Anastassia Serdste was seated in a nearly bare room. The blond wood floors gleamed beneath her bare feet. A high backed chair supported her posture well. She was silent as the tip of her pink tongue was caught between teeth in concentration. The cello sat between her thighs. The instrument was a beautiful piece of artistic mastery. The wood was a rich red-brown. The craquelure was stunning. The cello had cost her parents over fifty thousand dollars twenty years ago and was made by hand in the early twentieth century by Alberto Blanchi.
Delicate fingertips had grooves worn into them from years of playing. Anastassia was left handed. Yet, the instrument was still played the same. It had been slightly awkward in the early stages of learning. The bow was held gently in her right hand, and it whispered across the strings with ease. The music was beautiful. It was something that she composed herself. Fingers slid up and down the keyboard in the glissando style.
Suddenly she frowned and paused for a moment. A low grumble escaped from her lips and she started the piece over again.
“Is something wrong ma Stassi?”
The accented voice ripped through her concentration. There was a shake of the head and that was it. She did not utter a word.
The playing continued for another few hours, before she finally put the bow down. Taking a breath, Anastassia nodded to herself. She was satisfied with the performance. A smattering of applause was given by the man that sat with her in the room.
“You play beautifully Anastassia. I believe this is your finest piece yet.” He did not look up from the pad of paper before him.
“Are you ready for this evening?”
“No. You know I detest playing in public Hannibal. But it is for a good cause, so I shall.”
“Good. The world needs to see more of you.” He was serious.
“The world has seen enough of me. If you care to recall that the media was flooded with pictures of us after the – “ She paused for a moment, trying to determine what to call their ordeal. “-incident.”
Hannibal Lecter looked up from what he was working on, his brow arched high. “You seem to be handling everything quite well ma Stassi. Or is this possibly a façade that you are putting on to keep people from noticing.” He knew her tears spilled in the night. He saw the terror in her eyes with something unfamiliar. The abduction and rapes by the man she killed, Rohan Finn Hammerli, had been brutal. Lecter had been in and out of consciousness through much of what she went through, until the last day.
She sighed. She looked at him briefly and then turned away. “I am holding up. No need to be concerned Dr. Lecter. Some days are easier than others.” Anastassia didn’t mention that there were times that she could still breathe in the scent of the man that would have killed her.
“You are not telling me the whole truth.”
Dark eyes closed and she counted to ten. “No I am not. There is no need for you to be concerned.” While they had been speaking, Anastassia had taken to the task of polishing the cello and wiping away her fingerprints from the fine wood. Satisfied, she put everything back into the case.
Hannibal Lecter had been sitting on the floor the entire time she was playing. A drawing lay in his hands. There was no furniture in the room save for the chair that she used. Lecter’s feet were bare and he wore just a pair of jeans and a white oxford shirt, which was left untucked. He would never dress that way in his own home or for public consumption, but here it was preferred. He rose with ease, leaving the pencil and paper on the hardwood floor. It only took a few steps and then he was standing before her.
“Anastassia, you need to see someone. You need to speak of what you endured. Only then will the memories become less painful.” He looked into her eyes and saw a flash of defiance. No one else would dare to give him a look like that. She was, as always, the exception.
Sighing softly, Anastassia knew that there would be no point and arguing. “Then do you have a name for me?”
“Yes. I believe Alana Bloom and you would get along quite well. You two are very similar in many ways, but different enough that her opinion could make a difference.”
“I will set something up in the morning with Bloom.”
Lecter stroked the side of her cheek with the backs of his knuckles, it was a gesture of the fondness he held for the younger woman. “Very well. Just make sure that it is done first thing tomorrow ma Stassi.”
“Of course Hannibal.” Trying not to grumble out the words proved to be quite difficult for her.
He glanced at his watch and frowned. “We need to eat and then dress for the evening Anastassia. Would you prefer to dine in or out?”
Rising from the chair she laughed softly. “Silly question, in of course.”
“Then you are on kitchen duty this evening. I have a few things to do first.”
“You finally trust me in the kitchen. I am amazed.” Giving her companion a wink she smiled.
“Yes. You have endured my lessons for a year now. I think you can be trusted. Besides, your kitchen as fully and as well stocked as mine.”
A light hit her eyes, perhaps it was from the sunshine streaming in or perhaps it was from something much more personal. “Well after all, I do know the best butcher in town.”
He kissed the top of her head and walked off, only stopping to pick up the items left on the floor. Anastassia stood there for a moment, watching him. With a soft chuckle, she turned and headed into her large spacious kitchen.
