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Accidents in a Substance

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1. Quality

 

January 12, 1971

 

Afterwards, Carl Hanratty could never tell whether he got the idea by accident or not.

AD Marsh was paying one of his rare visits to the bullpen to consult on a set of projects, and finished up in Carl's new office (he still thought of it as his new office) to deliver a sheaf of collated statements on the Sunderland case. He lingered inside the doorway, not leaning against the frame as most people did, as they discussed the contents; then he made to go, and Carl tamped the sheaf on his blotter with one hand while the other sought the stack of folders where the Sunderland had landed.

"Good eyes on that one," Marsh said.

"Wasn't my eyes that caught it," Carl said, fitting the new data into the two-hole bracket on top. It appeared to be time to confess. "It was Frank Abagnale's." He folded the prongs over the new sheets and fastened them in, then shut the file.

"It was—I'm sorry, who?"

Carl was pretty sure Marsh hadn't misheard him, so he leaned back in his desk chair, crossed his arms over his chest, and waited.

Sure enough, Marsh gave him a long, narrow look. "What's Abagnale got to do with this?" he said, finally.

Carl shrugged without uncrossing his arms. "I took in Atlanta on my way to Minneapolis," he said casually.

"On your way to—"

"Never saw anything like it," Carl went on. "Took him half a second to see the detail, and the other half to deduce the culprit. Jesus."

Marsh reached behind him and pushed the door quietly shut. "Are you telling me that you went out of your way to fly to Atlanta and consult Frank Abagnale about—"

"No," Carl said, irritated. "I went to see him. It was Christmas." This didn't seem to strike the right casual note, so he plowed on quickly. "He asked what I was up to and I told him. And then he asked to see some of the evidence, and I showed it to him."

"And he gave you the tip out of the goodness of his heart," Marsh said, cocking a very sarcastic look his way.

"Goodness of his heart nothing," Carl said. "He gave me his professional opinion."

"His professional opinion as a check forger," Marsh said flatly.

"Well, I coulda called my plumber," Carl said, "but he was out of town." He crossed his arms tighter and glared at the AD.

There was a short silence as they stared one another down; then Marsh said: "Well, tell me this, Carl: do you intend to fly down to Atlanta every time you hit a snag in a case?"

"Save me some flight miles if we just brought him up here," Carl said.

He had said it at once, flippantly and without thinking: but when he saw the way Marsh was just looking at him, he realized after the fact that he had actually been perfectly serious.

Marsh put his hand back on the door handle and said gently: "Carl, he's in a maximum security prison for a reason."

It was the gentleness that made Carl lose his temper at last. He sat up, and the seat of his chair fell into place with a bump.

"Yes," he retorted, "I know. I put him there myself. Look, sir, are we going to sit around and state the obvious all day? 'Cause I got work to do."

Perversely, Marsh refused the gambit. Instead, he opened the door and stepped outside, then paused to have the last word.

"Speaking of the obvious," he said, "I would have thought you of all people wouldn't forget the grief we all went through to catch him. You really want to let yourself in for all that again?" Without waiting for a reply, and without giving him the dressing-down for insubordination that Carl surely deserved, Marsh pulled the door quietly to and went away.

I didn't. Carl gave a short, sharp sigh and bellied up to his desk. I don't.

 

 

2. Action

 

December 26, 1969

 

"What d'you mean, gone?" Carl usually had a policy of not yelling at desk jockeys, but he couldn't help himself. "Don't airfields have fences, for Christ's sake?"

"I-I—yes, they do, I mean, we do," the young man said. "But—it's not a straight perimeter. I've paged the security chief, he'll tell you better than I can—"

"Page him again." Carl stabbed a finger at the phone, which rang suddenly.

The desk kid answered, then held out the phone. "It's for you."

"Carl, what the hell is going on?" It was AD Marsh.

"Sir, we're getting it under control right now. I've got the security chief on his way and we're getting in touch with NYPD." Carl held the phone close to his ear and glared out at the gaggle of officers and his agents, all comparing notes.

"How do you lose a prisoner on a plane?" Marsh demanded.

