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 (2 page)

two

I am not ashamed
of my Asperger’s Syndrome; why should I be? It is something that has given me aspects of my personality I find very useful. But I prefer to choose when to tell an acquaintance about it, if at all. And when someone confronts me with the question, as Janet Washburn had just done, I am momentarily unnerved.

Asperger’s is a “disorder” (although I consider it merely a personality trait) on the autism spectrum. People who don’t have it—and some who do—believe it to be a defect, a problem in communicating with or relating to others. They think, to be concise, that we are odd.

I consider most “typical” people odd, and believe that by contrast, I act quite rationally. But there aren’t enough of us to constitute a majority, and we don’t all behave the same way. Find six people with Asperger’s Syndrome, and you will find six people who don’t necessarily relate to each other any better than they do to strangers.

“I’m sorry,” Ms. Washburn said when I didn’t answer. “Did I embarrass you?”

That’s an example of the kind of assumption I’m discussing. Because I’m not like her, Ms. Washburn believed I would somehow find my own personality objectionable, and so mentioning it would be an embarrassment.

“No,” I told her. “You simply caught me by surprise. Yes, I have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m surprised you could recognize it so quickly.”

She appeared to be pleased, as if I had given her a compliment. “I used to be a substitute teacher,” she said. “They gave us a course in autism spectrum disorders so we could recognize them and help the children in class.”

I was given a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome when I was sixteen years old, so many of the therapies and techniques small children often receive today were not offered to me. My mother, however, did ask my high school for some support, and was roundly denied. She sent me to see Dr. Mancuso out of her own pocket. The legal battle with the school system went on for years, and in the end, Mother did not prevail.

“How fast is the shutter on your camera?” I asked Ms. Washburn, glad for a reason to change the subject. “I need photographs of a body in motion.”

“What body?” she asked.

“Mine.”

Ms. Washburn gave me an odd look for a moment, which I mentally resolved to ask Mother about later. I couldn’t remember saying or doing anything that would generate such a response.

“What will you be doing?” she asked after a moment.

“Ah.” I held up a finger, then walked to the desk, reached down, and picked up the baseball bat I had placed on the floor this morning. I picked it up to show it to her.

“Take it easy, Reggie,” she said. She took a step backward.

“My name is Samuel,” I reminded her. But I noticed—and this was due to a good deal of practice—that she was staring at the bat. It must have been a reference to the Hall of Fame baseball player Reggie Jackson. “Oh. Did you think I was going to hit you with this?”

“I was trying not to.”

How odd. People don’t hit people with baseball bats; they hit baseballs with baseball bats. “Of course not,” I assured her. “I want you to photograph me swinging this bat.”

Another odd look. “Why?”

“That is the interesting part,” I told her. “Come see.” I gestured toward the computer screen, and Ms. Washburn, after seeming to consider her next move, walked to the desk and looked. “You’re aware that there is a new Yankee Stadium, are you not?”

“The one that replaced the House That Ruth Built? The jazzed-up version built to supplant an eighty-six-year-old cathedral of baseball? The bandbox with a Hard Rock Cafe in it?
That
new Yankee Stadium?”

It is always a mistake to assume that people will conform to stereo
types. It’s taken me years to understand, but incident after incident has proven to me that one must see hard evidence before making a statement. Most women are not interested in sports like baseball, but some are. It’s possible to make an assumption based on probability, but it is not a reliable way to decide a question.

“Good,” I said. “So you probably also know that no home run—that is, no ball in play—was ever hit completely out of the original Yankee Stadium in the eighty-five years it stood.”

“Eighty-six,” she said. “Yes, I’m aware. I’m also aware that Mickey Mantle’s lifetime batting average was two-ninety-eight. How does that relate to me taking pictures of you swinging a bat?”

I had to admit, her response also made me wonder if Ms. Washburn had a “special interest” in the New York Yankees, similar to mine in police procedure, baseball overall, and the Beatles.

“I have a client whose question is about the change in ballparks,” I said. “He is considering making a wager that changes in the wind current resulting from a slightly different location would make it possible for someone to hit a home run all the way out of the new stadium in its first twenty years. Quite a sizable wager.”

She narrowed her eyes. “So …”

“So I have considered all the science involved and have concluded he is mistaken. But my client is the type of man who does not believe in statistics; he is more given to visual evidence. I’d like you to take photographs of me swinging the bat, then upload them to my computer simulation of the building. I can demonstrate, then, how the air currents—which do allow for more home runs to certain areas of the park—will not compensate for the size of the building and the physics involved.”

Ms. Washburn’s eyes softened. She nodded her understanding. “I can do better than that,” she said. “I can take short digital video and you can have a full-motion swing that you can freeze whenever you like in your simulation.”

“How high will the video quality be?” I asked.

“HD,” said Ms. Washburn.

“Excellent.”

