The Dark Web

 

Enligthen

Canberra social media guru @tweetcanberra requested a yarn featuring

Old Parliament House+Rose Bush+Lake Burley Griffin.

He received a tailored yarn exploring the dark parts of Canberra’s Enlighten festival and the darker arts of blogging…

If you prefer to read your stories in print or ebook format, this yarn features in my book, complete with an amazing photo by Martin Ollman (not available online…there has to be some incentive to buy the book!)

Old Parliament House CanberraLake Burley Griffin CanberraRose Bush

‘I have writer’s block’.

That was where it all began. Those four words.  21 characters.  One tweet.

At the time, staring blankly at the computer felt like the worst possible fate in the world. But really, things weren’t that bad. Certainly compared to what came next.

My blog was mediocre, but not brilliant. The experience of a young gal living in Canberra. Food, fashion, events; that sort of thing. The usual stuff in a slightly unusual town. There was a buzz growing in the place, a new sense of pride; whether that was the centenary anniversary of the city a year earlier, or just something to do with reaching a critical mass of university students, progressive thinkers and manmade water catchments.

I had a decent number of regular readers, lots of unique page views (whatever they are) and a good following on social networks. People were reading my stuff. Not lots; but enough. I should have been happy with that.

But in the weeks leading up to that bout of writer’s constipation, some of my early momentum as a blogger had started to wane. I stopped getting new followers every day. I started to doubt my writing, and eventually stopped writing altogether.

And then I sent that tweet.

I’d be happy to provide you with a hyperlink to my beloved site, but it has all since been taken down.  I’m also legally obliged never to publish the name of the site again.

Within a flash of my tweet, seconds it seemed, someone replied.

‘@<handlewitheld> I have the solution. Rose gardens near Old Parliament House at #enlighten. Sat. 9:30

Fifteen words, 95 characters and one tweet that would change my life forever.

My first reaction was to ignore it as some sort of prank. I went on with my screen staring. But over the following hours, that message began to gnaw at me.

I was curious. A solution? What if it wasn’t a prank.

Well, that could very well be a bad thing. Canberra has a safe enough reputation, but I had still read about some nasty assaults in the paper.

I decided to investigate this mystery tweeter. Alarm bells, or church ones at the very least, should have begun ringing at the mysterious person’s handle: Hellsbells667.

The account was also locked for viewing. I requested to follow.

The tweet was sent on Wednesday. Come Friday, and Hellsbells667 still hadn’t responded. I couldn’t see any of his tweets, his profile information; nothing. I was assuming he was a ‘he’ based on the clear gender bias of his writing. Every piece of evidence was saying I should ignore the message. And that’s what I had decided to do, when during another failed at attempt at writing a post my phone beeped. I looked down to see a message had arrived on twitter.

@<handlewitheld> I am serious. I have solution. Rose gardens near Old Parliament House at #enlighten. Sat. 9:30

My curiosity was getting the better of me; and I hadn’t written anything all week.

I couldn’t resist; I had to see what ‘solution’ this mysterious HellsBells had.

But I had to think about my safety. Meeting in a public place was a good thing. But I couldn’t go alone. I needed backup.  There only so much eighteen months of advanced yoga and 165 cm frame could do.

I called my friend Ben. Well, he was more than a friend. Sort of a special buddy; the sort of special buddy you pop over and see late at night after a few drinks.

It’s funny thinking of him now; I haven’t seen him in months.  I miss his bright, white smile and black curly hair. And those deep brown eyes. It’s a shame things didn’t work out better.

‘Benny, how are you?’

I could hear that bright smile in his voice.

‘Cat, it’s ten in the morning. You don’t usually call me for another twelve hours.’

I blushed on the other end of the phone, and tried to hide any ‘redness’ in my voice.

‘I thought I might ring you during the day for a change. What are you up to tomorrow night?’

Ben paused for a moment.

‘Depends, are we talking before or after midnight?’

‘After!’ I exclaimed. ‘I want to write something about Enlighten in my blog, but it’s the sort of thing you go to with friends.’

‘Friends’ he replied, emphasising the plural. ‘So how many of us are going?’

‘Just you and me,’ I replied cheekily.’

‘Cat, is this a date?’ he replied, a similarly cheeky tone in his voice.

‘Maybe.’

