Lloyd Bowman woke up in a hospital much the same way that a drunk does –confused, nauseas, and with movements just sluggish enough that they slopped about and ultimately settled restlessly against sheets boasting a ridiculously low thread count. Government edition, from the feel of it. His eyes flicked and listed about the ceiling as he breathed, counting specks in the tiles. Hospitals on television always showed people waking with violence, swinging about as they ripped tubes and needles from their body in a frenzy, but Lloyd wasn’t much for dramatics when his body felt both like it were floating and also as though it were made of lead. Even if he wanted to be dramatic, he didn’t have the strength for it.
He was alive, though. He marked the echoing, chirping sound of his heartrate on the machine and managed a slow, steady nod. He was alive. Being dead wouldn’t feel this damn bad.
There was a steady, pressing ache near the center of his core, and he knew without having to look that it was where he’d been stabbed. If he was stronger, he’d have ripped the blankets back to dig at the bandage, really and truly see just where that woman had gotten a hook into him, but he couldn’t. Lloyd blinked, and he recalled the sensation, a ripple of shock followed by the sense of his insides trying to fall out, a pressure tight on his skin and muscle that made a violent burn rub raw through his veins. He tried to shake his head to dispel the memory, cloying and painful, but the tube shoved down his throat made it difficult. He groaned, low and agonized.
He wasn’t found until a few minutes later, when a nurse came in to check his vitals. At his open eyes and calm, steady breathing, she paged a doctor and began the uncomfortable task of removing the tube from down his throat, massaging it with gentle, clinical attention. He allowed it because even though it was invasive and mildly embarrassing, it also soothed the ache in his jaw from the angle. She was just doing her job, same as Jack was just doing his job, same as Lloyd had only been trying to do his job when a pretty woman in the crowd ultimately tried to kill him for doing his job.
He cringed, and the nurse misunderstood it.
“Are you in pain, Agent Bowman?” she asked.
He managed to shake his head. Normally, he’d have something for this, a joke to lessen the tension that sat in the room like an ugly, obtrusive toad. He’d have to test his voice, see if it was as ugly and wretched as the rest of him likely looked.
“I need…to make a call,” he said, and yup; hoarse and scratchy. Lovely.
“We’ll have a doctor in here so that we can discuss what’s happened and how we’re going to move forward, but first I just want to say that you’re safe, Agent Bowman, and you’re doing just fine,” the nurse informed him. “After we see exactly where you’re at, we can think about that call.”
If he was a grouchier man, he’d have protested. Bowman wasn’t much like Price during a stressful case, though, so he lay stretched out in his hospital bed and waited. He waited while a doctor came in so that she could explain just what’d happened to him. A linoleum knife wasn’t the best of weapons to use for an attack, but it had certainly gotten through his skin, his muscle, and his intestinal lining well enough, she said. Surgery was touch and go, but he pulled through, and wasn’t that something to celebrate?
Are you Agent Bowman?
His chart was looking excellent –he was going to heal just wonderfully, the doctor said.
“Thank you,” he managed after she asked if he had any questions. “I appreciate your hard work in saving me.”
“That’s our job, Agent Bowman.”
“If I could just…make a call, though. My cell phone should be with my things?” At the doctor’s confused expression, he continued, “I’d like to call my family and hear their voices.”
“No one’s charged it,” the nurse said, presenting him with his phone. Her nails were unpainted, although she did sport a sensible, rubber watch on one hand. “I hope it’s not dead.”
It was an old military edition phone, a ‘relic’ among phones, but he loved it all the same. Unlike smartphones, whose batteries burned while struggling under the weight of running a computer in their tiny frame, his flip phone lasted for days before dying. At his assurances that he could make the call alone, the nurse administered his pain medicine and they left him to it, thumbing through the contacts before he found the one that he needed.
“Hello?” their disembodied voice was firm, curt, and to the point. Lloyd hadn’t realized just how much he was looking forward to hearing it until he relaxed into his pillows, a sigh breaking past his lips. God, he was tired. Being awake like this was tiring.
