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A Threat Disguised as Suggestion

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a threat
disguised as suggestion—
as we have seen
in the tale of Persephone
which should be read

as an argument between the mother and the lover—
the daughter is just meat.
-- Persephone the Wanderer, Louise Glück

“Being smart spoils a lot of things, doesn’t it?”
-- Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris

 

The click of a woman’s heels echoing down the long corridor is a sound Hannibal Lecter has not heard in years.

He doesn’t move from his position on the cot, but he’s alert to the noise, the steady tap-tap as she approaches. The floor beneath her is smooth. Countless feet have worn down that hard surface in years stretching backward, beating out a rhythm that is almost like a language in itself. It’s a language that Hannibal Lecter has come to know well. He knows the measured steps of the orderlies and the ever-vigilant Barney, the nervous shuffle of the men and women who clean the cells. Sound is alive; it changes the air it passes through, and now he listens to the way this sound changes the space around him. Other noises respond, react: the shifting of the inmates in their cells; the chafing of fabric as someone paces; a throaty growl and a long, labored breath. The woman has come alone and not alone. She brings the outside world with her. Only the tiniest sliver of it—a splinter, he might call it, and in the nature of splinters, it works its way beneath the skin of the men who surround him, stirring some unreachable memory that slumbers within.

Hannibal himself will not stir. His memory does not need waking. It never sleeps for long.

If he concentrates hard enough, he can turn noises into notes, string them together. The symphony it makes is never sweet, but there is satisfaction in it. Not today, however. Today he creates no chords. Today he waits.

The woman is closer now. You can learn things from the way a person walks, and so even before he sees her he begins to study her. Her stride is long, but her steps are deliberate—neither quick nor slow. Intentional. She is trying not to hurry, as he suspects she itches to. She doesn’t miss a step when someone hisses a vulgarity, though her pace increases ever-so-slightly. And then finally her heels bring her to her destination, the very last cell, down at the end of the row. He hears her stop and seat herself.

“Dr. Lecter,” she says.

He is still on his cot, his legs stretched out before him, the loose pages of a medical publication in his hands. He lowers the pages when she speaks, and glances up at her.

“My name is Clarice Starling,” she says. “May I speak with you?”

He doesn’t answer immediately. Silence doesn’t bother him, and now he waits to see if it bothers her. In the interim, he watches. Takes her measure. He’s been doing this all his life; it’s simple, instinctual.

He finds, with faint surprise, that he doesn’t dislike what he sees.

Physically, she’s attractive—he notes that almost clinically, and dismisses it. Instead he breaks her down into shapes: the oval of her face, the straight line of her nose, the angle of her jaw that denotes a certain stubbornness. The dark slashes of her eyebrows have an artist’s precision. She is well-groomed, tidy, presenting the carefully cultivated image of a woman who exists in a field dominated by men, and knows it. Though she wears no perfume, the soap she uses is lightly scented. Lilac. Her clothing is merely serviceable, but her bag appears expensive. There is a slight twang to her voice that she is working hard to hide. The silence stretches. She doesn’t speak again; she is careful not to intrude, it seems. He measures the space she keeps between herself and the cell—far enough to be respectful of his privacy, not so far as to indicate the fear he knows she feels. His gaze moves to the delicate notch in her throat where he imagines he can see her pulse beat, and for just an instant rests there.

When he finally rises and steps toward her, she meets his eyes without flinching.

“Good morning,” he says—pleasantly, because he makes certain to always be polite, and because she is a break in the tedium that has gone so long unbroken.

“Good morning, Doctor. I was hoping we might talk.”

“We are talking now. I fear you will have to be more specific.”

“Thank you, I will be,” she says. She’s set her bag on the floor beside her; her hands are in her lap, not clasped, but not moving. Not one to fidget, Clarice Starling. “I’d like to ask for your help in a subject you’re familiar with—psychological profiling.”

“You personally would like my help, Miss Starling?”

“We would, I meant. I’m with the FBI.”

“May I see your credentials, please?”

She stands and inches forward, holding her identification out in front of her. She’s wary of coming too near, he senses, and when he urges her closer, her nostrils flare when she complies.

