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 (19 page)

BOOK: 1 The Question of the Missing Head
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“Until I know definitively who is guilty, I assume everyone involved is a suspect,” I told her. “I imagine Captain Harris and Commander Johnson would agree.”

Just then, Lapides appeared around the corner outside the conference room, carrying a small bag in which, I gathered, the collected cellular phones had been stored. He walked into the conference room with a satisfied look on his face. “Eighteen people in the building, eighteen phones,” he said. Then he noticed Charlotte. “You’d be amazed how angry people get when you take away their cell phones,” he said, looking directly at her.

I checked to make sure Ms. Washburn’s phone was still in my pocket. It was.

Charlotte’s face registered irritation. “Well, I didn’t steal anything and I didn’t kill anybody,” she said. “Can I have my phone back now?”

I looked at Captain Harris, who said, “No. You can’t.”

“Why not?” Charlotte uncrossed her arms and put her left hand in the hip pocket of her jeans.

“Because we haven’t heard back from the thieves yet,” the captain explained. “Until then, no phones will be returned to their owners.”

In motion pictures, events often occur in a fashion much more convenient to a screenwriter’s desires than to a depiction of reality. So it was with some astonishment that I noted the moment, just then, that Ackerman’s cellular phone chirped. He looked at the phone and said, “Who?” But then he nodded. It was another text message.

The thieves were responding.

twenty-six

The communication was brief:
It read simply,
Conditions accepted.

That left approximately three hours before the exchange would take place in the bookstore parking lot. Captain Harris and Lapides left to coordinate the police presence at the drop. I assumed their plan was to survey the scene at which the remains would be presented for inspection and either follow the representative of the thieves who appeared or attach some sort of GPS device on the person or his or her vehicle to better track the area where the thieves were based. I hoped there was no intention of making an arrest at the exchange point, because any chance of finding Dr. Springer’s murderer and the thieves of Ms. Masters-Powell’s remains would be lost. But the officers were gone before I could ask any further questions.

I asked Ackerman if it would be possible to examine the scene of Dr. Springer’s murder one more time.

“I think you’ve done enough,” he said, in a tone I think he meant to sound kind. “Let the police handle it. Get some rest.”

“I do not need rest,” I told him. “And I have been contracted to answer the question of Dr. Springer’s murder. Is it possible?”

Ackerman’s face suddenly looked angry. “I don’t want any more people down there,” he snapped. “I have to think about the rest of the guests we have in that chamber now. Any more tampering down there could mean the end of this institute, whether we get Rita’s cranium back or not.”

“I have disturbed nothing, and will disturb nothing,” I persisted. “You have seen that my work is precise and my intentions are the same as your own. You have no reason to deny me a few minutes of access now, Mr. Ackerman.” I realized immediately that Ms. Washburn would no doubt have informed me that addressing him as Dr. Ackerman would have probably have shown more respect, and be more likely to elicit a positive response.

Still, he managed through clenched teeth to say, “Ten minutes. You have ten minutes. If you’re still there in ten minutes and one second, I’ll have you forcibly removed. Is that clear?”

I did not answer his question, as I was already heading for the door. I did not want to waste any time. Then, it occurred to me that I had a question for Ackerman. I stopped abruptly and turned to face him.

“Is that ten minutes from now, or from the time I arrive at the chamber?” I asked.

“Just go,” he croaked, and I decided to start counting at that moment.

The elevator trip to the chamber level seemed slower than before, but I knew it had to take the same amount of time as each trip I had taken previously. The time limit on my visit was preying on my mind, and I knew I needed to concentrate on what I saw in the chamber.

I raced down the corridor to the chamber and almost knocked over Epstein, who was heading back to the elevator to find me, he said. “I checked the voice communication units,” he reported. “There is a way to trace the electronic signatures of any intercom or wireless communications that went on, but it’ll take some time, at least eight hours.”

I had only eight minutes and seventeen seconds before Ackerman was to have me ejected from the building. “Was Dr. Springer’s computer confiscated from the office, and any laptop or home computers taken by the police?” I asked Epstein quickly.

He did not have to think about it, which was a relief. “Yes, and we should be getting a report on what they found on the hard drives soon. Probably right after nine o’clock.”

“Too late,” I said, continuing toward the chamber door. “They’re making the exchange at eight.”

I did not hear Epstein’s reply because I was entering Preservation Room D’s outer area, having been cleared by the security officer inside on orders from Ackerman.

