A/N – For those who've expressed some disappointment, I'm afraid we're still not in the GD's POV, at least for one more chapter. In chapter 18, we'll be looking at events through Ardelia's eyes for the most part. Hope we can all hang in a little longer – and please be aware that all reviews – even those that offer honest criticism – are much appreciated and given a great deal of consideration. Again, I wish to thank each and every one of you who have not only taken the time to read my work, but have gone above and beyond to comment on it!

Thanks again,

N.

Chapter Eighteen

October 19, Wednesday, Hoover Dam, 2:00 PM

Clarice Starling and Ardelia Mapp were standing in the light drizzle, gazing down the vast sloping walls of the Hoover Dam to the distant froth of water mightily churning, thousands of feet below. They rested their elbows on the low concrete wall before them, the only barrier between them and the long drop to the roiling water. Cars traversing I-93 on their various errands into and out of Las Vegas growled mechanically at their backs.

Ardelia's emotions were churning too. She had been trying to get her friend to talk about the interview she'd taped for "Tattler Confidential" around nine-thirty this morning all day. Without any success at all so far.

They'd gotten their breakfast order from the pick-up window at McDonald's, breakfast sandwiches and coffee and pancakes that Ardelia had found she no longer wanted. Clarice had pulled her car into the spot she'd pointed out to that despicable little piranha of a reporter earlier, and had then proceeded to lower her convertible top, despite the light mist of the grey Las Vegas day.

Making herself a better subject for the videotape, Ardelia had realized as she watched Starling kill her engine. She's certainly picked up the nuances of this media attention thing damned efficiently, Ardelia mused, and in a very short time. She always was a quick study.

Then Clarice had turned to her and baldly ordered her out of the car.

Ardelia had argued, of course she had. But it hadn't done any good. Clarice was determined, more than determined, that her will in this matter should be done.

"I don't want you on camera, Ardelia," she'd insisted, over and over again, absolutely deaf to all arguments. "And I don't want to waste the morning debating with you about it. Go wait inside the restaurant. I'll come get you when I'm done."

Ardelia had argued, she'd reasoned, she'd pleaded. In the end, she'd turned nasty.

"You don't want him to see me on tape, do you, C? You talk about your nut-job sweetie like he's the best thing since sliced bread, but you're afraid of what might happen if he gets a really good look at me, aren't you? Isn't that so?"

"If you like," Clarice had agreed with chilling unconcern, and continued to stare at Ardelia expectantly. Waiting.

Just waiting for Ardelia to get the hell out of the way.

"God DAMN you," Ardelia had finally commented, and gotten out of the Mustang, all her muscles jerking as she moved, all in angry little knots. "God damn you both. I hate what you're doing, Clarice, I hate everything about it. Go ahead. Send your telegram. Come get me when you're finished. The fun just never ends, does it?"

She'd turned her back on the Mustang and on Clarice and walked away quickly, not because she expected Starling to try to top her suitably crushing parting shot, but because she couldn't stand looking into that flat, abstracted void in her friend's amber eyes another moment.

A flat, abstracted look in the eyes, emotionless yet hellishly acute; purposeful, planning. She imagined that the eyes of a suicide bomber might look just like that, just before the final take-off.

Ardelia had watched through the McDonald's window from a lone seat near the kiddies play area as the reporter, Jake, and the cameraman . . . was his name Terry? . . . as they converged on Clarice and her car like ants converging on a picnic.

She'd seen the way they'd set up the video camera, the lens protected from the misty drizzle with a small umbrella, and she'd seen that Terry guy improvise a quick three-point light set-up with battery operated halogen lamps.

Tape had begun to roll.

Clarice had begun to talk.

Ardelia had seen the way drops of rain had settled and sparkled like a net of diamonds in Starling's new platinum hair. She'd seen the avid way Jake Snead had leaned forward toward Starling as she spoke, asking questions at first, but soon just listening, as rapt as a child hearing the story of the Url King for the very first time.

What was Starling saying, to make the reporter from the Tattler lean forward in that greedy way?

Was she spinning a load of horror-story bull, designed to insult her absent S.O. so thoroughly that he'd come hurtling back from wherever he'd gone to take her to task for it? Or was she publicly gloating on her newfound future as a free woman to send him a message that would reject him so utterly it would keep him away forever? Was she telling this Jake all about her plans to rejoin the FBI when she was fully recovered, thus tacitly informing her former lover that when she had chosen him over the Bureau, she had chosen wrong?

