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Strobe Light

copyright 2004, by Axl

Disclaimer:    These characters were created by Thomas Harris.  They are used herein without permission, but in the spirit of admiration and respect.  Lyrics are from "Draw the Line" by Aerosmith, also used without permission. No infringement of copyright is intended, and no profit, of any kind, is made by the creator, maintainer or contributors to this site.

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When the doorbell rings and Clarice Starling slides down from her comfortable position on the sofa to answer it, she does not suspect that anything is amiss.

It is Valentine’s Day, and she has nowhere to be. While most other holidays are spent in the company of her former roommate Ardelia Mapp, she is, at present, entertaining her favorite of the long list of boy-toys, and Starling cannot say that she is displeased. Time spent alone gives her an opportunity to think, and she is grateful for those rare moments of peace.

The sizable envelope is heavier than most, with a consistency unlike most packaging she has handled and received in the past. She bends to gather it up, and inspects the lettering; her name and residence, neatly printed in Copperplate hand, exquisite and impeccable. There is no return address.

By all rights, she should be trembling, and she knows it quite well. However calm she may appear, there is a sudden pang of fear, striking somewhere below her ribs with all the icy precision of a chilled razor blade. Starling backs up, past the threshold, and lets the door swing closed behind her. It clicks into place, and she jumps at the minute sound. When she recovers, she bestows to her mind a silent reprimand, for the sudden display of skittishness.

Balancing the envelope in the crook of one bent elbow, she reaches for the letter opener and works with it, jiggling the blade until the paper-glue dislodges and the flap lifts a fraction of an inch. It is only then, that she returns the opener to the hall table, and uses a hand to further violate the envelope’s integrity.

The short letter she finds inside is penned in the same flawless hand. Starling is unsurprised when her fingers tremble as she lifts the paper, to make reading easier. His sentiments are brief, and she is torn between amusement that he has actually written her a note to commemorate the occasion, and another rush of panic at what he has stated within his address.

Count to ten, it will be six o’clock. Turn around slowly, face the stairs.

She does all three with only the faintest hesitation.

The digital clock on the table beside the letter opener turns over to display a six and a pair of zeroes. And then, the quiet strains of the initial aria of the Goldberg Variations reach her ears.

“Shit.” Starling is only vaguely aware that she has spoken. The letter flutters from her fingertips, drifting slowly down to land at her feet. She steps over it, proceeding cautiously to the bottom of the stairs. The note had ended at those instructions, and now she is left to her own devices.

She hears the hushed patter of footsteps from above, and once again faces a split path. She could very easily find the phone and report the presence of a Most Wanted fugitive in the upstairs portion of her house. Oppositely, she could refrain from filing a report, and make her way to the second floor to investigate matters further.

Starling almost feels nauseous when she opts for the latter.

One foot in front of the other, come on, girl, you know how to walk.

When she reaches the landing, her heart is conducting a desperate attempt to conga its way out of her ribcage. She presses a hand against it, and pauses for a deep breath, a moment to collect herself.

Her bedroom door is open. She has never had extravagant sleeping quarters, but it suits her just fine. Starling is frightened when she has too much space to fill. She once was required to occupy a queen-sized bed, and she placed pillows around her reclined frame, as a barricade against excess space and creeping darkness. Ever since she pursued Jame Gumb in the pitch-black basement, she has slept with a light on.

She leans up against the doorframe heavily, looking inside with all the eagerness of a condemned woman facing a firing squad. He is in the room, as she knew he would be. He stands at her dresser, with the mirror perched atop, not facing her, though Starling is certain that he could catch a glimpse of her reflection, if he had not already heard her approaching footsteps and caught scent of her nearness.

All doubts she might have had, as to recognition, vanish at the sound of his voice.

“Well, hello, Clarice.”

She swallows hard, takes a step into the bedroom. Instinctively, she folds her hands behind her back, and has to force her gaze up from the floor. Starling manages an undignified sort of squeak, and amused, he continues.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Clarice...though I daresay it’s shaping up to be a lonely holiday for you, isn’t it? All alone, with nothing to do, and all of those ridiculously cheesy romance films on television…”

She ignores his statement, pushing further into the room, quickly crossing the space between them with only a few steps. “What’re you doing here, Dr. Lecter?”

The left corner of his mouth turns up in a one-sided smirk. It is quite effectively unnerving, and she pales a bit.

“Delivering your Valentine’s present, of course. It’s on the dresser…” Having moved away from it in recent moments, he indicates the piece of polished furniture with an almost dismissive flick of the wrist.

Her stomach turns over with a sickening lurch, but she approaches the dresser nonetheless. It has been nearly a week since their rendezvous in the rain, and despite her façade of indifference toward him, she cannot deny that the distinct sensation somewhere behind her lungs is not entirely revulsion.

There is a small jewelry box set at the center of the dresser’s smooth top. It is polished, mahogany, and adorned with delicate carvings. She is drawn to it, for reasons unknown, and she gently touches the top of it with her fingertips, learning the intricacies of the gift. Not assuming that there will be anything else, she lifts the lid of the box, and finds, nestled against a bed of navy velvet, a highly polished silver bracelet.

Starling clasps it between thumb and forefinger, and gently slides it to rest upon her narrow wrist. When she turns to look at Lecter, he has his hands steepled before him, as if beholding a holy image.

“Stunning, Clarice.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“Italy.” There is that smile again, the cultured, knowing one that Starling alternately loves and detests. “Florence, to be exact.” When he specifies, his expression is undeniably smug.

She turns away again, to inspect her newly adorned wrist in the mirror. He approaches her on nearly silent feet; had she not seen him reflected in the gleaming glass, she would have remained entirely unaware of his presence. His hand comes to rest on her shoulder, and she resists the urge to faint. She feels vaguely lightheaded, and her fingers scrabble for the edges of the dresser, clinging to keep her balance.

“Do you remember—” When he speaks again, she leans backward a bit, and her shoulders come in contact with the slightly stiff fabric of his dress shirt. “—what I taught you, the evening when you had some difficulties with your car?”

“Yes.” The recollection infiltrates the mental barrier she has put up against it, worming its way through cracks in her defense. Black and white, coming at her quickly, with all the startling pulse of a strobe light.

He had knelt before her then, and she had gripped the back of his head, toyed with his hair. He had given something to her, that the countless boys in the backseat of their fathers’ cars had taken away, and she had felt something that was not simple affection, and not basic lust.

“I often find, Clarice, that it takes more than one lesson before the student understands the concept fully.”

He gestures, with a lift of his chin, to the bed by the window. She sees it through the mirror, and does not turn around.

Another mental picture. Flash. Johnny Brigham, sprawled across pavement, with the Macarena providing a grotesquely thudding background beat. Johnny Brigham, approaching her after class, and asking her a question.

Clarice Starling will remember Valentine’s Day for a specific reason.

On that day, Dr. Hannibal Lecter asked her to bed, and she said yes. On that day, she wondered if she would respect herself in the morning, and the answer was the same.


FIN

copyright 2004, by Axl

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