It didn’t occur to me right away that something was off in the coffee shop. It was a gradual build. A collection of small things. The girl biting her nails and glancing repeatedly toward the door. The gray haired man tapping rhythms on his table beside a cup of untouched and long since cooled coffee. The hush that stole over a rambunctious trio of teenagers in hoodies every time a new customer came in. It felt like paranoia but once these things had my attention I couldn’t help but pick up on the rising sense of tension in the cafe.
A kid wearing enormous headphones entered and bypassed the queue. I noticed that the silence that had hushed the teen trio remained and they now studied artwork hanging on the walls, magazines on nearby tables… anything and everything except for the kid with the headphones. The gray haired man’s finger thrumming had stopped and he brought his forgotten coffee to his lips and made a show of drinking it. The girl continued to bite her nails, though now her attention was out the front window. Only I watched as the kid with the headphones pulled a piece of paper from a backpack and pinned it to the cork board, turned, and walked out.
The bottom of the paper looked like fringe. Phone numbers had been written sideways and careful cuts separated them from their neighbors. I glanced around and found all of the patrons who’d caught my interest busying themselves with small things. Reapplying lipstick. Smoothing a hoodie. Savoring cold coffee.
The girl moved first, gathering her things and pulling off a corner paper tag from the cork board almost without looking on her way toward the exit. A minute later the teens did their slouch-shouldered version of it, each of them snagging a paper tag and shoving it into pockets on their way out. I wasn’t surprised then when gray haired cold coffee man gave a performance of throwing out his coffee and studying the other flyers on the board before gently tearing one of the strips and leaving swiftly.
Curiosity took hold of me. I bussed my table and took the gray haired man’s approach. The flyers ranged from small band gig announcements to roller derby shows. The fringed flyer simply said, “FOR RENT.” There was a black and white image that could have been of a sofa or animal, perhaps clothing. It wasn’t clear. I tore off a tag and left the cafe with the small thrill of doing something spontaneous.
I called the number on the way to the bus stop. Under the circumstances I wasn’t surprised that the call ended abruptly, without voicemail or any explanation. I tried two more times just for good measure. The game had to revolve around the murky image… a guessing game maybe. I sent a text message to the phone number.
I waited but there was no reply.
On my bus ride home I pulled out my phone again.
“What do I get if I win?” I asked.
A minute later I received a message, though the number it came from showed as all zeroes.
Well now, that was intriguing. I sent a new message to the number.
“When will I know?” I asked.
A minute later my answer arrived, in the same way as before.
“WHEN YOU WIN,” it said.
I chuckled and flipped to a social media profile. I composed a post about this funny episode but it disappeared before I had finished typing. I started again but my phone suddenly turned off. I frowned and turned it on again. The start-up screen flashed by and then was replaced by a black background and the word, “NO,” in pale yellow.
Great. I’d just played into some kind of technology compromise. Shamefaced, I’d have to admit to Bo that I’d texted a suspicious number on a whim and now hackers had access to my phone. I’d get to hear another lecture on not storing my passwords in browsers and other computer-speaky gibberish. At least he’d fix it for free. And I had the number I’d called so he could report the scam to someone.
I went to my call history but the number wasn’t there. The hackers were thorough. That made sense. I unfolded the tiny slip of paper and frowned. It was blank. Disappearing ink? That was clever. Ugh. Bo’s lecture was going to be unbearable. I pulled him up in my contacts and hit call, wondering if the hackers could get access to his phone from my phone call. Not Bo, I decided. He knew how to do mysterious technology things that would keep him protected.
“Baby doll,” he purred into my ear.
I frowned, imagining his smug grin. He knew how uncomfortable that made me.
“What’s up gorgeous?” he prompted.
“Don’t be mad at me,” I began.
“Did you click on a naughty link?” he asked, his voice thick with amusement.
“Not exactly,” I said. “I”…
I noticed a shift in the light from my phone and scowled when I realized that it had turned off again.
“Really?” I growled, turning it on and deciding to head over to Bo’s house sooner rather than later.
The opening screen had new words for me.
“A MAN IN A WHITE SHIRT IS LOOKING FOR YOU. 24 HRS TO FIND HIM.”
“Right,” I laughed aloud. “Count me out, hackity-hacks.”
