Hannibal turned off of a faded Virginia back road onto a winding driveway. Gravel-covered and pitted with potholes, it snaked through individual stands of maple, birch, and oak that gradually merged into thick forest. High branches shaded the track he followed, a single, carved line of civilization in an abrupt wilderness.
He checked the directions Jack had given him and then he checked his GPS. They both agreed that this was the place. After ten minutes of a slow crawl over uneven terrain and rain-guttered road, he emerged into a clearing. The house reached to the sky with turrets and a general sense of verticality, something like a cross between Gothic cathedral and gingerbread cottage. It fit the reputation of the man he'd come to see.
Dr. William Graham, well known for his psychiatric work, was still more well known as an eccentric and for his aversion to the outside world, especially since he closed his practice last year. Rumor suggested that a few patients still came to see him here. Hannibal hoped they weren't too badly off. The atmosphere of the place wouldn't contribute to anyone's mental stability.
The front door opened as Hannibal got out of the car, and at least five dogs rushed him. He froze for a second, but they had their ears up, tongues lolling, tails wagging. He knelt down to greet them and got his face licked for his trouble.
"Hey, come on. Get off him," a voice called, and the dogs scattered about the yard and into the woods after a few more seconds of snuffling affection.
Hannibal stood and brushed himself off. Dr. Graham watched him from the porch in striped pajama bottoms that sagged around his hips and a faded t-shirt molded to his chest. Dark curls, bare feet, and an expression that spoke of sleep and confusion, though it was almost noon. Hannibal dragged his eyes upward to the man's face, where they would, he told himself, stay. With Graham's reputation, he'd expected someone older. Distinguished. Silver hair and middle aged spread. Not this.
"Unless you're a reporter," Graham said. "In which case I'll let them lick you to death. They're not much good for anything else."
Hannibal walked up to the porch and displayed his ID. "Special Agent Hannibal Lecter. Jack Crawford sent me."
"Alana said you'd be coming by." He rubbed at the back of his neck and frowned. "Was that today?"
"I'm afraid I didn't make an appointment."
Graham eyed him. "Jack thought you'd do better taking me by surprise, huh?"
"Something like that."
"You want coffee?"
Dusty light filled the interior of the house. Dog beds everywhere, a grand piano in the corner, floor to ceiling bookshelves packed with everything from cracked and faded leather volumes to tattered paperbacks. The kitchen belonged in a castle, and the modern appliances huddled along one wall in mortal terror of the massive fireplace complete with a spit that would roast an entire pig.
Graham made coffee in a tin kettle on the stove, as one might over a campfire. "You'll have to wait for the grounds to settle," he said, as he handed over a mug.
"Thank you, Dr. Graham."
"Do you think Jack sent you because he knew you'd be attracted to me?"
Hannibal looked at his reflection in the inky surface of his coffee until he had his expression under control. It took a second longer than he would've preferred.
"If he had any thought of that factor affecting the outcome of this interview, he didn't share it with me." He paused. "And would it? Affect the outcome?"
Graham shrugged. "Almost everyone likes having their ego flattered, don't they? Come on, we can sit on the porch and keep the dogs out of trouble."
Almost everyone. But not this man, Hannibal thought. He followed Graham back out to the porch. They sat in rickety wicker chairs that looked like yard sale finds. Three of the dogs loped up and sprawled at Graham's feet. The little one started to yip, and Graham quieted him with a word and a touch.
"They're well trained," Hannibal said.
"They have to be. Walking them all on a leash would be nuts, and I can't have them running wild in the woods. You never know what you'll find in there."
"Will." He smiled, sweet and almost painfully charming. "Special Agent Lecter."
"Better. Less of a mouthful. You were saying?"
"Jack sent me with a specific proposition."
"Aw, come on. You were doing great." He poked Hannibal's knee with his bare toes. "Good manners. No assuming it's my duty to give you what you want. You let my dogs slobber on you. You didn't flinch at the attraction thing, didn't even deny it, which takes guts, and now suddenly we're back to Jack's agenda?"
"His agenda is my agenda."
"Then tell me your agenda, Hannibal." He left his foot propped on the edge of Hannibal's chair and watched him over the rim of his mug, gaze still soft and sleepy.
It made Hannibal wonder exactly how much sharper Will would be when he woke up. He already felt like he'd been cut.
"Seven girls have disappeared recently in Minnesota. All the same age, height, hair color. I have photographs if you'd like to see them."
"I saw the spread in the Post. Pretty but not flashy, average clothes, minimal make up. He's got a type."
"Yes. We'd like you to do a profile of the person responsible."
"Why isn't Alana doing it? This is her thing, not mine."
"She was Jack's first choice. She declined and recommended you.”
"You should ask her again. I don't even practice anymore. I've never consulted for law enforcement. Not really interested in starting."
