The phone rang again at eight. I was stepping from the shower, reeking of fake citron and ginger. Bathing twice in one day? Not for cleanliness or hygiene. Churning with anxiety, agitation, and frustration, every nerve in my body was going berserk. I thought drugstore herbals and hot water might reboot the system.
Eager to answer, hoping Slidell had gotten a name from some tax roll or deed registration, I skidded and nearly ass-planted on the tile.
It was Mama. She and Sinitch had argued, and her mood wasn’t cheery.
“The man refuses to take a position on anything.”
“Don’t you two have a pact to never discuss politics?” One-handed wrapping my hair in a towel.
“I’m talking about our nuptials. Venue? Theme? Lord in heaven, he won’t even weigh in on a destination. Doesn’t he grasp that a wedding takes months of planning?”
I was with Sinitch on this one. Didn’t say it.
“You sound out of breath, sweet pea. Are you OK?” “Mama, stop.”
“You need to be mindful—”
“The doctor said I may have had this aneurysm from birth. It’s unerupted and now packed with tiny platinum coils.”
“Mama. My arteries are not conspiring to drown me in my own blood.”
“So why the headaches?”
“We will figure that out. How about we discuss your chemo? How are you feeling?”
Exasperated sniff. “What are you doing?”
“I just finished showering.” And just started the day’s second seminude phone conversation.
“Would you prefer to call me back? It’s nothing that can’t wait.” Meaning I want to talk now.
Fifteen minutes later, dried and lotioned, I dialed. She picked up instantly.
“Feeling reborn?” “Definitely.”
“This heat is absolutely beastly.” Ice clinked against glass. “I hope you’re not leaving your nice cool house.”
“Did you use that lovely Chantecaille energizing cream I gave you for Christmas?”
“Yes. Thanks again.” I had no idea what I’d slapped on. “So what’s the issue with the wedding?”
“Oh, that. It’s nothing. Sinitch is a man, and they do have their ways.” The past quarter hour had obviously involved Southern Comfort. “And we girls have ours.” She laughed, a lilting chirp, like a kite lifting on a sudden breeze. “Tomorrow I’m preparing an Italian feast
Mama isn’t a good cook. When Harry and I were kids, she’d hit the stove now and then. Her sauce always tasted like bright red nothing, her salads like wilted green nothing. But we loved when she tried. It meant she was in a sunny place, as she called her good days. Or that her meds were properly balanced, and she was taking them.
“Good food, fine wine, a little postprandial mischief. He’ll be eating out of my hand.”
“Try not to kill him.”
“Sweet Lord in heaven. Do you think it’s too much—”
“I’m joking. He’ll be fine.”
More swirling ice. The sound of swallowing. Then, low and conspiratorial, “Has anything happened with your faceless man?”
“We have an ID.” Sudden thought. “Listen, Mama. I have an internet question.”
“Ma spécialité! ” Too much enthusiasm. Or whiskey.
“I’ve tried to track an individual and come up blank. Zero on social media, no email address, nothing via the usual search engines. How would you go about finding a person with absolutely no footprint?”
“Do you know anything about him?”
“I have reason to believe he’s a conspiracy theorist.” “Like your archenemy.”
“Sorry?” She’d lost me.
“The dreadful woman who did the interview with that huckster, Nick Body.”
“Right.” I’d managed to push Heavner to far background.
“Try the deep web.” When I said nothing. “You’ve heard of it, I assume?”
“Hasn’t everyone?” Not that I thought so at all. “Many hear, few visit.”
I knew that the deep web was favored by privacy advocates and whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. That it was used to collect information hidden from common users. That Asia Barrow had been disgusted by it. Beyond that, I was clueless.
“Can you be more specific?” I asked.
“The deep web, deep net, invisible web, dark web—it goes by many names—contains World Wide Web content that’s hidden and can’t be accessed by commonly known search engines. It’s crawling with vermin like Body.”
“How extensive is it?”
“I’ve read estimates that as much as ninety-six percent of the con- tent of the WWW is buried in the deep web. Claims that the deep web is five hundred times larger than the surface web.”
“You’re saying that only four percent of WWW content is visible and accessible via common search engines?”
“I’m not. Others are.” “How does one get to it?”
“You need a specialized deep web browser, such as the Onion Router.”
“TOR.” There. I knew something.
