Read 1 The Question of the Missing Head Online

Authors: E. J. Copperman

Tags: #mystery, #autistic, #e.j. copperman, #mystery novel, #mystery book, #jeff cohen, #mystery fiction, #autism, #aspberger's aspbergers

1 The Question of the Missing Head (10 page)

seventeen

“When did your daughter
first mention her desire to be preserved in cryogenic freeze?” I asked Laverne Masters. Admittedly, the question was punctuated by gaps caused by my breathing rather heavily.

Ms. Washburn had suggested we move our interview headquarters to the institute’s employee fitness center, which was currently closed off during the police investigation. We had cleared the plan with Lapides, who was thrilled to cooperate with me in any way he could, so now I was conducting the interrogation while walking on a
treadmill at four miles per hour. To get in my accustomed amount of exercise, I would continue walking another six minutes at this pace. I could not increase my heart rate by raising my arms at this pace, uphill at a six-degree angle, because I was holding tightly to the side rails, which I had made sure had been cleaned and disinfected. I de
cided to do extra work on my arms tomorrow.

“She told us only a month or so before she died,” Laverne replied. “She hadn’t even informed us of her diagnosis, and then she was telling us that she had terminal cancer
and
instead of having a proper funeral when she died, she was going to be decapitated and frozen. You can imagine how I felt.” She seemed less upset that her daughter had died, and more that she had not done so in a manner Laverne would have deemed dignified.

“Did you know she was ill?” I asked Arthur.

He shook his head. “We weren’t especially close after Rita’s marriage,” he answered. “I think she believed I didn’t approve of her husband, and she stopped talking to me before I could even express an opinion. She cut me out of her life without even asking first.”

Another five minutes and I would be finished. “
Did
you approve of her choice of husband?” I asked.

Arthur did not answer immediately; it seemed he was trying to decide. “It wasn’t my place to approve or disapprove,” he said. “I was her brother, not her father. But if you’re asking me whether I liked Bill Powell, I’d say no. He is an unimpressive little man, almost without a personality at all. I never understood what Rita saw in him.”

I realized that it would have been better to have brought a bottle of water with me onto the treadmill, but then it occurred to me that drinking from it would have required my removing one hand from the side rail, and I wasn’t about to do that. There was a fear—which might have been somewhat irrational, but was nonetheless real—that the change in exercise routine, coupled with the concentration in another area, might cause me to slip and fall. Perhaps one of the elliptical trainers would have been a more efficient choice, with more calories burned per minute. I would consider that for my next exercise session.

“How long ago were they divorced?” I asked. Ackerman had given me an estimate; I wondered if either Arthur or Laverne could be more precise.

“Three years ago,” Laverne said. “I remember the exact date, it was April the twenty-seventh, three years ago. Every year I had to fight the urge to send Rita a card of congratulations on the date. Smartest thing she ever did.”

“Was Mr. Powell cheating on your daughter?” I suggested. So many marriages end because one party is unfaithful, it seemed logical to start there.

Arthur chuckled. “Bill isn’t interesting enough to have an affair,” he answered with a sneer.

“Then, was Ms. Masters-Powell cheating on her husband?” I asked.

Laverne looked as if I’d suggested her daughter had suddenly become a giraffe. “I should say not!” she exclaimed. “Rita would never even consider such a thing! Arthur, we don’t have to submit to these indignities. Let’s go.” But her son did not move from his chair, which was set up like his mother’s next to the treadmill, where I had only three minutes left to go. I set the control for a three-mile-per-hour pace to begin the cool-down process.

“Excuse me if I expressed myself in an inappropriate manner,” I said. “I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and sometimes I do not say things the way other people expect to hear them.” I did not believe I had said anything wrong—in fact, I was sure I hadn’t—but sometimes mentioning a “disorder” with which people are not intimately familiar can have its uses.

As it did this time—Laverne flattened her mouth but remained silent.

“What was the reason for Ms. Masters-Powell’s divorce?” I asked.

“I suppose she finally got bored,” Arthur replied. “Like I said, we weren’t speaking by that point, so I really haven’t any idea. Did she say anything to you, Mother?”

“Your daughter was speaking to you, Mrs. Masters?” I said.

She sniffed. “Of course. A daughter talks to her mother. But all she said about the divorce was that she had grown tired of her husband, they had drifted apart, and she was leaving.”

“She was leaving?” Ms. Washburn asked. “Isn’t it more common for the husband to leave than the wife?”

The Masterses looked at Ms. Washburn with two completely different expressions: Arthur appeared to be finding her attractive, if my analysis was accurate. It was as if he had not looked at Ms. Washburn before and was pleasantly surprised by what he saw.

Laverne Masters, however, considered Ms. Washburn as if she were an especially lowly employee who’d had the temerity to question an order. “Rita left because she wanted to leave,” she said with an icy tone. “What was
common
was never a consideration.”

