“Will? Will, thank God.”
Something clattered to the ground on the other line, and Will smiled, an ugly, triumphant twist of his lips. The leaves were cold on his butt, but he hunkered down further into them rather than cringe away, to better keep himself as small as possible.
“Yeah. I’m not dead.” A pause. “…Yet.”
“Where are you, Will? Let me get someone, see if I can trace this-”
“I don’t have much time before they realize I took their phone, so you have to listen to me, okay Jack? You gotta listen to me.”
“Fuck, Will, I’m listening.” The weight of relief in his voice was tangible through the phone. Will felt it curl into his ear, nestling deep and bolstering him. He wasn’t going to be left. Jack was somehow going to find him.
“I’m sure you figured out I’m in Georgia, and that’s true. Very rural, lots of deciduous trees. He’s got a cult of psychopaths, Jack, if you manage to find this place you’ll need to come in with a full group. Check out his cousin, it’s in their name –whoever the hell they are.”
“Over thirty, last I counted. I haven’t seen them all together yet.”
“Are they hurting you, Will?”
“One of them wants to –shit, that’s not important right now, Jack,” Will scrubbed his face, fingernails digging into the soft spot of his eyelids. “Look, whoever you’ve reached out to in the last few days, whoever you’re asking for, they’re working with Lecter. They’ve got an in at the FBI.”
“Shit, are you-”
“These guys all think Lecter is their leader, their…’friend’; that he’s going to help them nurture this love of killing, this…” He gritted his teeth, fingers digging into the phone. “Jack, I know why he was after me. Why he let me live.”
“What’s he planning for you, Will?”
“He had a half connection to me this entire time, Jack, since the first fucking week we met. That’s why he didn’t kill me, that’s why he’s abducted me. He’s trying to force a staggered connection.”
Static crackled in his ear as Jack exhaled a breath of air. Far-fetched, he knew, but it was the truth. Will blinked, and he could see Jack laying on the hospital bed, wan but alive. Delirious but altogether whole. Grainy, distorted, like a photograph that aged poorly under bad conditions and neglect. Huddled against the rough bark of the tree, Will thought of the first time he’d been able to see Jack awake just after Hannibal had tried to murder him for getting too close.
“You were right, you know,” Will said as conversationally as he could. He stared intently at the square tile that his foot rested on. He didn’t like seeing Agent Crawford like this.
“When you asked me if he ever cannibalized anyone. I should have listened to you then.”
“It would have come across as far-fetched to anyone,” Jack managed when he could get the breath out.
“Next time you tell me something that sounds remotely ridiculous, I’ll believe you.”
“I appreciate that, Will.” Jack managed a smile. “If you ever come to me with something as asinine as what I first said when I came to you, I’ll believe you, too.”
“Is this asinine enough?” Will asked dryly.
“Will…Will, we’re going to get you out of there, you understand me? We’re not going to let him do that to you. I’m not going to let that fucker do that to you.”
Will laughed a little, stifled and wheezing. “It’s got a less than one percent chance, Jack. That’s not…that’s not my concern, really, at this moment.”
“What are you concerned about, Will?” Jack asked incredulously. “What else could you possibly be concerned about? Are you in a place where you can run right now? Can you run, Will?”
“I could, but that’ll split them up, won’t it?” Will asked. “Some come after me, some stay, then you maybe only catch half. If I leave, too, he’ll start hurting people, unless –Jack, are they hurting people?”
“Are they…hurting other people?” Will repeated, insistent. “They’re hurting other people right now?”
“Yes,” said Jack reluctantly.
“What are they doing? Who are they targeting?”
“That’s not your concern at this moment, Will; let’s focus on what you do know, see if I can get a closer mark on where you’re at, okay? What do you know?”
“Matthew Brown is a Sherriff in the neighboring town, a Randall Tier was running around the forest trying to eat me.”
“Trying to eat you?”
“I’d look at his past patients, maybe people he was able to twist and manipulate. Maybe he got so far into their heads that when you found him out, they couldn’t reconcile it. If you know the people here, then maybe you can trace one of them to him.”
