Chapter 1: The Scream Catcher
The knife cut a crescent. The smooth expanse of flesh beaded bloody in its wake. When the blade pulled back the skin, the exposed muscle, raw and wet, still twitched underneath. Then came the screams.
Will shuddered and blinked. The trainee next to him had cut and peeled the clingfilm from her microwavable lunch. It came off so neatly.
He passed a hand over his face and turned to find the voice that had recalled him back to reality: Alana.
"Yeah, hi. I'm here."
Alana gave him that smile of hers, the one so kind that Will could never help but see in it a trace of pity. "I'm glad you are," she said. "You okay?"
Will looked down at his sandwich. He had meant to sit down at the break room table and eat it like a normal person not consumed by daytime nightmares. He'd failed.
"Yeah. Just— the Stripper case—"
She wrinkled her nose slightly. "Did they really have to call him that?"
"He does strip his victims, in a manner of speaking. Their skin matters to him about as much as their clothes. Just another layer for him to peel back.” Will tore into his sandwich packet and took a bite. “The screams are what he really wants. They're more valuable to him than flesh. Personally, I thought they should have called him the Scream Catcher.”
Silence. The trainee, who’d been staring at Will while he rattled all that out, looked uncomfortable for a moment then quickly vacated the room. Will looked after her, then at Alana, who was settling him a familiar look: worried, mostly kind, again faintly pitying. She didn't know what to say. No one ever did.
At least she didn't leave. She sat down to unpack her own lunch with a gentle gesture for him to do the same. He dropped into a chair next to hers and tried to look away from anything that could transmute into a flayed human corpse.
“It’s a harrowing case,” she said. “How are you sleeping?”
"Not great. Not much." The past few nights, he'd been hearing their screams, the ceiling plaster above his bed peeling back and hanging down in raw strips like their skin.
"All the usual stuff."
"Don't say therapy, Alana. I don't do therapy."
They were quiet again, just the two of them. Will tried to focus on the rhythmic crunch of Alana's cucumber slices, the sweet song of the dripping sink tap. It soothed him. He felt Alana watching him as they ate.
"Back when I was a stressed out student," she began, "insomnia nearly drove me nuts. I thought I'd flunk my finals. Then I found this CD." She laughed and shook her head. "It was the most obscure thing. A recording of Jung's Zürich lectures. The narrator had this soothing, whispery voice."
Will smiled faintly into his tuna sandwich. "Did it make your skin tingle?"
She nodded. "I didn't know anyone else who reacted that way to certain stimuli. It wasn't called ASMR back then, and I couldn't find much literature about it. But that recording really relaxed me. I used to listen to it before bed."
Will chewed slowly. "I get it too," he said after a moment. "The tingling."
"I still listen to a YouTube video once in a while if I can’t get to sleep." She put a hand on his shoulder. "Try it, Will. Might be worth a shot."
Will went home that night acutely aware of the soundtrack of his life: the satisfying snap of the clip on his briefcase, the rain on his windshield, the creak of his porch steps. For what it was worth, Alana's suggestion had at least afforded a distraction from murder.
The snick of scissors, the rapping and tapping of rain on metal gutters, the soft scrape of a hairbrush — they had always made Will's skin ripple with a curious sort of pleasure. He tried not to pay the sensation any mind. He didn't need to add to the clutter of oddities already hanging off his personality.
At home, he moved mechanically through his evening routine: feed dogs, feed self, let dogs out, grade papers, shower. When he'd run out of rituals that helped loneliness seem like solitude, he settled into bed.
Laptop in lap, headphones to hand. His fingers hovered over the keyboard. He scowled at the screen. But then it was either this, or another broken night, flayed flesh hanging off the ceiling, walls full of blood.
The first search brought back a kaleidoscopic bounty of video thumbnails most of which Will was terrified to click on: Asian teenagers with alarming quantities of food, suspiciously attractive women with scissors or long nails next to oversized microphones. Was this what lulled Alana to sleep? Will kept scrolling. And scrolling.
Six pages in, he stopped.
He stared at the thumbnail. It looked mislaid among the shouting neon of the other videos. A channel calling itself "Compendium Ferculorum" had uploaded the video six days prior and had titled it "Calf's liver in Normandy sauce, simply prepared". The channel had no other posts.
Inside that little rectangle Will saw a pristine kitchen counter, arranged with ingredients for the dish like the canvas of Flemish still life. Behind the counter was a glimpse of a white apron, spotlessly white. A doorway to another world — and wasn't that just what Will needed?
Will put his headphones on, clicked on the video and set it to full screen.
The faintest backdrop of classical music, something orderly and Baroque, admitted him into that world. A pair of hands, manicured and masculine, moved into the shot and guided kitchen scissors around the periphery of smooth organ meat. The soft, rhythmic snip of the blades sent a frisson wave soaring up Will's spine. He sunk deeper into his pillow, pulled up the duvet and gave himself over to the pleasant shiver.
The muted strings and harpsichord continued. The meat was sliced, set on a silver platter and set aside. A vegetable peeler came next. It stripped the skin off an apple in a single coiling swathe, and Will felt, for a moment, faintly ill — the fruit looked flayed. But the little ripples of delight carried him through the unease.
He turned up the volume on his laptop.
The crisp crumple of onion skin. The clack of the knife as it diced. The sizzle of butter and flesh in a cast iron pan. The sharp hiss of a Calvados-fed flame, the babbling bubbling of the cream. Microscopic hairs danced with delight inside Will's ears. His muscles felt looser under the covers, eyelids heavier. And all the while, not a word from the invisible owner of the hands. So calm and competent, those hands. Will couldn't take his eyes off them. With each new tremor of pleasure, he sank further into the sensation that the hands had lifted the lid off his skull and were caressing inside, feather light.
The dish was plated, garnished with roses of dried apple slices dusted in cinnamon. Will could almost smell the brandy, the fatty sweetness of reduced cream. But the subtle symphony was over. The video ended. Reality had Will by the scruff and was dragging him back out far too soon.
He adjusted himself under the covers, pulled the laptop onto his chest, and put the video on a loop.
He woke up to daylight, curled up and snug in a bundle of dry sheets, headphones in an awkward tangle around his head. Time had slipped by — he'd slept.
No screams, no flayed flesh. Had he dreamt of that kitchen, those hands? The laptop was still in bed with him. He opened it quickly and saw the exquisite dish in the final still of the video.
No dream then.
He got up, let the dogs out and stood on the porch undressed in the sharp morning air. He felt absurdly lucid and refreshed.
A strange sort of gratitude crept over him while he started his breakfast. Echoes of the culinary symphony lingered in his brain. He found some pancake mix. He wanted to recreate something of last night's experience for himself, but found it lacking. His hands were no match for the hands in the video.
He needed to say something to the faceless chef. Sat on the edge of the bed, he stared at the comment box under the video and chewed his lip raw. He went through several drafts before he committed to something that sounded if not elegant then at least sincere.
"Don't take this the wrong way, but listening to you cook helped me sleep. Thank you."
Submitted. He stared at the comment, debated deleting it. In the end, he slammed the laptop shut and tried his best to forget about it.
A few hours later, just before his first lecture, his phone trilled inside his bag. Will pulled out: a notification from YouTube.
Will opened it with less than steady hands.
"You are most welcome", it read. "Any other soporific dishes you would like me to prepare for you? I'm all ears."
Evening came again. Familiar sounds scattered themselves through the silence of Will's house: floorboard creaks, the patter of dog feet, the whistle of the wind outside. None of them touched his skin. None soothed his mind. He did his chores, drifting through the ordinary noises of his life like a ghost ship through fog.
He got into bed, opened his laptop and found the browser tab with the paused video. The reply to his comment sat just below, scrolled into view. The channel owner's profile picture, a still life of bones and flora in colors both dark and lurid, looked out at Will from the screen, a tiny window he wanted to crawl through.
"Stupid," he muttered. He shoved the laptop aside, turned off the lights and stared into the dark, listening to the thin soundscape of his life.
He waded into shallow sleep. Nightmares splashed about in his head until the trill of his cellphone jerked him awake. He groped for it and stuck it to his ear. He stared through the window at the pale light of dawn while he waited for Jack Crawford to deliver whatever new dish of horror he had called Will to serve.
"Will. I need you to come in.”
Will dragged a palm over his face. "The Stripper?"
"We think he posted something. A recording. Looks like you might have been right."
"About the screams."
Will felt the quick and sickly surge of adrenaline. He peeled back the sheets and set his feet on the cold floor.
"Sure it's him?"
"Pretty certain. He listed the GPS coordinates for each of the crime scenes." There was a pause on the other end. Will waited while his stomach churned. "He streamed it, Will," Jack said. "On YouTube."
They were made to wear headphones, so that anyone walking past Jack's office would be spared from what was about to spill out into the world.
For six long minutes, they listened.
"The original stream has been taken down," Jack said, after it was over. "Social media are trying their best to stop others from uploading copies.”
"He made music," Beverly said quietly. "From their screams."
There was no other way to describe what they’d just heard. No one had spoken while Jack played the clip: a black screen set to a pulsating melody arranged from agonising cries.
“That’s why we couldn’t find his victim type. No common age, gender or profession.“ Will took a gulp of his coffee, too fast. It burned on its way down. “What he wanted from them was their— specific vocal range. Their tone and pitch."
"Guess you were right,” Beverly said. “We should have called him the Scream Catcher.”
Jack shot her a glare, then turned to Will. “You heard those beats throughout?”
Will stared at the black screen of Jack’s laptop. The victims’ screams had been set to a thudding rhythm.
Jack nodded. “He must have strapped them to heart rate monitors while he flayed them." He scrubbed back through the track and pressed play again. "Then there's this.”
Will put the headphones back on reluctantly. Howls and pleas crawled out of them and over his body. If his skin could have feel nausea, it would have. Woven into the pauses in the grim orchestration was something like the sound of wind in tall trees, like the rustle of crisp leaves beneath footsteps.
“Sounds from where he killed them," Will whispered. "The music of the forest.”
"Seems likely. He listed the exact locations of the murders under the post. The lab's looking into it." Jack leaned across his desk. "Will. Now that he’s made this, is he done?”
Will was still staring at the black screen of the killer's video, the void that had spawned horror. “Depends,” he said.
“On whether his first composition has had its intended effect."
"What effect is that?”
Will drifted back to the sweet pleasures of strange music made by the competent hands of the nameless chef. When he was back in the room, he shook his head. "I don't know yet."
"You need to give me something."
"The locations," Will said. "If he picked the victims for their ... auditory potential, then the same will be true for the places where he kills them. My guess is he’s out scouting for another sonic canvas."
"You’re telling me my best lead is to go out and listen to the forest?”
Will downed the rest of his coffee. The air in the room seemed thick with the memory of what they'd just heard, a choking feeling he wanted to escape.
“Take it or leave it. Right now I don't have anything else for you.”
Afterwards, Will hid in a bathroom stall. The killer's song, that pure distillation of pain and fear, had followed him out of Jack's office and was fusing itself to the insides of his skull. He wanted to open up his head and drag out every last note. He put his hands over his ears — as if that would help.
The man they ID'ed as James Ellender, the first victim, had wept in big, wet fearful sobs. The young Jane Doe had pleaded over and over for her mother. The memory of their cries made Will's own skin feel as if it were being torn back from his muscles.
He took out his phone with shaking hands and opened the YouTube app. He found the comment from Compendium Ferculorum. He started to type.
"Make any dish you want. As long as it drowns everything out."
He hit send and stuck his phone back in his pocket. He didn't want to think about the nonsense he'd just written. How could the mysterious chef understand what Will meant, what he needed so much right now?
His phone buzzed almost at once and Will’s heart thudded in his chest. He looked: a text from Jack. He was being summoned back to the office.
He stared at the message for a moment then, without thinking, opened YouTube again. He found the comment he’d just posted and wrote quickly underneath.
"Make something tonight. Please."
He needed to drink, and so he drank. Three glasses of rye saw him through his evening routine, but they didn't see him through the howling echoes in his head. Every beat of silence he couldn't fill with the dribble of dog food poured into metal bowls, or the slam of a kitchen cupboard, filled itself instead with the Catcher's song.
Twice he checked for new notifications on his phone. When he came up empty both times, he left it on the nightstand and promised himself he wouldn't look again.
He wandered into the kitchen and poured himself his fourth glass.
From the dim corner by his bed, he heard a ping and saw the screen light up like a firefly. He walked across the room a little too fast, a little unsteady.
There it was: the promised video. The lush thumbnail image almost glistened above its title, "Ossobuco alla Milanese, saffron risotto".
Only the second video ever posted to the channel, and it had been created just for him. The knowledge made Will warmer than the alcohol had.
He went to click on the video but no: he couldn't just play it — he had to sink into it. He dimmed the lights, pulled back the covers and slipped into bed, glass in hand, headphones on, laptop perched on his belly.
No background music this time. Only that immaculate kitchen again and those hands, tending to the veal shanks bubbling gently in their thick red stew. The scrape and rap of the wooden spoon against the cast iron pot sent the first rush of sparkling pleasure over Will's skin.
Then a cutaway to the clack of a gleaming blade against the chopping board as it divided vegetables into perfect cubes. Then the shimmering chime of tiny fat grains of rice as they tumbled into another iron pot to be toasted and deluged with the dribble of hot stock. Those articulate hands prying apart strands of saffron to immerse them in the creamy ooze of the stewing risotto. All of it was a symphony designed to make the smallest parts that made up Will's body dance with delight.
It was everything he had asked for. His skin and brain fizzed with the aftershocks of it, his whole world soft and fuzzy with alcohol and the effects of that mellifluous dish. And still he wanted more.
"Thank you for that,” he typed as soon as it was over.
The reply came almost instantly.
“You are welcome. Did it serve its immersive purpose?"
Will looked up at the stranger's hands in the paused video, resting so calmly on either side of the plated dish. He listened to the mechanical clack of his keyboard as he wrote his reply.
“It helped. But when it stopped, I'm back to square one."
“Back to unwelcome silence?"
Will felt a strange chill creep down his spine. The song of screams felt far away for the moment, but not far enough. It was coming back for him, a faint echo growing louder. "No. Something's eating up my silence these days. Something that can't be helped."
“An unwelcome cacophony then.”
It's so much worse than that, Will thought. "You could call it that."
"What shall we try for a remedy?"
Will stared at the screen, fingers hovering over the keyboard. He couldn't bring himself to answer. Compendium Ferculorum was typing a reply, and Will held his breath.
"Shall we try my voice?"
Will inhaled too quickly and nearly pushed his laptop away. He could almost hear it, the voice that went with those hands, that food.
“You're going to voiceover your next video?”
“Your predicament seems more urgent than that.”
This time, Will forgot to breathe. He reached for the keyboard, then hesitated. Another reply was coming. Will waited.
“Get a room you two LOLLL”
Will blinked at the comment. It was posted by user ASMRfan63236.
“For fuck’s—” he muttered and downed the rest of his drink. It rushed into his belly, scorching the last of his uncertainty in its wake. He clicked into the channel's profile and found the link to a private message.
He wasn't quite drunk enough to give out his phone number to a stranger from the Internet. He typed in his Skype ID instead and sent it before he could change his mind.
He closed the browser tab. Idiotic. He'd regret the whole exchange in the morning, maybe sooner. He shut his laptop and debated obliterating the strange thrill and embarrassment of it all with more booze.
