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 (3 page)


The Garden State Cryonics
Institute was located in North Brunswick, in a small gray building off US Highway 1, not far
from a bowling alley and a car dealership. It took Ms. Washburn sixteen minutes to drive there, following Ackerman’s car all the way.

When we found parking spaces and got out of the car, she looked at the building the way one might look at a distasteful photograph. “I don’t like this,” she said. “It’s too ordinary to be a place where people come to be regenerated in the thirty-sixth century.”

“It houses a facility that allows for the proper temperatures, backup utilities, and other necessities for maintaining the subzero conditions that make cryonics possible,” I told her. “The fact is, the people who come here probably aren’t very concerned with the aesthetics of the building.” I thought that was an amusing remark, but Ms. Washburn stared at me a moment and then followed me as I approached the institute’s main entrance, where Marshall Ackerman was standing.

“Welcome to the Garden State Cryonics Institute,” he said. It seemed to me that he had given the sentence a grandeur the occasion did not merit, but sometimes inflection is a trouble area for me, so I assumed I was misinterpreting his tone until I saw the unimpressed look on Ms. Washburn’s face.

“Thank you,” I said, because that’s what you’re supposed to say when someone welcomes you, even if you don’t find the surroundings particularly welcoming.

We walked inside, and Ackerman led us through the doors to the small, impersonal reception area. The building was more imposing inside than out—there was bright light and an air of more recent redecoration, and it was deceptively large. The lobby also had a reception desk, behind which sat a young woman in her mid-twenties who looked worried. Ackerman had us pass her station and walk toward the rear of the lobby.

There, a burly, bald man he introduced as Commander Johnson scowled at us and spoke only to Ackerman. He was flanked by two security guards dressed in what appeared to be the institute’s uniform. They were unarmed.

“We shouldn’t be letting outsiders go down there,” he said. I found the statement interesting, particularly if Commander Johnson was in fact a military officer of some kind. If so, he would probably be most concerned with protocol, and I wondered, then, why he wasn’t insisting the police be notified.

“They’re here to help,” Ackerman barked back, and it seemed to me he would prefer Commander Johnson keep his voice down, something my mother often asks me to do when I am passionate about my point, like when someone suggests U2 is a better band than the Beatles. Ackerman turned to us. “Commander Johnson is our head of security,” he explained.

“Then I suppose he is at fault in the disappearance,” I noted. It seemed a logical assumption to make—the head of security is responsible for any breach that occurs under his watch—but both Ackerman’s and Commander Johnson’s eyes widened, and Ackerman made a point of rushing us past the security personnel, through a door, and down a corridor. He ushered us into an elevator that was at the end of the corridor.

“We’ll be seeing the area where Ms. Masters-Powell—Rita—was being preserved,” he said once the elevator doors closed. It seemed Ackerman was being confidential, since he’d waited until we were out of the sight and hearing of any other employees before mentioning our business there again. “You can examine the security measures yourself.”

I didn’t say anything about that sentence containing a redundancy and concentrated my attention on the question at hand. How could I determine if Ms. Masters-Powell’s head had been stolen, misplaced, or destroyed?

The answer would no doubt lie in the records kept and the security procedures. If there were, for example, a constant video surveillance system, it would have recorded the space into which the remains were deposited at the time of arrival, and then, assuming the system was being properly operated and supervised, each minute until the time the disappearance was discovered. The question would then be a relatively simple one of access, motive, and ability to tamper with the security system.

“Who has access to the security equipment?” I asked as the elevator doors opened at the B level, which I assumed stood for
. The other three levels were marked with numbers, and the top level from which we’d come was designated G for

Ackerman looked as if I’d struck him in the back. He swiveled quickly and said, “
keep your voice down, Mr. Hoenig. I don’t want the staff to know about the … incident just yet.”

“Would they hear us if we were just speaking normally?” Ms. Washburn asked. I was impressed, as that was the next question I would have asked, although I already knew the answer. I wanted to see how Ackerman would respond.

“Yes, there is audio surveillance in most areas, as well as constant video monitoring,” he answered, pointing to video cameras mounted on the walls near the ceiling, to cover every angle. Each camera also had a directional microphone attached above the lens.