“My apologies if I said something to offend you,” Ms. Washburn said. “I didn’t mean to.”

“Oh, you didn’t offend me,” Arthur Masters said before his mother could comment. “Don’t worry.”

Ms. Washburn nodded, and I noticed she made a point of brushing back her hair with her left hand—the one with the wedding ring on the third finger—slowly, so Arthur could see it. I assumed that meant she had noticed his interest and was trying to dampen it.

“Mrs. Masters,” I continued, “were you with your daughter when she died?” I had not yet seen Rita Masters-Powell’s death certificate and did not know if there was a police report, which would be the case if she died alone.

It was difficult for me to understand the dynamic between them, but that was not the issue at the moment. The treadmill program ended, and I stepped off. Ms. Washburn reached over with a bottle of water, and I took it and thanked her. I hadn’t noticed she’d brought it into the fitness center when we’d entered, and I had no idea where she might have found it.

Laverne Masters shook her head. “The night she passed away, Rita had been moved to a hospice without my knowledge,” she said. “They said she hadn’t been there more than a few hours before she was no longer conscious, and she did not live long after that.”

“And the hospice didn’t call you?” Ms. Washburn asked. “That’s usually the … typical procedure.”

“They did not,” Laverne assured her, not taking exception with the use of the word
typical
. “We had already agreed to pay the monthly fee this ghoulish place charges, despite my utter disbelief in this voodoo system of theirs, and when the time came, I was not even notified. Rita, apparently, had not listed me as a person to contact. She had provided them with only two names.”

“What names were those?” I asked.

“Her ex-husband and Dr. Rebecca Springer,” Arthur said.

When Laverne and her son were preparing to leave, I walked over to Arthur and spoke to him quietly, out of his mother’s earshot. “Some of what you just told us was a lie,” I said.

He stopped and regarded me as one would a servant who had been impertinent. “I beg your pardon?”

“I’m told that
you
initiated the contact with the institute on your sister’s behalf, and that you knew her condition was terminal long before she told your mother. Rita never even visited the institute personally before she died, did she?”

Arthur sniffed the air as if something had fouled it. “You were
told
incorrectly,” he said. “The only thing I did was set up the fund to pay these charlatans through my family’s personal accounts, not the company’s,
after
Rita was dead.” He turned on his heel, took his mother’s arm, and left the conference room.

I nodded. That had gone exactly as I’d anticipated.

eighteen

“I can’t and won’t
allow some police functionary to crawl through our security systems and pull out intricate wiring and computer hardw
are, some of which is based on proprietary designs,” Marshall Ackerman said.

We had returned to Ackerman’s office after I concluded my questioning of the Masterses. Facts—or at least, reported interpretations of facts—were coming at me rapidly now, and while they added possibilities, they were not helping by eliminating others. This led to an abundance of possible explanations to the questions of the stolen head and the murder of Dr. Springer, but I needed to narrow the competing theories in my mind, not expand them. Still, it is a mistake to eliminate explanations strictly because they make it more difficult to answer the question; I would have to be vigilant and wait for a clear pattern to emerge.

I had communicated Lapides’s request that Ackerman allow a security technology expert in the employ of the police department to review the institute’s systems, which had clearly failed twice at crucial moments. And his refusal to do so was, frankly, baffling.

“I don’t understand,” I told him. “The police are trying to determine what went wrong with your equipment. Why would you not want that to happen?”

“Actually, initially I was all for the idea,” Ackerman replied, “but Commander Johnson convinced me that allowing an outsider access to all of our security measures would present a more serious threat to the stable environment we provide here, and I have seen his point. There will be no further discussion on that matter.”

I shook my head. “There will be further discussion when Detective Lapides obtains a search warrant from a judge,” I told Ackerman. “Then you will have no legal recourse but to allow the examination. Why go through that ritual when it isn’t necessary? A very serious theft of property you want back and an even more serious murder have taken place here. Refusing help when it is offered makes no sense.”

“It’s after five,” Ackerman said. “Lapides won’t be able to get in touch with a judge before tomorrow. Besides, I’ve talked to our brilliant police detective. I doubt he’ll think of getting a warrant all by himself. And I forbid you to suggest it to him, Mr. Hoenig.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Forbid?” I said.

“You are an independent contractor hired by this institute,” Ackerman said, as if I were unaware of the situation. “As such, you are temporarily an employee of this institute. And that makes me your boss. I’m specifically instructing you not to tell Detective Lapides to seek a search warrant that would compromise our security.”

“That would be considered withholding evidence, and I am not interested in violating the law,” I replied. “I
am
an independent contractor under your employ, and you have every right in the world to dismiss me if you are displeased with the service I provide.”

