The Naz & Riz Blog Series - Chapter 14
All right, loves, back to Naz, Roz (and always, Penny) for this blog series. Do enjoy this week’s chapter. <3
And if you're new or missed the last few, you can catch up here:
Penny: Part 3
Click, click, clack, click, clack, click, click.
Penny blinked, bleary-eyed and still tired, as she climbed down the dark stairwell of the suburban house where she had called home for the last several months Maybe it had been the trip to her therapist yesterday evening, but she’d had a train of nightmares since falling asleep, and she just wasn’t in the mood to try again.
But what was that sound?
Penny found the source of the late-night noise soon enough. “What are you doing?”
The man on the couch stiffened, and just as quickly, shot a look over his shoulder at her. Reaching up, he was quick to close the laptop he’d been leaning over the coffee table to type on. “Nothing. What are you doing out of bed?”
“Can’t sleep. Usually, when people say nothing they don’t also feel the need to hide their computer screens, you know?”
Penny had a love-slash-hate relationship with the internet, and computers. She was like every sixteen-year-old girl who seemed to find too much self-worth on social media, and that was how she preferred to connect with people she wanted to keep in her life. It was easier than trying in real life because that always ended badly.
She had no friends in her new, private high school.
She had a few hundred on her socials.
It just didn’t have to be deep.
But in the same breath, she hated the internet for many reasons. On certain places in the dark web, one could find folders upon folders of photos for her that were up for sale. Ranging from the age of one, up until she was almost thirteen. Those photos had not yet fallen into hands that could distribute them beyond the dark web where it would touch the people in her real life, but it all still felt a little too real to her.
Sometimes, her life felt like a time bomb that was constantly ticking down. Someday—maybe—those photos would find their way out into the world. Penny wasn’t fucking stupid, she knew how horrible people could be. They wouldn’t care that she was a human trafficking victim. She wouldn’t care that those photos were proof of her sexual abuse. All they would see, for the slightly older ones, were a young girl showing her body to a camera.
She hoped they never saw the light of day.
Naz sighed, and then chuckled. “Maybe you’re not wrong, then, but that doesn’t mean it’s any of your business about what I was doing, either.”
“Fair enough.” Penny crossed around the couch, and dropped into the recliner across from where Naz was sitting. “So, what are you hiding?”
“You think I would tell you?”
“You know, I think this is the longest conversation we’ve had since you moved in with us months ago, Penny.”
She had to think about it, but it didn’t take her very long at all to realize that he wasn’t exaggerating. She blinked, trying to pull something out of her zipped lips to say that would be appropriate. All she managed to settle on was, “I didn’t know there was a me for a long time—I didn’t have a voice to use.”
Naz nodded. “I know, I didn’t take it personally.”
“You know I like you, right?”
He raised his brows. “Oh?”
Penny shrugged. “I haven’t tried to ruin your life yet—that’s good sign number one.”
“That’s not funny.”
“And that doesn’t make it less true, either.”
Naz made a noise under his breath. “All right.”
“Now that all the deflections are past us,” Penny said with a smile and a wave of her hand between them, “what are you hiding?”
Because he was, she knew.
Penny just had that sense—she looked at people, and she could tell when they were lying, of it they were someone who might hurt her. Naz didn’t fall into the hurt category. Like Roz, all he ever did was try to help her, but in his own way. Sometimes, that meant giving her space, and letting her figure out whatever she needed on her own time. She appreciated that more than he could possibly know.
Rarely did people leave her alone.
Naz sighed loudly. “You tell me.”
Flipping open the laptop, he turned it around on the table so Penny could see what was on the screen … which wasn’t anything that made sense to her. A bunch of letters and numbers and symbols on a white screen, filling it from side to side.
It looked like … HTML?
“Is that code?” Penny asked.
“Good call,” Naz returned.
“You write code?”
Naz lifted one shoulder like it wasn’t a big thing. “I do a little bit of everything, it’s how my brain focuses.”
Over the last few months, Penny had heard more than one person refer to Naz as a literal genius. She had seen enough of his white boards filled with formulas that she didn’t understand around their house to know he was smart.
He was also more.
He left early in the morning—drove a black car, and wore a suit. Words like family business and made man were thrown around in low tones like Penny wouldn’t be able to hear if they spoke quietly. Which was crap, because she did hear. And because she had access to the internet, she looked that shit up.
