She looked at the clock. The eight-hour time difference meant it was already past midnight in Dublin. She hesitated.
In the old days, she’d have happily called her sister Liz at three in the morning: she would either have just come in or been about to go out. But the arrival of her baby son Calum three years ago had put Liz’s clubbing days behind her. The drug she craved now – and which she would go to extraordinary lengths to score – was sleep. Calling her at this hour of the morning was what you’d call a high-risk operation.
She dialled the number from memory.
‘Liz? It’s Maggie.’
Maggie whispered, as if she were right there at her sister’s bedside. ‘It’s me.’
‘Maggie? It’s the middle of the night.’
‘I know. I’m really sorry-’
‘It’s the middle of the fucking
‘I’m in Washington. But not that Washington. It’s a long story.’
Maggie could hear a rustle, the sound, she guessed, of Liz sitting up in bed.
‘Are you drunk? You sound like you’ve got your head in a bucket.’
‘No, not drunk. I was in an accident.’
Instantly, Liz’s tone changed: suddenly she was a whirlwind of sisterly concern, offering help, insisting that she take the next plane, wanting to know what the doctors had said, marvelling at the fact – as Maggie had recounted it – that they had discharged her so quickly. It was simultaneously touching and stressful.
‘I don’t need anything, Liz, I promise. Nothing like that.’
‘Do you swear, Maggie? Because, seriously, I can get to wherever you are and be with you by tomorrow.’
‘Actually there are two things you can do for me.’
‘Don’t breathe a fookin’ word to our ma.’ She was hamming up the Irish to lessen the gravity of the request, the very act of which only confirmed the gravity of the request. ‘I mean it. She’ll only freak out and I don’t want her to know a thing. OK?’
‘OK. What’s the other thing?’
‘Good. The other thing is professional. I need your brainpower.’
Liz croaked out a laugh. ‘You mean you’re not calling for a recipe for courgette mash. It’s nice that someone remembers the real me.’
‘Too many coffee mornings?’
‘And playdates! There are only so many things you can say about pull-up nappies.’
‘Though they are great. Pull-ups, I mean.’
‘Sorry. Go on.’
Maggie explained, tentatively and indirectly, what she was looking for.
‘What kind of man was he, Maggie? What did he do?’
‘He was retired. But he had been in intelligence. American intelligence.’
‘Eighties and nineties.’
There was a pause. Good: Liz was thinking. Then she heard her sister clear her throat, as if fully waking herself up, ready for action. ‘Now. Have we ever had the darkweb conversation?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘OK. When you look something up online, how do you do it?’
‘And when you do that, you think you’re searching the whole internet, right?’
‘That’s what everyone thinks. But they’re wrong. In fact, you’re searching, like, point nought three per cent of the total number of pages on the web.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You know that thing they always used to say at school, about humans only using ten per cent of our brains? Well, most of us are using just three hundredths of one per cent of the entire web.’
‘So where’s the rest?’
‘That’s what I’m talking about: the darkweb. Or the deep web. The places that are hidden. What most people see and use is the tip, but there’s this massive iceberg underneath.’
‘And what’s in it?’
‘A whole lot of it is junk, websites that have stopped working, addresses that have fallen into disuse, defunct internet companies. You gotta imagine it like this vast underwater landscape, full of old shipwrecks and derelict buildings that have fallen into the sea.’
Maggie, lying on the bed in the name of convalescence, made a silent grimace as she shifted position, sending a new ache through her ribs and across her shoulders. She didn’t want to break her sister’s flow. Liz had been the same as a teenager: she could turn positively lyrical when exalting whatever theme had become her passion.
‘But it’s not just old stuff, Mags. Sometimes it’s legitimate, maybe a database that’s blocked to search for copyright reasons, because it contains commercially sensitive information. And sometimes it’s vile. Like dirty address spaces that get taken over by crime syndicates. The Russians are big on that. They run spam or child porn from these disused sites. The darkweb is not a nice place.’
‘And is there-’
‘Right. I forgot. The other stuff you find – kind of lying on the seabed – are addresses that were set up right at the beginning, when the internet was just starting, and then abandoned. And you remember who started the internet, right?’
‘The US military.’
Maggie pulled the covers tight and hugged herself against a sudden chill. ‘And is there any way to probe all this stuff?’
‘I know how you can start.’
Maggie listened, taking detailed notes, as Liz gave her a step-by-step guide. She would follow the instructions and they would speak again in the morning, Dublin time. Liz estimated that she had four hours and forty-five minutes’ sleep left to her before Calum woke up. ‘Every one of those minutes is precious, Maggie. Don’t call me before six. ‘Night – and good luck.’
