Code of Silence

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Chapter 24

Alex and I were in Khan’s office waiting for the backup to complete so we could delete the coding from Khan’s PC. Theo hadn’t been able to update the encryption on Khan’s desktop, as he’d done with his devices at home, and in his absence we weren’t certain if there was anything crucial on there, so the backup made sense. It was past lunchtime now, and Theo had been gone for several hours and we hadn’t a clue where he was. What we’d seen on the GPS app had confused us, but we hoped he’d just hitched a lift with someone and headed off campus to grab some food. The alternative – that it had something to do with the black car – seemed too far-fetched. No one would be mad enough to snatch him in broad daylight in the middle of the university campus, and it was the AI coding they wanted anyway, not Theo. I was restless, got up and left Khan’s office and started checking my phone but there was still nothing from Theo, or from Khan.

I was wondering at what stage you class a person as missing and go to the police. My phone buzzed while I was trying to refresh the GPS app. It was a message from Theo. I opened it: Hostage get out dragovich coming

My heart leapt as I read it again. I was breathing heavily, a combination of the shock and adrenalin. “Alex, take a look,” I said, moving as fast as I could back towards Khan’s office. Alex stood from behind the desk, took my phone and gasped while reading the message.

I started to panic, and quickly stuffed my things into my rucksack. Alex had already unplugged the hard drive with the backup just completed. Pulling Khan’s door shut we left his office as we’d found it. We grabbed the rest of our stuff and ran towards the lab door. I paused to pick up Theo’s laptop bag and jacket. There was no point in leaving them, I thought. We might need them for proof of our connection or ID if the police became involved. We nearly collided with the elderly cleaner as he guided the floor-polishing machine along the wooden corridor, and ran towards the stairwell, hurtling down it several steps at a time.

When we got to the main corridor that led past the café we slowed a little, not wanting to draw attention to ourselves, and to avoid running straight into trouble. Carefully checking for unwelcome faces as we passed each hallway that branched off the corridor, we made our way to the main entrance, pausing to scan the car park before we left the building. It looked clear. I pushed through the door with Alex following right behind. We continued across to Alex’s car, still running but not at a pace that would turn heads. Alex clicked the key fob and had a quick look around the exterior. The big black car that had been parked beside Alex’s had gone. I climbed in and tumbled the bags and jackets onto the rear seat.

Alex got in, and after a panicked fumbling with the keys got the engine started.

“Okay, okay, take it easy!” I said, as we reversed rapidly, picking up a little too much speed in the car park. But Alex wasn’t planning on slowing down.

“Theo’s been taken and I’m not hanging around if the bloody mafia are coming back here!” said Alex, grimacing as the gears whined and crunched. “Let’s get some distance behind us, and then we can figure out what to do.”

Each traffic light we came to in town seemed to take forever to change. I scanned the traffic, looking for Dragovich’s car. Alex was checking in the rear-view mirror for anyone that might be following. Paranoia had taken over. “Where are you going?” I said, noticing that Alex was ignoring the road signs that we’d normally have followed into town.

“I’m just making sure no one’s with us.” I wasn’t in a position to argue.

It wasn’t long before we were on the outskirts of town and heading towards the motorway. Alex took the turning onto the slip road and we headed south; traffic was heavy, but it would ensure we were heading away from any potential trouble and would buy us some time to think things through.

“Okay, so we’ve got a bit of distance behind us, what do we do now?” said Alex.

I read Theo’s text again. He was in big trouble and now so were we. “Reckon we need to report this to the police,” I said, straining to read the route options on the overhead signs we were approaching.

“But what do we tell them? Theo’s been kidnapped by the Russian mafia?” said Alex, checking the rear-view mirror, hoping that someone would let us move across and out of the inside lane.

“You’re right. They’ll think we’re nuts,” I said. “All we’ve got is a garbled text and the fact that he didn’t meet us when he said he would.” Going directly to a local police station wasn’t going to work. We were going to have to get more creative.

