“He’s an incredibly powerful, incredibly gifted submissive,” Agent Snow stressed, and Carter’s understanding of The Man in the Suit spun around on its axis as she tried to cope with that idea.
Closing her eyes, she pulled up every moment, however brief—any point of communication between them. Before even meeting him, she’d seen him fight. A sub—the stronger subs, at least—might fight defensively, protecting a child or someone equally as vulnerable, but… he’d been alone, protecting a half-empty bottle of whiskey. And he was clearly trained; she’d guessed special forces, which these agents confirmed by their interest alone, but that was when she’d thought he was a dom. She’d never heard of the military accepting subs in anything more than a support role. Medics, transport, pencil pushers… not combat.
And why hadn’t he just let the punks take the booze? Subs didn’t react to confrontation by fighting back like that, not instinctively—and the man had been running on instinct, not judgment, as evidenced by his reaction just after winning that encounter.
After a fight like that, it was a little surprising that he’d just surrendered to the police, but she’d judged that to be a sign of exhaustion, not just physical but psychological. Calm, resigned… like he didn’t have any fucks left to give.
But he hadn’t been the least bit submissive once she’d started questioning him. Wouldn’t answer her when she asked about military service; deflected a name request with philosophy. Asked if he was in trouble, but stayed silent as she tried to determine if he was in need of help, or on some mission of self-destruction… and she still wasn’t sure of the answer.
Subs didn’t wiggle out of questions the way he had, not unless they were under direct orders, or scared of a higher dominant, like Mrs. Kovach had been. Yet the homeless guy who’d just beaten up Anton’s little pack of punks had never come across as scared or controlled.
That first short encounter hadn’t eliminated the possibility that he was a flatliner, but his later activities were pretty clear on that matter: What kind of flatliner could so consistently overpower doms without killing them? And though she had begun to suspect that he had some partner in crime, that partner wasn’t on the ground with him; nobody ever described him in the plural or mentioned any second party at all. He ran his missions like a one-man army; she’d never suspected that he had a handler. That he needed a handler.
The Man in the Suit… a sub? The whole idea seemed utterly laughable. She recalled the times she’d suggested that he turn himself in, and how he’d shrugged off the idea with a quip or tangential reassurance. If she’d even suspected that he could be a sub, she’d’ve tried a flat command, though she doubted it would’ve done any better. How could a submissive possibly react to a law enforcement officer the way that man had reacted to her?
Submissives were the bastions of social order. In police encounters they were only ever victims or coerced participants; the incidence of criminal subs was so low that the law had started assuming their innocence centuries before it was normal to assume the innocence of flatliners or doms. Even the legal burden of proof was lighter when a submissive claimed to be a victim; society still assumed that most doms could fight back, while subs usually couldn’t, and a sub lying to get an innocent person in trouble was practically unheard of.
A submissive rebel? A vigilante? It went against everything she knew of them, right down to the biological level they’d studied in high school, or the psych classes she’d taken in college. The reward centers of their brains, the activation and inhibition systems, were rooted in different core behaviors. Resisting orders was pleasurable, for the doms, but difficult and painful for the subs. So a dom who got too fixated on resistance created a pleasure loop in the brain, an unyielding mental state that it was hard to break loose from—hence their reputation for being bull-headed. But a sub could easily fall into a state of relax and obey: subspace, the natural bliss of being properly lined up with the world around you.
It was hardly surprising, then, that subs followed orders, abided by laws, were happiest when the rules were clear and reasonable and obvious and they didn’t have to try to figure out the edge cases or boundaries. Unclear rules, or unspoken expectations that clashed with the written rules, didn’t much bother doms, but they were inherently stressful to subs, as was any sustained opposition to the social order.
Evidently, The Man in the Suit had gotten used to that particular stressor.
“Submissives need leadership,” Snow was saying, and that, too, seemed obvious. “They’re always looking for someone to cling to, to surrender to—someone to trust. But John’s paranoia makes trust impossible, and that leaves him in a constant state of instability.”
“I don’t understand,” she protested, even as she filed away his name, for as little good as a name that common might do her. “He’s one of the most skilled agents I’ve ever seen. But submissives stay in support roles, don’t they? They’re not allowed in the field.”
“Under normal circumstances, that’s true,” Evans confirmed. “It would be foolish to entrust sensitive information or missions to submissives, not when they might get captured and interrogated, forced to turn against their own side. That’s why submissives were never subject to the Draft.”
