Will noticed all newcomers, as a matter of course; St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church was a fairly small parish of a hundred and sixty members, eighty of which showed up to any given service, and on the Sunday after Thanksgiving the crowd was even smaller. New faces stuck out, and this one stuck out more than most. He was short and stocky and older, with a wispy corona of graying hair around the crown of his head and a pronounced hunch to his shoulders.
There were still ten minutes until service; people tended to show up at the last minute, or ten minutes after service began, and so there were only a handful of the most devoted few seated in the pews or mingling on the doorstep. Will had observed the man ignore the greeter and brush aside the usher. Now he stood in the narthex, fingers twitching, swaying slightly from side to side as he peered around with narrowed eyes and forward thrust chin. Even Ginger Papania, one of the braver and more garrulous parishioners, seemed doubtful about approaching him.
Mentally ill, probably, but he did not appear to be homeless; his shoes were well-polished, and if Will was not mistaken, the shirt was Armani, and so was his blazer. Will detached himself from a corner of the narthex and approached the man.
"May I help you?" he began. The man swayed toward him, opened his mouth, and thrust his hand inside his jacket. That was when Will saw the gun.
Time slowed down.
"Gun!" Will heard himself yell, as if from far away; stupid, stupid, his parishioners weren't trained, they wouldn't know how to react. They'd start yelling and running around. But Will couldn't worry about that for the moment; he saw the man's arm come up, saw the menacing black body of the weapon. Fortunately, the man was nervous, and clumsy, and untrained. Will slid to the side, grabbed the gun by the slide, and struck the man's wrist with the heel of his hand. The gun came out of the stranger's grasp easily, and just like that all of the fight went out of him. He slumped to his knees, his head hanging, while Will held the gun well away from his body.
Sound came rushing back. Will's ears were ringing, and he realized the gun must have fired. His parishioners were, in fact, yelling and running around. Will was panting.
"Did anyone call the police?" he called.
Fighting Priest Defends Baltimore Church From Gunman, ran the Associated Press.
Baltimore's Fighting Priest Has a Law Enforcement Background, crowed The Baltimore Sun.
Will did not see himself on the evening news--he didn't even own a television--but he was assured by many emails and phone calls from his parishioners that he'd looked very dashing. He assumed that WJZ also gave him the title "The Fighting Priest."
Everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame. It would blow over before Christmas.
Twenty people came to Tuesday evening Bible study, which was about ten more than the church library was really designed to hold. Most of them were people Will didn't even recognize, whose Bibles remained shut in their laps as they made doe eyes at him. One young man kept staring at Will's collar and licking his lips. Will ignored them as best as he could and focused on Romans 15:4-13, but that offered refuge only until Bible study ended, at which point he gave equal weight to the possibility of fleeing to his office and hiding there, or simply heading straight for his car.
"Father Graham," said one young woman with dark hair and blue eyes, who was really very pretty and seemed quite sweet, but whom Will had no interest in whatsoever, especially since she seemed young enough to be his daughter, "so, I grew up Catholic, but I left when I was a teenager because I disagreed with its teachings about, like, women and stuff, but the Episcopalian church ordains women right? I read about it on Wikipedia, and it seems like they're a lot more progressive about that kind of stuff."
"I read that Episcopalian priests, like, don't have to be celibate and stuff," said another young woman, with a blonde pixie-cut and a tattoo of a star on her hand. "Is that true?"
"Um," Will began, while in his head a high, screaming voice babbled Dear God please get me away from these people.
That voice, deep and masculine not at all demanding, came from behind Will. He turned, and there in the doorway was the psychiatrist who'd years ago--before Will had come to this parish--purchased the church's old community space for use as his office. Will passed him on the street sometimes, or smiled at him in the parking lot, but he wasn't sure he'd ever exchanged more than two words altogether with the man.
"Hello," said the psychiatrist. He had his dark green peacoat buttoned up to his throat and a fine leather briefcase in his hand. "I was hoping to catch you before you left. I wanted to know your opinion about the community patrols that they're hoping to start on Brush St., to reduce the amount of car thefts and vandalism that occur there."