Then Alex had an idea. “Okay, hear me out on this one.” I listened closely as Alex explained that their family had a holiday cottage south of London, on the coast. We could be there inside a couple of hours and use it as an overnight stop before heading back to London, hopefully to meet up with Khan and go straight to the NCA.

“Guess we could do that, but why not go straight to London?” I said, as the traffic slowed to a crawl.

“Because this is some serious shit we’re involved in and they obviously want something we have,” replied Alex curtly. “Why else would Theo’s message say they were coming back? We need to lose them properly if we’re to have any chance of getting to help before they find us. And London is where they found the body of that other Russian guy, so it doesn’t seem like the safest place to be right now.”

I got the point Alex was making. I was surprised by the overnight stopover suggestion, but wasn’t about to argue.

“Cool, if it’s okay with your parents, it’s okay with me,” I said. Alex just glanced over, frowned at me then focussed on the road again.

I released the seatbelt a little, turned and hauled Theo’s things into the front. The bag had Theo’s laptop in it, a notebook and charging cable. Nothing much else apart from some pens and receipts stuffed into the side pockets. I felt the jacket and slid my hand inside each of the pockets. There was a wallet in one pocket, some keys in another and then I found his phone, at least that’s what I thought it was. But I knew exactly what it was as I removed it. It was Theo’s SED.

“Got to be this that they’re after,” I said, sliding it out of its pouch. “Thank God he didn’t have it on him, or we might be looking for him in ditch somewhere by now.” Alex took a quick look but said nothing. Suddenly, an amplified mobile ringtone crackled on the car’s speaker system, startling us both.

Alex answered with a button on the steering wheel. “Hi, Mum, how’re you?” said Alex, voice thick with forced calm and frantically trying to turn the speaker volume down with another button. Her anxious voice responded with a short and agitated greeting. “Okay, okay, calm down, Mum, what’s happened? Where’s Dad?” asked Alex, signalling and moving across to the inside lane again.

“We’ve had a burglary at the house while we were out last night.” The tremble in her voice was amplified by the speaker and echoed through the car, drowning out any road or engine noise.

She described how they had returned from their night out and discovered that intruders had managed to get in through a side window. The neighbours either side had heard nothing. Alex’s father had called the police, who had been through the routine home-visit procedure with them. All that appeared to be missing were some spare keys from the drawer in the hallway; it looked like nothing else of any value had been taken. The police described the likely culprits as opportunists, and said they’d keep an eye on the place.

With everything else going on this intrusion into Alex’s world didn’t feel like a coincidence, so I messaged my dad just to check he was okay, knowing the response might not be immediate. Once again, my heart was racing.

“That’s really bad news, Mum, but I’m glad you’re both okay and the police are on it,” Alex said. “Listen, Mum, I’ve got to go. I’m driving at the moment, heading to the cottage for a couple of nights before university starts again properly, so I’ll try to call you later on the landline. Love to Dad, take care.” Alex ended the call, indicated, and moved past the van we’d been following, but remained quiet.

“Think there’s a connection?” I asked quietly. Alex stayed silent, concentrating again on the road, no doubt thinking and hoping that wasn’t the case.

I had messaged Khan again and this time had got a reply. Khan had been out of the country and was returning on an early morning flight the following day and said he’d be happy to meet us in London. He’d asked why we wanted to meet so urgently. I replied and tried to get across that it was important without hinting too much, and that it would be better to explain when we saw him the next day.

We decided we would still head to the cottage and spend the night there, getting some rest before we travelled to London early to meet Khan. It would take us a couple of hours to drive from the cottage to the city, and we figured we were safer far away from the university campus and our lodgings. We would need to get our story straight and convince Khan that the NCA or Scotland Yard had to be involved immediately. Khan would provide a useful endorsement for us and could hopefully use his experience and expertise to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of what was going on, or at the very least help us to find a more level perspective on things.

