The dark web was something I’d only ever heard about but never experienced myself. I never felt the inclination to venture into “those” parts of the Internet, especially with the rumors that all I’d find there were porn sites or drug sales webpages. I’ve come to find out the hard way that there are worse things lurking in the information superhighway. Much worse things.
And yet, thinking back, I have only myself to blame for my eventual destruction. It started like this. I’d just left my East Asian Philosophy class as USF to visit Margie at the coffee shop where she worked. I grabbed my favorite drink—large mocha with extra whipped cream—and settled into a cushioned chair to relax.
The insistent buzz from the cell phone in my purse drew me out of my meditation. It was Maxwell, my not quite boyfriend—more like my latest fling.
I silenced the phone.
Not now, I’m having a moment, I tell him in thought.
Maxwell was a nice guy but hardly worth my time. To his credit, he was easy on the eyes and a tiger in the sack. He was also a rich boy—a nice plus—but had the emotional and intellectual range of a fish. Couple that with a double-dose of social awkwardness, and you have him down to a T.
Maxwell managed an import/export business out of his house, which meant that he was constantly on the phone. In the two months we’d been together, there had not been a single date which hadn’t been interrupted by an urgent phone call, or text message, or email—often several times on the same occasion. I could forgive him this, though. Like I said, he was rich and good in bed. What’s more, I didn’t take our relationship too seriously anyway, and I don’t think he did either.
It was while I was looking up from my purse that I spied an unattended laptop sitting on the table next to mine. It looked like an expensive model, despite how banged-up it was. The device looked like it had been dropped a couple times, judging by its cracked screen and scuffed edges.
I leaned forward in my seat and scanned the interior of the café. The place was nearly empty. A sinking feeling crossed me then—empty as this place was, had there been someone sitting next to me? I couldn’t recall. But then again, what kind of weirdo would just pop in and drop an expensive laptop onto a table and leave?
These questions and more swirled in my head, making me feel uneasy.
“Hey, Margie?” I called out.
She looked up from toweling off the espresso machine. “Yeah?”
“Do you know whose this is?” I asked, indicating the laptop with a nudge of my head.
She stopped what she was doing to turn in the direction of the laptop. Lips pursed, she stroked her cheek as she thought her answer over. “No. I can’t say that I do. To be honest, we get a lot of types in here with laptops. I can’t tell one from another.”
I took another look around the café. Off in the corner, a young couple were necking over mugs of hot cocoa that had long since gotten cold. They didn’t look like good candidates for this laptop’s owner. Elsewhere sat an old man reading a newspaper. Perched at the bar counter was a man in a scarf and thick-rimmed hipster glasses pounding away at the keyboard of his MacBook Pro.
“An aspiring writer,” I chuckled under my breath.
It was apparent that no one in the café was the likely owner of the laptop sitting across from me. My conscience panged. If I’d lost something so valuable, I’d certainly appreciate someone returning it. The thought occurred to me then, that I might be able to locate the owner’s contact info among the laptop’s files. I took a slug of my mocha and went to it.
Its screen was dark. I prodded its touch pad to coax it from low-power mode, and the display flickered several times before going blood red. My hand went flying back as though I feared the laptop might bite me. At the time, I felt I’d overreacted, but in retrospect, I was justified in feeling ill at ease—I was looking through someone else’s private property. But on top of that, there more was something more, an undercurrent to that paranoid feeling that I should have listened to.
A white text box sat in the middle of the red screen. A single prompt was displayed in the box, in all-caps and bold black text.
ENTER A NAME AND CITY.
LEARN THEIR SECRETS?
A cursor blinked at the end of the prompt, awaiting my input.
I rolled my eyes at this, unable to believe I’d been so frightened by what amounted to a cheaply-programmed text-based game. I decided to play along and was about to enter my name when Margie called out to me from the bar counter.
“Can I get you anything else?”
“No thanks,” I called back.
I hesitated, then backspaced out my name, instead typing in: Margie Cunningham, San Francisco.
The prompt box closed faster than Satan’s briefcase after sealing a deal. The screen went black and was then immediately flooded by line after line of white text—Courier typewriter font, 10 points in size. It was a rudimentary type of forum, like something from the eighties called a “BBS.” Each line was a forum entry, each consisting of a person’s name and location, with the number of replies beneath. The last line to populate the screen was the one I had typed—Margie Cunningham, San Francisco. I punched the down arrow key until this entry was highlighted, then tapped enter.
