"Don't click on that link - in this tale of hacking, you'd regret it"
Reviewed by Clare O'Beara
Posted August 23, 2016
We open with a computer addict sitting in an isolated
cottage in Quebec. This is the furthest Susan has yet run,
hoping the FBI won't catch up to her for a net bank
more than a decade ago; to her it didn't feel like doing
any harm, since nobody was getting hurt. But when a
and malicious virus attacks her own computer, that's
different. That's personal, it hurts, and it makes her
realise that she's being SHADOWED.
Really, what did she expect, lurking and communicating
other hackers in a hacker chat room? Well, Susan had
thought other hackers would not hack her. Now the unknown
users are demanding a sum in bitcoin as her files are held
to ransom. If she doesn't pay her friends may be harmed.
She packs and leaves, along with her unsuspecting friend
Dominique who is just helping her bring paintings for sale
to a town. This is the second in a series called 'Nicole
Jones' which turns out to be Susan's previous name. I had
not read the first adventure which seems to have been very
exciting for the people concerned. Susan, with a chequered
family background, had tried to disappear and lead an
artist's life; but she could not resist bringing her
laptop. Now she is running again.
VPN is one of the bits of jargon which could be better
explained for the non-fluent reader. A virtual private
network protects the identity of the computer user from
others on the net. Some people use these because they are
celebrity or they have a stalker. I have to say that I
found the possible threat to Susan's friends too nebulous
to convince, especially since they were not on the wrong
side of the law. Susan narrates in present tense while
describing herself as a middle-aged lady with salt and
pepper hair and a long skirt. Occasionally she realises
that she's not getting any younger, and wishes she could
stop running. But she meets other, younger hackers, both
needing and fearing them. Being simultaneously isolated
connected through a hidden identity seems to make these
people paranoid. Indeed, a police detective has suspicions
about Susan, an American living and working illegally in
Canada. He's on her physical trail just as a shadow is on
her virtual one.
Those who aren't enamoured of chatroom doubletalk and
networks can immerse themselves in the tourist sights of
Quebec City, a pleasant counterpoint, as Susan goes
shopping for a protective jade dragon necklet. But Karen
Olson's tension-filled SHADOWED is primarily for the
computer literate, ideally those who have read the first
instalment HIDDEN. There is some mildly strong language
but no real scenes that would bar the tale from teen
readers in my view.
Learn more about Shadowed
Computer hacker ĎNicole Jonesí finds herself on the run from
an unknown enemy in this tense and twisting novel of
identity and suspense
The computer hacker formerly known as Nicole Jones is now
living as Susan McQueen on a remote island in Quebec,
Canada. She is living a quiet life, working as an artist Ė
but she has not given up her computer. While in an online
chatroom, she sees a shadow Ė someone is inside her laptop,
watching her every move, and somehow knows exactly who she is.
Afraid that he will track her down, Susan is on the run
again Ė but from whom? Is it the FBI or someone associated
with her past crime sixteen years before? Making her way
across the border and back to the USA, some unsettling
discoveries make Susan realize that she wonít be able to
escape her past a second time.
He is looking for me.
Iím not afraid, but Iím uneasy. The messages are cryptic Ė
half in French, half in English Ė asking to meet, making it
sound almost like a date.
He doesnít know where I am, doesnít know that Iím online and
have seen him there. Iím shrouded by several different
identities, by a VPN that keeps my IP address at bay. These
are not foolproof, though. Not when it comes to him. If he
suspects Iím lurking, if he put some effort into it, he
likely could find me.
I could stop going to the site and end it now. Yet every day
I scan the conversations, looking for his name, looking for
that dayís message.
I am doing just that, along with my morning ritual of a cup
of coffee and slice of toast, when I spot it, the phrase
weíd devised to identify ourselves to each other.
ĎLe soleil brille aujourdíhui,í I read. The sun is
shining today. The French is more familiar now that Iím
using it every day, even if itís Quťbťcois and not Parisian.
After that, the link to the URL where we could chat privately.
I wonder for a moment where he is, if the sun really is
shining where he is. Here, I see nothing but gray, hear the
tap-tap-tap of the rain against the window.
I take a drink of coffee, a bite of toast.
He knows who I am. Iíd like to say heís a friend; heís
helped me in the past. I have trusted him more than Iíve
ever trusted anyone.
I know him only as Tracker.
I am curious, more than I should be. My fingers itch to respond.
Instead, I pick up my coffee mug and plate and get up from
the table. The house has an open layout Ė a dining area
between the living room and kitchen Ė and it only takes me a
few strides before I stick my plate in the sink. I turn and
lean against the counter, cupping the coffee mug in my hands.
