Chapter 1: Chapter One
Fireworks exploded overhead and died with a sizzling golden burst. The canals of Venice weren’t clear enough to show a true reflection, but the blazing colors illuminated the water and the narrow, labyrinthine streets. Masked faces breezed past in a seemingly endless parade of color. The man standing on the corner was just another spectator to the grand carnival. He wore the face of a brilliant golden lion, its maw partially open to emulate a snarl. It wouldn’t have been Will’s first choice—he preferred the unnerving beauty of the traditional Venetian masks—but Hannibal insisted.
When it came to matters of aesthetics, it was best to let him win.
Will glanced at his watch. Nearly midnight. Almost time.
It felt strange to be out in public again; they spent the past few months in relative seclusion. It wasn’t that they feared being caught. That emotion seemed far away to him now, alien, some remnant of another life. He and Hannibal didn’t hide; they stalked, and they waited.
Will leaned against the railing of the bridge and watched the revelers drift past. Some wore elaborate, colorful costumes to complement their masks. Others were just tourists in cheap half-masks they bought from one of the many souvenir stores that dotted the floating city. A group of young women stumbled by him. They reeked of alcohol, and they spoke too loudly in French.
One of them stumbled. Her heels, which had probably seemed like an excellent choice when she was sober, were becoming unmanageable now that she was a few drinks in. She caught herself on the stone railing, mere itches from Will.
“Pardon,” she said. Her smile was conspiratorial, as though they were sharing a private joke. Long brown hair fell around her face and framed the bright blue butterfly mask that covered her eyes. She righted herself and shook her hair out like a mane. Her neck was pale and slender, marred by a scar on the side.
Then she was gone, and so were the rest of the girls. They walked on, talking and laughing and shrieking at the booming fireworks. Will watched them go. For a moment the canal was a clear, babbling river. The sky was bright with golden sunlight as two gossamer fishing lines cast off the bridge.
Another firework fizzled, and the image dissolved with it. In the fading light, Will realized with a start his quarry had walked right past him. He wore a black-and-white jester’s mask with a matching costume, and he was so drunk he was wobbling. The stone steps at the end of the short bridge seemed to be perilous territory.
A drop of blood hit the water. Will breathed it in—the air stank of the canals, alcohol, and smoking meat—and turned towards his prey.
Will’s hand caught Francesco’s elbow as the man wobbled again. The bells on his jester’s costume jingled.
“Alright, friend?” Will said. His Italian was, as Hannibal said, adequate. “Spirits like those will take you if you’re not careful.”
Francesco barked a laugh. The bells on his costume jingled merrily. “I am well-acquainted with spirits of all sorts, my friend! I know how to handle them.” He pulled away from Will’s grasp, but only succeeded in throwing himself off-balance again. Will watched dispassionately as the man stumbled and fell on to the pathway. He struggled to right himself for a moment, looking like a bird floundering to get off the ground.
Will reached down and offered his hand to the jester. This time Francesco accepted his help.
“I’m a fan of wine, myself,” Will said, pulling him to his feet. “I’m a bit of an amateur critic.”
Francesco’s eyes sized him up from behind his jester mask. He thought he was reading Will, analyzing and measuring him. But every flick of the eyes betrayed his every thought. The mask impressed him; it was finely made, not the sort of thing you could pick up in any old store. The rest of Will’s clothing failed to meet Francesco’s standards. His white button-up shirt and black pants were so plain they were practically gauche.
“Your favorite vineyard?” Francesco asked. His voice was polite, friendly even. But Will recognized the challenge. No matter what answer he gave him, this jester would still find a reason to scoff.
This part Hannibal prepped him for. Will did not know, nor cared, about the intricacies of winemaking. “DRC—Domaine de la Romanee-Conti? You know it, I’m sure.”
Francesco’s eyes widened in surprise. “Of course. In Burgundy. Beautiful country.”
“Even better wine,” Will agreed. “I have a couple of bottles of their Romanee-Conti waiting at my estate.” That wasn’t a lie. Hannibal purchased two at auction several months prior. Altogether they’d cost nearly twenty thousand dollars.
“Truly?” Francesco’s eyes now resembled the size and shape of an owl’s. “The wine from that field is said to be some of the best in the world.”
“Truly.” Will paused, as though mulling something over. “What the hell; it’s Carnival! I’d be willing to share with a fellow wine lover. If you don’t mind coming to my estate?”
The lure splashed into the water. It always astounded him how simple bait needed to be. People were so trusting, so blind to everything else but the meal on the hook. When you want something bad enough, it’s easy enough to convince yourself that you can make off with your prize before the hook digs in.
Francesco seized the bait, as they both knew he would. “Of course! Romanee-Conti…that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Of course, friend.”
The manor could only be reached by canal. Will arranged for an empty gondola to be left waiting for them. It had been simple; a handful of euros placed in a gondolier’s palm and a whispered lie about an impending proposal was all it took. Will handed Francesco into the boat. It rocked unsteadily under his weight. The jester bells jingled.
