Will’s reluctance to have a psychiatric evaluation done, at Jack Crawford’s insistence, was due to more than a general dislike of psychiatrists. He accepted Hannibal’s rubber-stamped assessment of him as “more or less sane” with both relief and suspicion, and began their less-than-official conversations with no small degree of caution. He didn’t want anyone else to know what went on in his mind.
He had his hesitations about going back in the field again, but not for the reasons that seemed to concern Jack or Alana. His forensics studies had acclimated him to both the sight and smell of blood, death, and decay, and even the messiest scenes capable of bothering other experienced agents didn’t turn his stomach. And using his empathic insights to recreate the crimes wasn’t entirely horrifying, either.
What it did bring him, on occasion, was a disorienting sense of pleasure.
Not all of the crimes. Sometimes they were fueled by hate and rage, stale and banal things that were annoyingly predictable in their mélange of anger and insecurity, and they would bring him nothing more than a cheap shot of adrenaline and a lingering distaste. But sometimes they were creative, carried out by a more interesting mind, and came with desire and sick satisfaction and an addicting rush of power, and they would make him bite his lip to maintain a neutral expression, and would follow him home and into dreams that were uncomfortably pleasurable.
Each crime scene brought different emotions and images, different sensations ghosting along his limbs. But the kills that always stuck with him the longest were from the Chesapeake Ripper.
It had been a good few months since the most recent Ripper kill, but when Will started working with Jack he was given the file to review all the same, in case he had any new insights. He gave Jack some weak, generic sort of terms to describe him: a sadist, an intelligent psychopath, a professional with surgical knowledge, likely affluent and charming, a perfectionist, nearly impossible to catch. Things that Jack must already know.
He kept to himself the more colorful images and sensations that came with these terms.
The Ripper drew pain from his victims with excruciating precision, metabolizing it as power, pleasure. Each scream a burst of color, each cut satisfaction. Wringing out every ounce of agony to feed his inner beast. His synapses clicked along quickly, efficiently, frighteningly fast. He was sharp with experience and armed with the steady, experienced hands of a surgeon. He was a master of his craft and an apex predator. Strong-bodied, well-spoken.
Will imagined what exquisite noises he would draw from his victims. What vaulted screams and ragged gasps, how sharply they would twist and beg for death. And the Ripper, detached and dispassionate, would deny them, like a judge passing his sentence. They were unworthy of the full strength of his attention, yet he would give it to them, and he would give them even more than they deserved in death when he elevated the simple swine into works of art.
Will was, in a word, awestruck by the Ripper. Will knew that when he next struck, the discomfort of having to hide his true reactions would be worth it for the honor of seeing one of his scenes in the flesh.
So when he received a call from Jack at midnight, a few months after they starting working together, saying they had a fresh scene that might be the Ripper and they wanted his eyes on it ASAP, Will didn’t even grouch about the late-night call. He just got dressed and out the door as quick as he could, hands nearly shaking from the sudden adrenaline coursing through him.
When he arrived at the location, a small arts museum in Baltimore, he made sure to hide his enthusiasm under a façade of nervous reluctance. Pushing his glasses up on his nose and leaving his eyes cast low, swallowing his excitement as if it was a ball of nerves. He didn’t make eye contact with Jack when he appeared, gaze gliding off to the side.
Instead, his eyes landed on Beverly, who had donned her FBI jacket and was carrying a camera, talking to one of the other crime scene techs. The scene must be somewhere inside the building, because only a few people were lingering out here, not enough for the full investigation team. She stopped when she saw Will and Jack approaching him, and frowned.
“Jack!” she called. “We told you we’d take care of this one ourselves. He shouldn’t be here.”
“We need him on this,” Jack said firmly. “He knows the Ripper better than anyone besides myself, and I trust his judgment. Even under the circumstances.”
Will’s eyebrows drew together. “What circumstances would those be, Jack?”
Jack sighed loudly. His hands thrust into his pockets and he hunched against a cold breeze. “It could be a coincidence. We don’t have any evidence confirming, and I’ll need you to take a look before we decide for sure. But it looks like this one’s personal, Will.”
“Personal how?” He hoped his voice sounded apprehensive and irritated rather than taut with anticipation.