Inside, the officer nodded at me, continued to watch the monitor on his console, and paid me no more attention. I was grateful for that, because there were only seven minutes and thirty-three seconds left for me to make my evaluation.

I had been in the chamber a number of times in the past nineteen hours, so a basic examination was not necessary. I was there to answer three questions to my own satisfaction, and time was short. I could not think about the people who had used the protective suit before me as I put it on once again and entered the inner chamber.

The security cameras, no doubt activated by perceived motion, were turning to follow me as I walked through the door and evaluated the room. The police had left pieces of wire indicating the trajectory of the bullet that had been fired in the room, and that was helpful. It indicated that the person holding the gun had been just inside the door, which told me that he or she knew the security cameras were taking the feed from another room so there was no need to try to find a less-visible firing point.

A bullet had clearly been lodged in the storage receptacle that had once held the remains of Rita Masters-Powell, but Dr. Springer was murdered after the remains had been stolen. Why would the shooter choose that receptacle to rupture, releasing the liquid nitrogen that would remove the oxygen from the room and suffocate Dr. Springer?

The trajectory did not show any other points of deflection, so the bullet was shot directly at the Masters-Powell receptacle.

Five minutes and four seconds left.

It was possible the answer to that question was not to be found in this chamber, so I moved on to the second. Why would Dr. Springer have entered the inner chamber without the protective clothing I was wearing, and why would she even consider handling the frozen receptacle without gloves, which must have been extremely painful and dangerous?

Of course, it was possible Dr. Springer had done so only because someone with a gun was forcing her to act against her will. But it would be necessary to explore any other options as well. The floor in the inner chamber was a smooth surface of rolled linoleum. That might have made it easier for Dr. Springer to lose her balance and fall if the floor had been wet. But the release of the liquid nitrogen, reducing the concentration of oxygen in the sealed and enclosed chamber, would have removed the oxygen from any liquid as well. I checked the floor for any sign of a suspicious powder that might have resulted from such an event, and found none.

Dr. Springer, then, probably fell to the floor as she asphyxiated, blacking out almost instantly. But if that were the case, why wouldn’t the shooter have asphyxiated as well? And how did the shooter get out of the room before the oxygen content dropped enough to cause unconsciousness and death? Why was I still feeling the effects when I’d made my initial examination, long after the liquid nitrogen should have evaporated?

There were two possible answers to those questions, and neither one was very likely: Either the person who killed Dr. Springer had been pushed out through the chamber door by the release of the liquid nitrogen when the bullet penetrated the preservation receptacle, which would have let more oxygen into the chamber and prevented Dr. Springer from asphyxiating; or the shot was fired somehow from outside the chamber.

Three minutes and twenty-two seconds left.

The fact that the receptacle had been found behind Dr. Springer’s body indicated that it had been torn from her hands when the bullet entered it. But the doctor’s hands had shown no sign of the “burns” or frostbite that would occur if she had handled the extremely cold cylinder without protective gloves.

A theory began to germinate in my mind, but I thought it less than certain and very difficult to prove if true—at least until the complete medical examiner’s report was released.

I had felt a very slight effect of the decreased oxygen level in the chamber when we had initially discovered Dr. Springer’s body. Given the size of the room and the size of the receptacle that had been damaged, it was unusual that the effect would last that long. The chamber was sealed more completely than the average room would have been, but with an available access point—the door—could not be completely sealed. The liquid nitrogen should have dissipated much more quickly.

The most logical explanation for this phenomenon was one I could test quickly, and with only two minutes and seven seconds remaining, I would have to do just that. I walked briskly to the larger containment chambers, where entire bodies could be preserved in cryogenic freeze. There were fifteen available, but only six in use.

Above each preservation chamber was a monitor, which would echo the data the security officer and any personnel in the outer chamber could see on their computer screens. Among the statistics offered was the level of liquid nitrogen in each receptacle and its temperature.

I took note of each receptacle’s nitrogen level, and noticed that the one farthest from the door had a much lower level than the rest. There was no specimen in the chamber, which raised the question of why an idle receptacle would be frozen. It was possible the chamber needed to have each receptacle at a certain temperature to maintain the proper level for those already in use.

But the last cylinder’s level was 63 percent lower than the one nearest to its volume. And that was curious.

With only one minute and eighteen seconds left, I quickly left the chamber and removed the protective suit for what I hoped would be the last time. Then I walked to the security officer and looked at his computer screen, which showed the inner chamber, now empty.

