-by Nicholas Buehler
“Start from when you first met him, tell us everything you can remember,” demands the dark-suited man, light suit leans forward as if intently listening.
What do I remember? “I’ll tell you all I can, I don’t know how much will help you guys.”
“Even if it seems unimportant, we want to get a sense of how he is.”
I remember my dad asking him what he was studying as they both set down the stuff in their hands. I remember my dorm room was covered with boxes, books, and clothes yet to be put in their place. I wasn’t happy with how little space I could imagine was left once the room was put together, but I knew I could make it work. That was the extent of my stress about the year. I guess you don’t really care about that memory.
“Comp Sci, I’m a nerd when it comes to that stuff,” he said with a laugh at the end. His voice was lower than mine and he didn’t break eye contact with my dad. His wavy blond hair was in his eyes since he had just been carrying his own box, my dad had run into him in the hall, and I was unpacking at the closet when I saw them both come in.
They shook hands and he turned towards me. His eyes immediately went from jolly to piercing, I remember that so very well. And then, on a switch, his serious expression flipped back into a kind smile, hand outstretched while walking towards me.
“So you must be Jacob, finally got to meet my roommate,” he said with a happy tone. His grip was far firmer than I expected from his scrawny build. He was wearing some kind of retro StateU t-shirt and some cargo shorts, I remember that. “What about you, what are you studying here?” He was a little pointed with his ‘you.’
“Nice to meet you, Connor, I am studying Finance, I want to do the investment program here! I am very—”
“Ah, nice.” Connor cut me off and turned away from me, obviously disinterested in whatever I was going to say. That was the extent of our interaction as we moved in, both of us busily trying to set the room up in our own image. My mom and dad left not long after my bed was made and they were done helping. As I said my goodbyes and waved them away, I couldn’t help but wonder where Connor’s parents were and if they had left him to move in himself. I went back to the room and he was setting up his computer below his desk, a massive desktop that took up most of the space below his desk.
“That thing is awesome, what kind of games do you play? I prefer sports games so I mainly play on Xbox.” I said, hoping to start off strong with my new living compadre.
“It’s not for games,” he said curtly, his words cold.
“Oh, I just assumed with how intense it is. What’s it for?”
“Wow, what kind of business?” This was good, I thought I was getting right into things about him, however cold his tone was.
“Freelance programming.” and immediately he did not want to talk about it. I sat at my desk opposite him and decided to look through some textbooks. I had loaded up on classes, the max you could take, so naturally, I peeped behind me to see what kind of books he had for his classes. I only saw one book on top of his desk, a tattered black volume with the words The Anarchist Cookbook on the spine. I remembered the book from somewhere, it was famous from the 70s when it was written as it had instructions on how to make explosives and other dangerous weapons as well as drugs. People used to be arrested for even having it, and I just knew Connor was well aware of what it was.
“Is that book as crazy as they say it is?”
Now in his chair and still without looking up from the computer, “no, it is misunderstood, to be frank. People don’t like to think normal people can learn how to do bad things, they only want bad people to do bad things.” This was far more than I had gotten out of him before and a little ‘out there’ for me. That should have been my first sign something was up with him. I stayed silent for a little longer than I needed to, and he noticed. “You don’t agree?”
“No, I didn’t say that.” I blurted out. I couldn’t help myself, I really did want him to like me regardless of how he was. “I just don’t see myself doing anything too bad.”
“I guess we all don’t at some point,” Connor said cryptically. This really struck me as a strange thing come out of a college freshman’s mouth.
“So what do you do?”
“But you just said don’t we all, that has to mean something.”
“No.” And with that, he fired up his computer and starting typing away at what looked like code.
“What are you working on?” I was getting kind of peeved off, hence the nosiness.
“Stuff for class.”
“Already? We still have a week before classes start.”
“This class already started. If you don’t mind, I should get to it.” Connor glanced back at me and then turned back forward, put on a pair of over the ear headphones, and began typing again.
That was the extent of our interactions for the first couple weeks. I would come in, ask a few questions with hopes of getting him to talk, and nothing would come of it. He would shut me down faster than his computer and continually worked at that desk. Classes started and I began to get busy with schoolwork, I rarely was in the dorm room. But if I was, he was always at that computer. The weirder thing was that if he wasn’t at his desk, he was in the food court eating with a laptop in front of him. I asked him multiple times how classes were going and each time he gave a lackluster answer, he barely said anything at all when I asked him what classes he was in. He just said that he was in cybersecurity and left it at that.
