Quid Pro Quo, Ma Bell

Margot Verger sat in the bedroom she shared with her long term companion and regarded her phone with the intentness of a hungry hyena watching a bone. She was expecting an important call; she knew it must come soon, tonight. She wanted to pick it up, when it came, before Judy might have a chance to answer.

For now, Judy was safely in the shower, unable to hear either a ring, or the conversation that would follow. Margot was pleased with this circumstance. There were some things she never wanted Judy to hear her saying. And there were some callers who should never be spoken to at all, at least, not without a bad connection and a really good set of earplugs. She would have to take this call, but Judy could be spared. That was perfectly all right with Margot Verger.

The phone rang. Margot snatched the receiver off the hook in mid-ring, with a quick glance at the bathroom door. All clear.

"City morgue" she answered, dryly.

"Margot, how droll."

"Hello, Dr. Lecter. I thought you'd call. Um . . . so how are you?"

"Well, it has been a trying evening, Margot. Perhaps I'm slightly the worse for wear, but on the whole, I suppose I shouldn't complain. Both feet still in their proper place. And they're perfectly good feet, too, I should have been sorry to lose them. And how are you?"

"Actually, not too bad. Dr. Lecter, guess what? You'll never guess."

"No, I never guess. Mason is dead, I take it?"

"Um-hm. I'm wondering if we can still come to some agreement."

"Why would you suppose we couldn't, Margot?"

"Well, I'm just wondering if we have a problem now. Because I didn't help you when I could have?"

"Hmm. Perhaps I was a tiny bit . . . irked . . . with you on that account, to be quite honest. As I mentioned, they are perfectly good feet. I'm rather attached to my face as well; as I'm sure you'll understand . . ."

"So . . . on a scale of one to ten, how irked is irked?"

"Oh, just a bit. Not a matter for concern. After all, I wouldn't have helped you, had our positions been reversed. And I do like you, Margot, there's that."

"Can I ask you something? Why did you fuck Mason up the way you did in the first place? I always wondered about that."

"I didn't like Mason. And I might have been irked with him . . ."

"You know he was crazy about you? Back then? He talked about you all the time - like a crush."

"How terribly flattering. Yes, I had some idea. When my host for the evening greets me at the door in full S&M regalia, I have no choice but to conclude something is up. Clearly he expected a memorable evening. I felt honor bound to oblige him. I hate to be a disappointing guest. But enough about old times. Our business tonight is the near future, isn't that so?"

"You said you'd take the rap for Mason - would you still do that?"

"Oh, Margot!'Take the rap', is it?! I love it! Tell me the truth, now, have you been watching those ghastly women-in-prison movies again?"

"Would you still claim to have done Mason?"

"Hmm. You're very direct, aren't you? Very well, let me ask you a question. Why would I do anything for you? My original offer was based on a contingency. The situation has changed. Furthermore, why ask me? You have the hair and tissue. What more do you need?"

"A letter. A phone call. Your authentic voice. That would clinch it. Everybody goes apeshit when they hear from you."

"Such vulgar idiom, Margot. I wonder why? It's a bit like whistling in the dark, isn't it? Who would ever wish to violate such a dirty mouth? Again? Is that it? But Mason is dead, isn't he? . . . no answer? . . . well then, I must ask you once more, why would I feel inclined to do you a favor? Out of the goodness of my heart?"

"You don't have a heart. Just a lump of pitch and a really bad attitude. All right. What do you want? You want to trade for something, or you wouldn't have called."

"Most astute. There is something you could do for me."

"What will you do for me?"

"What a pleasure to do business with you, Margot. You haven't even heard my request yet, and still you've moved directly to the counter-offer! No shilly-shallying for you, is there? As you wish, then. I'll leave a very ugly message on your answer machine in a day or two, and down the line I'll back it with some handwritten vitriol. Of course, you'll need to fill me in on the details, so that I can be convincing. Will that be sufficient?"

"What will you want in return?"

"Paul Krendler. I'm interested in Paul Krendler."

"Good God, why? That guy's an idiot!"

"So I understand. Nevertheless, I have an occasion planned for the near future, and Mr. Krendler . . . well, you know how it is, Margot, don't you? When you want to impress someone special? The details are everything. "

"The Starling woman? You have her? The pigs didn't get her?"

"The topic at hand just now, Margot, is Mr. Krendler. Clarice Starling is not your concern. Ever. I cannot impress this on you enough. Is that clear? Margot?"

"Whatever. You sound a little heated, doctor, if you don't mind my saying..."

"You know, I think I hear an odd background noise on your end, Margot. Difficult to identify . . . but . . . could it be a shower running? Is that Judy? How is Judy? Have you told her about Mason yet? Will you tell her, I wonder? Tell her everything?"

"Goddamnit - if you think -"

"Margot, let me ask you, who sounds a bit heated now? Let us get back to the point. I want Krendler, out in the open, where I can get at him. No doubt he'll think it prudent to stay inconspicuous for the next few days, and that would prove inconvenient to my purposes. Can you do something to draw him out for me?"

"Um. When do you want him?"

"In five days."

"Done. Look for him at the heliopad out at Rock Creek Park, about eight AM, five days from tonight. Now . . . about Mason . . ."

"You don't much care for him, do you, Margot? Mr. Krendler?"

"He's a terminal asshole. You're welcome to him. Though what possible use he could be to anyone . . ."

"Oh, well, that's as may be. The lowliest may also serve. Margot, indulge me a moment - did you use the cattle prod on Mason? As I suggested?"

"Yes. It worked wonders."

