It was five, perhaps ten minutes later when Clarice raised her head from Cooper’s chest. Her face was puffy, streaked with tears, but no trace of regret was apparent to his searching gaze. She smiled at him, and her eyes were bright between the swollen lids.
“Thanks,” was all she could say. She was too full for words.
He couldn’t respond. Biting his lip, he stood and let her go. He turned and walked out of the office, hoping only that he wasn’t walking out of her life.
Starling still felt the touch of his hands warm on her back. His smell, reminiscent of pine trees and coffee, lingered in her nostrils. She allowed herself a moment only to savor the might-have-been. The place he so clearly desired in her life was reserved for another, and there was no changing that. Even had she wanted to.
She leaned back in the chair and pulled his drawings to mind, each line etched on her memory with acid and fire. She felt a renewed anger burning in her, but with a strange detachment was able to laugh at it. Men just don’t understand the Little Mermaid, she thought. Not even Dr. Lecter knows what she means to us. Her story can’t scare us – women face her choices every day. Why would I be upset at being compared to her? Apparently even he can be wrong once in a while. I don’t know if that’s comforting or frightening right now. But to think that he would believe I needed a reminder? Like a schoolgirl? Oh, by the way, Clarice, we’re playing for keeps here. Well, no shit. “Thank you, Dr. Lecter, for that insight. I’d have never come up with it on my own,” she said out loud, bitterly. Will anyone ever realize that I’m a grownup?
Then start acting like one, Starling, she told herself. “Listen to me! Talking to myself like some damn fool,” she muttered. She collected herself, smoothing back her cropped hair and straightening her crumpled blouse. Using an old trick she’d learned in college, she extended her arms straight out from her sides and put on a broad smile, hoping that the physical openness would trigger a similar emotional response.
Stewart walked in to find her in that strange position. “Um, excuse me, but I thought I’d bring the letter back, since I’ve gotten everything off it that I can. Which is nothing, by the way. The drawings will take longer, but I’m not very hopeful.”
Starling’s smile grew into a grin. “Thank you, Amanda,” she said, and took the letter. She sat back into her chair and drew the paper from the envelope. Unfolding it, she swiveled so that Stewart was left with only the view of the back of her head. It was an unmistakable dismissal.
Stewart left the office confirmed in her feelings that all the strange rumors about Clarice Starling didn’t even compare with the truth.
Starling greedily read the words again and again. No matter that she knew them by heart.
There was a pricking on the back of her neck and a tickle at the base of her spine that told her that there was something to be found here. She recalled Jack Crawford telling her to never ignore that sensation. The memory no longer hurt – she’d left the pain behind when she packed for this journey. Two fathers down. One more to go. Have to erase that association, she thought. Even if I am southern…
Her mind grasped the word “southern” and tugged at it. Lecter’s never forgotten where I come from; he’s taunted me with it enough. So why did he address me as his boreal Clarice? The arboreal part is fairly clear, but to call me northern? It doesn’t make sense…
Except if he’s talking about in relationship to himself. Remember, girl, he doesn’t know that you know he’s in Brazil. He’s starting the clues here. He wants me to think in terms of spatial relationships… she ran it through again and again in her mind, but came out sure that she was missing something.
Just go on, it’ll come, she told herself. She felt a tightness in her temples and a dryness in her mouth. Excitement. She looked at the words on the page. The first two paragraphs were relatively self-explanatory, even with the Lecter slant. But the third…
“I long to hear your answer, my Leda, my Lyra, my beauty crowned. When you’ve reached your zenith, do come find me. From where I’ll sit, your warrior has long since gone to ground. Let the hunter reemerge to avenge the sting. Use the telescopic lens of your precision and I know you’ll find more jewels for your head. And perhaps some silence for your bed.”
An outsider might assume he’d called her those names before, that they were allusions to past events, but she knew they weren’t. My Leda. My Lyra.
Leda was easy. Leda and the Swan. She savored the salacious thrill that danced in her lower abdomen. The animal/god and the girl. But strange for Lecter to choose that image… he always rejected those who viewed him as an animal. It didn’t ring true, this metaphor. What the hell was he driving at?
She jogged through her memories of mythology, which were actually fairly extensive, but could not recall a Lyra. A nymph, perhaps? Was she another of Zeus’ conquests? Move on, Starling. Just go with the flow.
But that was the trouble; there was very little flow to be had in this bizarre passage. The crown reference she didn’t get at all, as he had always called her on her common roots. The zenith was easy… hadn’t he been her “therapist,” and just pronounced her finished? So she assumed she was at her high point now, her “zenith.” But the warrior going to ground? She had always thought that was what he admired about her. The hunter he had referred to before, and she knew that’s how they both thought of this game. The lens of precision? She had once dared him to use his lens of perception. “Oh, God, none of this makes any sense at all,” she groaned.
Except, of course, the silence for her bed. That was all too clear. Even the indirect mention of her lambs started them off. She gritted her teeth until the piercing shrieks died away.
Think, think, think. She got up and began to move around the room, looking at the pictures of victims on the wall, forcing her conscious mind to consider every detail. All the while, her subconscious bubbled beneath the surface, churning constantly. She reached the grisly crime scene photo of Paul Krendler, his blank eyes staring from his mutilated head. Blood ran down his face, into his eyes and out again. Dripping from the corners, the scarlet tracks looked like tears.
She raised a hand to the picture and traced the lines with her finger. In all her agonies and self-deception, she had never tried to trivialize this. This thing that Lecter does for… well, who knew why? The taking of life. Consumption. That label made it sound like a disease.
For the millionth time, she wondered if Lecter was truly insane. Is that even relevant, she asked herself, laughing. This whole thing is insane, I’m probably insane, and this whole fucking world has gone insane. For all I know, he’s the only sane person around.
Perspective. It all comes down to perspective. I’ve learned my lessons well. When someone controls your perspective, they control you. “Like you tried to do, Paul,” she said to the gruesome image on the wall. Her voice was not unkind. “Lecter tried to do it too, and he succeeded where you failed, Mr. Krendler. Because I wanted him to succeed. But that’s over. Now I know, because he taught me so, that the only perspective that matters is my own. And, from my perspective, you deserved to be punished. Perhaps not to die, but I wasn’t making the decisions there. And you’d have given up my life without a qualm, wouldn’t you, Paul, if it would have furthered your pathetic career. So I don’t feel much regret at your untimely demise. In fact, come to think of it, I really don’t feel any regret at all.”
She walked back to the desk, her head feeling as oddly light as it had on the night of Krendler’s death. She sat and picked up the letter once more. The word “boreal” still hummed at her. She sensed it had more to say.
“Boreal, boreal,” she whispered under her breath, hoping that she would find something different in the sound of the word. Where have I heard that before? She thought about the Greek myths, the winds that blew Odysseus on his journeys. Tempting, and very Lecteresque, but she couldn’t make it fit.
The humming in her mind turned into a tune, one that she couldn’t quite place. She became very still in her chair, trying to sneak up on the memory. When it came, she almost slid off the chair onto the floor, so incongruous was the snatch of music that played in her head.
She remembered weekends in Bozeman, when she was pressed into service as a chaperone for the younger children’s trips to the movie theater. The old couple who ran the small cinema were kind folks, and when a kid’s picture played they always had a special matinee for the orphanage children. She recalled The Muppet Movie vividly, remembering that she had laughed as much as her younger charges, and been touched in a way they could not understand by the sweet sentiments underneath.
“Aurora Borealis, shinin’ down on Dallas, can you picture that?” she sang, a little off-key. Chuckling at the memory, she was about to dismiss it when she felt a sliding in her mind, and heard the click of a key in a lock. Tumblers fell into place, and she whirled to face her computer.
Aurora Borealis… Corona Borealis… The Northern Crown… Leda and the Swan, that’s Cygnus… Lyra? That’s the Lyre… the warrior gone to ground must be Orion, dead of Scorpio’s sting… Sagittarius is the hunter — oh, sweet Jesus, he’s giving me a map… a star map, how could I have missed that? After all he said before!
She didn’t merely surf the web, she flew across the sites until she found what she wanted… and then her exhilaration turned to ashes in her mouth. A time. Of course, you idiot. You need a day and a time. No, wait. “When you’ve reached your zenith…” Okay, so I’m Corona Borealis. She decided to use nine p.m., knowing it as the traditional time for star maps. And Lecter is nothing if not traditional, she mused. She clicked and clicked until she had it. Corona Borealis, at zenith at nine p.m. over Washington, D.C. On August 5th. Surrounding the crescent constellation were Cygnus and Lyra.
She clicked over to the Southern Hemisphere, picking Rio as a random example, and punched up the night sky for August 5th. It would be close, and she could refine her search once she found out more about the southern constellations that residents of northern lands never get to see. As she waited for the page to load, her fingernails tapped her desk calendar. That’s only three days away.
When the picture appeared, she smiled. There was Scorpio, Sagittarius close by, and, lo and behold, a tiny constellation called the Telescope. Off to the side was the Southern Crown, and she smiled. “More jewels for my head,” she said, and her voice was rapturous.
Okay, he connected “telescope” and “precision,” and said to use it, so that must be what’s at zenith. Let’s try… Belo Horizonte? No, not a coastal town. São Paulo? It’s the biggest city left… It’s not exactly on the sea either, but it’s only about 70 kilometers away, and there’s a river…
She watched the screen as the stars of the constellations connected themselves. The Telescope lay dead center in the circle of black. She could not contain the animal cry that burst from her lungs. She whooped and hollered, screamed and jumped, leaving her chair far behind in an excess of satisfaction.
In the end, it was one word that she repeated over and over. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Beneath her sternum, Starling’s heart pounded against the ribs of its cage, drumming out a bossa nova beat. She had managed to sit down, however, and to all outward appearances appeared her usual poised and controlled self. Unfortunately, outward appearances didn’t mean anything to Dale Cooper, and he knew the moment he walked in the office that something significant had occurred.
He looked at her from across the desk, noted the letter next to the computer. The official FBI screensaver was on the monitor, but he had no doubt that it concealed something of importance beneath. Moving casually, he reached as if to pick up the letter, then bumped the mouse as if by accident.