Alex flicked the indicator as we approached the motorway junction we needed. It was early evening by now and the light was dimming. We were just another pair of headlights in the traffic, thankful for the additional anonymity the darkness would provide. We made our way towards the small coastal town where Alex’s family had their holiday home. It was pitch black by the time we hit the more winding country roads. My phone glowed again; it was my dad. I was relieved to read that all was fine at home, but I didn’t want to let him know where I was or what I was up to. There was another message from Khan suggesting we meet in the coffee shop of a hotel in central London. But there had been no more messages from Theo since the warning he’d sent.

I decided to check the GPS app again. Just as I was about to close it, having seen that Theo’s avatar was offline, it suddenly lit up. I checked it again. Theo, or someone, had switched his phone back on. The screen showed the wheel icon spinning, and it was moving on the map. Maybe he’d escaped somehow, or was he just being taken somewhere else? I quickly tried to enlarge the map to check the location, but then his avatar froze again. It was good to have the contact, brief as it was. It had to be Theo doing it. Why would someone who had taken a hostage give away that sort of detail?

I shared this new piece of the jigsaw with Alex as our car entered the coastal town where the cottage was located. I hoped Khan might know someone at the university that was involved with the GPS app development. Perhaps they could help track Theo somehow. It would be something else to discuss with him the next day.

We knew where we were headed but still had to find a space to park; Alex pointed at the street the cottage was situated on as we continued to search for a free spot. I figured we’d at least be safe until the next day; it was a quiet coastal town and there wasn’t a lot going on. There were a few places still open but even the local pubs we passed looked empty. Still, we weren’t there for a holiday. It was a detour, designed to throw anyone off our scent. A chance to get things straight in our heads: tomorrow would be a big day. Alex took a left and then another, winding through the narrow streets. There were yellow lines on the right, so most cars were parked on the left, but there were no spaces. Alex drove on, grumbling that it was the same every time the family visited.

“Stop,” I said, hand placed on the dashboard to steady myself as the car lurched to an abrupt halt. “Look, that car over there, I recognise it from the university car park. I’m sure it’s the one I saw next to yours.”

Alex moved off slowly. We were quite near to the cottage, but the suspect car had made us cautious, so we decided to take a drive by first, before parking. The car was straddled on the yellow lines opposite the cottages, probably not a local. It appeared to be unoccupied. As we drew closer to it I noticed the number plate, it looked familiar and I started to check for the photos on my phone that I’d taken previously.

The sound of a front door slamming close by made us jump, and a figure marched out from our left between two parked cars, right where the door to Alex’s cottage was.

“Shit, it’s him!” I gasped, shrinking low into my seat, hoping it would somehow enable me to disappear. Dragovich spotted our car in the middle of the road and moved fast. Alex did too, flooring the accelerator as Dragovich approached with his hand reaching inside his jacket. I saw the big car’s lights flash on and heard the engine roar to life as we sped past. Dragovich was only just getting in. There must be two of them after all.

I grabbed the door handle and the side of my seat to steady myself. Alex was concentrating, taking a left fork at the end of the street and screaming down another narrow road back towards town. The headlights behind us were on full beam, dazzling us and lighting up the interior of our car. Alex slapped the rear-view mirror to dim the glare. I was hoping we wouldn’t meet any oncoming traffic. We were fast approaching a T-junction near the harbour.

The lights had just turned from amber to red. I could feel myself willing Alex to use the brakes, pressing with both my feet on the floor beneath me. Alex kept going, cornering left wildly as the red light above glared down at us. The car lurched to the right and then back to the left again as Alex wrestled with the steering. We’d clattered against something big and solid: a truck unloading outside a pub. Alex accelerated away, hard. We were heading out of town now and gaining some distance. The chasing car had been forced to stop to let traffic turn in but now emerged onto the road we’d just taken. Headlights blazing, chasing, making up ground. The mini was nimble but lacked power, the exact opposite of the vehicle that was catching up behind us. “I bet they did the break-in at Mum and Dad’s house!” shouted Alex above the screaming engine noise. I nodded as I kept my eyes on the road ahead, maybe they’d taken a long shot and just got lucky, I thought.

