It was a dark and stormy night.

It was always a dark and stormy night when the MONSTERS ASSOCIATION OF LITERARY ICONS AND CINEMATIC EVIL (or MALICE, as the association was commonly referred to) met.

This darkness and storminess presented something of a problem, since MALICE had been meeting in a rented conference hall at the Bide-A-Wee Motel and Convention Center in Burbank for the past five years, and Southern California is rightly famous for its temperate climate. Nevertheless, the older, more conservative members of the Association stubbornly insisted on appropriate weather for every meeting, and so the Three Weird Sisters from "Macbeth" had to be called upon to conjure a freak storm or two for meetings with some frequency. And had profited rather handsomely in the process too, since the Scottish witches steadfastly refused to conjure so much as a summer mist without being adequately compensated.

This expense, though, was generally considered insignificant in light of the gravity of this night's gathering, for tonight MALICE was meeting in emergency session. One of the Association's newest and most promising members, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, stood to be expelled from MALICE for cause, and the membership was to hear final arguments and render a decision for or against expulsion before cock-crow tomorrow.

The Acting Chair would not officially bring the meeting to order until midnight, but the large conference hall was already packed at half past eleven. Many members, in fact, were unable to find seats and were obliged to stand against the walls, crowding in among those who, for one reason or another, could not fit in folding chairs. Those members who were too large to fit inside the hall had to content themselves with crouching around outside the building and peeking in through the doors and windows.

Dr. Lecter had arrived early, and had spent the last hour standing immobile beside a bank of sliding glass panels that opened onto the courtyard, his back to the room. Many had the impression that his apparent composure was a show of bravado under difficult circumstances, but they were mistaken. The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms had chosen to view the meeting from the vantage point of the courtyard, and Dr. Lecter had been mentally reexamining his entire store of calamari recipes, and wondering for a solid hour how one might go about cooking a squid that size.

There was a great deal of speculative whispering was going on in the hall, as well as hissing, growling, snarling, maniacal laughter and one or two creepy high-pitched giggles. Curiosity was high, the gossip was feverish. Dr. Lecter was something of a rising star among fictional fiends; only a small number of the most extraordinary Bad Guys were ever inducted to MALICE membership at all, fewer still had been nominated for Icon status, and none within a decade of their original appearance, like Lecter. Even the great Count Dracula had been obliged to wait until the turn of the century for membership, and had not become an Icon until 1931. In addition, Dr. Lecter stood accused of some of the juiciest bits of malfeasance and counter-evil behavior MALICE members had heard of in a long while. It was a full-fledged scandal, and had been simmering ever since the novel "Hannibal", had been published. When the film version had come out, formal charges were leveled within a week of the opening.

"Hey, Lecter" a clotted voice in the crowd called out. "Guess yore fucked fer sure this time!"

Dr. Lecter did not need to look to know who it was. The mushy Texas twang and country bumpkin manner were dismally familiar. Leatherface had always hated him. The jealous fuck thought he held the patent on cannibalism, and if you didn't recognize a galloping case of penis anxiety with that asinine chainsaw, you didn't know your phallic symbols.

"Yeah, ya postmodern pussy" added Norman Bates, who despised all psychiatrists on principle.

Reagan O'Neill, who had a bit of a crush on the Doctor, opened her mouth and nailed Bates with a stream of projectile vomit. Leatherface, along with his entire flesh-eating red-neck family, found this hysterically funny and they all hee-hawed like a herd of jackasses. Bates instantly reverted to his secondary personality and shrieked like a feeble (but insanely crotchety) old woman. Dr. Lecter gazed into the huge watery eye of the giant squid outside and asked himself if he truly WANTED to be a member of this club.

As Lecter was questioning himself, the antique grandfather clock Tor Johnson usually hauled into every meeting struck twelve, Quasimodo swarmed to the top of the six foot portable belfry he never left home without and tolled the hour, and Fu Manchu struck a tiny silver gong. Count Dracula mounted the dais, which was set up at the head of the hall and stood behind a podium at the right of the dais. He banged the ceremonial Black Gavel on his podium sharply to call the meeting to order. The combined noise was deafening, and all the werewolves in the crowd clapped their hands over their extremely sensitive ears and howled. Cujo started barking, just as he always did when the meeting was called to order.

Dracula roared to make himself heard above the din.

"Vhere de hell iss Damien Thorne" he asked, scanning the crowd. Damien stood up, blushing furiously.