He saw Ms. Washburn reaching for her cell phone and said, “Don’t bother. You won’t be able to get a signal down here. Cell phones will only work internally here; you’d be able to get a call from someone else on the grounds.”

“I need to call my husband,” she said.

Ackerman nodded. “There are land lines downstairs; you can use those.”

“I presume the hard drives storing the video records have been checked, and that no tampering has been found,” I said, returning to the subject at hand.

“That’s right,” Ackerman noted. “I can’t imagine how it …
was smuggled out of here.”

“Perhaps someone outside the institute needs to examine the system,” I suggested. “If the thief is someone who works here, he or she could easily be covering up any tampering that was done.”

“I don’t believe anyone on my staff could be responsible,” Ackerman said with a gruff tone.

“I don’t see it as likely that it was someone else,” I countered, but he simply cleared his throat and did not respond.

The elevator doors opened, and we stepped out into a hallway. Ackerman led us to the right, then down past a number of unmarked steel doors.

“Has there been any contact about a ransom demand?” I asked.

“No. I am hoping against hope that we can find Ms. Masters-Powell before there’s any contact made.” Ackerman took a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped at his forehead, although it was not at all warm in the institute’s basement. I assumed air conditioning had to be maintained in all weather here.

I declined to comment that
hoping against hope
doesn’t mean anything.

“Of course you’d want to find it soon,” Ms. Washburn said, “but why the urgency about the time?”

Ackerman started to answer, but I felt it was important to impress him again, and I cut him off. “Because Dr. Ackerman has not informed Ms. Masters-Powell’s family yet, and he’s hoping there will never be a need to do so,” I said.

Ackerman stared at me. “How did you know that?”

“Despite an almost absolute lack of competition, this facility is extremely dependent on its reputation,” I said. “You’ve already alluded to some of the arguments against the service you provide. An incident like this one could cause considerable public outcry, and your business could very well be investigated by the authorities or disabled by a drop in confidence among your clients. You could be forced to discontinue your work altogether.”

Marshall Ackerman looked positively ill at the suggestion. “The damage to our reputation could be enormous,” he agreed. “This is something I …
need to be solved quickly. And there are practical, physical reasons for speed, as well.”

“I would think so,” I said as quietly as I could while we moved down the hallway. “If Ms. Masters-Powell’s head has indeed been removed from storage and is not being cared for properly, it’s very likely that you will not be able to restore it to an acceptable state even if it is returned. I’d think you need to find it within ten hours, unless you assume someone with extremely elaborate equipment is holding the item hostage.”

We reached a door directly in the sight of three separate video cameras, mounted on the walls and pointed down from the ceiling. A sign on the door read
Preservation Room D
. Ackerman pulled an encoded card from his wallet and swiped it through a reader on the door’s right side.

A recording amplified through the corridor said, “Voice recognition pattern, please.”

“Marshall Ackerman,” he said in a conversational tone.

“Recognition acknowledged. Thumb print, please,” the recording responded. Ackerman reached over with his right hand and placed the thumb on a scanner under the card reader.

“Accepted,” the recording said. There were clicks from the door’s locks as they opened, and a buzzer sounded; I cringed inwardly at the noise but tried not to show my discomfort—it is not unusual for those of us with Asperger’s Syndrome to be sensitive to loud sounds. Ackerman opened the door and held it for myself and Ms. Washburn. We walked inside.

The room was similar to a physician’s examination space, with stainless-steel procedure tables and a computer outfit on a workspace at one end. But one side of the room had windows instead of walls, and while they appeared to be made of glass, the thickness of the material and its color gave me the impression that it was something considerably more durable and stronger than a usual windowpane.

“That’s the storage area,” Ackerman explained. “As you can see, Mr. Hoenig, the security measures used to limit access to this section are extraordinary.”

That was a bold statement, and I felt an inaccurate one. “I’d hardly say so,” I told him. “I think the measures were quite ordinary and in use at many similar facilities striving for security. It’s the number of measures that would be considered unusual, but none of them is foolproof by any means. Nothing is.”