“Can you view the data on each cylinder from here?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Which ones do you want to see?”

I indicated the left side of the room and said, “The six farthest from the door.”

The security man punched his keyboard, and the statistics were revealed. “These?” he asked. I nodded.

I looked at the screen, and the six cylinder outputs were virtually identical. The last one, whose liquid nitrogen level had been less than half of the others, showed up as having almost a full tank.

The answer was starting to take shape. The murderer had left one tank slightly opened—not breached or broken, but not completely sealed—so liquid nitrogen had continued to leak very slowly after Dr. Springer had died. That would mean the murderer was trying to disguise the crime as something it was not. If I had time to get back into the chamber, I could confirm my suspicion and solve the theft and the murder.

But the chamber door flew open, and two strong-looking security officers rushed in. “That’s it,” one shouted, seemingly to me. “Dr. Ackerman says you have to leave.”

“No,” I protested. “Dr. Ackerman would want me to—”

Each of the officers who had just entered took one of my arms, and before I could protest further, my feet were lifted off the floor. They maneuvered me toward the door. “You’re going to leave the building and not come back,” the second security man said. “Dr. Ackerman’s orders.”

“You don’t understand,” I pleaded. “I’m so close.”

We were already at the door, and no matter how hard I squirmed and struggled, I had no chance against these two. I had not used my martial arts knowledge in time, and it had cost me.

“You can’t do this!” I shouted. “I still have twenty-two seconds!”

twenty-seven

I was not allowed
to plead my case to Ackerman or Commander Johnson, and both Captain Harris and Detective Lapides had already left. There was nothing to do but ask for a ride home, which a security officer named Davis—I never found out whether it was his first name or his last—provided in a GSCI car.

During the sixteen-minute ride, I did my best to explain to him why it was important that I be brought back to the facility, that I could save the Masters family millions of dollars and put Dr. Springer’s murderer behind bars, but Davis never said a word as he drove. I was frustrated, but I admired his ability to focus on his driving.

He only nominally stopped the car when he dropped me off, and was driving again almost before the door closed securely behind me. I watched him drive off, then walked into the house through the back door.

The sun had risen now, and no doubt Mother would be awake and wondering about the remainder of my night. While I was extremely tired, I am unable to sleep in daylight, so I sought her out in the kitchen, but found her in the living room, listening to the morning news on National Public Radio.

When I walked in, Mother looked up, concern showing in her eyes, and turned off the radio. “I’m glad to see you,” she said, walking over to embrace me, which I allowed. “You weren’t in the house when I woke up. I was worried.”

“There was no reason to be concerned,” I said when she let go after what seemed like a long time but was actually only eight seconds. “I was never in any danger.” That was technically true, although when I entered Ackerman’s house after the intruder, I was unaware that there was no peril to be faced.

Mother said down in her armchair, her favorite place to hear stories and think. “Tell me what has happened,” she said.

I opted against sitting down, concerned that my fatigue would escalate if I were seated. I told Mother of the events since I had been home last, which was only about eight hours earlier but felt strangely as if it had been days before. As I spoke, I had the opportunity to reconsider some of the facts as they had happened, and while some seemed contradictory, a pattern was, I believed, beginning to emerge.

Understanding what that pattern meant was going to be the challenging part.

“You lied when you said there was no danger,” Mother said when I had finished.

“I did not lie. As it happened, I was never in any danger.”

She shook her head slightly and smiled. “You have an interesting way of interpreting things, Samuel,” she said.

“It’s what makes me the man I am,” I told her. It is a private joke of ours.

“It’s a very baffling question,” Mother went on. She stood and led me toward the kitchen. “How do you think you will answer it?”

“The only thing to do is to interpret the facts,” I told her. When we got to the kitchen, Mother gestured toward a chair.

“Sit down,” she said. “You haven’t eaten in a long time.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Sit down.”

I sat down. Mother went to the refrigerator and came out with turkey bacon, milk, and margarine. She was, I realized, about to prepare some bacon and pancakes, a specialty of hers usually reserved for very special occasions or Sundays.

“Is there a reason we are commemorating the day?” I asked.

“You’ve worked hard and you need to work even harder,” Mother answered. “That might not be special, but it’s worth taking notice of.” She began cooking, and I sat back to think about the questions at hand. “What is bothering you about this question?” she asked.