Will took the gondolier’s position, standing on a raised platform at the back of the vessel. He’d done this before, weeks ago, though it had been Hannibal sitting in the boat. That had been in the early light of dawn, before the first ferry brought in the morning’s herd of tourists, when the canals were still quiet. Hannibal had arranged it. He’d somehow known Will wanted to explore the city, just the two of them.
They’d discovered the manor, empty and abandoned, in the heart of Venice. Waiting for them. Will remembered planting the pole, anchoring their boat directly in front of the doors.
“Do you want it?” Hannibal had asked, finally breaking the silence.
“Yes.” It called to him, somehow, the way few material things ever did. Will wasn’t a man of taste. Material things didn’t matter to him. But this place was different. It had a presence, a personality.
“Then it will be yours,” Hannibal promised. He kept it, as he always did. They celebrated the purchase over champagne and duck breasts. Hannibal even made a toast. He raised his crystal glass, perfect as always in his designer suit, and smiled. “To our new home.”
Our new home. A strange concept for them. For three years they slipped from place to place. Paris, Rome, Berlin, Anchorage, Los Angeles, London, the Irish countryside. The idea of having a home, of having roots again, felt strange. Three years had passed without the FBI ever catching their scent. They could keep running. Forever, if they wanted to. But did he?
A moment’s hesitation passed, then Will clinked his glass against Hannibal’s.
“Home sweet home.” He brought the gondola to a stop in front of the manor. This part of Venice was nearly forgotten. The sounds of Carnival were distant. Fireworks became dull background noise. The manor stood alone and silent. It wasn’t much to look at from the outside. There were no columns, no intricate facades, nothing to indicate what might lay within. It was painted a deep, almost blood red. The wooden doors were brown-gray and heavy. A simple iron knocker adorned each one.
Above the doorway was the only decoration the manor could boast: a stone lion’s head, mouth open in a roar.
A stone slab jutted out over the canal, providing just enough space for two people to stand. Will tied the gondola to an iron post, anchoring it there. He could return it to the gondolier in the morning.
Francesco got out on his own, bells jangling and gondola wobbling. He gripped Will’s sleeve as he stepped on to the platform. Will successfully tamped down the urge to shove him into the dirty canal and hold his head there. Almost done.
“Quite the place.” There was an undercurrent of judgment in Francesco’s tone. For a moment Will saw the manor how he did: ancient, crumbling, a hovel that should be removed and replaced with something more pleasing to the eye. Then he felt a flare of righteous indignation. He’d never felt so protective—no, possessive—over something before. Perhaps Hannibal was right; perhaps this was home.
“It’s four hundred years old, give or take,” Will said. He rummaged in his pocket for the keys. The lock clicked. With a hearty tug, he pulled the door open and held it for Francesco. “I keep the wine in the butler’s pantry. It’s just through the kitchen.” He watched, expressionless, as the fool jingled right past him into the darkened parlor. Will let the door thud shut behind them. The parlor immediately plunged into complete darkness. He heard Francesco stumble and bump something—the buffet table, most likely.
“Don’t you have electricity in this place?” Francesco sputtered. Will could still hear the bells jingling, could practically see their victim struggling to remove his mask in a misguided attempt at increasing his visibility.
Will clicked the lock back into place. He could feel a new presence in the room. Poised, silent, waiting to spring. It made his own body tense in anticipation. His hand went to the light switch on the wall. “Of course.”
The parlor light flicked on and bathed the room in soft yellow light. Behind Francesco, a figure rushed from the shadows. Tall, lithe, and silent, he grabbed the clueless fool. Before their prey could form a cohesive thought, Hannibal gripped him by the back of the neck and slammed his head against the buffet table. The wood rattled with the force of the blow. Francesco slumped to the floor, groaning and sufficiently stunned. Will produced a knife from his back pocket, suddenly so focused, so alive, and surged forward.
He flicked open a knife and plunged it deep into the side of the throat, severing the artery. When he pulled the blade free, blood sprayed across his mask and shirt. Francesco continued to choke and sputter for a few seconds, his eyes whirling in all directions, struggling to comprehend how his fortune changed so quickly. Then his face grew slack.
“You were right.” Will straightened slowly.
Hannibal straightened as well. He brushed aside a single lock of hair that had fallen out of place when he attacked Francesco. “About?”
“You know what,” Will said. He thought admitting he was wrong would be enough to satisfy him. Hannibal must have been feeling particularly playful that night. Or irritable. Even after three years, it was difficult to read him sometimes. Will gestured towards the bloodstain on his white shirt.
Hannibal quirked an eyebrow, as though he didn’t know what Will was talking about. But they both knew what he was really saying: Say it.
Ah. Not playful or irritable after all.
Tonight, Hannibal felt flirty.
And why not? It’s a special occasion, he thought. This was their first meal in their new home. Their first real meal, in Hannibal’s eyes. No doubt he would pull out all the stops. Perhaps those bottles of absurdly expensive wine were for this exact sort of occasion? Will’s annoyance disappeared—for the most part. Part of him still hated to give Hannibal the satisfaction of both being right and being smug about it. “I ruined the shirt.”
“Ah,” Hannibal said, as though he didn’t have a near-perfect memory. He stepped over Francesco to examine the stain closely. “Not entirely. If you take it off now and soak it in cold water, it could still be saved. Go on—I can get him to the kitchen myself.”
