The curtain fell on the second act to crashing applause. Hannibal tucked his playbill into the inside pocket of his jacket and stood to offer his own enthusiastic praise. The new tenor’s debut had rounded out the quality of the production. Pity tonight’s performance was thinly attended. From his box seat, he could see the main floor was filled with the usual suspects – the season ticket holders, the old moneyed, the nouveau riche. The upper level was far sparser. The second most desirable seating after his own was the front center mezzanine row – meant for those who truly wanted to experience the full spectrum of both the stage and orchestra. There was but a single, lone young woman occupying the prime realty. She stood and worked her way to the exit. Seeing so many empty seats made the corner of his mouth turn down in displeasure. Hannibal gathered his coat for intermission and slipped through the drapes of his private box.
Downstairs, he had no sooner acquired a glass of champagne than he was ambushed by two Baltimore Fine Arts Foundation board members. The ladies had been painted and pulled and taped and coiffed within an inch of their septuagenarian lives. They fawned over Hannibal and presumed to chastise him soundly for being remiss in his hosting duties. It was easy enough to lightly laugh off their pestering, recalling that the last time he had fed them, they had enjoyed a rather excellent cut of an abominably rude sommelier. More of his acquaintances joined their gathering and it soon became apparent what they all really wished to hear from him. Had he not felt up to entertaining because of those horrid events, they wheedled?
The Baltimore elite did love a sordid little tale. In spite of Jack Crawford’s attempts to suppress the details from the press, the rumors had inevitably circulated about Hannibal’s brush with death at the hands of Matthew Brown. He waved off the incident as the work of a mentally disturbed vigilante and, appearing entirely unperturbed, steered the conversation to a more appropriate topic.
In truth, every time someone inquired about Will Graham’s vicarious attempt on his life, the deep scars in his wrists began to ache. A psychosomatic reaction, no doubt, the root of which he had yet to parse. His feelings about the man were like a black hole: inscrutable and inevitable, bottomless and endlessly destructive, in short, an all-consuming void. Hannibal Lecter was not a man to be consumed by something he did not understand. Quite the contrary.
Hannibal’s own dread hand had architected the confluence of circumstances which had put Will in Chilton’s dungeon of a facility. And yet the thought of the empath rotting down there was…regrettable. It was a situation which required further intervention; thinking of Will now soured his mood considerably. A shame to let the magical drama of the last libretto be spoiled now by unwelcome reminders from the sycophants surrounding him. He began looking for a way to politely escape.
From across the reception hall, Hannibal spotted the young woman he’d seen sitting alone. She was unmistakable, a vision in a structured white dress with a single orchid pinned in her dark hair. Unusual to see someone so young with such sophisticated elegance, even if she was wearing something off a department store sale rack. How peculiar, he thought. Neither from privilege nor here to scramble up the social ladder. Excusing himself, he approached her.
“Hello.” She turned slowly away from the grand picture window overlooking the urban skyline.
“Enjoying the performance?”
“I am, thank you.” She paused to assess the handsome gentleman in the ascot and velvet blazer, gauging his intentions for singling her out. “I quite like the tenor they’ve brought on board. The younger conductor is refreshing as well.”
“Indeed. My thoughts exactly, Ms. -?”
“Miller. Antonia Miller.” She offered her hand.
“Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Charmed.”
“What a coincidence. I’m just familiarizing myself with some of your work. I’m in my second year of graduate work in psychiatry at Johns Hopkins.” She spoke of her student status almost apologetically.
“Is that so? I am spoiled to encounter a new colleague so unexpectedly.”
Hannibal reached up to skate his fingers over the delicate orchid pinned there. “I haven’t seen this particular species of Papilionanthe in many years. My aunt used to breed them. A hybrid, I believe. Stunning and rare.”
“Here,” she went to pull the bobby pin securing it.
“I couldn’t possibly deprive you of it. It completes your ensemble. Indulge me instead and tell me about your studies.”
“Dr. Chilton lectured on your article on social exclusion before…his indefinite leave of absence.”
“And what did you think of Chilton’s presentation?”
The young woman gave a veiled smile – a controlled and familiar mask. “It didn’t do justice to the source material, I’m afraid.”
Amusement curled in Hannibal’s eyes. “Do you often attend the opera, Ms. Miller?”