Then, about a month in, I was sitting in our floor lounge when the fire alarm went off. I quickly got up and stepped out of the lounge, right as I saw Connor enter the stairwell to head downstairs. I knew basically every fire alarm was either a system check or some jerk pulling the handle, so I took this as my opportunity, and sprinted through the stream of people towards my room and opened it. Sure enough, his computer was on when I stepped in. I quickly sat down at his desk, the fire alarm still blaring overhead. On the monitor, over a webpage was a messaging app from some girl, I didn’t really look at it. I quickly clicked on the background and saw what looked to be a bank account, across the top read “Bitcoin” so I figured it was for the cryptocurrency. Then I actually let out a gasp, in big blue letters read the approximate figure for the amount of Bitcoin in his account, “$3,367,871.” I was dumbfounded, no wonder he doesn’t go to class, whatever he is doing was just fine by anyone’s standards. Then the fire alarm ceased. I frantically searched for the messaging app, hoping to put it back exactly where it was when I walked in. I could hear people coming back onto the floor, their voices getting louder. I found the app, quickly clicked it open, and I ran out the door to the lounge.
I quietly began reading my textbook, my eyes just scanning the pages. A couple of minutes passed, I started to allow my mind to wander. And then I heard really loud footsteps down the hall. My heart rate quickened. Anne, a girl on the floor was sitting at the desk facing the door. She picked up her head, a surprised look came across it.
“Fancy seeing you in here.” She said jokingly.
“Shut up,” Connor said as flat as could be, quickly turning into the room towards my direction.
Anne could only choke out a meek “okay…”
“We need to talk,” Connor demanded after stopping right above my perch on the couch. “Now.” His emotional voice told me all I needed to know, he would be terrible at poker was all I could think.
I pretended to be busy, staring intently at the word “rate” in my accounting textbook. Then, realizing I couldn’t keep the ruse up forever, I slowly looked up at Connor. His face was intense, his eyes as piercing as the first time I saw them. In the weeks since move-in, I rarely saw his face head-on, let alone his eyes in my direction. But there I was, terrified of them. I closed my book immediately and shuffled down the hall towards the room, a puppy that had just been scolded and is waiting to be punished, for real this time.
We walked in the room, he walked towards the window and I quietly sat on my bed, the bottom bunk. He stood at the window with his hands on his head. This was the most emotion and movement I had seen from him in over a month and I was conflicted. I felt terrible for snooping and I knew he would be mad, but I also felt like this was the most I had gotten out of him since arriving at college. I wanted this to be the start of something new. Damn, it was it the start of something new alright.
“What do you want to know?” He said in his normal cold tone, still facing away from me.
“I-I-I what?” I blurted out. This caught me completely off guard. I half expected him to be yelling at me. “What do I want to know?” I repeated, at a loss of thought.
“Yes, you looked through my messages with Marie. I came back and the messaging app was full screen and you had scrolled up.” He paused, motioned with his hand like an elevator going to the top floor. “I might as well tell my roommate since I haven’t told anyone else.” And Connor proceeded to grab his chair and pull it by me.
“Uh okay?” I was fine with my roommate opening up, but I was incredibly weirded out by it all. That was not what I expected, such a weird switch of emotion in the kid’s voice. But I thought whatever he would say about Marie would be better than him knowing I knew he was swimming in cash. Connor started talking about his ex-girlfriend Marie in his normal serious tone, except this time there was a hint of sadness. He talked about how they were serious back in his hometown, how things were going great. And then, as senior year of high school was starting to wind down, she got pregnant.
I pause and I look down at my hands, resting on the table this whole time. This is beyond weird, it feels like I am the one in trouble. I look back up at them and say, “sorry I got a little sidetracked, that probably has nothing to do with what you are going after. I’ll get back to—”
“No,” light-suit says, cutting me off sternly. “As we said, we want to know everything. Please continue right where you left off.”
I feel my eyebrows turn up, no I don’t want to make that face at them. Okay back to a serious expression. God take a deep breathe, calm down man. Remember, they don’t want me. Just finish the story and they will let me go.
Things ended right before they found out, they had decided to go different paths in life as Connor was going out-of-state to State University, but this caused massive tension between them and I could tell Connor was not over it in the slightest, he was stressed. I’ll be honest, this story almost caused me to completely forget about what else I saw on his computer, the guy was showing me real emotion and it took me off guard.
“Oh well, ya tupoy.” Connor said.
“What did you just say?” I inquired, still in a daze.
“Oh sorry, I let a little Russian slip out. Well anyway, that’s what is up with me.” Connor said, the sadness escaping from his voice, replaced by Grade-A-Connor seriousness.
“What made you learn Russian?” I began to snap out of my distraction, the Russian threw me for a loop.
“Oh, just a little interest…” Connor paused, and then stared at me with his eyes again, except this time they were filled with intrigue instead of scorn. “Actually, since we are roommates, can you keep a secret?” For a split second, I was so very confused on what Connor could have to tell me. And then it dawned on me, I was about to get my cake and eat it too.
Connor slid his chair over to his desk and waved the mouse around to wake the monitor. The messaging app I must have opened to full screen was still there, a few button presses later and Connor had opened the screen full of code. Turning to me he said, “This is what I do in my free time. This may sound a little crazy, but trust me when I say it all comes together.”
