A grieving young woman, a disturbed young man, and identity theft meet in this terrifying tale of obsession, terrorism, and social media.
Amanda Castle was like a lot of young people, posting pictures of her everyday life to a variety of social media sites. Not everyone who viewed her pictures was there to share in her life. One was there to steal her profile pictures. Soon, hundreds of fake accounts were circulating with Amanda’s pictures on them.
When a friendless and socially isolated young man named Victor receives a friend requests from one of the fake accounts, he falls in love with the young woman he knows as Camarochick19. He has no way of knowing that the face on the profile is unrelated to the shady, manipulative figure actually lurking on the other end of the account.
When reality fails to meet with his obsession, Victor’s tenuous grip on reality snaps and his life begins to violently unravel. Before the world completely closes in on him, Victor is determined to track down the real Amanda Castle and make her share his pain.
Release date: March 7, 2018
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 376
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Random Acts: A Social Media Suspense Thriller
The thick hood over his head prevented Mohammed Karwan from seeing anything, but the dank smell reaching his nose convinced him he was standing on the earthen floor of one of Frankfurt’s ancient buildings. He suspected his two other roommates were there with him but when he tried to ask in the back of the van he had been struck in the head with a fist. Although not an injurious blow, it was substantial enough to clarify that conversation would not be tolerated. He would have to wait as patiently as a hooded man could wait to see what fate lay ahead of them.
Mohammed and his roommates each received a text message several hours ago asking them to be at their flat by eight P.M. Fifteen minutes after the appointed time, a man they did not know arrived at the flat and instructed them to be at the mosque in thirty minutes. There was no confusion as to which mosque. There was only one mosque to which they were ever summoned.
“Do you think something is wrong?” Machmud asked. He was the most high-strung and nervous of the roommates, always concerned that he was in peril. Perhaps he was not cut out for this business of theirs, but that was irrelevant. This was their life. This was where they found themselves.
Mohammed, the senior of the men, shook his head at Machmud’s question. “I don't know, my brother. I assume we will find out in due time.” He was the stoic one, his fatalistic attitude the result of a life filled with brutality and violence.
Machmud did not speak again. The men filed onto the street and loaded into the used Renault Megane they shared when a vehicle was required. When they reach the mosque, they parked in an alley and entered through a side door. They were met by four men who gestured for them to turn around and face away from them. These were strong, menacing men dressed as laborers. They were not men to be argued with.
The laborers placed a hood roughly over each man’s head. Mohammed was startled.
Machmud tried to twist away and face the laborers. “But why?”
The man attempting to place the hood on Machmud’s head twisted his mouth in anger. He let loose with a powerful jab that sent Machmud staggering into the wall. The man twisted Machmud’s stunned body and shoved him face-first into the wall.
“That was not a request,” he growled.
The man made another attempt with the hood and this time Machmud did not protest. Mohammed was grabbed roughly from behind, his wrists clamped together by a strong hand before being bound with flex-cuffs. From the ratcheting sounds surrounding him, he could tell the other roommates were being cuffed also. Mohammed knew he’d done nothing wrong, but he still found the circumstances to be terrifying. He was also painfully aware that innocence was no guarantee he would return home this night. People in his line of work disappeared all the time and no one ever asked questions.
They were marched out the back door and shoved into the rear compartment of a windowless work van. Mohammed heard Machmud protest again. It was followed by the dull thud of a physical reprimand and the accompanying cry of pain.
Mohammed apparently failed to learn from Machmud’s treatment. “Is everyone okay?” he asked. “Are you all here?”
He was rewarded with a blow to the head that rattled his brain and made his eyes water.
Mohammed chose to remain silent from that point and focus on the right and left turns. He was familiar enough with this area that, for a while, he was able to keep track of their direction of travel. It became clear the driver was attempting to confuse them, and he eventually succeeded.
The drove aimlessly for hours before Mohammed found himself standing on the packed dirt floor somewhere in the city. He assumed the location to be an abandoned factory or warehouse. The city was full of them. All he could tell with his senses muted by the hood and the noise of the van was they’d entered through a pair of rolling doors and parked inside the structure. When the engine was turned off, the van doors were opened and they were shoved out into a heap.
When the hoods were yanked from their heads, the roommates found themselves staring at six robed men seated in folding chairs. Propane lanterns were scattered around the room, providing a bright yellowish light that created long shadows and did nothing to reduce the grave appearance of the seated men. Mohammed recognized two of them. One was their handler, the man who came to the roommates for progress reports and updates. He was the man who brought them their instructions, the man he assumed carried news of their progress–or lack of it–to the leaders of their organization. If he were a betting man, Mohammed would assume these unfamiliar men in front of him were part of that senior leadership, fellow Syrians from back home.