“Yes. TOR works by redirecting internet traffic through a network of thousands of relays. TOR got its name from the term onion routing, which refers to layers of encryption, kind of like the layers of an onion. Isn’t that simply too droll?”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“TOR encrypts a user’s original data together with the destination IP address and sends the request through a virtual circuit of successive, randomly selected TOR relays.”
When I said nothing.
“Picture the relay points as being along big loops. Each successive relay decodes a layer of coding in the original, which is then revealed only to the next relay in the circuit.”
“Scrambling and unscrambling so the user’s location and IP address remain anonymous.”
“There are other deep net browsers. 12P, Freenet. But I prefer TOR.” “You’ve used it?” My almost octogenarian mother never ceases to surprise me.
“Of course.” Amused by my surprise.
“It’s more difficult to access the really deep, nasty stuff. That requires knowledge of the URL, usually a password.”
A voice called out in the background. Male.
“Hold on.” Followed by the same muffled hollowness I’d heard with Slidell. Then, “Showtime, sweet pea.”
“I thought your ambush was planned for tomorrow.”
“Dress rehearsal. Or should I say undress.” With a warm molasses undercurrent I refused to consider.
She was right. A few minutes at the keyboard scored the following facts.
The deep web holds 7,500 terabytes of content, compared to 19 terabytes for the surface web, and has more than 200,000 sites. The deep web contains 550 billion documents compared to 1 billion for the surface web, between 400 and 550 times more public information. Ninety-five percent of the deep web is publicly accessible, meaning no fees or subscriptions.
Googling the term TOR brought me to a site offering a free down- load. With some trepidation, I hit the purple tab. The browser was mine in seconds. I connected, tested my network settings, was cleared. The keywords conspiracy theory produced a screen listing links, some familiar, most not.
I spent hours swinging from one site to the next. The level of idiocy was astounding.
There was the usual hackneyed rubbish. A lone gunman didn’t kill JFK. Paul McCartney really died in 1966. The moon landing was an elaborate hoax, every photo shot in a studio on earth. The 1947 crash in Area 51 near Roswell, New Mexico, involved an alien-operated UFO. My personal favorite, from a British sportscaster, asserted that anyone holding a position of power was actually a bloodthirsty, extra-terrestrial, shape-shifting reptile. A+ for creativity.
Eventually, I stumbled across a reference to Nick Body. Lacking a better idea, I went to his website Body Language and listened to several of his archived podcasts. Hell, I’d already paid the fee.
In one, Body asserted that the FDA and big pharma were conspiring to keep people sick by withholding cures discovered via their research. In another, he claimed that the accident that killed Princess Diana was a set up by British intelligence acting on behalf of the royal family. In another, he argued that the concept of global warming is based on science distorted for ideological or financial reasons.
In another, he suggested that many of the alleged survivors of mass shootings are actually paid “crisis actors.” Such may have been the case, he implied, at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, the Tree of Life synagogue outside Pittsburgh, and the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks.
I recognized the obscure reference made by Duncan Keesing in an almost unintelligible harangue inspired by Strava, a mobile fitness app used by cyclists and runners to keep track of the distances, speeds, and routes they travel. Several years back, it was discovered that Strava’s global heat map feature had inadvertently revealed the location of secret military bases throughout the United States. Body was incensed that the government would conceal the existence of such facilities from those living nearby.
In a particularly revolting diatribe, Body insisted that the Holocaust never happened. That there was no anti-Jewish government policy. That no gas chambers were used. That those killed numbered far fewer than the historically accepted figure of 5 to 6 million.
Listening to Body’s voice rasp like sand through mesh, I tried to imagine the level of gullibility required to buy into the viciousness he was spewing into the world. To understand the mystique of his popularity. The appeal was clearly not his insight or intellect.
I hopscotched through additional podcasts, choosing topics randomly, listening to snippets.
Big oil. The industry was keeping prices high while holding back massive reserves to create the illusion of scarcity.
9/11. The towers couldn’t have come down due to impact and jet fuel alone. The U.S. government had assisted with the attack.
Directed-energy weapons. The devastating fires in California in 2018 were started by government lasers.
On and on. Zionists, shadow governments, Freemasons, Illuminati. Each time a different enemy but always one unifying theme. Some per- son or entity was out to hurt the little guy. Or to take over everything. Returning to the home page, I chose the link to Body’s “General Store.” Five “aisles”: Survival Gear, Wellness and Health, Security, Educational Media, and Support Our Efforts. I tried Survival Gear. Inventory included storage containers designed to outlast a nuclear winter, water-filtration equipment, countless types of radios, flash- lights, dual-panel portable solar LED lanterns, packaged foods, and myriad other items, most of which were available at Home Depot or Amazon.