Carl leaned his head back and shut his eyes for a moment. Just in case that question wasn't rhetorical, he answered, "I'll give you the details later. I see the security chief coming down the concourse. I gotta go." Carl saw no such thing, but he wasn't about to blurt his frustration and ignominy to the AD in front of God and everybody.

"You do realize how important it is that we get the kid back in custody now."

"Yes, sir. We're on it."

"Get it done."

"Yes, sir."

Carl handed the phone back to the kid at the desk and pushed up his glasses to pinch his nose.

"—goddamn Houdini," Amdursky was saying. "You can't police the whole perimeter, no way."

"Well, nobody saw him come in the gate—"

"There's the pilots' door at the bottom," Fox said. "You check that?"

"We checked that, we checked everything."

"Well, how long would it take to get the airport locked down?"

"Not less than ten minutes—and then we'd have to do a sweep and question people—"

"Well, if what you say's true he could be on a flight out of the country by now—"

"We oughta hold all the outgoing flights then—"

"Oh Jesus fucking Christ." The tumult died away, and Carl took his hand away from his face to see them all blinking at him. "This is a complete waste of time—we already know exactly where he's going!"

"Uh, no, Carl," Amdursky said, "we don't," but Carl wasn't listening. He lunged at the desk and elbowed the kid out of the way to grab the phone.

"How the hell do I get an outside connection? All right!...C'mon, c'mon…Alice? This is Hanratty. I need you to do me a favor, it's urgent. Go in my office and pick up the extension." He waited, growling under his breath, till she picked up again. "Now, there's a big Pendaflex file on the credenza by my desk, on the right-hand side—yes—yes—Abagnale—no, not that one, the big one—now, I need you to flip toward the back of, it should be the second manila one there, there's a missing persons report in the clip. I need you to find me that report and give me the address that's on it." Carl pinned the phone to his shoulder and gestured frantically for a pad and paper, and the desk kid scrambled to put them in his hands. "Yes…yes. Yes, that's it. Now let me read it back to you." Just within his peripheral vision, he could see that Fox was busily copying too. "Yes. Thank you. Thank you very much. Bye."

Fox tore off his note and handed it to Amdursky, who charged out into the corridor with three officers in tow. Carl followed at a brisk pace, and the gaggle of officials relimned behind him.

"Or you know," Fox said in an undertone at his elbow, "we coulda looked her name up in the phone book."

Carl ignored him and set his teeth. He was trying not to think which was worse—intercepting Frank before he got there, or not intercepting him.

 

 

3. Relation

 

December 26, 1970

 

Thanks to the professional opinion he got from Frank, the case was open-and-shut the minute Carl set foot in the Great Lake Savings and Loan's main branch.

It was really almost ridiculously easy: while waiting for the supervisor to be alerted to his visit, Carl flicked a quick glance down the rank of tellers, then cast his eyes down and listened to the conversations going on behind the counter.

A teller named Marilynn Sunderland had called in abruptly sick. This was not the first such occurrence. There was a reference to the woman's husband, who was a flashy, overbearing type and had once written a note excusing his wife from work, like that meant anything, because he wasn't even a doctor. The other tellers highly doubted that Mr. Bunsen would let her make up time on Saturdays anymore.

When the supervisor appeared, Carl walked with him back to his office and casually brought up the teller trouble. From this it was a piece of cake to get hold of Mrs. Sunderland's personnel file and take a lens to the infamous note written out by her husband.

Ten minutes later Carl was riding shotgun in a police cruiser; twenty minutes after that they pulled up at a house with a quick-rental moving van parked outside.

And half an hour after that, more cops arrived to cart away the sobbing wife and her belligerent husband, who had made a break out the back door and met the cop Carl had posted there before going up to ring the doorbell.

"I haven't done anything. You can't put me in jail," the man snarled in Carl's general direction. "You haven't got one iota of proof that I did anything."

"You shouldn't have had your wife stamp those dates on at the bank," Carl replied calmly. The shot went home: the man stiffened and went white, and Carl offered him a thin smile.

It would have been a shining triumph, except that these two criminals had children: a girl about six clung crying to her sister of ten, who stood silent next to the family Christmas tree. The lights on the tree were still flashing merrily, a contrast to the girl's eyes, steady on Carl wherever he moved. A social worker was coming to pick them up, one of the officers had told them; and there they waited.

