“W-when I s-saw the…TV, I h-had to call in, seeing ‘dat…”
The man spoke with a stutter that grated. He was nice enough, from his eager mannerisms to his clean gas station establishment, but time was of the essence, and this man wasn’t made for time.
“Can we see the video?” Jack requested. It was a few hours from Atlanta, right on the South Carolina line, but he’d wanted to see personally.
When he gestured to the camera, his head jerked the other way, eyes closed. Jack glanced over the man’s head, met Zeller’s gaze of utmost confusion, then sighed silently.
It was a good video, despite everything. The angles and quality of camera gave them a perfect view of Will stumbling from the SUV, panicked and reaching for Molly who drew near the moment he was out of the car.
It gave them an excellent angle of her leveling a gun at him, too.
“We can confirm Dolarhyde, Katz, and Yancy,” Zeller said from beside Jack. “And we can confirm that he was the only one unaware of the situation at this point.”
“So he gets into the car because Dolarhyde told him that he had to take him somewhere else, and with his ‘friends’ nearby, he doesn’t think to question it,” Jack murmured. “It’s not until something in the car spooked him that he even tried to run for it.”
“But miss Firearm Freida goes and points a gun at him, and…well, there he goes,” Zeller said, gesturing towards Will getting into the back seat.
“Four against one is bad odds,” said Jack. “Without audio, we won’t know what was said that got him back in the vehicle.”
“Let me guess: if you don’t get in, I’ll shoot you?”
“Something like that.” Jack nodded towards the small DVR in the corner. “Get me copies of this, and let’s see some potential routes they could have taken from here. Piedmont and Upper Coastal Region…”
“Th-they said they was gonna go to a house,” the gas station manager said behind them.
The man hesitated by the door, wavering in and out of it as he swallowed heavily and gestured aimlessly. “They was…they was in here, t-talkin. Said they was gonna go to the ‘big house’ and was gonna be alright. Alright at the big house.”
“Did they say where this big house was?” Jack asked. He had to refrain from taking the two steps close enough to tower over him, wanting to pry the words from his mouth.
“N-no…just that it was a big house. Georgia, they was headed. To a b-big house.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bernardone,” Jack said sincerely.
Mr. Bernardone managed a small, crooked smile before he sidled away.
“If it’s a big house, I’m thinking rural,” Zeller commented as he inserted a USB drive. “They don’t want something to draw too much attention.”
“Secluded enough that when they rolled up with an unwilling guest, no one would hear if he yelled for help,” Jack agreed. “Hell; that could be any place. Georgia is covered in old homes with large properties. It’ll take a while to go through them all.”
“We could narrow down the list of them when we map out where they went to next,” Zeller replied. “See if any of his assailants used a credit card recently.”
Jack was about to agree with that line of thought when his phone buzzed at his hip. He stepped out of the manager’s office to take the call, nodding to Bernardone who stood near the Doritos, restocking the Little Debbie snacks.
“Jack, Jesus, been trying to get a hold of you at the Atlanta HQ.”
“Director Purnell, I’m out in the field at the moment.”
“I need you back at the Atlanta HQ as soon as possible. We’ve got a situation.”
Jack noted Bernardone listening in, and he stepped outside, letting the door squeak shut with a cheerful jingle. “What’s the problem?”
“I’ve got a mass homicide that’s hit nation-wide,” she said. Curt. Cold. “Do you mind telling me why I’ve got over twenty different Will Graham’s turning up dead this morning, Jack?”
Something nasty and slimy nestled against his spine at her words, dug in with claws and teeth. “…You know, I’m not entirely sure, Director. I’ll head back to HQ right now.”
“Yeah, do that. The media is in hysterics, and I’ve got as many units out as possible in each city where it’s happened. Just…get back there. Damage control until we can get a grasp on what’s going on.”
He tucked his phone into his pocket, stared out at the gas station parking lot, and sighed. In that moment, watching a girl with short hair lean stiff-legged against her car, arms crossed defensively as she gassed up, he felt himself age a good twenty years, old and decrepit and grey.
