Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
My local internet cafe is not much of a sight to behold. I think that’s what may have contributed to it shutting down for a couple months back in June. The exterior was reminiscent of an abandoned shack with its dilapidated appearance and broken windows. However, after they cleaned up the inside, I definitely saw some improvement. Sparkly clean tile floors and beautiful mahogany countertops filled the cafe with a sense of ease and elegance. I always got plenty of work done in there, so the shop’s grungy look never bothered me much, but it was nice to have a change of scenery once the cleanup was done.
I was probably the only regular at the cafe, venturing in on almost a daily basis. Plenty of other folks cycled in and out, but nary a familiar face would show up. This was fine, since I only went there to edit my vlogs and website on occasion. Striking up a conversation with someone recognizable was not on the agenda, ever. I was there for some much needed peace and quiet, not small talk. Though I had wifi at home, the thin walls there did little to muffle my father’s drunken ramblings. The cafe was my escape from the unwanted noise.
I strolled in on a Saturday morning, just five days after the “grand” reopening. I was feeling pretty groggy, still recovering from a cold I caught during the week. The humid August air didn’t help matters. Because of this, I decided to grab a coffee before getting my things set up. I walked across the glimmering, newly replaced floors and heard them squeak under my sneakers. I laughed a little to myself, almost tempted to start turning in place just to hear the sound a few more times.
“No,” I told myself, “Grow up.”
I ordered my coffee and took a look around the room while I waited for it. I took a mental note of how many faces were in the cafe with me. I was surely going to grab a quiet little table in the corner, away from these strangers.
“Small iced regular?” The barista held out my coffee and straw.
“Thanks.” I said plainly.
I threw down a couple of quarters as a tip and strolled on over to the table I wanted.
I spent the next few hours clipping and splicing my videos from the days previous. I was doing a week-long series about the gym I go to. Basically workout tips and some comedy bits with my buddy Jake who works the front desk. I found myself laughing out loud over a protein shake skit we had done. I may have drawn some attention to my little corner of the room.
Though the staring eventually subsided, I felt it best for me to leave, as I had been in there much longer than usual. I reached down and unplugged my laptop charger and that’s when my hand brushed up against something. Confused, I took a look under my table to investigate.
A sixteen-inch black bag sat just beyond where my feet were settled. It had pockets and a shoulder strap, as well as an abundance of dust coating the leather.
Holy crap, I thought to myself. Someone must have left their laptop behind or something.
At first, I was going to do the right thing. I very easily could have handed it to a barista and called it a day. I guess, maybe that would have been the smart thing to do. However, a mixture of curiosity and stupidity came over me, keeping me from being honest. Instead, after packing up my own things, I swung the mystery bag over my shoulder and swiftly exited the café.
I pulled into my driveway at about noon, the hot summer sun beaming down on my front lawn. My father was doing his usual, half-assed inspection of the plants in the garden, beer can in hand. I tried to get into the house without a word to him, but he stopped me just as I opened the storm door.
“Hey, hey, why are you in such a hurry?” He asked, taking a swig of his drink.
“Dad, I don’t have time. Important website business.”
“Well, well,” He slurred, “Don’t stop on my account.”
But you just stopped me, I thought to myself.
I pushed through the front door, passing my sleeping mother on the couch, and darted upstairs to my room.
SLAM! I shut my door hard behind me and locked it immediately. I tossed my belongings and newly found goods onto my bed and kicked my shoes clear across the room. I was excited to dig in to this lucky haul.
Carefully and slowly, I unzipped the top of the bag and pulled it open. I gasped a little to myself.
Despite the appearance of the bag, the contents were no joke. A shiny, brand new looking laptop was nestled nicely inside. I pulled it out and observed it with awe. It was certainly nicer than my basic, five hundred gig HP from a big box store. I couldn’t believe what I was holding. I flipped it open and began feeling the keys and monitor.
It was in mint condition.
