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Tête-à-Tête (Head to Head)

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DETROIT MICHIGAN, 1990

 

September brought an early storm. Something had set it off. Snow and rain worked together, ferociously cleansing the landscape of summer. Black ice wrought concussions. Low temperatures froze appendages. Polluted run-off flooded sewers. The city’s homeless prepared to face a long and horrible season camped the doorways of locked and abandoned churches. The lake effect howled for the wolves that no longer lived there.

 

Downtown was usually deserted. Stone buildings, most of them masterworks of architecture, stood lonely in the grayness and the dampness and the chill. Nothing could rot, and nothing could grow.  It was as if the city was so preoccupied with black and white that it became so. Exsanguinated. Lonely. But today there were people . Which was odd.

 

They took shape as a solitary parade of shiny new cars making their way through the serpentine side streets toward Midtown. Even more anachronistically, most were foreign made: Volvos, Bentlys, Mercedes. Blasphemy in Henry Ford's basilica. The route ended in a parking structure. A trickle of mostly tall, mostly white, mostly suited, mostly men poured onto the sidewalk, and began the last leg of their journey into a university building. A lecture hall. 

 

Stepping lightly around the puddles and piss was a striking man in a bespoke suit. He had fair hair and odd eyes that he used to periodically look up at the sky, before making his way inside. A sign greeted him:

 

The American Association for the Surgery of Trauma Welcomes you to our 30th Annual Conference in Detroit, Michigan. 

Please sign in at the front desk.

 

The man, a doctor, politely joined the queue after reading. He signed in and took the offered name tag from a blushing receptionist, “Dr. Carlisle Cullen, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital?”

 

“That’s me,” he said.

 

“What a beautiful name, so old fashioned,” she tapped the tag with an acrylic nail. 

 

“Thank you, I admit to being a little self conscious about it nowadays.” 

 

“Good looking man like you? You have absolutely nothing to be self conscious about, honey.”

 

“You’re too generous. Now, I hate to monopolize you, but–”

 

“Oh, you could never.”

 

If he could blush, he would have. “Well, this is my first time at one of these things, any advice? Where should I go to wait for the opening remarks?”

 

“I figured. You’re too young to be a veteran. Are you European?”

 

He blinked. “Down the line a bit. Why do you ask? Do I sound European? I’m from Alaska.” 

 

“No. Well, you do look like you’ve never seen the light of day but I guess that’s probably just med-school, right?” she laughed. “I ask because you’re the second young guy with an unusual name I’ve signed in today. He sounded like he was from way out of town if you catch my drift. Dr. Hans Lecture, something like that.”

 

She motioned him closer and finished in a whisper. “I got the sense he was feeling a bit out of place, a little shy. I sent him to the lounge. Maybe you can keep each other company, since you have a couple things in common, minus the European part.” 

 

“I will. Thank you very much,” he said, and started toward the other end of the gigantic foyer.

 

She called back at him, “opening remarks in 20 minutes!”

 

The mostly-men spoke in a low hum and milled about mid-century modern building in cliques. Sitting alone on an Eames-like chair near the coffee and bagels was a young man who could only be “Hans Lecture.” He had primly crossed ankles and wore an old but extremely well pressed and maintained suit of dark blue. Carlisle instantly recognized something… off about him. He sniffed, delicately. Human. Human, yes. But strange. He had almost red eyes, like a vampire who had gone too long without feeding. And a sixth finger. 

 

Sensing scrutiny, the man met Carlisle’s eyes from 30 paces away. He held his gaze for a long moment, before returning to the newspaper in his lap. 

 

Carlisle was not put off, and sat in the empty chair across from him. 

 

“Hello! I’d bet this is your first one too, yes? I’m Carlisle Cullen. Nice to meet you.” 

 

The other man peered up from the paper and shook Carlisle’s proffered hand. “Doctor Hannibal Lecter. And no, it is not. It is, however, my first time attending with a license.”

 

“You bothered attending one of these without being asked to by your job?”

 

“In my position, it’s best to make as many connections as one can. What’s your specialty?”

 

“Emergency, yourself?”

 

“The same.” Hannibal smiled. He read Carlisle’s name tag. “You’ve traveled quite a distance.”

 

“So have you.”

 

Hannibal’s eyes narrowed. “I beg your pardon?”

 

“Oh! No, I didn’t mean–that–not that there’s anything wrong with being an immigrant, I just meant it’s a trek from Baltimore, too.”

 

He wondered where his conversational graces had gone, and why they had chosen to abandon him now. Maybe his social circle had become more insular than he realized the past two decades. 

 

“No, my apologies. Hair trigger in this crowd. Where did you study?”

 

“London, actually. At St. Bart's.”

 

“How old are you, if you don’t mind my asking? Usually, I’m the youngest at any given surgical convention, but I suspect you may have beaten me.”

 

“Probably not, I just had a dermatologist for a mother,” he chuckled. “26.”

 

“Ah. 25.”

 

“We have a match-maker you know.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes,” Carlisle nodded in the direction of the front desk. “She insisted the two young doctors with odd names become acquaintances.” 

 

“Kind of her. I admit to being…a tad anti-social.”

 

“And I admit to being wildly out of practice talking to anyone I don’t live with. And patients, of course.”

 

“Do you have a large family?”

 

“Yes, and dramatic! Oh, let me tell you about Ed–” Carlisle was cut off by the intercom.