Ackerman curled his lip but did not try to debate me. “If you’ll follow me, Mr. Hoenig, I’ll show you the storage facility.” He did not mention Ms. Washburn by name, but she followed behind me.

He indicated that we should don suits, hanging from hooks near the interior door, that were made of a yellow polymer material, with hoods that included windowed panels so we could see out. I wanted to ask if the suits had been worn by others before me, as I suspected they had been, and if so, what the cleaning procedure had been, but I held back. I’m not sure why. Ms. Washburn hesitated a moment, perhaps for the same reason, or perhaps out of claustrophobia or some general squeamish tendency, but she, too, took a deep breath and put on the suit over her clothing.

Ackerman did the same but without the hesitation; this was clearly routine procedure for him. In less than two minutes, we were all properly attired, and he reached over to a computer terminal. Even with the gloves that had been provided, he was able to punch in the proper sequence of keystrokes, and the screen read,
Access permitted.

A red light over the interior door went on, and Ackerman walked to the door. “Don’t touch anything inside,” he warned. “It’s all extremely cold and complex. Any inadvertent change in temperature to one of the tubes could cost these people their lives.” Since they were already clinically dead, that seemed something of a hyperbolic statement, but I nodded, and he reached for the handle on the interior chamber door.

The handle turned, but the door would not move, no matter how hard he pushed.

“I don’t understand,” Ackerman said. “Can you help me, Mr. Hoenig?”

I didn’t want to; pushing against a door that wouldn’t open
seemed futile, and doing so in such close proximity to Ackerman (or anyone else) was slightly sickening. But the only way to answer the question posed to me was to see the facility, and the only way to see the facility would be to open the door. I walked to his side.

“Could it be frozen?” Ms. Washburn asked.

I knew that the design of the chamber made such a thing impossible, but I did not think it was necessary for Ackerman to take a condescending tone when he said, “No, Ms. Washburn. It can’t be
.” I didn’t think he’d been pleased to have her along during the entire trip to the facility.

“On three,” he said to me. I don’t understand why counting to three is supposed to increase physical strength. Why not just say,
? Why not count to five, or seven? Or simply start pushing and assume the other person will join the effort? But I didn’t say anything, and Ackerman must have taken that for agreement. “One …two … three!”

We pushed, shoulders to the door, and it moved a few inches, not enough to get even a foot inside.

It was impossible to look through the thick steel door, but there were small glass windows on either side. “Ms. Washburn,” I said, “look through there and tell me what you see.” I realized later that I’d forgotten to say
, but Ms. Washburn did not seem offended.

She nodded and pushed her way around me to the window right of the door. She looked straight through the window, and her voice came back echoing off the glass.

“There are metal cylinders and large machines, maybe storage units,” she said. “I don’t see anything that looks wrong.”

Ackerman and I had moved our feet to get better leverage and were still trying to push against the door. “Look down,” I told Ms. Washburn. “See what is restricting the door’s movement.”

She did so, and gasped. “Oh my god,” she said. “There’s a woman on the floor.”

Ackerman paled and pushed harder. The door nudged a few inches more, and I was able to get my right foot into the opening. With that, I could get sufficient leverage and open the door to the point that I could squeeze myself, even in the protective clothing, into the chamber. And I saw that Ms. Washburn had been correct: There was indeed a woman on the floor.

She was, from what I could see, quite dead.


“Don’t touch anything,” I
said to Ackerman and Ms. Washburn after they squeezed through the narrow opening. It was obvious now that the body of the unidentified woman had been wedged behind the door, making it difficult for us to enter. But the pushing of the door had not done significant damage to the body.

Being inside the chamber during a release of liquid nitrogen had.

“My lord,” Ackerman said, instinctively putting his hand to his mouth in spite of the plastic lens covering his face. “It’s Rebecca.”

“What is the time?” I asked him urgently. Ackerman froze at my tone, but Ms. Washburn looked at a wall clock.

“Ten fifty-six,” she reported.

“Thank you.” Unlike some other people with Asperger’s Syndrome, I had not required special social skills training in remembering to thank people. I had learned that at a very early age. My mother had made sure.

“Why do you ask?” Ackerman said. “Can you tell when she died?”

“No,” I answered. “I have lunch with my mother every day at twelve thirty, and I wanted to be sure I would not be late.”

