Darren was the first to wake. Duct-taped together with the two other unconscious men, he groggily struggled against the restraints. His angry, dilated pupils wandered up and tried to focus on me.
“This won’t stop me,” was all he said. Then his head fell back to his chest.
Was he right? Maybe none of them would stop and what I’d done wouldn’t make any difference. Maybe Darren was full of it. Maybe I didn’t care anymore. I was reminded of Josh and how things ended up for him. It wasn’t a comforting thought.
* * * * *
Josh Puritan left the door open so his parents would find him. Apparently, his folks wouldn’t bother Josh when he holed up in his room for days at a time. It was considerate, really. That way, their first hint that he’d committed suicide wouldn’t be the smell, days later.
Nineteen years old and shy, Josh had graduated high school the year before. The few times I spoke to him he was polite but lacked self-confidence. It seemed he had an inner demon that eventually convinced Josh that his life wasn’t worth living. While his parents were away, he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
My wife Jamie and I attended the closed-casket funeral two days later. Only a few people came. Some I recognized from the neighborhood. The Puritans had moved into the house next door a couple of years ago. I had spoken to them a dozen times, maybe less. As a favor, I setup Josh’s computer when he was having trouble getting Windows installed. In return, the Puritans had watched our dogs while we were away for a weekend. We were typical suburban neighbors. We did each other little favors and exchanged waves as we passed but we never got close.
Jamie and I went through the uncomfortable process of offering our condolences to Dan and Sarah Puritan, as if mere words could possibly ease the pain of a parent who was burying their child. As if.
Jamie took the lead, hugging Sarah and holding her as she wept on her shoulder. I shook Dan’s hand.
“I’m so sorry, Dan. I’m really sorry.”
Dan held on to my hand when I tried to release the handshake and he put his other hand up behind my neck, pulling me close, closer, too close. He laid his head on my shoulder and I smelled his aftershave – is that Drakkar Noir? Who wears Drakkar Noir anymore? His body shuddered a little and I realized he was sobbing.
It’s a horrible thing for anyone as young as Josh to forfeit their life with so much still ahead of him, but I didn’t really know Josh or Dan and I certainly didn’t sign up for this. I tried to gently lean away from the embrace but Dan wasn’t letting go.
I patted him on the back, solid thumps with my open hand, and tried to think of something to say. Finally, I thought of a quote. “Suicide is a thief. It’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
I bet I’d read that on a Hallmark card. Regardless, it was the key to getting Dan to release my neck and back away.
He looked up at me with wet, soppy eyes and said, “If we had only known, you know? If only he had let on. We could have helped.”
“I know Dan, I know.”
Even as I said the words, I was gently pushing him away, buying space between us.
* * * * *
A few days later, Dan rang our doorbell. I opened the door and greeted him but kept some distance just in case he wanted to man-cuddle again.
“You remember when you set up Josh’s computer?” He held up the notebook computer to me.
“Sure. What’s up?” This had favor written all over it but I like working with computers so I didn’t mind too much.
“Can you crack the password or whatever it is you do to login? Josh was interested in journalism and I think there may be some of his writing on it. I’d like to be able to read it.”
When I nodded, he said, “That would be great. Will it take long?”
I didn’t bother explaining that the version of Windows I’d installed didn’t have encryption capabilities. Unless Josh installed some third-party security program, anyone could access the files. I also didn’t mention that I’d setup the Administrator password when I installed it, different from Josh’s account. Odds were good that I’d get into the computer on the first try. I smiled and took the computer from him.
““Sure, Dan. I’ll look it over and let you know by this weekend. Okay?”
Dan released the breath he was holding. “That would be great, just great.”
As I closed the door behind me, my conscience itched in a way that couldn’t be scratched. I could’ve fired up the computer right there, with Dan watching. I could have logged in and let Dan go on his way, but I didn’t.
In truth, I wanted to see what secrets the computer held. Even though it was none of my business, it was made my business. Sort of. So yeah, I was entitled. Dan would probably just look in the documents and pictures folders and that’s it. But me, I knew where to really look. The conscience itch subsided a little, but never let me forget it was there.
After dinner, I took the computer to my home office and logged on as the Administrator. I was in. Then I reset Josh’s password and logged in as him so I could see the preferences, settings and applications he would’ve seen. As far as the computer was concerned, I was Josh.
