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 (4 page)

six

It took the Emergency
Medical Services crew seven minutes to arrive, and when they did, they commanded most of the attention in the room. But they were not allowed to touch Dr. Springer’s body (other than to determine that she was indeed deceased) until Det. Glendon Lapides released the corpse to their care.

When Detective Lapides, a remarkably tall man with sandy hair and a space between his front teeth, was satisfied that the police videographer had recorded the scene, he stood in front of Ms. Washburn, Ackerman, and myself. And we watched as the body of Dr. Springer was moved, on a collapsible gurney, out of the area and toward the elevator by the EMS workers.

“So, what’s this about it being a murder?” he asked. I believe he was directing his question at me, but he was looking at Ms. Washburn. It was possible Detective Lapides had Asperger’s Syndrome, or that he found Ms. Washburn attractive; it was hard to know.

“Is this going to take long?” I asked him in return, and the detective turned toward me with an expression I could easily identify as irritation.

“Mr. Hoenig has lunch with his mother every day at twelve thirty,” Ms. Washburn explained to him. “He’s concerned about being late.”

“It’ll take as long as it takes,” he said to me, which didn’t answer my question at all. “But it will go much faster if everyone just cooperates and answers the questions. Now, why do you think that woman was murdered?”

“I don’t think so; I’m certain of it,” I told him. “The evidence points to no other conclusion. For one thing, Dr. Springer is wearing her normal business attire. She’s dressed in a sensible suit and low heels, perfect for a nondescript meeting on budget or procedure.”

Lapides’s eyes narrowed. “So how does that make it murder?” he asked.

“Rebecca wouldn’t have gone into the chamber without a protective suit,” Ackerman stepped in. “She’d know that it could be dangerous to her, and she’d know that it could potentially corrupt the guests we have preserved in the chamber.” Ackerman had repeatedly asked the officers to allow him into the chamber to check for further damage but had been denied, and now he was glancing nervously in the direction of the chamber door every few seconds.

“Okay, that makes it strange, but it doesn’t mean someone deliberately killed her. We’re not even sure how she died—it looks like a heart attack to me,” Lapides said.

“I believe you’ll find that she died of suffocation,” I told him. “When the liquid nitrogen was exposed to the air in the chamber, its temperature was raised far beyond its boiling point, and it transformed into a gas. That meant the percentage of oxygen in the air in the room decreased dramatically as the percentage of nitrogen increased, and Dr. Springer could no longer breathe. She was probably unconscious in seconds.”

Lapides had not made eye contact with me while I spoke, studying the floor with what appeared to be great interest. It might have been his way of concentrating. It also might have been a sign that he didn’t understand what I was saying, or that he was very tired.

I, meanwhile, was noting that, with the time now eleven twenty-seven, my chances of arriving in time for lunch with Mother were dwindling. “Is that all you need from me?” I asked Lapides.

Apparently my tone was less cordial than I had intended—voice modulation is sometimes a problem—because Lapides took his gaze off the floor, looked me in the eye, and said, “No, that’s not
all
I need from you. Settle in. I have a lot of questions.”

“Mr. Hoenig isn’t trying to be rude,” Ms. Washburn said. “He’s just …”

“You don’t need to keep defending him,” the detective told her. “He’s a big boy and doesn’t need to hide behind a woman.”

That comment didn’t make any sense—I was not hiding behind Ms. Washburn. I was sitting two seats to her left. But Lapides’s tone, after a moment of reflection, indicated he was being derisive.

“May I stand up, detective?” I asked, and Lapides gestured that I should. But when I did, his expression changed. I think he might have believed I was going to attack him; that’s what would happen in an action motion picture starring Bruce Willis. It was not at all my intention.

“Let me demonstrate,” I said. “Suppose that I am Dr. Springer.”

“I don’t think you have the legs for it,” Lapides said. I stopped for a moment and looked at my legs but was unable to discern what about them might inhibit my explanation.

“It’s a joke, Mr. Hoenig,” Ms. Washburn told me, so I moved on.

“If I were in the chamber, dressed without any protection, my first impulse, especially given the knowledge that Dr. Springer had of the process, would be to exit as quickly as possible,” I said.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Lapides said.

“In a moment,” I answered him. “Dr. Springer was a trained physician. Did she have a background in advanced chemistry?” I asked Ackerman.

“She did, but she wouldn’t need one to know that a breach of one of the cylinders would fill the room with nitrogen gas and deplete the amount of oxygen,” Ackerman answered. “Any physician—any chemistry student—would know that. She was obviously trying to get to the door before she lost consciousness. But I don’t understand why you say that makes it murder. Isn’t it just an accident, Mr. Hoenig?”