“But there are some like John,” Snow added, “who are strong enough to resist most orders even without training. And with specialized training, they’re some of our most talented agents. Highly perceptive, like most subs, able to pick up on the intentions and emotions of others—but also able to disguise their own, a key asset during covert operations. They’re incredibly strong-willed and resistant to pain, nearly incapable of being coerced—far more durable than any flatliner, or even most doms. With proper handlers, with partners who know how to support a submissive in the field, they’re capable of small-team covert operations that we could never pull off with dominants alone.”
“Wait, you… you train them to resist orders?”
“Doesn’t sound much like the military, does it?” Snow said, a slight amusement to his eyes, though it didn’t touch his lips or his voice. “But you’re thinking from a dominant point of view. The point of training is to break the instincts and habits that would get you killed during combat, and to establish new ones that keep you alive and let you work with the group, work as a unit to accomplish goals. Dominant instincts make it hard to accept those in power over you; we break them of that, get them to appreciate the hierarchy, to stop thinking of themselves first.
“Submissives already have that. What they need to learn is when and how to ignore an order, or to work around it, or to let a superior order take precedence. To avoid falling into subspace. That’s what the special ops training gives them, if they’re strong enough to merit inclusion in the program.”
“The problem is,” Evans interjected, “most of the subs who qualify in terms of strength are also psychologically unstable. We’ve discovered that these types of submissives almost uniformly come from abusive backgrounds. Their ability to resist orders is built up as a survival tactic.”
“What do you mean, a survival tactic?”
Snow lowered his head, staring her straight in the eyes. “A submissive who’s given abusive commands generally obeys them—even if they’re harmful. They’ll go without food, or stand barefoot in the snow; they’ll obey orders to hide their own injuries, because it’s in their nature to obey, especially when they’re young. That’s why so many subs die young, of preventable causes.”
Being in law enforcement, Carter was all too familiar with the people who fell through the cracks; she dealt with the aftermath, when it was too late to help the victims anymore. Submissives were so easy to take advantage of that modern society had developed safeguards: regular home inspections, extra supervision in school; workplace advocates, not just for teens but even up into their twenties and thirties. But there were still tragic incidents of subs dying from abuse, neglect, or safety violations; subs found it incredibly difficult to assert boundaries on their own behalf.
“But some small percentage of them fight back,” Snow was saying, “by learning how to rebel. Not in big ways—they’re not usually strong enough for that, at the start—but in small ways. If they were told that they couldn’t eat dinner that night, they’ll sneak out for a snack right after midnight. If they were told to stay out in the snow, they’ll pull a doormat over to keep their feet from freezing. They learn to do what it takes to survive. By the time they find their way to us, they’re already well on their way to becoming full-fledged switches.”
Another term she’d never heard before. “Switches?”
“Subs who can masquerade as doms—who can actually push orders on other people.”
“Their core identity is still submissive,” Evans interjected. “They still need support, still seek out connection to a worthy dom. It centers them. But they’re capable of a mix of traits that we’ve never seen in anyone else—anyone who hasn’t grown up in an unstable, abusive environment. They’re able to push orders and resist orders like a dom, but sense emotions and intentions like a sub. They’re better than either dynamic at hiding their own intentions, and far more adaptable; they’re artists at disguise, at infiltration.”
It seemed… absurd. Telling doms and subs apart was easy; just get a strong dom to push a distasteful order. Subs would do it without hesitation; most doms, if caught off guard, would fight it, and the strongest doms would end up in a power struggle. Key business meetings often started with a command to leave the room, which subs obeyed and doms ignored; imagine if a hidden sub remained, capable of discerning the intentions of those in attendance, an advantage that would surely be illegal if anyone thought that such a move was even possible. Or imagine a vulnerable group of subs at the mercy of the one sub who could push his will on them, with none of the defenders realizing that the danger came from the inside. A rogue sub.
John was a rogue sub. It shouldn’t be possible.
“Normal subs shy away from combat,” Snow added. “It’s difficult to get them to even take defensive training; they don’t like the thought of hurting others. Violence is inherently repulsive. But a switch can pick up fighting skills, and go toe to toe with doms during training drills. And where a sub might be forced to kill, a switch is the only type of sub we’ve discovered who can choose to kill, who can decide that it’s necessary. They can kill with minimal hesitation and no evident trauma.”
“Which is a vital skill when it comes to defending your country,” Evans allowed. “But it’s considerably less beneficial when it’s turned against our own citizens, with no obvious direction. He’s taking people out, and we don’t know why. What his criteria is. That’s why we need to stop him.”
