Alex Carter had a splitting headache and the gravel crunching under the tires of his truck wasn’t helping matters. He pulled up to the house and sighed. He was the last one there. Joe and the rest of the crew were waiting outside. Alex grabbed the plans from the seat next to him and got out of the truck. As he walked past he noticed that sign on the driver’s side was starting to peel. "Carter Renovat" just wasn’t going to work as well as "Carter Renovations". He rubbed a hand over his unshaven jaw and added it to the list of a millions things he had to fix.
"Hey, boss. Glad to see you could join us." Joe smiled and clapped Alex on the back.
They had been working together for nearly 6 years and Alex could always rely on Joe to give him shit whenever he was late.
"Keep it up, Joe, and maybe I’ll finally replace you. After I kick your ass."
Joe burst out laughing. He stood a good 7 inches above Alex’s 6’1", and he had the body mass to go with it. Alex began to smile a little bit and handed Joe the blueprints and the keys to the house.
"Here, take the rest of these monkeys inside. And try not to break anything. I’ll be right behind you."
"Hey don’t worry, man. We only break what we don’t want to steal."
Alex chuckled and shook his head as he watched Joe lead them into the silent house.
"Put some coffee on!"
Alex always liked some time to himself at the beginning of a job. To get the feel for the place. Granted this home wasn’t as historic (rundown) as his usual jobs, but Mr. Meyer was paying more than well and that was all that counted. Mr. Meyer was a German lobbyist of some kind, as a rule Alex tried to steer clear of politics, but he seemed honest enough. Meyer owned a 120 year old building in Baltimore that Alex had restored for him. It was some of Alex’s best work. So, when he had asked him to do a small project on his vacation home, Alex had agreed.
He began his walk around the perimeter of the house and it struck him how isolated it really was. He jammed his hands in his pockets and continued his ritual. Kate used to say that he was "stalking the soul" of a place. He gave a half smile to the memory and then a wince as he remembered her packing the week before.
The air was cool and crisp, it felt great on his forehead and the pounding began to ebb away. He loved how the wind rustled in the trees here. It was a great change from the hectic sound of traffic in Baltimore. The house was nestled in the woods and he could see the Chesapeake from where he was standing. He stopped for a moment and stared out at the gray water framed by the red and gold trees. It seemed to go on forever. The horizon blurred where the steely sky met the water. This was the kind of place that could change your life. He looked back at the house over his shoulder and a shiver ran down his back.
"You gonna be out there all day or you gonna do some work? Don’t matter to us, you gotta pay us whether your staring into space or working our asses off."
Joe’s shout brought Alex screeching back to reality.
"I’m coming, and you’d better have some coffee made."
Inside the house was much different than outside. No longer calming, the interior was dark and the furniture carefully covered, giving it the feel of every horror movie Alex had ever seen. He half expected a crazed killer to jump out of the shadows at him. He shook it off and moved into the dinning room, followed by the five guys on the crew.
Alex took the blueprints from Joe and spread them on the huge table in the middle of the room. He reached for the coffee cup that Joe handed him and made a face as he gulped down the first swallow.
"Jesus, man. This stuff is thick as mud."
Joe looked at Alex with all the wide eyed innocence he could muster.
"Okay, forget the coffee. Let’s get to work." Alex pointed to the plans in front of him. They were of the basement. "The Meyer’s want to take this wall out and replace it with three floor to ceiling windows. Hardwood floors, built in bookshelves, the works. His wife has decided that she feels more inspired out here and needs a studio for her paintings. We also need to put in plumbing for a bathroom and a new laundry room. So, this is going to be some easy money."
Alex pointed at one of the guys next to him.
"Chris, you take the guys downstairs and start setting up. We need to get started on the windows first because that is going to be the biggest pain in the ass. We’ll be down in a minute."
Chris led the guys through the kitchen and into the basement. Alex looked after them and shuddered. Even with the lights on there was just something gloomy about the place.
"I know they were renting this place out for a few years, but it looks like no one’s been in here for a decade."
Joe nodded his head in agreement. "Yeah, it gives me the creeps. I was looking around, these people have some messed up art. There’s like a hundred pictures and statues of a swan screwing some lady."
Alex laughed out loud. "My god, rich people will spend their money on anything."
Alex started gathering up his papers and coffee cup. Joe looked at him thoughtfully.
"You okay man? If my old lady left me I . . ."
Alex looked up sharply and Joe had enough sense to back off.
"Let’s just get to work."
Things were going pretty smoothly for about an hour. Alex popped a few more Tylenol in his mouth and prayed that his head wouldn’t split open.
"Alex, get over here man."
Alex was still a little irritated that Joe had felt the need to ask about Kate; but he knew that Carmen had probably made him do it. He was trying not to show it.
"What?" He barked.
