It was my job to stay in the truck. At least for this part of the operation.
I don't mind. I honestly don't miss the days of kicking down doors and pulling people out of their houses, half naked and scared, getting ready to run for the hills the first chance they get. As if it would do them any good. There was a time when people could feasibly avoid the law for a temporary stretch and get away with it, but this isn't exactly the day and age for hiding from the all seeing eye of the government. By the time someone's web activity has been red flagged, monitored, and a physical team has come knocking at your door...it's already too late to start making excuses. No defense will save you. No lies to be told. No strategies to form to weasel your way out of the situation. We've already got all the ammo we need to put you away for a long long time.
That's where I come in. I've been working computer forensics for 11 years now, and I've gotten increasingly better at it every day since I started. It's actually hard to believe that people still think that deleting something from their computer simply 'blinks' it out of existence. I've seen people try to wipe their hard drives clean, smash it with a hammer, submerge it in tubs of cold water, even set them on fire...but that data, that illegal activity...it'll always be there for anybody who has the technological skill and knows how to go looking for it.
I happen to be one of those people.
I watched the officers pull up to the house...car lights flashing, but silent with the sirens. A group of ten, two in plain clothes, the other eight in protective FBI gear...fan out on the front lawn as they quickly approach the front and back doors simultaneously. It's at this point that I always start wondering...will this guy have a family? Friends? A good paying job with co-workers who look at him as the highlight of their day? How long will it be before he's able to reach out and contact the ones he cares about? How long will it be before the neighbors on this street see the flashing lights and the commotion, wrapping themselves in bathrobes and pajama pants to come out and see what's going on? After being a witness in more raids and home invasions than I can count, I can't say that I've ever found any two that were alike. Takes the monotony out of the job, I suppose.
Four hard knocks. The police always use four hard knocks before identifying themselves. Never three, never five.
No one comes to the door. But the officers don't wait long. After the first announcement, a nod is given, and they make way for the guy with the battering ram to get into position. It only takes two strikes to the door handle and lock before the wood is shattered to splinters and it is nearly torn off the hinges. They rush inside, barking orders and flooding the room to cover all blindspots as quickly as possible. At this point, I open the side door of the van and get ready to go in to find and seize all of his electronics to take back to the station with me. I start eating the small bag of caramel popcorn that I brought with me to pass the time. I'm sure it won't be but a few minutes. The guy was getting picked up for fake IDs and passports, maybe a few stolen credit card numbers thrown in for good measure. He was hardly a heavy hitter. At best, he's a squirrely little geek with glasses that just wanted to feel like he was smarter than everybody else by pulling off a couple of stupid pranks. It's not like he was buying weapons grade Plutonium or anything. It's the gun nuts that we really have to worry about.
I heard Monica's voice come over the radio in the van. "Is he out yet? Come on, Winston, give me a profile."
I told her, "They haven't dragged him out yet, but I'm telling you, you're not winning the bet on this one."
"Oh, ye of little faith." She grinned. "I saw the same docs as you did, and I'm telling you, it's gonna be a skinny college kid with a video game addiction and some kind of emo dye job in his hair."
"Not a chance." I told her. "My instincts are telling me...well built guy, mid 30's, simple wardrobe, unmarried...possibly homosexual, but without a current partner. If I had to guess a profession...I'd say he's an accountant."
"That sounds way off to me, bud. Don't tell me you're losing your mojo."
"Not at all. You just haven't developed yours yet, rookie." I smiled.
"Three years does NOT mean I'm a rookie." She replied.
"To me it does." I heard a little commotion inside, but thought nothing of it. They've got the exists blocked on all sides. "If you look at the data again, maybe you'll see what I see, Monica. College kids might make a couple of fake IDs to get into bars and clubs around the city, they might even make a quick cash grab at a few credit cards if they're bold enough...but they don't do passports. Not fast. There were purchases made...but no namebrand clothes. No athlete endorsed sneakers. No movie tickets, no concert tickets, no...special edition Star Wars gear. This wasn't a college kid. This guy had a plan. He just happened to get caught. Just like everybody else."
With a slight chuckle, Monica said, "Well, who knows? Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Just remember, if the feds end up dragging a 'Bieber Clone' out of that house, you owe me a ten dollar burger at Kuma's."
"A bet is a bet, and a promise is a promise, but I think you'll find that my clock is ticking just fine." Hearing some more commotion inside, I noticed that the noise was getting closer to the front door. So I put my caramel corn down and wiped my hands off on my pants before putting my gloves on. "Gotta run. It looks like it's getting close to showtime." I told Monica.