The other man he recognized was the Imam, the prayer leader from the local mosque. Dressed in traditional robes and with a long gray beard, the Imam kept his hands folded in his lap, his eyes moving between the faces of the roommates. To the side of the seated men was a crude wooden table. A cast iron kettle sat atop a small stove, flames spilling out around it as the kettle heated. Mohammed did not expect they were going to offer him a cup of tea.
A man Mohammed had not met before addressed him. “Do you know who I am?”
Mohammed nodded, a slight bow of deferral. “We have not met, but I think I recognize you.” He thought the man was a leader within his organization. Perhaps a man named Miran.
“Do you know why I am here?” Miran asked.
Mohammed shook his head.
Miran stood. He appeared to be in his forties, beginning to gray but still dangerously strong. He moved like a soldier, efficient and powerful. He walked to the wooden table and lifted the wire bail from the lid of the kettle, peering inside. He appeared to be satisfied with what he found as it brought a slight smile to his face. He looked from the kettle to Mohammed.
“Did you know an apartment with four of our brothers was raided yesterday?”
Mohammed nodded. “I saw the story on the news.”
Miran left the table and stood directly in front of him. Mohammed didn’t feel as if he’d done anything wrong but this man made him question that. This was a man who would not hesitate to kill someone who had failed him.
“Their arrest makes you our most senior group in the field. That’s unfortunate for us because you've not produced any fruitful results. It’s unfortunate for you since the pressure of a successful mission now lays upon your shoulders.”
Mohammed did not know how to respond.
“We do not have the deep pockets some organizations have,” Miran said. “We cannot support people living in expensive city apartments and not producing results. Many men work hard to allow you to live this life in the city, to allow you to work with computers instead of stone and concrete.”
“We are working hard too,” Mohammed said. “Work is all we do. Exactly as we were instructed. As we were trained.”
Miran tilted his shoulders in a gesture that indicated he thought the sincerity of the statement was questionable. He gave Mohammed a disbelieving look. “Well, I think not all of you work as you should.”
“We do,” Mohammed assured him.
“Are you willing to stake our life on that?” Miran asked.
Mohammed looked down. “I assume it to be so. I do not look over every shoulder.”
“Wise decision, not staking your life on it,” Miran said. “Your fellow man will disappoint you as often as he will impress you.”
A pop from the kettle drew everyone's attention. Miran smiled at Mohammed and rubbed his hands together. “Ah, it’s ready. Finally.”
Miran went back to the table, peering into the top of the kettle again. He reached into a pocket of his robe and drew out a potato. From a sheath on his belt he drew a traditional dagger, its point curved and wicked. He placed the potato on the table and cut it into slices. All eyes were on him, some curious, some terrified.
Miran stabbed the tip of the dagger into one round slice of the potato and dropped it into the kettle. There was a hiss and pop.
“Oil,” he explained. “If you thought I invited you over for tea, you are to be sadly disappointed.”
Miran walked back around the table and faced the three roommates. “Which of you is Machmud?”
“Why do you ask! I’ve done nothing!” Machmud burst out.
Mohammed turned and regarded his roommate. Why was the man so agitated?
Miran approached Machmud and smiled broadly. “Why are you so upset, my brother?”
“I feel like I’m being accused,” Machmud sputtered. “I’ve done nothing.”
“Perhaps that feeling is the jagged edge of your guilt sawing against your guts?” Miran said, leaning close to Machmud. “Perhaps your body betrays what the mind tries to cover up?”
Miran walked back to the table and used the blade of his dagger to fish the potato slice from the oil. It was browned to a crisp. Miran looked past the roommates to the silent row of laborers who’d delivered them here.
“Bring him to me.”
There was no hesitation on their part. Instantly, a man was at each side and they dragged Machmud forward. He protested and kicked at the men. This was not well-received. One laborer stomped his heavy steel-toed boot sadistically across Machmud’s calf, forcing a scream from the man.
“I’ve done nothing!” Machmud sobbed.
Miran ignored the protests. He walked around the table. “Stand him up!” he ordered.
The men pulled Machmud to his feet but his injured leg would not support his weight. He was weaving and leaning onto his captors.
“Where were you when you received our text message tonight?” Miran asked. “Where were you when we asked you to return to the apartment?”
“I was with a contact,” Machmud said urgently. He was sweating profusely and tears cut paths through the dust caked on his face. “I was cultivating a relationship.”
“What type of relationship?” Miran persisted.
“A contact. That’s all.”
