Hannibal had the distinct feeling that he had been made the subject of a practical joke, and he was not amused. After scouring Baltimore for an adequate restorations expert, showing his face at the tackiest of exhibitions and galleries just to insert himself into the appropriate circles, inviting the shallowest of critics and the most pompous of collectors to dine at his table, finally he had heard, at a routine dinner with an old colleague, of all people, that if he had a job that he wanted done properly, then he had to go here .
Obviously there had been some sort of mistake.
Here was a dilapidated old farmhouse that was not even connected to a proper road. Surrounded by woods with an expanse of field behind, complete with a crumbling old barn slowly sinking back into the earth, without even a gravel driveway to welcome potential patrons and completely forsaken by any form of signage. Hannibal turned off the engine, opened his car door and put one exquisitely polished Italian leather loafer down onto the yellowing grass that grew in patches in front of the house. He was struck with the shriek of autumnal insects and birds, causing what had to have been an unusual racket just to emphasize their removal from any kind of civilization.
Hannibal was deeply unamused.
The house itself looked to be nearly abandoned. The paint on the outside might have been blue once, but had faded to a dull gray and was peeling near the windows. The porch was leaning to one side, with the third step sagging dangerously, and the right pillar and part of the roof was taken over by a gnarled vine spattered with yellowing leaves, clinging in spite of the autumn chill, and dripping with seed pods. As he made his way down the path and up the creaking steps, Hannibal could hear the barking of dogs inside the house, at least five of them, and he saw a scrawny tabby weaving its way between the legs of a rough-hewn wooden chair sitting underneath the vine. He pushed any superstitious thoughts hissing in a young boy's voice about witches who live in the depths of the woods and feasted on the hearts of men to the back of his mind, and knocked on the crooked screen door.
The barking fell silent at a sharp whistle from inside, and the fading front door creaked open to reveal a bespectacled man with dark hair wearing a truly horrifying plaid flannel. "What do you want?"
Hannibal blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
The man looked annoyed, as if Hannibal were the one being rude. The front door was fully open, but there was still a tattered screen door between them. Nevertheless, the man held his arm barred across the doorway, as though he expected Hannibal to barge into his house uninvited. He looked somewhere just to the left of Hannibal’s eyes, and the knuckles that clutched the doorframe were white with pressure.
"I said ," emphasized the man, scowling "What. Do you want ?"
How rude. Hannibal straightened his shoulders and tilted his chin. "My name is Hannibal Lecter. I was informed by a mutual acquaintance that this address held a restorationist of some merit. I-"
The man cut him off. “Which one?”
Hannibal usually tried to keep his annoyance from showing on his face. In this instance, he did not try so very hard. “Donald Sutcliffe.”
He nodded slowly. "So where's the painting?"
Very rude. "It is in my car. As I was saying, If I have inconvenienced-"
"Then go get it. You found the place, congrats. Get the painting." and the man turned to walk back into his house.
Hannibal was taken aback. "Excuse me, but if you think I am going to present you with my purchase before I have even seen your work-"
"You said I was a 'restorationist of some merit,'" interrupted the man, again . "I'm not exactly on Yelp. If you're here it's because you know I've got what you need. I'm not going to wait on you while you sit around and hem and haw about whether I'm skilled enough to meet your standards. So get the painting, come inside, and we can talk." With that the man turned away, leaving the door open. Hannibal huffed. He considered leaving based on the introduction alone, if it could be called such, but he did need a restorationist, and Donald had assured him that this man was the best that there was. He retrieved the painting.
The interior of the house was deceptively warm. The cat ran between his legs as he opened the screen door, and made straight for the pile of dogs that were lazed in front of the fireplace, settling down among them. Faded wallpaper ran along the walls, and bookcases piled with various pieces of literature filled every available bit of space. A couple of mismatched armchairs and a coffee table sat facing the fireplace in the middle of what Hannibal initially assumed to be the parlor, but behind a hastily drawn curtain, there appeared to be a bed shoved into one corner of the room.
"Coffee?" called a voice from what Hannibal took to be the kitchen.
"Please." He replied. Curiously, there was very little art on the walls. A few framed covers of pulp novels and penny dreadfuls, but not a single painting.
The man poked his head into the room. "Coffee's almost done. You can put your coat by the door there. Sorry. About the whole," he made an abrupt gesture indicating the surroundings, "you know. Studio takes up most of upstairs."
"No problem at all, Mister...?"
"Graham. Call me Will." He disappeared around his corner and came back with yet another dog trailing in his wake and a tray containing a small creamer, a bowl of sugar, and two chipped mugs of coffee which he plonked unceremoniously onto the coffee table. He nudged a different dog out of his way and sat in one of the hideously upholstered armchairs, indicating the other to Hannibal. The dog flopped at his feet. "So let's see what you got."
Hannibal gingerly took a seat in the floral monstrosity and laid the package across his knees, untying the knotted string and carefully removing the painting from the brown paper surrounding it. "May I?" Asked the man, Will, reaching out a hand. Hannibal nodded and passed the piece over.
