A Chill on the Terrace
copyright 2001, by
The characters Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling
Harris. They are used herein without permission, but in the
spirit of admiration and respect. No infringement of copyright
is intended, and no profit, of any kind, is made by the creator,
maintainer or contributors to this site.
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She stood out in the gray dawn on the balcony and caressed the railing with a numb hand. The March breeze had just enough damp chill in it to raise goose bumps on her bare arms. Smells like an early fall, she thought, and swallowed a sudden lump in her throat. She wouldn’t be around to see it.
Scenes from the night before swarmed around her and she shook her head to clear them away. Maybe it had been the wine. Or that dreadful waiter at the Hotel Alvear… he’d smelled like a cathouse and looked like something the cat wouldn’t even bother to drag in. Or maybe…
…she should stop kidding herself. It was the relentless stampede of time, nothing more. It had been brewing for months, in pregnant silences and haunted looks. But she’d expected, no, hoped for a storm. Not a drizzle. Not like this.
He’d made some offhand remark, some smooth suggestion about a more becoming way to do up her hair, and it hadn’t even rankled. It just sat there in the air, a big fat nothing. “Oh,” she’d said, and gamely moved on, tapping the plate with her fork. “What do you think of the marinade?”
“Lush,” he’d said, “full-bodied, but leaving the tongue flat in the end. Though, with the Burgundy to compliment it, it’s certainly tolerable.”
“Tolerable,” she’d repeated, staring at him as if they’d never met before. Suddenly, she was certain they hadn’t. She reached for her wine glass, drained it in one swallow.
The expression on his face had been mildly interested. “Dear—“
She’d quieted him with a low hiss. “Listen,” she’d said, “and don’t talk. I won’t make a scene. I wouldn’t want you to be uncomfortable.” All the venom she had learned and kept had been distilled into that one word. It burned her lips and she’d been glad.
He had half-risen from his chair, “Cla—“
“Shut up,” she’d whispered. “I’ll take a taxi home. You stay somewhere else for the night. Don’t come back before noon.” Her throat was hot and tight, but the words had broken free anyway. “It’s over.”
Her neck had prickled during the long walk through the tables, but her head had remained high, her pace stately. She’d never wanted anything as much as she wanted to feel the sting of a blade at that moment. It never came.
Unmolested, she’d made her way back home. Uninterrupted, she’d sat up the endless night, throwing a few odds and ends carelessly into a bag and pointedly not crying.
And now she stood on the balcony, saying goodbye to this beautiful view she had grown to hate.
“When was the last time you killed someone?” she asked the sunrise and the silence.
“April 24th, 2001. That enchantingly foul reporter woman. You should remember, you were there.”
Her hands gripped the rail a little more tightly. “You’re slipping, you know.”
“Apparently,” he replied.
A flurry of wings beat the air, and then settled back into the trees. Seemed to her to be the same trees they’d come from in the first place.
“Up before ten. You’ll give Serena a heart attack.”
“I gave Serena the day off.”
“That was kind of you.”
“Of course. My altruism is beyond compare.”
Sometimes, when the city was quiet enough, she could hear the chattering of the stream that ran through the orchard. It seemed positively deafening now.
“What is it that you want?” he said. “A fight? A battle? A head on a charger?”
“Since when did you ever have to ask?”
“Since when did you start playing pointless little games?”
“Since there’s been nothing better to do.”
“And that would be my fault because…?”
“I want you.”
The clouds massed in the east began to take on the pink cast of morning, suffusing the sky with pale light.
“Then it appears you’ve confused your sense of direction.”
“You know what I meant.”
“Eleven months of tea parties and opera. Ballet and Bice. Roast rack of lamb and cocktails and oh, wasn’t that lovely. No, I don’t think we’d better chance that trip to Athens; let’s just stay for the end of the season. And the next. And the next. What the hell happened to you?”
Birds chirped. Fell silent. And chirped again.
Her frayed and razored nerves couldn’t stand it anymore. She turned around.