That statement might have been a bit hasty, given that I still had to pay the rent on my office and its utilities, along with other expenses for Questions Answered. It would not necessarily be a crushing blow if Ackerman discontinued my services, but I had already come up with a number of ways to spend the inflated fee Ms. Washburn had negotiated on my behalf, including paying her a salary and asking her to stay with the company indefinitely.

So I took a deep breath, as I had been coached to do in social skills sessions throughout my teens and twenties, and said, “I will not suggest a warrant to Detective Lapides.”

Ackerman smiled in a way I have seen villains smile in James Bond motion pictures. “That’s playing ball, Mr. Hoenig,” he said.

I glanced quickly at Ms. Washburn, who was situated in a corner behind Ackerman’s desk so she could see the computer screen. She shook her head—no, Ackerman did not mean we were playing baseball. I filed the expression away mentally.

There was no further time to discuss the matter, since Detective Lapides, followed by Commander Johnson and Amelia Johnson, walked into the office. Lapides wasted no time. “We’ve set up the video link with William Powell,” he said.

“I think that unlikely,” I said, thinking I was making a joke. I knew William Powell as the motion picture star of the Thin Man series and other classics. But no one in the room laughed, and Lapides looked strangely at me.

“No, we definitely have,” he said.

“Never mind,” Ms. Washburn told me before I could explain my comment.

We all maneuvered behind Ackerman’s desk to get a view of his computer screen, which luckily was quite large and tilted upward. Commander Johnson made some adjustments to the program, called up the video conference function, and there, seated behind what appeared to be a kitchen table, was Rita Masters-Powell’s ex-husband, Bill.

He appeared haggard and pale; it was possible he had not slept much recently. And he was thin, but it was equally possible he’d always been of a slight build. His eyes, if I were reading them correctly, betrayed a very deep pain.

“Can you see me?” he asked.

“Yes, Mr. Powell,” Lapides answered. “This is Detective Lapides. I am taking the liberty of recording this conversation, with your permission.”

“Yes, all right.”

Lapides nodded to Commander Johnson, who performed various functions on the keyboard again, and a small indicator appeared in the top left hand corner of the screen, signaling that Powell’s side of the call was being recorded on the computer’s hard drive. I assumed there was a wireless feed to a laptop Lapides was using to record it for the police department’s purposes.

“Thank you, Mr. Powell. Now, you understand that in addition to the … misplacement of your ex-wife’s remains, there has also been a homicide here at the institute today.”

Powell seemed a little groggy; he might have been on antidepressant medication. “I wasn’t there,” he said.

“No, we’re aware of that,” Lapides assured him. “But any information you have might be useful in both investigations, all right?”

“I suppose so. But I don’t know anything.”

“Well, we’ll see about that,” Lapides answered. “Now, can you tell me the circumstances under which you and your wife separated?”

“I don’t know.”

That was cryptic, certainly. A look of confusion passed around the room. “You don’t know why you got a divorce?” Lapides reiterated.

“Not really. Rita came home one day and said I was boring and she wanted a divorce. She really didn’t explain it any more than that.”

Lapides looked at me with something like desperation in his eyes. So I leaned over toward the monitor and said, “Mr. Powell, allow me to introduce myself. I am Samuel Hoenig. The institute has hired me to answer the question of what happened to your ex-wife’s remains.”

“Answer the question? What does that mean?” Powell seemed almost disoriented. My suspicion about him being on some sort of medication became stronger.

“I am investigating the theft,” I said. “Do we understand you correctly? There was no problem in your marriage until your wife announced her intention to seek a divorce?”

“That’s right. She came home from work one evening and told me we were through. I tried to argue with her about it, tell her I wasn’t boring, but I guess that’s the sort of thing each person gets to decide for themselves, and she wouldn’t hear it. She called her lawyer the next morning.”

There had to be more to it than that; I don’t know much about marital relationships, but it seemed odd for a wife to decide to end the marriage simply because her husband seems suddenly dull to her. “How long had you been married, Mr. Powell?” I asked.

His eyes rolled up toward the left side of his head; he was trying to remember. “Three years? Or four? No. Three. It would have been four, but the divorce came through a week before our wedding anniversary. Three years. Why?”

It was a legitimate question. “I’m trying to establish a timeline, Mr. Powell. How did you meet Rita Masters?”

“I used to work at the country club,” he said, as if that explained
it.

“What country club is that?” I asked.

Powell looked at me as if I’d challenged him on the theory of gravity. “The Woodline Meadows Country Club, in Mendham,” he said with an air of obviousness. “The whole Masters family used to come by, and I was working there.”

“In what capacity?”

“I was a busboy.”

It seemed the wrong time to comment on the inherent cliché in the situation of a country club busboy meeting the wealthy daughter of the club’s prominent family, so I did not, but I saw Ackerman stifle a chuckle. Amelia Johnson rolled her eyes heavenward.

