“You’re sure this is what you think is best?” Starling asked.
Lloyd wasn’t entirely sure it was best, but it would have to do. The safe house was obscure enough from the public to keep him out of trouble, but close enough to town that if there was an emergency, he’d be alright.
“Just keep in contact with me and we’ll be alright. I can help here without getting in the way of Jack’s focus,” he said. Prostrate on the bed as he was, he didn’t feel like much help, but Agent Starling wouldn’t hold that against him. For that, he was glad. “If anything, he can use my death as some sort of holy vengeance,” he joked.
“I talked with Director Purnell, and she’s letting my division take the lead on this. With this hitting the media, they’ve already taken the ‘c’ word to a whole new level. Looks like you were right.”
“Once the media calls it a cult, it’s all downhill from there,” Lloyd agreed. “Did…he give you any trouble when you gave him the news?”
Clarise Starling shifted and decided that sitting down was best. Her gaze flitted about the room before they settled towards the bottom of the bed, where a few of his things had been laid, just in reach.
“…Tell me,” he prompted lightly.
“I didn’t speak with him directly because he was in the hospital with Agent Zeller. I spoke with Agent Price instead and relayed the news.”
“Agent Zeller,” Lloyd mused quietly. “…My suspicions were correct?”
Are you Agent Bowman?
“Another knife to the gut, and one to the neck. He’s barely holding on.”
It felt like another knife had come to reopen the wound that smarted and ached something fierce. The pain medicine helped but only just. He thought of Zeller, younger than him and quick on the uptake, and he sighed quietly, morose.
“They’ll try to hit Price next, when another wave comes along.”
“I’ll have my guys keep an eye on him. Jack won’t like it, but if it keeps him safe, so much the better.”
“Thank you, Agent Starling. I know this isn’t protocol, but…” He sighed. “When Jack was investigating Dr. Lecter, no one believed him. There was nothing in his history, not enough suspicion for a warrant…just his hunch.”
“He was almost fired for that hunch.”
“He was right, though, wasn’t he?” Lloyd laughed, and the boom of it echoed in the room and just down the hall. He regretted it, as it made his stomach pull and ache. “He risked his career to stop that bastard from hurting anyone, then he risked his life. I guess sometimes it’s the spirit of the law that matters, not the letter of the law.”
“I’ll quote you on that if this comes back to bite me in the ass.” Starling warned him.
“Do that,” Lloyd urged her. “Just keep me in the loop, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Are you Agent Bowman?
“I think they chose the wrong man to stab,” she said as she gathered her things, a simple backpack and her jacket. It was cold, brisk just outside of the walls that were temperature controlled. Starling had sprung for a nice place, all things considered.
“They did,” Lloyd agreed with a wry smile. “Or, they chose the wrong person to do the stabbing. She didn’t quite get deep enough for a confirmed kill.”
“Their first mistake.”
“I think their first mistake was using a linoleum knife as a symbol, actually,” he said thoughtfully. “I’m aware that’s what was used against Jack when Lecter attacked him, but realistically, he only used it because it was the sharpest object within reach. A coincidence.”
“Better they gutted you with a linoleum knife rather than a hunting knife, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Starling said pointedly. Poised in the doorway, she slung her bag over her back and smiled thinly.
“I’ll have to send them a thank-you card when this is over.” At the twist in her expression, he added congenially, “And one for you as well, of course.”
“Of course. I’ll bring you the data as I get it, and we’ll go from there…it might take a while, though. There’s a nation-wide homicide going on. Around thirty or so Will Graham’s are cropping up, dead. Last we got in, it was thirty-two, I think.”
That sucker punched him, and he thought of just how much Jack was going to drink that night.
“I’ll bet none of them are ‘the’ Will Graham,” he murmured. “Not a single one.”
“Research the Red Death if you’re feeling up to it, as that’s their symbol right now. The Red Death, which holds darkness and decay, and an illimitable grasp over us all.”
She saw herself out, leaving behind the faint smell of Evian skin cream and lavender perfume.
Lloyd leaned back into the pillows, and he let out a quiet, subdued groan of pain that he’d been holding back. Theatrical to fake his own death, but if it kept Jack focused rather than worrying over him, so much the better –if it kept Hannibal’s followers from appearing in the middle of the night to finish him off, so much the better, too. The Red Death. It had a nice ring to it, if he was being honest. Dramatic as hell, though.
