“Uncle Mark, what’s a deadlink?” Izzy looked at her uncle, confident as always he would have the answer. Uncle Mark was infallible.
“Dead link? That’s just a URL that points to nowhere, little one.”
“NO, not a dead link, a deadlink. My best friend Felicity told me about these deadlinks. She says if you get one on your TikTok or Instagram and click it, you’re dead. Like, you never even existed. But I don’t think that’s right. Do you know?”
Mark shook his head. “Naw, Izzy, I can’t say as how I’ve heard about that one. It sounds like nonsense to me, like saying, ‘Bloody Mary’ three times in front of a mirror, or like that movie about the deadly phone calls. Stuff like that just isn’t real, hun. Your friend is putting you on.”
Izzy pouted. “Felicity doesn’t lie, Uncle Mark. Even when it gets her in trouble, she always tells the truth.”
Mark looked sideways at Izzy. “Did your friend ever get one of these, what do you call them, deadlinks, herself?”
The expression on Izzy’s face was comical. She rolled her eyes, raised her hands in exasperation, and said, “Don’t you listen? If you clicked on one of those, you died, and you never existed. If Felicity clicked on a deadlink, I would never know about her to miss her.”
Mark promised to look into it, then turned the television on to catch the afternoon football game. Izzy had to be satisfied with that lone promise. But, she reminded herself, Uncle Mark was one of those people who always kept his word. If he said he would look into it, he would.
Reassured, she went back to her room to begin her favorite project of the moment: re-reading the “Harry Potter” series. It always made her wish she was reading them again for the first time, but it was fun, like visiting old friends, reading about Harry and Ron and Hermione, their exploits at Hogwarts, Hagrid’s latest horrible creature.
Her phone pinged; it was a text from Felicity. Told yr unc yet? Izzy typed her reply yes and followed it with some smiling emojis. And??!! Felicia’s added punctuation made it clear she expected a more detailed response. Hes lookn n2 it. With that, the text exchange stopped, and she could get back to Hogwarts, where Hermione was learning to loosen up and break some rules, becoming a much cooler person.
Sunday afternoon, with nothing better to do than wait for the game to come on, Mark remembered the odd conversation he’d had with Izzy. He decided to do some online sleuthing.
Hours later, he looked up and noticed he’d missed the first half of the football game. The halftime talking heads were blathering on. It looked like a close match, with both teams taking each play personally and holding a grudge.
He shook his head, trying to clear it after the rabbit hole he had fallen down. Conspiracy theories, crackpots and fruitcakes, and some downright scary individuals posted on strange, obscure forums. All seemed to believe in crazy theories, everything from chemtrails to Bigfoot. But with more sleuthing, he found hints and mentions about this so-called ‘deadlink.’
A forum with a repulsive name finally had a clear mention of deadlinks. A user named ‘EatsDeadThings’ suggested using deadlinks to remove your enemies. He, or she, didn’t say what a deadlink was or how to get one, but it was obvious they at least were familiar with the concept.
A novel idea came to mind, and Mark started researching the user ‘EatsDeadThings’ instead. Their forum posts hinted at deadlinks and pointed toward the dark net to find them. He pulled back, unsure of the safety of exploring the darker side of the web.
Mark went downstairs to the basement and dug through a pile of old computer junk he had never gotten around to recycling. Sure enough, there was an old laptop computer. As he recalled, there wasn’t anything wrong with it, it was just too old and slow for everyday use. He’d wiped all his data, just to be sure, before putting it with the junk to be recycled. Mark was glad of that paranoia now.
He grabbed up the old laptop, making sure he had the power cord, and went back upstairs to the den. The second half of the football game had just started. Mark plugged the laptop in and started it up. He had to laugh; he’d forgotten how painfully slow old spinning disks with limited RAM were to use.
The ancient laptop landed on the desktop, and, other than wanting a decade’s worth of updates, it seemed ready to use. Using the old laptop, he went online and created a new throwaway email address. Then he took the plunge, downloaded Tor, and entered the dark net. He found the tracks of ‘EatsDeadThings’ and followed them, for lack of any better idea. He started getting offers messaged to him: drugs, guns, girls. He ignored the messages and entered the forum ‘Corruption [Enter at your own risk]’ with a nervous grimace.
