theo one and a half million euros up front, and a further one and a half million on completion of the technology transfer, along with any legal documents required. In return, Dragovich had promised to arrange an immediate meeting for Theo with his father, and assured him that he could provide contacts within the Russian government to help Theo secure his release.

He went on to suggest that Theo should prove he had the required coding but could wait for a full handover once the final payment was made, and after he’d seen sufficient evidence that Dragovich could do as he’d promised regarding his father. Theo had agreed to think about it and left the car. “Please Theo, do not take too long. We must move quickly if you are to help your father,” were Dragovich’s parting words through the lowered window of the car.

“He’s got to be behind this I reckon, there’s no way he’s just trying to lend a helpful hand to you and your dad.” I said. Alex nodded in agreement and continued to absorb the detail.

Theo said he was becoming more frustrated about not being able to help his father, and saw this as an opportunity to prove himself; it was a proposal that he couldn’t stop thinking about. His mother had been warned by the National Crime Agency and the Foreign Office about being approached by anyone who claimed they had knowledge or could help. In the past, such cases had tended to draw unwelcome interest, either from the press or other parties not actually involved in what was happening.

Theo had kept the encounter to himself until now, but had wanted to share it with us. For him, Dragovich’s offer was a way to speed up the process.

“I can’t handle all of the delays and procedures that have to be followed. I just want to see my father freed and for him to be returned home safely.” he said.

Theo told us that deep down he was also keen to prove that he, too, could be successful, and what better way to do this than by not only securing his father’s freedom but making a profit in the process. Now that would make his father proud.

“So how did you leave it, did he follow up, have you spoken to him since?” I said, as I got up from the sofa to offer support.

Theo remained silent, just staring at the chair he was standing behind. “That’s the problem, I’m in too deep now,” he said. He rubbed his eyes roughly and let out a frustrated groan. Alex and I waited in silence. Theo bit his lip, then looked at us and took a deep breath.

He explained that he’d been contacted by Dragovich two days later, and after his mother had returned from another unsuccessful progress meeting with the authorities. Theo had heard enough. He wanted to take matters into his own hands and get things sorted. It was how his father would have approached it, so why shouldn’t he, he said. He’d been careful to revisit the deal that Dragovich had proposed, making sure he couldn’t see any downsides. He would receive the initial one and a half million euros by bank transfer within hours of agreeing it. In direct exchange, he would sample the coding for Dragovich to send to his technical advisers, who would analyse it to ensure it was what they required. With that stage completed, it would then be down to Dragovich and Theo to meet for the full handover of the SED hardware, for which in return he would receive the final payment, plus a detailed plan for helping him secure the release of his father in Moscow.

Alex was standing as well and moved towards Theo, placing an arm around his shoulder. “I completely get where you’re coming from on this, but wouldn’t that be incredibly dangerous? I know it’ll take time but surely our government will be able to do something soon,” said Alex.

“And how do you know you can trust this guy?” I said. I picked up Theo’s bottle of water and offered it to him.

Theo was now dabbing his eyes with his hoody sleeve. “It’s a bit late for that,” he said. There was a long pause.

“You’ve already done it haven’t you?” gasped Alex.

“Yes,” said Theo, “but there’s more to it,” he sighed. “I gave Dragovich the bank details and the funds have already arrived.”

“But you can return the money to Ekranotech, can’t you? Just say you’ve been advised not to complete the deal, keep the coding and wait for it to take its course,” Alex said, visibly wincing, palms against temples, desperately searching for a solution.

“If it were only that easy,” Theo replied, gazing at the ceiling and desperately fighting back tears.

He explained how the first payment had arrived inside a few hours and that the bank had contacted him immediately as it was an unusually large transaction. It was at that point that Theo’s world had imploded. The personal banking manager confirmed that the funds had been safely received, but also that the account had been suspended pending the investigation instigated by Ekranotech about the alleged fraud involving Theo’s father. The payment had apparently been received from a Russian organisation’s bank, triggering alerts, and all funds were now frozen. Only once the investigation was complete, the legal situation resolved, and Theo’s father located, could the banking manager authorise access to the account again.

Alex was persistent. “But if you know it came from Ekranotech, and they said they want to help, then surely they can reverse the transaction and you’re in the clear?”

Theo then dropped the bombshell. “It didn’t come from Ekranotech. I already asked them that. The bank said they couldn’t divulge the sender’s name apart from the international bank sort code, and it turns out it wasn’t connected to an organisation by the name of Ekranotech.”

I could feel my stomach twisting inside as I listened, then shot a glance at Alex. There was only one other Russian organisation that could have sent that payment.

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