He thought of Zeller, fighting for his life in a hospital, and as he drifted off to sleep, he hoped dearly that Starling could get a hold of him and whisk him off to safety before they went back for him, too.
Will Graham ran, and the beast followed.
He realized quickly that the path he’d taken before was no longer the one he was on now. Somewhere in his panic, his rush to run and run fast, he’d taken a wrong turn on the animal trail and found himself slipping and sliding along a steep bank.
He slipped, tumbled, and rolled, hitting the bottom hard.
There was a lurching, twisting sensation as his senses tried to get a grasp on just what had happened, but at the sound of crushing, crashing footsteps, he didn’t give himself the luxury. He was up once more, carving through the thickly clustered trees with wild abandon. Each step drove home a horrifying, terrifying concept:
No one even knew he was out here.
Behind him, Randall roared, fast despite the metal and grotesque leather contraption he was strapped into. The sound sent shivers down his spine like claws, and he wondered if this was how rats felt in a maze –terror, a panic and disbelief as they’re chased, chased, chased.
It didn’t take too long for his running to slow, his heartbeat to struggle. Breaths leaked past his lips in hurried, stumbling gasps, and he pressed a palm to the stitch in his side, fingers coming away orange from the Georgia clay he’d fallen into.
He needed a new plan, and fast.
Looking back behind him, Will could trace the rushed, destructive path of his run, leaves scattered and braches broken. Through the thick of the trees he could still hear Randall tearing after him, tracking him. It wouldn’t do for someone like that to find him, to take those bones of his and do what predators do best.
He looked about, then began to make his way more carefully, listening for the sound of any running water.
He found a small brook at the bottom of another dip, and he didn’t hesitate in wading into it, ankle-deep and chilly. The rocks were slick on his shoes, although if he’d been aware that he was to be hunted, he’d have asked for sneakers rather than dockers.
The water deepened; Will craned his head and strained to hear the sound of the machine hissing air, the thunderous step of a hungry beast. Was Randall as good at hiding as Will was? Did he know how to be just as silent? When the water went up to his chest, his gaze slid along the banks on either side, tense. Although Randall was the immediate threat, cotton mouths were another issue. They were fast in the water, silent and venomous. Will could remember as a boy stumbling across a knot of them, curled up for warmth. When his father found him staring at the writhing mess of the muscled bodies, he’d told him to run and run fast.
Naturally, he was right in their element.
At the sound of another howl, though, he didn’t give a second thought in slipping deep under an overhang of roots struggling to reach the earth. The lip of the ground gave him good coverage, and he sank low into the water, the cold seeping into his bones and making his joints stiff. Up to his neck, he pressed back until he started to feel the moss and the algae at his shoulders, then he stopped.
Just across the way, pacing along the riverbank, Randall tier hunted.
Out from underneath the canopy, with the sun rising, he looked truly hellish. The leather strips and spine knobbing along his back was grotesque and jutted out from him, curving into the skull of a bear that looked far bigger than any Will had ever had the chance to see. He’d hunted bears once, with his father. The bear he’d shot looked half the size, half the fury.
Almost as though he could smell him, Randall lifted his nose to the air and sniffed.
Will slunk down further, submerging his nose and mouth, the pattering and gurgling of the water rushing around his ears, tugging at him. Scattered across the water, mosquitos in various stages hovered, buzzing. Water skimmers danced, paused, fluttered. Through the roots he watched Randall creep along the river, studying his path, and through the rays of light that cut through the trees, leather gloves gave way to long, black claws that curled and flexed as he searched.
He turned, looked across the river, then hurried farther down to cross it. Will worried that he might wade in the water, but he heard the crashing of leaves scattering on the forest floor farther down, and the breath he’d been holding exhaled into bubbles that popped around his eyes.
He lifted his head, took a deep inhale, and continued on.
The water sluiced around him as he crawled out onto a bank a few miles up, and his skin was blue from its abuse. He tried to make his climb up to solid ground as unmarked as possible, but when he managed to haul himself onto the higher ground, the churning mess of red clay and lichen was unable to be salvaged. If Randall made his way over, he’d see just where he climbed out.