Joe was pointing to what should have been a corner in the south side of the room.
"This ain’t supposed to be here."
It looked like someone had just dropped a piece of sheet rock into the corner and painted to match the walls. It didn’t look like it had been done all that long ago. Alex shrugged.
"They must’ve started renovating and changed their minds. I’m sure they just forgot to mention it."
He tapped on the wall lightly and could hear that it was just an empty space behind it.
"Well, Mrs. Meyer still wants her windows. Knock it down."
Joe shrugged and picked up the rubber handled sledgehammer leaning against the wall. The muscles in his arms and back bunched as he geared up to swing. It hit the wall with a satisfying smash. He could hear the small pieces of sheet rock skittering down behind the wall. He was prepared for that. What he wasn’t prepared for was the sticky, sweet smell of death to come wafting out of the hole. Joe dropped the hammer and cover his nose with his shirt.
"Oh man. It smells like there’s a nest a squirrels back there."
Alex rolled his eyes and grabbed his flashlight out of the tool box at his feet. Holding his breath he peered into the hole in the false wall. He shined the small flashlight into the dark space until he found the source of the smell. His eyes flew wide open and he scrambled back as fast as he could, twisting away from the wall and it’s gruesome treasure. Alex fell to his knees retching. Between gags he managed to choke out a sentence.
"Joe, call the cops."
One Year Later
Special Agent Ardelia Mapp’s shoes clicked a brisk pace on the linoleum floor. She’d never liked coming to the basement offices. Not even when Clarice had worked down here. They reminded her of a funeral parlor. No matter how many coats of paint they slapped on the walls, they always seemed dank and depressing. She made her way to the Assistant Director of Behavioral Sciences office. She hesitated in front of the door and stared at the brass name plate.
A.D. George Carlton
She took a deep breath an knocked brusquely on the door. When it opened she still wasn’t prepared.
George Carlton opened the door to his office and looked down at Agent Mapp. His handsome face broke into a wide grin. At 34 he was one of the youngest, black A.D.’s in the Bureau.
"Ardelia, what brings you here?"
She held out her hand without speaking and in it were two small evidence bags. George was momentarily confused, but accepted the bags and ushered Agent Mapp into his office.
She took a seat in front of his desk and steeled herself for the task ahead of her.
"It’s a note and the envelope. From Starling."
George’s eyes widened slightly. He’d only met Clarice Starling once, briefly. However, he knew that she’d been a friend of Ardelia’s and that his mentor, Jack Crawford, had a great deal of respect for her. He also knew that she was wanted for questioning in the murder of Paul Krendler.
"When did you get this?"
George let that sink in.
"I am asking you, as a personal favor to keep that between us."
George looked doubtful. The silence was smothering. Ardelia’s eyes held his steadily.
"Was there anything else with the note?"
Mapp looked down at the emerald ring on her finger, and shook her head.
"No, nothing else."
"Why turn it in now?" He asked her gently. He could see the war raging inside her.
"I need to find her."
"You know what this implies don’t you?" He saw the muscle under her jaw jump as she clenched her teeth. George leaned forward subtly across his desk. "Ardelia, her prints and Lecter’s were all over that house. And it was widely known that she and Mr. Krendler had a certain distaste for one another. This note seems to suggest that if she is with Dr. Lecter, she is willingly."
Ardelia’s eyes flashed. "Thank you for your astute observation Assistant Director Carlton." She stood to leave the office. "If you find anything on the note please inform me."
She reached for the door and was stopped by Carlton’s voice. He spoke softly, so softly that she almost didn’t hear.
"Ardelia. I’ll let you know what we find, but I’m not optimistic."
Her hand tightened on the door.
"Don’t give up on her Ardelia. Don’t give up on me either."
The door slammed behind her.
George stared at the door for a long while. It had been months since he’d seen Ardelia. Things hadn’t gone as well as he had hoped. They’d met a few years ago. After the incident with the President and a certain intern, the federal agencies had decided to hold several seminars, reminding people of the rules. George had walked over to Ardelia and tried to pick her up. She’d laughed at him and realizing what he’d done, hitting on her at a sexual harassment seminar, he’d laughed as well. George had been undone by her smile, something he found that she didn’t often do.
Their affair had been brief, but passionate. He’d fallen in love with her in two heart beats. She’d taken longer to fall in love with him. It was just after Clarice had gone missing, Ardelia was still coming to terms with it. They’d had a wonderful time together, but in the end he’d made his mistake in the beginning.
George had been separated from his wife for more than two years and she was dragging out the divorce into a long, painful process. Still Ardelia may had been able to forgive him the omission, if it hadn’t been Julia who’d told her.
When he’d gone to see Ardelia that night she’d been strangely quiet. She’d asked him for the truth. He gave it to her and she asked him to leave.