The screen was mostly blank. As this was the most recent entry, there had not yet been any responses to my post. Suddenly, a reply popped up beneath the topline. It was just a series of numbers. I highlighted it and struck enter, and my screen filled with a color photograph of Margie in a basketball uniform. It depicted her with a giant trophy held aloft in her hands, her teammates crowded around her.
“Margie,” I called out to her without looking up from the screen. “What year did you graduate high school?”
“Last year,” she replied, her face concealed in steam as she purged the espresso machine’s lines.
“Did you play basketball?”
“Yeah,” she said, now straightening up to peer at me from across the coffee shop. “State champions, 2016. Why?”
Margie shrugged and returned to her work.
Suddenly, the gibberish in the forum response made sense: 03192016 was the date the photo had been taken: March 19, 2016. Margie had been in her junior year of high school then.
Another forum response lit up on the screen. Opening it caused the display to fill with Margie’s performance stats for the 2016 season—all the shots she took, made, and missed; every shot blocked, every free throw, her free throw percentage—everything.
Yet another forum response came in on the heels of the former: vitals. Contained in this response was a string of medical data—blood type: A-positive, tonsils removed, left-hand dominant.
I looked up from the laptop screen to watch Margie as she poured a mug of coffee. The mug sat on the counter. The coffee pitcher was in her left hand. Once Margie had poured the coffee, she set the pot down and picked up a carton of creamer with her left hand, and poured that into the mug. Then she reached for the can of whipped cream—left hand again—and sprayed a dollop onto the top of the mug.
I was terrified, and, I was giddy with excitement. I must have been logged in to some secret NSA database that automatically fed me information on anyone I wanted. But what came next sent a shock of ice up my spine… The next forum entry was the address to the café. Opening it brought up a photograph of the coffee shop’s exterior. A sub-post lit up under this thread. It was a text string that read: “She is working there now. Shall I say hello?”
I clapped the laptop shut and swept it into my purse, spilling the rest of my mocha to the floor.
“You all right?” said Margie, looking up from preparing a frappe.
“Fine!” I said on my way out of the café, though I doubt she heard me over the roar of her blender.
In a heartbeat, I was back out on the streets of downtown San Francisco. Paranoia caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end. The sidewalk was packed with people staring at their smartphones. My gaze flitted from face to face—any one of them could have taken the photo of the café just now; any of them could have sent that text. Even the people seated in their cars locked in bumper-to-bumper traffic had their phones out.
My phone buzzed. I fished it out of my purse, and nearly dropped it out of shock upon seeing what was on the screen.
The status bar prominently displayed: NO SERVICE. Where there would be an antenna icon to gauge signal strength there was instead a circle with a slash, recognized everywhere as the “No” sign.
And yet, my phone was buzzing to announce a new text message had arrived.
The sender was: 00000.
I clicked the message open and read its contents.
Where are you going?
I threw my phone into my bag and ran, forcing my way through the crowded sidewalks. I was moving without purpose—running solely out of fear without a destination in mind. When I realized this, I cut a sharp turn and crossed the street, car horns blaring as I dodged oncoming traffic. If anyone was following me, this would surely lose them. Once on the other side, I started for USF and its campus security office at double-time pace. I would be safe there—the campus security officers all were retired cops or military.
I’d put a city block’s worth of distance behind me when the crosswalk up the road turned red. I shoved through the crowd standing at the curb, elbowing past a sweaty man and a rat-faced teenager, both of whom glared at me as though I’d insulted their mothers.
My heart was pounding in my chest, as much from the sprint in heels as from the thought that someone was stalking me.
The traffic signal changed, and the cars eased into the intersection. After what seemed like forever, the light changed again, giving the right of way to traffic in the other direction. Then, once traffic had rolled to a stop, the opposite signal changed to green.
I looked up at the traffic lights hanging in each corner of the intersection. The road signals had changed, but the crosswalk remained stuck in the same DON’T CROSS indicator as when I’d arrived.
Scarcely had I realized this when a nearby cell phone rang. It was an old-timey ringer from a rotary phone—a novelty ringtone you’d have to give Apple, Inc. a dollar to download.
