The Broken Lift

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Chapter 4

“This world

that was our home

for a brief spell

never brought us anything

but pain and grief;

It’s a shame that not one of our problems

was ever solved.

We depart

with a thousand regrets

in our hearts.”

Omar Khayyám

July 05, 2009

Luxury Jewelry Store

Spring St NW, Atlanta, GA

12:17 AM

“Ohh shit!!!” Arnold spewed as he hit his hand hard against the glass door in frustration. I had always known that the specs nerd would be a curse, ever since I met him. How on earth do we get out of this now?” He shook his head, moving away from the door and joining the rest of his gang, who’d converged at the center of the room.

“How’s it out there?” George turned to the man storming in from a rear door.

“We’ve been totally surrounded.” Hank’s face had reddened with rage, “we could probably escape if any of us can teleport… or if we’re blessed with super-speed.”

They dropped the bags they were carrying and removed the items from their pockets. George took off his mask and threw it on the ground, all the other gang members followed suit. Holding their hands above their heads, they walked outside slowly in a line. Midway, Hank spun around, returned to where they’d dropped the stolen items, lifted one of the bags, and slammed it against the ground again. Startled, the gang members turned to face him as he rejoined them, on their way out.

George opened the door and was the first to step outside, and the rest did likewise - a gang that had been highly wanted by the police. They dropped to the ground on their knees, obeying the deafening commands from the Fulton County Police. The police came over and searched them thoroughly before slapping handcuffs on them and reading them their rights. “You have the right to remain silent as anything you say can be used against you in court.”

Lucca could only watch the developments being streamed through the surveillance camera outside the store that he had hacked.

~*~

Five hours earlier…

East Paces Ferry Rd NE, Atlanta

06h17 PM

“We’re already in front of the house.” George muttered, before cutting the phone. He had called Lucca to remind him to complete his payment for the last set of purchased goods. Lucca offered to transfer the sum electronically but they refused right away. That wasn’t the only thing they needed the nerd for, though. It was the day they had plans to rob a high-end jewelry store. Lucca was enlisted to hack and disable the security cams and alarm system of the store. They were asked to wait outside Isabella’s house for him, not far from where they’d arranged to meet up for dinner.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Lucca strolled out, carrying a briefcase. “Hope you haven’t had to spend too long outside?”

Arnold immediately dragged the bag off Lucca and checked its contents. George smirked as he watched Lucca frown at Arnold for the brash act. But the thug’s fierce scowls prompted Lucca to revert his gaze back towards George.

“Are we clear?” George raised a brow, referring to the robbery they were to initiate from the restaurant.

“Yeah.” Lucca replied.

“One camera in front, three inside the store and one in the street - and I have hacked into them already. The alarm system is also under my control.” Lucca ended the update with a smile, reveling in the evil genius that he was.

“Call me on my burner phone five minutes before you enter the building and I will disarm the system. Reminding you again - you have approximately nine minutes in the building. The alarm system will not be in my control beyond that. Ok?”

George laughed heartily. “Do you think we actually need nine minutes? Five minutes and we’ll be out of there. We just need you to take care of the digital security and we’re covered”. Peeping at the time on his watch, he turned to Arnold. “We should meet with the other gang members first.”

Arnold grabbed Lucca by both shoulders. “Are you sure you’ll take care of everything properly? If I go down, I go down with you.”

Lucca struggled to set himself free until George intervened. “What do you think you’re doing? This ain’t the first… or the second… or even the third time he’ll be doing this for us. You can stay behind if you wish.” Then, he patted Lucca, apologizing on behalf of Arnold, “Sorry about that.”

“Don’t ever try that with me again, Arnold. I know exactly what I can do to you,” Lucca bragged. “Don’t forget George - five minutes before you go in.” he shouted, before disappearing into the house.

~*~

“Pack all you see as fast as you can,” George ordered as he reached across to collect a bag that’d just been loaded, from one of his thugs. He dropped the bag down and hollered, “Six minutes more.” Arnold was busy inspecting each bag spread on the ground with a wide smile, imagining the fortune it would bring them.