“Will,” Jack pressed, and Will fell silent. He listened to the cicadas screaming, wondering when it’d get so cold they were silenced. Frogs made a mellow baritone that curled just underneath the notes, softening them but only just.
“I’m going to get you out of there, okay? You believe that, right?”
Will believed it, although he wasn’t quite sure what state he’d be in when it happened. “…Yeah, Jack. I believe it.”
“I won’t let him get in your head; I won’t let him get your eyes.”
“You remember when I first met Bella, and I told you it was the first time that a soulmate didn’t sound so bad?”
Will nodded, digging the phone into his ear. “You two weren’t so bad together, like I’ve seen other soulmates. You two didn’t seem to…cling like your life depended on it.”
“Bella told me to get you home soon, and I will.”
“How bad is the distance? You in a lot of pain, Jack?”
“Don’t worry about that, Will.”
“Do you have Winston?” Will asked. He needed to hear it, as much as he had enough trust to know Jack wouldn’t let him get carted off to the pound. “Do you have him?”
“Dr. Bloom took him in because I’m traveling, but he’s okay. She’s taking good care of him.”
“Good…good. Tell her I’m sorry.” A pause as he licked his lips. “I’m thankful for it, but I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about that either, Will. Dr. Bloom will be alright. Can you think of anything, anything else? Anything I can use to find you?”
“They’ve repossessed a lot of Lecter’s paintings, furniture, and I think that-”
Jack wouldn’t find out what Will thought, though. Without warning, he was grabbed by the collar of his shirt and hauled around the tree, the back of his head smacking against it. In his surprise he dropped the phone, and as stars burst across his eyes, he was hauled up in order to stare Francis Dolarhyde right in his furious, dark gaze.
“Will? What was that, Will?”
Will groaned in pain, disorienting as it was, and his head lolled back against the trunk of the tree to brace him. While he wasn’t a small man, Dolarhyde held him like he weighed nothing at all, a mere pound of fluff in the wake of his fury.
“Will, god dammit, answer me!”
Even if he heard what Jack was shouting into the earpiece, he couldn’t have answered. The faint lights from the inside of the house bled out into the darkness, made Dolarhyde’s eyes black as pitch, murderous as he uttered a guttural, enraged snarl.
“He can’t protect you if you put yourself in harm’s way, Mr. Graham,” he growled, shaking him.
Will struggled, kicking out at him to no avail. He hadn’t thought Dolarhyde was much taller than him, but as his legs dangled nearly a foot off of the ground, he reconsidered. Just at their feet, still open to the call, Jack Crawford’s voice was tinny, crackly; far too distorted to make out.
“You…shouldn’t have done that,” Dolarhyde said slowly. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
“Put me down, Agent Dolarhyde,” Will urged. He wished he could have made his tone more convincing rather than afraid. “You said you wouldn’t hurt me.”
“I’m trying to protect you, and you’re making it difficult.”
“I’m sorry,” said Will, and he pitched his voice, low and insistent. “I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
Francis’ face contorted, became something sinister and cruel as he slammed Will against the tree. His head bounced back against the bark and lolled. Bright lights exploded then lazily spun across his eyes. “I can’t…always…contain The Dragon, Mr. Graham. You have to help me.”
“I’ll help,” Will promised. The back of his skull ached, and he blinked black spots from the corner of his vision. “I’ll help, Agent Dolarhyde.”
“Who did you call?”
Will hissed, groaned. “I…called…I called Dr. Bloom.”
“Don’t. Lie. To. Me.”
“I-I did! She’s taking care of Winston, Francis. You didn’t get Winston when you took me, and she has him,” Will urged the words from his lips, clumsy and stupid as they were. They couldn’t know he was talking to Jack Crawford. They couldn’t know. They couldn’t know.
“Do you know how hard it is to contain him when you do this, Mr. Graham?”
Will wasn’t quite sure how to respond. It was difficult enough trying to blink the shadows out of his vision, let alone focus enough on Francis to reply. The back of his skull burned, scalded, and at the base of his neck he felt something wet.