Her swift intake of breath confirmed his suspicions. He needed only a glance at the stars on the screen and then the puzzle fell into place, aided by an agile brain and years of stargazing during his camping expeditions. His motion toward the letter this time was real, and he took it up to examine it.
His eyes never got as far as the words. The moment his finger touched the thick blue paper, his mind went elsewhere, sliding through darkened tunnels until he burst out into a brilliant white hall, sunlight dancing on marble and brass. A large, curving staircase was the focal point of the formally appointed room. To the right, he saw a large counter made of some fabulous wood, the grain alternating white and black, polished to a glossy shine. Well dressed folk of all colors strolled through the lobby, passing through glass doors flanked by guards and bellhops, whose red linen uniforms provided a splash of color that matched the poinsettias which festooned the sides of the marble staircase. The atmosphere was filled with perfumed tropical breezes and the scent of old money.
Among the swirl of people moving to and fro, his eyes were drawn to one figure — a man ascending the staircase. From the back, he cut a dashing figure. A white linen suit, an ebony cane, a jaunty fedora… and a powerful aura of danger. Cooper knew without thinking that this was Hannibal Lecter.
Cooper’s point of view began to move, following up the stairs, getting closer… the man he sought disappeared momentarily as the curve of the stair took him out of view for a moment… his vision flew up the marble, he was about to turn the corner…
A woman garbed in black in front of him blocked his path. Frustrated, he moved to the center of the stair and was about to continue upward when he felt a hand grip his wrist. He looked down and saw long, red-lacquered fingernails. He looked up and saw gray-green eyes boring into his. Laura pulled his wrist, trying to lead him back down the stairs. He resisted, grasping the banister with his free hand to give him some leverage. She shook her head, and he could see her lips move, but no words issued from her mouth. She tried again, and he could tell she was screaming now, her face contorted by the force of her cry. Still, he could hear no sound. She put her other hand on his wrist then, and tugged him down the stairs, tears leaking from her eyes. She shoved him into a lobby chair, and he felt himself sink deeply into the plush cushion.
She was not giving up. As she knelt astride his lap, the heat of her overwhelmed him. It was like sitting an inch away from a blast furnace, and he could sense the drops of sweat forming on his brow. Her hands were on his shoulders, pushing him into the back of the chair, and she leaned forward, arching over him. Her eyes flashed at him, and her mouth never stopped moving… she was trying so hard to tell him something, he knew. But he could not concentrate on making sense of the motions of her lips when he was confronted with the undeniable presence of her cleavage, deep and soft in front of his face… her slit skirt riding high on her hips, forced up by the wide angle of her legs on either side of his… her hair, falling long around her face to brush lightly against his chest…
This girl-child, this woman, this creature whom he had never seen in life except as a cold blue corpse, this dead spirit of his imaginings who haunted his dreaming and his waking hours… he wanted her so badly he could feel the need stretching vainly against his boxers, the frantic drumming of his heartbeat…
“Laura,” he gasped, but heard no sound. His hands traveled up her legs to rest on the curves of her hips, his fingers splayed across her back, pulling her in toward him even closer…
She looked down at him, lips parted slightly, and her eyes closed for a moment. Her hands moved then, down his shoulders to the center of his chest, and he felt chills radiating from every part of him she touched. His head tilted back, his eyes began to close, and he was completely unprepared when she tore open his shirt, sending buttons flying through the air to skitter across the cold marble floor.
His gaze traveled down with hers, and he saw a brand across his chest, the sigil of his doom burnt and smoking in his skin. The pain hit an instant later and he screamed noiselessly. His eyes closed and he writhed in torment, his whole universe reduced to the smell of searing flesh. Until he felt a touch on his cheek.
He opened his eyes again, only to see Laura crying. Her tears sizzled as they fell onto his chest, and he felt a blessed coolness at every point they touched. Her hand passed over his face and she ran her fingers through his hair. Her eyes met his and her mouth opened in what Cooper was able to recognize as a sigh. She reached over to the end table next to the chair and took something in her hand. As she bent down to kiss him, he felt that something as her fingers twined with his. Then her lips touched his and he was lost in bliss…
The first thing he noticed when he came back to himself were Clarice Starling’s shoes, since they were right in front of his face as she bent over his body lying on the cheap Bureau carpeting. Her hand was clapped over his mouth and her face was frightened.
When she noticed that he was awake, she let out a great gust of air. “Oh, Coop, thank God. What happened to you?”
He sat up and was pleased that the world stayed in focus. He brought up a hand to rub his eyes and felt something rough scratch his face. He opened his fingers and stared at the object in his palm. It was a matchbook. Printed on the silver cardboard was “Hotel Praia Plata, Praia Grande, S. P., Brasil.”
Starling was staring too. They looked up at the same moment, and their eyes met.
“I’m going with you.”
“Pack your bags.”
They spoke simultaneously. The air between them sizzled with anticipation, dread, and longing. The hands she offered him were strong, and lifted him off the floor with ease. He removed his hands from hers and began to unbutton his shirt. She looked at him quizzically. He pulled apart the placket and saw what he had feared.
In charcoal ash on pale skin, the hieroglyph of the Black Lodge was drawn like a map on his chest.
Starling’s eyes moved over the pattern bleak upon Cooper’s bared chest. The edges were sharp with no trace of a blur. Blacker than night, it looked almost like a brand. Unbidden, memories surfaced. The animals at the ranch, the searing sizzle of flesh as iron burned skin. She felt the gorge rise in her chest.
“Oh, God, Coop… I…”
Words failed her. He just stood there, looking at her. She fumbled for speech again.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” she whispered.
When she dared to meet his eyes, they were cold and glittering.
“I don’t have to do anything, Starling. I never had to help you. There was nothing stopping me from reporting you to Noonan. He’s asked me enough times to keep tabs on you. You could be in a mental institution right now, wearing a drab blue gown in a room with nothing sharp or strong enough to harm yourself, wondering where it all went wrong,” he said. His voice held as little inflection as it had when they first met.
She shivered under his gaze.
He continued. “There might be something for me in all this, you know.” He emitted a short bark of laughter. “But that’s the point, isn’t it. You don’t know. You take my help without really believing where it comes from. You’ve never asked where my ‘visions’ have taken me, what I’ve seen, or even how I’ve brought you this far. You are so wrapped up in your obsession that you’ve forgotten that anyone else is real. Just like him, aren’t you now? Don’t you ever wonder if you’ll come to him with your newfound veneer of cold, hard will and find out it was the human in you he responded to all along?”
The words struck her like a slap across the face. She wondered if she was going mad, if she was ever going to get this right, if she could ever find herself in the vast aisles of hopes, fears, constructs and masks she had put on, taken off, taken in, and shoved aside over the last month. Her face crumbled, her shoulders slumped, and she suddenly looked weary and… old. Older than her thirty-three years. As old as all that had happened in those years made her feel.
His tone held little mercy. “Don’t you dare to condescend to me. I am going to Brazil for many reasons, Starling. Only one of them is you. Perhaps someday you’d care to know the rest.”
She did not trust herself to speak. She nodded and looked aside. The silence rose like a fog.
He turned and walked out of the office. She heard him say as he left, “Perhaps you’d better think of what you’re going to tell Noonan. I’ll await your instructions, Special Agent Starling.”
And then there was only the sound of staccato steps down the hall.
Starling drove the Mustang home mainly by force of habit. God knows she wasn’t paying any attention to the road. It came as a shock to find herself pulling into the driveway. Ardelia’s brand new Chrysler 300M was already parked. Starling hadn’t even ridden in it yet. She turned off the ignition and leaned her forehead against the steering wheel. Inhaling deeply, she took some small comfort from the warm familiar odors of the car. But it wasn’t nearly enough.
Sitting up, she grabbed her purse and her attaché case and slid out the door. As she moved, she caught a glimpse of herself in the side mirror. There was a pallor on her face she’d never seen, and even in the dim twilight she could see lines that had not existed a month before.
She wrenched her eyes away and walked into the duplex.
“Ardelia, are you decent?” she yelled before going over to her friend’s side of the house.
“And when am I ever not?” responded Mapp, coming out of the kitchen to give Starling a hug.
“I just didn’t want to catch you in flagrante delicto with one of your studs,” teased Clarice.
Mapp smiled. “Come have some dinner, honey, it’s just me, myself, and I. You can tell me all about what the hell you’ve been up to for the last two weeks.”
Starling paused for a moment before following Ardelia into the kitchen. After a brief internal tug-of-war, she rallied and moved on.
While Ardelia finished up the simple meal of rice and beans, Starling rummaged through the liquor cabinet and found a nearly full bottle of Jack Daniels. Getting the Coke from the fridge, she poured generous amounts of each into tall Pilsner glasses. Ardelia shot her a look that was equal parts curiosity and delight.
“So it’s going to be one of those kind of nights?” Mapp asked with a devilish grin.
“Damn straight,” said Clarice with perhaps a little too much vehemence.
As they ate and drank, Ardelia peppered her with questions about “that divinely gorgeous partner,” which Starling answered honestly, and a few veiled inquiries into the progress of the investigation, which were neatly avoided. Mapp needed little encouragement to fill Clarice in on all the doings in her own life, and Starling found herself slipping, with the aid of the familiar surroundings, into the old comfortable companionship.
They adjourned into the living room, taking up positions of long tradition. Ardelia sprawled across the couch and Clarice sat tailor style on the floor, playing DJ. Nostalgia, as ever, grew with each shot from the whisky bottle, and they found themselves dissecting their Academy days while singing along to the tunes. Ardelia eventually got drunk enough to do her best Patti LaBelle impression, and Clarice sang backup. “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi….”
They laughed and danced until, winded, they fell back onto the couch. Clarice couldn’t help but to remember that, at one point in her life, these had been the best moments she’d ever known… her closest connection with another human being. But all that was changed now.
With the wisdom of a friend, Ardelia held her as she shook, and asked no questions. But when Clarice finally ran her hands through her hair and sat up, her eyes were dry. She had found herself unable to cry.