 

“Opening statements will begin in five minutes. Please make your way into the main hall if you have not already.” 

 

“Shall we?” Hannibal asked, standing gracefully. “You can tell me about them after the keynote, I’m terribly curious.” 

 

They walked together into the hall. Hannibal’s suit seemed ever so slightly too large for him, Carlisle noted. It belayed the athletic physique evident in his movements. He was about to ask if the young doctor played any sports as they sat down, but a hush fell at the same moment. 

 

“My blood-soaked brethren, welcome to Detroit and thank you for attending our esteemed little shin-dig. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Doctor Jack Griffin, ophthalmologist. Some house-keeping, to begin with. Don’t get too gruesome with the staff, they’re civilians, they don’t want to know how you reattach a kidney after the intestines have fallen out. Spare them the nightmares. Please keep the facility clean, don’t litter this place with business cards; nobody wants them. And, most importantly: make some friends. We are full to the brim with the cream of the crop, to shamelessly mix metaphors, and that is something that should be taken advantage of. Unless you’re boring, or a neurologist. That Venn diagram is actually a circle.”

 

The crowd let out a few half-hearted chuckles.

 

“We have several break-out sessions this afternoon before our keynote, so please take a look at the list of titles and times provided on posters in the foyer. Please reconvene here after dinner for the address. Thanks again, Docs.”

 

The conference passed in a flurry of activity. Hannibal and Carlisle both attended “The Impact of Prehospital Tourniquet Use on Resuscitation in Extremity Arterial Trauma,” and “Defining Indications for Massive Transfusion: Not as Simple as Learning Your ABC’s,” before parting.

 

After a rousing panel on “Complications in Low-Risk Elderly Trauma Patients,” Carlisle wandered toward the exit, notebook tucked under his arm. He was glad he came; a number of new procedures had been put into practice since his last turn in medical school. 

 

“Aren’t you going to dinner?” It was Hannibal. He was leaning languidly against a railing, eyes questioning. 

 

“I was going to come back for the keynote.”

 

“Did you have other plans? I can’t stand the dry chicken and steamed vegetables they serve at these things. French Boarding school can spoil one that way. I have a kitchenette in my hotel room, if you’d care to join me.”

 

Carlisle’s long-dead organs twinged in anticipatory despair. It would be rude to refuse. 

 

“I was going to check out the local fair, but, yes, that would be lovely. Thank you.”

 

“It’s a short walk, actually. I didn’t choose the suggested accommodation.”

 

Hannibal was staying at an unassuming but charming bed and breakfast that ran out of a converted Victorian mansion in Brush Park. Carlisle remembered when it was new. He and Edward had lived nearby for a short period of time after he turned him, feasting on the white-tailed deer, elk, and wolves in the Canadian wilderness.

 

“This is absolutely stunning, marvelous,” Carlisle said. He followed Hannibal up a spiral staircase to a small apartment. Bay windows looked out over the city. “Marvelous,” he repeated, sitting in a wingback armchair. 

 

“It is, isn’t it? Have you any allergies?”

 

“No, none at all.” 

 

Hannibal began gathering his supplies. He had a number of utensils and tools that Carlisle thought he must have brought with him. A cutting board, a box grater, knives. 

 

“It’s a pleasure having someone new for dinner. You know how isolating residency can be.”

 

“Very isolating. Thank you for the invitation.”

 

Hannibal was slicing something when Carlisle smelt it. He stiffened. 

 

“Ah. I just nicked my thumb, how embarrassing. Good thing I bought extra mushrooms,” Hannibal winked at him before excusing himself to the bathroom to dress the wound. 

 

The strangeness of Hannibal was creeping up on Carlisle again. Of course any human could accidentally cut themselves while cooking. Naturally. Still. 

 

The scent of blood was still strong despite the bandage on Hannibal’s finger, but 300 years and a surgery practice did their job, and he relaxed against the back of the chair with his eyes closed, recounting an edited version of how he met Esme. Meat sizzled in olive oil while Hannibal listened.

 

“We met as kids, briefly, you know. She broke her leg climbing a tree and came into my father’s ER. Tiny little hospital, but it felt good there, mangable. I was doing my schoolwork in his office which was directly attached to the general floor. I heard a little girl crying and came out to investigate. Love at first sight. But I don’t think I did a great job cheering her up.” 

 

“How long have you been married?” Hannibal asked. 

 

“Feels like forever,” he laughed. “But I think all couples say that. Three years in December.”

 

“I can't begin to understand how you found the time for courtship, but congratulations. Although, I suppose one can always make time for what he prioritizes. And on that note: bon appetit.”

 

Carlisle opened his eyes to see Hannibal had set the dining table and had pulled out his chair. 

“You’re quick. And it smells delicious. I’m guessing cooking was your priority?”

 

“One of them,” Hannibal answered. He set a dish in front of Carlisle. “Bucatini carbonara and roasted broccolini with a cucumber salad.” 

 

A glass of white wine followed, and he raised it to toast. 

 

“To new friends,” Hannibal said.

 

“To new friends.” 

 

They drank. 

 

And then, Carlisle took a bite. Or almost did. The fork stopped short of his mouth, suspended in complete, unnatural stillness. 

 

Hannibal Lecter speared a piece of "guanciale," and swallowed before saying anything. “Is there a problem, Doctor?”