I shook my head. “No. The question remains: How was the nitrogen released? What happened to the cylinder that released it into the air, and who did that to Dr. Springer?”

Detective Lapides looked at me strangely, I thought. “What makes you think she didn’t do it herself ?”

I turned toward Ackerman. “How cold would that cylinder have been in order to keep the liquid nitrogen from boiling?” I asked.

“The boiling point of nitrogen is three hundred twenty-one degrees below zero, Fahrenheit,” he answered.

Ms. Washburn’s eyes widened. “Then Dr. Springer couldn’t possibly have been carrying it, or handling it at all,” she said.

“Not without protective clothing and equipment,” I agreed. “But that’s not all that indicates there was another person in the room.” I stopped and looked at the three of them. A long moment passed before they realized why I wasn’t continuing.

Someone had to ask the question, and it was Ms. Washburn who understood first. “What other evidence is there, Mr. Hoenig?” she asked.

I looked at her with a grateful expression, or at least that’s what I intended; I’m not always sure whether I accomplish the proper outwardly appearance. “The cylinder that held the nitrogen, and Ms. Masters-Powell’s head, was
behind
the body,” I explained. “Even if it had been possible for Dr. Springer to carry the cylinder before it suffered a breach, and even if she had begun to fall forward, the notion that she could have tossed it over her shoulder to land behind her is virtually an impossible one.”

Detective Lapides’s mouth was open, but it wasn’t moving. He shook his head back and forth a few times but did not speak.

“You weren’t in there very long,” Ackerman said to me. “How did you see that all in such a short time?”

I suppose I blinked once or twice, but I don’t remember. “It doesn’t take long to see something,” I told him.

Lapides then seemed to regain the power of speech, but his voice was higher than before, and his face reddened. “You’re taking him
seriously
?” he shouted. “That’s all guesswork and tricks! I’m telling you, that woman had a heart attack—I’ve seen them before and I know what they look like!”

“Will there be an autopsy, detective?” Ms. Washburn stepped in between the two men and seemed to want to defuse the situation. I admired her ability to read the emotions of the people in the room and take action so quickly; it was something I would not have been able to do.

It appeared to work—Lapides’s face became less angry as he pondered the question. “Any time a death occurs when no one else is present, there’s an autopsy,” he said, puffing out his chest just a bit. “But the results won’t be public for a while. Dr. Ackerman, did she have any family we can contact?”

“I don’t know,” Ackerman answered. “I’ll have to check …”

He didn’t get the chance to finish his sentence because Commander Johnson, breathing heavily and sweating profusely, made his way past the two uniformed officers at the door and confronted Ackerman.

“What happened?” he demanded. “I
told
you we should have called the police before!”

Ackerman’s face paled; Lapides’s head swiveled toward Ackerman as soon as Commander Johnson’s words were out of his mouth.

“Called the police before about
what
?” he demanded. “Did you know about this earlier?”

Even Ms. Washburn couldn’t step in and make this situation any easier.

“No, detective. There was … an incident here at the lab, but I thought Commander Johnson and his staff could handle it internally,” Ackerman said.

“What kind of
incident
?”

“Before he begins,” I began, “there is something I need to address.”

Lapides regarded me with a cocked eyebrow. “What’s that?”

“May I go to lunch with my mother now?”

seven

Ms. Washburn barely spoke
as she drove, which was perfectly fine with me. A person who is comfortable with silence won’t require conversation, and those of us with Asperger’s Syndrome are more at ease when we don’t have to worry about saying something inappropriate or overemphasizing a topic we find fascinating that others, we eventually discover, do not.

“I’ll drop you off at your mother’s, and then I’ll head for home,” she said. “I wasn’t planning on being involved in a murder investigation.”

That stunned me a little. I didn’t think I’d missed any signals from Ms. Washburn indicating she was upset or frightened by the events at the Garden State Cryonics Institute. But I answered her as I would have even if such signals had been obvious. “This is not a murder investigation,” I said. “The police are investigating the murder of Dr. Springer. I am simply attempting to answer Dr. Ackerman’s question about the missing head.”

Ms. Washburn did not take her eyes off the road, which was re
assuring to me. Many people act emotionally behind the wheel, not realizing the enormous risk they take each time they travel in a motor vehicle of any kind. Throughout the life of an average seventy-
eight-year-old, the odds of dying in an automobile crash are approximately one in eighty-three; the odds of dying in an airplane accident are approximately one in fifty-two million.

But she did open her mouth a little. I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, so I stayed silent.

“So you’re not going to look into the murder of Dr. Springer, even though you know that the cops will treat it as natural causes?” she asked.