Mapp looked at her friend, so different from the one she’d known in school. “Just remember, Clarice,” she said, “you are the strongest person I’ve ever known. And that’s saying a lot. You’ve been through hell, but you’re on the other side now. It all gets better from here.”
Clarice smiled wanly. Looking at her watch, she discovered it was two in the morning. With a final hug, she left Ardelia and found her own bed. In the small circle of light cast by the lamp at her bedside, she composed the note she would leave.
Been called away for the case. Don’t know exactly how long I’ll be gone. I promise I’ll be in touch if it’s more than a few days.
Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.
As she switched out the light and went to sleep, her last thought was that she hoped every word of the letter was true.
Morning came early, and the birds woke Starling long before her alarm clock. She sat up, wide awake despite her late night. As she stretched, she felt a smattering of peace settle itself around her shoulders. Only pausing long enough to pull on some clothes and grab a water bottle, she jogged out the door and set out at a brisk pace.
Running always helped her think calmly, at least for that time before the endorphins really kicked in. And then it was just free association. Her thoughts stepped in time with her feet, forming a strange sort of poetry in her mind.
Been… through… hell… that’s… for… sure… I’m… not… that… girl… any… more… can’t… look… back… won’t… stop… now… even… if… I… could… some… how…
As she realized she was rhyming she laughed and felt a weight pass. Picking up speed, she pondered her behavior towards Cooper. He was right… she’d been terrible to him, and he’d put up with it for a while. Suddenly she knew that she’d needed his warning about not losing herself. Being with Ardelia had helped her reclaim some of that.
Mentally, she shrugged. Oh, well. Her bags would be a little heavier, that’s all.
As she went into the tough stretch of the run, when she could feel the burning in her calves begin, she drifted over all the changes in herself over just the past… month? She could scarcely credit that it had been only twenty-eight days since she’d locked herself to Hannibal Lecter.
“Well, I’m not doing half bad, considering,” she puffed, at last pleased with herself. She’d done all she could. And that’s all anyone could ever except to get out of her.
Coming back to the duplex, she took a quick shower and threw the few things of her own that she would be taking into a knapsack. All her other luggage was long since packed. She put a call into the office to let them know that she’d be a little late, and got all the stuff, with some difficulty, into the car.
She placed the note for Ardelia in her mailbox, and drove away. And, while she didn’t look back, she did put a tape of Lady Marmalade in the stereo.
She walked into the ritzy salon called Eden, shedding the glances of the rich middle-aged women like a dog sheds water. The young, blandly pretty receptionist looked at her with mild distaste and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t think you have an appointment.”
Starling put on her best game face, the one she used on drug dealers and chauvinists, and said, “Perhaps you’d better check your book again.” That look, combined with the thousand dollars protruding from her palm, definitely got the girl’s attention.
“Well, as a matter of fact, we have had a cancellation…” the doe-eyed young woman trailed off.
Starling had no idea if the girl was prevaricating or if she had honestly lucked out, and she didn’t care much either way. “Fine. I need a cut and a color, a facial, and a massage.” The manicure she could handle herself.
Shortly thereafter, she was comfortably ensconced in a beautifully appointed room, having scented oils worked into her scalp. Even the stylist’s tut-tutting over the state of her split ends was humorous rather than annoying in her present mood.
“My dear!” the man exclaimed. “Your hair looks like it was hacked off with a knife!”
He certainly didn’t understand why she threw back her head and howled at that remark. But he was extremely competent and, when she left four hours later, she felt like a queen. He’d added highlights and lowlights to her auburn tresses, and the sun danced fire on her head. The cut was a simple short bob, really the only thing possible given the wreckage that Lecter had performed, but it was so well executed that it moved like waves on the sea. All in all, she was thoroughly satisfied.
And she became even more so as she walked through the halls of the FBI, feeling the eyes upon her. She went directly to the basement. As she surfed over to the travel website, she called Cooper.
“Could I see you for a while, please?”
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
It was hard to tell if he was still angry over the phone, but she decided not to dwell and instead bought tickets. This inner shopping thrill was a fairly new experience for Starling, who had never spent more than 10 minutes picking out an outfit before her reiving of Neiman-Marcus. But she was enjoying it.
A knock at the door. She looked up, and saw Cooper. Knowing from his sheepish expression that it was safe, she got up and met him at the door. She ventured a small joke. “I need spanking more often, I think.”
That bought her a startled look and a laugh. “You’re just finding out all sorts of things about yourself, aren’t you?” At her gesture, he came in and seated himself.
She followed suit. “I need to apologize to you, and thank you,” she said, all traces of jest gone. “Those were things that I needed to hear. I regret the rudeness of my behavior.”
She drummed her hands on the desk, hearing her words and realizing how awkward and stilted she sounded. “Oh, Coop, that came out all wrong. I’m sorry, okay? I want to make it up to you.”
“I’m sorry too, Starling. I shouldn’t have said the things I said the way I said them. You have enough to deal with.”
She smiled. “You have a little bit on your plate yourself, and I have a feeling I don’t even know the half of it.”
He nodded and looked away.
“Tell me, Coop, please. I really want to know. What was that thing on your chest… is it still there?”
“No, it came off… eventually.” He felt no need to elaborate on the hours of soaking and scrubbing it had taken. “What you saw was the symbol of the Black Lodge.”
She put her elbows on the desk and cupped her chin in her hands.
He cleared his throat. “I had not had one single… well, I call them ‘experiences’… since I left Twin Peaks. It was just feelings, urges… I would see someone and have to hold down my arm to keep from striking them. There was a need to hurt, with weapons, with words, whatever. Not easy to control, but I got better at it. I learned that if I didn’t let myself get emotional about anything, it got easier. No highs, no lows… I found that avoiding mirrors helps. You can’t see it, I know, no one else can. But when I look in a mirror, I sometimes don’t see me. I see him… IT… call it what you will. I see evil. And it snarls.”
He took a deep breath. “So that’s how it was. I was never happy or sad. I just got through every day as best I could. I couldn’t get close to anyone or it would just become unbearable. I felt dead inside, except that I knew I had to keep going. But I didn’t know why, or where that need was coming from. It sure didn’t feel like it was coming from me.”
Starling looked at him. His blue eyes were dark and his hands were clenched into fists.
He went on. “I think I know now what it was. I don’t know what it is about the things that Lecter has sent you… maybe I’ve just been more open since we’ve met. I couldn’t not care about you. I tried, believe me. But there was something about you that night on the Chesapeake. Something I couldn’t deny… I had a feeling that you knew. Knew what it was like to live on that knife-edge of darkness and light. I could see the veins running through you as if you were marble. They still do. I’ve had visions before. I guess you could say I’m psychic, whatever that means.”
He reached for his wallet and took out Laura’s homecoming picture. “Twice now, I’ve seen her. She was at the hotel. She put the matchbook in my hand. She stopped me from following Lecter. She was afraid. I saw her before that, too. I was in a courtyard… tunnels all around… I could feel his presence, sinister and angry. She made me leave, sent me away. She’s trying to help me, I know it. But I don’t think she realizes, like I’ve come to, that I have to face this thing, whatever it is. I can’t keep going like I have been. I need to take a leaf out of your book. We’ve both been trapped too long.”
He looked at the picture. Starling could see the emotion in his eyes. Suddenly, she understood even more than he was saying. She sat back and let him finish.
“Something doesn’t want me to go there. Doesn’t want me to help you. That’s the only direction I’ve got right now, so I’m going to run with it. I know this all sounds bizarre, and I haven’t made it very clear, but… thanks for listening.”
“We’ll help each other, Coop. I know we will.”
He shook his head, not in negation but to clear his thoughts. “So, what now, Special Agent Starling?” This time, the title was teasing.
“We’re off to see the Wizard,” said Starling, smiling. “Our flight leaves at seven. Red-eye to Rio. We’ll take a private plane from there to São Paulo. I want to have a night just to ourselves before the appointed day.”
“What did you tell Noonan?” asked Cooper, curious.
“I told him that this is my goddamn investigation and that I’m doing what I see fit. If he has problems with that, then, well, I know where the door is. I’ve been shown it enough.”
And, somehow, as the plane lifted off that evening, the FBI was the furthest thing from either of their minds.
Cooper marveled at his companion, reclined and sleeping in her cramped economy class seat. Her face was smooth, her breathing regular. One hand was tucked underneath her chin and the other lay open across her lap. Her head, cradled in the cheap airline pillow, was turned toward the window.
He, on the other hand, had apparently been condemned by the gods of slumber to watch a red line move at a snail’s pace across continents and oceans on the map thoughtfully displayed by the airline. He wondered if they tortured their sleepless passengers intentionally or if someone actually thought this was a good idea.
Not even fifty milligrams of Benadryl and a glass of white wine had been enough to induce sleep to come to him this evening. The claustrophobic quarters weren’t the problem. It was the face that came to him whenever he closed his eyes. He could have stood it if he were seeing Laura alive. But the face he saw was blue and gritty, though strangely no less lovely for that.
And so he sat and stared at Starling until the first blush of dawn stained her pale skin.
It was the smell of coffee that awoke her, finally. She resisted, feeling the last echoes of a dream fading, but it was too late. The only part of it she could call to mind were two voices, one rough and one velvet, speaking in perfect harmony. “That’s my girl.”
When she opened her eyes, she saw Cooper, freshly shaved, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper Folha de São Paulo.
“I didn’t know you were so fluent,” commented Starling in a voice rusty from sleep.
He turned to her and grinned, but she could see the dark shadows beneath his eyes. “I’m not, really. But it’s good mental exercise. And I can get the gist of things.”
She nodded and crawled over him, deftly avoiding either coffee spillage or newspaper creaseage. Opening the overhead compartment, she took out her travel bag and made her way down the aisle to the tiny bathroom. She decided to settle for washing her face and brushing her teeth. More complete preparations could wait until São Paulo, where better facilities would be available. She looked once in the mirror, ran her fingers through her hair, and exited the bathroom just as the fasten seat belts light went on.