He decided against it and was shuffling to the bathroom to brush his teeth, when his phone began to chime.
Will tried to slow down his breathing and, by proxy, his heart. He walked back to the bed and stared down at his phone and the unknown user Skype ID illuminating its screen.
Heart still racing, he answered.
"Good evening. Shall we start with introductions?"
The only voice that could have belonged to those hands. Soft and low, calculated, with a hint of brass. Like a mellowed spirit, both sharp and tender.
Will swallowed down the taste of stale rye and slid a hand over his face. He slumped to the edge of the bed and felt, despite himself, the first pull of a smile.
"Yeah. Sure. I'm Will."
Hanni's risotto was inspired by this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrsY2FUkSYs
Question for readers: what was Will's YouTube handle or profile pic that so piqued Hanni's interest?
"Now then." The chef's voice flowed smoothly out of the phone’s speaker and into Will's head. "Before we continue, it would be wise of me to know more about the nature of your predicament."
"Wait. I thought— aren't introductions usually exchanged?" Will said. He was holding the phone too tightly, fidgeting on the edge of the bed, still unsure if he hadn't gotten himself into something stupid. "You should probably tell me your name."
"Would a name be of much consequence? The advantage of familiarity is already yours,” the voice replied. “I only know your Christian name. You on the other hand know what my kitchen looks like and that I have a passion for the culinary arts. You even know what I had for dinner."
Will slid sideways onto the mattress, as if toppled by some gentle force. He still thought about hanging up and telling himself he'd never asked for any of this — but the words filled him with a warm and covetous feeling, the same he'd had when the still nameless chef offered to make a new dish on his behest. He was loathe to let it go.
He pulled on the covers and dragged his laptop over: on its the screen, the exquisite arrangement of slow-simmered flesh sat on display, garnished with tiny wreaths of thyme and a lace trim of curly parsley. Will thought of the spaghetti he’d had for his own dinner.
"You cooked that— for yourself?" he asked.
"I ate it myself, but I made it because you'd asked me to,” the chef said. “So it would be more accurate to say that I cooked it for you."
Will felt even warmer. He wanted to hear more and, at the same time, wanted to change the subject. When he spoke again, he hoped his voice didn't betray his apprehension. Or his smile.
"You didn't have to."
"I wanted to."
“It looked good. The osso bucco, I mean. Really good.”
“It tasted just as good. I'm sure you would have enjoyed it. The shanks were sourced from an exceptionally spoiled pig.”
Will curled under the duvet and pressed his phone between his cheek and pillow. That way, the smooth rumble of the stranger's words could vibrate right against his ear. He could almost picture the mouth that produced each syllable, the soft S's colliding against full flesh. Between the alcohol and the shivery sensation produced by the purr-murmur pouring into his ear, he was starting to drift. He closed his eyes. The next words all but tumbled out of him.
"There's something else I know about you,” he said.
The voice on the other end was even, unsurprised. "Yes?"
“I Googled the name of your channel. It's an old Polish cookbook, right?” Will hesitated, but there was no harm in prying a little more. "You're Polish?"
“The book is, but I'm not. I do happen to own a copy of the Compendium’s first edition."
"But that's not where you get your recipes from."
"No. The Compendium is full of impractical extravagances such as broth made with pearls and gold. I have merely borrowed the title to showcase a few well-executed classics and the pleasant soundscape they create while they're being prepared."
Will's eyes opened at that, and he stared ahead at a wall that only a few nights ago had peeled bloody with the flesh of the Catcher's human instruments. His heart skipped uncomfortably over the beat of silence.
"Is that why you started the channel?" he asked. "As a showcase?"
"Who amongst us doesn't want to share our exceptionality with a wider audience? I believe my cooking skills are above average, and I enjoy the music they produce. So do you, it seems."
Will couldn't bring himself to confess how much he had enjoyed them: the whole body experience of that kitchen, like a thousand tiny silk wings fluttering just under his skin.
"Don't you have a gift you express to the world, Will?" The chef's voice was dropping in tone and register, and Will's body was full of silk wings again. "Something unique that you excel at?"
"My work—" Will stopped himself and weighed up his reply. "It'd be more accurate to say that my gift is expressed out of me. For me."
"Your work expresses your gift out of you, and then sends you home with its toll."
Lulled a moment earlier, Will's heartbeat picked up. He half-expected his wall and ceiling to bleed again.
"How— how do you know?" he whispered.
"Your urgent plea to me came in the middle of the day. Something in your work life must have triggered a stress response severe enough to send you running to me. Am I correct?"
Will swallowed, hard and dry. A spark of nightmare fear shocked his chest for a second and then was gone. "Yeah. Yes, you are."
"Are you at liberty to tell me what brought it on?"
Even if he was, Will couldn't bring himself to say it.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked instead.
"I told you: I'm sharing my gift."
"No, I mean: me. Us talking. This isn't showcasing the music of your kitchen. Why do you want to help me? Or whatever this is."
There was a moment of thought from the other end. "The same reason I share my cooking with the world: self-expression, albeit more focused."
"Your self-expression is charity? Or is your charity self-expression?"
There was a kind of low, pleased rumble from the other hand, and Will nearly shivered with pleasure in the warm swaddle of blankets.
"I'll admit to an element of vanity in either case," the voice replied.
Will smiled into his pillow. He was starting to relax and drift again, his mind rocking gently to the measured voice. The Catcher case, which had crept along his walls, was in retreat.
"Okay. Tell me how," he said.
"There is nothing more you can tell me about what's troubling you?"
Will breathed quietly into the silence that followed the question. "I can't," he said. "I'm sorry."
"Very well. In that case, we'll return to our beginnings: the Compendium. I thought I would read to you from it. The Polish language is rich in sibilant fricatives. They should work nicely on your auto-meridian response. And I think you'll take comfort in listening to a language you're unable to understand. It comes with no obligations."
Will grinned slightly. "Now you're assuming again. Who says I'm not fluent in 17th century Polish?"
"If I'm not, then you're certainly not."
Vanity again, Will thought. "I need to brush my teeth first," he said. "Will you wait?"
Will did, and was quickly back in bed, huddled under the warm covers. He didn't believe his nightmares wouldn't soak through them later, but it was worth the momentary sense of complete safety to keep himself wrapped up.
"I will keep my voice like this. Will that suit?"
It would suit very well. Will murmured his agreement, every inch of his skin dancing to the low whisper in his ear. His eyes were falling closed.
The recitation began. The strange words seemed to rustle and shimmer, like a stream over rough stone that poured itself over Will's body, collected it and took it far away from the forests filled with Catcher's screams. He felt weightless, adrift, teetering just on the horizon of wakefulness.
He mumbled a thank you. He remembered a brief pause of reply, then the soft rumble of words resumed. Will didn't need to understand them, didn't want to — the frequency they travelled on soon swept him over into a soft black nothing.
He woke sharply, startled by the solidity of his sleep.
He fought off the covers and planted his feet on the cold floor. He looked warily to the side: his phone sat still pressed into the pillow where he'd fallen asleep on it. Not a dream then. Not that Will's dreams were like last night anyway. His sheets and pillow were dry.
He grabbed the phone and checked the Skype call log: seventy five minutes. That's how long he'd let this weirdest of therapy sessions go on for, most of it while he was already asleep.
And it had been therapy, hadn't it? He'd even volunteered for it. He didn't want to think about the ease with which he'd let himself sink into it. But the vivid memory of that voice still followed him into the shower: I cooked it for you.
The jet hit his back, a steady wide patter of warmth that made him think of the way his body had responded to the mystery chef's cooking and then to that soothing voice. He closed his eyes against the stream and let the sound of the water carry him back.
Between the broken sleep and the even more broken dreams, Will had barely jerked off in weeks. But here, with the unexpected blessing and alertness of a whole night's sleep, he found himself reaching for his cock. He found it hard and ready, not the reluctant half-erection he'd normally give up on in minutes. He turned to face the stream and started to stroke.
It felt so good. He tried to empty his head and fill it with the fizz of running water and the pleasure of his hand, but he knew it was no use. There was only one thing on his mind as he worked himself faster.
The odd charity of the chef's voice had come out of Internet's ether and took care of Will. It gave him what he asked for. It had soothed him to sleep. Will's cock was a hot, heavy weight filling the tight tunnel of his fist.
He tipped his face up to the water and worked himself roughly, quickly, as if this momentary reprieve of normality could dissolve and slip down the drain. He heard himself above the water, crying out as he came. He needed his free hand to steady himself against the tiles. Minutes passed before he was sure his knees hadn't turned to liquid.
Back in bed, traces of last night's conversation still lingered as he opened up his laptop and pulled up the notes from the Catcher's file. The last thing he wanted to do was to listen to those screams again, but he wanted to make the most of a clear and rested head while he could.
He pulled up the victims' profiles and started reading. Within minutes, he was distracted again.
What was it the chef had said?
The wish to express our exceptionality.
Will shut the laptop and stared up at his ceiling. No flayed flesh hanging from up above. He picked up the phone and called Jack. He didn't have much, but maybe it was enough.
"Will. I was about to call you."
"You asked me if the Catcher's finished," Will said.
"I did. Is he?"
"He can't finish yet. This was a delicate venture for him. An exploration of his own capabilities. We had his first masterpiece taken down, so it won't have gotten the reaction he wanted or thought he deserved. He'll need to widen his range. Try a new composition."
"Okay. None of that helps me find him."
Will frowned. "I know."
Something else from last night's conversation drifted back to him, and cleared the design assembling itself in his mind.
"Sorry. It's not a composition."
"The Catcher's music — it's not an original composition. It's—" The chef's words again. "It's a well-chosen classic."
There was a pause on the other end.
"That's why I was about to call you. We got a consultant on the case, a musicologist. He analysed the Catcher's work. The cries are not a random track."
Will's heart lurched with a familiar spark of fear. He was up on his feet. A few strides and he was on his porch, away from the four walls and ceiling that would surely start to bleed again soon.
"Who? Tell me."
"Like you said: it's a well-chosen classic. It's Chopin."
Yes, I'd let Mads read me a historical cookbook in a foreign language. Wouldn't you?
Gripping the armrests of the chair Jack had put him in, Dunt the musicologist looked as if he'd shrunk inside his own skin.
Having listened to parts of the scream prelude twice again that morning, Will felt the way the man looked.
Dunt was explaining to Will what he'd already explained to Jack: how the Catcher's composition had been recognised for what it was.
"He broadened the tempo, but tried to keep the pitch the same. The uh, the heartbeat track was the easiest to identify. It copies exactly the pattern of rain-like patter in the original." Dunt paused. Will saw him trying to make sense of the whole nightmarish task that had been put before him. "Chopin wouldn’t say that his music imitated raindrops. But this man certainly imitated Chopin."
"Don't think he'd agree with that assessment," Will said.
"He’s not paying homage then?” Jack asked.
"This isn’t imitation. He may be practicing his craft, but he’s still aiming for invention. For transcendence." Will looked to the musicologist. "The piece. Is it any good? Is he?"
The man stared at Will and then at Jack, bewildered or maybe aghast. From the corner of his eye, Will saw Jack scowl.
"I mean technically," Will said.
“He knew what he was doing, yes. The piece is thoughtfully arranged and the way he used his uh, his source material—“ The man swallowed. “Even the dynamic range is similar to what you'd expect to hear in a competent performance. In its own way, his efforts are impressive." Dunt looked as if he wanted to scrub the last word from his mouth with soap.
And who, Will wondered, was meant to be impressed?
He stared at his laptop. He had notes to write up before that afternoon's lecture, but the words on screen bled into tiny black ribbons and twisted themselves into something like sheet music.
Two kinds of music collided in his head and created discord. All Will wanted was for the Catcher's composition to be expelled by the vivid memory of the stranger's voice.
He wanted more than that. He'd been hoping for a message. Maybe even a voicemail, to see him through the day. But lunchtime came and went, and Will’s phone stayed silent. And in any case, he’d been forcing himself not to check it.
By the time he was setting up for class, he couldn't hold back any longer. He fished out his phone, swiped through his notifications. Nothing, either from YouTube or Skype. A fog of forlorn feeling began to creep into his chest but really, what had he expected?
Students filed into the room. Will looked up and saw Crawford trailing in behind them. His face looked heavy and grim, and Will knew he wouldn't be lecturing that day.
"You'd not seen one of his before, have you?" Beverly asked. They'd not said much else to each other on the drive over.
Will stared out of the back of Jack's car and watched land give itself up to the waters of the bay. They were already running out of daylight.
"Not in the flesh," Will said. "So to speak."
"It's something," she said quietly. "It's something else."
The lonely warehouse sat on a slab of concrete like an enormous salt-rusted tobacco tin, one of the only buildings raised up on Oriole Island. A flock of terns rose up lazily from the lot as their car pulled up to the entrance, where Price and Zeller were already waiting.
They went inside. At the far end of the floor, where the floodlights had been set up, Will saw two heaps. One of them was human-shaped, just barely.
"Listen to this, Graham," Zeller said. He called out, and his voice rose up, clear and pure and amplified in the soaring interior. "Great acoustics, right?"
Of course they were, Will thought. He moved mechanically towards the floodlights.
The woman lay crumpled on the old linoleum floor, face shrouded by a mop of thick blond hair. Swathes of her skin still clung in places to her red limbs and torso, as if she'd been given fins. The rest of her flesh had been thrown onto a pile nearby, together with her clothes.
There was no display here, not like with the Ripper. There was no need. The Catcher's art lay elsewhere, on the recording equipment of which he'd left no trace.
"He never cleans up after himself, does he?” Beverly said, following close behind Will. “He gets what he needs and just... vanishes."
"It's a considered act, the flailing," Will said. He kept his voice very low: he didn't want it to soar like Zeller's had. "It's not screams of pain and fear he wants to elicit. He’s after something more visceral. He aims for the purity of horror."
"He'd set up a space heater for her. What's that all about?" Beverly said. "Why would you do that if you're about to skin someone alive?" She pointed to Price. "And then there's that."
Price held up the evidence bag to show Will. The water bottle inside had been half emptied. Will could see dark lipstick around the rim.
"It's almost certainly hers," Price said. "Looks like he tried to make her drink."
Will's throat went dry. He looked up and around, and wondered if the echoes of the woman's screams still lingered in the sprawl of the warehouse, impressed into its walls and windows and ceiling forever. He thought of their own voices, mingled somewhere with what had remained of hers.
Oh, how she must have sang for the man who took her skin and then her life.
"She wasn't like the others," Will said. "She was special. A great instrument needs great care."
They dropped him off in the Quantico parking lot. Beverly got out of the car and wrapped him in a quick hug. Either she needed the contact or Will looked like he did.
He drove, ostensibly back to Wolf Trap. The warehouse discovery cut at his brain, sliced it up into slivers. He knew the real aftermath was still coming, waiting for him in the quiet of his home.
More than ever he wanted something else to greet him instead: the hiss of wine and the sizzle of oil in an iron pan, the stranger's voice, all soft murmurs and alien tongue, all dancing under his skin and soothing him again to sleep.
But still his phone had stayed silent. Maybe the aural therapy session had been a one-off experiment, and Will had been tried on for size and discarded.
