This was not, John knew, what his therapist had meant when she’d suggested that he try meeting people online.
Ella had probably been referring to one of those forums for people with common interests. It was only John’s romance- and sex-obsessed mind that had made the gigantic leap to dating sites and then a Google search for one that didn’t cost money to use that had landed him here. Seated in front of his computer, staring at the large grey-and-white “Sign Up Now!” button on the homepage of a fetish site.
He didn’t even have any fetishes. Not really. Sure, he didn’t mind ropes or cuffs, ordering or being ordered about, a bit of spanking—giving or receiving—maybe even something like a hairbrush or a paddle although he’d had no experience with either. Trying to meet people on a fetish site would be far, far out of his depth, he was sure of it.
But then John sat back in his chair and looked around.
His cold, poorly lit, dismal little bedsit.
His cane propped against his good leg like an awkward, overly friendly stranger.
Harry’s phone charging beside his computer, still full of Harry’s contacts and Harry’s photos and Harry’s music and Harry’s games.
His whole life a fucking disaster, like some higher power had glanced over what John’s life had been before his injury and then conjured a completely shit facsimile of it, hoping John would be too damaged to know the difference.
‘Oh well. What could it hurt?’ he thought, and clicked the button to sign up.
London was… good. Nice. Large and unpredictable, quiet at times and loud at others, simultaneously picturesque and brutal. It was loads of things, really, and consequently impossible to pinpoint exactly why John was drawn to it.
But he was drawn to it. Very much so. That two and a half months living in a bedsit with only one full meal a day and no frivolous spending had all but drained his savings, that his meagre pension wasn’t near enough to sustain him for much longer, that no one in their right mind would want to hire a former Army doctor with a limp and an intermittent hand tremor, all of that was… well, it was unfortunate, to put it mildly. Unfortunate, but unavoidable.
He hadn’t the faintest idea what he was going to do when his savings ran out and he could well and truly not afford to live in London any longer. It consumed his thoughts, although it probably shouldn’t have done. He was meant to be focused on other things, according to his therapist.
Like the blog. Which would, Ella had told him just that afternoon during their appointment, help him adjust to civilian life. And that was apparently the most important thing for him at the moment.
So John created a blog that evening before bed and spent several minutes in front of his computer, watching the cursor blink and wondering what to write for his very first entry.
“Writing a blog about everything that happens to you,” Ella had said, “will honestly help you.”
What happened to John?
Nothing, John typed. In both the subject line and the body of the blog. When he could think of nothing else to add, he saved the entry and published it, then spent the next few minutes staring at the new post on his blog page.
Rubbish. Ella wouldn’t be pleased.
With a heavy sigh, John rubbed his palm over his face.
‘This is my life now, all however many years of it I’ve got left,’ he thought and closed his eyes, seeing such an expanse of bleakness, of grey nothingness, behind his eyelids he had the urge to throw open his desk drawer just to glimpse the pistol inside. To remind himself that it was there, within reach.
He closed his blog, leaving only the window with his email open, and he nearly closed that as well before he noticed he had a new message. It had arrived less than a minute ago, according to the time stamp. The subject line read: “071411120418 sent you a message ‘A proposal’.”
It was from the fetish site he’d signed up for weeks ago. John had forgotten about it.
Well, no, given up on it would probably be more accurate. After an hour of browsing users and groups, followed by a day or two of sending messages without receiving any responses, John had stopped bothering.
And now evidently 071411120418, whatever sort of username that was meant to be, had a proposal for him. If 071411120418 even was a real user in the first place. Possibly it was only the fetish site version of spam.
Whatever it was, it was the most interesting thing that had happened to John all day. If not all week.
He clicked the message and read:
I am offering £100 if you agree to perform a benign, albeit potentially time-consuming, task for my benefit.
Please respond immediately if amenable, and I will provide details.
John stared. Then glanced away, blinking rapidly, before he stared at the computer screen again, but no, the message still said exactly what it had said the first time.
Curious, he clicked 071411120418’s username and was surprised to find that the profile wasn’t empty. There was even a photo: a rather suggestive shot of a person’s plain white shirt unbuttoned just enough to reveal a long, pale throat and the tip of a very prominent collarbone. Tantalising, seductive, in an effortless sort of way—it made John’s mouth go dry and his tongue stick uncomfortably to the roof of his mouth.
