The summer of Will’s seventeenth birthday saw the hottest temperature on record in the Florida Keys, 99 degrees even without the humidity. Hot enough to fry a dozen eggs before dawn.
It should’ve been hellish, but Will loved the sticky, uncomfortable sensation of sweat sliding down his nape, only to evaporate within the minute, leaving trails of salt behind.
By nightfall, he could furtively lick his tanned arms and think of the sea while tasting it on his skin. Endless days of fishing and bartering with old man Beck for engine parts and swimming with a neighbor’s golden retriever named Bubba.
A decade and a half later, it’s only natural he’d come back to the place he felt most at home.
(Too bad the Keys don’t want him anymore than they did up North.)
Hannibal’s flat-out gone the day before their next appointment, and he hears Alana going just short of berserk after he calls, standing outside in the dirty slush outside Hannibal’s empty office building, Gothic façade imposing yet listless without its most intimidating feature.
They’re still sleeping together, that’s clear enough by the naked concern in Alana’s voice that has nothing more to do with fear for his lack of commitment than genuine fear for his life, but her anxiety does little to touch Will’s, for once. He slides down onto the slippery doorstep, its welcome mat sprinkled with tiny ice crystals, uncaring for how it soaks into the seat of his pants. Alana’s still near hysterical on the phone, and it drops from his hand.
He’d found a rag in his living room this morning, that hadn’t been there last week. Usually he recycled t-shirts or old dish towels, but he’d never owned anything that was such a bright red.
It could have been smeared with old grease, but then again—.
Hannibal’s basement door had been unlocked for him to find, three days ago. An honest mistake or a calculated ploy, he doesn’t know, showing up unexpected with a stupid offer and an even stupider truth: Jack did not believe Will’s assertion that Hannibal was the Ripper, but he was launching a quiet investigation anyway, because he had no viable suspects and Hannibal fit the profile.
Better to do your homework than to be sorry later.
Standing there in Hannibal’s kitchen with a newly minted house key (honestly, Will had tried to kill him here before, did the man have a death wish?) and a bottle of cheap wine and no underwear on beneath his worn corduroy pants, he’d expected maybe a long drawn out conversation and a painful lay afterwards. Instead, he’d been lead down into a torture chamber, and then inexplicably led back up, up, and into the monster’s dining room. Not as a flayed and cooked centerpiece, but as a friend.
(Well, they’d gotten rid of his encephalitis, but, Hannibal’s voice whispers still in his head, Mental illness cannot be cured.)
“Oh God,” he trembles, lying there with the frost and Hannibal, wreaking havoc on his imagination, completely in absentia. “What the hell did I do?”
Despite having a few close and trustworthy friends and more acquaintances than a Vanderbilt, Hannibal isn’t officially reported missing until a week after he’s disappeared.
Bedelia du Maurier, who had walked into the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, who had tugged on Will’s heartstrings with a scrap of belief in his innocence, is the one to call Jack Crawford and tell him that Hannibal has not shown up to his session and that she is worried about his wellbeing.
All of this, she says with the careful laissez faire attitude of a tired spouse who does not think their loved one going missing a considerable loss.
Jack puts holds on Hannibal’s bank accounts (the ones he knows about) and his passport, but no one tries to access any of the money or try to travel using Hannibal’s documents. His credit cards aren’t stolen, his phone won’t ping.
At night, Will swallows half a bottle of convenience store whiskey and a bunch of two ounce vodka shots, tiny containers rattling as he tosses them into the bin with the rest of their erstwhile companions.
He looks at the bloody—fuck, that is blood, he can smell it from here, or is he really going crazy this time—red fabric on his floor, thinks, are those my fingerprints? Is that his blood?
Still at his desk at midnight, Jack Crawford mulls over everything Will Graham has ever said to incriminate Hannibal Lecter, a slew of the Ripper’s victim photos sitting on his desktop, assorted case files spread out across his desk.
He avoids looking at Miriam’s on principle, although he is certain she died—alone, in so much pain—years ago.
He weighs the probability of Hannibal running, how the guilty tend to flee, versus whatever Will is hiding, whether Will was the one to warn him in the first place.
The Ripper did not shy or find threat in police investigation.
There had been no more Ripper murders since Will’s release from prison, since Hannibal’s disappearance.
Jack sits there for hours racking up Quantico’s power bill and getting no closer to a solution than when a bright young recruit had first been called to his office, looked him in the eye and called him “the guru”. She would’ve recently celebrated her fifth anniversary as an agent, and every missing year feels like one cut from Jack’s own life expectancy, and he hopes that’s enough, because it’s too late to offer her anything better.
Will knows a lot about forensic evidence collection, knows enough to fool most teams, maybe even Price and Zeller.
He would’ve worn gloves, worn clothes less likely to shed fibers, nothing with dog hair on it. Scrubbed the floors, washed down the basement, bleached whatever he could and triple rinsed to remove residue.
“I take the paring knife from its block—There are three microfiber blocks, two on the counter and one on the island, and no one will notice if a single blade is missing. My knife is meant to slice through things that are easy to cut, but in this house, it is kept just as sharp as the cleaver.
“I raise the knife to your throat. I tear through your carotid artery and your jugular vein in homage to the carnage we witnessed when we first met. You appreciate the symmetry, and you smile at me for a long time after you are dead.
“Even after you take your last breath, your eyes are still bright because I am the last thing you wanted to see. I am all the currency you need to pay the ferryman to take you across the River of the Dead.”