Their descent was unremarkable, and soon Starling found herself waiting with Cooper at the baggage carousel, silently offering a prayer to whatever gods might be listening that her luggage would arrive. Apparently, one or more deities were paying attention, and they were able to grab their things. Cooper, who had only a single small suitcase and one garment bag, assisted Starling, who looked like she was drowning in black leather. They made their way to the crowded customs station and, by dint of FBI identification and a little sweet-talking from Cooper, were able to skip the whole sordid process.
Once out in the main thoroughfare of the airport, Starling finally began to notice how dull and dingy everything looked. She cast a critical eye over the orange plastic seating, the brown and green tiles on the floor. The whole place looked one step away from a Howard Johnson’s scheduled for demolition. Cooper noticed her gaze and the slight frown on her face.
“Welcome to a third world country, Special Agent Starling,” he said.
She didn’t respond, but continued her survey of her surroundings. Her eyes marked the beggars at the intersections of hallways, mostly handicapped, crying out in words she did not know but she understood them all the same. The children who accompanied the panhandlers, dressed in little more than rags, would dart in and out of the crowd, and Starling began to keep one eye on her things.
Cooper gave her a searching look, but said nothing more. They walked down the wide, high corridor until they found a moneychanger. Starling stopped.
“You’ll get better rates outside,” said Cooper.
Starling favored him with a withering glance. He shrugged, and they entered.
After receiving a large wad of reais, the Brazilian currency, and a warning about carrying so much cash, they proceeded once more down the corridor. Starling’s shoulders were aching from unaccustomed burdens. She spotted an empty bench down a side hallway and motioned Cooper over to it. Setting down her bags, she sighed and stretched. He sat next to her, grinning.
“Are you so out of condition, then?”
“Not on your life, doughboy. Here,” she replied, pulling a fair-sized manila envelope out of her bag. She opened it only to pull out another envelope. This one she opened to reveal two fresh-looking passports. She handed him one along with a thin file of other documentation. Flipping through, he saw a credible picture and all appropriate visas and entry stamps. Noting briefly that his name was Kyle Moore, he looked up and raised an eyebrow.
“You’ve been a busy girl.”
She flushed. “I thought it best to be prepared, just in case…”
He smiled and tucked the papers away in his bag. She gave a mock groan and stood up, hoisting her luggage into place. They moved at a brisk pace until they reached the other end of the airport, where the smaller domestic carriers were housed. It was no trouble at all for Cooper to arrange seats for Kyle Moore and Julianne McLachlan on a small plane bound for São Paulo.
That city from the air was like nothing Starling had ever seen. It stretched as far as she could see, an ocean of corrugated aluminum and plywood. But even the smallest hovels had tall wire antennas, raised to the sky like an army of pikemen advancing on the information age. The boundaries of class were as apparent as lines on a map as they flew closer into the city’s center, where poverty gave way to gleaming skyscrapers and a modern skyline. Her face, like a child’s, was pressed to the window during their descent, drinking in the scene.
They disembarked in the open air, and the smell of the city hit her all at once. Now she knew at least one reason Lecter had elected to stay in a hotel on the coast. Praia Grande, the small town that boasted the Hotel Praia Plata, was about 60 kilometers from São Paulo, to the east and on the sea. She felt it turning her like a compass needle, directing her orientation in this strange foreign land.
A young man in a grimy brown uniform had piled their luggage on a cart. They followed him across the tarmac to an outbuilding, where a taxi was waiting, just as Cooper had requested. Sliding into the back seat, Starling leaned her head back and let out a long, low sigh. The driver assisted in loading the luggage into the trunk, and returned to his place. He turned around and met Starling’s eye. “Pra onde vai, a senhora?” he asked.
“To the Hotel Ca’d’Oro,” said Starling, needing no translation.
Cooper’s eyes widened. He’d run across references to that hotel during his Brazil research, and it was, by all accounts, one of the marvels of the city. Colonial atmosphere, sheer elegance, and priced to match.
The taxi lurched in and out of traffic like a drunken sailor dancing a jig on a heaving deck. Starling was amused to note that stoplights seemed to be mere recommendations instead of commands, and that the average New York city cab driver would likely be frozen, white-knuckled in fear, in this grand chaos. Somehow, they wound their way through the city into the fashionable Jardins district, and did arrive intact at the hotel.
The Grand Hotel Ca’d’Oro rose, white and gleaming in the morning sun, high into the skyline. Liveried bellhops met their taxi and efficiently extracted the luggage while Starling and Cooper looked around. The cab driver cleared his throat.
“Cuanto custa?” asked Cooper.
“Pra o senhor? Sòmente vinte reais.”
Cooper reached into his pocket and withdrew a fifty reais bill. “Você nunca nos viu, comprende?”
“Ah, claro que sim, o senhor. Bom dia,” said the taxi driver, who winked, took the money, and then took off.
Starling looked at Cooper quizzically. Her Portuguese was pretty much limited to “Where is the bathroom?” and “Freeze, put your hands up!” – both phrases she had felt it essential to learn.
“Security, my dear Starling,” said Cooper expansively, enjoying a brief moment of superiority. “Unless I miss my mark, that cabbie is now suffering from currency-induced amnesia.”
Starling’s only answer to that was a smile.
Clarice luxuriated in the deep tub, barely visible beneath the mounds of foam that covered her like a lush, thick blanket. The grime of nearly twenty solid hours of travel was soaking away nicely, and the jasmine floral scent of the bubble bath wouldn’t clash with the perfume she planned to wear. The piping hot water soothed aching muscles and tempered, to some degree, the adrenaline rush that she’d been riding ever since she got off the plane.
It was with an odd regret that she opened the drain and stood. She turned on the shower, letting the driving rain of water sluice the bubbles from her body. Her hair she’d washed already, and it was about half dry. She turned off the shower and dried herself with one of the thick white towels close at hand. She’d never felt cotton this soft before. She slipped on one of the hotel’s bathrobes, and the texture was the same, almost silky next to her skin.
She crossed over to the counter, looking up into the mirror. “It all starts here,” she whispered. A smile curved her lips and was quickly gone. She opened the black case she’d brought, stuffed with all sorts of goodies from the helpful saleswoman at Neiman-Marcus. She pulled out a small glass jar and dipped her fingers in the glossy pomade. She smoothed it into her hair, noting that the lemony scent was fresh and pleasant. She dried her hair carefully, keeping the hair dryer on the lowest setting, coaxing the sleek, straight mass into something that resembled the fabulous ‘do she’d gotten at the posh Washington salon.
She covered her face with a light moisturizer, and decided that foundation was unnecessary for her clear, pale skin. A dusting of fine powder, and she was ready for the difficult part. For the last 15 years, since she began reluctantly to use makeup, a dash of eyeliner and a sweep of nearly translucent lipstick had sufficed as the whole of her beauty regimen. Now she held an ebony brush in a hand far better suited to holding a firearm. Taking a deep breath, she flicked the bristles across the gunmetal gray eyeshadow, then slowly applied the color to the crease of her eyes. Following with lighter and darker shades of the same color, she attempted to remember all the instructions given to her. She blended and blended, trying to avoid looking like a raccoon and succeeding admirably, given her lack of experience. The darkness threw her blue eyes into sharp relief, and accented the contours of her face. She smudged black kohl liner just from her pupils out towards her temples, and with a larger brush, applied just the barest hint of rose blush. Her cheekbones needed little assistance.
As she picked up the lip liner, she recalled arguing with the cosmetics girl over whether or not redheads could wear red lipstick. She had lost that battle, but seeing the stain spread over her lips, she conceded that she had been wrong. This matte hue, the color of old blood, did suit her well.
Gazing at her reflection, at once familiar and strange, she wondered if this was what Lecter had seen in her all along. The potential to become this elegant creature… but it was just a mask, now. There was so much she would need to learn, if…
She forced her mind away from ifs and back into the moment. Diving her hand yet again into the black case, she retrieved a small glass bottle from its protective wrapping. Long had she wondered about what scent she would wear, knowing as she did the importance of the olfactory to Lecter. She had discarded the idea of her old L’Air du Temps. For some reason she didn’t want to evoke the memory of dungeon days. Rather, she had decided on an old classic. She remembered it as her mother’s one extravagance, saved only for the most important events. She’d never forget the smell of it on her at her father’s funeral, as her mother stood there, watching them lower the casket into the ground. Starling had watched all the way, until the first shovelful of dirt was tossed in, then she had buried her face into her mother’s chest.
As she dabbed L’Heure Bleue onto her throat, beneath her ears, onto her wrists, the inside of her elbows, and the center of her cleavage, she inhaled deeply. The odor of strength, virtue, and love filled her with peace.
She laughed at herself as she recognized how deep her tension had truly run, now that it was gone. She wasn’t even certain she would meet Lecter tonight… it was tomorrow that the stars would align. Even so… it would not do to be unprepared. She picked up the convenient bathroom phone (ah, the luxuries of this hotel!) and dialed Cooper’s room.
“Do me a favor, Coop?”
“Sure. What is it?”
“Rent us a car, and put on your fancy duds. We’re going out on the town tonight.”
He laughed. “Eat, drink, and be merry?”
“You got it.”
He hung up, and for all his outward jocularity, was not able to escape the inevitable follow-up as he dialed the concierge. As he listened to the ringing, he said it aloud.
“For tomorrow, we die.”
The drive to the shore was pleasant, especially as the sea breezes grew strong enough to waft the smell of the city away. They talked as they drove, of inconsequentials and trivia, neither one willing to broach the more serious subjects at hand. The setting sun glowed behind them, the smog of the city creating a truly amazing sunset, resplendent in reds and purples.
They had settled into a slightly uncomfortable silence as they neared the town of Praia Grande. The sun was absent now, and only the painted sky remembered the light. Starling could stand the quiet no longer.
“Any moment now, Coop. You know that.”
His hands tightened on the steering wheel, but he made no reply.
“He won’t be happy that you’re here.”
“Was there anything else I already know that you wished to tell me, Agent Starling?” He made a point of keeping his eyes fixed on the road ahead.
She blushed, and her hands twisted in her lap. “I guess what I’m trying to say is thanks. For everything. In case I don’t get a chance to say it later.”