Ardelia walked into the dark side of the duplex. She didn’t turn on any lights, she knew it well by now. Even better than when Starling had lived there. She turned on the dryer and sat with her back to it. Twisting the ring on her finger, she leaned her head against the soft rhythm of the dryer.
Ardelia turned the corner with her shopping cart ahead of her. She struggled to keep it from veering into the neatly stacked isles.
"Goddamn crazy wheel. Why do I always manage to pick the one with crazy wheel?"
She laughed to herself wondering again why she had agreed to cook dinner for George. It felt a bit domesticated. She smiled and warmth flooded through her at the thought of him.
"Girl get a handle on yourself. " But she still couldn’t stop smiling.
That is until she felt the sharp pain pulling at the back of her head. Ardelia’s head snapped back and the shopping cart was sent slamming into the cereal boxes.
She spun to wrench her hair out of her attackers hand and felt the sting of a slap on her cheek. Her eyes watered as she tried to focus.
"YOU BITCH!! YOU HOMEWRECKING SLUT!!! HE’S STILL MY HUSBAND!!"
Ardelia finally got herself out of distance of the woman’s claws.
"What the fuck are you doin’ lady?"
She was facing a heaving mess. The woman’s hair was matted and her clothes were torn and stained. Her eyes narrowed to small slits as she regarded Ardelia.
"He’s still mine, no matter what you think you’re doing with him."
"I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I don’t even know who the fuck you are!"
A slow smile slid across the woman’s face as she hissed. "Julia Carlton."
Ardelia’s eyes flew wide open. She stumbled as she turned and ran. Her face burning.
Ardelia woke with a start. The sunlight was pouring into Starling’s half of the duplex and the doorbell was ringing on hers. Ardelia struggled to her feet.
"Hold your horses, I’m coming."
She shielded her eyes from the light to try and stop the throbbing pain. She pulled the door open and was face to face with George. Her heart caught in her throat.
"Did you find something?"
George shook his. "No, I’m sorry. There was nothing."
Ardelia shrugged to cover her disappointment. "It was worth the shot."
She moved to shut the door, but George stopped it.
"That isn’t why I came?"
"George, I am in no mood today."
"Ardelia. Just give me a chance." He took a breath. "I miss you."
Ardelia rolled her eyes. "George, I don’t give a shit."
"How long are you going to do this to me and to yourself?"
"How about until you get the point and leave me the hell alone?"
George grit his teeth. "Do you still love me?"
"You lied to me, George."
"That’s not what I asked. Do you love me?"
Ardelia could feel her defense wavering, but she steeled herself and pushed him out of the doorway, slamming it in his face. She could feel the tears welling up in her eyes, but blinked them away.
"You cried enough over him, girl."
She peeled off the clothes she’d slept in and took a long, hot shower. With the water streaming down her face, it was hard to tell if she was crying. She loved him. She wasn’t the kind of woman who let go of her feelings so easily. She wanted to forgive him, but she knew why she couldn’t. Ardelia had never run away from anything in her life, but she had that day. She could still feel the stares of the housewives in the Safeway boring into her back. She couldn’t forgive George, because she could’t forgive herself.
"Hey sport, what’s going on?"
Clarice looked up at her from the papers spread out on her coffee table.
She leaned back into the sofa rubbing the bridge of her nose, Ardelia sat beside her.
"What ever possessed you to let me go out with that guy?"
Clarice smiled without opening her eyes.
"If I recall there was something about, ‘Who needs brains with arms like that?’"
Ardelia groaned. "Oh, god. I’m going back to my original plan. If he can’t make me laugh, he ain’t worth my time."
Clarice looked over at her friend. "He’s out there for you. I know it."
"And what about you? What ever happened to the ‘Good Doctor’?"
Starling started. "What?"
"That kid, Pilcher. He seemed funny, not to mention smart."
She relaxed a bit and laughed. "Yeah, he was nice. Not my type though."
Ardelia sighed. "I tell you what, I find the right guy after all this dating crap and it’ll take one hell of fight for me to give him up."
George looked at the clock near his bed. 2:30 am. It took him a moment to realize what had woken him up. Pounding on his front door. He jumped out of bed and hurried down the stairs.
Ardelia was cold, soaked to her skin, and still not sure why she was there. When he opened the door she could see the worry in George’s face.
"I’m not here to make you feel better George. You hurt me, you lied to me. I am still pissing mad at you, but I do love you. I want to give us a chance. If you want . . ."
He cut her off, stepping into the rain and crushing her mouth against his.
8 Months Later
Ardelia had finally succumbed to the task of packing away Starling’s things. She and George were moving into a small house. It took an unexpectedly short time to pack it all. In two days Clarice Starling’s life was neatly put away into boxes. It was the second hardest thing she’d ever done.
"Do you think I did the right thing? I know nothing ever came of it, but I still feel I betrayed her somehow."