Fuck it. He'd message the man himself. It wasn't like him, but he had to at least know. What did it matter? If he was no longer wanted, he could put the whole thing to one side for good, even if it meant more nightmares.
He turned the car around and drove back into Baltimore. There was something he needed first.
If he was to continue as the subject of the chef's curious brand of charity, he had to affirm his commitment. And if he never heard from the man again, he could at least lose himself again in the music of Compendium Ferculorum's cooking videos.
Will had been past the shop with the fanciful name a few times, but had never gone in. He'd never had cause, until now.
The interior of the Euphonic Oasis was as sparse and understated as the exterior. Will was the only customer, and no one emerged to greet him.
Black and brushed silver boxes studded with buttons and dials sat locked away in illuminated glass display cases. Somewhere inside the store some of the same boxes had been connected to speakers that probably cost more than Will's monthly salary. The speakers were playing something soft and strange, something Will couldn't adequately label as either jazz or classical music.
On the opposite wall, also encased in glass, hung headphones with brand names Will had barely heard of: Grado, Audeze, Bang & Olufsen. He looked around for price tags and found them in a glossy black brochure on the store's counter. He squinted to make sure his eyes didn’t deceive him and winced.
He'd been spotted: a man appeared from the back, short, bespectacled, with a cap of slick black hair. His shirt collar and tie knot jutted neatly out of the neck of a burgundy sweater. Something about his tidiness told Will the Euphonic Oasis was his store.
The man poised his fingers on the lectern-like counter and eyed Will with a bland and pleasant smile. "Can I help you?"
"Yeah. I'm looking for headphones."
"Of course. Any type or brand in particular?"
Which set, Will wanted to know, would best infuse his skin with the brassy bass and satiny lisp of the stranger's voice, with the clack and scrape of his knife? Which would help him shut out his nightmares?
"Don't really know. Something decent that won’t cost me a whole pay check?”
“And what, if I may ask, will you primarily be listening to?”
Will opened his mouth. Did the man mean musical genres? Radio, podcasts? And what business was it of his anyway?
“Uh. Usual stuff,” he said, then blurted out: “YouTube, I guess.”
The man’s smile fell somewhat at that, but he nodded and dutifully made his way to one of the cases. He retrieved a pair of over-ear headphones, not too bulky, with a headband of leather and stainless steel that Will immediately liked the look of.
“Sennheiser. A sturdy mid-range model with excellent noise cancellation. 20 hours of battery life." Will reached to examine the headphones, but the man didn't seem willing to hand them over. "I have just the thing for you to test drive them with," he said quickly.
"Can I try them with my phone instead?" Will asked. "Sorry."
The man’s smile seemed to dissolve further, but he handed over the necessary adapter for Will's now slightly ancient phone and stood back while Will plugged the headphones in and put them on.
Will opened the YouTube app and found the Compendium's osso bucco video. Nothing new had been uploaded to the channel that evening.
He pressed play. The shimmering melody of the chef's kitchen ran over him like summer rain.
For a moment, he let himself close his eyes. When he opened them again, it was in time to see a small rectangle slide down from the top of his screen, headlined with a Skype username Will recognised immediately.
Will's heart vaulted in his chest. He pulled the headphones from his head, nearly dropped them yanking them free from his phone. In his periphery, he saw the store owner's mortified expression.
“Just— could you wrap these up for me?" he said to the man. "Thanks, I won't be a minute."
He retreated into the corner of the store and fumbled around for the message.
"Easier day at work today?" it asked.
Will wanted to give himself a minute to reply, but his fingers were rushing ahead of him.
"I wish it had been," his hand typed and hit send.
"It was cacophonous and draining."
"That is regrettable. I hope you at least slept well last night?"
Sleep. God, those blissful hours of nothingness felt like a lifetime ago. But he had slept well, and the morning after... The memory of what he'd done in the shower came back to him and warmed him in seconds.
He wanted to reply with something that would express the measure of his gratitude without betraying what that evening and morning had meant to him.
"Really well. Thanks to your efforts."
"Think nothing of it. It took you some time to drift off. The recipe for stewed hazel grouse seemed to finally do the trick."
"How could you tell?"
"The tell-tale tempo of your breath."
Will felt beyond warm then. The covetous feeling crept over him again, the feeling of possessing something, if not quite illicit, then intensely private. He glanced back at the store owner. The man stood behind the counter holding the glossy bag containing Will's soon-to-be purchase, looking uncertain and ill at ease.
"Give me a minute," he texted the chef.
He paid the slightly obscene amount for his headphones, though with fewer second thoughts or regrets now than he might have had before. He muttered his thanks and received another combination of courtly nod and plastered smile in farewell.
"Happy listening," the man said to Will's back.
In the car, Will put the bag on the passenger seat and took out his phone again.
"Guessing it's not hazel grouse you're making tonight? Kinda hard to find at Whole Foods."
"As it happens, I haven't started dinner yet."
Will licked then bit at his lower lip.
"Your online audience will be left waiting," he typed.
"Tonight I would prefer an audience of one. Would you like to suggest a dish?"
Will stared at the screen and listened to the rise and fall of his own breath, to the hum of the sparse late night traffic outside and to the rain just starting to tap against his windshield.
"You don't have to do this."
"Not even for the sake of self-expression or charity?"
"I don't want to impose," Will said, but he was only wasting data. Of course he'd accept. He'd been waiting for this all day and now here it was, offered to him like a Christmas gift.
"I would never propose this if my offer wasn't sincere," came the reply.
"Okay. Something simple then. Something comforting."
"I have just the thing. Call me when you're ready."
"Just like that?"
"Does it need to be any more complicated than that, Will?"
Not complicated, not that. But it still felt like Will was capitulating to the strange shape his desires seemed to have assumed. This wasn't normal, and by extension neither was Will.
"I'm out. Be home in about an hour," he texted, and started the car.
Rain picked up on the way. Only once or twice did Will hear in its patter the heartbeat of the Catcher's reimagined prelude, mixing with his own.
Only once or twice did he see in the passing streetlight the ghostly red heap of the woman who'd been discarded on Oriole Island having yielded up her voice for the sake of new art.
I know shit about music, but I do love Chopin. There are countless ways to imagine his prelude Op 28 No. 15
Pogorelich (slow - the Catcher's version was much slower):
Ashkenazy (tender and flowy)
Horowitz (best "raindrop" interpretation, IMHO)
Chapter 5: Thunderstorm in Majorca
A bloated silence sat waiting him at home, broken only by the snuffling of canine noses and the welcoming clatter of claws that probably needed a trim. Even the rain had stopped.
Crossing the threshold, Will felt a sense of approaching panic. His walls, like his thoughts, threatened to bleed again. If he didn't fill the silence with the chef's music, it would soon be filled with the Catcher's.
He stood in the kitchen, stared down into the glossy black bag that contained his purchase — and suddenly felt idiotic.
He hadn't asked if he was supposed to call the chef, or the other way around.
As if to break the impasse, his pocket rang loudly and made him jump.
He tucked the phone between his ear and shoulder, and scrambled to unwrap his shiny new headphones.
"Will. Have you eaten?"
That voice, already so familiar, cushioned deep in his skull. And it had only been days.
"I— No, not yet."
"The sounds of my kitchen may benefit your well-being, but you cannot expect them to also fill your belly."
"No, but I might get to find out if a growling stomach triggers my ASMR.”
A rumble of a laugh followed, and that was a trigger: it slid under Will’s skin like a soft avalanche of sound and made his toes curl inside his boots.
"Relaxing to the echoes of one's own hunger pangs would be a novel approach to self-care. Eat, Will. Get comfortable. And call me when you're ready."
They hung up, and Will stared at the rectangular void of his phone screen.
"What the fuck am I doing?" he asked, and got no answer.
He wolfed down some soup and toast, as ordered. He settled in an armchair, feet up, glass of rye in hand, dogs flopped around his feet. His heart, meanwhile, had settled a fraction too high in his chest.
Putting on his new headphones, he thought of the old set he got a decade ago from K-Mart and wondered if he'd ever before bought a replacement for something that wasn't broken. He thought about all the work-related research he needed to do that evening and was about to shove aside.
None of this was like him. He started the call.
Two rings, then Will heard music, reminiscent of the one in the chef’s first video. Somewhere in the background, a woman's operatic voice was advancing a graceful and somber melody. No sounds of cooking yet, though there were footsteps, the soft rustle of cloth, the shimmer of pouring water.
"Good evening again."
"Hi. I still don't know your name," Will said.
"And I'm still convinced you have the advantage of familiarity," the voice on the other end said. "A great number of things you could learn about me remain far more intimate than my name. Go ahead. Ask."
That word, intimate, poured itself out of the chef's mouth and through the expensive tech wrapped about Will's head. He shivered. That voice was like brushing bare skin against fine fabric.
The man was right — Will didn't need a name. There were a million other things he could and wanted to ask. But against the back of his skull sat the pressure of his day, the musical revelation of that morning, and a profile of a killer he had barely started to give shape to.
The somber melody sailed over the ensuing moment of silence.
"Not sure how intimate this is but," Will said at last. "That tune in the background. D'you know much about classical music?"
"More than most. I'm hardly a scholar, but I do know what affects me. I think you do as well." For a moment, the music grew louder — Will thought the chef must have put him closer to its source. "What do you think of this piece?"
The song lingered over a single drawn-out tone, suddenly and deeply mournful. Will closed his eyes. He wanted to say he preferred the sound of the chef's voice; wanted the music to transport him to a kitchen where those expert hands reigned supreme.
Instead, he saw the inside of the warehouse on Oriole Island. The flayed limbs and mop of blond hair lay crumpled inside it, as if abandoned on a grand stage. Somewhere in that poor torn up body sat the silenced voice box that had sung for the Catcher.
“I don't know," Will said quietly. "I guess it’s beautiful."
"And— and nothing. Did you want a critique?"
"I'm merely curious to know if it affects you."
"I don't understand what she's singing about. Whatever I feel won't be— won't be accurate if I don't know the meaning and intention behind the music."
"In life, understanding almost never precedes feeling. Do your emotional impressions often deceive you? Or is it your work that demands clinical knowledge over intuition?"
No, Will thought. It didn't work like that. Knowing was the end goal, but when it came to his killers, feeling and understanding for him danced to the same tune. He rarely doubted himself. But here, wrapped up in the brass and velvet of that nameless voice, Will was full of soft self-doubt.
"If I ask what you're cooking tonight, will that be enough to distract us from talking about my work?"
"Certainly. You are my audience, and I’m at your command.”
That sense of secret access and possession warmed Will through again. He flushed it down with a gulp of his drink. The chef could have broadcast his sonically sumptuous supper to thousands, millions — but he’d chosen Will.
Metal sounds arrived from the other end of, Will guessed, a pot being set on a range and a knife being drawn from a block. "I thought: a tartiflette,” the chef said. “A hearty classic of the Haute-Savoie, ideal for the cold drizzly night we're having here."
"Sounds like you're having what we're having. What's in the dish?"
"Since I'm depriving you tonight of the visual aspects of my cooking, I thought you may wish to guess."
Will had to laugh. “Even if I could, doesn't mean I'll be able to see what you're making. Might as well be feeling an elephant. Parts don't make a whole.”
“If it helps to further your insights, you may also listen to me eat it later, though I don't think that's the auditory experience you signed up for. Now, tell me if you can deduce each of the ingredients I’ll be preparing.”
“So much for being a passive audience.”
“I never said I wanted you passive,” that voice murmured into Will’s ear, so low that he had to take another drink.
“And if I can’t guess?”
The background music was suddenly cut silent on a soaring note.
“Then the failure will be mine for not having given you sufficient clues,” the chef said. “No pressure, Will. Enjoy the game.”
Will could try — no harm in it. He pressed the headphones over his ears and almost held his breath as he listened to what ensued.
The chop and clack of a knife coming down, crisp, crunching, fast. The nerves beneath Will's skin, already warmed by the timbres of the chef’s voice, lit up and danced like little flames. With eyes still closed, at long last he was back in that kitchen, with its baroque colours, pristine white aprons and light gleaming off blades.
"Whatever it is, you're preparing a small mountain of it,” Will whispered. The chef didn’t reply or pause in his task. “You do this a lot. You’re an expert at it. But you want it over with quickly, that’s why you started with it. It's not your favourite thing to do. It's not challenging. It's a chore." Will paused for effect, though he was almost certain of his answer. A discreet sniffle from the chef confirmed it. “Onions. You’re chopping onions.”
There was a pause from the other end, then Will's skin felt a pleasant scrape of steel against wood and the sizzle of something sliding into hot oil.
"Very good, Will,” the chef murmured. “Ears are not an organ of seeing, yet just now you saw as much as you heard. Shall we continue?”
A slab of something slapped a kitchen surface. The knife picked up again: just as rhythmic but softer and more careful now, sawing more than cutting. The slower music of the blade relaxed Will, but the guessing game kept him alert. A curious pleasure crept into it, too: the pleasure of using his odd set off gifts on something so innocent. Not murder for once, but someone's dinner.
“You’re handling this one differently," he said. "It's heavier, thicker. You're savoring cutting into this one. It's more precious, hard-won. It's— it's meat.”
A small sound of approval from the chef's throat deepened the ripples of delicate pleasure already washing over Will's body. "Bravo. I salt-cured and smoked the bacon myself. It was sourced from a rare and expensive animal, but well worth the price and effort. It is now diced and will join the onions. Shall we see if you can continue your streak?"
Will laughed again. "I have a feeling it's about to get harder."
It did. The knife slid through the next ingredient in a long, soft swoop, then clacked against wood. Will heard the same twice more, then it was over.
"Well?" the chef asked.
"No idea. Sorry."
"A wheel of Reblochon, a rind-washed cheese made to cover the other ingredients and melt over them. It's made with unpasteurised milk, so it isn't exactly available for purchase in my region. But I have my connections."
Will found he was still smiling. The grimmest aspects of his day seemed very far away. "Rare pigs. Illegal cheese connections. How does one obtain those?"
"Given the nature of my hobby, by cunning and necessity. Now, the onions and bacon will need to sauté for a while, and the dish also requires potatoes which will take some minutes to boil. How shall we pass the time?"
For a moment, Will let himself bathe in the subdued sounds of cooking that lingered in the background: the distant soft bubble of the potato pot, the measured sizzle of the meat and the onions. He felt slack-limbed and curiously cozy, as if his stomach was already full of the chef's hearty supper. A question drifted into his head, a loose thread he needed tying off.
"You said something earlier. You said I know what affects me."
"I did. And you must. My YouTube channel was new and not the easiest to find, yet your choice to select it was as deliberate as it was instinctual.”
"Your channel’s thumbnail was the only one that didn't show teenagers crunching on onion rings."
"There's no shame in judging a book by its cover." From the other end came a scrape and a hiss: the onions must have been given a stir. "You are also particular about how you experience our sessions."
Will squirmed in his chair at that, fingers digging into the armrests. "Am I?"
“Your voice sounds a bit more distant tonight,” the chef said. “If I’m not mistaken you are on speaker phone.” There was a pause, and Will’s heart skipped a beat. “Are you wearing headphones, Will?”
The several hundred dollars of audio tech wrapper around Will's head suddenly made his ears burn. He didn’t have to volunteer a truthful answer. But he would. No turning back: he'd reveal his commitment to this, whatever it was.