Fittingly, the old-fashioned ring was coming from an elderly lady standing next to me. She rummaged in her massive purse for her phone.
Then another phone rang, and another, and so on, until the street corner sounded like a switchboard operator’s console from the 1940s, the type you’d see in old Bugs Bunny cartoons. Everyone at the curb was reaching for their pockets or in raising their phones to their ears.
“Hello?” everyone assembled spoke into their phones in near chorus.
A moment passed in silence, and then the phone speakers erupted in ear-splitting white noise. Rat-face cringed and dropped his iPhone to the sidewalk, where it shattered into shards of overpriced plastic. Sweaty stuck his arm out to its fullest extent to get the noise as far from his head as possible.
The static cut out, and from everyone’s cell phone there came a synthesized robotic voice.
“Hello, Jennifer,” the phones blared in unison. “We saw that you joined our game. Care to play more?”
Confused murmurs arose from the crowd like, “What the hell is this?” and “Is this a joke?”
“Enter another name, Jennifer,” the voice coaxed. “Do it quickly. You will not like the alternative.”
“This can’t be real,” I told myself, looking over one shoulder, then the other. Whoever had been stalking me could not have followed me here. I was sure I’d lost them.
“Jennifer,” the robotic voice uttered, but only from a small group of phones to my left.
“Jennifer,” echoed a handful of phones to my right.
“Jennifer,” said the phones behind me, but not before the first few had said my name again, and all of a sudden the street corner was a dizzying call-and-response of my name repeated so many times that I couldn’t make any sense of anything.
I doubled over, clutching my ears. I screamed, or at least, I think I did, but I could not hear myself over the noise. Eyes clenched shut and sobbing, I took off running blindly into the intersection—
—right into the path of an emerald green 2001 Mazda Protégé.
I hadn’t realized I could hear again until I heard the tires screaming against the asphalt.
Its hood clipped me above the knees with a noise like a bass drum kick. It sent me rolling into the windshield. The glass shattered into a blizzard of tiny crystals. Then I was up in the air, flailing over the roof of the car beneath me, until I hit the pavement.
I felt like a water balloon hurled against concrete.
A dozen dark figures crowded around me. All of them were looking down, jostling to get closer to poke and prod at my broken form.
* * *
I woke up in the hospital, dazed and disoriented. My vision was blurry. I could barely make out the machines at my bedside and the rack of IV’s that dripped fluids into my bloodstream. I couldn’t feel anything south of my waist. There were mounds beneath the sheet that I reasoned had to be my legs, but that my addled mind refused to believe belonged to me.
My torso was on fire with dull hurt. The cloying stink of antiseptic rose from a bandage pressed against my right eye. A tube was down my throat, which chafed against my windpipe each time I drew breath.
Gradually, the room around me came into focus. Past the far side of the bed was a bouquet with an envelope propped up against it. Written across the envelope was: Maxwell.
A flat-panel television hung in the room's corner from a ceiling bracket. The television was turned off, and in the low light of the room, its screen served as a dark mirror.
I looked a mess. They covered all of my head except for my one good eye in so much gauze that I could win first place at a Halloween costume contest for going as a mummy. My arms—where there weren’t cables or needles stuck in them—were covered in bandages, some of them red from where the blood had soaked through.
My heart seized up on realizing I wasn’t alone—in the reflection I could barely make out the legs and lower torso of someone standing in corner behind my bed. I turned my head to look as a gloved hand reached for my IV; in the other was a needle.
“You almost got away, Jennifer,” a voice, mechanical and smooth, said. “But we don’t deal in ‘maybe and almost’—we deal in certainties. We will make certain you regret not wanting to play our game.”
I tried to scream but my dried-out throat let up nothing but a gurgle that was all but stifled by the tubes in my windpipe.
The sliver of metal in the gloved hand’s grip flashed as they plunged the needle into my IV line. The thumb of that hand bottomed-out the plunger, flooding the line—and my bloodstream—with whatever had been in that syringe. The full force of the drugs slammed my consciousness like a mallet.
I was out, instantly.
* * *
My eyelids slid open.
Consciousness followed soon after, but was hesitant in fully arriving. It collected in my senses like pudding attempting to drip through a sieve.
