For Anna

Always

THE PENITENT MAN

Hannibal, though not a fan of watching from the sidelines, deferred to his wife. With the help of Logan, Devyni and Angel in tow, he prepared to set out for an evening in Paris. The children seemed satisfied with the excuse their mother wasn't feeling well. "We'll bring you back some chicken soup, Mommy," Devyni called out, waving goodbye as he chased Logan down the hall. Angel's response was far more pragmatic. "Mommy's a grown up. She can call room service without asking permission."

"Your mother has your Auntie Dee if she needs anything, chicken soup included," Hannibal assured.

"Good. Mommy's fine. Let's go ride the merry-go-round."

"The merry-go-round if you behave at the museum, my Angel."

"Fine." Angel huffed indignantly as she grasped Hannibal by the hand. Leveraging the weight of her small frame she leaned hard, attempting to pull Hannibal through the door by their joined hands. Looking to his wife, Hannibal winked and mouthed, "Save me," while he allowed his daughter to tug him over the threshold. Clarice mouthed, "You're on your own, H." just as the pair disappeared through the door.

"I'll be worried sick, Clarice," Hannibal called back, envy dripping from his eyes knowing her hunt was about to begin. Watching Angel yanking him down the hall, Clarice called after him, "Sorry, H, you might be worried sick, but I'm too sick to worry," laugh-coughing twice for effect as she closed the door. Both hands pressed on the closed door, she lowered her head between her arms and continued to laugh, "He's in for it with that one."

"Angel is a piece of work, but she's well behaved," Ardelia assured as she began donning surgical gloves. "You're bad, teasing Hannibal like that. You know it's killing him to stay away from this. Evidence. Building a case file. He lives for this."

"And I want him to keep on living. Free. You should've seen Angel tugging him the length of the hallway. She's merciless, that one." Clarice turned from the door and, still giggling over the image in her head, began donning surgical gloves. "And I would feel bad if I didn't think it might actually kill him to be involved. Honestly, he's just gotta deal this time."

"True. Well, let's move quickly and see what we can find out."

Clarice began assembling the bags of evidence. The pair carried them into the main living area of the suite, clearing away a coffee table to make room for their process. Clarice took a sheet of plastic from a bag. She and Ardelia used it to cover the rug.

"Do you know where they're going?" Ardelia asked.

"Nope. Not aside from the merry-go-round and whatever museum H decides to haunt today. I swear if it's the Louvre the kids will have a fit. He's there every single day. Sometimes he goes in alone until closing. I only insisted that he not return to the hotel without giving me the head's up when he's on his way back."

"Smart. Better not to know. Plausible deniability," Ardelia suggested as she reached for her laptop.

Clarice placed the gathered evidence on the edge of the plastic sheet, preparing to sort it out. "Plausible deniability is good on both ends, not that H needs it. He beats lie detectors and truth serum with his eyes closed."

"And has many times," Ardelia laughed. "He gave them a recipe for dip. That was a rich one."

Clarice paused, her expression genuine as she revealed with a whisper, "Funny, isn't it? They thought he evaded those questions, but he was actually telling the truth."

Ardelia stopped midway through the action of tugging her laptop from its case. "Shut up. They asked him for the location of a body. He gave them a freaking dip recipe. How is that telling the truth?"

"Human being dip rather than bean dip. That student blended very nicely, I'm told. Made a lovely pâté, as well, from H's description."

Ardelia shuddered as she teased, "And you let him kiss you with that mouth?"

"Frequently. Among other things," Clarice laughed, channeling Hannibal's devilish wink for effect.

Ardelia began tapping away at her computer, shaking her head as she laughed, "Yup. You're meant for each other. No doubt about it."

"No doubt about it." Clarice began upending evidence bags, sorting them out into small piles. She called out the contents of each, Ardelia entering each piece into a file as if cataloguing evidence. The pair then sitting cross-legged on the floor as they worked. Clarice scoured through the material she'd removed from Popil's apartment while Ardelia continued cataloguing each item on a spreadsheet. They worked together as if not a day had passed since they were trainees fighting their way through the FBI Basic Field Training Course together.

"Like old times," Ardelia commented. "Do you ever miss it?"

Clarice didn't look up, directing her attention to the work of the moment. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't."

Ardelia leaned toward her. Seeking her eyes, she whispered as if Hannibal were in the next room, "Regrets?"

