Anatoli's story, an excerpt from the book I am writing.
| “I was born in a small village in Russia. It doesn’t matter really which one I was born in. It was tiny and unimportant. My father worked at a factory, a manual laborer, just like his father and his father before him. We had always been laborers, my family. During the war my father made weapons. He was young when he started working at the factory, only a teenager, but his father was at war and he needed to provide for his mother and sisters. They also worked in the factory, but it wasn’t enough, so my father did as well. The factory was a dangerous place. The guns kept exploding, the machinery got people caught inside. It was not safe, but it was necessary. There is a draft in Russia, all men above eighteen have to serve, but my father was twelve, so he did not. His father had chosen military service even past 27, which is the age where conscription no longer applies. He was a colonel, an important man, and he believed in the cause.
“My grandfather fought for the entirety of the second world war. At the very end, just before the fighting was done, he was shot in the side. It got infected and he died. My father never got to bury his body.
“By the time my father turned eighteen, the war had just ended. He served in the military, as was required, and came back home when he was done. His mother died of sickness and heartbreak, and so it was his job to take care of the family. He did, too. He protected his family when trouble arose, whenever it arose. But soon his family was gone. His sisters were married, his brother was off in Sochi, and he was alone. He had spent so long protecting his old family that he had never bothered to start a new one. He had no wife. He had no children, and his was old. Twenty-nine. Most men would get married early, in their early twenties. He was almost thirty.
“So he went to find a wife. There wasn’t much going in his favor, he was an old laborer without much money. He tried to meet women, to woo them, but it didn’t work. He was declined again and again. By the time he was thirty-one, he had mostly given up, resigned himself to being a bachelor for life. Until one day, he went to church.
“He did this every week, but he liked to tell me that this particular day was when God finally smiled upon him. He was late to church that day because his car had died on the road, and he had to abandon it and run the rest of the way. When he got there his usual seat was full, and so he had to take the only open seat available was near the back. The preacher was already speaking, and so he didn’t even look at who was sitting beside him until the very end.
“He told me many times that when he glanced over at her, his brain exploded from her beauty. That the only thing he wanted in life from then on was her. It didn’t matter that she was only twenty, he told her that he loved her right then and there. She smiled and told him that she would see him next week, and that if he still loved her to tell her then.
“The next week, she was all my father could think about. Her golden hair, her fair skin. He could do nothing but think of her and wait for Sunday to come again. When it did come, because Sunday always comes eventually, he got there early and sat where he had sat the week before. He saved her seat and waited for her to come.
“And she did come, just before the sermon began, and sat beside him, smiling. My father waited until after the service, then took the ring out of his pocket.
“‘You have been all I could think about.’ He told her, kneeling in the aisle.
“‘Even with this?’ She asked him, pointing to the large birthmark across her face.
“‘Especially with that.’ He said, and she started crying. My father kissed her tears away, and she said yes. They went down the aisle and asked the priest to marry them then and there, and he did.
“My mother gave birth to my brother the next year. The year after that, my sister and me, born as twins. Two years after that, my brother, two years more and another brother, then three years and another sister. Then a year more and one last brother. My father was forty-one by now, older than most parents, and decided to have no more children. They had seven, so they figured they had plenty. And they did. They were happy together, despite their age difference, and they did their best to raise us with the best principles.
“When I was eleven there was a flu outbreak in our village. A deadly flu, and we all caught it. We didn’t have access to medicine to treat it, and so we were all racked with fever for a week until the virus decided if it wanted to stay in us. It left me and the brother that was born right after me, Anton, as well as my father. It stayed in the rest of them, making them vomit up their supper and their blood, making them rack with the cold under eight blankets and scream at people who are not there. We cooled their foreheads and murmured to them to stay calm. We spooned food into their mouths and played music and prayed but in the end it did nothing. The virus took them. It took all of them except for the three of us. Pavel, Katerina, Vasiliy, Nataly, Nikita, and Mother. Gone. It took Father, too. Took his mind from him, but we didn’t realize it at the time.