“Yeah. Yeah, I bought some earlier.”
A small sound of something like approval arrived in response. "May I ask what brand?"
Will told him. "The guy at the Oasis— uh, the shop I bought them in said they were decent."
There was a brief pause. "Then we must put them to good use," the chef said. "The bacon and onions are nearly ready and I must assemble my dish for the oven. Afterwards, shall we decide how to spend the rest of our evening?"
"Yeah," Will said, and felt the sudden strain on his voice. "I'll wait."
The chef fell silent and the music of the kitchen picked up anew, a bit more distant now. Will's eyes came open. Had he really kept them closed this whole time? His world came back into brutal relief and with it, all the tensions of his day. The haven around his ears was an island in an ocean of creeping silence. The mollifying pleasures of the chef's music were dissipating fast.
"There," the voice resurfaced and Will's heart skipped with relief. "The tariflette has gone to its fate. We have just over half an hour before it's ready. Now seems like a good opportunity to ask if you're enjoying yourself so far."
The burn in Will's ears spread far and wide. "I— before I answer, can I ask another question? This one’s more intimate.”
“I’ll do my best to reply.”
“Do you get ASMR?”
Over the brief pause that followed, Will heard the sound of cabinets and drawers closing. “No,” the chef said. “It interests me, but it does not affect me.”
A forlorn feeling squeezed at Will’s heart. The man whose cooking and voice played on every nerve in Will’s body like a theremin would never understand how they made Will feel.
"But music affects you," Will whispered, with a strange sort of hope. "Some music."
"Some does, yes. And what music affects you, Will?"
"Chopin," Will heard himself say, eyes staring across the room at his work bag. "Chopin affects me."
"The tragic consumptive. Any of his works in particular?”
"Yeah." Will quickly pinched his eyes shut again. "The 'Raindrop' prelude."
There was silence from the other end — the first true silence of their whole exchange. "A well-loved piece, and with good reason. Do you know the story of its creation?"
Will didn't. That was supposed to have been research for tonight. He'd neglected that along with everything else for the sake of losing himself in that voice.
"Our sickly Frédéric had been recuperating in Majorca with his lover, George Sand," the chef said. "She'd gone out in a heavy thunderstorm with her son, leaving her feverish paramour in the monastery that was their home. Frédéric listened to the rain battering their roof and imagined his love had perished in the storm."
"Did she come back?" Will asked with barely any breath in his lungs.
"She did, and wrote extensively about the episode in her memoirs."
"The memoirs," Will whispered. "Do you have them?"
"Shall I read to you from them? Read to you about the storm?"
Will didn't even have to ask. Through his headphones, footsteps were already advancing, ascending stairs. Will's mind trailed behind them, following in the darkness.
A book was drawn from a shelf. The pages turned slowly, crisply, deliberately. Will felt as if someone were turning them beneath his skin. His breathing calmed. He waited for the words to come. He was starting to drift again, still in the dark. This time, he wouldn't let himself open his eyes and break the spell.
"It won't be a translation, will it?" he muttered. "Another language I can't understand?" His French had been leaving him fast since his New Orleans days.
"A foreign tongue worked beautifully the last time I did this for you," the voice replied, warm and cool all at once. "I can still recall the pattern of your breathing as you drifted off to sleep."
Will might have smiled. That voice. That nameless voice. It began its recitation in melodic and half-whispered French that slid under Will's skin and swirled somewhere in the pit of his belly, cool and warm all at once. Will's hand followed down and rested on his stomach to feel the place where the voice had settled. He wanted to slide it lower. His body would comply. Not tonight. Not like this. His breath might give him away.
"Why a prelude?" Will mumbled quietly to himself. "What does it begin?"
"Nothing— nothing. Don't stop. Keep reading. Please. It's very beautiful."
"Buy new headphones. The ones you were sold are adequate, but I can recommend a better brand for our purposes. I'll message you the details.“
Will murmured his agreement. After all, why not? He was in deep and far now, drifting through the darkness, and the shore that held flayed bodies and preludes made of screams looked very far away.
The chef read on. And on. Only the words remained, and Will followed their somnolent shadows into slumber, understanding but a few but feeling each and every one.
Chapter 6: Rain on Oriole Island
I found this chapter a bit tricky to write, so I apologise for any grammatical shortcomings or typos.
The downpour that swallowed the hills hissed like hot oil in a thousand iron pans. Above it, Will could still hear the sound of the fortepiano, the far and faint trickle of its notes summoning him through the storm, towards the monastery.
His bare feet slipped on the stones of the steep, winding path. Raindrops pricked icy against his neck, as if they meant to dissolve him. The path seemed interminable — until it wasn’t. Will found himself in the courtyard at the heart of the ruin. The monastery's roofs had long gone. There was nowhere to shelter.
The storm had turned the courtyard into a reflecting pool and there, mirrored in its centre, stood the source of the music, a gushing well of beautiful sound.
Rain poured over the lacquered surfaces of the instrument. Rain soaked the hair and coat of the man who sat before it. His back to Will, the man played with consummate and thrilling skill.
Will shivered all over. He drew closer, feet taking wide splashing strides through the flood. The music was alien but oh so sweet. It affected him. It touched his skin in a way the rain never could.
He wanted to touch the music in return, and so he touched the man, hand warming on the soaked stranger's shoulder. He peered over to watch the music being made and saw hands that were familiar.
"Are you him?" Will said, and didn't know who he meant.
In reply, the hands struck a darker chord.
The air no longer smelled of petrichor and pine, but of copper. Drop by drop, the rain began to turn red. It splashed against the ivory, over dextrous fingers that played on despite.
The sky is bleeding, Will wanted to say, had to say to the man. He tugged on a shoulder, but still the man played on, even as his hands drowned in blood.
Fear shook Will to his very core. He peered about wildly, looking for answers or help.
And that's when he saw her: stood still in the wreckage at the far end of the courtyard, red against a backdrop of green sodden hills. The woman, small, blonde and flayed.
The stranger’s notes soared above the storm. The woman's arms rose up in time to the music and thrust forward, towards Will. Her mouth gaped wide and moved, but no sound came out.
The dream spat him out onto the cold shore of morning. For a moment he flailed and gasped, trying to remember the purpose of his lungs.
Dawn had only just risen. By degrees Will pried himself out from the chair he had slept in. He made coffee, let the dogs out onto the porch and watched them spill out over fields soggy from the rain that must have returned overnight. His body felt creaky and stiff. His ears hurt from being pressed by the headphones all night.
Still in yesterday's clothes, he settled into bed and tried to ease himself into the day. He made a start on the things he'd neglected the night before. He skimmed through the lab's initial report from Oriole Island. He read about Chopin's stay in Majorca. He Googled tartiflettes. He checked Compendium Ferculorum's YouTube channel.
It was no use. He was distracted, hazy. The dream had blurred the Catcher case with last night's auditory pleasures. Nothing in Will’s head was siloed anymore.
Three hours until class. He'd shower, prep his notes, set out into the world. He could do this.
His phone trilled softly against his bedsheets and Will nearly spilled his coffee. He snatched at the phone with a quick intake of breath. The chef.
"Good morning, Will. I hope you slept well. The headphone recommendation, as promised.”
The link that arrived with the message took Will to a handsome set of headphones even more expensive than the ones he had bought. He still wanted them. Not just because they held the promise of more and richer sessions with the chef. He wanted them because he was told to buy them.
He started to text back then made himself stop. Maybe the man didn't expect or want a reply. The two of them seemed to be in a similar time zone, and it was early. Time for getting ready for work, not for chatting with Internet strangers.
But who knew when Will might have another chance to get his fix? Except for the implication held by the headphones, neither of them had hinted at keeping this thing going.
"Thanks," he typed. "I'll try and get them tonight"
He paused for a moment, then added:
"Sorry for falling asleep on you again, kinda rude”
He hit send and held his breath. Before he had to catch the next one, a new message arrived.
"If I had objected, I’m sure I would have found a way to rouse you. ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ at full volume perhaps."
A smile pulled at the corners of Will’s mouth. He wondered if the chef had listened to him breathing again whilst he slept. He felt warm despite the morning chill.
"That’s one idea"
"I do have something else to share with you."
“Do you? I’m not sure I can afford any more audio equipment”
Another link slid up in reply, this one pointing to a private file server. Will blinked at the screen. Before he could ask, an explanation appeared.
“I recorded my recitation of Sand last night. Only my voice, not our conversation. As I won't be available for the next few evenings, I thought you might enjoy having it to hand, should the need strike.”
Even as he read the words on screen, Will felt himself being stricken with a singular need, a heady concoction of gratitude, possession and embarrassment, and of other things he couldn’t name.
“I don’t know what to say”
“But you don’t object to the gift?”
"If you'd like, I can point you at a good translation of the passage I read you."
"It's okay. I picked up the odd word and phrase last night, but it was like you said”
"What did I say?"
"I think I like not understanding"
It was an oddly vulnerable confession, something close to admitting that he liked being lied to. Will pushed his work laptop aside and slumped back against his pillow, phone held up and over his face. He wished they could have had this as an actual conversation, but then he could almost hear the chef's voice in each text.
"Last night, you felt the need to understand the music I played for you. Not so with the reading?"
"Sometimes it’s a relief, not having to understand. To just feel."
"It was Auden who said that the best way to experience mass is in another language."
"Is that what you're really doing when you're reading to me? Sermonising?"
"What I offer you may be considered therapy. And the first therapists were clergymen."
"So you're trying to save my soul. And here I thought you were just enjoying showing off your exceptionality”
"What I most reliably enjoy is indulging your needs and wants, from genuine distress to mere curiosity."
Will had to put the phone down at that. He stared at the ceiling, listening to the rush of blood in his veins.
That was the gist of it, wasn't it? The very source of the covetous feeling that had followed him around for days. Will had been soothed and indulged. Intrigued and pleasantly surprised. A whole menu of things he hadn't had for years, and never in such abundance, had been served up to him on a silver platter and he'd dug into the feast with greedy ears.
He picked up the phone again and typed quickly.
"I hope you know I'm grateful"
"Not just for the recording, for everything. I feel like I’m taking too much from you"
"You've not taken any more than I have allowed. But if you'd like to reciprocate, there is one thing you can do for me."
Will's fingers twitched against the screen. A million possibilities teemed suddenly in his brain, only some of them filthy. He took a slow breath. The heat he'd felt last night low in his belly lit itself up anew.
"As I told you, I don't experience ASMR. The next time we speak, will you describe it for me? I’d like to know what your body feels when you listen to me.”
If he was to oblige the chef's request, the recording would come in handy. Will could listen to the recitation and take detailed, anthropological notes on his responses. He could arrange these into a kind of profile on himself — or at least on his hyper-sensitive senses.
Maybe he'd do it tonight, the case permitting.
Now. He could do it now. He still had time before work, and it wouldn't take long.
He downloaded the file to his phone and went to fetch the headphones. He was about to crawl back into bed and under the duvet, when a thought possessed him with a sharp thrill.
He peeled out of his sweater briskly, then his jeans, then everything else. He needed a shower soon anyway, didn't he? And he wanted to do this right.
He stretched out on top of the sheets. Air blanketed his skin, a cool and invisible cloth. He slipped on the headphones, closed his eyes and pressed play.
I want to know what your body feels.
First the rustle of pages, firing off the first volley of tingling sensation. Then came the voice.
On his skin, it registered like a rapid patter of a thousand delicate fingertips. A mute melody was being played on the instrument of Will's nervous system. The alien tongue and the sound of steady breath streamed together in the darkness behind his eyes. He saw nothing, he only heard and felt, and was grateful for it. No skinned or screaming horrors had pursued him here, out of his life or dreams.
He remembered how his hand had slid down to find the place on his belly where the resonance of the voice had pooled. He did it again now, pressing his palm below his navel, rubbing small circles there. He still couldn't bring himself to move it lower. To stroke himself would be an admission, a point of no return.
But under the voice-summoned waves of shimmering sensation, his body ached for touch. The warm and ordinary want he had felt that time in the shower was swallowing him up with every new phrase that poured into his ears. He was so desperately hard. He could smell himself.
He rolled over instead. The voice found the back of him and caressed over new planes of naked skin. His toes pinched the sheets. His cock felt hot and heavy, trapped under his weight. He’d make a mess like this, probably made one already. It didn't matter. He started to grind against the mattress, into the warming wet patch left there by his leaking cock.
Will's breath and hips stuttered to a stop. Had he really just heard that? Had it come from his phone or his head? He listened to the drawn-out silence suddenly wrapped around his ears. Not a complete silence: he heard a sigh being drawn slowly in. Then more words.
"I wonder if your skin still responds to my voice even when you sleep," the chef whispered to him.
Will smothered his face in a pillow and let it muffle something like a whine. Those words. Those words undid him. He felt lit up from within. Every inch of him shimmered with sensation. He rocked down hard against the sheets, but it wasn’t enough. Time for an admission. He thrust a hand between himself and the bed, gripped his cock and listened for more.
"Do you register the sound of it as something akin to a caress? The alchemy of voice turned touch?"
Then a pause, as for a reply. Then French again, with that voice like poured molten metal, like a knife scraped over stone. Or skin.
In Will's overheated mind, voice did become touch. He could almost see them, those elegant, skilled hands, traversing the shapes of his body. He felt them more than the cold morning air, more than the friction of sheets against his chest and thighs. Those hands, roaming him, prying him apart, going inside. Wrapping around him and getting him off. Soft and rough around his cock, insistent and tender, they tugged him to the edge.
He smothered his cries and shook and shook as he came, the alchemy of that voice his only companion through the guilty giddiness and blinding pleasure of his climax.
He'd only just left class when his phone rang with an urgency that was all in his head — he knew that news about the case was bound to arrive sooner or later, and here it was.
Whatever was coming down the line, he wanted to hear it some place quiet, without students elbowing past him in the hallway. Too far from the safety of his office, he slid into the men's room instead.
He answered without looking at caller ID.
"Hi." Beverly's voice. "We have ID on the latest victim."
Will tried to ignore the twist in his stomach and stared down the long beige procession of restroom stall doors. The woman from his dream, draped in wild hair and red scraps of flesh, stood at the end and gasped her mute song.
"Yeah. Go ahead."
"Adrianna Remini," Beverly said. "Visiting soprano at the Baltimore Concert Opera. She'd been driving down to a retreat in Annapolis and never made it."
A moment of silence followed. Will pinched his eyes shut. When he opened them again, the woman was gone.
"Guessing her profession doesn't come as a surprise?" Beverly said.
A precious instrument, worthy of being kept warm, worthy of the soaring acoustics in the warehouse on Oriole Island. The Catcher had caught and skinned his first true songbird.
Will dropped his forehead against a mirror and stared past himself, into nothing.
"Not a surprise," he said quietly. "Got anything else?"
"We're looking for her car and tracking down known associates." Will heard the rustle of paperwork from the other end. He thought of the book pages that had turned for his ears' delight. "Will. The location where she was killed. Why was this one so different?"
"I've been wondering the same thing."
"You said the Catcher might be using the places he kills them as— what was it?"
"An auditory canvas," Will said and a thought came to him, only an inkling, but as clear and sudden as the glimpse of the bloody woman moments ago. It made him faintly ill.
"I've gotta go."
"Aren't you gonna come in? Jack will want you."