Hannibal knelt and hooked his arms under the dead jester’s. He lifted him almost effortlessly, despite the man’s heft.
“Show off,” Will muttered. He turned towards the hall, already unbuttoning his shirt. Then he paused. His fingers hovered over the second button. A brief smirk passed across his face. In an instant, it was gone, and he went back to unbuttoning his shirt. He didn’t look at Hannibal, but could hear him dragging the body, feel his eyes on him from the still-dark living room. Will undid the last button, paused, rolled his shoulders. Only then did he disappear down the hall towards their bedroom.
Perhaps he was feeling a little flirty too.
He stepped into their bathroom and turned on the faucet. Will watched the cold water fill the wide white basin, then glanced in the mirror. To his surprise, he was still wearing the lion mask. Somehow, he forgot he was wearing it. He reached back and untied the ribbons that held it in place, then carefully set it on the marble countertop by the sink. The jester’s red blood had splattered across the golden lion’s maw. A drop rolled down a tooth and dripped on to the white marble.
When the water neared the rim, Will shut off the sink and submerged his shirt. Some of the stains began to leak out into the water. The water soon possessed a faint reddish tinge. Perhaps Hannibal was right; perhaps it could still be saved.
After Will changed, he found himself with some free time before dinner. On normal nights he helped Hannibal in the kitchen. Will would dice mushrooms, season meat, monitor something simmering in white wine. But on special occasions, Hannibal banished him from the kitchen and did all the preparation himself. That way Will could be appropriately surprised and impressed when dinner was served. It would take some time for Hannibal to butcher and cook Francesco. Will wondered vaguely when the two crossed paths, and why Hannibal felt compelled to collect his business card. The snobbishness, probably. Will saw past Francesco’s mask. Beneath his veneer of politeness was the blatant belief that he and his tastes were superior to all others. Hannibal loved the finer things in life, but he loathed rudeness in all its forms.
With nothing to do till supper, Will wandered the manor.
When they discovered and purchased the property, Will hadn’t realized how large it was. The manor contained four bedrooms, not including their master suite, as well as three bathrooms, a living room, a dining room, a butler’s pantry, and a large attic. One bedroom they converted into a library, another into an office for Hannibal, and a third into a guest bedroom. (Will argued against that decision—they hadn’t had a “guest” since Bedelia—but Hannibal simply smiled that reptilian smile and said, “It’s always best to be prepared.”) The fourth bedroom stood empty, unused.
He made his way to the library. They’d lined the walls with shelves, all the way up to the ceiling, and organized the books in alphabetical order by genre. Or rather, Will had. It was just the sort of project he enjoyed. It kept him focused and it ate up time. When he finished the library he had, unbidden, organized the books in Hannibal’s office as well.
Nothing on the shelves interested him that night. They had an assortment—nonfiction, horror, crime, romance, even a smattering of fantasy and science-fiction. Will paced the room three times, hoping a title would jump out at him. But none did. Instead, he found himself simply pacing the room. Will froze in his tracks. Suddenly feeling restless and a little claustrophobic, he exited the room and headed down the hall. The stairs to the attic were hidden behind a narrow door, easily mistaken for a broom closet. The wood creaked under his feet as Will made his way up. The stairs weren’t quite as old as the manor itself, but he felt certain they had at least a century on him.
The attic was enormous and mostly empty. They tended to travel light. There were a handful of boxes stacked neatly in one of the corners and little else. The air felt chilly and stale. Will walked slowly from one end to the other, listening to the floorboards creak and settle. Like so much of the manor, it seemed to call out to him. It wanted something, it needed something.
It was hungry.
From somewhere two floors below, the smell of cooking meat wafted up through the floorboards.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
And we’re back! Sorry for the delay; the holidays wrecked my ass.
How is Margot doing today?
The question rang in her mind as she closed her book. She’d finished it. She’d enjoyed it. The ending had been satisfying enough, but she still wanted more.
I’m doing alright, she answered herself. I just finished a book. Alana gets off early tonight. Talking to herself was a trick she learned in therapy. Conscious check-ins. Stopping, reassessing, reaffirming what’s real, what’s not, and what’s on fire.
Today, nothing was on fire. The world was quiet. The estate was silent.
Margot stiffened. When you’re the mother of a toddler and an older child, Silence with a capital S was never good. Silence meant flour strewn on the kitchen floor, a broken flatscreen, peanut butter and jelly applied like war paint, shit on the walls, another—
She set the book aside and stepped out of her office. Really it was more of a reading nook. Margot spent most of her time with the children. She’d found she preferred it to board meetings and endless talk of pigs. If she never heard another word about pigs for as long as she lived, it would still be too soon. Margot felt perfectly content letting Verger Industries run itself. They had more than enough money now. They’d never have to worry about college tuition, at least.
The hallway was just as silent as the rest of the house. No cartoons blaring, no toys talking, no anything. Margot padded down to Morgan’s room, but it was empty. The bed was made, all his toys arranged neatly on their shelves. He inherited Alana’s love of order. He had a bookcase of his own now. After he entered kindergarten, he’d insisted.
