“You make a good Conscience, Gen."
The Man With The Silver Smile
Sterling: He gives her what she wants.
And gives, and gives, and gives.
Maybe she asks for more ridiculous things, more absurd privileges. The yacht? Easy. He wins it in a craps game with a capo. A pony? He’ll make sure to buy her a range to ride around. That rocket ship? It’ll be hard, but he knows a Kindred with ties to NASA. It’ll take a few years to get him in his pocket, naturally, but if she’s willing to wait…
Vacations, even. When she asks about what would happen if she ran away, he laughs.
And she never does. Not when she’s across the world with enough money to make a go of things, not when she’s out of his reach entirely, not when he all but gives her permission to abandon him.
Why doesn’t she leave?
Genevieve: That first time she’d boarded the plane she’d still thought it was a joke. That he’d somehow be waiting for her on the other side of the world, that he’d sent a tail, that her very body was lit up with some sort of tracking device that would call her back at any moment. She’d expected to be dragged back, kicking and screaming, and thrown into a dank basement somewhere.
But that didn’t happen. She’d had a marvelous vacation. Her thoughts were still with him, of course, even while she laid out on the beach, even while she ate chocolate croissants, even while she saw plays she didn’t understand the words to because they were in foreign languages. She found herself calling him from the phone he’d given her on day three, checking in to make sure that everything was okay. Two days later she was on a flight back, and he’d sent a car to pick her up from the Louis Armstrong International Airport. He’d asked how it went when she got home.
She told him the truth. That she’d missed him. She worried about him. She thought about what had happened to her before, the stories she had heard the other ghouls tell each other, and she’d realized that she had it good. There was no world in which her normal, boring, human life let her enjoy the comforts like this, with the amenities she asked for, the yacht, the parties, the money, the vacations. He never touched her, not like that, never bit off her finger and spat it at her, never gave her to his new packmates to practice reigning in the Beast. Really, he doesn’t ask for much.
She tells herself that if she leaves she’ll always be in hiding. She’ll be on the run, afraid, never sure of who she can trust, where she can sleep. She tells herself she stays to fix him, because she can make him a good person, show him what he’s doing is wrong.
She lies to herself.
Some deep part of her knows the truth: she enjoys it. The privilege. The admiration. She likes being looked at without disgust.
Sterling: The longer the leash, the more eagerly she comes back to her owner.
He’s endlessly amused by her attempts to fix him. Her tight, curt condemnations when they’re alone. He doesn’t punish her for them.
Occasionally, he even seems to listen.
There’s a lot to fix, too, as she comes to learn. He’s a mobster, or so tightly entwined with them as to make it hard to tell the difference. She accompanies him on his hunts a few times. It turns out he stalks gambling addicts at their support groups, isolates them, gives them lucky numbers—and when he gives somebody lucky numbers, they work. He says its about punishing hubris, about teaching them to be thankful for what they have. The few times they don’t give in to temptation, he leaves them be.
But that’s very, very rare.
He’s a moneylender, too. No, that’s the wrong word. A loan shark, more like. People come to him in his seedy gambling den, and they ask in quavering tones for ridiculous sums. They call him the Wizard, Mr. Oz, Mr. Goldilocks, because he always has a fix, always knows the numbers that are just right.
The other mobsters, the real ones high up, call him Smiles.
She sees him turn down pleading men desperate to start a business. When asked why, he’ll say their ideas were boring. The same night he’ll give a thug seed money for a drug buy, in return for points on the package, as long as he expands his territory somewhere interesting.
He runs a numbers racket. It’s his steadiest source of income, next to his frequent high-stakes gambling. He milks desperate people for their petty cash and brings in ten times what he pays out. Hope is a powerful drug, he says.
When people can’t pay him back, he does things to them. Rarely does he maim them. That’s too easy. Instead, he makes them sell their homes, their businesses. He entraps them further in a web of obligations. Occasionally, he adds them to his herd. Or he ghouls them. He goes through most of those ghouls quickly. He offers them as stakes in games with other vampires. Occasionally, he kills one himself.
He’s a monster, like he told her. But he likes that she tells him what she thinks of him, when they’re alone.
“You make a good Conscience, Gen,” he tells her. “I suppose I’ll have to start calling you Connie.”
