Authors: E. J. Copperman
Tags: #mystery, #autistic, #e.j. copperman, #mystery novel, #mystery book, #jeff cohen, #mystery fiction, #autism, #aspberger's aspbergers
Instinctively, I also checked for Ms. Washburn’s cellular phone. It was safe in my pocket but still was not receiving a usable signal.
“What it indicates,” said Epstein, answering the question Lapides had asked, “is that the person or people who configured the video system to switch over had to have a very close working knowledge of the security procedures here. It is possible that if they were technically proficient enough, the whole thing could be done from outside the facility, but that would require some very sophisticated equipment that, quite frankly, would cost so much money it would no longer make the ransom seem like a very big haul.”
“How does that help?” Lapides asked. It didn’t occur to me to look, but I noticed everyone in the room suddenly seemed to be looking in my direction, so I concluded that Lapides’s question was directed at me.
“It narrows the list of suspects a bit, because it means the thief has to be someone who at least knows an employee of the institute very well,” I answered. “And since at some point a key card to the security system had to be used, it is clear that one of two things is true: Commander Johnson or Dr. Ackerman is involved in the theft and possibly the murder, or someone has stolen the duplicate key card that exists for Mr. Feliz’s use.”
“There’s another key,” Commander Johnson said. “Ackerman has a spare, I’m sure. He said it helped increase security because he could never be without the proper key card.”
It was becoming more difficult to think in this small room crowded with people. “Mr. Epstein,” I asked, “is there any reason for us to stay at this station?”
Epstein shook his head. Everyone else in the room seemed to exhale at the same time, and Arthur opened the door, which allowed some welcome cool air inside as we began to file out.
Marshall Ackerman was already walking toward us as we headed in the direction of the conference room. The cooler air in the hallway—and the lack of saliva on the back of my neck—made it easier to think. But I was not properly prepared for what Ackerman said when we reached him.
I asked about his wife, and Ackerman said she was doing well and had gone to a hotel for the rest of the night, which would not be long; it was already close to five in the morning. But the police were watching her, he said, more closely now that an attempt had been made on her life by what Ackerman called “an unbalanced mind.” Ballistics tests were being made on the bullet found in Ackerman’s box spring.
Something sounded wrong, but speech patterns often sound unusual to me, and I missed the counsel of my mother or Ms. Washburn. There was no time to dwell on it, however, because Ackerman’s cellular phone chirped, and he reached into his jacket for it. I considered the time: In another three hours, if the question was still unsolved, I would have to ask for use of the fitness center again to exercise every twenty minutes.
His eyes widened when he saw the incoming number. “It’s the kidnappers,” he said, and opened the phone to read a text message. “They’re accepting the terms you laid out, Arthur. They’ll produce your sister’s remains in three hours if you can show them you are prepared to transfer the money to a numbered account they will specify.”
Arthur Masters didn’t look happy, but he nodded. “I’ll need to talk to my mother,” he said and headed back to the conference room. The others followed, but I stayed behind.
As Epstein passed, I was tempted to reach out and hold his arm, to get him to stop, but I am not given to touching strangers, so I said as quietly as I could, “Mr. Epstein.”
Luckily he heard me and stopped walking.
“Are you familiar with the aspect of the security system that makes it difficult to receive a cellular phone signal in this building?” I asked him.
Epstein shook his head from side to side while tilting it, indicating that he was somewhat familiar with it, but not an expert on the subject. “Sort of,” he said. “What do you need to know?”
“Is it possible for one phone to receive a signal, while another does not?”
Epstein clenched his teeth as he thought about that. “It’s possible, I guess,” he said. “But I would consider it extremely unlikely. Why?”
He had confirmed what I had already believed. “Because I think one of the thieves, probably one involved in Dr. Springer’s murder, is in this facility right now,” I told him.
It was not an
easy task to isolate Det. Glendon Lapides from the crowd. He was standing in the conference room, hunched over a table, which I supposed was used for a dais when panels or meetings were held here. Lapides was surrounded by Captain Harris, Commander Johnson, Ackerman, and Arthur Masters, who had left his mother sitting at the table. And he was not looking out into the hallway, where Epstein and I stood.
Not wanting to alert the others to our conversation and unsure whether it would be possible to call or text Lapides on his cellular phone, I instructed Epstein, who had a talent for not being noticed, to walk into the room and inform the detective—very quietly—that I had an important matter to discuss with him in the hallway.
The gambit did not go as smoothly as I’d hoped. Epstein was able to enter the conference room unnoticed and did whisper to Lapides, but apparently the detective had a hearing problem on his right side or the technician was whispering too quietly, because Lapides asked “What?” at least three times, the last so loud I could hear him outside the room. I managed to hide behind a potted plant to avoid the looks of the gathered group, but I did see Epstein pull Lapides aside and the others return their attention to a legal pad upon which Ackerman was writing something.
Lapides did finally walk out to meet me, and the rest of the group in the conference room did not seem to notice.
“What do you mean, the killer’s in this building?” Lapides said after I had told him the reason for the clandestine conversation. It baffled me momentarily that he did not seem the grasp the meaning of a simple declarative sentence, until I realized it was a way of asking why I thought the facts supported my conclusion.
