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Chapter 23 – Isla.jpg

The following evening, Josh arrived at the bar early and waited in a shadowy corner. Christophe picked the place. It was dark, cavernous and seedy, all red velvet, stainless steel and black cherry-scented candles. A far cry from the brightly lit restaurants and wine bars he usually frequented.

Christophe arrived a few minutes early, and Josh studied him from a distance. He wore a peach-coloured casual shirt and tan jeans, which clung to his shapely thighs. He’d cut his blond hair shorter than in his profile photographs and shaved it close at the sides.

He ducked out of sight as Christophe scoped the almost empty bar, searching in vain for his Californian hunk. Christophe ordered a drink, sat down by the window and started playing with his smartphone. A sudden buzzing sound startled Josh—a text from Christophe.

Hi Morgan. I’m here x

He typed a hasty reply, struggling to take his eyes off the young man.

Sorry. Be there in ten. Held up at the office x

Since he’d travelled so far, he may as well play voyeur a little longer. He gazed at Christophe’s golden skin. His blue eyes contained a glistening ocean world, exotic and forbidden, and his full lips suggested natural bedroom aptitude. Yes, he surely was a passionate and skilled lover.

Infatuation dried his throat and quickened his pulse. Taking a sip of his mineral water, he swallowed away his shame. To gain information about Dimitri, he needed to be bold and dis-inhibited. It was no longer his job to calmly dissect humanity from a distance. He must fight through moral resistance and uncover the truth, however sordid.

Christophe finished his drink and fidgeted with his phone, so Josh sauntered over and smiled at him. “Drinking alone?”

A cute frown creased Christophe’s forehead. “Waiting for someone.”

“It doesn’t look like he’s coming.”

Christophe raised one of his fair eyebrows. “How d’you know it’s a he?”

“Oh please,” said Josh and winked. “Let me guess, internet dating? Full of flakes and time wasters.”

“Do I know you from somewhere?”

Josh pulled out a chair and sat down. “I don’t think so. My name’s Dylan.”


Josh eyed the young man’s empty glass. “Well, seeing as we’re both here, can I buy you a drink?” He better get him sloshed if he wanted him to talk.

Christophe looked at his phone and sighed. “Rum and coke.”

Josh fetched drinks for them both, half expecting Christophe to make a run for it while his back was turned, but he remained by the window, tapping on his phone.

“Thanks,” said Christophe, taking the glass. “So, tell me about yourself, Dylan.”

“I’m a journalist for a national newspaper.” A half-truth. He wrote about charity fun runs and lost kittens for a crappy local rag.


“Performing arts. I did a show over Christmas. An LGBTQ reinterpretation of The Nutcracker.”

“Interesting. And how did you reinterpret it?”

“I had an obese cis heterosexual male doing the dance of the sugar plum fairy, with sheep’s intestines draped around his neck and a tutu decorated with dentures.”


“To signify the vagina dentata. My dance represents the castrating gaze of transexualism.”

“Great,” said Josh, lying. I’ll be keeping my nuts intact, thank you very much.

“I should have used more blood.”

Christophe’s comment unnerved him. “To evoke the feeling of castration?”

“No particular reason. I just love bodily juices and raw meat in my performances.”

An awkward silence descended. He tried to remember Christophe’s other interests from his profile, but drew a blank. Other than socialising and drinking gin, Christophe didn’t have any. Josh wasn’t up on the latest pop music, but knew Madonna haunted the Spotify playlist of every self-respecting gay millennial like a succubus. Gym talk might bore him, but was always a fallback option.

In the event, he allowed Christophe to direct the conversation, and once they’d discussed Kylie’s career phases and the Marvel cinematic universe, it was getting dark outside.

“I’m drunk,” confessed Christophe with a hiccup.

“I’ll drive you home,” said Josh.

“Drive? But—”

He lifted his glass and shook it, the ice cubes chiming. “Straight coke, no rum. I’m sober as a judge. Let me take you home.”

“How old are you?”


Christophe grinned. “I’m not that drunk.”

“I’m forty-nine,” he said, automatically subtracting three years.

“Thirty is my limit.”

“An older man can edify in the bedroom,” said Josh.

“True, but only if they’re trim.”

Josh lifted his shirt and ran his hand over his ripped abdominal muscles. His own flesh felt vile, mutilated by his strict fitness regimen. “Clean living. Low carb diet. Gym and cross training three times a week.”

Christophe smiled and asked the million dollar question. “Top or bottom?”

“Both, you?”

“Usually top, but sometimes with older...” Christophe’s smartphone bleeped. Another user of Sausage Factory had sent him a message. Distracted, Christophe swiped the phone, but Josh grabbed his hand and looked deep into his eyes.

“That works for me.” He released his hand and the young man put his phone down.

