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UNFRIENDED COMPETITION FINALIST
As an investigative analyst for the FBI, I spent years combing through the depths of the digital colossus known as the “Dark Web.” It’s mind numbing work, filtering through thousands of illicit sites offering services ranging from outrageously fake to bone chillingly real.
My name is Clara Sanders. I’m 35-years-old, unmarried, and come from a loving household with parents who made it their goal to prepare their little girl for anything life could throw at her.
“Exposing you to the elements,” as my father put it. He enjoyed work as a logger, being good with his hands and methodical with his mind.
My mother had been an engineer—strong and incredibly intelligent. They’d done a good job preparing me for this world, but not the one that existed below it. Not the one lurking behind our screens, under our browsers and away from the familiar social media platforms most of us were content to use.
I had to brace myself for this world on my own. Working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation at least meant I was doing some good by bringing down bad guys on the Dark Web, but that still didn’t make it easy.
The more time I spent setting up Tors, establishing VPNs, and creating online profiles to interact with sketchy assholes, the more I felt the darker parts of my mind erode my normally positive outlook. I’d built up a considerable tolerance for this kind of thing. Formed a mental catalogue of the most despicable examples of human nature I’d ever seen. It helped dull the impact of the next brutal image I knew I’d inevitably come across. But in the long run, my ability to ward off the encroaching darkness was slowly diminishing.
So I kept chugging along through the shadowy underbelly of the internet.
I quickly came to realize what was legitimate and what wasn’t on the Dark Web.
The hitmen were bullshit. Scams created by phishing sites to mine desperate and unstable people for their money.
So were the Red Rooms. Jerking off to a live stream of some poor bastard having his throat sawn open or a woman being sexually violated to the point where she’d be better off dead. It didn’t exist.
But those were the easy days.
At least with sites that claim they can offer you a mafia hit or high-end murder, you know there’s a high chance you’re just looking at an edgy user interface with some bad malware underneath.
What made my skin crawl were the real products out there. The drugs and illicit weapon sites were creepy, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. I’ve scanned plenty of these, occasionally expressing interest in a product to see what kind of prick I could lure out of the shadows. Unfortunately, with this being the Dark Web, I rarely got a hit.
These users operated on cautionary and clandestine transactions, employing high level encryption software and heavily encoded profiles to conceal their identities. Only the lucky break or rookie mistake might yield an arrest.
The real evil resided in the sexual underworld of the internet. I’ve seen it all, and even in a safe, little cubicle, I sometimes felt like I’d entered one of the darker corners of the world. Only the sexual shit reveals the uglier side of humanity, exposing what people are truly passionate about.
When exploring sites hosting pornography, I found there were tiers I could apply to the extremity of their content.
The first tier was “technically legal, but understandably kept on the down low.” Extreme fetishes, rape fantasies, orchestrated gangbangs, a touch of violence, but all done with willing participants. If there’s anything I’ve learned while going through these sites, it’s that everyone gets off to weird shit, and sometimes it’s better not to question that.
Tier two ushers in the grey area. Not in terms of legality—anything on this tier is illegal as fuck—but it does seem to dance the line between sexual lust and true perversions. Crush porn, bestiality, mutilation, self-harm, rape, and far more that simply makes one question the state of the world.
And tier three, the darkest in my mind, revolves around what transforms the Dark Web from an eerie online legend into a truly terrifying entity. Human trafficking, torture, and explicit content involving children. These were the places where part of me couldn’t help but wonder what one could really do in the face of such evil.
Sadly, I’d had plenty of time to ponder this notion over the last two years, particularly on the issue of CP (child pornography) as the FBI launched the largest cyber investigation in history to topple Playpen, a monolith of human depravity.
Operation Pacifier as it was called took me to black spots on the internet that seemed to have no end. Playpen was a Tor hidden service that created, distributed, and advertised CP to more than 215,000 members at its most active periods. As an investigator, I was tasked with not only watching countless videos of young victims being tortured, violated, and defiled, but also developing relationships with the users in an effort to identify them.
Nothing has ever been harder than striking up a conversation with a 40-something-year-old man from Wisconsin who, in any other environment would’ve seemed perfectly friendly, and trying to sound enthusiastic as he described fondling his 5-year-old son while he was hog tied to his bed. Trying to engage in a casual conversation about the graphic abuse of a child stretched my will power to the limit.