I had to be the luckiest guy in the world. Everything was there, including a charger and wireless mouse. I even found a bag of screen wipes at the bottom. I also dug into the pockets, curious as to what treasure I might find in there.
What I found was a cell phone. Nothing special, just some cheap Android phone. It was still powered on and had no screen lock on it. Exploring it further, I noticed there were no texts and only one recent call to an out of state number. Being into electronics, I went into the settings to see what kind of operating system it had. It was vastly out of date on software, still set in some variation of the Lollipop OS. That’s alright, I thought. I could still flip it for a quick ten bucks or so.
I placed it on the bed next to the laptop and sat for a moment, trying to take in what I had in front of me. This was such a great find, but I needed to power on the laptop and figure out what I was working with. To my excitement, there was no login screen. I was in, immediately after booting it up.
I was never as into laptops as I phones, but I could tell right away I was not working with your standard, stock operating system. This thing resembled more of a modded setup that I had seen kids working with back in high school, but I couldn’t name it off the top of my head. Luckily, it was simple enough to navigate.
I set it up with my wifi and dived right into the file storage to get some idea of who’s computer I had. I was disappointed for just a few moments, but after clicking around a bit, I did find a folder labeled “A”. Inside was one JPG, titled “one by one”. Intrigued, my stomach did a little flip as I opened the image.
I was puzzled by what I found. It was a screenshot from a website. It looked like a post in some forum, from a user named “Anonandon&4” with nothing but phone numbers listed and zero replies. Underneath the list was the tag line “…you know who you are.”
Scanning the image for answers, I noticed the address bar for the site. It seemed to be a nonsense string of characters followed by a .onion extension.
Onion? Wasn’t that a parody news site or something? I wasn’t too sure, but I decided to dig a little deeper. I clicked on the x at the top, taking me back to the desktop. That’s when I noticed another folder. This one was labeled “PICS” which stirred up some more thrills in my bones.
Yes! I cheered to myself. This would more than likely reveal the owner’s identity.
I became disappointed as I clicked through the pictures. There was no human life, just shots of different places and scenery. This included a dark image of a barber shop, a path in the woods somewhere, and even someone’s garage. What really caught my eye was the last pic.
It was the café.
My stomach started doing acrobatics now, my heart racing. Why were there random pictures in this thing? Why was there a screenshot of a message board with a list phone numbers?
The files just weren’t adding up for me, but I hatched a half-baked plan. I didn’t know if it was going to end the mystery, but I couldn’t help but pry. I pulled up the pic with the phone numbers, grabbed the Android phone, and dialed the first number at the top of the list.
After only two rings, I was greeted with silence. Strange I thought, but I pressed on. I dialed the next number on the list. This time, it rang five times before I got a generic inbox greeting, with the phone number listed. Interesting, but I hung up before I heard the beep.
I grew bored of dialing the random numbers. I decided to take a break and put the laptop and cell phone away for a little while. I knew I’d come back to it later. Once the evening rolled around, I waited for my parents to go to bed, and then fixed myself up a snack. This was pretty much a nightly routine of mine.
I clicked on the TV as I usually did and settled on the first news channel I scrolled to. This is when things took a turn for the weird.
A breaking news story was displayed on screen, one from the next town over.
“YOUNG BARBER, AGE 25, FOUND MURDERED AT WORK”
“Damn,” I shook my head, “That sucks.”
A female news reporter was on the scene, outside of the barber shop where it took place.
Wait a second. I couldn’t believe my eyes. That barbershop. It was the same one from the pic on the laptop. I was sure of it.
I put my plate down on the coffee table and raced upstairs to grab the computer. I booted it up, clicked on the folder of pictures, and then the photo in question. I ran back downstairs with the laptop in hand and held it up to the tv screen.
Yes, it was definitely the same barber shop. Wow, what were the chances of that? I was shaking my head in amazement. I finished watching the news story and began feeling tired. I was about ready for bed, so I grabbed the remote. The news story just after grabbed my attention before I could hit the power button.