The moment Clarice made eye contact, she asserted, "None."

Ardelia nodded, "Good, cuz I'd kick his ass if he made you regret a moment of it. If he ever hurts you, I swear—"

Clarice interrupted, "He'd hurt himself first—already proved it." Clarice held up her arm and pointed to the part of her wrist where Hannibal had severed his hand to escape.

Shrinking back, Ardelia cringed. "Yeah, human being dip is one thing, but that whole hand thing still freaks me out. I went through all the photos of the scene just to check things out. The blood spray alone…"

"Like a fountain." Clarice looked off at nothing in particular, brought back to the moment as if reliving it. "I still can't believe he did that. After I rejected him so cruelly. I doubt I'll ever fully process that level of self-sacrifice. I wouldn't have done it for him."

Ardelia shook her head, disagreeing, "Maybe not then, but you would now. You'd die for each other. That's something most people want, but never get. Someone who would do anything to protect them. It's rare. I get it, I mean, you've been through a lot together over the years— separately and together. Nothing in this life comes without a price, so you've both earned the happiness you share. I used to think it was crazy you wound up together, but now I know that you couldn't avoid it if you tried. As if it was always meant to be."

Always…

"H uses the word 'always' whenever he talks about our love. I used to think it was corny— old-fashioned, you know. Now I treasure that promise with every beat of my heart. No matter what happened…no matter the distance between us— no matter the anger, the separation or the fear, no matter how much time had passed— years, even, I always knew wherever he was, he was waiting for me. Always. There's a depth of feeling and of safety in that word I didn't understand when I was younger. Now, I can't imagine facing life without it."

Clarice saw a softening in Ardelia's eyes she wasn't accustomed to seeing. "I wish I could say I understood that kind of commitment, Clarice. Logan is amazing and we have a great marriage. We really have the best time together and I love him with all I am, but I don't see him chopping off a hand for me. Maybe he would, or maybe we just aren't at that level yet. It's no dig on him, or on me. I doubt many people in this world have ever experienced love and loyalty on the level that Hannibal offers. It's near super-human, if you ask me. Like he's from another world. A place and a time none of us understand. Everyone wants that sort of love for themselves, but I don't think many people are willing to pay the cost for a love like that. That sort of thing takes a lot of shared pain and sacrifice. It's extraordinary— it's a curious and truly unique relationship you have. I'm proud to call you my friends."

"Thanks, Dee…that really means a lot. What I have with Hannibal is unique because he is a singular human being. He appreciates things in life most never consider. Hannibal had experienced such life-changing loss it shaped his image of love into something almost holy. He told me once that he recognized it in me, too. The grief of too much love lost. That kind of longing for a love you may never have again— it's a cement that joins people who truly understand it. I would die for him, and he for me. There is security in knowing that. For both of us, I hope."

"Yeah…I get that. I guess at times I envy the absolute devotion I see between the two of you, but not what if cost you both to get to that level."

"The cost is Always. Infinite. Unchanging, no matter what."

"No matter what."

Though it seemed a heavy topic, it didn't feel that way between Ardelia and Clarice. They shared thoughts and feelings without any filter or judgment. The pair chatted as they continued to sift through the evidence—passing things back and forth to sort them. No matter how hard she tried to focus on the evidence, her mind kept floating back to Hannibal.

Focus. Think, Clarice…

Her mind flashed to the last time she saw Hannibal before his escape. His mentoring led her to the answers she'd been seeking. That guidance was still deeply entrenched in her thought processes.

Everything you need to find him is there in those pages.

Then tell me how.

First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?

With that moment in her mind, Clarice asked, "What did Popil do. What did he accomplish— at its most basic level."

"He stole something from Lady Mursaki's grave, then killed a very large man without any sign of struggle."

"That's what gets me most. No struggle. The man was far too physically capable not to have fought hard if he knew he was in danger. And why this particular man? Popil doesn't come across as a cold-blooded killer, so there had to be a greater purpose— one not only connected with Hannibal, but one where he believes this man's murder is a righteous one."

"Righteous, like an execution," Ardelia asked not for Clarice to respond, but to confirm it in her own mind. "I guess that makes sense since he did that during the war. But without a struggle? The victim would to be invited or lured in some way. What would lead a man to his death without struggle?"

"He couldn't have known he was in any danger. It had to be something he would welcome."