There was nothing Carl could say to this girl's mute accusing gaze, except the one thing.

"Sorry," Carl said brusquely, and strode out the door before he could be tempted to say anything else that might turn into a promise he couldn't keep. Promising something to a kid was as good as promising hell to yourself. Especially if you promised by accident.

 

 

4. Place

 

December 24, 1967

 

"Where's your shirt?" Carl said.

Frank jerked his chin to point over across the room, keeping still against a fine shiver. Carl gestured him ahead, and then followed him over to the chair on which his shirt lay.

He draped the shirt gently over Frank's shoulders, then followed it with the jacket that lay flung over the table.

"Come on." He tipped his head in the direction of the front door, and as they crossed to it, took hold of the kid's arm, though Frank didn't need guiding. He was already getting that look Carl had seen before—that look of completion some of them got, as if being caught were the accomplishment they'd been gunning for all along, and didn't know it till that moment. Of course Frank would be one of those. He had even stopped shivering, and now strode along with as much quiet dignity as Carl himself could maybe muster in a month of Sundays.

They emerged into the dripping dark of the village square, empty except for the faithful singing in the church twenty yards away, and finally halted in full open view. Carl resettled his hat on his head. This was not at all the way he'd have chosen to play this out, and if you wanted to get technical about the whole thing, the last ten minutes were actually the only thing that had gone right. He didn't speak French, and this wasn't his turf, and Carl wondered if he had fallen into that boring American cliché of hating France. If so, he had more of a right to it than any camera-toting tourist.

He realized suddenly that Frank was smiling over at him, a smile of wry delight. "That was really good, Carl," he said, just as the first police car hove round the bend.

When Frank saw it, Carl's perception took a dizzying 180-degree lurch (as it had how often in the last two years? hell, in the last two minutes?), and it was the kid standing next to him, not the man of the world. Suddenly faced with twenty officers, the business end of nearly as many pistols, and volleys of unintelligible commands, Frank took an instinctive step backward. Backward, and toward Carl, as if to shelter behind him.

And who could blame him? Carl found it pretty unnerving himself. It didn't register till they were putting Frank in the car that he'd accepted the gesture and reciprocated it; and by the time he realized he was going to be shut out of the process altogether, he only had time to throw himself at the rear window and shout a hasty promise—and then, so quick he was left dizzy, they were all speeding away, Frank looking back at him wide-eyed.

They were gone. Carl wheeled about. The churchgoers were gawking at him, which was in itself a demand that Carl explain what had just happened, which he wouldn't have done even if he knew. Which he didn't. Typical, this was just typical: the very moment he'd managed to get the kid to trust him, and now the only thing he had the power to do was go look for a guy with enough English and a working motor to take him to the nearest train hub still running trains on Christmas Eve night.

"Typical. God damn it," Carl muttered.

 

 

5. Passion

 

May 10, 1971

 

They were all getting up to leave, shuffling files and shouldering themselves back into suit jackets, and the conference room was half-emptied before Carl slowed and hung back to wait where AD Marsh was piling folders one atop the next.

When the last guy was headed out the door, Carl said: "Sir? Can I have a word?"

"Yes?" Marsh looked up, and then his eyes went instantly shrewd. Damn him.

"Sir—"

"Is this about Abagnale, by any chance?" Marsh said.

Carl took it as calmly as he could. "Well—yes. Sir, I want to—"

"No," Marsh said.

Oh, this was going well. "I really think that—"

"I'm sorry, Carl. It's out of the question." Marsh returned to stacking his files.

"But—"

The AD raised his eyes and fixed Carl with a look.

Finally Carl sighed, and turned to go. He could feel Marsh watching him, but he wasn't even tempted to bang the door behind him. He could afford to be calm: he was coming back, eventually. Carl had learned the value of patience.

 

 

6. Disposition

 

December 24, 1968

 

Carl had his very own office now: not a temporary assignment for a special project, not an all-purpose adjunct room to the bullpen, but his own office, his.

Not that there was much opportunity to revel in it. Currently, Carl's office was swamped with paper: dossiers on subjects identified and un-, caught and uncaught, local and national. File folders peregrinated from stack to stack depending on status, stacks merged and separated according to content, and loose fingerprint records, interoffice memos, and messages lightly snowed everything in. They called them paperhangers, but it seemed that the paper in question was all being hung in the six-by-ten square of real estate that marked Carl's authority in the department.