“There are too many seeming contradictions,” I said after a moment. “The thieves, who appear to have at least had some knowledge of Dr. Springer’s murder, have been very precise in their preparation. But their logic is questionable. When trying to extort money from the Masters family, they threatened the life of Eleanor Ackerman, who has no connection to the Masterses. They were adamant about not deviating from their original instructions, and appeared to have actually sent someone to harm Mrs. Ackerman, while at the same time they were capitulating on many of the points they had refused to even consider negotiable only hours before. It does not seem to make sense.”

Mother turned from the stove for a moment, hesitated, and then said, “People don’t always make sense when they act on emotion rather than reason, Samuel. Maybe the thieves are scared, or anxious.”

“Because Detective Lapides is closing in on them?” I asked. “I hardly think so. But they do seem to be operating in something of a panic mode.”

“Maybe the equipment they’re using to keep the head preserved is starting to falter, and they don’t think they can keep it going much longer,” Mother suggested.

“I doubt that is the case at all,” I said, although I did not say why, because I was not yet certain of my facts.

Mother used a spatula to place pancakes and bacon on a plate and brought it to the table for me. “Try not to think about the questions while you’re eating,” she said. “Taking a break is a good way to cleanse your brain. Concentrate on the Beatles or the Yankees for a while.”

“It would be rude of me to ignore you while I eat,” I said.

“Tell me about the
Rubber Soul
recording sessions,” she suggested. “You know that one’s my favorite.” Mother has excellent taste in music.

I regaled her with my knowledge of that period in the band’s history, about how George Harrison was first experimenting with sitar after having encountered one on the set of the motion picture
Help!
(which is widely underappreciated). I mentioned that Paul McCartney was trying to stay away from an electric guitar sound, hence songs such as “I’m Looking Through You” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” and how John Lennon especially was finding more mature themes in his lyrics, with the most obvious example being “In My Life.”

Twenty-two minutes had gone by since I’d started eating and talking, and I realized suddenly that I had actually stopped considering the questions of the theft and Dr. Springer’s murder. And when those two topics reentered my conscious thoughts, I was much more certain of my theory than I had been before. But I needed physical evidence to prove my points. And most of my best research equipment was elsewhere.

“May I have the keys to the car?” I asked Mother. “I need to go to the office.”

“Your office?” she asked. “At Questions Answered?”

“Yes. May I have the keys, please?”

Mother picked up the keys from the table next to the kitchen door and put them in her pocket. “No, you may not,” she said. “You’ve been up for twenty-four hours and you haven’t driven in months. I’ll take you to your office.”

“I don’t know how long I’ll be there, and I don’t want to be without transportation if I need to go to the exchange at the bookstore,” I reminded her.

She shook her head. “You’re too tired to drive, and what do you know—I have nothing planned for today. I can stay as long as you like. Let’s go.” And she picked up a jacket from one of the kitchen chairs. She began to put it on.

There was no arguing with Mother when she became this determined. I decided to let her drop me off at the office and take a taxi later if I needed transportation elsewhere. We got into the car, and I was asleep in seconds. I hadn’t expected that.

The trip to Questions Answered probably took about eleven minutes. I am not entirely sure, since I was asleep and did not check Ms. Washburn’s cellular phone for the time when I awoke in the parking lot, although I did make sure it was still in my pocket.

“I was going to let you sleep,” Mother said. “You need it.”

“I don’t,” I countered. “I need facts, so I can reach answers, and then I will be able to sleep.”

We walked to the storefront, and I unlocked and opened the front door to Questions Answered. “Thank you for the ride,” I told Mother. “I’ll call a taxi if I need to go elsewhere.”

She stepped into the office in front of me. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere if I can be of help.” Sometimes, there really is no arguing with Mother.

It felt like weeks since I had been in my office, though it had been less than a full day. I turned on the lights and went, out of habit, directly to the computer to turn it on, then to the vending machine to buy a bottle of spring water. There weren’t many bottles left; Les would probably be by to restock the machine in a day or two. I have learned to accept his erratic schedule, though it is not the way I would choose to run a business.

Before I could return to my desk to research the three questions I had, the office telephone rang. I checked the Caller ID, which indicated the caller was
Epstein, J
. I picked up the receiver.

“Mr. Epstein,” I said. “Has anything of interest been found on Dr. Springer’s hard drive?”

“As a matter of fact, there has,” Epstein answered. “I thought you’d want to know. First of all, I’ve been banished from the institute by Ackerman himself. Something about breaching security, and without the captain or Lapides here, it’s hard for me to assert my authority. I’m in the parking lot trying to decide if I should head back to the police station or try to get back inside.”