My screen cut away from the phone’s startup procession to show me a clock face, and the words, “WHAT ARE HACKITY-HACKS?”
A chill invaded my bloodstream.
The words disappeared and were replaced with, “WHY DOES NO ONE ASK WHAT HAPPENS IF THEY LOSE?”
As soon as I’d finished reading, the screen vanished and my phone continued its startup. My scalp felt like a pin cushion. Was that a clue? A hint? A threat? They were listening to me through my phone. Probably watching me with the camera, too. Right. Bo’s apartment was now my immediate destination. I powered down the phone and shoved it into a pocket then pulled the cord for the next stop so I could catch the 23 from a few blocks away.
“Baby doll!” Bo smiled in surprise when he opened his door twenty minutes later. “Come in. You had me worried.”
I followed him into his living room and sank down awkwardly onto one of his floor level gaming chairs. Something involving guns and explosions was paused on his enormous television.
“What did you break?” he asked teasingly.
He was rubbing his forehead with eyes closed by the time I finished my recap.
“Hand it over,” he said, grabbing my phone.
A few minutes passed, wherein his thumbs did some kind of ballet over the screen and the passing expressions of confusion, surprise and consternation on his face made me increasingly nervous. Finally he sat back, dropping my phone onto the coffee table.
“They’re better than me.”
His announcement was made as a simple statement but I could see something in his gaze that hinted at intimidation.
“What do I do?” I asked.
“Chuck it in the river and get a new one,” he said.
Humor was on his face but not enough to convince me that he was joking. My stomach sank. I didn’t have that kind of money.
“That bad?” I asked.
He shrugged again.
“Baby doll, I couldn’t find one bit of evidence of… anything. The only reason why I’m not sitting here telling you that this whole thing was in your head is because I know you better than that. You say it happened, it happened. Your phone just doesn’t think so. I’d say do a factory reset but if these guys are as good as you’re suggesting they are…” he shrugged yet again. “It could detonate any minute. We’re done for.”
“Are you… wait, why are you laughing?”
Bo wiped at invisible tears as he roared.
“Hun, you really need to learn more about how technology works,” he said between self-satisfied guffaws. “You should have seen your face!” A period of time passed when he was laughing too hard to speak.
I didn’t see that my predicament was that funny, and now I felt foolish, too. I snatched up my phone and shoved it into a pocket.
“Don’t be like that,” he said, calming himself and wiping away real tears this time. “I’m sorry baby doll, I’m sorry. We’ll reset your phone. Check your bank accounts and credit reports. You know the drill. We backed up everything to the cloud last time around so you won’t lose anything big from your phone.”
He hiccuped out a few last chuckles. Glowering, I handed it back.
Hours later, most of my Saturday wasted on this little misadventure, I finally hung up from my last identity rescue call. I was annoyed with the whole world. Nothing seemed to have been compromised yet, which was some good news. Banks were on notice, new cards were being issued, my credit was on lock down… there wasn’t much more to do. A few apps were missing on my post-wipe phone but I’d get around to reloading those later. Bo had knocked himself out making sure I was up and running again with minimal inconvenience. As usual. Beyond the flirty names, he really was a good friend to me. I smiled when I saw his number come up.
“I’m behaving myself, I promise,” I said in way of an answer.
“Yeah, uh, they want me to tell you to wear a blue shirt,” he said unsteadily.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Just… wear a blue shirt,” he said.
He hung up. I stared at my phone, perplexed. After a minute, I called him back.
“Hello?” he asked. He sounded unsure.
“Bo, what’s going on?” I asked.
There were small background sounds that I couldn’t place, as if he were shifting the phone against his cheek or pulling on clothing.
“I don’t… I don’t know,” he said, “but whatever you got into is bigger… you weren’t…”
“Bo?” I prompted when he failed to finish his sentence.
“You weren’t hacked,” he said. “Or, well, your phone wasn’t.”
“That’s an odd distinction to make,” I said, hoping he’d explain, but he didn’t.
“Julie,” he said, “either you’re mixed up with diabolical espionage masterminds who got bored and decided to start messing with the common folk or… I don’t actually know.”
I had started panicking at Julie. I couldn’t think of one time when Bo had called me by name.
“What happened?” I asked.