In fact, Carl had had the office for over a year, but the work never changed, so it still felt new, and the stacks and piles of paper made it as much home as any other desk he'd manned, so it was about six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Carl had stayed to wait for the return of a phone call; then when he had received it, spent the next hour reorganizing the file of that project. Now he was nodding gritty-eyed over a lengthy and very dry statement on the capture of a subject in San Diego. It was Christmas Eve and the only thing duller than this would be being at home.

He pushed his fingers under his glasses and rubbed at his eyes, then leaned back with a sigh to cast his dull gaze over the methodical madness of his office. His eyes fell on the heavy file that rested on the credenza to his right, a place it had occupied for a year, suspended from the progress from capture to court dates, in the limbo of stalled extradition talks. Don't worry, Frank, I'll get you extradited back to the United States. Don't worry!

Carl snorted softly to himself. Should've known it wouldn't be so easy. He wouldn't be talking to Frank Abagnale this Christmas, and at the rate things were going, he wouldn't be talking to him next Christmas either. Carl had not given up, far from it, but he wasn't going to make any more rash promises either.

He had already tried calling, several times, and each time got the runaround ending in a curt French denial; and this morning he had actually rolled a sheet of paper into the typewriter to send a Christmas greeting, but stalled out on thinking what he was actually going to say. He pulled it back out, balled it up, and chucked it at the trash can after reflecting that even if he did manage to come up with something that was neither superficial nor mendaciously optimistic, the chances the letter would actually get to its addressee were fairly slim.

So here Carl was, faced with the novelty of a boring Christmas Eve. He got up and went out in search of a newspaper and a coffee.

He settled back in his chair twenty minutes later with a hot paper cup full of black coffee and a New York Times he'd convinced the closing newsstand to part with. Apollo 8 was set to orbit the Moon; they still hadn't caught that bank robber in Japan (Carl chuckled); the stock market was doing its usual unintelligible thing, and there was a human-interest story about retired service-dogs.

And then on a back page, a name that was far too familiar.

Carl sat up with a bump, nearly losing hold of his coffee. He set the dripping cup unseeing on his blotter and laid the page flat to train the full strength of the anglepoise lamp on the article.

"Shit," he said, finally.

The article was brief and to the point. A freak accident at Grand Central during peak hours had killed a man by the name of Frank Abagnale, Sr., age 52. A previous article had covered the accident, but had not named the man because the search for his next-of-kin was still pending. Since then it had been determined that his next-of-kin could not be located, and the inquiry was closed.

"Try Perpignan prison, France," Carl said loudly at the paper, then subsided back in his chair. "Ah, Jesus," he muttered.

For a long time he sat there and stared at the newsprint, hands limp over the arms of the chair, dismal cogitations gathering in his mind. Then, with a methodical weariness, he reached over to pick up Frank's large and dormant file, pulled a scissors out of his desk, and began to cut into the page toward the article.

At least, he reflected grimly as he pasted it to a sheet of cardstock with careful dabs of rubber cement, he now had something to do tomorrow.

 

 

7. Quantity

 

December 26, 1969; later

 

"It's done," Carl said into the phone.

"Where are you?" Marsh said.

"I'm at NYPD."

"And you've got him in custody?"

There was a whole novel's worth of answer to that question. "Yes," Carl said, passing a hand over his brow.

"Good." Marsh sounded relieved.

"They're processing him right now. D'you want me to brief you tonight?"

Marsh thought about it a second. "No, it can wait till tomorrow. When are you coming back?"

"Dunno, haven't checked flight skeds yet. Why don't I call you tomorrow morning and let you know."

"Sounds good. I'll hear from you tomorrow then."

"Right," Carl said, and put the phone back in its rest on the desk. Before turning toward the corridor to the lobby, he glanced one more time through the wire-reinforced glass pane of the door into the secure area. Frank was still sitting there, waiting in one of the hard plastic chairs: he was shackled hand and foot, and sat uncomplainingly still, staring at nothing in particular. For the first time ever, he looked beaten; and embittered.