"Hard to guess if we don't have any leads on who the dead guy is. Any physical characteristics that would make him stand out? Something we could use as a starting point?"

Well this isn't helping." Clarice pushed a pile of evidence to one side, judging it useless information. "He had calloused hands, like he either worked with them or lifted heavy weights on a regular basis. Other than that, he was absolutely average looking— not homely, but nothing stood out. Like… an almost non-descript human. Honestly, if the name John Doe had actual features, it would look like a dead ringer for him."

Clarice and Ardelia, though sitting amongst the evidence of a brutal murder, burst out laughing. Gallows humor. It's a thing.

"Oh, you're bad, Clarice," Ardelia laughed. "Speaking of the dead, you mentioned seeing the cemetery workers digging graves by hand when you went with Hannibal to Lady Murasaki's gravesite. Maybe the dead man was an employee at the cemetery? Popil dug something up. Connection?"

Clarice tossed a few more pieces into the largest pile, directing Ardelia to classify it as unrelated to the case. Discouraging. "Not sure. Seems a little too on the nose, doesn't it?" Clarice shifted through the evidence as if something might jump off a page. Her intuition worked that way. A clue, almost invisible to others, screamed information at her. She just didn't feel that kind of connection between the dead man and the omamori. "I guess it's as good a place as any to start. Popil did remove the omamori. If he'd been caught in the act of defiling Lady Murasaki's grave, that might make some sense. To be honest, though, the token taken from the grave was far too small to be noticed. Hannibal didn't bury it deeply— just a hole deep enough to safely cover it. There has to be another reason for removing it."

"He dug it up from the ground and took it home with him, Clarice. That object and the murder have to be connected. There was no I.D. on the body? Nothing with a name?"

"I found a blood-soaked note in the trash bin. I was moving so quickly, I bagged it without reading it, so it's possible that's a lead. As for any wallet on the dead guy, if he had one he was probably sitting on it. I searched around him, but couldn't move him too much. He bled out on the chair. Any movement would've been noticeable to a decent forensics team."

"And the note?"

"That's what I'm looking for now." She moved a large envelope, and the bag popped up from the bottom of the pile like a buoy bobbing up from the surf. Clarice reached toward a plastic bag, tugging it from the pile. "Here it is!" Clarice began reading aloud:

To Monsieur Pascal Popil— that I might make honorable amends to you:

I hope this letter finds you well. Please accept my apologies for any impact my past actions have made on your life. I have contacted a person of mutual interest and directed him to meet me at your home, that you may broker a financial agreement that will be beneficial to you both. His name is Augustine Boucher. The name may seem unfamiliar, but I assure you'll recognize him when he arrives.

Regards,

H. Lecter

"I'd send a pic of this in for handwriting analysis— I'm sure Lloyd Bowman would be thrilled to get in on the action, but no one knows his handwriting better than you. Did Hannibal write that note, Clarice?"

"The handwriting might be comparable to H's to the casual observer, but there's a distinctive scroll, an artistic flair in the way that Hannibal writes— especially the letter H, that isn't present on this note. No, Dee. I'm sure he didn't write it." She thought for a moment. Monsieur Boucher. The name was fully unfamiliar to her. No one they'd met in Paris, she was certain of that. "I'm sure we never met the guy. Can you run a search? See if he pops up somewhere?"

Ardelia reached for her laptop and began cross-checking the name. Not an employee of any Paris cemetery, or of any local business that she could find. There were a few YouTube links and some Facebook and Twitter profiles with the same name that Ardelia showed Clarice, but none that matched this particular man. If there was a link from Boucher to her husband, they couldn't find it.

"The addendum to the salutation— that I might make honorable amends. It's oddly placed. This may seem like a casual note, but nothing is unnecessarily formal for H. He's a stickler for decorum. It's as if it's trying too hard to be formal, but written in such a way that, in my mind, insists upon itself. Does that make any sense to you, Dee?"

"Yeah, it screams 'pay attention to me.' Not Hannibal's style unless he's making a point with a kill. But if Hannibal didn't write the note, that would mean either Popil, or possibly the dead guy, must have. Why?"

Clarice stared at the note. Why? What purpose would this serve? "He's drawing a direct evidentiary line from himself to Hannibal. This forms a link. A chain of custody implicating H in something more than just the one dead guy. Popil would know with the snap of a cell phone camera that note could be documented by Boucher before his arrival at the apartment. There was a reason the actual note had to be found. The only reason— H."