Lucca watched on through one of the hacked cameras of the jewelry store, enjoying what he saw. His grins soon turned to worry when he noticed an alert pop up on his screen. He quickly clicked on the alert – only to be faced with what was probably the biggest mistake of his life. The jewelry store had installed an alternative backup security system that was set to be triggered in case the first one failed. Lucca would have known this if he had done all of his research.

“Shit!” He immediately grabbed his phone to call George’s burner number. “I have to warn them!” He dialed the number, but his call was cut. “No… pick up George!” He dialed once more, but was cut off again.

George couldn’t be bothered checking the id of the caller – he was on the way to making a few millions, and he only had a few minutes left to do it.

When Lucca’s third attempt failed, he swiftly sent a warning text. “GET OUT NOW.”

“Four minutes.” George reminded them of the time, simultaneously counting the bags they had gathered so far. His wide smiles were interrupted by a deafening noise – the alarm had been triggered. Shocked, he looked at his timer. There were still two hundred seconds left – if going by what Lucca had advised them.

With their operation dragged to a sudden standstill, the gang glared at each other in dismay.

“Everyone… stop what you’re doing.” Arnold grabbed two bags from the floor. “We have to leave now.” Everyone gathered together in a hurry and hauled the loot in both hands, making a dash for the exit. However, what they saw outside, froze them in their tracks. With aghast expressions, they dropped their bags, staring at the unfolding chaos outside the jewelry store, where a fleet of squad cars were lining up.

“All of you should step outside immediately as this vicinity has been surrounded by the police already.” - was the statement that echoed through the megaphone.

“Quick… Hank… check the doors at the rear end!”

Hank rushed to exits that lay at the back of the jewelry store.

Meanwhile, George paced in his spot agitatedly, his mind racing with thoughts on how they might escape. He plucked out his phone from the pocket, and when he spotted the unread text showing up onscreen, it enraged him further. “GET OUT NOW” His eyes darted at the time the text had arrived. “Three minutes back? Damn it!” Three minutes ago wouldn’t have been a bad time to leave as they’d already gathered plenty by then. “Why couldn’t he call me?” George seethed, until he recalled the three missed calls that he’d cut off.

A quick cross-check revealed that those missed calls were from Lucca indeed. “Shit!” He dashed his phone against the ground in a fury.

July 4, 2009

Peachtree Dr NE, Atlanta, GA

12:17 AM

Lucca stood up in a daze and rushed towards the washroom, to splash a few handfuls of water on his face. As the cold droplets hit his skin, his mind went back to everything that happened in the store.

“If only I’d dug deeper… if only I’d found out sooner…” Lucca shouted in frustration, punching the mirror in front of him with his fist. By the next second, he could hear a pair of lithe footsteps rushing through the corridors.

“What happened? I heard the shattering of glass and…” her fretful voice paused as soon as she entered the bathroom, “Lucca… your hand!” She cupped her mouth at the sight of several bleeding cuts on his knuckles from which the shards were still sticking out. “I’ll be back with a few bandages and an antiseptic… wait here…”

Dashing downstairs, she grabbed the first aid kit from the kitchen and returned to him. She plucked out the shards and washed his knuckles under cold running water, before guiding him into the bedroom. She sat him down at the edge of the bed, dabbed a little antiseptic on the cut, and covered it with a dressing – saying nothing till she’d finished tending to it. “Tell me what happened.” Isabella sighed as she closed the first aid box and kept it on the ground. “You shouldn’t go through any tough moment alone. Why did you do this to yourself?” Tears began misting over her eyes.

Lucca couldn’t bear to watch her cry, so he used his left hand to wipe her tears and hugged her close.

“The last thing I saw through my laptop told me I’m finished. I’m done – now and forever.” Lucca confessed as he held tightly.

“What? What are you saying?”

Lucca narrated all that happened to his horrified girl, and she listened without interrupting him throughout. Once he was done, she scolded him for not heeding her advice. “I warned you that your work with them, will catch up with you. That they are trouble. All of this could have been avoided if you had listened to me once.” Drawing a deep breath to calm herself, Isabella then rubbed his shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’re in this together and we will find a way out.” She grabbed Lucca’s hand, but immediately let go when he winced.

