Authors: E. J. Copperman
Tags: #mystery, #autistic, #e.j. copperman, #mystery novel, #mystery book, #jeff cohen, #mystery fiction, #autism, #aspberger's aspbergers
The Question of the Missing Head
E. J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
First e-book edition © 2014
E-book ISBN: 978-0-7387-4386-8
Book design by Donna Burch-Brown
Cover design by Ellen Lawson
Cover Illustration: James Steinberg/Gerald and Cullen Rapp
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For everyone who is just a little bit different.
And you know who you are.
Collaboration on a writing project is never a simple thing, and this book is no exception. Writers have egos like everyone else, only more, and that means we had to compromise, each of us, from time to time in order to present Samuel’s story in the best possible way. Working together is a learning experience, or so they tell us.
Nonetheless, this book couldn’t have been written by just one of us. E.J. would like to thank Jeff for the cornier jokes we included, for the inside knowledge of living with an “Aspie,” and for the mid-afternoon runs to Dunkin’ Donuts for iced decaf, which sometimes even was. Jeff would like to thank E.J. for the adherence to a strong plot, the justifications for some of the more outrageous chapter endings, and for “Janet Washburn” especially, since her name had gone through about seven different permutations before hitting on the right sound.
The book you are (hopefully) about to read would never have reached your hands if not for the dogged determination of Josh Getzler at Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency. The authors probably would have given up about six times during the process, but Josh would not, and he found the series its very congenial home. Thanks also to Maddie Raffel and Danielle Burby, who at various times during the process had to deal with our lunacy and seemed not to mind.
Of course, the authors are in eternal debt to Terri Bischoff at Midnight Ink, who read Samuel’s story and wanted you to have the same opportunity. That is a lovely thing for authors to experience, and we are thrilled that Terri responded so strongly to our story of a guy who isn’t like most people.
Special thanks to Luci Hannson Zahray, known affectionately and respectfully throughout the crime fiction community as “The Poison Lady.” Luci is an absolutely essential resource to a writer who wants to kill someone, and when she shows up at a mystery book convention, no one ever lets her buy a drink. We’re afraid to.
Thanks also to the indispensible D.P. Lyle, the crime doctor, who actually knows the boiling point of liquid nitrogen and such. We were both English majors, and so desperately need help when actual science is involved.
We believe we should also thank anyone who has ever met someone like Samuel—and we know a few ourselves—and seen the person, not the differences. It is Samuel’s gift to use his own “quirks” to his advantage and that of others. If we all have a little bit more sensitivity to those who are demonstrably not like us, we might find that everyone benefits.
Thanks, finally, to you, because authors without readers are people screaming into a strong wind. We appreciate your looking up from your smartphone and choosing to take in a story the old-fashioned way, even if you’re doing so electronically. We write because everybody can’t fit around the campfire and, besides, there are bears in the woods. So keep doing what you’re doing, and we’ll try to keep our promises. How’s that?
—E. J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen
The telephone rang.
It had probably rung two or three times before, but I hadn’t noticed. It’s not unusual for me to be consumed in thought and to ignore distractions, although others believe them to be important signals.
Personally, I don’t understand why a ringing telephone should take precedence over a question I’ve been asked to answer, but there is a practicality to it—I do offer a service, and I won’t find many new clients if I refrain from answering the phone. It is difficult, however, to train myself to notice such things when an intriguing issue is foremost in my mind.
I had been concentrating on the solution to a question that had occupied the better part of two hours. When I noticed the phone ringing, I noted the caller ID, which read
with a phone number underneath, and reached for it.
“Questions Answered,” I said into the mouthpiece. It goes against what I have trained myself to do: say “hello” whenever answering a phone. But for business purposes, it’s necessary to reassure callers they have reached the entity they set out to find. It had only taken three weeks of trying for me to retrain myself, which I considered quite efficient. I was still working on the tone I used when speaking. Some people say my voice doesn’t have much inflection on the phone. I don’t hear a problem.
