The board table extended uniformly into the distance, and twelve feet might as well have been twelve miles. Clarice Starling sat isolated at one end, her union official only a mute and ineffectual ghost behind her. In the distance, the vultures.
"I'll ask you again, Agent Starling," came the carrion cry from Assistant Director Noonan. "Why did you breach the terms of your suspension and initiate this unauthorised, lone assault on the estate of Mason Verger? Why add the crimes of trespass and the discharge of an unlicensed firearm to a personal file which is already looking pretty ragged around the edges?"
She felt like repeating her first answer, referring him to the police statement which lay on the table before him. She also felt like standing up, turning her back and walking calmly out of the conference room.
Instead, bound by the chains of the system, she tried to recall the reply she had given to a uniformed officer the night Hannibal Lecter had killed Paul Krendler. It seemed she had to play parrot and regurgitate the words.
"I went to the Verger estate to prevent a murder."
"Not to facilitate the escape of a known serial killer?" That was Larkin Wainwright, from the Office of Professional Responsibility. Starling was amused to see Noonan bristle at the comment, and the opening it gave her.
"Dr Lecter wasn't in custody, sir," she observed. "Unless you feel that there's a place for vigilante justice within the constitution of this country?"
"And that kind of an attitude is doing you no favours, lady -"
"So you went there to rescue Lecter," Noonan jumped in, trying to retrieve some ground. "Why?"
"Because nobody else was going to try to stop them."
Noonan sighed and shot a look at Wainwright, who had backed down and was glaring menacingly at the paperwork in front of him. Special Agent Clint Pearsall, the final member of the triumverate facing her, took up the reins of this 'informal interview'.
"Agent Starling, let's move on from the events at the estate for now. As you pointed out, you've already given an account of those actions. I'd like to ask you about what happened afterwards."
"Those events, as I witnessed them, are also in the statement, sir."
"I'm looking for some clarification." Pearsall sat back in his chair, and indulged in an habitual mannerism as he rubbed at his wrist. "You say that when you regained consciousness, you were lying on a bed, your injury had been treated and your clothes had been changed."
"That's correct sir."
"Now why do you think Lecter would have done that?"
Greedy, hot eyes, as the men in the room imagined her stripped and helpless.
"I don't believe I'm qualified to answer that, sir."
"But you must have some theory?"
"I wouldn't be able to offer anything beyond speculation, which is not something I think this meeting was called to discuss."
Pearsall's shoulders straightened at the frost in her tone, and Starling had the notion that she had just lost the small remaining loyalty that her superior might have granted her. Her lack of regret at this passing surprised her. "Fine, moving on. You left the room and saw your personal affects out on the landing, but you proceeded downstairs unarmed."
"Now think hard about this, Starling, because the answer is not in the pages of your statement, and I, personally, could really do with a good reason for your actions. Why didn't you take your gun?"
'Because I didn't need it,' said Clarice silently.
"Because I had nowhere to conceal it."
"And why was that an issue?"
She fought the urge to rub at the headache nudging at her temples. "It was an issue because I knew Mr Krendler was downstairs too, and I was in no physical state to apprehend Dr Lecter on my own. I'd done what I could; I'd contacted the authorities. The best I could hope for was to stall the doctor long enough for the police to arrive."
"So that was your plan? Stall him for a quarter of an hour?"
"The officer on the line told me ten minutes. It seemed like a reasonable amount of time to be able to hold off whatever it was the doctor had planned for Mr Krendler."
"You must have known that those plans would have been initiated, the minute Lecter had his audience present. Wouldn't it have been a better call to stay upstairs, on the line?"
"Hindsight is twenty-twenty, sir. I made the best call I could at the time."
Pearsall's doubt was plain. "Voluntarily placing yourself in Lecter's immediate vicinity without any means of apprehending him?"
"The fact I was still alive, and that he'd treated the wound I sustained at the Verger estate, told me that he wasn't interested in killing me. I thought I could keep him talking for ten minutes."
Wainwright, recovered from his earlier slip, chimed in with renewed venom. "Unfortunately for the late Paul Krendler, you could not."
Starling dropped her gaze. "No, I couldn't."