Maggie hauled herself upright and, with the sheet of paper at her side and the computer on her lap, followed Liz’s first instruction and Googled ‘Freenet’.
Two clicks later she was at a site that looked like any one of those places you occasionally had to visit to download or update computer software: grey and basic. Once she read the welcome paragraph, however, she got the first inkling that she was about to enter a different realm.
It declared that Freenet was free software allowing people to browse anonymously, to publish ‘freesites’ that would be accessible only via Freenet and, tellingly, Maggie thought, to ‘chat on forums, without fear of censorship’. Liz had warned her that for every free-thinking libertarian or Iranian dissident she might encounter here, there would be half a dozen users drawn to a place where those whose sexual tastes ran to the illegal could gather unimpeded.
She read on:
Maggie followed the prompts, downloading and installing the Freenet software then answering the questions it asked her. ‘How much security do you need?’ There was a guide, ranging from ‘NORMAL: I live in a relatively free country’ to ‘MAXIMUM: I intend to access information that could get me arrested, imprisoned or worse.’
Maggie swallowed, then opted for maximum. Even though she was sitting in a motel bed, her back supported by three pillows, she felt as if, at that moment, she had plunged into a pool of deep, dark water, the depth of which could not be fathomed.
She came to an index, much starker and more basic than anything you’d find on the regular web. It listed freesites, those that would remain utterly hidden to anyone above the surface.
Before long she had found ‘Arson Around with Auntie’, a beginner’s guide aimed at animal rights activists, teaching them how to firebomb laboratories. Close behind, and no surprise, was the Anarchists’ Cookbook, the book spoken about in whispers even when Maggie was a student. More of a shock was ‘The Terrorist’s Handbook: A practical guide to explosives and other things of interest to terrorists’.
Maggie rapidly concluded that the darkweb she had just entered was bound to be home to fifty-seven varieties of radical, but also to those charged with hunting them down. Both fringe militants and intelligence agents would jump at the chance to drop into the dodgiest websites without leaving any footprints. She felt as if she had stumbled into a labyrinth that was the natural habitat of both cat and mouse. Everything she knew about Vic Forbes told her he would have felt right at home.
She did a search for Vic Forbes and was rewarded with an instant result. She was taken to a URL that didn’t look like any she had seen before. She clicked on it, closing her eyes in a moment of superstitious prayer.
The page took a while to load up, the screen showing nothing more than blank whiteness as the ‘loading data’ message promised more. And then, three or four seconds later, it was there. Maggie recoiled, astonished by what she saw. Not that it was such an arresting image. Just the mere fact of what it represented. For there, in front of her, was confirmation that Vic Forbes had contemplated and prepared for his own death – by hiding his most precious secret in the deepest recesses of the internet’s underworld.
She looked again at the website address, so simple and so obvious. She had only to think of her own email which, when she was in the White House at least, ended.gov. All she had had to do was type in victorforbes.gov and there it was.
Doubtless, he had been one of those pioneers who had been in on the internet from the start, able to create a personal domain when next to nobody knew what such a thing was. Perhaps he had left it abandoned, lying on the virtual seabed as Liz had said. Maybe he had picked it up just recently, decades later, pressing it into service as his blanket. But here it was, Forbes’s own personal website. That it was his was unmistakable. The front page consisted of nothing more than a single, full-face photograph of him. Not the Vic Forbes who had been on television in the hours before his death, nor the young, moustached Robert Jackson in the foothills of his career and full of hope, his photo still there on the first page of his CIA dossier. This was Forbes seven or eight years ago, just turned forty: that was Maggie’s guess.
It was not posed the way the CIA picture was posed – with that high-school yearbook gaze into the middle distance and just to the left of the lens. Instead Forbes was staring at the camera, face-on and unsmiling. The visual grammar was that of a passport photo, even a police mugshot. But the way it filled the entire screen made it more sinister, as if Forbes was Big Brother watching Winston Smith through the telescreen. Instantly Maggie knew that Forbes had taken the picture himself. Everything about this portrait, starting with the eyes, screamed solitude.
She clicked on it, expecting it to link her through to other pages, but nothing happened. There were no other links around the side or at the bottom. Indeed, there was no text at all.
She clicked again, then again, as if that might coax it into life. There was something missing. Yet, that this was the hiding place, the locker into which Forbes – foreseeing his own murder – had stashed his blanket, she was more certain than ever.
There was only one way to break in – and, though it would hurt, she was ready to do it.