". . . oh, my . . . really, you must forgive me . . ."

"Are you done laughing now?"

"Almost. The second coming? I'm so pleased for you."

"Actually, the first was sufficient. Did anyone ever tell you how crazy you sound when you laugh?"

"Do I? How strange. What happened then? What about . . . Cordell, was it? Tell me."

"I killed him with a farrier's hammer. Near the bar fridge. Two blows."

"Only two? What a pity. Allow me to make a suggestion. There's a butterfly bandage on his right eyebrow. Remove it."

"Why?"

"Saliva and epithelial cell samples. Consider it value added."

"You bit him?"

"Yes indeed. Not a major injury, he was much faster than he looked, unfortunately. However, the police will wonder when he would have had time to dress the wound, so I'd lose that bandage, if I were you. What's next? What about Mason?"

"Well, after the cattle prod business - hang on, don't start laughing again yet - see, Mason had this . . . pet."

"Yes?"

"A Muraena Kidako. The second largest in captivity, he used to like to say."

"No! Truly? A Brutal Moray? How charming. Did he keep it because of the resemblance, do you think? They do say people choose pets that reflect their own appearance. Do go on, Margot. What about the eel?"

"Well, the thing was huge. I mean, just huge. So I had to use these fish- handling gloves, you know . . . to . . ."

"Pray don't keep me in suspense, Margot. You took the eel out of its tank . . . and then . . . what? Tell me."

"I carried it over to Mason's bed. It almost got away from me, too. It was fantastically strong. And slimy? No shit, it's like trying to hang on to an armful of living Jell-O."

"Really? Then what?"

"Why, I stuffed it right down that prick's throat, that's what. He was dead in less than five minutes."

". . . oh . . . Margot . . . uh, a moment . . ."

"Take your time. I know you're laughing with me, not at me. But would you mind holding the phone away from your face a little?"

"Ah, Margot, allow me to congratulate you! Genius, absolute genius. I'll be absolutely delighted to take the credit for such a striking conceit, truly I will."

"Actually, I was kind of thinking of that. It seemed like something you might do."

"Nonsense. You have quite surpassed me, I assure you. My! Tell me, did he see it coming? How did he look? Did he plead with you?"

"Yes, he saw; he looked pretty much the same as he always did; and yes, he did. Let me tell you where I put your evidence, now, okay?"

"Ah. Back to business. Forgive me."

"I guess it's understandable, considering. Okay, one hair in the fish glove, got it?"

"Yes. Go on."

"Hair and scalp in the palm of the right hand, the one he could move a little."

"Hmmm. A very little, I would estimate. Could he have had the strength to attack me with it?"

"Yes, if you'd leaned very close. To talk to him, maybe."

"The pathetic cripple, in his extremity, manages to get in one last futile blow against his fiendish attacker before he dies. I suppose it has a certain mawkish appeal. "The Tattler" ought to love it, anyway. I do have another concern, Margot."

"What's that?"

"The autopsy will reveal the ante-mortem ejaculation. It'll appear to be sexual assault. The tabloids, of course, would put no manner of depravity past me, but the FBI is harder to fool. They have extensive profiling materials on my methods and I must confess, I'm not really known for that sort of thing. Perhaps I'm a bit naive. It's likely to seem a radical departure, I think."

"I thought of that. I took care of it."

"How?"

"I used a smidge of the semen."

"Yes? Well?"

"I planted it . . . look, before I go on, could you hold the phone away from you again?"

"Margot -"

"I planted a bit in Cordell's mouth . . . um, Dr. Lecter? . . . Are you okay? . . . You sound like you're choking."

"Ah, Margot, you really are an interesting woman. You'll make an excellent heir to the Verger fortune, I'm sure of it. I had no idea you could be so inventive. Or vindictive. You must always nurture that quality in yourself, you know. It will serve you well, I promise you."

"Thank you. Is there anything else we need to go over?"

"Judy's shower has gone on past the critical point, hasn't it? You'd like to finish this little talk, I suppose. Just when I was enjoying it so much! Ah, well, you must be busy."

"Yes. And I need some rest. You must too."

"No rest for the wicked, Margot. I'm satisfied with the terms if you are."

"Then we're even, is that right? You won't be coming to call some fine night down the road?"

"Margot, you wound me, you really do. Only as a purely social call, and never uninvited. I'd like to see the baby, though, if there is one. Could I do that? Will you invite me to the christening?"

"Who knows? I guess I'll have to - if it's a boy, I'm thinking of naming it after you. If it's okay with Judy, that is."

"Margot, dear! I am truly, truly touched. I'll be sure and bring a particularly nice present should my little namesake ever arrive. You do know, I hope, that I genuinely wish you well?"

"I hope you do. I wish you well, too, weird as it is. And . . . uh, I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but I hope things work out with . . . well, you know who I mean."

"You're kind. Thank you."

"You know, it's really strange. Mason did us all a big favor in the long run, sending his goons after you, didn't he? Do you think he can see? Wherever he is now?"

"Margot, God, if He is out there, will make certain of it. It's just the sort of thing He most delights in. Let me hear from you in a few months, will you do that? An ad in the personals, in the 'Tattler'?"

"Yeah, I'll do that. I really will. Good night, Dr. Lecter. Good luck."

"And to you. Good night, Margot."

The line went dead in Margot Verger's hand. Judy emerged from the bathroom, rosy and damp, borne on a puff of warm soapy steam.

"I thought I heard the phone ringing, Margot," she said. "Who was it?"

Margot smiled.

"Wrong number," she said.