She replied by saying, "Stay safe, cutie pie."
I stood up straight and waited for them to bring him out. Just as I suspected...it was a guy in his mid thirties, wearing nothing but a pair of jeans and a faded black â€²Misfitsâ€² t-shirt. A pair of glasses, and what looked like a rather nasty scar on the side of his neck.
Monica owes me a cheeseburger.
The officers brought him out on the front lawn and sat him down, his hands cuffed behind his back. As usual, neighbors came outside to gawk at the disturbance, but merely shook their heads and stifled small gasps from the sidelines, being careful not to get involved, but being close enough to be able to gossip about the details tomorrow morning. I've seen it all before.
However...there was something different about this particular guy. As I walked past him on the lawn, ready to search through his house and find what I needed to find in order to fill up the van with all of his stuff and log it in as evidence...I noticed a look of utter horror in his eyes. I mean, I've been on enough raids to know what the typical 'Omigod, you caught me' face looks like...but there was something about this guy's expression that went beyond that. Something that I didn't quite recognize. Not to mention the fact that it looked like he hadn't slept in a week. The bags under his eyes were so dark that they almost looked like bruises. It kind of spooked me a little bit, to be honest.
"You don't understand..." The man cried. "They're everywhere! Don't you get it? EVERYWHERE! You have to let me leave! You have to let me travel to a cold zone as soon as possible! They've SEEN me! They know who I am! They're coming to kill me! They'll kill us ALL! Please, let me go! For the love of God, let me GO!"
The officers did their best to calm him down before he got overhyped by his own babbling, but...it only caused the terrified tears to pour out of him even faster than before. I wrinkled my brow slightly, but by the time I had gotten to the front door, I figured that it was time for me to get my head in the game and do my job. Most people have a ton of equipment these days. Desktops, laptops, cell phones, ipads in multiple sizes, external hard drives, USB cards, data CDs and DVDs...all pieces that I've got to acquire and search through to find what I need to find. The moment I stepped into his house and then into his messy bedroom...I knew that I was definitely going to have my work cut out for me for the next few months. Me, Monica, and the rest of the team. Jesus...just my luck he happened to be a total tech-rat. The bed was unmade, just a dirty comforter thrown over an uncovered mattress. Potato chip wrappers and candy bar minis were strewn about his desk, which was also covered with scraps of paper and garbage. Clothes had been tossed about, littering the floor at random. From pants and shirts to socks and underwear. I half expected that. It's the sloppy ones who always get caught first. The neat freaks take longer.
"What the hell are we looking at here, Winston?" Asked one of the officers.
"A headache." I told him. "Lots and lots of headaches." I noticed that the computer was still on, left to fend for itself after having its owner kidnapped in the middle of his keystroke. It hadn't even slipped into idle mode yet.
I leaned in closer, and the officer next to me asks, "What is it? What do you see?"
"He's got a TOR browser open. Strangely enough, I don't think I've ever heard of this one before. Must be new." I said, brushing a few crumbs off of his keyboard and using a cloth to clear off the screen.
"A what browser?"
"A TOR browser. It's something that allows you to get online and privately go to places that most other browsers won't allow. They're supposed to be completely secure and 100% anonymous, but...since I'm standing here in his bedroom and he's sitting out on the front lawn in handcuffs, that's obviously not the case."
"So...this TOR browser? This is a bad thing?"
Looking around some more at the mess around me, I told him, "Let's just say that it's an unhealthy gateway that ultimately leads to potentially bad things. There's a lot of stuff on the internet that you wouldn't ever want to know about...but it's out there. And as we all know, any kid with a ladder eventually gets the urge to peek over the fence. If you catch my drift." Searching through the messy cluster of papers on the man's desk, I saw a small stack of wire-bound notebooks. Next to them were some printed out photos, what looked like a few bloody napkins, some petroleum jelly...and a soldering iron...sitting next to a handheld mirror. "Strange..." I said to myself. "Why don't you guys give me a few minutes to check things out before I start trying to disconnect anything. And do me a favor? Ask them to get me a mask to cut back on some of the dust in here. If the top of this guy's desk is this dusty, I'd hate to see what it's like underneath it."