The screen came up to the boxy tiles so familiar to Windows 8 users. Personally, I hate this flat menu architecture. I searched the tiles for the one labeled “Desktop” which would take me to a more familiar interface. The desktop wallpaper is the image on the tile, so it could look like anything. After a few seconds, I found it. The image appeared to be a bag or something hanging over a river. I clicked on it.
The image went full screen with various program icons placed around it. I sat back in the chair, gaping.
The picture was of a naked girl, maybe eighteen but probably younger. She was gagged and suspended from a bridge over a river hanging from a rope tied around her wrists.
The internet is loaded with fake pictures like Kate Middleton’s head cropped onto a random nude body. Some are done so well you can’t easily detect it’s not real. I looked at the picture of the hanging girl closely. The exposure was bad and consistently grainy on the girl and the background. It definitely wasn’t a professional photograph and looked like it was taken with a camera phone, a cheap one.
It didn’t look fake to me. As I looked more closely at the girl, I noticed the fear in her eyes and my stomach turned.
Then I saw a watermark in the corner of the image, just faint, tiny words but they were there. I squinted and read strongerfist.org.
For some reason, I was reminded of a time when I was 11 and watched an Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds,” with two friends. The jerky way the birds moved made me uneasy. I was good until the scene where they discover the corpse with its eyes pecked out. I grabbed a pillow to hide my own eyes.
My friends laughed at me so I forced myself to watch. After it was over, I went to the bathroom and vomited. My mother thought it was because I drank too many soft drinks but I knew it was the movie.
I felt the same way, opening that website. I just wanted to shut it off because I knew – I KNEW – it was only going to get worse. But just like the time when I was 11, I forced myself to look anyway.
I typed in strongerfist.org and a logon screen opened. The boxes were already populated with cached credentials. The username was “freefallin” and the password was hidden but present. I signed in.
A forum of various discussion groups loaded. There was a light blue menu bar at the top. I clicked on the ‘About’ button and the page came up with a single paragraph in italics.
“strongerfist.org is a site where users can engage with like-minded individuals to openly discuss ideas and opinions without fear of condemnation or reprisal. We maintain a secure but nurturing environment to help the ignored and neglected find their power within. If you find this appealing, welcome. You are among friends.”
I backed out to the main menu. The discussion group listing appeared with ominous titles:
· Should I?
· My First Time
· Keeping a Secret
· Elders Speak
It was innocuous enough on the surface but in my head, I heard an internal soundtrack of music building tension. I had no pillow to cover my eyes. Gulping dryly, I clicked on “Should I?”
A list of discussion threads poured down the screen. I noted a couple were updated earlier in the day. I clicked on the originating post titled “Right Here, Right Now.”
“She doesn’t even now I exist, but I want her so badly. Its makng me crazy!!!!1! Wat should I do?”
There were eight responses. The first said, “Do it. Take the power!”
I scanned the other replies, all encouraging the person to follow through, though some pointed out concerns. “Wait until the time is right,” or, “Wait for the special moment.”
I clicked a few other threads. All were vague but somehow sinister.
Going back to the main menu, I clicked on the user profile for freefallin to display Josh’s discussion history.
The avatar for freefallin was the hanged man from Tarot Cards. It’s an image of a man hanging upside down from one ankle. I won’t bother with the details of how I knew this, I just did.
Josh had just one post, in the “My First Time” group. I clicked it.
“I have studied the masters. It will be my first and to feel the power, I must dominate. She is young and I know she will respect me and scream for me. I think I am ready. Am I ready?”
This was followed by 23 approving comments. Some were crude and some were restrained, but all were supportive.
Then came freefallin’s reply. “I could take her at the 7-eleven or at the bus stop, but she lives next door and I worry I’ll get caught.”
My daughter, Michelle, is twelve years old and sometimes goes to the 7-eleven for a Slurpee. She rides the bus to school every day. We live next door.
I was stunned. When I came to terms with what I’d read, I stopped rocking back and forth and unclasped my hands.
I leaped from the chair and ran, banging off the walls down the hall to my daughter’s room. I slammed the door open and stood there, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the room’s darkness.
I could see my daughter’s face, illuminated by the glow of her cell phone as she lay in bed.
