The waiter arrived, clearing Khan’s cup and saucer and setting down three fresh ones, together with a cafetière of coffee, a pot of tea, and some biscuits.
“Something to eat, maybe?” Khan asked, as the waiter stood by attentively, awaiting our response.
I shook my head, and smiled politely, as did Alex. Our snacking on the journey had refuelled us, but we were still on edge from our run-in with Dragovich.
“So, how have you both been?” enquired Khan as he offered the cafetière to Alex first. He appeared to be in a relaxed mood, probably as a result of the break and not having had to devote all of his time to eager students.
“Surviving,” I said, glancing at Alex, who was unusually quiet and just smiled as the coffee was poured. “Got a bit of a problem, though, and we could do with your help,” I added, checking out the seating area for anyone who might overhear us.
Khan frowned. “Okay, what sort of problem? New coding projects, perhaps a challenging algorithm? Oh, yes, and I didn’t fully understand that email you sent me, Alex. Does that have something to do with it?” He carefully poured himself another cup of coffee and reached for a biscuit.
Alex sighed. “Well, sort of, but it’s really complicated. My father received that email from his head office. He’s been based in Moscow for a few years, he’s a corporate lawyer and involved in quite a lot of big deals over there.” Alex spoke calmly, but the hunched shoulders and rambling delivery told a different story. “He’s back here now, presumably because of what’s in the email, but I didn’t know anything about what was going on until I read it.”
Khan was attentive, but had taken out his laptop, his fingers gliding unobtrusively over the keyboard. Always taking notes, I thought, as I listened. Alex continued describing how the contents of the email were connected to Theo’s situation, trying not to leave anything important out, and explained what we knew about the ill-fated deal that had taken place in Moscow, and how it appeared to have resulted in the disappearance of Theo’s father.
Khan nodded eagerly, acknowledging the fact that he’d worked out that much from the email. What he wasn’t aware of was the potential link to serious organised crime, and in particular, Dragovich’s involvement. When I added that we’d then met Theo at the conference and seen the Russian there too, Khan began to look a little concerned.
Continuing the story, I explained how Theo, still upset by his father’s disappearance, had dropped out of university and immersed himself in the V-Works project, or Vvox as he now called it, and launched it at the AI conference.
Khan nodded. “Yes, impressive stuff, I saw him there on the second day.”
I went on to describe how we’d listened to the professor and what he’d told us about Russian interest levels in AI technology, and had wondered if Vvox had attracted the attention of Russian organised crime groups. Alex added that Theo had been approached by someone from Ekranotech at the conference and that we’d also bumped into Dragovich there, and we were convinced these encounters had something to do with the suspected murder of the Russian that had been reported in the news.
“Okay, so where is Theo now, and how much does he know about all of this?” asked Khan.
“Theo’s been taken too,” I said, cutting straight across a startled Alex.
“What do you mean, ‘taken’?” gasped Khan, visibly unsettled now and checking around us for anyone listening in.
I told him how we’d visited Theo after the conference and learned that he’d been approached by the bearded Russian from Ekranotech. Dragovich had then appeared and offered to help locate his father, but told him this would require him to handover the coding so that they could resolve the Ekranotech problem first. “He offered Theo money,” I said.
“One and a half million euros,” Alex added, mouthing the words at Khan in a whisper.
“Theo thought he was doing the right thing,” I said, “but then it all went wrong. The account holding the money he received ended up being frozen. Theo realised that the Russian mafia were probably involved, and so we decided to get help and go to the police. We were at the university yesterday, making sure that Theo’s coding was safe and could be handed over to the authorities, and that’s when he went missing.”
We spent a good couple of hours bringing Khan up to speed on the details and intricacies of our last few days. Particularly how we knew that Theo was in serious trouble and that we reckoned Dragovich and the mafia were behind it all. We also went through how we’d decided to make a run for it following Theo’s warning message, and told Khan of our brush with the Vory in the form of Dragovich himself.
“Does any of this make sense?” I asked, rubbing my tired eyes, hoping we hadn’t come across as a couple of bumbling idiots. It was like a game of verbal table tennis between Alex and me, with Khan as the umpire, glancing between us both and frantically tapping away at his keyboard.