Ackerman stared at me.

Ms. Washburn, I noticed, was standing as far from the body as she could, but I was impressed that she did not cry, she did not scream, and she did not show signs of being nauseated. I could not say the same for Ackerman. He looked like he might pass out at any moment. He seemed completely terrified.

“Who is … was Rebecca?” Ms. Washburn asked him.

“Rebecca Springer. Doctor Rebecca Springer. She was one of our staff specialists, part of the emergency response team that acts when one of our members is declared legally dead.”

From my Internet research, I knew that Ackerman’s company would send a team to the site (usually a hospital or hospice facility, but sometimes the home) where a patient was declared dead by a physician, and then would immediately take steps to prepare the body for preservation, including pumping the chest and keeping blood and oxygen flowing as long as possible to stave off an end to brain activity. Dr. Springer must have been one of the physicians, or a pathologist who would see to the body’s welfare.

“You must go back out into the anteroom and call the police,” I told him. “Ms. Washburn, if you would join Dr. Ackerman.”

“What will you do?” Ackerman asked. Ms. Washburn looked grateful for the opportunity to leave the chamber.

“I will examine the scene for information that will help me answer your question,” I told him. “And I will look for other data that might help the police answer their questions.”

They squeezed through the door opening, Ms. Washburn leading the way, and I closed the door behind them, to better reproduce the conditions that were present before we had disturbed the door and the body. I did not touch anything, even with my hands in the cumbersome gloves.

The room was not as large as I had expected. There were fifteen cylinders for those who opted, like the late Ms. Masters-Powell, to have only their craniums preserved (a tactic I felt was less logical than the entire body preservation, since it assumed not only that medical science would find a cure for their terminal illness and a way to reanimate a body frozen at a very low temperature, but also that creating a body onto which a head could be transplanted would also be achieved) and ten full-body chambers.

If I were to answer the question about Ms. Masters-Powell’s missing head, I would need more information before generating a theory—I didn’t know which of the receptacles was hers, to begin with. But I could see the video surveillance cameras mounted on the ceiling pointed toward the storage units, and I could see the size of the room. It would have been difficult to remove anything from the chambers without being recorded.

That left a number of possibilities, but the most urgent matter at the moment was the body on the floor, so I knelt to examine it without touching it.

It didn’t look different from any other corpse. I haven’t seen many, but I have done some research on the subject. This one was a woman in her early forties, mouth open, eyes closed. No noticeable wounds or injuries. No marks of any kind. Just the usual waxy, stiff tone to the skin that is common to all deaths.

She was wearing relatively standard business clothing: A navy blue blouse and long black pants, black shoes with low heels, and a jacket that matched the pants. She looked as if she were heading for a meeting of executives and had fallen down, or fallen asleep.

I was careful not to touch her, so I couldn’t be sure there were no signs of violence in areas I was unable to see. But there was no blood on the floor, and no evidence of a weapon in sight.

It seemed unlikely that Dr. Springer had chosen this very day, this very moment, to have a sudden cardiac arrest; from what I could tell, she was in excellent shape, and was not old. But a cause of death would probably not be difficult for the police to determine.

I stood up and looked around the room. Having discerned what I could about Dr. Springer’s death, I focused again on Ackerman’s question—who had stolen the frozen head of Ms. Masters-Powell? I forced myself to look at every object in the room for answers.

There was a metal tank with a nozzle on it in the rear of the room, and I walked back to gently kick it—it was empty. I was careful not to move it or interfere with its placement in any way. And while I noticed an object on the floor, one that appeared to be configured from a type of rubber or plastic, it was too dark in that corner for me to see clearly, and there was a more serious problem to consider—I was starting to get drowsy. There must still have been some nitrogen released in the room, although not enough to deplete the oxygen supply completely, and the nitrogen release must have been constant and ongoing. There was a tank with a small leak somewhere. I headed quickly for the door.

“Mr. Hoenig?” I heard Ms. Washburn’s voice from beyond the door, which was now once again propped open. “The police are already at the reception area.”

“Tell Commander Johnson to send them down immediately,” I said. I saw Ms. Washburn’s head disappear from the window, and she walked back toward the phone on the wall.