Ardelia watched Starling's battered, discolored face from a distance as best she could, watching her dearest friend talk to the press and unable to gauge her expression among the bruises.

Was she telling them the truth? Was she out there spilling her guts right now?

No! No, she wouldn't do that. Aside from anything else, it would leave her liable to an array of actionable felony offenses. Obstruction of Justice. Accessory to Murder After the Fact. More. Anything he'd done over the past year - any crime he'd committed, she would be indictable for as well, as an accomplice. Starling knew her criminal law. She'd have too much sense to make herself liable to prosecution. Hell, they'd made her look like his "victim" for just this reason.

Not to mention that it would be sheer social suicide. He was a pariah, a complete social outcast, yes - but the court of public opinion would judge her even more harshly. Every woman in Starling and Mapp's age range has seen enough in her own life to know that women and men are held to differing standards of behavior in the mass public mind. A promiscuous man may be a player, but a promiscuous woman is a slut. An reckless man may be a maniac, but a reckless woman is a silly bitch. A violent man may be a bastard, but a violent woman is unnatural, an abomination. Hannibal Lecter was an infamous serial killer, but a woman who loved him - a woman who had voluntarily been living as his mistress - was . . .

. . . was someone so despised she could slip right off the skin of the earth for a second time without anyone really minding all that much . . .

No! No, it was impossible. She wouldn't do it. They'd staged the injuries and the sexual assault and the semblance of a kidnapping and everything else for the express purpose of protecting Starling's name. As much as Ardelia did not wish to admit it, Lecter had made certain she was well protected before he'd left her on her own. He'd never allow her to publicly take on his name.

But he isn't here, is he? He's gone off somewhere and she's alone and he may not have as much control over her actions as you think he does. As, perhaps, he thinks he does . . .

Controlling Clarice. A fruitless, futile enterprise in impossibility that no one who knew her, no one with any brains, anyway, ever attempted for very long. It was like cupping water in your hands; you might hold it for a time, but eventually it would always slip, drop by drop, out of your grasp.

"I don't want you on camera, Ardelia," Clarice had said.

Why? Because she didn't want her homicidal boyfriend memorizing Ardelia's face? Or was it because Ardelia was an officer of the law, duty bound to respond officially to incriminating statements, liable to prosecution herself if she did not?

Ardelia had risen abruptly from her precast, Formica fast food table and jerked toward the door of the restaurant, dread leaching all the coordination out of her legs and ankles and making her feet numb lumps of clumsy flesh.

But she was too late, if indeed, Clarice had truly chosen to take the disastrous course that Ardelia feared. Terry Phips, the cameraman, had finished filming and was collapsing his portable lights for packing when Ardelia got to the Mustang. His broad, bearded face was unreadable, brown eyes behind glasses far away and lost in thought.

Jake Snead, on the other hand, was not quite so impassive. She looked much as though she'd just witnessed a genuine miracle, and she cradled the tape recorder that held Starling's voice in her skinny arms the same way she might cradle the Ark of the Covenant. Both Tattler employees passed by Ardelia on the way to their puke green wagon without a glance or a word, as though she'd somehow become invisible to their eyes.

Clarice herself was still sitting in the driver's seat of her car, her hair, dampened by the drizzle, clinging in silvery gold ropes to her skull, her damaged face bathed in the comforting mist. She appeared calm, thoughtful, and only the pallor of the unmarked portions of her skin bore mute witness to the possible grave import of whatever she might have said to the reporters.

She didn't look up as Ardelia approached the car, nor when Ardelia opened the passenger door and got in beside her. She started a touch when Ardelia spoke to her, almost as if, for a moment, she was not quite sure who Ardelia was.

"Huh? What was that?" she'd asked.

"I said - what did you say to them, Clarice? What did you tell them?" Ardelia replied.

Clarice smiled, a sweet smile that made her look very young, for a moment.

"I've been kind of getting on your nerves today, huh, Ardie? It's a little hard, lately, being friends with me, I guess."

Ardelia's throat constricted and she had to blink against the burning sensation in her eyes. Had she really thought her old friend had been changed? Had she honestly believed that Lecter had done a number on her sense of herself, and sent her back to the world as someone totally new? This was the very same Starling who'd crammed for exams with her in their old cinder-block dorm room, who'd ruined the pot-roast the first three times Ardelia had tried to show her how to cook it, who knew how to draw funny dog pictures as well as she knew how to shoot.

