The Dark Web. It has always intrigued me: the rotting underbelly that lurks just beneath those welcoming Facebook posts or the comforting arms of Tinder. The whirligig of social media inanely spins with constant “likes” and “shares”, whilst the Dark Web slithers and thrums, hidden from view, but spawning new levels of depravity and altogether more perverse types of liking and sharing.
I still remember where I first heard about the Dark Web. It was an overheard conversation between two male nurses at St. James’ Hospital when I was attending my regular chemo sessions. They were huddled around a mobile phone, salivating over some revenge porn of another nurse: giggling at her small breasts and unkempt overgrowth of pubic hair, saving and forwarding on the links so others could continue to eke away at the young girl’s dignity.
“You just have to download Tor mate, and the Dark Web will keep you busy whatever your tastes. However kinky.”
Dark Web. Tor. Those two grappling hooks snagged in my brain, and whilst the nurses drip fed me the bag of poisoned goodness that was slowing down my stage four bowel cancer I thought about possibilities.
For the first time in many years I found I was looking forward, excitedly, to my future.
When I got home that night, Lynda had already cooked dinner, and was getting ready to start her shift at the local ‘pub.
Spag Bol yet again, for Christ’s sake. I moved to give her a kiss, but she pulled away. Instead she ruffled my hair as if I were a pet poodle, and asked how my session had gone. I muttered a few sentences which she barely listened to: more interested in pimping her eyelashes and applying her mascara. She liberally sprayed herself with Poison, which I found to be ironic given the circumstances.
Then, in a perfumed swirl of cleavage and thigh, she was gone.
Glad to be alone.
The cancer was eating away not just at my body, but also at my ten year marriage. It had seeped and gobbled its way through my life: turning love into pity, souring memories and making me feel so very inadequate.
Making Lynda look elsewhere?
I felt nauseous. Maybe it was the reek of her perfume, or maybe the side effects of that afternoon’s chemo – but either way the spaghetti bolognese ended up a congealed mass at the bottom of our kitchen bin.
I gulped down a glass of cold tap water, its icy taste making memories burst back into life.
Like a fool I reached for my laptop.
And I let the Dark Web ensnare me.
The Tor Browser Bundle was surprising easy to locate, download and install. Within a few minutes I was up and running, my laptop’s IP address bouncing randomly between distributed servers across the world so that my web access couldn’t be traced back to me.
For the next few days I fed feverishly on everything I could find.
Revenge pornography was only the start; I dipped my toe in the stagnant cesspool of child porn and snuff movies and I felt queasy to the core. I cruised dating sites where prostitutes offered every kink imaginable and where others could pay to view my sordid sex session and humiliation.
But I went deeper.
Bulletin boards where anonymous keyboard warriors offered instructions for manufacturing crystal meth or ricin or nitroglycerin.
For five more days my fingers clattered on the keyboard, searching and following hyperlinks whilst Lynda was working evenings.
During the day I sulked and ignored her. She would attempt to cajole me into changing my clothes, or having a shave, or eating something more nutritious than toast. I shamefully used my cancer as an excuse, feigning weakness and pain, snapping at her and counting the minutes until she would leave me alone with my dark mistress again.
On that fifth day, I finally found what I was looking for.
In a little corner of depravity, a bulletin board labelled simply,
“Assassin for hire.”
I bookmarked it.
I couldn’t bring myself to click on the link that night.
Or the next.
The very act of highlighting that link with a mouse, and accessing it seemed somehow like a point of no return.
During the third day I moped around the house, even moodier than usual. The pain in my guts and the blood in the toilet just made my mood even fouler. But the real pain was in my head: cogs turning and grinding as I tried to think of consequences.
Lynda seemed oblivious: she chittered away condescendingly as if I were an infant; she cooked food I wasn’t able to stomach; and she wore skimpy outfits that no one but me should be enjoying. She disguised the stench of her infidelity in clouds of perfume and flurries of fancy French knickers.
That night when she left I was seething. My fingers pounded the keyboard like they were tenderising raw steak. I returned to the bookmarked site and added a new message:
“So, how does this work?”
I sat there for four hours, pressing F5 to refresh the browser, but there was no response. Soon my head ached, and the blinking white cursor on my post had etched an image onto my aching retinas.
I heard Lynda’s key in the front door and closed the laptop, sending it into sleep mode. I too feigned sleep, stretching on the sofa, letting my head loll and deepening my breathing.
I smelt the sour stench of alcohol as she approached me. She kissed me lightly on the forehead and gently covered me with the throw from the back of the sofa. I drifted off, serenaded by the rhythmic tapping of her false nails typing lies into her iPhone.
Soon my sleep was real, and deep, and dark.
It wasn’t until the next day when Lynda had gone out shopping that I next sneaked a look at the laptop.
I logged onto the bookmarked bulletin board, and found a reply waiting for me.
I excitedly clicked on it. The note was strangely formal and business-like:
“Thank you for your interest in the services I provide. I assure – and expect – absolute discretion at all times.
“If you are interested in hiring me please purchase a Pay As You Go mobile phone (using cash so that it cannot be linked back to you).
“Text me on the following number and we can make arrangements to tailor my services to your specific requirements.
“The cost of my standard package is £9,000. This price is non-negotiable. Please do not waste my time or yours if this price is not acceptable.”
It then listed an eleven digit mobile number.
“This mobile number will only be used for the sending and receiving of text messages related to your specific job.
“Voice calls will NOT be answered.
“This mobile number will be disconnected after our transaction is completed, or should I not hear from you again within 24 hours
Lynda was surprised to see me washed, shaved and showered when she arrived home from the shops. It had been nearly a week since I’d worn anything than my threadbare blue dressing gown, and a pair of thick black socks.