Christophe met his gaze. “You big, Dylan?”

“Seven inches.” On a roll with the exaggerated persona he’d created, Josh had to stop himself from saying twelve.

“Take me home then, daddy.” Christophe licked his full lips, but savagery crept into Josh’s heart. The ease by which this cock-hopping whore offered the delicate fruits of his body invited a crushing hand. And the incest fetish hinted at deep depravity. Well, who better than a psychiatrist to fulfil your obscene Oedipal fantasies? I’ll get you right where I want you, and then you’ll tell me everything you know about Dimitri.


Christophe lived in a small house in the east end of London. The raindrops on the windows glistened like stars. They kissed. The headlights of passing vehicles made their shadows dance and rotate. Christophe’s virile and tangy cologne overpowered him.

“I love a guy with a tattoo,” said Josh. “You got any?”

Christophe unbuttoned his shirt. “Yes.”

He pictured the needle penetrating the young man’s leg, gauze covering the droplets of blood which oozed from the raw, disturbed skin. Leaving a stigmata of murder and madness: skulls and snakes, death and desire.

“Mmm, show me.” Unable to wait any longer, Josh ripped open Christophe’s shirt to expose his torso. He ran his hands over the young man’s tight pectorals and fondled his erect nipples. Then he gripped the Christophe’s shoulders and slid his hands down over his smooth biceps.

“It’s kinda silly,” confessed Christophe as he undid his trousers. Josh yanked them down, exposing the tattooed thigh. A black cat with a red rose in its mouth, above which “I love you, Molly” had been inscribed.

Josh backed away.

“I know it’s pathetic, but I was so sad when she died.”

“Where is it?”

“Where’s what?”

“Your tattoo.”

“It’s right there. Are you blind?”

“No, your other tattoo.”

Christophe frowned. “This is the only one I’ve got, mister. What the fuck?”

Christophe’s other leg was unmarked. “You had a fake one before. A ram’s skull and a snake. Tell me about that design.”

“What makes you think I had a fake tattoo?”

“On your profile, you—”

“My profile?”

Joshua grabbed his phone and logged on to the dating app. He cycled through to his messages and navigated to Christophe’s profile. Christophe had deleted the photo showing the ram skull and uploaded a different image in its place: Christophe in his underwear with the red rose and black cat tattoo on his thigh.

There was another photo here before.

He felt dizzy and weak, his mind unravelling. They’d have to update the International Classification of Diseases to explain his breakdown. He imagined a hall of professors discussing the strange case of the hallucinating shrink. In his fifty-second year, Dr Joshua Palmer entered an advanced state of mental putrefaction. On the skins of his internet lovers, he saw snakes and skulls, and boy did he milk these inky phantasms for all their worth. What a peculiar specimen! Indulging all his vile compulsions, pretending to seek justice for a dead Russian. A classic case of digital psychopathy.

No. It can’t be true.

Josh gasped. “But you—”

He looked up from his phone as a fist slammed into his face. The blow knocked him to the floor and darkness descended.


Coming around, Josh found himself pinioned to the ground with his arms crossed against his chest. He’d been buckled into a straitjacket, and a spiked collar stretched rigidly around his neck. Straps fixed his arms to his chest. His racing heartbeat thrashed in his ears.

“Let me go!”

A pair of hands wrapped a ball gag around his face, stifling his cries. He coughed and heaved, biting down hard on neoprene. The straitjacket stopped his lungs expanding; a black leather boa constrictor squeezing the life out of him.

He looked up to see his captor, Christophe, towering over him, booted, wearing a rubber bar vest and leather chaps. Christophe held a whip and draped the platted leather tails over Josh’s face and smiled. “Keep struggling. I love that creaking sound. It’s so unique to leather, don’t you think?”

Josh felt a sudden jolt of pain as the young man’s whip cracked against his bare chest. As the whip lashed his skin again and again, he choked on the spit welling in his mouth. He coughed and spluttered.

“You’re not the only one with multiple online identities,” said Christophe. “There’s my polite profile, which you stumbled upon, and then there’s my kinky one.” Christophe knelt down and attached a lead to the collar. “I’ll show you my dungeon.”

Christophe yanked the lead, and Josh winced with pain as the spiked collar dug into the back of his neck. In agony, he writhed on the floor, unable to get up. Christophe forced him to his feet and led him through the lounge and into the hall, where an open trapdoor awaited.

Beneath was a dark cellar, surprisingly large given the size of the house. The concrete was cold on his feet, and Christophe yanked the lead to hurry him along. A draft whistling through the crevices of the cellar carried a stench of decay.

“Welcome to my dungeon,” said Christophe. “I’ve got sleep sacks, bondage chairs, coffins, shackles, benches, cages, stocks and spreader bars.”

