“You must have been very persuasive to convince Dr. Chilton to allow me into the only room he can’t legally bug,” Hannibal Lecter said, crossing one leg over the other.
Francis Dolarhyde stared at the mask they’d strapped to his face, a precaution to keep him from biting. It made him think of dog muzzles, the kind used on the dog just down the road from his house that’d bitten an elderly woman when he was five or so.
His cleft pallet had been so terrible then that when he’d tried to tell grandmother the story, he’d hissed and spit half of the words rather than tell them.
“Ingenuity,” he said slowly, carefully.
“Ingenuity and a friend, perhaps?”
They stared at one another, weighing, assessing. Dr. Lecter was quite fine to keep quiet, and Francis in the end only spoke because he was the one to first arrive and disrupt the doctor’s schedule for the sake of a conversation.
“I’ve read your work in the journals,” he said at last. “It was riveting.”
“There was one…article where you focused particularly on aspects of death psychologically, and the different social behaviors dependent upon the culture. It appeared to have been edited in order to remove the more unsavory parts.”
“It was,” Hannibal Lecter agreed. “You’re familiar with my work?”
“I first read about you when I was in Quantico, working on profiling,” he affirmed lightly. “There was scene that you recreated that I found…fascinating.”
“You redid The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun,” Francis recalled, and he paused to savor the image in his head, burned into his retinas, into his very skull it seemed. He’d dreamt it, pondered it, obsessed over it enough that it took little thought to bring it to the forefront of his mind. “The light that radiated from the woman you conveyed with Daffodils, and I thought the symbolism charming.”
“Daffodils represent rebirth and new beginnings,” Hannibal Lecter replied. He had a soft, soothing tone, lulling and captivating. “Just what is your new beginning?”
Not so much what he was trying to begin, but what he’d already done, already achieved with the sleepless nights and long periods where he found himself wandering, watching, reading, observing. The Great Red Dragon haunted him, chased him with its image, its truth and raw, all-encompassing, awakening of life and death held within his great jaws. How many times had he gleaned over every case note, ached to be seen and understood as he so did? Truly, did he sit across from the great Dr. Lecter and still remain in shrouded shadow?
That would have to be remedied.
“Your friends haven’t been entirely discreet, Dr. Lecter,” he said finally. “Matthew Brown has been recruiting online, and it pinged one of our watch towers. He was able to cover his tracks before one of the guys at HQ could track his IP successfully, but I later went back and decrypted his trail.”
“Just who do you work for that gives you those capabilities, I wonder?”
“Agent Crawford of the FBI,” Francis replied, and if he’d had the confidence then, he’d have smiled.
Still, though, it was worth it; if anything, to see the tightening of the skin just around Hannibal Lecter’s eyes, the way his jaw shifted and set. Jack Crawford haunted Dr. Lecter, just as Francis had supposed.
One didn’t often enjoy having their victim escape, after all.
“He didn’t send you.”
“He doesn’t know I’m here.”
“Was your ingratiating of his circle an intentional act, I wonder?” Lecter mused. His body sat still, so very still, but his mouth moved with rapid twitches as he spoke, like he could hiss the words from his lips if he were just fast enough. “Or was it merely done to be placed before me as a token of good will, that you could accomplish this thing?”
“I’d be an asset to you,” Francis said. “As I’ve already done what Matthew Brown couldn’t do.”
“Covered and completely eradicated any traces of his actions online while he creates your fan club. Social media sites that give access if communicated in such a way as to show utmost interest after screenings, and access to independent militias that would have thorough knowledge of those that creep unknown throughout the United States. When certain persons of interest begin converging on a singular location, the government takes note, but I can help hide their movements. Your Matthew Brown is good at recruiting, but he’s not quite amassing a sturdy group, Dr. Lecter.”
“Has he chosen so many of fault?”
“One of these people I recognized as a suspect in a quadruple homicide in Missouri, and another is actually being hunted for burying at least nine people alive and feeding them intravenously until their bodies shut down from diabetic ketoacidosis. If he is finding people for you, a following of like minds, he needs to broaden his search.”
“And how would you do it, Agent…?”
“Agent Dolarhyde,” Dr. Lecter murmured, and he smiled thinly. “How would you do better than Matthew Brown?”