Miran grabbed Machmud by the hair and raised the dagger to his throat. “Do you think we are so stupid as to turn you loose with no way to monitor you? Did you not realize you were always on a virtual leash? That we tracked all your movements both in the city and on the internet? That we know every website you go to and every message you send?”
Machmud’s panic rose another notch and he tried to protest. “I’ve…done…nothing…wrong.”
“Your job was to make inroads we could exploit. Your goal was to cultivate relationships and nurture those relationships into assets we could manipulate. Instead, all you’ve done is pursue your own deviant pleasure.” Miran drew the word deviant out, relishing the way it sounded on his tongue.
“I did nothing.”
“Do I need to read the transcripts out loud?” Miran yelled, getting in Machmud’s face. “Do you I need to read the messages aloud? Do I need to show the pictures you exchanged?”
Machmud sobbed and went limp. The men supporting him allowed him to drop to the ground. His hands still flex-cuffed, he curled up and sobbed. “I am sorry. She tempted me and I could not resist.”
“Did she tell you things you liked to hear?” Miran mocked. “Was she a temptress?”
Machmud moaned. “Yes. Yes!”
“Then we will make certain you do not hear things that tempt you again,” Miran spat. “Hold him down!”
The men at Machmud’s side slid on thick leather welding gloves which they used hold Machmud down. One of them, a thick man with arms like tree trunks, placed one on Machmud’s neck and another on his forehead, crushing his cheek into the dirt floor. Miran went to the kettle of boiling oil and returned with it. He crouched over Machmud’s ear.
Machmud whimpered and cried, still not completely certain what was about to take place. He could not see what Mohammed saw. He struggled but he could not gain ground against the strong arms holding him. Miran tipped the kettle to Machmud’s ear.
Machmud screamed. He kicked and fought like an animal, but Miran continued pouring until the ear was full.
“Flip him over,” Miran ordered.
The gloved men did as they were told. As they rolled him over, Mohammed could see Machmud’s eyes wide with pain, shock, and terror. He tried to scream again but no scream could release the explosion of pain inside his head.
Once rolled to his other side Miran leaned over Machmud and whispered into his ear. “Remember my voice. It is the last you'll ever hear.”
Then he poured the other ear full of the burning oil, deep frying everything within the canal. Miran returned to the table and placed the kettle beside the burner. “Take him away!”
The gloved men grabbed Machmud by his arms and dragged him away into the darkness. Mohammed wondered what would become of him. Would they kill him? Would they return him home? When Mohammed returned his eyes from Machmud to Miran he found the man staring at him.
“Have I made myself clear?” Miran asked. “Are you aware now of how serious and how urgent our mission is?”
“We understand,” Mohammed replied.
“I will return in two weeks. You have that long to develop an actionable plan. Should you have nothing for me, what you saw tonight will look like the easy way out.”
“We will not disappoint you,” Mohammed said.
Miran’s look indicated he was not convinced. “Get them out of here,” he hissed.
The hood was thrown back over Mohammed's head and he was shoved from the room. He felt a sickness deep inside that made him want to throw up, though to do so with the hood on his head would only increase his suffering. He had not known Machmud well and had not known of his activities on the computer.
He also had not known they were being monitored so closely. That concerned him. There were times he watched a stupid video to blow off steam and relax. One thing was certain; he would type each word now with the understanding that he might one day have to stand before Miran and explain it. He would type each word with the understanding his life may one day depend on it.
Amanda Castle burst through the heavy double doors of the funeral home and stood on the sidewalk, sucking in air and trying to get her emotions under control. She was losing the battle. Tears burned their way from her eyes and her chest was heaving. She didn’t feel like she was getting enough air. She was a hair's breadth from completely losing it. She looked desperately around the parking lot for a refuge, for some place where people weren’t staring at her.
The door opened behind her and in a moment she felt a reassuring arm wrap around her. She knew it was her dad from the strength in the arm.
“I'm sorry, Amanda, honey.”
Part of Amanda wanted to wrap her arms around her dad but was aware that would not help her regain control of her emotions. Back in her dad's arms, she would feel like a child again and probably start acting like one. In seconds she'd be reduced to a sobbing mess, clutching at him like a kid who'd fallen off a bicycle. She was seventeen years old, practically an adult, and felt on some level like she should be handling this better, but she wasn’t.
She couldn’t respond to her dad. Couldn’t find the breath to do so. She buried her face in her hands and took deep breaths. The door opened again and she felt another reassuring touch on her back.
“I'm sorry, Amanda. I wish there was something I could do for you.”
Amanda’s dad, Cole, glanced over her back at the newcomer. “I think I got this,” he said, his voice oozing venom, jagged in its implied violence.