"The other victims. Check for any musical connections. Opera patronage, choir membership, that sort of thing."
"What about you? Where are you going?"
Not an understanding, but a feeling. He had to follow it to its conclusion, whatever that was. But there was something else on the agenda first, something he'd promised himself.
He parked outside the Euphonic Oasis. Clutching the bag with his unwanted purchase, he peered in through the windows. Normally he didn't mind returning stuff, but there was nothing wrong with the headphones. And he didn't think the store owner was the type to take rejection of a personal recommendation lightly. Especially since the man appeared to be having a not wholly amicable exchange with the store's sole customer, one dressed like he could actually afford to buy most things in there.
To hell with it — Will wanted his headphones. He walked in, nearly collided with the well-heeled shopper, and got his exchange.
Back in the car, he reached into the bag which held the beautiful new piece of kit, matte black and chrome with smooth wood inlays over the earpieces. He thought about its ultimate purpose: the pursuit of a higher sensory experience.
A fiery sunset hung over the island. The warehouse sat silhouetted black against the sky, an enormous coffin, its rows of high windows burnished red.
Will spotted no gawkers. Few would bother to make the trip out here, though that might change once the identity of the Catcher's songbird was revealed. If they did come, they'd find nothing of note. Just a small industrial strip of land, home to concrete and metal and seabirds.
Will parked near the local patrol cars. He flashed ID at the cop who'd rolled down his window, then ducked under the cordon and walked across the sprawl of the empty lot.
He reached the shoreline. Terns and starlings were swooping above the water, spatters of black paint set in motion. Clouds were rolling in from the East. Though Will could tell they carried rain, they didn't leech any crimson from the sunset. For a moment Will was back in his dream, with all its unease. He wondered if the sky would soon bleed.
"Why here?" he whispered. It wasn't, he knew, because of any practicalities of crime.
It started to rain, barely a drizzle. Will put out his hand and watched the droplets come down, clear not crimson. He closed his eyes.
I came here before. Before I brought her. I've been and stood on this spot many times.
The rain picked up fast. Will heard it splash against water of the bay, the ground at his feet. An ordinary sort of sound.
Behind him a larger sound was rising, soaring, broadening like applause.
The roof of the warehouse. A million raindrops were colliding with an expanse of corrugated sheet metal and glass, and leaving their song in their wake.
The rain comes often. I listen to it. I feel it. I feel it on my skin, in my skin.
Will's heartbeat picked up. He turned and walked slowly towards the looming shape of the warehouse. Here it was: the feeling he'd pursued to its conclusion.
He was shivering all over, cold and wet and sick with understanding, but his skin was awash with shimmering waves of sensation. The same sensation he knew from the sizzle of oil, from the rustle of turning pages, from the voice of a nameless chef.
The man who flayed flesh to make art knew it too.
The tap of Jack's finger against the desk sounded inside Will's skull like a small hammer striking at the most painful part of his headache. Will wondered if the bone might splinter under the added weight of Crawford's stare.
"Where's Katz?" he asked. "Been trying to get a hold of her."
"I sent her to see a suspect."
Will stopped in cleaning his glasses. "You— what? What suspect?"
"We went through Adrianna Remini's laptop. Dunt had been sending her texts and emails. Not the solicited kind. She filed a restraining order a week before she died.”
"But how did he—"
"He's on an advisory board at the opera. Must have gotten her details from someone there. We're looking into it."
Will shuffled the papers on his desk into a pile. The edges of the pages felt fine and sharp, ready to slice through his skin. "It's not him."
More rhythmic tapping against the desk, louder now. Was Jack's finger striking out a melody, or was Will's brain really just that frazzled? "Give me a better idea then," Crawford said. "Because a suspect who's been stalking the latest victim and can deconstruct a piece of music sounds pretty good to me."
"The Catcher doesn't obsess over people. He obsesses over his— his self-expression. And maybe the attention of a certain audience. I'm not sure yet."
"Dunt looks a lot more solid than anything you've given me so far. When am I going to get a profile, Will? Something I can move on."
It was only his aching head, but on Will's laptop screen, the paused sound waves of the Catcher's first composition seemed to quiver and jerk. Somewhere out there a new masterpiece was being assembled. It had already been torn from the virtuoso throat of Adrianna Remini. Every moment of silence was pregnant with the threat of it. Will wanted to explain to Crawford about his trip to Oriole Island. But what he'd found there was still as solid as air, nothing to move on.
"It's getting there," Will said finally. "The profile. Just need to speak to Katz."
Jack's fist came down against the desk. "Dunt is coming in. If you've got something better than the odd fragment, I need it soon."
Will put his head in his hands. He heard Crawford move for the door.
"I expected more from you on this," Jack said. "These people died in agony. They need justice."
A few minutes after Crawford left, Will gathered his notes, gathered himself and shuffled out of the stifling silence of his office into the hallway headed for class.
His head really was killing him. He’d slept terribly the two nights since coming back from Oriole Island, the quiet of his home a floodgate that let the nightmares slosh back into his head.
He’d deliberately denied himself the only remedy he knew would have helped. Twice he came close to deleting the chef’s recording from his phone.
In the hallway, the chatter of passing students and the echo of Jack's last words congealed in his brain into an ugly soup of sound, far removed from the only voice he needed to hear.
Somewhere from behind, another voice drifted out of the din, feminine and familiar.
"Will, how are you?"
Will turned. Alana Bloom, in her pretty dress and with her handsome briefcase. He caught a whiff of her inoffensive perfume.
"Hi. Yeah. Case isn't going that great."
"I didn't ask about the case," she said gently and gave him that smile of hers, the concerned one. “How are you sleeping since we last spoke?”
"Better." Hell of a thing, starting a conversation with a half-truth. "I tried your suggestion. The ASMR thing. It's been— useful."
"That's great to hear." Alana's smile brightened and she gave him a little pat on the arm. "Did you find something good on YouTube?"
Will felt as if something intensely private was about to be pried out of him. “A cooking channel," he stuttered out. Giving even that much away felt sacrilegious.
"Oh? Got a name for me?”
"I can't actually remember." The lies were coming so easily. Will needed to temper them with a dose of truth. "Though I’m starting to rely on it too much," he said. "Is there such a thing as overdosing on therapy?"
Alana gave him a quizzical look. Her hand was back on his arm, carefully steering him out of the flow of human traffic to the edge of the hallway. Will hoped the twitch his elbow gave at her touch didn't show. As if his head wasn't bad enough, his skin had turned oddly sensitive, accustomed the past few days to pure auditory stimuli.
"I'm not sure I understand, Will," she said. "I'd suggested ASMR as a sleep aid, not as therapy."
Will grimaced a smile. How could he begin to explain? Shouldn't have said anything at all. "Maybe— therapy's not the right word," he fudged. "Escapism. I think I might be using it as escapism. It's distracting me from the case." It wasn't the whole truth, but it was more honest than he'd been with himself so far.
Alana looked at him for a moment, then nodded slowly. "Therapy certainly shouldn't be escapism. In fact it’s usually hard work. If there is someone you'd like to speak to, I can still recommend—"
"Sure, okay. I'll think about it," Will said, aware of how short he sounded. The discomfort of letting part his secret out into the world made him queasy, made him want to get rid of the touch on his arm and the company altogether. He stared past Alana's shoulder as if he might stare his way out of his headache.
Alana reached into her briefcase. After a moment, she handed him a card. Will skimmed over the name and credentials, then shoved the card in his pocket.
They said their good byes, and Will headed for class.
He sat in his car after class afterwards and dreaded going home.
Jack had been right. Alana, too. Will had run into the arms of a soothing distraction and mistook its strange pleasures for something more substantial — all while people were being slaughtered.
Even as he thought it, he knew he was still giving himself excuses for what he needed to do next. Enough. He took out his phone and took in a shaky breath. He opened Skype. Before he could write the message, the screen lit up with Beverly Katz's name.
"How's Dunt?" Will answered, grateful for the sudden change of course.
"Not great," Katz said. "Never had a suspect start blubbering so fast."
"It's not him."
She sighed. "Jack needs this closed, Will."
"Something else pissed him off. It's not just me. What happened?"
"Number one, tonight he's gotta tell the press that a famous singer was slaughtered by a serial killer he hasn't caught yet. Number two, you see the latest splash on TattleCrime?"
Will’s headache went a notch up. "What now?"
"Freddie Lounds followed you to Oriole Island. There's a broody-looking picture of you on her website. Headline is something about a golden boy profiler taking the Catcher case into his own hands."
Will’s forehead dropped to the steering wheel. "Fuck. Katz, please tell me you’ve got something for me."
He heard the sound of a can tab snapping, the fizz of soda or beer, then Katz slowly crunching on something. Despite everything, it gave Will a faintly pleasant shiver.
"Maybe I do," she said. "Still working on it. I'll be in touch."
"I'll see what I can do."
They hung up. Will looked out at the concrete sprawl ahead and the few cars still left in the lot. Dusk was falling, a heavy drab curtain that smothered the day. The rain picked up again. This time the ordinary sound of it against the roof of his car made Will faintly ill. He still had to find the words to write to the chef. A few more minutes of hesitating, and he decided he'd wait until he got home.
At least he was still sure about the Catcher. Not that the certainty he always felt about his killers ever gave him any satisfaction. In this case it had given him something he hadn't bargained for. He barely let himself think it.
The headphones he bought at Euphonic Oasis sat on the floor of the car’s passenger side. Will had half-hoped someone would break in and take them. He hadn't even brought them into the house.
They'd become too much of a taunting reminder that Will and the killer chased the same sensory thrills.
One by one, the dogs were trotting back into the house after their evening run. Will stood on the back porch with a glass in hand and let the night chill wrap around his bones. The cold felt good, teaming up with the whiskey to freeze and burn out some of his headache.
With the rustling and sniffling of the pack now gone, only the wind could be heard in the dark fields ahead, whistling and knocking against a loose gutter he had been meaning to fix for weeks. Will half expected Adrianna Remini to walk out of the darkness and open up her throat to the wind's chaotic rhythm.
From the house, he heard his phone ring on the kitchen counter. Katz already? But it wasn't his usual ring tone — it was the Skype one. Will's heart thudded once. He went inside.
He moved quickly through the kitchen. After a shaky breath, he answered.
"Do you know that it's been days since you last saw me cook? We should fix that."
The chef's voice landed like a warm poultice over the aching spool of synapses inside Will's skull. At the same time, a knot twisted in the pit of his stomach. His hand went clammy around the phone.
"You haven't been updating your channel," he managed after a moment.
"You’ve been checking.” The reply was purred low, full of obvious pleasure. "I haven't found much motivation to do so. Not since becoming host to a singularly receptive audience."
Will had to shut his eyes at the shivers that flitted up his spine. That voice. Its casual familiarity. Its plushly cushioned S’s and its brassy warmth. For a moment he tried to imagine never hearing it again.
"I can't be the only one that benefits from what you do," he said. "Others must be feeling left out." He took a swig of his drink and braced himself. "Maybe you should think about them too."
The pause that followed filled slowly with understanding.
"Would you like to tell me what's happened, Will?" the chef asked.
"Don't want to impose, that's all,” Will got out. "I've been taking up your time."
The chef's voice grew careful and measured. "We both know there is no imposition to speak of. Has the burden of your work become so great that you believe I can no longer help you?"
"The work I do— you have to understand." Will ran a hand over his eyes. He wished his heart would stop shuttling between his stomach and his chest. "It deals in violence. In death. The most awful—"
He trailed off and let himself listen to whatever sounds drifted in from the other end. A pot was bubbling on the stove in the chef's kitchen. Somewhere further off, a harpsichord was sounding a slow and graceful dance.
"Are you perchance in law enforcement, Will?"
Will steadied himself with a grip on the kitchen counter. There was no point in hiding it anymore, not when he knew how this conversation would end. "I help the authorities find bad men," he said. "Very bad men."
"I see. And the man you are pursuing now? How has he sullied your delight?"
Will's chest felt tight. How could he explain to the chef that the Catcher's proclivities had bled into the only corner of peace and pleasure Will had started to carve out for himself in this world? He felt as if he might cry.
“I can't do this with you anymore," he said, aware of the strain in his voice. "Not without thinking about this man and what he does.”
"Aspects of his nature have crept into what we do together.”
That came perilously close to the truth, but Will couldn't deny it. “Yeah. Yes, they have.”
“And you would allow him to rob you like this?"
Will opened his eyes at that and stared ahead through the silence of his home, out into the darkness outside his kitchen window. He blinked. Something moved just outside the glass, jerky and unnatural. Then again. A red shape, barely glimpsed. Blonde-headed. Something flapping in its wake. He gasped.
"I'm sorry." Will fought to keep his voice from breaking. "I have to— I need to keep this clean. I need to focus."
"Very well." The chef's voice had changed again, from careful and measured to distant and cold. "It seems this is good-bye then."
Will felt a rising sense of panic. He wanted to protest. To keep on apologising and explaining why he couldn't let himself have this. In the end, he didn't know what to say. He waited for the line to disconnect and leave him at the mercy of silence and things imagined.
"Before we say our farewells, could I impose on you to keep to your promise?"
How could Will forget? Their last exchange and the chef's request. "You want me to tell you what it feels like when I listen to you."
"If you don't mind."
"I don't know if I can."
“I have every faith in you. You are very capable with your words.”
“Why do you want this?”
The reply bordered on frosty. “I’m curious.”
Will didn't believe it. "Bullshit,” he said. “You engage all your exceptional talents to trigger my sensory response. You pull out all the stops to play me. Must be so frustrating, not being able to hear a damn thing in return. I bet you feel like you’re not getting your dues. Like you're a deaf composer.”
There was a long exhalation on the other line. "Very astute," the chef said softly. “I do sometimes feel as if I’m strumming the air with you."
"Got some bad news," Will said. "Maybe I can make you understand what it's like. But I can't make you feel it." He necked the last of his whiskey and wished he'd poured himself more. "You can't feel it if you don't got it."
“That is true for most people. Is it true for you, Will? This bad man who sours your days. Can you really understand him without feeling what he feels?"
Will didn't want to answer that. It would have been an admission too far. His eyes darted around the kitchen and settled on his knife drawer. They hadn't yet figured out what kind of blade the Catcher used to skin his songbirds. Which part of Adrianna Remini's body did he flay first?
"Will.” The thaw in the chef's tone sent Will sailing back into the present moment. “I do want to hear you. How can I let you in?"
Will shivered. His eyes fell closed again and he felt as if he were tumbling into some enchanted well of sound. He saw himself at the bottom, floating naked in dark warm depths.
"If you want to hear me," he said without thinking, “you have to be me."
On the other end, footsteps echoed across a floor. The harpsichord fell silent. More steps, and the bubbling pot was turned off too.
"Tell me what to do."
Will felt his blood rush haphazardly about his body, gushing up to his cheeks. He saw himself naked on his bed, smothered in softly uttered alien words. Every inch of his skin had sung in response.
A thought grabbed him by the scruff and he didn’t shake it off. If he was ordering himself to put an end to these calls, he might as well make the last one honest. And if he got hung up on, then at least he will have ended things as badly as his every other attempt at a human connection.
"Take off your clothes," he said quickly. And then he waited.
Sorry for the clithanger.
Next chapter is written and will be with you in the next day or two.
Chapter 8: The Other Skin
The call didn't end. The next words that reached Will’s ears carried a tone of faint amusement.
