David Crenshaw stood at the top of the suspension bridge, staring down at the water. It was a very long way away. He was not yet a doctor, and would not be for another fifteen years. He did not have the distinguished silver hair and fine, vulpine bone structure that would make him both charming and well-trusted. He did not have the boundless inner confidence that would buoy him through his everyday life. What he had at the moment were a million regrets, the memories of lingering laughter mocking and fluting as it crashed back and forth in his head. Cars rushed past as he stood at the edge, a simple fence between him and the end.
“Planning on jumping, are you?”
David spun. Standing with her back against one of the girders was a woman. She was perhaps a year or two older than he was, but her hair was silver. Not the dull kind, the look a person got when they were elderly and had lost all the passion of youth. This was sterling, catching the light of the setting sun. At first, he felt a little twinge of disgust. She must dye it, or fake it somehow. Then he realized that he didn’t really care about that anymore. It wasn’t as though anyone was genuine. He straightened up, and met her eyes. “You hoping to watch someone commit suicide?”
“Well, not entirely, but… It’s kind of cool, isn’t it?” She smiled, and her teeth were all gold. “Suicide. Making someone take their own life. Controlling them so utterly that you can turn them into nothing but a prop. It’s all about stories, you know? Some of us are heroes, villains. Protagonists. Some of us are supporting characters. Most of us are in the background. And then… there are the props. The people who only really exist as a tool for someone else. I bet you were thinking, ‘If I killed myself, she’d be so sorry for what she did’, weren’t you, David?”
“How do you know my name?” he asked, taking a step back. He also wanted to know how the hell she knew every other thing she’s just said.
“She was totally out of your league, wasn’t she, David? Because you’re boring. Good student, sure, but the world’s full of good students, and they’re not worth much to her. How could you have thought she’d ever care about you? And being rejected for the Sophomore Prom in front of all of those people. That’s got to be embarrassing.” The girl laughed, and David felt a flash of white-hot rage. He lunged for her.
The silver-haired girl broke his nose with one punch, sending him to the floor. She delivered a merciless kick to his ribs as he lay there, the air filled with the sound of breaking firewood. She followed it up with a kick to his testicles, because there has never been a man so low that a kick to the balls could not bring him lower. And as he keened on the ground, whimpered and writhed, she smiled down at him. “Nice fucking try, there, David, but you’re a pencil-necked geek. Violence isn’t your style. And it’s amazing how thoroughly I controlled you, isn’t it? Making you leap to my strings.” She bent low over him, and set her fingertips on the ground, crouched like a cat, smiling that 24-carat smile. “You’re mine, now.”
That was how David Crenshaw fell in love. It was also the last time he saw the silver-haired girl for the next two years.
He spent those years making himself better. Exercise, study, sports, learning to talk to people. Every time he was tired, every time he was disappointed with his progress, every time he even considered giving up, he remembered the silver-haired girl and he pushed himself further. In his senior year of high school, Sally Mae, the girl whose simple rejection had lead him to that bridge, approached him in the middle of the school hallway. “David?”
“Yes, Sally?” He gave her an easy smile. Years of care and thought had smoothed away the awkward squawk and vulnerability of adolescence. A few fine silver strands shone in the otherwise dark head of hair, but even those gave him some dignity.
“I was wondering… if you didn’t already ask someone, I mean… Would you like to go to the dance?”
He saw it in her eyes. All the mixing desires. The uncertainty. The hope. The eagerness, even. If he took a certain path, this could be the moment of redemption, the moment when she understood how she hurt him. Both of them could grow as people. They might spend their life together. They could be soul-mates. She had always been a kind and decent person. She went out of her way to help others. He’d thought she would help him too. But she had rejected him, and driven him into the arms of someone better. He had seen what was really inside of her, and it was as rotten as anyone else.
“You? You must be kidding me. You disgust me. Don’t talk to me again.”