And that is that.
He makes her responsible for his soul.
Genevieve: On the list of “terrible things my domitor has done,” calling her Connie doesn’t even make top fifty.
Still, she hates it. She’s pretty sure he only does it because he knows she hates it, too, and enjoys the way she flinches, purses her lips, or otherwise makes some tiny annoyed sign with her face. It’s usually all the reaction people get out of her these days, especially when she’s around anyone but him. With him the mask comes down. Sometimes she even smiles.
She’s not smiling the day he killed the man. She’d been there. Watching. Told him not to, even, not that he had listened. She doesn’t even remember why he did that first time. Something about defaulting on a loan, no collateral, not even fun to ruin. Does it matter? She’d watched. It was… awful.
Like being back with the wild bunch of mongrels all over again. She’d told him that, too, when they were alone. That he’s no better than the dogs in the Sabbat if that’s what he’s going to do.
It hadn’t landed well.
Sterling: No. Normally he laughs, or affects a wounded stare at her criticisms. But when she compares him to his cousin, to her old tormentor, she sees it for a moment, in his eyes.
Genevieve: There’s a moment where she thinks she should back down. Where she should apologize, tell him that isn’t what she meant, of course he’s not that bad, she’s sorry.
But she doesn’t. She hears the screams in her head and she knows that she’s right. He’s a monster. She tells him so.
Sterling: It’s a few nights before he calls upon her again, his expression blank. Since she’s so over him, he says, he’s loaning her to a friend of his. If she likes him better, maybe he’ll let him have her.
His friend is one of the ugly ones. The really ugly ones. His mouth looks like he has some kind of cancerous, industrial-strength herpes. His eyes are a sickly green that glitter with cruel amusements. She’s seen him before. He’s in Sterling’s coterie. Normally, he wears a different face. But not tonight. Not for a mere, freakish ghoul. He’s noticed her, too.
He plays with her, that night.
He makes her do things. Crawl through things. The smells alone make her want to cry.
He makes her do things, with… with…
Sterling’s waiting at her apartment, when she’s finally allowed back to it. Dripping with filth and reeking of her punishments.
“So,” he says. “What have we learned?”
Genevieve: The ugly one told her that he was going to fix her. He didn’t understand why she was crying, why she kept screaming. He told her it was annoying.
So he took her tongue.
When she wouldn’t smile for him he carved one into her face. It’s almost as wide as Sterling’s. It’s like the guy in the movie, the one with the clown makeup.
There was worse, but that’s what’s visible on her face when she comes back to Sterling. The thin scar spreading outward from the corners of her mouth. He’d broken her, but he’d put her back together too, and then he’d handed her back to her domitor as if he hadn’t scarred the rest of her more than he had her face.
She doesn’t look at Sterling when she gets back to the apartment. She can’t. She makes to move past him, but his words stop her.
Eyes on the ground, she tells him that she’s sorry, that she didn’t mean it. Her voice is thick, choked with tears.
Sterling: “Oh, Connie,” she hears him say, in his real voice, his cigarette-burned drawl, “I’m sorry, too.”
He feeds her well that night, more than she needs to heal, and stays with her in the hour or so before the sun rises. Soothes her, hugs her. She drinks straight from his veins. Her bond tightens, though there’s still some room left for it to tighten further. A noose half-tied.
He even offers to take some of the memories, if she likes.
He knows she’ll remember the lesson.
Genevieve: There’s no more pretending she’s something other than she is. She is scum. Less than. Nothing. It was drilled into her with the ugly one, and now he does it again: she’s only comfortable because he lets her be.
She doesn’t want the memories, she tells him. She doesn’t want to know what was done to her. What she had to do. The things—
She tucks her face against him. It’s the only time she’s touched him when she wasn’t being fed.
“Please take them.”
But if he takes them, how will she avoid it in the future?
Sterling: He explains, stroking her face, that she’ll remember this. How she felt, when she apologized. How resolved she was.
How much he loves his little Conscience, and never, ever wants to let another monster hold her again.
She does remember that, when she wakes up. She remembers going to the club, too. The horror, he can’t take. The disgust. The trauma. The mental scars are still there.
But when the sun rises that morning, she’s able to forget the wounds that left them.
The lesson remains.
In more ways than one.
