It was early, but Alex and I hadn’t travelled far before danger caught up with us again. Alex had told me about the little coastal airport, not far from where we’d spent the night sleeping in the car in the rest area. We’d discussed how it might be an idea to book a helicopter and get to London quickly and safely, but had no idea if they even offered that sort of service, so had dismissed it by the time we were ready to leave. And now we were parked under an old bridge and listening to one, hiding in the damp darkness from it as it hovered above.
Our destination was only a mile or so further along the coast. We had just enough fuel but were running really low. Alex knew the town and the main garage on the road we had taken, but hadn’t a clue if it would be busy, quiet or even open in low season. I wound my window down further and listened. The thudding noise seemed to be coming from all directions. It sounded like there were a few of them, but I assumed just the one and that it was the shape of our hiding place that was distorting the sound.
It seemed to hang close by for an eternity. We were hidden for now but would be spotted immediately if we made a break for it. As long as the thudding was steady we’d be safe. But it started to get louder and that could only mean one thing. It was coming down to land. Alex twisted the key in the ignition starting the car again. I shouted to be heard over the booming helicopter noise.
“No Alex, stay here for now!” The background noise was deafening. The rear window of the car began to peel inwards on one corner, the vibrations dislodging the shattered screen.
“Okay, okay!” screamed Alex, knocking the gear stick back into neutral and yanking the handbrake on.
I couldn’t see through the shattered door mirror, so stuck my head out of the window to get a better view behind. Recoiling back into the car I shouted again to make myself heard.
“It’s trying to land on the road, but I don’t think it can!” I checked again. Sure enough, I could just see the distinctive skis beneath the helicopter and an intense blinking red light. But only for a second or two before they lifted out of view again. There wasn’t room to get low enough or to set the helicopter down. Whoever was flying it had abandoned that plan. The noise gradually reduced as we listened, it was gaining height and moving off, passing over us, searching along the route we had just travelled in the car.
We were lucky, a little more space around us and we would have been sitting ducks.
“That was another close one,” I said, keeping my eye on it as it moved away into the distance.
Alex just exhaled slowly. “I’m not sure how many more close ones I can take.”
We waited until we were sure it was silent before making a move. We planned to fill up at the garage on the outskirts of town, but decided against stopping for something to eat. We were both feeling uncomfortable now, having not had a change of clothes or a proper wash for forty-eight hours or so, but events had pushed any concerns of personal hygiene well down our list of priorities.
As we approached the garage, I could tell from the slowly spinning signpost on the pavement outside that it was open for business. The garage forecourt was empty, just an old white VW camper van parked outside to the left, with a couple of surfboards poking out of the back window. Alex got out, reset the pump and began to fill up. I climbed out and stretched again, quickly checking my phone for messages and making sure the GPS app was still deactivated. There was no point in making it easier for anyone hunting us.
“Keep a lookout and I’ll buy some food while I’m paying,” said Alex over the roof of the car, as the pump clicked and the fuel stopped flowing.
Alex reappeared a few minutes later with a bulging carrier bag full of snacks and drinks.
“Wow, this should keep us going,” I said, taking the bag from Alex as we clambered back in. I felt scared but a little more positive now that we’d avoided any immediate danger, but I was convinced it could only have been Dragovich in the helicopter.
Tired, but a little less edgy, we continued the journey. A full tank would easily get us to London, and even back to the university if necessary. It would take us a couple of hours to get to Khan at the hotel. I had already messaged him to say we were on the way and should be with him as planned. Alex knew the back road route to take us to the motorway but suggested we should use the main dual carriageway. Although it would gradually be getting busier, it would provide better cover, especially from above, and growing congestion might deter any attempts by Dragovich to stop us.
“Any messages?” enquired Alex, constantly checking the wing mirror and occasionally glancing upwards.
“Nothing from Khan, or Theo,” I said, swiping my phone off and plugging my charging cable into it again. “GPS app is still disabled too.”
“Yes, mine is as well,” said Alex.
We took the junction signposted for the motorway that would lead us straight into central London. Once we were there, satnav on our phones would have to get us to where we were meeting Khan, as neither of us knew the city that well.
The motorway was busier than the local roads. It gave us a sense of security, knowing we’d be more difficult to spot. We ate as we travelled, and curiously I was becoming accustomed to being on the run. I was still scared, still on edge, but somehow we had survived without help from anyone, and I was determined to use this new sense of confidence, a weird natural instinct for survival, and make it to London. With Khan’s help and a meeting at the NCA we would feel, and be, a lot safer.