He hadn’t been aware that Will Graham was a common enough name for someone to make it a target, but there they were.
There they fucking were.
He waited for the girl to finish gassing up before she printed a receipt, snatched it up, and tucked herself into the driver’s seat, letting the car idle. He wondered at it, as he watched the car, seeing without really seeing. Supposing it wasn’t a common name, just what would he find when he got to HQ? Will Graham on a slab? Will Graham at a crime scene? Will Graham in an alley, head missing? Will Graham’s head on a platter? How many curly-haired people had died, and just how many would it take for him to find the real one? Was he part of the rabble, or was Lecter hanging onto him for the final act?
God, he was too old for this. Far, far too old.
The door behind him dinged, and a man strolled out of it, nodding towards Jack before he climbed into the passenger seat. The car shuddered and drove away. The rest of the parking lot was empty, save the car he’d taken with Zeller.
The humidity sat hot between his layers of clothing, so he turned and went back inside.
“Zeller, we need to get going,” he said, heading towards the manager’s office. His heart sat heavy in his chest as he thought of Will, one of far too many.
He walked in, and the first thing that he noticed was the blood.
The second thing he noticed was Mr. Bernardone cowering beneath his manger’s desk, hands clasped over his ears as he whined.
The third was the note scrawled across the dry erase board with a cheerfully red expo marker:
And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all
Day nine yielded two blues, too.
It was a victory to him, even as Matthew scowled at him in the doorway. He took his time getting dressed, took his time patting his hair into some sort of shape. His residency before had all but demanded a clean-shaven face and trimmed hair, but the week he’d been left unattended gave way to a stubble that would have looked better on an unemployed bar rat. He scrutinized it, then scrutinized his eyes, checking every angle to ensure they were indeed the same.
So far, so good. Jack Crawford would be proud of him.
“Come on,” Matthew coaxed, and Will followed him downstairs and out to the crisp, sharp morning. He zipped his jacket against it, but rather than the normal walk that took him to mindless laps around the house, Matthew headed towards the forest with sure, even strides.
Just at the edge, Will hesitated.
“Come on,” Matthew said again, turning back. He stood just beside a large maple, eyes the color of unturned leaves. They were green against the beginning signs of gold and red, and Will hesitated for it, hesitated due to the burning jealousy that rooted him to the spot.
“I was told not to enter the forest,” he said slowly. “Francis was very sure of the rule.”
“If you’re accompanied by one of us, it’s fine,” Matthew replied. “I want to show you something.”
Will stepped into the forest, even as every muscle in his body begged him not to.
There was a small animal path that they followed, the dips of it turning naturally with the land. Clover and desperate sprouts of grass dotted between trees that grew closely together, creating a canopy overhead, stifling what little sunlight there was. It was colder beneath the eaves of the trees, and Will huddled into his jacket as he kept close. His heartbeat thudded just behind his eye, warning him: trap, trap, trap.
The walk was long; several miles or so until they came across a dilapidated shack whose sole occupant was a furious armadillo that rushed into the underbrush at their arrival. Throughout the entirety of the walk, Will kept an eye out for other followers, guards or fences to warn him that Matthew was up to something that wasn’t particularly safe. Not a human soul disturbed their walk, nothing but the soft murmurs and gentle cooing of waking doves and rustling squirrels.
He stared at the shack, and he looked from it to Matthew with raised brows.
“I’d mentioned the wild animals before,” Matthew said, looking about. “Hogs and coyotes desperate for the easiest method of food.”
Will didn’t reply. Whereas before, he’d felt their solitude like a heavy, grasping blanket at his shoulders, he now felt the distinct, toe-curling impression that they were alone no longer.
“I heard what you had to say to some of the people back at the big house,” Matthew continued, looking about the woods casually. “You tried to shame them for their feelings, for being the way that they are.”
“One can have the urge to kill without indulging,” Will replied, staring at the back of Matthew’s head. He willed him to turn, to face him so that he could see just what was happening, what he was to prepare for.