"Yes! I would love to talk to you about that!" Will exclaimed, even though he hadn't the least idea what the man was talking about, and to his knowledge there wasn't much in the way of theft and vandalism on that street. "We were just finishing up here," he glanced around; his actual parishioners in attendance had finished stacking the chairs, while the "Fighting Priest" fans hovered between bored and petulant, "so, er, I'm sorry, but if any of you would like to speak to me further, please call during regular business and ask Ursula to make an appointment with me. Thank you for coming, and may God be with you!"
He fled, with his neighbor, toward the parking lot.
"Now what's this about community policing?" Will asked.
"Oh, that was nothing," the psychiatrist said, lips twitching. "I made that up to get you out of there. You looked like a rabbit caught in a trap, surrounded by foxes."
Will gave a bark of laughter. "That was how I felt. Well, I owe you one, Dr.--?"
"Dr. Lecter. As a matter of fact, I have been meaning to speak to you, but your church administrator informed me that yesterday was your day off. Did you know the gunman was one of my patients?"
Will started. "No, I didn't."
"I had just referred him, as a matter of fact. That gun may have been meant for me that day, and why he chose to take it to your church is a mystery to me. I'm grateful that you were able to put a stop to it without bloodshed, and I am in deep admiration of your bravery."
"It wasn't bravery," Will said, as he had said dozens of times since Sunday, "it was--"
"Instinct, I know." Dr. Lecter smiled. "A product of your years on the police force. But I remain grateful, and I would like to express that gratitude by asking you to dinner at my home."
They came to their cars, parked side by side in the tiny lot behind the church. Will blinked. "I--"
"Please," said Dr. Lecter. "I insist. Tomorrow night?"
Will swallowed. He had some vague idea that dinner at Dr. Lecter's house was a big deal. He wasn't one for the papers, but some of his parishioners were very into the society pages, and Dr. Lecter's name was not an infrequent one. He had glimpsed a grainy color photograph once of Dr. Lecter in a tuxedo, champagne flute in hand, standing next to a Senator or someone else of import.
"Sure," he said.
Will's discomfort mounted as his Volvo crawled past increasingly fine, large houses in well-to-do suburban neighborhoods and entered a truly upscale neighborhood, where the homes were set back quite a ways from the street, behind wrought-iron gates and circular driveways. Some of them already had their Christmas lights up: not the cheerful, overwrought, multicolored spectacles of YouTube, but tasteful white lights in straight lines on the eaves and around the windows, elegant illuminated cones meant to represent Christmas trees on their manicured lawns, the occasional spangle of a star in a window.
He had never been welcome in neighborhoods like these as a youth, with his patched clothes and his hands reeking of fish guts and motor oil. The very presence of his Volvo might be bringing down property values.
Dr. Lecter's house was at the end of a cul-de-sac, and Will had to sit in the car for a moment and just gape. It looked like a museum, with columns reminiscent of a Greek temple. He didn't have his lights up yet. Did the man live here all by himself?
Maybe he could talk Dr. Lecter into donating to the church.
Uncertain of where to park--he saw no sign of Dr. Lecter's Bentley--he left his car just to one side of the front door and made his way up the steps, where he couldn't decide whether or not to use the heavy bronze door knocker or the doorbell. He was spared by Dr. Lecter opening the door. "Ah, Father Graham. Come in."
"You can call me Will," he said. He was in jeans and boots and a plaid button-down, his normal attire when he wasn't in vestments. There was no welcome mat, and he hoped he wasn't tracking anything unspeakable onto the polished floors. Dr. Lecter was wearing a three-piece suit. "Sorry, was there a dress code? I think I'm underdressed."
"Nothing of the sort; you are welcome just as you are." Dr. Lecter led the way through a gold-and-cream foyer with an eye-straining pattern on the marble floor and down a deep indigo hallway. Will caught a glimpse of a taxidermied antelope head above the fireplace in his living room; peacock feathers in a vase in the corner; a Degas reproduction on the wall, or was that the real thing? Vaulted ceilings gave the home a cathedral effect. Will could see why Dr. Lecter had wanted the old church community hall for his office, though it and his home must cost a fortune to heat in the winter.