I considered lying to him. But what was the point? Particularly if some mysterious man appeared out of the bushes half way through our rendezvous.

So I told him the truth.

‘Sounds pretty dubious to me. How do you know this guy will even show up? He could be a middle-aged woman living in Detroit.’

‘I know. I’d probably prefer that. I’m more worried about what happens if he does show.’ I replied.

‘Sure, what the hell. The thought of us actually having a real date is intriguing in itself, and I want to check out Enlighten too.’

‘It’s a date!’ I squealed. ‘Pun intended.’

I hung up on Ben and messaged Hellsbells667.

‘C U then.’

We organised to meet at eight and grab some dinner at one of the food stalls setup near Questacon. I had been to the Parliamentary Zone plenty of times, but never for the Enlighten festival; a mixture of light displays and special events at the capital’s cultural institutions. It was truly an amazing sight, as I emerged from the underground car park of the National Gallery to the spectacular view of a river of fire flowing from the entrance of the High Court.

As I turned around, I discovered Inca artworks being beamed on to the wall of the National Gallery.

All around Lake Burley Griffin people were walking; hand-in-hand, pushing prams, carrying drinks. Three men dressed as matadors, complete with bull horns, approached and serenaded me for a moment, before continuing.

matadors Old Parliament House

As I walked towards Questacon and to meet Ben, my eye was drawn to the National Portrait Gallery and the computer-game like graphics being shone there. These were interspersed with images of Elvis, and I recalled that he was the feature of a temporary exhibition on at the Gallery. Further along, I discovered beams of light being shone into the air, appearing like some sort of Morse code message to distant planets. The lights, and positive din of the people around me, were soothing the butterflies in my stomach and general feeling of trepidation.

I told myself the most likely outcome was that the mysterious HellsBells wouldn’t show. And that would be the end of it. Ben and I could explore more of Enlighten and then go home to his place, enlightened and merry.

As I reached the food stalls, I became distracted by a two-piece band performing on a stage nearby. A girl dressed in a psychedelic body suit was managing to simultaneously leap around the stage, play the violin and sing; while behind her a young guy bashed out beats on a full drum kit. I walked towards them and stopped briefly to watch.

I jumped when I felt an arm warp around me a moment later.

‘Sorry, did I scare you?’

I turned to discover it was Ben and let out a sigh of relief.

‘No…yes….sorry, I guess I’m a bit on edge.’

He smiled and gave me a peck on the cheek before releasing me. He flashed his bright smile and gestured towards the stage.

‘They’re pretty good.’

‘Yeah, I just arrived. Been here long?’

Ben shook his head.

‘No, just arrived too. I’ve come from the National Library – there are some cool projections happening there.’

I filled him in on the fire waterfall, Morse code lights and large Elvis. We walked over to the food stands and started browsing. Ben ordered a hamburger, but I just couldn’t find anything I liked. I didn’t feel like eating.

‘Cool, this Enlighten thing?’ Ben asked, as we sat down.

I sipped my beer and nodded. I had hoped a drink might calm me down. But I was regretting my decision to come.

‘Yeah, I wish I could relax and enjoy it. Some of these projections are pretty spectacular, and the indoor entertainment and bars look good.’

Ben put his hamburger down and looked at me more intently.

‘You could skip the meeting and we could just enjoy Enlighten? We could go listen to some jazz at the National Library or they have some game happening at Old Parliament House.’

I knew he was right. But I just couldn’t let go of the chance.

‘Maybe. But for some reason, I feel like I need to know what this is about. If he’s genuine you know.’

‘Thinking of quitting your job and becoming a professional blogger?’ Ben asked smiling.

I smiled.

‘Nah, of course not.’

But he had hit on something. I did hate my job at the time, although looking back it wasn’t that bad. The thought of making a success of my website, of being able to tell my boss where to shove her job, was something I’d considered. Ben obviously sensed this.

‘Can I see the tweets?’

‘Sure,’ I responded. I pulled up my phone and opened Twitter. I scrolled up and down my interactions tab, but couldn’t find the messages.

‘It’s gone. I wonder if he deleted it. Can you do that?’

Ben gave me a stern look.

‘Cat, look, most likely this is a piss-take line someone has thrown you via Twitter, and no one will show. At best, you’ll get handed a brochure on web hosting.’

I laughed.

‘Yeah, probably.’

