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Where the Wicked Walk

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Chapter 19:

            That night, Will Graham picked the lock on his door and stepped out into the hallway. One foot out of the door, he froze, and he found himself holding his breath without entirely knowing why.

            Poised on the landing in the dark, he was disquieted by the sensation of someone watching him. In such a house as that, it wasn’t an asinine thing to suppose, and although every muscle inside of him screamed for him to run and run fast, Will couldn’t bring himself to move.

            “I’d go back to your room if I were you,” Matthew Brown said in the dark, not five feet from him. “I’m not sure how many times I’ll have to warn you, Mr. Graham, but there are many, many things in this house that go bump in the night. Things that run out of patience can be particularly unpleasant.”

            He thought to argue, to feign stupidity and confusion. Ultimately, though, Matthew Brown was well aware of just how not stupid Will Graham was, and Will Graham was smart enough to know when he’d been beaten.

            He slunk back to his room and closed the door.

-

            “Thank you so much for coming,” Jack Crawford said wearily.

            “I’d say it was no trouble, but with things the way they are…you can understand my unease in coming,” Bedelia replied, and she shook his hand. She noted the small stain on the cuff of his jacket, the curse of eating fast food while on the job. Dr. Du Maurier didn’t envy the FBI agent his position, nor did she envy his stress level. In all things, she tried to maintain a level of dignity, and the idea of sweating and struggling for the smallest scrap of information on the motives and behaviors of a psychopath seemed, above all, unbearable.

            “You know, I think it’s been what; six years?”

            “Since the trial, yes.”

            “You’ve done well for yourself,” Jack noted, and Bedelia managed a smile.

            “When one is no longer in the constant presence of a cannibalistic psychopath, Agent Crawford, one does remarkably well.”

            “You know, out of anyone that ever knew him, you were the only one to ever get inside of his head, Dr. Du Maurier.”

            “I wouldn’t consider it that way.”

            “Wouldn’t you?” Jack paused outside of the autopsy room and smiled politely. “What would you call it instead?”

            “Dr. Lecter presented to me a person suit,” Bedelia explained. “He was meticulous and careful with it, showing only just enough to reassure people that he had emotions. What he did with them was his business, and he took great pains to hide anything unsavory from me.”

            Jack Crawford had a way of trying to stare into someone, pierce them in place with the sharpest of looks. Bedelia was rather well versed in expressions like that, and she bore it with her own placid, flat expression. Years of psychiatry had perfected the look, made it a knee-jerk response to almost anything vaguely resembling a distasteful time.

            Special trips to Atlanta, Georgia to look at dead bodies was most certainly a distasteful time.

            “Maybe the bits of him you found around that person suit will give us insight when you take a look at this,” Jack said, and he opened the door for her. “I warn you, though; it’s messy.”

            It was messy.

            Bedelia Du Maurier had experienced her own dance with death several years ago, when a patient attacked her and left her with the terrifying choice of choosing her life over his. She didn’t regret her actions; one shouldn’t regret taking intrinsic responsibility for their life and not allowing someone else to make that call. She did regret, however, the actions done that led up to that regretful moment when she got to feel –for the first and last time, she hoped –what the inside of another person’s throat felt like.

            These bodies, in all of their macabre and painstaking horror, had Hannibal Lecter’s name written all over them.

            “These were done in various locations?” she asked, pausing to look at one that appeared to have been buried alive.

            “All over the country. Every single Will Graham except for the one currently missing.”

            “Have you confirmed that he’s still alive?”

            “Yes.” Jack leveled her with a stare that said he wouldn’t elaborate. She took note of the small spot on his cheek that he’d missed while shaving, then continued on.

            Autopsy rooms smelled like chemicals rather than death. It was a pungent stench that perched at the back of her tongue and made swallowing sound like a bad idea. She paused beside the remains of another and looked to Jack Crawford curiously.

            “Hit by a train,” he explained.

            “And somewhere near their bodies, ‘And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all,’ yes?”

            “That is correct.”

            She hummed quietly and looked along the many, many rows. Each one, in various hair colors, eye colors, and skin colors, all looked somewhat the same in death. Each and every one held an ashy color to their skin as it tried to rot.

            “This certainly has Dr. Lecter’s panache,” she said after she walked the length of bodies again. “Where Will Graham is alive, perhaps he saw fit to ensure he was the only one left. No other like him.”

            “Is he going to strike like this again?”

            “Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” she replied. “If he is coercing his followers to kill in as many ways as these people have been killed, the last thing he’d do is repeat himself. That takes away the weight that this carried. If he is quoting Poe, of all things, it lends itself the idea that this darkness and decay will eke out in various ways, each one more toxic and morbid than the last.”