There was a long pause. They arrived in the town, a picturesque collection of colonial buildings, and Cooper pulled over at the first opportunity.
“Having doubts about your ability to protect me, are you?”
“I’ll do everything I can. But I’m only human. I can’t do anything about what’s inside you.”
The heat of his anger cooled abruptly. He turned his whole body towards her, a maneuver awkward in the tiny Fiat Uno that had been his only choice of a rental car.
“I know,” he said softly. “I don’t expect you to.” He reached out a hand and lightly traced a finger across her cheekbone. “You’re truly lovely tonight.”
Starling’s heart skipped a beat at the sudden change of mood. She felt like a rabbit frozen in the middle of a lawn.
“Because I know I won’t get a chance to later. And because I want to know what might have been,” he whispered, and leaned into her.
She closed her eyes, still unable to move. She felt the softness of his lips on hers, smelled the pine scent that always hovered around him, and warmed to the heat of his kiss. She was just about to part her lips…
He pulled back. It was as chaste a kiss as could be imagined. It could have been brotherly, even, except for the tingle that still throbbed around her mouth. She opened her eyes to see him watching her, an unreadable expression on his features.
He smiled then, his eyes bright. “Don’t worry, Clarice. We both belong to someone else. I won’t jeopardize that. But I needed to get that out of the way.”
She ventured a small smile in return. “It’s a beautiful evening. Let’s walk, shall we?”
They got out of the car, their fine attire out of sync with their mundane conveyance. Cooper wore, of course, a suit black as night, dark as coal, with his usual brilliant white shirt and red tie. Starling was garbed in the obi dress, the sheer black fabric like a sensual shroud over her glowing, pale skin. She stood tall in the Gucci shoes, and did not stagger as she once had in the daringly high heels. He took her arm as they strolled through the crowd of locals and tourists. The rhythm of the night had begun to possess the town, and they could hear the beat of the samba leaking through walls and making its way into the street.
It was an upscale place, and they stood out only as first among equals as they mingled into the pedestrian traffic. They stopped for dinner at an outdoor café. Cooper ordered for them, and they sipped caipirinhas while feasting on lobster. Starling ate lightly, as much for the sake of her dress as for fear of being too weighed down with food to be ready for whatever else the night might bring.
The lights of the café created an island in the darkness, and the strum of a classical guitar enveloped them in sound. As hyperaware as she was, she couldn’t help but relax a little in the gorgeous atmosphere. And, though she had but sipped her drink, the kick of the cachaça began to work, unbeknownst to her, in her bloodstream.
So perhaps it is not surprising that Cooper was the one who felt it first. An icy hand gripped his heart, and the breath was sucked out of his lungs. He choked on the fluid in his mouth, coughing and spluttering. Starling looked at him in concern, handing him a napkin. When his streaming eyes had cleared and his voice returned, Cooper looked nonchalantly around.
“Sorry about that,” he said calmly, even though his nervous system had gone into high alert.
Starling nodded and began eating a small piece of the sticky sweet coconut custard dessert that had just arrived at the table. She gave a little sigh of pleasure. “This is so good, it is unbelievable.”
He smiled, glad that her attention was elsewhere. The bright lights prevented him from seeing anything outside their immediate vicinity. He closed his eyes and let his awareness expand slowly, searching for…
He had it, for just a moment, before it was gone, submerged in the throng of people and passions wandering the avenue. It was an unmistakable presence, and he shook at the malice and desire he felt entwined in that aura.
The sound of glass cracking brought him abruptly from his reverie. He looked down at the stinging in his palm. The alcohol burned in the shallow cut that was bleeding profusely. The pieces of his glass glittered on the pavement.
Starling pressed the linen napkin into his hand, holding pressure. “What is it, Coop?” she asked, her eyes worried. “Is it…”
He shook his head. “I’m just a little keyed up, that’s all.” No need for her to know. She’d find out soon enough. He didn’t have anything useful yet, nothing concrete. “I need to work off this adrenaline,” he said, forcing a small chuckle.
Her eyes looked around and settled on a neon sign across the street. “I think I have the perfect idea.” She laughed then, a silver sound that cascaded over him like a net, pulling him into her joy. “Tonight I am going to do what I was always too busy studying, or working, or worrying to do. Tonight, my friend, we are going to dance.”
He summoned all his strength, and with a blow, quashed the darkness that had loomed up inside him into a tiny ball. He exhaled, and smiled, genuine this time.
“Well, why not? Going to let your hair down, then?”
She gave him a mock glare and giggled. “As if I have any left. Come on,” she cried as she pulled him to his feet. “Or are you too wounded to keep up with me?”
They laughed as they left the outdoor patio and crossed the street to the building advertised as the Clube Discotecnique. Neither one marked the figure standing in the darkness of the far side of the café, his fedora pulled down low. A stray gleam of light penetrated the shadows, and a flash of silver glimmered briefly and was gone. The man took his hand out of his pocket and strode into the crowd, moving quickly between the jostling bodies. He paused for a moment outside the nightclub, licked scarlet lips, and pulled the door open.
The night was as young and beautiful as a baby star, born from darkness into light. The warm sea breeze carried Lecter down the busy street from the churrascaria where he’d eaten back to his lush hotel. The walk was full of sights and smells as the well-plumed gents and fine-feathered females strolled the avenue in search of fulfillment. He allowed himself to be distracted by the displays, finding entertainment in the multitude of concurrent reenactments of ancient themes. He was observing one fine young coquette strutting between two clearly enamored bucks when a voice like a sunburn jerked him into high alert.
Eyes darting, he casually sought concealment under the awning of a small café, wedged between the protruding edge of a fence and a blackboard sign proclaiming the day’s specials in glittering chalk. Perhaps he’d been mistaken… certainly others from West Virginia sought tropical refuge on their vacations. He was about to dismiss his impulse as a weak, traitorous aural hallucination when the voice spoke again.
“This is so good, it’s unbelievable,” it said, and issued a small sigh of pleasure.
There could be no mistake now, not when he was attuned for it. Clarice Starling was sitting less than fifty feet away from him. She must be out on the patio, behind the fence. His hand rose a moment, fingers spread… then he tucked the wayward digits neatly into a fist and lowered his arm.
He pressed his face into the wood and wire fence, careful of splinters, bracing himself on the wooden crosspiece. Through a gap, he could just barely make out a slender redhead, but the back of a man’s head blocked her face from view. He took a breath, and then another. The man was sitting at the same table. He heard a sharp crack and felt a sting. He looked down. His hand had broken off a six-inch section of the crossbar, and a large splinter was embedded in his palm.
He settled back from his awkward vantage point and removed the splinter, then sucked the wound. His lips curved into a smile as his tongue was granted one small taste of blood. He turned back to the fence and was about to resume his position when a laugh scattered across the night. He heard her voice, bright with merriment and, underneath, taut with strain. And then his vantage point ceased to matter as he saw her, just a quick profile, and then the back of her body, hand in hand with this black-haired stranger, crossing the street.
The blade was cool in the heat of his palm and he savored it. The shutter of his mind clicked and the memory was his forever. That feeling, and the way Clarice Starling’s back looked in a charmingly insouciant black rag… Gaultier, he thought. As they disappeared into the nightclub, he allowed himself to rise briefly on his toes, but he was not able to see her shoes.
The impetus of his motion carried him into one step, then another, and then he was at the door, oblivious to the traffic that had amused him earlier. Flick of a tongue on lips inexplicably dry, and he pulled the handle.
The interior of the club was loud, dark, and smelled of sweat, alcohol, smoke, and pheromones. He could make out the brightness of the dance floor in the back, surrounded on all sides by platforms of various heights, connected by a web of stairs. The bar was to the right, the bathrooms to the left, and Clarice Starling was nowhere to be seen.
There was nothing else for it. He moved carefully, keeping to the sides, hugging the darkness. The music was not Brazilian… the words were English, and the instrumentation had a synthetic sound that he vaguely placed as belonging to a decade or two ago. The patrons seemed to be enjoying it, and he suffered more than a few jostles as inebriated women tipped in their heels. Finally he stood on a low riser, in the shade of those above. He tucked himself into the blackness under the metal, open stairs, and he had an excellent view, not only of the dance floor, but also of every exit.
A redhead in Brazil is not difficult to spot, and it took Lecter less than thirty seconds to find her crowning glory, shining in the beams of light that crisscrossed the dancers. She was obviously not a practiced dancer, and she just as obviously did not care. Though her movements were never less than graceful, he observed. The song ended and another began, and he could actually hear her screaming her approval. And then she executed a little pirouette that brought her around to face him.
Breathing paled in importance next to the opportunity to look at her. Her layered bob framed her face in flame, and the gray shadows smoked around her eyes. Her lithe, lean body, which could look almost boyish in the professional clothes she usually wore, was aggressively feminine. A strip of black hugged every curve and every valley was sheathed in a whisper of translucent fabric. And she was smiling, her lips red as blood. Her arms were flung up over her head, and she writhed in a smooth little shimmy that stopped time dead in its tracks.
Lecter crouched there, frozen, and watched her dance, lost and sensuous in the rhythm. Her lips moved with the words, and the vision and the music burned themselves into his brain.
She turned again, then, and began to dance with the same black-haired man he had glimpsed at the restaurant. They moved together on the floor, very, very close together. But never touching. He kept repeating that. Never, ever, touching. Though he strained to the verge of his concealment, he could not see the man’s face.
He waited there through a few more songs, until his rage overcame his caution, and he moved out onto the floor, gliding like a ghost between the dancers. He passed no closer to the couple than he had to, staying on the edges, until he emerged from the crowd into the relative sanity of the opposite riser. It took him a moment to find them again in the throng, but when he did he had to grasp at the stair rail for balance.
The black-haired man was the one he had seen in his dream. The same man whose visage rested, face-down, on his coffee table, under the bronze Rodin.
He straightened and recovered immediately. The man was whispering something in Clarice’s ear, his head bent low to hers. She laughed and put her hand on his shoulder, then stood on her toes to tell something to him. He nodded and put a hand on the small of her back. They danced together truly then, moving as one to the beat.