He watched as the words sank in. Her expression going from hopeful, to bewildered, to hurt, to angry, to tears. He turned away from her and walked to his next class, leaving her sobbing in front of everyone. The tears in her eyes were a sign of vulnerability, like blood in the water. She’d never recover from this. And he watched the television a couple of weeks later as her body was fished out of the East River on the evening news, and was surprised to find there was no sense of guilt, no sense of fear or sorrow. He had done to her exactly what she had done to him. But where he had grown, had become a protagonist, had become a hero, she had reduced herself to a prop. A sad memory in the lives of those around her. And it amused him. The doorbell rang, and the silver-haired girl stood there.
“I saw your work.” She wore a pair of loose shorts, and a delicate lace T-shirt, bound over her shoulders with a pair of strings tied into bows. “I have to say, it really turned me on.” She tugged at the bows, and it sprang off, the top left hanging from her fingers. She smiled. “Mind if I spend the evening with you?”
The night was wild. She was passionate, ferocious, cruel, and kind, in equal measure. He wouldn’t have shared the sordid details with anyone, but the knowledge that he had earned this made it far sweeter than any blissful life with the girl who had died. That night, he lay together with her, arms and legs intertwined. She smiled pleasantly, and trailed her fingers through his hair. “You’ve learned the beginnings. It’s amazing how words can work, isn’t it? Just say the right things, and people are dancing to your commands. There’s nothing more pleasurable, is there?” She hissed into his ear, and he stiffened, shaking slightly in her embrace.
“It felt good. Seeing her hurt, not telling her why, not giving her the satisfaction of understanding my motivation, just ripping away her hope. It felt… right. Just. It was what she deserved.” He smiled at the silver-haired girl. “What’s your name?”
“Conquest,” she purred, and trailed her fingers down his chest. Her fingers got very low indeed before she grabbed him by somewhere sensitive. He stiffened, breathing in through his nose, sharp, his eyes widening. “I know you feel like you’re on top of the world. But you’re not there yet. You’ve learned, but you’re not a master. The world is so much deeper, and darker, and more beautiful than you can imagine.” She stared into his eyes. Her eyes were pale as platinum, nearly white, glittering, as she squeezed him. He gritted his teeth, arching his back against the pain. “I can make you great, David. Truly great. All you have to do is learn your place.”
That was the night when he first knew he would be with Conquest forever.
“To control the mind of another isn’t a new thing. Humans do it all the time. Myths, Interlopers, the Undead, the Fae, the Demons, the Gods, they all do it. A human mind is no harder to control than a human body. Free will is, first and foremost, a myth. Remember that, and it will give you strength others don’t have. You act with the weight of inevitability.”
He nodded slowly, the two of them sitting together in the food court in 601 Lexington Avenue. It was a beautiful building. Conquest had told him the truth about it, a truth that few others knew. When it had been built, it was made improperly. Vulnerable. Because of cost-saving measures, it had been potentially vulnerable to being destroyed by a hurricane. While it was being fixed, a hurricane had nearly struck the building, only to be miraculously deflected. Conquest had muttered darkly of ‘interference’ that she couldn’t prove. But it was another wonderful example of the world. So many things that humanity depended upon were rotted out from within. So he loved to eat in this place, aware of what few others were. His eyes drifted over the room. “Can you control other minds the same way?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.
“Of course. A god is nothing more than a human with great power, fundamentally. Even something as great as me could be controlled.” She smirked. “I won’t be controlled, obviously, but it is conceivable.”
He wanted to possess her. In a way, he thought she wanted him to possess her. He liked to think that was the reason why she taught him this. That it was the reason for her to train him, to make him a manipulator, to make him strong. So he could understand how to win her heart, and her mind, and her soul, forever. That was the only way love could really work. If you owned that person right down to their core.
“So,” he said, “the world is run by those who can control minds?”
“In part. Not quite. The thing about the control the supernatural wield is that it runs up against human nature.”