“We buried them and moved to Moscow, where there is more disease but also more medicine. We ran from the memory of the fever, Anton and me, but my father stayed in that small town. He would wake up in our apartment in Moscow and call for our mother, screaming that she wasn’t in bed, where was she? And we would say, no Father. Mother is gone. Mother will stay gone. She won’t come back. And he would yell and say, no, no! She I just saw her at church, and I asked her to marry me, she should be here! We would explain that it was years ago when that happened, but he didn’t listen. He never listened.
“Anton and I went to school. Anton was a good student, but for some reason I was chosen for a special opportunity ahead of him. I went into a room during electives and a man taught me computer code. He said he would teach me how to speak to computers when I met him, and I believed him. Computers were new, he said, but once they became more popular they would need people to speak their language, tell them what to do. Those people, he said, would control the future.
“And so I learned. I studied. When my father couldn’t work anymore, when he wouldn’t leave the house and instead would scream at the paintings on the walls, Anton went to work at the factory, continuing the family legacy, so that I could go to university. And when computers did get big, just like my teacher had promised, I was there, ready to program them. I started getting money from people asking me to make a website for them, to build this firewall, to fix this bug. Soon I made enough money that I could pay for Anton to continue his schooling without having to work at the factory all the time.
“Though I made a lot of money, I still did not make enough to get help for my father, who continued to get worse. But I was always looking for good jobs, and always saving my money. An American man came to me then, he asked if I made firewalls.
“‘Of course!’ I said, and I expected him to ask me to do it for him. I told him how much it would cost for me to do it for him.
“‘No, no.’ He said instead, laughing at me. ‘I don’t want you to make me a firewall.’
“‘Then what do you want?” I asked, confused.
“‘I want you to get into a firewall for me. I think my wife is hiding something from me, but I can’t get into her computer. She said she came to you to build it, so I figured you could also let me into it.’
“‘Why would I do that?’ I was intrigued. I had never considered that if I kept people out, I could let people in, too, but my morals were too good to let me just give this man a secret from his wife.
“He just smiled at me and took out his wallet. ‘Because I can pay handsomely.’
“The amount of money he pulled out that day was ridiculous. About five thousand US dollars back then, about ten thousand now. In rubles… let’s just say the amount was astronomical. The man must have incredibly rich.
“I said yes. Really, I had no choice. If I chose to do it, I could pay for my father’s treatments. I could guarantee that Anton never had to work in the factory for another day in his life. I could live like I had never lived before. Rich. Happy. I did it. I did it just like he had asked, right there. I guess he had expected it to be harder than it was, last longer, but it only took a few minutes. It turned out that I was a gifted hacker.
“His wife had been cheating him of money. Diverting a chunk of his incredibly large paycheck to an offshore account. She had been using it to take vacations and bought a house in Germany with it. She was a viper. Terrible woman. He was angry at her, but grateful to me and gave me more money than he had said before for doing it so fast. In a few minutes, I was more rich than anyone else in my family had ever been.
“I was so happy! I came home to Anton and Father yelling, look, look! I did it! At first they did not believe me, but it set in, with Anton at least. He started laughing and jumping up and down with me, but my father just sat there in his chair.
“‘No, Natasha.’ He said. Natasha was our mother’s name. ‘No, no. You know that we aren’t rich. We have never been rich. It never bothered you before.’
“We both stopped our celebrations. I kneeled down beside him. ‘No, Father. I am Anatoli, your son. And we are rich now. Very, very rich.’
“‘No!’ He screamed. ‘I don’t have a son! Natasha and I just got married, I don’t have a son!’ He threw the lamp at me, but I caught it easily. He was old by now, in his late fifties, and he was weak.
“‘We can get him the help he needs.’ Anton whispered to me. ‘With the money, we can help him.’
“I nodded, knowing that he was right, but it still hurt when my father didn’t recognize me.