“His access to the security here ensures that you won’t be discovered until much later. Your frequent visitors, late night visitors, and lack of recordings of those visits indicate he’s smudging the records that to the untrained eye won’t be seen unless they delve further. As long as you are on good behavior, that won’t happen.
“But you don’t just want a gathering of killers, Dr. Lecter. You need…the glue that holds them all together.”
They stared at one another across the table, and Francis had the sensation of what it was like to be assessed, stripped bare. He’d thought fooling the psychiatric evaluation was difficult; the dance of words between him and the psychiatrist had droned on for forever, each tick of the second hand driving a needle further and further into his eye.
This was better, somehow due to it being so much worse.
“What would your glue be, Agent Dolarhyde?” Dr. Lecter finally asked.
Francis leaned in, to better whisper.
“Homage is not enough. Worship…adoration. Blind faith, even. Killers will help a friend, but they will want a favor in return, Dr. Lecter. If you can find others, though, those that don’t kill but wish to be welcomed into your fold none-the-less, those that merely have an interest in the concept, those that have invasive thoughts and merely wish to be heard, those that need something to believe in that doesn’t sound like crosses and bible-thumping; place one of each between each killer, and they will hold the group together. Those that would creep and slither about your boot and want so much in return would see the way that others do not question you, do not try and take from you. Naturally, within an isolated location with no other societal outlier, they will conform. They will Become.”
“And would you plant a daffodil for every person that came to such a place?”
“A new beginning for each soul that hungered and finally found sustenance to sate what pains them.”
“What pains you?”
That was much harder to say, and the words jumbled in his mouth, distorted. He’d practiced his speech, his explanations for hours before a mirror, turning and curving his mouth just-so as he did. Speaking from the heart, though, not the head, made his tongue curl and threaten to hobble him.
“…I Create, Dr. Lecter,” he said at last, reverent. “I…help people Become more than they are, to further my own growth.”
“You dream of such a place that you’ve described to me, that you could continue your work?” Hannibal Lecter asked. He sounded gentle, kind. Francis considered him for a long moment, then nodded slowly, once. “You’ve been very much alone. The paradise you’ve described to me, you plucked from your own dreams.”
“He is procuring for you the muscle. I can help with the rest.”
“Thank you, Agent Dolarhyde,” Hannibal said, and he reached for him. The handcuffs caught him just short of taking his hand, and Hannibal looked down to them, apparently bemused.
Francis was no fool, though; he knew just what Hannibal was trying to do, hand spread and open, offering. With the softest of breath parting from trembling lips, Francis closed the distance and took his hand, squeezing tightly so that Hannibal Lecter could feel the strength, the raw power that was his hold, his very touch that promised the blood to come.
Jack stared at the six numbers in front of him, and he swore.
“One of these belongs to Lecter,” he said conversationally to Zeller. He wasn’t answering, though; being in a comatose state tended to do that to people, made their lips useless and their mind vacant.
“One of these belongs to Lecter, but I don’t know which one,” he continued, and he glared down at the phone numbers like they had the answers for him.
The phone numbers weren’t speaking, either.
“I heard Will Graham’s voice today,” Jack confessed. Amidst the heartrate monitors and the other machinery, his voice cut smooth and low. “Early, early this morning. He’s alive, Zeller. He’s going through some shit, but he’s alive. Tried to get him to run, but either he knew he wouldn’t be able to run fast enough, or he’s about to do something reckless.”
He hadn’t enjoyed listening to one of his old agents toss Will around like a ragdoll. It made him wonder if that is how Will had once felt, hands pressed to Jack’s stomach. Helpless. Indignant.
Will had always looked afraid, to Jack; it was something in his eyes. The first time he’d met him, he’d had to intercept him on the way to class. No one had believed Jack when he had his suspicions about the ‘great’ Dr. Lecter; he was an excellent doctor, a model therapist.
What a load of shit.
Jack knew someone had to know a side to him that no one else was aware of. Will Graham hadn’t been the first on his list to talk to, but after some digging, he was the most promising. Standing on the GWU campus, backpack filled to the brim and glasses crooked, he’d stared Jack down and curled his lip, a rabid dog prepared to bite. His matching blue eyes were afraid.
“Can I see a badge, ‘Agent Crawford’?”
