"Dr Lecter ... please don't go."
Clarice's voice was rough from sleep and shaken with confrontation, but the sentiment was conveyed clearly and meaningfully. Lecter paused in his retreat, hackles raised as he looked for the way Clarice was already planning to apprehend him. All he could see was the pleading in her eyes. The musk in the air showed no signs of dissipating.
Almost without volition, Lecter took a single step back over to the armchair. He hesitated, waiting for a reaction, then covered the rest of the distance. He stood over her, and she didn't flinch from his imposing figure, didn't hide from the intensity in his eyes and, most significantly, didn't seem interested in the purse which lay discarded on an adjacent chair and no doubt contained mace and handcuffs.
"I hope you'll forgive the intrusion, but the urge was irresistible. I've missed you, Clarice," Lecter finally said, his voice rumbling with a lower tone than usual. A natural seduction insinuated, and he made no attempt to disguise it.
She hesitated, looking up at him with a certain caution, but no apparent fear. Finally she declared, "This is not a good time for you to be in the States, Doctor."
He nodded his understanding. "I know, I know. Ten years of obscurity and I'm back with a bang. A greedy Italian policeman and an unwashed Sardinian, and suddenly I'm right in the public eye once more." His companion had given no indication of wanting anything beyond talk, for the moment, so he stepped over to the other armchair, placed the handbag on the floor and sat down. "This is a dangerous place for me to be. A dangerous country and a dangerous town and ... without wishing to be personal, my dear ... a particularly dangerous house." Lecter smiled pleasantly over at Clarice.
"I wasn't talking about the law," she corrected.
"Ah, you're referring to Mason Verger and his sordid schemes for vengeance. Well, I'm no more accessible here, than I was in Florence."
"I've been suspended, Doctor. My career's on the line." She paused, then made an apparently difficult admission, if her lowered gaze and awkward frown were anything to go by. "I think it was done to make you come to my aid."
"Well, of course it was, Clarice. There's no real subtlety in this plotting. Who is it that Mason has bought? From the press coverage, I'd say ... the odious Mr Krendler?"
"I suspect so."
"And would you care for my help? Can I dispose of Mr Krendler for you?" Lecter was revelling in the conversation, tasting each emotion behind the words Clarice spoke. She was even more delicious now, burdened by cynicism. The passing of years favoured her, as they might favour a good wine.
"I can handle Krendler." Her choice of words made distaste flicker in her eyes, and another piece of the puzzle fell smoothly into place.
"I see. He propositioned you."
Clarice narrowed her eyes at him, but conceded readily enough. "A long time ago." Her head fell back against the chair and she reached to rub her eyes, still waking from her slumber. "And ... come to think of it ... a few days ago, too."
Her pain should have been captivating, but it only made his body flush cold with anger. Lecter heard the steel in his voice. "I see. Corrupt, offensive and persistent. What a delightful combination."
"I can fight my own battles, Dr Lecter. Don't help me."
"They baited the hook with you, Clarice, but you don't hold the rod. What happens to the angler will be no fault of yours." He studied her carefully. "You can't shoulder responsibility for the entire world, no matter how hard you try."
She didn't answer that. She just looked away. Something inside her was tired and broken. She needed the chance to rest, and to heal. A shame, that he could offer only confrontation, for the moment.
With an inward sigh, Lecter asked the inevitable question. "And what about this battle, Clarice?"
She pleaded an unlikely ignorance. "This battle?"
"Yes." Lecter shifted in the chair to lean over the arm, closer to her. "Putting aside Mason Verger and his little revenge tragedy, what are we going to do about this? Two pieces on the board. You ... and me."
"I'm unarmed," Clarice shrugged.
A lie. He could smell it on her. "You've relinquished your official weapons, but there is still at least one firearm in this house. And you don't necessarily need a gun to apprehend me, anyway."
She huffed a sharp laugh. "I wouldn't rate my chances, one-on-one with you."
"Oh, you do yourself an injustice, Clarice - and wouldn't it be fun, finding out?"
She met his dancing eyes with a casual sardonicism. "No thanks. I like my tongue where it is."
"Hmm. Was that an invitation for innuendo?"
"Now why would I invite innuendo from you?"
He let that particular line of enquiry go, for the moment. "You're even more slippery than I remember," he decided, after a meaningful pause. Lecter examined her face, and Clarice was not entirely successful in masking her understanding. "Have you been practicing?"
"Sure. I'm a regular caller to Dial-An-Evil-Genius."
Lecter couldn't help it. He laughed out loud, and enjoyed the lack of inhibition as he did. "Oh, bravo Clarice, you've been saving that one up."
She smiled and had the decency to look sheepish. "Guilty."
"Hmm." He let his eyes twinkle. "Any other sins you want to confess?"
"I'm not catholic."
"Okay." He watched her visibly relaxing; sinking back into her armchair and slowing her breathing. She was still aroused. He ignored the way his libido was now keeping pace with hers. "I've been thinking improper thoughts about my boss."
Lecter felt a dark twinge of jealousy, and mentally shook it out before it could take hold. Such a reaction was unbecoming. "What kind of thoughts?"
