Hungary. The Carpathian Basin. Land-locked European country only recently released from communism and economically poor.
What the hell am I doing here?
Special Agent Clarice Starling hoisted her suitcase on to a trolley and pushed her way towards the exit along with a score of teenage exchange students, all wearing identical rucksacks. The usual airport corridors and signs passed her by without notice, because she lingered over her question, determined to make herself answer honestly. Sometimes it seemed as though her honesty was all she had.
I'm here because somebody is killing tourists.
I'm here because Paul Krendler has a bug up his ass the size of Canada and his only relief is apparently sabotaging my career.
That would be easier to handle if Starling had worked out exactly why her Justice Department colleague had it in for her in such a malicious way. Surely it wasn't simply down to her rejection of his lustful advances, those years ago?
Why else? her mind snapped, as her thoughts wandered. I'm here as an FBI official on the scene, because the latest tourist killed was an American. She frowned at herself, realising that she was regurgitating her first answer with finer detail. I'm here because I have a background in Behavioural Science and a history of dealing with serial killers. Yes, yes, yes. All true and all enough to satisfy any law-enforcement colleague who might choose to ask. But the assignment had been voluntary. Why was she here?
From the relative narrowness of the corridor, Starling stepped through the final gateway and into a pleasantly lit waiting hall, where people sat and drank coffee, scoured screens announcing arrivals and departures, did all the universally constant airport things which reminded her that Budapest was another city with ordinary human beings living out their lives, just like DC.
A uniformed man with poc-marks faced the gateway holding a piece of card with the word 'Stalling' written in magic marker upon it. She made the connection and headed over to him, her mind reminding her that she hadn't yet answered her question and perhaps the mis-spelling on the card was trying to tell her something.
Okay, okay, she said to herself, arranging her features into a smile of the correct intensity. Why am I here? I'll tell you why! I'm here because if I spend another day farmed out to surveillance, or scrubbing my eyeballs raw on telephone listings, or risking my hide as hired muscle on someone else's bust, then I'll not only go crazy, I'll turn my back for good.
"Hi," she offered amiably, hoping that the locals had thought to send somebody to meet her who spoke a little English. "I'm Agent Starling, FBI." She withdrew her badge and flipped it open.
I'm here because I had to get away.
The unfortunate complexion receded into the background as the young man's pale blue eyes sparkled in greeting. He smiled and offered a hand. "Tomas," he said, enthusiastically, and wasn't beyond letting his gaze drop past her jacket to her backside as she returned the handshake. "Officer Tomas Huvos. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"And you, Officer Huvos." Starling checked local time on her watch. Four thirty in the afternoon. Time to orient herself as much as possible. "I don't know what you had planned, but I'd like to make a start on the material you've collected as soon as I can."
"Sure, that's no problem," her companion replied, reaching for her suitcase before she could insist that it was fine and she could carry it herself. "I'll take you down to the station and get you set up." His English was littered with the unconscious Americanisms which came from immersion in Hollywood blockbusters. "You're staying at the Internazionale, right?"
Expenses ran to better quality accommodations in Budapest, at least. Starling nodded and followed Tomas to the row of exit doors.
So that's why I'm here. Yesterday morning I was a breath away from handing in my resignation. I hate the J. Edgar Hoover Building with a passion it can only dream of.
"After you," Tomas said, with an attempt at a seductive wink.
I'm here because my entire life has been falling apart and I need some perspective.
Clarice Starling smiled tightly, ducked through the door and into the balmy Budapest afternoon.
In a seat in the airport café, a well-dressed, middle-aged man finished his espresso and allowed his gaze to linger after the departing agent and her eager escort. He couldn't blame the young man for his reaction, as Clarice was indeed looking delectable, but the police officer's lack of control was distasteful. He soothed his annoyance by pretending to spot a spilt drop of coffee on his hand and nonchalantly whipped out a handkerchief. He proceeded to remove any trace of his prints from the small cup and saucer. Disciplined caution had kept him out of incarceration for three years. He was determined to maintain this record.