"Oh, hon," Ardelia had said. "It ain't neverbeen easy to get next to you. But it's always been a privilege."

"You know you're my best friend, don't you Ardelia? You do know that, right?"

"I thought Lecter was your new- "

"No, Ardelia," Clarice interrupted. "You've been getting that wrong. He's my lover . . . my . . . mate. But you - none of that means I love you any less. I wish you could believe that. You are still the one who's my best friend. Always."

"I'm just so afraid for you, Starling. That's all. I'm so afraid you cut your own throat out here with these reporters today."

"The truth isn't always what you see, Ardelia. In the next few days, I'd like you to remember that. It's not what you see, it's what you know. It's what you know in your bones."

"Did you learn that Hallmark Theater horseshit from him, Starling?"

Clarice laughed. "No, bless your heart, I sure didn't. That's some old Virginny country-style wisdom I learned at my Daddy's knee. Truth is, I been tryin' to get it through his thick skull for a whole year."

They had smiled at one another and sat silent for a time, none of their quarrels resolved and none of Ardelia's questions answered, but it was a companionable silence, nevertheless.

"Okay," Ardelia had finally said. "Okay. What's next?"

"Next?" Clarice had answered. "Next, I think we need to do a little sightseeing. This is Vegas, after all, tourist capital of the world. Let's go check out a few of the local sights."

Ardelia soon noted, as they toured Las Vegas and surrounding areas for the rest of the morning and afternoon, that Clarice's choices of "local sights" to take in were a bit unorthodox. She'd insisted on visiting Lake Mead, and had spent a great deal of time investigating the various side roads around the lake. She'd driven them up to Mount Charleston, a quick enough drive in her fast car, and they'd had lunch up there. Then she'd insisted on visiting the great Hoover Dam, and this particular "local sight" seemed to pique her interest more than any of the others had.

There'd been a choice of guided tours of the huge hydroelectric facility, a longer one and a less detailed shorter one, and Clarice had chosen the unabridged version. It had been sheer torture for Ardelia to tramp along endlessly with the small group of tourists, following Clarice and listening to the tour-guide, an older gentleman whose dentures had a tendency to slip, go on and on and on about the long history of the great WPA project. The inevitable stale puns involving the words "dam" and "damn" had made her wish she'd brought her weapon.

There had been endless discussion of the art deco influences in the dam's architecture, which, on another day, Ardelia might have found interesting. There'd been talk of the principles of hydroelectric power, and the massive turbines of the great power plant probably should have seemed impressive. The memory of the scores and scores of individual working men whose combined efforts had raised this colossal edifice was evoked, and Ardelia supposed she ought to have been impressed by the endless resource of the human species. That some of those men had died in the epic effort should have touched Ardelia's sense of humility, but all she saw was the alert way Starling's head had come up when one of their tour group asked if the dam might not have its resident ghosts.

It was a stupid question, Ardelia thought. Wherever humans congregated, there they left their identifying mark and their characteristic creations: populations, layers of myth and memory, devices and machines, structures, monuments, great works like dams, and, always, ghosts, as integral a part of the essential effluvium of humanity as garbage or art. Of course the Hoover Dam must be haunted. Every major man-made edifice - from the caves at Lascaux to the cathedral at Notre Dame to the dust-blown desert site of the Manhattan Project - was. A mortal species cursed or gifted with illimitable imagination must always have difficulty putting its dead to rest.

After the interminable tour was finally over, they'd visited the small gift shop up on the highway level of the many-leveled structure, filled with typical tourist bric-a-brac. Clarice had purchased a baseball cap, two T-shirts, and had lingered over several postcards that showed various views of the dam until she'd finally chosen one. Then they'd walked out into the soft and somehow comforting drizzle of the day, and Clarice had wanted to stroll along the low fence that separated the great sloping, curved side of the dam from the traffic of I-93. Despite the light rain and her growing sense of profound unease, Ardelia had been forced to admit to herself that the views really were spectacular.

Ardelia had walked a few steps behind, watching her friend pace the span of the highway across the dam, autos passing busily by on one side of her, a vast empty space plunging dizzily downward on the other. A rough but workable metaphor, Ardelia had thought, for the opposing but interconnected estates of life and death, with Clarice poised, as she had been for the past year, at a point somewhere in between. Ardelia had wondered if Starling, walking on this edge, might be thinking of her own dead.