Lecter thought the taste of blood that erupted in his mouth was just an illusion until he realized he’d bitten his own tongue. He was so abstracted that he closed his eyes for just a moment, the better to gain a handle on his boiling anger.
Even that moment, though, was long enough that he did not see the black-haired man stop the dance, looking down at Clarice and speaking quickly. When Lecter opened his eyes again, he saw the man pulling her by the hand off the dance floor. A flush was spread over her face, and he knew it was more than just the exertion.
He threaded through the throng and followed. He made it to the door just an instant behind them, and was able to effortlessly blend into the sidewalk crowd. The night was still a child… it was only one in the morning, and he was practically invisible as he tailed them, from a safe distance, to the tiny Fiat Uno.
There was a beat up blue Beetle a few cars down. It took Lecter only moments and he was inside. The sound of the engine springing to life was lost in the many noises of the busy street, and he smoothly pulled out into traffic, a discreet three cars behind them.
Clarice bit her lip. Her feet ached in her elegant shoes, and her heart thrummed inside her chest. “You’re sure it was him?” she asked for the tenth time as they pulled off the highway and entered São Paulo proper.
Cooper sighed, his eyes occupied with the traffic. “Believe me, it was him. I would know that mind anywhere, and I caught a glimpse as we were leaving to prove it.”
“No buts, Clarice. Now, listen, we’re almost there. When we get to the hotel, I want you to run to your room and lock the door.”
“I know it won’t stop him, but it will slow him down. Get your gun and go to the bathroom. It’s the only room in that suite that has no other entrances. Stay there.”
“Coop, we need to stick together.”
“No, that is the last thing on earth we should do. If he sees us together, he’s likely to kill us both.” His voice was sharp-edged and impatient. He stopped, uncertain how he was going to convince Starling of what he’d felt. The rage, the need, the love… They turned into the Jardins district, only a few blocks from the hotel.
She sensed that he was deadly serious, and did not speak, but rather wondered. Would he really kill me?
The answer came immediately. Yes, he would. If he thought you had been untrue. Of course he would. If he had been betrayed. He would kill you and eat you and love you, and feel no contradiction in the act.
Though the night was warm, she shivered.
Cooper chanced a look over at her. In the end, he simply said, “Trust me. I just have to ask you to trust me. I know what I’m doing. This is the only way.” He hoped she didn’t realize the full force of his words.
A long silence ensued. They pulled up to the hotel, and the valet stepped up to the car. Cooper caught her hand and pulled her towards him. Their eyes met, and she was impaled by the intensity of his gaze. “I know exactly what I’m doing, Clarice. Now, go.”
Her hand was crushed under the weight of his grip. For a moment, in the pain, in the confusion, she saw stars. Then her vision cleared and she was able to think. Of all the people in the world, she could trust only three. And he was one.
“Bless you, Cooper,” she said suddenly, surprised to hear the words leave her mouth.
He smiled and pressed her hand to his chest. “Now, on three, go. One, two, three, GO!”
They ejected out of the car like they were on a drug raid. Cooper flipped the keys to the valet and took off at a dead run. Starling matched him. Bursting into the lobby, they flew past confused bellhops and past the elevators. The clang of the stairway door echoed in the empty hallway.
Lecter spotted the Fiat in front of the Hotel Ca’d’Oro and a smile crossed his face even as he passed it and parked the car a block ahead, in a dark alley behind a dumpster. He gave the steering wheel a quick wipe with his handkerchief and got out, moving quickly back into the street. A flurry of black and red confirmed his destination and he set out at a brisk pace.
The lobby was deserted save for the bellhops and one lone girl sitting at the desk. He saw that there was a door to the right leading to a restaurant/bar, elevators, a service stairwell, and no other exits. He glanced at the desk, then headed into the restaurant.
Though they were done serving food, the bar was still open, and a few older, well-dressed patrons nursed sweating glasses at the dark wood counter. The room was tastefully, elegantly decorated with antiques. The showpiece was an 18th century clavier, standing on a dais in the corner. All gilt and glitter, it pulled at Lecter like a magnet. The warning rope was hardly a deterrent, and he unhooked it casually and pulled it aside. He was seated on the red velvet bench before anyone could think to stop him.
Not that anyone would, once he started to play. The notes shone as brightly in the still, cool air as the gleaming brass rails of the bar. The bartender made a half-hearted attempt to walk over to this stranger, but found himself spellbound by the cascades of pure, perfect music that spilled from the dais and swirled around the tables.
Lecter noticed none of this. Time had taken on a different quality, and each finger moved slowly and deliberately, the music sheathing him in tranquility. He allowed his passions to flow and be transformed; taking on the sense of inevitable order that pervaded the sounds he created. He lolled his head back and closed his eyes, holding this moment apart from everything, distilling his being into pure will.
A fraction of eternity later, he finished the piece, and the last notes echoed in his mind as he stepped down and replaced the rope. He did not hear the smattering of applause that issued from the bar, and he strolled without a word back into the lobby. He hoped his quarry had done something useful with his brief reprieve, for it would be the last peace he would ever know.
He stepped quietly up to the desk. A few words with the girl, convincing her of a missed meeting and an important business deal, and he was in possession of the room number of one Kyle Moore, dark-haired, handsome American traveler. 448. He breathed his thanks and left a moderate gratuity on the desk, then proceeded to the elevators. As soon as the doors opened, though, with a quick look that assured no eyes remained upon him, he went instead to the service stairs, holding the door so that it closed behind him with only the faintest of clicks.
He could smell her here, in this motionless air, as he had been unable to do before in the vast outdoors or in the smoky club. She had changed her perfume, and the even the scent that lay beneath was subtly different than the one he had smelled at the house on the Chesapeake. She had changed, and he wondered anew what he had wrought with his long-distance surgery. He ascended the stairs slowly, breathing her in, and breathing in also a different smell, one reminiscent of the dark heart of a pine forest. That one he filed away to savor at a later time. He stopped at the entrance to the fourth floor, pushing the door open slowly. An object on the ground caught his eye.
He picked up the shoe that he had given Starling, and for a moment his heart thrummed and his serenity was threatened. He stilled himself, then whispered quietly.
“Oh, Cinderella, you should have left long before midnight.” He tucked the Gucci shoe into the crook of his left arm, and carefully walked down the corridor.
The hall was silent. He made his way through that thin quiet, arriving at the door marked 448 in numbers of brass. It was an old hotel, without the modern inconvenience of keycards, he noted happily, and it was only the work of an instant to handle the old-fashioned lock on the door. He slipped inside as softly as a cat, not even breathing for the first few seconds while he allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
A movement caught his eye and he tensed, one hand holding a bit of blackness, the other a sliver of silver. But it was only the breeze billowing the sheer white curtains of the balcony. He relaxed just a little, grateful that he had not been detected back at the club. For what sane man would leave his window open, knowing that the likes of Lecter were in pursuit?
As his pupils dilated, he occupied himself identifying the sounds of this place. He heard the gentle beat of a ceiling fan and the soft, slow breathing of a sleeper. He stopped to make sure. But his first assessment had been correct — only one person slept here this night.
He wasn’t quite certain how he felt about that. Certainly it would make things less complicated, but that was a dubious recommendation for this situation. He had wanted Starling to watch. But perhaps there were still avenues of that sort open to him. When he had turned over all the scenarios his mind produced and settled on one, he began his hunt in earnest.
He slithered like a snake through the antechamber, never brushing a piece of furniture or rustling his clothing. When he could at last see into the bedroom, his eyes picked out the shape of a man lying under tousled sheets, on his side, facing the window. A soft light, just barely bright enough to see by, snuck in through the sheer panels.
Lecter moved closer, then realized he still held Starling’s shoe. He set it down on the floor without a sound, and resumed his deadly march towards the bed. He could see now that the man wore a white cotton T-shirt, and that his arms were folded beneath the pillow under his head. The angle formed between his neck and shoulders was a beautiful thing to behold.
He was almost at the edge of the bed. He decided to take no chances and to come from behind. The Harpy had warmed to his hand and now felt like liquid metal, waiting to flow and merge with the heat of blood.
In one sharp-edged, feral motion, Lecter pounced, the knife-edge aimed squarely at the sleeping man’s throat.
Cooper’s last glimpse of Starling had been though the closing stairway door, seeing her trip in her absurdly high heels then stoop to take them off. He wasted no more time looking back, knowing that his very presence threatened her now. He unlocked the door to his room then flung it closed behind him, turning the bolt although he knew it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. He leaned back against the door, breathless and panting. He felt almost as if he were suffocating in the black confines of the room. His eyes automatically scanned the darkness, searching for a hint that something was wrong. He found none.
He laughed, a bitter mocking sound. Isn’t this what I wanted? I waited years for something like this, I came across continents to set up this chance. What is this sudden instinct for self-preservation now?
But even as he asked himself the question, he knew. It was the same thing that had stopped him every time before. It was the presence inside.
As he walked through the suite, pushing windows open to gain some cleaner air, he thought of all the things he had never told Starling. The things she hadn’t needed to know. The failed suicide attempts, the reckless chances in the line of duty, the careless street crossings and the miserable, long and lonely hours of knowing that this thing inside him would never let it end. The torture would continue, no matter what Cooper tried. The evil would not let him go so easily.
And so he had lived hopeless, looking in vain for an evil stronger than the one he carried inside, that would unwittingly set him free. He had found it in his first real taste of Lecter, inside that courtyard full of malevolent energy. But Laura, of all people, had tried to push him away. Great, he thought, now that’s two spirits I have to overcome.
He had wondered why she would try to stop him… surely she understood what he has going through? But when she’d kissed him, he knew. She was reminding him that life could be sweet, even tainted as it was. But he didn’t have her courage. He just wanted to drown himself in the blackness until there was nothing left.
He undressed slowly, folding his clothes and putting them on the back of a chair. He brushed his teeth mechanically, blindly, as he’d done for ten years. The figure of the demon in the mirror, wearing white boxers and a T-shirt, was too much for him at any time, but especially right now. He didn’t fight these ordinary rituals… he was saving his strength for the big showdown he knew was coming. He just didn’t know when.