“Hello?” a woman’s voice said. She didn’t say anything else, which I thought was odd.
After a moment, I said, “Yes?”
“I have a question,” she said.
“I assumed that.” After all, the name of my agency is Questions Answered. I think some “typical” people overlook the obvious in favor of the distractions they think people like me miss.
“How much will the answer cost?”
“Is that your question?” I asked.
Again, for some reason, she said no more.
It occurred to me that she might want some encouragement. I wouldn’t need any if I were calling an agency that offered to answer my questions, but I have come to understand that not everyone thinks in the way that I do. “What is your question?” I asked.
“Well, it’s sort of complicated,” the woman said. I checked the caller ID on the phone. According to her phone number’s exchange, she was calling from Cranford, New Jersey, approximately seventeen miles from my office. “See, I was recently laid off from my job. I was a photographer at the
, and they had to cut back on staff. So I spend a lot of time at home now, and I was sitting here doing the
New York Times
I had stopped listening eight seconds earlier. “You are a photographer?” I asked. A photographer could be helpful in the work I’d been doing all morning.
The woman, whose voice put her in her early thirties, sounded surprised. “Yes,” she said. “That’s what I do. What will it cost to answer my question?”
“Your question will be answered with no charge,” I told her, “if you come to our office at 735 Stelton Road in Piscataway.” And I hung up the phone. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I should have said “good-bye” before I did that. Sometimes it slips my mind.
From Cranford would be a twenty-two-minute drive. There was nothing I could do but wait.
I had opened Questions Answered three months earlier and had provided service to only a handful of clients so far. I had done some advertising online, but the population on most social networking and service-sharing (classified ads) sites seemed interested in getting answers to questions about sex—questions I am not especially well qualified to answer. So a small advertisement on an inside page of the
New York Times
Arts section—which is less expensive than the news sections—had brought in three or four clients, but I was beginning to think that a local newspaper might be a better revenue generator.
Unfortunately, I read the
New York Times
and rely on no other offline news sources, so I’d have to ask my mother what other newspapers in our area might be appropriate.
Mother was supportive of the business, happy, I thought, to see me doing something other than Internet research in my attic apartment. I had to admit, answering other people’s questions had provided me with more interesting avenues for my research.
I stood up, because I hadn’t stood in twenty-three minutes, and I had resolved to do so three times per hour. The phone call had thrown me off my schedule. I walked around the office, flexing the muscles in my upper legs and raising my arms above my head as I went. It is important to periodically raise the heart rate and promote proper flow of blood through the system.
The room is relatively large, or at least appears so because it is almost entirely empty. I rented a former pizza restaurant named San Remo’s when the owners had retired to that very region of Italy. Being retired, they had no need for most of the fixtures in the building, so there was still a large, unused pizza oven in the back of the room and a soda machine that I contracted to be stocked with green tea and spring water approximately once a week by a man named Les.
When I had finished six laps around the office, which constituted one-third of a mile, I reached into the change pocket of my gray pants to find five quarters, so I could buy a bottle of water from my drink machine. I would receive fifty cents back when Les came to collect the money.
I sat back down at the desk and looked at the time on the screen of my Mac Pro. Twenty-seven minutes since I had disconnected the phone.
The woman was late.
Distressed, I didn’t pay attention to the rate of speed with which I drank the water, and I emptied the bottle in only four minutes. That was not good; I couldn’t allow myself to get a new bottle for another twenty minutes, and I might have to use the bathroom sooner than I’d planned, which was a minor concern. Cranford was only a twenty-two-minute drive; there was no reason for her to be this long overdue.
Had there been a car accident? Had she failed to get proper directions? Perhaps I should have directed her here when we’d spoken. It had not occurred to me that someone might not know how to get to an office she’d called on the phone.
Perhaps she’d simply decided not to come. Should I call her back? I needed her to arrive soon.
I decided against dialing the number on the caller ID. It would have been my first choice in the past, but Mother had convinced me that people sometimes feel uncomfortable with those they don’t know calling or visiting their residences. She called it “stalking.” I had thought it was simply trying to establish communication.