“What do you think we should do next?” Lucca asked, looking into her eyes. “I’m totally out of ideas.” He squeezed his heavy eyelids.

“Let’s go to the police station as early as we can tomorrow. We should meet with them, before we can think of what we should do next. Everything is in their hands now.”

Having listened to her words carefully and having mulled on it, he nodded gently. “I will meet them tomorrow. I know that’ll get their attention.” Lucca’s face glimmered with a hint of hope, “then, perhaps, things will go well.”

Lucca woke up early next morning and prepared for the journey ahead of him. He prayed as soon as he woke up – something he had last done while he was still at Grenoble. While sipping on his coffee, he chose the outfit he would wear to the police station. He strolled into the lounge and was welcomed by a kiss from his girlfriend.

“Trust you slept well, dear,” she flashed him her morning smile. “Quick… have some breakfast before you leave.” She held Lucca’s hand and led him to the dining table, where she’d laid out some eggs and toast for him.

Sipping on her orange juice, she watched on, as he ate about half of it. As Lucca stood up, ready to leave Isabella immediately held his hands, enquiring if he was sure he could manage alone. “I’m ready… I’ll be able to come with you straightaway.”

“I’ll be fine.” He planted a peck on Isabella’s lips, before dashing out of the house.

July 6, 2009

Fulton County Police Department

141 Pryor St SW, Atlanta, GA

09:00 AM

At the police station, Lucca tried to remain composed all through. He greeted the security at the gate, before proceeding inside. He’d never been to a police station in his entire life, so the experience was a little awkward - but this was a matter of his life and future, so he set aside those feelings to do what had to be done. On entering the premises, he was met with security personnel at the desk where he had to produce information on the detainee he was here to visit. After filling a form, and offering proof of identity, he was asked to wait in a hall.

“George.” A police officer came knocking on his cell bars, where he was being detained along with the other gang members. “You have a visitor.”

George guessed that his pregnant wife had come by to pay him a visit. However, as he walked towards the waiting hall, the silhouette of a familiar man with a pair of specs on his nose told him everything. He tapped Lucca from behind, a dry smile skewing his lips, before asking that the police officer excuse them.

Lucca shuffled around and stood up to greet the man, “Hey…”

“You have just ten minutes.” The police officer snarled, before leaving them alone.

Lucca swallowed hard, not knowing how to break the awkward spell – when George beat him to it.

“So, did you come to turn yourself in or you just came to see how we’re faring in the cell you put us in?” George plonked down on the bench signaling Lucca to assume his seat.

Lucca sat in silence, facing the gang-leader, not knowing what reply to give. He knew the mix-up was his fault, but he couldn’t bear to turn himself in either. “I… I…”

“It’s obvious you decided to talk to me because you think I’m quite reserved… or that I’m gentle by nature. You know what? You’ve got it all wrong. Outside, I have a pregnant wife who’s probably gonna go into labor with our first baby in 8 weeks. Every other member of my crew has at least one relative out there, who needs them now. Yet, the man who caused this predicament for us is roaming around freely, in his nice car, with a nice house and a nice girl. I’m much smarter than you think I am.” George arose from his bench, pointing an angry finger at Lucca. “Tomorrow, we will be going to court. Make sure you’re there. We will know our next step from there.” With that warning, he left the table to join the police officer, who was waiting for him.

Lucca continued staring into emptiness, with his mouth wide agape.

He had hoped to say a lot of things to George. But when the time came, he hadn’t been able to utter a single word in the man’s presence. Throughout his drive home, Lucca was troubled, unable to arrive at a decision. It was clear the gang would be sentenced to jail for years - that was a reality he could do nothing about. But, he didn’t want his involvement in the affair coming out - and that was a probability he had to do something about. He couldn’t be locked up in prison, now that he had Isabella in his life.

Lucca got home and explained everything to her. He asked her if they could attend the hearing together and she agreed. She assured him that everything would be fine. She tried coming up with some of her characteristic tricks to force a smile out of him, but Lucca was having none of it. Shortly, he left her behind on the couch, and headed for the wooden bench in their garden. In a mere two days, everything had turned topsy-turvy. Disheartened, he flipped through his music playlist, checking for a song that would pacify him. “Bah!” He gave up his search when he found nothing.