Encouraged by her sense of failure, Wainwright added, "So you sat quietly by as Lecter committed a murder before your eyes, not only that, practised cannibalism -"
"Actually the only person who practised cannibalism was Mr Krendler," she interrupted, mentally kicking herself as soon as the remark was uttered. She was tired and she was angry and she felt so completely alone, that her words were losing their caution.
Pearsall waited until all present were aware of the damage she had just done herself, then spoke before his OPR colleague could continue. "And you made no attempt to intervene?"
"Even though you were happy enough to break the law in order to intervene with another planned murder? How can we read that any way but to assume that the threat to Hannibal Lecter was more distressing to you than the threat to Mr Krendler?"
"Sir, I did try to intervene," she said, a little louder, then consciously lowered her voice again. "I was in no physical state to prevent Dr Lecter's actions, so I attempted to talk him out of what he was doing."
"Ah yes," AD Noonan spoke up, flipping a page over. "You offered him classified information on his profile in exchange for stopping." Noonan's dark gaze pinned her to her chair.
"I could think of nothing else to offer him," Starling said simply. "My primary concern at that moment was to stop him."
"But you couldn't," Pearsall sighed. "And despite your insistence that you were physically debilitated by the morphine in your system, you finally moved to attack Lecter once he had finished playing his sick little game with Krendler."
"Despite my physical state, I had to keep him close, because I was still waiting on the police. I followed him through to the kitchen, and saw that his back was to me. I thought I might be able to knock him out before he saw me."
"And again, you were unsuccessful."
"Remind me, Agent Starling," Wainwright added. "Which part of your training at Quantico taught you how to brain a suspect with a candlestick holder?"
The question was nonsensical and they all knew it, but Starling still turned to this ultimate jobsworth and defiantly replied, "The part that taught me that improvisational skills are a necessary part of this job, sir."
"And in the struggle which followed, you found yourself trapped against the refrigerator, held in place by your hair which was clamped in the door." Pearsall shared a glance with the AD, both clearly musing on how they might be able to eject the OPR man from the proceedings.
"That's correct, sir."
"At which point he told you 'goodbye', and he left."
She didn't betray the incident she had omitted from her statement with any awkward shuffling, though the sensation of Lecter's mouth moving over hers with taut passion had not left her since the night it had happened. "Yes."
"So you can see our problem, I think," Pearsall concluded, unaware of the way he was echoing Krendler's own words to her during the Drumgo witchhunt. "We have a serial killer still loose after murdering a Justice Department employee and we have what's left of several bodies at the Verger Estate, including a man who is not without influence. We have an FBI Agent present at both crime scenes, surviving these encounters, who has breached a suspension to commit trespass, firearms offences, manslaughter, and who has displayed a singular lack of judgement throughout. And you know what else we got? We got a lot of journalists wanting answers to the questions you won't even answer for us!" Her boss shook his head at the grain of the wooden table. "What do you suggest we do about this?"
When she sat forward, she could feel the envelope crinkle in her inside pocket. She refrained from saying, 'I suggest you accept my resignation,' knowing that it was only the umbrella of the Federal Bureau that was keeping her out of police custody for the time being. She counted to ten.
"I suggest you tell them what happened, sir," she replied. "These events escalated for two specific reasons. Firstly, Mason Verger was able to use a corrupt government official in order to perpetuate an illegal plan for revenge on Hannibal Lecter -"
"That has not been proven!" Wainwright stammered in anger. "There is no evidence linking Verger to Paul Krendler!"
Starling had to bite her lip on the retort, 'Then you're not looking hard enough!'
Pearsall stepped in. "And in your opinion, Starling," he continued with heavy irony, "what's the second reason?"
"When I laid all this information out before both you and the Assistant Director, and later, when I informed you of Lecter's abduction at Union Station, the official channels were completely ineffective in dealing with the matter."
"That's your defence?" Noonan asked, dangerously quiet. "You're sitting here today, facing professional and criminal charges of misconduct, simply because the Bureau is 'ineffective'?"
Starling tasted her doom. She felt the sway of the gallows' platform and heard the baying of the crowd for fresh meat. She knew it was all over, and again, her lack of distress gave her pause.
