This story is by ross perkal and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
MY “HERO” JOURNEY
“I suspect the truth is we are waiting, all of us, against insurmountable odds, for something extraordinary to happen to us.” –Khaled Hosseini, author of “The Kite Runner.”
For me, despite all the odds, something extraordinary and life-changing finally did occur. It all started innocently enough for me. My tennis doubles partner, Robert, a Tucson CPA and Information Technology expert (Rob) insisted on having lunch after our weekly Saturday morning match.
“What’s up Rob?,” I chortled as we were seated in the secluded lounge at our tennis club.
“It’s time for us to both get off our asses and do something meaningful!” he replied.
“We play tennis every weekend and we usually win, what more to life is there than that?”, I retorted.
Just between us, ”unfinished,” and “unrequited” were the words describing the first 65 years of my life so far. Rob’s portent signaled that I had been living out the rest of my life without having made any seemingly significant, contribution to mankind. So Rob’s taunt struck a dissonant, hurtful chord within me.
I came from a lower-middle class family of hard-working, uneducated parents who struggled to help raise two college educated sons. A first generation professional, 40 years a successful corporate lawyer, but with no major accomplishments or thrills, other than having raised two empowered, enabled adult daughters from childhood, twenty years ago, when their mother left me.
It would have been easy for me to ignore Rob’s invitation to adventure. My fear of the unknown had always caused me be timid, cautious and conservative my entire life. A “scaredy-cat” the kids on the playground teased, and they were right!
“Ever hear of ransomware?” he asked at our next lunch. “What the hell is that?”, I demanded. “Ransomware is hacking into other businesses’ computers. It includes extortion of the victim by the hacker for financial gain. The hacker demands money from mega-rich financial institutions and redistributes it to poor, struggling non-profits,” he replied. He continued his lecture: “Remember when we were kids and we watched Robin Hood on TV?” “Sure, but what does that have to do with us?”, I stammered.
“We are going to cyber-attack a large hospital electronically and freeze all of its operating systems so it cannot operate—then we are going to demand a ransom to un-paralyze them, so they can get access to all their patient medical records again, once we are paid!”, he gloated gleefully.
Despite my initial knee-jerk reticence to seek out such a daring new adventure with him, the notion of extorting monies out of a monolithic American institution, which seemed to exemplify greed and avarice, was indeed intriguing and re-invigorating after years battling on behalf of others in the legal trenches.
“Ridiculous” I said and stormed out of the club. Two days after pondering his scheme I called him back and demanded “why are you telling me this crap, what does it have to do with me? Assuming we followed through on your insane idea, how would it work?”
Rob condescendingly, but patiently, tutored me: “once the “worm” is inside the computer network, the Hospital gets an email telling the CEO what has just occurred. The entity would have 4 hours to purchase $100,000 worth of “bitcoins,” a theoretical online currency, and send them electronically to “our” offshore bank account. When we have been paid and the payment confirmed, we will “unlock” the Hospital’s computer system. The email would threaten that if the deadline were not met, then the Hospital’s computer system would be permanently destroyed.”
“What is my role in this scheme, and why me?,” I queried. “Your role is to finance the “operation” and allow me to purchase the software needed and I trust you.” Rob asked me to write him a check for $50,000 to fund the “thrill of a lifetime venture.” Still reticent, I hand-delivered the check to him that same day, crossing the threshold out of the ordinary world, never again to return. Rob smiled broadly and high-fived me.
I asked what would happen to the patients in the Hospital the day of the cyber-attack and whether their medical care and treatment would be jeopardized during the “brief” freeze. “Quit being such a baby and welcome to the 21st century,” he sternly lectured. And so my journey to become a hero began.
Our allegiance was not to each other, but rather to the mission. It would be severely tested. We approached the “attack date” with terror and unspoken apprehension, but also with child-like fantasy of the unknown.
We picked City of Hope Hospital in Los Angeles as our target. Prior ransomware efforts had extorted amounts of less than $50,000 from other large hospitals, but Rob wanted this one to be a “record” heist.
The “attack” would take place on a weekend. After months of us working at his office night after night the big day arrived. I was nervous, no really scared, but ready to end the banality of my trite existence and assume my new role as avenger of the poor.
Rob was supposed to meet me for breakfast, but texted that he was not feeling well. We met at his office at 9:00 a.m., instead. Rob looked pale, flushed, like he had the flu. “I was up all night and could not sleep,” he muttered. “Shall we postpone our attack?” He shook his head and turned on his computer. I sat beside him meekly, aiding and abetting. He whispered that the entire “invasion” would take 20 minutes for the Hospital’s computer to completely shut down.
He said nothing. Rob catatonically stared into his computer monitor. I observed him closely, since he was in some evident, physical distress. It only took 15 minutes for him to send the invasive software into the heart of Hospital’s central nervous system. He then slumped over the keyboard and appeared to almost faint. “Shall I go and get you something?” He shook his head, still face down on the desk.
