“Tell me vat makes you a gut feet for us,” Vladimir said. He leaned his elbows on his desk and interlaced his fingers, peering at Peter with frosty, blue eyes.
Peter stared at him. Suddenly, Vladimir’s boldly-designed office felt too nice for him, and the brown suit Peter had selected that morning felt too large and tacky. Peter had expected, “Tell me about yourself.” The answer he’d memorized didn’t fit Vladimir’s prompt nicely. Seconds passed as he struggled to reconstruct the sentences into a coherent answer.
Finally, he laughed nervously and apologized before blurting out his memorized pitch anyway. He recounted how his career began with stealing comic books as a child. He graduated to robbing houses and picking pockets. Lately, he’d taken to online phishing scams and stealing small fortunes from businesses that still dared to use Windows XP operating systems. Now he felt ready to join the Spartak Thieves’ Guild, the infamous organization Peter had admired for years.
Vladimir nodded and stayed silent a moment as if waiting for Peter to finish. Peter wondered if he’d been clear, if he’d said enough, if he’d actually answered the question.
“Vat ees your process like for robbink a hause?” Vladimir finally asked.
Peter didn’t know what Vladimir wanted. He asked for clarification but got the same basic question back. He took his time collecting his thoughts. Vladimir seemed comfortable with silence, Peter decided. Anything to stay calm. Finally, he gave a vague answer about searching for a victim, planning, and executing. Another nod from Vladimir and an awkward silence followed.
“Vat ees a challenging problem you’ve haid to solve?” Vladimir asked next.
Peter smiled. He could gush all day about how he’d discovered a security vulnerability in the email server of a local government office. He’d found bank account numbers, credit card numbers, pins, and passwords of several employees stupid enough to send personal information in unencrypted emails. Even with that, stealing their money was a process. Banks were suspicious these days but not suspicious enough. Once he’d stolen all he wanted, Peter dumped the emails to every website that would sell them. Unfortunately, Peter’s speech came out as haltingly as it always did as he struggled to express the genius of his accomplishment. Vladimir nodded and didn’t look impressed.
The questions, stilted answers, and silences continued. Peter could poke at computers for vulnerabilities or watch for the perfect unsuspecting victim with a bulging wallet in a crowd all day, but he felt exhausted by the process of communicating with a person in real time.
Just as Peter fell into a numb pattern of listening, searching his memories, and responding, Vladimir asked, “Do you haif questions for me?”
That didn’t match the pattern. Peter couldn’t find a response. Why didn’t he think of this earlier!? He reminded himself to stay calm. Vladimir would understand… he hoped.
“No,” Peter said in a small, terrified voice.
Vladimir nodded, smiled, waited, and then said, “Hokay... Hokay!” He spoke as if everything really was okay.
He stood up, thanked Peter for coming, and offered to walk him back to his car. Peter felt a little better by the friendly gesture. Maybe he hadn’t presented himself as poorly as he felt he had.
They exited Vladimir’s office into a dim room of cubicles. Inside them, hackers tapped away at laptops. Vladimir led Peter down the narrow path between makeshift walls out to the bright hallway. As Vladimir and Peter neared the glass doors leading out to the parking lot, Peter noticed the phone protruding from Vladimir’s pin-striped pants pocket.
“Is that an… Eliza 2X?” Peter asked timidly, referring to it.
Vladimir glanced down at his pocket as they slowed to a stop.
“Mmm yes,” he said. He flicked the phone into his hand. For most people, holding the phone was like holding a flat drinking glass, but it fit like a playing card in Vladimir’s hand.
“Have you ever… built an application... with the programming interface?” Peter fished his own Eliza 2X out of his jacket pocket.
“But off course!”
Soon, Vladimir was demonstrating an application he’d built for monitoring his 4K security cameras posted around the city. Then, he taught Peter’s chatbot application some Russian curse words. Yegor, another Eliza 2X fan, joined them. He took advantage of the opportunity to get a close look at the tools his boss’s application offered to thieves and voyeurs. Then, he prodded Peter’s chatbot until it spoke gibberish, much to Vladimir’s amusement.
Peter pretended not to care by focusing on Yegor’s romance-thriller visual novel, My Eliza. Even under the circumstances, it wasn’t hard to do. Yegor wrote well, and the images of women and dark streets he’d selected from Vladimir’s security cameras to underlay the text fit the story’s mysterious and creepy tone. It left Peter wanting to know what happened next when he passed the phone on to Vladimir. He peered between Vladimir and Yegor to read on while Yegor explained the source of his inspiration, and Vladimir scrutinized the text with pursed lips.
“Vladimir,” another employee interrupted them.
The three realized they were still crowded in the exit. The employee frowned grimly back at them.
