An aura of tense suspense descended into the air around her.
Was it over? Had she finally found her?
When she had started this journey two months ago, she had no idea about what lay ahead, and what she would find along the road. It hadn’t been easy, but she kept going, stopping to eat or sleep only when she absolutely had to, without ever taking a day off. And now, after two months of searching, she had found her, or so it seemed. She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her sleeve and prepared herself for the worst part of this journey, the wait. Slowly, she closed the lid of her laptop, and the revered hacker incognitoM became sixteen-year-old Megan Brown of Grafton, Vermont. She had been bullied out of high school when she was thirteen because she was autistic. It was this autism that allowed her to focus on one single topic for extended periods of time, and for the last two months, she had been focused on finding her.
Thoche, in Nepal, is a picturesque village hidden deep inside the majestic Himalayas. Cut off from the rest of the world by snow covered mountains, this village is home to ancient lakes, gorges, and majestic views of the Himalayan mountains. Despite this, the village is poor. Very few people are willing to brave the bitter cold and the perilous mountain roads to get here. The few that do come, come for one reason only. The Fog Trail Lodge, the sole hotel in the village, had a reputation in the wrong circles as a place to score drugs for cheap and get high amongst the beauty and isolation. So, when the big police car with Kathmandu plates rolled into the village it was a quite the rare sight. The car moved across the town, barely managing to cope with the roads that hadn’t seen any repairs in over two decades, before coming to a stop in front of a ragged old cottage at the edge of town.
An inspector got out and knocked on the front door, and the frayed cottage almost collapsed due to the knocking. A minute elapsed before the door creaked open and a Sherpa woman emerged from the darkness inside. She was barely forty but looked much older, her eyes were as lifeless as her voice. ‘Yes,’ she said plainly, without any emotion or interest. ‘I have a surprise for your mam,’ the inspector said and stepped aside to reveal the teenage Nepali girl standing timidly behind him. Even through her tattered cloths and unkempt hair, one could see that she was astoundingly beautiful. Words failed the Sherpa woman; she fell to her knees, tears rolling down her cheeks.
‘I am home mama,’ the teenage girl said as she flung herself on her. They hugged and cried for ages. In their happiness, none of them noticed the police inspector clicking a picture of their reunion before heading towards the Fog Trail Lodge.
In the town of Vigo in the northwestern coast of Spain, a tropical thunderstorm raged on. Thirty-mile-an-hour winds cut through the foliage in a menacing howl. Just beyond the backyard, about a hundred yards away, the Atlantic Ocean was attacking the beach with turbulent waves that broke with a furious splash. The storm had hit around seven pm, and shortly after that, a power outage had plunged the town into pitch darkness. Alvaro hadn’t bothered to light a candle; he preferred the dark. This orchestra of the howling winds and the tumultuous waves, punctuated liberally with thunder, lent the perfect background score to his thoughts. He stood in front of his bedroom looking out into the storm.
It was on a night like this that Charlie, Alvaro’s only son, had gone missing seven years ago. It had started as like any other day. Charlie, eleven years old at the time, had gone off to school in the morning. But when he failed to return even after five pm, an hour later than usual, his mother had started to worry. She had called Alvaro, but he was busy in a meeting, to which he returned to after hastily assuring his wife that Charlie would be home soon. But at eight pm as the storm was starting and still no Charlie showed up, even Alvaro could not ignore it anymore. The police were notified, but to no avail. There was simply no trace of Charlie after the CCTV camera installed at the exit of his school caught him leaving school alone at three thirty pm. The police had kept the investigation going for three weeks, because Alvaro, one of the wealthiest people in the country, had used all his political influence to keep the investigation alive; normally cases like these are closed within a week. There are simply too many people who go missing every day, and the police do not have the resources or the manpower to keep all those cases active indefinitely. The onus then fell on the family and some volunteers to keep looking, but even they lost interest and enthusiasm after a while. Alvaro’s marriage didn’t prove strong enough to endure this loss, and his wife left him six months after Charlie went missing.
