Alex was visibly exhausted now, head rested against my shoulder and falling asleep in the back of the car. I was shattered as well; we’d had two sleepless nights in row and were still on the move. Over the last twenty-four hours we’d avoided being kidnapped, and dodged bullets. We’d been hunted by the Russian mafia, by car and helicopter, and now we had been interrogated by the NCA’s senior cybercrime officers.
We were in the back seat of an unmarked police car with a police protection officer and an MI5 operative, on the way back to the university. The local police had been informed of the case details by the NCA and were already at the university making enquiries regarding Theo’s disappearance. Initial feedback confirmed that the campus CCTV had picked up several images matching the description of Dragovich, which was a start.
A meeting had been arranged with senior officers at the local police station first, where they were hoping we could provide as much detail as possible on Theo’s last movements. We’d been updated in the car by the MI5 officer who confirmed Theo’s father had finally been located in Moscow at an infamous ex KGB prison, now operated by the government as a detention centre for those accused of crimes against the state, and that an urgent diplomatic operation was now underway to secure his release, ensuring a speedy repatriation within days. This was the best news I’d heard for a long time, but it didn’t seem right that it was Alex and me hearing it first.
There were also reports, although unconfirmed, that someone matching Anatoly Dragovich’s description had been intercepted by Heathrow airport security. Apparently he was preparing to board a flight to San Francisco, and was now being held for further questioning.
“But surely if it was him he’d be heading back to Russia, wouldn’t he?” I said, seeking eye contact with the driver in the mirror. I hoped and prayed that it was Dragovich who had been detained: it would feel like a huge weight was being lifted from me if it was.
“Well let’s not assume anything just yet, but it sounds promising, and these things develop rapidly so we’ll know more soon,” said the officer calmly. His face was bathed by the amber glow from the dials in the dashboard, as he focussed on the darkness ahead.
Neither Alex nor I had been in touch with our parents yet, fearing that they’d worry unnecessarily, and what help could they offer us anyway? I’d had some encouraging news about my father’s improving health via a text and voicemail from Mrs Denton, and was keen to get home as soon as possible to witness it for myself. Alex and I had agreed that it would be better for us to return home in a few days, once we had provided the authorities with all the help we could. Breaking the news of our adventures face to face would reassure our families that we were safe and well in a way that a phone call never could.
I continued to check my phone and the GPS app, but there were no further updates. Theo had been playing on our minds a great deal. We’d been trying to help him get out of the mess he’d found himself in and had only just managed to save ourselves; whatever he was enduring was far worse than what we’d had to deal with. This would be an important meeting with the police, and we were keen to do everything we could to make sure Theo was returned safe and well.
As we passed the university campus on the way to the police station it stirred up mixed emotions for me. It was good to be back in familiar surroundings, but it was also the scene of Theo’s disappearance and a chilling reminder of what we’d just been through. I felt safer for the moment, particularly in the back of the police car, but would have to return at some point to resume my studies, and that would be a challenge. I reflected on what the liaison officer at the NCA had mentioned about post-trauma counselling for us as part of the debrief process. I hadn’t really thought about it much at the time, although I realised now that it was perhaps these mixed emotions I was feeling that they had been referring to when offering support. I’d keep it in mind as I tried to regain some sense of normality.
We arrived at the local station, the police car used the rear entrance then parked in the underground car park. The officers escorted us up the internal stairs to the main reception area, through the security doors and into an interview room. I couldn’t help feeling uneasy. It was as if we were suspects, despite the friendly and informal attitude of the officers we were with. Hot drinks were provided in cardboard cups from a vending machine in the hallway outside, and the officers then left us there to gather our thoughts. Alex looked completely worn out and showed no interest in the coffee, but the warmth from my cup offered a strange sense of comfort as I wrapped my hands around it, waiting for whatever was going to happen next.
Two plain-clothed officers, a lady and a gentleman, entered the room, greeting us sympathetically as they introduced themselves. They explained that our statements would be recorded, and used as evidence in court should it come to that, and then we were asked to repeat our story when we felt ready to do so.
“You’ve been through a hell of a lot and we appreciate it’s been a tough few days, but we do have some good news,” said the female officer as she referred to her laptop. Alex immediately perked up as we listened to her update.
“We’ve just had confirmation that Theo has been located too. He was found safe and well, obviously upset and in shock as you can imagine, but in relatively good health. He was discovered hidden in a car that was connected to the theft of a helicopter on the south coast, presumably near to where you two stayed last night, judging by the case notes. Another Russian national has been taken into custody for questioning, so it’ll be interesting to see how that line develops overnight.”
“Oh my god! That’s fantastic news,” blurted Alex, turning to me and now close to tears. “So where will Theo be taken to now? He must be so shaken up, but thank god he’s safe.”
“Don’t worry,” said the officer calmly. “They’ll have paramedics attending to check him over, then they’ll decide what to do, but it does sound like he’s unharmed and in reasonably good spirits, which is the main thing.” As she spoke she tried to make eye contact with Alex; her smile conveyed sympathy but it was all too much for Alex to process.
The officers had been partially briefed by the NCA, so we were asked to elaborate on certain aspects, particularly what we knew about Theo’s movements and the GPS tracking app we had all been using.
