I felt the intense fission of fear as I logged on to check my mail. It was only a matter of time, now, and I knew it. I wondered about the moment everything thing had changed; when I first realised that blackmail had crept into my life, like a thief in the night, stealing my sanity away.
He used to tell me he loved me, and maybe he did in his own warped way: but somewhere down the line the bond I believed we shared had metamorphosed into a very different creature, something dark and dangerous, and love was definitely not the right word to describe it.
It had been glorious at first, when he showered me with complements and I thought I’d met my soul mate. He didn’t even mind that I spent most of my time ill in bed, recovering from a painful operation. Whenever I messaged him, day and night, he always responded in seconds: but nobody actually does that, do they?
I naively he thought that he would be pleased for me, when my health improved. I even tried to arrange to meet up with him in real life; but he assured me that wasn’t possible – his mother was too ill and he couldn’t leave her. I said I understood, but I was very disappointed as he shared every one of my interests, his photos were gorgeous and I was so sure he was the perfect fit.
After finishing my first day back at work, I rushed eagerly to my computer to tell him all about my day and I was shocked to find 34 messages, all from him, saying exactly the same thing:
“Why the silence Coleen?”
I tried to explain to him, that it was just because I was back at work, but for some reason he wouldn’t acknowledge this as an acceptable reason, and kept on repeating the same message, over and over, which really spooked me, actually: I was getting way out of my depth and I knew it. The next day when I finished teaching my class, I didn’t rush to open my mail as usual, instead I opened a bottle of red wine, swiftly downing a full glass before I even dared to logon. My chest ached, fit to burst as I opened the first message and read,
“You are mine, so why are you ignoring me???? – You need to get rid of that useless job of yours and send your time with me!!! You know that I love you and your absence is unbearable – why do insist on making me ill with worry?”
I felt a rising wave of nausea and a dizzy, disorientating feeling in my head: It was definitely time to quit this relationship… Maybe If I ignored him and just slipped away quietly, he would eventually get the message?
That night I couldn’t sleep, my mind was reeling with random, horrible thoughts, wondering what he would do next. It felt like my brain was going to explode with all that fear the swirling around inside of it. So, even though I was terrified, I felt compelled to logon to see if the messages had stopped, but a fraction of a second later a new message flashed across my screen, “Don’t worry about your job Coleen, I am in control of that now, and I can decide what is best for us.”
“What are you talking about??? I typed with trembling hands. “What the hell are you going to do??? Please, please stop now: don’t do anything, I need the job to pay my bills – I will have no internet access if I can’t pay for it!” I said pathetically, hoping that the fear of losing contact with me would be enough to give him second thoughts about doing anything that could jeopardise my job. But he logged off after sending a smiley smirk icon and I sat there, completely stunned.
But the next day, nothing happened, nor the day after that. It was such a relief! After that I kept away from my computer in the hope that the problem had gone away. I kept on reminding myself that he only knew from the internet and we had never actually met and maybe he was just bluffing for attention, how much damage could he do?
Then, one evening about a month later, I was watching TV when the phone rang: it was the principal from the college where I taught, he said there was a serious problem, but refused to elaborate over the phone, “You needn’t come in tomorrow, best let things quieten down.”
“Why, what’s happened?” I asked, anxiety rising rapidly until my head was pounding,” Please tell me?”
“Check the school webpage,” he said, barely controlling the icy tone of his voice, “This is respectable college – goodness knows what the governors are going to say!”
I panicked as I thought about what he might have done, but no, it couldn’t really be true as he’d told me that he loved me! I held my breath, unable to grasp any air into my lungs as I entered my password and waited for the screen to boot up.
And there I was, sprawled across the school‘s webpage, an indecent, garish collage of the photographs that he had begged me for, when our romance had been at its most intimate. I cried out and clenched my eyes shut as the jagged bolts of electronic lightning shot through my brain.
How could I have been so stupid put myself in this position?
Remember how totally intoxicating it is when you first fall in love? But it was clear to me now, that this was no longer love we were talking about.
How does it feel to be blackmailed? Like downing a toxic cocktail of fear cut with shame. I realised, much too late, that this is what he had planned all along – not romance, friendship or even cybersex, just me with him, electronically connected forever.
A message suddenly lit up my screen: “Coleen my love, my sweetheart! Are you ready to talk to me now??? You know that I can’t bear to spend my days without you. We are SOULMATES and I love you too much!!! I have taken care of your finances, but you don’t have to thank me just yet, as what’s best for me is always best for you too, and I can make you so happy, my wonderful, darling girl.”
Even as I fought back the rising tide of anxiety, I knew something just didn’t add up, “wonderful darling girl?” The guy in the photos was in his twenties, he looked Scandinavian, blonde toned, long hair… my type; exactly. I read it again and this time I knew what was wrong – the language didn’t match the picture! The man in the photo was not the man I had been talking to for months. So who the hell was he? My brain was racing now: how old was this guy and what the hell was he doing messing with my finances? I frantically brought up the link to my bank account as the phone rang,
“Hi Coleen this is Skip from the It Department. Just to let you know that I have taken down the photos from the college website. I also posted a message to say that the site has been hacked, and cannot be accessed until further notice.”
I thought for a moment, trying to recall Skip: it was a large campus, but I could vaguely recall the greasy looking guy who had fixed my overhead projector a couple of months back. “Thanks but the damage is already done! I just got another message saying he has been “sorting my finances” hold on … I need to check my bank account.”
“No! Stop! Don’t press any links!”
“What! Why!” I asked, freaked out by the urgency in his voice.
