Hannibal’s patients didn’t often come to him restrained. This man emerged from the back of the ambulance screaming obscenities with a young and bloodied police officer holding his head as he tried to bite the paramedics. He had apparently snapped the strap that should have held his head flat against the gurney. The police officer’s wide blue eyes and blue uniform made a pleasing contrast to the red spattered across his cheek and neck.
Hannibal and his team moved the patient into surgery, but that image lingered: red blood, blue eyes, red mouth. The red and blue lights of the ambulance sliding over smooth skin.
The patient died. Hannibal was not displeased. The man managed to bite one of his nurses before they could sedate him. Hannibal spoke with her after the surgery and looked at the wound — the patient hadn’t broken the skin and she seemed well enough, if shaken — and she told him that the police officer was still in the waiting room.
Hannibal found him there, hunched over his knees, brown paper cup of coffee between his hands. Hannibal sat down beside him. “Officer? I’m Dr. Hannibal Lecter. I operated on the man whom you rode in with.”
The office glanced at him, a short jerk of his head before he refocused on the coffee. “Graham. Will Graham. How is he?”
“He was a victim?”
Officer Graham shook his head. “The situation was, uh, unclear. But I don’t think anyone in that room was a victim. They were all pretty heavily armed.”
“But you still waited for word of him?”
Graham shrugged awkwardly, a further hunching of his body and his face, brows drawing inward, mouth twisting. “Yeah. He was — I don’t know what he was high on, but he was scared. On the ride in. He was really scared.”
“Did you think it would help him if you stayed?”
“No. But I had to. I had to see it done.”
“You felt his fear and required an end to it. One way or another.”
Graham looked over at him with that same blue stare from the ambulance, more shocked now than shellshocked.
Hannibal watched his eyes. “Is his death sufficient release for you, Will?”
Graham nodded slowly.
“Then you ought to go home and get some rest.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I should do that. Do you know where the nearest bus stop is?”
“One of your colleagues will not come for you?”
Will’s mouth shaped itself into something presumably meant to resemble a smile. “I’m not the most popular guy on the force.”
An officer who chose to stand vigil for a criminal. Hannibal imagined he was not. “Then I will call a car for you.”
Will shook his head, rising and backing away. “No. Don’t. I’m fine.”
He caught the back of a nearby chair, mouth set. It wasn’t quite pain that Hannibal read in his face but it wasn’t far off.
“How long has it been since you last ate?” Hannibal asked.
“I had lunch. I’m fine. I had coffee.”
“It is now nearly three in the morning.”
Will blinked at him a few times. “Okay. That’s. Later than I thought.”
“The buses don’t run all night in this part of town,” Hannibal said. It was a lie. At least one ran to the city center and from there he could transfer wherever he chose. But then Hannibal would not have his home address, and that had, at some point, become a desirable thing to have. “I will call you a car and pay for it—“ He spoke over Will’s objections. “No, I insist. It’s the least I can do, and you had better try something other than coffee from that vending machine while you wait.”
Will sank slowly back into his chair. He looked down at his coffee again.
Hannibal was nearly out of the room when he heard the muffled, “Thank you,” behind him.
Will rode back to his rented room in the back of a black Lincoln Town Car with tinted windows and a divider between himself and the driver. The ride was so smooth he could barely tell the car was moving. They passed a bar that was still open, spilling people out onto the street, but they were only shadows through the dark glass, and their drunken song came from another world. Will sank into the leather seat and closed his eyes.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter appeared behind them, a benevolent phantom. Will didn’t want to think about what he would’ve done without him. He didn’t have enough cash for a cab, and it was a hell of a walk. He felt sick and shaky. The man’s fear had crept under his skin and hooked into his nerves. He hadn’t wholly shaken it even now, and he held Dr. Lecter’s words in his mind like a talisman. Dead and gone. Not afraid anymore, so Will shouldn’t be either. He had to let it go.
When the car dropped him off, Will took the last three bucks from his wallet for a tip, but the driver shook her head. It was already taken care of.
Will went up to his room, stripped off, and fell into bed. Even his dreams couldn’t wake him.
Someone banged on Will’s door, three short raps. It sounded like the second or third repetition, loud and aggressive. Will rolled out of bed and stumbled over to squint through the peephole. It looked like a takeout delivery guy, bag in hand. He frowned and pulled the door open.
The guy handed him a bag and turned away.
“I didn’t order this.”
“It’s not from a restaurant. Some guy sent it over.” He shrugged. “Weird way to use a courier service, but I’ve seen weirder.” The man jogged down the stairs and out of sight.
The bag smelled like breakfast, if they served breakfast in Heaven. Will sat it warily on the table and peered inside. There was a note on top.
I do a great deal of cooking. It occurred to me that you could use a good breakfast this morning. There is no obligation and no need for thanks. Only enjoy.