He doesn’t kill people for neglecting their debts, anymore.
Genevieve: She doesn’t do it again. She never does it again. She’ll be better.
That’s what she tells herself.
She’s the lucky one.
And maybe his debtors are, too, when he stops killing them. But she doesn’t like the way his coterie looks at her anymore, and sometimes, when the one draws near, she’s pretty sure he’s leering at her. She starts begging off rather than be around him. When that doesn’t work she plasters herself to his side instead. No one can touch her when she’s right next to him.
Maybe that was the lesson, too. Only he can keep her safe.
Sterling: He does keep her safe.
She’s his Conscience, after all. Where would he be without her?
He lets her take a long vacation, after that. He even has somebody deliver a puppy to her front door when she gets back. It’s entirely white, from head to tail.
Just like her.
Genevieve: Its eyes match hers, too. A blue so light they’re almost white. “Glass eyes,” someone at the pet shop told her when she went to get it a collar. Blue, to match its eyes. They asked if she was getting it fixed.
“He’s not broken,” is her response. She lets herself love it.
Maybe she’s happy, for a time. Maybe she stops dreaming about a man lying on a table and a knife in her hand. Maybe she stops sleeping with a nightlight.
Maybe she’s still afraid of Sterling, because her puppy growls at him when he’s around.
Sterling: He takes it all in stride. He feeds the pup a drop of his vitae and it’s content to be around him.
But it’s different now. Her old bond has long faded, and now she dreams of Sterling sometimes. Finds her thoughts dwelling on him, constantly. How she can get him to notice her. Anxiety, over if he’ll find another Conscience.
And gratitude. Of course, the gratitude.
Genevieve: She asks him, one night, what’ll happen to her if he does. If he’ll trade her in a card game to another one of his friends, or if he’ll just… ignore her. Forever.
Somehow, that sounds worse.
She isn’t whole when she’s alone. She’s part of him. His Conscience. Without her, he’d be the monster she thinks he is. She can’t let him get to that point. She makes herself invaluable. Learns how to play the games he plays. Learns the numbers, the percentages, the loans. Trips over herself to find a reason to stay with him.
Maybe it’s enough. She doesn’t have the advantage of being able to read his mind, though.
Sterling: He simply smiles at her and takes her chin in his hand, and whispers in her ear from a foot away without moving his lips at all:
“I could never ignore my Conscience completely, Gen.” It’s been a long time since he’s called her by her real name.
There’s a lot of games. A lot to learn. He says it’s very sweet of her to want to learn. He’s happy to help. He plays with her a lot, too. He always wants a game to play. He often tells her about his night, asks what she thinks of his choices. Is he too cruel? What should he do, to be kinder?
Sometimes he listens. Sometimes he doesn’t. But he rather likes playing with her. Sometimes she even wins, though maybe only because he lets her.
Genevieve: Sometimes, she thinks, it’s embarrassing how easily he can read her thoughts. She doesn’t want him to know how often he is the center of them. Or how hearing her name—her real name, not the nickname he’s given her—sends a thrill through her.
She’s determined to find a game that she can win at. Something new. Something novel. She goes through all the classics with him, chess and checkers, poker, blackjack, and he shows her that the house always wins. She finds novel games to play, too, things from other countries, from joke shops, word games and dice games and card games. The key, she thinks, is to find something where the action is too quick for him to read her mind, or something where his ability to get inside her head won’t matter.
A game of chance. Something that is one hundred percent luck. She’s the luckiest girl in New Orleans, surely she’s got the luck to beat him in a game.
But that’s not very satisfying, is it?
She learns to cheat instead.
Sterling: The first time he catches her, he laughs delightedly, and tells her to cheat better.
The second time, he tsks and tsks, and makes her perform a forfeit. He knows she hates to be looked at. So he makes her take off her clothes. She plays the rest of the night naked, until she can win her clothes back.
His eyes dare her to try and cheat for a third time.
Genevieve: Even with her legs crossed and her shoulders hunched, arms stretched across her torso to cover herself, she can feel his eyes. She doesn’t like it. She doesn’t try to play with him for a while after that. But she finds marks for him, people who do try to cheat, people who need more than they have. Maybe that makes up for trying to deceive him.