"I have ... I suppose you could call it an imagined scenario. A fantasy. May I tell you about it?"
"You know you may tell me anything."
"All right." Clarice shifted around in her chair and tucked her legs beneath her. She rested her head against the upholstery, as though chatting with an old friend. Lecter found he enjoyed her disposition. "It goes like this. I walk into Mr Crawford's office and close the door behind me. I see he's on the telephone. He shows no sign of finishing the call, barely even registers my presence, so I unholster my weapon and shoot the phone."
Lecter smirked and nodded appreciatively. "Overkill. I love it."
"Right. Then, while he's looking at me in shock, still holding the useless receiver against his ear, I march over to the desk and lean right in close."
"Does he flinch away?"
"Well, that's understandable. He wrestles with improper thoughts himself."
"I wouldn't know. Do you want to hear the rest of this scenario?"
"I'm all ears."
"I look Crawford straight in the eye, and I ask him, 'Why?'"
"And does he understand the question?"
"Of course he does. It's my scenario, I'm not going to bother with lengthy explanations."
"Quite right too. What's his answer?"
"He says, 'I lost faith. And then I lost myself.'"
"How very provocative. What does it mean?"
"I was hoping you could tell me."
Lecter grinned at her. "I don't think you need me to do that."
"No." Clarice was startled for a moment, but she settled down again as he elaborated. "Some journeys have to be undertaken alone."
"I'm not alone, here."
"Yes you are. Just you and your sounding board."
Her face creased into chuckles. "My sounding board," she echoed. "Dr Lecter, if you knew how many conversations I've had with you in my head ..."
"We're getting away from the matter in hand," Lecter observed, after Clarice's words had tailed off. He had been distracted, himself. The idea that his voice and insight were established company inside her mind was a satisfying one. An exciting one.
"Okay. I'll play." She puffed her cheeks out, as though preparing for a race. "First weird thing is ... Jack Crawford isn't even my boss. Well, not technically. So why do I shoot his phone? Why not Clint Pearsall's?"
"You referred to him as your boss before."
"I think in some ways I've always thought of him as the boss. He was my mentor."
"But we aren't necessarily dealing with an hierarchical relationship?"
"I guess it's less straightforward than that. There's something beyond the chain of command with Mr Crawford and me."
"Would you say that Jack's appearance in your scenario is significant?"
Clarice considered. She frowned and gazed at the wall opposite, without focus. "Yes and no," she finally decided. "It's significant because Mr Crawford was always the one person I thought was on my side. I mean ... he tried to get me assigned to Behavioural Science when I graduated and it wasn't his fault that he couldn't."
Lecter was tempted to comment, but held back. "And yet?"
"And yet he's not significant, because the fantasy isn't about him."
Lecter smiled inwardly. He was enjoying himself. He was enjoying Clarice. He had almost forgotten how enjoyable she was.
"All right, let's concentrate on you, then. Your first action is to shoot the telephone. Why?"
"To get attention."
"Drastic. Why not just cough politely?"
"I don't know," Clarice answered, too quickly. "Why not snatch the receiver out of his hand? Why not spin him round on his executive swivel chair? Why not ... why not strip naked and dance round the room?"
"Now why should Jack have all the luck?"
"It was just an example. What I mean is - there are lots of ways to get someone's attention."
"Indeed. And you chose to kill a poor, defenceless telephone. Why?"
"I guess, because I was angry."
"Okay, Doctor. Because I am angry."
Lecter nodded. "Your confrontational behaviour in this fantasy does indeed suggest anger. Perhaps you aren't managing your rage as well as you used to?"
"What makes you think I ever managed it at all?"
"Now now, Clarice, this is about you. Let's move on. You're angry, you want attention. Why?"
She was silent for a while. Lecter watched her steadily. "Have you ever felt like you're in the middle of a crowd, people pressing in on every side, and you're screaming and tearing your hair out, and yet ... nobody's looking at you? When someone looks your way, all they do is stare right through you?"
"Let's not get our imagery mixed up."
"But have you?"
The patient sought empathy. Well, Lecter had that in spades, but he was not going to share it with her. Not yet. "In my current situation, Clarice, I'm very grateful for the way people see me without seeing, as you describe. You're speaking of feelings of ... invisibility."
"Yes." She looked to him, but Lecter was not ready to elaborate. Clarice cast her gaze down again, and expanded. "It comes in lots of shapes and sizes. Lots of different motivating factors. But it comes down to the same thing - people don't see me."
"Explain these ... motivating factors."
"Well. Sometimes it's a case of misunderstanding. They don't comprehend what's important to me, they make assumptions about what they think ought to be important. When you're misread like that, you might as well be invisible."
"I see. And other times?"
"Sometimes it's deliberate. Being ignored. Being passed over."
"Why has that happened? I'm genuinely curious ... your success in apprehending Jame Gumb should have stood you in good stead for advancement."
"I was too successful, and I was still a rookie. That pissed people off."
Clarice's shoulders slumped. "A person. Paul Krendler. He's consistently sabotaged my career, over the last decade. When someone like Krendler is spreading poison about you, people tend to ignore you."