Hannibal blew steam off his coffee. The dogs darted into the shadows under the trees and back out into the sun. The maple leaves had just started to go red in the higher reaches, like a slow blush.
“How long have you lived here?” he asked.
“About ten years. I got it cheap. There was a murder in the attic.”
“Husband locked his family up there for a week or so. Killed the kids first and then the wife.”
“You don’t seem disturbed by the idea.”
Will looked at him, head tipped back against the chair. “Neither do you,” he said.
“I suppose the profession inures one to such things. To a certain extent.”
“How many murder scenes have you been to?”
“I haven’t kept track.”
“You’ve kept track of some of them.”
Hannibal rubbed his thumb over the faded design on the side of the cup: a fish with a hook in its mouth breaking the surface of a lake. “Eight,” he said, at last. “Eight that have stayed with me. For one reason or another.”
“Tell me about one of them.”
“I’m not here for therapy, Will.”
“Maybe you should be. You’re not carrying. Unless you’ve got a .22 in an ankle holster, and I don’t think you do. You’re not a small caliber guy. Psych eval pending?”
“It’s standard procedure after a deadly force encounter.”
“And who was on the receiving end of your deadly force?”
“A woman. She was holding a young boy hostage.” He paused. “My shot was not meant to kill her. It dislodged a chip of bone that pierced her pericardium. There was too much damage, and it was discovered too late.”
“I think you’d better make it nine, don’t you?” Will said softly. “She’ll stay with you.”
Hannibal folded his hands over the mug, seeking warmth. “Yes. I imagine she will.”
Will shoved his bare toes under the edge of Hannibal’s thigh, and Hannibal stared at the tops of his feet, blue veins and bones skimming the surface.
“My feet were cold,” Will said, unapologetic. He added the other one and wriggled his toes. “Much better. So. Who else have you killed?”
“Whose profile are you working on?”
“You’ve made yourself an easy target. Maybe I miss psychiatry more than I thought.”
“Why did you leave?”
Will shrugged. “I got bored.”
“Then perhaps you should try something new. There’s been another. Today. An eighth. We could use your help.”
“Look, Hannibal, you seem like a nice guy, but I have no motivation to do this. It sounds pretty hellish, actually. I’ve met Jack Crawford. He’s a good leader, which would pose a problem, because I am not a good follower. People would expect certain modes of behavior and communication from me that I’m barely capable of and have no interest in maintaining over the course of an investigation. And when we get the guy, what’s my reward? Demands to do it again for the next one. No thanks.”
“Would you at least look at the photos?”
“You can show me all the pretty dead girls you want. It won’t change my mind.”
“Is there anything that would change your mind?”
Will pushed his hair back from his face and watched him in silence for a moment. One of his dogs raced up to the porch and dropped its head on Will’s knee, panting. Will scratched it behind one ear, attention still on Hannibal.
“Would you have sex with me if I helped you out? That’s not an offer, by the way. I’m just curious as to how far you’d go.”
It set off every alarm Hannibal had acquired in a childhood spent fending for himself and a lifetime of law enforcement. He ignored all of them. “I’d have sex with you either way,” he said.
“I’m not interested, just to be clear.”
Hannibal found himself amused rather than insulted. Something about the slightly wary look in Will’s eyes. “Thank you for being so clear. Is there something you want from me that’s not sex?”
“What would I want from you?”
“A place to warm your feet, evidently. I could owe you. Would you consider doing it as a personal favor?"
“Not bad, but no. I don't find you that interesting.”
“Then what do you want, Will? There must be something, or you would already have sent me away.” He rested a hand on Will’s ankle, chilled skin and shifting bone. “No one’s life is complete. We are designed to want more, to strive consistently. We are never truly content. It’s not in our nature.”
“What makes you think you can give me anything I want?”
“I think I can try. If you let me.”
Will’s face was very still. The dog beside him nosed into his hand, but he didn’t move to pet it. A minute passed in silence and then two. Hannibal stopped expecting an answer and just sat and drank his coffee and watched the wind-blurred clouds, high in the autumn sky.
“Have you eaten breakfast?” he asked.
Will shook his head.
“Shall I make you something? I’m an excellent cook.”
“You talk big anyway.”
“False modesty is as dishonest as any other lie.”
“Okay,” Will said. “Show me what you've got.”
Hannibal rose and started for the door. Will stayed where he was. “Are you going to wait here?”
“Yeah, call me when it’s ready.”
One of the dogs slid between his legs as he stepped through the door and followed him into the kitchen with a hopeful, grinning face. Hannibal sorted through cookware and utensils and let himself smile. The honesty of Will’s rudeness appealed to him. It would not appeal to Jack. That would be something to see.
Old metal cabinets housed cast iron skillets and a stock pot big enough for a sizable turkey. He found tins of flour and sugar, raspberries in the fridge, picked wild by the look of them, some grown large and others tiny dabs of blood in a chipped white bowl. The taste was just on the edge of too tart.