“I’m glad you answered.”
“Agent Bowman? What number are you calling from?”
“My personal phone, not my work phone,” he said, and at the beginning of their questions, he cleared his throat weakly to cut them off. “I know you’re worried, but I don’t have much time. I think…I think I got the girl that did this, so Jack will have her in custody, but I need to ask you to do something for me.”
“Wait, you mean you haven’t called Crawford yet?” they asked, and their tone lowered to censure. “You wake up from a fatal stab wound, and the first thing you do is call me to talk about work?”
“Not a lot of time, I don’t think,” he replied, and he resisted the urge to lift his blanket so that he could see just what his stomach looked like. Reason told him that it’d be bandaged, and he wasn’t going to work at peeling that off just to take a gander. “The girl that stabbed me was targeting me specifically. She asked who I was.”
Are you Agent Bowman?
“She was tasked to attack you, then? A job, not random chance?”
“Another jab at Jack, probably, to take his trusted men out.”
“Do you think that-”
“I think Price and Zeller are probably in danger, too, but if it gets out that I’m alive, they’re going to come for me. One thing I gleaned from his writing in that letter to Jack –you’ll have to get a hold of that and read it, tell me what you think –”
“I really shouldn’t be surprised with you thinking of work at a time like this –”
“–he’s thorough. He won’t like my loose end because it’s supposed to hurt Jack, cripple him. With Agent Dolarhyde one of his own, we…can’t take chances about who is working this case. We can’t just bring in agents that we don’t have complete background checks and clearance on.”
“I’m not your department, Lloyd.”
“No, but you’re the department we should be using. I worked with you on that FLDS raid in the early investigations. You know what you’re doing around cults. I deciphered their manifestos and tone in writing, you kicked down their door and saved hundreds of children.”
“You think it’s a cult?”
“Yes. The tone, the actions…the disregard for personal survival in the wake of the orders from their leader…I think Zeller and Price are in danger, too.”
“Why wouldn’t he just go for Crawford?”
“It’s not suffering if Jack dies too soon,” Lloyd replied. The medicine was making his mind foggy, tossed about before settling in a sort of entropy. It reminded him of smoking pot in college, how he could just take a hit and lay back on the couch for hours after, lazy. Listless. “I’m not much in the way of…doing anything right now that requires physical movement, so I need your help.”
“I can get a safe house set up, if it will make you feel more comfortable. Or we can place agents there that –”
“No agents,” he cut off, probably harsher than intended. His deep voice was oftentimes loud, boisterous. He lowered it, tried to soften it around the concerns that tried to poke holes in the calm of the pain medicine. “If we want to do this right, we need to take me off of the table completely. That’s why I’m calling you, not Jack.”
“…Just what is it that you want me to do?”
“I need you to kill me, Agent Starling,” Lloyd Bowman said and he smiled wryly as he looked back up to the scuffs and stains of the aged hospital ceiling. “I need you to kill me off, and I need you to go save Jack from himself.”
You’re so sly, but so am I.
Francis visited him in the evening to bring him his food.
He didn’t try to coax him to leave his room the way that Beverly tried to. In truth, Francis Dolarhyde seemed to be the only person thus far that wasn’t intent on asking him to ‘just…’
He wasn’t quite sure what that meant, that Ex-Agent Francis Dolarhyde of all people desired nothing of him. He did his job, therefore he expected Will to do his job. It seemed to be more along the lines of a cause and effect, a system in place where every gear turned into another, creating a working and cohesive machine.
The job everyone asked him of, though…
Dolarhyde set a tray down on the desk, adjusting the fork and knife on either side. Wine was filled in the bottom portion of the glass, a white whose color turned ocher in the lamplight. Poised beside the bed as he was, Will tracked the careful motions of him, the unassuming nature of each bend and creak of his bones.
“Did Jack talk about me a lot?” Will asked, unable to help himself. “When he asked you to guard me?”
He paused beside the desk, a hand coming to rest on the back of the chair next to it. His flat, intent stare didn’t pierce the way that Hannibal’s did, but it was a fixated expression none-the-less. It told far more about him than anything else had, in truth.