Ardelia began tapping away at her laptop, using her active FBI resources to continue the digital search for Augustine Boucher. "Strange that with all of Popil's law enforcement experience he'd attach himself to any interaction with Hannibal. The edge of the paper is torn. You get the notebook it came from?"

Clarice reached across the neat stack of evidence for a sealed bag. It was heavy, causing her to heft it high so as not to contaminate any other evidence. "I took several journals and notebooks. One of them has to be a match." Clarice removed several journals, then reached for the bag containing the note. Slipping it from the plastic bag to get a closer look, she observed one edge was jagged, but the other edge had a sheen to it. It was torn from the pages of a journal with a gilded edge. Looking through each book, she found two with matching metallic edges. The paper was yellowed, with a date printed on the page went back decades. Only one journal fit— a datebook. She and Ardelia sorted through the It was from a diary or journal. Clarice opened the datebook to see if she could match the style and line patterns. The page matched the style of a leather-bound work journal from the Lycée. Recognizing it as the school in which Hannibal excelled as a teen, she'd understood its importance.

She flipped through the pages, reading notes in a hand that was obviously Hannibal's. There were several notes. Details about bodies being prepared for burial. Detailed descriptions of several decapitated remains—guillotine executions, from what the notes explained. These must have been the war criminal judgments overseen by Popil. Clarice knew Hannibal was in charge of preparing those executed bodies for Popil— part of his scholarship to medical school. Each note appeared as if Hannibal had written them, though the characteristics might be described as an earlier evolution of his current handwriting. It was Hannibal's journal. These were Hannibal's notes, details of the lives of each man. Hannibal made notes in the margins, as well. Notes about whether the men had families. Whether or not they'd been ordered or coerced into the roles that eventually caused their executions. Some said guilty as charged. Some said innocent. Innocent, written in Hannibal's unique handwriting. He was passing judgment on Popil in this journal, so many years ago. Popil must have recovered the notebook as part of his early investigations into the butcher, Paul Momund's murder. "Boucher…isn't that French for butcher?" Clarice said aloud.

"Is it?" Ardelia asked. She did a quick online search. "Yup. Boucher. Butcher."

"Dee…use the name Augustine Momund. I think we may have a connection to Paul Momund, the butcher Hannibal killed for insulting Lady Mursaki."

"Hell yeah, Clarice. We have a hit. Augustine Momund. He's got a history of some perverted stuff…mostly voyeurism, though, and a history of drug arrests and petty crimes. Nothing particularly violent, but his crimes stretched back to a juvenile file. Boucher served the majority of his sentences without incident. He'd recently been released from prison on liberation conditionnelle. I guess that's the equivalent to the U.S. parole system. A recent order of arrest has been issued due to the fact that he's now missed several of his mandatory monitoring appointments.

Clarice searched the journal, eventually coming to a section where a page had been torn out. Clarice lined up the ragged side of the note with the torn edge along the inner binding of the journal. A match, but the torn section of note was far smaller than the page should have been. "The note had been larger, so either Popil wanted to keep part of it, or he wanted to hide what was on the missing section." Clarice ran her fingertips across the surface of the next page. She could feel indentations. He'd pressed hard on his pen, probably to keep any tremor from showing in his handwriting. There was a way she could read this, even without the original. She took out her Spyderco and sharpened the edge of a pencil onto the paper, scraping the graphite from the tip. Clarice reached for her purse, searching her belongings until she located an unopened makeup brush.

Using it as she might the brush in a fingerprint kit, she lightly dusted the graphite across the page to reveal the impression made from the missing section. It read: Hannibal Lecter. H. Lecter. Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal Lecter M.D. —the entire section was Hannibal's name repeated over and over again. It wasn't his handwriting, she knew that, but it was close enough to fool a casual observer. "He's been practicing before signing the letter. Popil could add forgery to his list of crimes. Clarice tore that page from the book to hide any evidence of her investigation.

"We have to put these things back as quickly and quietly as we can, then we have to find Popil. If H gets wind of this, he's a dead man."

"You want to put the notebook back? The one with your husband's notes?"