It only heightened my understanding of how truly evil the Dark Web was. People like this were at home there, engaging in a shadowy imitation of day to day social interactions with their fucked up friends.
Fortunately all that torturous grinding paid off in the end. Thanks to the connections I and others in my department had established on the site, the FBI had been able to hack more than 1,000 computers involving members of Playpen.
900 arrests were made, including the creator and administrator of the site, Steven Chase, who’d only revealed his IP address by mistake. The cocksucker had swiftly been introduced to the American penal system where he received a 30 year sentence, but by that point I didn’t feel it was enough.
Along with the 900 arrests, 259 victims ranging from infants and toddlers to kids in their early teens had been rescued. Sadly most were Playpen users’ own children, a notion that stirred a ferocity within me. I couldn’t imagine my parents doing something so cruel as violating me and then sharing it for some pathetic fuck to get off too. Operation Pacifier was the moment the Dark Web truly changed me, igniting a revelation in my core that wouldn’t go away.
It isn’t enough, I thought to myself, staring at my monitor while the rest of my coworkers gathered in a conference room to celebrate the success. They deserve worse.
In front of me lay a minimalistic web browser, with small icons depicting some of the most severe sexual imagery I’d ever seen filling page after page.
Over 23,000 images and videos had been collected. I’d been tasked with going through a vast swath of those to confirm they were indeed what we already knew they were. It was an ugly protocol, verifying CP. You had to make sure each little window into the destruction of a child’s life was real. That way it could be officially used as evidence against the motherfuckers who’d engineered such a heinous thing.
I shook my head, a limp strand of curly brown hair swaying back and forth in my gaze. Breathing shakily, I clicked out of Playpen’s main page and typed through five encrypted security doors to open up another chat. Despite the monumental breakthrough with our case, the FBI hadn’t simple shut down Playpen. They’d taken the reigns from the living shit stain who’d created it with the intent of tracking down more members.
I was chatting with one right now.
His last message had just popped up.
> Just put down the little one down for a nap. God I want her so bad, but then I’d have to deal with all that crying again ;) What do you think?
Closing my eyes, I shored away my desire to tell him I’d rather he get fucked with a railroad spike and instead wrote a polite refusal.
> I’d just let her sleep. Can’t wake the baby.
That was all. I quickly closed out of the chat, trembling visibly to keep my temper, and grabbed my purse. I wasn’t sure how much more of the Dark Web I could take.
Collecting my things, I quickly bid a couple coworkers good night and ducked out into a vast parking lot. February in Washington DC made my breath curl into thin wisps as I made a beeline for the lonely Mazda 3 that shuttled me to and from work every day.
Slipping into the driver’s seat, I squeezed the wheel tight between my fingers, imagining that cocksucker’s throat in its place. Then, taking a shaky breath, I pulled out of the lot and headed straight for the nearest bar.
It didn’t take long to find one. And at this time of night on a Tuesday, most were empty. I selected one of the smaller establishments known as The Hole in the Wall. A dim neon sign flickered weakly in one window as I stepped into a subpar barspace filled with lacquered wood, cracked green cushions, and tacky memorabilia.
The only other occupant of the place was an older man in his fifties, sporting a couple day’s stubble and looking pissed that someone had intruded on his quiet night. He put down the glass he’d been polishing as I headed over to a booth and slumped into it.
“What can I get yah?” he asked in a gruff tone.
“Bourbon,” I sighed, holding up four fingers to indicate the amount.
He nodded, seeming to become a bit friendlier. “Tough day then.”
“In a way,” I agreed.
He rose his eyebrows, as if wanting me to elaborate but I didn’t feel up to it.
When the bartender realized this he resumed his gruff composure, pouring my drink and sliding it onto the table.
I accepted it gratefully and downed half in two gulps, leaning against the paneled wall. Something hard pressed into my hip as I did so. Curiously, I put my drink down and pressed at the spot by my thigh. I noticed the cushioning of the booth seat bulged slightly in the area between myself and the wall, clearly suggesting something had been stuffed underneath.
Sliding a hand under the cushion, I felt something thin and smooth push back and pulled it out. It was a laptop, relatively new and seemingly in decent condition. I placed it on the counter and looked over at the bartender.
“Was someone recently in here with a laptop?”
He shook his head, clearly perplexed. “Not in the last ten years.”
I nodded understandingly, gazing around the seedy bar. This was the kind of place one came to reflect poor life choices, not get work done. For a moment I considered handing it over to the barkeeper, but stopped myself. Given the laptop had been left in a public place by someone the owner had no recollection of ever seeing, I had a pretty good hunch it would just end up in an evidence room.
