The Box

by Vanzetti

Tim takes a good look through the glass.  "That's our killer?  You're kidding, right?  The McPherson hit was a professional job.  You figure he did it when he was playing hooky from math class?"

"Playing hooky," Frank says, and then says it again, drawing each syllable out until he's drained it of meaning.  "Playing hooky.  You think kids still use that term?"

Tim looks to Gee for support, but Gee has his eyes fixed on the figure seated at the table.  "Gentlemen.  Need I remind you of your purpose here?  Honor -- the honor of the Baltimore police department, of this homicide unit, my own honor as your lieutenant -- honor requires a confession."

Frank mutters an acknowledgement and heads out of the observation room and into the box, but Tim stays a moment.  Honor's one way of putting it: honor, or the fact that they barely have enough evidence to justify questioning the boy.  The suspect really is just a boy, Tim thinks, nowhere near full-grown, all blue eyes and curly blond hair.  He looks calm but not relaxed, and he's staring at the mirror as if he knows exactly where Tim is standing.

By the time the door closes behind Tim, Frank's already started talking.  The boy glances at the motion when he comes in but keeps his attention on Frank.  "I would like," he says, "to telephone my lawyer."

"Do you have a lawyer, Mr. Conrad?" Frank asks.  There's no way William Conrad is this boy's real name, and somehow Frank makes it perfectly clear that he knows that without sounding unnecessarily dubious.  It's a talent Tim has often envied.

There's something like humor in the young man's voice.  "Surely that's my concern, rather than yours."

Tim can't quite get over the boy's accent, each consonant and vowel perfectly etched to match that angelic face. "When you talk about lawyers, suddenly the whole conversation gets a lot more serious.  We'd just like to ask you a few questions."

"But I'm not certain that I want to answer your questions."

Frank leans forward, across the table.  "You're not certain.  So you might be willing to answer them."

The boy's eyes shift.  "I can't imagine that my answers will be of any value to you."

"But since you don't know anything about the murder," Tim says, "there might be a detail which means something to us, but not to you."  

"You don't think we believe you did it," Frank says.  "That was a professional job.  Very professional.  You're just a kid."

This time, the young man's smile has teeth.

"You know," Tim adds, "in a killing like this -- a professional killing -- there's more than one suspect.  Sure, there's the person who did the murder, but the one we really care about is the person who gave the order.  He's the real killer."

Frank picks up without a pause. "Someone in your position, Mr. Conrad, might be able to help us with one of those, even if he couldn't help us with both."

The young man's face is a picture of polite confusion.  "But surely, both are guilty."

"Guilty?" Frank says.  "Yes, both are guilty.  But a man can be absolved of his guilt."

"If he repents," the boy says.

"If he repents honestly," Frank corrects him.

"And I do recall something about penance."

Frank smiles.  The boy smiles back.  It's like alchemy, Tim thinks, the way Frank can take the leaden hostility of a suspect and turn it to purest gold.  "That's true," Frank says.  "But the nature of his penance may depend on whether he's committed a crime or made a mistake."

"A mistake," the boy repeats.  "I hardly think--"

Frank leans forward and cuts him off.  "You know it was pure chance that you're here now.  Bad luck, good luck, whatever you want.  The workings of Providence.  Are you sure you want to contact your lawyer?"

"Do you believe in Providence?" the boy asks.

"Divine Providence?" Frank leans back.  "I do."

"So you would say that we're all pieces of some greater plan.  That our lives and deaths are ordained by necessity.  And you would say that I was brought here to bring some small part of that necessity to fruition."

"Only a fool," Frank says, "would argue that Providence deprives us of free will.  You don't strike me as a fool, Mr. Conrad."

The boy is quiet for a moment, before saying, in a low voice, "I think you overestimate my ability to affect my position within the larger system."

Frank is firm.  "We are not cogs in some machine, Mr. Conrad.  We shape our own lives by our decisions."

"There are some fates we can't escape."  But the boy sounds almost hopeful.

"I believe in Providence, Mr. Conrad.  Not predestination."  Frank is leaning across the table, closing in.  "Salvation and damnation rest in our own hands.  Those are our choices.  Those, dare I say it, are your choices."

"As simple as that?"

"As simple as that," Frank assures him.  "What do you choose?"

The boy opens his mouth and hesitates.  Tim glances at the door; there's something going on out there.  He can hear Gee's voice rising and falling, but Frank's attention remained fixed on the boy. Then the door opens, and the spell is broken.

"Will?  Are you all right?"  A thin, sharp-faced man.  Not the father, Tim thinks.

The boy holds Frank's gaze a moment longer.  "I'm quite well, thank you," he says.

The box is crowded now: the three of them, the man who's just come in, and Gee standing in the doorway behind him.  "This is Mr. Conrad's guardian," Gee rumbles.  The man is saying something about either charging his ward or letting him go, and Gee is glaring at them.  Tim sighs to himself: they weren't quick enough.

The boy knows what's going on as well as they do.  He stands.  "Detectives," he says.  "It's been a pleasure."  The man ushers him out, and Gee follows them, with one last scowl at Tim and Frank.

"It's not over, Frank" Tim says.  "We'll go back to the scene, do some more interviews.  We'll tie the kid to the murder."

"And the wicked make merry and abound in pleasures," Franks says, more to himself than to Tim, but Tim's used to that.  "We'll never see either of them again."


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