The wood stove sits cold in the corner across the room,
unnecessary now that summer has finally arrived, but very
necessary in the dead of winter when the unyielding snow and
frigid temperatures wrap themselves around the house.
When I first looked at the house a little over a year ago, I
wondered if it wasnít just a little too brown. Wood
paneling, a wooden built-in cabinet on the wall that backs
up against the staircase that leads to the bedrooms and
bathroom upstairs. A beige sofa and a wooden rocking chair.
Wide hardwood flooring and a wood table and chairs. But the
longer I live here, the cozier it feels, and now I wouldnít
change a thing. Iíve added dashes of color: a locally
hand-woven red and gold rug, red and orange ceramic mugs and
bowls on the cabinet shelves. And then there are my
paintings, which splash the reds and oranges and pinks of
the islandís sunsets and sunrises across the walls.
I am comfortable here, settled, on Ile-aux-Coudres. The
island is small Ė smaller than Block Island, my previous
home Ė in the middle of the St Lawrence River in Quebecís
Charlevoix region, and has two roads: one that circles the
island for sixteen miles and one that cuts through it. The
mainland is close, two miles, merely a fifteenminute ferry ride.
Iíve gleaned some trivia tidbits about the island: how it
was discovered by Jacques Cartier in 1535, who named it
after the hazelnut trees, and how seamen would stop here to
bury people whoíd died during voyages. Coastal shipping was
a big business at one time, but that gave way to trucking,
and now the economy relies on tourism and the islandís
reputation as a summer resort.
I remind myself that Iím not doing bike tours here, like I
did when I lived on Block Island off the coast of Rhode
Island, so I donít need to know these small facts, but those
years seem to have piqued a curiosity in me that I never
knew I had.
I do spend a lot of time on my bike, discovering the
islandís gems. I frequently visit the two small,
processional chapels perched at the side of the road:
Saint-Pierre and Saint-Isidore. Their stark interiors are
smaller than my kitchen, but there is a peacefulness that I
find soothing. I am not a religious person, but I have
discovered a spirituality here.
Iíve learned how to make my own bread, using the flour
thatís milled at Les Moulins down the road. Kneading the
dough is therapeutic, back and forth until itís smooth as
stone. As smooth as the stones that Odette uses at the spa
at La Roche Pleureuse. I am addicted to them, to the quiet
peace that envelops me while she works her magic. Sometimes
when sheís done I have to remind myself who I am, because I
am too relaxed and I worry that I wonít answer to the name
Iíve been Tina Adler and Amelie Renaud and Nicole Jones and
now Iím Susan McQueen.
I have painted the chapels and Saint Louis Church and the
windmill, filling my canvases with the broad brushstrokes
that distinguish my style from other artists here, and the
galleries that sell my work find that they are popular among
One other thing that is curious: I am not afraid to go to
the mainland here, as I was before. It is almost as though
stepping off that other island set me free, but I know
better than that. Yet I revel in my new life, eager to
discover this new place, taking my bike across the river and
pedaling as far away as Tadoussac, fourhundred-some-odd
years old, where the freshwater Saguenay spills into the
saltwater St Lawrence. Iíve seen beluga and minke whales in
the waters there. The Charlevoix region is more like Europe
than North America, with tidy houses that sport a bounty of
colorful flowers and mountains that rush to the edges of the
St Lawrence, with steeples piercing the cobalt sky in small,
picturesque villages along the coast.
I have escaped twice now to find refuge in a place that is
even more remote than the last one, and I am thankful for my
own resourcefulness and the kindness of others. Luck might
have more to do with it than any so-called higher power, but
regardless of how I got here, I am safely enshrined. Or so I
I might have remade myself yet again, but this time I have
kept bits of myself from before: the biking, the painting.
And the laptop.
The laptop is a transgression. It is my weakness. I start
out with rules: in the morning for only an hour, again in
the evening after supper. I set the timer so I can adhere to
this, but as they say, rules are made to be broken and there
are many days when I lose track of time and hours pass.
It was harder to control my addiction in the winter, the
deep snow and chill keeping me indoors, where itís cozy and
warm. But once the weather turned, the island lured me
outdoors, and Iíve been able to keep it under control. At
least a little bit.
I turn back to the sink and when I finish washing up, glance
back toward the laptop on the coffee table. Sometimes it
whispers to me, but right now itís shouting.
I pour myself a second cup of coffee and allow myself to be
lured back. I touch the keypad and the screen jumps to life.
Trackerís message is still there, waiting for me.
When I saw his name and the cryptic French phrase last week,
my first thought was to wonder what had taken him so long.
My second was, why now? Itís been over a year.
The only logical explanation is that something has happened
that he means to warn me about. Tracker would not try to
reach me merely for the sake of catching up. Our
relationship has always been a practical one.
