Will Graham was a swan who preferred the company of his ever-expanding family of stray beavers over interactions with the rest of the forest. He would have preferred to stay forever in his little home by the pond, even if it could sometimes be a lonely life. At least then, nobody would be able to spy the darkness hidden deep beneath his fluffy white feathers.
Unfortunately for him, he was also in possession of one of the greatest forensic minds in the land. This was rare for swans, who were more usually adept at paddling about in water and honking angrily at tourists. Will, by accident of evolution or the hand of a cruel Creator, could put himself in the mindset of all manner of evil beings. He’d once solved a case for the Forest Bureau of Investigations involving a shrike that kept impaling other shrikes on thorns instead of field mice, as nature dictated.
This, he supposed, was why Jack Crawford was now standing on the doorstep of the cabin his beavers had built for him.
“What woodland creatures are turning up dead this time?” Will sighed.
“This time it’s human beings,” Jack said. “They’re dropping like flies in the city.”
Will snorted as his beavers padded excitedly around his webbed feet. “I don’t want anything to do with the business of people, Jack. They build giant plastic boats shaped like me.”
Jack shook his head. “These people are innocent, Will. They’re coming down with typhoid fever and we can’t figure out the source.”
Will rubbed his temples. Just the thought of going into the city gave him a headache.
“At least come talk over the case,” Jack said. “I want you to meet someone I think you’ll find interesting.”
“I don’t find anyone interesting,” Will grumbled.
As he sat in Jack Crawford’s office, Will wasn’t entirely sure who or what he was looking at. Jack had introduced him as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and he vaguely resembled a penguin in his generally plump, tubular physique, but he also had a number of long, slender tentacles or filaments sprouting from his body that were not entirely hidden by his expensive-looking suit. Will had never seen anyone like him before, and yet he seemed familiar somehow.
Luckily, Will wasn’t socially adept and never pretended to be. “What even are you?”
Lecter gave him a courtly little bow. “I’m Lithuanian,” he said. “If you’re referring to my profession, I’m a psychiatrist who has since transferred my passion for brains to the culinary arts.”
Will blinked. “Huh?”
“I own a bistro and cook nothing but brains,” Lecter said. “It’s called Taste-à-tête.”
“Tête means head.” Lecter leered at Will. “You could say I love the taste of head.”
“Um ew,” Will said. He turned to Jack, who was sitting behind his desk looking tired. “Why did you ask this weird little perv to help us out, anyway?”
“As part of the Baltimore restaurant scene he has a valuable perspective,” Jack said. “Plus as a psychiatrist, he can probably also figure our your weird-ass swan mind.”
Will gasped indignantly. “You asked him to profile me?”
Lecter leaned in and gave Will a leisurely looking over. “I have prepared a number of invasive insights couched in purple prose. Would you like to hear them while I gaze adoringly at you?” He waggled his nonexistent eyebrows.
“What?! No!” With that, Will leapt from his chair and gathered up his book bag and headed for the door. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a gaggle of beavers waiting for me.”
Much to Will’s dismay, the odd little Lithuanian turned up on his doorstep the next morning. He was carrying a picnic basket in his filament-like hands.
“Agent Crawford is having car troubles,” Lecter said. “So it appears the adventure is ours today.”
Will blinked at him. “What adventure? And why didn’t you two just carpool?” He pointed his beak towards the Bentley now parked in his driveway.
“Oh, well, I actually locked Jack in the trunk of his car,” Lecter said. “That’s the sort of car trouble he’s having. Shall we have breakfast first?” He held up the basket.
Will opened his beak to protest, but he had to admit he was sort of impressed. There’d been more than one occasion when he wished he could do the same to Jack Crawford but his tenuous grasp on goodness inhibited him. He found himself stepping aside in a gesture of welcome.
“I hope you’re not squeamish about eating brains,” Lecter said as he waddled inside.
“I mean, I eat live frogs and worms,” Will said. “I’m not really squeamish about anything.”
As they sat down to eat, Lecter gave Will a long, penetrating look.
“You know, I think Uncle Jack sees swans as angelic little birds,” he said.