“We did get him the help he needed. We enrolled him in the psychiatric hospital. We did everything we could for him, but he didn’t seem to get any better. After a while, the expenses added up. I was the only one who had a job, and we were mostly living off of the one job that I did, and my father’s treatments were expensive, and we had to pay for university for Anton. But I refused to let him go back to the factory. Instead, I worked more. All hours of the day, I was working. But not as many people needed computer work. I was not able to make as much money.
“One day, I got lucky. The man came back. He told me about how remarkable I did when I hacked into his computer. He said he had been bragging about me since I did it, privately, among friends. He said a man he knew wanted something hacked as well, but not just a personal computer to see what his wife was doing. The man seemed nervous, extremely nervous, because he knew from before I had good morals. But he also knew I would do anything for my family.
“I am not sure how he knew we were struggling, or even if he did know, but he came right when I was willing to do anything. He said, there is a man I know. He wants you to hack into a website and change it for him. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t have a choice. I needed the money, and the man seemed so nice, he used fancy words and seemed smart. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I needed to help my family. So I said yes.
“I met with the American’s friend the next day. He showed me what website he wanted hacked, and told me what to change. The website was simple, the firewall was easy to get through. Again, they seemed surprised when I told them I was in after a minute, maybe less. They told me what they wanted, they were trying to change the prices on the website and also the contact information. When I asked why they were doing that, they wouldn’t tell me.
“I figured out a few years ago that they dropped the prices and had people buy from them for more than what the prices said. The site was good, so people would buy it no matter what, and they made a lot of money. So did I. They paid me much more than they had last time, a tantalizingly large amount of money. I didn’t want to make money off of this, but I also wanted money to help my family, so I took it.
“We lived a long time off that money, but I didn’t stop doing jobs. I bought myself better equipment and I ignored any bad feelings about what I was doing. I became a legendary hacker, known for my speed and internet prowess. They called me the Russian Phantom because, beyond the fact that I was Russian, they knew absolutely nothing about me. They thought that I hacked into websites to show that I could, or that I was on a revenge spree, there were so many theories at the time. I don’t remember a single one saying that I was trying to get money for medical treatments, because by that time Anton was also very sick. He had lung cancer from the cigars he had smoked while working at the factory, and while he had stopped years ago it still gave him cancer.
“There were a few times where I was talking to a friend and they would bring up the Russian Phantom. I was terrified that they would find out, and I was never a good actor, so it is a miracle that they could not tell how nervous I was. One was prone to ranting on various topics, including the Russian Phantom. I had hacked his website once, you see. He hated the Russian Phantom, but he didn’t hate me. I started to feel a disconnect between me and hacker me. Sometimes I couldn’t believe he was me. I would never do something like that. I would never hack into a website and change things. I would never move money from someone’s account into someone else’s. It couldn’t be me.”
“For the most part, my business was done through that first American man I worked with. He had extensive connections with the Russian black market, it was where he had made his fortune, and he did regular business with the Mafia. So did I, but I wasn’t proud of it and I never had to deal with them directly. Instead, I hacked into whatever he told me to, I named my price, and he got the money for me. I am positive he made a great deal of money from the whole affair as well, but I became rich for my efforts. I didn’t want to get anywhere close to poverty ever again, I was terrified of it. My entire life I never had enough to eat, I always had to worry about money, even as a child. I hated it so much. I hated having to eat just enough to not feel starving so that I had the money for the electric bill. And I was done with it. For the first time in my life, I could be rich, I had the opportunity, and I was going to do everything I could to do it. In my mind, being rich was the same as being free. It was how I was raised.
“I became obsessed. I was always working, doing more and more jobs. Reaching to greater and greater heights. I raked in money, I bought houses, I invested and ran bank scams by myself, diverting money into my own account. I bought extravagances for Anton and my father. I stocked up on canned foods and built a bomb shelter. I prepared for the absolute worst in every situation.
“Anton finished school and married a lovely woman. His cancer was gone and I didn’t let him go back to work, even if it wasn’t in the factory. Instead he stayed home with his wife, playing games and reading books and being in love. My father was still getting treatment from a woman who stayed at our house with us at all times to care for him. He was showing progress, he recognised us, but he still wouldn’t accept reality.