I have been waffling because I donít know if I want to know.
But the longer it goes on, the more anxious I get, the more
I feel I should find out whatís going on so Iím not caught
off guard again.
My fingers hover over the keys, and I close my eyes and
quickly click on the URL link heís left for me.
My hands are shaking so much that I can barely type.
ĎNon, le ciel est nuageux.í No, itís cloudy.
This is the code that will tell him itís really me and not
I canít tell if heís here. He is a ghost, and even if I
start poking around to try to uncover him, I doubt I will be
able to. Tracker is very good at hiding.
No, all I can do is wait to see if heíll come to the chat.
My heart begins to pound, anxious now that I have not
covered my tracks sufficiently, that he is, right at this
moment, tracing me to this very spot. I double-check my VPN,
make sure that itís working properly. I have given myself
away in only one way: my screen name, which is no longer
Tiny or BikerGirl27, but a jumble of letters and numbers
that are meaningless to anyone but me. Itís one of five that
Iíve been using for this site as I lurk among the
conversations, picking up new tips and getting to know the
other hackers here.
I see it without realizing it at first: a blip on the screen
that could be a hiccup in the wireless Internet, nothing
thatís unusual out here.
But I know itís not that innocent.
The button next to the webcam shines a bright green.
Iím being shadowed.
Instinctively, I put my hand over the webcam and think for a
second. Even if I shut the laptop down right now, it doesnít
matter. Whoever it is has already seen enough.
I was stupid to click on the link without a second thought.
But it was Tracker. Wasnít it?
I click to disconnect the VPN. It doesnít disconnect. I try
to shut down the Internet, but that doesnít work, either.
Whoever is there has taken control of my laptop with a
remote access Trojan Ė or RAT. Heís a rat, all right.
As if reading my mind, a small box appears on the screen,
with a message: ĎYour computer has been hijacked. All of
your files have been encrypted, and in order to get them
back, you must follow our instructions and make this deposit
as soon as possible.í Below that, there is the figure of one
million bitcoins and an account number.
Incredulous, I laugh out loud, the sound echoing in the
small room, bouncing off the wood paneling. I can barely
believe the irony. Iíve been hacking since I was fourteen;
when I was twenty-five, I stole ten million dollars from
bank accounts and because of that, the FBI has been looking
for me. I had a close call with them last year, but managed
to escape. I ended up here, one of the most isolated places
Iíve ever been.
And now a hacker has hacked me. Me.
After this initial reaction, the embarrassment sets in. How
could I have been so stupid? I clicked on that link like an
amateur; I let my guard down because I thought I was going
to talk to Tracker. He would be the first one to chastise me
for being careless.
And then thereís the worry. Who is it, exactly? Is it
Tracker? I really donít want to think so. Maybe itís some
hacker, like me Ė or is it the FBI?
The RAT must have been embedded in the URL that Tracker sent
me. Is it possible that Tracker was hacked first? That idea
is unfathomable, since Tracker is the best Iíve ever known.
But maybe heís not perfect, either. Maybe he was like me and
let his guard down for a second, long enough to let this
Itís quite possible that this hacker is inserting RATs into
URLs all over the chat rooms, just to see whom he can hack,
who would be willing to give into his ransom demand. The
only way to get any answers is to go to the chat room, see
if thereís any chatter about someone hacking into accounts.
Itís a chat room for hackers; it seems like fertile ground
for any of us, even though Iíd like to think we have a code.
A code that says: donít hack your fellow hackers.
Which again makes me wonder if itís not the FBI. Itís
possible Ė and more than likely Ė that they are randomly
hacking into hackersí accounts to try to catch any of us at
something nefarious. But would the FBI ask for a ransom? And
in bitcoins? The virtual currency is more for criminals. The
FBI probably would not have made such a demand. They would
I am in denial that it could be Tracker. It doesnít seem in
character. But I am suspicious of everyone and everything;
thatís what being a fugitive for sixteen years will do.
I realize that Iíve taken my hand away from the webcam,
Without waiting for another message from the hacker, I
finally manage to disconnect the Internet. I need to find
the port that the shadow has opened and shut it down. I
canít go into safe mode, because then the RAT could load
into the memory, and Iíll never get rid of it. I make sure
that every program that can connect to the Internet Ė email,
messages Ė is closed.
I should be on autopilot. I should be scanning the ports,
seeing whatís open, looking for anything unexpected. I need
to search the source code to make sure my shadow hasnít
inserted a back door, somewhere he can get inside even if I
think Iíve gotten rid of him. Instead, I stare at the laptop
as it sits on the table and another emotion overcomes me. I
feel betrayed. Ridiculous, really, but nevertheless, thatís
how I feel.