The dining room was deep blue, with a pair of French doors that looked out onto a garden, where Will could see a tiny bridge arched over a koi pond. A wall of herbs--parsley, rosemary, oregano, basil, and more that Will could not make out--lent the room a faint earthy fragrance. Dr. Lecter seated Will across the table and held up a bottle of wine. Will nodded, throat tight, and watched as Dr. Lecter filled his glass halfway with a jewel-dark liquid. He picked it up and took a large gulp without really thinking about it, and was startled by the complexity of flavor that bloomed across his tongue. Suddenly he understood what all those wine reviews meant when they talked about "velvety texture" and "bold, fruity finish." He looked up to see Dr. Lecter smiling at him with genuine pleasure.
"It's good," said Will, though it must have been apparent from his expression.
"I'm glad to hear it," said Dr. Lecter. He placed the bottle back on the table and adjusted his cuffs. He paused. "Do you have any dietary restrictions?"
Will shook his head.
Dr. Lecter brought out two plates, each one arranged so artfully that Will felt like he was at a restaurant he'd never be able to afford under ordinary circumstances. Four delicate slices of pork tenderloin fanned out across one side of the plate, while on the other was a small, almond-shaped mound of something fluffy and orange. It looked like sorbet but couldn't be sorbet.
"Pork tenderloin, with apple butter and pureed sweet potato mash," said Dr. Lecter as he took his own seat.
"Thank you." Will picked up his silverware and belatedly remembered to put his napkin in his lap. "This looks amazing."
"You're welcome. It's the least I can do for a local hero." Dr. Lecter smiled as he cut into his tenderloin and ran it through the drizzle of apple butter. Will followed his example. "Will you tell me how it happened? I've read the newspaper articles, but they contain very little of your point of view."
Will finished chewing and swallowed his piece of pork. "There's nothing much to tell that I haven't told the papers." He recounted the story as he had told the police and to various reporters: the man's suspicious and erratic behavior; Will's lucky glimpse of the gun; his subsequent instinctive and well-trained reaction. "He did manage to get off a couple of shots, as it turns out, but they missed; took some plaster out of the ceiling."
"We're fortunate that nobody was injured, especially yourself," said Dr. Lecter. "The world needs more brave men."
"If I were still a cop, nobody would have called it brave," Will replied. "Then I would've just been doing my job."
"But you're no longer an officer of the law," Dr. Lecter said, though the words didn't have the force of a rebuttal. "I'm curious; what brought you from law enforcement to ministry?"
This was the inevitable follow-up question, when people learned that Will had once worked in law enforcement. Will cut his next slice of tenderloin into bite-sized pieces as he spoke. "I got stabbed, while I was on the force, and I had a lot of time in the hospital, afterward, to think about my life, and what I was or wasn't doing with it. It was an isolating experience; I realized that I didn't have any friends. So I talked to the hospital chaplain a lot, and I realized that I missed church, the community and spirituality that came with it. My father used to take me, when I was a kid, but as I got older I'd drifted away. So I started going again, after the hospital, and one thing led to the next, and eventually I quit the force and went to seminary. It's actually very common," he added. "A lot of people in the ministry are ex-law enforcement, or ex-military."
Dr. Lecter took a sip of wine. He kept his eyes on the glass as he set it down again. "I grew up Catholic; nearly everyone in Lithuania is Catholic, although I cannot say that my parents were terribly observant. We did not even go to church every Sunday."
Will nodded; this part of the conversation was also familiar. When people found out that he was a priest, they often felt compelled to either reassure him of their own religiosity, or throw their atheism in his face.
However, he wasn't prepared for when Dr. Lecter looked up and said, "But my parents died when I was young, and I was sent to an orphanage. It was there that I learnt my prayers, and how to pray the rosary, and other such accoutrements of a Catholic upbringing."
"I'm sorry," said Will.
Dr. Lecter did not do anything so inelegant as shrug, but he tilted his head in a manner that suggested it. "It was a long time ago. Did you grow up Episcopalian?"
"I grew up Catholic," said Will. "And I went to a Catholic church for a while, after I got out of the hospital. Habit. But I converted before I went to seminary."
"It was a better fit for me. The same rituals, but more progressive politics. And," Will cleared his throat, "they ordain openly gay men."