He walked into the bedroom. The sensation of suffocating got stronger, more insistent, and he turned on the ceiling fan, letting the waves of air roll across his body. He crawled into the bed, drawing the thin sheet over him, and put his head down on the pillow, curling up his arms beneath.
He jumped when his fingers touched something cold beneath the pillow. It was his .45, and he hadn’t put it there. Nor was he able to move it… when he tried, his arms turned to ice and shooting pains ran up his hands, searing with a cold that was almost like fire.
He willed himself to relax, and the agonizing pain subsided, leaving him simply chilled to the bone. He felt the first stirrings of real fear, sliding around in his abdomen like ice cubes in a shaker. But he slowed his breathing down, and called upon all the meditative skills he’d ever possessed in his life. He forced himself almost into a trance, and his body quieted, lying there in the bed as if asleep, while his mind hovered above, alert for anything.
He began to worry then, wondering what was taking Lecter so long. Had he gone to Clarice first? No, that would not be his style. More likely he was amusing himself by spinning out the cat-and-mouse play as far as it would go, or taking the time to craft a truly memorable death for the man who had dared to hold a thing already marked by him.
He was surprised that Clarice had not seen through his charade, but knew that a madman already occupied most of her mind, a tenant she had finally welcomed. He wondered if she would still feel the same way for Lecter when he worked his evil on someone she cared for, at least a little. He hoped that perhaps she would flee, and escape this path of darkness, fly away to somewhere warm and sweet, somewhere safe. He knew that wasn’t her way. But still he wondered if she would ever be able to look Lecter in the eyes again. And then he had no time left for wondering, when he felt the malign presence slip through his door.
Cooper lay there, concentrating, meditating, and keeping up the appearance of somnolence as he felt the prowl of Lecter’s eyes searching the small apartment. Well, now, this is a test, he thought ruefully. If I can fool Hannibal Lecter, I must be good. He most carefully did not think about the gun nestled in his grip.
As Lecter approached the bed, almost painfully slowly, Cooper put his full awareness into remaining motionless. Completely still. He felt the hairs on the crest of his neck rise in response to the nearness of danger, but he kept ironclad control. The air filling his chest with every breath seemed stagnant and he felt like he was choking on dust, but still he did not move.
And then he felt the rush of air and the fury of the predator’s strike. He could do nothing but watch in horror as his own body twisted in a flash faster than thought. And then he was staring into endless eyes, feeling the prick of a blade against the side of his throat. He wondered for a moment why he was still alive to feel such things. And then he knew, as he felt the heaviness in his hand. The tip of the cocked and ready .45 was pressed deep into the flesh under Hannibal Lecter’s chin.
Clarice Starling was huddled into a small, black-clad ball in the corner of her spacious bathroom. Her arms were braced on her knees, and she held her gun with both hands. They ached with the strain of holding this position for what seemed like forever. One shoe lay on the floor next to her.
She tried to listen for suspicious noises, but couldn’t hear a thing beyond the roaring of her own blood in her ears. Why had she been so stupid, so careless? What had possessed her to go out for a night of fun in Hannibal Lecter’s new hometown? And why hadn’t Cooper stopped her?
She paused right there. That one was the poser. Coop was the safety freak, the one who didn’t trust Lecter. The one who had insisted on coming along to protect her from herself.
Among other reasons, she amended, remembering their conversation. She railed at herself for her insensitivity, for her heedlessness. He had been nothing but help to her, and she had taken it all, and given nothing in return. That was not who she was.
She knew, deep down, why she had gone. It was her last act of rebellion, a sort of bachelorette party before plunging into whatever she had thought lay ahead of her. And she had been almost aching to be caught, wanting to flaunt her new self in front of Lecter. And she had not counted the cost to Cooper carefully enough. She had figured that if he saw a threat, he could get out. She had depended on it.
Why hadn’t he? Looking back over the evening, she was jolted by the sudden awareness that Cooper had known, long before the dance floor, that Lecter was around. She remembered the glass breaking, and his uncharacteristic nonchalance.
Think, Clarice, think! You’ve nothing better to do. Look at you, hiding in a bathroom, your only defenses one high heeled shoe and a gun you know damn well you won’t be able to use, waiting for your black knight to burst through the door and kill you or kiss you. And Cooper’s probably doing the same thing, without the consolation of having started this himself.
But, he did start this, she thought. He brought me here, not the other way around. Now that she had the relative leisure to process his strange command, it was truly bizarre. Almost as if he wanted to get himself killed.
And in that instant, she knew. She couldn’t have explained how, but a billion bits and pieces coalesced into a sure and certain knowledge. She was on her feet and running before she had the time to think her next thought.
It came to her just as she was kicking in the door of room 448. The words fluttered in her mind like moth wings and screamed like lambs. I have no idea what I’m going to do.
Starling’s foot had already begun to fly when she realized two things. First of all, the door was not locked or even latched, as evidenced by the fact that it stood open just a crack; and a blow of the force that was currently aimed at it would create a ricochet that would probably knock her down. Secondly, she noticed that she wasn’t wearing any shoes and that this was really going to hurt.
She was at least able to catch the swinging door with her elbow, preventing it from either maiming her or waking up the entire hotel, but she was left with a stinging, throbbing foot. Her impetus carried her through the antechamber and into the main room of the suite, hobbling drunkenly into the center of the room.
So much for grace, she thought as she automatically brought her gun up and made a quick sweep. What she saw very nearly stopped her heart.
Entwined almost like lovers on the bed were dark shadows of the two living men she loved best, stopped and motionless in the pale light.
Which made her instinctive command of “Freeze!” rather pointless, but the habits of ten years were not about to be broken in that instant. She moved swiftly forward, and saw why they were not about to move any time soon.
Blade and gun. Jesus Christ, they were going to kill each other. Neither so much as looked in her direction.
That was it. The proverbial last straw. Clarice Starling had not worked, packed, traveled, and travailed so long and so hard to let it all end here. It was time for her to take control.
She knew that, inside her, something new had been born in this last month. It was time to put it to the test. She gave herself over to instinct.
“Dr. Lecter,” she said softly, the sounds rounded and gentled by her West Virginia drawl. “I believe it is customary to at least offer a tap on the shoulder when you are going to cut in.”
Even in the dimness, she could see him stiffen, and yet he did not move. Point one for Starling’s side.
“Well, hello, Agent Starling,” he said, his eyes never leaving Cooper’s. “How nice to see you again.”
“Dr. Lecter, I would be pleased to go through the formalities some other time, but right now I would like for you to put your knife down at the bottom of the bed, and put your back against the wall. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
“And why would I do that, Agent Starling? Have you no concern for my welfare? I’m hurt,” he said, and the coldness in his voice prickled her spine.
“Cooper is not going to hurt you, Doctor. In fact, Cooper is going to put his gun down at the bottom of the bed just after you put down the knife. He is also going to put his back against the wall.”
“Oh, Clarice, you’ve got a gun. How droll. Do you think you can command me with that blunt little tool? Do you think you’ll even be able to use it?”
The words brought up all the echoes he’d intended, she was sure, but she maintained her composure.
“No, Doctor, I don’t think I can command you with a gun. But if you’re so sure that I won’t use it, why did tonight matter so very much to you that you came here, engaging in such rude behavior?”
He blinked. Starling could never before, in any of her confrontations with him, remember him blinking. Point two for her side.
In one fluid motion, he broke the stalemate, folded the knife, and placed the Harpy at the foot of the bed, then retreated to the head, sitting straight up against the wall, legs ramrod straight in front of him. His hands were laid, open, in his lap. She felt his eyes on her for the first time, and repressed a shiver.
She did not even allow herself a sigh of relief. “Now you, Coop.”
Wordlessly, Cooper uncocked his weapon, flipped the safety on, put the .45 next to the knife, and assumed much the same position as Dr. Lecter had.
Gun still trained on Lecter, she went forward and scooped up the array of deadliness from the end of the bed with her free hand. It was an awkward bundle, and she backed up until she could feel the dresser behind her. She reached her hand behind her back and deposited the gun on the top. The Harpy she kept curled in the palm of her hand.
“Now, Dr. Lecter, I am going to ask you to go and sit over in that chair. I want you to give me your word that you will not move from that spot, no matter what, until I tell you. I guarantee that you will not be hurt in any way.”
“It’s perhaps a little late for that, Clarice,” he said in the mocking voice that had haunted her dreams for so long. Only this time, she sensed, it was not her that he mocked.
“Just do it, Doctor.”
“As you wish,” he said, and began to get up.
“Stop!” she barked. “Give me your word, Doctor.”
He looked at her as if he were looking at a child. “I give you my word,” he said slowly, tonelessly.
She caught his eye as he stood. She felt like she would drown in the moist shine she saw there. “I trust you, Dr. Lecter.” There was nothing more she could say.
He took his place in the appointed chair and looked away. He looked away. She could scarcely credit her eyes. Score three for Starling’s side, but suddenly it had stopped feeling good.
She stood there for a moment, then put her gun down next to Cooper’s on the dresser. He just sat there, staring blankly ahead. He would not meet her eyes.
She went to him, and sat at the edge of the bed. “How many times have you tried this?”
“Too many,” he whispered. “And no matter what I do, it won’t let me go. It stops me every single time.” His face looked like an egg about to meet the side of a bowl.
She put her arms around him and pulled him into her. She recognized the broken sobs that issued from his shaking body. So many times, they had been her own.
“Oh, Coop. Oh, Coop. Why?” she breathed into his ear as she stroked his hair.
He pulled away from her embrace and looked up at her. Gently, he took her hand, got up, and led her into the bathroom. Shutting the door behind them, he turned with her to face the mirror. The puzzled look on her face dissolved into horror as he pushed his mind out, as hard as he could, to make her see what he saw.
She could not tear her eyes away. Superimposed over Cooper’s reflection was a snarling, grinning, greasy wretch of a man with long straggly hair and the cruelest eyes she’d ever seen. It was repellent. Horrific.