To warm his aching muscles, he took off at a brisk pace. Survival was the game, and as Molly had put it, Will Graham was very, very good at surviving.
He found his way back under the canopy in the forest, a thick grouping of trees whose leaves blocked out the light and its warmth. Needing to find a direction, a point of interest –anything –he climbed the first tree whose branches looked promising enough, hauling himself up and up and up. He reached the top and looked about, the sun overhead and positively blinding.
It was later in the day than he’d thought. After noon at least, closer to two maybe. Just how long had he been running?
He couldn’t see the house, but he could see a break in the trees, in the distance. That was his best bet for either a road, or another place where he could access help. If he could find a fence or property line, he could climb it and well and truly escape. Matthew would assume he’d been killed by Randall, and it would be at least a day before they realized he’d gotten away.
Maybe this was Matthew’s way of trying to get rid of him –if Randall couldn’t kill him, he could at least let him go. Either way, it paved the place for Matthew to try and sidle close to Lecter, which gave Will the all clear.
If he could just survive, it would work.
He climbed down carefully from the tree and continued on his way. His heartbeat had slowed considerably since the initial rush; it beat in a heavy, pointed sort of way. Thump. The break in the trees was West. Thump. Despite your best efforts, you’re leaving a trail. Thump. If you’d just kept your mouth shut with the cultists, you wouldn’t be here. Thump.
If Randall finds you, you’re going to have to kill him.
He didn’t entertain the last thought, even as he sweated, even as he trudged. The treeline had made it look far closer than it was, and it took several miles before he found himself hiking up to higher ground, breaking out of the canopy whose humidity soaked deep beneath his already wet and chafing clothes. Coniferous trees dotted between the deciduous, and pine needles on the ground gave his steps a little bounce.
At the break in the trees, he found a glade. Within the glade, he found Randall.
Even as he groaned, he ran. The roar behind him was triumphant, elated. The pine trees were further spaced apart, but while that made running easier for him, it surely made it easier for Randall, too. His clothes made odd, swishing, squelching noises. His breaths gave way to wheezes, and too soon he felt himself slowing, aching.
Too soon he felt Randall gaining, growing.
He doubled back and cut at an angle to try and find the canopy again. If he could lose him there once more, he could hide out, make a new plan. There must not have been a lot of open spaces on the property, places where a person would think to go. Had he just waited Will out, lurking along the glade until Will made his way to it, desperately seeking shelter?
Predictable. He’d have to get better if he was going to live.
Despite the aching pains, he was far lighter than Randall was in that suit. He managed to draw ahead, a burst of desperation fueled by the idea of what it’d feel like to have those teeth drop across his neck, crushing him. That was a suit made to maul, not to give kindly deaths. He would feel every painstaking inch of it, until he could feel nothing anymore.
He found a large, leafy oak, and he climbed it.
He made his way to the top, along leaves whose many numbers gave him a place of relief, of hiding. Breaths gasped from him, short and choppy, and when he heard the crashing, crunching sound draw close, he placed his sleeve over his mouth to stifle it. Pressed against the trunk as he was, he willed himself to be small, small and invisible. His knees curled to his chest, his free arm wrapped around a branch for stability. He counted the seconds, too fast as they stuttered against his pulse.
The crunch of leaves drew close, then away. Through the break in the leaves, Will saw Randall barely even pause in his steps, engrossed as he was with the trail. It’d lead him far enough, until it became sparse, faded. While Will was more of a fisherman than a hunter, he knew how to try and fake a trail, to step soft in the underbrush like a deer.
He could live through this. He just had to be smarter than the hunter.
As Randall hurried along the path, Will pressed his back against the trunk, and he wiped sweat from his brow. Now, the name of the game was waiting.
Time passed. Whereas before, while he’d ran for his life, it’d rushed by him, a river of water that stopped for no one. Now, as he dried out against the scratchy boughs of the oak tree, time crawled like the mosquitos that hovered by his neck, hungry. More than once he’d had to kill a tick before it could burrow into his flesh, and he’d finally given up on the praying mantis that’d taken up residence on his pant leg. The air grew hot and stifling, then finally let up with agonizing hesitance. The sun dipped just above the treeline, and it was then that Will deposited the praying mantis onto a branch so that he could climb up just enough to see above the trees.