Will took a swallow of wine to cover up his nervousness. Oftentimes people didn't know how to respond, and the pause that ballooned then was awkward, heavy with desperation and anxiety. But he had his suspicions about Dr. Lecter and why he'd asked Will to dinner, and sure enough, a slow smile spread across Dr. Lecter's face, until he was the very picture of the cat who'd caught the canary.
"Is that so," he drawled, and Will smiled.
Dr. Lecter invited him to dinner again the following Monday: Will's day off, and evidently Dr. Lecter's day off as well. This time Will came dressed for the occasion, with a jacket and tie and a bottle of wine. Dr. Lecter opened the door in what was clearly his idea of dressed down: no jacket and a cashmere sweater. It made Will smile to think that Dr. Lecter had been trying to meet him at his level, at least sartorially.
"Sorry, the wine's probably nowhere near as good as what you already have," Will said as he handed over a bottle.
"There is wine appropriate for every occasion," Dr. Lecter said. "I hope you won't mind if I don't open it; I've already opened a bottle for tonight."
Will shook his head.
Christmas had descended on the Lecter house over the weekend. The exterior of Dr. Lecter's front door bore a pine and holly wreath, and pine garland wound around the doorframe and the pillars; a ten foot Christmas tree loomed in a corner of the living room, decorated with white and gold globes; more pine festooned the mantelpiece and the stairway banister; tasteful white fairy lights spangled the ceiling spaces. The rooms smelled like cinnamon and fir. Will took a deep breath and felt his diaphragm ease.
"This is beautiful. I don't even have my tree yet," Will remarked.
Dr. Lecter flashed him a smile. "The wonders of professional decorators. I'm glad you like it."
He deposited Will in the dining room before whisking the wine away to...Will wouldn't have been surprised if he had an actual wine cellar in this place. The dining room bore little sign of the seasonal effects in the outer room, save for the red tapers in the candle holders. A decanter of wine stood already open on the dinner table, and Will took the liberty of pouring their glasses. Dr. Lecter returned bearing two plates.
"Duck l'orange," he announced. "A classic French preparation, and one of my favorites. With a watercress and frisée salad, with celery root and green apple." He set the plates down and poured red-orange sauce over slices of pink meat from a silver sauce boat. "Bon appétit. Thank you for pouring the wine."
"You're welcome. You know, I don't think I've ever had duck before," Will remarked, picking up his knife and fork. "Maybe once or twice when I was a little kid, and my dad hunted."
"I hope you find it to your liking."
The food was almost too beautiful to eat, but Will's appetite got the better of him eventually. He sawed one of the slices of duck in half, ran it through the sauce, and brought it to his mouth. Flavor burst over his tongue: the sweet and tangy sauce, the rich and bold duck, in perfect concert together. He couldn't suppress a little moan, and it was hard not to talk with his mouth full. "I could get used to coming over here for dinner; your food is always amazing."
Dr. Lecter smiled. It made his eyes crinkle at the corners, and it did uncomfortable things to Will's stomach. "I'm glad you think so. I'm very particular on what I put into my body, and so I cook most of my food myself; I like to think I've developed some skill as a result."
"Your body is a temple, huh?" Will took a bite of the salad. It was crisp, light, refreshing: a nice counterpoint from the almost overwhelming flavors of the duck and the sauce. "Well I for one am glad to be able to reap the rewards."
"And I am glad to be able to offer them to you."
Will kept his eyes on his plate as he chewed. This was flirting, wasn't it? Was this a date? It had been a long time since he'd dated. There had been one or two brief affairs, in seminary and afterward, but none of them had stuck, and Will had to admit, if only to himself, that the Catholic Church's approach made a certain amount of sense: it was difficult to devote oneself to God and family. While he was by no means celibate, Will had resigned himself to a certain amount of solitude; it was not as if he lacked fulfillment in his life.
But now Dr. Lecter was here, and very handsome, and--much to Will's disbelief--appeared to be interested. And he was a very good cook.
"You have questions," said Dr. Lecter. "Ask them."
Will put down his fork and raised his eyes with effort. "Sorry, I--is this a date?"
Dr. Lecter's eyebrows lifted. "Would you like it to be one?"
Sweat rose around Will's collar. "Yes," he forced out past the tightness in his throat.