Alternatively, I could take it into work the next day and set about seeing if I could find the owner then. While my reasoning sounded like it was the right thing to do, a little voice in the back of my head also suggested the second motive. It would afford the opportunity to work on something other than the monsters I’d been talking to.
With my mind made up, I downed the rest of my drink and booted up the laptop. The bartender watched me curiously, but didn’t say a word.
It took several moments for the laptop to power up to a flickering black screen with a plain “Y/N” option. I hit the “Y” key and a line of text appeared that sent a bolt of fear arcing down my spine.
> Hello, Clara. We are so happy you found us.
Taking several deep breaths to steady myself, I timidly typed out the first question that came to mind.
> How do you know who I am?
The reply was instantaneous, as if whatever existed on the other side of the screen had predicted my query.
> You are not the only one who unearths information for a living.
My next askance seemed obvious too.
> Who are you?
Again their reply came within half a moment.
> That isn’t important. What is important is that we know what you have been doing.
The screen suddenly bloomed with multitude of horrible photos, making my jaw clench tight. Each and every one had been branded into my mind from the investigation. The laptop was flashing through the archives of Playpen.
“FUCKING STOP!” I yelled out loud, before hurriedly typing in the command.
The bartender looked over in alarm, but I remained entirely fixated on the laptop. Mercifully the disturbing images of suffering and abuse diminished as fast as they appeared, replaced with another line of text from the mysterious entity on the other side.
> You have spent more time on the Dark Web than most. You know what evil dwells here. We would like to help you fight it.
Breathing hard, I typed in the only logical question.
This time the reply didn’t come immediately. Instead a single photo slowly faded into frame. In it a man stood proudly over two beautiful girls. My heart sank as I took in their faces, framed by curly blond hair and beaming happily at the camera. The man standing over them appeared just as carefree. He had square glasses framed over soft green eyes, a slightly hooked nose and the beginnings of a receding hairline.
Then the image flashed to a grainier image. With a jolt I realized it was moving. A video. Those two girls now lay on a large bed, unnaturally still and looking incredibly vulnerable. I clenched the sides of the table as the father, now dressed in only underwear and standing in front of a full-body mirror recorded himself with a shitty webcam.
The sheer change in his disposition took my breath away. He still held the same casual grin and carefree composure, but now an edge of sadism shadowed his eyes and curled the corners of his mouth. He said something, but mercifully the sound had been muted. I trembled with fury, struggling to retain my composure and remind myself how many of these sad, obscene situations I’d assessed in my office. But this was different. I was alone now.
I watched for a second more as he moved from the mirror toward his girls. Frantically I began mashing random keys just as he leaned over his youngest. The image froze and the screen went dark once more.
I slumped back into the booth, breathing hard. Another line of text appeared on the screen.
> This is David Welsh. Father of two, systems analyst for a rapidly growing tech company, and one of the top submitters to the website your employers just spent two years taking down. His girls are very popular there.
My jaw tightened as I hastily typed a response.
> We’re in control of Playpen now. The FBI are using the site as bait to catch more predators. They’ll be incarcerated and monitored for the rest of their lives.
The next response chilled me to the bone.
> It’s not enough though, is it?
Those had been the exact words I’d thought that very afternoon, reflecting on the sheer magnitude of degeneracy contained in that one site. Looking at that line, I chose my next words with care.
> We’re doing all we can.
Even as I hit enter, I knew it was a weak response. The mysterious figure seemed to agree.
> I know. Sadly the institution you work for is limited by the chains of legality and constitutional rights.
> But you aren’t.
My heart constricted in my throat, pulsing like a drum as I struggled to grasp what this unknown entity meant. Eventually I replied.
> What do you mean?
Their response came rapidly once again, knowing my curiosity had been piqued.
> You are intimate with the sprawl of the Dark Web. You’ve seen to just what extent a hell this place is. It’s a virtual black hole, where all the worst in humanity is treated as a commodity, and a highly profitable one at that. There are no morals here and the FBI is bound by too many. You have the benefit of being in between. We would like to offer you the chance to exact another critical blow to the online child abuse trade.
I couldn’t speak. They seemed to take my silence as a motion to continue.
> Remember our friend, Mr. Welsh?
His image flashed on the screen once more.