In the distance, the lights to a house were just starting to come on as the sun went down.
He couldn’t see the house, but he could see the glow of it, highlighting the space and darkening the trees around it. While Lecter’s house of crazies kept the outside lights dim, non-descript, these lights were bright, inviting. Warm. The prospect of it, of food and water, made his stomach whine, his breath catch. God, he hadn’t eaten at all. The water in the woods wasn’t something he’d even consider drinking, let alone the amount of poison ivy he’d had to comb through.
He was just starting to climb down when he heard the low, primal growl.
The forest always darkened faster than the space around it, but even through the light seeping through the breaks in the trees, it was difficult to see Randall. He was there, though, and the trail Will had given him had finally brought him here, back around to where he truly had hidden all this time.
Without a second thought, Will launched himself out of the tree, directly on top of Randall.
It was a jarring, crashing sensation, legs smashing into the exoskeleton before the rest of him followed. Something cracked, snapped, and Randall let out a horrendous howl, one of pure fury and complete and utter surprise. They rolled, one around another as Will grabbed the closed maw and twisted, trying to wrench it off of the rest of him, trying to wrestle it away because if that got around his head he was done, he was finished, he was dead.
The momentum carried them, then slowed to a stop. Will found himself on top, the force of the fall having broken the top of the skull off into his hands.
“Fuck you,” he hissed triumphantly, and he rose, gripping it tight, the blood singing in his veins as it begged him to finish him, smash him, kill him.
He didn’t, though. As he rose up above Randall, aching and pained, Randall didn’t try to stand. The shattered exoskeleton around him lay in ruins across his body, and he lay still, staring at the sky with wide, impossibly grey eyes. They blinked, stunned, and he choked out a gasp of breath.
Will didn’t wait for Randall to make his next move. Instead, he ran towards the light.
It was not the smooth, triumphant gait of a winner, but the exhausted, sideways slant of exhaustion. His heart beat against his skull, at his temples, along his jaw. When he didn’t hear Randall tearing after him with a furious roar, the adrenaline that’d barely kept him ahead for most of the day was fading, giving way to heat exhaustion and a dehydration that made his limbs shake.
He had to keep going, though. He had to keep moving.
He broke the tree line much later, long after the darkness had eked away at what pitiful light he’d used to keep a straight line. The bright lights in the opening burned before him, but it was with a horrifying, jolting realization that he hadn’t found a new house at all, scrambling through the woods as he’d been.
It was the same god damn house.
Every light was on, and spilling out onto the grass appeared to be the house members, laughing and talking with drinks in hand. The balcony overhead housed them in droves, and light, classical music carried across a gentle wind that soothed his sweaty, grimy face.
A banner fluttered in the wet evening breeze, the red letters curling artistically: And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all
Some kind of celebration. Some kind of trap.
At the sight of him, furious and bleak and dirty, someone let out a shout and ran inside for help.
He thought about running into the forest again, trying to lay low until he could make a better move, but at the thought of taking another step, his knees buckled. Cutting across the bright lights ahead, long strips of black shadow made their way over, then lifted him and helped him stumble across the lawn towards the back steps where he was eased down onto the marble. It was cold against his stiff, barely dried clothes.
“Will, are you alright?” Beverly’s face floated into view, concerned and creased with worry. “What happened?”
“Give him space,” Molly’s voice called out. “I’ll go get him water.”
“Mr. Graham, are you-”
“What was he-”
“Do you think that he’s-”
“Did Randall find him in the woods?”
“I hope he’s-”
“Mr. Graham.” Francis Dolarhyde’s voice, low and forced, drew Will from the murky thoughts where he floated, suspended. He looked up, made it as far as his jaw before he could look no farther, teeth gritted.
“Are you hurt?” he asked Will, crouching down to inspect him. Will cringed from the attention, invasive as it was, focused as it was. His hands shook, and he threw down the top half of the bear skull he’d taken with him as he ran.
“Took care of your animal problem,” he managed. He was well aware of too many people around him, their light and their heat and their concern just as cloying as the humidity had been.
“What happened?” Beverly pressed.
At their scrutiny, he pulled himself to his feet, managed to stay upright. He recognized some of the crowd from the book club, although others were strange faces that blurred, dizzying as he looked past them, trying to find someone. There were too many, though; far, far too many. Too many killers for comfort.