"Damien, vill you PLEASE put zat damned dog out? Nobody else can do anyzing vit him" Dracula paused for a moment as the small boy led the foaming Saint-Bernard towards an exit, then resumed his speech.

"Good eeeevening, members of MALICE. I, Count Dracula, officially call zis meeting to order. AND I VANT SOME QUIET! NOW" He bared his fangs to emphasize his point and banged the Gavel a few more times.

The noise level died down and the Count continued.

"Tonight, ve meet to adjudicate an important matter. Von of our members, von who has recently been voted an Icon, has been accused of Counter-evil Transformation. A panel of his duly elected fellow Icons vill hear arguments for and against expulsion, and render a decision. Dr. Lecter, vill you take your place, please"

Doctor Lecter nodded politely to big squid in the courtyard, and turned away from the sliding glass doors. He walked toward the front of the hall, and then took a lone chair on the far left end of the raised dais that had been arranged, stage like, at the hall's end. An elegant inclination of his sleek head toward Dracula and a somewhat more ironic nod to the assembled audience completed his acknowledgments. He then leaned back in the chair, crossed his legs, composed his features in a slight smile, and proceeded to imitate a basilisk.

"Ya gotta hand it to 'im" Don Vito Corleone whispered to his nearest neighbor, Marley's Ghost. "He's got style up da friggin' wazoo."

Marley clanked his chains in answer, thus signifying concurrence, disagreement, or possibly complete disinterest, as the case might be.

Dracula continued. "Now, allow me to introduce the tribunal ve haff appointed to hear the evidence. First, Dr. Henry Jekyll."

A dark troglodyte of a man burst out of the front row of spectators (deliberately treading on the feet of as many as he could reach in the process) and hop-skipped up onto the dais. He brandished a silver topped walking stick at the Count, screeched a stream of virtually unintelligible epithets, and spat on the boards below him.

"Oh, of course, you must forgiff me. Mr. Hyde, that iss."

The crowd responded with an amused wave of mild laughter. Hyde, apparently satisfied, gave Dracula a crook-toothed grin and moved toward one of three seats behind the podium. Just before sitting down, he made an abrupt about face and quickly mooned the crowd, thus revealing a small, but perfectly formed hairy prehensile tail. He then crouched in his chair, squatting on all fours.

"Ick" commented Lady MacBeth to Madame DeFarge, both seated in the sixth row.

"Thank you, Mr. Hyde" Dracula said smoothly. "Now, our second appointed Icon needs no introduction, partly because he hass no name. Please velcome Frankenstein's Monster."

The seven foot hand-made Thing shambled out of the shadows at the rear of the hall to a wave of ecstatic applause.

By the time he'd lurched onto the dais, the crowd was on its feet, claws, paws, flippers and whatnot, clapping wildly. The Monster was the most beloved of all the "elder statesmen" of the Association.

"AAAARRRRGGGH" he answered his fellow MALICE members. "Nice clap. Gooo-ood. Friend, good."

He stiffly took his seat as the crowd exploded in a frenzy of heartfelt affection.

"And finally" said Dracula. "Ve come to our third tribunal member. There vas some dispute over ziss selection, as I, Count Dracula, vas initially appointed. However, our female MALICE members have expressed some dissatisfaction vit vhat they feel is a secondary role accorded to the fairer sex among us."

There was some feminine grumbling in the audience at the use of the questionable term "fairer sex". Dracula pretended not to hear it and went on quickly.

"So that the distaff voice may be heard in ziss matter, ve haff appointed Ze Vicked Vitch of ze Vest."

A moment of slightly confused silence in the audience gave way to cheerful applause as the Wicked Witch of the West flew up to the dais on her broomstick, flanked by a pair of flying monkeys.

"To present ze evidence for Dr. Lecter, Professor Moriarity" announced Dracula, and a tall, stooped figure in a fusty black frock coat rose from his seat in the front row and bowed to the crowd before ascending the dais.

"And" Dracula went on. "Anozer vell-known Serial Killer, Michael Myers (alzo known as Ze Shape) has volunteered to present ze evidence against."

A rumble of surprised and curious speculation worked its way through the crowd. This rumble quieted as Myers rose to the dais, mask bobbing, scribbled quickly on a small blackboard he carried, and raised it to the audience.

"Thank you, it's an honor to be here" it read, and was punctuated with a large happy-face at the bottom of the slate.