My mother generally understands these things better than I do.
But another ten minutes crawled by, and my patience was thinning. Either this woman was rude, or I had done something to convince her not to come. I’d have to go back over the conversation mentally to determine if I’d said something that could be perceived as odd.
At 8:57, a blue Kia Spectra, six years old, parked in the painted space outside my storefront. The owners of the strip mall where my office sits had provided each business with four dedicated parking spaces, and there were the requisite number of spaces reserved for those with physical handicaps. But the businesses here were not attracting much traffic, so it was always easy to find an available space, Mother had told me when she dropped me off one morning.
A woman of about thirty-one got out of the Spectra and seemed to assess my storefront. I’d painted a sign on a large canvas reading
and hung it in the front window, because a larger sign over the door would have been much too expensive. I did not expect much walk-in business, so a professionally designed sign was a luxury that could wait for another time.
The woman turned to open the car door, but then looked like she was reconsidering. I wondered if I should go outside and ask her in, but that might be seen as “stalking.” Besides, this might not be the woman who had called on the phone earlier. She did not appear to have a camera with her.
Finally, the bell over the front door rang, but she didn’t so much enter as lean in. “Hello?” she asked. The woman’s voice was the one I’d heard on the phone.
“It has been thirty-eight minutes since we spoke,” I said. “It should take only twenty-two minutes to drive here from Cranford. You are late.”
Her eyebrows rose, then fell. I’ve seen that expression before, and it seems to mean that I’ve said something confusing. “I took a shower,” the woman said.
I didn’t know her well enough to make a Beatles reference. Again, Mother has told me that some people find my interest in the band unusual, or “obsessive,” where I merely like to accumulate information on topics that I find interesting. If I had known this woman better, I probably would have referenced “A Day in the Life,” whose lyrics involve getting ready in the morning.
“You are Ms. Taylor?” I said.
The woman gave the door a glance, perhaps pondering whether to leave. “No. Taylor is my husband’s name. This is Questions Answered?” she said.
It took me a moment to realize she was asking, and not stating. “Yes.”
The woman took some time to think about that, but she eventually took a visible breath and said, “I’m Janet Washburn. How did you know I was coming from Cranford?”
“I have caller ID,” I answered. “Your exchange gave me your location.” I realized I wasn’t making eye contact with her—I had been looking at my computer screen and the door—so I forced myself to do so now.
“You looked up my telephone exchange on the computer?” she asked. She was of average height, blond, and brown-eyed. I didn’t think her hair was dyed, but it was possible.
I shook my head. “No. I memorize them.”
“You remember every telephone exchange in the area code?” People often find that surprising. For me, it’s a talent, like being able to juggle. I can’t juggle, but I can memorize mathematical patterns when I try.
“No,” I told her. “All the exchanges in the country. I’m working on some of the ones in Western Europe now.”
Ms. Washburn seemed especially impressed by that; her mouth seemed to form words and then discard them before she could vocalize them. “Who …
you?” she asked after the third try.
I knew how to do this—I put out my right hand and said, “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Samuel Hoenig.”
She hesitated but took my hand. “Nice to meet you. Do they call you Sam?”
What did that mean? “Who?”
“I don’t know. Your friends.”
I shook my head. “I am Samuel.” I did not feel it necessary to tell her I had very few friends.
Ms. Washburn nodded. “I have a question.”
“You don’t have a camera,” I said. Had she been lying about being a photographer?
Again, the eyebrow movement, but quicker this time. “I left it in the car.”
“It’s not doing any good there,” I told her. “Go get it.”
She looked surprised, but she went out and retrieved a camera case from the trunk of the car. She came back into the office and stood a few feet from my desk, as if she were afraid I might pounce like a tiger.
Before I could explain what I wanted her to do, Ms. Washburn said, “Pardon me for asking, but do you have Asperger’s Syndrome?”
Damn. She knew.