“I prefer you with no stubble, and fresh breath,” she said as she enveloped my frail, bony body in a warm hug and kissed me on the lips.
“You off out Kyle?”
“Yep, meeting my brother for coffee and a catch up,” I knew she didn’t like David, so hopefully my deceit would prevent her tagging along, “I shouldn’t be too long.”
The walk to Tesco should have taken ten minutes. Instead it took nearly an hour. I was like a wind up toy whose internal springs and cogs had lost their tightness.
Putting one foot in front of another was an effort; just staying upright was an effort; resisting the stomach cramps was an effort; swallowing the constant bile in my throat was an effort. Some people proclaim they will “fight cancer”, yet I barely had enough energy to slap mine in the face with a wet towel.
Still, I triumphantly made it to the supermarket and bought the cheapest PAYG mobile I could find. I thrust a fistful of notes at the cashier and, feeling the guilt flushing my face red, I scurried away as fast as my decrepit, cancer-ridden body would let me. Which, believe me, wasn’t very fast.
It is handy having a wife that works nights, as it makes planning a cold-blooded killing so much easier.
That evening I charged up the PAYG mobile, registered it with a false email address, inserted the SIM card, and applied the top-up to it that I’d also bought earlier.
I then texted Jack. He was surprisingly quick to respond.
Again, the exchange was perfunctory and businesslike. He sent me bank account details and asked me to transfer £50 to him as a holding deposit. There was to be no further communication until he received this.
I used internet banking on my laptop to set up a new payee with his account details and dutifully transferred the £50. I chuckled as I named this new payee “Anniversary Surprise”. I had more than enough money in my personal account to cover Jack’s fees as one of my life insurance policies had recently paid out following my terminal diagnosis.
It was now just a matter of waiting for Jack to confirm receipt of the deposit so I placed the mobile on silent and tucked it deep under my side of the mattress.
I didn’t sleep well that night. Like Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” I was sure I could hear the phone vibrating and thrumming my guilt for the whole world to hear.
For the next two days I carried the phone with me everywhere, secreted in my dressing gown pocket beneath copious tissues.
Like a mistress I took it out when I could, gazed rapturously into its screen, and fondled its buttons: checking and rechecking my message inbox in delicious anticipation.
Lynda and I were eating bowls of hot chilli in front of the television when I felt the vibration of a text message arriving. I spluttered milk everywhere, peering at her guiltily, sure she would have heard or noticed something, but no, she simply carried on watching “The Chase” oblivious.
I feigned stomach cramps so I could rush to the toilet and check the phone.
“Thank you for your deposit,” said the message, “the bank will now use Fast Payments for future transactions so they will be near instantaneous.
Where would you like the event to occur?”
I sat on the toilet, for once not thinking of bowel movements, bloating or blood soaked underwear. For once I was sweating and shaking with adrenaline rather than cancer.
“3, Tottington Lane, Leeds,” I replied, helpfully adding the postcode so that Jack could find the address.
“When?” came the reply, almost instantaneously.
“Tomorrow evening?” I typed, desperately trying to remember Lynda’s work rota.
“I’ll be in touch tomorrow at 7pm. Be ready to transfer money and send me picture of the person of interest.”
At 6:00 pm this evening, Lynda and I sat down for our last meal together. It was Spaghetti Bolognese again. I played with its long strands, too excited to swallow anything.
At 6:30 pm this evening Lynda got ready for her shift at the ‘pub. She squeezed herself into a slinky red dress, her long auburn hair a tumble of curls just framing the top of her breasts. She expertly applied mascara and lipstick, her face beaming at the prospect of a busy shift at work and earning lots of tips.
At 6:45 pm this evening I surprised Lynda by asking if I could take a photograph of her. She smiled, delighted that I was finally taking an interest in her. She pouted and flashed flesh as I took a photo with my iPhone.
At 7:00 pm this evening Lynda left the flat, and the phone secreted in my dressing gown pocket vibrated it’s little dance of death.
“If you still wish to proceed, transfer the balance of my fee.”
At 7:10 pm this evening I powered off my laptop after making a payment of £8950 to my “Anniversary Surprise” payee.
At 7:32 pm this evening I received a message: “Payment received. Please send photograph of individual concerned.”
So, now, I’d reached it: that point of no return.
I thought of spaghetti, of Poison, of all those times she’d held me whilst my diseased body sweated and convulsed with pain. I thought of those nights she sat up googling my symptoms – her long fingernails tap dancing on her phone. I thought of those long shifts she did at the ‘pub, letting drunkards ogle and leer at her just to help make ends meet. I thought of all those times I’d punished her, snapped at her, accused her of cheating just because I was so frustrated at no longer being able to play the role I wanted to in her life.
And I thought of those other life insurance policies that would only pay out when I had died.
There really was no point to return to.
I took out my secret mobile phone.
I ruffled my messy hair back into shape, and tried to rearrange my face into a smile.
At 7:48 pm this evening I took a selfie and sent it to Jack.
I poured myself a glass of wine, stuffed my earbuds in, and cranked the volume up full.
At 11:34pm this evening a house in Leeds lies still and quiet. The front door is askew, having been kicked from its hinges.
Inside, lights blaze, and the tinny noise of music being played through headphones can be heard.
A brown leather sofa sits on dusty laminate flooring. Under the sofa, and just inches away from a slowly spreading pool of blood, lies a discarded mobile phone.
It vibrates and judders a little death jig as a text message is received.
And in that blackness under the sofa, perhaps disturbed by the vibrating phone, a spider stirs and spins its web darkly.