“Yes, Mr. Graham.”
“What’d he say?”
Francis took his time gathering his answer. Drifting through the doorway, the sound of dinner downstairs punctuated his slow and unrushed collection of thoughts, like he had to sift through each one to find the right words to say. Will didn’t rush him, merely watched. Merely tried to understand. He felt like he’d break himself, trying to understand.
“He said that you had a troubled past,” he said at last. “You didn’t want pity, but he wished that he could have given you the sort of quiet that every other person seemed to be able to enjoy. Normal problems, like a late payment on a credit card, or expired milk.”
“He trusted you.”
“And you ultimately betrayed him.”
The look Francis Dolarhyde gave him would keep him awake for most of the night. “I was never loyal to him. He may have thought so, but that was not the case.”
“Just what are your loyalties? Where do they lie?”
He smiled very faintly, the scar from his cleft pallet making it crooked and altogether untrustworthy. “My loyalties lie with Dr. Lecter, you, and this house we have made a home.”
His conviction was absolute, unwavering. Just beyond his expression was utmost belief, an unquestioning faith that wasn’t so much blind as much as it rang true with the proof in his actions. When Will had nothing more to say, he made his way to the door and paused in it the frame of it, hand grasping the doorknob to close it. He glanced back to Will, and the oddest of expressions crossed over his face, a cross between mild discomfort and honest hope.
“Here, Mr. Graham, you won’t even have to worry over late payments and credit cards. We’ve created a place where the peace Jack Crawford sought so diligently for you can finally be achieved.”
Abigail sat next to the boy from breakfast that evening, after dinner.
It wasn’t so much a meeting as it was a time for everyone to gather in one of the large, formal rooms so that they could socialize –half of what kept their group together was the communication, the understanding. Now that Dr. Lecter was there, there was also a special part of every other evening where he’d give a devotional of sorts, something to share with them that showed his own personal traits and behaviors that he’d gained through honing in on his deadly capabilities. Sometimes, he even spoke with reverence the way it’d felt like to kill.
“You’re…Jacob, right?” she asked, sitting down.
“I am.” He flashed her a smile, hands occupied with a glass of orange juice. “Abigail?”
“I always love this time of night,” he said, glancing about the room. “Back home, we’d have never had something like this. Family time wasn’t exactly our thing.”
“What was it instead?” she wondered. Her tone was gentle, probing without being nosy.
Jacob let out a bark of laughter. “Dad was watching the game with a few beers, mom was probably in the kitchen on the phone with her friend and a bottle of wine.”
“What did you do?”
That part wasn’t so easily shared. He turned the glass about in his hands before he took a sip, wiping his mouth distractedly.
“I don’t think that they noticed when I left,” he said instead, after watching a few people enter the room to sit down. “You can’t really call it running away at this point when I’m nineteen, can you?”
“Legally, no.” Abigail assured him.
“I’d say it’s more of a ‘not my problem’ situation where they’re concerned. They probably think that I went to college, since the semester started a few months after I left. After I was able to contact you guys, I made my peace. They won’t notice that I’ve really disappeared until it’s time for Thanksgiving, I think.”
“You brought your computer with you?”
“No, and I destroyed the hard drive before I left. Cell phone tossed somewhere like I was headed for New York.”
Jacob was clever enough, it looked like. Abigail shared with him a kind, flitting smile before she looked over to the rest of the people walking in. She marked her three other problems to deal with, noted their facial expressions and mannerisms as they sat down. Two of them were easy fixes, and they already appeared to be placated and part of the fold once more.
One of them, though…
“It’s your dad that you walk around with sometimes, right?” Jacob asked. He finished his orange juice and set the cup on a coaster.
“Who else would it be?” she asked with a snort.
“I don’t know…an uncle? A…” Jacob floundered for a moment before he shrugged. “I’ve seen weirder couples.”
The thought made her nauseas, dinner going sour in her gut. “…Definitely my father. Not one of those weirder couples.”
“That’s cool,” he said, and that flirty smile appeared again.