He wasn’t there. So Margot headed to Maddie’s room. Empty, and messy. Stuffed animals on the floor, Barbies scattered in front of their pink mansion, crayons and drawings strewn across her unmade bed.
Next she checked the living room. The TV was off. No sign of anyone.
No answer. She went down the stairs, into the basement. The family room, Alana liked to call it. It was really the kids’ room; it had the game consoles, more books, all the DVDs. There were even photo albums. She carried on her mother’s tradition of archiving each year’s summer vacation, birthday celebrations, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in its own album. The ones from her childhood were packed away, off in storage somewhere.
One the albums sat open on the floor. Pictures were removed, scattered around it. Margot sighed. Maddie’s handiwork no doubt. She’d reorganize it—later.
A scream came from somewhere upstairs. Then another, higher-pitched. Margot didn’t think. She just ran, sprinting up one flight of stairs, then another. Not in the bedrooms, must be—
She ran up two flights of stairs, down the hall, to the creaky wooden staircase that led up to the attic. The children were forbidden from going up there; it was dusty, dirty, full of cobwebs and shriveled spider corpses. She’d recently booked an appointment for an exterminator to inspect it after Morgan complained of hearing scratching noises at night.
“Maddie?! Morgan?!” Margot yelled. She reached the top of the stairs, panting, heart racing. The first thing she noticed was Maddie. Little Maddie, with her wavy brown hair and big doe eyes, crying hysterically. When she saw Margot she immediately rushed over. Her toddler blubbered something incoherent, and Margot checked her over for injuries. Nothing scratched or twisted, no bruises blossoming, no bleeding.
Morgan stayed where he was, standing by an old mannequin displaying her grandmother’s yellowed wedding dress. He stared at something on the floor, hidden from her view by the dress’s lace and ruffles.
“What are you two doing up here?” Margot demanded. “There are mice.”
“No,” Morgan said. “Not mice.”
He pointed. Margot stepped closer, still holding Maddie. The little girl sobbed into her shoulder, wetting her shirt with snot and tears. Past the wedding dress, pressed against a wall, was a forgotten wicker Easter basket with a faded and chewed ribbon. Something had filled the basket with whatever it could find; pink insulation, sticks, twigs, pieces of ribbon, gnawed strips of yellowed lace. In the basket wriggled a half dozen baby squirrels.
In front of the nest was the mother squirrel. Dead. Its mouth hung open, large teeth gaping at her.
Margot’s heart dropped. She felt as though someone had sucked all the musty air in the attic and punched her in the stomach all at once. Her voice came out as a whisper:
“Morgan, what did you do?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I found her like that. Maddie said she wanted to see.”
His blue eyes stared up at her, meeting hers. When Morgan lied, he never looked around or expressed even the barest trace of guilt. He looked you right in the eyes when he lied to your face. But Margot knew. She always knew.
“Come here,” she ordered, outstretching her hand. Morgan obeyed. His hand was so small, so delicate in hers. Margot gripped it tightly. Could such little hands be so capable? Feeling nauseous, she led him down the stairs.
All the while, Maddie didn’t stop crying.
Alana came home. An exterminator was called to remove the squirrel and relocate her babies to a local wildlife shelter. They ate dinner. The kids were put to bed. Morgan acted as he always did, and insisted on picking out a story to be read to him before he drifted off to sleep. Maddie got her story as well, but she was quieter than normal. She stared blankly ahead as Alana read to her, and when she murmured her good nights she sounded sad.
Once the kids were both asleep, she and Alana sequestered themselves in her office with a bottle of whiskey.
“He killed it,” Margot insisted. “I know he killed it.”
Alana frowned as she poured herself a glass. “How do you know?”
“He was lying to me,” Margot said. She held out her glass, and Alana poured her drink. Margot gulped it down. It burned her throat like fire, but she needed something to help her shake the sinking feeling she’d developed after the discovery in the attic. “I asked him ‘What did you do’ and he looked me right in the eyes and said ‘nothing’, but I know he was lying.”
“Maybe it was sick,” Alana suggested. She sat beside her on the chaise lounge, her own drink still untouched. A comforting arm wrapped around Margot’s shoulders, and she leaned into the touch.
“I asked the exterminator,” Margot murmured. “He said it looked like something crushed her throat.”
“If he strangled a squirrel, he’d have scratches and bites all over his hands,” Alana said. She sipped her drink. Neither of the children had any injuries, squirrel-inflicted or otherwise.
“Maybe he stepped on it.”
“I think,” Alana said, “I’m going to say something that will upset you.”
Margot stiffened and pulled away. “What?”
“I think…” Alana began delicately, “that you saw a dead animal, a calm boy, and an upset girl, and it brought back bad memories.”
A beautiful ragdoll cat with baby blue eyes, staring endlessly up at Margot, mouth open. She shoved the image and the memory down. Margot turned towards Alana, bile rising in her throat. Not again. “And what about Morgan’s birthday party?”