A sudden, awful, sinister thought startles me. I could do
the same thing as this hacker. I could hack into computers
and hold files for ransom, too. It wouldnít be that
difficult. Not with my skills.
RATs are easy enough to get; Iíve seen the other hackers
talking about it in the chat rooms. Forty dollars and anyone
can buy the code, insert it into a URL, and email it to
unsuspecting victims who click on it only to find themselves
with a locked computer and a shadow who is able to access
all their passwords and usernames and information.
What am I thinking? I get up and walk over to the front
window. The rain has stopped, and the clouds are beginning
to clear. A small sliver of sunlight pierces the sky and
illuminates the river below.
I begin to wonder how hard it would be to hack the hacker.
Granted, whoever it is will see me if I log back into the
laptop, but would I be able to shroud myself in some way in
order to trap him, to turn the tables on him? Iíd have to
keep that port open for him, give him a false sense of
security. And then if I got another computer, one that is
not compromised, I could go into the chat room and poke
around a little. Everyone there is leaving a footprint. I
could follow those prints and see if they end up in my laptop.
I am always up for a challenge, and this one intrigues me.
But I need to think it through, and the best place is on my
bike. The laptop is no longer connected to the Internet, so
I can leave it alone for now. I go upstairs and change into
a pair of leggings and slip on a T-shirt with a fleece over
it. Even though itís July, itís been raining and is cool
outside. Welcome to Canada. I pull on my sneakers and make
my way back downstairs. I grab my daypack and helmet as I
My bike is leaning against the side of the house. There is
no need to lock anything up here. I climb on the bike, and
soon I am flying down the road, my legs pumping the pedals,
my head reeling with thoughts about my shadow and the ransom
demand. A million bitcoins seems excessive. Does he really
think that someone he hacks has that kind of cash? I
couldnít access that much money, either in real or virtual
currency. To get bitcoins, you need to have an actual bank
account, and I donít have one of those, so even if I wanted
to play along, I canít.
The road curves; I can smell fresh bread in the air. I am
distracted by the delicious scent, but just for a moment.
I am curious about my shadow. Is he an amateur, a script
kiddie, who is using the RAT designed by someone else? Or is
he a black hat and did he code the virus himself? I have no
way of knowing.
Even though I was careless and clicked on that link, I have
no bank account numbers to compromise, no credit card
numbers to steal. There is something, however, that I do
want to protect. While I use a VPN, someone inside my laptop
will see that I have been hiding behind it and he will see
what Iíve been trying to keep secret: my IP address.
He will be able to find out where I am Ė or at least the
general vicinity. While the island is remote, it is still
accessible. Thereís no way he can know who I am, though.
Iíve seen postings online about ransom requests like the one
I received and news stories about hackers taking pictures
through webcams and then demanding payment or the pictures
go public. The moment he got into my laptop, he must have
realized I have nothing to steal, no files to encrypt and
hold hostage. If he saw me through my webcam for that
moment, he would have seen a nondescript middle-aged woman.
If he is so inclined to track me down despite that, he can
ask anyone here about me and they will tell him my name is
Susan McQueen and that I am an artist, an American expat who
decided to leave the States for a more peaceful life.
No one knows that I came through Vermont on foot with a
backpack and a laptop. I am living here as I lived on Block
Island, under the radar, selling my paintings and paying my
bills with cash. While I became complacent there, being able
to hide for so long, I am not as relaxed here. Itís only
been a little over a year. I am constantly looking over my
shoulder. I was found once, I could be found again. This
time it might be as easy as through my own laptop.
Again I am distracted. The bread oven is perched on the edge
of the parking lot, its aroma stronger now that Iím here. My
stomach growls, despite my breakfast. It is hard to resist
the scent of freshly baked bread. There are no cars here
this morning; the rain and gray skies probably have kept the
tourists away. I turn into the lot and climb off the bike,
leaning it against the wooden post fence. I take the steps
two at a time and enter the shop.
Danielle is behind the counter, and she greets me in French.
I ask for a loaf of bread, and she slips one into a paper
bag and hands it to me. I take a couple of bills from the
small daypack and put the bread inside. It fits perfectly.
I hear the gristmill working hard, and the sun is starting
to move out from behind the clouds. The day may be salvaged
I bid Danielle adieu and head back out.
I pass a surrey with a family of four pedaling hard under
the bright yellow canopy. The little boy is laughing, and
itís nice to see that the weather has not deterred everyone.
The road runs alongside the coast, and the water is choppy,
a deep, dark eggplant color that would be easy to capture on
But thoughts of my shadow and what I can do about him push
everything else aside. I decide to circle the island, work
my legs until I can feel the muscles burn to take the edge
off my anger.
By the time I arrive home, I know what I want to do.
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