The engine was really revving now, we were doing well over the limit, heading into the countryside along the coast. But Dragovich’s car was gaining on us all the time. I turned and looked over my shoulder; I could just make out someone’s head poking out of the passenger window of the following car. Now we were away from town it looked like things were about to get nasty. Then we heard the first shot. An explosive crack and the whistling zip of something shooting past us.

“Get down!” Alex shouted. I immediately did, sinking lower into my seat. There were more loud cracks as further shots rang out, this time hitting our car. Several loud thuds and the rear window shattered and turned to frost. I felt it in the back of my seat like fast, hard punches, as the bullets connected with the metal frame. Alex slowed a little, making them think we might have given up. I was as low as I could get in my seat, pleading for Alex to go faster.

The big car came hurtling past, overtaking and causing Dragovich to pull back inside. Alex didn’t even look, just slammed on the brakes and turned the wheel into a sharp skid. We’d taken a tight hidden turn to the left, off the main coastal road towards the wooded countryside. Alex flicked a switch and the lights went out. It was total darkness all around us. We could just make out the road ahead in the bright moonlight as the car rocketed along and rounded another bend to the right. The chasing car was nowhere to be seen. If we were quick on the next section we might be safe.

An unmarked gravel track filtered off to the right to an old rest area that was no longer signposted from the road. The track led us further into the densely wooded forest. Alex knew it, and told me it was worth a gamble. It was dark and out of season, we were miles from any houses. I prayed it would be empty. The car swung off the road maintaining speed, headlights still off. The track was rutted and uneven: no smooth surface here to reflect the moon’s eerie glow. Darkness crept in from all sides. Alex kept the car as straight as possible. I was bracing myself against the dashboard waiting for us to hit something, as I heard shrubs and branches thrashing by. Alex slowed and came to a sudden stop, cutting the engine. We would be hidden from the main road here, even in daylight. I wound down my window a little further and we both waited, listening. The big car roared on along the forest road and straight past the track that led to our hiding place. Full beam on, hunting, relentless. We watched as the glaring red tail lights flashed at intervals through the foliage, getting smaller, disappearing and re-emerging in flickering glimpses as the road rolled further into the depths of the coastal forest, until finally they vanished altogether.

“Wow, that was close,” I said, releasing my breath and laughing nervously. Alex was still gripping the steering wheel tightly. We looked at each other, knowing we were safe, but uncertain for how long.

“I say we stay here tonight,” said Alex. “There’s no way we’re going back to the cottage. At least we can get a head start on them in the morning. I’ll drive up a bit further, there’s a rest area that has a better view. We’ll be able to spot anyone coming but still be hidden ourselves if we park carefully.” Alex started the car again and we continued cautiously round a dark bend. A few hundred metres ahead the forest opened up into a small wooded rest area. Lights still off, we could just make out some bins and a couple of picnic tables in the moonlight, and what looked like the exit. We were alone and it felt safer, for now.

“We’ll be hidden tucked in here,” Alex said, turning the ignition off and activating the central locking system from the dashboard. I felt confident that heading away from the university and laying low was the right thing to do. But how had Dragovich known we would be down here by the coast? Theo didn’t know, so he couldn’t have told him. We hadn’t discussed it as an option, and Alex couldn’t remember ever telling anyone at uni about the cottage either.

“Hang on a minute,” I said. “Theo has the same GPS app on his phone as we do. That means if we can see his avatar moving, then Theo, or someone with his phone, can see ours.” We decided to disable the app. Theo’s phone seemed to be dead so we couldn’t track him anyway. I wondered if when the app had lit up in the car momentarily earlier it could have been Dragovich trying to use Theo’s phone to track us.