He made a lemon crepe batter and cut off a few slices of ham to go with it. The dog sat quietly at his feet for so long that Hannibal forgot he was there until he tripped over him. He fed him a bit of ham in apology.
“Taking over my kitchen, spoiling my dogs,” Will said. He wasn’t smiling, but his voice held a surprising amount of warmth.
“I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Came in the back. I wanted to watch you.”
“Without my knowledge.”
“What’s his name?” He nodded down to the dog, now immovable from the spot where ham had fallen from the sky.
“Her name. That’s Medea.”
“Quite a weight of mythology for one small dog.”
“She ate one of her puppies. Her former owner was a patient of mine. He said of course they were having her put down after that.” Will snorted, derision and disgust. “Of course. So I asked if I could have her.”
“And has she eaten anyone else?”
“I got her fixed, so no more puppies. She’d have a hard time getting started on anyone full grown. Why did you stop?”
“The crepe batter needs to rest.”
“Oh. Do you want to see the attic?”
“Is there anything to see?”
“Hard to get bloodstains out of untreated wood.”
Will took the stairs two at a time. Medea followed, but her legs were short, and the stairs were high. Hannibal picked her up and tucked her under his arm.
The attic opened out at the top of the third flight of steps. The peaked roof had windows on either end and dormers on the sides. Bare boards served as a floor, covered in a scattering of sawdust at one end of the room and bleached clean at the other. The stains showed as a few pale discolorations. Hannibal wouldn’t have guessed what they were.
“You don’t use the space,” he said.
“I don’t use most of the house. How much space does one person really need?”
“Usually one’s life expands to fill the space that contains it. Unto overflowing, in some cases.”
Will walked to the window and cleared away a mass of cobwebs with his hand. “I’ve expanded as much as I’m likely to,” he said.
“You’ve contracted. Away from your practice in the city. Alone out here. Alana said she was the only person whom you see regularly.”
“Most people don’t like me.” Will grinned, sharp-edged and bright as a knife blade. “No idea why.”
“Do you offer to show all of them your attic?”
“No. Maybe you’re just special.”
Will took a step back and then started toward him deliberately. He took Medea from Hannibal’s arms. “Or I was just trying to get rid of you,” he said.
“You need only ask me to leave.”
“Is that batter ready to cook?”
“It will be if I cook the ham first.”
“Fine. You can leave after. I wouldn’t want to be rude.”
Hannibal laughed. He couldn’t help it.
Will frowned, hair falling in his eyes, Medea trying to lick his chin. “What’s so funny?”
“You wouldn’t want to be rude? What do you think you’ve been so far?”
Will’s face smoothed over. He set Medea down, and his eyes stayed on her as she dashed for the stairs. “Myself,” he said, and started down after her.
Hannibal's phone rang as Will’s footsteps faded. Jack. “Hello?” he said.
“Did he kick you out yet?”
“I’m making breakfast for him.”
“It’s almost one.”
“I don’t think he keeps regular hours. Jack, are you sure this is wise?”
“Why, you don’t think he can do it?”
“I think he can do it. I’m concerned about what it may do to him.”
“Is it going to kill him? Because we’ll have another dead girl in a week or two, and I’m not that concerned about Dr. Graham’s delicate sensibilities.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
He cooked the crepes and served them with sweetened butter and raspberries and crispy ham. They ate on the porch, Will once more with his cold toes jammed under Hannibal’s thigh. Will didn’t say a word until he’d scraped his fork across the off-white china for the last traces of butter and fruit.
“Okay,” he said. “You weren’t exaggerating.”
“I try not to. I can do better in my own kitchen.”
“Is that an invitation?”
“Would you like it to be?”
Will’s face got that closed off, wary look again. “I said I wasn’t interested.”
“Solely for dinner, with no other expectations.”
Will sucked his fork clean and set the plate aside. “I’ll think about it.”
“Let me know. I won’t bother you about it. Professionally, however, I’m afraid I must ask again. Would you at least come and see what we have? It would be an hour or two of your time at most.”
“Why do you want me to?”
“No, I mean why do you personally want me to do this? You didn’t care that much when you got here and now you do. Why?”
“Surely the obvious answer would be my attraction to you.”
Will smiled a little. “Well played. But I don’t think that’s it.”
“What other reason could I have?”
“I don’t know, and that’s pretty unusual for me.”
“If I tell you, will you come? Just for this afternoon?”
Will hesitated and then nodded once. “Okay. Just for today.”
Hannibal hadn’t thought he’d agree, and now the prospect of baring himself in this way stopped his tongue for a moment. He picked up the coffee from earlier and took a drink. It was stone cold.
“I want to see what will happen,” he said. “That’s all. I’m curious.”
“How someone like me will react.”
“Not very noble, Special Agent Lecter.”
“I have never claimed to be that.”