Code of Silence

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Chapter 23

There was pressure on his forehead. Pressure on his knees. Rocking forward slightly and then back again. Balanced on his shoulder and his side, wrists and ankles bound, unable to steady himself. Theo couldn’t see a thing but he could remember being met in the corridor of the science building by the big Russian. He remembered the man approaching, not in a threatening manner, saying something about news of his father. He’d been confused by this, allowing the man to come up close. Then, with a force that almost lifted him off his feet, the Russian had bundled him through the fire exit door to his left. A futile struggle, an overpowering acrid smell that made his eyes sting. Pressure over his nose and mouth.

And now pitch darkness and an engine noise, discomfort and a raging thirst. Movement, lots of movement. His heart was racing, his breathing fast as he regained his bearings. He could only breathe through his nose. His mouth was taped. Trying to remember what had happened helped calm him a little. His breathing became slower, steadier. The car now travelling more smoothly and in a straight direction. He knew he was in serious danger and needed to figure out how he had got here. He fumbled in his pockets as best he could, searching for two things he needed to know were safe. Neither were there. His phone had been with him when he went to look for the cleaner, and now it wasn’t. He realised the SED was in his jacket. Probably a lot safer and much easier to locate than he was going to be.

Theo wasn’t sure how long he’d been unconscious for. He couldn’t gauge the time he’d been awake for either, but it wasn’t long. He guessed that he was in the boot of a car, and at least for now he was still alive. He knew the man in the corridor that had kidnapped him was Dragovich. The same guy his mother had met at their front door. He hadn’t seen him since the brief chat they’d had in the car outside the university. But the thing that scared him the most was the realisation that this sort of action had to be the work of a criminal organisation. A legal representative of a legitimate Russian company that had bought his father’s business wouldn’t be behaving like this. Had his father had been abducted under similar circumstances? What had he done, did he struggle? Was he drugged? Was he even still alive?

There was more wallowing by the car as it seemed to lose its straight and smooth direction, changing to a more winding and pitted route. Eventually it slowed and took a sharp right turn. This time it was definitely a country road. Theo’s fear multiplied: he was being taken to the middle of nowhere, somewhere remote, a place that he wouldn’t return from. The car turned again and gravel crunched underneath the tyres as it slowed and then stopped. The engine cut out. There was a muffled voice from inside the car.

The language being spoken was Russian, or at least so he thought. He didn’t understand any of it. He could only hear one voice though. They must be on a phone. Footsteps and a thud as a car door closed. More footsteps, crunching and approaching, getting louder. He braced himself as he heard the latch being operated and the boot lid opened. The fresh cold air hit his neck and face in a rush, but the darkness remained, the blindfold tight on his eyes. He flinched as strong hands grabbed his legs, and something sliced the bindings around his ankles. He was hauled upright from underneath his arms. “Stand up, I will guide you,” came the firm instruction in a thick Russian accent. Theo clambered over the rim of the boot, his legs unsteady.

He held his head still, there was no point in trying to talk or searching for clues. He heard himself mumble something which sounded like a frightened whimper. “Be quiet and walk with me,” came the reply. He felt a firm and forceful grip on his left upper arm, which guided him forward. He just had to make the steps. He heard a door open and was told to lift his feet over a threshold, his shoulder colliding solidly with the door frame and then throbbing.

He was guided into a room to the left, at the front of the building, he thought. The door shut behind him with a sharp crack. “There is a chair here, sit down,” came the next instruction. Theo was guided to the chair and sat. “Keep both your hands and arms still.” The ties securing his wrists were released and one arm was attached to a radiator pipe on his left. The warmth did little to melt the chill in his bones. Clumsy fingers removed the tape roughly from his mouth. “Here, your other hand.” He could feel a small plastic bottle being given to him and grasped it. Then the door opened and closed, and there was silence.

Theo was terrified. His heart was pounding, his mind raced and he ached all over. He tried to calm himself but the enforced blindness disrupted any chance of him steadying his nerves or understanding what his fate might be.

After a short time he heard a car pulling up outside. Another male voice, Russian, entering the building, drifting away as they passed his door.

Theo loosened the top of the bottle with his teeth, and sipped. He tested the liquid first: it was just clean water. He gulped it down, but the foul taste in his mouth remained, the result of whatever chemical had knocked him out, he guessed. He thought about removing the blindfold but it was too tight around his head, so he left it, worried that he might get caught. He took a deep breath, forcing his mind to settle, trying to think clearly through the fog of fear that engulfed him.

And then the door to the room he was in opened again.