Lucca buried his head in his hands when he heard his phone ring. He glimpsed at the screen – the caller id showed up as Alberto. “Dad?” It’d been a while since he heard from either of his parents. He picked up the call and had a lengthy chat with his father.

July 07, 2009

Superior Court of Fulton County

136 Pryor St SW, Atlanta, GA

10:00 AM

The next day, as Lucca and Isabella entered the court room, they kept themselves close to the backdoor, watching on as the defense lawyer fought the case. The gang had prior history and were caught in the act - so this wasn’t going to be an easy case for him. Once the attorney ended his speech and resumed his seat, the gang had their eyes on a visibly uncomfortable Lucca. Their faces were brimming with contempt – all except George who wore a devilish smile that told Lucca the man had a plan in mind. He gestured towards the judge, asking Lucca to keep his ears peeled open, as the verdict was about to be announced. The moment it became known that the judge found them guilty of theft and destruction of property, sentencing them to seven years imprisonment, Lucca knew things would only get worse for him. As the gang members were led out of the room in handcuffs, George mouthed a few chilling threats at him that Lucca couldn’t decipher. Two days passed. Lucca was riddled with worrisome thoughts, aware that he could be taken down easily, but he hadn’t heard anything from the gang yet. Until the subsequent morning, on his way out to the gym, he saw a note tucked into his car’s windscreen. He picked the paper and read the message in it slowly.

I know you must be feeling free now, but I have eyes all around you. I’ll be needing $34k deposited in the account printed behind this note. You have got 24 hours to do that or else I would have to meet the police for another round of talks. This money is just a small snapshot of what we all will be needing. Enjoy the freedom.”

Lucca looked at the bottom for the sender’s name but found the logo of a red skull instead. At the back of it was a 13-digit number staring him in the face. He squeezed the paper in his palm, before turning back on his heels and returning home. Slumped on his sofa, he continued reading the note, over and over. George had said he would get back at him – and he was doing just that. Sometime later, he put on a pair of casual clothes and drove to the prison where the gang were incarcerated.

July 09, 2009

Fulton County Jail

254 Peachtree St SW, Atlanta, GA

04:10 PM

When he arrived at the prison, it became obvious that meeting with inmates was not an easy process. The security would not help him out in any way either. However, he was running short on time and he had to talk to George, the only one amongst the gang who was educated and the only one who would be able to explain this new ‘note’ situation to him. That was when he spotted a cop sitting on a chair, alone, beside a vending machine. Purchasing a few snacks - a means to try and get George into a good mood - he dropped them into a bag and occupied the chair beside the cop, carefully delving on his next plan of action.

“I guess you must be tired.” Lucca sighed, offering the cop a can of soda from his bag.

“Sitting indoors all day can be tiring you know.” The cop shrugged as he opened the canned drink and downed almost half its contents in one gulp. Lucca kept chatting with the cop, in the hope he could win his trust and ask the man a favor.

“So, do you have a visiting order, young man?”

“No.”

“Then how do you think I can help you?”

“Two thousand dollars.” Lucca said, holding up two fingers.

The cop raised both brows, as he tried reading Lucca’s intentions. A few seconds later, he darted a glance both sides of the corridors. “Alright.” His voice sounded excited. “We have to get going now.”

The cop led him down the visitors’ lounge. When he was stopped by a fellow cop, he nodded “From the Attorney General’s office” - which seemed to do the trick. He ushered Lucca into a room and asked him to stay put inside, where he returned with George a few minutes later. “I can’t give you too much time. You’ll have to be quick,” he explained, before leaving the two alone.

Lucca handed George the bag of snacks he’d purchased at the machine.

George cast a half-hearted peek at the bag with snigger, sniffing its contents. “Did you bring marijuana along?”

Lucca: “Not at all.”

“Then I don’t need anything else. By the way, I hope you’ve sent the money. If not, you have about sixteen hours to do so.” George looked outside the window like he was reading the time.

Lucca: “So that was you! That was why I had come.”

“Your time is ticking already. I think we’re done here,” George got up, stretching his arms with a disinterested yawn.

