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 (17 page)

“I will not ask you to do something that frightens you so deeply,” I told her. “Please accept my thanks for your work today, and please consider coming back to work with Questions Answered tomorrow. Believe me, we almost never deal with violent criminals. In fact, this is the first time for me as well.”

Ms. Washburn smiled. “I’ll think about it, Samuel. I promise.” She reached over to the console between the front seats of her car, and picked up her cellular phone. “Do me a favor and take this, okay?” She extended her hand, holding the phone, toward me.

“I do not understand,” I said. “That is your cellular phone.”

“I’m not saying take it forever,” she answered. “Just in case you have to go out somewhere else again on this question, I would feel better if you’d have a means of communication with you at all times. Okay? To make me feel better?”

The phone was still extended out the window. Clearly, she wanted me to take it, but I was still apprehensive. “I’ve explained my history with such objects,” I reminded her. “I am not necessarily the most reliable person with whom to trust such a valuable piece of equipment, something you’ll need.”

“I’m going home to sleep,” she said. “I intend to sleep quite late, hopefully long past the amount of time it will take you to answer these two questions. I’ll come by in the afternoon and pick it up. So I won’t need it the whole time you have it. Okay?”

With another gesture, she extended the phone again. “But I might lose it,” I protested.

Ms. Washburn made sure she held my gaze when she said, “I trust you.”

The discussion was completed. I took the phone, and Ms. Washburn drove away.

twenty-four

The first thing Detective
Lapides asked me when I walked into the GSCI lobby was, “Where’s your assistant?”

I was tempted to correct his terminology and point out that Ms. Washburn was my associate and not my assistant, but instead I merely said, “Ms. Washburn has gone home for the day,” and left it at that. I was struggling to understand the change that had just taken place and was not yet ready to discuss it in detail. For someone like me, a surprise is not a pleasant experience; we prefer to know as much about an experience in advance as we possibly can.

“Come on in,” Lapides said, waving me through the security checkpoint at the entrance. “We have a lot to talk about.”

We walked into the same conference room where we’d seen Ackerman receive the messages from the thieves. Inside were Laverne and Arthur Masters, Commander Johnson, and Captain Harris. Neither Mrs. Johnson, Charlotte Selby, nor, of course, Marshall Ackerman were present.

“Where’s your assistant?” Arthur Masters asked, looking especially disappointed. I began to think that it was possible I did not like Arthur, but I told him the same thing I had told Lapides. When Arthur began to ask another question, Captain Harris cut him off.

“Things have escalated since you left, Mr. Hoenig,” she said. “I appreciate your help at the scene. We might not have the limited video footage we have if not for you, and your instinct regarding Mrs. Ackerman might very well have saved her life.”

“It was not an instinct,” I corrected her. “It was a conclusion reasoned through use of the facts.”

The captain waved a hand as if to dismiss the difference as irrelevant. I knew it was not, but I did not offer an argument. “As you’ve been told, the kidnappers have rejected the ransom that was offered and are now threatening to destroy the remains they have with them. But Mr. and Mrs. Masters are now saying they will pay the full ransom requested under the right conditions.”

That statement came as something of a shock. Laverne especially had been so adamant about not paying for her daughter’s head that her acquiescence on the subject of ransom seemed completely out of character. Changes in behavior that dramatic are sometimes the sign of an ulterior motive, and that did not coincide with the theory I had been developing on the question of the missing head.

I looked in Arthur’s direction, and he was looking at a picture on the wall above Captain Harris’s head. “Exactly,” he said. “Under the right conditions.”

“What would constitute the right conditions?” I asked. Unlike many such circumstances, when one would ask a question in anticipation of a certain response, I had no idea what Arthur’s answer might be.

“We need to see Rita’s remains, in person, before the money is transferred into a numbered account,” he said. “No actual cash will change hands.”

“Other than the one million that the institute has already lost, apparently,” I pointed out.

Laverne shook her head. “That’s not our concern,” she said. “We advised against paying anything to people who hadn’t even proved they have what they say they have.”

A small, thin man of about forty, showing signs of male pattern baldness, opened the door just enough to enter the conference room. He seemed barely strong enough to bear the weight of the door, and came close to becoming wedged in before he managed to achieve entry. He did not say anything, and no one seemed to notice his entrance, but he walked to Captain Harris’s side and stood there.

