The latest number is Tony Markham, aged 33, a former Army Corporal. He does security work and supposedly lives in a tiny one-bedroom that he hasn't visited in the last day and a half.
John watches Markham enter a building, nod and smile at the doorman. He taps his earpiece. "Markham might be staying with friends."
"Perhaps, but that's not why he's here," Finch says. "If my guess is correct, he's attending a therapy session."
Well, that's handy. Finch should probably be able to get, if not everything they need, then enough to go on with. So far they have nothing linking Markham to violent crime as either victim or perpetrator.
John's about to turn around and go back to the library when Finch bites out, "Please stay where you are."
John halts. "I'm going to need to sit down somewhere less conspicuous if I'm hanging around."
"Do that." Finch usually isn't this curt. And yet, if the therapist - or Markham, who knows - were in physical danger, John's pretty sure Harold would have had John smashing down the door.
Once John has a seat in the lobby cafe and a cup of coffee in front of him, he taps his earpiece again. "Care to clue me in?"
The next words aren't in Harold's voice. Finch must've forwarded the audio off Markham's bluejacked phone right into John's earpiece. "How did last week's assignment go?" The voice isn't Markham's, either. It's older, more authoritative.
"Shitty." Markham sounds exhausted. John frowns and wonders about possible causes for Markham's fatigue. "Look, telling him no is pointless when he doesn't listen."
"You're a grown man, Anthony." The older voice - presumably Markham's therapist - is full of disapproval. "A former soldier. If you're brave enough to venture out under enemy fire, you're definitely brave enough to tell your boyfriend what he's doing to you doesn't feel good."
John feels his frown deepen.
"I did." Markham's voice cracks. "I was tied up, okay? I couldn't exactly haul up and slug him. And," he falters for a moment, "he said after it can't have been that bad if I still got hard. If I still," his voice goes too quiet for John to make out the words.
Presumably the therapist can't, either. "What was that?"
"He said I must have wanted it if he could make me come."
There's a sigh. "Tony," the therapist says, voice low and gentle, "there's nothing wrong about wanting to submit, or be with a man. You don't need to give yourself excuses. If you really didn't want it, why did you let him tie you up to begin with? You know what he's like."
John hears a click, and then Finch says, "I believe you got the point." John blinks. He hasn't heard Finch be furious all that often, but it's unmistakable. "I'm afraid we have no choice but to let the session," Harold all but spits the word out, "continue; but afterwards, I may have a plan."
John leans back in his chair. "Do share."
Markham rushes right past John on the corridor leading to the therapist's office, eyes cast firmly downward. Just as well. John catches the door to the office before it can close and lets himself in.
The therapist's name is Richard Corwell: there's diplomas on the walls featuring it. Corwell freezes when he hears John come in, raises astonished eyes. "Excuse me," he begins.
John cuts him off. "Dr. Corwell. You should check your email."
Corwell goes red in the face. "Who the hell are you?"
Pulling his gun on Corwell would be satisfying, but not all that handy under the circumstances. That doesn't matter: saying, "I have pictures from the establishment on 59th street," turns Corwell pale just as well as having a weapon turned on him.
Knowledge is a weapon, though, or just as good as. "We've made arrangements," John says, "for your retirement to Florida."
Corwell's mouth opens and shuts. "You can't do this," he forces out finally. "I have patients!"
"They'll receive referrals," John says. In his earpiece, Harold adds, bitingly, "To therapists who don't blame their clients for falling victim to assault."
Corwell blusters a bit more, but the issue is done. John watches him wilt, accepting defeat in the least graceful way possible. "But how will I explain this to my wife?" he says, finally, plaintive.
"You'll think of something," John says, smirking.
John returns to the library to find Harold bustling around the whiteboard, pasting a new picture on it. "The boyfriend," Harold says as John approaches, "Matthew Alexander White."
It's not a face John was expecting to see. The sight of Matt strikes a chord in John, has him blinking for a moment before he places the memories.
Matt had a different last name then, but, "This guy was with me in basic training," John says.
The looks Harold gives him is sharp. "How well do you know him?"
"Well enough," John says, because biblically sounds like the wrong answer.
They weren't boyfriends or anything. Matt might not even recognize him, after all this time.
"How well do we know anyone, really?" Harold mutters, more or less to himself. He's slightly louder when he says, "While White seems the most likely perpetrator in this case, I'm loathe to rely on assumptions."
John leans his weight against Harold's desk. "So what's our next step?"
"I go undercover," Harold says, "as Markham's replacement therapist."
"I don't like this," John says quietly.