Lucca: “I will send you one hundred thousand dollars, if you allow me time. I’ll deposit $2,000 to this account every week.”

“If you say so. But know that we will be coming to you every week for money. We’ll stop when we feel you’ve done enough – which might not be for a looong time. So before you play nice guy, it’s good to know what you’re up against.”

As George turned to leave, he pitched a glance over his shoulder, and scoffed at the defeated look on his enemy’s face. “Tell Isabella, I said ‘hi’.”

As he had been warned, the note in the car was only the beginning of it. Notes kept coming in, week after week - the message was the same, the account number was the same and they all had a red skull at the bottom. He never got to see the person that did the drop-offs, but the notes would always be tucked in places Lucca was familiar with, places close to home – one in his garden, one through the letterbox, one even at Isabella’s porch. Lucca kept her updated with the sordid developments – and all she could do was lend a supportive shoulder. “It will soon be over,” she’d reassure him every day.

By the time the fifth note had come in, he’d lost everything already. Forking out money for the first four collections had been tough enough. “Maybe we should just report this to the police,” Isabella advised him, but Lucca wasn’t ready to go to jail. In the sixth note, the subsequent weekend, the amount being demanded was double what it’d been every other week. He didn’t have access to that kind of money. And no banks would give him a loan either – even if they did, it was a weekend, and it wasn’t going to happen within 24 hours. His head was throbbing with a stress headache when he gazed outside his window, where he spotted a possible source of quick cash. “A car. I don’t need it now.”

Within the next hour, he’d cleared everything in his car and uploaded the photo for an online auction. Fortunately for him, Lucca was able to sell the car soon as a young man buyer, who was about to arrive at Atlanta ended up bidding for it – the only one to do so, actually. After a quick exchange of details, they agreed to meet the next morning in the airport.

January 16, 2009

Atlanta Hartsfield Airport

Terminal S

09:00 AM

Lucca drove to Atlanta Hartsfield Airport to meet his buyer at the arrival area. There were scores of other people around, excited to be meeting with their loved ones. The solemnness on his face was a stark contrast to the joy on theirs. While checking the announcement for flights that’d come in from Houston, he spotted something afar, that brought a smile on his lips – it was his first smile that week. A young girl was traveling down the lift with a backpack with dreams in her eyes;

the image reminded him of his own scenario seventeen months ago, when he’d left France.

A voice called him from behind, drawing him out of his thoughts. “I suppose you’re Mr. Lucca”

He turned around to meet his buyer. “Yes.” They shook hands before Lucca led him outside to where he had parked his car.

“I like it,” the man admitted after giving the vehicle a thorough scrutiny. He collected Lucca’s bank details and assured him that he would forward the sum later that evening. Lucca would then drive to Fairburn to drop off the vehicle once the money was deposited in his account.

Lucca was able to make three further payments from the money that the sales of the car fetched him – and then, he ran out of things to sell. Isabella could not support him either, since she was living off her granny’s savings.

His lifestyle was no longer the luxurious one he’d become used to over the past year.

He stopped attending the university, he downsized his apartment since he couldn’t pay the rent.

August 25, 2009

Andrews Dr NW, Atlanta, GA

10:17 PM

On one lonely night, as he sat in a corner of his new studio, alone, staring outside the grimy window at one of the shadiest streets of the city, Lucca broke down. He had very little income coming in, but he was certain that would not stop the gang from continuing to extort money from him. He needed to make huge sums as quickly as he could and he wasn’t going to get that by working at the coffee shop or from the part-time gigs he was undertaking to try and stay afloat.

On the verge of slipping into the world of depression, drinks and drugs, Lucca decided to forgo his conscience to escape this suffocating crisis. He was a programmer with exceptional hacking skills – he would have to use that to make fast money. “The criminal world… it’s the only way!” After all, it was his association with the mafia and crime that had dragged him down. He would have to use crime to climb back up at that ladder.

Lucca took out his phone and did a little research on what websites could be the most lucrative money-spinners. Oddly, the sites with the highest traffic belonged to the fickle world of dating sites and apps. “Yes!” That would give him his first boost.