Connor leaned back in his chair. His eyes were less serious now, they had a look of amusement like he was enjoying the idea of telling me everything. A big smile grew on his face, not the fake kind like when he first talked to my dad, but a real one that I had never seen before. I was getting a sense at this point of just how important this was to him. I knew it was nothing good, but I couldn’t help but be excited I was getting a peek into something crazy. Connor started to explain his story.
“I don’t expect you to think I am a great person, but in truth, I am a businessman through and through. I hack, Jacob. That is my main business. I hack into other people’s computers and servers. But not just any computers and servers. I specifically target government systems. I specialize in taking sections of computer systems and making them my own, where I can control them from here. You can think of me like a robin hood of the internet, I take from the rich and corrupt, the man, and I sell to those who can utilize systems better than it was used before, we can call them the poor. Now, what they do with it is beyond me, they can use it to spy on whatever happens in that system, or they can mess with whoever runs it. It is actually quite hilarious what you can do with this kind of thing sometimes. There is this thing that I create called ransomware. You can think of it like a program that kidnaps a computer, and if put on a computer, it entirely locks it up and puts it in my control, then a link can be placed where the owner of the computer has to deposit a certain amount of Bitcoin, the famous cryptocurrency you may have heard about, before they can use their computer again. Essentially I’m holding the computer hostage until they pony up some money. We could even sell them a program could be used to try to get rid of their problem. There are dozens of ways we can make money. I worked with this group from Russia a couple months ago actually, they used my code and installed it on the entire city of Atlanta’s computer network. We had full control of everything from their traffic lights to their employee payroll. It was hilarious!” And at this point, Connor swiveled in his chair towards his computer and flipped on the bank-account page. “We ended up pulling over twenty-one million dollars from that gig,” he said, “so I copped just over three mill.”
Connor leaned back in his chair again. He looked over my face to see my reaction, I was obviously very impressed, but I also was realizing at this point that my roommate was serious business and I shouldn’t mess with him. I had no idea what he was actually capable of, or even if he was messing with me. You have to understand why I didn’t report him.
“And he said this to you, out of the blue?” asks dark suit in the harshest tone yet. “Seems kind of strange, don’t you think, to admit this to someone he met just months ago?”
I feel my eyes give my complete surprise away. He thinks I am guilty of something, doesn’t he? Am I guilty of something because I didn’t report him right away? Oh no I have to be. I am screwed. But how was I supposed to know he was telling the truth? Say that. “Uhh, yeah I was really surprised as well.
“Billions of dollars are available Jacob, I can teach you how to do what I do if you want?” Connor asked with an arrogant air.
“Uhh, I don’t think I would be good at it…ha ha…”
“Oh well, you can help me market my products and sell them. I could always use a business guy like yourself, it would be fun.”
“Ahh well I think I am fine, but thanks for the offer though.” And I laughed uncomfortable for longer than I should have.
Connor liked me from that moment on, most likely because he could tell me anything and I wouldn’t tell anyone out of fear. He told me all about how he would sell his ransomware to people all over the globe, especially to Russian hackers. His business was booming and he was earning more than out-of-state tuition every week. Days would be spent by going about my business, classes and social life, and I would return late at night to long conversations about his world. Nothing really of substance, nothing I didn’t write down for you earlier.
It wasn’t until I was going to leave for winter break that I noticed something was not right. I had gone to say goodbye to him and he was frantically typing on his computer, he was never frantic on his computer. Well anyway, he barely said anything more than a ‘see you later’ and I just thought he was finishing a final or something. But when I got back from break, all of his computers were broken into and destroyed. They had burn marks on most of the parts from what looked like a super strong acid. On his desk was a note. You probably know what it is but it said:
“It was fun bunking with you, hope life is good. Just got too hot here. Had to leave.”
The man in the dark suit takes a deep breath, leans back in the metal chair, and starts fidgeting with his fingers while looking off into space.
“Everything you just said, is it true?” he says.
“Yes, everything I could remember about him.” I stammer out. I start feeling light-headed and realize I hadn’t stopped talking for a very long time. “And then about a week after that, you guys show up. What is going to happen to Connor?”
The lighter suited man leans forward. “That depends. We have reason to believe he is in Russia, linking up with some group there. But that is as far as we have gotten, I wish I could say more, but if we get him he will go to jail for a long time. He escaped our best efforts, he knows what we are looking for, he probably knows how to get out of the country with no one knowing.” Light suit sighs, dark suit nods in approval. “Sadly, he is a small fish compared to who we are trying to take down, we can’t focus on him too much. It’s a big world out there Jacob, and this kind of thing is growing. Just know people like Connor are real, and a lot less like what you would think. They are normal people, looking for a profitable business.”
Dark suit leans forward now. “Illegal, but still a business nonetheless. I’m sorry you had to get tangled up in this, but thank you for cooperating with us, it helps in cases like this where there isn’t much hard evidence. We will be in contact if we need more, let us know if he reaches out. Here, let me walk you out.”
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