Where I found myself was not much different from the hospital environs from when last I was awake. I was on my back, strapped to a wheeled gurney. Someone stood at my head, pushing me through a corridor. My limbs, head and torso were bound fast to rails at the bed’s extremities with thick leather straps.
The air was thick with groans and sobbing. If I had to place the sounds, I would say that they were not unlike what you’d hear in a funeral home packed to standing room only.
Except that there was something more to these cries. There were not all screams of pain (though occasionally a few echoed from parts unseen up the hallway); rather, they were cries of torment, torture. The sobs were underscored with hopelessness, with fear, loss.
To my addled mind, it soon became apparent what had happened.
I had died in the hospital.
This was hell.
A high-pitched scream came from an adjoining room as they pushed me past its open door. I strained my eyes to peer inside. At the depth of the room was a child no older than ten, although malnutrition had made it impossible to tell its age or gender with any precision. The child was naked, its ribcage jutting from its too-thin envelope of flesh; each of its joints looking like swollen apples. It sat in a cage, bawling, caressing the blood-stained stump of its left arm like a mother might swaddle her baby.
Also in the room hung an array of chains threaded into pulleys mounted in the ceiling. A forearm hung from a meat hook at the end of one of those chains, dangling like a ham left to cure in the sun. It took no leap of logic to deduce that arm might once have belonged to the crying child. And judging by how the rest of the hooks and chains were arranged, it had likely been someone’s sick idea to turn the child into a living marionette in an obscene and disgusting reversal of the Pinocchio story.
My eyes welled with tears at the gruesome sight. Had the sedatives in my bloodstream not stolen fine control of my motor functions, I would probably have thrown up. Instead, my diaphragm quaked weakly, causing my body to shudder.
Someone said, “Shit! She’s awake!”
“Fix it, then,” said the cold, calculating voice from the hospital.
“She’s vomiting!” another voice cried out.
Drugged up and on my back, I was helpless as my stomach heaved its contents up my esophagus, where my meal would eventually find its way down my windpipe into my lungs and asphyxiate me—a rockstar’s death, like Joplin and Hendrix.
I resigned myself to my fate. Dying in hell beat living there by any stretch.
“Get the vacuum!” said the first voice.
Frantic hands tore at my head restraints. They rammed a length of tube down my mouth.
“Stick her with this!” still another voice said.
There was the sound of someone flicking the side of a hypodermic needle twice to clear the syringe of bubbles, then the tiniest pinprick in my arm, before everything went black once more.
* * *
When next I came to my senses, it wasn’t a gradual, hazy return to reality.
I woke up kicking, choking, screaming, thrashing against restraints that were…
I was seated in a recliner that wouldn’t look out of place in a den from the 1950’s. Its upholstery was musty with ages of sweat and use. Sections had been torn off, revealing the cottony stuffing within.
Before me, acting as a makeshift coffee table, was a plastic milk crate that had been turned upside-down. Atop it sat the broken laptop that got me into this whole mess, its screen burning red, casting an otherworldly glare into the otherwise dark room. There were other things in the room too, though I couldn’t make out what they were by their outlines. More furniture, I surmised. Not far off, I could hear a woman’s sobs.
A hand caressed my shoulder, and I fought the instinct to leap out of my chair.
“Welcome to the world of the living, Jennifer.”
It wasn’t that impassive, cold voice from before; rather, this time it was light and soothing.
My heart skipped a beat—I knew that voice!
“Max?” I called out, choking back a sob. “Maxwell?”
He stepped out from behind my chair, then knelt so we were both at eye level. In his hand was a camcorder with a backlit screen. The glow from the screen set out the harshness of his features—he was grinning. A red light on the device blinked.
“Max, what are you…?”
“Ah-ah-ah,” he cut me off. “Hold that pose—I want to capture your face… nice…”
“Are you filming me?”
“You bet.” With his forefinger and thumb, he pinched my chin and rammed my face to one side so he could get a profile shot.
“You’re probably wondering how you got here, and where ‘here’ even is,” he interrupted.
“I signed you out of the hospital. It was a simple thing. With just a few emails from the right people, we had you out of there so fast even the doctors didn’t know you were missing.” He paused, grinning wider as he tapped the side of his camera. “As for this, this is for the show, m’dear!”