“That was an accident, Margot. Maddie said—”
“Of course she would say it was an accident!” Margot shot to her feet, her voice dangerously close to yelling. She and Alana rarely fought, and when they did, it was in soft voices, never shouts. Margot swallowed and forced herself to speak evenly. “She’ll say anything she has to if it means he’ll leave her alone. Don’t you think I would fucking know?”
Alana reached out and took her hand. “Margot, Morgan loves his sister.”
“Until she makes him angry,” Margot said. She felt like she was on the verge of tears, on the verge of flying apart. This couldn’t be happening again. Not with her children. Not with her baby boy. “You know how he is when he gets angry. Remember Pembroke Academy? He tried to stab a boy with scissors!”
“Safety scissors,” Alana corrected, “but you have a point.” She paused, considering. “What if we put them both in therapy? Work on Morgan’s anger issues and see if they notice...anything else. Same with Maddie.”
Margot took a breath, then nodded. She reclaimed her seat beside Alana as her wife poured her another drink. “That...would make me feel better, I think. About both of them.”
Alana’s hand rested on the back of her head and combed her fingers gently through Margot’s hair. “He’s not Mason.”
She closed her eyes at the mention of her brother. She didn’t want to think of him, just the comforting feeling of Alana’s touch. “I know.”
“He’s a sweet boy. And he loves you. You’re his favorite, you know,” Alana said. Margot could hear the smile in her voice, even though she didn’t open her eyes to see it.
“Not true.” But it was. Alana gave birth to Morgan, then one month later was back to work. Margot stayed home watched him as he slept in his cradle, fretting over every sneeze and cry. They spent his toddler years taking trips to children’s museums and playgrounds, attending storytime at the local library, and watching Disney movies snuggled on the couch. Alana was far from an absentee mother, and Morgan both adored and admired her. But for him, Margot hung the moon.
“Sure,” Alana said, the smile working its way back into her voice. She pulled Margot close and planted a kiss on her cheek. “It’ll all work out. You’ll see.”
Margot reopened her eyes and cast a look to Alana. In her arms, it was easy to believe. Since she came into her life, all her problems melted away. Perhaps she could make this one go away too. A good child psychologist, some medicine if necessary...and it was back to being a happy, normal family.
How is Margot doing today?
She buried her face into Alana’s neck and held her close.
I’m afraid, she answered. Because deep down, she knew the ugly truth: they had never been normal.
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
Light slanted into the room through the space in between the curtain panels. The rest of the room was dim and cool. Will opened his eyes and strongly considered closing them again. The sheets felt soft and warm. He felt at peace, in part because he woke up facing Hannibal.
A slow smile crept on his face. Will liked to watch Hannibal sleep. It was one of the few times he was completely unguarded. No games, no defenses. It left Will feeling both awed and proud; there was a certain thrill that came with lying next to a predator and knowing you were the only person in the world safe from those teeth. Will shifted closer. Hannibal didn’t stir, even as Will pressed his forehead against his. His breathing was deep and even. Will closed his eyes and breathed with him.
In moments, he was asleep again and dreaming. He stood in his grandfather’s house—a place he barely remembered from his childhood with wood paneling and an ugly, stiff couch. A ghostly Abigail walked around a nicotine yellow kitchen table, again and again. Her eyes stared ahead without seeing. Her neck gushed blood.
Will woke again with a jolt. The room was a bit brighter. Light filtered in through the golden curtains. He was alone in the bed. Hannibal was already up.
His bare feet slapped against the kitchen tile as Will dragged himself towards the table. Hannibal was already working on breakfast. A cup of coffee waited for him by his chair. It was still hot. Hannibal knew how he liked it: no cream, just sugar. Will slurped at it, heedless of the heat, and gulped down a mouthful. The silence that stretched between them was a comfortable one. Will drank his coffee and tried to shake off the image from the dream. Hannibal cracked and cooked two eggs sunny side up. Two sausages simmered in another pan. Hannibal gave them an occasional turn or flip but seemed content to let them cook without much interference. Some sort of batter stood waiting in a bowl beside him.
”We haven’t yet visited the Doge’s Palace,” Hannibal said. He poured out six silver dollar pancakes into a third pan. The batter sizzled. “Would you like to?”
Will thought briefly of the building. They’d passed it many, many times: pale pink stone and dozens of stark white arches. He considered and imagined what the inside must be like: huge empty, gilded rooms with dramatic paintings of Christ. The idea didn’t appeal to him. He sipped at his coffee and tried to think of what he’d like to do instead. It came to him almost instantly.
“I want to go to an animal shelter and get a dog,” Will said.
Hannibal didn’t seem surprised. “We’ll have to take the ferry to the mainland. The shelter on the islands only keeps cats.” He paused for a moment, eyes on his work, and flipped the small pancakes.
Will arched an eyebrow. “Just like that? No complaints about shedding or accidents on your rugs?”
He watched Hannibal flick off the burners. On each of the two plates, he placed an egg, sausage, and three pancakes that he drizzled artfully with syrup. Even a simple breakfast managed to look elevated with Hannibal’s neat plating. He set Will’s down in front of him.
“Of course,” Hannibal answered. He sat across from Will and smiled. “It’s part of who you are. I will no more complain about keeping dogs than you will about the contents of your sausage. You understand and accept my nature. It would be cruel of me to not offer you the same courtesy.”