“Literally nobody sees swans that way,” snorted Will. “But how do you see me?”
Lecter leaned across the table and said in a low voice, “As the murderous little mongoose I want in my bed when the snakes slither by.” For illustrative purposes, he wiggled his filaments in a serpentine manner.
“Oh my fucking God,” Will said.
But he couldn’t deny that he he was more than a little intrigued…
The FBI forensics team was already on site when Will arrived with Lecter. He recognized the little cafe from the few times he’d driven this route on assignments. Silvestri’s Place. It had a pretty good reputation, as far as Will knew, although he’d never eaten there. They mostly served pizza there and, contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t good for waterfowl to eat that much bread.
“Where’s Jack?” Beverly asked. “EMTs just hauled off half a dozen sick customers.”
“Agent Crawford is indisposed,” Lecter answered, and Will didn’t blow his cover for reasons he didn’t want to contemplate. “My name is Dr. Lecter. I’m Will’s date for this crime scene.”
“He’s just advising us,” Will sighed.
“I hope Jack’s not sick,” said Jimmy Price. “This place is crawling with Salmonella Typhi.”
Brian Zeller snorted with laughter. “And here I thought pineapple was a bad pizza topping.”
Will rolled his eyes at the joke, but chose to ignore Zeller’s lame attempts at humor. “Where’s the owner?”
Beverly gestured back towards the kitchen. “Prepare yourself. It’s soup in there.”
She was right.
As soon as Will walked through the swinging double doors, he saw the spilled soup all over the counter tops and floors. Minestrone, by the looks of it, but there was more than just onion and garlic seasoning that broth if it had made people that ill that quickly.
Silvestri sat on a stool in the corner, head buried in his hands. “This’ll ruin my business! My reputation is dead!”
“Luckily there are plenty of other eateries on this street,” Lecter piped up.
Will shot him a look. “How is that lucky for him?”
Lecter blinked. “Oh, I meant lucky for hungry customers. There are so many competing restaurants.”
Will mulled that over as he carefully waddled through the minefield of soup, pausing occasionally to sniff at ingredients. There was so much of it, though, that he found it difficult to focus.
“Both of you, get out,” he said.
“But I’m here to help,” Lecter protested.
Lecter shivered. “Ooh, you’re so commanding!”
Will chased him out, wings flapping and beak snapping, but the odd little Lithuanian merely seemed to enjoy it all the more, uttering cries of “Yes, feather-daddy! Oh yes!” as he bounced out the door. Silvestri followed soon after, eyes wide with confusion and horror.
Now that he was blessedly alone, Will took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He let time reverse in his mind’s eye, watching as the soup vaulted backwards into large cooking pots and bowls. People in the dining area un-barfed their lunches and went from sick to healthy before time moved forward again.
“I want to be the only one,” Will said in the voice of the as-yet-unknown perpetrator. “I’ll get rid of everyone just to be the only one…” Lecter’s words about the ample competition in the neighborhood came echoing back to him. “I’ll ruin every restaurant in my quest, contaminate every meal with my fetid touch…” He saw a shadowy figure standing over the stove, but their identity remained mysterious. “This is my design.”
“That’s soooo hot.”
Will spun around at the sound of Lecter’s voice behind him. “I thought I told you to get out!”
“Your allure made me come back,” Lecter said breathily. “You, Will. You made me come… back.”
Will stomped past him. “I’m letting Crawford out of his car trunk, you weirdo!”
Will flew to Jack Crawford’s house, still feeling uneasy at Dr. Lecter’s persistently creepy behavior and at his own response to it. He would never admit it to anyone, but a part of him thrilled at his new colleague’s uninhibited insights. He shook himself off hard enough to dislodge a few of his own feathers and went in for a landing.
As he waddled into Jack’s garage, he heard a soft thumping coming from the trunk of the car.
“Jack?” he called out. The thumping grew faster in response. “Why didn’t you just pull the release cable?”
As he opened the trunk, he saw the answer: Lecter had not only shoved Crawford into the trunk, but taped his hands and mouth, as well.