She took out the ‘lamb’ loin chops from the refrigerator. Those would be done with just a sear accompanied by mustard and herbs. The salad was prepped first. It was more simple fare, due to the time constraint. The salad was something fitting for the season; an arugula, pear, and asiago salad that would be served in large martini glasses with few drops of excellent olive oil and fresh cracked black pepper. Dessert was the simplest of all the dishes, just a blood orange sorbet that had been prepared earlier.
Deciding against the formal dining room, she set the table in the smaller informal one. The table only sat eight people and was typically not used for anything besides Anastassia’s meals when she was alone. Somehow because of the evening planned, the more intimate setting was more appealing than the large formal dining space that she and Lecter normally used. Adding a finishing touch, a bottle of freshly opened 2008 Decades 5 Stagecoach Petit Verdot was placed on the table to breathe.
Dinner was casual, neither of them had dressed for the evening yet. They spoke in low tones in regards to the relaxing day spent together. Anastassia looked up and studied her dinner companion for a moment.
“Hannibal, why do you not date?”
Taking a sip of wine first, he then began to speak. “I have no need to date Anastassia. I have all I need from a companion with you.” He returned her studious gaze. “Are you trying to say that you wish to see another man ma Stassi?”
There was humor to her laughter and she shook her head. “No Hannibal. I have no desire to see someone else. My life is complicated as it is. I feel no need to complicate it further. But I remember you with other women, from when I was younger. So, needless to say, curiosity got the better of me.”
The fork and knife pairing that Lecter was holding were placed quietly on the plate. “I am satisfied with what we have Anastassia. You make no demands of me. You and I enjoy the same pleasures. Besides, I have no need to wear a perfect human suit with you. Why would I wish to see another?”
She pushed her plate away, leaving half of the meal. Pouring herself so more wine, Anastassia spoke quietly. “Did it bother you that I had known for years about your other life?”
“I could feel the tendrils of fear attack my gut when you laughed in Hammerli’s face. I had but two options; trust you or kill you. I had no desire to do the latter. You mean a great deal to me Anastassia. You have for nearly a quarter of a century. I would like for you to share in more of my life, not just the gourmet side.
“I don’t know if I can. I really do not have much of a stomach for the butchering. The aftermath does not seem to bother me any longer.”
“It did at first?”
“Yes. It bothered me a great deal actually.” She looked wistful for a moment. “But it was you Hannibal. You had your reasons for doing such. I trusted you with my entirety. You were my protector, mentor, confidant, and more. You were and still are my closest friend. You never minded when the media got ahold of something that I said or did. You brushed it away like it was a piece of lint on your finest of suits. It did not matter. All that ever seemed to matter was that I was safe and happy.” She paused to take another drink of the wine. “That is why I never said anything. I had no desire to lose you. After a while, it just became part of the man I knew.”
“Why did you not tell me that you knew of my – proclivities?”
“I did not wish to frighten you. I did not want you to think that anything had changed between us because I knew.”
“Has it changed?”
Anastassia’s brow furrowed, thinking over the question for a heartbeat or two. “In a strange way yes it did change. I respected you more because of it.”
Lecter looked baffled. “Why is that?”
“Because no one knew but me and that was powerful. Plus, you were able to keep that part of your life such a secret. I knew, because of that, I was safe with you.”
Leaning in, Lecter brushed his thumb along the lower swell of Anastassia’s lip. He smiled ever so slightly. “Most would have thought the opposite. Thank you ma Stassi, I cannot find the words to say how much I appreciate you.” He glanced at his watch. “It is time to get dressed.”
“Do you need anything or do you have everything here, Hannibal?”
Anastassia had her own suite in his home so Lecter had the same within her spacious home. “I am fine, thank you for inquiring.” He rose and went to his own suite of rooms.
Taking the bottle and pouring another half glass of wine, she stood there just staring. This was the first time in a year that the media would be out in force around her. The idea of it all made her ill. With a shake of the head, she finished the wine and headed to her own room to get dressed.
It did not take her long to finish. Shower, hair, makeup, and with minimal effort, she was dressed. The gown was simple. The halter style neck would keep her arms free from any entanglements with sleeves while playing. It stayed snug and then flared out right below the hip. The circle skirt was cut on a wide bias and then a layer of dark red silk was added beneath. The small slit in the front of the dress gave a glimpse of the swirling red with every step.
Anastassia looked stunning. With the red it was as if she was walking on fiery coals. Long hair was pulled up and back, her hair was the color of coffee untouched by cream. The thick cascade of curls accented the richness. A comb that had been her grandmother’s held everything in place. The makeup was kept simple; except her full lips. Those were painted with a rich Boudreaux color.
