“So… You’re an escort?”
The man before him balls a fist at his side and sniffs angrily. “Nope.”
He’s small, compact, and, Sherlock suspects, deceptively strong and resilient despite the bland, safe impression he clearly works so hard to maintain. Dressed in loose grey joggers and a white t-shirt, dirty blonde hair clipped conservatively, military-short around his ears and nape, and his bare toes curled against the wood floor of his modest and minimally furnished flat, he looks completely innocuous. He could be a school teacher, a father from the suburbs, a bored and disillusioned GP. But his body and eyes are silently telegraphing so much collective trauma that Sherlock’s brain has trouble keeping up.
He shakes his head to clear it.
“We done here?” The man asks, clearly quite done himself.
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Watson. I’m here about Donna Murray.”
“It’s Doctor, actually. And just who the hell are you?”
“I did say.”
“Sorry, must have missed that between you turning up unannounced, telling me my bum leg is all in my head, and labelling me a whore.”
“It wasn’t meant as an insult. I’ve known many fine whores. The name’s Sherlock Holmes.” He extends his hand, but the man ignores it. He snorts and shakes his head, but Sherlock thinks he sees the corner of his mouth twitch upward for a moment, before he represses it again.
“Listen. I’m a—therapist—of sorts. Professional cuddling. It helps people, it seems. So who am I to judge. It’s totally platonic. And as for Donna, there is such a thing as client confidentiality, so unless you’re a cop, and she’s in danger…”
He watches the news sink in. John Watson is clearly a man accustomed to death. He’s shocked, but seems to absorb the news with little to no outward signs of distress. “What happened?”
“The suspicion is murder.”
This revelation on the other hand… He drops head, and lifts a hand to rub at his eyebrows. “Jesus.”
“You were, I believe, the last person to see her alive.”
His head snaps up at that. “Am I a suspect, then?”
“Not unless you give me reason to make you one.”
The good doctor’s brows furrow. “That’s an awfully blunt admission for a cop.”
And for the first time, Sherlock sees something shift behind the man’s eyes. He stands a little straighter, coils tight, instantly hyper-alert.
“Just what the hell are you, then?”
“I’m a Consulting Detective.”
“No. A Consulting Detective.”
“Which means, that when the police are out of their depth, which is always, they consult me.”
The man laughs. “The police don’t consult amateurs.”
Sherlock sighs. “You said you’re a doctor, but what you didn’t tell me is that you are a recently invalided army doctor. It was the wound to your shoulder that sent you home. The circumstances surrounding it were traumatic. You favour your one leg, as well. Not a war injury, though, not that. But there’s trauma there too.
“When you got back to London you had trouble fitting back into civilian life. You have a therapist. Maybe she was the one who suggested you try this cuddling lark. Was it the nightmares? And then, since you were in desperate need of money, you thought—why not do it too.”
“You done?” The man turns and disappears into the flat.
“Then stop hovering in the doorway like some sort of vampire, and come in.”
This was not the response Sherlock was expecting, not the response he usually gets to his unsolicited excavation of people’s deepest secrets and rawest of wounds. John Watson continues to prove the exception to every rule, and despite all his better instincts, Sherlock is completely fascinated.
The flat is modest and just as neat and tidy as one would expect from a military man. The scant furniture is arranged in such a way as to create a calm and relaxing environment for his work. There’s a pine futon with a white mattress against one wall, an unframed poster of what looks like the Sussex coast pinned to the wall above, a couple of house plants, bravely clinging to life on the window sill, and a simple desk that looks like it came from Ikea along the opposite wall, a closed laptop the only object on its surface. There’s a small kitchenette, too, and the doctor is there now, preparing tea, it seems.
“Listen, Donna was a regular. She came once a week. She was always on time. We would complete our session, say our good-byes, and that was it. I didn’t know a lot about her. She wasn’t a talker. Some people are. Some people want to tell you everything, you know. I think they are hungry for a sympathetic ear as much as the touch. Bit like being a bartender, which I did in uni. You let people talk. You listen. Most of the time they figure shit out on their own. It’s easy money, to be frank.”
“Is that why you do this? The money?”
“I wanted to stay in London. You need money to stay in London. And I… Well, I was trained as an orthopaedic surgeon. After I got shot, couldn’t do that anymore, and the thought of being a GP, treating strep, and piles, and head lice all day, wasn’t all that appealing after three years as a trauma surgeon in the desert.
“You were right about the therapist. They assign you one when you get back. She recommended this 'cuddling lark’ when I kept waking up at night. After a few overnight sessions, I figured that holding someone while they slept was something I could do just as well as anyone else. Besides, it’s £80 per one hour session, so…”
Sherlock sits down on the edge of the futon. “And how’s business?”
John appears in the doorway to the kitchenette with two cups of tea in hand. “Yeah, not good. Not good at all.”
Sherlock chuckles, and the man smiles. “I’m not the soft and fuzzy type, you know.”
“Yes, I imagine not.”
“Some people want that.”
“Some people are idiots.”