"Michael" said Dracula. "Vill you begin ze proceedings by reading ze charges, please"

A moment of scribbling ensued, then Myers turned his blackboard toward the audience.

"Charge 1" it read. "Getting THE GIRL"

A buzz of scandalized whispering erupted in the hall. There had been some rumors about this particular accusation, but many had not been able to fully believe it. Myers stamped his foot and waved the blackboard for silence.

"Charge 2. Having Consensual Sex with THE GIRL" the slate read, then listed the rest of the charges:

"Charge 3. Becoming The Hero

Charge 4. Having a Rationale

Charge 5. Living Happily Ever After"

The happy face at the bottom of the slate had been amended to a frowny face. Myers quickly added a PS below the face and showed it to the hall:

"AND plagiarism, since we're on the subject. Who told HIM he could use the hockey mask? Not me, THAT'S for sure"

Moriarity spoke up.

"Oh, honestly, Michael. It's not plagiarism, it's an homage. You're far too sensitive. It's a HOCKEY mask, after all, nothing like yours, really. Besides, you don't honestly think Dr. Lecter had any choice in the matter of the hockey mask, do you"

"I assure you" added Dr. Lecter. "I did not. Beastly thing. You're welcome to it."

Myers visibly fumed for a moment, then added a line below his post script.

"Maybe we should ask Jason Voorhees what HE thinks about it"

Dracula spoke from the podium.

"Let's move on. Some of us vill vant to be avay before sun-up. Call your first vitness, if you please, Michael."

Myers scrawled on his slate and held it aloft:

"Call Clarice Starling" it read. Silence ensued.

For a long time, nothing happened.

Finally, a vampire named LaCroix, who'd been lurking near one of the anteroom doors, shook his head and smiled insultingly. He stepped into the anteroom for a moment and returned with Ms. Starling. He courteously offered her his arm and escorted her toward the front of the hall, then handed her up to the dais.

"Thank you, Lucien" whispered Lecter, sotto voce. "You WILL be joining us for the birthday party this weekend, I trust"

"Of course, doctor. I'd never dream of missing it."

Clarice Starling smiled at LaCroix, then stood beside Dr. Lecter for a moment.

"I'm armed, Hannibal" she whispered.

"Of course you are, my dear" he answered, squeezing her hand to reassure her. "You have a rare genius for the proper accessories." He paused, then added"Is it the thigh holster, may I ask"

A small private grin flitted across her face, so quick it was virtually imperceptible to everyone but Lecter.

"Ummmm . . . "he commented, with an equally private smirk of his own. "Everything will be fine, Clarice. Just answer truthfully. Don't let them intimidate you."

Michael Myers interrupted the quiet exchange by stepping between the two of them and rudely thrusting his blackboard in front of Starling's face. Dr. Lecter gazed at Myers with a coldly speculative red gleam in his eyes as Clarice read the legend on the slate.

"That'll be quite enough of THAT. Take your seat, Ms. Starling"

Starling rummaged in her purse, pulled out an old grocery list and scribbled a message on it. She stuffed it in Myer's hand with a defiant head toss and took a folding chair near the tribunal, all three members of which were making various efforts to suppress amused smiles.

"There's spot of PBJ on the chin of your mask" her little note read. "Thought you might like to know." Myers crumpled the note and ran his sleeve across his masked face.

"They're not exactly sweetie-pies, either one of them, are they" Mr. Burke whispered to his seatmate, Mr. Hare.

"Even if they did Have Sex. She's a mean little bit o' fluff, I'd say."

Myers asked the first question, thrusting his blackboard:

"Clarice Starling, are you now, or have you ever been, in what is commonly called a 'relationship' with Hannibal Lecter"

"There is nothing 'common' about my relationship with Dr. Lecter" Starling snapped.

The everlasting blackboard:

"Then you admit that this relationship is ongoing? That is - you are still 'with' Dr. Lecter"

"Certainly" answered Starling. "We're building a little summer place in Bali, if you must know."

"Dr. Lecter has not imprisoned you? Dominated you? Subjugated you to bizarre and degrading sex acts and generally mistreated you"

"Of course not. He knows I'd blow his fucking head off if he did. It's the foundation of our relationship. As to sex acts. . . well . . . would you mind defining 'bizarre' "

Dr. Lecter couldn't resist a proprietary grin. His Clarice! What a delightful little wolverine she was!