He stood up and stretched, then reclaimed his briefcase from its position on the next chair, and his hat from the table. Proceeding with caution through the same doors that Clarice and her companion had used minutes before, Hannibal Lecter headed off to collect his car, and his mouth silently rolled around the exotic syllables of a single lip-read word.
The airport was a half hour drive from the centre of town. The roads were straight, uninteresting and badly maintained. Advertising hoardings emphasised the strangeness of the language, and the prevalence of old, rusting Skodas weaving past them at breakneck speeds left Starling unsettled, before she realised that the feeling had been with her for longer than the car journey.
Officer Huvos attempted to make conversation, but his inane observations about film and music left her flat. She tried to reply politely, unwilling to ostracise herself from her law-enforcement colleagues right off the bat, but Huvos got the message and shut up after a few minutes, making a gentle apology and referring to the lengthy travel time needed to get from Washington DC to eastern Europe. It was a sweet and
understanding gesture, and Clarice warmed a little to her chauffeur.
When they began to drive through the suburbs, Starling busied herself by gazing out the window, at the way this historic city unfolded. The buildings seemed only grey and oppressive so far, the small signs of civilisation dilapidated and shabby. They passed a café, a single round table with no chair beside the doorway on the sidewalk. A faded and torn Amstel umbrella adorned, and paint peeled from the window frame behind. The image was somehow poignant and Clarice sighed.
"It's not all like this," Huvos' voice intruded. "Wait till you see the waterfront. And the Utca has many fashionable shops. There are parts of my city which you will love."
Inexplicably ashamed, Clarice made the effort to smile pleasantly and offer some innocuous comment about how she was looking forward to seeing more. Hunting a serial killer would hardly provide much time for sight-seeing, however, and the prickling disconcertion between her shoulderblades needed to be cured by action. She would do what she had always done, and immerse herself in her work. She was good at it.
Huvos explained, as they drove, that they were now in the Lipotvaros, the business district. The patrol car navigated through austere streets, finally turning into a narrow alley between two buildings. The alley opened out at the back into a parking lot, and Huvos manoeuvred into a space and then turned to Starling.
"You can leave your case in the trunk, if you like. I'll take you to your hotel when you're ready."
She agreed, got out of the car and shouldered her purse, then followed Officer Huvos into the Budapest Rendorkapitanysag, the main police station.
The officer in charge of the investigation was a pale, overweight man with a shiny face and small eyes. His name was Petri Ivanic, and he suggested that Starling call him 'Petri' rather than stumble over his multi-syllabic title. His cheeks reddened into two distinct spots as they shook hands, before the aneamic pallour reasserted itself. Starling wondered whether she had unwittingly entered a country where there weren't any women. She settled at the corner of his volumous desk, and began to page through files as he spoke.
The briefing Ivanic gave her lacked any kind of structure. Through the remainder of the afternoon, she learned little that was new but began to order the case nicely in her head. There had been four deaths so far; most recently the American. All victims were female, aged between nineteen and twenty-five. Ridiculously, the thought occurred to her that if her twenty-nine years meant she was past it, so far as a serial killer was concerned, maybe she shouldn't be so disinclined to enjoy the attentions of a few Budapest cops.
The murders had all taken place during the last three months. The longest gap between killings was six weeks and the shortest was two. Hopefully that gave them some grace before the killer decided to strike again. The bodies had all been discovered at dawn or slightly later, prominently positioned at popular tourist spots. Starling read them off and referred to the wall-mounted map to get her bearings. The Basilica .. the Citadel atop Gellert Hill ... the Buda Palace ... and finally, her own countrywoman had been deposited in some memorial park, near one of the famous spas.
Local forensics people had been augmented by experts from nearby Germany, and they had come up so far with no prints nor DNA evidence, but a single common factor. Soil and plant traces on the victims' footwear revealed they had all been out in the woodland which enveloped Budapest, evidence which contradicted that given of their movements before their abductions. It wasn't such a leap to theorise that the killer committed the murders remote from the city; the nature of their deaths was such that privacy would be necessary, as the four women had not been killed by any means more imaginative than gunshot wounds to the body. They were then taken by road to their respective hot-spots. It was a strange kink, as most killers preferred bodies to remain undiscovered as long as possible, given that evidence will deteriorate with time. In addition to this overt declaration of his acts, the killer was sending love notes to the police, each one containing a few follicles of hair from his most recent victim.