“You called it ‘a load of shit’,” he said, and he gave a low, frustrated laugh. “Do you know what we’re here for? What we’re doing, Mr. Graham?”
“I see a house of killers converging around the faux promises of a dangerous individual who merely wants to try and control those about him. Like pawns.” Will glanced about, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. He needed to go back. He should have turned back, should have never followed him into the forest. He tasted regret like biting into a maple leaf; bitter, filled with the sort of dread that made stomach acid murmur and threaten mutiny.
“See, and that’s where you’re wrong,” Matthew said, turning around. In his Sherriff’s outfit, it was a stark contrast to the forest around them, an appearance of safety when no such thing was offered. “It’s here that we can truly be ourselves, Mr. Graham, explore our full potential without the trivialities of modern day society. Free from judgement, free from censure, and you threaten that.”
“I thought psychopaths were normally solitary creatures.”
“That was our weakness,” Matthew replied. His eyes glittered in the dim light, a sneer curling his lip crookedly. “Until Dr. Lecter realized, ‘why allow the hawks to be mobbed one by one by flocks of finches when they could band together and truly become an unstoppable force? Then we’d be an honest, true power that couldn’t be threatened.’”
“Matthew…I wouldn’t be a threat if you’d all just left me alone.”
Matthew nodded in agreement and gestured, a smooth, sly move that Will tracked, his mouth turning to cotton, his muscles tensing.
“You see, Dr. Lecter wants you, but…in reality, Mr. Graham, I don’t see why. Why would he bother trying to teach a finch to hunt when he could have a hawk instead? One that already knows how?”
“And you’re the hawk that you think he could love,” Will said derisively. “Oh, Matthew…Dr. Lecter doesn’t know how to love. He only knows how to control. To destroy.”
“Half-connections can become full connections to someone else. Enough studies have occurred that-”
“That’s the jealousy,” Will murmured, cutting off his speech smoothly. He shifted away from Matthew, his heel digging into the soft earth beneath him. “It comes off of you in waves, desperate…you think that if I’m out of the picture, Dr. Lecter could potentially make eye contact with you enough times to establish a full soulmate bond?”
His derision rankled at Matthew, and the quick flashes of light reflecting off of his eyes stilled as he held Will’s stare, furious. Desperate.
“Unfortunately, I can’t kill you,” Matthew said, staring. “Dr. Lecter wouldn’t like it. But there’s a beast in these woods that I tried to warn you about, Mr. Graham, one that you didn’t expect to find when you ran from me during our morning walk.”
Will froze, gaze drawn to the shape materializing in the dark, just over Matthew’s shoulder.
“You see, not everyone Dr. Lecter finds is altogether human,” he continued, and his sneer grew, curling into a savage, dark snarl. “Randall is one such person. I mean, the doctors say he’s a human, but inside…there’s something altogether savage that isn’t quite man.”
The one called Randall didn’t speak; over the sound of gears softly whirring and air pressure hissing, Will didn’t figure that he’d hear him, even if he tried. Just barely peeking through the space where the maw of what looked to be a bear skull lay, he saw eyes, a bleakness to them that was disquieted, flat. These were not the eyes of a man, although the skin beneath the horrifying exoskeleton made him appear that way.
In truth, they were the eyes of a beast.
“What is this,” Will said, looking from him to Matthew. He took another step back, poised for flight.
“If you live, think of it like a lesson, Mr. Graham, one you won’t find in your textbooks and your lecture halls,” Matthew replied. “This house and these people? They are under my protection. They’re under Randall’s protection, too.”
On cue, Randall let out a snarl that stood the hair on Will’s arms on end.
“And we won’t allow someone to threaten that.”
He couldn’t have said if it was the look on Matthew’s face that set him at a dead run; it could have been the shift of Randall’s stance, the low, primal growl. It could have been the utmost glee in Matthew’s eyes, a dead sort of happiness that lightened only at the stark, honest fear that set Will’s heart pounding, rough and scratching against his ribs. It could have been the wind, a scent in the air that urged him to run and run fast.