George kissed the crown of her head. "The Starling you knew may not even exist anymore, but she would have understood. You did what you had to do. You turned everything in, and you did it to try and help her."
"I didn’t turn everything in."
Shelia McIvers, was the foremost expert on modern jewelry, and the owner of a not so modest chain of fine jewelry stores throughout the country. She had been consulted several times in other police matters. Turning the ring over in her hands once more, she shook her head over the remarkable craftsmanship.
"It is really a fine piece of work you have here." She looked up at Ardelia blinking owlishly behind the magnifying glasses she wore.
"It took me some time to identify the artist." Shelia turned the ring to show Ardelia the inside of the band and pointed to small stamped letters. CV. "Carlos Vasquez. He works mainly in Argentina, out of Buenos Aires. I was genuinely surprised by it."
"Why is that?"
"I have only seen one ore two of his things before, and this one is exquisite."
"Is there any chance that he makes custom pieces?"
Sheila blinked up at Ardelia. "Why yes, the majority of his pieces are custom."
Ardelia nodded. "Thank you for your time Ms. McIvers."
Shelia removed her glasses and reached out to shake Ardelia’s hand. "I just hope I was some help, dear."
As Ardelia was almost out the door, she heard Ms. McIvers voice, and turned back.
"Agent Mapp, if you’re interested in selling the piece, please bring it by. Carlos Vasquez’s work is hard to find in North America. I would love to have it in one of my shops."
Ardelia smiled at the woman and left the shop, the ring safely in it’s evidence bag in her hand.
When she hit the street, Ardelia pulled out her cell phone and dialed George’s number.
"George? It’s Ardelia. I got some information about the ring. It was most likely custom made by a man named Carlos Vasquez, in Buenos Aires. His pieces are extremely rare in the U.S. . ."
"They got her Ardelia."
She stopped walking, ignoring the looks from the pedestrians passing her on the bustling sidewalk. Her heart was about to pound through her chest.
She could hear George’s hesitance. "Why don’t you come in, an we’ll talk . . .
"WHERE IS SHE GEORGE??"
She shouted into the phone not caring that she was now drawing even more attention to herself.
"She’s in Rome. The cops there had a tip. They think it might have been Lecter."
Ardelia swallowed hard, but her voice only came out as a squeak. "What?"
"They think that Lecter tipped them to her to draw their attention away from himself. Or maybe he was just tired of playing with her. Who knows why he does anything?" He paused for a long time. "There is one more thing." His voice was softer now. "She struggled and they beat her pretty badly. She was unconscious for a couple hours."
Ardelia gagged. "That son of a bitch. I swear to God if I ever . . ." She stifled the scream rising up inside her. "When are they sending her back?"
Ardelia walked down the cold concrete hallway filled with excitement and apprehension. She wasn’t sure what to expect when she saw Starling, she’d heard so many different things. She flashed her badge at the check point guard and waited for him to buzz her through. She slowed her pace as she neared Clarice’s cell. She waved away the guard on suicide watch and took a seat across from the bars.
As she took in the sight presented to her, her heart sank. Starling lay on her cot in the cell, staring at the ceiling. Her hair was cut short, to just under her jaw and her bangs framed her face. It was dyed a jet black and it made her eyes and impossible blue. The powder burn was still there, high on her cheek.
Clarice was a mass of bruises and cuts, but there were two that really stood out. A gash on her face that went from the middle of her forehead to just under her earlobe, and a purple and black ring of bruises around her neck.
"Hey Clarice. It’s good to see you, girl." Ardelia spoke with a forced, hollow cheer in her voice. She was unable to stand the silence.
Starling didn’t respond. The seconds stretched to minutes, until Ardelia was about to speak again.
"What do you want, Special Agent Mapp?" Her voice was raspy and harsh, an unfortunate side effect of nearly being strangled to death with a billy club.
Ardelia shook her head in disbelief. "Jesus, Clarice. What the hell do you think I want?"
Starling slowly and painfully sat up on her cot, but her face was perfectly controlled. No sign of emotion or of the pain that rolling down her body in waves. Her words to Ardelia were the first she’d spoken since her arrest. She looked out at Ardelia through hooded, distrusting eyes.
"I suppose Agent Mapp, that you are here to further your career. This is, after all, your big chance to shine. To step out of the shadows. You’ve finally got the inside track, haven’t you? So, what’s it going to get you? A promotion, an award, finally being recognized by your peers as something other than affirmative action?"
Ardelia sat rigid and unflinching. When she spoke it was slowly and deliberate. "My god. You sound just like him. I came here to see if there was anything left of my friend to salvage. But I can see I’m just wasting my time. You don’t want my help? You don’t want to help yourself? Then I hope you get used to these bars, girlfriend. Because they’re the only thing your gonna see for awhile."