> Well he’s not just a contributor to this disgusting little site, but also the fail safe for the entire Playpen community. We conducted a slightly more intrusive hacking procedure than your dear friends at the FBI and found quite the naughty stash backed up onto encrypted files throughout the Dark Web.
I leaned forward, my throat going dry at the thought that some sadistic fuck out there might be able to move on and reboot such a twisted empire.
The faceless stranger on the other side of the screen continued.
> Now of course I can purge his files, send them away with the flick of a wrist.
I could sense the “but” before it appeared.
> However, there’s another side to this. Taking away Mr. Welsh’s toys and sending the law after him is not enough. There is always a chance he might have his balls stripped off if his cell mates found out what he was in for, but that’s just a chance. He deserves more. He needs to face the true, abject terror he’s caused in his own home.
They paused once more.
> That’s where you come in.
I wasn’t sure what I felt in that moment. Fear, anger, doubt, emptiness, but also a resilience. As if they were challenging me.
Cautiously my fingers found the keyboard once more.
> What do you want me to do?
The answer came back simply.
> Remove him. Painfully and permanently.
I shook my head.
> And if I refuse?
Another instant, premedicated response.
> You’ll be free to go on as you are. But a man who’s been sexually abusing his two daughters for years will continue to do so until the files are revealed.
My reply was tepid.
> And you would reveal the files, right?
There came another pause, this one by far the worst.
> That remains to be seen.
I wanted to scream. To throw the computer across the room after typing horrendous slurs at this twisted anonymous stranger. How could someone use a child’s life—a child’s innocence in such a way? I couldn’t comprehend the notion, but quick as my temper had flared up, it rapidly subsided. And with the ensuing calm came a finality.
Trying to even my breathing, I responded.
> I’ll do it.
The stranger’s final response came in the form of an address accompanied by a brief list of instructions.
- Ask if he knows anyone else involved.
- Make him suffer.
- Remove him from this world.
A small note at the bottom promised more information would come once I’d completed my task.
After jotting down the address, I closed the laptop and looked around for the bartender, but he’d left at some point during my exchange. Briefly I wondered if he knew more than he let on, but decided not to press the issue.
It was nearly ten in the evening and the address I’d been given pinged at just over an hour and fifteen minutes away. I could get there in under an hour if I sped, but I decided I could spare a little time to stop by a hardware store along the way. I needed to get some supplies.
As I drove, I couldn’t help but feel as though the stranger on the other end was tracking my every move. I replayed the night’s events in my head, wondering if I’d made the wrong decision.
No. This wasn’t some random change of heart. I told myself. It had been a long time coming. Despite the mystery figure’s brutal means of coercing me, one thing did ring true in those creepy, self-assured texts. These monsters deserved worse.
Clicking through page after page of emotionally and physically damaging images wore down my ability to view the people we were targeting as human. The moment they linked themselves to the Dark Web they became something more sinister. An incarnate of a cruel, primal instinct that drove them to satisfy a bewilderingly wicked sexual desire at the cost of their loved ones.
Over and over I’d glimpsed this instinct in the faces of those who partook in the despicable acts posted on Playpen. Even worse, I’d played along with it in my effort to lure more information out of them. All those hours spent at my desk experiencing this depravity had culminated into a single, stark outlook that was as brutal as it was simple: These people valued satisfying their craving over all else and the Dark Web was their means of accomplishing it.
This was a conclusion I’d arrived at a long time ago. The entity on that laptop had simply been the push I needed to act on it.
The remainder of the trip transpired in silence as I considered what I was about to do. I made sure the store I went to fell on the more run down side so there was less chance of surveillance catching me. My inventory consisted of basic utilities—rope, duct tape, rags, and then more specialized equipment including a sledgehammer, chisel, box cutter, butane torch and more.
Once everything had been acquired, I paid with cash and resumed my journey. It didn’t take too long to arrive at the modest, two-story suburban home of David Welsh. While observing the home from my car, I recalled the two poor daughters this monster had and realized there was an issue.
I couldn’t very well send this cocksucker to hell if one or both of his daughters woke up. Panic began to rise in my chest as I struggled to think of what to do.
Then the laptop pinged in my bag.
I’d almost forgotten about it, my thoughts so wrapped up over this execution and the morality of it all. Sliding it out of my bag, I opened the computer to see a new message had appeared.
> You think we’re that careless? The girls are at their grandmother’s while our dear friend David figures out how to deal with his favorite pedo-site being taken over.