Either way, he was on the path back towards the house before he could think, before he could even plan, before he could even wonder what his next step could be.
Behind him, shouting after him with a morbid delight, he heard Matthew Brown:
“Run fast, Mr. Graham!”
Even closer, and gaining, he heard the roar of the beast Randall.
Schedules didn’t deviate when one was serving life in a mental institution.
Granted, he’d only been serving his life sentence for three months, but one could easily see what the new mode of living would be: wake up, take medicine, eat breakfast, endure a therapy session with one of the bumbling doctors, enjoy a brief moment of sunshine, medicine, lunch, quiet time, another brief moment of out of doors sunlight, dinner, medicine, then quiet time before sleep.
Occasionally, a random letter from an adoring fan would come through, but they were heavily screened, as was anything in his cell. Soft paper with rounded edges, felt-tip pens, and nothing but double-sided tape so that he could place his drawings on the walls.
Florence. Verona. Paris. Brussels.
He was on his best behavior, as one should be when they’re held with extreme prejudice, turned either which way and regarded with an expression akin to a dog that was inclined to bite often. By month four, though, there was a certain sort of monotony to the whole idea of it, this place where he could potentially die if he wasn’t careful.
Lucky for him, halfway through that month there was a deviation from the norm.
“A visitor?” Hannibal asked as he faced the wall and put his hands through the bars behind his back. He was handcuffed, as was procedure, and it was only then that the orderly deemed it safe enough to strap a small mask across the bottom of his face. His muzzle metaphor became reality, and Hannibal allowed himself a small smile at the thought.
“Yes,” the orderly –Matthew, his nametag said –replied. He smelled of sweat and unwashed skin, although there was enough cologne caked over it that Hannibal could assume he’d spent an enjoyable evening of partying before hurrying to work the next day, hungover but ultimately pleased with himself.
“Isn’t it rather late for visitors?” he asked.
“No,” Matthew said, and that was that. Hannibal allowed himself to be led down the hall, past Multiple Miggs whose cell always reeked of semen, past Abel Gideon that amused himself by gossiping among the nurses, and past a man whose silence was viewed as guilt when Hannibal knew him to be absolutely innocent of every crime he’d been accused of.
The room that he was placed in was something much akin to a large grey block with small dunk tanks slotted into their respective places. It was the same place that he had to endure psychiatric darts slung his way; Hannibal much preferred the room that he was allowed to speak to his lawyer in, seeing as how it was the only room in the establishment not bugged by the illustrious Dr. Chilton. He was allowed into his dunk tank, and Hannibal sat poised on the stool, prepared to meet whomever had decided that seven o’clock in the evening was a decent time to meet.
No one came, though. Hannibal gazed ahead with a pleasantly affable expression, a benign and false interest, and it wasn’t until he counted to the five minute mark that he decided that he was done waiting.
“Are you going to explain yourself, Mr. Brown, or am I to sit here all night while you stare at the back of my skull?”
Matthew laughed lightly.
“I’ve been watching you,” he explained, and the stench of his previous night out of drinking wafted over.
“Your shifts used to bring you by my cell once or twice a week. Now, every shift that you work brings you by my cell five times a week. Either you are here at the behest of Dr. Chilton, to observe and report, or you have something personal to share that you think that I need to hear.”
“I admire you work.”
“Did you disable the microphones in here?”
“I did.” There was a beat as Matthew savored his admissions. “I was the one that he had set them up, after all.”
“And you’re not going to waste away in this institution, are you, Dr. Lecter?”
“Do you suppose I’m digging a hole into the wall with one of my dinner spoons?”
“I looked at your case file.”
Him and the rest of the world. The moment that he came into view in Hannibal’s peripheral, he tracked his movements with rapt attention, noting each and every quirk. He tried to keep pertinent information about all of the orderlies, to better understand their behaviors in correlation with his own actions within the institution. Matthew Brown was oftentimes off to the side of them, not quite part of the rest of the staff. A fringe-survivor, but one with eyes that oftentimes stared too long at rowdy inmates with the sort of emotions akin to amusement and condescension rather than disgust.