"As easy as it was for me to detect the impressions on this page," she held up the page she'd torn from the book, "a true forensics expert will discover it on the next page just as easily. He pressed hard to hide his essential tremor. I can feel the impressions even through a gloved finger. This adds forgery to the list of Popil's crimes, not to mention it shows Popil recovered this notebook and held onto it for decades. He can't say Hannibal had it. Everything Hannibal owned prior to his incarceration had been seized by the Feds as evidence. He has virtually nothing from his life before the United States. No, this was seized during the Momund investigation. It had to have been. And if the dead guy is Augustine Momund, that connects to H as well. Popil is trying to build a case against H as revenge for the one he couldn't pin to Hannibal years ago."

"Man knows how to hold a grudge," Ardelia commented. "I know revenge is a dish best served cold, but that was just after the war. That's not a grudge, that's a damned lifelong obsession."

"For both men, likely." Clarice pointed to the word 'Innocent' scrolled in blue ink over and over again on several of the victim's autopsy notes. "He can't live with this…having led so many men to the guillotine without more than the testimony of other men."

"Men with spurious reasons for testifying at times, I'm sure."

"The war made monsters out of many. He's made Hannibal the monster of his story. It's too painful to look in the mirror at himself. He's been lauded a hero of the war for too many years. He can't face an alternate narrative."

"Let's pack this up and get to work. You still have the key?"

Clarice searched her purse. The key was missing. "It was here. I know it was."

"You think Hannibal took it?"

"He has no reason to…" Clarice said, half-believing her response.

"No reason we can think of, but no one thinks like him."

"Shit." Clarice ran to the private bathroom she shared with Hannibal. She looked in the cabinets below. Nothing was out of the ordinary. She moved to the kitchen area— Hannibal's domain. High on the shelf was a box. Tucked within the box, a small cache of the supplies she'd used to make the key. Also within the box, a note:

Dearest Clarice,

If you're reading this note, I'm impressed. Either you've gone to the kitchenette to cook a meal (doubtful) or you've discovered that I've copied the key and have removed an additional one from Popil's apartment. No need to change your plans, though perhaps a hint or two might guide your hunt. Look to the portrait of Charles, Duke of Orléans— his connection to John the Fearless as it applies to Amende Honorable, but most especially, his coat of arms.

I am proud of you, my lioness. My cub has indeed become a huntress.

No matter what happens, know that I am ever yours, my Love.

Happy Hunting, Dearest.

Always,

H

Clarice rushed back to Ardelia.

"Hell, Ardelia, H has a copy of the key. Not only that, but he's been to Popil's apartment since we left it. Probably when I was asleep last night. I don't have any idea what he's done, but god knows what he's set up."

"And that surprises you how?"

Clarice agreed, "You're right. For me to think he's not ten steps ahead of everyone in his life, me included, is foolish. I just wish I knew what his plan was. I guess I thought we could leave him out of the game, but he's Hannibal Lecter— he's the ultimate puppet master. No one ever sees the strings as he pulls them."

"Did he look at any of this evidence?"

"He must have. He mentioned Amende Honorable— so he saw the honorable amends part of the note."

"Which means…"

"Which means we need to look up John the Fearless, The Duke of Orléans, and the Duke's coat of arms."

Ardelia began tapping away at her computer. "John the Fearless had the duke murdered. He was then ordered to perform Amende Honorable— ordered taken to the Louvre with a noose around his neck or something like that. I guess it's supposed to be a shameful thing. A way to show you're penitent for some horrible deed or something like that. Look."

Ardelia spun the computer around, allowing Clarice to read the article explaining the process.

As Clarice read, Ardelia commented, "This is scary, Clarice. I don't know who's in more trouble right now, Popil, or Hannibal."

Clarice took the computer and began a frantic search for more information on the duke. Finding a portrait of him posing next to his coat of arms, Clarice gasped. "Ardelia, The Duke of Orléan's coat of arms features the depiction of the biscione swallowing a child. It's the coat of arms of the House of Visconti, Hannibal's ancestor on his mother, Simonetta's side of the family." She closed the laptop and handed it back to Ardelia. "We have to get all of this evidence back to the apartment. Now."

"What's this all mean?" Ardelia asked as they began scooping up the evidence as quickly as possible.

Gathering the bags and dashing out the door, Ardelia rushing behind her, Clarice spoke with all seriousness, "It means Popil is a dead man, and it's been Hannibal's plan all along."

Until the next chapter, my friends,

L.H.