I watched the monitor and it seemed to be cycling through the ransomware program. When it “beeped” Rob slowly picked up his head and proceeded to send the extortion emails to the Hospital’s management, as planned. He then got up slowly and gingerly laid down on the floor of his office, curled up into a fetal position.
“Get out of here and let me be.”
I left and drove around aimlessly. When I let myself back into his office two hours later his body was in the same place, face now ashen, no apparent breath, and no movement. I shook his body violently and screamed out his name to roust him, to no avail. I took a blanket off of the top of the couch in his office and covered him up with it. It was the end of our “arrangement.”
Stunned by what I had just found, I sat on the floor and stared at the inert blanket in disbelief. Soon I heard a beeping from the monitor, signaling that the offshore payment had been received.
I did not know how to un-encrypt the Hospital’s computer system. I had no idea how many of its patient’s lives or well-being might now be in jeopardy. My mentor had left me and “gone home.” My sophomoric thirst for adventure had now put me and innocent others in extreme peril.
Trembling uncontrollably and sweating profusely, I was unable to react. Despite our seemingly careful planning, there had been no “contingency” plan. There was no one I could call or consult with. I thought that the throbbing pain in my chest and the migraine-like pounding in my head presaged my demise. Despite this shock, I knew I had to act quickly.
The only person I trusted whom I could ask for help was a criminal defense lawyer in Tucson, a friend. Sobbing, I gushed out the potential peril we had placed the Hospital’s patients in. He quickly grasped the gravity of my plight, giving me the cell number of a trusted FBI agent. I texted him that I had just ransomed the Hospital, but had no knowledge of how to reverse the cyber-attack.
My cell rang. I blurted out the “story.” “Where are you and who is with you?” I told him no one. He said to stay put, he would arrange for some Tucson agents to join me. I sat down on the floor next to my inert “partner.” Time stood still.
Four FBI agents stormed into Rob’s office with guns drawn, immediately frisked and cuffed me. We sat together at the computer and they began looking to see if they could find where my mentor had saved the “un-freeze program.” I stared blankly, my vital processes as frozen as the Hospital’s computer. Spiritual, but not religious, but I prayed fervently that they would save the patients (and me).
The local Arizona agents were on the phone with Los Angeles agents who were at the Hospital. There was nothing to be done there. No one had died yet, but the doctors and Hospital administrators were freaking out. Never before had the “cure” not been immediately effectuated, as soon as the ransom had been paid.
I went over and laid down on the floor next to Rob. The FBI had been so busy with the pending “life or death” crisis, that no one had even looked at the corpse. I could only hope that the FBI could possibly mitigate the staggering, potential damages.
Other agents were at Rob’s home and were searching his computer files. They found a key to Rob’s safe deposit box at Bank of America and arranged to meet the Bank President there to try and find some clue.
The FBI sought further advice from all branches of government. They frantically continued to search his file cabinets for a book of passwords. They found none. It had never occurred to me that Rob might not be around to effectuate the cure.
Just before 4:00 p.m., the FBI agents at the bank discovered a note with a password labeled “CoH Unencryption Code.” That code was immediately inputted onto Rob’s office computer. I held my breath. After what seemed like an eternity, the Hospital’s records were “magically” unlocked.
I lay lifeless and limp until the agents hauled me off to the Tucson jail. Once inside they took off my handcuffs and handed me my new tangerine-colored clothes. I was arraigned the following Monday morning and held on $5 million, cash-only, bond.
The White-Collar Criminal Offenders “wing” at the Federal Detention Center in Tucson became my new home, after the arraignment. It will be my home for the next five years according to the District Judge at my Sentencing Hearing. “Do you have anything to say before I sentence you?” “I am very sorry Your Honor for my role in this escapade. I beg your forgiveness.” He glared at me and then read his sentence.
I had pled guilty and in accordance with the Probation Department’s Pre-Sentence Report’s recommendations, the Judge sentenced me to serve 25 years, but suspended all but five of those years, since this was my “first offense.” He also sentenced me to do 2,000 hours of community service each year in Arizona after I get out of Federal prison, for the rest of my life.
I knew not what the future held for me, but only that my infantile search for adventure was over, and that both Rob and I had suffered horrid deaths, but I had somehow been resurrected.
“Five…, four…, three…, two…, one…, now slowly open your eyes and take three deep breaths,” my hypnotherapist whispered to me. I have been seeing him weekly for post-retirement depression/anxiety due to perceived feelings of worthlessness, never having done anything meaningful in my lifetime.
“How do you feel now that you have safely acted out your “Robin Hood” fantasy about changing the world, Mr. Arrowgate? We will continue to work on these end-of-life issues on your next visit. Good work today!”