The information to the right of the photo revealed that 071411120418—or SH, John supposed—was 33 years old and male and lived in London, although all the other fields—orientation, relationship status, and so on—were missing. SH hadn’t listed any fetishes or joined any groups, but he had written something under the “About me” section:
If I am interested, I will contact you. Otherwise, don’t bother.
“You’re a charming one, aren’t you?” John chuckled. At the same time, he thought that SH couldn’t possibly be a real person. Or if he was a real person, he wasn’t a person with any actual interest in meeting someone on this site.
Probably best to ignore him, then.
Except when John returned to his inbox to delete the message, he found himself rereading it with interest, focusing on the “benign, albeit potentially time-consuming, task” and the £100. He wondered what this SH bloke would do if John responded.
No reason he couldn’t find out, John supposed. This was the internet, after all. What harm would there be in playing along a bit?
Did you even look at my profile before you sent this? he typed. Not sure I’m the best person for what you’re after, mate.
He sent the message and then, on a whim, popped over to his own profile, where he was greeted with a photo of himself, taken from a similar angle as SH’s except that John had been entirely shirtless and had made sure to keep his lips, stretched wide in a smile, in the picture as well.
It didn’t have quite the effortless air of seduction that SH’s did, but it also wasn’t wholly unappealing. In John’s opinion, at least. Which mightn’t have been worth anything—after all, no one had been intrigued enough to message him, had they?
Like SH, John hadn’t joined any groups or listed any fetishes, although he had written a fairly detailed two-paragraph “About me” and filled out most of the general information bits, including that he was 37, male, living in London, bisexual, “just curious right now,” and looking for friendship, a relationship, and/or events.
All in all, John was fairly certain that nothing in his profile said he was the sort of person keen to do… whatever it was that SH wanted.
Satisfied, he scrolled to the top of the webpage, intent on logging out and shutting off his computer for the night, but paused when he saw that he’d got another message. John clicked the inbox icon.
It was from SH. Of course it was—no one else had cared a whit about him in weeks. That not one but two people would have taken an interest in a single half hour seemed unlikely.
The message read:
Of course I did. You’re precisely who I’m looking for. And I assure you my motivations are entirely nonsexual. I only need someone to attend this month’s North London littles munch and remain in frequent contact with me during the event. I can provide you a phone if you’re uncomfortable allowing me the use of your mobile number.
There was a link at the end of the message, which led to another page on the fetish site: information about the North London littles munch—“vanilla” dress code, “relaxed” atmosphere, just a normal nonsexual gathering at a pub, by the looks. John skimmed it, still distracted by the bits in SH’s message about “frequent contact” and “the use of your mobile number.”
He should delete the message, he knew. Delete it and then block this SH person. There was innocently playing along, and then there was indulging a nutter on an internet fetish site who wanted your mobile number.
Still, although John let the cursor hover for a moment over the delete button, he found himself clicking the box to reply instead.
You want to pay me £200 to go to an event? Why don’t you just go yourself?
When that had been sent, John closed his internet browser—resolutely shoving away the part of him that wanted to see if SH would respond to this message just as quickly as the last, the part of him that wanted to know what odd answer SH would have to this question—and shut off his computer for the night.
He had two new messages from SH in the morning. The first, sent minutes after John’s last reply:
I’ve been banned from all future North London littles events, as I am evidently ‘rude’ and ‘insulting’ and my presence ‘off-putting’.
That made John chuckle. From the three brief messages he’d received from SH, not to mention his charming profile, “rude” and “off-putting” seemed bang on.
The second message, sent just past four o’clock:
After reviewing my last message, I’ve realised I should mention that I am not a stalker and I have no personal interest in the North London littles community. Rather, I am a consulting detective assisting the Metropolitan Police Service. A member of North London littles who may be attending this month’s munch is a prime suspect in the current investigation.
I trust I can rely on your discretion.
£1000. And I would be willing to offer half of that up front, in case you doubt my sincerity.
“Oh, right,” John said, still chuckling because this SH person was quite possibly the most ridiculous person he’d ever met. “Definitely a stalker, then.”
No one who actually said “I’m not a stalker” wasn’t a stalker. John was fairly sure of that. Also, John couldn’t imagine the police needing to consult someone like this SH bloke, nor that a man assisting the police would have to rely on attending a fetish event in order to investigate a suspect. Or, rather, rely on paying an utter stranger £1000 to attend a fetish event on his behalf.