“Have your conditions been communicated to the thieves?” I asked the Masterses. I took Ms. Washburn’s cellular phone out of my pocket to assure myself that I still had possession of it. The phone was there but was not receiving a signal.

“We sent a text message to the number that had sent the last demands to Ackerman,” Commander Johnson said. “We’re still waiting for the reply.”

There was a silent moment at that point, and the thin man cleared his throat, which, even for someone like me who is more sensitive to sounds than most, was almost inaudible. But he was close enough to Captain Harris that she turned to face him.

“Oh, what is it, Epstein?” she asked. The man mumbled a reply, and the captain, leaning toward him to hear, appeared irritated. “Speak up,” she commanded.

“You had asked for a report on the security system,” Epstein said, his voice barely registering above the hum of the climate control system in the room.

“Yes, hours ago,” the captain answered.

“I’ve been waiting in the storage chamber to make my report, but no one came down to hear it,” Epstein explained. “Would you like the report now?”

There was an embarrassed silence, as everyone in the room including me looked elsewhere, having forgotten about the report that might explain how the crimes at GSCI had been committed.

“Yes, of course, man,” Captain Harris finally responded. She addressed the rest of us. “This is Jerome Epstein, the technological consultant we commissioned to examine the video security system here at Garden State.”

Commander Johnson snarled and said something I could not understand under his breath.

Epstein cleared his throat again, presumably for theatrical purposes to indicate that everyone in the room should pay attention. “Will you all join me in the security station?” he requested. “I believe I can show you exactly what happened.”

_____

“Well, maybe I overstated it,” Jerome Epstein said.

We had eagerly adjourned the meeting to the security station to hear Epstein’s report. The station, on the first level down from the ground level, was a rather small room, and it was difficult for the five of us to fit inside. Laverne Masters, having determined that the walk might be far, had chosen to stay in the conference room upstairs.

“I can’t show you what happened,” Epstein continued. “But I can certainly show you exactly what
didn’t
happen.”

Captain Harris looked perplexed. “You brought us here to show us something that didn’t happen?” she asked.

“In a way, yes.” Epstein turned toward an electronic console in front of him that, in a downsized fashion, approximated what one might see in the control room of a television studio. He turned a dial and nodded toward an overhead flat-screen monitor. “Take a look at that screen,” he said. “This is the data that was recorded at the approximate time Dr. Springer was murdered, as close as we can estimate from the preliminary report of the medical examiner.”

Everyone in the room immediately directed his or her attention to the monitor. After four seconds, it flickered to life, and we saw a very clear, full-color view of the specimen storage chamber, taken from inside the inner chamber door. It showed the left side of the room, with five full-body preservation units and eight for the preservation of the brain or full head.

Nothing disturbed the picture. I noted the time and date etched at the bottom of the screen, and they were as accurate as I could estimate. There was sound being recorded, since I could hear the hum of the cooling units, but nothing else appeared on screen or made an audible sound while we watched.

That trend continued for ninety-seven seconds before Captain Harris asked, “How long before we see something?”

“You’re seeing it now,” Epstein replied. “This is what the security system recorded.”

“I don’t understand,” the captain said.

“Are you saying that no one came in and stole my sister’s remains?” Arthur Masters demanded. “That no one killed a woman who is quite clearly dead? Are you trying to cover for the institute?”

Epstein shook his head. “Nothing of the sort,” he said. “I didn’t say this is what happened. I said this is what the security system recorded.”

Detective Lapides took on a very stern look. “Don’t try to fool us,” he told Epstein. Lapides then looked at me, perhaps recalling that it was my recommendation to employ an expert that led to Epstein’s presence in the room.

“What you’re seeing is the same recording that you looked at earlier today,” Epstein said. “And the fact is, the security system was told to record this image at the time of the theft, and at the time Dr. Springer died. But it is not the image the system should have been recording.”

I began to understand what Epstein was trying to say. Like many scientists and technical experts, he was not especially adept at conveying his thoughts in anything but the technical jargon of his profession, so when he attempted to do so, he could be misleading or appear obtuse. It was a difficulty I understood quite well.

“So something has been done to the security system to make it record the wrong image,” I said, attempting to clarify for Epstein.

He nodded with enthusiasm and pointed his index finger at me. “Exactly,” he said. “Someone has tampered with the system. This is actually a recording of Preservation Room B, when it should be a recording of Preservation Room D.”