At the very back of Clarice's mind, a set of maroon eyes rolled then twinkled, and a voice untouched by the loss of loved ones or terror of the dark rasped, "Rather prosaic, wouldn't you agree?"
She shook her head and cleared the image. She had enough to do without thinking about him.
Leaving Ivanic's unhelpful summaries behind, she got to work on a profile. The established time period between abduction and the body's discovery was a consistent two days. He didn't hang around, wasn't savouring the control he had over his victims. He was either a poor shot with his .22 calibre shotgun, or he took pleasure in watching his victims die slowly from blood loss, as only one victim had been hit with a single killing shot to the heart. The murder site or sites would doubtless be messy, when they were discovered.
The placement of the bodies and the boasting suggested that the killer wanted attention for his crimes. Possibly he was primarily motivated by a desire for celebrity. In a country only recently embracing the media machine which drove its richer cousins, the need to justify one's existence with notoriety could be intensified in the already unstable.
Given the lack of forensic evidence on the bodies, the best chance of clues would come from the missives received from the killer. She would check up on progress there, tomorrow.
Jet-lag began to catch up with her at just gone seven, and Starling excused herself from the chaotic station, taking copies of files with her and declining two offers of dinner. She followed Officer Huvos out of the station wearily. She had been in the city three hours and hadn't really learned anything.
The young policeman opportunistically slipped her a card with his telephone number on it before she entered the hotel, declining his offer of assistance. She thanked him for his thought and asked him to make sure that her weapon's clearance would be ready by the morning. Her gun was still in quarantine at the airport following an exchange with a particularly argumentative customs inspector who had clearly not been told that the cold war was not only over, but had hardly involved Hungary in the first place.
After checking in and sending her luggage up, Starling paused in the gift shop to purchase a pocket-sized guide to the city. Armed with this and an attaché case full of notes, she headed for her hotel room.
There was no bourbon in the mini-bar, so she had to make do with scotch. Allowing herself a single miniature's measure, she seated herself on the armchair by the window, propped up her feet on the radiator and looked out into the dusk, across the Danube to Castle Hill and its tourist hot-spots.
Huvos was right. The waterfront panorama was stunning.
Ivan stopped in the supermarket aisle as the two girls spun round towards each other, suddenly shrieking with laughter at a shared joke. He bent into the refrigerated compartment and lifted a slab of cheese, which he proceeded to examine with rapt interest.
The blonde one. She was gorgeous. She looked like a movie star, or a model from a shampoo commercial. He hated the way his cheeks were flushing hot.
They were American, these two. They peered at their groceries strangely and referred to a phrase book occasionally. They were resident just out of town, at a self-catering resort. He had seen them arrive in the city centre on the tram the day before, and had tailed them back again after their initial explorations. One of them, not the blonde one, the other, was called Teresa. He didn't know the blonde's name. He would, soon enough.
It was a question of waiting for the opportunity, now. He began to compare figures in his head. He'd be up to five, soon, and that already equalled Jame Gumb. Too bad the newspapers hadn't yet come up with a better nickname for him than the clumsy 'tourist killer'. He had been signing his correspondence 'Wolf', simply because it sounded cool, but that was clearly not being released to the press. Perhaps he should consider autographing the blonde, somehow? If Jame Gumb could skin a bitch, Ivan could at least cut his name in her skin ...
Ivan frowned and put down the cheese, moving to catch up with the pair of American girls. Blades just weren't his style. He wasn't a fan. He liked the detachment of guns, liked the distance. And his friend Jozsef was in the process of procuring him a beauty.
"Do you feel lucky, punk?" he murmured in heavily accented English, under his breath. His private joke made him smile, and he hung back, perusing the beer as the two women queued at the check-out.
Clarice ate a solitary, light supper seated on the hotel terrace. Across the water, the monuments atop Gellert Hill and Castle Hill were lit dramatically. Boats meandered down the river. At this time of day, the waters of the Danube might even pass for blue, if the onlooker's imagination were vivid enough. The evening was pleasantly warm. She had changed from her business suit into a white, long-sleeved T-shirt with a V-neck, and comfortable khaki slacks.