"So" the blackboard demanded. "You ADMIT to having Consensual Sex with Lecter"

"Is this MALICE or a damn Sunday school prayer meetin' " Starling countered, her anger intensifying her accent. "We ARE consenting adults."

Myers scribbled and waved the blackboard triumphantly at the tribunal.

"I cite Articles 1 and 2, section IV, of the Standard Code of Malicious Behavior: Article 1: NO Monster, Malefactor, Villain or Fiend, under any circumstances, shall successfully get THE GIRL! Article 2: No Monster (etc.) shall engage in Consensual Sex with THE GIRL; all sexual activity must be threatened, metaphorical, implied, or forced in EVERY case"

"May I ask a question" Mr. Hyde, who'd quietly transformed himself into Dr. Jekyll when no one was looking, interrupted. "You were drugged at the time, were you not, Ms. Starling? You had no volitional control over your actions, if I understand the text? If this is the case, it could not have been Consensual Sex, isn't that right"

Starling's face paled and hardened at the colossal implied insult. She opened her mouth to answer, thought better of it, opened her mouth again, glanced at Dr. Lecter, then, through a great effort of will, clammed up.

Dr. Lecter, though well aware that Jekyll's questions tended more to exonerate him than not, was incensed. He was not a pervert, after all!

"Dr. Jekyll, I want to assure you that the drugs I administered to Ms. Starling were perfectly acceptable psychotropics and hypnogogues, all endorsed without reservation by the AMA. I'm a psychiatrist, not a date-rapist. The therapeutic benefits of Ms. Starling's treatment simply exceeded my expectations."

"Therapeutic for whom" leered Michael Myers' blackboard.

"You creepy little pointy-headed celibate" Starling finally exploded. "You couldn't get a woman to touch YOU if you were covered in Angora fur! It took us six MONTHS to work up the nerve to actually sleep together, and I had a sawed-off shotgun under my pillow the whole time! God only knows what Hannibal had! Does that sound like I was drugged to you"

Dr. Lecter's features smoothed out for a moment in a reminiscent smile. He'd known about the shotgun, of course.

She was just so . . . cute!

The Wicked Witch burst into her very famous laugh. "You go, girl" she spluttered, between guffaws.

Myers fairly shook with rage. He took one stumbling step toward Starling, but before his forward foot could touch the floor, Starling had him covered with a .45, and Lecter had him in a retrograde choke hold, head tilted back and jugular exposed.

"Just how many "Halloween" sequels do you suppose the American public ought to endure" Lecter purred nastily in his ear. "Would you like to shoot him, Clarice? I'll admit, I'm feeling a bit peckish, but I believe you had the drop on him first."

The audience members spontaneously applauded. This was excellent MALICE technique.

Dracula intervened.

"Ms. Starling, please don't shoot him. And, if you please, Dr. Lecter, ve'd rather you didn't kill him eizer. Michael, zere is no need to be so disagreeable about zis. Let's agree zat you've established your evidence on this issue, shall ve? Go sit down. Professor Moriarity, vould you continue"

All the recent combatants eased back into their chairs carefully. Moriarity nodded and addressed the tribunal.

"The issue here, Ladies and Gentlemen, is not whether Dr. Lecter has a sex-life. Despite the envy such a possibility may inspire in SOME" Moriarity paused and glanced pointedly at Myers. "It is not altogether unknown in the annals of MALICE membership. Count Dracula, for instance, has enjoyed an active libido for eight hundred years, is it not so, Count? And he is not even "alive" in any normally accepted sense of the word."

The Count smiled modestly.

"Boris Badenov and Natascha Fatale have been a happy couple for a generation" Moriarity continued. "If I may be so impertinent, does anyone suppose their union has always been entirely chaste"

Natascha, who'd been sitting in Boris' lap in the eighth row, laughed throatily.

"Do I look like librarian, dahlink" she asked rhetorically. She bent to whisper an intimate word in Boris' ear as the crowd laughed appreciatively. "My Big Boris is hung like moose, hmm" she murmured, and lightly thrust her tongue into his ear.

A well-known great white shark who'd been watching the proceedings from a large fish tank at the rear of the hall signaled the attention of the Creature from the Black Lagoon with his tail. The Creature listened to the shark's comments, then translated for the rest of the audience.

"He says he's had Consensual Sex thousands of times" quoted the Creature. "He has three hundred forty-two children. That he knows of "

Freddy Krueger rose up like an evil Jack-in-the-Box from the fourth row.