“COLD MURDER IN LOCAL FOREST.”
This one was also nearby, just over the bridge in the opposite direction. This world is terrible, I thought. I hadn’t seen two stories like that back to back in a long time. That’s when it hit me.
I scrolled over to the picture of the woods in the same folder. Then, I waited to see if the news story included the location of the homicide on video. Though I didn’t get anything solid to compare it to, I was definitely getting weird vibes. First a barbershop, and now a forest? I had to be grasping at straws, though… right? I decided it was bed time.
I had a pretty restless night of sleep, tossing and turning and kicking my covers to the foot of my bed. It was hot and humid and I kept waking up with the sweats. Needless to say, I was in dire need of coffee the next morning.
I was probably smart to leave the strange laptop at home, grabbing my own equipment as I headed out the door. I drove rather quickly to the cafe, eyelids still heavy.
I got my regular coffee and sat down at my favorite booth in the corner. Only one other person resided in the building, apart from the baristas at work. It was nice and quiet, and felt peaceful. A good contrast from my evening snack and sweaty night of interrupted rest. Still, my mind couldn’t help but wander.
The web address from the screenshot I found came rolling into the forefront of my thoughts. What was that onion domain all about? Why did the web address make no sense? It was something like “codeinflux” with random numbers and symbols after it. This was meaningless to me. I decided to do some research.
I couldn’t recall the exact website, but I remembered the .onion extension, so I started from there. I was immediately blown away.
Apparently, what it pertains to, is web addresses not reachable on normal servers. It takes you through something called “Tor” and is used for some pretty shady activity. I guess it involves what’s called “The Dark Web.” I’d heard a little about this before. I was beginning to feel sick. The websites listed on the Wiki were pretty revolting to say the least; nothing I would ever want to be involved in. The worst part? I was beginning to think the laptop I found was used solely to access this part of the internet. I couldn’t bare the thought of being in possession of it any longer. I had to do something.
I stormed out of the cafe ready to spring into action, when I was stopped by a tap on my leg. I looked down to see a homeless looking man, in a black tattered leather jacket sitting up against the front of the building. His face looked rough, complete with a badly shaven beard and cracked lips. He looked miserable. He held out a small plastic cup, looking up at me with desperation in his eyes.
“Spare change, sir?”
“I’m in a hurry dude, and I don’t carry cash.”
“Please?!” He begs some more. He reached out and grabbed my pants leg.
“No, get away from me!” I kicked his hand away.
The guy looked upset; his eyes were actually watering a little bit. I felt a little bad, but damn, don’t grab me. That’s when the guy did the strangest thing. He took out a phone and started taking pictures of me.
“What are you doing now?” I asked, confused as all hell.
He didn’t answer. All I could do about it was run to my car and leave as fast as possible. What was that guy’s deal?
I called my friend Peter on my way home. I knew he would have some more insight on this whole thing. I was hoping I could bring him to my house and have him wipe the computer clean. Then I could sell it to a random yahoo and be done with this whole misadventure.
Once I picked up my friend, I sped back to my house and showed him what I found in the cafe. He was blown away.
“This thing is lethal,” he laughed, “It looks pretty customized, honestly.”
“Yeah I noticed that, but take a look at these.”
I clicked through the photos, showing him the ones that I compared with the news stories.
“So, you think this laptop has some sort of connection to the murders?”
“I don’t know man, but I think there’s something fishy going on.”
He shrugged and took over the mouse for a moment.
“Where’s the picture of the phone numbers?”
“It’s somewhere in the file storage, yep click there and… bingo.”
Peter stared intently at the list and address bar in the screenshot. He also checked the file description and saw that the screenshot originated from the laptop, so it was taken from within the device. My hairs were at attention, all up and down my skin.
“So, you tested these numbers out?”
“Yeah, with this phone.”
I handed him the cell phone that came in the bag with the laptop and he scanned through it rapidly.