“About time someone came to find me,” Jack grumbled the instant Will removed the tape. “Didn’t anyone notice I wasn’t at the crime scene?”
“Um yeah,” Will said. “But we all just got to work, I guess. There was contaminated food all over the place. It kind of took all our attention.”
Much to Will’s surprise, Dr. Lecter drove up behind them. To his even greater surprise, Jack actually seemed to be glad to see him.
“Hannibal, I’m sorry I wasn’t there to meet you today,” he said. “I’m afraid someone has it out for me.”
Will squawked. “You mean you didn’t see him? Er, I mean…or her? Or them?” Why was he covering for Lecter??
Jack shook his head. “Whoever it was came up behind me fast. I’m going to get Beverly and the others over here to analyze my garage. This might be connected to the typhoid fever case—someone trying to stop the investigation.”
Will’s beak fell open with a soft honk of surprise. Of course! It all made sense now. Lecter wasn’t actually attracted to him. All those pervy come-ons… They were just meant to distract him, throw him off-balance. Lecter said it himself at Silvestri’s restaurant: the Baltimore restaurant scene was a competitive one. Destroying the reputations of other restaurateurs enabled Taste-à-tête to rise to the top.
Lecter sidled up to him. “Will? Are you all right?”
Will snapped his beak shut. He couldn’t just blurt out all his suspicions without any evidence. He’d have to lock down a strong case against Lecter.
“I’m fine,” he finally said.
“Are you sure?” Lecter leaned in to sniff around his head and neck. “You smell deliciously feverish.”
Will swatted him away with a wing. “My mind’s just hot with epiphanies! Leave me alone!”
With that, he waddled back down the driveway, made a few awkward hops, and launched himself lumpishly into the air. Fuck, it was hard for a large water bird to make a graceful exit!
He landed back at his cabin and found his pack of stray beavers excitedly slapping their tails against the floor in celebration of his return.
Winston, the newest member of the pack, sat up to get his head patted.
“Why do you look so sad?” Winston asked.
Will gasped. “You can talk?”
Winston blinked at him. “Why are you surprised? You’re a swan and you can talk. Technically speaking, as a mammal, I have a larger brain-to-body mass than you do.” The other beavers all murmured in agreement.
Will sat down on a tuffet of tall grasses and twigs. He rubbed his head and fretted. “Oh God. Maybe I really am feverish. I’m talking to myself and imagining it’s my beaver.”
Winston rolled his eyes. “Why don’t ya tell me what the problem is, sport?”
“I met this guy—”
“Hey good for you!” cried Buster, the smallest of the beavers.
“I met this guy,” Will began again, “who I think is secretly making a lot of people sick and destroying their businesses.”
“So? You don’t even like people,” Winston reminded him.
“Is he cute?” Buster asked.
“I mean, I guess,” Will said with a frustrated honk. “But he’s weird and creepy and I can’t tell if he’s into me or if he’s just trying to mess with my head.”
“You should break into his house and look for evidence,” Winston said.
Will frowned at him. “Are you really telling me to do this or is my own feverish brain just trying to convince me to do something crazy?”
The beavers glanced at each other, then shrugged. Will sighed. Whether or not his aquatic rodents were gaslighting him, it appeared he was truly on his own.
That night, Will dreamed about Hannibal Lecter tying himself to two trees with his own tendrils.
“What in the hell are you doing?” Will asked.
“Turning myself into a hammock for you,” Lecter said. “I want you to sit on me and swing, Will. Swing hard! Also, you’re my beloved and I see your potential.”
Will woke with a distressed honk. He was covered in sweat, which was highly unusual since swans don’t sweat. Maybe he really was sick.
He waddled into his bathroom and took his temperature.
“This doesn’t make sense,” he said. The display on the thermometer read 104 degrees—a perfectly normal swan temperature. “If I don’t have a fever, why do I feel so feverish?”
“Maybe you’re horny,” Buster piped up beside him.
“You hush,” Will snapped. “I haven’t decided if I’m hallucinating you or not!”
He threw the thermometer in the trash. He couldn’t delay the inevitable. He had to break into Dr. Lecter’s house before he lost even more of his mind.