“You know that ridiculously cutesy ring tone of yours?” he said with a hollow chuckle. “It kept going off after you left. Endlessly. At first I thought you’d left your phone behind but then I remembered seeing it in your hand when you waved from the stairs. But it just kept ringing. Over and over. It was coming from the coffee table. I was about to chuck the thing out a window when… I don’t… I don’t know what made me do it.”
“Do what, Bo?”
My panic was a solid, rising thing inside my gut now.
“You tease me,” he said. “You tease me for… you say I’m a smarty-pants. You know how sarcastic I can be. And…”
He took an unsteady breath. I held mine.
“You know how people pretend to answer phones, with their hand, you know thumb next to ear and pinky toward the mouth? Yeah, I was losing it. The ringing just wouldn’t stop and I was just being dumb for a second and… I held my hand up to my face and said, ‘hello?’ just being a… smarty-pants as you’d say, and… well there was someone there.”
I could hear something that could have been laughter or sobs.
“They hacked my finger, Julie!”
Then it hit me.
“Nope,” I said. “Not falling for it. Bo, I hate to admit that you had me going for a while but you’ve got to give me a little credit.”
There were more nondescript noises on his end for a minute, then, “why does no one ever ask what happens if they lose?” he asked quietly.
My heart gave a skip.
“Wear a blue shirt,” he said before hanging up.
I drifted to my bedroom and sank down onto my bed, staring at my open closet, particularly at the blue shirt I’d been thinking of wearing before I went for the green one instead that morning. Numbly, I traded shirts. My cutesy ringtone split the silence, making me jump. I picked up my phone to see who was calling but the screen was black. I pressed the button to wake up the screen but when my phone lit up it was just the normal stuff. The ringing continued.
Trembling, pretty sure I was losing my mind, I spread my thumb and pinky fingers out wide and lifted my hand to my face. The ringing stopped.
“What happens if I lose?” I asked if asked my pinky.
“Then that which was on loan is returned,” a man’s voice said.
“What have I borrowed?” I asked. “The little slip of paper? You can have it back. I don’t want it. I don’t want any part of your stupid game anymore! I’m talking to my pinky!”
“We’re all here on a loan,” the man said. “This is your last assist. You have sixteen hours. A clue is on your counter.”
No amount of continued shouting into my pinky elicited any further response from my thumb. Feeling ridiculous and bewildered, I shuffled to my kitchen to find a receipt I didn’t recognize on my counter. I turned it over, frowning. It was for a coffee at a convenience store I’d never been to. I grabbed my keys and jacket and headed to the bus stop.
Bo answered his door with a baseball bat raised high.
“Julie,” he sighed, lowering the weapon and sinking against the door frame. “Blue shirt,” he added with a nod. “What are you doing here?”
“Thanking you for helping me out,” I announced, holding up a bag from Bo’s favorite restaurant.
“Baby doll, you should be out there trying to find the man in the white shirt,” he said.
“Put on a white shirt and let’s eat,” I said, pushing past him and setting out the noodle boxes on the coffee table.
“Well aren’t you brave suddenly?” Bo mused, following me in.
“Know what you do with bullies?” I said, sinking into a gaming chairs, “You stand up to them. I don’t get all of tech stuff so I don’t know how they managed to mess with us, but I don’t appreciate it. Someone was in my apartment,” I said, handing him the receipt. “I’m done. I’m not playing their game. They can just deal with it.”
“I don’t know that these are the guys you want to call a bluff on,” Bo said, but he was already easing into a seat and grabbing a noodle box. “Wanna watch something?” he asked a few minutes later through a mouthful of noodles.
We spent Sunday pretending not to notice the count down on my phone’s screen. It didn’t matter that I had turned it off. Just to make himself feel better he put on a white shirt.
“Julie, where are you?” he called. “Now you’ve found a man in a white shirt who was looking for you,” he explained to my raised eyebrow.
I laughed. “All set then,” I said.
Neither of us truly believed that it would work. We watched the numbers filter down to zero and then disappear.
“There,” I said. “All done. I won’t be texting any random numbers on a whim anymore.”
“What a weird ride,” Bo sighed. “I wonder how they do it.”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” I said, heading for the door. “Can’t imagine why anyone would want to play a game like that.”
When I opened the door a thin man in a brown leather coat stood waiting for me. In his hand was a device I didn’t recognize and on his face was an expression of deep sorrow.