Without warning, he got a message from ‘EatsDeadThings’ reading “Why R U following me?” At a loss, he replied ‘deadlinks.’ Silence. Mark texted, “I have coin.” As if it had been a test, the reply flew back. “I have wares.”
They began haggling on price and method, deciding Mark could use Bitcoin. He laughed quietly to himself. It was obviously the kind of market where the user passed over the money and trusted the seller not to get scammed.
‘EatsDeadThings’ messaged him with his public bitcoin wallet. Mark shrugged, put the QR code in his wallet, and sent the transaction. Then he waited while the blockchain network did its thing. He heard nothing from his erstwhile ‘friend’ during this time. About an hour later, he heard the ‘ping’ and got the notification that his Bitcoin transfer had gone through.
A message from ‘EatsDeadThings’ flashed up, with nothing but a bit.ly address. The other user immediately left the chat room.
After that transaction, Mark felt like he needed a shower. He wrote the URL on a piece of paper and logged out of Tor. He pondered what to do. Was the address itself a link to the supposed deadlink? Or did it take you to a site that explained how things worked?
He decided a shower would help him think things out, so he abandoned the football game and took a long, steamy shower. The heat seemed to help clear his head. He decided to treat that URL the same way as a loaded pistol: as a lethal weapon. Trusting something from the dark net, from some nut who called himself ‘EatsDeadThings’, was the worst possible folly.
With a clear head, Mark went back to the old laptop. He used it to preview the bit.ly URL. The domain name that showed was only numbers. It was a long string, but meaningless as far as he could determine. The numbers provided zero information about what was behind it.
He tried to check the WHOIS data, but it was all generic information from a sleazy hosting site somewhere in Eastern Europe. There were no clues to be had, just this URL that might or might not be a deadlink.
At a dead end in his research, he was hesitant to click that link, even using a fictitious character with a throwaway email address on a junk laptop. Something about Izzy’s story made him nervous.
He deleted all the data from the old laptop again, before putting it away back in the basement. The paper with the URL, he locked in his desk drawer in his upstairs office.
Uncle Mark was drinking a beer and watching football. Izzy hung out nearby on the couch, playing on her phone. When she thought he wasn’t watching, she cut her eyes over to look at him. She wondered if he had done the promised research on deadlinks. Uncle Mark lifted his beer can, grinned, looked over at her peering at him, and said, “OK, Iz, what’s up? Why are you giving me the stink-eye?”
The tips of her ears turned pink, but she charged ahead. “You said you’d do some research on deadlinks. I was just, um, wondering if you had done it yet?”
Uncle Mark laughed, a rich hearty sound that filled the room. “Oh ye of little faith! Of course I did. I admit, I’m not finished researching, because this little trick of yours tries very hard to keep itself hidden on the Internet, which is peculiar in this day and age.”
He pointed one of his big, thick fingers at her. “NO messing around with this stuff, Izzy. I mean it, I want your promise. The same goes for your friends. You pass the word around. Treat anything even hinting to be a deadlink like a live rattlesnake.”
“Eww!” Izzy squealed in disgust.
“Exactly.” Uncle Mark nodded, sure she understood his point. “It would not be felicitous for someone to click one of those links.”
Izzy cocked her head at him. “What does ‘felicitous’ mean?”
Not thinking, Uncle Mark replied, “It means, apt, very fitting, something happy, just the right thing. Like your best friend’s name, you know?”
She looked at him like he’d grown a third arm out of his forehead. “How in the world do you get ‘Maggie’ from ‘felicitous’? She is a happy person. That much you got right, but the rest? You’re weird, Uncle Mark.”
Mark’s ears began ringing, and he swore he could feel his blood pressure climbing. His hands were clammy, cold as the grave. His throat clicked as he swallowed — a dry sound. He had never met the girl, but he had heard stories for years about Izzy’s best buddy, Felicity. He wondered how he could still remember her, when Izzy had no clue. Remembered who? What clue? He wondered.
He took another swallow of beer, went back to watching the game. The Packers were winning.