“What insights did it give you?”
“You have a half-connection, although it’s not listed as to who. I supposed that they’re either dead, or they’re unaware of just what they’ve done to you.”
He’d certainly thought about killing Will Graham, although it was looked at through a purely clinical lens rather than a haze of red. Throughout his time of treating Will, speaking with Will, getting to know Will, then ultimately sparing Will, Hannibal always entertained the notion that at any point, if it became too much, he could kill him and move on rather than struggle with a connection in which the other half was wholly unaware. Having that small comfort in knowing made sparing him feel far more in his control rather than like he had no choice.
Although, killing Will would have ultimately been a boring avenue to pursue. Underneath his tentative layer of normal, Will Graham was completely, unequivocally interesting.
“That’s not so much insight as it is reading and understanding.”
“I just thought it interesting, then, to read about you allowing Will Graham and Agent Crawford to live rather than just killing them in your office.”
That gave Hannibal pause. He continued to track Matthew through his peripheral, gaze half-lidded as though he were completely unconcerned with what was happening.
He was listening, though. Matthew Brown now had his full attention.
“He was my patient,” Hannibal replied mildly.
“I thought that could have been the case, your not wanting to damage your patient’s psyche further, but there is an account of you using one of your patients in order to create one of your masterpieces.”
He likened his work to a masterpiece. Matthew was either something similar to him, or he was attempting to appeal to his vanity.
“You didn’t view your patients through any special lens, Dr. Lecter. So I wondered, what made Will Graham so special to you that you not only let him live, but you allowed him to save your intended victim?” Matthew continued, his slow gait one of ease and practice. “I looked into a few things. During his testimonies, he accounted for a dinner at your home after you’d murdered Marissa Schurr, a gala attendance the day after you’d murdered Cassie Boyle, and a confirmation that you were with him during a dissociative episode where he’d called you and asked for help when you’d claimed to be working with Dr. Bloom instead. Your creation, a spliced FBI agent to leave Jack Crawford fuming, left trace evidence of DNA in Graham’s home when they later did a sweep of it.”
“Your memory is one to be marveled at, Matthew,” Hannibal said calmly.
“There was a lot of special attention to him, so I pulled up a picture of the guy, and do you know what I saw?”
“I imagine that you’re going to tell me.”
“You’ve gotten contacts now, and the will of your lawyer to back you up, but you had one eye with a reddish brown hue, and you had one blue eye with green edges. When I saw Will Graham’s eyes that is when I realized; you have a half-connection to him. That’s why you spared him. That’s why, when you stood just behind him as he tried to save that FBI Agent’s life, you who could have easily subdued and killed him at your leisure, instead let him put you here, behind bars.”
Matthew paused just in front of Hannibal, far enough away that if he should lunge and reach for him, he’d be the barest of fingertips away. Smart, on his part, since Hannibal was honestly considering harming him in some fashion. That had been a difficult day for him, all things considered. He hadn’t intended for Will to see so much of him so quickly, without preparation or preamble so that he could better understand. In that moment, curled over Jack Crawford, he’d let out a noise that haunted Hannibal’s dreams, so vulnerably agonized as it was, and it meant what Hannibal already knew –he wasn’t ready for this, hadn’t yet seen and understood enough to embrace and accept this.
No matter; this was not the end for him.
“Just what do you intend to do with that information?” Hannibal wondered out loud. He stared at the space just between Matthew’s brows, feigning kind curiosity. “If you intended to use it against me, you wouldn’t have made the show of parading your skills of deduction before me.”
“You know those hawks that sit on wires, Dr. Lecter? Solitary, and when you drive by on the highway they maybe swoop down, snatch up a mouse and go to the next pole to rest?” Matthew looked like he wanted to continue pacing again, but he kept himself from it, hands folded across his chest, rumpling the scrubs and setting his nametag askew. “They’re powerful, regal. But sooner or later, a mob of finches come along, and the sheer numbers drive them away, send them off to the shadows to lurk about.”