At her desk, that night, getting ready to call it a day, Carter still hadn’t come to any conclusions. They’d tried to impress upon her just how dangerous he was, and how valuable; they’d tried to creep her out with the idea that he’d somehow fixated on her, comparing that trust to John’s trust for the handler he’d apparently killed.
They were a team. Inseparable. She provided him with that grounding influence that every sub needs to stay stable. And yet—he killed her.
It had made her stomach curl, the thought of a sub getting so twisted that he’d actually, without any orders, kill a dom, let alone his dom. Of course, it left her wondering if all that military training had actually been a net benefit for John; without it, what might he have become? The CIA seemed to value switches, to seek them out, only to put them to use in the kind of missions that Carter was glad she’d never been a part of. The kind she wished she didn’t know about.
We thought he was dead. You ran his prints… brought him back from the dead.
We want to bring him back in before he kills anyone else. Before he kills himself.
We want to help him.
Bringing him back probably wasn’t ‘helping’ him. John was a rogue element in her city, and she wasn’t about to let him continue with his crusade, but… he seemed to be trying to do good, to pick up the slack where he saw the legal methods falling short. And her own experience with the murky moral soup of the military told her that John’s moral compass had been calibrated by something other than the CIA. The thought of turning him back over to their care made her skin crawl.
But one point they’d made seemed to be correct: John trusted her. He hadn’t been willing to turn himself over, not yet, but he’d sent multiple people her way, as though she was the one person he trusted to do her job, and to care about getting it right.
Made her wonder, sometimes, if he was keeping tabs on her somehow. Made her feel like she was being watched.
He’s always looking for someone to trust.
Because what submissive could make it through life on their own? Even if John was capable of masquerading as a dom, he still had that submissive core, the same needs as any other sub. Without that stability, a submissive was… lost.
We want you to keep yourself, and him, alive.
She recalled the dull, exhausted eyes of the man when she’d first met him, and wondered if they were the eyes of a man a few steps from suicide. If she didn’t help bring him in… would she be signing his death warrant? His seemingly one-man crusade wasn’t a safe one.
I don’t think you killed those guys. But I think you know who did.
Every killer I locked up thought they had a good reason.
Carter rubbed her temples, caught between two difficult choices; she couldn’t decide which was the right choice, or even if there was a right choice in this case. John had killed for his country, just as she had, but that didn’t make him a killer. And she couldn’t help thinking that Agent Snow was trying to, well, snow her with disinformation somehow. There was something about him that she didn’t want to trust.
I was his best friend. We want to help him.
If she asked John directly, would he confirm Snow’s claim? Deny it? Refuse to answer?
One of her first pieces of evidence on John was his second encounter with the O’Maras: He’d shot them with their own merchandise, and made off with a worrisome assortment of guns. She wasn’t even sure of the details, because the O’Maras were hesitant to make honest claims about the theft, given that they shouldn’t have had that kind of weaponry in New York City to begin with. Or, at least, she’d picked up that detail from context and her previous encounters with Seamus O’Mara. So John had gotten his hands on a lot of unregistered weapons.
And yet, he hadn’t put them to use. Most of them. Someone had shot a grenade launcher at a van, and she’d suspected, in hindsight, that it had been John, though she didn’t know the reason. And he’d blown open a garage to get at Hector Alvarez, but… John seemed determined to avoid bloodshed wherever possible. She wasn’t prepared to say just where the lines were drawn; dead bounty hunter shot in the side in that hotel, but he’d had a gun out and she could guess that he’d been threatening innocents at the time, even if no one came forward to discuss it. That KGB guy in the park, shot to kill, but it was hard to fault John for that kind of decision when facing a man that dangerous. Whenever possible, John shot to wound, not to kill.
She was still on the fence when her phone rang, startling her. And then she was talking with the man himself.
During the brief exchange, she had to resist the urge to check—to test his resistance to an outright command. The kind of thing you didn’t say to strangers these days; everything was phrased so obliquely, to avoid inadvertently compelling or giving offense.
Before he hung up, she blurted out her gratitude. And then sat there, staring at the phone, trying to figure out if gratitude lined up with turning him in, or letting him go.
She was a cop. Following the law was her job. It was difficult to be a good cop, because following the rules hit against that dom part of your brain, but she was a good cop, because she had put effort into learning how to control her instincts. A lot of cops didn’t bother.
John had learned to control his instincts. They had that point of commonality; maybe it was part of what had drawn him to her.
The obvious path was to bring him in. But still, she hesitated.
But not for long. Because it was evident that, no matter how skilled John might be, there was only one end in sight: eventually, John was going to wind up dead. And he might take down a lot of innocent people when he fell.
She picked up the phone.