“I did not really accept reality either. I was running from my past, faster and faster. I kept working, I kept buying, because it made me forget for a little while. I was denying my past, denying how I grew up, and I was also denying that they were dead. I worked so much so that I couldn’t stop and think. So I continued. Until the past finally caught up with me.
“I should have realized that so much money would attract attention. I had a lot of enemies as the Russian Phantom, and I was smart covering my tracks, but there had been rumors I lived in Moscow, and suddenly this poor boy was rich without ever going to work. I was so busy worrying about my digital profile that I never thought about how it must have looked like from the outside perspective in the real world.
“Years and years after my first job, and a few years after the turn of the millennium as well, they came. Anton had a daughter, and his wife was pregnant again. We were happy. They did not care about that, though, they never even knew about us. A gang, not the Mafia, but another gang came to our door. It was winter, and snowing hard. I had stolen from them years before, and consistently since I had stolen from them as well. They hated me more than any other agency in Russia.
“They didn’t have any proof, just a guess, but they didn’t care about proof. The law did not touch them, it encouraged organized crime to some extent, and so when Anton opened the door, his toddler in the crook of his arm, they opened fire.
“I could not get my father to flee with me, and Anton’s wife would not leave his side, rather dying with him than living without him. The monsters gave her the mercy of a quick death.
“I ran. I hit the self-destruct button on my computer, grabbed my emergency pack with my extra flash-drive and some cash and I ran. As fast and as far as I could, through the woods behind my house. I had a plan, I had mapped it out beforehand, but I couldn’t remember it then. My mind was blank, as my tears ran down my face and washed away who I was. For all my planning, for all my paranoia, none of it worked. I got out with my life and my work, but I knew that none of it mattered. None of it. Not without Anton, not without Father.”
His voice broke. He was staring out the window, and in his reflection I could see his face twisted with anguish. He closed his eyes for a second, his breath rattling in his chest, trying to collect himself before he continued.
“I ran to the American’s house, crying and screaming and saying how I couldn’t do it anymore. He was calm, as if he had expected this to happen. He said that I couldn’t stay in Russia, it was too dangerous. He said that he had a job.
“I asked what job it was, curious even though I wanted to be done. A man walked in from the other room, like something out of a movie, something he had rehearsed before. He grinned a small grin and said that it was one job to be set for life. A bigger job than I had ever done before, not just hacking but also breaking in. Higher risk and higher reward.
“That was the first time I met King. He was suave and smart and young and the only person I knew who used a codename in every instance in his life. King was impressive. He looked like a man with a plan for every occasion. It didn’t really matter who he was, though. I needed to get out of Russia, and I currently didn’t have enough money for a plane ticket to Germany, much less North America, where I really wanted to go. I could do one job, get a free plane ticket half the way and enough money to fly the rest. I could start a new life. All I had to do was go with this man to France and steal money with him. I always had choices, but everywhere I looked I saw failure looming. Except when I looked at King. In him, I saw my freedom.
“So I flew with him on a plane to England first, to pick up you, Prince. A little twelve year old, bright beyond your years. King told you we had known each other for years, he lied because he needed you to trust me. And you mostly did. You were always a bit wary around King, but I hope you and I actually did become friends. We did the job, and it went well, but everything you did King took credit for. It bothered me how he treated you, like a monkey that would do anything he said. He took you for granted, but I couldn’t worry about that. I got the money, and I was done with heists. Done. I flew to Canada, once again fleeing my past to try to start a new life. I got a real job, fell in love, lived my life as I had never lived it before. I have one son with Sofia, he is four years old. He is the treasure of my life. His name is Anton.
“Sofia’s business is not doing well. She needs a loan but no banks will give her one. I want the best for her and Anton, and if that means doing another job, I am more than willing to. To protect my family I will do anything. And I do not want to sell my soul, but I will. Believe me, I will.”