“Definitely a TracFone, something bought as a burner. Possibly for some sort of business task? Shall we try another phone number?”
I nodded and pointed to one just below the phone numbers I tested out. He dialed it in and threw it on speaker phone so we could both listen in. It rang, and rang, and rang. It didn’t stop ringing, so we hung up after the eighth ring. Peter looked at the phone funny, and then up at me.
“I honestly don’t know what’s up with all this – did you want me to just factory reset everything?”
“Yeah, I mean, is that gonna take care of my problem?”
“Not sure. But, I think I’d like have some fun with this before we call it a day.”
I gave him a look, a glance of disagreement. I didn’t think that would be in our best interest.
“I don’t think we should be messing with this, dude.”
“Come on, what could go wrong? You could even film it. This could go viral!”
“Well, I’m not going to vlog me hanging around with a stolen laptop. Just do what you gotta do with it and let’s move on.”
Peter smirked, looked at the screen again, and then dialed another phone number from the list. Again, we got nothing. This time, just another generic voicemail box greeting. He continued onto the next phone number, and halfway through dialing, he stopped. His eyes were scanning the screen.
“Um…” His face was now white as a ghost.
“What, why did you stop, you okay?”
“This is… this is my phone number.”
My heart panged like a club to a gong.
“That can’t be.”
I scooted over next to Peter and observed the screen. He was right. Just to be sure, he finished dialing and hit send. He put the phone up to his ear and waited.
Just as he suspected, his pocket lit up and his ringtone sang away. We both looked at each other in shock.
“Dude…” My hands were shaking, and my mouth was agape so far, I think my jaw was brushing my bed sheets.
“How?” Is all Peter could muster up from his racing thoughts.
“This is unreal, I don’t like this at all. Just wipe the hard drive and let’s be done with it.”
“Wait!” He shouted, while looking at the screen again.
My heart sank some more, I had a feeling about what he was about to say.
“What, don’t tell me…”
He didn’t say a word, all he did was start frantically dialing another number.
That’s when I felt it, my pocket was now vibrating. I gulped so loud that I flinched. I reached down and pulled out my phone and answered. I held it up to my ear.
“Peter.” I said through the receiver, looking at my visibly shaken friend across from me.
“This is messed up.” He responded through the burner phone.
I ended up driving Peter home shortly after. He had handed the phone over and told me he wanted to leave and take everything in. He left the laptop with me and told me he’d rather not mess with it. We decided to meet up at the cafe and drop it back off right in the morning. We’d wake up early and hopefully be the first ones in.
However, I missed my alarm. Apparently, I also missed ten calls from Peter. I opened up my messages and noticed the four texts he’d sent.
Damn, I had to get going and fast. I had already packed up everything the night before so all I had to do really was throw on a t-shirt and shorts, and head to the cafe.
As I turned the corner to where the cafe was, I had to hit the breaks pretty quickly. What I saw on that road was nothing but cops and ambulances. There were road blocks set up on either side of the ambulances, and the cafe was barricaded.
“What in the…?” I was thinking out loud.
This was crazy. There were people with their hands on their faces, looking scared and sad. I pulled over into the grocery store parking lot across the street and then walked over to the scene to get a closer look. I assumed Peter was doing the same thing.
I ended up in a crowd of onlookers next door, looking at the scene before us. There was blood splatter on the front doors of the café and some papers, among other belongings, strewn all about. More blood covered the ground.
Jesus, this was a damned massacre.
I could hear the people beside me whispering to each other about what was going on.
“They’re talking about a possible serial killer,” one woman said to her friend.
“…the kid was about to walk in, and suddenly bullets came in from over there. Nobody saw who fired the shots.” A guy filled his wife in about what he witnessed.
I was too curious to just be craning my neck from back there; I needed a closer look.