They'd walked from one end of the span to the other, had then walked halfway back, and had paused at the center to relax a moment and enjoy the view.

Well, more so that Starling might enjoy the view, Ardelia hoped, because she herself wasn't getting the full effect. She was too worried, too frightened by her friend's remote manner and gentle but determined refusal to answer questions and by the odd abstracted look in her eyes.

Starling was gazing down the steep stone walls at her feet to the white water far below. She'd pulled one of her purchases from the gift shop, the postcard, out of the plastic shopping bag they'd given her there, and was idly turning it in her hands. She said nothing.

After several moments of silence, Ardelia began to feel like she might scream if someone didn't say something soon.

"Well, Starling," she finally began, if only to break the too quiet moment. "Are we done with 'sightseeing' now? Is it time to begin the firewalking lessons? Or are we just gonna skip that and move directly to test pilot runs and the amateur lion-taming contest?"

Clarice blinked as she came out of whatever long thoughts had held her gaze and her attention balanced far above the long drop, and she smiled at Ardelia, a little.

"How about Bridge-Burning 101, Mapp? Isn't that what you really want to ask me about?"

Ardelia shrugged. "If you really burned your bridges with those reporters today, it's already done, and there's nothing I can do about it now. It's what you may have cooking for the future that I'm worried about."

"This here is a bridge," Starling commented, almost off-handedly, and waved the postcard in her hand about herself, taking in their high perch above the water, the narrow ribbon of road that spanned it behind them. "In a way. Do you think, if I had enough kerosene maybe, I could burn it down?"

"No. I don't," Ardelia answered sharply. "And why would you want to, anyway?"

"I'm just saying, Ardelia . . ." her gaze at this moment, focused directly on Ardelia's eyes, seemed far too serious and intent, out of all proportion to the casual and irrelevant comment she seemed to be making.

"Some bridges are just too fucking huge to burn," she went on. "They took too long to build and the distance they span is too great. You may see the flames, the fire might be bright and hot enough to have yourself a regular wiener roast, but when the smoke clears, the bridge is still right there."

She dropped her eyes from Ardelia's face and looked back toward the great grey vista beyond the little concrete fence for a second or two, momentarily as distant as the black, rain-sodden clouds on the horizon. Then, with an almost imperceptible nod, as though she'd been weighing various choices and had settled at last on one, she rummaged in her purse and found a pen and a half crumpled, wrinkled mauve envelope. Ardelia could see that the envelope was addressed to "Clarice", and that the hand that name had been written in, though smudged here and there, was all too familiar. Clarice crossed out her own name, and Ardelia felt a strange, urgent desire to warn her friend not to do that, not to cross out her own name like that.

She thinned her lips to hold back this senseless, superstitious admonition, and watched as Clarice scribbled a single initial on the envelope. Ardelia couldn't quite see what Clarice had written, but she really didn't need to see to guess. Clarice wrote only a few words more on her postcard, a spectacular aerial photo of the dam, and then sealed it inside the envelope.

It had been only a few words, Ardelia was sure. No more than a single paragraph, if that. The message could have been "Me and Ardelia, Hoover Dam, October '98". It could have been "Qt. milk, loaf bread, doz. eggs, dishwasher soap, six-pack diet Coke" or "Remember to replace glass in Mustang windshield" or "Dear Margot and Judy, thanks for everything" or even "Note to self: avoid Las Vegas at all costs in future". But somehow, Ardelia was certain it hadn't really been any of those things, and her growing sense of concern quadrupled in the brief time it took Clarice to pen her short message. Her fear roughened her tongue when she spoke.

"I am sick to death of listening to you talk in riddles, girl!"

Clarice nodded as if this outburst was expected, and stared, once again, into Ardelia's eyes.

"Are you, Ardie? Okay, then, listen to me now. No more riddles. Late Friday, or Saturday, or maybe, at the latest, Sunday - you'll be seeing Hannib- "

"No, I ain't gonna be seeing that psycho butcher of- " Ardelia interrupted, horrified.

"Yes, you will," Clarice interrupted back, in the same inarguable tones that she might have used to say "the sun will rise" or "the night will fall".

"He'll want to see you, especially you," she continued. "And if you make him look for you, he'll find you anyway, but he'll be very annoyed with you. He'd never harm you, Ardelia, you can trust in that, but- "

"Maybe you can trust in that, Clar-"

"I DO trust in it, Ardelia. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing right now if I didn't. He'd no more harm my closest friend than he'd swallow a gallon of rocket fuel. Believe what you want, it's not important - what I'm trying to tell you, Ardelia, is that you don't want him angry with you. He doesn't have to hurt you to hurt you, understand?"