            “What’s his end game?”

            Bedelia looked up at him. “Perhaps it is to finally kill you, since he failed the last time.” She paused in thought beside one of them, a woman with a simple, slit throat. “Have you entertained the notion that this is cult territory?”

            Jack somehow looked even older than his ragged, worn appearance. “Yes. We’re not releasing it in the papers yet.”

            “If they were able to strike on a nationwide scale, yet elude the police for as long as they have, it stands to reason.”

            “How do you see Hannibal as a cult leader?”

            “Easily,” Bedelia replied automatically. “He is a narcissist that enjoys attention on him. The only thing he enjoys more is controlling that attention, manipulating it. He would make his followers devout, fearing no pain and no death. That is the trouble with things like this; when they do not fear dying, it makes them far more willing to commit acts that endanger their lives. It makes them reckless but not stupid.

            “He won’t give any one of them everything. He may have a second-in-command, but no one holds all of the information apart from himself. Everyone has a place, and his unfortunate charisma means that they will happily stay in such a place, to please him.

            “Whatever he has in store for Will Graham, that is not the sole concern,” she continued, frowning at the bodies. “If it was a simple matter of taking him hostage and disappearing to kill him at his leisure, but he’s amassed an entire group of people –at least thirty, given what’s occurred here –for another singular intent. Spreading a message of death, fear, and mistrust.”

            “Mistrust,” Jack prompted.

            “Well, Agent Crawford, he was taken from his apartment by one of the security detail that you assigned to him,” she said calmly. “Half of the news has asked for your head on a proverbial platter, and the other half has lost faith in your abilities to catch a killer. But until you release the information that it’s not just a killer, it’s a following, they will continue to doubt you.”

            “You think that I should go public?”

            “I think that Dr. Lecter is banking on you not going public, thus tarnishing your name until he has you in the position where he can kill you with utmost certainty,” she replied, “where no Will Graham is present to save your life because he already has him locked away.”

            “The division specializing in cults is taking over this case,” he admitted, and it looked like it burned him to say. Jack Crawford not having control of a situation was, for him, something of utmost importance.

            Bedelia smiled slightly, the barest of turns to her lip. “Make no mistake, Agent Crawford; he is attempting to goad you into coming out from your safe space. First Agent Bowman, then Agent Zeller? Have you placed Agent Price in a safe house yet?”

            “He’s attacking all of my men until I have no one to trust left,” Jack sneered.

            “Can you not trust the rest of the FBI?” she wondered.

            His silence was the best sort of answer to that.

            “We have sufficient evidence that places him in Georgia,” he said at last, changing the subject. Bedelia was graceful enough to let him. Do you think that is also to lure me?”

            “Any evidence that you find easily can be considered a trap of sorts, in my opinion,” she replied. “If he is attempting to goad you into the public, what is the best sort of way than to dangle something before you that you can’t ignore?”

            That quieted him, and he stared at the bodies for a long time. His silence was his own, it seemed, and whatever thoughts that came to him were shrouded behind the dark, haunted look in his eyes.

            Jack led her out towards the small sitting area and got her a cup of coffee. They sat together on chairs made from cheap wood and itchy upholstery, their sips disjointed and their thoughts completely, resolutely different from one another. Bedelia resented the acrid taste of what was, no doubt, Folgers coffee with far too many beans, but she endured it in silence because that was what was expected.

            “I understand that you’re having a difficult time with this,” she began, and the look he cast her way made her pause to sift the words about in her mind. “To suspect your own agents of malcontent and abetting a murderer is troubling, as it leaves you in a space where every foothold you take, you have to wonder if it was intentional for you to find it or not.”

            “It’s all hands on deck,” Jack said wearily. “Whether the hands are going to support the foundation that will allow us to catch Lecter or not still remains to be seen. They could tear down the stone instead.”

            “You must have been speaking with Hannibal Lecter recently to use his wording,” Bedelia mused.

            “The day before his escape, I sat down with him and questioned him about a few things. He said to me, ‘You built the foundations of your career on the back of my destruction. Just how much will it take for that foundation to break?’”

            “If you catch him again, if will do nothing but further your career.”

            “Dr. Du Maurier, I have a hard time trying to decide if I want to catch him alive or bring him in dead,” Jack confided. He sounded far more tired than he did guilty from the admission.

            Bedelia set her cup down only half empty, and surveyed him, twisting in her chair.

            “While he has clearly made this a personal act against you, your thought process is not so foreign and alien. You’ve been presented with an unusual situation, therefore your reactions are expectedly unusual. Rather than legal justice, you’d much prefer something in which he can no longer tip the scales.”

            “…I appreciate the sentiment, as well as your insight, doctor.”