It was a typical stop-start journey in the heavy traffic, a chance to talk through things again. We decided we’d use the email that Alex’s father had received as the backdrop to discussions with Khan, as it would act as proof that this wasn’t just us grabbing the wrong end of a story. Khan already knew Theo’s father had disappeared, but wouldn’t have been expecting to see Theo at the conference, at least, certainly not stealing the show with his new Vvox technology, and would have no idea of what had happened since then. Seeing Theo at the conference had been a surprise for Alex and me too, but it had sparked our relationship with him and everything that had happened since: we were in it together now.
The SED needed to be in safe hands. It would be painful and pointless to destroy it as it was the only full copy we knew of aside of those primed to self-delete in Theo’s home, and its destruction wouldn’t stop the Vory feeling aggrieved and out of pocket to the tune of one and a half million euros. We hoped that the funds could be transferred back following the release of Tony Varkanopolis, and we urgently needed to find Theo and get him to safety as well.
We were making good time on the journey, until I spotted something.
“Check out that up there,” I said, tapping the side window with my knuckles.
Alex could make out what I was referring to, but only just. “It’s not a plane is it?” said Alex, ducking low to take another quick look.
“Don’t think so. I’ll keep an eye on it, we can’t do anything at the moment anyway.”
Alex focussed on the road ahead, and I twisted round, craning my neck to follow the dot in the sky as it disappeared behind us. It was probably just a routine helicopter flight; we were near central London after all, surely this had to be quite a common sight.
Our paranoia grew as the miles rolled by. I wound my window down a little further. I couldn’t really get a good view, but we could both hear the familiar thudding sound again, even over the road and engine noise. The helicopter was getting closer from behind this time, and now it was above us. All I could see was the underside, the skis, the intense blinking red light, and there were definitely no emergency service markings on it. It was right above us now, tracking the car. Alex was cursing the fancy paintwork on the Mini’s roof, mumbling that we’d have been lost among the traffic if the car had an ordinary paint job.
The helicopter moved off to our left again, maintaining height just enough to avoid any pylons. I felt a sudden spike of fear as I told Alex that it was definitely Dragovich up there, stalking us. I could just make him out in the cockpit, but felt sure that there was nothing he could do to stop us at that moment. We could leave at the next junction, and then escape. We might be followed again, but in a built-up area we were going to be like mice in a meadow avoiding a feathered predator from above.
Alex was concentrating on the steadily slowing traffic, which was worrying. I started to fear the worst – what if the traffic came to a standstill and we were caught in a jam? If Dragovich was really desperate, and by now we knew he was, then he’d have a clean shot at us. Worse still, he could try to land somewhere close to the motorway and simply find us among the stationary cars. Instead, the helicopter kept moving, not that fast, but it didn’t hang around and began to gain height.
“What the hell’s he doing?” I said, steadying myself against the dashboard as Alex had to rapidly drop speed. The traffic didn’t quite come to a standstill but we crawled along for a few minutes in the middle lane. Both of us trying figure out what Dragovich was planning as we watched the helicopter extend its lead over us.
“Maybe he’s given up for the moment?” I suggested, hoping but knowing it was a futile thing to say. Alex didn’t answer, too busy switching attention between the road and the dot disappearing in the distance.
As the traffic began to gather speed again I still had the helicopter in my sight. It was getting closer again now. It appeared to be hovering above something, searching for a place to set down. We hoped not, but as we got closer I could see what Dragovich was trying to do.
Beside the motorway was a large piece of land that had been cleared for some sort of construction project. There was very little activity and just a single worker’s Portakabin visible on the site. Between the construction site and the motorway there was an emergency services ramp, the sort where police vehicles lie in wait for speeding motorists. A highway maintenance four-wheel drive was parked on it, monitoring the traffic flow. It didn’t take long for Dragovich to set the helicopter down close by, duck below the rotor blades, sprint to the fence and leap over it. Before the driver even realised, he’d been forced out at gunpoint. Dragovich had jumped in and was rapidly accelerating along the hard shoulder.
We’d watched this happen in utter disbelief. We were ahead of him for now but had to think fast. I turned again and could see the amber flashing lights on the top of the maintenance vehicle. It was some distance back and now in the inside lane, but I knew he’d be gaining on us. We were close to London, the distances on signs had dropped to single digits and there were exit ramps ahead.
