The email came through at 3:43 AM but I was still awake. I hadn’t had a case in almost two weeks and in the absence of work I get restless.
3:43 AM. Either someone else had insomnia too or I was looking at a case from a different part of the world. Neither one would have surprised me.
I paused my Call of Duty game and checked the message. I read it three times and then once more just to be sure. A moment later a notification dinged through from paypal telling me the money had been deposited.
My name, as far as anyone knows is Marlowe813. You can find me on any social media site you can name: Snap Chat; Weibo; Ello. Remember Ello? Yeah, me neither.
You can find me on InternetPI.com if that’s your thing.
I’m a dectective. The world’s first internet detective. You want to find out if your internet girlfriend is really some creepy 45 year old man? I’m your woman. Or man.Take your pick.
People leave all sorts of clues about themselves in their digital wake. That’s where I come in. I read those clues better than anybody.
And the clues I’m reading here don’t make a lick of sense.
The email isn’t from an address I know, but that means almost nothing these days. It was a short message. Just a few lines that went something like this:
If you’re reading this email, something has happened to me. I might even be dead. This email is automatically sent if I don’t give the killswitch the right password. Call me paranoid, but I’ve stolen enough secrets to make some powerful people really want me gone.
Figure out what happened to me. If I’m missing, find me. If I’m dead, bring my killer to justice, one way or the other.
You probably won’t have heard of PuppySkulz. He is very big in the open information business. Hates state secrets. Really believes things like “information wants to be free”. Even if that information is state secrets. One of these days he is going start a war if he’s not careful.
Nice kid though. Like the email said, I’d worked with him before. He helped me find some info on a client who tried to screw me over (long story). He didn’t ask to be paid. “Information wants to be free” indeed.
I won’t call PuppySkulz a hacker, because that word barely means anything anymore and maybe it never did. But he was good at getting computers to tell him things they didn’t want to. I was good at getting people to tell me things they didn’t want to. We made a good team. Maybe we were even friends. But that word barely means anything anymore either.
My first step was to email Andrew Evans. I know right? Finally someone with a real name.
Andrew Evans believed that information should be well-researched and reasonably-priced, which is to say he’s a journalist. Andrew had published some of PuppySkulz stuff over the years, and I got the sense the two of them had a pretty tight working relationship. I asked him if PuppySkulz had been working on anything big lately and had he heard from him in the last couple days.
The reply caught me napping at sometime early enough to be called morning, but late enough that the sunlight streaming in the window hurt my eyes. I fumbled for my phone and thumbed open the email. It was Andrew. Had he heard from PuppySkulz lately? No he had not. Would he be willing to talk over Skype? Yes he would. Was now a good time? No problem.
That got my attention. I’d never interacted with Andrew before, and most of the time people don’t respond well to randoms asking for a chat. But maybe he had heard of me and was curious. Maybe, and I was hoping for this, he was worried about PuppySkulz and he could give me a good lead.
I donned my Bill Clinton mask, turned on my Darth Vader voice modulator (on sale at Walmart for 5.99!) and made the call. He didn’t pick up. I gave it a minute, thinking maybe he was busy with something, but before I could try again, he called me back.
The view that popped into my screen was not was I was expecting. Andrew sat at a desk in a dimly lit room sporting a half inch of stubble. What I could see of the room behind him was a mess. Pizza boxes stacked high, cans of Monster (mostly the low carb kind) littered across the floor. When I thought “reporter” I imagined someone neater than that. That’s what I get for stereotyping.
“Hey,” Andrew said, “You said you were a friend of PuppySkulz?”
“Something like that,” I replied. “Hadn’t heard from him in a while, knew he touched base with you from time to time, just wanted to check in, see if you had any news.”
“We’re more working partners than anything else,” Andrew said, pushing a narrow pair of spectacles up his nose. “He’d come to me with a story, if I thought it had teeth I’d write it up. I think he understood that sometimes just putting the information out there wasn’t enough. I could get the eyes on it that might not have paid attention otherwise.”
“And he was working on something like that lately?”
“Could be he was.”
“What was the nature of the information he had on offer.”