Ardelia steeled herself against a cold shudder that was trying to get started in her belly, because she did understand, perfectly. There were many, many different kinds of pain, and she knew Hannibal Lecter was a perfect genius in the administration of all of them.

"So let's see, I'd better stay out in the open like a goddamned sitting duck till he comes, or he'll tear me up when he finds me, that the idea?" she snarled at Clarice. "Nice boyfriend you've got there, can't wait to meet him! Where are you gonna be in all this, can you tell me that? What the fuck are you doing, Clarice?"

"I'm trusting you, Ardelia," Clarice answered quietly, and put the sealed envelope that contained her postcard into Ardelia's hands.

The simple gesture momentarily stilled all of Ardelia's hot objections, suspended all argument and had, in its simplicity and in its implications, a disquieting, quelling element, as though it had been a formal gesture in some ancient and half-remembered ritual. As though Clarice had been casting cursed runes rather than handing over a common postcard.

Once again, Ardelia felt a crawly, totally unfamiliar stirring of superstitious dread.

"I don't want it," she whispered, helplessly aware of how irrational her reaction was. She held the envelope out stiffly to Starling. "Take it back."

"I can't do that. You're the only one I can ask, the only one I trust enough to ask. When you- "

"NO! If it's so important, ask Margot!"

"I can't. Margot is his friend. But you're mine."

This was more the logic of nerve endings, viscera, and blood than the argument of reason, but it was all the more effective for that. Ardelia found she was left without any counter-argument to offer.

"Ardelia, understand what I'm asking, and how I'm asking it. You're my closest friend, and I'm trusting you. When you see him - give him this postcard."

Ardelia dropped her hands, the burden of the postcard, so much heavier than such a small thing should have been, weighing in her grasp. This was a charge she did not want. Some almost prescient inner voice warned her that this was a trust she dared not undertake.

Of course I'd better not undertake it, she snapped at herself mentally. I could live the rest of my life quite happily without ever coming face to face with Hannibal Lecter!

There's more at stake than that, Ardelia. Much more. Beware.

Ardelia Mapp put aside this compelling inner voice of warning, a conscious effort of will. In the final analysis, it was just that she simply could not say no. She couldn't refuse this charge with Clarice looking right at her. Not without giving up some essential part of herself. She was not a coward, and fear had never ruled her heart. Slowly, she hid the battered envelope, marked with an "H.", just as Ardelia had guessed, in the very bottom of her purse, gazing at Starling steadily as she did.

"You're going back to him, aren't you, Clarice?" she said, not really asking. "Nothing I've said or done today makes any difference at all. If this fucking postcard is so important, why can't you just give it to him yourself?"

Clarice smiled, a fragile, terribly fleeting expression, there and gone in a moment.

"I'll be taking . . . the long way home, Ardie. I may be a bit late."

"And God knows, we wouldn't want the good Doctor to worry," Ardelia responded, bitter sarcasm blemishing her voice. She had worried, all right. She had worried herself sick for months on end. For all the good it had done. "You're going home, you say. But, for the last time, Clarice, the way you're going does not have to be "home". Take another road. Please."

"Want to know a weird thing, Ardelia? Once I sort it all out, this is really the only road that's still open, for me. And it's really the only home I've ever known. Thank you for taking the postcard. Maybe, once you've met him, you'll understand all this a little better. I hope so, anyway."

Oh, I'll look forward to THAT, Ardelia thought, but did not say. I'm sure the whole insane, tragic mess will suddenly resolve itself into crystal clarity on that day.

There was nothing further to discuss. The two women left their high place at the very top of the Hoover Dam and returned to Starling's car. They were mostly silent on their way back to the Verger residence, and saw only two or three news vans outside the gates when they got there. Once they were inside, there was a quiet dinner (thanks to Judy Ingram, that most sensitive of hostesses), and a slow, strangely strained evening of television, desultory and inconsequential conversation, and early retiring to bed.

At some time in the deepest reaches of the night, Clarice Starling rose, wrote a quick thank-you note to Margot and Judy that she pinned to her bedspread, and left the house in her Mustang, alone and unseen by anyone.

In all the days that would follow, she would not return.

And Ardelia Mapp, for the rest of her life, would never see her closest, dearest friend again.