“Yes, yes, I’m just taking as much in as possible, bear with me please,” he said, looking up briefly, then back to his screen as he finished entering more notes.
He stopped and placed the laptop on the coffee table, and fixed his gaze on me. “Clearly there are two things we need to focus on, the most important of which is Theo’s safety,” he said, leaning in towards the table and lowering his voice. “You have to report that to the police as soon as possible now that you’re certain of what’s happened. I can help you do that with the authorities, the NCA especially. We can go there today and you can explain everything to them.”
This was the help we needed, and to have Khan with us would be such a relief. Despite being in our late teens and thinking we were mature, nothing could have prepared us for what we’d just been through. Having Khan there was like having a parent present when, as a teenager you had to do something serious or significant for the first time – moral support and a sort of backup in case things didn’t go quite as planned.
Khan continued. “The second thing, is to make sure that the coding is safe. If they know it exists, but haven’t managed to secure it by doing a deal with Theo, they may well come after it another way. If it’s still on Theo’s servers it may be easy for them to hack into.”
For once we were ahead of Khan’s thinking. “Yes, Theo thought about that,” I said, pulling the SED out of my pocket and passing it across the table. Khan took it out of its cover and rolled it around between his fingers.
“Ah, an SED, perfect,” he said, inspecting it up close.
I told Khan how Theo had protected and encrypted everything on his devices and servers so that there would be no way for hackers to access the coding without deleting it.
“So this is the only copy of the latest version of the Vvox coding, I assume?” said Khan, holding up the SED to be sure he had our attention.
“Yes, Theo was guarding it with his life,” I said, turning to Alex, hoping the comment wasn’t some kind of inappropriate prediction.
Pulling out his phone, Khan began to scroll through his contacts.
“I’m meeting with the NCA soon on something else as it happens, but I’ll get hold of my contact again now and get some advice. We need to get this information and the SED to them right away so that you’re in the clear and protected,” he said, holding the phone to his ear. “They can also help locate Theo, I’m sure, and that’s my main concern right now.”
He suggested we tell the NCA anything and everything. They would be thorough in their questioning, and any information Alex and I had could be vital in helping them to locate Theo. Khan spoke briefly on the phone with his contact, then ended his call, thanking them and confirming we’d be there within the hour.
Khan expressed his surprise at the events we’d shared during our meeting, but told us he felt it was his duty to get us in front of the authorities and to help Theo in whatever way he could. He excused himself, and suggested that we order more drinks or snacks if we wanted and to add them to his tab. He picked up his phone as a message tone sounded and walked causally over to the reception area to speak to the concierge.
As I watched him, I felt a huge sense of relief. At last we’d been able to share our experience with someone, and would soon be able to explain everything to the police. It had felt good to open up about everything, and I was keen to switch the focus to hunting for Theo now; we’d spent too long being the hunted.
Khan returned, and we talked some more. He explained that he’d arranged for us to meet some senior officers in the serious organised crime and cybersecurity division at the NCA. They’d been very interested in our story, and had said that they would investigate the case immediately. Khan said we could leave the SED with them for security, and until Theo could be located to help them with their detailed enquiries; providing, of course, that he was safe and well enough to do so.
He settled the bill and we gathered our things to head over to the NCA offices. I was starting to get a bit nervous again and could tell Alex was too. It was one thing revealing all to our professor, but daunting to think that soon we’d be questioned by senior officers in relation to the Russian mafia, a murder, kidnapping and international cybercrimes.
We left the hotel and were able to walk to the NCA’s HQ just a few minutes away. It was an inconspicuous building from the outside, just a silver plaque on the wall bearing the initials and tall automatic glass doors which led into a reception area. Khan did the talking, confirming at reception who he’d arranged for us to meet with.
After completing a visitor profile on a tablet, including a sample voice recording and digital thumbprint, we were given visitor badges and asked to take a seat in the waiting area in front of the reception desk. It wasn’t long before one of the two lift doors in front of us opened and a gentleman in a suit approached and introduced himself, first to Khan, then to Alex and me. He was one of the NCA liaison officers and said he would take us up to the floor where we would be meeting with senior officials. Alex and I kept looking at each other, listening to the small talk between Khan and the officer. Our nerves were jangling once again. I didn’t know whether this was worse than the fear we’d felt during the last couple of days, but it would be good to get it over and done with.