I continued to examine the chaotic area, but when I got to the notebooks, I was surprised to find them completely full of the suspect's handwriting. Every page. Front and back, top to bottom. It struck me as odd...seeing as it was sitting right next to a fully functional computer, and a laptop not more than three feet away. I didn't know people hand wrote their notes anymore. I figured it was a forgotten art. Me, personally? If I try to do anything more than sign a check or send my greetings in a birthday card...it's like my hand cramps up and I have to train myself to write all over again from scratch.
I really need to work on my cursive 'Q's'...
Luckily, the notebooks were dated, so I picked up the most recent one, which was down to the last ten pages...left blank. The pages were lined, but he didn't stick to them. His script was all over the place, and the pencil or pen he was using at the time had been pressed so deeply into the paper that the pages were weak from it. Ramblings. Erratic, horrified, ramblings. Paranoid phrases repeated over and over again. Phrases like, "I don't know how they found me!" and "What do they want???" It sounded like he was looking out of his window every ten seconds. Claiming that 'they' were watching him. And they were going to kill him.
Flipping through a few more of the pages, I saw a series of strange drawings that didn't seem to make much sense to me. Diagrams of undefined tribal markings from the looks of it. I squinted my eyes to take a closer look. They were too intricate to just be random scribblings, the products of a sleepless man losing his mind. There was a definite 'structure' to them. But what did they mean?
I turned the page to read his notes...
"The dark web's offers to provide convincing safeguard marks have all turned out to be a HOAXES!!! I have tried many different websites and have communicated with many different agents, but the legitimacy of the mark can be easily detected! They don't even have to look at it up close! These things can tell from a distance. I've been trying to duplicate the symbol on my own, but my attempts were unsuccessful, as you can see in diagram 72-A"
I looked over some of the printed photos on his desk, and noticed that they were labeled, but were extremely out of order. Then...I found it.
A picture where the man had a horribly disfiguring burn mark on the side of his neck. The same mark that I saw when I passed him on the front lawn just moments ago. I looked at the photo...and the soldering iron...the bloody napkins...the mirror. He had actually attempted to physically burn this strange mark into his flesh...with no concern for how much some psycho shit like that would hurt.
Ok, Mr. Random Tuesday Night Suspect...you just got interesting...
It took an hour or two for us to seize everything and get it back to the van. I made sure to take the notebooks and photos as well. Not only would it help me weed out just what kind of crazy stuff this guy was getting himself into, but I'm sure it would make for a stirring recreational read as well. Running the right programs to retrieve all the files was the first part of the process. It was the equivalent of emptying the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle out on the living room carpet before you start looking for matches and actively begin making images appear. Unfortunately, that retrieval time can take hours. Especially since this information was...so different.
To say that it was unusual would be a severe understatement. Words and symbols that didn't seem to make any sense. Languages spoken that I had never heard before. Encryptions that only a mind operating at high autistic functions would be able to crack. After wearing out my eyes from staring at the screen, I signed some of the evidence out to possibly work on at home. I work better in my comfort zone. I think more clearly. There's something about home that relaxes me to the point of being able to comb through code and data in ways that I couldn't at work. I hope Jacob will understand yet another distraction from the office.
I've been with my husband, Jacob, for a little over four years now. There was a time when I thought I'd never be cut out for married life, or even a relationship that extended beyond my shortsighted view of possibility. But when I look into those bright brown eyes and see him smile in my direction...I know that I'd never be the same person again without him. He had become my everything in such a short amount of time, and as I walked in the door to give him an exhausted kiss on the cheek, he already knew that I'd be locking myself up in the basement for the rest of the evening. Something that he was quite used to by now.
I donâ€²t know if thatâ€²s a good thing.
He asked, "Are you at least going to eat some dinner first? Or should I put a plate for you in the oven?" He understood my whole process with things like this. He teased me about it relentlessly and, on a few occasions, sat me down to tell me when my computer habits were getting to be detrimental...but deep down, he understood. This wasn't just a job for me. This is a part of who I am. I'd dream in computer code if he didn't let me get it out of my system. Some puzzles just weren't meant to be left unsolved.
I plugged in and got to work on the encrypted files right away. This guy had definitely gone through a great deal of trouble to hide his activities. From the names of some of those files, he probably had enough dirt on his hard drive to keep him locked up for decades to come. However...judging from the wide variety of naughty stuff that he was looking at, a lot of it looked as though he was just testing things out to see something he's never seen before. The kid had been given his magic ladder...and these downloads were his experimental peeks over the fence. A little of this, a little of that...but he didn't dabble in any one illegal area for long enough to suggest he had a developing fetish for any of it. Not for most of his searches anyway.