Apparently, Naz’s family, and Roz’s … well, they were criminals. Not the kind of criminals that hurt Penny, but criminals under the law, anyway. And they had been that way for a long time. Penny never asked about it, she didn’t think the details of what the internet told her were mafia families that had reigned in New York for years were something she really needed to understand, but here she was.
“What’s the code for?” Penny asked.
Naz sucked air through his teeth. “That’s … a harder answer.”
“That’s a non-answer.”
Naz gave her a look. “I just don’t think I should talk—”
“Is it about the mafia?”
He kept staring at her, expression unmovable. “And what do you know about that?”
“What I found on the internet.”
“That shit lies.”
“But does it really?”
Naz’s cheek twitched. “Are we talking about this code or the fucking mafia?”
“You’re not a very good liar, are you?”
“Not to people I care about, no.”
He cared about her.
Penny peeked at the screen. “Is it going to run something?”
“Yes, a program.”
“That does what?”
“Crawls the dark web, the public internet, and government servers, so long as they don’t detect it. It’ll cross countries, it’ll even break through the secure internet protections countries like China has that they use to monitor and control their citizens.”
Penny’s brow dipped. “But why?”
“That’s the hard part.”
Naz straightened, and folded his hands over his knees as he stared at her. “You told Roz there was a network of people involved in the … thing your father was doing. Right?”
Penny swallowed hard. “So what?”
“When the police asked you for more information about that, you went quiet.”
“Because look what they did with my father.”
“Right,” Naz said, “but there are still people out there, Penny … hurting kids.”
“This program is going to catch them—or at the very least, identify them, and then gather evidence of their business on the dark web, which will then be compiled into zipped, protected files before being delivered to whichever law enforcement is closest to their areas.”
That sounded … “That’s impossible.”
“No, it isn’t. I had a base program to work off—one that was made decades ago called Thorn. It crawled the dark web looking for child porn, which it would then try to match using facial recognition and other landmarks, should the photos include those, to real children. The problem was, that was a white hat system. It only worked legally. It didn’t go over the line into the gray, or outright black, sides of hacking on the dark web. So, it had limitations. Mine does not, and since it will run constantly without me needing to touch it, and as I have it going through so many servers that it’ll never be traced back to me. Or rather, it would take them a very long time to figure out it was me.
“This program will hack into government databases, into school databases. It will pull pictures of children from online yearbooks, and teachers from school websites. It will pull criminal records, and it will look into workers whose photos are on the internet. I have a friend who is also working with a guy that runs a program which hacks into every single security camera that runs on Wi-Fi, which means at some point, it will also be able to just—”
“Run through faces from the general public,” Penny said faintly.
Naz nodded, and pointed at the laptop. “That was the last bit of code needed. All I have to do now is hit that black button where it says RUN in the left-hand corner, and the system will be live in the dark web.”
“Can’t other people detect it, or—”
“Highly unlikely, given the way it was designed.”
“Don’t the people using the dark web have things to protect—”
“It’s going to hack into those systems, too. It’ll create small worm holes that will be virtually undetectable, which will suck in their coded information, before running through it to decode as much of it as it possibly can. That will leave the program with information of the people behind the forums.”
“I know it doesn’t change what’s already happened,” Naz murmured, “and it’s not going to make your life better or easier to get through what’s been done to you, Penny, but it’s going to help someone else. It’s going to save someone else. Nobody gets to change the past—we can only change the future.”
“The code is finished. You can press the black button, if you’d like.”
She stared at the screen for a while.
Naz waited her out.
Then, without warning, Penny leaned forward, and hit the RUN button. The screen blinked, the white background turning black as the words turned white and began to scroll. It was almost beautiful, really.
“I still wish he was dead,” Penny muttered.
“I can make that happen, too.”
Naz said it so flippantly.
That’s how she knew he wasn’t lying.
“But would you?” she asked quietly.
“You should watch the news more often,” Naz said instead, “I hear you learn a lot from it.”
What did that even mean?
He didn’t give her the chance to ask.
“How many names of people do you know that can be tied to this ring your father was involved in?”
“Not many. I rarely got their names.”
“But some,” he pressed.
“A few,” she whispered.
“Would you write them down for me?”
Penny glanced over at him. “Why?”
“Sometimes, we just don’t get what we want from the law, Penny.”
He wasn’t wrong.