But Alvaro wasn’t one to give up easily. After all, he had started from nothing and become one of the most influential people in the country. When all else failed, he started a website called trackingcharlie.com. The website had all the information about Charlie and his disappearance. It offered a hefty reward to any online detective or hacker who could provide clues to his whereabouts. He promoted it aggressively across social media and soon garnered a wide following of hackers who started scouring the web to look for Charlie. But still, no Charlie. Meanwhile friends and family of other missing people started reaching out to Alvaro. They wanted to have the information of their loved ones included on the website, so that the hackers would look for them too. In less than two years, trackingcharlie.com evolved into a full digital library of cataloged information of thousands of missing people around the globe. Not only families of missing people, but law enforcement, NGOs and every concerned individual started posting on the website to seek help tracking someone. Hackers would come on to the website and pick a target person from the list. Then they would use all their hacking and web crawling skills to track the person and log their findings on the website. When a hacker claimed to have found a person, the concerned law enforcement officials were contacted, and all the findings submitted to them. It was then up to them to mount a rescue operation. If their work led to a rescue, the hacker would receive a pre-agreed upon payment from the originator of that missing-person post.
Today, seven years after Charlie disappeared, Alvaro stood in darkness thinking about his son when his train of thought was interrupted. His phone had started ringing. It was Pedro, his assistant and CEO of trackingcharlie.com. Every night, Pedro would call around this time to give him an update on any progress on any of the cases.
‘So, how many did we find today?’ Alvaro asked, picking up the phone.
‘Only one I am afraid. A fifteen-year-old Nepali girl, Binsa. She had gone missing three years ago from the Thoche village.’
‘Hmm. Who found her?’
‘The hacker called IncognitoM’
‘Oh, that one again. How many is that now, thirty-eight?’
‘Thirty-nine actually, this guy has found them all without ever falling short. Once he, or maybe she, has picked a target, you know he won’t stop till the target is found.’
‘So what’s the story?’
‘Do you want the long version?’
‘Since I am sitting in the dark with no power and nothing to do, why not!’
‘The Fog Trail Lodge in Thoche is a haven for everyone visiting with the purpose of getting high. As you can imagine, drugs flow freely there, and it attracts the wrong kind of crowd. Binsa’s mother worked as a cleaner there. One time, the mother got high fever, so she sent her twelve-year-old daughter to work in her place instead.’
‘Sending your twelve-year-old daughter to work among drug addicts and degenerates, not very motherly.’
‘She didn’t really have an option, did she? No work, meant no pay for the day, and that meant no food for the day. The plight of the daily wager.’
‘What about the father?’
‘Died sometime ago. He had been a Sherpa guide who helped parties climb Mount Everest. One time he took up a party of six, and none of them ever came down. They are probably still buried in the snow somewhere, or maybe an Yeti got them.’
‘Yeah, I doubt the abominable snowman would have any interest in a bunch of rich adventure seekers and their Sherpa guide. So what happened to the girl?’
‘She went to work alright, just never came back. Her mother looked for her at the lodge, went to every house in the village, the local police office, even went as far as the Kathmandu police station, clutching a picture of her daughter and asking anyone she could for help. But they never found her. Well, not until last night.’
‘And how did that happen?’
‘Nepal police had posted her details on the website, and it was picked up by IncognitoM. After reading the case file, she figured that whatever happened to the girl most likely happened at the lodge. The fact that she was very pretty was sure to attract attention, and not the good kind. IncognitoM searched the dark web for all mentions of the Fog Trail Lodge among the community of users and drug peddlers. Sure enough, there were several forums discussing the place as an amazing location to get high. The hacker then listed out all the online profiles who claimed to have visited the place, or would be visiting soon. He then, by some magic, don’t ask me what, hacked all these profiles to retrieve the real names of the people behind them. After that it was a simple task of looking at the social media profiles of these people to figure out who among them was in Nepal during the time the girl went missing, and who they travelled with. People make their travel plans readily available to the world nowadays by posting on social media.’
‘Well something good then did come out of this incessant need for validation. What happened next?’
‘Through social media, IncognitoM found five people of interest who were in Nepal at that time. Now, all of them were using a popular dating app that lets you swipe on people. It’s a trend among the crowd, I guess. This app constantly keeps tracking your location to pair you with the people around you and stores it in the cloud. IncognitoM got access to this data to verify who among them were in Thoche at the lodge on the day the girl went missing, though some of them had already posted pictures of themselves there’
‘But if you had done something bad while you are on vacation, kidnap a twelve-year old girl for example, wouldn’t you omit all evidence of you being there from your social media?’
‘Exactly, you would. But what about the strangers you meet while you are there. Would they be as keen to omit your presence from their social media, especially if they had no clue about what you did? ‘
‘Interesting, go on!’