That explained a great deal—how thieves could steal into the storage chamber without being detected, why the security system was not activated, why the previous security data we had examined had shown nothing. “What about the other cameras mounted in Preservation Room D?” Lapides asked. “There have to be at least four cameras in each room.”

“There are six,” I told him. Lapides gave me a look that was not as appreciative as I had expected.

“All of the security detection devices—cameras, microphones, and motion sensors—in Room D were switched off externally and rerouted to Room B at specific times,” Epstein explained. “So all of the data we got from the security system shows an empty room, interrupted only when a technician comes in to do a routine check during the night. And we have checked with the technician and her work log; she was indeed in Room B at the time this record shows her in Room D. Three other security personnel verify her account.”

“Was this rerouting of the data done automatically or manually?” I asked.

“Now, that’s very interesting,” Epstein replied. “The first time, when the remains of Rita Masters-Powell were stolen, was done automatically, and set up in advance. But when Dr. Springer was murdered later in the day, the system was breached manually, from inside the facility, only a minute or two before we can assume the assault on Dr. Springer took place.”

“Is there any way of restoring the correct security record?” Captain Harris asked.

I knew the answer, but I felt it was better to let Epstein explain. He shook his head. “There’s nothing to restore,” he said. “The footage was never taken. It’s like trying to replace a photograph when the lens cap was on the whole time.”

Lapides raised his arms in what I took to be frustration. “Then there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “We’ll never know who stole the head, or who killed the doctor.”

“There is a great deal we can do, now that we know how the perpetrators managed to commit their crimes undetected,” I argued. “Commander Johnson, how many people in your security crew would have the expertise and the access to the system to be able to reroute the security devices the way Mr. Epstein has described?”

The commander put his hand to his chin and lowered his eyebrows, then turned his head abruptly and looked at me. “Wait a minute,” he said. As always when someone says such a thing to me, my mind noted that this is an imprecise and inaccurate phrase to use. If we had waited a full minute, he would not have been able to make his following point until we had stood still for sixty seconds. But I was sure Ms. Washburn would have advised me to let that point remain unexpressed, so I listened. “Are you suggesting that I had something to do with these crimes?” Commander Johnson asked loudly.

“I am not suggesting anything,” I replied as calmly as he had spoken emotionally. “I am asking a question that is designed to help us uncover the truth.”

“Answer the question, please, commander,” Captain Harris said quietly. Her face was without expression and her eyes did not blink as she watched him reply.

He stood straight at attention, as I’d noticed he always did when performing a task he clearly did not consider a pleasant one. “Myself,” he said, then his eyes surveyed the room for reactions, which were not very noticeable, or which I missed. “Dr. Ackerman. My second-in-command, Jose Feliz, but only on those occasions when I am not present.”

“Why would Mr. Feliz have access only when you’re not here?” the captain asked.

“Because he would need a key card,” I said. Commander Johnson looked sharply at me. “I assume that the commander relinquishes the key card that sets and unsets the security system in the storage rooms only when he is not present, and that there is not a duplicate key for Mr. Feliz.”

Commander Johnson barely moved his lips when he said, “That is correct. There is a second key, but I keep both of them and give Feliz his only when it is necessary.”

“But you weren’t here when the remains were stolen,” I reminded the commander. “You said you received the call at home. Did you question Jose Feliz, Detective Lapides?”

“Yes!” Lapides snapped. It was becoming quite crowded for my taste in the tiny room, and I began to wonder if Epstein’s presentation had concluded, so we could vacate to more comfortable quarters. “He had someone with him through the entire shift, and his movements during the questionable times were verified on the video records.”

“Are we finished here?” I asked. Arthur Masters’s breath on the back of my neck was hot and unpleasant.

“Just one thing,” Lapides responded, while I pondered exactly how long I could tolerate the close quarters. Lapides turned toward Epstein. “How would someone rig this up to
automatically
switch from one storage room to another? Wouldn’t that show up on the video record?” Looking at Commander Johnson, he added, “Don’t you have someone monitoring at all times?”

“Of course we do,” the commander answered before Epstein, who tended to consider and draw breath before speaking, could. “But the blip from one empty room to another empty room would be almost imperceptible. The personnel monitoring would almost have to be watching for it.”

“I intend to sue this facility whether we retrieve my sister’s remains or not,” Arthur said behind me, spraying the
s
on the word
sue
and again on
sister’s
. I reached for my handkerchief and wiped the back of my neck.

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