The windows of the house were open, a gentle warm breeze flowing like water through them. There was no music playing, merely the ambient sound of distant rustling trees and birdsongs. Hannibal reminisced about his summers in Florence, the smell of their vegetables: lush basil and plump purple aubergines, the tomatoes and garlic at their most flavorful. He chose a recipe card from its Rolodex (rognoncini trifolati and roast vegetables); it had been a while since he ran out of his supply, too. In his office, another Rolodex. The hand of fate traces over each card, settles, and plucks. He knows which one it is before he looks, but he refreshes himself anyways.
The road was long and dark, stretching out into oblivion to either end. A car sat along its bank, lights like a beacon, attracting attention from a man thought he needed. His tires were flat; they had been leaking air since before he started his long drive to work (another graveyard shift), and had run out more-or-less when Hannibal had predicted—though with a GPS tracker it wouldn’t have been hard to find him regardless. He was silhouetted against the blinking hazard lights, waving his arms for attention as a car finally drove by. It was imperative he wasn’t late to work, and the stranger had come with perfect timing—maybe he could make it.
Hannibal stepped out from the car, plastic coverings squeaking slightly beneath his feet, the only sound in the world save the idling of engines. Hope drained from the man’s eyes, replaced by confusion, masking fear. He thought he recognized the man, but the memory of their singular meeting didn’t have the time to surface before the stranger lunged. Something cold and sharp worked its way into him, a rush went through him like ice, and he collapsed.
The room the victim awoke in was cold, the air around him and the cuffs around his wrists and torso so frigid it hurt. A needle was threaded into his arm hooked up to something at the back of his chair: some kind of clear fluid, hopefully saline, and he hoped not drugs—they had always scared him too much; even smoking and alcohol were rare indulgences. It hurt to look back, shooting pain down his back and shoulders. A small plastic box was attached to his other arm with a band of Velcro. How long had he been here? He looked down at himself, ran his eyes along the imprint of his rib cage. Thinner than he remembers— way thinner. His ribs jutted out harshly from the skin and his stomach was concave. He tried to stand or break free somehow, but his legs wouldn’t respond. Sensation ceased below the stomach. Panic gripped him and his chest heaved with great gulps of air, expelled them in shudders. Guttural cries echoed out from the man, but they felt distant, muffled, as if it was a nightmare. But of course, it wasn’t one.
Another day, maybe three, passed in a blur; the large bag was refilled as he slept, but it hung empty now. He thought of his mother a lot, how lonely and scared she must be. The man tried to cry, but tears couldn’t form. The needle felt like a spear lodged in his arm and time dragged on, its passage only able to be roughly guessed by the contents of the bag and his biological clock—which itself was wildly out-of-tune. He was blissfully unaware that he had been there for over a week. To protect itself, the victim’s mind cut itself off from the body, dissociating through the agonizing hunger, the slow burning as he metabolized himself. He’d give anything to dull the experience. Everything was a blur of cold grey fog, interrupted occasionally by sleep. Time and space slipped away from him, lost all meaning. When the heavy metal door behind him finally unlatched and started to open, the sound was barely processed.
“Did you know that the human body can go without food for up to three weeks,” a foreign accent spoke from behind him. It sounded like smoke, and felt like it might suffocate him.
The steel around his wrists fell away, but the band around his torso stayed firmly closed, uncomfortably tight, squeezing him and biting into his ribs. He looked down and saw there was now a silver plate on his lap, bearing a small loaf of bread and a cup of wine. He reached feebly for the bread, but his limbs failed him, fell limply down before attempting again and managing to grip the food. It was soft to the touch, still warm from the oven, and it wasn’t mere hunger that informed him of how good it smelled. He raised it to his teeth and bit. It was dense, but still soft and airy, and his teeth sank easily into it. The man cried; it was the best food he ever tasted. He rinsed the bread down his dry throat with the red wine and rejoiced; for just a moment, he felt human again.
“I hope you enjoyed it;” the silhouette said once each crumb of bread and drop of wine was consumed, “it will be the last thing you ever taste.” A syringe intersected with the tube leading into the man’s veins, and some warmer fluid slipped into the current. The syringe withdrew and soon, strong hands pulled the needle out from its warm sheath. Then there was nothing.
Hannibal lifted the malnourished body with ease and brought it back out the door he entered. This room was bigger, outfitted with shelves of instruments and various appliances. In the centre was an operating table, complete with leather bindings. He placed the man sitting up, bound him, and began to prepare for surgery.
Opera played gently in the background, the instrumentation slow and deliberate, the singing solemn. Hannibal overlooked his array of knives and forceps and other such implements, arranged neatly in the order he would use them. The cold steel glittered in the bright light from above the operating table. He took two rubber masses in his thick gloves and approaches the man. His mouth hung slightly agape, drool timidly making its way out—Hannibal pried it open. With his forefinger, he pressed the rubber in, nestling it tightly between the top and bottom molars of either side. The man’s mouth smelled metallic and sweet, slightly rotten; they had gone uncared for well over a week, now.