‘This is the same assumption IncognitoM made, anyone who had posted on their social media publicly wouldn’t be involved in the kidnapping. But there is a strong possibility that they crossed paths and even interacted with the actual kidnappers. So, he tracked all the social media friend requests that these five people had sent out during or a short time after their visit to Nepal, to people who seemingly had no overlap with their lives. One name popped. Three out of the five people had sent friend requests to the son of a crude oil mogul in a middle eastern country, even though none of them were from or ever visited that country. There was no way that the paths of these three people had crossed with the middle eastern oil prince unless they met in Nepal. It was also surprising that the prince never accepted any of those requests, or posted any pictures of a visit to Nepal, even though he seemed quite active on social media otherwise.’
‘Let me guess, the hacker hacked into his location data to find that he was at the lodge on the day the girl went missing.’
‘Bingo! He could also be seen in the background of some of the pictures that the others had posted while they were at the lodge.’
‘Okay, this is all interesting, but there is still no actual proof that he took the girl, at least not enough to send the police to his house.’
‘Well, social media came to the rescue here again. Like I said, this prince was quite active on social media. He posts a few pictures of himself daily. About three months ago he had posted an image of himself standing in front of his sweet new Lamborghini, with tinted windows. The problem with tinted windows, they are quite reflective. So, you could see the reflection of the person taking the picture on one of the windows. Although half of the photographer’s face was covered by the phone, you could easily make out that it was a teenage Nepali girl, whose unkempt beauty was very distinguished and hard to miss.’
‘Done in by his narcissism!’
‘Yes he was. After IncognitoM submitted this image to us, we contacted both the Kathmandu police and the police in the middle eastern country. They immediately raided his house, or palace I should say. Guess what they found.’
‘The girl, obviously.’
‘Not the girl, but the girls. In one of the twelve bedrooms of the house, slightly smaller than the prince’s bathroom, they found three girls living together. All of them were the between the age of fourteen and nineteen, the prince’s wives. Apparently, this prince liked having teenage wives from different countries. So, whenever he visited a country and found someone he liked, he married them. Surprisingly though, often the girls agreed to marry him too. All of them came from rather poor backgrounds, and they were willing to marry him to have a constant roof over their head, a soft bed, and three meals a day.’
‘So this Nepali girl had run away with him willingly?’
‘Unfortunately, no. Of the three wives, she was the only one who hadn’t come willingly. The other two had though, so they were never reported missing. Binsa, despite all her hardships, had refused to leave her mother alone and go off with him like he had asked her to at the lodge. But her opinion never mattered. Whether the girl wanted to marry him or not was a question never asked by the prince used to getting what he wanted always. The lodge owner who had helped the prince subdue Binsa and smuggle her out of the lodge had made more money that night than he had in the past four years. The Kathmandu police have arrested the lodge owner after they delivered Binsa home.’
‘And what happed to the prince?’
‘When your father is one of the wealthiest people in the country, what do you think happened? He gave Binsa some money to not press charges. That sum was way more than a poor Nepali could ever make in three lifetimes, even though to the prince it would barely cover the cost of putting new tires on his Lamborghini. She took it and went home. The two others had come with him willingly, so the prince was left in peace them, secure in the belief that he could do something like this again without any real consequences. I am sure this is not the last missing-person trail that will lead back to him.’
‘Touché. And what of the hacker IncognitoM? Has she been paid?’
‘Yup, he has. He always insists on a peculiar kind of payment, a picture. Never starts on a new case until he receives a picture from the last one, calls this period of inactivity ‘The Wait’. The Kathmandu police sent us a picture of Binsa meeting her mother, and I forwarded it to the hacker just before I called you. Oh, and look at this, IncognitoM just came back online.’
‘Wow, this guy doesn’t like to waste any time, does he?’
‘Nope, looks like he is looking at case files to decide on the next person to find. Let’s see who’s the lucky one. Oh. Oh my God.’
Pedro’s voice shivering and cut off mid-sentence. As if on cue, lightning flashed outside. In that moment of temporary brightness, Alvaro caught a glimpse of Charlie’s picture resting on his nightstand, before being left in absolute darkness once again.
‘Pedro, what’s up?’ he asked anxiously.
‘IncognitoM has picked his next target, Alvaro. It’s Charlie.’
Atriya is a researcher in the field of Ultrafast and Nonlinear Optics at The Pennsylvania State University, USA. When he is not in the lab playing with lasers, he likes to spend his time playing the guitar, reading, and climbing up rocks no one asked him to.