So much for forward planning and the chance of a peaceful night; we’d have to do our thinking right here. We’d both been dwelling on it during the journey, and agreed that it would make sense to get an early start. London was at least a two hour drive and we needed time with Khan first. I’d messaged him to say we’d been delayed but could be with him at the hotel around mid-morning, and I’d also asked if he could possibly arrange a meeting with the NCA as a matter of urgency. To my relief, I’d had an immediate response from him. Khan must have been curious, but to his credit he hadn’t questioned anything and simply said he’d try to arrange a meeting, and that we should just focus on getting to London safely. It was one less thing to worry about. I had sent the email we’d drafted earlier to the NCA from the car anyway, but figured it wouldn’t matter now. The more I read it the more ridiculous our story sounded, even to me. I was glad Khan was on board.

It was getting late. This would be a second night sleeping in a strange place, unfortunately without the luxury of a comfortable bed this time. Both of us were exhausted, the nervous energy we’d been burning had left us empty. We tried to piece the last few days together and kept coming back to the Russian mafia, the Vory. One of the most dangerous organised crime syndicates on the planet, and we were being hunted by them. Theo was now missing, but we didn’t want to presume anything else. There were a couple of members of the Vory close by, and they probably still would be by the morning. I tried to lighten the mood, suggesting that Dragovich might be even be staying in Alex’s cottage. It didn’t raise the smile that I’d hoped it might, so I quietly apologised.

Our discussion wasn’t quite as coherent as we hoped it might be. We had the facts but were struggling to note them down on my phone in any way that made sense, and were worried also about the phone’s glow being a giveaway should anyone be approaching by foot. We shifted the seats around and reclined them, grabbing the jackets that were lying on the back seat to use as covers. It was getting colder, Alex hit the two buttons on the dash raising the windows, both left just slightly open for fresh air.

“What have we got ourselves into?” Alex said, sounding weary and trying to get comfortable while avoiding the steering wheel. The day had taken its toll, I could feel it and could tell Alex was struggling too.

“Wrong place at the wrong time,” I replied, adjusting my seat again, attempting to settle down for the night as well. “Once we get to London—”

Alex turned to face me. “If we get to London, you mean.”

“We’ll get there,” I said. “Then we can go through it all with Khan. Sharing it will be good, believe me. If he can get us in to see the NCA then they’ll take over and I’m sure we’ll be safe, and so will Theo,” I said, yawning heavily, hoping it might trigger the same weary reaction from Alex.

“But what about Theo?” said Alex, a little calmer now as tiredness crept in and the desire to sleep took over.

“We just have to hope he’ll be okay,” I said. “He’s still got the Vory’s money, and he’s the only one who really understands the coding, so they’d be crazy to do him any serious harm, at least for now.”

The conversation tailed off. We were both exhausted. The last twenty-four hours had been like something from a movie trailer, and we still had no idea of how it would all end. Alex was first to drift off, rolling to one side and pulling Theo’s jacket further up to keep warm, kicking off both shoes in the process. I was still struggling to get comfortable, my larger frame not quite fitting into the reclined seat, but it would have to do. I could feel the SED safe in my jacket pocket and made sure the zipper was closed.

As I was drifting off, a car suddenly appeared on the road in the distance, approaching fast, headlights bathing the forest around the rest area in light as the car climbed and dipped its way along the winding coastal road. I was wide awake again and fixed on the piercing beams. Reaching over, I was about to wake Alex. The car began to slow then suddenly gather speed again, passing the track that led to the rest area entrance and disappearing into the darkness, tail lights glowing. I glimpsed pairs of reflected eyes by the roadside. Sheep. They must have strayed onto the road, I thought. Panic over. Thankfully for now we could count on being safe, at least until daybreak.

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