“You don’t trust me?” Jack traced Will’s gaze as it flitted over him and rested just beyond his shoulder. “…You got a problem with eyes, Mr. Graham?”
“Eyes are distracting,” the kid said, hitching his backpack higher. “You see too much, you don’t see enough; you get distracted by a burst blood vessel, you focus on the whites of eyes that are too white…” His voice trailed off, and his mouth tightened. “That, and I’m not much in the way of wanting a soulmate. Dunno if you’re offering, but I’m not interested in even attempting.”
“Rest assured, I already have a soulmate.”
“Yeah, well, the polyamory act was passed for a reason, wasn’t it?”
“You learn that in school, Mr. Graham?”
“Oh, yes, all about polyamorous soulmates, staggered connections, half-connections; you name it, I’m studying it. That’s my field.” A pause. “You know that, though, don’t you, Agent Crawford?” he pressed. “You wouldn’t just walk up to me without knowing something about me?”
Staggered connections. Son-of-a-bitch.
He had a video conference later with Dr. Chilton from the BSHCI, to try and ascertain if he was aware of a Matthew Brown once working for him that now worked for Lecter. He also had someone at HQ digging through old patient files to find a Randall Tier among Lecter’s patients.
As much as Will had been able to give him many, many things, a location wasn’t one of them.
“So I guess what I’m asking you to do, is to make it out of this alive, too,” said Jack, turning a page over. Six phone numbers, six names, and six suspects. Dolarhyde had an in at the FBI HQ, and another was on their way to try and lead Jack astray. “I’m apparently wading into a nest of snakes, Zeller, and I need you alive so I know who I can trust.”
Zeller didn’t reply. If Hannibal and his followers had their way, he’d never speak again.
Will was given a house arrest anklet the next morning.
“Just as a precaution,” Dr. Lecter assured him. Seated at one of the chairs in the security room, Will didn’t deign to give him a reply to that, no matter how many crowded his mouth.
“It’ll allow you to go five hundred yards from the house, but no more,” Matthew Brown said, adjusting the clamp. The sharp click as it locked down felt like a gun shot, and Will glared down at it with extreme prejudice. “You go too far, the alarm goes off. You tamper with it, the alarm goes off.”
“It’s running,” Howard said, looking up from another computer. “We’ll be able to see where he is at any given point and time.”
“Excellent,” Hannibal replied. “Now we can be of utmost assurance, Will, that you’re completely safe here.”
Will managed a grunt of affirmation. Out of the corner of his eye, Dolarhyde worked at his computer with his head held down. At least it was Francis instead of Red Dragon. Francis probably felt guilty –at least a little. He refused to look up from his work. Will wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or uneasy about it.
“You need to speak to him with respect, Mr. Graham,” Matthew said, standing up. Towering over Will, he leered with the kind of sneer that made anger bubble in Will’s veins. “Everyone here has been taking their time trying to make you comfortable, and you’re wasting that, being rude to him like this.”
“I think it’s like I said before, Matthew,” Will said, standing up. He stepped just close enough to stand toe-to-toe with Matthew, staring into his matching eyes the color of rat poison. “If you had just left me alone in the first place, I wouldn’t feel the need to make rash decisions.”
Matthew slammed his palms into Will’s chest, and Will returned the favor, shoving Matthew back so harshly that he fell into one of the computer towers. He tripped over it and fell in a disjointed knot among the wires, curses ripping from his lips like stitches.
“Don’t touch me,” Will warned him. He looked to the others in the room, his gaze finally resting on Hannibal who watched with a light in his eye and a smile flitting about his lips. “I’m getting tired of everyone here touching me.
“I think he’s drawn a barrier, Matthew,” Hannibal said, shifting his weight. “You should respect that.”
“Don’t ruin my connection,” Howard warned Matthew as he tried to detangle himself from the wires. “You screw up the encryption, and we’re fucked.”
Matthew was scrambling to his feet as Will headed out of the door. The weight of the metal bracelet on his ankle rubbed, a reminder of what he’d sacrificed to get that call to Jack.