Then...I found a cluster. A sudden fascination with over 150 short videos in a peek-a-boo folder that had an almost angry reddish tint to it. It took me another 45 minutes to find my way inside. Not to brag, but it usually doesn't take me more than fifteen minutes to get inside of anything...my loving hubby included. So what was the big secret about the red folder? Looking at the dates, once he found this dark collection of sites on the deep web, all of his other activities seemed to fade away. Almost as if he had lost interest, completely. He hardly did anything else up until a few weeks ago when he started trying to steal money, create new identities, and stock up on phony passports. "Were you planning on taking a long trip somewhere, buddy? Come on...talk to me. What are we hiding in here?"
Finally, a breakthrough...
"Sector V..." I read out loud to myself. "Interesting. Alright, Sector V...open sesame..."
When I saw the massive number of videos in the same folder, I automatically assumed it was child pornography. It's probably the most common find in most dark web forensics. About as mundane as finding an alcoholic in a bar. But...that's not what these videos were at all. No...they were quite different indeed.
The first seemed to be a handheld, first person, video of someone following a young lady home from her train stop one night. I thought perhaps it was a stalker video or something, and hoped that it didn't end the way some of these videos on the dark side of the internet end. With rape, or torture, or worse. The camera followed her silently for a couple of city blocks at a safe distance...but then it got closer. And closer. Soon it was right up on her. And before she was able to turn around and react, she was attacked and dragged into a dark alley on the side of the street. She was dazed for a moment, attempting to recover from the shock of what was happening. Then...the camera was set up on top of a dumpster...and this...boy stepped into frame. He couldn't have been more than 14 years old, tops. That's why I was surprised that he was so easily able to push this grown woman down to the sidewalk and drag her into an alley against her will.
I heard my desk chair squeak a bit as I was compelled to lean closer to the screen. What I saw next was truly something that I had never been a witness to before. I thought I had seen it all. The boy seemed to have this strange 'control' over her, keeping her still as he walked around to stand behind her. Even as tears ran out of her eyes, a frightening wave of panic surging through her with every breath...she remained still. And then, a quick flash of red. A pair of glowing eyes stared directly at the camera...the boy's mouth opened wide...and with a gleaming white duo of razor sharp fangs, the boy pierced the side of the woman's neck and began to drink from her in heavy gulps.
I found it strange that this sort of thing would need such a secure line on the dark web when they could have just as easily uploaded this to YouTube. Whatever special effects they were using to make it look so real must have cost this kid a fortune. And the woman being preyed upon was one hell of an actress. Hollywood could do a lot worse on both counts.
I clicked on another video that looked as if it was being shot out of an upstairs window. Looking down into ravine of sorts. A spycam, apparently. Whoever was taking the footage seemed to be hiding out in a treehouse, and looking down on another person being feasted upon. A third video had a small group of monsters drinking the blood of a young honeymoon couple just outside of their tent in the woods. The videos, all frightening in their inexcusable brutality and pointless gore...but it was the seemingly humdrum approach to the act itself that gave me the willies. The attackers' unremarkable approach to murder as well as the easy going reaction afterward filled me with a sense of dread that I wasn't expecting from a few hidden videos on a computer hard drive.
What was this? What was it trying to be? Perhaps this sicko had himself a weird fetish after all.
"So...this is what you ditched me for, huh?" Jacob smiled as he came downstairs and hugged me around the shoulders from behind. I didn't realize how many hours I had been working on this case until he drew my attention to the clock. Had I really been sitting in this chair, staring at this screen, for six hours straight? It didn't feel like it.
"Oh wow..." I moaned, rubbing my eyes again. "I'm so sorry, hon. Time got away from me. I just...I'm feeling a little stuck here. This new case that I picked up is...well, it's really bizarre." Jacob gave me a kiss on the cheek, asking me what I was up to. "It's just a bunch of freaky student films or something. High school. Some college. Some kind of...fabricated cannibal porn or...?"
"What are you talking about? Hehehe!" He asked. "I make you an awesome dinner, veggies and all, and you're down here playing whatever this is? Is it a video game? RPG or...some kind of vampire video contest?"
"A vampire what?"
"Well, don't you recognize it?" Jacob asked. "It's 'Gone From Daylight'. Or at least it's got that theme to it. As a matter of fact, it looks like all of these clips are 'GFD' themed. Look right here. It even says 'Somriderre Tresciva'. Hehehe, the kid who made this must be a fan."