Inside a cage, two men crawled on all fours. They wore dog masks and had puppy tail butt plugs. Both were bald but had drastically different physiques. One had triple chins and a gelatinous belly drooping down in sickening folds, the other looked anorexic, bones and blue veins exposed by translucent yellowish skin. They’d smeared excrement over themselves. The fat dog-man wiggled his ass repulsively, the thin dog-man whined and stuck out his tongue, licking the bars of the cage.

“My pups,” explained Christophe. From a nearby shelf, he grabbed a tin can and pulled off the lid. Christophe grabbed a fistful of the contents and stretched his hand through the bars to allow the pups to lap up the vile jelly. “I’ve been training these two for months. They’re such good boys!”

Josh turned away, his stomach heaving.

“Loads of guys want to be footstools,” explained Christophe, “but true slaves are hard to find. I only train slaves who are prepared to give up their rights, privacy and dignity. Nothing angers me more than men who say they’re submissive but want their own way in my dungeon. Guys who want to control what happens.” Christophe shook his head with a tut-tut. “The true slave mentality is to submit to a master’s every requirement, no matter how extreme the pain or degradation.”

Christophe led him onwards, away from the cages to a bed of rubber. Josh’s legs weakened as he realised there was a figure shrink-wrapped inside, permitted to breathe only through a small tube.

“A vacuum bed,” said Christophe. “A millimetre thick latex envelope. Rather the best place for an aspiring lawyer, don’t you think? He’s been trapped inside for three days straight. Must be starving.”

Christophe came close, a frown appearing on his forehead. “The tour’s over. Now I want some answers.” Christophe removed the gag.

“You’re fucking crazy,” cried Josh. “Let me out of here.”

“Hush. Tell me about this tattoo.”

Deny all knowledge, thought Josh. Pretend you got his profile confused with someone else’s. “I made a mistake.”

Christophe moved closer and grabbed him by the hair. “I went through your wallet and I know all about you, Dr Palmer. They kicked you off the medical register fifteen years ago for philandering with a patient.”

“Let me go,” said Josh.

“Not until you tell me about this tattoo business.”

“I’m into tattoos, that’s all. I thought you had a different one in your picture.”

“A psychiatrist? Seeing things?”

I’m not crazy. He’s obsessing over the tattoo. He must have something to hide.

Christophe finally released his hair and perched on the edge of the latex bed, forcing Josh to his knees. “I wanna hear about this patient of yours. You gambled everything for him, must have been a good fuck.”

“It wasn’t like that. I loved him.” He thought of Dimitri Lebedinsky, an angel who decayed with just one touch.

“You didn’t love him. He was vulnerable. You took advantage.”

“You know nothing about it.”

“Then tell me. What was his name? Do I look like him?” Christophe turned to his side and pouted.

“His name was Dimitri, and no, you don’t look like him at all. It was your tattoo. At least, what I thought was your tattoo.”

“And what do you think you saw?”

“A ram’s skull and snake.”

“What was so special about that?”

“Dimitri had hallucinations of the same thing. They found his body with a ram’s skull in his lap. I thought you had information...”

Christophe smirked.

“You do know something, don’t you?”


“You’re lying.”

“I want you to fuck me as hard as you can.”

“I’m not feeling horny.”

“You sure like to delude yourself.” Christophe undressed, first his vest, then the trousers, until he stood naked. The muscular body aroused him, despite his fear.

“See,” Christophe smiled. “I can free you from your pain, but first you have to admit you’re depraved. You have no integrity. You pretended you loved Dimitri, but you just wanted to fuck him, no matter the cost. You’re insatiable. Like me.”

Christophe unbuckled the restraints one by one. “Ready?”

Freed from the straitjacket, Josh pushed Christophe into the darker reaches of the cellar. He grabbed the young man’s throat, tightened his hands against his neck and squeezed—a rigid, vice-like grip. “It was you. You killed Dimitri, didn’t you? He could feel Christophe’s windpipe closing. No, that’s crazy. He’d only have been thirteen at the time. Finally, he released his grip. Christophe coughed and spluttered, gasping for air.

“I didn’t… kill… anyone,” said Christophe. “I’m only messing with you. Everything I do down here is consensual.”

“But you know something.”

He grabbed Christophe’s throat again.

“Alright,” he said, breathlessly. “There’s a flash drive… top drawer over there.”

Josh opened the drawer and found a USB stick amongst the sex toys, whips and chains. He clasped it in his hand.

“They forced me to get the tattoo covered. They’re very secretive.”

“Who’s they?”

“I’d walk away if I were you. It’s dangerous.”

“Please. I have to know. I won’t say or do anything, but I need answers.”

