“Who the hell is John Dillinger?” Mel shouted into his phone.

“I’m pretty sure he was a guy who used to rob banks,” responded Billie, wondering why her boyfriend had developed a sudden interest in Depression-era outlaws.

“Mind telling me why a dead bank robber is on your Friends list?”

“I don’t know who that is,” Billie responded with obvious confusion. “I assumed it was somebody you knew trying to be cute.”

“There are all kinds of perverts haunting social networks. You shouldn’t accept invites from people you don’t know,” Mel scolded.

“You’re starting to sound like my dad again. Don’t worry. I won’t talk to any strange men besides you.”

Mel hated it when Billie compared him to her father. Not feeling up to a fight, he said his goodbyes and hung up the phone. On the monitor before him was the profile page of “John Dillinger.” It was set on private so, other than a black and white profile picture of a smirking gangster, there wasn’t much he could see. Mel scrolled over the tab that said “Invite as Friend” and clicked on it.

Mel’s computer made a ding to announce Eliot was online. Mel hit the video chat button and saw a bespectacled face staring from his monitor in mock astonishment.

“Early Bird Mel still awake after dusk? Aren’t you usually up with the chickens?”

“I traded shifts with Herb. I get to sleep in tomorrow. Do you have any dead gangsters on your friend’s list?”

“Dead gangsters?” Eliot asked, sliding his glasses down his noes to peer over them at Mel through the monitor. “I don’t even have any live ones. Why?”

“Billie has a guy on her list pretending he’s John Dillinger and I want to know who he is.”

“You worry too much. You need to loosen up a little on Billie’s leash. Girls don’t like being choked. Work on getting a haircut and a wardrobe that includes something besides sweatpants, and stop being such a stalker.”

“I just don’t like her talking to strange guys. You never know what it might lead to. She could get hurt.”

“I think you’re being stupid, but I’ll look into it for you,” Eliot said with an exaggerated yawn. “It’s not like I have anything better to do.”

Maybe he was being stupid. Maybe he was insecure and jealous and was going to drive Billie away. But then again, when your girl is living 200 miles away, you have to keep your eyes open. There are always guys ready to take advantage of a woman’s loneliness. Some of those guys might even be dangerous. Since she had been away at college, Billie had maintained her usual 4.0 grade point average, so Mel knew she hadn’t had time to do much else besides study, and he had been able to keep his suspicions in check. Lately, however, he noticed she had been spending more and more of her time on the Internet. It was going to be just like it had been with Peggy. She too had seemed devoted to him until she started getting messages from some clown calling himself Valentino 2000. Now Peggy has a baby, and Valentino has move on to the next girl.

The next day, Mel checked his phone for a text from Billie. There was none. He did, however, have an email from Eliot.

“I’ve been doing some research into your problem, and think you might find this interesting,” was all it said. Attached was a PDF file containing a text titled “The Electromagnetic Properties of Protoplasmic Revenants.” What the hell was this? He wondered if Eliot had sent the wrong attachment. He read a little, but, unable to decipher the jargon, closed out of it after reading the first few pages. It seemed to be something about ghosts. Mel decided it could wait until after he talked to Billie.

Giving up after leaving his tenth message on her voicemail, he slammed his phone down on his desk. She should have been out of class by then. He was certain she was purposely avoiding him.  Cursing, he logged on to his laptop to check her page. There was the profile picture and basic info, and nothing else. She had removed him from her friends list! It was happening again! It had to be that Dillinger character. He had lost his girl to a clown who didn’t even use his real name.

Maybe there was a message from Billie explaining what was going on. He went to his message folder and found only a friend request from someone calling himself “Lepke.” Curious, he followed the link to Lepke’s page. The profile picture of a man in a fedora was, like Dillinger’s, in black and white. Maybe there was a connection. He decided to accept the request. Just as he clicked the accept button, his chat box popped up. It was Elliot wanting to know if Mel had received the email.