“Oh no. Tonight is a special occasion – my birthday.”
“Ah, then I wish you many happy returns.” He offered his glass up in a toast. “Forgive me for intruding on your evening. You must be waiting for your date.”
Her lack of reaction was as telling as any other might be. She knew it was a bluff. “I came in my own company this evening. Why spoil Tosca with a distraction?”
“Why indeed.” Hannibal’s curiosity was peaked. The ticket for her excellent seat must have been quite an indulgence on a student budget. What sort of young person sought out the opera by herself, alone, as a treat? “Hopefully you’re not embracing the darker principles of social exclusion?” he teased.
Antonia laughed. “While I admit to having a curiosity about some of the more troubling forms of psychopathy and their treatment, I have never fallen prey to hypochondria as some of my peers.”
“Reading too much on lunacy and fancying themselves madmen, are they? Some things never change, Ms. Miller.”
“Imitation isn’t always flattery. I should hope that my own pathologies are at least monsters of my own making.” She winked.
Hannibal felt a genuine smile well up to the surface – the first he’d felt in a rather long time.
“Tell me – have you arranged a clinical internship yet?”
“As a matter of fact, no. I’m still looking for the right fit.”
He pulled out an engraved silver case and passed her a business card. “Give my office a call. We can discuss your career aspirations. Perhaps I can find a suitable position for you – and your monsters, of course.”
“I’m honored that you would take the time. Thank you, Dr. Lecter. You can expect my call.”
“Until then, Ms. Miller. Have a pleasant evening.”
Two months later…
Will’s confusion was scrawled openly on his face. While being falsely imprisoned had given him ample opportunities to practice schooling his emotions, he had not expected to arrive at Hannibal’s office and be greeted by a secretary in the waiting room. Less than 24 hours had passed since he had nearly shot Dr. Lecter in his kitchen. He wasn’t altogether certain about his plan now. The young woman’s presence threw him off entirely. She looked up from where she tapped at her computer and gave him a pleasant smile. He was about to ask whether Hannibal was available, but the woman preempted him.
“Good evening, Mr. Graham. I’ll let Dr. Lecter know you’re here. Would you care for a glass of wine?”
Will tried to organize the words in his mouth, but all he could manage was a nod. The young woman was dressed in a beautiful suit and heels – clothes whose cut and texture were clearly far too expensive for a secretary’s budget. Hannibal must have insisted she pay a visit to one of his tailors. She returned from the room marked “Staff Only” with two stems of shining rosé.
“Here you are. A Chateau d’Esclans Garrus Rosé from 2012.”
“This isn’t for other patients.”
“No, it is not for other patients.” He expected a knowing smile, something in her comportment to shift and give away her judgement. She had known him by sight, yet her expression betrayed nothing. Two books on psychiatry were neatly stacked on her workstation. One appeared to be in French. So more than just a secretary. Alarm swelled in his throat. She had standing orders on Will Graham. He wondered what other orders Hannibal had given her. Just how worried should he be – and should that concern be for her or for himself? She set the other glass on the edge of the coffee table near him and resumed her typing.
Will eyed the two glasses. The carefully distributed lighting in the room caught the wine at sharp pink angles. The bottle had undoubtedly been waiting for his return. That Hannibal had predicted him so thoroughly galled and excited him in equal measure. Without thinking, he nosed the rich aroma and threw back a slug. His palate was still too unrefined to appreciate whatever imponderably obscure vintage he was presently enjoying.
The door to Hannibal’s office pulled open. “Hello, Will.” Liquid amber eyes skirted over Will’s tamed curls and the pressed seams of the dress shirt he had chosen for the occasion.
“May I come in?” He handed Hannibal the other glass of wine.
The woman at the desk took her cue to leave. “Have a pleasant weekend, Antonia.”
“Likewise. See you on Monday,” she replied.
Hannibal invited Will inside. When he shut the heavy door behind him, he asked whether Will intended to point a gun at him again.
“Not tonight.” He found his usual seat and stared at Hannibal for what to anyone else would be an uncomfortably long time. “Why do you have a secretary?”
“Why do you think?”
“I think she’s an obstacle to your ‘extracurricular’ hobbies and I’m pretty sure I know what will happen when she inevitably gets in the way.”