He leant over and squeezed my hand. He really was a nice guy.

But despite his predictions, I was determined to see this through. Twenty minutes and another beer later we were walking into the Rose Gardens adjacent to Old Parliament House. The time was 9:25. We entered the Rose Gardens and hovered near a wooden Gazebo.

‘So what now?’ Ben asked.

‘I guess we wait.’ I replied.

Ben glanced at his phone.

‘Give it until 9:35 and check out jazz at the Library instead?’

I nodded. He always did love his jazz that Ben.

There were a few other people milling around. Sipping beers, looking at the lights. The projections on to Old Parliament House were also spectacular, and the imposing structure of the flag pole atop new Parliament House dominated the skyline. The views from the Rose Gardens of the various national institutions lit up and the Lake in the distance were similarly beautiful. This truly was Canberra, as the nation’s capital, at its best. Its institutions shake off any pretence or stuffiness and becoming modern, accessible and interesting buildings, warming the large and at times austere Parliamentary Zone into a place humans could actually have fun.

Maybe I was overwhelmed by the lights and noise; or the alcohol, or in the presence of Ben; but the next few minutes were a blur. It felt like the lights were dimmed and a voice suddenly whispered to me from the nearby rose bushes. I don’t recall making the active decision to leave Ben’s side and walk over; but I did. There was someone there, in the shadows, but I couldn’t make out their shape. All I could see in the dark was an amorphous blob of blackness, with the vague appearance of limbs and a face. I even have trouble recalling his voice. But the shadowy figure did seem to be male.

‘I can make you a star,’ it whispered.

I nodded. I seem to have lost the ability so speak.

‘Keep writing. Write whatever you like, and I will ensure it is read. By everyone. You will be famous.’

I tried to mumble a response, but again just nodded.

‘I just need access to your site. Do you consent?’

I don’t recall actually telling him any of my login details, but he must have got them. Because he replied after a moment.

‘Good.’

At last I found my voice.

‘H…h…how…ww…why?’ I stammered.

‘You’ll see,’ he replied, and began to fade away again, much like he had appeared, into the rose bushes.

‘Wait,’ I called. ‘Wait’

But as I chased him into the bush, the black shadows seem to engulf me. The next thing I knew Ben was standing above me.

‘Cat! Cat! Are you ok,’ he was calling.

Disoriented, I tried to move and realised I was lying down. I struggled to sit up.

‘Did you see him?’

Ben looked at me confused.

‘Who’

‘The man…the man in the shadows. Over there.’ I said, pointing to the rose bushes.

Ben looked over and then back to me sceptically.

‘There is no one there Cat. I looked away and when I looked back you had fainted or something. Are you ok?’

I stood up. The feeling of disorientation was leaving me, and I discovered I felt fine.

‘I’m good. I’m good. So you didn’t see him?’

Ben shook his head.

‘Maybe you had too many beers; or your drink was spiked. I don’t think he’s coming Cat. Why don’t we go sit down somewhere?’

I was suddenly overcome with the desire to write. I couldn’t hold it in.

‘Thanks, but I think I need to go.’

I began walking away from Ben.

‘Cat, Cat…where are you going? Is it something I said?’

I jogged back quickly and pecked him on the cheek.

‘No, you’re great. Thank you. We’ll catch up soon. I just need to go home.’

And I left him there, staring at me, as I walked briskly back to my car.

I never did see him again in person.

Ironic, that I as walked back through such amazing lights, I was feeling so inspired by the shadow I had just seen. I think already the darkness was inside me that would ultimately engulf everything.

I couldn’t get home to my laptop quick enough. I waited anxious for it to boot up, and then opened WordPress; a gush of words, ideas and imagery came streaming out of me. Within an hour I had posted a long piece on my site.

Almost as soon as it went live, people began following me. I received direct message tweets and retweets from everyone; I started to check the number of visitors to my site, and watched amazed as the hits on my site climbed exponentially.

I spent most of that first night responding to feedback I received on Twitter. I didn’t get to bed till after two am.

I was woken just after eight by a journalist. I still don’t know how he got my number. He wanted me to come on breakfast radio to talk about being such an influential ‘fashionista’ in Canberra. As I was placed on hold by the producer, I checked my Twitter stats – I had a hundred times more followers than twenty-four hours earlier.

HellsBells had delivered.