Ardelia left angry. Angry that she had let Clarice get to her, angry that Clarice had abandoned her, and angry that deep down she thought maybe Clarice was right. Maybe there was another reason she’d gone to see her, however small a part of her that was, it was there. The anger sustained her until she was almost home, then she had to pull over until her tears stopped blinding her.
Clarice watched her old friend leave, but didn’t move. She remained where she was for hours, ignoring the food she was offered and the guard outside sent to baby-sit her. It was dark outside her cell before she lay back down on her cot.
She felt sorry for Ardelia and, for a moment, wished things had been different. Her thoughts drifted to her lover, and she was glad of the way things were. Though, she admitted with a small smile, she would rather give up her cozy room without a view. She’d always feared this would happen. That they would be separated by force. She hadn’t expected it so soon.
The sun had been shining, the day had been perfect. Clarice’s newly dark hair was smooth and glossy. In her dark glasses and charcoal suit, her pale skin had been glowing. She spent the day wandering the shops, waiting to meet him.
The perfume shop had seemed the ideal place to pick up a small token. Her taste in clothes, food, art, everything was much improved. She loved the look of approval that he gave her when she picked something he enjoyed. It thrilled her to her soul. She chose a spicy, sweet scent that had tickled her nose and made her laugh. She’d had the heavy crystal bottle wrapped and left the store, confident of her choice.
She hadn’t even noticed that anyone was following her. Starling had seen him come around a corner and was hurrying to meet him. That was when the police confronted her. One of them was looking to see where she’d been heading. Looking in his direction.
She slammed her shopping bag into the back of the officer’s head. The
heavy crystal bottle, shattered and the air was filled with the scent she’d so carefully chosen. She punched and bit, clawed and scratched. Something slammed into her forehead and she was dazed for a moment, blood streaming into her eyes and down her neck. She had her hands around one of their throats when she was hit from behind. The hard smooth wood of the billy club was crushing her wind pipe. She sank to her knees and just before everything went black, she saw him slip back around the corner and fade into the shadows.
Starling blinked away the memory, even that simple function bringing pain to her. She knew how much he prized his freedom and hoped he valued his own more than hers. She would not be the bait that caught him.
She slipped into a fitful sleep, but woke well before dawn. The taste of him was still on her lips and the heat of him lingered between her thighs.
"Ardelia, all I am saying is be careful."
Ardelia pause as she buttoned up her shirt and turned toward him.
"You’re the one who told me to go back and talk to her, now you don’t want me to go? Make up your mind George." She turned to finish dressing. "Oh wait, it doesn’t matter what you think, because my mind is made up."
"Ardelia, I just want you to be safe, okay?"
Ardelia’s tone softened. "I will be. It’s not like I am going in the cell with her. She needs me. That sick fuck messed her up, and she needs someone to get through to her."
She opened the folding chair that had been resting against the wall and sat down. This time she waited, and this time she won. Clarice sat up and stared back at her.
"You’re looking well, Agent Mapp." Starling’s tone was dripping with polite derision.
"You’re healing well, Clarice. Surprised to see me back?" Ardelia stayed polite and friendly.
Clarice took her in. It made Ardelia feel as though Clarice was looking into her, searching for something. Starling still had a weakness for the memory of their friendship. She could feel the ghosts of a woman, long dead, rising up around her. Clarice could not trust herself with Ardelia Mapp.
Ardelia took a deep breath before speaking again. "I went to visit John Brigham’s grave today."
A muscle twitched in Starling’s cheek.
"Do you ever think about him? Do you ever think about me?"
Starling stayed very still. Ardelia got up and approached the bars. Starling could have shot her hand through them and grabbed her throat. It would be so easy to make her stop talking, but she knew she couldn’t do it. Buried within herself was still the woman she’d been, and that woman was clawing her way back to the surface.
"Clarice. I am not here for Dr. Lecter. I’m not here for my job. I am here for you. It’s been months, girl. I hate to tell you this, but he isn’t going to come for you. They think he may even have been the one who tipped the police. We can put your life back together. You said that this was my big chance, but you were wrong. It’s yours. Don’t throw it away."
The silence roared around them, filled with Starling’s quiet breath. Ardelia didn’t even realize she was holding hers. She watched as Clarice rose from her cot stiffly and walked to the bars, her eyes were cold. Ardelia wanted to back away, she now felt unsure of herself. Clarice raised her hands and gripped the bars of her cell tightly. She was tired, so tired. Tired of being something she wasn’t. Tired of being lonely and isolated.
"Ardelia." Her voice was quiet and wavering.
Ardelia stepped forward and covered both Starling’s hands with her own. A single tear slid down Starling’s face and she let her head hang forward and rest against the bars.
2 Years Later
Starling looked up at Ardelia, smiling. She held up the sweater.