“I got it, but I couldn’t make much sense out of it,” Mel typed.

“It was a paper written by a guy who was investigating them.”


“The Green Cobra. These guys are everywhere. They’ve infested every social network. A man named Miller discovered them and was trying to expose them.”

“Expose them for what?”

“Miller thought they were ghosts.”

“That’s stupid,” Mel responded, wanting to end the conversation so he could try to get ahold of Billie.

“Yeah, but there is something weird going on. I tried to trace your pal, Dillinger’s IP address. Not only did I not get it, the program I was using stopped working.”

“Did you try contacting Miller?” Mel asked.

“I did. He’s dead.”

“What do you think is going on?”

“I don’t know,” Eliot confessed. “I think these Cobra guys have some serious hacking skills. Whatever you do, don’t accept a friend request from any dead gangsters. Tell Billie to delete Dillinger and not to open any messages he sends her.”

Mel said goodbye to Eliot and clicked on his new friend’s page. “Lepke” was someone named Louis Buchalter, and the only information on his page was the motto “Cobras Strike Together!” In the photos section there was an emblem of a green cobra over the same motto. Mel checked Buchalter’s list of friends. There was Dillinger as well as a few others Mel vaguely recognized from old newsreels. Al Capone was there, as was Lucky Luciano. Bonnie Parker sounded familiar to him, and he was sure he had heard of Dutch Schultz. He decided to try calling Billie again. After the third ring, Billie answered.

“Billie? Where have you been all day?

“Trying to get my damn phone fixed,” she snapped. “I haven’t been able to get any calls all day.”

“Oh. I was worried. I tried to leave you a message on your page, but you deleted me.”

“I didn’t delete you. What are you talking about?”

“I went to your page, and I’m not on it anymore. What’s going on?”

“Nothing is going on. I didn’t delete you.”

“Maybe your friend Dillinger did it by remote control,” Mel suggested, his voice softening in response to Billie’s rising agitation.

“Will you stop it!” She shouted. “I told you I don’t know who that is! If it bothers you so much I’ll delete him! Now do you mind if I go to bed? I have a headache and I don’t feel like dealing with your bullshit right now.” She hung up.

Mel pushed his dirty blonde hair out of his eyes and stared at his phone as though it was going to explain what had just happed. Billie was up to something and it didn’t have anything to do with ghosts. He didn’t believe for a second her phone had been dead all day, and he didn’t believe she hadn’t deleted him from her page. Billie was seeing someone else. He was sure of it. He was also sure she had met her new beau through the Green Cobra. But what was the

Green Cobra? It looked like some kind of role playing game where everyone pretended to be a famous criminal. Maybe he could find some clues by playing along. He decided he would start by sending Lepke a message.

“Dear Mr. Buchalter,” he typed. “I would like to join in on the fun. What are the rules of the game?” The response came almost as soon as Mel had pressed the send button.

“We don’t play games.”

“What do you do?” Mel typed, his fingers quivering over the keyboard.

“We help people.”

Mel shuddered. He felt as if Lepke would reach through the computer screen at any moment to put a gun to his head. The guy was way too into whatever game he was playing. And then there was Dillinger. Mel looked at the picture of the smirking outlaw on Lepke’s page. It was the knowing smirk of someone who knows nobody else in the room is smart enough to get the joke.

“How do you help people?” Mel typed, anger edging out his trepidation.

“We help people like you settle scores.”

“What do you know about me and my business?” Mel typed, having to go back and correct himself three times when his fingers couldn’t keep up. “What makes you think I have any scores to settle?”

Mel stared at the monitor until the beer in the bottle on his desk was warm and flat. Nothing. It had all been nothing but bullshit. He was about to sign off when his chat box finally popped up

again. His first impulse was to ignore it, but he couldn’t resist clicking on it.

“We know who Billie has been spending her time with.”

“What do you know about Billie?” Mel typed, punishing the keys with trembling fingers.