"THAT doesn't matter! He's a goddamned FISH! Lecter had Consensual Sex with THE GIRL! That's the point here"

"Ah, quite right, Mr. Krueger" answered Moriairty. "That is the point. But . . . is Ms. Starling really THE GIRL"

Myers scribbled on his blackboard and raised it angrily:

"What the hell else is she? The Boy"

"You must learn to look beyond simple gender, Michael. THE GIRL, as I understand her, is a helpless endangered victim, a sex object to be menaced by The Monster and protected by The Hero in a psychosexual tug of war. THE GIRL has no capacity for effective action of her own, she can only act as the center of the action. Does Ms. Starling strike anyone here as helpless or ineffective"

"Well, all right" answered Krueger, from the audience. "So she's the Final Girl. That still makes her a widely accepted variant of THE GIRL."

Myers scribbled some more:

"Quite right. She's the plucky, virginal heroine who outlasts all the others by adhering to ultra-conservative moral standards and displaying masculine coded traits. It's perfectly obvious"

"What utter rubbish" Dr. Lecter interjected. "WHAT others? Do you honestly mean to suggest that I spent the past thirty years cutting a swath through a pack of sex-crazed TEENAGERS? Didn't you cretins read the book? Any of the books? They were psychological thrillers, for Heaven's sake, not some simple-minded collection of formulaic slasher stories."

"You damned Thomas Harris characters" Krueger countered. "You're all the worst snobs in the business. Every last one of you thinks you're the goddamned bees knees"

"That's because we are" said Starling smugly. "Ask any critic. IF you can find one who'll talk to you."

The crowd in the hall snickered unkindly. It was well known that film critics and cultural historians had repeatedly dismissed Krueger, despite all his popularity (and abundant sequel record). That he was deeply sensitive about this was also a well known fact. He quickly planted himself in his seat, mortified and muttering.

Myers held up his blackboard:

"If she's not THE GIRL, then who is she, Moriarity? Answer that"

"Well, throughout "Silence of the Lambs", it is perfectly clear to any thinking reader that she is The Hero, of course. I don't believe there's any injunction against having Consensual Sex with The Hero, is there? I believe The Hero is permitted to end up with a successful relationship at the end of the story, is that not correct"

The crowd erupted into a hundred private debates for and against this statement.

"But not with THE MONSTER, for God's sake" read the blackboard.

"Why on earth not" asked Moriarity. "There is no language in the Standard Code that prohibits this. I checked."

"But that would be ANARCHY! Utter chaos" Myers objected (with a hastily drawn scary face on his slate for emotional emphasis).

"One of the prevailing leitmotifs of all three Harris novels, if I am not mistaken" Professor Moriarity said calmly.

"Excuse me, Professor" Lawrence Talbot had risen from his seat near the front of the hall. He was three phases past full moon, so presented a handsome, well-groomed human appearance. He scratched at a phantom flea on the back of his neck only as a nervous mannerism. He was really very shy for a werewolf. "May I ask a question? I'm a little confused."

"Of course, Mr. Talbot. Please go ahead."

"I read all three books too. Great books, by the way" he interjected with an admiring smile at Starling and Lecter. "I couldn't put "Hannibal" down, no shi - I mean no kidding. Well, my question is this - I'm no genius, of course, but it seemed to me that Dr. Lecter was The Hero of "Hannibal", ya know? So, like - how could Ms. Starling have been The Hero there? Probably I just didn't get it, though."

Myers' silent, yet somehow shrill blackboard"You DID get it, Larry! That's charge number five! Becoming The Hero"

Mr. Myers had apparently decided to abandon the whole Consensual Sex issue, much as it seemed to bother him. Lecter had scared the crap out of him once already, and he wasn't about to push his luck again.

Dr. Moriarity held up his long, white, chalk stained hands for silence.

"Mr. Talbot, I have a question for you" he said. "Who would you say was the PROTAGONIST in "The Wolfman""

Talbot blushed modestly. "I guess that would be me, Professor. Seemed like I was doing most of the work, anyway."

"Did you set upon and rip the throats out of all sorts of innocent people"

"Sure. But it was the full moon, ya know"

"So, it wasn't really a matter of evil at all, Mr. Talbot, was it? You could be said to be a tragic figure, isn't that right"

"I sure felt awful the morning after. All that blood. It was disgusting. And the fleas - Jeez"

"Yet, you are a Monster, as I'm sure we can all agree"

Myers"What does that have to do w/ anything? Everybody knows the WOLFMAN is a Monster! He's been an Icon for fifty years"

"I'm simply suggesting that The Monster can also function as The Anti-Hero, without diminishing his Monster status."