"Ardelia, this is beautiful. It must have cost a fortune."
Ardelia laughed. "You’re damn right it did."
The Christmas tree was sparkling in the background. Ardelia lowered herself down to the couch. It was getting harder and harder to move around under the weight of the baby.
"So, when’s Matt going to be here?"
Clarice blushed furiously at the mention of his name. "Agent Yost, said he may stop by. Nothing was definite."
"Oh, please. That man has been following you around like a love sick puppy."
Clarice smiled a bit mischievously. "Well, maybe a little."
Ardelia was bursting with joy. Clarice had been through painful and intensive therapy since she’d been released. Going over the story of her abduction over and over. She’d given descriptions of Dr. Lecter’s most recent facial surgeries, and his habits, but nothing had come of it yet. They hadn’t really expected it to. She had been reinstated to the Bureau, but not in a totally official capacity. At least not yet. She was required to see a therapist for one hour everyday, and that was going very well. They were all impressed at how hard she was working to get her life in order. She’d even started seeing Matt, but Ardelia could see how much the whispers and rumors hurt Clarice. ‘Bride of Dracula’ had never been a nickname that she’d enjoyed.
George came in with a cookies and coffee, milk for Ardelia. They all laughed at the Santa hat he had on. He set the tray down and suddenly remembered something. He went into his coat pocket and pulled out the heavy red envelope.
"Clarice, this came for you at the office a few days ago, I forgot all about it."
He handed it to her and then helped Ardelia get better situated on the couch. Neither of them saw the smile drain from her face as Clarice turned the envelope over. She turned a strange shade of gray and the letter dropped from her hands to the floor.
"Oh my God."
Ardelia was furious with George.
"How could you give that to her?" She hissed through her teeth.
"I swear I just thought it was a Christmas card from Matt. I never would have given it to her, if I’d known what it was."
The envelope had been carefully bagged and turned over to the crime lab. There were still agents tramping around the house, some of them casting dubious glances toward Clarice.
She hadn’t spoken a word, yet. They weren’t sure if they should tell her what the letter said. Ardelia wrapped her arms around her and Clarice leaned into the embrace.
"Well, so much for a nice quiet Christmas."
Clarice started laughing. Ardelia joined in and soon both of them were gasping for breath.
"There was nothing on the letter or the envelope. While the paper and ink were of high quality, there was nothing especially unique about them."
Clarice snorted. "I could have told you that."
Melanie Hampton looked up from her notes. "I’m sorry, Ms. Starling. Am I boring you?"
Clarice sighed. "No, I’m just a little anxious. That’s all. I apologize."
Hampton eyed her suspiciously. George cleared his throat and she went on. With gloved hands she unfolded the letter. Clarice started at the familiar handwriting, and felt shaken by it.
"There were no hairs or fibers on either, we ‘scoped it twice. And the post mark is useless, he used a remailer. He could be anywhere."
Clarice hadn’t heard a word Hampton had said. Her eyes were transfixed by the letter.
How impolite it was of me, not even to say goodbye. How do you feel
now, I wonder? Freed or have they simply returned you to the
prison of your mundane life? You broke so easily. Much sooner
than I had expected. I had hoped you would have tried harder
to hold on to your precious moral compass. But, Clarice,
ultimately you were not much of a challenge.
I expect that you are now groveling at the feet of those
stalwart pillars of justice. Begging to be let back in, forgiven for
your indiscretions. What a pity. I have no intention of leading
you to me. However, I shouldn’t be surprised if I decide to
call on you, my dear. I hope that doesn’t keep you up at night.
Clarice moved away from the letter quickly. She ran down the hall and into the bathroom. She knelt inside one of the stalls. She had no idea how long she’d been there when Ardelia came in.
"We think you should stay with us. We’ll have surveillance around the clock. There will always be someone watching out for you." She rubbed Clarice’s back. "Matt’s worried about you. You should let him know that you’re alright."
"I’m not alright Ardelia. He’s right. I did break easily. I threw everything away in a heartbeat." Clarice was struggling, her voice was coming out high pitched.
Ardelia gripped her shoulder tightly. "Clarice, he was messing with you. This is exactly what he wants. You to doubt yourself. You didn’t stay of your own free will. He kept you drugged, hypnotized and by the time he stopped using that stuff, you were too confused to know what the hell was going on. Come on. Let’s get you out of here."
The weeks passed in relative quiet. Ardelia was moving into the last month of her pregnancy and the house was starting to feel small around Clarice. She was jumpy and anxious. She ran everyday, but was only allowed to do it in the Hoover Building’s gym. She felt eyes on her all the time, and sometimes imagined that they were his eyes.
"How are you feeling?" Matt whispered into her hair. He had been great the last few weeks. Starling stared into his dark brown eyes and smiled.
"Tired, and a little sore."
