The Silence of the Lambs Read online
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To the memory of my father.
Also by Thomas Harris
About the Author
Twenty-five years ago in an old Sag Harbor building with a tilted floor I wrote the closing words “the silence of the lambs.” Suddenly I realized I had finished the novel, and there on the page was my title. I felt a stab of happiness and let go of my desk, rolling backward in my chair down the crooked room until I smacked into the wall.
Still in the thrall of the people in the book, still smelling cordite in the room, I wanted to say aloud the names of people that I love.
A childhood memory intruded: As a small boy playing cowboys by myself I shot a sparrow; I stood in the weeds looking at the bird, warm in my hand, tears hot on my cheeks.
I shook my head and thought about beginnings.…
* * *
Once upon a time, Argosy magazine asked me to go to the Nuevo León state prison at Monterrey, Mexico, to interview an American under death sentence for killing three young people.
I was twenty-three years old and I thought that covering a police beat in Texas had taught me all about the world.
The prisoner was Dykes Askew Simmons, a former mental patient. When I sized him up I saw a white male, mid-thirties, about five foot eleven, one hundred seventy-five pounds, gray and hazel. Distinguishing marks: a bad Z-plasty repairing a cleft lip, and small scars on his head. He had the eyes of a fierce turtle. These he covered most of the time with a pair of black sunglasses.
Simmons introduced me to some of his fellow inmates: one of the court officials from his trial—now imprisoned for looting an estate—and a news photographer who was locked up for taking wristwatches from the dead and injured at automobile wrecks. The photographer pulled up his sleeve to show the five watches he was wearing, and offered me a good price on a Bulova with a stained band.
Simmons also introduced me to his wife, a good-looking nurse from Ohio who married him after he went to prison. They were allowed conjugal visits on Saturday nights and had blankets to hang over the front of the cell for privacy.
The woman was pleasant and restful to see, an oasis in that place.
Simmons had tried to escape a year or so earlier, bribing a guard to leave a door unlocked and provide him with a pistol. Simmons handed over the money and approached the forbidden door, to find himself betrayed and the door still locked. The guard stuffed the money in his pants and shot Simmons down. He lay bleeding heavily into the cracked dirt. He did not bleed out because a very skilled prison doctor saved him.
When I asked about Simmons’s medical treatment, the warden unlocked the prison medical office and introduced me to the doctor.
Dr. Salazar was a small, lithe man with dark red hair. He stood very still, and there was a certain elegance about him. He invited me to sit.
The furniture was spare. We sat on stools. A cabinet against the wall held labeled jars. There were few instruments. Needle and thread, a sterilizer, bandage scissors with blunt tips and, curiously, a speculum.
The doctor answered my questions about the gunshot wounds and how he staunched the bleeding.
Dr. Salazar made a steeple of his fingers beneath his chin and looked at me.
“Mr. Harris, how did you feel when you looked at Simmons?”
“I was trying to see if he fit any eyewitness description of the killer.”
“Did you allow yourself an impression beyond that?”
“Was he responsive to your questions?”
“Well, yes, but I couldn’t tell much. He’s got a pretty thick skin. He’s got his answers down pat.”
“Pat answers to the questions he expects. Was he wearing his sunglasses in the cell?”
“Dim in there, isn’t it?”
“Why do you think he wore the sunglasses?”
“Maybe to hide a little bit.”
“Would you say the sunglasses add an element of symmetry to his face? Improve his appearance?”
“I really didn’t think about it, Doctor. He looks like he’s been beat up a lot, around his head.”
Dr. Salazar closed his eyes, perhaps seeking patience, and opened them again. Dr. Salazar’s eyes were maroon with grainy sparks like sunstones.
“Did he turn his face askance when he talked to you, about ten degrees to his left?”
“Maybe he looked away; people do that.”
“Do you think Simmons is ugly? That’s not a very good job on his lip, is it?”
“Will you be seeing Simmons again, Mr. Harris?”
“I think so. They’re going to let us take some pictures out in the compound with his car.”
“Do you have sunglasses with you, Mr. Harris?”
“May I suggest that when you question him, you do not wear them?”
“Because he can see his reflection in them. Do you think that Simmons was tormented on the school playground because he was disfigured?”
“Probably. It’s customary.”
The doctor seemed amused.
“Yes. Customary. Have you seen pictures of the victims, the two young women and their little brother?”
“Would you say they were attractive youngsters?”
“They were. Nice-looking young people from a good family. Good manners, I’m told. You’re not saying they provoked him?”
“Certainly not. But early torment makes torment easily …