“There’s a resemblance,” Jack said gruffly. “You’ll see. Follow me.”
Beverly threw up her hands as Jack led him past her to the front doors. “Jack, I really don’t think—”
“Did I ask what you think?” Jack interjected. “Or did I tell you to do your job? Because that’s what I’m doing, I’m doing my job. And my job is to get the best analyst we have on the scene. Now get those photos into the system and start combing this place for evidence.”
“Won’t be any, if it’s the Ripper. We’ll just have a hundred bits of random visitors.”
“Then catalog the hundred visitors. Maybe if he thinks it’s a needle in a haystack, he’ll get sloppy for once. You hear?”
Beverly nodded shortly, jaw clenched. “Got it.” Her eyes flicked back to Will, and she shook her head resignedly. “Will, be careful in there, alright?”
“Good. Will?” He jerked his head toward the door, and Will followed. “We don’t know much yet. Security guard found him about four hours ago. Our team’s still fresh on the scene. Glad it caught someone’s attention and came to me right away.”
They walked through the foyer and up to a set of double doors that was propped open. Will caught a glimpse of a courtyard lit up with floodlights before Jack stopped him.
“I need to know you have your head in the game for this one. Can I count on you to stay solid?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
That must have been good enough for Jack. He turned and walked through into the courtyard, and Will followed him.
If he hadn’t been on the lookout for a body, his first glance would have made him assume that what was in the courtyard was some nude classical statue, posed in a niche with a spotlight on it that made some parts of flesh blindingly bright and others sunken into the dark. From a distance he might have assumed the dark streaks it wore were marks of age, water damage or lichen. But as he neared it, he saw what was incongruous: the curls of real hair, dark against pale skin; the way the streaks were strangely precise and gleamed damp and red where they caught the light; the bright crimson of roses that protruded from his guts; the fishhooks pulling at the skin that were posing the man as if he were a marionette on strings; all the details that made it clear this was not only human, but a work of art presented by the Ripper himself.
Will stopped not far from it, his heart pulsing in his throat. The waves of dark hair and unshaven scruff along his jaw, and the fishhooks, decorated with feather like Will’s own hand-crafted lures—it didn’t take much to know that this was him. A facsimile of him, crafted with extraordinary care.
“Is this a threat?” Jack asked after a moment of silence, with Will’s eyes taking in every detail.
He stopped himself from shaking his head automatically. No, this wasn’t a threat. This wasn’t vicious or threatening. Bloody and brutal, yes, but not anything so aggressive as a crude threat.
He swallowed. “I need to look. Alone. And turn off any lights that weren’t on when you got here.”
Jack took a moment after that pronouncement, and sighed again. He didn’t insult Will by asking if he was sure. Then he gestured to the crime scene techs who were milling around. “Everyone out.”
Will barely noticed them, anyway. The lights flickered out around him, until there were only a few small lights dotting the courtyard, including one angled directly at the body. He stepped closer and closer, until he had to lift his head up to see the top of this tableau—since the man, though on his knees, was raised onto a podium. Will’s mouth was dry and he was aware of a shiver crawling over his skin that wouldn’t quite cease. It was him. And it was beautiful.
It took him a moment longer than usual to collect himself and clear his mind to recreate the scene. It felt weirdly invasive to peek inside the Ripper’s perspective of the scene when Will had so clearly been assigned a different role in it, but curiosity and need filled him, spilling over. He was hungry for it.
He closed his eyes, and the pendulum swung, trailing light behind his eyelids.
The courtyard, empty. The man, stuffed inside an oversized suitcase, sedated only enough to keep him quiet for his arrival.
Will was still in twilight as he gathered the lures he had prepared and speared them neatly through flesh, leaving small droplets of blood to gather at the tips.
He raised the man up to his knees, entirely bare and increasingly alert, and secured the lines to the inner arche of the alcove. When he was finished, he saw the man’s eyes were open and watering.
“Don’t bother trying to scream,” Will said to him in an undertone. “I’ve injected you with localized paralytics, and your vocal cords and your limbs will be incapable of movement. You’ll still be able to feel, however. Best to accept it now.”
The man tried to scream anyway, a harsh rasp. His face was lit with panic, almost comically. Will’s eyes narrowed. He had none of the dignity befitting the man this scene was in ode to—simply another pig with the misfortune of bearing some resemblance.