Will hesitated, but it smelled so good, and his stomach was cramped with hunger. He started unloading the bag. It held scrambled eggs with sausage and peppers, somehow still warm and soft despite the journey. It held thick brown bread spread with butter, a small dish of grits, a tiny jar of hand labeled strawberry jam, and a thermos of coffee.
For a second, all Will could do was stare. He felt simultaneously that he was looking at at least three meals and that he could eat it all, twice. He got to work on the eggs, thought briefly about police officers accepting gifts, and kept on eating. Hannibal had nothing to do with the case. There couldn’t be any suggestion of bribery. Will couldn’t do a damn thing for him. Hannibal didn’t even want his thanks.
Only enjoy. To his surprise, Will did.
He also enjoyed dinner two days later. He might’ve had the will power to send it back if he hadn’t just gotten off shift at one in the morning, exhausted, ravenous, footsore, and suffocating murderous impulses toward his so-called partner, who he’d caught blackmailing some rich kid trying to buy coke. They’d brought the kid in. Reardon hadn’t spoken to him since, but the looks he’d sent Will’s way said it wasn’t over.
Dinner included an entire round of brie baked in pastry, roasted pears, scallops cooked in the shell, and veal with some kind of herbed sauce. Like the breakfast, it was easily the best food Will had ever tasted, and he finished the meal feeling mildly orgasmic and pissed off about it.
He hadn’t even called Hannibal. He’d never asked for any of this. But it was damned hard to turn it down.
He would though. Next time. If there was a next time. He’d send it back with the courier, and that would be an end to all this. And that would be a good thing.
The next time, Will was sick. He’d gotten food poisoning, probably from the hot dog cart around the corner from him which he’d wisely avoided until two days ago. He’d spent the last twenty-four vomiting up everything, even water.
He was so dizzy he barely made it to the door. The only reason he tried was that whoever was knocking wouldn’t shut up and let him die in peace.
The courier frowned at him. “You look like eight kinds of crap, dude. You okay?”
“Fine,” Will said. He took the bag. After a second, the courier shrugged and left.
This time, the bag held some kind of homemade electrolyte drink that tasted a little like lemonade and sweet tea, plain crackers, plain steamed white rice, and a bowl of clear broth.
It was simultaneously creepy as hell and the kindest thing anyone had ever done for Will. He’d run Hannibal name through the computers at work, and he’d come up totally clean, not a parking ticket or malpractice complaint. So either he was what he looked like, or a few years from now his neighbors would be saying how nice he’d always seemed while Homicide pulled bodies out of his backyard.
Will looked down into the broth. It had to stop. Either way, it had to stop. He’d go to the hospital tomorrow.
Will was prepared for Hannibal to be golfing or whatever surgeons did in their free time and had written him a note, but he was the first person he saw when he walked into the ER. Hannibal’s face brightened immediately as Will came toward him.
“You look better,” he said.
“How the hell did you know I was sick?”
“I know one of your colleagues. A counselor, Alana Bloom. She’s been working at your precinct recently, though I believe she covers several.”
A hard knot of tension unspooled in Will’s chest. It was both plausible and something he could easily fact-check, and he had spoken to Dr. Bloom just before he’d left work. She hadn’t said he looked like eight kinds of crap, but she’d implied it.
Will was just staring. Words. Manners. Right. He took a breath. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. Thanks. For the soup.”
Hannibal tilted his head a little, half-smile and crinkled eyes inviting Will to smile with him. “Did you suppose you had a stalker?”
“Most stalkers don’t sign their notes. Or use hospital stationery.”
“But I still made you uncomfortable. I apologize. It truly is a matter of cooking more than one person can reasonably eat. If you ask my nurses, they will tell you that you’re not my only victim. I bring a great deal of food into work as well.”
Will took a second to let that sink in and then another to ruthlessly smother the sting of disappointment it gave him. “Okay. But why me?”
“You seemed both as if you might need it and could appreciate, it as most who eat my cooking cannot.”
“I don’t need it. I can buy food. Maybe I can’t afford a driver and a Town Car, but I don’t go hungry.”
“I didn’t mean that sort of need,” Hannibal said.
“What kind then?”
“I felt you suffered from a drought of stimulation for your finer tastes and sensibilities.”
Will crossed his arms over his chest, aware it was defensive and unable to stop himself. “What makes you think I’ve got any of those?”
Hannibal looked into his eyes and straight to the back of his skull. His gaze almost hurt. “A man who swallows down a stranger’s fear and drinks his death as a chaser should be given something warmer to consume. Don’t you agree?”
Will’s anger and worry stuttered to a stop. His mind ran with quiet water. He shook his head in denial, but he meant yes, and Hannibal seemed to know it.
A new patient came in through the door, a man with a massive bruise on his face being guided by his teenage son. Hannibal drew Will to a quiet corner and looked down at him. “As redress, it’s little enough.”