I sighed with relief, briefly wondering how they knew I’d arrived, before shaking my head. They’d obviously tracked the laptop.
Another message pinged.
> 228737. Code for the burglar alarm. After that, what transpires is up to you.
I stared at those words, understanding the unspoken message behind them. Whatever the fallout was, it ultimately came down to the choice I made. Setting my teeth, I knew what I needed to do. I gathered my supplies, put on a pair of disposable gloves, slid out of the car and hurried across the street to the darkened home.
It only took a moment to slip into the home and deactivate the alarm. Once that had been taken care of, I silently moved through the house, catching brief glimpses of the two smiling girls in family pictures alongside their monstrous father. I marveled at how I never would’ve seen any difference in the personalities of David Welsh and his daughters had I not known what I did beforehand. His youngest had his green eyes and slightly hooked nose, and the older possessed a similar mischievous smile. But that was where the similarities ended.
Abruptly the image of them smiling flashed to the two girls unconscious, splayed unnaturally across a bed with a heavily-breathing man looming over them. The camera descended toward the two girls and I had to squeeze my eyes shut to filter out what came next.
Unfortunately the moment of disorientation caused me to stumble and knock a picture from the table. My throat constricted as it tumbled to the floor with a crash.
Acting instinctively, I went entirely still and reached into my bag to take hold of a weapon. I fumbled for a moment while a light from upstairs came on and a soft, slightly nasal voice called out.
“Hello? Who’s there?”
Squeezing my eyes shut, my fingers finally wrapped around something solid—the metal canister of the butane torch—and gripped it tight. If David came down the stairs, I’d have to act fast.
For a fleeting moment it seemed as if he was content to go back to bed, but the events of the past couple weeks had him on edge. I counted his soft footfalls as he made his way down the carpeted staircase. I’d positioned myself just inside the doorway to the kitchen, fifteen paces or so from the bottom step.
David called out again. “I’m armed, you know. I don’t want any trouble.”
I cautiously peered around the corner of the kitchen alcove, glimpsing David’s shadow illuminated on the front door. In that moment I made out something long and thin in his hands and breathed a silent sigh of relief. He had a baseball bat. Or perhaps a baton.
It didn’t really matter. I was simply relieved it hadn’t been a gun. A surge of confidence steadied my nerves as I counted his steps. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, his footsteps became soft creaks against the wooden floor, helping drown out my breathing which seemed deafening.
As he shuffled forward, uttering empty threats and warnings, I took one final glimpse at the girls he’d raped and abused. Then I stepped out of the doorway just as David was rounding the corner to catch him off guard.
“WHAT THE FUCK!” David screamed, stumbling back and swinging his bat wildly. He was even less impressive in person—only a few inches taller than me and heavier than his picture suggested.
I ducked under the first swing and slammed the canister into his ribs as he over-rotated, grimacing with satisfaction as I felt a rib dislocate with the blow. But it was short lived as the desperate man jerked the end of the bat backwards and caught me in the jaw.
Pain exploded in my vision as I stumbled back, clutching my mouth with my free hand. Then anger overrode it as I refocused on the terrified man in front of me.
“Who the fuck are you!” he shouted, stepping forward to bring the bat down on my head.
I didn’t respond, and instead took the opportunity of him leaving his lower body vulnerable to drive the heavy canister into an explosive uppercut that caught him between the legs, nearly rupturing his genitals in the process.
David’s face went pale as the blow took all the the strength out of him. The bat clattered to the floor and the man slumped to his knees, hands squeezed between his legs as he groaned in pain.
I held his gaze for a moment, feeling no remorse for what I no longer even considered to be a human being. Instead he was to me what his girls had been to him—a means to an end. Squeezing the canister tight, I swung it sideways and cracked the edge against his temple.
David’s eyes went dark as he slowly crumpled to one side.
With the threat neutralized, I kicked into high gear—binding David’s hands behind him and gathering up any incriminating evidence including the picture I’d knocked over. I quickly checked to see if I was bleeding, but only found a tender welt. Once done, I looped my arms under David’s armpits and slowly began to drag him back up to his bedroom.
It took awhile, but I had plenty of time. Each step I yanked the deadweight up took me a little closer to the endgame, which neither excited or scared me at this point. The dull ache in my jaw seemed to best convey how I felt. It was a pain I needed to eradicate with the proper catharsis. And this transcended far beyond the sick fuck slumped in my arms. It was how I planned to combat the Dark Web now—not worrying about playing clean or dirty, just playing.