“How to put this… These ratios are not exact, you see. They’re an abstraction, as much as anything. But every man, in his heart of hearts, is a sheep, a rabbit, a ram, or a tiger. That’s a good way to describe it. Symbolic.” She smiled. “When a sheep is controlled, it submits willingly. Readily. Eagerly, even. It wants to be controlled. In a crowd of a hundred men, ninety of them are likely sheep. When a rabbit is controlled, it breaks. Sinks down, catatonic, terrified, perhaps has a heart attack. In a crowd of a hundred men, seven are likely to be rabbits. When a ram is controlled, it shakes it off, refusing to allow itself to be controlled. There’s no way to make them do your bidding. In a crowd of a hundred men, two are likely to be rams.”
“And tigers?” he asked, amused.
“One man in a hundred is a tiger. If you tried to control them, it would fill them with a murderous, lethal rage. Perhaps at that moment, perhaps ten years on, but they would strike back, with the force of true madness. When you toy with the minds of humans, you always gamble on catching a tiger by the tail.” She smiled toothily. “Even among gods and monsters, it is the foolish creature that controls a mind wantonly. Because madness, true madness, can drive a fist through more than just a plank. It can shatter gods.”
“So how do you tell the difference?”
“You don’t. It is not a function of will, of upbringing, or of faith. If it were, life would be infinitely too predictable. No, sometimes the most dominant, confident, powerful men are rabbits in their heart. And sometimes, a foolish girl treats a withdrawn young man like trash, and finds that he’s a tiger inside.” She lay her hand on his chest, and smiled. His heart beat very fast, and he looked around the room, studying the faces. Studying the insecurities. All to keep from focusing on how wonderful her fingers felt against him.
Shakespeare had said it. All the world a stage, all the men and women merely actors. People were desperate to believe that they were unique, special, blessed. The truth was, most people were just variants on the same themes, the same sad cliches, with no more than surface level differences. They were so simple, and straightforward. Not like him. Not like her. Once you understood those cliches, it was easy to make people play into them. When they were threatened, when they were scared, they withdrew into the cliche like a hermit crab into its shell. And just like a hermit crab, that made them all the more vulnerable to a big enough predator.
David stood up, and approached a woman behind the counter. She was young, pretty, white, blonde hair. She greeted him in a rich Georgian accent. New to the city. Lonely, and afraid, though she hid it well behind her warm expression. He smiled, and pointed over his shoulder. “That black gentleman has been looking at you quite a bit. I think he might like you.” Then he walked away. There was no need to see the results. It was all about setting things off. You wound people up, and let them continue on with their lives without a second glance. A single sharp blow was far more difficult to resist than constant meddling. When he heard about the shooting on the news the following day, he let himself feel a warm sense of satisfaction.
“What do you want to do with your life?” Conquest asked, smiling softly.
“Well, I am a hero. A hero stops villains. Makes the world right.” He smiled. “I’ve been thinking about forensic psychiatry.”
It was a long and difficult path, but with her by his side, there was no way for him to fail. Conquest understood his dreams. She supported him. She made him strong. And she punished him when he was weak. It stung, it pricked his pride, but it motivated him to push forward. The day came when he accomplished his goal, and began his work. Understanding serial killers. Seeing where they had been weak. Punishing them for their failures.
It was just too easy.
“It’s the ones who portray themselves as heroes who drive me mad, you know? They think that they’re god’s gift to the world, never understanding that they’re just as foul as the murders they take in. The worst villain is the kind who doesn’t understand what they are!”
Conquest watched him, silently, her head tilted. Then she smiled. “I have a gift for you, David. You are one of the few people who, I think, could really do it justice.” She stared into his eyes, her expression serious. “Will you accept this gift? It may have terrible consequences for you. You are so close to everything I’ve been searching for, but…” She sighed. “When I give gifts to men, so often, it makes them weak. Soft. They forget the ways I’ve taught them. They become dependent on the power, instead of their minds. Promise me, please, won’t you? Promise me that you won’t be a disappointment. I’ll tear your heart out if you disappoint me, David.”
He nodded. She smiled, and kissed him gently on the lips. “So, what do I have to do to get this gift?” he asked, curiously.
He went to bed. That was the last time he saw Conquest. When he woke the next day, she was not in his apartment. This by itself was not so suspicious. On his ride to work, to pass the time and put his mind to better use, he studied the people around him.