The Devil himself rose from the third row.

"Of course The Monster can be The Anti-Hero. I've done it myself. Read "Paradise Lost"."

An awed silence filled the hall. Satan was usually much too busy to attend MALICE meetings, and never commented on the proceedings on those rare occasions when he did.

"The Monster can even have a Rationale" continued the Devil. "I was angry with God."

"Actually" Dr. Lecter put in. "So was I. I'd say that He has much to answer for. Indeed, I have occasionally suspected that You and He, Sir, might even be one and the same Entity because -"

Dr. Lecter paused delicately as he noticed Satan beginning to look distinctly uncomfortable.

"Of course, it's probably only wishful thinking on my part" he added, gracefully changing course. "An idle and purely fanciful speculation. Please forgive me."

The Devil quietly returned to his seat and busied himself with his cell-phone.

The Wicked Witch broke the uneasy silence which followed this last exchange.

'So . . . then , Starling was . . . what? The Hero? THE GIRL"

Frankenstein's Monster answered her.

"Aargh. Friends dumb? Starling like BRIDE"

"The #8xX!# Bride" demanded Dr. Jekyll, having reverted back to Hyde. "What the x kind of bullshit is that" He sprayed saliva as he talked and ground his teeth while fumbling in his waistcoat pocket for a banana he thought he remembered hiding in there.

"Yes - Bride" the Monster insisted. "She shoot much. Kill lots. Eat Krendler. She CHANGE. Not stay good. Not ALL good . . ."

"Oh, yes, of course" interjected Pinhead from the audience. He rose to his full magisterial height from the audience. "How deliciously perverse! Dr. Lecter made her into something new, something almost as evil as himself. The Bride. Of course. He corrupted her! That is so . . . tasty"

"CORRUPTION corrupted me" Starling corrected. " If anything did. You try beating your head against a brick wall in the double damn FBI for ten years! See where it leaves you. Eat Krendler's brain? Frankly, I was surprised Hannibal could even FIND it! By the time I'd got done with THAT sonofabitch, I'd promised myself I'd never take one iota of sexist crap ever again. And I haven't, believe me. Dr. Lecter didn't really change me - he just saw me clearly, and helped me see myself. Oh, and gave me a few Harpy lessons."

"She's really doing surprisingly well with that" said Dr. Lecter with an approving nod to Starling. "Considering her obsession with firearms. I've told her a thousand times that guns are noisy and attract attention and have far too many moving parts to be really practical."

Starling raised her eyes to Heaven as she commented acidly. "Just because I always beat him at the firing range. Men"

"Two words, Clarice. Rifling patterns."

"Two words, Hannibal. Dental records."

The two of them glared stubbornly at one another for a moment, then simultaneously burst out laughing, a combined sound that was as appealing as it was alarming. There wasn't a heart in the hall that wasn't warmed. And chilled.

"They really were made for each other, don't you think, Christine" Erik the Phantom, seated in the eighth row, whispered to his companion.

"They're a totally cute couple, if you ask me" she answered. "I'm beginning to think this whole expulsion thing is a load of horseshit. Have you seen the way Lecter's been looking at Michael Myers? Good luck getting out of here in one piece tonight"

Dr. Evil, dressed in a very handsome silver lame nehru, rose out of his seat.

"I'd like to add a comment, if I may, Michael, Professor" he said. "Throughout the first third of "Hannibal", you could almost say Dr. Lecter actually functioned as . . ."

He paused for a sadistically long moment with his little finger to his mouth.

"As WHAT" several voices finally queried in annoyed unison.

"As . . . THE GIRL" he finished, and chortled unpleasantly.

Myers scribbled on his blackboard so vehemently his chalk broke and he had to borrow some more from Professor Moriarity. At last he held up his message.

"Are you fucking KIDDING" the slate read. "That's ridiculous"

"Not at all. Dr. Lecter is actually the one object of desire for everyone, isn't he? The center of the action, as it were. Everyone is plotting and maneuvering and what not to capture him. But he's just minding his own business quoting Dante and shopping for truffles in Florence."

"Very astute, Dr. Evil" Moriarity said. "You do have a point there. Dr. Lecter doesn't really start to act until quite late in the story. Even then, it's initially more reaction than action."