“You don’t…you don’t want to hurt me,” he managed, but it was a lie, wasn’t it? He could see his eyes, see the way the pupil disappeared into the iris, eating at everything in its wake. Francis wanted to hurt him, wanted to hurt something. God it was so dizzying to speak. He dipped and swayed with the curving world, but when he blinked again, he hadn’t moved at all. He lolled limply in Francis’ grip, pinned between him and an unforgiving hard place.
“Don’t I?” Dolarhyde whispered. “Don’t I want to Change you?”
“No, Francis, you don’t,” said Will.
“Fuck,” he spit out, and his head bobbed sloppily, falling against Dolarhyde’s shoulder. “If you do, Dr. Lecter won’t be pleased. He’ll be upset that you killed his…s-soulmate.”
The words were splinters coming out, cutting gums and lips. It seemed to work, though; there was another lurching, spinning sensation, and Will found himself on two feet once more, though they buckled underneath him. He slumped back against the tree, breaths ragged and torn, dragging against the air around him. He was more than aware of the line he walked at that moment, the space between life and death.
His heart hammered with it; his bones ached with it.
“Don’t…don’t make The Great Red Dragon come out, Mr. Graham,” Francis said. His enraged voice had softened, but only just. “I can’t protect you if you make him come out.”
Will managed a jerky, disjointed nod. “Okay, Francis.”
The phone at their feet lay in silence. Francis stooped down, scooped it up, and shut it with a decisive snap!
“Come back to the house,” he urged. “Go to bed.”
It took far longer than it should have for him to gather his feet underneath him to go. Each step pounded in his skull, hammered just at the back of it, and when he stepped inside, he had to stop to lean against the wall, waiting for nausea to pass. Francis followed, a half-step away from him.
“I can take care of your wound,” he offered –dare Will call his tone kindness?
Will gritted his teeth and shook his head. He didn’t want Francis’ hands all over him.
“I’ll take care of it, Francis.”
The sudden sound of Molly’s voice wasn’t soothing. It was a safer option than Francis, though, and when Will managed to look up, he fixated on her with the intent of someone that was very likely to vomit soon. The lamplight above gave her the visage of an angel, although the darkness beyond her gaped open like the gates to hell.
“Thank you, Molly.” Francis said.
“You’re welcome.” A beat. “Good night, Francis.”
Molly strode forward and caught Will before he could slump over. She ducked underneath his arm, and with far too much help from her strength, Will was led up to his room.
He was deposited on the edge of the tub, and a medic kit was produced. He obediently sat still as she washed and cleaned the open wound on his head, her hands meticulous and cold. He thought of hands that warmed him, took hold of his skin and lit it on fire. He thought of hands that sought his out, even as he tried to walk away, even as he tried to distance himself. Molly’s hands were a thing of power, how they carved through the air when she spoke passionately, how they turned out in supplication when she needed him. They were cold, now. Cold and stinging against his skin, but at least he could say that he had the truth. Molly’s hands were cold, and he’d just narrowly missed being murdered by Francis Dolarhyde’s apparent alternate personality.
“Was it worth it?” she asked coldly. Her voice punctured the silence.
“Who’d you call?”
“I wanted to know that Winston was safe.”
He stifled a grunt of pain as she pressed gauze tight against his head. Arcs of light crossed his vision, and he had to focus for several moments before they went away, leaving him leaning back against her rather than fall onto the tiled floor. The nausea rose, then passed.
“You didn’t call to find out about Winston,” she said sharply. Rather than shove him off of her, Molly held very, very still. “You’re many things, Will, but you’re not stupid. You wouldn’t risk yourself for that, no matter what you told him.”
“How long has Francis had that alternate personality? The Great Red Dragon?”
“…As long as I’ve known him,” Molly replied. “Probably longer.”
Will hmm’d and stared off to the wall where a painting of a lighthouse had been framed beside artfully folded, decorative towels. “Was it that easy to lie to me for so long, Molly?”