I tried to remember as much of it as possible but with every run-through there seemed to be another piece of detail that came back to me.
“It might be a good idea to interview the students who developed the GPS tracking app,” I suggested, as I unlocked my phone to show them how it worked. Although Theo’s phone wasn’t connecting any more, I thought it might be possible for the developers to look at the code and provide a more detailed report on Theo’s previous locations and movements, which ultimately could be useful.
During the meeting we were shown some of the initial CCTV images that had been gathered, which Alex eventually found difficult to watch. There was a clear image of Dragovich leaving his car beside Alex’s and then approaching the university entrance on foot, buttoning his jacket and menacingly scanning the rest of the car park. The car then reversed out of the space and disappeared from the camera’s view.
There were several grainy images of us with Theo in the entrance hall as we arrived, and beside the café when we were waiting for it to open. We were able to confirm that it was Theo and it matched our timing on that day. All of this was a brutal reminder of how that day had unfolded, but the most shocking images left us both cold. It was the footage from the CCTV cameras at the rear of the campus, where the IT block was located. They showed a fire exit door bursting open, and Dragovich hauling Theo’s limp and unconscious body out before tumbling him into the boot of the car that had been parked beside Alex’s earlier.
The meeting was more difficult emotionally than when we’d gone through everything at the NCA. The adrenalin had worn off, and being confronted with the reality of what we’d been through drained the last of our energy. Alex asked them to stop playing the CCTV recordings and had to leave the room. I quickly followed, to make sure everything was okay. As I placed my arm around Alex’s shoulder in the corridor I could feel the emotion building, and my own resolve vanished as we embraced in a fierce and tearful hug. The officers had decided that they were not likely to make much progress as it was getting late, so it would be better to reconvene the next day allowing us some rest before revisiting events.
The female officer leading the investigation updated us once Alex and I had returned to the room.
“Okay, this is obviously tougher than you perhaps expected it to be, so I think its best if we take a break for tonight,” she said. “If you can check in with us in the morning at some point, we’ll send a car over and get you back in tomorrow afternoon, if that’s alright,” she added. She began to tidy her files and laptop away. “We’d appreciate it if you can stay on campus or at your digs for the next twenty-four hours while we complete your statements, and then you’ll be free to leave the area. I’m sure you’ll want to spend some time with your families.” Her colleague smiled sympathetically in agreement.
I nodded and suggested I’d call in the morning to arrange the pickup for both of us. The meeting was wrapped up and we were asked to wait until they arranged a car to take us back to the university campus.
“Just one last thing,” asked the male officer. “Regarding your professor. The NCA called us and are trying to reach him. Any idea when he’s due back up here at the university?”
I took out my phone and checked the screen. “Yeah, I got a voicemail from the NCA on the way up here. Left a message for them, they have the right number for Professor Khan. Not sure when he’s back, but I would have thought pretty soon.” The officer nodded, glanced at his partner and just seemed to accept the update.
We were led out to the reception area and shown down the front steps to a waiting patrol car, where I spoke to the officer who was driving.
“University first, please, then I’m not far away in town. Thanks.” We were pleased to be heading back and definitely ready for an early night.
I was completely shattered, but at the same time so relieved that our nightmare seemed to be coming to an end. At least we knew that Theo was safe now, and it sounded like his father would soon be too. I planned to ask the police officers how we could get in touch with Theo in the morning; the sound of a familiar voice would be a huge comfort, and it would be good for him to know that we were safe as well.
Alex and I had only known each other for a few months, but we chatted easily in the car on the way back, trying to understand how a pretty normal and uneventful encounter in front of the university noticeboards had turned into the nightmare we’d just been through.
“I blame you,” said Alex coyly, knowing I would rise to it. “I could tell you were trouble right from the start.”
I just glanced over, my expression suggesting a playful warning against any more smart comments being made.
“Wouldn’t have got involved in all that AI stuff if you’d left me to concentrate on the sports clubs. My life would have been a lot simpler,” I joked, slouching down further in the seat for comfort.
“Ouch,” said Alex, staring out at the darkness. “Yes, but look at what you’ve done for your dad, that’s got to make it all worthwhile, hasn’t it?”
“True, I suppose, and for the record I’m not disappointed that I met you either,” I said. Alex smiled again, but it was too dark to detect a blush.
I had found it strange sharing my time with Alex. Back home I’d been used to having lots of friends, mostly guys and a few that were girls, but sport had completely taken over since my teens. I hadn’t had much time for anything else. But the first time I saw Alex something had clicked. She wasn’t the sort of girl who would normally catch my eye, not drop dead gorgeous. More natural, an undiscovered and effortless beauty. I’d admired how she’d broken the ice when we first met. I appreciated the encouragement and support she’d given me as we tried to find a solution for my dad, and how she’d held it together through everything that we’d just been through.
I knew a fair bit about her background now, and about her family life. But I certainly didn’t have a clue about how she felt about me. As far as I was concerned we were just good friends. Friends with similar interests and I didn’t want to change that, at least not until I was sure how she felt about me. Maybe we could go back to see my dad together. Perhaps we’d just get on with our studies and look back on this as an incredible adventure. I wasn’t sure, but secretly I hoped it might be the start of something.
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