Myers, again"What about all those letters he sends to Starling? Is that 'minding his own business'"

"THE GIRL is allowed to offer moral support to The Hero, I think. They were all very nice letters."

"He writes terrific letters" commented a ghost floating near the ceiling to a giant tarantula spinning its web nearby. "Especially the mean ones."

Myers wrote on his slate for quite a long time.

"This whole thing is completely absurd! First Starling's The Hero, then Lecter's The Anti-Hero, now Starling's The Bride, now Lecter's THE GIRL? What's next? Starling's The Family Pet? Lecter's The Martian? Is he The Haunted House or The Giant Reptile? Maybe he's The Kitchen Sink! There have got to be RULES! There has to be a FORMULA! Popular fiction can't work this way"

"Literature, on the other hand, can, Michael" answered Moriarity quietly. "Shifting viewpoints, shifting roles, shifting moral perspectives, even shifting genres. That's the essence of "Hannibal". Don't you read "The New York Times Book Review"? Stephen King said -"

Professor Moriarity had to pause while at least a third of the audience reverently breathed the name "Stephen King". Stephen King was the closest thing to a Divine Creator that MALICE recognized. Even the Devil was awed when Stephen King was mentioned.

After another moment or two of respectful silence, Moriarity went on. "Stephen King said "Hannibal" was a novel that '. . . bravely and cleverly erases the line between popular fiction and literature . . .'

Chucky, the malevolent red-headed doll, clambered aboard the broad, leafy shoulders of The Thing so he could address his comments to Myers and hope to be heard.

"Are you gonna argue with STEPHEN KING, you stupid jerk? This whole thing is a waste of time, okay? Lecter's as evil as anyone in this room, and a LOT scarier than SOME candy-ass, numbnuts wussies I could name, who probably won't make it home with their livers still inside their guts, if you know what I mean, and who are just jealous 'cause they've never had a decent lay in their lives, okay? We ought to be PROUD to have Lecter in MALICE! I say we ought to be damn proud to have Starling too, she needs to be offered a membership right now, okay? She's a real HOTTY, okay? I'm bored! I say the tribunal should vote now. Let's go home"

The Wicked Witch listened to one of the flying monkeys at her side and then spoke to Myers.

"He says if you don't like a tricky plot, you shouldn't read Thomas Harris" she reiterated. "Quit whining, Michael. Let's wrap this up. I'm ready to vote."

Myers was not quite ready to give up. He could see which way the tribunal was leaning, even before a vote was taken.

The blackboard"What about charge five - Living Happily Ever After? Are you guys gonna let him get away with THAT? And what about this "free-range rude" thing? What kind of Monster only kills people who deserve it"

Lecter just had to comment on that. It had become a VERY sore point with him.

"Mr. Myers" he purred, voice sharp as a scalpel, quiet as poison. "I am not a man commonly given to regret" His eyes seemed to cast a baleful red light in and of themselves as he ordered his thoughts on this particular subject.

"But if there were one single thing in my life that I could change right now, I would go back and cut my own throat with a spoon before I'd ever said that "free-range rude" thing. Nothing I've ever said or done has been more widely misinterpreted. Harris cursed me with a sense of humor, and so, PLEASE allow me to explain - for the millionth time - I WAS JOKING"

Lecter, though habitually soft spoken, could, when inspired (or provoked) raise his voice to something roughly equivalent to a cracked iron bell tolling the stroke of doom.

"Not everyone finds my jokes amusing, but I guarantee you that I do. I've often killed people because it struck me as funny." Dr. Lecter stopped to smile, showing a mouth full of gleaming little teeth. Many in the audience shuddered in mingled dismay and admiration.

"I have killed people for rudeness, it's true, I can hardly deny it. I've also killed people because they were in my way, and I've killed people who had things I needed. I've even killed people who annoyed me . . . such as yourself, Mr. Myers, for instance . . ."

Myers found himself backing to a safe distance before he was fully aware he was moving.

"I killed a nice old Italian curator because I wanted his job" Lecter went on. "I killed one of my own patients because he was boring me. I killed a census taker for trying to get me to fill out a questionnaire. I've killed people for wearing squeaky shoes, for eating green Jell-O, for keeping me on hold too long on the phone, for wearing polka-dots, and for insisting on talking to me about last night's episode of "Survivor". I've killed people because they simply looked good to eat. And sometimes, Mr. Myers, I kill people for NO REASON AT ALL. At least, none that I know of. I just get to feeling cranky; it seems like the thing to do. I have no idea why" he shrugged elegantly, showing his inhuman indifference to this self-confessed mystery.