“I’m sorry, okay? I know I’m supposed to be sleeping. I’m putting it away right now, okay?”
I sighed so hard it came out a sob. I couldn’t manage words, but the relief I felt was so complete. Of course, she was okay. Josh had died days ago but seeing her right then was overwhelming. As I closed the door, I heard my daughter’s resentful whisper. “Nazi.” I was so happy she was alive.
As I walked back to my office, I silently thanked Josh for killing himself before he could act on his thoughts. It was the decent thing to do. He could have gotten help but lacking that, he did well.
Sitting down at the keyboard of dead Josh’s computer, I start to browse the other aliases and posts on strongerfist.org.
Jamie popped her head in the door. “Coming to bed soon?” There was a seductive tone in the way she said it. When I didn’t respond, she added, “I’m not wearing panties. Want to see?”
My wife raised her nightdress and struck an amazing pose. Really, it was jaw-dropping. Still, I paused and looked away, feeling vulnerable, not for myself, but for everything and everyone I loved.
“Can we just hold each other for a while, first?” I asked.
Without a word, she took my hand and led me to the bedroom.
Later that night, after Jamie was asleep, I got up and went back to Josh’s computer. I didn’t know it but I had taken my first step into the Darknet.
* * * * *
At work, they call me “The Stick.” They say it when I’m not around and think I don’t know, but I do. My name is Andrew Stickler. I prefer Andy but The Stick has a certain ring to it, I suppose.
I work for TriNet, a broadcast company that provides TV transmissions via cable, satellite, and the internet. My team monitors the 12,000 computers in our network. We look for issues like low disk space or hardware failure on the servers.
TriNet has data centers all over the United States but the network operations center is in Dallas, Texas, where I live.
TriNet was a start-up in 2005, a front-runner using the internet as a backbone for TV broadcasting. I liked the technology. I liked the vision and the forward thinking of the company, and I went to work for TriNet.
Jump to 2017 and I’m still working for TriNet, now married with two kids. Now with a mortgage and two car payments. Now with a retirement plan that doesn’t work unless I retire at 80 and will run out if I survive past 87.
I met Jamie while interning at Microsoft and married her a year later, in 1996. We had our first child, Philip, four years after that. Michelle followed three years later.
I’m an American stereotype. I’m hopelessly boring and suburban. I’m a corporate drone. I’ve been okay with that, until now.
My Name is Andrew Lewis Stickler and my life has been safe and paint- by-the-numbers until I learned that it wasn’t safe at all. Until I realized there are others preying on me and those I love as if we were cattle. Not just me and those I love, but everyone.
* * * * *
After seeing strongerfist.org, I went to the police, who referred me to the FBI. Agent Polk of the FBI was polite and listened attentively on the phone as I told him what I’d seen. He said they were aware of strongerfist.org and other sites like it on, what he called, the Darknet. He explained that darknets were usually unreachable networks on the Internet. They used non-standard protocols and ports that allowed users to communicate with little fear of interference. They are often associated with dissident political communications and various illegal activities.
If there were FBI operatives attempting to infiltrate it, he didn’t tell me but then I guess he wouldn’t. He said he’d like to collect the computer and I told him it wasn’t mine to give. He’d have to work it out with the boy’s father. I gave him Dan’s contact information and that was it, the call was over.
The FBI was welcome to the computer as far as I was concerned. I’d created a copy in a virtual machine on my own computer and could gain access like I was still using Josh’s notebook. I could do my own investigation.
My eyes had been opened to something horrible and I couldn’t close them again. Some things cannot be unseen. At that point, I had no idea how much more was still to be seen along the depths of the darknet but I was going to find out.
* * * * *
Over the next seven months, I logged into strongerfist.org as Josh to comment on the disturbing images and stories there, slowly earning trust with the other users. One of the senior members, Crotch_Shovel, pushed me for details on my first experience, recalling that Josh had posted about wanting to rape my innocent little Michelle. I wrote a fictional but gruesome account of the rape, beating and murder. I said she was buried where no one would find her. I described the almost god-like power I felt while I choked her to death. What I didn’t say was how sick writing that made me.