Amanda’s stepfather, Fox, didn’t respond but Amanda did.
“I can’t fucking deal with this right now!” She shrugged from beneath both supportive hands and stalked off, the full force of her emotions slamming into her like a wave.
She wanted to just get in a car, any car, and hide out, but she didn't even know which car to get into. Her father's? Her stepfather’s? Her mother had been the pillar of stability in her life and without her she felt vulnerable and rudderless. How could her mother just be there one day and dead the next?
On the steps of the funeral home, Fox wasn’t letting this opportunity pass. “You see that? That's why she needs to stay with me. We've become a family. You’re just tearing her away from all of the comfort and stability in her life.”
Cole turned toward the taller, thinner man and squared up. “Amanda and I never had to become family. We were a family until you came along and fucked things up.”
Fox shook his head in a dismissive and condescending manner. “Life happens, Cole. Get over it. That was a long time ago.”
“Five years doesn't feel like such a long time ago when you wake up every fucking day missing your daughter. Missing the life you used to have.”
Fox shrugged. “She's my daughter too. You think I'm not gonna miss her?”
Cole lowered his voice. “She is not your daughter. She was never your daughter. She was just something that came in the deal when you started screwing around with my wife.”
“Listen, I'm not going to get into the reasons your marriage fell apart,” Fox said, suddenly on the offensive. “But it wasn’t just because I came along. It was over way before then.”
Cole felt his body surge with adrenaline. His muscles were tensing. He felt like he was going to punch Fox and he wasn't sure if he could stop himself. It wouldn't even be a fight. Cole worked with his hands every day as a building contractor. Fox sat at a desk. One punch and it would be over, Fox bleeding on the funeral home steps, and Cole forever remembered as the guy who beat up a widower at his wife’s funeral.
Fox started to say something else but Cole cut him off. “I’m done talking to you. You keep running your mouth and I’m going to stick my fist in it. Amanda will be out of school in two weeks. When she finishes her last class, I'll be here the next day with a truck and she's coming home with me. That’s the end of it.”
Fox sighed and shoved his hands in his pockets. “I wish you wouldn't be so vindictive and unreasonable. She’ll be going into her senior year of high school. She has friends. She has activities she enjoys doing.”
It was then, from the corner of his eye, Cole noticed his daughter sobbing hysterically beneath a Dogwood tree in a distant corner of the parking lot. She looked heartbreakingly pitiful, her shoulders heaving with the violence of her grief. She clearly didn't know what to do or where to go. It was the saddest thing Cole had ever seen in his life.
Cole jogged down the steps. “We'll see you at the cemetery.”
“Immediate family is riding together,” Fox called after him. “That’s how they do this.”
Cole flipped a middle finger back over his shoulder, then rushed to his daughter. After a long hug, he ushered her to his Jeep Wrangler and held the door while she got inside.
When Cole joined his daughter inside it was on the tip of his tongue to start tearing into what a dick Fox was and how he was sorry Amanda had to spend part of her life with him. His better judgment won out though. He reached over and put his arm around her.
Though Amanda visited him as much as she could, the visits were always a little awkward with the awareness there was a clock ticking and a point where she would have to leave him. She hadn’t needed him this way since she was a child and he felt a degree of guilt that he enjoyed her needing him. It was another thing he would have to blame Fox for since it was pointless to blame his deceased ex-wife, Christina.
Amanda wilted under her dad’s arm, giving up what little control she’d had. Cole began crying too. He cried for what had been lost between him and his daughter, for those years he’d never get back. He also cried for the loss of the woman he’d never quit loving and to whom he hadn’t even been able to say goodbye.
“Dad, I love you but I want to stay here. I want to be with my friends. I don’t want to change high schools.”
Cole hesitated before responding, “That can’t happen, sweetie. I’m not leaving you here with a stranger.”
“Fox isn’t a stranger,” Amanda said.
“He’s not your father. I’m your father. You’re coming to North Carolina and that’s final.”
Amanda released her hug and looked away from him. “Why did Mom have to get killed?”
“It was a car accident, Amanda. Just random fate. I’m not going to tell you it was God’s plan or something like that because I don’t know. It just happened, and it sucks for those of us left behind.”
Amanda cut him a sharp look. “Like you even care.”
Cole did care. More than he could even say, in fact. For that reason, he let the argument drop. He didn’t want to get into why the marriage fell apart. He didn’t want to speak ill of Amanda’s mother while she was in this state. While it hurt him that Amanda would even say it, he knew it was the pain speaking. He would just have to remember that.
It was the pain.
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