I didn’t have much time—the police would not take kindly to a civilian “contaminating” the crime scene—so I focused my attention. Dr. Springer’s body was sprawled in such a way that it was obvious she had been walking toward the door, perhaps even running. So I traced the path back toward the cylinders that held the frozen “guests.”

Before I reached the apparatus that held them, however, I was distracted by something on the floor, where perhaps Dr. Springer had dropped it on her way; the security video would undoubtedly reveal that detail later.

It was a metal cylinder, not large enough to contain one of the totally preserved bodies, but one that was of a size to preserve a cranium. It was on its side, and appeared to have a very large crack in it.

As I moved away from the door and toward the cylinder to examine it (but certainly not to touch it), I felt my concentration wander; it was as if I hadn’t slept in more than a day, which I certainly never allow to happen. It was the nitrogen leak; my time in this room would have to be short.

I examined the cylinder on the floor only briefly, but long enough to see it was inscribed with the initials
r. m-p
and a number, as well as a bar code.

Rita Masters-Powell.

But by then, my head was swimming, and I knew it was important to leave the room. I turned and walked, a trifle unsteadily, toward the body of Dr. Springer and the door. The closer I got to the door, the better I felt. My weariness seemed to dissipate a little more with each step.

I stepped out of the chamber just as two uniformed police officers were entering the anteroom. Ms. Washburn looked at me with worry in her eyes, and Marshall Ackerman’s expression was hard for me to read—it was either disapproval or disgust. I sometimes wish I could take pictures of every facial expression I see to show Mother later, so she could confirm or dismiss my initial impressions.

“Are you okay, Mr. Hoenig?” Ms. Washburn asked.

I sat down, nodding. “Yes. I think I suffered a very mild reaction to a release of liquid nitrogen.” I started to take off the protective suit, as Ms. Washburn and Ackerman had already done.

Ackerman paled. “Liquid nitrogen? Are the receptacles damaged?” He knew that the bodies and crania being preserved were kept in containers of liquid nitrogen, because it could keep them very cold without causing serious tissue damage, when done under the right conditions. A breach of the containers would be a very bad thing for him, indeed.

“Only one,” I told him. “The one that contained Ms. Masters-Powell’s head.”

Ackerman looked even more distraught. He put his head down and started to breathe heavily.

The two police officers, who had started for the chamber door, stopped mid-stride and swiveled to look at me. One, the taller of the two, with dark eyebrows and deep-set eyes, shook his head a little.

“Someone’s head was in a cylinder of liquid nitrogen?” he said. “Isn’t that really cold?”

“Yes,” Ackerman answered. “But that’s what we do here. We preserve those who have recently experienced traditional ‘death,’ for the time when they can be revived.” He did not raise his head to speak.

The taller officer’s eyes widened, but his partner, a young African-
American woman, touched his arm, and he turned his attention toward her. “It’s a cryogenics lab, Jesse,” she said. “It’s legal.”

“Cryonics,” I corrected. “Cryogenics is simply the science of very low temperatures. Cryonics is the activity practiced here.”

But the officer named Jesse, whose nametag read
, pointed at Dr. Springer’s body. “What about that?”

“That is one of our doctors,” Ackerman said.

“She’s dead?” Crawford asked.

Ackerman nodded.

“Call it in,” Crawford told his partner, and she reached for her communications link on her shoulder.

“That might not work down here,” Ackerman told her, and
pointed to the phone. The female officer started to call to her headquarters.

“You were coming out of there when we came in,” Crawford said to me. “You shouldn’t have been in there.”

“We weren’t sure she was dead,” Ms. Washburn explained. “Mr. Hoenig was trying …”

“I answer people’s questions for them,” I told the officer. “I needed to be in there to answer a question for Dr. Ackerman.”

“Did you touch anything?”

“No,” I said. “I was extremely careful.”

Crawford leaned into the preservation chamber, and Ackerman looked nervously after him. At least, I think he was nervous—it might have been an expression of disapproval.

“No blood,” Crawford said. “Looks like natural causes.”

“Oh, no,” I told him. “Dr. Springer was murdered.”

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