Still, though; if Jack could use any of it to find the house, it was worth it. It was worth the aching at the back of his head, the tender scabs that broke during his shower this morning, making blood ooze along his hair to collect at the nape of his neck. If he’d been a weaker man, he’d have asked Molly for help with it, but he hadn’t lost his pride yet. He could get tossed about like a ragdoll, chased through the forest like a fugitive, and chained to the house by a tracker, but they didn’t have his pride.
They didn’t have his eyes.
They did have his sleep, though. Disoriented as he was, Molly was able to ascertain just what the risks of a concussion were after being thrown around like that.
Hannibal stopped him in the hall with a hand to his shoulder, and Will jerked around, stumbling over his feet in his haste to keep away from him. Poised in the entryway of the house, he regarded Hannibal much like one would something rotten, something left to the side of the waste bin when it should have been burned instead.
“I’m not doing this today,” Will warned him. “I’m not…doing this back and forth with you today.”
“A rough night of dreaming, Will?” Hannibal wondered. “Did your nightmares become real when you had to stare into the eyes of the Great Red Dragon?”
They had, but he wasn’t going to admit it. “I just want to be left alone, Dr. Lecter. That’s…that’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“And you don’t wish to be touched,” Hannibal tacked on. “You take with you the imprints of those that left their hands on you, remains of their emotions. You took the Great Red Dragon’s anger and used it on Matthew. You took Randall’s tracking and stole a phone. You’re Becoming their feelings, their anger. When you see Molly, will you give her back her sympathy? Was her touch last night so kind?”
“It must have been a sharp contrast to the abuse of the Red Dragon.” He took a step closer and grabbed Will’s shoulder, holding him in place with an iron grip. Will looked to his chin, focused on it rather than look to the eyes that he knew would be looking back. “Really, though, it must have stung, knowing what you know now.”
“Let go of me,” Will murmured, a low, biting growl.
“Look at me, Will.”
“Look me in the eyes,” Hannibal ordered. When Will didn’t, he grabbed him by his chin and tilted his head up, pinning Will in place with his stare –one eye blue, the other maroon. Even now, with enough time to process it, it still chilled him to the bone to see it. It reminded him of the studies explaining why people were so uncomfortable seeing brains –their mind could recognize that it wasn’t right to be able to see itself, that if it was visible than something was wrong.
Hannibal Lecter having his eyes was something horribly, horribly wrong.
“You can’t make my eyes change by repetition, Dr. Lecter,” Will murmured. “Enough studies have been done that even you should know that.”
“I’m still willing to be patient,” he replied with a small, barely-there smile. “Truly, all that I ask is when you have the ability to look at someone else instead, don’t.”
That took Will aback. “What?”
“There is a privilege, I think, in you choosing to meet someone’s gaze, Will,” he continued calmly. “You mean it when you are at your utmost sincere, when you are far more honest than you’ve ever been. At your angriest, your happiest, and your most volatile, you meet someone’s eyes so that you can show every aspect of yourself because there is that part of you that knows that eyes are the windows to the soul. It is why you are so careful where you place them.
“While in this house, though, I would caution you with this: if I was able to connect within one singular moment of our past, dear Will, what makes you think that someone else in this house couldn’t as well?”
The question stung him, left him reeling with the implications. Was he going to connect to Matthew, their mutual anger all that was necessary to bring them closer? Was he going to connect to Molly, their past and their unfortunately mutual feelings for one another becoming something more?
No. He wouldn’t entertain the notion.
“By the end of this, you’ll have everyone in this house with a half-connection to me, Dr. Lecter,” he said hoarsely. “Then what’ll you do?”
“You believe that there is no one here that could make you connect back?”
Hannibal thought about it, his thumb gliding along Will’s bottom lip before it brushed against his cheek. Will drew back from him, and Hannibal allowed it, tucking his hands behind his back so that Will could make a proper escape.
“I suppose that if anyone else tried to attempt what I am going to succeed at, I’d kill them,” he said simply.
“You’d kill them all?” Will asked dubiously. “All of these people that moved heaven and earth just for you?”
“Every last one,” Hannibal promised solemnly.
Will took one step away from him, then another. He made it to the front door where he scrambled for the handle, and when he slipped through it, he finally broke eye contact and turned away from Dr. Lecter, needing to put some sort of barrier between him and the only person in the world that he was genuinely afraid of.
“You going to Chinese Garden after this, hoss?”