Matthew Brown lurked towards the back, a self-satisfied smirk on his face.
“Ask Matthew,” he said, glaring at him. “He’s the one that set a rabid dog on me.”
Their shock was palpable, as was his glee as his eyes raked over Will’s appearance, took in every nick and bruise. Will wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of a victim, though. He turned and pushed through the crowd, their touch a burn that scalded and left scars.
He went inside to his room, and Dolarhyde followed.
He was allowed to clean himself, although afterwards Dolarhyde was insistent upon inspecting him for injury. He worked with a clinical detachment, and Will sat still for him, allowing him to roll his ankles about, feeling the muscle and sinew beneath skin.
“Bruised but unbroken,” he said, looking up to meet Will’s withdrawn, distant gaze. “You survived.” After a beat, Will nodded.
“That’s all I can keep telling myself when I’m dealing with you people,” Will murmured. “I survived. I’m trying to survive.”
Francis looked like he had something to say about that, but when he opened his mouth, no words came out. He seemed to struggle with the thought, wrestling it about, before he tucked it away and shook his head, patting Will’s knee lightly as he stood up straight.
“Keep to the house, Mr. Graham. That is how I keep you safe.”
Food and water soon followed, although Will was mildly ashamed to admit that he’d stood under the shower water and inhaled gulps of it before he’d even bothered cleaning himself. Half of that he’d spit up in his rush, but it was worth it. Pain killers were provided, which he declined, and he sat before a modest dinner at his desk, a salad with strips of meat laid across it.
Despite his ravenous hunger, Will ate everything but the meat.
He laid in the center of his bed after, a pained sort of entropy that made muscles lax and bones ache. Just outside of his locked window, the trailing, distant sound of music carried over, a celebration of sorts just outside that he couldn’t bother to try and investigate.
Instead, he kept going back to the same scene in his mind, that moment as he’d straddled Randall and held half of his skull aloft. Randall hadn’t tried to fight back, hadn’t attempted any sort of fight with him. He’d merely stared at Will, gasping for breath that wouldn’t come, wheezing with the sort of noise that in memory made his hair stand on end.
He thought of that look of utmost panic on his face, long enough that it followed him into his dreams that gave way to nightmares.
It took Hannibal two hours to find Randall Tier, and even then it was only because Garrett Jacob Hobbs was an excellent tracker. Even in the dark, he found Will’s exhausted, stumbling trail, and it led them straight to him.
Randall lay staring up at the trees, the stars above blinking between sporadic leaves.
“Randall,” Hannibal said kindly. “How are you doing?”
“…I can’t feel my legs, Dr. Lecter,” he said, still staring at the trees. “I can’t move.”
Hannibal had wondered something much like that when he didn’t receive a report from him. “He didn’t kill you.”
“He could have,” said Randall after a long pause. “He didn’t.”
“He left you paralyzed instead. No longer can you hunt, roving the trees and destroying as you please.”
Randall was not a weeper; he didn’t cry now, although his eyes shined like sequins in sunlight.
“I don’t want to live paralyzed,” he whispered. “If I can’t…be what I am, I don’t want to be at all.”
Hannibal could certainly sympathize with that. He crouched down beside Randall, studied him from head to toe. His work of art lay in ruins, decimated in the wrath and fear of Will Graham’s survival.
“When I found you, you weren’t quite sure who you were or what you wanted to be.”
“You helped me with that…you made me unafraid to embrace myself,” Randall replied.
“You’d become something beautiful, Randall,” Hannibal said kindly. He passed a hand along his shoulder, paused to cup his cheek. “I don’t wish to have that taken away from you.”
“Thank you, Dr. Lecter. I knew you’d understand.”
They kept eye contact, even as he slit Randall’s throat.
“I’ll take care of the body,” Garrett Jacob Hobbs promised him. He stooped down and lifted Randall with ease, the exoskeleton awkward but ultimately light. It couldn’t have been too heavy; how else would Randall have caught his prey?
Hannibal paused, turning on his flashlight to lead him back. “I’m sure, Mr. Hobbs, that you’ll honor every part?”
“Oh, yes Dr. Lecter,” Hobbs promised. “Not a single part of him is going to go to waste. Otherwise, it’s just murder.”