Maybe it’ll make up for the third time she tries to cheat him, weeks later, after the humiliation from the second has faded from her mind. She palms a card. It’s smooth. She’s been practicing.
Sterling: “Good,” he says, “very good. I don’t know whether you need a punishment or a reward.”
“Hmm. Maybe a little of both?”
Genevieve: She doesn’t like the sound of that.
“How can something be both?”
Sterling: He just smiles.
He feeds her that night by spilling his vitae along the floor. There’s a lot of it, but she has to crawl and lick it up.
After that, she’s suddenly in his lap. Just like the first night.
“No sex,” he whispers in her ear. “But how long has it been since you’ve been touched?”
His hand wanders slowly up her thigh.
She’s very, very still. Her heart might have stopped. In fact, she’s sure that it did, or that it’s about to, because she can’t tell him the answer to that question.
Years. She doesn’t have to tell him. She thinks it and he knows, and her cheeks flare red at the thought, bright spots of color on her otherwise alabaster face.
Sterling: “Too long,” he croons. “Poor, lonely Gen. Faithful Gen. Even a conscience needs to be caressed, every once in a while.”
“You’re beautiful, you know. I wouldn’t have noticed you otherwise. Wouldn’t have rescued you.”
His hand crawls under her skirt, brushes the obstacles his fingers find out of the way easily. Her underwear he pulls and slides down her legs, and he bounces her so that those spread.
He doesn’t touch her though. Not yet.
“Would you like me to help you, Genevieve? Would you like to be touched?”
His other hand crawls up her stomach. Fiddles with her brassiere and cups what he finds underneath.
“Tell me, Gen. You’re so good at speaking your mind.”
Genevieve: Her body arches beneath his touch. She’s pliant, moving as he needs her to, thighs spreading open beneath her skirt. Her back rests easily against his chest, her own rising and falling in short little breaths that do nothing to slow the thrum of her heart.
She should tell him no. That’s the safe play. But she wouldn’t be here if she played it safe. She nods instead, a tiny jerk of her head up and down. Always so vocal, now she’s at a loss for words.
Sterling: “Say it.”
Genevieve: She can’t. She bites her lip, eyes closed, and shakes her head.
Sterling: “Gen,” he says, disappointed. “Say. It.”
Sterling: He does.
He plays her like a violin, like some kind of fine instrument. It helps that he moves so fast, but there’s care and intention there, too.
He winds her tighter and tighter.
He’s feeding on her as he does, and she can feel the pleasure melting her like so much sun on an ice cube.
And then, just when she’s about to shatter, like he said—his fingers stop.
Genevieve: She’s quiet. Restrained. She doesn’t know how to cut loose, even when his fingers dance across her, even when he drinks from her. It’s hard to tell when she’s close. Her breathing is irregular, but the shuddering gasp might be his only clue.
Still, he knows. He stops. And that’s the first sound she really makes, the whimper. It’s torn from her as soon as he ceases.
“No.” Her hips shift, pressing against his hand where she wants it. “Please?”
Sterling: “Ah, ah,” he chastises in that garrulous, higher voice. His hands slide teasingly away, the one below her waist pinching her rear before disappearing from her dress. “Unfair, isn’t it?”
He turns her head to stare into her eyes. “If you cum tonight,” he says, “you won’t see me again.”
And just like that, she knows in her bones that he’s telling the truth.
He taps a finger, still slick, against her face. “Cheating isn’t very satisfying. But you still did a good job of it.”
Genevieve: It’s not fair. It’s downright humiliating when she thinks about it later, after he leaves. Even the cold shower hadn’t done anything to cool her off, and she stares at the ceiling in her bedroom, fingers digging into the blankets beneath her hands.
He wouldn’t know. That’s what she tells herself, the lie she wants to make herself believe, that he wouldn’t know. Except he would. And she’d never see him again. And she wants to see him again. Maybe. Probably. Once she gets over the fact that he—that she was… she can’t even think it. Even alone her cheeks are hot, and she flips over onto her side, body curling beneath the blankets of her bed. She pulls them over her head for good measure. No one can see your shame when you’re under the covers.
But she doesn’t risk it. She doesn’t touch herself, doesn’t dip her fingers beneath the waistline of her panties, doesn’t slide them inside or against or—
“Agh.” She can’t stop thinking about it. Maybe if she’d been more vocal. Maybe if she was prettier. Maybe if she had more chest to grab.