The lift came to a smooth stop at the fourth floor. As the door opened we could see a huge open-plan office behind a full-height glass wall. People, desks, screens, meetings: it was a hive of activity. I kept glancing over at the scene as Khan and the officer walked in front along the corridor to the left, still chatting to one another.
I could tell Alex was struggling to keep it together. “You okay with all of this?” I said, briefly placing my arm around Alex’s shoulder. I wasn’t exactly calm myself, but I felt I should at least try to put on a brave face as we continued along the corridor.
“Yes, feeling safer but I’m just worrying about Theo now,” said Alex, as we approached the meeting room.
There was a large wooden door at the end of the corridor with a frosted glass panel down the right hand side. The liaison officer peered through a clear part of the panel then knocked and opened the door, extending his arm to usher us into the room, before leaving.
A lady and two gentlemen were sitting on one side of a large wooden table; they rose from their seats to introduce themselves. The two men were in police uniform, the lady was smartly dressed, and from MI5. With introductions complete, the three of us sat on the other side, Khan slightly to the left, allowing us to be the focus of attention.
“Thank you for seeing us at such short notice,” said Khan, as he removed his laptop from his bag. “I’ll let Alex and Joel do the talking, but I thought some background information would be useful.”
Khan went on to explain to the officers how we had met and the work we were involved in, plus some of his past experiences, particularly with the USA projects and AI voice technology. Alex and I then retold our story, leaving out the bits that didn’t seem important, and including points that had come out once had Khan asked more questions at the hotel. I hoped it would be a more accurate account of things. Once again, it was good to share it and I felt more relaxed and confident as the conversation continued.
One of the officers asked us about the SED, and Alex was able to explain what Theo had done to protect the coding from unauthorised access. Khan confirmed he’d passed the SED to the liaison officer, who needed someone in IT to prepare it for analysis and that it would be returned later. The main focus was on Theo’s situation and initiating an immediate search for him. I shared the images I had on my phone, and Alex was asked to forward the email evidence that Khan and I had both been copied on. We discussed how we discovered Theo’s disappearance by using the university’s tracking application. I demonstrated it to the officers, but still couldn’t see any activity on my phone to indicate where Theo might be. There had been no messages either. I decided to leave the app on this time feeling a lot safer now that we had been able to brief the police on the experience, and as a warning to anyone still tracking us.
The meeting had lasted most of the afternoon, and I could feel my energy levels dipping. One of the officers made a call from the phone on the meeting room table, instructing someone to prepare transport for our journey back to campus. The investigation to track down Theo would begin immediately, and be concentrated locally with the involvement of MI5. The local station had already been alerted, but our input would be invaluable as they retraced Theo’s last steps, in an attempt to uncover any clues and ultimately locate him as soon as possible. We were advised that it would be a long day, but that they’d make sure we were protected and moved safely to wherever we needed to be that night.
Khan seemed glad that we’d met beforehand. It had been like a practice run, and meant we were able to provide the information succinctly, ensuring that the hunt for Theo could begin immediately. As the meeting ended, the liaison officer reappeared. Alex and I were asked to follow him to another office so they could sort out the details of our transport, and a place for us to meet with the protection officers who would escort us back to the local police station, and on to the university. Khan was accompanied by another suited gentleman we hadn’t seen before, and stopped to speak briefly to us as we left the meeting room.
“Well done, you two. I can imagine it’s been a tough few days. Rest assured that the experts are on the case now, so let’s concentrate on Theo and hope that he’s safe and well. I’ll catch up with you both back at the university next week,” he said, patting us both on the back as we followed the liaison officer.
Another long day and night lay ahead but this time we felt safe. The tables had been turned: we were now the hunters. Although determined to make sure Theo came out unscathed, we were still concerned that Dragovich held the key to his whereabouts, and that meant that Theo could now be in serious danger.