Alex moved into the outside lane. It was just as congested, but moving slightly faster than the other two. What we hadn’t reckoned on, was Dragovich’s next move. He swung the four-wheel drive to his left and straight onto the hard shoulder again, roof lights still blazing and accelerating hard. We lost sight of him for a moment behind some high-sided trucks that were in the inside lane, and then saw him again, passing us on the hard shoulder hurtling along leaving everyone behind.
“What’s he up to now?” I said.
I saw him move back into the inside lane, some fifty or sixty metres ahead. “Bet you he’ll try to get into our lane and slow it down. Or maybe he’ll try to position himself so that we come up beside him,” I said, panicking and shifting round for the best viewpoint. I was aware that Alex was checking our movement options; we both knew we needed to do something fast.
The junction was about half a mile ahead. Dragovich was going to draw level with it first. This would be our one and only chance. The traffic began to pick up speed again. This was good, it gave us room to move. I was monitoring the countdown markers to the exit, and trying to keep an eye on Dragovich’s strobing roof lights. Cars began to move out of the way of the big maintenance vehicle, allowing it across to the middle lane; it was still about the same distance ahead of us. More cars began to drop into the inside lane as Dragovich slowed the traffic. It was now or never.
After a swift check through the dislodged rear window, Alex suddenly veered back into the middle lane. The car to our left had to brake hard. Horns blared, headlights flashed. Dragovich had now taken up position in the outside lane. Alex repeated the same sudden move, this time forcing us into the inside lane. Same response from angry drivers. A futile wave from Alex to acknowledge the erratic driving. A final sudden move. Left again onto the hard shoulder and then straight onto the slip road. Dragovich had missed it completely. He was still ahead and in the outside lane, no doubt seething and about to rip the steering wheel from its mountings.
We were elated, laughing nervously as we merged into the traffic leaving the motorway; we’d done it again, we’d evaded the Vory. I stuck my head out of the window and let out a whoop; Alex settled for some deep breaths and a wide grin. As we approached the top of the slip road we could see the chaos unfolding below. The big maintenance car was gradually forcing its way across the carriageway again but was already way past the exit. Horns were blaring, it was a complete mess, but that wouldn’t stop Dragovich. We left him to it, and followed signs for the train station. I’d checked on my phone and found out that we could get a local tube direct to a station near the hotel in central London, and from there it would be just a two minute walk to meet Khan.
Alex parked the Mini in a space opposite a crescent of shops, the threat of a parking fine was the least of our worries so we didn’t hang around. We grabbed the bags and Theo’s jacket, and ran across the road dodging cars, hoping that we wouldn’t catch sight of the big four-wheel drive approaching, lights blazing and Dragovich’s face glaring down at us.
I patted my jacket pocket as we zigzagged towards the underground, the SED was safe. We paused at the bottom of the steps down to the station to double-check the stop we needed and the line it was on. I waved my contactless credit card at the turnstile, and we just made it onto the train in time. It was busy, standing room only, so we positioned ourselves between two sets of sliding doors where the carriages joined. More privacy, less of a crush and we could keep lookout while we talked through our next steps.
We were both a little calmer now, but still kept checking the carriages we were sandwiched between. So far there was no sign of Dragovich. Safety always seemed to be short-lived, but we were getting used to that. The train rolled and shuddered along the underground line, slowing as we passed stations then steadily accelerating to the next. I mentally ticked off each stop and referred to the track route-map above to see which was next on the journey. Alex had received a couple of messages, but couldn’t respond as there was no signal. At one point I panicked, thinking I’d spotted Dragovich. It was a poor resemblance, although Alex could see why I’d been rattled by the guy that I’d mistaken for the big Russian. We were both still on edge, despite trying to keep it together on the outside.
The pressure eased as the train pulled into our platform. We waited until most who were getting off had done so, and then hopped off ourselves, checking ahead and behind to be sure we weren’t being followed. It was all clear. At the top of the escalator I checked my phone again, and we took the left exit, past a busking guitar player, and out into the brightness of the day again. The hotel was diagonally across the road from us, with a newly refurbished contemporary entrance set in the original building’s Victorian design. We crossed with the pedestrian traffic signal this time. It was time to try to act normally, time to be inconspicuous for a change.
We entered the hotel, pushing through the huge glass doors to the right-hand side. A concierge looked us up and down from behind his lectern, but we had breezed passed into the main foyer before he had chance to say anything. I spotted the restaurant area and we headed straight for it. Khan stood from where he’d been sitting, casually placing a hand in one pocket and waving us over with the other. He seemed pleased to see us, it felt like a reunion. I knew that our story was going to be lot for him to take in. We shook hands and Khan invited us to take a seat; I was so relieved to see him.