He was standing in the doorway, still wearing the finery of the previous evening, staring intently at his folded hands. His lips were moving, and she strained to hear his words. “Suffice...vice...price…thrice...price…rice...ice.” He looked up and looked past her, eyes focused on the horizon. “Disappointed, are you, then?”
‘No’ and ‘yes’ jostled for position on her tongue. His pale skin had taken on the flush of the sky, and the soft breeze fluttered the edge of his jacket. She wanted very badly to say no. But, whatever else had passed, they had never lied.
She nodded. His eyes fell on her then, and his lips parted slightly. His head cocked in that quizzical angle that meant he wanted more.
She didn’t even feel the sting of that gaze, now. It was simply familiar. Still, she felt she owed something. Anything. She sighed and dredged up an explanation from the stagnating pools of regret inside her.
“I didn’t take a serial killer for a boyfriend because I wanted to dance on this fucking terrace the rest of my life.” It had sounded so much better in her head.
His mouth made a soundless “O,” and he dropped his eyes again. He unfolded his hands, inspected his palms, then pressed them together, bringing them to his lips. His eyelids closed for a moment… two… three.
“Okie-dokie,” he said, finally, and turned to leave.
“Wait!” she cried, her hand involuntarily flying out. He stopped, framed in the darkness of the doorway, black hair, black jacket, black trousers all blending together.
“Aren’t you going to say anything? Anything at all?”
His hand came up to grasp the doorframe, his fingers drumming the surface in a complex cadence. Suddenly, his arm bent at the elbow and he pushed himself off, spinning his body and facing her again.
There was a spark in his eyes she hadn’t seen in many a moon.
“What would you have me say? What? Would you like me to stand here and pontificate on the grandness of the irony? I’ll give you a lecture if that’s what you want, little Starling.” He connected the distance between them with three swift strides.
He hadn’t used that name for her since they’d come to Buenos Aires.
“I really think it’s quite amusing, don’t you, that I should have come to cherish you, to love you so much that I cannot bear the thought of losing you, O chink in my armor, O link in my chain.” The words were tumbling from his mouth, sharp quarrels blasting from some sort of automatic crossbow, hitting both her and himself with equal lack of aim. “I can’t bear to think of someone using you to get to me. I cannot even stand to imagine myself being the cause of your suffering, your pain, your humiliation and imprisonment. I could not conceive of taking any risk that might involve being separated from you.”
She stood there, shell-shocked, in the path of his onslaught.
“I could have made you my China doll, Clarice. You would have been a beautiful and willing mannequin, ready and eager to do my slightest bidding. But I couldn’t do it. Not to you. I couldn’t. I wanted you. I loved you. Whoever you were. Not my idea of you, not my dream of you… I love you.”
He was breathing a bit heavily, and she could see him will his respiratory rate down, forcibly relax his hands, stand back slightly.
“Why haven’t I killed, you wonder? Why has the monster not stalked the streets of Buenos Aires, preying on the arrogant and the obnoxious and the rude?” He shook his head, all at once disdainful and skeptical of her ignorance. “Why would I need that, when I have you?”
The greater irony struck her an instant before he spoke it aloud. “You loved the monster, but your love made me a man. And now you can’t wait to be quit of me.”
She couldn’t say a word. It was true. Horribly, vividly true, like a crime scene photo.
She watched him walk to the railing, look out over the garden. And then he stilled, like a sculpture. Stone.
She picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder. Credit cards, passport, a change of clothes. Everything she needed. Well, except the one thing she couldn’t have, now.
She walked up to his back, pressed her cheek against his shoulder blade, put her hands on his hips. His body radiated the coldest warmth she had ever felt.
“Goodbye,” she whispered, and kissed the nape of his neck. He didn’t flinch, not that she thought he would.
As she stepped off the terrace, she thought she heard him say, softly, into the wind, “Et tu, Clarice?”
She never saw him again.
copyright 2002, by
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