“Sergei haid problem,” he said to Vladimir.
Peter thought he saw Vladimir’s tan and stern face pale and slacken a degree. Yegor hurried away down the hall, sensing trouble. Vladimir thrust Peter’s phone into his hands, startling him.
“You, get out off my buildink,” he said to Peter, pointing a finger at him. “You don’t haif ze job.”
“What… why?” Peter asked, so shocked by the news that he couldn’t stop himself.
“Because ve don’t haif a place for 19th-century calculators who can’t spake English. Go learn how to think and talk like a goddamn human beink. You vaste my time.” To the grim employee still standing before him, he shouted, “Dmitriy, don’t just stand zer! Get ze car!”
Dmitriy dashed away. Vladimir stormed right after him. One after the other, they slammed open the door to the stairwell at the end of the hall and disappeared down it.
Amid their echoing footsteps, Peter exited the building and returned to his car. Navigating the chaos of evening traffic kept his mind off what happened until he got to the interstate and on his way home. Then, the truth crushed him.
Until he could speak, he was worthless. All the time he'd spent honing his skills didn’t matter. No one cared about what he could do if he couldn’t form the words to talk about it in a reasonable time and an entertaining way. Everyone had strengths and weaknesses except if you couldn’t talk. Then, you were just weak and useless.
Peter deconstructed his conversation with Vladimir, found every flaw he made, called himself stupid for everyone. He berated himself for wasting time mastering skills no one cared about in seclusion when he should have practiced socializing. Now he’d lost his chance to have his dream job, to have friends.
His phone rang on the passenger’s seat, interrupting his increasingly self-destructive and unrealistic thoughts. His eyes widened. Horror grew within him as the haunting violin melody reminiscent of the theme to The Godfather continued.
That ringtone wasn’t his.
Keeping his eyes on the road, Peter grasped for the phone. He saw “Yegor” and a phone number displayed on the screen when he glanced down at it.
He’d taken Vladimir’s phone.
Don’t panic, Peter told himself. It was even harder to think when he panicked. Yegor seemed friendly. He’d understand the mix-up.
Peter answered the call and put the phone up to his ear, steering the car on the twisting interstate with his other hand. Before he could say anything, he heard Vladimir’s voice on the other end.
“You stole my phone, you piece of sheet,” he growled. “I vill hunt you down and keel you. I vill keel everyone on your contact leest von by von unteel my phone ees back een my haind. Do you hear me, Peter? I vill keel Adam, then Alex, and then Amanda. Then, I vill keel Beth and—”
Peter ended the call and tossed the phone back on the passenger’s seat as if a spider had crawled from the earpiece. He didn’t recognize any of the names Vladimir listed, but he also hadn’t cleaned out his contacts in a long time. He wondered why Vladimir called him from Yegor’s phone.
…No, more importantly, what was he going to do!? Vladimir knew where he lived. Peter’s resume had his home address on it. He’d have to stay at one of his safe houses. He’d better bring his mother, too, just to be safe. He wracked his brains for who else on his contact list he should protect.
…Or he could just turn around and drop Vladimir’s phone and an apologetic note off with his secretary. Vladimir seemed preoccupied and upset when Peter left. Once his trouble passed, he’d see this was just a misunderstanding. Peter nodded, liking the idea. He sighed and loosened his grip on the steering wheel, calming himself. He started looking for an exit.
Instead, he noticed a police car flashing its lights at him.
Peter was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he’d neglected the speed limit. His mind revved into overdrive even as he slowed his car to a stop on the side of the interstate. What would the officer ask him? What would he say in return? What if he had to go to court and pay a fine? Would he have to talk to a judge? What questions would they ask him? What would he say?
“Come out with your hands up!” A muffled yell cut off Peter’s feverish thoughts.
Peter frowned and glanced in the rearview mirror. Two officers had emerged from the cop car and pointed guns at him. That seemed extreme for going a few miles over the limit. Peter wondered if they’d tracked one of his recent crimes to him. He couldn’t think of what would give him away though. Perhaps they had the wrong guy. He just had to stay calm and be polite until he knew.
One of the officers looked familiar, Peter realized. He leaned closer to the mirror. It was Yegor, now wearing a police officer’s uniform. Peter had heard stories of the Spartak Thieves Guild stealing cop cars and using them to intimidate money out of drivers. He could guess what they wanted from him now.
Peter grabbed Vladimir’s phone off the seat and shoved it into a pocket of his coat. He reminded himself to stay cool and think as he opened his door. He stepped out of the car, holding his hands up.
Yegor grinned and approached Peter with a swagger. His aim didn’t falter though. His accomplice followed him but with more suspicion. Peter opened his mouth to explain, but Yegor spoke first.