We spent a few minutes determining the best angle for the photography, and Ms. Washburn suggested my standing near the front window. She explained that although she could digitally isolate my image from the background, the lighting near the window would be most natural, and would not make the image we created look disturbingly different from the rest of the frame.

She took video of five different swings. I was careful to use an uppercut stroke, to simulate a batter trying to hit the ball high and far. On the fifth try, we agreed we had usable video.

We uploaded the video to my Mac Pro, but just as we were about to examine it, the front door opened, the bell rang, and a man of about fifty entered the office. I couldn’t read his initial expression—his nostrils flared and his upper lip receded—but I took it to be something other than a positive one.

“This isn’t Questions Answered,” he said, seemingly to himself.

Again, it took me a moment to respond, since this obviously
was
Questions Answered, and the man was wrong. But in the interim, Ms. Washburn stepped in front of me and said, “It certainly is. Were you
looking
for Questions Answered?”

That seemed equally odd, since the man had walked into a building he assumed was not my business. Why do that? But after wrinkling his brow, he nodded. “Yes. I have a problem that needs to be solved.”

“We don’t solve problems,” I said, having had this conversation with a number of people on a number of occasions. “We answer questions.” Mother had suggested I say
we
, rather than
I
. She said it would be more businesslike if I gave the impression of having a staff of experts on hand. I thought that was dishonest, but I acceded to her judgment, as I often do.

The man seemed to gather himself, although the top of his bald head was glistening with sweat. He was nervous, or feverish. My best guess was nervous.

“I was recommended to you by my friend Ellen Crenshaw,” he said, approaching me. “I am Dr. Marshall Ackerman.”

As I’ve practiced, I repeated my greeting, extending my hand. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Samuel Hoenig.”

“Yes.” Ackerman seemed disappointed that I am myself, which made no sense at all. It was a reaction I’d seen before, but it still baffled me.

“I recall Ms. Crenshaw,” I said, hoping to put him at ease. “She asked where her missing Boa constrictor might be, as I remember.”

Ms. Washburn’s eyes widened a bit.

I did indeed remember Ms. Crenshaw. Our business had been slightly contentious—she had wanted to receive an insurance settlement rather than retrieve the odd animal she’d been keeping as a pet, and I had spoiled things by actually finding the snake.

“Yes,” Ackerman repeated. “Ellen said your service was effective and discreet.”

“She had an unusual question,” I said. “How do you know Ms. Crenshaw?”

“We served on the board of a foundation together a few years ago,” Ackerman said. “We remained friends, and during a conversation a few weeks ago, she mentioned your service. She said your methods were impressive, if a little … unusual.”

“For service that is usual, you can go anywhere,” Ms. Washburn said. Her face had an expression I read as a trifle angry, perhaps more irritated. “For service that’s special, you need Mr. Hoenig.” I thought that was generous of her, especially since I had not yet answered a question for Ms. Washburn. She was proving to be quite helpful.

“Pardon me,” Ackerman said. “But my business with Mr. Hoenig is private.” His manner suggested that he was accustomed to having people behave in the way he preferred, and not in any other.

I did notice that my own feelings were stirred. I didn’t care for the way Ackerman was dismissing Ms. Washburn, especially when she had been so kind as to champion my services. “Anything you have to say to me can be said in front of Ms. Washburn,” I told him. “She is my most trusted professional associate.” I’m not sure exactly why I said that, but it wasn’t untrue—I had been working with Ms. Washburn prior to Ackerman’s entrance, after all, and since I had no other professional associates, she was by default the most trusted. She was also the least trusted, but I saw no reason to mention that.

Ms. Washburn, upon hearing my statement, coughed slightly, looked into my eyes—I made sure to be looking back—and nodded toward me. A sign of appreciation, I believed.

“And anything you say to us will be held in the strictest confidence,” she added. I nodded back. “Won’t you sit down?” She indicated the chair in front of my desk, where Ackerman sat. I stayed behind the desk and made a mental note to bring another chair from home to the office, since Ms. Washburn was now left standing, leaning on the baseball bat near the desk. I wondered if I should offer her my chair, or if that would be considered a sexist gesture. It is difficult to know.

“Let me begin by telling you why I’m here,” Ackerman said. “I am the chief administrator for the Garden State Cryonics Institute.”

I had done some research on the topic on a whim one day four years earlier, when there had been a news item in the
New York Times
regarding such a facility in California. “So you are involved in freezing the bodies of people who have just died in the hope that someday there will be a means to reanimate them and cure their illnesses, is that right?”

“I don’t expect everyone to agree with what we do,” Ackerman answered.

“I neither agree nor disagree,” I told him. “I don’t think the science has been proven to either point of view yet. I just wanted to be sure that is the nature of your business.”

Ackerman nodded, seeming gratified with my knowledge of his work. “That is what we do,” he said. “We give people a chance at a new life, once science manages to progress to that point.”