Harold sighs, the sound fracturing momentarily: even Harold's quality communication systems falter sometimes. "We've discussed the reasons it's necessary."
"Which is why I'm not physically pulling you out," John says. "I still don't like it."
"Your objection is noted."
On the tiny screen ahead of him, John can see the office masquerading as Harold Swan's clinic, spotting the tiny smile on Harold's face. Against John's volition, he finds himself smiling as well.
Markham knocks the next moment, and John goes on alert.
"Mr. Swan?" Markham offers Harold a tentative hand.
Harold shakes it. "It's Harold, please." He gestures for Markham to sit down.
"So I got this referral from doctor Corwell--"
Harold waves his hand dismissively. "Please. Let's start anew." Markham looks doubtful. Harold gives him an encouraging smile. "What brings you into therapy?"
Markham takes a breath. "I have problems establishing my boundaries."
From what John's heard, it seems Markham has an asshole boyfriend, but Harold doesn't correct Markham. Instead, Harold listens, making soft, encouraging sounds, occasionally interjecting a question to keep the conversation running.
Eventually, Markham's flow of words slows down to a trickle. "That's it, I guess," he says, shrugging.
Harold gives him a quiet moment before saying, "Mr. Markham, you said you had a problem establishing boundaries. In an ideal scenario, how would you have acted?"
Markham draws a ragged breath. "I'd've told Matt no."
"You did tell him no." Harold's voice is low, emphatic. "Did that make a difference?"
Markham recoils. "I could've fought free."
For a long moment, Harold considers him. "This seems to be an awfully high bar to put on you, when he could have stopped at your first sign of discomfort."
"I'm not expecting him to read my mind," Markham snaps.
"Neither am I," Harold says. "I'm expecting him to read your body language, and if that fails, listen to what you actually tell him."
Markham's legs jitters. "Maybe he did," he says, stubborn. "Maybe he did read me, and he could tell I could take more and was just being a pussy about it."
Harold tilts his head a tiny bit. "Remind me, again, the purpose for which he was hitting you?"
A flush spreads on Markham's face. "Told you. It's a sex thing."
"For pleasure," Harold translates, waiting for Markham's nod. "There was no reason you should have to do anything you don't enjoy for pleasure's sake: in fact, that entirely contradicts the purpose of the exercise."
"I can take it," Markham says, a muscle jumping in his jaw. "I've taken worse."
"I suppose that when you did," Harold says, "it was for your country. Not for someone else's sexual gratification." Harold halts and takes a breath. "Of course, I can't tell you how you felt. My apologies."
Markham gives him a wary look. "Isn't that what therapists are supposed to do?"
In return, Harold gives him a wry little grin. "Perhaps in some cases. I don't think it's necessary in yours."
"If you say so," Markham says, doubtful.
Back in the library, Harold sits rigidly, fingers tapping against his desk. "I can't expect to undo the damage in a single session, of course." His tense shoulders say otherwise.
John's not sure how to respond to that, so he says, "I've tracked down White. Markham hasn't been to his place today, but as far as I can tell they live together in all but name."
Harold's mouth purses. "Yes. This, of course, complicates things." He exhales. "If the machine gave us his number, then our time must be limited. It would be easiest if Markham could be persuaded to leave." He shakes his head. "But it's never this simple, is it?"
It takes John a moment to form the word, "Yeah." His voice is hoarse when he does.
Harold's eyes focus on John like laser beams. "Mr. Reese, is everything all right?"
"Sure, Harold." John's voice comes out a little too light. Harold's eyes narrow. John tries again. "These sort of cases. You know."
Harold's expression softens, and John abruptly wishes he'd said anything else. "Of course," Harold says. He hesitates, then adds, "If there's anything you need--"
John smiles, then, a genuine expression. "You already give me everything I need, Harold."
The next evening, Markham comes back to Matt's place. John listens to them through Markham's phone.
"Knew you couldn't stay away," Matt says. He sounds smug. This tone, when Matt used it on John, was usually accompanied with a bruising grip on his wrist. From Markham's gasp, Matt hasn't changed.
John had never known how to respond to Matt saying that. He'd kept his head down and taken his punishment.
Markham apparently has no such issue. "Remind me why I came back, dickhead," Markham snaps.
Matt laughs, a throaty sound that makes John's chest ache. "Yeah," Matt says, heavy with amusement. "C'mon, you brat. I'll remind you good and hard."
In the darkness of his car, John swallows, thankful Harold isn't here and can't see his face.
Late at night, John finds himself wondering if maybe it's all right for Markham after all.
He shoves the thought away as soon as it's formed. Markham was assaulted. Matt had been and remained a violent asshole, and if the data they have is to be believed, Matt will kill Markham soon if nothing stops him.