He seemed nice enough, she decided, as he chatted with her about bands and music that he liked. He’d brought his CD’s –was that too cheesy? Too old school? He’d brought a Gameboy as well because he didn’t want to risk any electronic that could connect to the internet, in case that somehow made a difference in security. It didn’t, but she didn’t want to burst his bubble about having to leave his Nintendo Switch behind. He was thoughtful like that, and the more he spoke to her, the more Abigail wanted him to be an easy fix, just like two of the others.
When Hannibal came in, the companionable conversations among everyone quieted, stilted to hushed murmurs that folded smoothly into silence. For those that’d been there for years, this was something they’d been waiting for –it was one thing to believe in someone, to look to them for guidance. Abigail glanced about the room attentively, noting those that were there even before her, when Francis and Matthew first began their mission. They’d believed in nothing but the shared words between Francis to Hannibal, then back to them. They’d hoped for things without even being able to see him in his glory.
Here they were, though.
“I much prefer evenings like these than evenings in the Baltimore State Hospital,” he said, and everyone laughed, warm and lovely with the feeling of wine he’d graciously shared with them at dinner. Even Abigail got to have a glass. “There, the tales of my actions were psychoanalyzed, cross-examined for what the deeper nuances meant. They couldn’t appreciate the art of it, nor did they care for what it truly symbolized. I didn’t share much with them, as you could surmise.”
“Sir?” someone asked, and standing poised before the fire, Hannibal looked somewhat god-like, if a god were to live in the modern day and dressed like a successful businessman. Flames licked about his neatly pressed suit, a delightful backdrop to his intent, focused stare. “Is…is it true about Nate?”
The worry was apparent on the faces of everyone, a tautness at the skin around their eyes. Abigail worried over her lip and looked to Hannibal, frowning.
“While he and Alyss were dispatched to take care of Agent Lloyed Bowman, he was killed in the line of duty,” Hannibal said at length. His face wore grief with ease as he looked at each and every person, mouth twisted down regretfully. “Alyss was taken for questioning at a secure facility. Mr. Dolarhyde is working diligently to try and see just which prison she’s being detained in, that we could potentially free her.”
People reacted differently to death. Each and every person experienced it in some unique, fundamental way, and it always fascinated Abigail to see. Beside her, Josh reached and took her hand, holding onto it tightly as he fought to hold back whatever emotion struggled to reach his face. Others openly wept, heads dipping down to tissues dabbed half-heartedly at reddened eyes.
Even Hannibal Lecter, powerful and capable as he was, shed a tear and wiped the track of it from his cheek.
Abigail was certain that there was something wrong with her, that she felt no impulse to cry for Nate and Alyss. In reality, her thoughts were centered on their failure and just what that meant for Hannibal’s carefully laid plans. She’d cried for her mother, buckled into the passenger seat of their Subaru as they headed towards the rendezvous point where she finally got to see Francis for the first time, but she’d known her mother. Her death was a necessity, but she certainly didn’t enjoy it.
“One thing we must take with us is Nate’s vitality and life,” he said, and as people contained and took hold of their emotions, he smiled gently. “Those of us in this house that take these great risks to carry out the plans of everyone, they take risk and reward and clutch them in the same fist. They understand just how fragile the balance of life truly is, the way that it tips in either direction with the barest of nudges. Nate had an honest grasp, and with his actions, he became something of a god, didn’t he? In taking control of his situation, he was able to make it to this home so that they couldn’t take the car and glean from it our secrets.”
Heads nodded, bobbed with understanding.
“As we study how fickle the aspect of life and death are…each of us, I think, knows in our own way the scales that do not always tip to us. We have to take control of it, be as powerful and capable as destiny. The only thing in this world that is certain is death. How we come to it, though, is what makes us powerful.”
Someone raised their hand, and at his gracious nod of acquiescence, she said, “Three days ago, Dr. Lecter, the roof of a church in Oregon fell on thirteen teenagers and two adults during their mutual. Every single one died.”
“Within God’s own home, they did not escape,” Hannibal murmured.