“The cellular phones prove the point,” I explained. “I was not able to get a signal on Ms. Washburn’s cellular phone. Are you able to call out on yours?”
Lapides reached into his pocket and pulled out his cellular phone, which he opened. He shook his head. “But Ackerman said they would work on this level,” he said, seemingly baffled.
“That is what he said, but the facts do not support it,” I told him. “Mr. Epstein here says it is unlikely such a selective system could be put in place. If the institute does not want cellular communications to be possible on the lower levels for security reasons, the cost of that provision is that such signals would not be possible anywhere in the building.”
“But Ackerman received messages from the thieves, and so did I,” the detective noted. “I know I wasn’t pretending to get a text; was Ackerman?”
I told him I thought not.
“I suppose text messages could be sent through the institute’s Wi-Fi signal, which probably wouldn’t accommodate voice communication,” Epstein said. “I’ve seen it done. It’s similar to an intercom system, a closed system, all kept within the building, but more flexible. Places that need special security within their walls, like a company that prints lottery tickets, for example, would use such a system. This one is more sophisticated and can be made to work with cell phones, even if they’re not receiving signal from a tower or satellite.”
I had never done research on that kind of technology, but what Epstein told Lapides and me appeared to make sense. With a security operation as sophisticated as the one at GSCI, proprietary technologies would no doubt have to be developed, and Ackerman had alluded to that earlier. It was probably one of the reasons that Ackerman and Commander Johnson had been so adamant about Epstein staying away from their system—it was entirely possible that some regulations had not been completely obeyed.
“Does this mean that Ackerman is in on the theft?” Lapides asked. “How does it make sense that he would steal from his own institute?”
“We must not jump to conclusions until we have all the facts,” I told him. “Ackerman might be legitimately ignorant of the technology. It is possible that he has never tried to use his cellular phone in the building, especially if he was told it would not work. During the day here, I saw him use a land line whenever he had to make or receive a phone call.”
“What other explanation is there?” Lapides asked.
“There are many. If Commander Johnson has lied to Ackerman about the limitations of the security system and communications, it is possible the commander is one of the thieves, or that he or his wife was the person who picked up the briefcases at Rutgers Village or attacked Mrs. Ackerman in her home.”
“You think Commander Johnson was involved?” Lapides looked shaken.
“I did not say that. I said it was possible. It is equally possible that the commander is trying to do his job well and has not been successful. We don’t know enough yet to make a determination.”
My mind was racing with possibilities. Surely the next question would be how to proceed, and there were far too many options to sift through before I made a decision. I trusted that Detective Lapides was honest, but his problem-solving skills did not appear to be on a very high-functioning level. I did not know Captain Harris well enough to judge her abilities and felt that I was without the benefit of a person I could use as a sounding board. I wished again that Ms. Washburn had not left.
“If at least one of the thieves is in the building, what should we do?” Lapides asked.
I would have to trust my own judgment, something I am not naturally inclined to do. “How many uniformed officers do you have in the building?” I asked the detective.
“Only two,” he answered. “We sent the rest home hours ago.”
“And how many levels are there in the building?” I knew the answer to this one but was buying myself time to think.
“Six,” Lapides answered.
“Very well. Excuse yourself from the conference room, and alert your uniformed officers. Each of you will be responsible for three levels. Ask for every cell phone from each person you find, and check the outgoing text messages. That might be a place to start. Would such texts be traceable, Mr. Epstein?”
Epstein thought and said, “I’ve never dealt with a system exactly like this one before, but I’m guessing they would be. The problem is that if the thieves are smart, and so far they have been …”
“Then they will have undoubtedly deleted the outgoing texts in question, I know,” I said. “But if Detective Lapides, in his proper role as lead investigator, were to confiscate any cellular phones he finds, the thieves would be deprived of a way to communicate their further conditions and demands. Anything that might force a rash move should be encouraged; the less time they have to plan, the better off we are. Right now, we have the element of surprise—they think we are still unaware of their presence here. Mr. Epstein, in your examination of the security system, could you find the avenues through which intercom communication might have gone?”
Epstein nodded. “It’s possible that an electronic log is kept of any communication that goes through that system, and that would be the most obvious place to look for this kind of text. I’ll double back and check. But keep that commander guy off my back. I don’t like the way he looks at me.”
“He looks at everyone like that,” Lapides said.
“If you start now, he’ll be engrossed in the conference inside and won’t even notice you’re gone,” I said. “Go.”
The two of them went off on their respective tasks, and I gathered myself, checked on the presence of Ms. Washburn’s cellular phone again, and walked into the conference room.
Ackerman looked up from his work, which appeared to be almost finished. Commander Johnson had broken away from the group and was at the other side of the room, pacing and looking displeased. Captain Harris, holding the yellow legal pad, was reading and nodding.
Arthur Masters was at the conference table, leaning over and talking to his mother, who appeared—for her—quite animated. She gestured with her left hand at her son.