The man’s mouth quirks even as his brows furrow quizzically. He hands Sherlock a cup of tea. It’s not exactly as Sherlock takes it, but it’s warm, and strong, and bracing, and Sherlock is glad for it all the same.
“Who knew a person could be bad at cuddling?” Watson shrugs as he pulls the chair away from the desk and turns it to sit across from Sherlock.
“But Donna came regularly?”
He shrugs again. “Guess I was her cup of tea. She was a widow. Her husband was a military man. Never got his head on right after he shipped home. Killed himself a few months ago. I guess there was familiarity there, for her. I think—I think I reminded her of him, a bit.
“But she seemed like a sweet person. Never seemed to be in any kind of trouble. Wasn’t in a relationship that I could tell. I can’t imagine anyone murdering her.”
Sherlock takes another careful sip of tea. It’s surprisingly sweet. He relishes in the warmth as it passes through his body. “Do you have any other clients who regularly come before or after her?”
“Don’t have a lot that come as regular as her. There’s a woman that sometimes comes right afterwards. Newer client. Just the last few months. Irina Adler. American, I think, but there’s a hint of some kind of accent, too. Russian, maybe? She mostly wants to talk. I get the impression she’s more about learning the craft than actually participating, you know. Bit posh. Bit aloof. Don’t know much about her either. That was one of her stipulations, actually. She didn’t want to tell me much about herself. So, I can’t be of much help when it comes to her, I’m afraid.”
“Do you have an address?”
“No. Just an email and mobile number.”
“May I have those?”
The man sits a little straighter in his chair. “Listen, she’s a good paying client, and I can’t really afford to lose her.”
“I can have the police get a warrant.”
“Then, I guess you should do that.”
Sherlock blinks, frowns.
“And male clients?”
The man shifts in his seat. “What?”
“Do you only take female clients, or are there male clients as well?”
“It’s never come up. But, for the record, I’m open to taking anyone as a client—male, female, or whatever. Doesn’t matter.” He sounds defensive.
“There was no judgement intended.”
The man’s hand fists around the handle of the mug in his hand. “Oh yeah? Then why ask? You interested?”
Sherlock’s instinct is to scoff, but he seems paralysed by the possibility, that for some reason has not occurred to him until now. He is staring, just staring, and he’s quite certain he looks an idiot.
Some of the tension drains from the man’s shoulders. “Shit. Listen, I’m just—I guess this is affecting me more than I realised. You see why I don’t have many clients, yeah?”
Sherlock nods, still dumb, feeling more and more helpless every moment. He gets to his feet. “Yes, well. I’ll go.”
“Oh? Yeah? Fine. Okay.”
“Yes, I’ll go.”
Sherlock is out on the street hailing a cab before his brain catches up, and he’s assailed with images of Dr. Watson standing at the door to his flat, mug of tea in hand, blinking and confused as Sherlock all but fled from his flat.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid!
He takes a deep breath as he settles into the back seat of the cab, tries to clear his head of all the images swirling about in it—tanned skin, compact body, furrowed brow, clenched fists, thin, expressive mouth, eyes the colour of the sea at dusk…
He shakes his head and growls in frustration, sees the cabbie glance back at him in the rearview mirror, and instantly pretends to be frustrated with something on his phone.
This is ludicrous. He’s not been working enough. That must be it. It will pass if he can just focus…
By the time he gets back to his flat he’s in a bad way. This is going to be one of those things. John Watson is going to be one of those people. Every so once in a wild while there will be a person who gets under his skin, a person he can’t seem to exorcise or shake, and they torment him, silently, from a distance, for days, weeks, months. He’ll just have to let it run its course.
Right now there is a case to be solved. A woman has died. This thing, whatever it is, will have to take a back seat.
What would he be called? Cuddler? Cuddlist? Cuddle worker?
Sherlock types ‘Professional Cuddler and John Watson’ into the search bar, and hits Enter.
He has a website.
Well then. Just a peek.
The website is a simple affair. Clearly one John’s pieced together using some pre-set template. But it’s adequate. There is his photo. Sherlock stares. He looks different in the photo. It’s a bit of a deception, really. There is a softness to him, that wasn’t there in real life. A mask to gain clients, then—something Sherlock can appreciate.
A short bio. Sherlock had been correct about everything that mattered.
A Code of Conduct. Necessary, no doubt.
He takes a look.
- You must verify that you are at least the legal age of consent in your location. I can provide proof of age upon request.
- We both agree to be free from any mind-altering substances during the sessions. This is a consent issue. It is important that you are able to give clear consent at all times.
- You agree to fully disclose any diagnoses or conditions that may affect your cuddling session. This is for your comfort and safety.
- We both agree to practice consent and attention to personal boundaries at all times.
- We will communicate to find what is mutually comfortable throughout each session. This applies to all communication prior to and after sessions as well.
- This is a strictly platonic service. We both agree to not pursue or encourage sexual arousal. Also:
- Minimum clothing of tank top and shorts to mid-thigh for both of us at all times.