“Because he’s bluffing; he wants you to check your account to watch you typing in your passwords!”
“You mean he hasn’t already got access?”
“Probably not, but go to the bank and check your balance: draw your money out in cash from now on, don’t do any online banking, don’t check your account, pay nothing through your computer,”
“Have you spoken to the principal yet? Those were pretty racy photos you posted,” he said, then after a slight pause. “Sorry but everyone’s seen them… ”
I though she heard him smother a snigger, and felt a little hurt, but I reasoned that was something I would have to get used to if I ever managed to keep my job. I was probably a laughing stock on campus, already: it was so humiliating. “Yes they were probably enough to get me fired,” I said quietly.
“Sorry I didn’t mean to… I told the principal that they were definitely faked, if that helps…”
“Do you think he believed you?”
“Yeah, I was convincing, I’m pretty sure he did… But you should really get your computer checked out professionally for spyware in case that crafty bastard has installed something remotely. Ok?”
“Would that be expensive? Do you know anyone who could do that for me?”
“I could do it, if you want?”
“I can’t pay you very much”.
That’s okay, you can buy me a beer or two… bring your laptop round to my place. I’ll text you my address.
“No problem, it will be my pleasure, Coleen.”
After dropping off the computer at Skip’s apartment I drove directly to the bank. It was really busy and an old man in front of me emptied a huge bag of mixed change onto the counter. I felt desperate and started crying so much that I could barely speak when my turn arrived. A woman in a smart navy suit ushered me swiftly into a private cubicle. My hands trembled as I handed over my debit card. I needed to know if he had emptied my account, but I also dreaded finding out the truth. The woman in the suit, whose name tag said “Marsha – Customer Liaison Manager,” deftly brought up my account details and asked me to verify the last few transactions. I felt feint when the softly spoken woman said that there didn’t seem to be any suspicious activity on the account. I can hardly describe my relief. Marsha told me that she had added a cautionary note to the account and would flag up anything suspicious to the fraud Department. I thanked her between relived sobs. It seemed that Skip had been right… my account had not been accessed. So, at least my money was safe, even if my reputation was now in tatters.
On the drive home a text beeped on my phone. It was from Skip saying that my computer had been de-bugged, so I made a quick detour. Skip’s apartment turned out to be much as I had expected. I thought he seemed the type of guy that would have nothing but beer and a bit of mouldy cheese in his fridge. His apartment smelt stale and there was a general air of neglect; the furniture was old, shabby and mismatched. He ushered me over to a battered wooden table which my computer was sat upon.
“Take a look?” he said proudly, indicating a photo on the screen.
“That’s not him? Seriously?” I asked, unable to take it in.
“Your mystery cyber lover,” Skip said with a smirk. “Yeah. I’m afraid so… ”
I recoiled instinctively from the disgusting image on the screen. There was a dark, poor quality photo of a gnarled, dirty, evil looking old man, staring back at me. He seemed to be exactly the type of man my mom had warned me to keep away from in the park, when I was little. It was horrifying to think of the things I had said, and shown him…
“He’s revolting! But how did you find him?”
“I did a trace on his IP address, and then I checked with a friend of mine who has access to some underground information sites. You can find almost anything on there, just takes a little detective work!” he said, a smug smile creeping around the corners of his mouth.
I stepped away from the screen, sinking back into the shabby sofa as my legs were feeling weak.” I still can’t believe it!”
“Yeah it’s true, I’m afraid that’s your soulmate.” He laughed.
“My what? Wait a minute. I thought you were just checking my computer for spyware, not reading my private messages… and how did you find out my password?” I asked anxiously.
“You’re so naive Coleen, but that’s one of the things I really love about you.”
“I saved your job; I didn’t have to… now you owe me! Big time,” he said turning to face me.
“Yes well, as agreed I’ll buy you a beer…” I replied sweetly, trying to diffuse that intense stare of his, which was making me really nervous.
“I think you’ll find that you owe me a lot more than that, Coleen,” Skip said, his face changing into a cold, spiteful mask. “Let’s face it, you’re screwed without me, I can take away your job at any time I choose.”
“Wait – hold on a minute!” I said as he lunged towards me. “What do you think you’re doing – blackmailing me? I don’t have very much money.”
“I know exactly how much cash you have got Coleen. I can now check, anytime I feel like it,” he said looking at my computer on the table.
I stared back at him with revulsion. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of asking but I had to know.
“That weirdo on the screen who was messaging me… does he even exist?”
Skip laughed hysterically as he grabbed hold of my wrists and squeezed them until I could feel bruises, breaking through my skin.
“You kill me Coleen you’re so innocent… I knew you would be mine from the first second I saw you. But you didn’t see me did you? You treat me like shit: like I don’t even exist. So I had to do my research; surely you can understand that? I spent a hell of a lot of time on you, and now I can give you exactly what you have been wanting!”
A scream seemed to stick in my throat as I glared into Skip’s eyes, but a strange, glazed look had come over them; it felt as if he was looking deep inside me, almost as if he trying to find my soul. I tried hard to pull my hands out from his iron grasp, but he increased the pressure until they were so numb that I could barely feel them.
“Stop it!” He shouted in a high pitched, manic tone. “Don’t fight this love – we are meant to be together – I know everything about you! Nobody else will ever understand you like I do. You are my soulmate, Coleen.”
BIO : Sonia Kilvington is a journalist, short story writer, poet and novelist, living in Cyprus. She is currently published in the international noir collection Exiles, and has written two crime novels, The Main Line Murders and Buried In The Hills.