With that, Hannibal tucked into his breakfast. Will watched him for a moment, then followed suit. He started with the sausage.
The shelter wasn’t like the ones Will was used to in America. Those were usually concrete buildings with rows of wired cells, not unlike a jail. The shelter they arrived at looked more like a home. A wire fence enclosed a large yard. Seven dogs of all sizes bounded to the fence to bark at them. Inside was denominated by cats. They lounged on their perches and blinked sleepily at them as they walked past. Will let Hannibal handle the polite small talk with the woman who ran the place. She led them through the house, which was completely dominated by cat beds and cat perches. A long-haired white cat hopped down from her perch and followed them into the home’s kitchen.
Will went out the back door and into the yard, while Hannibal elected to remain inside. The dogs rushed to greet him as he stepped out. They gathered close to sniff his pants and shoes, tails wagging in excitement.
He wondered how his old pack was doing. Had Molly kept them all? Were they still bounding in and out of their remote home, oblivious to all the ways the world had changed around them? Will shook his head, as if to shake the thought loose, and turned his attention back to the eager group in front of him. He spotted a gnawed tennis ball and picked it up. Their eyes filled with bright anticipation.
He threw it towards the opposite end of the yard, and they were off. One of the dogs, some kind of retriever mix, tried to catch it on the bounce but miscalculated. It rolled on the grass and was scooped up by a nimble mutt with curly straw-colored fur. She sprinted to bring it back to Will, the rest of the pack on her heels.
After thirty minutes of fetch, belly rubs, and horseplay, a breathless and smiling Will stepped back into the shelter kitchen. Hannibal sat at the table with the caretaker, a white long-haired cat curled on his lap.
“We’ll take them all,” Will said.
Hannibal insisted on having the dogs professionally groomed before setting a paw into the manor. Most of them needed a good bath, so Will relented. They dropped the dogs off at a pet salon—along with Hannibal’s new cat. In the meantime, they procured everything they would need for the new additions: dog beds, chew toys, leashes, collars, tags, and a single litter box.
Hours later they arrived home. Will took special satisfaction in loosing each dog from their leash, allowing them to go sprinting down the halls to explore their new domain. Hannibal stood beside him and cradled the cat in his arms. She blinked at Will with eerily intelligent orange eyes.
Will said, “I never took you for a cat person.”
Hannibal set the cat down, lowering her so she could step lightly from his arms onto the tile. She sashayed away from them, tail swaying, and ignored the whining dogs that ran excitedly up and down the halls.
“Cats are one of evolution’s most perfect predators. Their design has gone relatively unchanged since it first evolved. From tigers to house cats, they are born to kill with great efficiency,” Hannibal said. He looked towards Will with an easy smile. “I admire predators in all their many forms.”
Before Will could think of a snappy response, Hannibal walked off towards his office. Will watched him go. He saw him both as he seemed and as he was: a black stag, antlers sprawling and dripping velvet viscera neatly hidden beneath a handsome face and Armani suit.
The evening slid past with a lazy sort of slowness. Will found himself on the couch beneath two dogs—the curly-haired mutt he’d named Barbie and a bear-like brown dog he’d decided to call Major. The other dogs lounged nearby, though they avoided the cat. She sat alone in the middle of one of the large dog beds, her paws hidden underneath her mass of white fluff. Each time Will looked over he found her eyes on him. He got the distinct impression she was plotting his murder.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he told her. His old life and everything in it vanished into smoke the moment he took them both over the cliff. “You’re just going to have to get used to me.”
The cat did not blink.
“Making friends, Will?” Hannibal stepped into the room. He had changed out of his suit into attire that was more accommodating to cooking. It was almost time for dinner, and they had a lot of leftovers to go through.
“She’s thinking of how to kill me.”
“Is that your professional opinion?” Hannibal walked over to the dog bed where she lay. His eyes glittered with amusement when he saw how she’d displaced her canine companions. He reached down and ran a hand down her back. The cat closed her eyes and lifted her head into his touch.
Will thought he might head into the kitchen, but instead, Hannibal took a seat in the armchair across from him. He felt a sense of deja vu: Hannibal in his chair, Will in his. Therapy session after therapy session. Then it was gone. The game between them was over. They’d done their strange courtship dance, measuring and pushing and seeing how far they could force each other to go. They’d entered alone, but they’d limped away from their bloody arena together. Together they would stay.
“You’ve been restless,” Hannibal said suddenly, drawing Will back to him. “I’ve seen you building something. A thought you’ve been putting together since we arrived.”
“It’s too empty,” Will said. “The house.” Neither of them said anything at first. The silence lingered as Hannibal waited for him to offer the solution they both knew was coming. Finally, Will said, “Perhaps...we should have a guest over.”
Hannibal leaned forward just slightly, a subtle display of the eagerness that lurked beneath the calm surface of his impassable face. “Shall I consult my records to find someone suitable?”
“No,” Will said at once. He reached down and scratched Barbie behind the ears. Her short tail began to wag. “I want to choose.”
“We’re hunting a monster, then,” Hannibal said. He smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Your preferred prey are the extreme minority—the worst of the world’s most dangerous minds.”