He scans the ID quickly. “This says you’re in training.”

“I’m still at the Academy.” She seats herself again. Her hands return to her lap. Her eyes don’t leave his face.

“A trainee,” he says, testing the word. Another sound that reverberates. Two small syllables that act like an anchor, tugging him briefly back into the past. “I imagine you’ve been informed of what happened to the last one.”

“I’ve studied the case file,” Clarice Starling says.

“And Jack Crawford sent you.” Not a question. He examines that. For Crawford, Miriam Lass still lives—not in body, but in the shadow she casts. She is a well-constructed haunting, a specter that cannot be exorcised, because there is no absolution to give. Between the two of them, they killed her; his were the hands that brought her to her end, but the culpability is shared.

Crawford is making a statement by sending this woman. He wants something. Hannibal knows it, and Crawford will have anticipated his knowing. Clarice Starling is not a messenger, then, but simply a message. A pawn and not a player. He wonders if she’s aware of that.

Hannibal prefers to set his own rules, and for that reason this woman interests him.

He moves forward. “What did he tell you about me?”

“That you play mind games. He told me”—she catches herself there, revises quickly—“he told me that you killed Miriam Lass in order to toy with him.”

Memory flickers: an opening door; the bright flash of a smile; long blond hair. The scent of shampoo. She was very clean, Miriam, before the ugly stench that inevitably accompanies death.

“It was out of necessity,” he says. Even now, he feels a pang of something that is almost regret. “The rest—let us say it was merely an unexpected benefit. What had you intended to answer just now, Miss Starling? When I asked what Jack Crawford had told you.”

She hesitates, but only for a second. “He told me not to let you inside my head.”

“I see,” Hannibal says. He steps close to the clear wall that divides them. “I did kill Miriam Lass. She tasted very sweet. Jack Crawford thought so as well. Did he tell you that?”

There it is—that fleeting glimpse of fear. Her nostrils flare again. But she doesn’t give up ground, not even when he smiles, showing his teeth. For just a moment her gaze seems fixed there. Then she lifts her eyes to his once more.

“No, Doctor, he didn’t.” Not a waver to that voice. Not a tremor.

“Tell me of this problem of yours that I am to help you with.”

“It’s an opportunity to share your insight. I’ve brought the questionnaire, if you’d like to take a look.”

He glances at the pages only briefly when she holds them up before him. “A microscope, you mean. You wish to peer at me through this little lens?”

“The lens is cloudy at the moment. We thought that you might help clear it.”

“If your vision is inaccurate, perhaps it is your instrument that is at fault. I pulled out a girl’s lungs once, while she was still trying to breathe with them. I held her final gasp in my hands. Then I made her lungs into a protein scramble. I believe I got better use of them than she ever did. And these papers you hold will explain me? Will they say I wet the bed as a little child, that I was not given enough love?”

Her brow furrows; she smoothens it, almost consciously. “All right, Doctor. What would you suggest?”

“I would suggest that the psyche is not meant for tools such as this.” He keeps his voice low, quiet. She will have to strain to hear, and he knows she will strain, leaning forward as far as she dares. “Man’s last frontier is the mind, and it cannot be charted so simply, with such a lack of finesse. Even in the most ordinary of men, mind is a savage place. Why do you think Jack Crawford sent you here? To see if I can be measured and quantified and mapped? Come, Miss Starling. You are smarter than that. Why did he send you? You must have asked it yourself. What was your conclusion?”

The answer is there in her eyes, but he can see her deny it. She swallows. “I don’t resemble Miriam Lass.”

“But it isn’t about you. You are only the object he passes between us. You are here to form an echo. To remind me. Did he tell you what your real purpose is? Some subject you are meant to slowly lead in to, as though by accident? How many girls has Buffalo Bill killed now?”

If she’s disconcerted by the change of subject, she doesn’t show it. “Six. He’s killed six women. I wasn’t sent here to ask you about Buffalo Bill, Doctor. I’m not on that case. I’m only here for the questionnaire.”

“The timing of your visit is a remarkable coincidence.”