He ensured the positioning was right before he began, the fishing line the right length and spacing to evoke the classical work that had inspired his pose—St. Sebastian, bound and shot through with arrows. A martyr, a Catholic saint who through ironic happenstance became an icon of male beauty and homoeroticism.
Will used a scalpel to draw pinstripes over his skin, curving with great care and precision over the topography of his body. From his collarbones, over his shoulders, and down to his wrists. And then each narrow line severed from the flesh beneath, peeled up to reveal the deep pink of raw flesh beneath, before being rolled up tightly and carefully pinned at the collarbone, like a garland of roses. Blood quickly filled each trench of skin and dripped out into his palms. And then the same down from the iliac crest of his hips to his ankles. Painstakingly drawn in clean lines, then pulled up into whorls, a belt of ribbons. A loving tribute to the beauty of the man it was to honor.
The man’s face was plastered with tears and stretched with silent screams as he was flayed alive. Will was aware of the quaking that racked his body, but paid far less attention than usual to the pain of this victim. His pain, specifically, was not the point. He was a tribute, with whom his executioner would take exquisite care. Only the very best would do for the one who truly interested him. Only the most beautiful presentation would suffice.
The death was long, for he would not allow himself to rush the incisions, and he did not sever major arteries. But there was enough blood loss by the time he finished the surface incisions and began cutting open the torso that the man was pale and still as death, if not yet quite there.
He split open the abdomen and bisected it into triangular sections. He threaded wire loops through the man’s nipples and used them to draw up and secure each abdominal section. He didn’t want the display to be entirely lewd, but it was appropriate that the overall effect have some degree of sexual undertones, enough to effectively convey that his interest was not simply platonic.
To further emphasize this point, he buried the stems of a small bouquet of roses in the man’s intestines, with their thorns shorn to prevent causing unnecessary mess. He then took a batch of the rose briar’s vines and twisted them around the neck, and down the torso, sweeping into the opened abdomen and not quite pricking deep enough to bleed—all this to show the victim vulnerable in his jaws, yet with the romantic connotations of the rose still blooming bright. A monstrous love. He would both treasure and devour him, making sure not to crush too quickly the one he held in his grasp.
Finally, he cut a discreet incision along the man’s spine and removed a kidney, which he quickly packed among the ice he brought along. He would savor the reminder of this display, though not as much as he would have if he were now consuming the one he truly treasured, rather than this pale imitation.
He adjusted a spotlight to catch precisely the right angle, so that the highlights would glow and emerge from the darkness as if a dramatic work of chiaroscuro, then stepped back to admire his display. It was, even with a substitute, a magnificent image. He pulsed with pride and desire—the resemblance was adequate for him to imagine his true love in its place, an exquisite offering to the gods who sculpted him from flesh, a tribute to all the glory within him. He longed to have him in such a way, to touch and mold and feel the shudders of his dying flesh, to feel him burn hot and then cool, to offer him worship in such an intensely personal way. But for now, this was the best he could do. He had to show his love how he felt, and trust in his brilliant mind to make the connections and understand how this gift was truly intended.
Worship, not wrath—this was his design.
Will came back to himself with a gasp and a shudder that rolled through his spine, tightening in the small of his back and making him very grateful, momentarily, that he was alone in the courtyard and no one was there to see a response that was surely not horror or dismay.
It was a strange layering of perspectives—the Ripper’s at the forefront, powerful in its all-consuming adoration; the experience of the victim who received these carefully cruel ministrations, who died at the hands of a transcendent being; and Will, knowing he was who the Ripper was truly fixated on, he was the focus of the Ripper’s adorations, he was blessed with this tribute.
And as all of these perspectives collided inside him, the physical response his body had chosen above all else was—what?
A cold sweat, hammering pulse, dry mouth—as if fear.
A coil of want, of hunger in his guts, a heated flush that spread across his cheeks and neck, the blistering sensitivity at picturing the Ripper touching his skin to pose his body, and a throb between his legs at knowing those cruel, loving hands wanted to ferry him from life to death—not fear, he realized. Arousal.