As he tiptoed through Lecter’s kitchen, he realized he probably should have waited until morning, when Lecter was off working in his restaurant. Too late now!
There were shelves full of preserved brains, but that seemed normal enough for someone who cooked them for a living, so Will didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about them.
He moved on to Lecter’s office. Man, what a bizarre decorating sense the guy had. Antlers and skulls lined the walls, and all the furniture was made of velvet and shaped like swans in various compromising poses. Will opened the desk’s top drawer and pulled out a Lithuanian passport.
Suddenly, the lights came up.
Will turned, dropping the passport and whipping out his sidearm in one fairly smooth movement.
“That’s so sexy,” Lecter said from the doorway. “Ooh ooh, point the gun at my head and speak to me in a menacing yet husky voice.”
Will squawked with dismay. “Good lord! Why are you so… so filthy??”
“You know why,” Lecter said, drifting over to him. “You’ve known all along, deep down inside your sexy, beautiful mind.”
Will cocked his gun. “Don’t come any closer!” He waited until Lecter halted his advance, then glanced down at the floor where the passport lay open. Hannibal Bacter… Bacter… Was that just the Lithuanian way of spelling Lecter, or…? Will gasped at the realization. “You’re a bacteria! Salmonella Typhi, to be precise.”
“I'm a whole new strain,” Hannibal said.
“So you are the one making everyone sick,” Will said. “Just to kill the competition? You couldn’t just post a bunch of fake Yelp! reviews like a normal business owner?”
Hannibal drifted closer. Will, despite the logical part of his brain screaming at him, found himself lowering his gun just a little.
“I did it to meet you,” Hannibal said. “We’re just alike, you and I. Typhoid and swans… it all comes from the same place.”
“I’m nothing like you,” Will protested, but his voice sounded weak even to himself.
“Haven’t you ever just wanted to kill people?” Hannibal asked.
“All swans want that,” Will honked pitifully. “I-I’m not especially dark.”
Hannibal reached up, touching Will’s face with one of his tendrils. No, Will thought, his flagellum. Will leaned into the caress.
“I apologize in advance,” Hannibal whispered.
“For what?” Will whispered back.
Suddenly, the lights came on, which was weird, because they were already on. But now they were much brighter.
“Drop your weapon!”
It was Jack Crawford.
Will looked down at the gun still clutched—albeit weakly—in his wingtip. “I can explain,” he started to say, but a shot rang out.
He felt the bullet graze his upper wing. “Mother FUCKER!” he squawked, and fell back against the desk.
“You’re under arrest,” Jack was saying. “Everything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law… If you cannot afford an attorney, we’ll find some random dude to represent you.”
“But… but I didn’t do anything,” Will said. “I mean, aside from breaking into Hannibal’s house and pulling a gun on him, which he actually enjoyed, by the way.”
“I just found out swans carry Salmonella,” Jack said, “and everyone knows you hate people.”
Will blinked. It was true he was crawling with Salmonella bacteria, but it wasn’t the kind that caused Typhoid fever. This had to be blatantly obvious even to Jack, unless…
“You framed me,” Will spat at Hannibal even as his wings were jerked back and placed roughly into cuffs. “You dirty little mysterious asshole! You framed me!”
“I’ll figure out a way to clear your name, my love!” Hannibal called out. The last thing Will saw as Jack dragged him out outside were Hannibal’s flagella excitedly waving goodbye. “In the meantime, I will repeatedly fantasize about you in those cuffs!”
Will’s stomach turned even as the thought made him feel more than a little hot and bothered.
“Oh God,” he groaned as he realized Buster had been right. That fiendish, strangely sentient bacteriadid make him horny. He twisted around so he could look at Jack. “You have to lock me up forever—and throw away the key.”
“That’s not how the justice system works,” Jack said, shoving Will into the back of his car. “If the judge ends up mysteriously dying halfway through your trial, you’ll be free to go, and then you'll have to confront the dark, secret attractions you're not yet ready to acknowledge are hiding within you.”
Will shuddered with dread. He would just have to pray that didn’t happen….