“Did God feel good about that?” another asked.
“I think he felt powerful,” he replied, and heads bobbed in agreement. “Humans try to attach human emotion to a being that is considered omnipotent, but his behaviors are not so easy. There is no good or evil in nature, and nature is what God made. There is balance, action and reaction, and animals that survive due to their ingenuity and desire for that survival. God felt powerful dropping that roof on his followers, just as God felt powerful in watching Nate react and behave in a situation that did not favor him. By his own hand, Nate died.”
Abigail loved the feeling that came with his words, the honest sense of logic and the intoxicating taste of just how capable that made her. God was neither good nor bad; he simply was, and he simply did. That is something of how it’d felt to kill her own mother. She saw an opportunity to escape from beneath her father’s gaze, and the price was her mother’s life.
She’d have liked to say she regretted it, but that would make her something of a liar. A quick glance about the room told her that no, her father wasn’t present. He was off on watch duty, ensuring that the perimeter would stay safe from those that sought to take this paradise from them.
Thanks to Hannibal Lecter, he’d be so busy he’d never have a chance to ‘honor’ her the way he did eight other girls.
“Tonight, I want us to honor Nate,” Hannibal said, and at a motion from him, a few people walked into the living room in order to divvy out glasses of wine, as red and bright as the color of blood. Abigail wasn’t much a drinker, but she could appreciate the time he’d taken to get the color choice right. “One of our own has fallen trying to bring to fruition our goals, hopes, and aspirations. He saw what was necessary to survive, and he took his life into his own hands and chose to Make it more than what it was.”
“To Nate!” someone cried out.
“To The Red Death!” another chimed in.
“To their success, that although Nate fell and Alyss was detained, Agent Lloyd Bowman is now a crutch to Agent Jack Crawford rather than an aid,” said Hannibal, and someone clapped heartily to that.
“The Red Death,” Abigail murmured, hushed. She accepted two glasses and passed one to Jacob, who looked distinctly uncomfortable as he accepted it. His orange juice glass lay empty on the table, taking up the only coaster.
“What do you think?” she asked him, quietly.
He looked unsure of how to answer that, and when everyone lifted their glasses in the air, he mimicked them, teeth worrying over his bottom lip.
“To Nate and The Red Death,” Hannibal said grandly, and he tipped his head back to drink from his glass.
Every other person in the room drank in unison, save Jacob beside Abigail who hesitated a bit too long before following suit.
It was somewhat of a disappointment, in truth, to see him hesitate so assuredly. When Hannibal met her gaze over the rim of his wine glass, she knew that she was supposed to shake her head, a sign that Jacob would have to be dealt with, and soon.
She thought of the care he’d taken when he’d left home, though, to make sure to bring things that couldn’t compromise their location or safety, the way he’d spoken bitterly of parents that took to the drink rather than look after their son. Unlike the one that was a lost cause, Abigail wondered if she could maybe just show him the way, the path that would ultimately lead him to a greater purpose and happiness, then they could spare him and utilize his cleverness rather than waste it with his end.
Rather than give the sign to Hannibal that not all was well, she smiled at him from her seat beside Jacob, and she took a long gulp of her wine, savoring the sour and dry taste as it lingered on the back of her tongue. It felt rebellious, drinking at her age.
“We should hang out,” she told him once Hannibal looked away.
He smiled, quirky and more than a little awkward.
“Yeah…I think I’d like that,” he said, and he took a quick sip of wine to hide the way his voice cracked a bit at the thought.
There were exactly 32 other Will Graham’s in the United States of America, four of which were females: Billy Graham, Willow Graham, Wilhelmina Graham, and Wilma Graham. The rest were male or non-gender specific.
The next day, by approximately 2:00 P.M. eastern time, every single one of them would be found dead by various means ranging from being pushed in front of a moving train to being found in their bathtub with a breezeblock on their chest.
Where each body was found, a small message would also be found:
And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all
Of course, for the body thrown in front of the train, the message was found five miles before the train stopped. It takes time to stop trains, after all.