Hannibal is browsing a rack of suits when he finds the child.
He smells her first. Nearly buried beneath the pungency of the cheap colognes mounted on a nearby display case is something totally incongruous: the sticky-sweet dough scent of the cinnamon pretzels sold down on the mall’s first level. He parts the suits with both hands, hangers squeaking on the bar, and looks down at the young girl squatting on the floor in the middle of the rack.
She has the left leg of a pair of suit pants crumpled in her sugary fist. Hannibal thinks idly that her parents will have to pay for the item.
“Would you like a napkin?” he offers.
Her surprise at being discovered fills her entire face for one alarmed second before the expression cuts out and her sprite-like features become utterly unreadable. “Yes, please,” she says.
He withdraws a clean handkerchief from the pocket of his own pants. The girl’s eyes follow the movement; her attention snags on the robin’s-egg windowpane of his suit. He watches her blink back and forth between the daring plaid and the muted paisley of his tie before extending the handkerchief.
She releases the pant leg to take it from him. He observes without comment as she carefully wipes her stubby fingers, syrupy with the sugar melted by the heat of her palm, and folds the handkerchief back into an inexpert square before returning it to him with a serious, “Thank you.”
Hannibal holds out his hand. She takes it. He barely has to exert effort to pull her up to her feet, helping her duck under the suits and out of the rack.
Standing upright, she’s only just taller than his waist. Her denim frock is rucked up in the back, so he kneels to pull it down for her. That puts their faces close together—he notices the sugar crystals stuck to her chin and uses the handkerchief still in hand to brush them off before straightening back up.
“I think you’re lost,” he says. “Am I correct?”
She nods solemnly and her curls tumble across her cheeks. “I can’t find my daddy.”
“I’m sure he’s trying very hard to find you.” Hannibal gestures toward the suit rack. “But I don’t know that he would have found you in there.”
Her seriousness cracks a little. “Yes, he could,” she says. “My daddy can think like me and then know where I am and come get me.” She sounds very certain. “He could find me there.”
Hannibal regards her closely. The instant she registers his scrutiny her young face becomes impenetrable once more. In that moment Hannibal realizes he is intrigued. As this is not his shopping trip—he does not buy outlet mall suits—he decides to involve himself.
“Let’s make it easier for him, shall we?” he proposes, and reaches out.
After a long, suspicious pause, she consents to curling her fingers into his. Her hand is still sticky with residual pretzel sugar. He adjusts his grip and leads her out of the men’s department.
They come upon Alana sifting through cocktail dresses. There is a staggering number of blouses and skirts in her cart, all in jewel tones a tad too visually aggressive for the non-threatening persona he understands she is trying to cultivate as a psychiatrist.
She sees him first. “I thought judging every piece of clothing in the store would have kept you longer—” Then the girl peeks out from behind Hannibal’s leg. Alana sweeps aside her surprise and finds a smile with admirable speed. “I see you’ve made a friend.”
“Indeed I have,” Hannibal says. “Only a moment ago she rescued me from some truly appalling pinstripes.” He squeezes the girl’s hand softly; on instinct, she returns the pressure. “As thanks I will be returning her to her father, a task which I regret to say will steal me away from helping you choose your dinner party attire.”
“You weren’t helping much anyway,” Alana says with cheek, but she’s looking at the girl, already consumed with her usual quick concern. “Would you like me to come with?”
Hannibal has no intentions of sharing the role of savior. “That won’t be necessary.” A long friendship has taught Hannibal that Alana will attempt to shoulder her way past his dismissal, so he wastes no time pivoting on one heel. “Please continue your shopping,” he adds. “I’ll rejoin you later.”
He pauses long enough to turn the girl around—twirling her carefully by the hand, which elicits an involuntary and quickly stifled giggle—before leaving Alana where she stands blocked off by her cart, looking disgruntled by their departure.
Both the girl’s mary janes and his own dress shoes click on the polished linoleum floor as they make their way out of the store, slipping into the stream of mall-goers flowing from department to department. They are immediately swallowed up by the noise and stench of the crowd—Hannibal feels the girl’s fingers tighten in his and looks down to find her hunching her thin shoulders and clutching the hem of her frock. The fabric rides up again.
Hannibal can almost taste the girl’s anxiety. He can also see that she is unaccustomed to wearing dresses.
“It must be a special occasion,” he observes, pitching his voice above the general din. “That’s a pretty gown.”
She looks up at him. “Today is Keke’s birthday.” She straightens a little as she explains, “She’s having a princess party, so Daddy got me a princess dress.”
Perhaps some of Hannibal’s incomprehension shows on his face in the split second it takes him to slide between expressions, because she unclenches her fist to show him the procession of sea creatures sewn into the border of the frock. “I’m a sea princess,” she clarifies, stoicism melting away. “I know all the fishes and whales and sharks and I talk to all of them and take care of them.”
“Ah,” he says with appropriate gravity. Experimentally he adds, “A very important princess.”