Alone, dissatisfied, she finally falls asleep, and a man with silver in his smile dances through her dreams, laughing at her from behind his hand.
It isn’t fair.
Sterling: He doesn’t mention it, if that helps. But there’s a knowing gleam in his eye now. Or maybe it was there before. Or maybe she’s just imagining it.
He seems pleased with her, though. He likes having her by his side. Likes hearing her opinions.
He seems proud of her.
Genevieve: She wouldn’t know about the gleam. She doesn’t make eye contact with him anymore. She avoids looking at him, really, because every time she does she thinks about being spread open on his lap, and she gets a little flustered, and that’s… well, that’s humiliating. She’s gone right back to avoiding touch, too, as if that will do anything, and she dreads the next time he’s hungry and wants to bite into her.
She’s always a step behind, now. Pants instead of skirts. Bras that close at the side instead of the front or back. Shirts that don’t do anything for whatever figure she’s hiding beneath it. She doesn’t think it’ll help if he really wants to mess with her, but it makes her feel better. For a time.
She doesn’t talk much when he’s around, either. It’s the sort of humiliation a person doesn’t really bounce back from. But she does what he asks, otherwise. Runs the number. Finds new gambling addicts for him. Stands behind him rather than beside him, like she used to.
She downloads a dating app on her phone, too. Maybe that’ll take her mind off it.
Three terrible first dates later, she has decided it will not.
Sterling: He doesn’t say anything at first, but she starts to detect a faint frustration in his interactions with her.
Finally, he shows up at her apartment one night with a deck of cards.
“Enough of this,” he says, and waves his hand at her. “You feel despoiled, hmm? Perhaps, violated?”
His can thumps against the floor and punctuates his exclamations. “Perhaps you wish to forget your punishment?”
Her pup—did she ever bother to name it?—sniffs at his shoe. He picks it up by the scruff of its neck and tosses it onto the couch, where it sniffles and cowers.
Genevieve: Of course she named it. His name is Ash, which he would know if he ever bothered to ask her about it, but he doesn’t because he’s too busy finding new ways to punish her for perceived slights. She scowls at Sterling and scoops the terrified pup into her arms, scratching his ears.
“I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” She doesn’t have to look at him when she’s holding the puppy.
Sterling: “Fine,” he squeaks in a falsetto that sounds like it ought to shatter glass.
“Fine,” he says in a simpering whine, but his lips don’t move, and the voice comes from behind her.
“FINE,” snarls a deep, cruel voice from somewhere above.
He advances on her, cane gesticulating wildly. “You would lie to me even now, Gen? My own conscience, afraid to speak her mind?”
The voices around her howl in discordant rage.
Ash squirms and buries his little snout into her neck.
Genevieve: Oh. Oh no.
She clutches the puppy to her chest as if he’s going to save her from this wrath coming her way, one hand on his back, the other beneath his soft belly. She takes a step backward for every step that Sterling takes toward her, shaking her head.
No, no, no.
“Stop it, stop. You’re scaring—” me “—him.”
Sterling: He stops, sniffs her fear. “You still think I’m him,” he says, and he doesn’t bother to disguise his voice, or the sadness in it. “You still think nothing more of me than a monster. You who I rescued. You who I saved.”
The silence that follows his words is pierced only by Ash’s soft whines.
Genevieve: "You used me. You humiliated me. You did—did that, and then you just—you stopped, and you walked away, and you… "
She can’t even get the words out. So unlike her with her cool head, normally so eloquent, without trailing sentences. Now she trips over her words.
“Did you have any idea what that would do to me? What it would—God, it had nothing to do with him, it was everything before him, when I was just a—a freak. Something to laugh at.”
Sterling: “Used you? I punished you, exactly as I promised I would if I caught you cheating again. Are you bitter over a little loneliness?” He tilts his head, eyes narrowed. “Tell me, little conscience Gen, how I might kiss it better? Would you like me to bend you over my knee and diddle you more thoroughly? If you’re so tired of me, tell me, did you finish the job that night? Or did you choose to see me again?”
Genevieve: Something flares inside of her at the offer. She looks away from him.