They were like tattoos, he decided. Images of the major events in their lives, the things that had shaped them, in symbols and imagery, festooned their bodies. They glowed through clothing, almost distracting, drawing his eye at all times. The harsh hand of a father, raised high, imprinted on a young man’s inner thigh. The uncaring eyes of family crowning an old woman’s head like a tiara. They were all different, all unique. Common themes, but he could see the little touches in everyone. Everyone was different. Except for one thing.
Each person, on their forehead, between their eyes, bore a small, simple, stylized tattoo. Most of them were the delicate cotton fluff of a sheep, white and soft. Some had the delicate ears of a rabbit, brown and smooth. A rare few had the curled horns of the ram, black as tar. And one boy, just on the cusp of manhood, with dark hair, hazel eyes, and a frown on his face, had three jagged slashes across his forehead, red as sin. He was waiting to bail his mother out at the front desk of the police station.
David gave the boy a wide berth.
He spent the morning toying with the strange new powers. Speaking with people, dropping hints. It was amazing to watch the way they responded. The sheep were simple, easy. When he spoke, they listened, and they did what he said. Oftentimes, they didn’t even realize it. He used the tattoos to guide his words, learning their stories. The rabbits more often simply froze up. Confronted with stress, they froze. A handful of people in the police department where he worked had the ram’s horns on their foreheads. When he spoke to them, their expressions hardened. His comments slid off their backs. But they still didn’t know what he was.
He sat in the break room at lunch, enjoying reheated spaghetti from the night before. That’s when Larson walked in.
The hero cop. The pride of the force. Part of a dynasty, really. Strong and brave and true. He always played fair, won the admiration of everyone around him. Sheep’s white adorned Alex Larson’s forehead.
David grinned so hard it almost split his lips. He waved towards Alex, inviting him over, smiling. His eyes drifted over the officer’s body. Many things were familiar. The bottles on his biceps, not-quite identical hands holding them- David decided they represented alcoholism, that of Alex’s father, and of Alex himself. The smile of a young woman written over his heart, his daughter. The glowing bullet holes, three of them, along Alex’s chest. His near brushes with death, matching the ones that David knew about. And… the fangs. They shone like a bracelet around one arm, white and shining. Trophies of monsters. The things that Alex hunted in the dark. The rumors got around the office. David smiled. “How’s Dane doing?”
“Great, David, great.” Alex smiled broadly, slapping his shoulder. “Passed the exams with flying colors. Did an amazing job.”
“She’s a fine young woman. I know she’ll make you proud.” David smiled softly. “If only we had a safer world, hmm?”
Alex’s smile suddenly become strained, nervous, looking at him. “I… Well, it’s not perfect, you know. But-”
“I just get nervous. You know I’ve never had children, but thinking about having a daughter, out there in the night… You never know what kind of people she might run into. What kinds of things.” David slowly twirled his fork in the bowl of pasta, gathering a few long strands. “You always think to yourself, I wish I could do more for them. You know? But in this job, they might find themselves facing something horrible. Without you there to protect them. If only we could stop all the monsters ourselves, hmmm?” He gave Alex a warm grin. “But all we can do is our best. Give till it hurts. You know?” He checked his watch. “Ah, I’ve got a case to prepare for.” He stood up.
People thought they knew who the heroes were. They were so wrong. He was grinning all the way home, eager to share the news with Conquest.
A letter waited for him on his desk. “Dear David” was written on it. He frowned, and opened it. It was written in Conquest’s elegant, immaculate hand.
I have left. I will not be back. I am sorry, David. The truth is, from the very beginning, I have been cultivating you. Shaping your mind as best as I could, testing you. My kind give power in order to develop it. To learn from humans. I gave you a share of my power in the hopes that you would master it in a way that I never could. Then, I could kill you, cut your throat, take back your power. You succeeded. And now, I find myself unable to take the final step. You are cold as ice, one of the finest manipulators I have ever met. More kin than the creatures I call my kind. You can see what lies in the hearts of those around you. And that is too beautiful to destroy.