Another hesitation. Her eyes are very expressive. She is on the hunt now, searching for a scent. She isn’t aware that she is the one being herded. “Do you know something about Buffalo Bill?” she asks.

“You’re very eager, aren’t you? You hunger for advancement. But Jack Crawford is using you. Do you like feeling used?”

“No one likes feeling used.”

Her tone is respectful, all patience and courtesy. She’s very careful about that image she projects. There’s a polish to her, something painstakingly layered to hide all those unsightly blemishes she hasn’t quite been able to shed. But beneath all of that, there’s a hard edge to her, too, an edge you could cut yourself on if you applied enough pressure. Hannibal has spent his whole life walking edges. He does not shy from walking this one.

“No—you don’t like feeling used, but you think that if you please him, that might remove the sting from it. It won’t. It will only make you feel cheap. It will only make you wonder how many more times you’ll have to be used to get what you want. And that’s a familiar pattern, isn’t it?”

This is guesswork, but Hannibal is very good at guessing, because he knows how to sketch. There is an art to conjecture: although you cannot render detail, you can make broad strokes and use what takes shape within them. “You fear being cheap,” he says, watching her eyes, the way she tries very hard not to react. “You fear being common. It’s a thought that makes you positively itch. That’s what you’ve spent your whole life running away from. And now it seems you have run all the way here.”

Her chin lifts, just slightly. “What do you fear, Doctor?”

“What should I fear?”

“Being known, I think. Being mapped. You’re afraid that once you have been analyzed, once the workings of your mind are exposed, the world will have no more need of you. You’ll just be down here, stuck in this hole, forgotten and alone.”

He tips his head in the direction of the other cells. “Not quite alone.”

“Aren’t you?”

His smile now is genuine. He won’t give her what she wants, but he admires her nerve. With this comes his own flash of awareness: while he has been circling her, she has been circling him. “And I suppose to prove I do not fear being analyzed I should answer your little questionnaire. That is a very old trick, Officer Starling. I would have hoped you well beyond it. Did you think I would fall for so clumsy a ploy?”

“I think you’ll do whatever pleases you.”

“There you are correct. And it pleases me now to end this interview. But I will tell you that your worries are unfounded, Clarice Starling. There is nothing common in you. Only the fear of it.”

He can read her disappointment, the tight way she swallows. But she doesn’t push. She rises from her seat with a simple, “Thank you for your time, Doctor.”

He watches her turn. Those heels click. This time he doesn’t listen to the way the noise ripples; instead, he is remembering Alana’s final words to him. You know what you look like to me, Hannibal? You look like a child whose toys have been taken from him. You have nothing to play with. All that’s left is your petulance and your spite. I hope you choke on them.

Confinement has a way of stripping things down to essentials. At first he had dismissed those words, but now he must admit there is a kernel of truth in them. Games grow dull after a time if there is only one player.

Clarice Starling is a few feet down the hall when he calls her back to him.

“Miss Starling, I’ve decided to give you a gift,” he says when she returns to him.

There’s a slight flush in her cheeks; she is hesitant, wanting what he offers, wary of grasping it. “You’ll do the questionnaire?”

“No. I am going to do you one better. I am going to elevate you. I am going to change your status. Listen closely. Are you ready?”

“Yes.”

“If you look in Raspail’s car, you might find what it is you’re seeking. Remember that, Miss Starling.”

“I will. Thank you, Doctor.”

Her heels bear her away once more, tap-tap-tapping. The last impression he has of her is of the soap she uses on her skin.

At the end of the hall, a door slides open, a big metal sheet drawn across the gaping mouth of hell, one of the five barriers between him and the growing green world. A light shivers through—and though he knows it is only the bleak fluorescence from the hall beyond, for just an instant he imagines it must be daylight; it’s that vivid, that real. He imagines he can smell it. He remembers the scent of daylight well. Then the thud of the door, the click, the slam of a lock. A shuddering darkness beyond the confines of his well-lit, artificial noon.

It seems some memory has woken after all.

He examines that, too—just for a moment—and then returns to his reading.