But Markham made Matt laugh, the way John never could. They'd been wrong, before, about what the risk to - or from - a number was.
And when it was good, with Matt, it was so fucking good.
Memories sweep him like a river current. Matt pinning him down, having him. Matt taking John apart with fingernails and teeth, with his fingers and his cock, pleasure so overwhelming it felt violent.
When Matt started using his fists, it felt like the next logical step. Begging for orgasm became inseparable from begging for air when Matt put him in choke holds that John should have been able to struggle out of.
John can breathe now. He forces himself to do that, to focus on nothing but oxygen, moving in and out of his lungs.
He made it out. He paid the price until it was clear the price was too high, and then he'd stopped. He'd walked away. And now, he can only pray they can get Markham to do the same.
"Maybe I did want it," Markham tells Harold, defiant.
"Why do you say that?"
To Markham, Harold's voice probably sounds blank. John can only tell the fury underneath from long familiarity.
"He says he knows me better than I know myself," Markham says. "He makes me feel good."
For a moment, Harold is quiet. Then he says, "I'm sure he does. I'm just as certain that there are others out there who can make you feel just as good without forcing you into things you hate."
Markham laughs, quick and bitter. "Sure there are."
"As for his supposed knowledge of you," Harold says, undaunted, "it's very easy to claim you know when someone can or can't take more, when you presume they always can and every sign of resistance just means they're not trying hard enough."
Markham makes a sound like someone punched him. John can relate.
He makes quick recovery, though, saying, "Well, maybe I'm not trying hard enough, did you think about that?"
"Trying hard enough for what?" Cracks are forming in Harold's composure, John can tell.
"I don't know." Markham sounds smaller. "To be good, I guess. To be who he wants me to be."
Harold draws a breath. "If he doesn't want you as you are," he says, with a force of conviction that rattles John, "he doesn't deserve you."
There is some audible breathing from Markham. Then he says, "Easy for you to say. You don't know what it's like. When's the last time you looked for someone who'd put you on your knees and make you suck his cock?"
"Oh, a good while back," Harold says.
John tries not to choke. By the sounds coming across the comm, so is Markham.
"Mind you, we're in New York City and this is the 21st century," Harold continues, as though he said nothing of note. "There are many men here who are kinky, attracted to men, and more consent conscious than your boyfriend."
John finds himself wondering whether Harold is counting himself among their ranks. If he's counting John.
"It's not that easy," Markham says.
"I know." The sympathy in Harold's voice takes away John's breath. "It needn't be so hard, either."
"Not good enough," Harold says under his breath, hands flying over his keyboard. "Not fast enough."
John can sympathize, and yet. "He's hearing you. That's a lot."
Harold shakes his head and repeats, "Not enough." He taps the table next to his keyboard, fidgeting with frustration. "There has to be something else we can do."
As though to obey Harold's wish, a number of ideas come to John. He disregards the notion of killing Matt; even if Harold approves it now, he'll regret it later. John can't do that to him.
Although. Harold does have some blind spots. Maybe if John told Harold about his own history with Matt...
Harold straightens in his chair. "It seems they're going out tonight," he says. "To, ah, a specialized interest club."
"A kink club?" John says, amused.
Harold swivels to pin John with a glare. "Kink is necessarily consensual, and I'm not sure the proprietors of this club are nearly as conscious of this as I'd like."
Despite his suddenly dry mouth, John manages to say, "Got it."
Harold turns back to the screen, mouth pursed. "They are, however, annoyingly strict about requirements for attendance, and protecting the members' privacy. From other members, at least; the proprietors like to have some leverage over those allowed in."
"They prefer newcomers," Harold says, "to have an existing or former connection to current members; and to," his mouth twists, "demonstrate their interest in the club's main activities, in front of club proprietors. As obviously this is not an accessible venue for us--"
"It's not inaccessible," John blurts.
Harold turns again, narrowing his eyes. "Oh?"
John takes a deep breath. "I know White," he says. "We served together." Okay, time to stop beating around the bush. "We were intimately involved."
For a long moment, John can't read the expression on Harold's face at all. He only knows Harold heard him at all by Harold's hands, clutching onto the chair armrests until his knuckles turn white. "What exactly do you propose?" Harold says at last.
Hell if John knows. "I'll approach White," he says. "Make it look like coincidence. Get him to sponsor me. I can probably get him to agree to demonstrate, too. It's nothing I can't take."
Frozen silence hangs in the room until Harold finally speaks. "Mr. Reese," he says, low and ragged, "like hell you will."