Lucca downloaded some pictures of attractive girls of different nationalities and photo-shopped their features, so they could not be retraced to the original using facial-recognition software. Then, he hacked a few college websites to fish for information, which he used to craft several realistic accounts on the dating apps. Within a matter of minutes of going live, messages started pouring in – from horny, lonely, frisky men all over the world. After gaining their trust, Lucca started coming up with different sob-stories for each girl, using the guys’ weaknesses to his advantage, and asking them for money.

Four days was all it took for the first victim to take the bait. An Iranian man agreed to send the e-girlfriend he’d become besotted with, four hundred dollars to help her out. Lucca furnished his girlfriend’s account details and the first few payments rolled in quite swiftly, but he realized the dangers of continuing such an affair for long. There was no way he could receive large amounts, all by himself, into personal accounts. If the sites were alerted of his scamming and his details were leaked, any digging would eventually lead them back to his original identity. He would have to come up with alternate methods of security – if he wanted to evade capture, and until then he had to put the dating-apps idea on hold.

When a week elapsed and Lucca didn’t receive any notes from the gang, he could only guess that they’d either decided to spare him after coming to know of his present condition – the condition they put him in. Or, that they hadn’t tracked his new address down yet.

Lucca kept a low profile, the only place he visited being Isabella’s home. Even those visits were kept to a minimum since he could not risk her grandmother finding out about his present circumstances.

It was when he was spending a weekend noon at Isabella’s place, watching TV that his next idea came to him, through a random advertisement. It was an ad for a charity organization requesting for donations through SMS. Lucca kept his eyes fixed on the flashing text at the bottom of the screen – the hacker in him has just found his next scheme.

As soon as the advert ended, he left her place under the pretext that something urgent had turned up that needed tending to. Once home, he shut his door, brought out his laptop and went online straightaway. Few hours of research revealed that there were websites that enabled people to enter codes received via text messages, and in return, money could easily be collected through the wire transfer deposited into bank accounts. This was the perfect way to receive amounts behind a wall, while keeping the recipient’s identity safe. “Crazy Idea!” Lucca said as he held his cheeks feeling a rush of excitement. “Never struck me so far.”

Lucca reinstalled the apps he’d deleted and kicked his efforts up a notch. Pictures would only bring him smaller sums – for the real deal, he needed live streaming. So, he accessed videos from social media and recorded them. Opening an application, he turned his camera on and played the doctored videos in ways that made it seem they were live.

The plan worked; in two weeks, Lucca had scammed more than twenty victims, bringing over hundreds of codes. By the end of the first month, Lucca had cashed out close to thousand dollars. He was very pleased with this feat, but there was a long way to go before he could return to his former status. He needed hundreds of thousands of dollars and he was still miles away from that milestone.

Lucca needed to step it up…

Lucca picked up a pen and started drafting out his new plan. He needed more clients, to generate more codes and thus, make more money.

He would have to create a dummy website as a front for money laundering. To collect the funds, a code would be required. To receive the codes, a mobile phone number would be required. These illegally-obtained codes would then have to be exchanged to legitimize funds. However, one ordinary sim card held a limit of five hundred dollars a month. He’d need more.

“Aha!” He eventually figured out the puzzle. Stolen credit cards would have to be used to top up the phone numbers he’d purchase from the black market. Then, he’d need to develop an application. One that could send out a large number of text messages and received the codes. Once a group of codes were collected, the application would insert the codes in the charity website, and in a few minutes, hundreds of dollars would be visible in his account balance.

After trying several channels on the lookout for someone who could help, he came across a promising lead in a deep-web forum, a Russian guy who went by the id ‘Dragonov’. He introduced himself, and began chatting with Dragonov on a secured chat application.

“Good morning.”

“Get straight to the point. I’m busy.”

“Sorry. This is in regards to our previous discussion…”

“Alright. Like I told you before, I’ll be able to furnish you with two hundred credit cards and their details every day. You get me my money and I’ll get you your cards.”

“Do you have a PayPal account?”

“No. You can send it in the form of Bitcoin. I’ll forward my wallet address to you when we finish this conversation.”

“Sounds good. Thanks Dragonov.”