I cannot show myself to you. You might see sheep’s white on my forehead, and I could not stand to have that happen. It would be an unforgivable lapse on my part. It would set us against one another. I took this step to win a war, and yet, now, I think I would rather lose, be conquered, than take your life. The tragedy is that I cannot. All I can do is stay away, and take neither path, neither conqueror nor conquered. Perhaps you will die in your own time. Perhaps I can take your soul, and your power, and we can be together forever. But I cannot be the one responsible. If you hate me for this, I understand. You will always be my favorite. If you wish to stay in touch, I would be deeply grateful. It is the rare human who can know me and love me as you do.
A silver kiss was planted on the signature line. The smell of steel filled the air, and David felt the tears dripping down his cheeks.
He found himself standing on the bridge. He couldn’t remember putting on his jacket. He couldn’t remember the long walk up to the bridge. He stared down at the East River. He was only a heartbeat away from her.
He crushed the letter in his hand, and breathed in the frosty winter air. He wasn’t the tragic love interest. He wasn’t a prop. He was the hero. He’d have her.
The next ten years were spent refining his technique. He wrote to her frequently, and she wrote back. Long, lingering discussions, sharing the details of what he’d found about the power, hints of what she was up to in her war. He smiled, trailing his fingers over each one. Each one signed with a silver-steel kiss. He fawned over each one, reading them over and over again, spending hours, days, composing his responses.
Alex Larson’s funeral was full of pomp and circumstance. He had gotten in over his head, trying to protect his little girl. It was very difficult to make people commit suicide, but making them throw their lives in service to a hopeless cause was easy. Nonetheless, he was circumspect. Death was obvious, overt. Instead, he pushed at people’s minds. Tilted them towards cruelty, towards hurting one another. Distrust. Hatred. He delighted in how easy it all was. He was a hero, exposing who people really were. Testing them, and showing how easily they broke.
The Church of the Survivor changed all that. It was an interesting story, to be sure. The black plague, spread out across the city. Gods, monsters, demons. After it had all finished, he wanted to see the man who had apparently been at the center of it. It was a calm spring day when he stepped into the Shark Belly’s. He did not make eye contact as he stood in the line. He let his eyes wander over the young man’s arms. The serpent around one arm, the striped claw marks on the other. A delicate bundle of wriggling worms graced the back of one hand, and a tiny bronze statue on the other. All marks of others. The young man seemed to have little that marked him as himself, almost like an empty shell.
“Can I take your order?”
David cracked his neck, smiling. It was an obvious tack he would take to break Horace Creed. He met the young man’s eyes.
Three red stripes ran across the young man’s forehead, between a pair of warm brown eyes.
“Sir? Are you okay?”
David shook his head. “S… Sorry. Not hungry.” He gave Horace an apologetic smile and stepped out of the line. He walked out into the cold, and clutched at his chest.
Still afraid of the tigers. Still unable to stand up to them. He cursed himself for his weakness. Ten years he’d been at this, and he still didn’t have the confidence to try what he knew on the tigers. The young man was a skinny thing. He was dressed in a laughable uniform that degraded him, declared him little more than a toy. And yet David had been shaking in front of the young man like he was a real tiger, eyes shining in the forests of the night. The thought galled him. He was the hero. Not some terrified victim, not some upstart villain, not some side character meant to demonstrate the power of another. He was the hero. And heroes didn’t show fear.
He needed to get stronger. He needed to prove to Conquest that she could trust him to conquer her. He’d have her, he’d prove he was strong enough. He just needed the time, and the nerve.
He ran out of time at the same time he gained the nerve. It was late July, and he got the letter. He opened it eagerly. Ten years, and his passion for her was still as intense as ever. Each letter still made him shake inside.
There’s another man.
There was no kiss below it.
For the third time in his life, he found himself standing atop the 59th Street Bridge, staring down at the water below. The summer was glorious, and beautiful, and as empty as shit. It was hollow, just like everything else. The world had lost its meaning. He had lost her.
Conquest didn’t want him anymore. He wasn’t worth her time. That was how low he had allowed himself to sink. Fear had driven him for so long. Fear of being found out, fear of trampling a tiger’s tail. Knowing who the tigers were hadn’t made him stronger. It had made him weaker. Just like she had warned, he had grown complacent because he’d known where the danger was. He’d stopped challenging himself.