“We know all about little Billie. It ain’t a story with a happy ending for you. Want us to help you make it better?”

An hour later, Mel was knocking on the door of a house in a neighborhood he would have never dared to have ventured into on a saner day.

“Did they send you,” asked a voice from the other side. “If so, give the password.”

“Cobras strike together,” said Mel, the sound of his own voice sounding somehow foreign to him.

The door creaked open and a gnarled hand passed something wrapped in brown paper through to Mel. As the door slammed shut and he stood staring at the package in his hand, someone on the other side of the door whimpered.

Mel opened the package and something heavy landed with a clang at his feet. The noise echoed through the alley as rain stained the paper he held, obscuring the words. He stepped back under the arch of the doorway, and flipped through the packet of papers, feeling his future evaporate along with the raindrops on the hot pavement. There was a gun at his feet. He picked it up and stuffed it into his pocket along with the documents. He needed to see Eliot.

Half an hour later, Eliot opened the door of the house he shared with his parents and dragged Mel in out of the rain.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said excitedly, pulling Mel into the study. The whole room was littered with books on organized crime and pictures of men scowling under the brims of fedoras. On the desk there were piles of charts and pages of notes. Al Capone peered out through the computer monitor, a smile wrinkling his scared cheek.

“What is all this, Eliot?” Mel asked, stupefied.

“This is what happens when you set me on the trail of something interesting,” Eliot responded as he slid into the chair in front of the monitor. “Big Al here is the top dog. They all answer to him. They use these social networks to send each other messages. Lately they’ve been rather preoccupied with some other group calling themselves the Northsiders.”

“So it’s a bunch of goofs playing gang war. Big deal,” Mel scoffed.

“It is a big deal,”  Eliot asserted, spinning around in his chair to face his friend. See these numbers Alvin Karpis posted? They don’t seem to mean much unless you happen to know anything about horse races. It turns out these numbers correspond to the numbers of the horses and where they placed in each race last week.  It was posted the day before each race, and it was right on the mark. And see here, Frankie Yale reported that somebody he referred to as Big Fish is on the hook. They send messages like that all the time.”

“What do all the curse words mean,” Mel asked, pointing at a post from Dutch Schultz.

“As far as I can figure, it means he hates Legs Diamond. Those two are always bickering.”

“I still don’t see why you think all of this is any more than some people playing a game. So they guessed the winners of some horse races. That doesn’t prove anything.”

“It’s not just horse races. We’re talking about everything from murder statistics to election results. These guys have their fingers in everything.”

“But why would they communicate like this? Wouldn’t real criminals be a little more discrete?”

“I’ve wondered about that, and I think we have to look to our friend Miller for the answer. According to Miller, they communicate on the Internet because they’re stuck there. He believed ghosts are like electrical impulses or wavelengths of some sort, and that they can use the Internet to communicate.”

“I think I might know another reason they communicate like they do,” said Mel, reaching into his pocket. “They do it because they want us to see it. They want us to know what they know so they can help us.” Mel raised his hand and pointed the gun at Eliot’s face.

“Is this a joke,” Eliot asked, though the wild look in Mel’s eyes told him he already knew what the answer would be.

“No joke,” snarled Mel. “They showed me the messages you and Billie have been trading. You’re right; they do have their fingers in everything. They showed me all of it. And I thought you were my friend!”

“There were no messages! Don’t you get it? They made it all up! They…” Eliot suddenly stopped as the realization of what he confronted washed over him. That was why they posted on social networks or at least one of the reasons for it. They needed real flesh and blood people to do their leg work. They needed to be seen so they could manipulate people into being their soldiers. “Mel, put the gun down and listen!”

Mel was through listening. He fired once, hitting Eliot between the eyes and knocking him back onto the keyboard. Al Capone smiled down upon him approvingly. As Mel put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger a second time, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter was already sending his boss a message, telling him that things had been taken care of. Eliot was as dead as Miller, and every other person who got too close to the truth.