“That I can’t say. Especially not here if you take my meaning.”
I took his meaning. Skype calls are reasonably secure, but not from the folks down at the NSA. There was a very real chance they would be listening if PuppySkulz had gotten his hands on some sensitive state secrets.
“When was the last time you heard from him?”
“Two days ago. We were supposed to meet yesterday, but something must have happened.”
“What kind of something?”
“I honestly don’t know. Nothing would surprise me at this point.”
I finished up with Andrew and did some thinking. PuppySkulz had been mixed up with something high-end. No surprises there. He had stuck his nose in where it didn’t belong, and had either been killed for his trouble or had been thrown in a cell somewhere they’ve never heard of habeas corpus. If I stuck my nose in looking for him, I might be in the same spot.
I didn’t fancy the idea of dying too much, but I was a curious cat, and anyway this was the first paying job I’d had all month.
I hopped on some of the forums that PuppySkulz posted on, trying to get a feel for what he’d been into, but no dice. This wasn’t too surprising, but you gotta turn every stone.
Next I checked his email. It doesn’t matter how I did it. What matters is that it was way too easy. Everyone gets lazy from time to time with internet security, but PuppySkulz was paranoid enough that I could only assume this was not his only email. Still, it was the only one I had, so I read his messages. There was a fair amount of noise, spam, subscription emails, that kind of thing. But there were personal emails too, emails from someone named Melanie. Some really personal emails, if you take my meaning.
I had no idea what PuppySkulz looked like, but I’d assumed he was your typical antisocial internet neckbeard. Yet from skimming over those emails, I guess the guy had something going on. Not that any of that helped me figure out what kind of trouble he was in.
None of the other stuff I read was remotely helpful either. All I found out for sure was that Puppyskulz’ real name was Howard Linklater. I guess there was a reason it was so easy to get into this inbox.
I was stuck. This was turning out to be the biggest mystery I’d ever come across, and I didn’t have a clue in the world. It was time to call in a favor.
I may or may not have done some work at some point for an individual that worked at one of the various intelligence agencies. I may or may not have been owed a favor by that individual. I most definitely did NOT send off a heavily encrypted message to this person asking for any information he could get me about PuppySkulz. So it was a complete surprise to me when I just happened to to find the information I had wanted encrypted in an innocuous GIF of a monkey riding a dog that had been posted to imgur.
Too bad what I read in that file didn’t make any sense. Because yes, PuppySkulz had been about to leak some big secrets. But they were secrets that had been fed to him by someone on the inside.
He wasn’t a threat. He was a pawn. It didn’t make any sense that they would have killed him before he could leak the intel they had fed him.
Just then I got a message from Andrew: “Any news yet? Starting to get worried.”
I messaged back, “You and me both,” and silenced my notifications. My head was starting to get bogged down in that thick syrupy place it goes to sometimes when I’ve been sitting staring at the screen for too long.
So I ran.
I try to run at least three times a week. I might be making a living by sifting through tweets and Facebook feeds, but that doesn’t mean I have to look like Jabba the Hutt. Besides, sitting will kill you faster than anything else.
Usually I run on the treadmill, but today I needed to get out of the house, out of the inside of my own head.
It was late evening, what movie people call the “golden hour,” where the sun is just dipping behind the horizon painting the sky rosy red.
I traveled light, no earbuds, no cell phone, no iWatch, just me and my brain and the sweat rolling down my face in the heat of the summer evening.
I ran under a sky that was too big, along roads with too many people on them.
From behind a screen the world is easy. Everything is narrowed down to a simple stream of information.
In real life all that falls apart. The lights are brighter, the people more complicated.
I stopped running at a park, where kids played with each other while a swarm of soccer moms hovered within screaming distance in the shade of an ancient oak tree.
This was another world. A world where I was an alien, a pale, unnatural interloper who could only observe from afar making notes about the strange species that lived there.
I wanted to land my flying saucer. I wanted tell them I came in peace. But that never ends well for the alien.
So I flew back to my home planet.
I hosed the sweat off my skin with a bracing cold shower and plunked myself down in front of the computer again.
The run hadn’t helped. I still had no idea what had happened to Puppyskulz.