“You sly devil,” he said loudly over the cars speeding past them. “If you pulled that with anyone but ze bose, he might haif hired you. Instead, he vill keel you like dog.”
Peter abandoned his attempt at negotiation. He couldn’t convince anyone he didn’t steal Vladimir’s phone with it in his jacket. He spotted Yegor’s Eliza 2X bulging from his pants pocket and got an idea. Peter would have only a moment to act, but action came easier than words to him. He visualized what he’d need to do over and over again as Yegor approached.
“Maybe you not so smart,” Yegor continued. “Maybe you just lucky but not anymore.” He chuckled. “Maybe that why you talk funny. You stupid. Vat you say to that?”
Peter didn’t say anything, kept his focus. Yegor grinned cruelly despite Peter’s lack of reaction. He stopped steps away. His partner kept his distance, and with Yegor in the line of fire, he lowered his gun. Peter placed his hands on his old compact car at Yegor’s command. Yegor holstered his pistol and retrieved a pair of handcuffs from his belt.
Just as Yegor grabbed Peter’s wrist, he made his move. He slid out of Yegor’s grip, shifted behind him, and rammed Yegor’s face into the car’s roof. In a flash, he swapped Yegor’s phone with Vladimir’s. He backed off just as Yegor recovered enough to swing at him.
“That’s for… Your novel sucks!” Peter shouted.
He had just enough time to think about how lame he sounded and how he’d never find out what happened next in My Eliza before Yegor’s accomplice bashed his head with a truncheon.
Moments later, Peter awoke cuffed in the back of the police car. Yegor moaned in the passenger’s seat and held his head. The shadowy trees of the mountainous forest bordering the interstate sped past them as evening transitioned into night.
Back at the guild's headquarters, Peter, Yegor, and Yegor’s partner, Ivan was his name, waited awkwardly in Vladimir’s office. Peter sat cuffed in the polished leather seat he’d had an interview in a few hours ago, bleeding slightly from his temple. Yegor perched on the desk, glaring down at Peter and bleeding slightly from his eyebrow. Ivan took another seat against the wall just out of Peter’s view with his pistol in hand.
Finally, Vladimir and Dmitriy burst into the room. Vladimir’s pin-striped suit looked ruffled, the skin around one of his eyes was darkening, and the rest of his face reddened with fury. Peter didn’t catch a glimpse of Dmitriy around the gun Vladimir thrust in his face.
“Var… ees… my phone?” Vladimir demanded.
Peter didn’t know how to answer that. Yegor didn’t wait for one before digging the Eliza 2X out of Peter’s jacket. Vladimir snatched it out of Yegor’s hands and checked it, pointing the pistol in his other hand at the ceiling.
“Thees ees not my phone either,” he said in disbelief after a moment. “Where ze fook ees my app? Whose fooking phones do I haif?”
Yegor’s face paled. He looked away.
“Um…” Peter offered. He flinched under Vladimir’s glare. “What app is on that one?”
Vladimir stared at him a moment longer before checking. “Zat chatbot that spakes gibberish. Thees ees your phone!” He shook it at Peter.
Yegor had had his phone? Peter hadn’t expected that, but the result was the same.
“Yegor!” Vladimir roared, setting Peter’s phone on his desk. “Gif me your phone!”
Without meeting anyone's eyes, Yegor passed over his Eliza 2X. Vladimir examined it. Then, slowly looked up at Yegor. “You haid my phone ze whole time. I haid your goddamn phone.”
“You should haif checked,” Yegor muttered.
“You should haif checked! You’re fired!” Vladimir set the second Eliza 2X on the desk and fumbled a third from his pants pocket. He thrust it at Yegor. “Get ze fook out of my office!” Vladimir motioned to Peter with his pistol. “You two, uncuff thees man!”
Despite his scrawny build and beaten face, Dmitriy picked Peter up and set him on his feet as if he were a child. Ivan keyed his handcuffs while Yegor quietly slipped out the door. When Dmitriy and Ivan retreated, Peter found himself standing in Vladimir’s shadow.
“Would you steel like a job?” Vladimir asked.
“Yes?” Peter squeaked.
Vladimir offered his gun-free hand to shake. He pulled Peter close when he took it.
“You are clever,” Vladimir said in Peter’s ear. “I like zat… but do not steal from me again. Next time, I vill keel you.” He stepped back and shook Peter’s hand sharply. “Congratulations. Be here at nine Monday mornink.”
“Thank you,” Peter said. He couldn’t think of anything more appropriate to say.
Vladimir retrieved one of the phones off his desk, checked it, and handed it to Peter. “Unt don’t forget your phone.” Then, to his office door, he shouted, “Yegor! Vat are you doink out zer!? Drive Peter bek to his car and meet us at ze warehouse! We haif mess to cleanup!”