The wet snow settled along the gutters of Baltimore, coating yesterday’s gray speckled slush with a fresh layer of clean white. For now, at least, it was actually pretty.
A tramping foot came down from the curb and broke the misleading layer of snow into a deep puddle of frigid, slushy water.
“Augh…” an irritated voice groaned.
Brian Zeller shook his soaked shoe.
“Careful there,” Jack Crawford commented.
Zeller glanced up at him.
“Why do people always say, ‘be careful’ after someone has already run into something?”
Crawford chuckled as they crossed the street intersection. The lamp posts were decorated with garlands and festive bulbs for the holiday season.
“Don’t bring your typical winter grumps to my party tomorrow night.”
“A party, eh?” a nearby voice croaked.
Zeller jumped, looked around, and then jumped again when he saw the origin of the voice.
A wild-eyed older man in a thin, ratty Santa suit leered at them from behind a ridiculous cottony wig and false beard.
“Oh… heeey there buddy…” Zeller drawled.
“A Christmas party?” the bizarre man breathed in a raspy slur. “With all your friends? Well my my, doesn’t that sound like a good time.”
“That’s the idea,” Jack responded, pulling his chin back into his neck.
Santa blurted a low phlegmy chortle, “Heh… ehehehe…”
“’Kay…” Zeller replied, and started to walk away.
“Don’t party too hard,” Santa warned. “One night of revelry has brought many a pious soul to untimely end.”
Zeller gawked back at him as they left.
“Watch your step,” Santa sneered.
The agent dropped his jaw and turned to face him, walking backward. With a sploosh, he stumbled into another slushy puddle.
Santa’s sneer widened to reveal snaggled teeth.
“Careful there,” Crawford grinned.
Zeller sighed in exasperation and trudged alongside his colleague.
“Well, that was an ominous encounter,” he remarked.
“Yeah, it was,” Jack agreed. “Let’s never speak of it again.”
The snow fell until Baltimore looked like it had been wrapped up in thick blankets.
On the eve of Christmas Eve, the Crawfords welcomed their guests into their home. Alana Bloom, Beverly Katz, Jimmy Price, Hannibal Lecter, and Brian Zeller all mingled amiably together in the sitting room.
“What do you mean you’re not a ‘Christmassy type?’” Beverly asked Zeller.
“He’s never been,” Price shrugged. “He’s a Scrooge.”
“I’m not a Scrooge, I just don’t get overly excited about it. I think it’s all a bit much.”
“I love December,” Beverly stated. “A Jewish dad, a Christian mom, all the holidays, more presents for me.”
Zeller leaned over and murmured, “I guess you won’t be needing me to get you anything.”
“I didn’t say that,” she smirked.
Will Graham sat stiff on the couch, pushing his socially-awkward defense mechanism up his nose. He was clad in high-waisted khakis and a frumpy shirt, hunched over in his seat, and somehow he still managed to look like a tantalizing siren lounging on a rock in the middle of a misty sea, staring into sailor’s eyes with limpid pools and drawing them forth to their deaths with foolish smiles forever planted on their faces.
“I hope you don’t mind driving all the way here from Wolf Trap in this snow,” Bella told him.
“Oh it’s just a little over an hour,” Will explained. “In the snow it’s one hour and 18 minutes to Dr. Lecter’s…”
He trailed off.
“Uh-huh,” Bella nodded.
“Depending on the road conditions,” he muttered under his breath.
There came a hurried rapping at the door, and Jack practically bounced on his way to answer it.
“Joe!” Crawford exclaimed when he revealed the new guest. “Joe Don, how the hell you been?”
Joe stamped his feet and entered the house. He removed his jacket, revealing the ugliest red Christmas sweater to ever be stitched together and catered to the whimsically ironic. He carried with him a bottle of Scotch.
“Hey, look who just showed up!” Jack announced.
“Joe!” everyone called out in unison. Everyone who wasn’t Hannibal or Will, that is. They raised their eyebrows at each other questioningly.
“Ah I love this guy,” Zeller stated.
“Joe’s the best,” Beverly added.
Jack clapped the new guest on the back and led him forward.
“Will, Dr. Lecter, meet Joe Don. We used to serve on the force together back in the day.”
Jack gazed at Joe with affection.
“He was the best damn partner I ever had.”
“That’s interesting,” Will remarked. “I’ve never heard of a Joe Don before.”
Jack shook his head.
“Goddammit, Graham,” Zeller muttered.
Will fidgeted, as he was wont to do, and wondered why he was so awkward. Also sheepish, quirky, disheveled, and other flaws that some people happen to find endearing.
“You were counting on me not taking you up on your invitation, weren’t you ya sonnuvabitch?” Joe quipped, giving Jack a playful elbow.
“Ah, Joe,” Jack laughed. He turned to his newest guests and said, “He’s a character, this one.”
“Is he?” Hannibal replied with a smile. He shook the man’s hand.
“When you planning on finally retiring?” Jack asked his friend.
“I already put my request in,” he answered. “I have only one week left. Then, it’s off to sunny Florida for me!”
“Fantastic!” Jack laughed.
“I brought the Christmas spirit!” the new guest continued. He handed over the Scotch.
Will eyed it.
“I guess I should have known to count on you to provide the booze!” Jack bellowed.
Bella greeted him and he kissed her on the cheek.
“Keeping a close watch on you,” Jack teased. “I know you’re a shameless flirt.”
“That I am,” Joe replied, and he winked at Will.
Hannibal narrowed his eyes, then turned to Jack and said, “Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m ravenous.”
“Great!” Jack replied. “Let’s eat!”
They all assembled at the dinner table and took their seats. Price finished his glass of wine before the food was even brought to the table.
“Dr. Lecter has graciously brought us one of the entrees,” Bella announced.
“Thank you, Doctor,” Jack said.
The guests dug in.
“This is delicious,” Alana told Hannibal. “What is it?”
“Lamb saltimbocca,” Hannibal answered. “The name means ‘to jump in the mouth.’ It’s appropriate, because this particular lamb was a long-jumper.”
The party laughed.
“What an odd thing to say,” Will mused, but no one else seemed to find it odd so he just rolled with it.
After dinner, the guests gathered in the living room to sing Christmas carols, drink hard apple cider, and exchange white elephant gifts. Will opened one and it contained a bottle of Old Spice aftershave.
He sighed. Hannibal sighed harder.
Price lifted his mug of cider.
“You all need to catch up,” he laughed.
“Yes,” Joe replied. “Let’s all get good and drunk.”
He wiggled his eyebrows at Will, who stared back at him.
Alana glanced out the window and remarked, “That snow is really coming down.”
“Yeah, looks like a blizzard,” Zeller responded.
“It would be a shame if we all had to spend the night here,” Joe added. He glanced at Will once more. “There aren’t enough beds in this house, we’d have to share.”
Hannibal felt hungry again and thought about the leftover saltimbocca in the fridge.
Beneath the sounds of laughter and chatting, a muffled song began to play.
It bore the unmistakable gravelly tone of Johnny Cash: You can run on for a long time, run on for a long time, run on for a long time. Sooner or later God'll cut you down, sooner or later God'll cut you down.
Jack apologized and shifted his weight as he dug his cell phone out of his pocket.
“Is this Agent Jack Crawford of the FBI?”
“Yes, this is him. Who is this?”
The creaky voice on the other end of the line chuckled.
“I’m an old friend. Don’t you recognize me?”
Jack signaled to his company and they quieted down.
“Not off-hand, no. Feel free to remind me.”
A pause and then the sound of a deep breath put Jack’s nerves on edge.
“This is the Chesapeake Ripper.”