            Now for the hard part. She sighed quietly, a barely-escaped noise, and looked away from him, palms pressed together in her lap as though she could wipe away the feeling of grime from having to move about the dead space in which Hannibal’s followers had enacted their morbid fantasies.

            “While I am able to give such insight, Agent Crawford, I have done my best to put my stint with Hannibal Lecter behind me,” she said, studying the mug. Just around the bottom of it, a stain of white from the heat smudged the coffee table. She should have considered putting it on a coaster. “It unearths a part of my past that I’d rather prefer to keep buried and behind me. He was my patient, but that in no way means anything more than his desire to keep me under his thumb and part of his manipulations, as he was aware that at the time, I suspected him of nefarious and dangerous intent. Although you are in every right to seek me out, once I walk out of that door to these headquarters, I’d prefer you don’t.”

            Jack stared at her for a long, long time, his face set in a dark stone. Bedelia busied herself with picking up the coffee mug and taking another sip, as though the harsh grounds that’d made their way through the filter could somehow bolster her.

            When he said nothing more, she stood up and collected her coat and purse.

            “Good luck in your investigation, Agent Crawford,” she said lightly. “I hope that what little I could give helps.”

            Jack stood as well and shook her hand, nodding slowly, once.

            “Thank you, Dr. Du Maurier.”

            She saw herself out, and Jack remained in the sitting area in order to finish his coffee. No doubt, Bedelia mused, Jack Crawford was wondering just how soon Hannibal’s followers would act once he went public.

            She, however, was far more preoccupied with wondering just how long it’d be until she could take off the silly wire that one of those followers had taped to her chest.

-

            “What do you think?” Jack asked once he was in the tech room.

            “I’d say she’s not one of them, but she’s been contacted by them,” Starling said, looking up from the monitor. Her face was set, her mouth pinched in concentration. “There are a few frames where you can see micro-expressions of fear registering. Things you’ve said are things that she already knows.”

            Jack wasn’t quite sure what to think of Starling. On the one hand, having his case taken over by someone that didn’t know Lecter the way that he knew Lecter was the gritty feeling of eating sugared cereal and rubbing your tongue against your teeth. On the other hand, her assurance and capability was certainly helpful in the wake of some of his most trusted men being picked off left and right.

            That is, if she wasn’t one of Lecter’s.

            “Do you think she’s sympathetic to him?” he asked, walking over to see what she was seeing. The cameras within the FBI HQ were fantastic, great frames that could catch the twitch of an eyelash in an air conditioner breeze.

            “Her face is hard to read at times, but I’d say no,” Starling replied. “If anything, I think that if she’s being coerced into cooperating with them, she’s done a damn good job of wriggling out of it. By asking you not to bother her anymore, they wouldn’t have a reason to reach out to her.”

            “We’ve narrowed down a few people, then,” Jack murmured. He thought of the look on her face when she stared at the bodies; her nose had wrinkled, her lips pressed so tightly that they seemed to disappear altogether. There was no hunger, no strange pull that brought her closer to them.

            “I’ve got eyes on interstate activity, but it seems that those that struck are laying low. They could be converging towards a similar place, or they could be still within the general area in which they struck,” Starling said, and she moved over to go through a few things. “Graham getting that call out to you is mighty helpful, Jack. I know he didn’t get a location other than Georgia to you, but now we’ve got a Matthew Brown to track down, and forensics will surely find something regarding these others.”

            Jack grunted. “He wasn’t stupid enough to use his legal name, so we’ll have to go about it the hard way. Cross-referencing photos and time stamps of careers. The precincts around the suspecting areas are cooperating, at least.”

            “Time-consuming but not impossible.” Starling gave him a look. “Progress, Jack.”

            That’s what they’d call progress, Jack knew, but it didn’t feel so good to call it that.

            “We got a lot of information but it doesn’t feel that way. A lot of circles.”

            “That’s where Lecter wants you to be.”

            There was something Du Maurier had said that was needling at him, piercing beneath his skin to burrow deep and whisper treacherous thoughts in his ear.

            “Do you think it was luck that made Price check diatoms?” he asked. In the room full of nothing more than the soft whirring of computer fans, his question seemed too loud, abrasive. Starling looked up from her computer, the image frozen on Bedelia’s mouth closed and tense. Her brow furrowed, and she rocked back on her heels as she considered his question seriously.

            “…Why do you think that?” she asked. There was no judgement, only genuine curiosity.

            “He checked the diatoms ‘on a hunch,’” Jack recalled. “He checked the water bottle’s contents and decided to take the time to investigate the water. She said that Dr. Lecter is trying to lure me out.”