“Don’t you have to help that guy?”
“Not unless he needs surgery. He must be admitted and checked over first.” Hannibal’s gaze stayed steady on Will. “Shall I stop?”
Will jerked his head down in a hard nod. Made himself do it. The muscles of his neck burned like they were fighting against the motion.
“Then perhaps you will join me for dinner instead,” Hannibal asked.
Will looked up at him. “What?”
Hannibal had pulled a notepad and pen from his pocket and soon handed Will a piece of paper with an address written on it in flowing, showy penmanship. “Friday evening?”
Will stared at the address. One of the best neighborhoods in the city. Of course. He rubbed his thumb over the grain of the paper. The bruised man was explaining the fall from his roof and how he was fine, just fine. His son disagreed. Ambulance sirens approached, grew louder, and cut to silence. Someone outside was singing Johnny Cash.
Will swallowed twice and nodded. “Friday.” His voice was rough.
“I look forward to the pleasure of your company.”
It looked exactly like a cured ham, except that it ended in a skeletonized human foot, bones held together with fine copper wire.
Will had followed an injured cat through the open doorway of a condemned building and walked into a fresh crime scene. No insect activity that he could see. It might’ve been staged minutes ago. With that thought, he backed slowly out, eyes on the shadows, and called it in.
The Homicide detective arrived five minutes later, before anyone else, even the patrol cars sent to secure the scene. She was an Asian woman, a little older than Will, in a brown leather jacket with her badge hooked into the front pocket. She showed it to him before she stuck out her hand. “Beverly Katz. Homicide.”
“Will Graham. It’s just inside.”
“Just the leg?”
Will glanced toward the doorway. “It’s not much of a leg anymore.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Coming in with me?”
He nodded. They stepped through the door together.
“Not much smell,” she said.
“It’s been cured. And it hasn’t been here long. No flies.” There were actually a few now. One buzzed past him.
Katz frowned at the leg. “None when you got here.”
They looked at each other. Katz drew her gun. “Wait here,” she said. “Make sure no one comes out this way.”
“You won’t find him.” He looked at the leg. “Anyone who stages something like that won’t get caught like this.”
She shrugged. “Maybe. Gotta try.”
Will drew his weapon as well and nodded to her. She vanished into the next room, gun and flashlight held at eye level. The glow faded with her footsteps, and Will was alone.
He went over for a closer look, mostly at the bones, since the curing process had rendered the leg into nothing but meat. The bones didn’t tell him much either, but the wire was a different story. It was thin and cracked in places. He saw a few specks of red or yellow plastic clinging to it. Stripped phone wire maybe.
Even when he looked away to keep an eye on the doors, Will kept seeing the foot, the polished white of the bones, the glint of copper. He felt it like a pressure on the inside of his skull.
It meant something. The meat, the foot, the wire. Communication. Sustenance. Wire stripped and bones stripped. Only essentials remaining.
He told Katz about it when she returned, the phone wire part at least. Not the rest.
She peered over his shoulder. “Well, it didn’t come from Hobby Lobby, that’s for sure. We’ll look into it.”
“It’s the Bayou Butcher,” Will said. The certainty rose from his stomach and filled him up. Old images flicked behind his eyes, corpses on meat hooks in an old slaughterhouse, a man’s abdominal cavity stuffed with herbs, his body roasted whole.
She glanced at him. “The Butcher hasn’t killed anyone for five years. I was still bringing in drunks last time we had a body from him.”
“I was in high school,” Will said. “I remember the headline. Dinner to Die For.”
“Dinner to Die For,” Katz muttered. “What kind of high school kid reads TattleCrime?”
“One who wants to be a detective.”
The corner of her mouth turned up. “Fair.”
Outside, red and blue lights strobed the street as the patrol cars pulled up.
“Give me something else,” Katz said.
“You want to be in on this investigation, right? Give me a reason to include you.”
Will blinked and wet his lips. He looked at the leg and spoke without conscious thought. “It’s an invitation,” he said.
“To who? Us?”
“No. Someone specific.” A cold prickle of nerves touched the back of his neck. “A dinner invitation.”
Katz was silent for three drumming beats of Will’s heart. “Come eat my creepy leg ham and let’s be cannibal besties? That kind of invitation?”
“Something warmer to consume,” Will said.
Will shook his head. The patrol guys were at the door, hailing Katz. She turned away, and Will didn’t follow. His dinner invitation and this one, so close together. So chased with death.
Katz called back to him. “Hey. You coming?”
She headed out the door, and he jogged after her.
It had to be a coincidence. Had to be his mind finding connections that no one wanted, least of all him. He’d help with the case if Katz let him, he’d have dinner with Hannibal tomorrow, and he’d keep his crazy theories to himself. At least for now.