Dr. Lecter's smile widened. "Then yes."
A little laugh worked its way past the tightness in Will's throat. "That's it? So this is a date now?"
"There's no need for it to be more complicated than that," Dr. Lecter replied. He picked up his wine glass, but before he took a sip, he said, "Since this is a date, let's commence with the requisite conversational pleasantries. Hobbies, for instance: you mentioned that your father hunted; do you hunt as well?"
Will felt like he'd drunk too much wine, though the amount in his glass was hardly lower than it had been. "I prefer fishing."
The conversation this time was easier. Dr. Lecter did not bring up church, or religion, or the incident last Sunday that continued to plague Will with book deals and offers of talk show interviews. Instead, they made the usual sort of small talk that people made during dates. Will talked of fly fishing, growing up in the South, and his three dogs. Dr. Lecter mentioned that he composed music as a hobby, and that he played the harpsichord, piano, and theremin. He grew up in Europe and moved to the United States for medical school, and was now a U.S. citizen. He had been a surgeon for a while, and given that up about ten years ago for psychiatry.
"That's quite a switch," said Will.
"I killed a patient," said Dr. Lecter. "Or it felt like I did."
Will nodded. It would not have been the first time that had happened; Dr. Lecter had been a trauma surgeon for many years, and many people must have died beneath his hands. Not the first time, but the last.
"It was an awakening not unlike yours, perhaps," Dr. Lecter went on. "Psychiatrists and priests are not so unalike; the nebulous realms of emotion and spirit are more similar than different. Now I care for minds rather than bodies, and no one has died as a result of my therapy."
"No one's died as a result of my ministry, either," Will said with a half-formed smile. "As far as I know, anyway. It's less of a burden, that's for sure, except around the holidays."
There was dessert, this time: apples poached in red wine. Will's came to the table on an ebony-black plate with a swirl of freshly whipped cream. It smelled strongly of autumn spices and was so tender that Will could carve off pieces with a spoon.
"Amazing," he said, feeling stupid; it must have been the fourth time he'd said that this evening.
But Dr. Lecter did not seem to have tired of it yet. "I'm glad you like it. I usually use pears, but I spied these beautiful Pink Lady apples at the market and thought I would try something different."
Will cleaved off another spoonful of apple. "Are you tempting me, Dr. Lecter?"
"Apples are not native to the Middle East," Dr. Lecter replied. "If I were tempting you with forbidden fruit, I'd do better to try a pomegranate, or a fig, or a quince. At least one rabbi has made an argument for the forbidden fruit being a grape, made into wine."
"You're well-educated on theological matters?"
"I have a keen interest in the arts: the symphony, opera, classical literature, pre-modern art. In that vein, I've educated myself on cultural matters, and religion is key to cultural literacy."
Will sucked syrup off his spoon as he assimilated this information into what he already knew of Dr. Lecter. "But you don't consider yourself a religious man?"
"I am not currently practicing, no. Whether I am religious or not is subjective." Dr. Lecter glanced up from his plate. "Does that bother you?"
"No," Will said. "No, not at all."
The conversation wound down and passed into easy silence, spoons scraping whipped cream off of plates. Dr. Lecter refused all offers of help with cleanup, and after he'd whisked the remainder of their dishes away to the kitchen, he saw Will to the door.
They lingered on the doorstep, Dr. Lecter standing just a little too close. Will could smell the lingering aroma of wine and cinnamon and clove.
"I would ask you to spend the night," Dr. Lecter murmured, "but you must be getting back to your dogs."
Will sighed. "Yeah." But he didn't move. "Maybe next time you can come to my place. Though it's," he winced, "I mean, it's nothing like this."
"I'll be there to visit you, not your environment. Though I look forward to seeing you in your natural habitat. Whenever you're comfortable."
Will took half a step back, not without reluctance. "I'll see you on Sunday, Doc--" He stopped. If this was a date--and Dr. Lecter had said as much--then he could hardly keep calling him "Dr. Lecter."
Dr. Lecter dipped in to brush a kiss against Will's lips. It was warm and nearly chaste, and Will tilted back in to return it with a little more ardor. Dr. Lecter gave him a smile that showed surprisingly irregular teeth. "Please," he said. "Call me Hannibal."