Color floods her small face and he watches her struggle to bite back a grin. When she ultimately fails, she tucks her chin to her chest and lets her curls fall forward to hide her pleasure. Something in the gesture makes it seem inherited.
Hannibal mulls over the feeling that blooms in his chest in response to her unassuming girlishness. It occurs to him that he finds her charming.
When he sees that the buckle on one of her shoes has come undone, he puts himself in front of her to cut a swath through the crowd—the people thin out as they separate from the throng and head onto one of the balconies overlooking the mall’s lower level. There is a polished bench against the concrete balustrade; Hannibal lets go of the girl’s hand to grab her under the armpits and lift her onto the seat.
He kneels to redo the buckle. “I should introduce myself. My name is Hannibal Lecter.”
“Nice to meet you,” the girl says, allowing him a small smile. He sees the instant she relaxes some of her reticence. Her simple sunniness is engaging. “I’m Aleksandra.”
She shifts to the side to make room for him on the bench. He folds the corner of her frock into her lap so he doesn’t sit on it before lowering himself down beside her.
“An important name for an important princess,” he says, and enjoys the way she ducks her head again.
The experience is novel. Hannibal does not, in general, associate with children—his professional and personal lives revolve around adult clientele and adult pursuits. He has read a non-trivial amount of literature on the brains and behavior of children, but it has been a long while since he has spent any significant time around one.
He finds the directionless feeling of uncertainty involved in changing that very agreeable.
“When did you last see your father?” he asks.
Aleksandra’s mouth twists wistfully. “In the game place. I was playing with Keke and Daddy said he was gonna be right back but when the game was over he was still gone.”
“You went to look for him,” Hannibal guesses.
She nods. “He was taking so long. I got scared,” she admits. “But I couldn’t find him and there were so many people so I ran away.”
Hannibal considers her. “You said your father would think like you and then know where you were.”
“Daddy goes to that store sometimes,” she explains. “He lets me play in the clothes.” She speaks with confidence. “He would know.”
Privately Hannibal is of the opinion that her father would alert the mall police, which is what he intends to do. “I’m sure he would,” is what he says.
Aleksandra looks at him closely. Her face shutters a little. “Do you believe me?” she asks, like a test.
Hannibal sees that he has underestimated of her young perception. “I believe he would look very hard to find you,” he says. “I believe he is doing so now.”
Aleksandra relaxes a little. “How are we gonna find him?”
“We’re going to ask for help,” Hannibal says. He spies a uniformed officer loitering by the entrance to a jewelry store. He points so that Aleksandra can see her. “We’ll go to that woman and tell her we’re trying to find your father.”
At that, Aleksandra looks a little abashed. She scuffs her shoes together. “Daddy told me to tell a grown-up if I got lost,” she confesses. “I was scared and I forgot.”
Hannibal reaches over to gently stop her from scraping marks into her mary janes. “That’s alright,” he says. “We’ll do it now. Together.”
“Okay.” She slips her hand into his, this time without prompting. He rises to his feet and helps her down from the bench, fixing her frock for her again. Excited with purpose, she starts tugging him toward the security officer. “Let’s go!”
He allows himself to pulled, briefly setting his weight against her only to keep her from barreling into the legs of the mall-goers passing back and forth, and they make it to the other side of the crowd without mishap.
The officer is very accommodating—she gives Hannibal her full attention as he explains the circumstances and has a very encouraging smile for Aleksandra upon their introduction. She radios in their situation and receives a fuzzy message in return informing them that one Will Graham just reported his daughter missing.
Aleksandra squirms and pulls on his arm. “That’s my daddy’s name,” she whispers urgently.
Hannibal has heard it before. He sifts through his memory, following the echo of the name back through the rooms of his mind until he locates the source: Alana in his study, languid with wine and reclining on a chair many months past, mentioning the man in a discussion about publishing papers. Hannibal recalls how quickly her lips had sealed once she realized what she’d said; she has been careful not to mention him again.
He gives Aleksandra's hand another squeeze. “Then we’ll be seeing him very soon.”
He’s correct. Within minutes another officer rounds a corner and crosses the food court with a man in tow—Hannibal has only the chance to make out thick-framed glasses and flannel before the man blurs into movement, rushing over.
Aleksandra detaches from Hannibal. “Daddy!”
Will Graham snatches his daughter up from the ground and folds her into a hug that looks almost too tight for the small girl. She wraps her arms and legs around him and clings with matching ferocity; her frock rucks up in the back but Hannibal does not reach out to fix it for her.
He expects a predictable dialogue—I was so worried or don’t you ever run off again—but instead Will Graham pulls back far enough to look his daughter over and says, “I had no idea where you were. I looked over by the suits but you weren’t there.”
Aleksandra wiggles around in his arms until she can look at Hannibal. “Mr. Lecter found me,” she says. “He helped me.”
Will Graham follows her gaze and looks at Hannibal as well.