“I didn’t lie, Will. I care about you, even when you do stupid and dangerous things.”
“Was it an order for you to sleep with me, or was that just a bonus?”
Molly sighed, and it was the same sigh as the one she’d given him when he first found out that he’d been abducted. When she first realized the gig was up. “You can care about someone and still do awful things to them. You cared about me, but you kept leaving me.”
“So you admit that bringing me here at gun point was an awful idea?”
She laughed and slid fingers through his hair, minding the gauze she’d taped to the back of his skull. Rather than berate him, she wrapped an arm around him and held him close against her, back to chest so that he couldn’t see the expression on her face.
“Have you ever killed anyone, Molly?” he asked. “With our without Dr. Lecter’s apparent mind-controlling capabilities that send dozens of psychopaths to his beck and call?”
“No.” She exhaled slowly, her breathing just calming and even enough that he found himself trying to mimic it. Soothing. Real. It could have been like before, except it wasn’t.
“You would, though,” Will said bitterly. “For Hannibal Lecter.”
She tensed against him, and she slid her palm across his chest until she pressed it flat to his heart, timing the beats. He thought of warm hands; the promise of a safe place, a shelter from the storm. He thought of cold nights where they lay close together, when he’d occasionally lift the barrier between his mind and hers and share just how messed up inside he really was. Her warm hands would cradle his face, and she’d reassure him that she was there. She cared, and she was there.
Her hand against his heartbeat was cold. Clinical. No remnants of what they once were.
“Don’t piss off Francis, Will,” she chided, pressing her palm to his skin like a brand. “He may care about you, but The Great Red Dragon is only interested in eating you alive.”
Lloyd Bowman wasn’t the sort of man that sat before a computer and played God. He was no hacker, no master of decryption or keeper of binary. His expertise lay more in analyzing the written word; papers, textures, sounds, inflections. At his art, he was a ruler, an unstoppable force that found success in the smallest grains of pressed and dried pulp, and he wasn’t so humble that he couldn’t admit it.
For his plans, though, he needed someone with a far more digital touch. Nick Douglas, spurned ex-student of the FBI, as well as the lovely carrier of the title of Lloyd’s nephew, was much better at such a trade.
“See, your problem is that you’re trying to glean clues from a group that’s not really trying to make a message,” the guy said. Over the mic and headset, his voice was grainy.
“They’re not making a message, they’re causing chaos.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Nick agreed, and there was the crinkling sound of a pop tart wrapper rustling against the mic. “Shit, that went down my shirt –anyway, really what I figured is he’s gotta be recruiting somehow. This ain’t the sixties where you gotta knock on doors to share your message, you know?”
“Yes. To remain undetected, he needed computer access. He had help with that, though; the facility didn’t give him personal access.”
“Right, your FBI guy, your hospital men. Shit, you could still have people running around the HQ with your name on their list, right? Who knows just who is working for Lecter, right?”
“So I’m thinking, maybe I find Dolarhyde’s trail online or any of his accomplices –what’s that you said? Yancy? Katz?”
“Saul Yancy and Beverly Katz may be the easiest to trace, as they’re soulmates. Usually soulmates join some form of online group or listing, or they’d previously joined a site to find one another.”
“People do that?” he asked, surprised.
“Yes, soulmate dating sites are common.”
There was a pause as Nick turned those words around thoughtfully. Just around the sound of his chewing, there was the thoughtful tapping of keys from his computer.
“Huh.” There was another pause. “Yeah, Lloyd, you’re right. I mean, there’s twenty right here, first hit. Websites to find your ‘one and only and more’. What’s the more, Lloyd?”
“Doesn’t matter what the more is.”
“I mean, but what’s more than your ‘one and only’?”
“Bottom line,” Lloyd said, redirecting, “if you can trace them somehow, it may be easier than trying to track Dolarhyde. He’d know how to cover his tracks online.”
“He might know how to cover his tracks, but no one hides from me. You know that.”
