Black Nowhere by Reece Hirsch
It started with an anonymous post on a message board called PillMill, a place where illegal drugs were bought and sold. The message read, If you’re looking to score some Oxy at a good price, you need to check out Kyte. It’s next level. The message included a link.
FBI special agent Lisa Tanchik was stretched out on the couch in her studio apartment in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, laptop on her stomach, her pale complexion made paler by the screen’s moonglow. Her shoulder-length black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she was wearing a faded FBI Academy sweatshirt. She looked younger than her twenty-seven years. Her laptop bore a sticker for DEF CON, the Las Vegas hacker convention that she had recently attended. A cooling mug of black coffee sat beside her.
Curious, she clicked.
And plummeted down a rabbit hole into a world that never should have existed.
Kyte looked nearly as slick as eBay and featured a well-organized menu of every illegal drug known to man. There were listings for Afghan No. 4 heroin, fish scale Colombian cocaine, hash, LSD, MDMA, synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and a black tar heroin known as the Devil’s Licorice. There were black market prescription drugs like Xanax, Ritalin, and, as promised, OxyContin. Name a drug, and Kyte was selling it. While drugs were the primary product line, Kyte was also selling other illicit goods and contraband, including malware, pirated DVDs, and even guns.
Each drug’s listing featured a description detailing the nature of the high (a variety of MDMA was touted as offering “a swoosh of confidence and well-being”). Customers rated products on a five-star system. Afghan No. 4 heroin was apparently a crowd-pleaser, garnering 4.8 out of 5 stars and 154 reviews. There was even a seller’s guide that provided helpful instructions on how to vacuum seal and inconspicuously package drug shipments so that they would be invisible to electronic sensors and canine olfactories.
Lisa sat straight up and brought the laptop over to her kitchen table, where she began capturing screenshots. She had to kick aside a cardboard box of her ex-boyfriend’s things, which she had assembled for pickup. That box, along with the recycling bin brimming with empty vodka and wine bottles, said more about her present circumstances than she would have liked.
As she scrolled through page after page after page of sellers offering illegal drugs, the enormity of the enterprise began to sink in. Kyte was probably brokering as much drug traffic as the largest crime syndicates.
As a specialist in cybercrime, Lisa was no stranger to the so-called Dark Web. Most upstanding citizens led their online lives exclusively on the “surface web,” the home of the mostly legitimate websites that were offered whenever people typed search terms into their favorite web browsers. But a shadowy realm existed beneath that surface, consisting of unindexed websites accessible only by using the Tor Browser, formerly known as the Onion Router. Tor passed internet traffic through at least three different servers before sending it on to its destination, with each relay adding another layer of encryption. Tor allowed persons seeking to operate in secrecy, from criminals to political dissidents, to shield their identities through the browser’s strong encryption and use of a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin as a payment method.
And if Kyte provided an anonymous marketplace that was truly beyond the reach of law enforcement, then how long would it be before it wasn’t just selling drugs and malware? How long before terrorists began using it to plan and assemble the makings of the next Oklahoma City or 9/11?
Lisa’s fingers moved quickly over the keyboard, and within seconds she had created an account on Kyte as Rodrigo, an identity that she had used online many times before. Rodrigo purported to be a midlevel independent drug dealer in his early twenties who was tech savvy, with vague, self-proclaimed connections with Mexican drug cartels.
Although it wasn’t part of her officially sanctioned duties, Lisa had made a hobby of lurking on the Dark Web and internet relay chat boards to observe the hackers, cybercriminals, cranks, and miscreants who frequented those shadowy corners of the web—creating an expansive network of contacts in that underworld that she hoped would one day pay off in an investigation. Internet relay chat, or IRC, boards, were online forums where hackers could communicate with relative anonymity. She had a few online personas that she had used consistently over time so that they were recognized in certain quarters and had some history to them. She even maintained a journal so that she could keep their histories and foibles straight. She had created the Rodrigo identity when she had still been a security consultant to the FBI, tracking a hacker who had been selling data obtained from an HMO breach. Rodrigo had proven to be such an engaging and persuasive character that she hadn’t had the heart to take him out of circulation when the investigation was done.
After spending the better part of a recent weekend exploring online in her various personas, distracting herself from her fresh breakup, Lisa thought she understood a little bit how someone with multiple personality disorder must feel.
She ultimately concluded that the reason she did what she did online was because she happened to be weirdly adept at it. She was a talented and inventive liar. When someone suffered from clinical depression and relied on alcohol as a coping mechanism, the truth was rarely a good option.
If she was being honest with herself, her use of alter egos was no longer entirely about hunting cybercriminals for the FBI. Lisa felt strangely liberated when she assumed an online persona. She had spent enough time as some of them, like FireStarter, a fourteen-year-old boy from Daly City, that she slipped into being them like an actress reprising a role.
Donning one of her online avatars untethered her from the limitations of her real life, in which her career and social life were less than satisfying. Some people drank or took drugs to achieve that sort of escape, and Lisa figured this outlet was healthier than most.
She chose a listing for a tiny vial of LSD from a seller known as TripMaster and placed the order as Rodrigo, using a PO box that she’d established for this sort of purpose. She promptly received a reply message from the seller: Thanks! Your package will ship in 2-3 business days. If you’re taking more than the microdose, we recommend that you find a quiet place with a soothing vibe before ingesting and allow yourself six to seven hours. Happy trails, TripMaster.
Perhaps the package would reveal clues to the identity of TripMaster or the operators of Kyte.
She knew that the FBI would never give an untested field agent such as herself an opportunity to bring down a high-value target like the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel. But based on what she had seen so far, locating and arresting the founder of Kyte would amount to that sort of career-making bust.
This was the opportunity she had been waiting for.