“On the contrary. She lightens the burden of my administrative duties, freeing more time for leisurely pleasures.”
“How convenient. Where on earth did you find her?”
“Will, perhaps we should use this time to discuss your intentions in resuming therapy with me?”
“It’s my hour, no? I’m curious how you justify bringing potential collateral damage into your orbit. It would be helpful information for my therapy, you understand.”
Hannibal weathered his insinuations without so much as a raised eyebrow. “I employed a secretary for years before we met. Being without help was only a recent change in my practice. If it eases your mind, you will perhaps be relieved to know that Ms. Miller is an intern and thus a temporary fixture.”
“Christ. You’re grooming her. For what, exactly?”
“I believe the term is ‘mentoring’. And the purpose of an internship with an established professional should be patently obvious.”
“Your methods are certainly effective, I’ll give you that. To the intern then. May she be as successful as you,” Will snorted and raised his glass. He drained the wine, catching the way Hannibal intently watched his bobbing Adam’s apple.
After seeing Will out, Hannibal washed and dried the dirty wine stems with a sense of satisfaction. Will had returned to him with far more sass and determination than ever before and it was properly celebrated with a much anticipated bottle of rosé. Hannibal was not of the opinion that jail had therapeutic value, but in Will’s case it had simply done wonders. Leave it to his Will to bounce back from incarceration full of vim and vigor. Of course, he was obviously trying to entrap him. And Will knew that Hannibal knew that was what Will was doing. They were simply drawing the sidelines of their renewed chase. He will never be goaded into admitting anything, and even if he were to, Will would never be so gauche as to wear a wire during their sessions. That left things to Will’s word against his – testimony that would never hold up in court given Will’s unstable history. Clever boy, to show him his cards this first round. What ace did he have up his sleeve? More importantly, what ace did Will think he wanted to play and which one would he impetuously choose in the heat of the moment?
Hannibal felt positively whimsical as he locked up the office. Will was such a predictably unpredictable man. It was maddening and thrilling. Twelve hours ago, Will brandished a weapon at him and had given very serious thought to murdering him. Again. Zeller and his sidekick Price would have been scraping brain matter off the back of the Chesapeake Ripper’s fridge, none the wiser. Such a death, at Will’s hands no less, would almost be poetic, were it not for the tasteless involvement of a firearm. He was, however, relieved Will had failed to follow through, otherwise he never would have discovered the depths of Will’s transgressions in his home. His would-be killer must have lain in wait for some time, grown bored, and decided to have a peek through his things. Or, more outrageously and thus, knowing Will, far more likely, he had assumed Hannibal would notice how he had rifled through his erotic drawings and upstairs drawers and done it anyway. It was only fair, Hannibal supposes. He had done his fair share of naughty rifling in Will’s belongings too.
Showing up to his office the following day in a brand new shirt with freshly clipped curls…even Hannibal wasn’t entirely sure how to assess Will’s behavior. If he didn’t know better, he would almost suspect Will of flirting. He dismissed the idea, recalling with scintillating amusement how badly Will’s attempt to seduce Alana had gone. Slipping into the heated leather seating of his car, a smile crept over his mouth. Now that was an idea. Perhaps he should entertain Alana’s attraction to him once more in order to provoke a reaction from dear Will.
On the short drive to his home, he thought again of Will’s distress over his intern. Will claimed that he was worried she would be killed were she to stumble unwittingly onto his activities (she would) or, alternately, that he suspected Hannibal was grooming her to be a dangerously unorthodox psychiatrist (he was). Neither of these concerns, however legitimate, got to the heart of what bothered Will so deeply. He’d stopped just short of speaking truthfully and covered the near admission with a defensive joke and a backhanded compliment. Classic Graham coping mechanisms. Will undoubtedly hoped to protect the girl, as he wants to protect all vulnerable things that are not himself. Even amidst his fog of moral ambivalence, Will could not deny that their conversations held all the elements of the sacrosanct. He and Will generated a synchronous energy whose bounds defied description. They were, for lack of a better term, combustible, and like pyromaniacs were drawn to the fires of their own making. Realization washes over Hannibal, warm and comforting. Will wants to protect what is theirs from his intern. Will was jealous that he appeared to have taken on another protégé in his absence. How interesting. Now what was to be done about that?