The autumn social season kicks off with a railroad-themed charity recognition dinner calling for country club casual, so Hannibal attends in a blue paisley velvet three-piece and mingles in the hour before the meal, soaking up the entertained comments of his knowing friends. They agree the converted rail station is certainly an interesting change of venue but, let's be honest, the acoustics are appalling and the entire hors d'oeuvre table proves to be not only vegetarian, but worse: bland.
Hannibal selects a small mushroom cheddar tart to be polite and finds himself face to face with a painfully thin, thoroughly self-absorbed, personal growth consultant espousing the benefits of veganism and loving-kindness meditation. It's not unbearable, or it wouldn't be, except for the high school brass quartet in the corner playing Brahms like they're scoring a forced march.
Charity and appearances are all well and good, but there are limits.
Managing to get a word in edgewise when the consultant pauses for breath, Hannibal attempts to extricate himself by vaguely promising to be in touch. He immediately regrets this when the man digs in his jacket pocket for a business card. Adding the contact information to Hannibal's rolodex seems like a stupendously bad idea; it will be a temptation later, and there are far too many witnesses.
One of those witnesses, a blond young man in a pale green jacket, washes up in the wake of a passing group of ladies and winks at Hannibal as he catches the arm of Mr. Life Coach, feigns delighted recognition, and suggests something vaguely in praise of quinoa. When he deftly turns the consultant away with a comment about the appetizers, Hannibal takes a moment to appreciate the view.
He's fit, this young man, in well-tailored trousers, and there's no hint of insincerity to belie his display of honest enthusiasm for the potential of heritage grains to change the world. Impressed, Hannibal nonetheless makes his escape.
Briefly chatting with another acquaintance to take the edge off, Hannibal knows the young man will soon be back; within ten minutes he is, looking mischievous.
"Ah, what blessed company," the young man teases, but easily, as if they were old friends. "Now that we've crossed the stream and passed through these seven walls."
Hannibal favors him with a small, pleased smile and a raised eyebrow of not-entirely-feigned surprise.
"Next, you'll tell me we have left all the merit-less behind," he says, his tone suggesting that's clearly not the case.
"Nah," the young man replies easily. "Can't keep the castle gates closed all the time. Who will worship the poet, if not the thronging spirits and bleating sheep?"
"Just poets? That would be boring." The man shakes his head, apparently mournfully, but his lips twitch with a smile. "I can't abide boring."
"The downside is, of course, no matter the company you keep, you must still count yourself among the damned," Hannibal observes, allowing his body and face to mirror the young man's teasing humor.
"Of course, we're all damned here," the young man says, and pauses significantly before sobering as he adds, with real curiosity, "Aren't you?"
Something about his sudden sharp look sets Hannibal on edge. Hannibal conjures a pleased look, as if to say, Of course, we're both in the know, even though he isn't, and he turns slightly to select a passing server's canapé as an excuse to sweep his eyes over the exits. He hasn't got this far by ignoring gut instinct, and his gut says something here is very wrong.
And yet, nothing overtly appears to be amiss.
Nevertheless, he makes eye contact with an old friend and catches her infinitesimal nod as she plucks two wine glasses from a server's tray.
Savior on the way, Hannibal turns back to find a knowing smile playing at the corner of the young man's lips. "They adore you from afar," the young man murmurs, leaning close, thoroughly presumptuous. "But they have never seen who you really are. We're all damned here."
Hannibal is rarely surprised, but this is an unexpected encounter at a social event to which Hannibal had been invited by a card shaped like a locomotive. He can taste a number of inappropriate responses. Everything about the man seems calculated to make him want to know more, if only to confirm some sort of threat or impudence, and plan a meal accordingly. It feels dangerous.
And yet, perhaps things have been somewhat stale of late.
"I'm throwing a dinner party on the seventeenth," Hannibal says smoothly, as if there had been no moment of hesitation, and it's a rudely abrupt change of topic but his next words soften the blow. "Please accept my invitation."
"I shall," the young man replies, looking delighted.
Right on cue, Mrs. Komeda sweeps in with an offered glass of wine and an apology for interrupting, and the young man retreats immediately, without the slightest hint of offense.
Hannibal schools his face, closing his eyes briefly as he turns to take the offered wineglass, and opens them to find himself alone in his own bed at home amid twisted sheets.
Just a dream, then, he thinks, relieved, and he's surprised at the depth of his relief. Relaxing into the bedding, he notes with surprise and interest the twist of tension in his belly as he calls to mind the feeling of being cornered, as if his back were pressed against a wall, his imagination conjuring well-armed and armored men just outside the doors, intent on his apprehension.
The threat of impending capture is an old and recurring feature of his dreams, but he resolves to give some further thought to this beautiful, willful adversary. Is the man an opponent? A messenger from his subconscious? But signifying what?
The faintest light of dawn pales behind the window shades, and Hannibal, tasting the sense-memory of the young man and contemplating the idea of a game he might actually lose, finds that he's hard.