Between bites of a Salad Nicoise, she perused a book, learning about the city. As tourists wandered along the sidewalk below the terrace, enjoying the embankment and the night sights, Clarice's eye followed them protectively.
Her face was drawn with more than exhaustion.
On the spectacular Lanchid suspension bridge, Hannibal Lecter used a professional-looking camera with an impressive telephoto lens. When evening walkers passed him, they saw a hobbyist capturing the beauty of the view; perhaps they considered that he might be photographing for official postcards.
But he was only interested in a single subject.
Lecter was fascinated by the way Clarice Starling ate. She seemed to approach her nourishment with the same resigned thoroughness that she had lately brought to her work. She took no pleasure in the meal, though she ate neatly and rhythmically. Each mouthful was met with a vague frown as she gave the impression of trying to enjoy the flavours, though perhaps the frown was for more than the food. She looked quite lost. Radiating softly from her body language and her expression was a lack of comprehension. He tasted each nuance and his palate rejoiced in a way Clarice's could not.
He wondered whether the lambs still screamed. He suspected they did, and most nights.
A waiter brought her a dessert menu which she declined. She ordered a coffee, a cappuccino. As the waiter departed, another figure squeezed between tables in approach. Lecter's eyes flashed fire in sudden amusement. Would the proposal be shrouded in business, or would the fat police inspector with the beady eyes be more honest?
The pointed tip of a pink tongue slowly slipped between his lips as he focused on Ivanic's arrival at Clarice's table, and then traced a leisurely trail in anticipation.
"Good evening, Miss Starling."
Clarice pretended to be surprised to see the police officer, though she had noted his arrival at the hotel through the glass of the lobby, minutes earlier. She bristled at the honorific he used, finding it condescending if not entirely inaccurate.
"Officer Ivanic, hello." She finished the remainder of her glass of wine and stood up briskly, folding her napkin back on to the table and waving at the waiter. "Another one?" she asked, making her expression deliberately ominous.
He didn't understand, not for several seconds. In the pause before he replied, Starling looked over the ill-fitting suit the policeman had changed into. He shouldn't have bothered. Though it was saying little, he'd looked better in his uniform.
"Oh, no, no, nothing like that," Ivanic replied.
The waiter interrupted and Clarice cancelled her order for coffee and asked for the meal to be put on her bill. The waiter asked for the room number and she ignored the way Ivanic tensed as he tried to work out whether this was a seductive ruse designed to provide him with that very information. Clarice fished in her trouser pocket for her keycard and flashed it at the waiter without allowing her colleague to see.
The policeman's shoulders slumped.
"Well," Clarice said with an attempt at a charming smile as the waiter retreated. "What can I do for you?"
"Umm ... perhaps over a drink in the bar ...?"
"No thank you, I'm fine. I've just had dinner and I'm very tired from my flight. Can whatever it is wait until tomorrow?"
She watched as he picked up on her signals and grasped gratefully at the excuse. "Of course, Agent, of course. It was rude of me to presume upon you so late. Forgive me. Until tomorrow, then."
Ivanic smiled and backed away, colliding with the sweet trolley, then spun round and barked something uncomplimentary in Hungarian to the waiter who pushed it. He turned back to Starling and tried to roll his eyes at the clumsiness of the staff but served only to underline his own, which he had the grace to realise. In a waddling waft of cheap aftershave, he made his way from the terrace.
Clarice sighed and raised her eyebrows, then wandered over to the perimeter of the terrace. She leaned on the guard rail and enjoyed the view. The Buda Palace atop Castle Hill appeared newly scrubbed in the lights on its walls, and the Citadel on the high ground to the left was magnificently imposing. The pristine white of the Erszebet Bridge caught the eye beyond. Closer, and to the right, the Lanchid bridge loomed impressively.
Something about it drew her eye, but she couldn't decide what that might be. Turning her face towards it, into the evening breeze, she let her hair whip back over her head and her eyes fell shut.
On the bridge, Lecter purred lightly, capturing the opportunity both on film and in his memory palace. "Oh yes, Clarice," he murmured. "Just like that ..."