“Shit, I wouldn’t go there to wipe my ass.”
“Hey!” The chief looked up darkly from a stack of papers, and he scowled. “My wife loves their pot stickers.”
There was a collection of laughter, and Matthew Brown spun around in his chair to peer through the open door to the chief’s office.
“They get those pot stickers from the frozen section at the Piggly Wiggly?” he asked, and there was another collection of laughter.
“Mayhaps, but half the pay is them making it so I don’t have to,” he fired back. “That, and those little sesame rolls they have at the buffet part.”
“I’ll bring you back a box, boss,” Johnson said. He swung his coat up over his shoulder and headed towards the door, miming firing a pistol Matthew’s way. “I’ll bring you a couple, too. Change your tune a little. Chinese Garden’s the best damn place in town.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Matthew muttered, but he smiled all the same.
These were his co-workers, after all. One had to keep up pretenses if they were to keep things under wraps.
It was quiet at the Barnesville, Georgia precinct. A few drunken brawls, a few DUI’s, and a domestic dispute was all that really rocked their fine world, maybe some dog fighting here or there. It was monotonous to be there, at best, but it was a necessary part of the job, one Matthew prided himself in.
Better that than having Hobbs’ job; he had to walk the perimeter all night, every night. The better to keep him distracted from eating his own daughter, or so Matthew had been told. It wasn’t as though he cared, in truth, who Hobbs ate. Hobbs was on a much lower rung than his other worries and concerns, those being along the lines of Molly Foster, Beverly Katz, and her ham-handed soulmate, Saul. Matthew didn’t have to worry much about Francis –that was Hannibal Lecter’s territory. In truth, many of the people in the house weren’t Matthew’s concern, although he put up a well enough act. He liked to organize people into boxes in his mind, and once someone was placed into a box, they never moved from it.
Will Graham, in particular, was in a box that he reserved for people he had a genuine dislike for. Hannibal-Lecter-encouraged or not, that was a real, honest feeling he had whenever he clapped eyes on the empathy-toting-bastard.
The phone rang, and he snatched it up before the chief had to, curling his tongue around the hard southern accent he’d practiced so much. “Barnesville Police Department, this is Sherriff Payne speaking.”
“Sherriff Payne, this is Agent Crawford of the FBI. I was wondering if you had a minute?”
A sliver of ice slid down his spine at that, and Matthew tensed up ‘tighter than a lady holding in a fart’ as Johnson called it.
Johnson wasn’t the most prolific, but his descriptions were often accurate enough.
“Just what can I do for you, Agent Crawford?” he asked, and his tone came out syrupy sweet and just as pronounced as any other southern boy’s. “The chief is busy at the moment, but I’m just doing some paperwork.”
“I’m working on a case, and I’m going to need the reports of your newest recruits dating back approximately three year up until now. This isn’t a target on your precinct particularly, but you are one of five that I’m looking at.”
Matthew licked his lips, throat suddenly dry.
“I don’t have that paperwork here presently, sir,” he said at length, and he rustled a few papers, jumbling them up and ultimately getting them out of order. “Let me get a hold of our lovely secretary though and see what she can rustle up?”
“That’d be wonderful, Sherriff Payne,” Jack said, and he sounded genuinely surprised. “Thank you for being so obliging.”
“Oh, we know how it goes, Agent Crawford, when you’re working a rough case,” he said, and Matthew forced a smile into his tone. “You don’t work too hard now, you hear? This your number to reach you?”
“We’ll get a hold of you when we’ve got what you need. Take it easy, now.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Matthew hung up when he heard the phone click off with a muted tone, and he leaned back in his chair, his mind swirling and churning into a massive mess as he considered the problem that was suddenly at hand.
“Chief, I’m going out for a smoke break,” he said, and he fished around his desk for his trademark pack of cigarettes that he kept around for pretenses.
“Those are gonna kill you one day if a drunk don’t,” the chief hollered back.
Matthew allowed a lighthearted laugh before he headed out of the side door, loitering in the alley with his heart clamoring in his ears, screeching.
He lit a cigarette, took a long and painful drag, then called Francis, pacing the confines of the space between two rusted, aged trash cans. A rat skittered past him, and he punted it down the alleyway.
“Francis, we’ve got a problem.”