When there was no longer a chance of being bitten down on, Hannibal plucked the first of his tools from its altar: a simple scalpel. His hands proceed certainly into the gaping maw, one pulling the tongue taut and out of the way, the other taking the steel and deftly angling it perpendicular to the curve of the tongue where it curved down and retreated to the throat. The muscle maintained surface tension for only a moment before a gentle snap allowed the blade to slip in, the moist flesh parting, lingual artery snapping gently and pouring blood down to join with the half-digested bread. In one slow and considered movement, one half of the tongue was dangling freely; in another, the other. The muscle—or, in fact, the two joined muscles—remained connected only by the thin strand of flesh holding it to the bottom of the mouth, which was of course promptly dissociated. Hannibal pulled the tongue, whole and still glistening crimson with spit and ichor; he placed it gently into a bag from which he squeezed all air, and then onto one of the trays he had prepared, lined along the bottom with ice. Before moving on, he ligated the arteries and used a small implement to vacuum any remaining blood from the mouth, replacing the rubber stoppers with copious amounts of sterile cotton. Then, he reclined the table.
Hannibal stood over the man’s head now, looking down from above him as was most convenient. He could see pupils dancing below the eyelids and wondered to himself in amusement what images they must be conjuring. The general anaesthetic he put the man under was a potent one, powerful enough that there was no worry the man could wake up before his time and go into shock, but it was known to cause uncertain rests, and his body would not be entirely unaware as to what was happening to it. Of course, though, the eyes were extraneous—with or without the rapid eye movement, the man would retain his sight in his dreams. Soon, that’s all he would have left.
The wire speculum Doctor Lecter had on hand was older; he had received it from a colleague of his, an ophthalmologist, when she retired, and he had taken a fascination ever since. Her tools were well cared for, but there was a slight antiquity to them that he found, while impermissible in a proper setting, quite charming. The design hadn’t changed much in recent decades of course, but the ends of the wires were more blunt, positioned with more regard to usability than comfort, not a smooth sterile plastic but cold metal, though not lacking in its curves and grace. After taking measurements and carefully adjusting the instrument, he lifted the eyelids of the man and gingerly pressed the metal between them and the sclera. The skin was pressed back harshly, so much so that the trembling globes were perceivable in their entirety, perhaps even to an unnecessary degree. But that only meant the various specialized forceps made their way in with minimal resistance, and within a few minutes, the optic nerves were severed.
The opera’s progression suited every movement the doctor made, fit every action, and when the penultimate act concluded he knew it would the anaesthesia would be leaving the man. He tightened again the leather straps, seven for four limbs, the hips, the chest, and the head. The victim’s chest rose and fell with increasing depth, the skin being pulled tight to reveal sheer ribs. Panic rose as the induced slumber fell away; at first the man didn’t realize anything was wrong. It felt dark, numb. He opened his eyes to look around and nothing came; though he still felt the eyes moving in their sockets, they felt no sensation from them, and they in fact seemed to disobey, as if the muscles moving them had less sway now. They drifted. Breathing became irregular. He tries to swallow and finds he can’t. A nightmare, he thinks to himself, two in a row. Whenever he found himself dreaming, as he often did, the man could rationalize it, at least to some degree, and even found in his slumber a control he lacked in reality. But then, this nightmare was not normal. For one, he could see nothing, even himself—just sensation, but that had the foggy uncertain quality of dreams. Then, lucidity did come, but not in the form he was used to: he remembered the last few days, the excruciating eternity spent sitting, and the illusion slipped away. He screamed. It was a guttural, pathetic sound, muffled by bloody cotton and falling away beneath the melody. It was music to Hannibal’s ears.
The surgeon’s scalpel, a fresh one from before, traced a chevron below where the man’s rib cage ended. “I recommend you remain very still, lest you lose more than your liver. If you do, the painkillers may even last until it’s out.” Knowing he could receive no meaningful response, he did not hesitate before navigating to the relevant arteries and veins and tying them off, wrestling his gloved hand through the viscera with such instinct that he needed only his fingers to guide him. When that was done, the other hand joined, severing the kidney and then returning the scalpel before lifting the wet mass from the slit in the man’s abdomen, placing it into a perfectly-sized plastic food container. This entire time, the screaming had not stopped.