            “Do you think Price was compromised?” Starling asked. Her stare was intent, her blue eyes piercing him in place.

            “Will Graham said that they have people watching and observing me. I never thought Dolarhyde would…but clearly I was wrong.”

            “The question is whether or not you think Price is compromised.”

            Jack sighed and pinched the spot between his brows where his headaches these days most liked to rest. Bella sometimes felt it, in between her own pains and aches. It made feeling it all the worse, knowing that he was somehow punishing her, too.

            “I don’t know,” he said at last, and he let out a dark, curt bark of laughter. “Isn’t that just…hell, I don’t know anymore, Starling. That’s the muck of it, isn’t it? That I don’t know who I can trust anymore?”

            “That’s what Lecter wants,” she replied immediately. “He wants you on edge so that you can’t plan around him, so I’m going to need you to get your head on straight, alright? We’ll observe Price. Clock his comings and goings, his phone, his e-mail. Not because he’s done something, but because you can’t trust anyone, and if that’s going to ease your mind then I’m for it.”

            “Why’d he have to go and check the diatoms like that?” Jack groused.

            “Because he’s a good agent, and on any other case you’d thank him for it.”

            That was true, but as of right now it was a tough pill to try and swallow. Lloyd was dead, Zeller was nearly there, and his only other guy was a suspect. If Lecter was trying to keep his head twisted, he was doing a damn good job.

-

            “That him?” Duncan asked Freddie, nodding towards the man at the end of the bar.

            Duncan smelled like sweat and Coors Lite. It was a sour smell, but it was one she’d gotten used to while they roamed Barnesville, Georgia. Most of the town, in truth, smelled like sweat and Coors Lite, but Freddie’s travels had taught her that a lot of small towns did, and it was an ultimately a completely bias opinion on her part and not at all based in fact.

            One she wouldn’t be retracting anytime soon, though.

            “It looks like it, yes,” she said, seated at the booth.

            “He’s got his little lady with him, too,” Earl grunted. Earl didn’t smell marginally better, what with the gregarious amount of chew stuffed in his cheek. He seemed a little more in control of himself, though.

            “You want us to git him?”

            “No, Mr. Duncan, I think I want to meet him at her house when I do this.”

            “Shyit, yer not fixin’ on killin’ nobody, are you, Ms. Lounds?”

            Earl kicked Duncan under the table for cussing. He was particular about those things in front of a lady.

            “Sorry,” Duncan muttered.

            “I’m not the killing sort, I promise,” she assured them. “Girl scout’s honor.”

            “What’d you do in girl scouts anyway?” Earl wondered.

            “Baking, mostly.”

            “I love those cookies they got those kids selling. Once a year, I buy a whole box and go nuts,” Duncan confessed. “Trefoils, mostly.”

            “What’s the plan, then, Miss Lounds?” Earl prompted. “We can help you work him over real good if you need us to.”

            Based on how intently and earnestly Earl was looking at Freddie, she figured he’d help her hide bodies if she asked sweetly enough.

            “I think that now that I’ve found them, gentlemen, I can take it from here,” she said. Clark Ingram was wearing a baseball cap and glasses, as conspicuous and sad as the first time Freddie had tried to dye her hair blonde to go undercover for a report.

            Frying half of her hair off taught her that wigs were a far better, cheaper, and painless option.

            “Are you sure?” Earl pressed.

            She flashed him a sweet, bright smile. “How about you two give me your numbers in case I end up needing some help?”

            Earl and Duncan both liked that idea. She was given their cell numbers, their work numbers, and the house numbers because a woman named Debbie said it was a good idea to keep a house phone as well as cell phones. Whoever the hell Debbie was.

            “I don’t give much cares to the house phone, but she likes it. Says it makes her feel mighty so-fis-ti-cated,” Earl explained.

            They paid for her meal, bought her a beer and wished her luck. The smell of Coors Lite lingered, although they took the stench of chew with them. All in all, a nice sort of men, if one could get over just how bad they smelled. Their speech, too, was something for the books. Surely not everyone outside of Atlanta talked like that?

            Any outliers of that atrocious accent certainly didn’t live in Barnesville. As the bar filled up, she heard enough people talking that she could almost say that Duncan and Earl sounded like ‘mighty damn fine’ speakers, indeed. She noted dips and curls to the ending of words, lazily tossed either which way, and she mouthed along with them as she waited. Good practice for her writing and all.

            She wasn’t interested in the people around her, though. Unless rednecks with heavy accents suddenly started killing children up and down the dusty main street of their town, her focus was wholly and completely on Clark Ingram and his partner in crime that were seated about twenty feet away with their backs to her.

            They would lead her to Will Graham. She was sure of it.