He reached back and took hold of a movie studio floodlight on a pedestal. It came on instantly with a slam of high voltage. In the beam, a limp figure squinted against the glare. They had beaten her bloody and chained to the floor like a dog in the worst of kennels. Matted, greasy hair clung to her face. Her clothes hung in bloodied tatters. She was so weak she scarcely moved when the light had suddenly come on.
“And as for what I’m doing,” Maxwell went on, beaming a winning smile. “I’m working. Those flowers you enjoyed in the hospital came courtesy of an eleven-year-old Malaysian girl… and the screwdriver I used to remove her fingers.”
I shake my head, unable to make any sense of this. Before I can speak, Maxwell goes to the girl chained to the floor and grabs a fistful of her hair, then yanks her head back so I can see her face.
“Margie!” I screamed.
“Yes, indeed,” Maxwell utters. “She wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you. Smile for me, please,” he adds, leveling the camcorder on Margie.
“Fuck you,” she manages to rasp through a broken mouth. Her lips are puffy and bruised to the point they’re almost black.
“After people had dug up enough information about her to really get a feel for who she was, I started getting bids on how to kill her. Juicy bids,” he added, rubbing his palms. “The leading bid calls for me to burn chunks off her until she dies of shock.”
“You’re sick!” I said with a snarling lip.
“And we live in a sick world, Jennifer,” he shot back, not the least ruffled. With a grin, he sidled into the camcorder’s view and spoke into it, “How about it, folks? What do you think of the offer I made earlier?”
He looked back at me, steel blue eyes cruel and honest in one glance. “For your benefit, that offer was one to kill both of you in the same broadcast.” Then, back into the camera, “That’s got to be worth at least fifty grand, wouldn’t y’all watching from home say?”
No sooner had he asked than he was fishing his cellphone out of his pocket.
Sick bastard is even smiling! I thought, my face streaming in tears of pure hate for the man.
He turned the camera on himself again. “The viewing audience has spoken! A viewer by the username ‘Syntax’ has the winning bid!” Then, raising his phone to his ear, “Congrats on the winning bid… Yeah, sure, I can make that happen for you. Make the deposit and I’ll set it up.”
He clicked his phone off then rounded my chair to its back.
“Hold still, dear,” he crooned, then pressed something into my neck that pinched the skin. What felt like searing hot lead flooded my veins and got me retching up bile. The world spun as my vision became watery. Somewhere in the process, he flung me out of the chair. I hit the floor on my shoulder and rolled into a half turn.
Maxwell stood above me, leering. With his shabby suit sans necktie and lopsided grin, he could pass for a C-list celebrity daytime game show host.
I knuckled traces of vomit from my lip. “You drugged me again, you bastard,” I growled.
“Ah-ah-ah,” he said, waggling a finger, “let’s not say anything you’ll regret. For this next bit, I’ll need your undivided attention. I have a question for you. It’s important, so take as long as you like to consider your answer. The question is: do you want to live?”
I drew my shaky legs beneath me and pulled myself up on all fours. “Of course I do, shithead!”
“Good answer, because I want that for you too. Here’s the deal: Syntax has offered a quarter of a million dollars for you to… perform a task.”
My brow darkened with confusion. Hand clawing against the wall, I straightened up and nearly toppled over again. “What?”
“It’s real simple.” Arms crossed, he nudged his head in Margie’s direction. “Do her.”
My blood froze in my veins. I didn’t swing that way, nor had I ever entertained those thoughts. But, could I do… things… to another woman if my life depended on it?
“You mean…?” I asked with a trembling lip.
Maxwell slapped his forehead in frustration. “No, you dumb cow! As in, put her out. Kill her,” he emphasized with the universal neck-cutting gesture.
Eyes wide as saucers, I shook my head. There were certain things I might have considered doing to save my life, but this was too much.
“Tell you what,” Maxwell went on with fingers steepled. “I’ll split it with you, fifty-fifty. Do your friend there, and I’ll wire half the money into a secure checking account. Nobody will ever know what you did. You’ll be off the hook. No cops, no more hacking attempts—you’ll never see me or this place again. Now, whad’ya say?”