Once I’d cleared the stairs, the going became much easier. I dragged David into the master bedroom, which was painfully familiar thanks to that horrible video. A flashy computer sat opposite the four poster bed. I shuddered to think what it contained as I lifted the man up onto his bed and checked his eye movement to ensure he hadn’t regained consciousness on me.
Satisfied that he was still out cold, I stripped him free of his pants and shirt, mopping away some of the blood trickling down his temple with the clothing. Then it was a simple matter of trying him down, duct taping a ball of rags in his mouth and waiting for him to come around.
I didn’t have to wait long. By my estimation, I figured the blow from the canister would take 10-15 minutes to recover from and sure enough David came too.
The gag immediately came in handy, quelling the shouts of confusion that roiled up in his chest. With the wedge of rags, all that screaming amounted to a series of guttural muffs. Once those died down and David realized he had no way to rip the gag out, he settled on communicating through his eyes.
A pleading, feral light shined in them. I held his gaze for a long moment, showing no sympathy and instead conveying the unfeeling emptiness now residing in my heart.
“This won’t take too long, David,” I said softly, resting myself against the lip of his desk and setting out the various tools I’d bought during my pitstop. “There are a couple things I want you to know. One, this will be painful. Two, we both know precisely why this is happening. I’ve seen the videos of what you did to your daughters.”
A low moan filtered out of the rags, sweat beginning to stream down the sides of David’s face and sting his eyes, making them tear up.
I selected my first tool, ignoring a faint sense of queasiness at its implication. It was a chisel, intended for prying old nails out of a deck.
I turned to David and settled on his bed where he yanked at his bonds, trying to cower away.
“The only other reason I’m here, and this could be your saving grace, is whether you can tell me if you know any details about about your fucked up friends on Playpen.” I twirled the chisel as I waited for him to respond.
His frantic look seemed to harden at my inquiry, a surprising quality for someone in his position. If he’d been part of a gang or military unit, resistance would’ve been expected, but not for some shady pedo on the Dark Web.
“I take that as a no then?”
I reached across his chest to take the gag out. He drew in a ragged breathful of air and sneered at me, giving me the first glimpse into the side of the man capable of brutalizing their own kids.
“Fuck you, bitch,” he spat. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re playing with.”
His tone actually took me aback for a moment, but I snapped out of it and assumed my air of cruel indifference once more.
“Hold that thought,” I instructed him, shoving the gag back into his mouth. “And don’t bite your tongue.”
Before he could comprehend what I said, I slowly, meticulously slid the chisel under his right knee cap. Blood seeped out, but there wasn’t much. The pain, however, would be horrendous and David let it show.
He jerked against his bonds for several long seconds as I levered the chisel through the articular cartilage around the bone and then lifted upward, snapping it free like a mollusk off a ship’s prow.
“MRRRRRRMMMPH!” David thrashed all he could, his knee cap flopping loosely under the skin.
Satisfied, I retracted the tool and wound a length of duct tape around the rendered limb. A fair amount of blood seeped through, but it wasn’t life threatening.
David wriggled around for a half a minute longer until exhaustion wore him down. He now gazed up at me with a mixture of unrestrained hatred and animalistic fear.
Next, I selected the box cutter. Now that we had established a rapport, I hoped he could understand the level of agony a human could suffer in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing. Particularly in the case of a someone who’d witnessed atrocities on level with his.
Running the razor blade under David’s throat, I took out the gag once more but held the point of the blade under his chin. “No naughty words this time, alright? If you have any information, tell me. If not, that’s also fine. It makes no difference to me.”
And those words rang true. That had been how David rationalized his monstrous actions toward his daughters. How I had dealt with spending all that time going through video after heart-rending video. The only way to counter the Dark Web was to either give oneself over completely to corruption as David had or approach it with academic indifference as I now did.
That was why hearing David’s next statement only made me sigh.
“Jesus fucking Christ, what did you do to my leg, you cunt?! I will skull fuck you if you don’t let me go now!” He shouted, yanking against the ropes and almost knocking himself out as he shifted his dislocated knee.
I had to be careful not to slice him with the box cutter from all the thrashing. When I realized he had no intention of giving me a straight answer, I replaced the gag and moved over to his right hand.
Another flash of anger surged through me as I imagined that hand wrapped around the throat of his daughters, stripping them of any semblance of normal life.