"Do you mean: everything?"
"Everything," Will breathed out. Too late to take it back now. The blood burning his ears and cheeks brought on its tide the same covetous feeling he'd carried around with him for days. The feeling that here, with this stranger, he could get anything he wanted.
"In that case excuse me while I move upstairs," the chef said, as if it were so simple. As if Will had just asked him for something completely normal. "Oh, and Will?"
"Yeah?" Will heard the fissure in his voice.
"Did you buy the headphones?"
The new headphones. Will had actually brought them in from the car. "You want me to put them on?"
"If you would."
Will didn't ask why. Whatever he had just set in motion was already growing beyond his control. A minute later he was back in the kitchen, his phone on speaker and his heart pounding harder than before, though no longer with the dread of imminent loss.
The cushioned discs of the headphones wrapped snugly around his ears and transmitted to him with exquisite fidelity the rhythmic tap of footsteps ascending over wood. The thudding in his chest seemed to match those steps. He closed his eyes again and let his world dissolve to nothing but the sounds in his ears and the warmth in his body. He began to see outlines of a home that must have gone with the chef's immaculate kitchen: all of it dark and gleaming, full of strange objects asking to be tapped, scraped or rustled.
A door opened and closed.
"There," the chef murmured. "I am here and I await further instruction."
Here was the bedroom, Will guessed, and the embarrassed thrill he got from that made him swallow hard. He hoped he wasn't heard. "The headphones,” he said. “You— you don't have to do anything for me tonight.”
A soft rustle of cloth from inside the bedroom sent the first trickles of sensation down the whole of Will's nape. "Silk, wool and cotton all have their unique sound signatures," the chef said. "Since I'm getting undressed anyway, I thought your sensitivities might as well benefit from the recital. Not to mention you may be more comfortable describing your sensory response with it freshly engaged."
"Silk?" Will could only manage in reply to that.
"My tie. And my briefs."
Will swallowed again. He found his hands were once again gripping the counter, as if he didn't trust them not to grip something they shouldn't. Behind his eyelids he saw the chef's own hands reaching up to unravel silk and slip open tiny collar buttons — all at Will's request.
"You're really not going to object to any of this?"
"Why should I? Whatever your plan, are we not safe in its constraints? Just our minds and the private soundscape of our two lives to give it form."
It was a minor revelation. Maybe the chef was right. They were safe. Behind Will's eyelids, with the symphony of sensation and rising arousal coating his body, it didn't matter what lines bled together or what flayed ghosts circled outside the ordinary silence of his kitchen. All he had to do was keep his eyes shut and listen.
"Go ahead then," he said roughly. "Like I said, take it all off. Lie down when you're done."
"On my back?"
"On your back."
No words in reply, only a long drawing in of breath, followed by a shimmer of skin over fabric. The tie. That must have been the tie. Will listened: long fingers burrowing into the silk knot, prying it apart. Silk sliding from the cotton collar in a hissing swoop. The music of it all spilled silvery rivulets of feeling all through the finest nerve endings in Will's body, but that wasn’t all. He could see it all, articulated with the same lurid, oil-canvas colors Will's mind used to paint his killers.
A new sound fizzed in his ears. Was that wool against cotton? No, the sound was closer, rougher: it must have been stubble on cloth. Will shivered. A brief chime came next — the belt buckle — and the groan of shoe leather. After that, the smooth glide of fabric being shed from limbs. Pants. Socks. Underwear. Not just underwear: silk briefs. All of it slow and considered. All of it for Will's pleasure.
A tiny creak came next: the bed frame or the mattress springs submitting to the weight of a body.
"I'm ready, Will."
The whirlpool of heat in the pit of Will’s belly spun lower. His skin sang with vibrations in the aftermath of the sonic striptease. At the bottom of the well behind his eyelids he saw the body that went with those talented hands, the face that owned lips that spoke to him in strange and soothing tongues. He had this man all to himself, sprawled naked and compliant to Will's wishes.
He was hard. But he couldn't, wouldn't touch himself. He had a task. He had to show the chef what he did to Will.
The idea that came to him blurred all the lines, but it didn't matter — he was safe, wasn't he? He pinched his eyes shut more tightly and groped for the handle of his knife drawer. He found his ancient chef's knife by touch and, with his other hand, felt for the wooden slab of his chopping board. He dragged the board over, poised the knife point above it and scraped metal against wood.
"Do you ever feel like you live your days inside a second skin? A skin nobody can see or touch?"
For a moment there was no sound from the other end, not even a breath. "Perhaps not in the way you mean," the chef said. "But yes."
"Picture yourself inside it. Think about how sensitive it is all over. One day you hear the right sound—" The blade scraped the board again— “like a knife scoring your secret skin. Letting itself in."
A long breath came in reply. Will thought he heard the subtle sound of a throat swallowing. "Go on, Will," the chef murmured. "Tell me how it feels."
Will found his grip on the knife had tightened. His palm around the handle felt damp. He tried to picture the sheets that held the chef's body, their fabric and texture. He wanted to hear skin slide against them, as it had against silk, wool and cotton.
He tipped the blade flat against the wood grain and scraped again.
"You're slit open. Wrapped up in red ribbons of feeling. Every new sound makes them beed with sensation. But there's no pain. Only the sense of being alive inside your skin. You're safe, even as the blade peels you like a grape and plucks on the strings of the nerves it reveals."
"The body as a string instrument," the chef murmured. "Skinned and strummed on by your aural knife."
A shudder ran through Will. Something like repulsion should have been seizing him by now, or at least self-disgust. Where was the Catcher and his slaughtered songbirds in all this, while Will indulged in these strange pleasures?
"It’s not my knife," he said, jerky and strained.
"Who else's would it be? You wield it well."
"Do I?" Will asked shakily.
"I felt it on my skin as you spoke," the chef said softly. "I knew you had me strip with good reason."
Will's breath frayed into shreds at that. There would be no way to hide it. He pictured himself straddling the chef's body, knife in hand, tenderly tracing whole compositions into bare skin instead of wood. He felt the needy twitch of his cock and caught himself reaching down to relieve the ache. He locked both hands on the knife handle to stop himself. "It's— it's what I did when I listened to the recording you sent me," he said quickly. “I took everything off.”
"Did you?" The chef's voice drifted into its lowest registers. "Were you hoping to enhance the experience?”
"I didn't mean— I don't—" Will's words stuttered in his throat. He found he had slumped onto his elbows against the counter, as if he could curl around the heat ball of his arousal and stymie its spread. He wanted to touch himself so badly.
"If this is a reenactment I’m participating in," the chef said, "is there anything else you would like me to do right now?"
Christ. Will pressed an open palm against his crotch and sucked back the telltale sound that formed in his throat. At least the breath he heard from the other end had started to quicken as well.
"No. I can't make you do— that. You need to stop giving me things I want."
“And here I thought I was doing the taking tonight,” the chef said, all brass and softness. "After all, you're in the midst of indulging my desire to know what it's like to be you." There was a brief pause. The sound of movement against sheets Will knew must have been satin. “Tell me, Will: when you listened to the record of voice, did you picture it as a knife?"
"It was— no. Not then. Your voice became your hands. I felt them on my skin. But—" Will had to stop again. Eyes still shut, he was rubbing himself slow and hard with one hand, twisting the knife point into the board with the other. If he kept going, he'd splinter the wood.
Through the headphones, he heard a new arrangement of soft sounds: breath, limbs shifting on satin, skin sliding against skin. They sent a new heatwave from his neck down to his cock. He felt it leaking against his thigh, a small bloom of wet warmth against his palm.
"But a knife reveals more than hands ever could, doesn't it?" the voice murmured. "Do you fear that if we continue down this path, you'll give away too much? See yourself cut open?"
Will shook his head hard, but he couldn't deny it. "Every time we speak, you get in deeper. You feel... inevitable. Like part of you has always been here, under my skin. Carving me up from the inside.”
"Then consider this evening your revenge. You have me as you want me. Now is your chance to twist the blade."
Will fought hard to stifle the next needy sound pushing itself up from his lungs. "I don't want my knife in you. I don't."
The chef's next words, murmured soft and low, were a live current through the streams of Will's arousal. "Then your hands will have to do."
And with that it was Will's hand on his belt, then fly and underwear fumbled by frantic fingers. He pried his eyes open and saw the shocking state of himself: doubled over the kitchen counter, breath steaming the surface, knife in one hand, hard cock in the other. He grit his teeth. Even then he tried to stop himself, tried to keep his hand still.
"I want you to hear me," he gasped. "To see what you do to me. Like you said."
"Let me hear you then, Will. See you. All of you."
"I can't do this alone."
"You won't be alone. I promise. My hands will be on you. Inside you."
Will let out a long-held whine. "Will you really touch yourself? For me? With me?"
"Forgive me, Will."
Will heard it then: the chef's own voice, breaking over a long, low groan. The notes of skin rhythmically shifting against satin — and more skin. Then a new sound, moist and intimate, sparking from Will's ears down into a full body shiver: the slide of a tongue.
Will gasped and let it all go.
He got his own hand wet. The thought of being heard doing something so obscene only got him hotter. He shut his eyes again and sank back to the dark bottom of the well behind his lids, naked and with another hand on his cock, the expert hand that sliced and seared flesh with such finesse. Head thrown back, he let loose the reigns on his throat and let the chef hear him: high, rhythmic moans of too much pleasure, matched to the frenetic jerk of his fist. All the sounds of his need and desperation, growing rough and choked as he got close.
All of it, moan for moan, stroke for stroke, was matched from inside the headphones wrapped around Will's ears.
He heard the slick sounds quicken and amplify, his own name whispered over a drawn-out hiss. It sent the final surge of shimmering feeling all through him and carried him over. He bit down on the butt of his knife as he started to come.
"This isn't how I expected this conversation to go."
"No. You wished to part ways. Do you still?"
"I don't know. Might seem kinda rude considering the circumstances."
Considering that he had only just got done putting his dick back in his pants. Or that he was carrying on this conversation while straddling a tiny puddle of his own come.
"I agree," the chef replied. "And we can't have rudeness now, can we?" There was a brief silence. "Will?"
"Yeah?" Will said, heart again beating too fast.
"I'm loathe to distract you from your work. When you catch this bad man of yours, I will gladly cook dinner for you."
Will's quickened heart gave a single hard thud. He was certain the chef wasn't talking about another culinary phone call or a new video posted to his YouTube channel. "You mean— yes. Yes, I'd want that."
"I don't know what distances divide us, but money is no object."
"I'm in Wolf Trap, Virginia," Will rattled out quickly. It was now or never. He was inside this moment and he wasn't letting go.
The pleased purr that preceded the next sentence slid over the aftershocks of Will's climax. "And I'm in Baltimore, Maryland."
Will blinked at his phone for a few seconds. In the end, he couldn't help a laugh. "You can't be serious."
"Very serious. My home and my practice are both here."
They lingered on the phone for at least another half hour. They came to an arrangement. There would be no further ASMR sessions, not while Will's work on the case continued. Will was given a cellphone number instead, one he was free to text whenever need struck. He exchanged it for his own with little hesitation, and wondered who would be the first to message.
By this point in the evening he'd been expecting to find himself half-numbed with whiskey, and either making a poor attempt at sleep or trying to dig again into the profiles of the Catcher victims. Instead he was back on his porch, staring up at a night sky that the fickle rain clouds had finally abandoned. He waited for regret, doubt or self-loathing to arrive, but they never did. Will felt as if he were grinning up at newly lit stars.
The chef did have a way of making things seem simple and, at least in the glow of the stars and the moment, they did. All of Will's self-defeating designs had been swept off like the clouds. The next phase of his life had clear cause and effect: Catch the Catcher, then go meet the man he was starting to fall for.
He wondered what the chef would cook for their first dinner together. And then he laughed.
"I still don't know your name," he said to the night.
The trill of a text message jerked him out of his thoughts. For a moment, his heart skipped a beat, but it was Beverly's name he saw on the screen.
"Bzzt. Why haven't you checked your email?"
Will went inside, opened his laptop and found the promised email from Katz — he'd nearly forgotten she'd promised to send one. It arrived an hour ago, when he must have been far gone into his conversation with the chef. He felt a small twinge of guilt.
The email was short and to the point.
"Checked all devices. Nothing obvious from the previous victims' searches. The closest I could get to anything vaguely music-related was the first guy, Ellender. Filtered logs of his internet history attached. Let me know what you think."
James Ellender, 46. Found strung up by his hands, back and thighs flayed. Once he'd sang his song, the Catcher strangled him.
Will opened the file, typed in the necessary security codes and scanned over the formatted stream of blue links. In this whittled down version, only one site appeared a few times more than others. Will didn't recognise its name.
He clicked and stared at the page that loaded up. The shock lasted only a moment.
James Ellender, 46. Baltimore native. Accountant, keen cyclist. And a visitor to Maryland's most popular online portal for fans of high-end audio equipment.
Chapter 9: Do Not Make a Sound
See notes at the end
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He managed a few hours of fitful sleep, dreams full of shrill noise and blood beading from walls. As soon as he was up, he tried Beverly's phone — then Jack's. He got no answer from either, so he got in his car and drove to Quantico, fast enough that he was lucky not to get pulled over.
He found Crawford emerging from the elevator near the entrance, followed by Katz and two other agents. They were hurrying for the door. He trailed them.
"The first victim was an audiophile," Will said to Jack's back. “A regular at a specialty music store in Baltimore. You need to send someone down to question the owner."
Jack spun on his heel and looked Will up and down. "A specialty music store."
"Yes. High-end audio equipment. The sort of stuff the Catcher would use to record and assemble his masterpieces."
Crawford frowned, then nodded. "Fine. We'll send someone this afternoon."
"This afternoon? But—"
But Jack was already on the move again. Katz looked back to mouth a silent sorry. Will grabbed her by the sleeve.
"What the hell's going on?"
"Dunt is no longer a suspect. And we may have a new victim."
"You know Alana Bloom?"
Will nodded once, heart sinking with fear.
"A friend of hers has gone missing, a well known patron at the Baltimore opera. He left her a voicemail in the middle of the night. He’d been approached by an unstable patient and was about to call the cops. He never did."
The corners of Will's vision blurred. His chest felt suddenly tight.
"A patient?" was all he managed.
"The guy’s a shrink. Doctor of psychiatry."
"Did he— give Alana a name?"
Katz shook her head. "The message was cut short." She glanced back uneasily towards her departing colleagues. "Look, I really have to—"
"Wait! There's gotta be more to this or Jack wouldn't be in such a hurry. What else did the message say?"
Beverly hesitated for a moment, then leaned in closer and lowered her voice. "Our good doctor told Alana that the patient wanted him to hear a new composition of his." She must have read his look, because it was her hand on Will's arm now, squeezing, holding him up. “Look. I'll make sure this music place gets checked out ASAP. Meanwhile don't do anything stupid, okay?”
She was gone. Will had to find a wall to lean against. He closed his eyes and counted until he no longer felt like he was going to slide down against it.
He shoved a hand into his pocket. Was this the jacket he wore the day he saw Alana?
It was. And there it was. He pulled out the business card. Fingers shaking, he touched the name and credentials embossed into the paper.
Then he groped for his phone.