Heading into the room she used for practice, her brow furrowed when she did not see the case that held the cello there.
“I have already placed it in the car ma Stassi.” The voice behind her said.
“Oh.” She had not known he was there. “Which vehicle are we taking?”
“The XJ, I took into consideration that the cello needed space. Granted, I do enjoy driving your AMG.”
The British racing green XJ Jaguar was a wonderful car. Anastassia used it primarily in bad weather and in the winter. The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG was a sleek red convertible. Both cars were incredibly expensive by most standards. Between the two vehicles there was almost a half of a million dollars spent. Fortunately for Anastassia, she had the finances to provide such luxury items for herself.
“Perhaps a drive after this is over shall be in order?”
“Perhaps.” Hannibal Lecter looked at his companion. She was a stunning woman. “Tu es ma joie de vivre.” The words were soft, barely audible.
Anastassia heard them all the same. “Et dans tes bras c'est mon destin.”
Curling her into his arms, he held her close for a moment. Lecter was feeling somewhat sentimental this evening. He traced a fingertip down her bare back. The single digit followed a scar that ran from her shoulder blade all the way down to the base of her spine. It had been left there by the man that had abducted them. She had many scars such as that one.
Although he did not know, Lecter was the reason why Anastassia was comfortable with the multitude of scars that Hammerli had left on her body. Even when they were still fresh and raw, he had never looked at her any different than before. There may, however, have even been something more in his gaze after finding out that she knew his secret. The scars never mattered. Rather, it was the trust they had found in each other.
Anastassia was leaning back in the luxurious leather seat of the car with her eyes closed. She was trying to relax. They were driving out of the city and to Cloisters Castle in Lutherville, MD. Lecter had his right hand resting lightly on the top of her thigh when his eyes cut over to her.
“How are you feeling Anastassia?”
“A bit nervous. I haven’t played in front of anyone but you and my cello instructor for years.”
Lecter smirked just a bit. “Then you need to only concentrate on me ma Stassi.”
She laughed softly. “I normally will only concentrate on you whenever you are near.”
“Good girl. It should be that way.” He was almost playful in the moment. Reaching up, Lecter stroked a fingertip down the décolleté of her dress.
“It has been for a long time Hannibal.” Her voice was serious. She abruptly changed the subject. “My mother and her charities, I am not quite sure how I got railroaded in to doing this.”
“She is your mother; that is how.”
“True. Very true. At least it is a good cause. The foundation is one that I have supported my entire adult life, so I really couldn’t say no.”
The charity was one that her parents started to help students of the arts afford their education. It was based on two things, need and skill. The event would help raise tuition and life necessities for students to attend schools such as Julliard, private lessons, or specific conservatories.
The night was planned for local talent to show their skills as artists. Anastassia was opening the event. The ones that would follow came from mostly underprivileged lives. These young people were some of the finest artists in the area. The event would hold an auction along with showings for local art work, musicians, poetry and prose.
“Who is doing the catering Anastassia? Do you know?”
She had to think for a moment and then nodded. “Zeffert and Gold is the name. I have never used them before, but my mother swears by them for events about this size.”
“What is ‘this size’? Alas, ma Stassi, you have left me ill prepared for this event.”
“I apologize Hannibal. It is only 150-200 people, thankfully.” She looked a touch on the sheepish side with his chastisement. “For you I pre-ordered the steak au poivre and for myself I took the vegetarian option. It is just a simple roasted vegetable strudel.”
He nodded and turned the wheel, they had arrived. “Excellent choices ma Stassi, although I am more pleased that you can enjoy my cooking rather than the tripe that they serve at these events.”
Anastassia laughed softly, leaning over she kissed his cheek. “It pleases me the same.” The valet was opening her door for her as she spoke. Lecter came over to help her out, offering a hand. Speaking quietly, he informed the young man about the cello in the back and the fact that it needed to be delivered rather quickly into the castle itself. A press of two twenties into the young man’s hand helped considerably.
Lecter took his companion’s hand and threaded it through his arm, letting her slender fingers rest upon his forearm. Arm in arm, they prepared to enter the castle. The avoidance of media was impossible and the paparazzi swarmed around the pair like sharks. Polite and to the point, they were able to slip past the feeding frenzy fairly quickly.
Once inside, the pair split away from one another. Anastassia went to prepare and Lecter went to mingle with a few of the night’s guests. There was the ringing of a bell to call everyone into the room that was set up for both dining and the stage. Jael Serdste took center stage and began to speak.