In less than five minutes, Lucca received the wallet address and transferred the agreed sum to him. Draganov, in turn, sent the credit cards and the pertaining details across. Now all that was left were the phone numbers he needed.

Later that evening, Lucca headed to the black market - the same place where he usually sold the items he had bought off the gang.

“El Padrino decided to pay us a visit today. I guess the blue moon is out.” A black American - his most frequent buyer - welcomed him with a hug and led him into his shop. El Padrino was the nickname Lucca went by in the black market, a name he quite liked. Once inside the backroom of the shop, Lucca explained all that had happened to him lately.

“I sympathize with you. Last week, some guys actually came here asking if I knew about your whereabouts, and of course I said no.”

Lucca tensed up as soon as he realized the gang were still looking for him - he had to be extra careful.

“I’ve actually come to buy some stuff.” Lucca hinted at what he was planning on doing. “I’ll need hundreds of registered phone numbers, several phones and about three laptops.”

“Now… I don’t have phone numbers to sell, but you’ll find it over there.” Lucca was directed towards a stall on the opposite side of the street.

Before long, he’d purchased a good stock of phone numbers to keep his new SMS business going for a while. Then, Lucca returned to the shop and extended the cash for the devices he needed. “Remember? I need three laptops too,” he explained as the man returned some of the cash back.

“Just keep it. Compliments from me. I know we’ll still do plenty of business together, in future.” he winked at Lucca. The shop-owner offered to have the goods dropped off at his home as a gesture of goodwill, but Lucca refused.

To stay safe from the gang, he couldn’t afford to have anything from this black-market linked directly to his home address. Of course, little did he know that he was being watched throughout!

Lucca set up the new devices in his small room, which was beginning to resemble a mini-laboratory now, leaving very little space for his bed, desk or chair. So much so that when Isabella wanted to pay him a visit, he preferred taking her to the movies, the park or a restaurant instead.

To get the ball rolling, Lucca needed a legitimate front for which he created a website - a fake charity for orphans - that would launder the money that came in. He simultaneously developed an application that enabled him to send text messages from the phones, receive codes and send those incoming codes to the online platform. Once the codes were approved on the platform, he would transfer the money as a wire transfer, through PayPal or request a Prepaid MasterCard from the platform. In no time, he was making thousands of dollars.

But, Lucca needed ten times that amount, and the only answer to it was money laundering. He needed a place where handling large sums would be considered normal, and the one solution to it was the casino, of course. Once he received the prepaid MasterCard he’d requested from the online platform, he used all the cash in it to buy casino chips. After playing on a few tables and slots for a little while, he cashed in the chips, opting to have the money transferred directly into his personal account. The perfect means to deflect any suspicion.

May 16, 2010

Cherokee Rd NW, Atlanta, GA

One day while he was returning from the casino, Lucca saw a note on the floor as soon as he opened his door. He picked up the paper, fear churning the bile in his guts again.

Brilliant stuff from you. I guess there’s more to you than that specs you’re putting on. You ran away from your previous place and relocated to a more remote area presuming we wouldn’t find you. You should have just gone back to France; at least that way, it would have taken me a little longer to track you. Anyway, now that you’ve read this, you can make the transfer in twenty-four hours or…. you know the consequences.

I’m sure you’ve worked out the sum you’re supposed to transfer. Time’s ticking already.”

He’d held off from moving into a better apartment, hoping his living conditions here, and the remote locale would throw them off his scent. Evidently, he was wrong.

Lucca stared at his emptying account after he’d relented to the gang’s demands, and sent the payment across. As dreaded, the threats resumed again.

Lucca continued using the casino; his nerdy brain beginning to find the challenge of the number-games therapeutic, even addictive.

He would head to the casino at noon and wouldn’t return until it was late at night, sometimes having lost everything. Sadly, the more Lucca lost, the more he played. That elusive ‘big win’ only seemed a short reach away – but however he stretched himself, he could never touch it. Everything he’d made through his carefully thought-out scams came to nothing – till he had no money left. Not even enough to pay the gang; two threats having already gone by, ignored.

He resorted to drinking away his sorrows at a bar. On one such night out, he met an old sad drunk sitting on a stool telling the bartender and everyone else who’d listen – how he’d lost all of his retirement savings to a scammer. As Lucca listened on, he realized that the ‘scammer’ who’d scammed the old man was none other than himself. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, Lucca sauntered out of the bar.