“Wrong choice of words, David. We’re going to be here all night the way you run that mouth of yours.”
He clenched his hands tight, but each finger possessed a thin muscle that ran from the tip back up the length of the arm. It was a simple matter to slice the one connected to the pinkie, allowing the digit to dangle free. David’s muffled screams pierced his gag once more as he shook, trying to free himself at all costs. But the bond held tight and I continued.
The night passed on in this manner for hours. I felt nothing in that time while David’s nerves were exposed to searing pain at every interval.
I found it perversely poetic in a way. A certain part of his body would be exposed to a deep, penetrating force and his mind would struggle to tear it away. I’m sure his girls had suffered in the same manner.
In all that time, however, David barely yielded any information. Only when I revisited his flayed pinkie did he croak out something other than a sadistic way in which he would defile my corpse.
“What was that?” I asked, taking his gag out of a bloodied mouth. Speaking had become a challenge for him after he bit through a good portion of his tongue.
“K-Kenneth Branaugh,” he mumbled thickly.
“Is that a name?”
He nodded weakly.
“Anything else to go with it?”
David flexed his fingers, wincing sharply as the dissected ones stung from the movement. I realized he wanted to write it down since speaking came with so much effort.
“Promise me you won’t try anything.”
He grunted and nodded, a string of blood slithering down his chest and onto the darkly stained mattress.
Not taking any risks, I tossed him a notepad and pen while shouldering the sledge hammer. Then I sliced his less mutilated hand free so he could scrawl a messy address on it.
Once I had it, I gave him my thanks, lifted the hammer, and swung it full on into his face. He didn’t make a sound, only slumping over sideways with a final gargling breath.
A weight lifted from my chest at the finality of the motion. Lifting the heavy implement from the ruins of the monster’s neck, I set about gathering up all the tools I’d used into the duffel bag and turned toward his computer.
I knew I needed to destroy it somehow, but as I observed the monitor something else caught my eye. A small, circular lens by the keyboard flickered faintly. With a shudder, I realized it was what David had been using for his uploads.
But the flickering light on the camera was what truly chilled me. I took a closer look and felt my blood grow cold as I read the letters “REC” next to it.
Someone had been watching me the entire time. From capture to execution. A message appeared on the screen.
> Nicely done, Clara. We were very pleased with the show.
I felt my throat seize up as I looked back to the ragged corpse on the bed. His cratered features seemed to stare back mockingly.
Taking a deep breath, I slowly typed in a response.
> What show? What did you do?
Their reply seemed mocking.
> Why we recorded you, Clara. We’re pioneers on the Dark Web and we wanted to create something memorable. Something to make our mark on the largest criminal network ever created. We created the very first actual Red Room.
Red Room? I wracked my brain trying to think of why that sounded familiar. Then it clicked. Red Rooms were part of the infamous Dark Web lore—places where high-end clientele paid to have someone killed for their pleasure. The gravity of those words hit me like a sledgehammer.
I’d not only just participated in a Dark Web spectacle, but had been manipulated into torturing and executing a man I never knew for the entertainment of others.
No… not manipulated, I reminded myself. Compelled. I wasn’t an innocent victim and the lifeless waist of oxygen laying on that bed hadn’t been “just some man.” He’d been a monster and I’d been an active participant.
Gazing back at the computer, I typed out another question.
> How many are watching?
I glared at the vague answer.
> Enough for what?
> Enough to ensure you’ll be monitored at all times from here out, Clara. Enough to ensure this beautiful act of human corruption will never see the light of day if you behave or to slip into the hands of one of your coworkers should you not.
I shook furiously.
> I thought you said it was my choice.
> And it was, Clara. Up until the moment you made the first cut. Then you became one of ours. Part of your very own Dark Web. We’ll protect you, but you’ll work for us. Red Room executions can be quite profitable when done properly and to the right people. And make no mistake, David Welsh very much deserved every cut, slice, sting and tear you gave him.
My breathing slowly normalized as I realized there was no point in arguing further. They held all the cards.
> So what now?
> Now you return to work. Continue to take down the bad guys roaming the digital underworld in an official capacity and—when it suits us—do the same in an unofficial one. It will be trying work, but you will be removing true monsters from this world bit by bit. We believe David already supplied you with your next target.
I looked down at the blood stained name and address in my hands.
A final message appeared on screen.
> Welcome to the Dark Web, Clara.
CREDIT: Hayden Dalby
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