(This is not all entirely accurate. Will’s corduroys had been infested with dog hair, and he hadn’t combed his hair in the morning, if there had been a body to find, something would have fallen to incriminate him, but there is no body and Will cannot remember anything after dinner that night. Can’t remember if he’d gone back before dawn and really slit his psychiatrist’s throat.
This is not entirely accurate, he thinks, looking at his doctor’s card and tracing the letters of Hannibal’s name with his index finger, knowing they can’t possibly rearrange to spell the word soulmate, but feeling the implications of it all the same.)
Will didn’t believe in fairy tales, though he realized that sometimes the wolves and witches and murderous gods won. Innocents were savaged, children got eaten, and deities took their sacrifices, whether people wanted them to or not.
That’s a lot what this feels like, he thinks, a helpless captive hanging over a host of saliva-coated teeth, waiting for a great, fabled beast to swallow him whole.
“You should take a vacation, Will. You’re looking…exhausted, more so than usual,” Jack says, does not recommend that it be to a hospital, mental or otherwise. “Come back in a week or two, I’ll have Harvey take over your classes.”
Will doesn’t know if Jack’s really on his side, or if he’s watching to see what Will is going to do, where he goes (if he goes back to the scene of the crime, or, by all luck, to the shallow grave he’s no doubt dug after the crime of passion that is killing one’s psychiatrist. Or maybe Jack thinks he’s a psychopath with a grudge, and premeditation does factor in beyond the stress that Hannibal put him through).
So, Will says a very meaningful and very private fuck you by doing neither, booking a plane ticket to Miami and spending a leisurely morning driving down to the Keys, stopping at every hole in the wall and bait and tackle along the way, appreciating that the quality of every product offered gets better the smaller and outwardly shittier the shops get.
He smells like seafood and rolled cigarettes by the time he makes it past Marathon, drives into Key West reeking of old sweat though it’s barely midday. An old island family who works in hotels is having some kind of private gathering, and the town’s half empty, everyone down at their own private beach, is the explanation he gets when he has to wait half an hour at the Sunset Grove Motel front desk while he waits for the interim manager to stop fucking some poor soul in the backroom.
“You know there’s other places, if you didn’t want to keep ringing the fucking bell,” the boy says, not old enough to drink but old enough to want to.
“You’re the cheapest place,” Will shrugs, and the boy snorts.
When Will opens the door to his room, the AC is blowing hot air in and he sees a flash of dull brown-red on the bedspread, his heart stopping for a moment until he resolves the image fully, probably a menstrual mishap (hopefully not worse) and not the terrible Schrödinger’s cat of forensic evidence still sitting in his living room, either too risky or too much like a trophy to get rid of, even now.
There are palm trees outside of his window, and their fronds tap incessantly at the pane, swaying lazily with the muggy breeze. He tells himself that’s why he doesn’t sleep.
Gets so good at it by midnight that he almost believes it, too.
A bunch of idiots have overfished near the boat ramp, so the bay’s been closed to it for the next few months, and the next best spot is off Key Largo, but Will suddenly doesn’t feel like it, hot sun on his back so familiarly it makes his skin crawl with imagined cold.
Things are the same here, but there’s something fundamentally different about him now, having killed the man he merely meant (but did he?) to trap.
I’m not a hunter, or a fisherman, anymore. All the game’s been had; pond’s dried up, he thinks.
Are you losing your resolve? comes a second voice, unbidden. Are the ends no longer motivating now that the means have proved so difficult?
What ends, he snaps, probably looking half insane sitting there on the deserted boat ramp, cigarette tucked behind his ear, sweating through flannel he’d brought by instinct rather than practicality, glad for the shorts he’d unpacked from the attic before he left, not glad at how pale his legs look floating in strange ripples beneath the water.
Patience is a virtue, Will, he hears, in that voice, and his father’s, too. He remembers a lot of what’s been said throughout his life, but his family, despite him never connecting with the idea of it, provides the dialogue for the most thumbed-through transcript of life lessons he has.
All good things to those who wait.
“Shit. Two bodies in one weekend. What are the fucking odds,” Will hears the sheriff say, a deputy beside him with a greenish tinge to his skin as they try to keep curious tourists and scowling locals from the restaurant parking lot, another deputy parallel-parking his truck across the driveway to block the way. Hunger having driven him out of the motel for something better than week-old sandwiches and lukewarm bottled drinks, Will is starting to regret his decision.
“Could be drugs,” Will suggests, normally one to keep his head down outside of his jurisdiction but easily seeing they’re in over their heads, teaching instinct coming before propriety. “It’s an easy shot to Cuba, so if you’ve got any usual suspects, I suggest you bring them in.”
He shows his FBI ID to emphasize that he means no harm, he’s just here as a coincidental observer on vacation, and the deputy raises an eyebrow but shakes his hand.
“Uh, ME’s not here yet, but I think it might be a little more personal than that,” the sheriff says, stepping away to give Will a better view of what had initially just been the impression of a thick spill of blonde hair, splayed legs, and a discarded apron with the restaurant logo poorly drawn in silver Sharpie. “Her heart’s missing.”
Suddenly, Will doesn’t give a shit about any of that, because, tucked in the girl’s limp hand is a very familiar piece of red fabric, smeared with blood that’s definitely fresh.
Will knows there’s nothing but empty air at his back, the small crowd having dispersed when the second deputy had gotten out of his truck to shoo them away, but he doesn’t want to turn around at the prickle on his nape, too afraid of what he’ll see.
A bead of sweat slips down Will’s spine, leaving a trail of salt behind.