He heard another chair being dragged across the floor. “Now then, Theodore Varkanopolis, we get the chance to speak again,” said Dragovich, his voice deep and menacing as he paced in front of Theo. “Let’s look at the facts, shall we. You have received a substantial payment from my employers, the Vory. Do you know who the Vory are, Theodore?”

“Err, no, no I don’t,” said Theo, head twitching from side to side, searching around the room for where he thought Dragovich might be.

“Well, it is not so important at this stage. But what is very important is that you have received money from them in return for something that you have not delivered. And that, Theodore, is causing me great concern.”

Dragovich’s footsteps moved somewhere to his side. He fiddled with something, it sounded like window blinds. Theo was dizzy, he forced himself to breathe.

“And so, as it stands, you have the money, and you also have the AI coding that I require. And, remember, Theo, your father’s life is at risk. You are not in a position to negotiate, so do not waste my time.”

“Okay, okay,” said Theo, breathing a little more steadily, fighting for control.

“I also have a reputation which I am proud of and I will not allow this incident to damage that, do you understand me?”

“Yes, yes I do. What do you want me to do?” pleaded Theo, still blindly scanning the room. He was confused, panicking, he feared for his life and it hadn’t even occurred to him that his father’s life could be in danger too. Thank God they hadn’t mentioned his mother and sister. He didn’t want or need the money anyway. He knew it would be wrong, but just wanted to hand over the coding. But he couldn’t. He didn’t have it. If he did, he would just give him it. He wouldn’t be blamed by anyone, surely. You were always told to just hand over your wallet if you got mugged in the street at knifepoint. That’s what he’d do. This was no different. But he couldn’t. His heart was racing again. He had to keep calm, keep thinking.

There had been a pause as Dragovich sat down in front of Theo and took a call on his mobile, speaking in Russian once again. The call ended and he resumed his interrogation. “Theodore, the AI coding, where is it? You promised to let my people confirm it but still nothing. We have been patient, so please, no more waiting.”

“Okay. The coding is at the university. I don’t have it on me and I can’t access it remotely.” Theo was piecing the detail together as he spoke, hoping it sounded convincing. “I went to the university to download it. And to send the most up-to-date version for you to check. When I bumped into you, I was in the middle of doing that. We need to go back if you want me to complete it,” he said, head bowed.

“What about your friends?” asked Dragovich, as he bent in close to Theo, his voice low.

“Which friends? There are a lot at university. Who do you mean?” Theo felt Dragovich lean into him, his rough clenched fist and knuckles twisting his shirt collar tight around his neck. He choked and tensed, preparing himself. Eyes tightly shut, expecting the worst.

Dragovich’s voice was menacing. “You know exactly who I mean. The two friends that stayed with you last night. The friends I saw you arrive with at the university. Do not try to make a fool of me, Theodore, or I promise you that you will suffer, along with anyone else connected with you.” Theo was terrified now, his fragile calm evaporated; he wasn’t going to be able to talk his way out of this one.

“Okay, yes, they were with me. Yes, they might still be there, but I’m not sure if they’ll be able to complete the download.”

Theo was gasping for air. There was silence, and then he felt it. In his neck first. A deafening ringing in his right ear as the slap connected forcefully with the side of his face. Skin stinging. Nausea. Senses battered. It felt like whiplash, a sudden impact when he was least expecting it. Theo crumbled. He wasn’t about to pretend to be some sort of hardman, some sort of hero. He wasn’t a coward either, but he knew when the odds were stacked against him.

He feared for his own life and his father’s. He’d done everything he could, and now it was time to quit and hand over his wallet to the guy in the street with the knife. If he gave Dragovich the information slowly, and stalled as much as possible, it might buy the others some time. He just hoped they’d grabbed the SED and got out of there fast when they’d realised he wasn’t coming back. They had to get as far away as possible and somehow get to Khan or the NCA, or someone who could do something to stop this nightmare getting any more out of control. Theo was broken and in desperation came up with a final suggestion.

“Wait, there’s another way to do this,” said Theo, as Dragovich released his grip on him.

“Good, then please continue,” said the Russian, slowly straightening Theo’s shirt collar. Theo explained how he’d loaded everything onto the SED for absolute security, assuring Dragovich that this was the best way to get the coding to him. He said it was in his jacket, which was still in the university. All Dragovich had to do, was go back to Khan’s office, pick up Theo’s jacket and he’d have what he wanted. He could get his people to check it was what they needed, it was easy enough to upload it and email the files to Russia, and then Dragovich would have what he wanted.

Dragovich had been quiet and still while Theo spoke. He moved in close to him again now. “And how do I know you’re not lying? Remember, Theo, it is important that you do not mislead me. You are lucky to be alive right now. If we were in Russia, you would be dead. You cannot afford to make any more mistakes,” he said. He stood, and Theo sensed him move behind him.