The revelation prompted him to look up stories of families who’d been drained out of thousands of dollars, and how many lives had been ruined by scams.

It was as if karma had slapped him awake.

Ridden by guilt, Lucca began lamenting the damage he must have done to families he had stolen money from. Families with kids, who were probably unable to cope. And to think that he’d squandered all that money in a casino!

He would have to get over his addiction, and then find other ways of making quick money – ways that didn’t involve destroying lives.

“Maybe the government… financial institutions… or a telecommunication company instead?” Lucca rubbed his face hard, “Yeah that’s it. A telecommunication company.”

In an attempt to clean his act, Lucca contacted the Russian hacker, Draganov, and told him of his new intent. He needed an application that would allow him to top up the balance on phone numbers with a single click. With this new application, the process would be far less complicated - a click of a button and the credits would be with him. Draganov agreed. In a few seconds, the alert came in - Lucca had received a new stock of phone numbers, and he used the application to process new amounts. Through the black market, Lucca had access to thousands of phone numbers, and continued loading them all to make his money.

Joy eventually returned to Lucca’s life, as his earnings doubled from what they’d previously been.

Isabella moved in with Lucca, after the pair received permission and the blessings of her grandmother. For a short while, their days together were bliss-filled. Apart from a gambling addiction that he was still struggling to keep at bay – something that Isabella was desperately trying to make him give up – it seemed as though their life would return to normalcy.

September 23, 2011

Cherokee Rd NW, Atlanta, GA

05:17 PM

One lazy evening, as Lucca was accessing one of the new sim cards, he received a call on the brand-new number soon after he turned on the phone. Lucca was shocked and decided not to pick it up.

The anonymous number called again and again, until he finally caved in.

“Are you El Padrino?”

Lucca said nothing, since he wasn’t sure who was calling. “Who’s this? Where are you speaking from?”

“You haven’t answered my question yet… I have something important to…”

In the blink of an eye Lucca realized that this call was being used to trace him - he was being hunted by the police or maybe worse, the FBI. He took another look at the phone screen before cutting the call. He brought out his laptop from his bag, and cleared all the data. Collecting all the phones and the sim cards, he dropped everything back in two bags. “It was the police… or the FBI.” Lucca muttered, as Isabella walked out of the shower, and wiggled her brow at the anxious lines creasing her boyfriend’s face.

“What makes you so sure that they are the police?”

“I know, I know. Nobody else would know that I’m El Padrino … only the Black-American shop-owner in the black market knows that nickname of mine… I have used thousands of new phone numbers. They must have traced the serial numbers, heard one of my calls where I ordered for new sim cards… they must have been waiting for the new sim to be opened and turned on… kept the call going as long as possible… to locate me.” He kneaded his temple. “We’re leaving this place, dear.

We have to do that as soon as possible.” He walked up to her and held her palm with an urgency she’d never sensed in him before, “I need you to book a pair of flight tickets.”

“What?”

“I don’t have time to answer questions now. I’ll do it later. I have something to do first.” Lucca left her side to finish packing up the gadgets.

Isabella knew what was happening. Time and again, she’d tried to draw Lucca away from his bad paths, but he seemed to keep gravitating back towards them. Regardless, she didn’t want to start an argument, and pile up on his stress now. “Where am I supposed to book these tickets for?”

“Anywhere.” Lucca clutched her face. “Anywhere… outside USA that does not require a Visa application process…” Planting a quick peck on her forehead, he picked up the two bags and dashed out of the house. Heading to Lake Oconee, he flung the bags as far as he could, into its depths, watching all traces of his crime slowly sink into the water till they disappeared forever.

When he reached the airport, Isabella was already waiting for him with their luggage.

“Lucca… here…” she waved her hands, beckoning him towards the elevator that’d take them to the ‘departures’ floor.

“So, where are we going?” Lucca stealthily whispered by her ear, after placing a soft kiss on her cheek.

“Somewhere you would really like.” Isabella winked as he began lugging the suitcases, and they both entered the elevator together.

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