And Hannibal imagines he has a marginal understanding of what being flayed feels like.
The man's attention snag on the robin’s-egg windowpane in the cloth of his suit, but not for long. He takes in everything else—the careful part in Hannibal’s hair, the precise remnant of stubble on his face, the deliberate width of his stance, the constructed emotion on his face. Hannibal has the distinct impression that the man is prying at the seams of him.
Will Graham’s reaction at whatever he sees fills his entire face before the expression cuts out and his features become utterly unreadable.
He shifts Aleksandra to one arm so he can shake hands with the security officers and thank them before he approaches Hannibal. Something in his slow tread—heel to toe, like a man trying not to make noise—reminds Hannibal of an animal approaching a predator.
“You found my daughter,” he notes.
“In the suits,” Hannibal confirms.
“Thank you,” Will Graham says. He does not look Hannibal in the eyes. “Thanks for looking out for her.”
“She might have done just as well if I hadn’t stumbled upon her,” Hannibal says. He gives Aleksandra a wink and s he beams at him.
Will Graham observes the exchange grimly.
Hannibal attempts charm to soften the look directed at him. “Hannibal Lecter,” he introduces himself. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Will Graham. Nice to meet you,” Will returns, but his tone makes it sound like a lie. He does not offer his hand. “I appreciate what you did.” He looks less appreciative and more wary.
The hairs on the back of Hannibal’s neck lift as he considers what this man may have seen in him to make him so. “It was no trouble.”
There’s an awkward pause between them, the silence that falls between strangers. Then Will says, speaking now to his daughter. “I think we should go home. That’s enough excitement for one day.”
Hannibal anticipates some dissent from the girl, a plea to return to playtime, but she just tightens her grip around her father’s neck and nods. “I have to tell Keke goodbye,” is all she offers.
“Alright,” Will says. “We’ll tell Keke goodbye.”
He readjusts his grip on Aleksandra and returns his attention to Hannibal, eyes rising no higher than his jaw. “Uh, again, thank you.”
“It was truly my pleasure,” Hannibal says. He understands Will is attempting to take his leave. To facilitate the process, he says, “Now that our little adventure is over, I believe I’ll return to my shopping.” He looks at Aleksandra. “And I’m sure you must get back to princessing.”
Aleksandra buries her blush in the side of her father’s neck. She says, smile in her voice, “Thank you for helping me find my daddy, Mr. Lecter.”
“You’re very welcome,” Hannibal says, not falsely. He nods at them both. “Mr. Graham. Miss Aleksandra. Have a lovely rest of the day.”
“You too,” Will says, looking relieved to part. He turns around without further delay and strides off, presumably toward the arcade. He does not look back.
Aleksandra does. She lifts her head and stares at him as her father puts distance between them. Her smile dims the farther they get, smoothing back out to her earlier unreadability, but just before they head down the escalator toward the first level she lifts one small hand up and gives him a wave.
He returns it. Then she and her father disappear.
Hannibal takes his time retracing his steps to the department store. As he walks he thinks about the efficiency and immediacy of Will Graham’s scrutiny, how he clearly absorbed information about Hannibal like a black hole devouring light. The exact nature of that information, he does not know.
He finds Alana in line to check out, her cartload much reduced. She barely finishes greeting him before asking about the girl.
“You found her dad? That was fast.”
“He was also searching for her,” Hannibal says. “A Mr. Will Graham, with whom I believe you’re already acquainted.”
“Will?” Alana echoes, surprised. “That was his daughter?” There’s something like wonder in her face. “Two years I’ve known him and I’ve only ever heard about her.”
Hannibal recalls the way Will clutched Aleksandra close like Hannibal meant to pluck her from him. “He seems very protective of her.”
“Definitely. I’ve never even seen a picture. Huh.” For a heartbeat Alana looks guilty; then she squares her shoulders. “You know, Will is my friend—at least I’d like to think so. You might have noticed I don’t really talk about him.”
“I have.” Hannibal waits.
“Will is special,” she says, and then grimaces as though she regrets the word. “He has a special mind. I think people like you and me have a hard time seeing past that.”
Hannibal sees what she is getting at. “I don’t believe Mr. Graham and I are likely to cross paths again,” he reassures her. “Even if we do, I have no intention of persuading him onto my couch.”
Alana seems pleased. “I’m glad.” She relaxes into a grin. “Who knew you were good with kids?”
Hannibal is perfectly aware of the itch of dried sugar on his palm. “To her credit, Aleksandra seems to be a good child.”
“Uh-oh,” Alana says. “Only took her ten minutes to steal your heart.”
“I’ll have to endure without it.” Hannibal thinks of the wariness in Will. “I doubt Mr. Graham will be letting her out of his sight.”
“Probably not,” Alana agrees. “But if she happens to get lost again, he’ll know who to call.”
Aleksandra’s stoic, sprite-like face rises to the forefront of Hannibal’s mind, and then her flustered smile. Hannibal nods. “Indeed he will.”