Emily woke up earlier than her alarm with a sense of excitement that reminded her of Christmas morning. It took her just a moment to remember why, but once she did, she grabbed her phone and checked for text messages from Izzy.
There weren’t any, and she flopped back on her pillow, unsurprised. Izzy had described getting out the door as the height of chaos at her house. Not only was she usually scrambling to get herself ready, but she also helped her mother get her little brothers out the door for school.
“It’s like herding cats,” she had said. “I think Mom is just hoping they become a little easier to herd before I move out.”
Emily had laughed at the mental picture, not for the first time in her life wondering what it was really like to have younger siblings. She enjoyed watching Izzy’s experience.
She turned the flip phone’s volume all the way up as she went through her morning, wanting to be sure she wouldn’t miss a call or text.
Brent texted once: How’s it going?
She had replied with a quick, All good! Call when u can.
Their breakthrough on the code was something she definitely wanted to tell him about. For once, something was more exciting than he suspected. Definitely not just bored homeschooolers, Brent!
She got a text from Kara around lunch time.
Hi! My husband just realized we could theoretically go on an ACTUAL DATE if we had you watch the kids. Mind. Blown. Let me know if you’re willing and when. We’ll happily work with your schedule!
Emily smiled to herself and replied. Of course! Tell me when!
There was no immediate reply, and Emily knew the busy mom had either never heard the notification come in, or else was buried in children and couldn’t respond yet.
After lunch, she finally broke down and texted Izzy, hoping to catch her between classes.
Almost a minute later, Izzy responded. Kind of? I’ve been troubleshooting between every class and my hand hurts from HANDWRITING notes.
Emily was confused. The reply “troubleshooting what?” made her thumb ache just thinking about how many key presses it would take to type on the flip phone, so she settled for an eloquent, Huh?
Izzy’s reply came in 3 parts, out of order, but Emily pieced it together.
Oh, sorry. I forgot I didn’t tell you. So our internet was being buggy last night— I think I told you that? Anyway, I couldn’t check out the Bitly link OR submit my history paper, so I planned to just hop on the college’s wifi this morning when I got here and take care of both.
But when I opened my laptop this morning, it was slower than you could even imagine. Slower than an ancient Windows machine, slower than dial-up internet. Like, the whole computer, not just the internet connection. IT TOOK 10 MINUTES TO FULLY COME BACK FROM SLEEP MODE!
Just absolutely impossible to use. Could I just go use the computer lab? Maybe, if it’s not overrun by loud code bros at the moment, but I can’t stand not knowing what’s wrong with my laptop! This thing is only 2 years old and I upgraded the RAM myself!
Emily briefly felt like she was reading Greek.
Nothing further came from Izzy, so she assumed that was the end of the missive and she began laboriously typing out her reply: Not good! Hope you get it fixed. Call me if you get to the link? I wanna know!
Izzy replied a moment later. Gotta run, history class starting. Nice full sentences Ms. T9! I’ll call if I get this stinking thing working. Going analog now! (Picture a handwriting emoji here…)
Emily smiled and shook her head at her friend’s tech humor. She sent up a prayer for Izzy’s laptop and her sanity.
The waiting and boredom of being stuck in the safehouse was killing her, so she wandered into the communications room and tried to look for more information about the missing man from Tempe. Nothing other than the blogger’s article came up, and she furrowed her brows. She read the woman’s bio again and noticed an icon that allowed sending an email to the journalist.
Emily thought through what she’d read in the house’s binder about outside communications. She remembered very specific instructions for email usage. The only part she couldn’t remember was the link the instructions said to visit to create a secure dummy account. She retrieved the binder and found the spot.
“Oh, no wonder I couldn’t remember it. It’s not a normal URL. It’s an IP address?” She pulled the keyboard closer to her and frowned. “Can you even do that? Just type in an IP address and get to a website? Here goes nothing!”
Sure enough, the IP address brought up a barebones website that matched the screenshots shown in the binder. Emily followed the instructions to create a secure, but non-scammy-looking temporary email address. She then used it to email the blogger.
I ran across your blog post about the Tempe man who went missing after solving one of the scavenger hunt messages.
She paused. That sounded really weird when she typed it out that way. And just like that, her intention to simply ask for more information turned into:
I wondered if you could share any more details with me. I have a friend who is very interested in the scavenger hunt, and I just want to make sure it’s not connected. I don’t want her to be in danger, you know?
She paused again, unsure how to sign her name. She had to call herself something or the blogger would probably file her as spam. She was pretty sure Brent would freak out and move her to Canada if she used her real name or any other alias she’d ever used.
I’m sure my cousin wouldn’t mind me borrowing her name.
She signed the email as “Beth” and hit send before she could talk herself out of it.
A while later, her phone rang, and she answered quickly when she saw Izzy’s name on the screen. “Hi! What’s up?”
“Okay, we’re in business,” Izzy said, sounding a little distracted. “And… submit!” she murmured under her breath.
“You fixed your computer?”
“No, not yet unfortunately. Mr. Washington saw me grousing at it as soon as class ended, and he asked what was up. I told him I needed to submit my paper for his class, but my computer was completely wigging out. He said I could do it on his laptop in a new browser instance while he tidied up his papers a bit.”
“Oh, that’s great! And the link?” Emily asked excitedly.
“I asked if I could look up one other thing too, and he said ‘go for it’. I just finished submitting my paper, so I thought I’d call and give you a play-by-play of checking out the link.”
“I wish we could video call!” Emily said ruefully.
“I know, right?” Izzy agreed. “I’ll just narrate. Okay, I’m typing in the link and adding a plus symbol to the end of it.”
“Why?” Emily asked. “This is high-level hackery, I’m sure!”
Izzy snorted. “Hardly. It will let me see a preview of the link. I want to make sure it’s safe before I go to it. Wouldn’t want to destroy Mr. Washington’s computer with a virus or something!”
“Yeah, that probably wouldn’t be good.”
Izzy was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Okay, looks pretty good to me. I’m going to go to it. Emily faintly heard her click. After a second, Izzy said, “Huh! Okay, it’s a mostly blank page with a single, unlabeled form field in the center of it.”
“I bet you’re supposed to put those random words into it,” Emily said.
“You’re probably right. Here goes nothing!” She muttered as she typed, “Potions… haggard… and, enter.”
“What did it do?” Emily asked.
“The field just disappeared and there’s a spinning wheel. Oh, wait. Words. ‘Congratulations! You’re FIRST.” Izzy’s voice rose in excitement. “Girl! We were first solving one of these— finally!”
Emily whooped and pumped her fist. “What else does it say?”
“Nothing!” Izzy now sounded as bewildered as Emily felt. “That’s it. Nothing else to see. Just a white screen with those words. That’s a bit anticlimactic, don’t you think?”