Cupping Hannibal's face within weathered hands, mother exclaimed, "It is you! I wasn't convinced the man I'd met and spoken to was Hannibal Lecter. From your crimes, I wouldn't think you could be capable of the compassion you've shown."
"My crimes? So called, if you ask me. I am human, mother. I am capable of a great many things. Some of it very good, and as you've mentioned, some very bad, not unlike your God."
She patted his cheeks as she spoke, "He is your God, too. You mentioned you were attempting to earn your place in his kingdom."
"Yes, I did mention that, and you agreed to help me, did you not?"
He watched her eyes.
Sparkling with the joy of recognition, she patted his arm before settling fully in her seat.
"Yes, I did agree, but that was before I knew who you were."
Ever the gentleman, Hannibal remained standing until she was seated. When she appeared comfortable, he gracefully sidestepped between the chair and the table. It took a moment to adjust to the freedom of unchained legs, his stride somewhat shortened, but his movements were fluid. Smooth.
"Does it matter who I am? Paul, or Saul of Tarsus as he was previously know, was a persecutor of Jews before heeding his call."
Nodding, she agreed, "You're right. It doesn't matter."
The rhythm of prison life had taken hold in the short weeks he'd been incarcerated. Institutionalization was a sense memory he wore like a shawl. Draped over him while held, he'd shrug it from his shoulders the moment he found freedom once more.
"So, here we sit. You with my life in your hands, and me with my wife, my entire family, in the balance of Justice's scales."
"Freedom is a precious thing to the young."
"I'm not young, mother."
"Age is a state of mind, my son. Your body may be advancing in years, but by the look on your wife's face, she's more than content. And your son…he's a beautiful boy. Those wide blue eyes…so full of love and hope…yes, freedom is a precious thing."
Freedom. It could come soon if this meeting went well. If not, the seeds sown with Benjamin would reap rewards. A two-pronged flanking maneuver was better than a direct frontal assault.
Mother looked down and with the frown of a woman who'd spent many years keeping house, smoothed her hands across the surface to sweep crumbs from the table.
"Someone has been eating here. They could have cleaned their mess, at least."
As the heat of her flesh warmed the metal surface, Hannibal's nostrils flared.
"Tuna, but not with mayonnaise."
He breathed deeply.
"Balsamic and lemon vinaigrette with a hint of freshly cracked black pepper."
His eyes watering slightly, a crook of his index finger brushed aside a drop of lachrymal fluid. Not a tear. Hannibal Lecter no longer cries.
"Judging by the response of my eyes, red onion slices as well. I hope the person had mints handy. Tuna and onion, while a tasty combination, wreaks havoc on one's breath. Perhaps they found their client offensive and sought to offend, as well. Anything can be a weapon. Even tuna breath."
Laughing so hard she snorted, the elderly woman joked, "Tuna breath as a weapon. It's just too funny!" Wiping laugh-tears from her eyes, she added, "You're an impressive man with many God given gifts."
"Thank you for saying so, mother."
Mother. It had been years since he'd uttered the word with such frequency, but reinforcing that connection suited his purpose.
Fearlessly, she leaned across the table and looked closely at his face. "And your eyes are incredible."
"Nothing more than heredity passed to me from my mother's line. My daughter's are similar, though thankfully not as intense."
"Thankfully? Why? Your eyes sparkle like rubies. I'd think it would be very attractive on a young lady, especially if she applies her makeup to highlight them."
With a well-timed sigh to add an air of nostalgia, he replied, "It was a gift my mother possessed. Eyes sparkling like jewels in the sun. I have felt her loss keenly since the birth of my own daughter. I see her reflected in my baby's eyes. You are of a similar age to what she would have been had she lived past my eighth birthday."
"And that's why you helped me?"
"Your distress brought her to mind and I thought a kindness to you would be beneficial to us both."