Body’s Educational Media comprised the expected array of anti- vaccination, antifluoride, anti-climate-change, and antiliberal con- spiracy books and DVDs. Not surprisingly, his own podcasts were available for purchase on CD or as MP3 files.
The Wellness and Health offerings included an assortment of organic herbs, plants, powders, and oils promising far more than they could deliver. The Security aisle listed gadgets guaranteed to make you and your home safe, others that allowed you to spy on others. Knowing it was a money grab, I skipped the final option.
Next, I cruised through Body’s blogs. Found more of the same themes.
Disgusted, I was about to log off when I noticed an obscure reference to a URL such as those Mama had mentioned. Within the long string of letters, numbers, and symbols was the word DeepUnder. The domain suffix was .onion.
I clicked on the link. The site took time to load. The home page had a banner saying DeepUnder and a background image of an inverted cone, like a dormant volcano tipped upside down. Centered in the cone was a blinking rectangle demanding a password.
I tried conspiracy, Body, and the usual variations, frontward, back- ward, and so on. Body Language, featured words, and phrases from Body’s podcasts and blogs. Roswell, Area 51, vaccine, global warming, 9/11, dozens of terms Body had used in his diatribes.
The rectangle blinked on.
Holocaust. Zionists. Strava. Pharma. Twin Towers. Nope.
I was typing in Moon Landing when the lights flickered, died, then cut back on. A glance at my phone told me it was going on midnight. Conceding that I had a zillion-to-one shot of lucking onto the pass- word, I gave up and went to bed.
I lay in the dark, conspiracy theories sliding through my over- wrought brain. Eventually, I drifted off. Woke two hours later, damp with sweat and tangled in my sheets.
Failure chews at me. When blocked, I can’t rest. Can’t let it go. I’ve always been wired this way. When young, I was the ultimate high achiever, the one who had to earn the highest grades, attend the best university, swim the fastest times, win the most tennis matches. Nature? Nurture? Because I was the firstborn?
Though I rarely allow myself to pick at the memory, I know, deep down, that my brother Kevin’s death had an enormous impact on the formation of my psyche. Watching, helpless, as the tiny toddler whom I loved so dearly weakened, then died. Witnessing the crushing pain felt by my parents. Suffering the breakdown of my once happy family. I have no doubt that this tragic turning point in my eight-year-old world left scars that still drive me today. Especially with regard to missing and murdered children. I’ve been there. I know the agony caused by the loss of a child. Sometimes on a conscious level, sometimes less so, that knowledge is the motivator behind my battering-ram doggedness.
I rose, made mint tea, returned to the new study, and tapped the keyboard. My laptop fired to life. The rectangle still taunted.
Frustrated, and lacking a better idea, I tried terms that had interested Vodyanov, apparently another conspiracy theorist. MKUltra. Montauk. Philadelphia. Stargate. Estonia.
I tried the address written on the crumpled scrap from the trench coat pocket. The address of Ms. Ramos’s building. Felt ridiculous. Those had to do solely with Vodyanov. Not relevant.
The only lights in the room were my screen and its reflection in the window behind me. I tried to think like a conspiracy theorist. Experienced no epiphany.
I glanced at my mobile. Recalled my conversations with Ryan and Slidell. My recent internet search.
Blinding synapse. A folded paper with hand-printed codes.
Holy shit? Could that be it? Might Vodyanov have frequented Deep- Under?
I scrolled through my phone’s newly stored images. Typed “UATNOM1793.”
My mind played games with the letters. Could UATNOM be Montauk backward and truncated? DALIHP Philadelphia? That made sense.
I tried RABUK1963, a shortened version of the name of the infamous CIA manual along with the date of its publication.
I focused on the numerals. Instantly recognized the patterning. The pair of complete four-digit sequences were two of the most common passwords in use: 1793, counterclockwise on a digital phone pad, using the corners; 2580, straight down the middle. Another frequently employed combo crisscrosses the keyboard, grabbing the corners.
I tried RABUK1973.
The rectangle disappeared. The page darkened and zoomed, creating the illusion of being sucked down a swirling vortex. For a moment, I felt disoriented.
I entered a black hole in which belief in treachery, collusion, and deceit was the connective tissue for those who came.
From A Conspiracy of Bones by Kathy Reichs. Used with the permission of the publisher, Scribner. Copyright © 2020 by Kathy Reichs.