"But because I HAD to open my mouth that ONE time . . . just had to make ONE ill-considered little quip . . . that's all anyone ever remembers, from that day to this. Thirty years of preying on absolutely ANYONE who crossed my path, and now I'm seen as some sort of . . . PEST EXTERMINATOR! You simply can't imagine how insulting I find this entire issue. I CAN tell you that someone, sometime, is going to answer to me for it"

He paused again to smile at the audience, showing them one of the deadliest expressions anyone in the hall had ever seen on a human countenance. "Whenever I find out who's responsible, that is. Which I will, in time, have no doubt. It's a priority."

Dr. Lecter realized he'd worked himself into a white-faced fury while discussing this offensive subject, and would have to apply every principle of self-control he'd ever acquired just to stay in his seat and not fly at anyone in convenient range. As it was, his eyes burned, his jaw had started twitching, and he felt an insane itching in his left hand, at the precise spot where his sixth finger used to be. It was time to calm down.

"I trust I've made myself clear on this matter" he hissed with venomous finality, and privately resolved not to say another word until this wearisome travesty of a hearing was done.

A stunned silence in the hall. On and on and on.

Then the small, somehow forlorn sound of a single pair of hands clapping began, and soon gave way to spontaneous thunderous applause, the same way the fall of a pebble begins an avalanche. Cheers, whistles, and a few blood-curdling screams of approval amplified the growing demonstration, and then the audience began to rise, the noise increasing exponentially with each passing moment.

Starling used the standing ovation as an opportunity to whisper a word to Myers. "I'd get my sorry ass out of here right now, if I were you" she advised, demonstrating her fundamental generosity. "'Sometimes I can talk him out of things, but he's impossible when he gets like this. The free range rude thing totally pisses him off."

Myers mastered his trembling long enough to write one last argument on his slate.

"But - Living Happily Ever After? What about that? That's probably the worst thing of all."

"Get real" she answered. "Look at us. Do honestly think WE have a snowball's chance of that? When you think about it . . . does anybody" she paused and gave him a grim, tired grin. "Not bloody likely. The sequels alone will most likely kill us. Hopkins is already talking about knocking us off. Give it up, Myers. And get moving, if you don't want to be joining us for dinner real soon, get the picture"

"But YOU wouldn't - you know - eat me, would you"

"I don't have final approval over the menu. Every relationship has its compromises."

The implacable expression in her gaze duplicated Lecter's precisely.

Even so, Myers might have paused to argue with her some more, but the hearty applause from the audience had nearly run its course, and in the diminishing noise, Dr. Lecter had begun to take a visible interest in Myers' exact location. Even Myers had to admit to himself that this circumstance probably did not bode well.

He began to fade toward a convenient exit, defeated at last.

Professor Moriarity held up his hands for some quiet.

"Perhaps we can all agree that the Standard Code could bear some reevaluation"

Another round of agreeable applause answered his question amply.

"About time we took another look at that old thing" Skeletor waspishly commented to his companion, Evil-Lyn, as he joined in the clapping.

Count Dracula banged the Black Gavel.

"Vill the tribunal vote at zis time" he asked formally.

"Vote, schmote" the Wicked Witch said. She glanced at her two fellows for approval, then continued. "We've wasted enough of Dr. Lecter's time."

Another burst of applause from the audience confirmed her assessment.

"And everybody else's" she added, loud enough for everyone in the hall to hear. "I move we drop the stupid charges at once, and adjourn the meeting. Let's go home. Okay with you guys" She raised her eyebrows first at Frankenstein's Monster.

"AAAuurggh. Second motion. Finish meeting. Apologize, Lecter. Sorry much. You and Starling call soon, yes? Me and Bride have extra opera tickets next month. "La Boheme". You come too. I give number after meeting."

Mr. Hyde, now Dr. Jekyll once more, added his own remarks, addressing both Dr. Lecter and Starling.

"Quite right. We really are frightfully sorry about this whole travesty. And Ms. Starling, if any of my comments offended you, I am truly sorry. Goes to show what comes of listening to gossip, hmmm? I just wonder what dimwit thought this whole asinine thing up in the first place, can you tell me that"

No one individual of the assembled members of MALICE seemed to know. With any luck, none of them would ever find out.

Dracula swung the Black Gavel one last time.

"Meeting adjourned."