“Venom Empire. It’s a sex ring for the rich and powerful. I find young gays for the elite to shag. And I attend their orgies too. Man, you’ve never been fucked until you’ve been fucked at Venom Empire. They told me about Dimitri. He was one of their sex slaves, but he went nuts and ran away. They caught up with him in the end, no thanks to you.”

Josh grimaced at the thought of Dimi being preyed upon. He looked down at the flash drive. “What’s on here?”

“What’ll happen if you breathe a word of this to anyone,” said Christophe. “Comprende?”

“I’ll keep quiet,” said Josh, lying through his teeth.

Christophe touched his genitals and moaned. “So, are we going to fuck? That’s why you came here, right?”

“I may have lost my licence but I know a fucking lunatic when I see one.” said Josh. “How can you be a part of that?”

Christophe laughed. “What makes you so high and mighty? It’s just sex. So long as you do what you’re told, it’s fun. It’s no different from the gay scene on a Saturday night. Shame you’re a nobody now. You could’ve joined us. You’d be in heaven.”

“You’re… So sick.”

“I sense some homophobia.”

“I’m not afraid of gays. Just you.”

“Deny it all you want, but you’re no different to me. Come on, you know you want me.” Christophe approached him slowly, his virile body exposed by the light bulb overhead. They orbited one another, kissing and caressing, until Christophe directed him downwards. The sex was raw, passionless and unfulfilling. Frustrated and with tears streaming down his face, he climaxed early.

“Pathetic,” taunted Christophe. “But I’ll soon whip you into shape, if you’ll let me.”

“Enough,” said Josh. Armed with the flash drive, he headed for the stairs, leaving Christophe to pleasure himself alone. Once in the lounge, he grabbed his clothes, pulled them on and left the house.


Home. After the long drive back to Manchester, he stripped off and showered, trying to wash the stink of Christophe from his body. I never want to feel skin beneath my fingertips again, not even my own. I never want to be touched. He thought of the austere old priest who gave him first holy communion as a child, and the statue of Christ on the cross looming above him.

A shiver ran down his spine as he recalled Christophe’s words: you’re depraved, just like me. It’s inescapable. Physiological responses to stimulation of the erogenous zone. Worse than any drug addiction. At least with drugs, there’s a chance of rehab.

Cowering in the shower, he reached for the controls and denied himself warmth. Cold water rained down on him. Icy, but not cold enough to extinguish desire. Christophe was right. He’d used Dimitri, just like everyone else. He never really loved him.


Wrapped up warm in a blanket, he inserted the flash drive into his laptop.

Readme.txt and a folder. He opened the text document. “COVER THAT TATTOO OR YOU’RE NEXT. VE.”

He opened the folder and found a dozen jpeg images, each labelled with a name. One of the file names immediately stuck out: Dimitri.jpg. Dread gripped him, and he feared he’d choke. He didn’t want to, but he double-clicked.

A police crime scene photograph. An image of the poor Russian’s dead body appeared on-screen, prostrate on hotel furniture, covered in cuts and bruises, a ram’s skull resting on his lap. He clicked next and cycled through the photos. Prostitutes stabbed, strangled and hanging by rope from the rafters. Elizabeth.jpg, Erin.jpg, Helen.jpg.

The next victim stood out to him. She had running mascara, dirty blonde hair and pale skin—but was pretty, despite the scruffiness. There were scars on the girl’s forearms and a belt around her arm. She was lying in the middle of a multi-story car park, the floor littered with syringes, crumpled foil and a spoon. Her lips were open slightly in ecstasy, a little gap between her front teeth.

I know this girl.

He read the photo’s filename: Isla.jpg.

He pulled an old notebook down from the shelf and dusted it off. This notebook contained his handwritten patient notes from 1999, the year he’d treated Dimitri Lebedinsky. Keeping these records flouted health service rules and represented (another) serious ethical lapse, but he could not bring himself to destroy them. They helped him remember Dimi.

He flicked through the pages and found the name he was searching for near the back of the book: Isla Sutcliffe. The writing was scruffy, not his usual perfect cursive.

Reactive depression. Refuses medication. Paranoia?

This girl must have got under his skin. Ah yes, he remembered now. She’d seen him in the waiting room talking to Dimitri and picked up on his infatuation. Looking further into the book, he’d noted that Isla claimed to be a guerrilla street artist called Osiris Bitch and had a vendetta against Elixium Pharmaceuticals. A man named Chad troubled her.

Poor girl, Joshua thought, returning to the computer. He typed Elixium Pharmaceuticals into the search engine and scrolled through the results, noting the company’s black pyramid logo and the image of the current CEO, Reuben Fenwick, posing alongside doctors and nurses on a hospital ward. He stroked his chin, remembering that Christophe described Venom Empire as a sex ring for the elite.

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