"And corrupt," she qualified.
Wainwright went white. Pearsall and Noonan just sighed, and studied their thumbs. Starling even detected a disconcerted rustling from the ghost behind her.
Noonan stood up. "Special Agent Starling, you are formally required to attend a disciplinary hearing at the Office of Professional Responsibility, tomorrow afternoon at three o'clock. I recommend you arrange for union representation. In the meantime, your suspension stands. Do not speak to the press. Do not leave the city. And do not fail to attend this hearing, because if you do so, a warrant will be sworn out for your arrest immediately."
Starling stood up too. "I understand," she nodded, calmly. She held their eyes for a moment longer, watching all three of the gathered vultures back down from her defiance, then she turned and left the room.
When Clarice arrived home, Ardelia was sitting in her car, waiting. There was a hovering gaggle of press and photographers. Resigned, Clarice braved the hordes, flinching in the brightness of camera flashes, ears ringing with barked questions, and jostled her way through to the front path.
The shouted queries flowed over each other, one voice dominant then replaced by another.
"Agent Starling ... Agent Starling! Where is Hannibal Lecter? ... Starling - can you confirm that ... still suspended from duty? ...comment on ... the murder of Paul Krendler? ... Agent Starling, how does it feel to know he's still out there?"
'It feels too good,' Starling heard her mind say, and her feet stumbled in response as she stepped free of the crowd.
Her oldest friend rushed up the steps behind her as she made her way to the front door, and Clarice tried to smile brightly in welcome. She slipped her key in the lock and let them both in, glad to be able to muffle the rabble outside.
"Hey Ardee, thought you were tied up in New Orleans!" she offered by way of a greeting as they embraced.
"I was. Am. But I scored a week's leave. Case is beginning to stagnate, know what I mean?"
They moved together into the living room, and Clarice went to pull the blinds, then switched on the light.
More quietly, Ardelia added, "'sides. Thought you could use a friend."
The words resounded over and over as Clarice busied herself pouring two generous measures of bourbon, but the moment she sank down into an armchair, she knew silence.
For a second.
Then her stomach cramped viciously, her lungs failed her, and as she gasped for air, the choking sobs finally came.
Later - much later, when there were no tears left in her and she sat on the living room carpet, weak and drained - she observed into the tranquility, "I'm going to jail."
Ardelia stirred from her own contemplations and retorted, "That's crazy! For what crime?"
"Apparently, trespass, firearms offences and manslaughter."
"They won't make that stick," her friend dismissed. "There's mitigating circumstances."
"Yeah, and those mitigating circumstances are Hannibal the Cannibal. You know how it is, Ardelia. They say his name, they say my name, the tabloids make up some offensive new nickname for me and I'm going down."
Her companion was silent for a moment, before she finally asked the question. "Why d'you do it, Clarice?"
"Who's askin'?" Clarice countered sullenly.
"Come on, girl, you're starting to see phantoms! This is me, here! It's me, it's Ardelia, and I'm asking!"
Clarice lifted her head and met her friend's eyes. "You've known me nearly half my life, Ard, and you ask me why I did it?" She shook her head uncomprehendingly. "How could I not?"
"But this is fucking Hannibal Lecter, girlfriend! You survived him once. What, you get a kick out of playing Russian Roulette with a serial killer?"
"It didn't matter who it was! I knew what was going to happen. If I hadn't tried to stop it, I'd have been as guilty as Mason Verger and Paul Krendler."
Ardelia slumped in her armchair. "You're always trying to save the world," she sighed.
"More fool me," Clarice agreed. "It ain't worth saving."
There was silence for a while longer.
"I'm going to jail," she finally repeated.
Ardelia was quiet for a moment, before she slapped her legs, briskly. "Well, not tonight, you're not. You're going to bed. It's after midnight."
"You take my bed. I'll sleep down here. I want to watch TV for a while, try to wind down."
Her friend stood up. "You going to be okay on your own?"
"I think I need to be on my own for a while. I'll yell if I need you."
"Well okay then." Ardelia moved past, towards the door. "G'night Clarice."
"Night," she replied.
And when the living room door closed softly and she was finally as alone as she felt, her sigh was one of relief.