I shook my head again, this time out of disbelief. This wasn’t happening; and if it was, it wasn’t happening to me—it was happening to my body double, my clone—but not me, not Jennifer.
“Why?” I rasped, looking back at Margie, who groaned with every feeble shuffle of her broken body.
Maxwell shrugged. “Syntax hasn’t listed a reason; just that he wants her to die by your hand, after a bit of a show.”
“I have to torture her?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“No,” he said earnestly, then beamed his two-bit game show host grin. “I could do it myself if you like—to the two of you.” The smile melted into an expression that was all business. “Either way, I’ve gotta deliver, as I’ve got a reputation to keep.”
I glanced back at Margie, who was on her knees. She’d crumpled so far forward her forehead rested on the tops of her thighs, her hands covering her face as she bawled openly. Under the burning glare of the spotlight, she looked like a street child out of Oliver Twist—beaten bloody and barely clothed in tattered, dirty rags.
I didn’t have much time to regard her, for already Maxwell was snapping his fingers impatiently to snag my attention.
“Here,” he said, shoving something into my grasp and curling my fingers around it.
I turned my head to see what it was—a ballpeen hammer.
“Take your time with her,” he added. “The audience needs a show, after all. Now I want you to wind up and swing—really follow through with it, you know? Telegraph your movements. The viewers at home love the drama.”
Before I was too sure of what I was doing, I was tottering, knock-kneed, on unsteady feet, the hammer in my hand dangling by my side. Margie raised her head to watch me approach through the curtain of hair that had fallen before her face. Her eyes were pinched shut—how she could see through those puffed-up lids was beyond me—and yet she sensed my approach. She knew why I was coming.
“Jen?” she breathed my name. Blood sluiced out from her shattered mouth and pooled on the ground. Sitting in the red puddle were two white shards of fractured teeth. “Je-e-en!” she cried.
“No, please, Jesus…” she sobbed as at last her neck tired and her head lolled between her shoulders.
As if it had a mind of its own, the hammer in my grasp rose into the air. My arm was raised to its fullest extent, on a direct collision-course for the back of Margie’s scalp.
“This isn’t happening to me,” I mouthed.
“Not happening…” I repeated.
The hammer’s head was a solid arcing flash as I brought it down onto Margie’s shoulder. There was a crisp breaking sound like a chef snapping celery stalks in two. Margie screamed, her throat raw as she flopped over onto her back, cupping her injury with her opposite hand.
“Attagirl!” Maxwell cheered. “Again.”
My breath left me as choking sobs racked my frame. Shutting my eyes, I raised the hammer and let it fall where it wished.
“Again! Again! Sweet Jesus, yes! Again!” Maxwell called out, each blow bringing him closer to orgasm.
I was no longer myself. I was no longer Jennifer. I was the hammer.
The hammer crushed her fingers like twigs.
The hammer popped her knee out of joint.
The hammer bashed her jaw sideways.
The hammer killed my friend.
Not me. Not Jennifer.
I swung and swung until I grew tired. The hammer fell from my hand as I dropped to my knees, tears running down my face in solid streams.
My ears perked to a gurgling sound.
Margie lived—after all that, she lived, and I hated myself for it. Better would it have been for the two of us if she’d just have died.
“Margie…” I choked out. “I’m so sorry…”
“Whoa! Hey, hey—that’s enough now, slugger,” Maxwell stopped me. “You didn’t kill her, but it’s all the same as Syntax is quite happy with the performance. He even tipped us an extra ten percent—thank you kindly,” he added, speaking into the camera.
“Max…?” I said, breathless between sobs.
“You’re a real pro, baby—a natural if I saw one.”
My lips trembled so fiercely I couldn’t form words. Focusing, I spat the words out through clenched teeth, “Let me go. Please…?”
“Are you serious?” he answered, his tone incredulous. “After a performance like that? Sugar, the two of you are natural-born rainmakers—I can’t let talent like that go to waste. You’ll be famous. They’ll call you the Hammer Sisters, or Two Girls, One Hammer, or some shit like that.” Then, lowering his voice to just above a growl, “I’m gonna work you like a rented mule. You’re gonna make me lots of cash, for a looong time.”
“But…” I squeaked out a dry throat. “You said…”
“My dear,” he cut me off with a terrible Humphrey Bogart impression, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”