Barely blinking herself, she commented, "It was very kind…very kind…and your eyes…if I had seen them that night, I would have known who you were. Perhaps I might not have spoken to you. In this setting they're comforting, but I was vulnerable that night and so very frightened. I might have turned away and rejected your help. They are quite remarkable, but I understand why you cover them. You're judged now, not by your deeds, but by the fear people feel when they see you."
"Yes, that is why I effort to cover them on occasion. My eyes have long made me the focus of unwanted attention. Red eyes. Devil. Demon. Monster. Variations on a theme, my actions of late are an attempt to remove the stigma for the sake of my children. I would like the Lecter name to carry the noble bearing of its history."
"Red can also represent love, passion. I'm sure that's what your wife sees."
Forcing a blush to his cheeks, Hannibal replied, "Yes. We are very much in love."
"They've called you a dangerous monster, yet she loves you and you love her. You contradict everything that is said about you with your every deed."
Reaching across the table, palms upward, Hannibal took her hands in his. Her skin was paper thin, loose, and slipped over her bones like an ill-fitted glove.
"What does it matter what they say? Does your experience with me tell you I'm a danger?"
"No, but it isn't up to me. God has motives beyond human comprehension. It is not for us to judge."
"But it is for you to judge as I have placed myself at your mercy, mother. I trust your heart more than theirs. Will you be my judge in this?"
"God is your only judge, my son, for only he knows your soul. Have you changed, I wonder? Have you been redeemed?"
"We discussed my reclamation over the phone, yes? You saw my Clarice. She is my redemption… my soul. I have found heaven in her arms."
"Yes. I can see the love in your eyes, hers, as well. You obviously have a very happy marriage, but even Hitler had a wife. Women have loved monsters before."
Yes, mother, they have but my Clarice is a woman of exceptional character. From what you've heard of her, do you think she would have chosen me if I were not living a just life?"
Just. What a subjective term.
She watched him with a careful eye.
"Maybe…maybe not. If I asked you a direct question, would you answer it?"
Softening the blazing maroon, he prepared.
"Yes. I would."
"Why did you admit who you were? You could have lied to me. I'm old and my memory is very unreliable."
"I have no reason to lie, as I have no guilt in connection with the man's death."
"You didn't go to Connecticut with the intent to kill that man?"
It was a simple question. Honesty was easy.
"No. I did not go to Connecticut to kill that man. He posed no threat to me or to my family."
Separate statements. Both true.
"Your son is very sweet. Mine never had much of a chance; the love was beaten out of him. My fault, I suppose. His father was an alcoholic, very abusive, but being Catholic, I didn't believe in divorce. I thought the Lord would be my guide. I prayed and prayed but it never got better."
"The Lord helps those who help themselves, does he not?"
"Yes, I suppose that is true but I always followed the church's rules."
"Rules are subjective, mother. What one society accepts, another does not. Had you followed what your heart told you at the time, would your actions have been different?"
Regret flashed, as the tears welled in her eyes.
"Yes. I would have stolen away in the night with nothing more than the clothes on my back and my dear, sweet baby boy in my arms. I should have done anything to get him away from that man."
Unchained because of her trust, Hannibal reached into his pocket, withdrew a crisp handkerchief and bowing his head, offered it to her. If it were in him to feel pity, he would have felt it for this woman.
"And if you left, would your son have turned out differently? Do you think a son is so effected by his father it is reflected in his personality, even at a very young age?"
Dabbing the handkerchief to her eyes, she breathed deeply, air wheezing into her chest as if drawn in by an aged bellows.
Yes. I believe that. I do."
"When you looked upon my son, did you see a boy who is abused or harmed in any way?"
"No. He seems very happy and well adjusted."
"He is well loved and cared for by a family who adores him. Do you think I would do something to jeopardize his happiness or disrupt his security?"
Watching his eyes, perhaps she sought doubt or guilt. There was none to be found.
"No. I think you'd do anything to keep him safe. I doubt you'd risk his happiness, especially for a man you had no connection to."
Good. Exactly what he wanted to hear.
"And, furthering that thought, is it not likely that an acquaintance who found himself in over his head might shift blame from himself to someone like me?"