Days later, Hannibal can't help but imagine a wandering, aimless herd of sheep as Franklyn foghorns into yet another wadded tissue. He hates to admit defeat with a therapeutic case but he's reached the edge of patience and, as Franklyn takes in a breath to continue bleating, Hannibal considers instead the prospect of a feast in the waking world.
Perhaps it would be amusing to lay Franklyn the length of a table surrounded by a well-tailored audience? He imagines the man bare, then hastily reconsiders and applies a plain brown suit. Hannibal imagines leaning over his soon-to-be-former patient, displaying a small, sharp knife to his dinner guests before precisely slicing and pinning back the jacket to expose only the bare skin necessary for a neat incision.
Immersed in the fantasy, he imagines the young man from his dream among his guests and is startled to find the presentation banal when he considers how it's seen through keen green eyes. He rallies, but the fantasy continues to bore him despite considering increasingly elaborate alternatives for Franklyn's demise, and Hannibal desists just in time to catch Franklyn falling silent, every pore and part of the man pathetically begging for external validation.
Boredom in his fantasies is rare enough that Hannibal would be concerned, except that it's just as likely the only way he'd enjoy Franklyn is in unrecognizable pieces.
Perhaps in a stew.
Regretfully, though, out of the question.
Nevertheless, Hannibal finishes the washing up that evening and flips through his rolodex, settling on an older licensed contractor he recalls as vain, pompous, and pleasing to the eye while utterly loathsome in every other sense.
Happily, the man proves to be a jogger with a penchant for pre-dawn runs through the woods of Patapsco State Park. Hannibal follows him for two mornings, then scales a tree on the third for the sheer delight of it and drops on him from above, intent on snapping his quarry's neck.
He feels light as a feather as he falls, and meets no resistance when he folds the man carefully to the ground. Ah ha. Another dream, he thinks, but it's rare that he kills while asleep, and rarer still to be lucid in the process.
Hannibal debates whether or not to wake, but there's been precious little new and different in his life of late. He decides to see it through and, however odd he finds the physics, he seems able to put the man out of his misery properly.
"No posing, this time? Will they find your name on his list of taxes done?" asks the familiar voice behind him.
Hannibal pauses with two fingers pressed to the dead man's carotid and calmly notes his own complete lack of surprise. What does it mean, then, to be unsurprised by your subconscious? He doesn't bother with a facial expression as he begins to unfold the corpse, stretching the jogger out on the wood-chipped trail.
"Not an accountant," he says. "Though you are correct: I'm afraid my name is recently on his services list. He is a pest controller."
Hannibal looks up to find the young man smirking, hands in his pockets as he watches with interest from a safe distance. He's still wearing the same clothes as the party, which strikes Hannibal as somewhat low-effort.
"Don't you wish you could show him off?" asks the young man. "Pose him like one of your others?"
"Does he show off the termites he poisons?"
The man laughs. "Fitting. Still, it's been a while since your last public display, hasn't it? Nearly two years? You do this to amuse yourself, alone, now, and not for an audience?"
Hannibal crouches at the side of the jogger and lifts with his legs, arranging the weightless body in a fireman's carry over his back and one shoulder as he stands.
"There are many ways to perform for an audience," he says, making his way calmly off the trail and into the underbrush. He's parked not a quarter mile away on an access road.
"Yes, I remember. Dinner on the seventeenth," the man agrees, following closely behind.
Hannibal allows the silence for a few paces before carefully choosing his words.
"Am I being haunted?" he asks.
The man laughs again, and Hannibal knows without looking that he's still wearing that delighted smile.
"In a way," he says. "You might consider me a messenger. Let's say it thus – and forgive my metaphor. I've crossed the dark waters of the Acheron, as I believe you did when you were a boy. I've come to ask why you've stopped here, in this place? You are no pagan and nothing impedes your further progress, yet you hold court in your shining castle among the unbelievers."
They reach the access road and their footsteps crunch as they walk, which is interesting because Hannibal can't feel any slip of his booty-clad shoes through the gravel. The body over his shoulder seems to weigh nothing at all; at the car, he thumbs the trunk open and unceremoniously heaves the corpse into it.
"Perhaps I am comfortable in my castle," he says, slamming the lid.
The messenger stays back, giving him plenty of space.
"You're not comfortable," he counters. "You're bored. A wild thing pacing in a gilded cage."
Hannibal cocks his head as he unfastens the snaps on his plastic jacket's cuffs. "Gilded to my tastes, and never locked. What more does a wolf ask for, than to fare forth among the sheep, unseen, and take them with impunity?"
"Ah," the young man says, following him around to the driver's side and leaning on the car as Hannibal sheds the outer layer of his murder suit. "You've decided you are by nature a wolf, and told yourself a story about why you are the way you are – what is it, some blameless quirk of evolution?"
Hannibal doesn't reply, just shrugs out of his plastic jacket and bends to pull off his booties.
"Do you really think you're unique, that you're the only one of your kind extant? An accident, not intentional. Or, perhaps, you've decided that you made yourself?" The messenger steps up behind him, breath soft against the back of Hannibal's neck, and murmurs, "You're not, and you didn't."