She could almost hear Matt blushing in the gloomy bedroom, and it made her smile again.
"This is a little strange, with George and Ardelia in the next room."
Clarice sat up a little so she could look down on him. "Scared mom and dad are gonna catch us?"
Matt’s responding laugh was cut short by the sound of movement downstairs. He sat bolt upright, so did Clarice.
"It has to be Ardelia. She says she gets hungry at night." Clarice’s voice was strained and whispered.
Matt got out of bed and got his gun out of his pile of clothes. Pulling his pants on, he padded quietly down the hall to George and Ardelia’s room. They were both fast asleep. He woke them up and explained what he had heard, then went back to Starling.
"They were both asleep. I want you to take this." He handed her a spare weapon.
Clarice nodded slowly, not daring to comprehend.
"I don’t want you to worry. It’s probably nothing. But be prepared."
He pulled her to him and kissed her quickly, then he was gone.
George and Ardelia were getting up as quickly and quietly as they could. Matt had gone to check on the surveillance team posted outside the house. Ardelia was heading for Starling’s room when George stopped her.
"Here take this." He handed her a panic button. "I meant to give it to Clarice. Press it and the cops will be notified and I’ll come running. You two stay together, be careful."
Ardelia clung to him for a moment. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
George searched every room carefully, nothing. He went outside to find Matt.
Clarice was pacing her room like a caged animal.
"I can’t stand this. I should have gone down there with them."
"Clarice . . ."
"I don’t want to just hide up here."
Ardelia took a deep breath. "Alright. We’ll go downstairs, but we stay together."
They descended the stairs into the living room. From there they could see the front door was open.
George ran smack into Matt as he was coming back to the house.
"Their car was empty."
George’s heart began pounding. Ardelia had pressed the panic button.
Ardelia and Clarice moved into the dinning room. Ardelia reached out to turn on the lights and . . . nothing.
Ardelia went back for the flashlight she kept in the drawer of the hall table. When she turned around she was alone. Ardelia swore under breath and turned the flashlight on. She went back into the dinning room and her heart almost stopped. Ardelia pressed the small button that George had given her.
Dr. Lecter was using Clarice as a shield. In the dim light Ardelia could see the blade of the harpy at her throat.
"Agent Mapp, how kind of you to join us."
She trained the barrel of her gun on him. "Drop your weapon, she’s a Federal Agent"
Dr. Lecter laughed. "That’s not entirely true, is it?" He pushed the edge of the knife further into Starling’s throat, a small bead of blood appeared. "Please, put your gun on the floor and slide it to me."
Ardelia hesitated for a moment.
"Clarice is waiting." His voice was that of a parent to a naughty child.
Ardelia saw that with his other hand, he had raised Starling’s gun at her
She lowered her weapon and slid it across the floor.
"Thank you. Now, I would advise your companions to do the same."
Ardelia winced. She hadn’t even been aware that George and Matt had entered the room. The sounds of their guns skittering across the floor squeezed her heart like a vise.
Dr. Lecter brought his face close to Starling’s, keeping his eyes and gun trained on the others.
"It seems we are at an impasse, little Starling."
"Dr. Lecter." Clarice’s voice startled Ardelia.
"So, formal, Agent Starling. Do you think your poor, dead daddy is just cringing in his grave? Knowing that I’ve touched you?" He sniffed her hair and lowered his voice. "Knowing that I’ve tasted you? How did you feel, Clarice, when you realized that I wasn’t coming to your rescue? Did you feel hollow inside? Were you desperate to get it all back? Your values, your career, your perfect sense of justice?" He turned his strange eyes on Ardelia. "Did you tell them everything? Hmm? How Mr. Krendler tasted?"
Starling squeezed her eyes shut and gagged. The monster holding her smiled.
"Dr. Lecter," Ardelia’s voice was too loud. "We have back up coming. You have nowhere to go. Turn yourself in."
The doctor seemed to ponder her words. His eyes were boring through her. He seemed to be looking into her soul. Ardelia wished she could see George’s face, but she didn’t dare move. She looked at Starling instead. Her eyes were wide with fear. Ardelia should have done better. They should have taken her somewhere else. She would never forgive herself if Clarice was hurt.
"Dr. Lecter," Starling’s voice was hoarse. "Please. Don’t do this. Please."
"Don’t beg, Clarice." He barked with annoyance. "Do not lower yourself further."
Her eyes were glassy with unshed tears. "Take me then. Take me and they’ll let you leave."
"Clarice, no." Ardelia was panicked. She dropped a hand to her side. A sharp pain had ripped through her abdomen.
Dr. Lecter smiled at Clarice’s offer. "But, my dear. I’ve already had you."
He struck with blinding speed. Burying his teeth in the flesh behind Starling’s ear and dragging the blade across her throat. Clarice’s eyes flew up and her hand shot to her throat.