Of course, Jamie knew what I was doing and why it was important to me, but didn’t like it one bit. She was scared about how it was affecting me. Our lovemaking had become irregular. Swimming in the cesspool of Strongerfist.org for an hour or more each night made being romantic or even affectionate more than I could pull off. Jamie didn’t let me slip away and took the lead when I couldn’t, reminding me that I’m not them. Reminding me of what normal, playful sex was like. Looking back, I think she saved me from swirling down that drain and being lost forever.
Months later, Crotch_Shovel invited me to a party in Oklahoma. It was to be an intimate affair with three Fists, me and some poor girl who wouldn’t live to see the morning. One of the members who called himself Spike said he would bring barbed wire and a girl. He assured us she was “prime beef.” Crotch_Shovel said he would bring his new stainless steel vaginal dilator set. Torque said he would bring weed and coke while I said I’d bring the liquor. I was roundly called a “newb” but they didn’t seem concerned.
I drove to the isolated location specified outside of a town called Gene Autry, in Oklahoma. It was a nice log cabin on a river, miles away from anything or anyone else, deep in the woods. I checked my phone and saw that I had no bars. We were really out there.
When I got out of the car, I heard Lynard Skynard’s “Freebird” playing from inside. How cliché. I carried the box of bottles up to the porch and set it down. I knocked.
The music turned off. The door swung open. A shotgun was pointed squarely in my face. I don’t know how I did it but I remained steady.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Freefallin,” I croaked, focused on the end of the shotgun, three inches from my eyes.
“About damned time. I’m thirsty, Newb!” There was laughter and I tried to smile but probably just grimaced. I really can’t recall.
I picked up the box of alcohol and walked into the cabin, setting it down on a beat-up Formica table.
Crotch_Shovel introduced himself as Darren. I met the other two men, Dirk and Travis, and introduced myself as Josh. We were on a first name basis.
“Damn, I thought you would be a lot younger. Guess you were a late bloomer, eh, Josh?” Darren laughed and grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels out of the box.
He poured four generous glasses of whiskey and handed them around. That’s when I noticed the girl in front of the fireplace. She was gagged, her arms and legs tied with duct tape. She still wore a t-shirt and shorts so they hadn’t started in on her. Yet.
We toasted the evening and our supremacy as Fists.
“Down the hatch and then we bang the snatch,” Darren toasted and gulped his back with the others.
I drank my glass but spewed it out, laughing at the toast. Soon, the Rholypnol that I’d laced the alcohol with took effect and all three men passed out on the floor.
I cut the girl loose. She was terrified and bruised but otherwise unharmed. We talked while I bound up the men with duct tape and she slowly calmed down.
Finally, FBI Agent Polk and his backup pulled up to the cabin, about thirty minutes later than expected. I wasn’t surprised.
“About time,” I said to Polk as he got out of his car, gun drawn. The other two agents in the second car looked equally on guard. “I got this,” I said. “You don’t need guns. They are out cold.”
They read the men their rights and loaded the Fists in police cars. Polk finally turned to me and spoke. He hadn’t said anything to me since he arrived.
“You could have died. You could have died badly, horribly, slowly.” He jammed a finger at the police cars that the Fists were now in. “They would have killed you, DEAD!”
He said it like the old Roach Motel commercials: Kills roaches, DEAD!
“I didn’t die so it’s all good. Thanks for letting me do it my way,” I said, trying not to sound shaken by his comment.
“You didn’t give me a choice, sending me the address only two hours ago,” he snorted. “We could have done this without you, Stickler.”
“You could have but it wouldn’t have gone down so easy. They would have fought back. They had guns and shots would be fired. They might have killed the girl. Her name is Adrian Poore by the way. She just got a scholarship to A&M. Starts in the fall.”
Agent Polk glared at me. “You are not done, are you?”
“I’m not but I’d like to keep you clued-in. Can I do that?”
“Officially, I can’t endorse what you are doing but if you contact me for help, yes. I will assist.”
“I’ll be calling you, then. I’ll try to give you a little more notice next time,” I said with a thin smile as I held out my hand. Polk’s handshake was firm and for a second, I thought he was going to pull me in and man-cuddle but he didn’t. I really need to get over my fear of that, you know.
All of that done, I went home and logged on to strongerfist.org. There were more shits to flush and I wanted to be the one who pulled the handle.
Copyright © 2016, Mitch Lavender