“How did the two of you become friendly?” I asked. It was the most diplomatic term I could conjure.

“Rita told me later she always had an eye for me when she’d come to eat at the club,” Powell said with a touch of pride in his voice—highly incongruous for him. “I didn’t realize it at the time; it never occurred to me she’d be interested.”

“Were you interested in her?” I asked.

“I didn’t notice her especially at the beginning,” he said. “I was mostly paying attention to my tables. You know, they really don’t like it if you don’t fill a half-empty water glass, or refold a napkin when someone leaves their seat for a moment. I didn’t want to get fired, so I just watched my tables.

“But this one night, after my shift was over, I walked out the back way—you know, the staff entrance—and there’s Rita, waiting for me. She asks if I’d walk her back to her car, and I say sure. I mean, it was probably a longer walk for her to go all the way around the building to get to the staff entrance than it would have been to go straight to her car, so I figure there’s no way I can tell her no. I’d have gotten fired if she complained.”

“You didn’t
want
to walk with her to the car?” Lapides asked. I thought it was a legitimate question.

“They didn’t like seeing staff—you know, male staff—with women members,” Powell explained. “You heard about it all the time. But I couldn’t tell her no, either. I guess there was some attraction from the beginning.”

But the walk to the car had become something much larger, and I asked Powell how that had developed. As I spoke, I noticed Ms. Washburn watching the screen intently. She wrote something in her notebook.

“She said she’d been watching me in the dining room, and she wanted to know what it was like to work for all the rich people in the club,” Powell explained. “I told her I really liked the job, even though I didn’t, because I figured I’d get fired if she told my boss I’d complained. We got to talking, and she sort of maneuvered me into asking her to a movie on my next day off.”

“And that’s when you started seeing her socially,” I said. Lapides furrowed his brow at the phrasing, and I wondered if I had somehow used it incorrectly.

“Yeah, we dated for a few months, and then Rita told me she was pregnant,” Powell said.

The impact of that statement was palpable in the room. Ackerman actually rocked back on his heels a bit, and Commander Johnson looked at his shoes, something I had not seen him do at any other time that day.

“I thought you did not have any children,” I said to Powell.

“Oh, we didn’t,” he answered. “That was something she told me so I’d marry her. And it worked. We got married a week later, as soon as we’d had blood tests and everything, in the courthouse in Morristown. We didn’t tell Rita’s mother or my parents until after, because we didn’t want them to try and talk us out of it.”

While this tale was interesting, it was not providing facts that would help answer either of the questions involved in the recent incidents at the institute. So I jumped far ahead. “Did your wife keep in touch after the divorce?” I asked.

Powell looked confused. “You mean, did she call or something?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“After the papers were signed, I never heard Rita’s voice again.”

That did not seem to add up. “How did you learn of your ex-wife’s death?” I asked Powell.

For once, the man’s face showed some emotion, and he seemed to shake the haze of medication or depression that had been his most noticeable characteristic. He looked angry.

“I read about it in the newspaper,” he snarled. “No call from her family, no letter of condolence, nothing from anybody. Just a five-paragraph obituary. I didn’t even get mentioned under ‘surviving.’ It was humiliating.” He slurred the word
humiliating
a bit, and I began to wonder if Powell was intoxicated.

“Did you know that she had decided to be preserved here at Garden State Cryonics?” Ackerman asked. He clenched his teeth, no doubt bracing himself against the answer causing him either insurance or legal difficulties.

“She had started talking about that right before we got divorced,” Powell responded, and Ackerman visibly relaxed, letting out a large breath. “Came home with a brochure, said something about how she could come back to life if they ever found out how to cure whatever was going to kill her. I thought it was nuts, frankly. I mean, suppose you get run over by a bus. They gonna find a cure for that?”

Ackerman opened his mouth to reply, then apparently thought better of it. I asked, “So your ex-wife was already discussing cryonics with you three years ago, before you separated?”

“Yeah, that’s right. I never gave it much thought. I mean, we were both in our thirties and it seemed like we had plenty of time to worry about what was going to happen when we got old. Maybe they’d find the cure
before
we got sick, and there’d be no reason to think about this freezing stuff. But we never really got the chance to discuss the whole thing before Rita decided she didn’t want to live with me anymore.”

Lapides had told me earlier that Powell was “shocked” when the detective had called with news of the theft at GSCI. I asked Powell, who appeared to be getting sleepy, whether he’d contacted his ex-wife’s family after her death.

“I didn’t want to have anything to do with them,” he said. “You ask me, they’re the reason Rita decided to get a divorce.”

“Did she mention something about her family?” Ms. Washburn asked.

“No. But they didn’t like me from the beginning. Her mother always looked at me like I needed a shower. And her brother pretended to be my pal, but you could see he wished I’d go away.”

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