Hannibal's feast of the seventeenth is a smashing success and he rejoices as it ends, satisfaction thrumming in his bones. Mrs. Komeda follows the last of his guests to the front door and lingers; Hannibal counts her among his closest friends and always takes a quiet moment to share observations of the others before she departs.
She doesn't mention the messenger, though he sat at her right hand, and Hannibal, who watched them both closely throughout the meal, does not inquire.
When he's seen her out into the rain-spattered night, Hannibal returns to the kitchen to find the hired servers gone and his messenger at the sink, sleeves rolled to his elbows, soaping plates.
"Why am I dreaming you?" Hannibal asks.
The messenger gives him a small smile over one shoulder, teasing. "Perhaps you're lonely."
Hannibal, in exceptionally good spirits, collects the wine glasses and humors him. "Perhaps. I certainly haven't thrown a dinner party in nearly two years."
They bump shoulders at the sink and the messenger looks at him curiously, sandy curls wet against his forehead where he's wiped them away with one soapy forearm.
"Doesn't it bother you that they don't see your authentic self?" he asks.
Hannibal mocks him. "Does it bother the wolf that he isn't seen at the flock's edge?"
Unperturbed, the messenger parries. "It bothers the wolf that he isn't seen by the other wolves."
"There are no other wolves."
The messenger pauses in his washing up, holding a plate beneath the suds in both hands as he asks quietly, "Even if that were true, don't you wish there were?"
Hannibal wakes profoundly dissatisfied and finds it appropriate the weather's turned foreboding overnight, a thick gray sky threatening winter over Baltimore. He pulls on a woolen overcoat and takes stock of the now-familiar tension in his back and belly.
At the office by mid-morning, Hannibal finishes catching up on patient notes at his desk and double checks his planner. Franklyn's due in twenty minutes and probably already arrived, so nervous is he about being late or offensive or being thought less of, no matter that Hannibal never opens the door before precisely ten o'clock.
Hannibal can take a moment for himself and so he does, closing his eyes.
When he opens them, the messenger stands in silhouette at the big office window, hands folded behind his back. Hannibal pushes his chair back, stands, and comes around the desk to join him.
"Perhaps I do wish for company," Hannibal says, finally. "Tell me what you have really come here to say."
The messenger shrugs, still in profile. "I've only come to tell you what you already know: that you have lingered here for too long, afraid to change in a way that might make you truly happy, and your lingering will see your end."
Hannibal refuses to concede the point. "My life here has served me well. I am careful and content."
The messenger turns to face him; they are the same height. Hannibal has the disoriented feeling of seeing himself in a mirror, though they really look nothing alike. There is an awful feral beauty in this young man that Hannibal will think of often in the months to come.
"Are you as blind as the guests at your dinner table?" asks the messenger. "You've made your way by force of will to live among the polished and eloquent, the cultured appreciators of beautiful things. You play your part, a wolf in fine clothes at exquisite feasts, but it will pale, as your time in Paris did, and your time in the surgery; as the novelty of each of your affairs has paled."
The office fades and Hannibal finds himself standing in front of a door in the deepest, oldest, coldest basement of his memory palace. The door bars the way to a freezing room of which he does not wish to think. He knows it is unlocked, but he makes no move to open it, and he can taste from around its edges the scent of ancient fear within.
"If you remain in this city in the way you have been living, you will be caught." The messenger speaks gently, as if he knows what horrors Hannibal avoids. "And the novelty of that capture, too, will eventually pale. There is more to life than dealing death from the shadows, no matter how you pose and horrify in daylight."
"You suggest descending further into Hell."
Hannibal doesn't phrase it as a question. To descend won't require opening this dreaded door today, but he knows forward progress among the damned will require it. He'd first encountered Dante's poetry as a teenager in Paris while also newly discovering and defining his predatory role in life, and he remembers with chagrin how overly confident he'd been about his imagined ability to navigate the circles of Hell.
Now, faced with the prospect, he looks to the messenger at his side instead.
"Your dissatisfaction with the status quo will only continue to grow." The messenger, indeed, speaks aloud the truth Hannibal already knows. "You'll either move on again, alone and unrecognized, or be killed, a predator eulogized by prey instead of his own kind, forever unfulfilled. Unlamented, either way. Gather your courage and step beyond the castle walls. The way need not be lonely; you may find another and travel together for a time."
This seems as unlikely as Hannibal's smashed teacup spontaneously reconstituting, but something in his chest eases as the idea grows on him.
"And if that way also ends in tears?" he asks.
"Then they will be tears of joy," the messenger promises. "In the end, living among the sheep will be no hardship, punctuated as it will be with the delight of slaughter, for no wolf is meant to hunt alone."
Hannibal opens his eyes to find himself seated at his desk, the planner before him, and Franklyn's name in black ink and careful copperplate; it is precisely ten o'clock. The sheep waits for his session, Hannibal thinks, and straightens his waistcoat as he rises to get the door.