Somehow I ended up reading those emails PuppySkulz had gotten from his lady friend, whoever she was.
I will spare you the juicy details, such as they were. I will say that her spelling was pathetic, and her sentences flowed about as well as a wheelchair on a staircase. Also she used a real name to sign off her emails.
Which told me she was an alien in our world of information and aliases.
What kind of girl was this Melanie person? How did PuppySkulz meet her? How had this torrid love affair started?
It wasn’t much of a lead, but I dug it up anyway. I won’t lie and tell you I had some big hunch about this Melanie person. The truth is I was just curious.
I didn’t have to dig far before I hit pay dirt. And then I understood exactly what had happened to PuppySkulz.
I transact most of my business long distance, but in this particular case, I knew I couldn’t just send an email. Technically, I didn’t even have any proof. Except even an alien can figure out some things about the strange people of earth.
I was on a plane the next morning, and by the next evening I was knocking on the door to Andrew’s house. No mask. No Darth Vader voice changer. I felt naked.
He opened the door and looked at me, confusedly. “Do I know you?”
“We spoke over Skype the other day,” I said. “I’m the Internet Detective.”
He smiled. “You…aren’t what I was expecting.”
“Can I come in?” I asked. He was off balance, which means it was the perfect time to push.
“Sure, of course. I just got in myself.” He opened the door and let me in. A woman’s voice from inside the house called, “Who is it honey?”
“Just a visitor,” Andrew called back.
I made myself comfortable on the couch and the woman appeared from a hallway, and extended a hand. “You must be one of Andrew’s work friends.”
“Friend of a friend really,” I said. “Actually I’m a friend of a young man that died rather recently. Maybe you knew him?”
Andrew was starting to look just a bit uneasy. Good.
The woman nodded, and her eyes glistened ever so slightly. “Andrew told me about it. Just awful.”
“What did he tell you exactly?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, why are you here?” Andrew said cutting into the conversation.
“I’m here to prove that you killed Howard Linklater.”
The woman gasped. Andrew glowered. “Excuse me?”
“You killed him,” I repeated. “In fact you were at his house when we spoke the other day weren’t you? You certainly weren’t here,” I said, gesturing to the clean, well-lit, high-ceilinged home that surrounded us.
“Who do you think you are?” Andrew growled.
His wife had started to sob.
“In this particular scenario I’m the detective. The one who put all the pieces together. I thought someone high up had gotten rid of Howard because of some information he was going to leak, but that wasn’t the case at all. The higher ups had fed him that information, Andrew. Only you didn’t know that. So when you found out he was sleeping with your wife you killed him, made it look like a hit. Maybe you even thought you could write up a story about his ‘mysterious’ death in a few months.”
“You can’t prove any of that,” Andrew said. That was just before his wife threw a lamp at him, wailing uncontrollably.
“Proof isn’t my job. I’m not a policeman. I’m not a lawyer. I’m an internet detective. And this is the part where I reveal that this little kerfuffle is streaming live to Youtube from a button camera hidden in my jacket. I suspect most of the people watching aren’t lawyers or policemen either. How do you think this looks to them?”
He look at me with rage, blood pouring down from a gash that the lamp had opened up in the side of his head.
“Good day to the both of you,” I said. “I suspect the police will be in touch shortly to sort out that pesky little ‘proof’ problem.”
I made my exit. And ended the stream.
They didn’t convict Andrew in the end. He’d done a good job covering his tracks and he had a good lawyer.
But he lost his job.
He lost respect.
He lost his wife.
That’s what passes for justice on my planet.
It’s not perfect. But we take what we can get.
Albert Berg was born in the swamps of Florida and quickly developed a gripping writing style by wrestling with crocodiles. It is said that he hypnotized five gators in a row by the age of nine with his melodic prose and infinite imagination. Albert is a true menace in the arena because of a steadfast ability to remain true to his roots of thoughtful contemplation despite the hurricanes that pass all through his state. You never know what you will get from Albert, be it sentient paper products or religious squirrels, but you do know that behind the flash there will be a well thought out story that will make you reflect on your own life. Albert is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.
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