Dragovich untied Theo’s wrist from the radiator, reattaching it to his other wrist in front of him. He bound Theo’s ankles together again with cable ties. Despite this, Theo could see that he had bought himself some breathing space, but knew that if Dragovich returned empty-handed, it was game over. He hoped his friends had got away. This was his doing, this mess wasn’t their fault. They’d helped him get this far but now he was on his own.

“I have to leave now but Ivan will be watching you. Do not upset him,” said the Russian.

He heard Dragovich leave the room once again, and two Russian voices discussing things in a purposeful manner in the hallway. Options being aired, decisions being made. Quickening footsteps crunched the gravel outside. A vehicle door slammed, its engine started. It completed a turn, then rolled slowly away from the building, leaving silence in its wake.

Theo was relieved initially, but then began to panic. He had some idea of who Dragovich was. It was like knowing there was a big kid in school. The sort that you’d never mess with or upset. But then one day you accidentally kick a football in the playground and it hits him right in the back of the head. You hold your hands up to accept the blame but he still slaps you about, to teach you a lesson and to warn other kids of the consequences of messing with him. But he stops, just before he does you too much damage.

He didn’t have a clue about this Ivan guy he’d been left with, and he was scared. He’d registered it when Alex had said that the Vory were basically the Russian mafia, but hadn’t really thought too much about it. Now he was thinking about nothing else. He’d been left God-knows-where, alone, and with a member of the Vory. And they were mad at him. It didn’t get much worse.

He was thirsty again and still had a foul taste in his mouth. Moving carefully, he reached to one side to try to find the bottle of water Dragovich had given him. He was worried he would topple over, making it look like he was trying to escape, and upset his new minder. He couldn’t feel anything. Trying the other side, he bent as low as he could, feeling the chair leg; still no water, but something else. He inhaled sharply. It was a phone. His phone. Dragovich had taken it. It must have fallen out of his pocket as he violently swung the slap at him.

He grabbed the device quickly with both hands, drawing it up to his lap. Hoping and praying he was alone in the room at that moment. Lifting up his shirt he was able to tuck it into his waistband and then conceal it further by moving it round to his side. His heart raced. He knew he may only have one chance to get help, he had to be careful and quick.

Just at that moment he heard the door creak open. He remained still, head bowed. His skin prickled in an unpleasant flush of excitement and fear. Nothing was said, a mumble in Russian and the door closed again. He heard footsteps climbing the stairs. Maybe the guy was on the way to the bathroom. Maybe this was his chance.

He pulled the phone out from under his shirt. Feeling its shape, twisting it around in his hands to face screen-upwards. Switching it to vibrate and then pressing the control button. No buzz, nothing, it was dead. His heart sank. Raising his bound hands to his head he managed to peel back part of the blindfold so he could partially see with one eye. He tilted his head back and held the phone up. It wasn’t dead after all, it had been switched off. It glowed into life as he held the button down, then his screensaver appeared, the family ski trip he’d recently enjoyed. He swallowed the lump that rose in his throat.


Pressing his thumbprint on the screen brought up the messaging app, and he opened the most recent one. Just as he did, he heard a toilet flush upstairs. Making a call wasn’t an option. Squinting with half an eye, he tried to type while holding the phone with one hand and using a single finger; it wasn’t how he was used to doing it: Hostage get out dragovich coming

Send. That was it, he hid the phone again, tugged the blindfold back into place. He could hear footsteps descending the stairs. Act normal, head bowed. The door creaked open once again, then closed softly.


Theo judged that it had been twenty minutes or so, and he was still alone. He could hear a television through the other wall, the muffled sound as indistinguishable as the conversations in Russian that he’d heard. It was a chance to check again. He removed the phone from under his shirt and pressed the control button, peering from beneath the blindfold again. There was an alert indicating a response. Hopefully they’d made sense of his message and had got out of the university safely. Maybe the GPS app had indicated where he was and they could raise the alarm and get help. He pressed to read the message. The display showed 1%, then died. Theo let out a frustrated sigh, and his head dropped, this time not in pretence but in complete and utter dejection. He hoped he’d been able to alert the others, but he feared for their safety.

Theo knew this would be a long day, and an even longer night. He hadn’t a clue what was coming next. If Joel and Alex had got the hint and made their escape, that would be the best result. If Dragovich got back to the university and found his jacket then so be it, at least the three of them might be safe for a while. At that moment he heard a mobile phone ring. The voice that answered it was Russian, and came from the room with the television. The voice became raised, angered and agitated. He heard the call end and the door being flung open violently. Theo was terrified. Muscles taught and teeth clenched, he prepared himself.

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