He’d thought he was a hero because he simply exposed people’s grubbier, darker sides. Made the world understand what people were really doing. But he’d not had enough daring. He had crept. Heroes didn’t creep.
“Detective Weiss.” He smiled, studying the man. Brilliant tattoos of medals covered the man. Blood seeped out from behind them. Blake Weiss had a gun drawn, pointed at him. A pair of ram’s horns adorned his forehead. Hard-headed. So confident, so dominant. Rams were not a danger to David, so much. They were just impossible to manipulate. Words slid off such people. Mental influence couldn’t take hold. They didn’t feel it. That was the common wisdom. That was what Conquest had taught him. “Is there something the matter?”
“I know you did it,” Weiss growled. His voice was the low rumble of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Proud. Confident. A man who had never let the pain stop him. And such a great deal of pain he held onto. Those medals covered other tattoos, only the edges visible. But the outlines were all that David needed.
“I won’t insult you by asking what you’re talking about.” He smiled pleasantly. “I did do it. I talked those people into killing themselves. Fakes, every one of them. I spoke to them, and they broke. It was easy. I enjoyed it. They were false, pretending to be more than they were. I exposed that to the world. I showed what they really were.”
“You’re going away.”
“For what?” David asked, laughing, grinning. “The legal system doesn’t even have a word for this. And what jury would believe it? What judge wouldn’t throw the case out? I am a police psychiatrist. I talk with many people who are in bad situations, who are depressed, who may do something foolish. Even if you brought me before a court, my words, they could persuade anyone. You could never hold me.”
“I ain’t going to take legal channels. I know that you can’t be allowed to live. That’s what the gun is for. It’ll ruin my life. But that’s a worthwhile price.”
“Just your life?” David’s smile widened. “Look at all those medals. Look at all the honors. People look up to you, Blake. You’re a hero par excellence. You are a great man. If you shot me, people might even think that you were right to do so. They would believe you were in the right.” His grin was so wide it almost hurt. “Imagine those children you’ve saved, Blake. Looking up to you. Hearing you murdered a man in cold blood. Hearing that you did it because you thought he was bad, even though you couldn’t prove it. They learn such an important lesson that day. When you’re good enough, the people you kill become evil. You’re justified. Tautologically. I can kill a few dozen heroes. You can corrupt the idea down to its very roots. All you have to do is pull the trigger.”
Blake shook like a leaf in the wind. And the ram’s horns on his forehead broke. He turned away, and walked out the door. David gasped for air, his arms shaking, his head throbbing. It was the first time he’d been this hard since Conquest had left him. The sensation was better than he could imagine. It was triumph, Conquest of the unconquerable. His arms were shaking.
He knew what he had to do next.
The detective who came to question him was a ram. But the black lungs on his chest, the black circles around his eyes, they made it easy to figure him out. It wasn’t as hard as the first time, breaking the man, sending him after his superior. Barely three hours had passed when the front door of his luxurious apartment was kicked down. Dane Larson entered the room, flanked by half a dozen police officers. Her trained elite. She wore the bottles on her biceps, the bullet holes on her chest, and a string of monstrous trophies that dwarfed her father’s along her left forearm. Her right shoulder was painted with a young Asian woman, her left with what looked almost like Alex Larson, but not quite.
In the center of her forehead were three jagged red stripes. He had hoped. He hadn’t been certain. He’d not seen her in person since the funeral, when there had been sheep’s white there. It was interesting. It meant people could change. That was thrilling, another discovery he would have to explore.
After he broke her.
“If you speak, I’m going to kill you where you stand.”
He raised an eyebrow, his eyes going around to the men around them.
“They know what you are.”
He smiled, and held his hands up in a gesture of surrender.
She punched him hard across the face, and he fell like a sack of potatoes. The last thing he saw as he fell was the painting on the wall, a tiger in orange on black velvet.
What immortal hand or eye, dare frame thy fearful symmetry?