“And you charge them a flat fee, or a storage fee, in perpetuity, until that time arrives, is that so?” Sitting behind the desk might have been a mistake; I felt distracted by the image of Yankee Stadium on my computer screen, and returned to my thinking about the final presentation for my gambling client, Joseph Teradino. It occurred to me that the differences in signage at the new Yankee Stadium could make a marginal difference in the flight of the ball, but that it was probably not important to the question.

“We do charge a fee,” Ackerman answered, bringing my attention back to him. “We’re not a charity, and the government doesn’t fund our research in any way. We couldn’t be expected to keep these people preserved properly for years, or decades, even centuries, and absorb the cost ourselves. There wouldn’t be enough money to keep them preserved after a month.”

“Once again, I wasn’t accusing you,” I said. “I’m just trying to establish the basis for your question.” I waved a hand to indicate he should go on.

“You’d be amazed how many people think we’re charlatans,” Ackerman said, apparently unable to let the point go. “I get told, to my face, that I’m stealing their money and giving their families false hope, more often than you can possibly imagine.”

Perhaps he needed a prod toward business. Certainly, I was anxious to return to the task Ms. Washburn and I had been performing. “What is your question?” I asked him again.

“Well, Mr. Hoenig, one of our heads is missing.”

three

“That is a problem,
not a question,” I informed Ackerman.

It took him a long moment of reflection, but he composed himself and said, very deliberately, “Who stole one of our heads, Mr. Hoenig?”

“Now,
that
is an interesting question!” And it was. I had opened the office because I hoped to be challenged by unusual questions, and this was one you very rarely heard in conversation. “What makes you think someone
stole
the head, Dr. Ackerman?” I asked.

Ackerman looked stunned. “Um … because it’s no longer there,” he said. “They don’t just walk away on their own.”

“No,” I agreed, “but they could be misplaced, misfiled, misidentified. The cranium in question might have been destroyed unintentionally. It could simply have been stored in the wrong location. Why do you assume that it was stolen?”

“There’s a procedure we use to log in every guest,” Ackerman said. I surmised that the word
guest
was applied to anyone whose remains, either in total or just the cranium, would be brought to his facility for cryonic preservation. “It ensures that nothing can go wrong. It guarantees we know the whereabouts of every guest at every minute of every day. And yet this guest, Ms. Rita Masters-Powell, whose position was monitored at all times and had been constant for four months, suddenly vanished with no warning and no alarm whatsoever. It doesn’t make sense. She wasn’t being introduced to the facility, and she wasn’t being moved. There’s no other possibility.”

It rankles me when people come to conclusions without examining every fact, but I did not express that irritation to Ackerman. It doesn’t serve any useful purpose to do so, in my experience. I remembered to look him in the eye, and said, “There are any number of possibilities, Dr. Ackerman, but until I am able to see the facility, examine your security measures, and interview the personnel involved, I cannot definitively answer your question.”

“Then will you come and take a look, please?”

I hesitated. There was still the Yankee Stadium question to address, and Ms. Washburn’s question, whatever it might be. But Ackerman must have seen the reluctance in my expression, because he quickly said, “I’ll be happy to double your normal fee.”

The rent on the office was $2,479 per month. Utilities were $862 on the plan I’d chosen, which bills the user for the same amount, calculated by the utility company, each month. The drink machine cost nothing to rent, but each bottle of green tea or water cost a final amount of $0.75, and because I usually purchased at least eight drinks per day, the cost per month was approximately $132. In the interest of economy, I had resolved to buy fewer bottles of water, and refill the used ones, although the idea did make me feel slightly nauseated.

But I did not answer Ackerman immediately, as I was making those calculations mentally. Instead, Ms. Washburn said, “Triple it and it’s a deal.”

Startled as I was by her bold action, I tried not to swivel my head toward Ms. Washburn very quickly. I have been told sudden movements like that tend to disturb people, and I have practiced controlling my reactions for most of my life. Besides, it was best not to alert Ackerman to my surprise.

“Done,” Ackerman said. He smiled strangely. “Mr. Hoenig?” He gestured toward the office door. It was interesting that he had agreed to the terms without even asking what my normal fee might be.

“We will follow you,” I said, and Ackerman nodded. He walked to the door and went outside.

Ms. Washburn waited until he was out of earshot before saying, “What do you mean, ‘we’ll follow you’? I don’t
really
work here.”

“You said you had lost your job at the newspaper,” I reminded her. “This is a chance to do some work and receive some salary. It will be just for today.”

She squinted at me, as if I were very far away. “What is it I’m supposed to do?” she asked.

“At the moment, drive me to Ackerman’s office. I do not drive.” That was not entirely true—I have a valid license, but I almost never use it. I am a safe driver, but not a fast or comfortable one. I had not driven in months.

Ms. Washburn shook her head, just a bit, as she headed for the door, reaching for her car keys.

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