He called the number the chef had given him last night. No ringtone. No voicemail. Only the sound of Will's own heart, thrashing with panic in the claustrophobic confines of his chest.
There was only one thing he wanted, and that was to be wrong — about absolutely everything.
His entrance set off a discreet door chime, the only sound inside the Euphonic Oasis.
Will was alone. He stood surrounded by pristine display cases and listened to the sound of nothing. What kind of audio equipment store didn't play music — or anything at all — to advertise its wares?
Just as his ears were starting to ring from the stifling hush, he heard footsteps, clacking in a hurried beat over floor tiles.
The owner emerged from the back. He looked just as Will had remembered him: small and tidy, slicked dark hair, a bland smile set in a line. Loops of thick black cable hung from his arm.
"I'm sorry, we are just about to close for lunch," the man said and then, recognising Will, dialled down his merchant’s smirk. "Ah. Returning the headphones again?" he added with the faintest hint of bile in his voice.
"No, they’re great actually." Will tried his best to sound breezy, all while his insides churned. "I was just in the neighbourhood and remembered there was something you wanted me to try them with. Some piece of music I guess.”
The man's face froze for an instant, then slid into a pleased expression. "I suppose I can spare a moment," he said. "Please wait here."
With that, he set the coil on his arm on the counter and vanished again. Will stared at the cable. He thought about the photos of restraint injuries pinned around Jack Crawford's office. Bruises and lacerations of pure desperation, somehow worse than flayed flesh. His gun, concealed by his jacket, felt heavy against his hip.
One of the chrome boxes displayed inside the store’s glass cabinets lit up as if by magic, its tiny green and red eyes flickering to life and jerking Will from his thoughts. The owner reappeared, this time armed with a set of headphones Will recognised as the same model he'd been sold. And used with the chef last night.
“Most of my customers think top-of-the-line equipment can transform them into audio connoisseurs,” the man said, unlocking the case and plugging the headphones into the front of the switched on unit. “They're wrong. One needs to start with the right kit as well as the right set of sounds.”
The right set of sounds. Not music. Music was incidental to this man. Something else mattered to him and spurred him on.
"But that's not the whole recipe, is it?" Will said. "What's the magic third ingredient?"
The man studied Will for a moment through his spectacles, eyes bright and beady. In the silence of the store, Will could hear the stuffy whistle of his breath.
"Why, the listener, of course. Someone who strives to live up to their full sensory potential." He held up the headphones as if he meant to put them on Will's head. "If I may," he said.
Will took an involuntary step back. His heart thudded in his chest, loud enough for him to fear it might betray him. He managed a smile and took the headphones to put them on himself. He felt like he was about to submit to a test. Did James Ellender fail his?
The headphones wrapped around his ears and shut out the last vestiges of sound, down to the store owner's breathing and Will's own heart.
The man watched Will for a moment, then pressed play.
The music rose from the sea of silence: chorus and strings giving way to an instrument Will didn't recognise, hollow and haunting like a glass flute. It scraped over Will's sensitivities, a shimmering and sharp sensation. The back of his neck and his forearms prickled.
A voice rose up next, doleful and tender. A woman. A soprano.
At the sound of that voice, the frisson rippling over Wills' skin turned into the sickly shudder of dread. Still, the music had him caught and he couldn't help closing his eyes. But instead of the skinned woman from Oriole Island, he saw the interior of a familiar kitchen.
Here, the music in his ears was mere backdrop to another kind of opera, one composed of knives, flesh and oil for Will's ears only. He wanted to be in that kitchen and hear the chef's music with a yearning as deep as the one permeating the dead woman’s aria.
It was too much. Will snapped the headphones from his head and opened his eyes.
Hands braided, the store owner stood before him, perfectly still. He hadn't budged, hadn't let up his insistent stare.
"Well?" he asked.
Will knew what this man wanted to hear from him: that Will had felt more than heard the music; that it had played on his senses and his skin as if he were another instrument in the score, the human masterstroke of the sonic circuit. All the things this man had also felt himself to be.
"She's got some voice," he said instead, as blandly as he could. "Can you write down the name for me?"
The store owner's hopeful smile fell from his face. He pulled the headphones from the jack a bit too hard. "Of course," he muttered and stepped behind the counter to fetch a notepad. When he finished writing, he offered the note Will.
Will glanced at the paper and saw without surprise but with a sinking sense of conviction the name of Adrianna Remini.
He smiled again, nodded in thanks and moved for the exit.
At the door, he stopped and turned. He found the store owner still behind the counter, watching him as intently as before. The cable hung once more from his arm. It looked heavy. Long.
"Can I ask you something?" Will said.
The bland line across the man's mouth reappeared. He inclined his head in an oddly courtly nod. "Of course."
"I read somewhere that music is the only sensual pleasure without vice," Will told him. "Would you agree?"
Behind the glare of his glasses, the store owner blinked. "No," he said. "No, I would not agree." He let out a short, nervous laugh. "What a strange phrase. Where did you read it?"
"Samuel Johnson said it."
"He must not have understood the purpose of music at all. Not at all."
The Oasis sat next to a narrow alley that cut through to the next block.
Will circled around and pulled over behind a dumpster near the alley's entrance. He could just see the store's back exit and the car parked next to it: a dark green Bentley, gleaming like an enormous beetle. Outrageously expensive but still, it must have been the owner's.
He waited. Snapshots of nightmares to come swarmed in his head: the ID on a crumbled flayed body; the realisation and the crushing grief. He tried to focus. He looked up the business listing of the Euphonic Oasis and found the owner's name: Archer Flynt, sole proprietor. He took down the plates from the Bentley.
He checked his phone: maybe Beverly would text to tell him it was all okay and the worst hadn't come to pass. Maybe the chef would call him out of the blue and ask what dish Will wanted to hear being prepared for their first dinner together.
Minutes passed and still Flynt hadn't emerged. Did Will blink and miss his exit? The Bentley stood where it had. He couldn't wait any more, so he crept the car closer. The store's back door had a small, round window cut into it. No light inside.
Will swore loudly and drove to the end of the alley. He turned out into the street and found the front of the Euphonic Oasis shuttered.
Flynt hadn't left for lunch. He'd shut up shop and left through the front. Gone, right from under Will's nose.
Will wanted to punch something — better yet, himself. He breathed through his anger and despair. Stupid. Desperately stupid. He grabbed for his phone and called Katz. After four rings, she answered.
“Alana’s friend. Does he own a green Bentley?”
There was a moment of silence on the other end. "Yes. Yes, he does. It's missing though. Where are you? And give me the plates."
"Yeah, I've— hang on."
His phone chimed in his ear. He glanced down at the screen and froze.
Not an email, not a text — but a notification from a number he didn't recognise.
A location tracking pin.
Breath shaking in his chest, Will tapped on the screen to open the maps app. He watched as the blue dot crept slowly across downtown Baltimore. Ten, fifteen minutes from where he was, maybe more.
"Graham?" On the other end, Katz sounded urgent. "What's going on, where are you?"
"I've gotta go."
"Go where? Didn't I tell you not to do anything stupid?"
"I don't know. I'll tell you when I get there. Archer Flynt, owner of the Euphonic Oasis. He's on the move and he has your man."
Accessed by an exit from a nondescript stretch of road, the building was an unfinished skeleton of a chain hotel, one of those places made for business conventions and airport sleepovers. No sign of building works around it — construction must have been halted or abandoned.
It was here that the blue dot on Will's phone had finally stopped.
Will parked under the ramp, out of sight. He texted Katz: here, will need backup. He stared out at the building: no cars around it, no light inside. He took a deep breath and stepped out into the grey autumnal day.
He squeezed through a gap in a chain link fence and made his way across the enormous half-paved lot. He felt absurdly exposed, a tiny speck under a vast leaden sky pierced by the crowns of the pines that soared just beyond the barren structure.
Maybe sending Will here had all been a ruse. Still, he had nothing else to hang his hope on. He kept his hand on his holster and when he stepped through the doorless entrance, he drew his weapon.
Inside he found only silence, as complete as the one in Flynt's store. Not even the wind through the pines or the sound of traffic had made it through the concrete and glass. Nothing to interrupt whatever performance was about to take place here.
Thin daylight crept in through the filthy windows and guided Will down the corridors that wrapped around the hotel's first floor. Around the second or third corner he saw a doorway with a light coming through it — a fluorescent light. Will's pulse picked up. He stalked closer and peered inside. A staircase, with steps leading up and down. The light was only coming from one direction: the basement.
Nowhere to go but down.
At the bottom of the stairs, flickering fluorescent tubes crudely strung from above illuminated a space as vast and empty as the warehouse that had been Adrianna Remini's final stage. No sign of Flynt. Only the odd pile of discarded cardboard boxes, a faint electric hum that couldn't have been the lights and, at the far end of the floor, a swarm of black cables slithering in through a door which must have led to the basement's next section.
Will toed out of his shoes and slid them behind a cardboard box. He tried to steady his shaking breath as he moved across the cold concrete. His heart fluttered in his throat and his hand felt damp around his gun. Was he too late? Would he soon smell blood and death above the mold and damp?
He tiptoed over the twisting cables, in through the doorway — and clamped his hand over a gasp.
More empty boxes, a vast circle of enormous speakers, cables everywhere like a pit of black snakes and there, in the center of it all: an armchair, a man.
Still in his coat, the man had been tied to the chair with cable. His wrists were taped to the armrests. At the sight of Will, his eyes grew wide. Will couldn't read his expression: shock, terror, relief? All things Will himself felt.
Will nearly lunged forward. He got to his knees in front of the chair and mouthed his name, over and over:
Will. I'm Will.
The man in the chair shut his eyes and seemed to slump. Will clasped at his hand, that unmistakable hand he'd know anywhere, and squeezed. The man looked up at him slowly, this time with relief and recognition. Will shaped his name around the hum of silence that engulfed them:
Dr. Hannibal Lecter?
The man jerked his head in a nod.
A shake of the head this time.
What Will wouldn't have given to hear the answer in the man's own voice instead. He started to pull at the tape at his wrist. The man shook his head fiercely and Will remembered himself: the noise. He fumbled for his Swiss army knife instead and made the cuts as silently as he could.
As soon as he was done, their eyes locked and their hands clasped again — only for a moment. And then the man pulled his hand free and raised his index finger to his lips.
Shh. Do not make a sound.
And then Will heard footsteps, matched to the sound of a labored breath.
- The aria Archer Flynt plays for Will is "Il Dolce Suono" ("The Sweet Sound") from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor". The original score calls for a glass harmonica (not a flute as in most modern performances), which gives the music a haunting, eerie quality well suited to this famous "mad" scene.
- The Google Maps location sharing thingie is real but I'm not sure it actually tracks in real time? Anyway, deus ex machina etc
- I welcome your comments on what shenanigans Hannibal is getting up to behind the scenes in this chapter.
Chapter 10: The Only True Quiet
Please note: this chapter includes references to serious self-harm and to taking of anti-anxiety drugs
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Archer Flynt looked nervous.
The knife jutted out from his hand as if he’d grown it for a new appendage. Its blade gleamed under the fluorescent lights, polished and pristine like the high-end HiFi at the Euphonic Oasis, like the remote control Flynt held in his other hand.
From his hiding spot behind a mountain of boxes, Will couldn’t decide which struck him with the greater fear: the knife or the remote. His heart thudded against his bones, loud and heavy like the heartbeats Flynt had spliced into his first prelude. His hands felt clammy around the gun. He had the narrowest of gaps to aim it through and tried his best to stay on Flynt, but the man would not keep still. Even if he did, Will would still have Hannibal in his line of fire.
Flynt’s bustling looked like stalling. He shuttled from speaker to speaker and adjusted wiring, but whatever his impending design, he couldn’t bring himself to pause and face the man he had tied to the chair. Instead, he kept snapping his eyes up to the humming lights above.
Hannibal’s own eyes tracked Flynt's every move. Will could not discern his expression: stoicism or concentration or suppressed fear. When they first heard Flynt's footsteps, Hannibal nodded for Will to secure his wrists again, enough to make the bonds look undisturbed. Will did as he was prompted, squeezed Hannibal's hand one more time, then dove into the only spot that would keep him from Flynt’s view.
"You used to pace during our sessions, Archer."
Will shivered. That voice, arising for the first time in its true fidelity. The voice that had been living beneath his skin, coursing through him like a new kind of blood. Disembodied and entirely Will’s own — until now.
"Please," Archer hissed. I’m getting things ready for you." He still couldn't bring himself to look at Hannibal, but his grip on the knife had tightened. "I liked your office," he said. "You couldn’t hear the traffic from the street."
"The silence must have been a relief for you," Hannibal said. "But as you once told me, death is the only true quiet."
Flynt stuck the knife handle between his teeth and squatted down to check a plug. For a moment, Will thought he had a clean shot — Hannibal safely out of the bullet’s path — but Archer was back up and moving again in an instant. His pacing had grown aimless, his thumb twitching against the remote. "Do you remember the time I stopped by your drawing desk?" he asked.
Hannibal nodded. While he held Archer with a steady gaze, Will could see him test the tape around his legs with a subtle twist of the ankle and flex his fingers as if he were warming them up. Was Hannibal the sort of man to take on his captor, given the chance? Will’s brain screamed the words Beverly had said to him: don't do anything stupid.
"You asked about the engraving I was copying," Hannibal said. "Vesalius. The man without his skin."
"I asked what type of picture it was." Flynt replied and did cast a glance at Hannibal then, if only for a moment. By the sickly blue light from above, his profile looked waxen, half-melted. "You told me. You said— écorché. You stood right behind me when you said it."
"I did," Hannibal said softly. "I remember. Did my voice and proximity trigger your sensory response?"
Flynt's shoulders tensed, as if he were suppressing a shudder. He mouthed the word silently: écorché.
Hannibal swallowed hard. "How did you play your instruments, Archer?" he asked. "Did you take their skin? The papers wouldn't say."
Flynt raised a thin, mirthless grin. "My tribute to you, Dr. Lecter. To the gift you put under my skin. Écorché. I absorbed it. I carried it with me like a pitch I could tune myself to."
With Flynt's eyes again elsewhere, Will saw Hannibal twist harder against the bonds around his ankles. "I’m sorry I couldn’t accept the gift you gave me in return," he said. His voice still echoed his expression: steady and calm.
"No," Flynt said. "No, you referred me instead."
The gift. The Catcher's first composition. The Chopin prelude patched together from the cries and heartbeats of the people Flynt had flayed. Will could hear it in that moment, feel it on the surface of his brain like the burn and prickle of a poorly healed wound.
"You didn't try hard enough, doctor." The hurt in Archer Flynt’s voice was starting to border on hysterical. "I blame myself for that. I didn't give you the right set of sounds." In a single step, he was suddenly behind the chair, the flat of his blade pressed up against Hannibal's cheek. "But I have them for you now," he whispered. "I promise you will be affected."
Frantic, Will scurried forward on his knees. He needed a better angle, a less risky shot. Flynt's knife glinted against Hannibal's skin. Where the hell were Beverly and Jack? Were they already in the building, flashlights sweeping through the windowless floors? Will could try for a headshot, but if he missed...
Hannibal, meanwhile, hadn’t flinched away from the knife.
"How will you know?" he asked.
