Eye of the Webcam

I signed into the online conference site as usual. I teach web-based classes on my company’s software for real estate salespeople around the country, so I get all kinds. From the old-line agents who just wish they had their old listings book back to the newbies who want to become superstars overnight and every degree in between, I train the agents on our comprehensive transaction and contact management and lead capture software. Today was typical. I had 45 students scheduled. We’d see how many actually made it to the session.

Several students were already signed in and a few had webcams displaying their faces and surroundings. I’m always amused by the inherent vanity of people who assume we want to see them in their “natural habitat,” complete with family pictures on the wall and visits from pets.

The sultry blonde looked a little bored as she waited for the session to begin-she was using an emery board on her nails. An eager young man was poring over some printed material. The third window showed a meticulously coiffed middle-aged woman in a business suit. The wall behind her was filled with framed certificates and engraved plaques-obviously the successful veteran agent.

The older man in window four seemed to be looking for a way to turn the camera off; he’d study the screen and move the mouse around. He paused, stared, and then wiggled the mouse before pausing again. Reading the identifying flags on the icons, I’d bet. Poor technologically challenged fellow.

My little welcome spiel went smoothly and I confirmed that the participants were muted before opening my application screen. Halfway through the first module, I noticed the older man on webcam gesturing. I moved to un-mute his line to get his question but his screen suddenly dissolved into a red square. What the…?

“Focus,” I commanded myself, and hurried with the next step of the demonstration. By the time I concluded the class, the red square had closed. One less satisfied customer, I guess.

An hour later, I hit the “Start Session” button for my next class. Another mix of students from around the country joined me, with a handful of them on webcam. I ordered myself to ignore them and present the class. When I finished, two red frames sat among the other webcam frames. I decided it must be some new feature of the conferencing site, and carried on with the shut-down procedure.

I was starting dinner preparations when the doorbell rang. The two tough-looking fellows in suits stood outside and flashed their badges at me when I opened the door.

“Miss Carrioux?” asked one of them. “I’m Detective McNamara and this is my partner, Detective Johnson, NOPD. May we come in?”

“What’s up?” I gestured them inside.

“We have a few questions for you about the company you work for.” Johnson jumped into the conversation.

“Sure, no problem.”

“You teach classes on the internet for a software company in Silicon Valley, right?” said McNamara as he flipped through a notebook.

“Yes, for the last two years.”

“Yet you work from here in New Orleans?”

“Yep, wonders of technology, don’t you know? Real estate agents can sign in from anywhere that has internet access and listen to my pearls of wisdom.”

“No need to get flip, lady.” Obviously Det. Johnson had no sense of humor.

“Pardon my partner, ma’am. We just have to ask, have you noticed anything strange in your classes lately? Any odd noises or happenings?”

“Well, I keep the class muted unless someone indicates that they have a question, so I don’t hear much. Of course, some of the students have webcams and that can get a little weird sometimes. Sometimes people forget they’re broadcasting to me. And lately there’s this goofy effect, where the screen goes red. But that’s all. Why do you ask?”

“We’re just checking things out as a courtesy to another department. Students in several of your classes, as well as others offered on the conference service your company uses, have died in unexplained ways. It’s happened in several states and a task force is gathering facts from everyone involved.” McNamara made a few notes in his pad.

“What do you mean, ‘died in unexplained ways’?” I sputtered. People aren’t supposed to die in my classes.

“We don’t have any more details at present. Can you tell me anything more about the red screen effect you mentioned?” Johnson certainly didn’t care for small talk.

“It happened this afternoon. An older gentleman seemed to be having trouble with his webcam when the screen went red. In the second session, two of the screens went red, but I made a conscious effort not to be distracted so I don’t know who they were or what they were doing. I’ve not seen anything like it before.”

“As of this afternoon, there were a total of seven deaths in six states during web-based conferences through your provider. Three of them took place during your two classes.” McNamara’s explanation was interrupted by Johnson coughing. “All of the victims were operating computers equipped with webcams when they were killed.” Johnson coughed louder. McNamara threw a determined look his way and kept talking. “All of them were drained of blood and the only blood found at the scene was on the webcam lens.”

“Thank you for your time, Miss Carrioux,” interjected Det. Johnson. “We’ll be in touch.” He grabbed McNamara’s arm and headed toward the door. McNamara gave me an apologetic look and slid a business card on the coffee table as they left the apartment.

I could hear them in the corridor. Johnson was tearing into McNamara about talking too much. McNamara replied that he felt I deserved the facts.

My appetite was gone. Three of my students were dead. What a horrible situation. I thought back to the older man. Maybe those wild gestures weren’t an indication of a question, but of a problem. Maybe he was being attacked even as I tried to un-mute his line. Good heavens!

I’ve gone over and over it in my mind. I know now what I have to do. Tomorrow, I’ll take off the crucifix I usually wear while I’m teaching my class, but I’ll keep it handy. I’ll pay special attention to the people on webcam.

I think that vampires have found a new way to stalk their victims, using webcams and the internet. Maybe our conference provider is working with them-who knows? Anyway, if anything happens to me, please contact Det. McNamara at NOPD. Give him this document and he’ll know what to do with it. And whatever you do, DON’T TURN ON YOUR WEBCAM!

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