The Stranger

A cybersecurity short story: A struggling author must finish his book by Halloween night. He begins to struggle with more than just his writing as his identity is stolen before his very eyes.

By: Erich Maas

Proposal Coordinator

It's October 31st—Halloween—and it's the final day of National Cyber Security Awareness Month. We've talked a lot about cybersecurity this month, and we know it can be a dry topic. So we wanted to share a rather spooky, Halloween-themed short story with you to liven up the conversation. Read on at your peril!


The Stranger 


     Frank Furnak took the ream of twenty-pound bond off the counter and turned to go. The clerk stopped him.

     Card’s declined, he said.

     Frank smiled and out of habit said, You too. Then he stopped and turned back. What?

     The clerk peered over square glasses at him. Your card, he said. It’s declined.

     Frank set the paper down and dug the card back out and ran it through again. A discouraging beep. Declined.

     The clerk frowned. Can you try a different card?

     Frank pulled one out. Swiped it. Declined.

     Let me try it, the clerk said. He snatched the card and squinted at it, then said, Furnak? Hey, you’re that writer.

     Frank nodded. Yeah, I’m that.

     I heard the publisher was dropping your book. The clerk swiped the card through a reader on his keyboard.

     Not if I finish it by tonight. Frank gestured to the paper.

     Halloween night, huh? Ooooo, the clerk’s voice and hands trembled eerily, and then he laughed.

     Yeah, whatever. Did it work?

     The clerk sucked his teeth and shook his head. It’s not going to work, he said.

     Frank took the card back and pulled out cash. Frank thumbed through his money, counting. How much for the paper again?

     The clerk only pointed at the display. $26.24.

     He’d counted twenty-eight dollars. Just barely enough. He handed the clerk all but a dollar. Then he took his change and the ream and left.

      On his way back home, he pulled off to the bank, parked, and went in.

     Mary the teller recognized him right away and smiled. Hi, Frank. What can I do for you?

     I need a hundred bucks, he said, approaching the counter. Without being asked he handed over a card with his account number.

     She typed his number into her computer, waited a moment, then made a face. It was the same face the store clerk had made when his card hadn’t worked.

     I’m sorry, she said. It doesn’t look like you have enough in your account.

     Frank’s eyes narrowed. His lips were thin. Yes, there is, he said.

     I’m afraid there isn’t.

     How much is there?

     Your account balance appears to be zero, she said, clicking the computer mouse. Yes, she affirmed. Zero.

     Frank chuckled softly at the joke he assumed she was playing, but Mary didn’t laugh.

     His whole body was suddenly heavy like his blood had turned to molasses. Zero, he said. What do you mean it’s zero?

     I mean your account’s empty. Do you have another account you can withdraw from?

     It’s not empty. There should be more than six hundred dollars there. Did you type the number in right?

     She crossed checked the card with the screen in front of her. Yes, this is your account, she said. She clicked the mouse some more. It looks like you transferred your funds to another bank this morning.

     I didn’t do that, he said. I don’t have another bank.

     Ellen, maybe?

     She would have told me.

     I’d hate to say this, but this looks like theft.

     He sighed, trying to massage a headache out of his forehead before it grew. I thought I was finally catching a break, he said.

     Don’t worry, she said. If it’s really theft, the bank will refund your money. And we’ll block transactions from whoever did this. You’ll be all set again in a few days. Like it never happened.

     It’s not just this. Both my credit cards were denied earlier today. I have work to do. I don’t have time.

     Did you talk to your credit card companies yet?


     Tell you what, she said, pointing at a phone by the door. Use that phone over there to call them and straighten that out. While you’re doing that, I’ll call this other bank where your money was transferred and see if they can tell me more. We’ll get this sorted as fast as we can.

     Frank leaned against the wall. He called each of the numbers on the back of his credit cards. They both told him the same thing.

     According to our records, they said, you called this morning to cancel the card yourself. A new card is being sent to 1513 Esher Street.

     That was his address. Why would a thief send new cards to his address?

     Just as he was hanging up with the second company, Mary waved him over from the counter, but she didn’t look happy.

     What are you? she said. Some kind of thief?

     No, Frank said.

     They were able to look up the other account. Said it belongs to you. That you went in there this morning and set it up and made the transfer.

     What? I didn’t do that.

     Don’t try that with me.

     The credit card companies said that same thing. I didn’t do it. Someone clearly has it in for me.