You could buy a lot with £1000, John reflected idly. In fact, that amount of money would go a long way in allowing him to afford to continue living in London a bit longer. Even the initial £500 would help.
Not to mention, if John attended this event, he might get the opportunity to protect someone from this SH person. At the very least, he could warn the “prime suspect” so they could take the necessary steps to protect themselves.
Or John could refuse, of course, and carry on being a useless, damaged ex-Army doctor.
With a sharp inhale, John sat up in his chair, positioned his hands very carefully over the keyboard, and typed.
What exactly do I need to do? And how will you get the money to me?
Then, after several seconds of deliberation, he signed it: John. It was a common name, after all. Common enough that SH might even think it wasn’t John’s real name. There was probably little harm in giving it out.
He sent the message, then left to shower and dress.
When he returned, he found that SH had already replied.
Do you have a PayPal account?
John didn’t, but proceeded to spend the rest of the morning setting one up.
By the end of the day, a payment of £500 from “S. H.” was being transferred to his bank account.
The munch was at a pub a few minutes’ walk from Tottenham Hale.
John brought his gun, hidden safely in the inside pocket of his coat. He felt a bit bad about bringing a loaded firearm onto the Tube, in the same sort of way that he’d known it was a bad idea to give SH his mobile number, but neither could be helped. John wasn’t keen to walk unarmed into a totally unfamiliar and potentially dangerous situation, nor did he believe accepting and using a new phone from SH was ultimately safer than giving SH the number for the phone John already had.
Really, it was just a shit idea all around. Off the top of his head, John could imagine over a dozen ways this night could end in disaster.
But that was fine. If it hadn’t been John, SH would’ve no doubt recruited some other poor money-hungry twat. It was better that it was John. John had been to war, after all. John had been shot and ravaged by infection and nearly killed.
John had nothing to lose.
SH sent countless text messages while John was on the Tube—which arrived in batches, during the rare moments when Harry’s old phone actually had a decent signal—all of them reminding John about details they’d already gone over, as though SH thought John was some sort of imbecile likely to forget why he was attending a fetish event, albeit a nonsexual one, for people with a kink John did not share.
In short: John was to be most interested in a man called Jake. Not his real name, according to SH, but what he introduces himself as in these sorts of situations. Late twenties, Caucasian, average height with a muscular build, dyed blond hair, strong American accent. Fairly charming personality.
John was meant to keep an eye on him, mostly. Gather data, as SH put it: No amount of detail is too much. Take as many surreptitious photos with your phone as you can. A successful pickpocket of his belongings would be ideal, but as I suspect you couldn’t manage without being caught, best not to try.
So SH wanted this bloke’s belongings but would settle for loads of pictures and detailed descriptions.
“Right,” John muttered, silencing the phone and shoving it into his pocket when he’d had enough of SH’s barrage of texts. “Not stalking at all.”
The pub was spacious but nevertheless had the atmosphere of a cosy little place in the countryside. It was busy, for a Tuesday at seven o’clock, so it took John a few minutes of roaming about before he found the table in the back bearing a handwritten sign that read “Munch!” If not for that, John might’ve overlooked the table entirely because of how few people were seated at it.
There were three, aside from John: all of them dark-haired females who bore no resemblance to SH’s description in the slightest.
“Er,” John said, after he’d eased himself into a chair beside a tanned, smartly dressed woman who’d introduced herself as Lauren. “Is this… I mean, are you expecting anyone else?”
“Not really,” answered a pale heavyset woman called Tina who was sitting across from John, grinning widely at him. “This is only our second munch, and, well, we are a bit of a niche, I suppose, North London littles. Last month it was only Jennifer and me.” She nodded towards the rail-thin black woman beside her, who was fishing a wedge of lemon from her water glass.
That was… unexpected. John hoped he didn’t look nearly as taken aback as he felt. What about Jake? What about the task John was meant to be doing for SH?
“Well,” Tina added after a moment, “Jennifer and me and the arsehole who showed up at the beginning.”
Ah. That sounded promising.
“‘The arsehole’?” John asked, trying not to sound too eager.
“Oh yeah,” said Jennifer. “A tall, pale bloke. Had a really nice coat, but he was a right bastard. He had a weird name, I can’t remember it.”
“Sigerson,” Tina said. “I think. Doesn’t matter, though. He’s been banned from any future munches, so hopefully we none of us’ll be seeing him again.”
It mightn’t have mattered to them, but it mattered to John, and he’d have gladly listened to more about Sigerson. But it would’ve looked odd to push the issue, he supposed.