I peered over at the cops who were busy questioning a barista by the ambulances. I crept past the barricade carefully. I slipped past a couple of other baristas and made my way to a second ambulance by the other barricade. The stretcher was in view now, but I couldn’t tell who was in it. I decided to kneel down beside the ambulance and hopefully catch some conversation between the EMTs. I took out my phone and started recording.
“We lost him, he wasn’t hanging in there much when we got here but, I was hoping…”
“Jan, it’s not your fault… you saved the girl. You can’t save them all, you know?”
“I wish I could. I heard him talk before he let go you know? He told me his name was Peter…”
My hand jumped up over my mouth as I let out the weirdest sound. It was a gasp, combined with a grunt of disbelief. No, it couldn’t be.
“Yeah.” The other EMT said.
“We have his information already, guess he was an IT guy for a local business. Smart kid, early twenties.”
I stumbled back a bit on my heels, dropping my phone in the process. I bumped into something solid behind me and stood up quickly. I turned around and saw that same homeless guy from the other day. My face was still contorted from the information I just received from my eavesdropping. The guy was just staring at me, stoic. He didn’t even react to me bumping into him. He was glaring at me from behind an unchanging expression.
I couldn’t help it, I booked it across the street to my car. I could feel tears forming in my ducts, eyes twitching in the wind from my open driver’s side window.
Why did I have to wake up so late? Maybe Peter would have been spared from whatever this was. A drive by? An assassination of some kind? My head was dizzy, my heart was hurting, but I was beginning to make some connection. The pictures on the computer, the phone numbers, the murders. Everything. I was getting an idea as to what it was I was dealing with. The stuff about the Dark Web, the strange laptop, and the phone numbers.
I arrived home, heart sick as all hell. My friend was murdered today, and I couldn’t stop it. Maybe if I had never grabbed the computer from the cafe, he’d still be alive. Maybe if I hadn’t been so stupid, I could have handled this whole thing differently, and he wouldn’t be dead right now.
To top it off, I realized I left my phone at the bloody scene. I groaned and threw my head back in the driver’s seat. Now what?
Well, the phone is near some cops and the EMTs. Maybe if I call, they’ll believe I dropped it before they got there and I won’t get in trouble. I reached back and grabbed the burner phone out of the bag and started to dial my phone number when I suddenly had a thought. If the phone numbers we dialed somehow had something to do with the murders, that must mean…
I grabbed the laptop out of the bag, my heart racing and body profusely sweating in fear. This whole thing was unreal. The fact that I was right in the middle of it was even worse.
I clicked on to the folder of pictures of scenery from earlier. Again, my eyes scrolled across the picture of the barbershop. Then the forest. Finally, my eyes got to the picture of the cafe. Yes, the phone numbers and these locations have to somehow be tied together, but I didn’t know how. Why was this happening?
I was about to leave the folder, but then a small thumbnail at the end of the list of pictures caught my eye. I hovered the cursor over it and opened it up.
With some cloud service, the image was revealed. My jaw dropped in utter horror. A picture of my house. I was looking at a picture of my front yard and home. I hadn’t noticed this before, why hadn’t I noticed this? Over in the top corner was a link, one that opened up the full cloud folder from some email made up of more gibberish characters. This folder contained more pics. Pics that were very different from the others.
“NO WAY!” I shouted out loud, face contorted in anger and fear all at once.
Pictures of me. Pictures of me looking directly at the camera, others of my car. The last ones were of me sneaking into the crime scene at the cafe.
That guy. That homeless looking guy from the other day, and behind the ambulance. I have his laptop. He was watching me.
How did he tie into these murders?
My silent tirade was interrupted by the sudden sound of a jingle to my right. The phone was ringing in my passenger seat. I picked it up and peered at the phone number. I couldn’t handle this anymore, I just couldn’t take it.
It was my own phone number. Grudgingly, I decided to swipe and answer the call.
“Who… who is this?” I stammered.
A gravelly voice answered from the other end.
“Spare change, sir?”
CREDIT: Mike Maxim
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