“You doubt I’ll find someone suitable.”
“On the contrary.” Hannibal smiled. “I’m quite looking forward to what you discover. A primordial predator, a dragon...what pitiable creature will the Lamb sacralize next?”
“Sacralize. Is that what it is?”
“What would you call it?” Hannibal tilted his head in genuine curiosity. Picking apart Will’s thoughts and motivations remained his favorite past time. There was always something to intrigue or delight him in the labyrinth of his mind.
Will considered the question. “I give them the end they deserve. Justice.”
“Randall Tier was driven to kill by the delusion that consumed his mind. You elevated him after death, allowing him to become what he always wanted to be. You felt sympathy for him.” The cat rose from her place on the dog bed and hopped into Hannibal’s lap. He scratched her chin. “You did not feel pity for Hobbs or Dolarhyde.”
“They didn’t deserve it,” Will replied. “They weren’t torn apart by their own minds.”
“Some would argue that all killers are, in some way, ill,” Hannibal said. The word rolled off his tongue with obvious contempt. Will knew that Hannibal considered himself to be many things; sick wasn’t one of them. “What differentiates them?”
“The way they allowed it to manifest.”
Hannibal seemed to consider this for a moment. Then, abruptly, he turned the conversation. “And what of Bedelia and her fate? Did she get what she deserved?”
The answer came immediately: “Absolutely.”
“Was her crime so grievous?” Hannibal asked, arching an amused eyebrow.
“Not grievous,” Will admitted. Watching Hannibal kill and doing nothing to stop it—well, he’d done far, far worse. It wasn’t even her alibi that had angered him. It was her book, her lectures, her talk show appearances. To survive was one thing. To profit was another. But the seed of hate still lay underneath that. Will would have been reticent to acknowledge it three years ago, but now, he had no trouble facing the cold truth. Will hated Bedelia for one simple reason: she tried to take his place. “Just personal.”
Hannibal smiled, and Will couldn’t help but smile too.
“I’m going to prepare dinner.” Hannibal rose from his chair, displacing his cat as he did so. She huffed, but claimed his chair for her own once he was up. Hannibal looked to Will. His gaze was uncharacteristically soft. It made Will feel both pleased and unsettled. Pleased because the look confirmed everything he knew; unsettled because something still felt off. He had his home, his dogs, his—whatever you might call Hannibal. But not all of the pieces were there yet. Something was distinctly missing.
“I’ll help you,” Will volunteered. He shifted, causing Barbie to hop down. Major remained, his large body dead weight on top of Will’s leg. He tugged it free, but the massive dog barely seemed to notice. Will gave both dogs a good-natured pat on the head before following Hannibal into the kitchen. They took turns scrubbing their hands clean, then Hannibal vanished into the butler’s pantry. They had two refrigerators; one for meat and one for everything else.
Hannibal returned with a large package. He laid it out on the cutting board and carefully unwrapped Francesco’s pink lungs. He spread them like a butterfly unfolding its wings.
“What do I need to do?” Will found he enjoyed cooking with Hannibal. The night they cooked Bedelia’s leg, Hannibal had pressed close behind him. Will still remembered how he’d held his hand over the knife and showed him, slowly, patiently, how to separate the leftover silver skin from each end of the leg. His other hand rested on Will’s hip and held him firmly in place. For Will, Hannibal’s kitchen was a place of intimacy—often in more ways than one.
“You can start on the vegetables. We’ll need green onion, red potatoes…” Hannibal considered. “...and the white truffle.”
Will fetched them from the fridge and laid them out on another cutting board. They worked at their stations in silence. Will glanced over to catch glimpses of Hannibal’s skill with a knife: the slide of the blade, the practiced nature of every cut and slice. He opened Francesco’s lungs, then began to cut away the bronchi and any leftover cartilaginous parts. Will’s own work went just as quickly, but he couldn’t help but feel Hannibal’s process always had something his lacked. A certain artistic technique that could be seen, but never imitated.
Arms circled around Will. A hand rested lightly on his hip. Will continued working, but was unable to completely focus. Not with Hannibal pressing close, holding him, observing.
“Your knife skills have improved immensely,” Hannibal remarked. “It comes so naturally to you now.”
“Years of practice,” Will said. “And a good teacher.”
“Experience is the best teacher. I merely set you into motion; you did the hard work yourself.”
Wind me up and watch me go, he thought. And go and go and go. Will wasn’t necessarily grateful or happy with how things had played out between them. The scars remained as reminders of old games and fatal miscalculations. But if Hannibal hadn’t found him, if he didn’t push—Will wouldn’t have found peace. There was no peace in being a cop, a teacher, an FBI expert, a husband to Molly, a father to Walter. Will walked the world with an uncomfortable mask stretched taught over his skin—hating it, always aware of it, but all the while fearing the consequences of ripping it off. It meant he would have to face the darkness within him alone, and even he had no idea when or how it would manifest.
Then Hannibal came along. Pandora’s box opened and all the horrors that lurked in the darkness of Will’s mind poured out and drowned him in their inky black ichor. He hated Hannibal for turning that key, winding him up, destroying so many years of careful regression and repression. But when it was over, when the mask melted away and mired him in blood, Will found peace. Because he knew what he was, and yet he wasn’t alone.