That information was interesting but not relevant to my question. “The hard drive,” I reminded Epstein.

“Yes. In the three days before she died, Rebecca Springer was exchanging e-mails pretty frequently with two people we’ve met—Arthur Masters and Charlotte Selby.”

Now,
that
was interesting—I’d only been expecting one of those names. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Mother straightening up my bookshelf and taking a roll of paper towel out of a cabinet. “Charlotte Selby?” I asked. “Have you read the e-mails?”

“I’ve seen them, and they’re pretty innocuous, about meeting one day or another, until the name ‘Rita’ comes up. Dr. Springer makes a statement about how things can’t go on as they have been, and then suddenly Charlotte says not to discuss that in any traceable forum and stops the exchange.”

I tried to process that information. Why would Dr. Springer be e-mailing to Charlotte Selby about Rita Masters-Powell? Why would Dr. Springer be communicating with Charlotte Selby at all? “What about the e-mails to Arthur Masters?” I asked.

“They were much less chatty,” Epstein answered. “Arthur appeared to be helping the doc invest some money. They were discussing safe mutual funds and retirement accounts.”

I sat down at my desk and looked at the computer screen. Left where I’d been looking when Marshall Ackerman had come in the day before was the project involving Yankee Stadium and the video clips Ms. Washburn had taken of me in front of the floor-to-ceiling window of Questions Answered, her camera facing toward the parking lot, me holding a baseball bat to demonstrate an uppercut swing.

Then I saw something in the background of that video that made me catch my breath. And all the contradictions that had presented themselves in answering these questions seemed to fall into place, and to no longer be contradictions.

Behind me in the video, as I swung the bat once, twice, three times, nothing moved. But on the fourth swing, there was movement outside the storefront that I had not noticed before, having focused on the quality of my swings to use in the presentation to my client, Mr. Teradino.

“Did you hear me?” Epstein asked. “Samuel?”

“Yes,” I said. “Hold on for one moment, please.” I slowed the speed of the video during the last two swings I took with the baseball bat, and this time watched the background instead of the image of myself. Mother had found a spray bottle of ammonia-based cleaner and was making herself busy on the windows.

Behind me (in the video), a car drove up in the parking lot and parked next to Ms. Washburn’s car. I recognized the car now as Marshall Ackerman’s. Since he had walked into the office only moments later, that was not surprising.

But Ms. Washburn and I had spent time loading the video onto my Mac Pro and were about to compare them when Ackerman walked through the door. Examination of the video indicated that he had clearly been in his car for some time before entering the office. What had he been doing?

“Samuel,” Mother said, “why aren’t you talking to whoever that is on the phone?”

“I am answering the questions,” I told her. “I believe I will have an answer in a few minutes.”

“Really?” Epstein asked through the phone. “What’s going on?”

“Just a moment, please,” I told both of them.

The gap in Ackerman’s time could be explained when the video was examined closely, with an eye toward the background. After pulling into the parking space, Ackerman sat back, composed himself, and straightened his tie. Then he looked over into the passenger’s seat and spoke.

There was a woman sitting next to him, and it was not his wife. I had to watch the video of the last two swings four more times before I could make a positive identification.

The woman seated next to him, blond and constantly talking, was Charlotte Selby. And if I could verify one last suspicion I had, I believed I could unravel the entire mystery and answer both questions for which I had been given responsibility.

Then, just before exiting the car, Ackerman leaned over and kissed Charlotte.

My excitement was palpable; I had never answered a question quite this momentous before. I took a deep breath and put the telephone receiver closer to my mouth. “Mr. Epstein,” I said, “how much clearance have you been given in the police investigation of Dr. Springer’s murder?”

“I have pretty much full clearance,” he answered. “Why?”

“Have you seen a photograph of Rita Masters-Powell?” I asked him, having realized just moments before that I had no visual image of Ms. Masters-Powell to recall.

Epstein thought a moment. “You know, now that you bring it up, I don’t think I have.”

“Can you find one?” In the interim, I had searched Google Images, and had found nothing at all useful under “Rita Masters-Powell,” “Rita Masters” (aside from some images of a woman at least twenty years older than the one in question), or “Rita Powell.”

“I’ll call you back,” Epstein said.

“Quickly, please,” I responded and placed the receiver back on the telephone base.

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