“So you don’t, erm, know anyone called Jake?” he said instead, and realised only after the question had left his mouth that that sounded just as odd as if he’d asked for more details about Sigerson.
The women all blinked at him, puzzled.
“No,” said Tina, screwing up her face as she thought. “I don’t think so. Why? He a friend of yours?”
Then why the hell, John wondered, was he here?
“Friend of a friend,” he said aloud with a shrug. “When I mentioned I was coming, someone told me I might see him here, that’s all.”
Maybe Jake would show up a bit later. After all, John hadn’t even been here 15 minutes, and the event page SH had linked him to had indicated this was a pop-by-whenever-is-convenient sort of thing.
So John grabbed a menu from the centre of the table and settled back in his chair to wait.
At a quarter past ten, Jake still hadn’t shown up, and John had had quite enough of the North London littles munch.
In part because the whole idea, Daddies and littles and Doms and babygirls and everything else, was foreign to him. Not offensive—it was hardly his place to judge what anyone did in their own home—but unfamiliar, and he was very aware that he was an imposter in what was meant to be a safe space. A feeling that was heightened by how understanding and supportive and generally welcoming Tina, Jennifer, and Lauren were when John said that he was new to this, still discovering himself, and all that.
Mostly, though, John was restless: his gun an insistent weight in his pocket, his adrenaline at a constant slow simmer. He’d come expecting some element of danger, expecting to be needed, and instead he’d spent three hours at a pub picking at fish and chips and feeling awkward.
So he left, trying not to duck his head guiltily when Tina told him, “Hope to see you next month!”
It was cold outside, even colder than John had expected, so as he left the pub, limping towards the Tottenham Hale station, he bundled his coat tightly round him for warmth and dug his phone from his pocket.
He’d not received a single text from SH in the time he’d been at the pub. Every time that John had been to the loo and checked Harry’s old phone, he’d been surprised, but now that the night was more or less over, he was completely baffled. The entire afternoon John had been bombarded with text messages from SH—‘Sigerson,’ he thought with a snigger—and now he was finally being left alone?
With a sigh that became fog in the cold, John opened his text messages and began to type: Jake was a no-show. He considered adding something else—an insincere apology? an admission that he might’ve stayed longer to wait but hadn’t wanted to?—but nothing seemed appropriate. He clicked the send button.
A reply came less than a minute later: Evidently he elected to explore the rope community this week instead. Your assistance is no longer needed. SH
“What the fucking hell?” John muttered and then, at a loss for how to respond, returned his phone to his pocket and walked on, a bit more briskly now as anger began to rise like steam inside him.
He’d been made an idiot of by an arsehole on the internet. There probably never was a Jake, never was any reason for John to come here and sit in a pub for three hours listening to three people debate brands of dummies and share stories about meeting people on the fetish site while John ate his chips and pretended to have any interest in what they were talking about.
At least, John thought, he’d got £500 out of it.
When he arrived back at his bedsit, he discovered he’d received an email from PayPal, informing him that the remaining £500 had been sent to him from S. H., along with a message.
Thank you for your assistance.
“My assistance,” John said, incredulous and utterly confused. “Are you kidding?”
This had been the oddest thing that had ever happened to him. He was sure of it.
He endeavoured to move past it.
(Mostly. He did begin, but never finished or sent, several text messages asking SH what the hell that had been about and calling him a colourful array of nasty names. He also visited SH’s profile on the fetish site, just to see if it was still up. It was, still bearing the rude “About me” section and the same photo—which looked a great deal less seductive now that John saw it again.)
Then John opened his morning copy of The Guardian two days later and read that Graham “Jake” Doss had been arrested for stalking and murdering two members of online fetish communities, and it was as though a very, very large stone had fallen in his mind, upsetting everything.
Unfortunately, the photo in the paper was a bit shit, so John turned to his computer to see if he could find a better one online.
He could. Graham Doss was youngish, probably still in his twenties, white, and muscular. His hair was blond with dark roots: dyed.
In short, Graham “Jake” Doss was exactly as SH had described.
‘Maybe he is a consultant for the Met,’ John thought, although the article said nothing about any consultant.
He was struck with the urge to message SH, but he wasn’t sure what for. To apologise for thinking poorly of him? To ask for more details?
It didn’t matter, he told himself. It was over now.
John thought for certain that that would be the end of it.