He didn't move. He didn't blink. Slowly a smile emerged as if floating to the surface, revealing itself.
"I'm Hannibal Lecter. Serial Killer. Monster. I'd be the perfect scapegoat, wouldn't you say?"
Nodding, she agreed, "Yes. Yes, I can see that! If someone wanted to escape a crime, implicating you would deflect attention."
"It is a scenario that will play itself out many times over the course of my life, I'm sure."
"It isn't fair. You paid your debt to society. A Presidential pardon no less. That is an impressive thing."
"Yes, I have paid my debt, though I wasn't pardoned. My sentence was commuted."
"As a thank you to all the help you've given saving lives?"
Once more, Hannibal forced his cheeks to blush.
"Yes, mother. I take pleasure in assisting the FBI with cases. It's a way of giving back to society, don't you think? Far more practical than languishing here, in prison."
"Can you promise me that you will never take another life?"
"Because I am a man of my word. If my children or my wife were at risk, I would not hesitate to defend against an attack."
"Yes, I wouldn't blame you for that. Will you promise me that you won't take another life unless you are certain you are justified?"
Brilliant wording. He might have written that as a public declaration himself, had she asked it of him.
"Yes, mother. I would never risk the happiness of my family. If a killing were not just, I would refrain."
"Your word, Hannibal. Do I have it?"
"Yes, mother. You have my word."
She patted his hand and sat back in her chair.
"What if I told everyone of your generosity? Surely any man showing such compassion couldn't be considered a threat. Announcing it might bring you favor."
"Not with the one I'd like, however." His head angled, his passive smile disarming, he spoke, "I've told you how I felt…if my generosity were public, any favor I might find with the almighty would be gone."
"Yes, if you received praise for your acts, that would be the only benefit received."
"So, you see my predicament. If I announce my generosity, I might clear my name but I would be sullying the reason for the gift. I'd rather be imprisoned than dishonor my almsgiving. Peter denied the Lord three times. I don't wish to deny favor by making a public announcement of it. You see, mother? Why I've turned to you for guidance?"
The elderly woman stood, walked around the table and embraced Hannibal.
"I would be proud to call you son, but not publicly, for it would harm you."
He clutched her hands in his and kissed them.
"Thank you, mother."
She walked to the door and opened it. Standing in the doorway, she announced, "This is not my son. If I had seen eyes such as his, poor and unreliable as my memory is, I'd remember them."
Leaning against a wall, Pearsall shagged a bit further before pushing himself to stand.
"You're sure? It's not him?"
"The man I saw had deep, soulful brown eyes. This man's eyes are striking. Unforgettable." She turned from Pearsall and addressed Clarice.
"Go, Mrs. Lecter. Spend a few minutes alone with your husband. Bring the boy with you. I'm sure he'd love to hug his daddy, who loves him very, very much."
Reaching out to shake the woman's hand, Clarice offered, "Thank you. I appreciate you taking the time to help us."
Devyni approached and bowed.
"Thank you very much for speaking with my daddy and for not being afraid of him. Some people are, you know. You're very brave."
He then extended his hand. Taking his hand, the woman bent low.
"You're a very sweet and polite boy. Your parents must be very proud."
Devyni leaned around the woman to look at his father.
"Are you proud of me, Daddy? I've been trying to represent you very well while you're busy helping the police."
"I am more proud of you than I have ever been of anything, my son."
The woman stepped to the side and scooted Devyni forward.
"Go. Visit with your daddy."
Devyni bowed once more.
"It's been a pleasure. Excuse me. I'd like to hug my daddy now."
Pearsall cleared his throat.
"Ah-hem, anybody gonna ask me what I think? We're all just tossing procedures out the goddamned window?"
Devyni asserted, "You aren't supposed to say bad words, especially not in front of ladies. Didn't your daddy teach you that?"
"What? My daddy?" Throwing his hands up in the air, Pearsall turned in a circle, mumbling, "Even the kid is taking a shot. I'm getting to old for this. Too damned old for this."
Until the next chapter, my friends!