No kid had any business looking like that. But, Carl thought as he turned away, no kid he ever heard of had stolen four million dollars singlehanded or Houdini'd his way out of a moving aircraft, so maybe it was all par for the course.

In fact, in a small way Frank had been buffered by the enormity of his offenses, and tonight Carl was happy to sponsor that. It made him feel less rotten himself.

Fox met him as he came out into the lobby. "I've just got us some rooms at a hotel," he said.

"Thank God," Amdursky said, prying himself up out of a chair with a groan.

"Thanks," Carl said, "but I think I'm going to catch a train back to Washington. Like to get started on the paperwork."

"Oh, come on, Carl," Amdursky said, "that's crazy. It's the holidays. The case is over. The paperwork can wait."

Carl didn't stop. "Thanks. Have a good holiday. I'll see you next week." He lifted a hand in salute, and walked out the door without looking back.

 

 

8. Rainment

 

December 23, 1973

 

"Carl," Marsh said, "I'd better not regret this."

There was no possible answer to that, so Carl merely grunted.

They were in a car on their way to a meeting with the AG—the meeting, Carl tried not to think, fidgeting with his tie. His patience had begun to pay off; and Marsh, recognizing the dogged, inexorable persistence that marked Carl's most serious work, had allowed first conversations, then reasoned arguments—and now discussions of strategy.

The AD suddenly turned half-face to look directly at Carl next to him. "You haven't," Marsh said, for the first time, "discussed any of this with Frank, have you?"

Carl gave him a look. "As a matter of fact, I haven't spoken with him at all since this started." The actual substance being, Do I look like an idiot to you?

"What about Christmas?" Marsh said.

"Sent him a card," Carl said, blandly.

Marsh was looking narrowly at him again. "And you haven't consulted him any more."

"No," Carl said.

"So…then, how do you know this usefulness of his wasn't just a fluke?"

Carl settled back in the seat with a gesture of more comfort than he actually felt. "You're worried about that, you should test him yourself."

AD Marsh faced front again. "I'll do that," he said.

 

 

9. Time

 

December 24, 1974

 

The sound of phones ringing had thinned, and so had the voices. Carl hardly noticed. He was deep in scrutiny of a new set of impressions, a thumb and two fingers, with a book at his elbow ready for comparison.

He was jerked out of focus, finally, by the abrupt sound of his door opening. He looked up and over, and three things were apparent at once: the quality of light in the bullpen was considerably dimmed; the last of his agents were idly chatting their way out the door; and Frank was standing there with one shoulder hitched comfortably on the doorframe.

"What are you grinning about," Carl growled, returning his eye to the lens.

"Nothin'," Frank said, and Carl snorted. "What you working on?"

"Trying to make these prints outta Albany," Carl replied.

"Oh yeah? Well, that's a big book. It'll take you a while."

"You could grab a lens and give me a hand, you know."

"Carl," Frank said, "it's after six."

Carl looked up again, blankly. "Wh—you're not staying?"

"What, are you crazy?" Frank grinned again, wider. "I'm going home." He lurched up off the doorframe and disappeared, to return a minute later with his overcoat half-shrugged on. He wasn't carrying his briefcase, and he didn't stop.

"Merry Christmas, Carl," he said, working his other arm into its sleeve. "Keep that nose to the grindstone, now."

Without looking around, Carl gave him a languid one-finger salute over his shoulder. Frank laughed; the door clacked open, then shut in a gentle slam; and silence settled over the building.

Thoughtfully, Carl sat back and tapped his pen on the blotter, regarding his work with a gaze slightly out of focus, to rest his eyes. There had to be a way to narrow the search field, and he intended to spend the evening ferreting it out; but after a few minutes he realized that he was actually thinking about a tiny powerhouse Mexican restaurant located on the route to his apartment. If he left within another half-hour, he could make it before they closed.

He let the thought pass, and fixed his unfocused gaze back on the prints, tapping his pen again. A narrower search field.

But then he dropped the pen to the blotter, sighed, and looked around. His jacket and coat were hanging on the coat-tree; a hint of colored light was emanating through the windows on the other side of the bullpen. Peace on earth, good will, et cetera, et cetera.

With a faint smile, Carl reached out and switched off the anglepoise lamp.

 

*

 

finis