The Chesapeake Ripper admired his handiwork. The church was dark and its ceiling towered high above, each sound he made as he worked echoing up into heaven. His victim was pale and yellowing in the dim moonlight that shone through stained-glass vignettes. Thin hands were clasped in prayer, rosary tightly bound around it and biting into the flesh, propped up against each other on knobby elbows. His breathing was shallow; he had only a few hours to live. Hannibal opened the Bible to a specific passage and carefully tucked the tongue between its pages, then closing it and gently placing it besides the muscle’s former owner. He looked up at the cross, golden and glistening, Christ’s emaciated ribs jutting out as he hangs in rags and blood from the crucifix, and then after a moment of quiet contemplation, left the man to be in the company of his God.
Just as Hannibal finished filing away the mass of paperwork on his desk and began preparing for lunch, a rapping came from the door. It was rapid and gentle, and he could tell that the sound came from low on the door. Its cadence was familiar and cherished, coming in a lovely triplet. There would be a pause of about five seconds before they came again, and in that time the doctor reached the door; he followed the timing in his head and just as the small knuckles were coming down, he pulled the door open. The gentle gust that the door dragged behind it pulled at the visitor’s brunet thicket of hair, right hand pawing through the air at a missing target. “Good afternoon, Will.”
The child smiled giddily up at him, not saying anything as he follows to his usual seat the path Hannibal outlined with outstretched arm. Will had been nonverbal as of recent, though not due to a poor mood—in fact, he was more stable than ever, maintaining a healthy social bubble as well as having more-than-satisfactory academic performance. Nonetheless, he carried a look on his face as if he had come here carrying something to say but found himself without it, and was now retreating through his memory to retrieve it again.
The boy’s visits had been getting more impromptu as of late, coming during lunch or breaks, but rarely sometime Hannibal was otherwise occupied. Will seemed to have picked up on the man’s schedule, coming to him more freely as he realized that Doctor Lecter always welcomed him. Even when there wasn’t much to say or do besides listen to music or dabble in chess, Will seemed almost spiritually enriched by every moment; Hannibal treasured them equally, if not moreso.
“The Chesapeake Ripper is back,” Will said, his voice, though somewhat monotone, betraying some hint of amusement.
“I read about it: in a church in Georgia, I believe the pastor’s the one who found him.”
The boy nodded. “He’s a doctor or something, right? The Ripper?”
Hannibal cocked his head. “What makes you say that?”
Will drew a deep breath; “Well, the other ones, he obviously… knows the human body. But so did Hobbs, and he was a hunter—deer are pretty close to people, right? Abigail told me that. B-but the Ripper, if he was just that, a ripper—a, a hunter, the man, h-he would have been killed. But he was stable! A-at least enough that the pastor saw him alive. And he was thin, too, it must have been timed or something. He’d have to know more than just anatomy for that.”
“An excellent observation.”
“I looked into it some more, too. His eyes were detached and he was paralyzed, even though he was already going to die from losing the kidney. They weren’t for fun, either; it was… medical. And he wasn’t always thin, either; in an article from when he went missing, his mom said he never drank, lived healthy, didn’t do drugs or hang out with anyone weird. He was starved on purpose.”
Hannibal was beaming, one leg resting playfully over the other; Will copied the mannerism. “Starvation, blindness, and paralysis: all things cured by Christ.”
“The pastor arrived just in time to watch him die. And there’s the bookmark he was using….”
“Deuteronomy 32:39,” the man chimed in.
Will looked up at him. “What?”
“That’s what was bookmarked.”
“How did you know? The articles I read only said it was stuck in the Bible, but not where.”
“I have some acquaintances in journalism,” Hannibal answered plainly.
“Well, what does it mean,” the boy asked.
“‘See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand.’ It appears our killer has some ego.”
Will shook his head. “No, it’s not ego, it’s… smugness. He took a-a lamb of God’s and he— He butchered it, right under His nose, leaving him to die as a man of God could do nothing but, but watch…. He’s spitting in His face. Asserting his dominance.”
Hannibal swelled with pride. “Are you scared now that the Ripper has started killing again?”
“No. It’s not like he’s known for going after children, and I know it’s unlikely it would be me anyways, there’s not really a reason to be scared.”
“You’re a brave boy,” the man said, stretching out his arm to ruffle his boy’s hair. “That was the bad news. Now, let me tell you the good news:” he said, pivoting to another topic. “The adoption papers have gone through. You’re going to be my son, Will.”
For a moment, the child was frozen, his mind adjusting to the new direction their conversation had taken. Then, a smile bloomed across his face, and he was on his feet. “Really?!”
Hannibal nodded. “I wouldn’t lie to you, would I? You’ll be spending the summer up at my vacation home, and then when school starts again, you’ll be able to see me whenever you want.” He stood and extended his arms in welcoming embrace, and Will leapt up to accept, burrowing his face into the man’s vest and sobbing slightly.
“Thank you,” he said, and then repeated. “Thank you s-so much.”
“For you, Will, I’d do anything.”