And then she understood what she had not before. The evil in Cooper was the kind of evil that raped and tortured little girls, the kind that devoured and defiled everything it touched. This was no gourmet of pain, no aesthete of darkness. This was raw filth and decay. The stench of it filled her nostrils and made her eyes water.
She did not, could not stop to ponder why the difference was important. She knew only that it was. And Cooper had been living with this infection inside of him for ten years.
She felt him shake beside her, his hand quivering in her own. As he turned away, the image disappeared, and she was able to look at him again.
“There is no cure for this, is there?” she whispered.
He shook his head. “I have no hope of one. I don’t know how much longer I can control it. And when I can’t…” his words trailed off into silence.
She put herself between him and the mirror, resting her head on his broad chest. She sagged forward into him, and the unexpected weight of her forced him back a few steps until he actually had to step over the bathtub rim to keep from falling.
She threw her arms up and rested them on his shoulders. Brimming eyes upturned to his, and she said, “Coop, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. But you shouldn’t have tried to use Dr. Lecter. After all, you made me the keeper of your courage. Let me give it back to you.”
He started to give her a wan smile but was stopped by the sensation of hot wetness on his chest. For a ridiculous instant he thought that perhaps he’d bumped the shower knob. It wasn’t until he looked down to see the crimson gush flowing over the silver blade and felt the pain that he realized what had happened.
The world grew gray, and the last thing he saw was Starling’s face tracked with tears. He heard her whisper, “Laura, help him now.” He tried to say something, but only a fountain of blood came out.
A howl and a heat, a scream and a sigh, and the pressure of lips on his own. And then he was there, in the room with the black and white floor and the red velvet curtains. He looked down. He was dressed in a black suit with immaculate white shirt. As his awareness returned, he saw a tall mirror standing in the corner. He walked over to it. And there, nestled in the silver, cradled by the elaborate carving of the frame, was his own reflection.
A sound jerked him from his reverie. A phonograph across the room was playing an old 78, and the sound of screaming lambs filled the air. He crossed the room, smiled, and took the needle off the record.
When he turned around, Laura was there. She made a heavenly armful as they waltzed to the music of a ghostly orchestra.
Starling held his body up, locked in her arms, until the last ragged gasp emerged from his lungs. She lowered him down into the tub, pulled the curtain, and turned on the shower. The harsh spray of cold water stung her skin as she rinsed most of the blood from her body and his. Tears fell and mingled with the other rain as she braced herself against the wall. Her stomach heaved but nothing came up.
She did not know how long she stood there, eyes closed and shivering, until she realized that she had lost something. At first she thought it was Cooper’s absence that she felt, but she knew that wasn’t it. Slowly, it dawned on her.
The lambs had stopped screaming.
She stripped out of the soaking dress and laid it at Cooper’s feet. Stockings, too, came off and she was left naked under the chilling stream. She rinsed her hair, plunging her head into the spray. When at last she finally felt clean, she shut the water off and carefully stepped, dripping, out of the bath.
She did not notice the luxurious feel of the soft white towels on her frozen skin. She dried off and pulled on the terrycloth robe that hung behind the door. It smelled of pine, fresh and aromatic. She stifled a sob with a sharp gasp and pulled open the door.
Hannibal Lecter was still sitting in the chair. He looked as if not one muscle had betrayed his promise. Only his eyes moved to observe her entrance.
She had never seen him like this. The crackling, surging energy of his presence was subdued into a small trickle, and she could not read his eyes at all. Her knees began to tingle and threatened to abandon her entirely. She had had enough of control.
She dropped weakly into the chair next to his. She searched her mind for words adequate to the situation and found none. Finally, she said, “I think I’m going to need your help in there.”
He looked at her and raised an eyebrow. The expression on his face was eloquent. It stated clearly that he had absolutely no idea what she could be talking about.
Her aching brain simultaneously registered two amazing facts. The whole interlude had been quiet enough to escape notice, and there was something in this world that Dr. Hannibal Lecter did not know. It was too much. It was all so very much too much. Her elbow went on the arm of the chair, her face went into her hand, and her other arm waved for Lecter to go into the bathroom. “Just… just go,” she muttered.
He got up and walked into the bathroom. She drew her legs up and curled herself into a ball, her head between her knees. When at last she felt the touch of a hand on her shoulder, she sat back.
“I confess that you have surprised me, Clarice,” Lecter said simply.
And then he knelt, wrapping his strong arms around her, and she clung to him as if he were the last rung of a fire escape. That this moment should come now, like this… hysterical laughter warred with tears and she just shook, letting every emotion pour out of her body until she could be still.
She raised her head and met his eyes. His face was grave but full of compassion. “There are some things I need to know,” he said quietly.
And so she told him. The whole story.
She looked in the mirror one last time, making sure that everything was in place. Her hair, her makeup, were all in order. The strapless silk sheath was that shade of forest green that suited her best. Or so Hannibal had said, and she was inclined to agree. It certainly went nicely with the cabochon emeralds that now graced her ears, wrists, and throat.
She reached out a manicured hand to touch her reflection in the glass. She would never think of mirrors in quite the same way again. A part of her felt guilty at the joy that bubbled up inside her, but she set that aside as foolish. Cooper’s death was a victory, in its own way. He would not begrudge her the happiness she felt.
Hannibal had listened to her story, and had brushed the tears from her eyes with deft fingers. If he was skeptical of some of the more unbelievable elements, he did not show it. When she pressed him about it, he met her question with another question. He wanted to see the picture of Laura.
She found it in Cooper’s wallet. He took it and stared at it for a long time. Then he told her about his dream.
He had not told her how he had taken care of the body and she had not asked. They had enough other things, more important things, to discuss. It was enough for her that he felt it safe to remain at the Hotel Praia Plata for one more night. A special surprise, he had said. And then they would be moving on.
One last look at her reflection and she was ready.
He stood on the balcony, watching the dusk creep up the sky. The ocean breeze was cool against his skin. A small noise behind him made him turn, and he caught his breath as he saw her, elegant and beautiful, backed by the fluttering white wave of the curtain. He congratulated himself on his choice of dress, and on the jewels that sparkled against her alabaster skin. He offered he his arm, and she took it. The smell of her could make him giddy. The knowledge of her could frighten him. The combination was utterly irresistible.
They enjoyed a fine meal at the hotel’s restaurant. The salty, steaming, dripping rare beef, roasted over Brazilian hardwoods, was excellent, as was the accompanying farinha and feijoada. The hotel unfortunately did not have a bottle of Pétrus in the cellar, but the 1981 le Pin was more than adequate… much more, in fact. He ordered quindão for dessert, and ignored the brief shadow that crossed her face as she tasted the coconut sweet.
“Did you enjoy your meal?” he asked when she had finished, catching her hand and bestowing a kiss upon it.
“It was marvelous,” she said, enjoying the thrill that was running up her arm. Her head tilted just a shade back and her lips parted. “A lovely surprise.”
“But that was not the surprise, Clarice,” he responded, his voice carrying a hint of mystery.
She arched an eyebrow and looked at him.
“All good things to those who wait,” he said, enjoying her curiosity immensely. “I find that a little exercise is soothing to the digestion after a meal. Would you care to take a walk with me?”
She nodded, still unused to him making requests instead of commands. He led her out of the restaurant and into the hotel lobby. Putting a hand in his pocket, he withdrew a silk handkerchief and neatly folded in into a long strip. “If you’ll permit me?” he asked, and tied the blindfold around her eyes when she assented.
They walked and walked, and he spun her around several times to ensure her complete lack of direction. He amused her along the way with anecdotes from his time in Florence, and she responded with tales of her and Ardelia at the Academy. She was beginning to be glad he had selected marginally more sensible shoes for her when she heard a bell and felt the unmistakable stomach lurch of an elevator.
She was surprised to feel a strong breeze when they emerged, but knew better by now than to question it. He led her a few steps further and moved behind her. She shivered as the warmth of his body pressed into her and she leaned back into him. His breath was delicious against the skin of her neck as he whispered in her ear. “My Leda, my Lyra, my beauty crowned,” he said, removing the blindfold.
As if his words were not enough to set her aflame, she opened her eyes to see the vast expanse of the night sky stretched out above them, and the constellations that had once been only pixels on a screen burned in the velvet black of the heavens. Strains of music wafted past her ears and she tore her gaze away from the stars. They were on the roof of the hotel, and a string quartet was laboring in a soft circle of torchlight.
“May I have this dance?” asked the voice that had both singed and soothed her soul. She turned around and settled gracefully into his arms. They moved together as if they had been made for each other.
She lost herself in the rhythm of the dance, her mind reeling at random over the events of the past month. She looked up and found it strange that the North Star was absent from the view. Something of her thoughts must have showed in her face, for he said, “You know, Clarice, the full cycle of the precession of the equinoxes takes twenty-six thousand years. For the pole star to change from Polaris to its opposite takes thirteen thousand years. You have taken exactly one month. You shame the very stars in their courses.”
He brought his face to hers, and their lips met. Starling felt an explosion of light in her chest, like a sun gone supernova. She felt the compass of her heart shift, and she knew he was right.
Maria Velasquez was shaking as she tiptoed her way out of the house. She had forgotten her purse, and had been faced with a real rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma: would it be better to risk returning for it, or to risk a beating from José when she came home without the money she knew would go towards paying his gambling debts. The clear and present danger overcame the threats of her employer in her mind, and she had snuck quietly back into the servants’ hall of the grand mansion. Her heart hammering, she retrieved her purse and began to make her way out again. Not that the Doctor and his wife were bad people to work for, she told herself. It was a good job, a very good job, and she would be a fool to chance getting fired. So it was better to follow their strange directions.
She dared a glance back over her shoulder as she slipped through the manicured garden into the alleyway. For one frozen moment she thought she was done for, as she spied the Doctor and his beautiful wife on the terrace. The dying sunlight seemed to catch them in its glow, and the lady’s platinum hair gleamed only a little brighter that the gentleman’s splendid white tie ensemble. But they were wrapped up in each other, dancing to inaudible music, and Maria breathed a sigh of relief as she made her getaway.
Copyright 2001, Glimmerdark