- No hand to genital or breast contact.
- No intentional genital stimulation of any kind.
- No exchanging of saliva, or any other bodily fluid, in any way.
- We both agree to respectful personal hygiene. You agree to let me know if I do not have acceptable personal hygiene. I will do the same for you.
- Client confidentiality will be respected at all times.
- Either of us may end the session at any time.
Mmm. It seems fair. He tries to imagine the man he had met earlier in the day sitting down and writing such a list. It seems unlikely. Perhaps there is an industry-wide, accepted code of conduct? If one can refer to Cuddling as anything of the kind.
Sherlock chews on his bottom lip and goes back to the home page. The hair is longer. That’s what’s contributing to the softness. And it’s an old photo, taken before he’d been injured, perhaps even before he’d been overseas. His eyes are slightly less haunted, and there’s something more easy about the smile.
He doesn’t like the photo, he decides.
He shuts the lid to his laptop and sits back. This is ludicrous. He’s being completely ridiculous. He could be doing other things, useful things. True, he is waiting on D.I. Lestrade and his silly warrant, but he could be—thinking. Yes. He should be thinking. A woman has died.
He eyes the sofa across the room. He should lie down, relax, sort through all the details he’s stored away in his mind palace thus far. Yes. That is what he’ll do.
He takes his laptop with him, and sets it on the coffee table before settling in. It’s quiet. His landlady is over playing bridge with her neighbour. It’s raining outside. Unlikely he will get any late night clients. He is alone. He has time to think. He takes a deep breath and lets himself sink.
John Watson is waiting for him in the very first corridor. He rolls his eyes. “What are you doing here?”
John shrugs, all nonchalance. “You tell me.”
“I’m trying to think.”
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
“But I am, so obviously you want me here.”
The John in his head shrugs again. “Then ask me to leave.”
Sherlock opens his mouth, and then closes it again. He opens his eyes, and glances over at his laptop lying on the coffee table.
He picks it up, sets it in his lap and opens the lid.
John Watson’s face is staring back at him.
Click Here to Schedule a Cuddle Session
It’s a simple enough form. He pauses for a moment and then begins to type.
- Name: Sherlock Holmes
- Age: 33
- Email Address: email@example.com
- Mobile #: 07556 154236
- When and where would you like to meet for our initial screening? Tomorrow (30/01/10). Noon. The Criterion. 224 Piccadilly, Piccadilly Circus.
- Where would you like to conduct your first cuddle session? Your flat, if that is acceptable.
- How long of a cuddle session are you interested in? One hour.
- Method of payment?
- Online (in advance): X
- In person (at the beginning of the session).
He enters his credit card number. His finger hovers over the submit button. This is the maddest, most dangerous thing he has ever done. He is a finely tuned machine. He is a brain existing in a body. Said body does not have needs. He is above it. It’s low, and common, and nauseatingly human.
Sherlock Holmes does not cuddle!
He clicks submit, and instantly feels a wave of terror wash over him. He stares at the confirmation screen in mute horror.
Your Cuddle Session Request has been received.
If you have submitted this request during regular business hours,
you can expect to hear back within 4 - 8 hours.
Sherlock blanches. He can cancel. There must be a cancellation button somewhere?! He frantically hops about the website, and then finally, in the FAQs:
If you need to cancel a session,
please call the mobile number listed in your confirmation email.
He goes to his email.
Thank you for scheduling a cuddle session. I will contact you within 4-8 business hours to confirm. If you need to cancel, please do so at least 12 hours before your session, or you will be charged a cancellation fee of £40. To cancel, please ring me at 07412 839675.
Call. It says call. Sherlock doesn’t call, never calls.
It’s a mobile number. He’ll text.
The phone vibrates in his hand with an incoming call, and he almost drops it in shock. It’s ten o’clock at night. No one should be calling him now. He stares down at the caller ID: 07412 839675. Oh.
He considers not answering it for a moment, and then decides he’s been unacceptably infantile, and picks up, doing his best impression of superior and aloof.
“Oh. It is you. Figured there was no way there could be two blokes named Sherlock Holmes in the world.”
Sherlock feels some of the tension drain from his body at the sound of the doctor’s voice. “Of course it’s me.”
“You scheduled a session.”
“Yes…” He drawls.
“I’m calling to confirm. Have all your info here. Meet at the Criterion tomorrow at noon. That right?”
“Okay. Okay. Right. Well, we’ll discuss the logistics of our first session there. I’ll go over some of the basics, the ground rules, give you a chance to back out if you’d like.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Some people need time to let the idea settle. Sometimes they decide it’s not for them. That’s why I like to meet first time clients face-to-face before we ever engage in our first session.”
“We’ve already met face-to-face.”
“True. But not in this context. It’s for your comfort as well as mine.”
Sherlock sighs (why isn’t he backing out?!! Now is the time!). “If you must.”
“Alright then. I’ll see you then.”
The line goes dead, and Sherlock lowers his phone from his ear and stares down at the screen.
He’s going to regret this. He knows it.