The change in his demeanor was instantaneous. He still refused to meet Hannibal’s eye, but there was a confidence here, in his home with a painting in his hands, that left Hannibal quietly shocked. Will took the painting by the frame in gentle hands and laid it against the edge of the table to observe. He looked over the piece with solemn eyes. "Hmm. Nineteenth century, Danish? No, Dutch.” He corrected before Hannibal had a chance to open his mouth. “Someone has had a go at this within the last few decades. Did a pretty shit job, too." Will reached absently for his coffee and took a sip. "Didn't even take off the varnish. Where'd you get this, thrift shop?"
He fell silent. Hannibal sipped his coffee, winced, added enough milk and sugar to mask the taste and sipped again. Will remained silent. One of the dogs yawned.
"Botched restoration aside, it's a beautiful piece. You know the artist?"
Hannibal nodded. "The life-long lover of my great-great-grandfather painted it upon the occasion of my grandmother's birth. She is the infant pictured, and the young girl holding her is her elder sister."
"How'd it end up at an estate sale?" Graham asked absently.
Hannibal took a long sip from his coffee. Graham was now holding the painting at an angle to observe the shine of the light on the canvas, entirely ignoring him, so Hannibal kept his eyes on the peeling gold leaf on the cheap frame that held the painting as he answered. "A very long story, and a rather unfortunate one, I’m afraid to say."
Graham stayed quiet, and Hannibal soon realized he was no longer paying attention, and had likely not heard his response at all.
“I need to take a look at it upstairs. You can come with, if you don’t want to keep the dogs company.” Without waiting for a response, Graham drained the last of his coffee, clunked it down on the table, and carried Hannibal’s painting towards the stairs. One of the dogs trotted along eagerly at his heels, but as soon as its master set foot on the stairs, its ears fell and it slunk back to the hearth to be aggressively groomed by the cat. “The dogs know they aren’t allowed up here. I have a hard enough time keeping fur out of my paints as it is.”
Hannibal, who would have found a way into the studio had he been invited or not, followed him swiftly up the stairs and onto the second floor.
Reaching the top of the stairs was like entering another world. Gone was the mismatched clutter of the parlor, and in its place were white walls and linoleum tabletops. It seemed the sectioning walls had all been removed to create a single space, just a little smaller than the ground floor. The large windows were opaque, letting in natural light while obscuring the view of the outside world, and underneath one there was a desk with an adjustable lamp and a magnifying glass, like one might use for intricate hobbies. Graham took the painting directly to this little desk and began the process of removing the gaudy frame the previous owners had inflicted on Hannibal’s family history. “Don’t worry about the windows,” said Graham, glancing in his direction. “They’re treated so the light doesn’t harm the older paintings.” Having removed the frame, he hooked an ankle around a stool and dragged it to the desk, where he pulled the magnifying glass towards himself and began scouring the back of the canvas.
Resigned to being ignored, Hannibal took it upon himself to take in the space. There was a long sable in the middle of the studio with a canvas laying in the center, weighted down at the edges with metal blocks, and two easels on opposing sides; one with another adjustable spyglass like the one Graham was currently squinting at, and one with a built in palette beneath where the painting would sit, remnants of paint ordered by color. On one side of the room there was a repurposed china cabinet, filled with row upon row of glass jars, some filled with liquids and carefully labeled, others holding bits of cotton. The drawers were all labeled in the same careful hand with placards reading “Cotton Duck: scraps,” or “Brushes: Solvents only.” There were large rolls of canvas mounted on the wall next to a pegboard with hammers and levels and tools Hannibal had no name for in English, or in any other language. Bordering the walls at the bottom was a ledge that allowed several paintings to rest against the wall without touching the floor. The ones further in towards the center of the studio were dingy, torn, dented, cracked, in various states of disrepair, while the paintings closer to the entrance had something of a healthy glow about them. Their colors were bright, and they were all mounted on fresh new frames and sealed in protective lacquer, prepared to be enjoyed for the next half century at least.
Hannibal was contemplating a rather lovely piece of a distraught young woman cradling a dead bird in her palms, when Graham cleared his throat. Hannibal turned. Graham was behind him, shuffling from foot to foot. “I can get it done in about two weeks. The canvas itself is in decent shape, it’s mostly just a bit dirty. I can clean off the discolored lacquer and the last ‘restoration,’” he said the word with audible disdain, “clean up some of the cracks, remount the canvas on new stretcher bars, and give it a good protective coat. So,” he jerked his shoulders in an awkward shrug, as if he was going to spread his arms, but decided against it at the last minute. “Am I worthy of your patronage?” Graham looked as if he meant the question to be derisive, but instead it came out raw, and just a bit too honest.
Hannibal took in Graham’s appearance, the rumpled flannel, the bare feet, the hands held stiff at his sides as if it was taking effort not to shove them in his pockets. Then he looked at the meticulously organized studio, and back at the paintings lining the wall. At the painstaking care afforded each one and the undeniable results.
He handed Will Graham his card.