Lloyd Bowman knew that, as did a particular section of the government database. Nick Douglas had been a promising student at the academy until he found his way into a couple of places digitally that he had no business being in. Once was a happy accident, but four times…
“I read Masque of the Red Death, but there’s nothing that really stands out as to what they’d do with it,” Lloyd mused aloud. “It comes across as more convenient rather than honestly basing an entire belief system off of the works and ideology as Poe.”
There was the obnoxious sound of slurping through a plastic cup and straw. “Well, that’s if Lecter believes that shit. Maybe he’s got goals that don’t coincide with what his followers believe.”
That struck Lloyd, shook him past the frustration of having to hear the sounds of chewing right in his ear. Nick likely had a headset on with the mic directly beside his mouth.
“Say that again?”
“This site charges ten dollars a week! Their claim is that they’ll only charge you once since they’ll find a soulmate within that first week, but still. They can’t be that good, can they?”
“Nick,” Lloyd groused.
“Sorry, sorry, I mean ‘maybe he’s got goals that don’t coincide with what his followers believe.’ That’s what you wanted, right? You wanted that repeated?”
Lloyd let those words tumble about, locking into place with slow, easy precision.
“He wouldn’t divulge his plans to them necessarily. He’d likely say whatever he needed to in order to keep them compliant. He’d make up whatever rhetoric fit at the time, and use them as a means to his end.”
“So…what’s his end, then? Right now he’s got chaos, mayhem, kidnapping, attempted murder –so far your guy Zeller is still alive, thought you’d want to know –actual murder, escape from custody, arson, and a few other things tucked into his belt. He’s got Graham –presumably alive –and he’s got you in hiding. What’s his end goal? When’s this nut-case going to call it quits and toss in the towel?”
“Probably Jack Crawford. He gets Jack once and for all, kills off Graham while he’s at it, and he slips into the mist to never be seen again,” Lloyd said irritably. “Kill the followers, sew them all together into a big, giant ‘Fuck You’ for authorities to find once they hunt down his lair.”
“You take your meds yet?” Nick asked.
He hadn’t, busy as he was with his plans. Lloyd resolutely took his medicine and leaned back against the pillows with a grimace. The pills made him sleep, more often than not, which is why he put of taking them for as long as physically possible when one’s muscle wall was trying to knit itself back together. There were the faint sounds of keys clacking over the phone, followed by an obligatory slurping noise, then silence.
“Find where they were recruiting people. Once you find it, find a way to drop that information off to Crawford –discreetly, Nick. Don’t leave a trail just to tease them. Give them the information then erase your online trail.”
“You think I’ll find it before their computer hacks do?” Nick asked.
“I know you will, which is why I contacted you.”
“That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me, Uncle Lloyd,” said Nick, sanguine-sweet.
“Don’t call me that. It makes me feel old.”
Nick laughed, and Lloyd pretended that this was nothing more than an obligatory call to check-in on his nephew. He didn’t have a photograph of his deceased sister to wearily stare at as he wondered the implications of what he was asking his family member to do, but he imagined her lurking just overhead, shaking a finger at him. Although she was the younger sister, she often acted as a mother, even when they’d been kids. He sighed, rubbed his face whose stubble was getting out of control, and he scowled at the phone.
“Be careful,” he instructed curtly. “I mean it.”
“You got it, boss. Might sign up for one of these couples sites too, while I’m at it.”
“I don’t know if that’s-”
“Done.” There was the rustling of wrappers, and a sniffle. “We’ll see if they can get me a soulmate out of this, and I get you an online trail to lead us right to Lecter –or at least his main men. How’s that for getting kicked out of the academy? Getting a soulmate and a hero complex isn’t so bad. Even if I work at Geek Squad part time.”
Lloyd wasn’t quite sure what stock he put into online soulmate-search sites, but he wasn’t going to question it. Not if it made Nick feel marginally better about his doomed job at Geek Squad where he was kept at a measly twenty hours a week. Maybe Lloyd would call in a favor at a better-paying job, something to keep Nick out of trouble during daylight hours.
Only time would tell if he’d live long enough to even make the call, let alone cajole Nick into taking the help, but one step at a time.
One step at a time.