He finished slicing the white truffle into almost paper-thin slices. Hannibal leaned forward to inspect his work, his chest pressing lightly against Will’s back. “Well done. It’s good to have an extra pair of hands in the kitchen.”
Hannibal planted a brief, grateful kiss on Will’s cheek and reached around to grab the cutting board. Will shifted to the side to block him. He turned, grabbed Hannibal by his collar, and pulled him into a kiss. Hannibal remained in his grasp, his lips eagerly meeting Will’s. His hand once again settled on his hip but held Will firmly in place now.
Will held the kiss for a long moment, savoring the taste of Hannibal’s mouth against his and the feeling of his fingers digging into his hip. Finally, he pulled away, but Hannibal closed the distance left between their bodies. They were chest-to-chest, hips-to-hips.
“I think dinner can wait,” Will murmured. “Don’t you?”
“For you? Always,” Hannibal replied. He pulled Will into another kiss, this one passionate and hungry. Will smiled into it.
And go and go and go.
When they finally got around to dinner, it was late in the evening. Afterward, Hannibal vanished into his office once again. Will didn’t ask what he was working on; he’d know soon enough, whatever it was. So while Hannibal schemed, Will fed his dogs.
Once upon a time, he fed his dogs generic kibble that came in hefty bags. Then he transitioned to wet food. Then, after scrutinizing every brand on the market, Will decided to make his own dog food. At least then he would know exactly what went into it.
He went to the meat fridge in the butler’s pantry to see what he had to work with. Neat packages of meat and organs greeted him. After their first meal, Will helped Hannibal butcher and wrap the leftovers. They’d be eating off Francesco for weeks. He chose a mixture of arm, calf, and part of Francesco’s back for the dogs’ meal. He ran each component through the meat grinder, then mixed them all together in a large bowl. As an afterthought, he dumped both of his kidneys into a food processor. Will scraped the sides down with a spoon, dumping the rich purée in with the rest of the meat. He divided it into his dogs’ seven bowls and found there was still some leftover.
Always more meat than mouths, Will thought.
The dogs came when he called, likely because they could smell food. They all tucked in without any hesitation. To a dog, meat was meat.
“You took to it faster than I did,” he said to them, a smile creeping onto his face. He loved them already. It was so easy with dogs; you gave them love and they returned it a hundredfold. People were more complicated. Will watched them lap up their meal until he felt eyes on him. He turned his head and saw the cat lurking in the doorway. She stared at him with those orange eyes, as if expecting something. Will stared back at her, then disappeared back into the kitchen.
He emerged with the sterling silver cat dish, filled with the leftover meat. Will held it for her to see. “Truce?”
The cat only blinked at him. He set her dish on the floor away from the dogs and watched her pad forward. She sniffed the contents, then began to take small, delicate bites. When Will ran a hand down her back, he heard a low purr begin to rumble deep in her chest. Truce.
With the animals fed and nothing left to occupy him, Will’s curiosity won out over his patience. He went to Hannibal’s office and entered without knocking—the kind of rudeness that only Will could get away with and live. Hannibal glanced up as he entered and smiled despite his lack of decorum.
“Your timing is impeccable,” Hannibal said. “I was just about to fetch you.”
Will walked closer to his desk, curiosity piqued. There were a variety of papers scattered across its surface. “What are you up to?”
“Compiling a list of monsters,” Hannibal replied. He gathered the papers together and handed them to Will in one neatly organized stack.
He felt a twinge of annoyance as he took the documents. This was meant to be his hunt, after all. Not Hannibal’s. But as he began to look through the papers, his irritation vanished. Hannibal had scoured news sites from all across Europe for hints of killers. These, Will determined, were what Hannibal considered to be the most promising leads. Over sixteen articles in various languages, all highlighted and translated for Will’s convenience. Hannibal waited patiently as Will scanned through them, taking it all in: a child’s body discovered in a shallow grave in France, with flowers planted in and blooming from their open mouth; eighteen missing girls in Belgium, but not a single body to be found; a teenager’s body dredged from a lake in Latvia, his body marred by signs of torture; the remains of a couple found in a forest in Sweden, their bodies sewn together in one last naked embrace. More than a dozen killers scattered across the continent, hunting and stalking, never once imagining they might soon become the hunted.
A thought formed in Will’s mind. A beautiful, unnatural idea that bloomed like a flower. He could see it. His first masterpiece came to life in his mind, immediately claiming space in his palace of memories. It sprawled across the altar of the church and he stood in front of it, relishing in the horror of his grand design.
“Which will you choose?” Hannibal’s voice called him out of his mind, back into the waking world. Will found himself sitting on the floor of the office, the papers scattered around him in a half-circle. He felt a ghoulish excitement bubbling within him.
“Will?” Hannibal prompted him again. He looked up and found that Hannibal’s expression was one of both curiosity and amusement. “Which will you choose?”
A grin spread across Will’s face as he turned his eyes back to the array of articles. He replied, “We’ll take them all.”