“Do you see yourself as a hawk, Matthew?”
“Yes. People like us…we’re hawks. The problem is, hawks are solitary creatures. They don’t necessarily play nice with other hawks.”
“What if we could teach hawks to get along, Dr. Lecter? Rather than allow the finches to keep them to the shadows, fringe-survivors that come out only when the numbers won’t overwhelm them, what if they instead worked together?”
“Have you tried such a thing?”
“What were your results?” Hannibal asked. There was a mild shift of distaste in Matthew’s eyes, a flicker of annoyance.
“I’m not charismatic enough, I suppose, to keep them from tearing into one another like wolves.”
“But you think that I could be?”
At that Matthew gave a slow, rippling smile. He was pleased with just how quickly Hannibal’s mind turned, but Hannibal had been doing this for as long as he could recall; thinking quickly and thinking cleverly were his tools, assets so that he was always one step ahead, prepared for anything.
Anything, he supposed, except Will Graham showing up for his appointment early.
“I read your posts about the evolution of social exclusion, as well as the tools and assets that a charismatic leader would obtain in order to rally people underneath whichever banner they so choose. You’re charismatic. Just how long were you able to wear your person suit before something slipped through the cracks?”
“Many, many years.”
“And I just so happen to have a few friends that love your work,” Matthew said, and he continued his pacing once more. There was an energy to him, something that lurked beneath the surface and urged him to keep moving about. “When they heard that I was here, working with you, they were overjoyed.”
“I’d imagine you want me to give them a few kind words?”
“Nothing so fanatical,” Matthew assured him. “Mostly, I was wondering, one hawk to another, just how far you’d be willing to go in order to have eyes and ears outside of this institution. If you’re charismatic enough, maybe you’d be able to get them to do things for you, see things for you.”
“And what’s in it for you?”
Matthew took his time answering, and it was then that he stepped just close enough that Hannibal could reach him. He didn’t lunge, though. He tracked the orderly’s movements with rapt attention, and when he was close enough to the bars, Hannibal let his gaze linger on the pulse that moved steadily at his neck, not at all afraid.
“I’d like to touch greatness,” he said quietly, a mere murmur. “Even if only once. Then me, my assets, and my friends are all yours, to do what you want.” He let out a low, sardonic laugh. “Maybe we’d catch Will Graham for you, if you were so inclined.”
Maybe we’d catch Will Graham for you.
Maybe we’d catch Will Graham.
Maybe we’d catch –
Hannibal considered him, just close enough to kill but still calm, and he stood, making his way over to Matthew, as though there were far more than a mere two steps between them. He paused just before the bars, studied his dilated pupils and the way his lips fought to stay smooth, and Hannibal smiled, flashing canines as he deliberately extended his cuffed hands forward, offering them.
Matthew placed his hands in Hannibal’s, palm to palm, and the look on his face was much akin to bliss, a certain heady pleasure as he closed his eyes to savor it, like his skin was enough to glean the sensations of what it’d been like for Hannibal to paint his mind palace red. Hannibal had seen the gaze and expression of the obsessive before, marked it by the way the eyelashes fluttered and the way skin flushed. He could see it now, just at the edges of what made Matthew Brown tick.
He could use this.
It’d be rude not to, considering what was being offered.
When Matthew released his hands, Hannibal seated himself once more, regarding him with a pleasant sort of hunger. Matthew lingered in the space where their palms touched, and he smiled faintly.
“What is it that I can do for you, Dr. Lecter?”
“…Just how many friends of yours also admire my work?”
“A couple now…” He flashed a coy smile that he wiped away with his hand. “I can easily find more, though. A few orderlies and nurses here, a few psychos there…Chilton’s been screening your letters, but I can fix that. I can also ensure that anyone coming to meet you here won’t be caught on microphone.”
“Perks of the job, Mr. Brown?”
“Perks of the job, Dr. Lecter,” Matthew agreed.