I unclasped Jacob's arms from around my neck and swiveled slightly in my chair to look at him. "Wait a minute...are you telling me that you can read this gibberish?"
"Gibberish?" He said, slightly confused. "It's verzpetillio. The vampire language of the shadows. Didn't you read the books?" I gave him a strange look. "Winston...seriously? 'Gone From Daylight'? The books? The big Summer movie with a sequel and a prequel coming soon?" He grinned at me. "Wow, you really work WAY too hard if you don't know what 'Gone From Daylight' is by now."
It began as a tiny little spark in the back of my mind, and then burned a little brighter until I was able to recognize the memory of it. "Wait...is that the movie with ummm...the gay teenagers? The ones who lived in the abandoned junkyard or whatever? Martial arts and magic and all that?"
"That's the one." He said. "The one you and I were going to sit down and watch together until you got distracted by this blasted keyboard and rectangular view into a world that doesn't really exist once the power goes out."
"But that's...it's just a movie, right?"
"Movie, book series, comics, video games..."
"Yes, but...nobody would take a story like that seriously, would they? Seriously enough to start making obsessive videos like this about it?"
Jacob sort of shrugged it off. "I don't know. There are a lot of GFD fanboys out there. I wouldn't be surprised. Hell, if I was a gay teenager with a camera, I might want to make a fan film of my own. Hehehe! You should really go out and see it some time. You'd like it. Itâ€²s just dark enough to catch your attention. Unlike me and the dinner I, painstakingly, prepared for you tonight."
Looking back at the screen and the strange titles labeling each video, I asked him, "So, you're telling me that you can actually read what these things say?"
Jacob shrugged again. "Well...I'm no expert with it, but some of them, sure. Knowing the language is a part of knowing the books, I guess. I've got the whole series packed away in a box somewhere in the back of the attic. I've read through the story enough times to basically know it by heart at this point. I can grab a couple of the novels and bring them down if you think they can help."
"Babe, I'd love you forever if you could do that for me. I'm totally lost here on my own."
He chuckled to himself, saying, "Great. Now you're going to have me digging around in the attic so you can get me all worked up and turn me into a hopeless insomniac too, huh? Is that your game?" I gave him a fatigued, but effective, pouty look...and as always, Jacob caved in with a sigh and a smile. "Fine. Whatever. At least we can qualify this as spending quality time together. Just give me a chance to move stuff around." He said, starting to walk away and head towards the basement steps.
"Oh, wait! Wait!" I called out as I started playing the next video in the file. "What does...'sommy-dory, tray covis, derrier...'?"
"'Somriderre Tresciva'." He answered. "Translated, it means 'wicked grin'..." Then he continued up the stairs to find the books he mentioned.
Wicked grin? I watched the video as it started off like most of the others. A stalking video that ended up in bloodshed. This time, a teenaged girl in a cheerleader's outfit was following a business man with a briefcase who had apparently been working late that night. She must have had an accomplice with her to hold the camera...and as the short video moved forward...I saw a 'change' in her. An almost psychotic transformation into an entirely different mindset. And as the camera moved around to show her face...I saw fangs actually appear where there were none just seconds ago. I saw a glow in her eyes that went from bright gold, to a deep crimson color. It was almost like I wasn't looking at the same girl.
The strange thing is...if these were special effects...then I've never seen anything like them before. No cuts, no quick edits, no clever angling of the camera. It was all one gory take. Blood flew in all directions. It looked so...so REAL!
Who was running around making these graphic, extremely life-like, vampire snuff films...and then hiding them away in the deepest, most heavily guarded, corners of the dark web? And why? It just didn't make any sense to me.
Then...just as the video was coming to an end...the cheerleader dislodged her sharp fangs from the business man's throat and let his lifeless body fall to the ground. Her eyes almost black as she turned towards the camera, and let a guttural growl sound out from the back of her throat while she licked her lips clean.
Then....staring directly at the camera...directly at me...
An unsettling smile.
A 'wicked grin'.
Maybe I should turn some lights on in this basement before I go any further. Of all the cases I've tackled in my eleven year run...there's something particularly batshit crazy about this one. I think I need to go down to the precinct and find out exactly what our golden boy was babbling about when we arrested him. Maybe I can find out what drove him so crazy...
...Before it ends up driving me crazy as well.