     Yeah, right. Just get out of here, or I’m calling the police.

     Frank opened the back door of his house and went in with the ream of paper under his arm. Strangely quiet for 3 in the afternoon on a Monday. But not quiet at all. He could hear the clock in the living room, ticking. The old wood of the house creaking in the unseasonable cold. The sound of traffic from the road. The sounds were all where they should be, but they were dulled. Hollow. Like they were suddenly asked to fill a larger space than they were used to. He left his shoes on the pile by the door then washed his hands in the kitchen sink and pat them dry.

     He passed through the house to his study, a room walled with books and floored with balls of crumpled paper, discarded words from a manuscript he was struggling to finish. He put the fresh paper down next to his typewriter.

     Ellen? he called. His voice seemed to come from somewhere outside himself.

     In the bedroom, she replied. He went to her.

     She was sitting with her laptop on the edge of the bed and wearing her best suit. She smiled when she saw him, but it was more like she was smiling past him, at someone behind him, but there was no one.

     I’m about to go to a meeting, she said. To close that deal I was telling you about.

     Not the Holstein-Schneider deal? he said.

     She nodded, smiling again.

     That’s fantastic. He sat beside her and watched her typing for a moment.

     Before you leave, he said, I have to ask you. Did you do something with the credit cards?

     What? she asked vacantly, reading the screen.

     Both credit cards were cancelled this morning. You mean you didn’t do it?

     No. I’ve been preparing for this meeting all day.

     So I guess you didn’t do anything with the bank either.

     What do you mean?

     Someone stole our money.

     What? She was looking at him now.

     Transferred it right out of our account.

     You’re not serious.

     Let me show you. Frank took her laptop and went to their bank website, typed in his username and password, struck enter and waited. Their account summary appeared. It shown clear as day: their account was empty. He turned the screen toward her so she could see.

     Whoever did this transferred the money into an account in my name. I know, it sounds strange, but I never opened another account anywhere. Mary didn’t believe me either. But it’s the same thing with the credit cards. Whoever cancelled them is sending new ones to the house.

     What’s this? she said, looking at the screen. She turned it back toward him. A message had appeared: You have been signed out. Please sign back in to access your accounts.

     What the—

     Frank filled in his username and password again, struck enter and waited.

     A new message: Your username or password is incorrect. Please try again.

     He typed them again more slowly.

     The same message.

     What is going on?

     He clicked a button to recover his password. Directions to change the password had been emailed to him. He opened a new window to sign into the email account.

     An error message: Your username or password is incorrect. Please try again.

     He tried again.

     The same message.

     He tried to sign into Facebook.

     The same message.

     He tried every account he could think of. His password didn’t work for anything.

     No, no, no, he repeated again and again.

     What’s wrong? Ellen asked.

     Nothing works. The password has been changed on all my accounts.

     You typed it right?

     I’ve been using the same password for years. Of course I typed it right. Someone’s changed all my passwords.

     You know you shouldn’t have the same password for everything. I keep telling you. Once they get one password, they have them all unless you make them all different.

     I know, he said.

     Let me try mine. Ellen took the laptop and typed. A few moments later she looked at Frank and shrugged. It’s just you, she said. My accounts are fine.

     What should I do? Go to the police?

     I don’t know what else you could do.

     Frank swore. Okay, he said.

     Should I come with you?

     No, you have your meeting. I don’t want you to worry about this, okay? I’ll take care of it.

     Frank rose and crossed through the house toward the back door. In the living room, he stopped. Took a step back. He turned a slow turn toward a collage of photos hanging on the wall. At eye level was his favorite picture of Ellen and him. It was from their wedding. She looked radiant as ever with a sparkle in her eye and a hairstyle that must have taken all morning to fashion. But he was changed. He looked grey and faded. A trick of the lighting, perhaps, that he had never noticed before.

     Turning, he left the house, got in his car, and drove.

      Why don’t we talk in my office, said Sheriff Garren.

     Frank followed him into a room and sat in front of a desk stacked with manilla folders. The sheriff sat across from him.

     Are you feelin’ okay? he said. His breath smelled like Old Milwaukee and orange Tic Tacs. You look a little pale. Can I get you some water or—?

     I’m all right.

     Okay. The sheriff leaned back in his chair. What’d you say was going on?