“Thank you for coming tonight ladies and gentlemen. For those that do not know me, I am Jael Serdste. Thirty years ago my daughter started to show an aptitude for music. Her father and I wished to cultivate that within her. She was sent to some of the finest instructors that Baltimore had to offer. While she was there, Anastassia met other children with the same aptitude. Unfortunately, they came from lesser means. These children often times went without in order for their parents to pay for these lessons. My husband and I were horrified by this. We made sure that the children had what they needed to continue with their education. Unfortunately, there are so many children that need the extra help. We provide for as many as we can. Please help. With that I give you my daughter, Dr. Anastassia Serdste.”
The applause was polite as she took the stage. Anastassia nodded to the crowd and without fanfare she began to play. She played her prized cello unaccompanied. The sorrowful sound sang from the delicate strings. It was a musical tale of love lost and love found, only to lose it for eternity. There were no words, just the delicate notes that were lovingly created by Anastassia. The piece lasted a mere twenty minutes. Yet, when she was finished, there was barely a dry eye in the house. Hannibal was the first to stand, giving praise to his lover’s performance. Others followed suit very quickly. The applause rained down up the musician the way the rain falls at midnight on a hot summer night. Setting the cello aside, Anastassia rose and took the stage in a different way. One of the young people within the program rushed out to collect the instrument.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your kindness. The Serdste Foundation for the Arts was set up over twenty-five years ago. My parents wished to give other children the opportunity to do what I so loved, that was playing my instrument. Instruments are costly. Lessons are expensive. But because of your donations to the Foundation, we are able to help almost ten thousand young people a year to achieve their dreams.“ She paused briefly to allow the applause to quiet.
“We cannot do it without you. To support such a large number is difficult for one family to do. We need all of our families to stand together and make a dream become a reality. Every dollar generated by this event will go to the Serdste Foundation in order to help those that need it most. There is no one on our payroll. We do not accept a single cent for ourselves. So, please bid on the auctions. Donate your time and efforts. And please, give the gift that will last for a lifetime. Help pay for just a single lesson if you can. Our word would be bland without music and other arts. We need your support. Thank you.”
Giving another nod to the crowd, she smiled and slipped away off stage. Dinner would be starting shortly. After checking to make sure her cello was being properly cared for, she entered the dining room to find Hannibal Lecter seated with her parents at a large table. Her hand glanced across his shoulder as she moved to take a seat. Lecter took her hand gently, turning it over. His lips grazed against the inside of her wrist.
“You played beautifully ma Stassi. I am very proud of you.”
Her parents chimed in with a similar response. Anastassia blushed beautifully next to her dinner companion. “Thank you. Thank you all.”
The dinner courses were interspersed with local talent showing what they had learned. Young men and women read poetry and prose, they played their instruments, they sang for the crowd gathered. It was truly a sight to behold. Dessert was served and the last act of the night was coming on. It was an operatic piece. Anastassia excused herself momentarily.
A handsome young man took the stage shortly after she left the table. He began to sing. His rich strong baritone rang out through the crowd. The piece was from Rigoletto by Verdi. The young man was playing the part of Rigoletto from the title scene of Piangi Fanciulla. Off stage a woman began to sing. Lecter’s chin shot upwards, he recognized the voice.
Anastassia stepped out onto the stage with the young man. Together, they sang the duet made for baritone and soprano, beautifully. When the music was finished the pair linked hands and took a bow together amidst the standing ovation. Giving each other a hug followed by a kiss on the cheek, the pair departed without another word. Hannibal Lecter felt icy cold rush through his veins. It was the first time that he had ever seen Anastassia show affection to another male outside of her family. He did not like it one bit.
Her parents gushed over the performance when Anastassia returned to the table. Lecter pulled her close to kiss the shell of her ear. Whatever he whispered against the delicate flesh there made her blush.
“Thank you everyone.”
“Anastassia, how did you sneak this by without any of us knowing?” Her mother asked.
“Antonio, the young man I was singing with, approached me a couple of months ago and asked me to do a duet. I have no idea how he knew I could sing. I so rarely sing anywhere outside of the car anymore.”
“You do us a great disservice because of that ma Stassi.”
Leaning, she kissed his cheek. “Thank you Hannibal.”
The auction results were being tallied. The dinner was over. People mingled over drinks. Anastassia was the center of attention, which made her cling more to Lecter or her parents. Seeing one of her colleagues, she excused herself for a moment.
Antonio came up to Lecter to introduce himself. The young man’s smile was sly and he leaned in to whisper something in Lecter’s ear.
“It is a pleasure to meet you Dr. Lecter, or do you prefer the title of Chesapeake Ripper?”