"I understand." At the back of his mind, Lecter began to design an appropriate fate for Krendler. Externally, he maintained his professional detachment. "Anything else?"
"I guess ... well, sometimes people choose not to see me, not because of politics, but because of who I am."
"Your colleagues resent you. They resent your faith, your purity of vision."
"Not only that. They're scared of me."
"Ah. So we come to this."
Clarice looked across at him, without any kind of accusation or bitterness. "I guess people see something of you, in me. And they can't look at that, so they choose not to look at me at all."
"How do you feel about that?"
She swallowed, then said with some determination, "Contemptuous."
That single word nearly broke his control. Lecter swallowed his rapture and pressed on, becoming more impatient. "Very well. We've established that you feel invisible. Misunderstood. We've established your anger. Now we have a question. One word. 'Why?'"
"Yeah." Clarice let her head fall back.
"Why everything! Why am I always angry? Why have I spent ten years going from one meaningless secondment to another? Why does Paul Krendler hate me so much? Why does the system allow one man's petty grievance to destroy another's career?" The questions flowed faster as they gathered momentum. Clarice seemed almost unaware of his presence. "Why is John dead? Why do I see conspiracies in everything, now? Why are there parts of myself I can't share with friends I've known for more than ten years? Why am I always so damned angry?!"
Lecter waited for her to calm. She drew deep breaths and repressed the rage again. It would need an outlet, soon. There was pressure inside, so much it was almost frightening. Lecter knew. He could see the turmoil, and he understood it, because he had tasted such turmoil himself.
But not yet. There would be a time for release later.
"So," he pressed on, "your single word in the scenario represented many questions. Many things about which you're confused."
"And you said earlier that you felt Jack, in this scenario, understood the question."
"How do you think he understood? After all, we've just spoken about how little those around you understand. Why, in this scenario, does he answer your cryptic question with such perception?"
"It's my fantasy. I can make him perceptive if I want."
"Indeed you can, my dear. You can do anything. I'm just offering my train of thought."
"You think there's more to it?"
Lecter shifted in his seat, attempting another approach. He was enjoying the mental exercise; not of analysis, but of guidance. "Remind me of the words Jack speaks."
Clarice rolled her eyes at him, fully aware that he needed no such reminder. "He says, 'I lost faith. And then I lost myself.'"
"Hmm. Didn't you say earlier that this fantasy wasn't particularly about Jack?"
"Do you think Jack ever underwent a crisis of faith?"
"I've no idea."
"Is it important, whether he did, or not? I mean, important here, in this room, as we speak about your imagined scenario."
"I guess it isn't." He waited then. He had made an artform of knowing when to be silent. Clarice jerked slightly, then closed her eyes in slow recognition. "Not his crisis of faith, but mine," she murmured, in quiet epiphany. She breathed deeply, and for a second, Lecter wondered whether she would break down, but she gathered herself and then nodded. "I've lost my faith in the Bureau," she sighed. "And it has made me lose myself."
"You're still right here, Clarice." He stretched his hand across the distance which separated them and held it there in invitation. "Give me your hand."
Slowly but smoothly, she reached across and slipped her hand into his. Their fingers clasped.
"You defeated the enemy and saved the baby. The reaction of your employer and the pictures on the news meant nothing, because the baby was safe and you did your duty. Show me that you understand." Clarice held his eyes and nodded. "You found me in Florence when none of your Bureau colleagues could. What transpired with Inspector Pazzi was noone's responsibility but his, and mine." Her fingers tensed as he made the reference, and he held her more firmly, refusing to allow her to pull away. "Now, they've decided to use you to get to me. That is not your lack of ethic, it is theirs." He smoothed his thumb over her knuckle. "Know that you have never betrayed your values."
Clarice's brow furrowed with challenge as she gazed across at him. "You weren't this forthcoming when I was looking for Jame Gumb."
"I was forthcoming in other ways. This is different. I cared little for Jame or his experimental line in fashion."
He didn't complete the thought out loud, but noted Clarice's hand relaxing in his own, again.
"Dr Lecter, if I promise to tell nobody of this meeting, and to let you leave in peace, would you consider getting on a plane, going someplace far away and not giving Mason Verger or Paul Krendler the satisfaction of succeeding in whatever it is they have planned for you?"
"I thought we were done with deals, Clarice."
Lecter made her wait, caressing her hand now, and delighting in the faint shivers she gave in response. "So, we'll make a hypothetical deal. I will answer your question, if you answer one of mine."
"Very well. But you answer first."
"Fine. The answer is no. I will not turn my back." He arched his eyebrows challengingly at her. "Not even if you treat this conversation as a ... suspended moment out of time, where the normal rules don't apply." Clarice nodded slowly in resignation. She had clearly not expected to be told differently. "My question. Can you stay with the Bureau, now it no longer has your faith?"
"That's hardly a hypothetical question." Lecter flashed impatience at her, and she actually glared back at him, before answering, "No. I don't think I can, and I don't think I will."
Lecter rippled inside, but externally he gave only a polite indication of understanding, then he leaned over the arm of the chair, pulled her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles softly.
"See. You weren't lost. Only ... shrouded."