He focused on breathing more slowly and purposefully and struggled to bring the flush down from his cheeks. His imaginings were always painfully vivid, but never so personal. The result was more than just a bitten lip and averted glance. It felt as though if he didn’t get himself under control right now, he would quake, be brought to his knees by the phantom touch of this killer.
So he focused on breathing and composing his speech to Jack, until Jack, presumably impatient and maybe even concerned given the circumstances, knocked on and immediately opened the courtyard door.
“You doing alright in here?”
Will nodded, eyes averted.
“Is it him?”
He nodded again, and rubbed the back of his neck. “And, uh. That’s meant to be me.”
“Why? Is he threatening you?”
“Simple threats would be a bit mundane for the Ripper. And this isn’t… anger. It’s not vindictive. He put too much effort into it for that.”
“It’s…” A love letter. “An expression of interest. He wants me to know he sees me; he sees what I do. And he respects it.”
Jack’s face was uncomprehending. “So he… killed someone to tell you, ‘good job?’”
Will wracked his brain for an explanation that would make sense to a normal person, and didn’t make it sound too much like the romantic overture that it was.
“Maybe it’s more of a challenge. If someone’s going to find him, he wants it to be me. He’ll engage with me in a way he wasn’t willing to engage with other agents.” Both things were technically true. Whatever had happened to Miriam Lass would have been practical, disposing of her in some way that was efficient or effective for his needs. What would happen to Will if he found him, in contrast, would be subject to less practical desires.
Jack frowned, but nodded. “We could use that. Killers get sloppy when they decide to play games.”
He wouldn’t, Will thought, but he nodded. But something familiar was tugging at the edge of his awareness.
“Can I let the techs back on scene, or do you need to take a closer look at anything first?”
Will looked at the tableau, his brow furrowed.
“Let them back. But send me all the pics as soon as you get them. Closeups especially.”
Jack nodded again. “And you’re sure you’re safe for now? Don’t need protective detail or anything?”
Will snorted. “I don’t think a tail would do anything more than annoy him. He’s smart, efficient. If he wanted to kill me, I’d be dead now. But yeah. For the immediate future, I should be… fine.”
He took one last look at the scene when Jack walked off to let people back in. He committed it to memory, placing it along with its pedestal in the center of his mind. Crime scene photos would never quite do it justice, and he couldn’t fully appreciate the work when he still had other’s eyes on him.
When Will drove home he struggled to focus on the road ahead of him instead of the vivid memory of the scene. His thoughts became more than simple repetition of the details—he couldn’t stop himself from imagining how it would feel to have the Ripper’s deft fingers cutting clean lines along his arms and legs and peeling up his skin in ribbons, murmuring something in a soft voice as Will moaned in pain. It should have been a horrifying thought, and it wasn’t comfortable, exactly, but it wasn’t without pleasure. The Ripper’s attention felt good, no matter what form it took. He imagined being half-suspended and paralyzed, helpless, posed naked like a doll for the Ripper’s pleasure—and it wasn’t long before he became as flushed as he had been at the crime scene, and too distracted for it to be wise for him to continue driving in the dark.
He pulled over on the side of the first road he came across that was empty and isolated. In the early hours of the morning, it wasn’t hard to find such a place. He bit his lip once he came to a stop, because this was intentional, and even without a witness he felt self-conscious about it—he couldn’t pretend he was doing anything else but exactly what he was doing.
Awkwardly, he shifted and tugged his pants down to his knees. He traced the lines the Ripper would cut up his thighs, and when he reached his hip his breath was coming fast and heavy.
He imagined the pinch of a needle through his nipples while he was already lightheaded from blood loss, the feeling of being so overloaded from agony that he floated through the pain.
He touched himself and imagined it was the Ripper who did so, indulging Will one last time as he bled out. He imagined the shine of his teeth, mouth open and hungering, knowing that mouth would be used to savor and consume his organs. The Ripper would smile, pleased at drawing such a reaction from Will, until he finally sank his hands into Will’s guts and pulled them out of his body with a horrific squelch.
He imagined the sight of his own cum dripping down onto the deep crimson mess of his spilled intestines, and then he came with a gasp and a whimper. Utterly breathless, he slouched in his seat and did his best to ignore the small but persistent corner of his brain that was aghast at what he’d just done.
The Ripper wouldn’t judge him for it. And at the moment, that was all he cared about.