“N-no. Don’t. Don’t touch me, don’t, just don’t.” She clutches the dog closer to her, his whines drowning out the hammering of her heart.
Sterling: “Answer the question.”
Genevieve: “Of course I didn’t.”
Sterling: “Ah, how flattering. So you do prize my company more than a little burst of your ovaries.”
He doesn’t touch her. But he stands close.
Genevieve: She says nothing. She barely breathes. Her fingers are only still because they’re buried in the fur of the dog.
Sterling: “You think you’re a freak, is that it? That my neglect of you was somehow influenced by repulsion, instead of principle?”
Genevieve: Of course. Of course that’s what it was. She nods.
Sterling: “Then why,” he sighs, “am I so proud of you?”
Genevieve: She has no idea what he’s talking about.
“I don’t know.”
Sterling: “Gen, I called you beautiful. I played a game with you and was so impressed with your attempt to cheat that the punishment was pleasure. I could not have asked for a better conscience. I all but said as much. The only person in this room who seems to think less of you for that night is you.”
Genevieve: “It ended in rejection.”
Like it always did.
Sterling: “It ended in denial, my sweet little conscience. A tease to make you regret your own overeager fingers. If I thought you repulsive, would I keep you by my side? Would I pamper you so? Did you need to finish to understand that you are mine?”
Genevieve: "You made me beg for it. And you saw me. You touched me, you… "
She shakes her head. She can’t explain. He won’t get it. He doesn’t get it now. He explains and she thinks it makes sense, until she pictures herself on his lap like that with his fingers… no. The dog whines again and Gen loosens her grip.
Sterling: “Yes, I touched you,” he says. “You are mine to touch. Mine to expose, mine to display, mine to do with as I wish. Ah, but I see. You feel shame, that I treated you so. Feel mocked, perhaps. Do you think I found it funny, sweet Gen?”
Genevieve: “I wouldn’t know,” she snaps, “I don’t posses the same affinity for trawling through brains that you do. Did you find it funny? Did you enjoy laughing at me afterward with your friends? That Connie was panting like a bitch in heat.” Her voice is a close approximation of his.
Sterling: “Should I have? I thought it was a rather sweet moment between the two of us.”
Genevieve: His answer flusters her all over again.
Sterling: “Oh, Gen,” he says. “So shy. So unsure of yourself. Perhaps I should make you dance nude in Jackson Square. You might see your own beauty in the gasps of your admirers.”
It’s an idle threat, but he likes her when she’s flustered.
“Or perhaps you can tell me how to make it better. My sweet, sweet conscience. Little voice of reason.”
Genevieve: “That’s not—that’s not funny.”
He wouldn’t make her do that. Would he make her do that? He can’t make her do that.
Sterling: Except he can. He might have already, and made her forget it.
Genevieve: Oh. That’s… oh. She’s only realizing that now. Does he see the blood drain from her face, or is she already so white that he can’t tell the difference?
She turns away from him. Ash whines. She shushes him.
“I have to take the dog out.” Anything to get away.
Sterling: He laughs, softly. “Would you be rid of me, then? All your gratitude, your loyalty, gone for a little shame?”
Genevieve: No. No, and that’s the worst part, isn’t it? Not that she feels shame, but that she wanted it, that she couldn’t even finish herself off later because that meant giving up him, too. It’s not shame she’s feeling, it’s rejection. He knows she wants him, and that’s… that’s too much for her. She doesn’t even want him to take away the sting because it means giving up the good part, too.
Sterling: “What would you like, Gen? What treat? What salve? I have no use for a conscience too shamed to speak.”
Genevieve: "I don’t know. I don’t know what will make it better. I… "
She trails off, shaking her head. Takes a breath to compose herself. When she speaks again it’s in the cool, detached tone he’s used to.
“Conflict of interest, I can’t advise you on myself.”
Sterling: “Hmm. I suppose you can’t.”
“Ah, but if there’s no moral way… what was the name of the girl you despised in school? Brittney something or other?”
Genevieve: She considers lying. Instead she tells him yes. “Brittney Mitchell.”
Sterling: “Mitchell, yes. All right. Give me a week. Perhaps then you’ll be… cooler.”
He walks away from her, his conscience.
Perhaps he leaves feeling lighter.
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