The days, weeks and months after that are a blur of interviews, posts and fame. You probably saw me on something: pictures in the paper, interviews on Q&A and profiles on websites. I was literally everywhere. Early on I began being offered money to write for local tourism magazines, then national fashion mags and zines.

I was asked about to write about anything and everything: catwalks in Paris, weekends in Canberra, the future of Gov 2.0.

I didn’t know there had been a Gov 1.0, let alone a Gov Beta; but I took the money.

Most nights were spent pouring words into my site; streams of consciousness that became instant hits as soon as I posted them.

After about three months, I didn’t think my life could get any better. Then one night, I checked the stats on my site and realised there was a post on there I didn’t recall writing. It was harmless enough; something about a live screening of Fantasia.

I just didn’t have any recollection of knowing the event was on, let alone writing about it. I shrugged it off, and figured it was due to my late nights and rushed posts.

But over the next few weeks, more and more of these mysterious blog posts appeared. The subject matter got darker and darker. There was one on the need for more liberal laws on child pornography online; another about how to create a bomb; and a post inviting discussion on the benefits of human cannibalism.

I received some truly stomach-turning private messages and emails after that one.

I tried deleting them, but couldn’t. They just wouldn’t disappear from the site.

As my fear and concern grew, I tried searching for Hellsbells667 on Twitter, but the handle had disappeared. I tried Googling him, but found nothing.

I considered taking down the whole site; but how could I? It was my livelihood; my fame. I wasn’t ready to return to obscurity once again. I had my thousands of Twitter followers to think about. I contacted my hosting company, but they were no help. Said the folders were locked on the servers and couldn’t be deleted.

And then I woke up one Saturday morning to the worst post of all. A piece full of links to the dark web. Links to disgusting things; awful things; illegal things.

At the end of the post was a phrase that chilled me to the bone:

‘Time to enlighten you again.’

Five words. Twenty-seven characters.

I looked at the date: 8 March. Exactly a year since my first and only meeting with Hellsbells667. Tonight was our anniversary.

Was this a message to meet again? I had to try; it was surely only a matter of time before the police came knocking. I was sure the latest post broke multiple laws.

I left the house early that day and tried to keep a low profile.

I hadn’t slept much in the preceding weeks, and felt tired and drained. At times I fell asleep on park benches, but woke up with a start from nightmares about what was on my site and what consequences might be waiting for me.

At last, night fell and I headed for the Rose Gardens once again. Another year; another Enlighten. Except this time I wasn’t interested in the amazing light shows, or street performers. At precisely 9:25 I entered the gardens. I stood once again near that rose bush, took a deep breath and waited.

Just when I thought nothing would happen; when I was completely convinced I had gone mad and dreamt the whole thing; that it was a year ago again, and Ben would tap me on the shoulder and asked me what I had been doing for the past few minutes; that’s when the shadows again descended and I heard his voice from the bushes.

‘You wanted to see me,’ it croaked.

Again I looked towards the voice, as I had done one year ago, and squinted to make out its/his shape. I was less sure now of its gender; it seemed more animal than human; perhaps demonic was the right word for the shadowy mass in front of me. For the first time, I thought I saw red eyes shining from somewhere within its form.

‘Please, stop this.’ I begged, unsure if anyone around me could hear me. It felt like the whole world had stopped and descended into darkness, and it was just me and this thing left.

‘Stop what. You got what you asked for,’ it replied. I heard a hint of smugness in its voice.

‘Well, I don’t want it any more. I’ll give it all up. The fame; the money; please.’

The thing paused for a moment. I will never forget what it said next.

‘Too late.’

And before I could respond, the light began to return to the edges of my world. I again became aware of what was around me, and again, like a year earlier, I found myself lying on the ground; severely disoriented. But instead of Ben’s bright smile looking down on me, there were three police officers in uniform.

And now here I sit, inside jail. No twitter. No blogger. No WordPress. No email. I write this to you, dear reader, on a humble pen and pad, in the hope that someone, somewhere, may find it and post it to a site.

Perhaps Hellsbells667 already has.

I still see him sometimes. In my dreams. If he was ever real.

But I have a few remaining gifts from the awful experiences that stranger gave me.

There are my memories of the beautiful lights of Enlighten.

And the bright smile of Ben’s on that balmy night, all those years ago.

And most of all, I no longer have writer’s block.

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