Archer Flynt's aching grin twitched down into a grimace. "I saw the way you looked at her at the opera," he said. "I was there while she sang. You had tears on your face. Wait—" his knife slid down to Hannibal’s throat and he coughed up a laugh that shook his whole frame— "wait 'til you hear what she yielded. You will be moved. As I was moved."
And then Flynt pulled away. He flung his arms up, went still, and Will had his shot. Just a few inches to the right, to make sure Hannibal was safely out of reach and then—
He never saw Flynt press play.
The colonnade of speakers circling Hannibal Lecter spat out a deluge of sound that filled to the brim the whole of the cavernous concrete basement. It was music at first, a blaring approximation of the glass flute melody Will had heard in Flynt's store — but more hollow, like wet fingers on crystal rims. It rose and rose until something began to chase it and cut through it, like a current through an ocean. Amplifying by degrees, until it was almost deafening: the undistllled agony torn from Adrianna Remini's throat by Archer Flynt's knife.
A wave of pain and revulsion seized Will by the stomach and shook him. He couldn't help it — he covered his ears. But Archer still stood with his arms flung upwards and his eyes pinched shut, and Will needed this chance. He aimed again, glanced at Hannibal quickly and saw— nothing.
Despite the aria of horror gushing from the speakers, Hannibal Lecter's body hadn't flinched or recoiled. His face bore an expression that Will could only read as disinterest. Or disappointment.
Flynt, too, sensed something was amiss. His arms had dropped to his sides, his eyes opened and grew wide, and he was moving again, circling slowly to the front of the chair.
He stopped. Whatever he'd wanted to see on Hannibal's face, he didn't find it. He mashed the remote with his thumb, Adrianna's cries grew even more deafening, and still, still the only thing Hannibal Lecter's face would offer the Scream Catcher was mild disapproval.
Flynt's own face fell into utter devastation. He raised his knife. And Will pulled the trigger.
He barely heard the shot over the deafening roar of the Catcher's magnum opus.
Flynt staggered back, away from Hannibal. He spun left to face Will, clutching at the seeping wound in his thigh. He fixed Will with a single look of bewildered rage and then slumped forward — but did not fall.
Gun aimed, breath ragged, Will stalked closer. His ears hurt. From the corner of his eye, he caught Hannibal's gaze, saw his hands already freed and tearing at the bonds around his ankles with agile fingers. A thought crashed again through the fear and panic in Will's brain: what sort of man...
"Archer!" Will couldn't hear himself shouting above the speakers. "Drop the knife!"
The Catcher was still doubled over, torso heaving. Will couldn't see his face. He took a step closer.
Flynt lurched forward, astonishingly fast, head first.
The force of his skull slammed into Will's belly and the shock and pain of it sent Will to the floor. Flynt was on top of him and in that instant, Will knew how the Catcher subdued his victims. Flynt was small but solid, vicious, vice strong. The butt of his knife slammed twice against Will's wrist, hard enough to make him wail in pain and lose grip on the gun. Will made one desperate claim for the weapon, but a swift swipe from Flynt sent it sliding away out of reach.
Over Flynt's thrashing form, Will couldn't see Hannibal. He thrashed and kicked too, and tried to grab with the hand Flynt hadn't pinned to the floor. But the Catcher's knife flailed down at him wildly, caught on his arms and sliced through cloth. Will tried to roll them, misjudged his own strength and ended with Flynt's full weight slumped over him and the knife pressed right up to his throat.
Will stared up in terror. The screams from the speakers seemed to pour out from Flynt's convulsing mouth, the skin around his eyes scrunched up in pain and outrage. Will tugged with all his strength at the wrist holding the knife. He cried out as loud as he could above the roar.
"The rain, Archer! The rain on Oriole Island."
Flynt's mouth shuttered and he stared down at Will as if struck. He must have heard.
"I felt it," Will gasped. "When it hit the roof of the warehouse, I felt what you felt. It was beautiful."
Flynt stared for a moment longer. A spasm passed over his face, and then he dropped down, right to Will's ear.
"It's not you I wanted," he hissed.
Will felt a sting against his skin. The blade started to cut. His arms shook with effort but he could do nothing to pry away Flynt's hand.
It wasn't Will's voice. The knife stopped. As if on command, Flynt jerked himself upright, twisted back and revealed behind him the looming shape of Hannibal Lecter.
He had Will's gun. He wasn't pointing it. His face hadn't changed from before. Flynt's stare dropped and Will followed it, down to Hannibal's feet.
Hannibal had one shiny brogue pressed over a cable that snaked across the floor. The other one he'd hooked beneath it and, with a twist of the ankle, now looped it about his foot. He yanked hard. The song of screams crashed at once into a shocking silence.
Will froze. Nothing existed in the sudden void of sound except gasps and wheezing breath. Flynt turned back slowly. There were tears in his eyes. With all his force, he tore his hand from Will's grip, put the knife up to his throat and sliced.
How quickly had Will shut his eyes? A copper-scented deluge splashed over face. He remembered his dream: the red rain, the fortepiano. And when he tried to scream, he choked on the blood of the dying man on his chest.
He still couldn't see, but he could breathe again, just about. The dead weight had been dragged from his body.
His ears rang with a sustained high-pitched squeal. Something soft dabbed at his eyes until he could blink through the sting of Flynt's blood and find Hannibal Lecter looking down at him, speaking to him.
Will couldn't make out the words — only their urgency. They came through faint and muffled as if through a wall. Hannibal was squeezing Will's hand as Will had squeezed his. His eyes were wide and bright with concern. Will wanted to tell him he's beautiful.
He coughed up the Catcher’s blood. He looked down the line of his body. More blood: his shirt, Hannibal's handkerchief. He twisted his head and saw the mass of Archer Flynt's corpse, motionless in the expanding black puddle of his own making. He'd never let go of the knife.
And then Will saw flashlights, other human shapes approaching with guns drawn. He couldn't tell what they were shouting, but Hannibal Lecter put his hands up just in case.
After that, the worst thing was being separated. Will watched, as if from outside his own body, while Hannibal was swaddled in a first aid blanket and escorted out of the basement. It hurt so much when he didn't look back.
Beverly sat with him in the back of the car all the way to the closest station that would have them. By the time they got there, Will could hear well enough to understand when Katz told him they'd get him some clean clothes. Probably taken off some petty perp.
After they'd seen to the minor cuts on his arms and neck, he was led into a room stuffed with a small army of agents, presided over by Crawford. They all stared. Alana Bloom was among them. When Will saw her expression, he had to look away. He felt oddly self-conscious: a half-deaf scarecrow in borrowed clothes, bandaged arms, hair still plastered to his neck and forehead with the Catcher's blood.
Alana left the room and returned moments later with a bottle of water and two pills in a tiny paper cup.
"Just a mild anxiolytic," she said gently.
Will took the drugs without a word. A few minutes later, he felt less like he might escape out of his own skin, but his teeth still chattered every five minutes regardless.
Jack must have been waiting for the drugs to kick in before coming over.
"I owe you an apology."
"Are you making him give a statement?" Will asked.
"I want to be in the room with him."
Jack looked to Alana, then shook his head. "I'm sorry, Will. You know that's not possible."
"You've both been through a terrible shock," Alana added. "He may not want to see you."
Will frowned and stared down at his crumpled pill cup. He wondered if Alana had given one to Hannibal too, but he simply could not picture it.
In the end, Crawford relented — or at least compromised. The interview room they put Hannibal in had a one-way mirror, and Will was allowed to listen in. He peered through the glass as he might into a dream. The elegant, stoic man behind it still didn't seem real.
"How long had Archer Flynt been your patient, Dr. Lecter?"
Hannibal cleared his throat. His hands wrapped around the paper coffee cup he'd been handed but hadn't drunk from. Will could see the red marks Flynt's bonds had cut into his wrists.
"Archer came to me over a year ago. I knew at once that his would be one of the most unusual cases I'd ever taken on. He had already sought help from an otolaryngologists and a neurologist, to no avail. He saw my therapy as his ailment's last resort."
"Many years ago, Mr. Flynt had trained as a composer. He had promise. He'd even studied at Juilliard. But over time, he began to suffer from a progressively worsening misophonia. Somewhere along the way, he also discovered his ASMR."
"ASMR? The skin tingling... stuff?"
Hannibal inclined his head. "Over the years Archer's ASMR grew more intense while his tolerance for many everyday sounds degraded. A difficult position, for someone who had devoted his life to music. The tolerable soundscape of his life became severely constrained. Common sounds and voices revolted him, while others gave him a profound sense of euphoria or peace."
"Was the sound of people in pain one of those?"
Hannibal's eyes had dropped to his coffee cup. They hadn't given him new clothes, Will thought. Did he really not get any blood on his?
"We hadn't discussed it," Hannibal said. "In retrospect, I can see that he had hinted at it."
Beverly glanced over to the mirror. The look she cast was almost apologetic, and Will knew the question that would come next.
"After you were captured, you called Will Graham. If you had access to a phone, why didn’t you call the police?"
Hannibal paused to take the smallest of sips from his cup. He looked, for a moment, almost timid. "Will Graham and I met on a dating site," he said. "We'd formed a connection, and we were due to meet in person soon. I knew Will worked in law enforcement. When Archer forced me into the trunk of his car, in my disorientation and distress I could only think of calling Will."
Will closed his eyes. Through the drug-numbed waves of shock, a feeling surfaced inside him: a possessive sense of something private and precious, protected in that moment from prying minds by Hannibal's careful words. He may have even smiled.
"And your phone?" Beverly asked.
"Archer had taken my personal phone from me. I keep a business one as well, which he failed to find. I used it to message Will." Hannibal's jaw tightened. "I regret deeply the terrific situation I have inflicted on Will. I assumed he would seek help. But I never imagined he would face down a killer for my sake."
After Will's own deposition, Alana came to collect him.
"He'd like to see you," she said.
Will's heart thudded once, but he followed without question. A few staring cops lined the corridors as they passed. Someone applauded. It was all Will could do to stop himself from saying something he'd regret but Alana only smiled. "They think you're a hero."
Why? Will wanted to ask. It was the same thing all over again: there was no redemption in the Catcher’s end. He didn’t even expect the nightmares to stop.
Except maybe something was different. The world didn't sound or feel the same, not since he saw Hannibal looming over Flynt.
Alana brought him to an inconspicuous door and pointed at the sign. "I'm sure both of you could use the respite."
The station chapel was nothing more than a dressed up meeting room. Sheets of semi-transparent plastic lined the window panes, green and red, someone’s makeshift attempt at stained glass. Neat rows of ordinary lecture chairs, split down the middle, faced a table set with a crucifix and lanterns made to look like candlelight.
As Will entered, the man in the first row rose from his seat and turned. Will clutched at the door handle to steady himself. The corporeal reality of Hannibal Lecter still startled, as if he were a figment of Will’s imagination turned flesh, or a shockingly vivid daytime hallucination.
They looked at each other for a moment.
"How are your ears?" Will asked. His own continued to screech.
"Compromised. But they will recover. In the meantime..."
Hannibal walked over to the ancient iPod dock set up on a windowsill. He browsed for a moment, then pressed play.
Will tensed and almost flinched when the music began, but the notes rose up gently, mild strings and orderly baroque keyboards. An antithesis of the Catcher's aria.
"It will help drown out the ringing," Hannibal said.
He was right: the music filled the air, pitched just so to ease the ringing in Will's ears and dial down his heart rate. It did nothing to ease the motion sickness of uncertainty rocking his brain.
"I didn’t know police stations had these," Will said, still half-hugging the exit.
Hannibal settled back down, legs crossed, body half-turned in the chair. His legs were like his hands, Will thought. Elegant and long. Oddly expressive.
"An establishment that deals in human vice and distress deserves to have a place of refuge." Hannibal said.
"Were you Archer Flynt’s refuge?" Will asked.
"I hope I was yours."
Will closed his eyes and tried not to feel too much at those words. He wanted to absorb them, put them under his skin the way Flynt had done. It was easier to drift back to a time when Hannibal existed as nothing more than a voice in his head and a pair of beautiful hands. But there was no going back. Will pried himself from the door and moved unsteadily up the aisle dividing the chairs.
"That was quite a show you put on when he started playing his—" Will hesitated. He didn't know what to call it. "His gift," he said finally.
"Are you so certain it was a show?"
Will laughed without mirth and slid into a chair in the first row, opposite side of the narrow aisle. "I guess I can choose what I believe. Either you really didn't feel anything when you heard her screams and you're a complete psychopath. Or you refused to give him what he wanted."
"Which of the two would you consider worse?"
Will wasn't sure he wanted to answer that honestly.
"Why didn’t you give him what he wanted?" he asked instead.
"Morally, I could not bring myself to show him that his gruesome work had had its intended effect."
Will shook his head. "Don't short-change me. There was something else."
Hannibal regarded him with a curious expression. The corners of his broad mouth turned up in the faintest impression of a smile. "I think I will soon discover that it's difficult to hide things from you, Will," he said.
"Then don't bother trying."
"Very well. If I had shown Archer a modicum of what I was feeling, he would have mistaken it for true empathy. None of us can manifest in our souls a true replica of his singular ecstatic agony." He outstretched an arm and put one hand over an electric lantern, as if he expected to feel real warmth. "Although I'm told you can."
Will frowned and stared down at his bandaged arms. "Alana told you?"
"She said that you feel very deeply. And that I should be careful with you."
Will shuddered. "I can still feel his song. It was more terrifying than his knife against my throat."
Hannibal leaned across the aisle, elbows on his knees and hands pressed together, suddenly and surprisingly close. Will glanced over and his sense of unreality began to lift, replaced by a not entirely unpleasant tingle of embarrassment. He looked down at Hannibal's hands: no longer mere images on screen, but real bone and flesh, capable of touch. He remembered their warmth when he clasped them down in the basement.
"If you wish to shrug off Archer's attempts at art," Hannibal said, "then there is one thing I can suggest."
Will twisted in his seat to face the man beside him. He waited.
Hannibal's eyes caught the light from the mock candles. "Tell me what else you feared while his music assaulted you."
Will felt the sudden strain in his jaw, the fault line between his brows. He let his gaze drop. "I was afraid that— that if you could look at him like that..."
Hannibal inched to the edge of his seat, closer still, almost palpably solid and warm."You feared I might one day look at you in the same way," he said softly.
Will nodded quickly and swallowed back a throat full of tears. How much of Archer Flynt's desperation had actually been his own? He felt the sudden urge to get up and walk out. It would be so much easier than hoping.
Will dared to look up. Their eyes met. For once, Will recognised Hannibal's closeness for what it was: an invitation. He still wasn't sure how much of it he could handle, but he slid to the edge of his chair and leaned forward by cautious degrees, across the aisle. He kept going, slowly, until his forehead met Hannibal's shoulder.
Hannibal made no effort to touch him further. He held perfectly still, a flesh and bone support for Will's overwrought brain.
"I wonder how you can fear that," he whispered, close against Will's ear, "when what you did for me today is etched into my very soul?"
A ripple sailed all through Will but it was neither drugs nor echoes of panic — just a lulling, shimmering pleasure. He sighed and let his eyes close. He felt profoundly tired, curiously relieved. The music around them progressed gracefully onward and Will breathed it in, along with Hannibal's warmth.
1. I apologise for any typos are plot holes. I have no beta and I am generally sloppy and tired.
2. Yaaaay no more plot! Let the SEXY TIEMS commence!