“I’m not staying here another minute,” she was insisting as I entered. “I’ve had enough talk about remains and craniums and ransoms. That was my daughter, and whether we get back what’s left of her or not, she’s dead. No matter what Dr. Ackerman thinks, she’s going to stay dead forever. You run the business, Arthur. If you want to spend millions and get back nothing, be my guest. I’m old, and it’s numbers on a ledger to me. I don’t care, truly. But I’m not going to stay and watch it done; this place depresses me.” With that, she struggled to her feet, grabbed her cane from the section of the table on which it had been resting, and began to hobble toward the conference room door.
“Mother, we’ve made the offer,” Arthur pleaded. “We can’t renege on it now.”
“I’m not suggesting that you should,” Laverne answered him. “Go ahead and give away our money. It honestly doesn’t matter to me. But I’m tired and disgusted, and I’m going home. I’m perfectly capable of driving my own vehicle. I will see you later.”
Arthur looked at Ackerman and Commander Johnson in a gesture of embarrassment and what I perceived as frustration. Once Laverne had made it through the conference room door, he said, “I can’t let her try to navigate home in the dark; I’ll follow her in my car, then go home to oversee the transfer of funds from my house. Keep in close touch with me.” Before either of the other men could protest, Arthur had left. I saw him through the glass wall, catching up to his mother and taking hold of her arm.
“What caused that change of heart?” I asked.
Ackerman shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe she’s tired. Maybe she’s annoyed. No matter what, they’re planning on suing the institute, and I’ve already lost a million dollars tonight. What can I do for you, Mr. Hoenig?”
“How is your wife?” I asked.
He lowered his head a little. “I didn’t thank you properly for that, did I?” he said. “I apologize. You might very well have saved her life. I owe you a great debt.”
“That does not answer my question.”
As he often did, Ackerman hesitated one second before replying to me. “She’s doing well,” he said. “A little shook up, but she’ll be all right.”
“We’re on the clock,” Commander Johnson interrupted. “There’s no time for this. The thieves will be contacting us at any second with the final instructions. What are we going to tell them without Arthur and Laverne here?”
I wondered when the commander had reached a comfort level with the Masterses at which he could refer to them by their first names, but this was not the time to ask about that. “What is the current status?” I asked the commander.
“We are awaiting the final delivery instructions from the thieves,” he answered. “They should be arriving via cell phone any moment.”
I wondered about that, if Lapides and his officers were truly confiscating every cellular phone they found in the building. It was possible a hidden one would still be usable, or that they had not reached the right phone in time. But I kept my musings to myself and instead asked, “How are they going to comply with the demand to verify the remains before the ransom is paid?”
Captain Harris brought over the legal pad on which Ackerman had been writing when I’d looked in earlier. “We’ve made our demands to the disposable cell phone number we traced before,” she said. “This is what we sent.” She put the pad down on the table where I could read what Ackerman had written.
Visual confirmation of remains by GSCI staff; mutually agreeable location—B&N lot; meeting before banks open; A. Masters on hand to verify.
“What does ‘B&N lot’ mean?” I asked.
“We proposed the parking lot of the Barnes and Noble store on Route One as the meeting point,” the captain said. “We can control that environment, and if the meeting takes place early enough—which we’re insisting on so they can’t demand the money before we see the remains—there won’t be anyone there at the time.”
There were numerous tactical problems with the location, but the rest of the plan appeared sound. I felt that since the message had already been transmitted, there was no point in alerting the police to the flaws in their plan—the huge number of cars driving by at any hour that could cause difficulties; the other stores in the strip mall that might open much earlier, for example—and moved on to the next point.
“I wish you hadn’t allowed Laverne and Arthur Masters to leave,” I told the captain. “Do you not consider them suspects in the crimes you are investigating?”
“I don’t see how they could have stolen the remains,” Captain Harris said. “And they were definitely not in the building when that happened or when Dr. Springer was murdered. The security logs show they have never actually visited this building before Detective Lapides summoned them here today.”
“I consider it unlikely they are involved,” I said, “but it would be best to have all the suspects in one place.”
Before the captain could answer, the conference room door swung open and Charlotte Selby entered, looking angry. “What’s going on?” she demanded. “How come you sent that bozo Lapides to take away my cell phone?” She advanced on Captain Harris, who looked understandably confused.
I was more interested in the reactions the two other men in the room exhibited. Commander Johnson looked at Charlotte and narrowed his eyes. “Where’d you come from?” he snarled quietly.
Marshall Ackerman, however, did not seem annoyed or confused by Charlotte’s sudden reappearance. I am not very expert when reading the facial expressions of people I do not know well, but even I was practiced enough to have no doubt about Ackerman’s face.
He saw Charlotte, and he was terrified.
“What are you talking about?” Captain Harris asked. “I didn’t send Lapides anywhere to do anything.”
“The detective was responding to a suggestion I made,” I said. Every eye in the room turned toward me. “I thought it was best to know where every cellular phone in the building was when the next message from the thieves was received.”
“What?” the captain exclaimed. “Why?” Then she thought for a moment. “You think the perpetrators are in the building?”
“I see no reason to assume otherwise,” I told her. Then I turned toward Charlotte. “Where have you been the past few hours, Ms. Selby?” I asked.
“Are you saying I’m a suspect?” Charlotte responded angrily.