     Frank told him the story. About how his credit cards had been declined and that they’d been cancelled, and that his bank account had been drained, apparently by him, and that all his online passwords had been changed. All the while he spoke, the sheriff wrote on a notepad. He looked up now and then to nod, urging the story along. When Frank was done, Garren just sat there for a moment, as if waiting for the rest of the story.

     I see, he said at last. Well, that sure is no good. What did you say your name was again?

     Frank Furnak.

     Okay, Frank. He wrote the name down. Do you have some ID? I’ll take your information and start a file, and we’ll do what we can for you.

     Frank dug for his wallet, pulled out his driver’s license and handed it over.

     Sheriff Garren looked at it, looked back up at Frank, then down at the card again. What is this? Some kind of joke?

     Excuse me? Frank said.

     Who put you up to this? Was it Derby? The sheriff flipped the license down on the desk.

     Frank took it up and examined it. The card was blank. On both sides. Like it had been bleached. Frank yipped like a whipped dog and dropped the card. He opened his wallet and dug through it. No, he said. No, no. He pulled out credit cards, gift cards, and all his insurance cards. A business card from Mike’s Auto Shop. His single remaining dollar. There was no other driver’s license.

     Get out, the sheriff barked. This was a good joke, but I don’t have the time, as I’m sure you can see. He rose and took Frank under the arm and pulled him to the door.

     Stop. Wait, Frank said. This isn’t a joke.

     Very funny, said the sheriff. Keep it up, and I’ll throw you in a cell for the night. Then he slammed the door in Frank’s face.

      He left his shoes on the pile by the door then washed his hands in the kitchen sink and pat them dry. Ellen was still out at the meeting. There was nothing more Frank could think to do about his predicament for the moment, so decided he would sit down at his typewriter and finish his book. It was already four o’clock. It would be dark soon, and he would have to take the finished manuscript to his agent first thing in the morning. He trudged through the house with hollow-sounding footsteps. He was going to finish it.

     In his mind, the book’s final chapter was scratching to get free. He could feel how his hero would sort everything out. He could see the last sentence behind his eyelids when he blinked.

     He twisted a fresh sheet into the machine and cracked his knuckles. He would type the heading first as he always did. Name, title, page number. Furnak / BROKEN / 341. He had typed it hundreds of times. A capital F ticked onto the paper. But he did not continue. Could not. The letters of his name were all there in his head, but they were jumbled like some sort of dyslexic amnesia. He could feel the name slipping farther and farther away the more he reached for it. After a while he couldn’t be sure if it even started with an F at all.

     He took a handful of sheets from his finished stack. Checked the heading. The name was gone. Blank. He checked another and another. Faster and faster, he flipped through them. Pages tore and creased. He pushed the rest of the stack onto the floor. Swish of paper. A scream, but no sound.

     He stumbled out of the study and went to the pictures on the living room wall, looking for any sign of himself. In all the photos, he’d been replaced. A stranger now stood beside Ellen in his favorite wedding picture. A stranger with Frank’s face, but it wasn’t his. A stranger walking in stolen skin, like a man reupholstered. The nameless man tried to pull the picture from the wall, to smash it on the floor, but he couldn’t pry it free. His fingers shimmered in and out of solidity, unable to grasp or to feel. He looked at his hands, his arms. Held them up to the light. His edges had turned to mist, like a shape in the clouds slowly deforming.

     Then the back door opened, and Frank Furnak entered.

     The nameless man watched him. He left his shoes on the pile by the door then he washed his hands in the kitchen sink and pat them dry. He walked past the nameless man without seeing him or hearing his cries—his commands to get out of the house.

     He went into the study, and the nameless man followed. Frank sat at the desk in front of the typewriter and cracked his knuckles, and then he struck words onto the paper. Key by key, he typed Furnak / BROKEN / 341.

     They heard the back door open and close. Ellen was home. Frank continued typing, but the nameless man went to her. He called her name. Begged her to hear him. To see him.

     Frank? she called.

     Yes, cried the nameless man. Yes! It’s me.

     In here, replied Frank, and she went to him.

     No. No! cried the nameless man.

     Ellen hugged Frank while he typed.

     How’d it go? Frank asked.

     We got it.

     That’s fantastic. I’m proud of you.

     She watched him type for a minute, while the nameless man begged and begged her to look at him. Not to trust this stranger in Frank’s upholstery.

     What happened with all the bank stuff? she asked.

     Frank slowly turned. I took care of it, he said. It’s finished. And for a second, his eyes seemed to lock with the nameless man’s, and he flashed the faintest hint of a smile.