He shoved her into Ardelia and moved back into the shadows.
Ardelia was frantic.
"I’m sorry Ardelia." Starling whispered.
Words of comfort died on Ardelia’s lips as Starling gripped her hard, pinning her arms. With mounting horror Ardelia saw that Starling’s throat was unmarked and she had her gun.
Using Ardelia as a shield she shot George twice and turned as Matt dove for his gun. Starling’s bullet caught him in the back of the head. She swept Ardelia’s feet out from under her and slammed her onto the floor. Ardelia struggled for breath and felt a hot gush between her legs.
"The baby." She whispered.
She never felt the blade sink into her flesh as Starling cut her throat. She could feel the blood draining from her body. She tried to turn her head to see George but it was too heavy. Her body felt cold and she could feel the contractions growing weaker. Involuntary tears ran down her face. The last thing she saw before she slipped into the blackness, was Clarice and Lecter locked in an embrace.
Back up arrived on the scene ten minutes later. Clarice Starling and Dr. Lecter were nowhere to be found. Road blocks were set up, all airport had extra security checks, but they were gone. Vanished as completely as fog under the sun.
Special Agent Matt Yost was pronounced dead at the scene. Assistant Director George Carlton had been hit once in the face and once in the neck. His left cheek was totally disintegrated. He fought to live for three days before his body gave up the fight. Special Agent Ardelia Mapp lost 25% of her blood supply. The baby was saved and put into ICU. It was a boy. Agent Mapp was in a coma for three weeks. When she finally came around it was still several more weeks before her family told her about George.
She never cried. She never spoke to any of the doctors. When she handed in her resignation to the FBI, no one questioned the decision. She never talked about that night. Her heart had been broken. She found comfort in her son, George. But, at night she was still haunted by a vision of Clarice. Smiling at her, her own blood on her lips.
Starling sat next to the cold window of their apartment in St. Petersburg. The snow was falling lightly. Her hair cascaded around her shoulders in deep titian curls. Her features were altered, but the powder burn remained.
"‘Per che cosa è la libertà ma unhampered la traduzione della volontà nell'atto,’" she quoted. Not turning to face the dark, lithe figure who entered the room.
That she could sense his presence did not surprise him. She often did. He stood quietly, not interrupting the struggle within her. She would find comfort herself, if it was to be had.
She stood, moving toward him. She kissed him lightly on the cheek.
"I need to go out."
He held her eyes with his own. "A walk would do you good my dear."
Dr. Lecter moved to the window when he heard the front door close behind her. He looked down on her and watched until she disappeared into the swirling snow.
It was dark when Clarice returned home. Her nose and ears were tinged pink from the cold. The demons she’d wrestled had been exorcised, and she felt, once more, that precious sense of belonging.
She found him in the library, a glass of brandy in his hands as he stared into the fire. For a moment she didn’t move. She simply looked at him. The man and the monster. Her captor and her captive.
His eyes followed her as she moved to sit at his feet. Resting her head against his knee, she too gazed into the flames. He passed her the glass of brandy and she sipped it, thankful for the warmth. He rested his hand on her crown of curls. Neither of them spoke for a long time. It was he who finally broke the silence.
"And how has your experiment left you?" His voice was soothing.
"I had a chance that most people never get. I went back to see where the other choice would have led me." Her voice was warm and liquid.
"And where did it lead you?"
"Back to you. I would have suffocated in that life. The choice I made was the only one that would have kept me alive."
He caressed her hair softly, as one might a sleeping child.
"And what of your friend Ardelia? How do you feel about her?"
Starling was quiet. She would always feel a stab of regret over Ardelia, but it was the price she had paid to finally be at peace with her choice. She turned to look into his eyes. She saw the sparks flying in the maroon depths and knew again that he was her home.
"When we left before, I still had one foot in my old life and one foot in this one. I needed to go back. Ardelia was the last tie I had. I needed to find out if I could bring myself to break it. Here, with you, I am at peace."
A smile danced across his lips. She smiled back and then returned her gaze to the fire. He brushed his fingers against the still tender flesh behind her ear. She inhaled sharply. He moved his hand to trace the, now, nearly invisible line of the scar that ran down her face.
He remembered that day in Rome. He knew he had to let her go, it was what she’d needed. But, he had still wanted to tear the men to pieces with his bare hands. To taste their blood. He had slipped back into the shadows biding his time. He was not unaccustomed to the feeling of rage, but it’s strength on her behalf was startling, almost frightening. Three of the five police officers who had attacked her had disappeared mysteriously. The last two would join them soon enough.
He had never doubted that she would signal her desire to return. Even as the months had stretched to years. When he had found her ad in the China Mail, he had not been surprised.
He reached for her hand and brought it to his lips. Starling smiled. She was glad to be home.