“I assume that the medical examiner will corroborate my findings,” I answered. “And then either the North Brunswick Police or the Middlesex County prosecutor’s Major Crimes unit will handle the investigation. No one has asked me who killed Dr. Springer.”

“Isn’t that a little callous? Don’t you think Dr. Springer deserves the ultimate justice of having her murderer found, exposed, and punished?”

This was puzzling; it seemed Ms. Washburn was trying to encourage me to investigate the murder, when just a moment ago, she was threatening to end our association because she assumed I
would
be taking up that cause. “I don’t understand,” I told her. “Do you want me to find out who killed Dr. Springer?”

The question seemed to baffle Ms. Washburn; she thought for a moment and said, “Yes. I do. But I don’t want to be involved with it.”

“Because you’re afraid.”

Her lips tightened. I’ve found this is often a sign of irritation or embarrassment. “Yes. Because I’m afraid,” she said briskly without separating her teeth.

“It makes sense to be afraid,” I told her. “The person or people who did that to Dr. Springer are clearly violent and unpredictable. They killed someone, probably deliberately, and that means they are dangerous. I would not want to be involved with people like that.”

This time, she did steal a glance—a very brief one—toward me. “So, you’re afraid, too?” she asked.

“No, but I would be if I were going to investigate the murder.”

Ms. Washburn nodded and did not speak again until we reached the house.

_____

“Of
course
you’re coming in,” Mother said when Ms. Washburn tried to beg off. “When Samuel said he was bringing a guest, I made enough for three. You can’t leave me with all that extra food.” And she smiled her best smile, which she once told me was designed to get her out of trouble with police officers when she inadvertently exceeded the speed limit.

It seemed to work on Ms. Washburn, as well, since she acquiesced and walked into the house. Mother can be very persuasive.

The house, of course, was immaculate—Mother never allows anything other than that in her home. Mother is a short woman, somewhat stout but not dangerously heavy. I silently chided myself for not drinking enough water today, due to the distraction of Ackerman’s question. Luckily, I had been on my feet for much of the morning, so my exercise was quite within my daily quota.

“It’s a lovely home, Mrs. Hoenig,” Ms. Washburn said to her as she surveyed the living room.

“I do what I can.” Mother very rarely accepts a compliment to herself, but I have noticed that she can be downright vain about any accomplishment of my own. “Come in and eat. You must be famished. And you call me Vivian.” I don’t know why she believed that our activity of the morning would translate into hunger, but I have found it best not to question Mother when she says such things. She will explain, but her explanation rarely helps me to understand more fully.

While we ate (Mother had prepared turkey sandwiches, one plain, the way I prefer, and others with choices of condiments), I explained the questions I was researching today—the one about the chances of hitting a ball out of Yankee Stadium, and the one about the missing head. Mother appeared to find the one about Ms. Masters-Powell’s head more interesting.

“Why aren’t you looking into who killed that poor woman?” she asked me when I had completed the tale. I noticed Ms. Washburn looking away, examining my painting of John Lennon that Mother had hung on the far wall. I assumed she was doing so merely to avoid the issue Mother was raising.

“I was not asked a question,” I told her. “My business is to answer questions.” I was noticing that Ms. Washburn preferred mustard to mayonnaise on her sandwich, and I considered what that might have meant in relation to her overall character. I decided she was less bland than most people.

“Your business,” Mother said deliberately, “is to help when you can help. This is an area where you can help.”

“I don’t see how,” I answered. “The police are competent. They haven’t asked me to assist them. I have questions I have not yet answered. It doesn’t make sense for me to abandon paying clients to help an organization that has not requested my assistance.”

Mother stood up and began to clear plates from the table. Normally that is a signal that I should do the same, so I stood. But Mother shook her head and gestured toward Ms. Washburn. “We have company,” she said. “It’s rude to leave her alone.”

But Ms. Washburn had already begun to help clear. “No, it’s rude for the guest to sit idly by while everyone else works on her behalf,” she said.

Mother started to protest, but by that time Ms. Washburn was walking into the kitchen carrying plates. And the silent interchange between the two women was more than I could interpret, so I chose to pay no attention. I brought in a small bowl that had held chopped onions, but I avoided the one containing mayonnaise. There are limits to my tolerance, and Mother understands that.

When I walked into the kitchen, I could hear Mother saying, “… thirteen years ago, so Samuel was sixteen years old. It was the first year—” She stopped speaking when she looked at Ms. Washburn’s face, which must have indicated that I was in the room. Mother looked over to see me there, smiled, and looked back at Ms. Washburn. “Not to worry, dear,” she said. “Samuel knows the story.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome the first year it was listed in the DSM IV. Do you know what that is?”

Ms. Washburn nodded. “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” she said, then put her hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry.”

I didn’t see a reason for her to be sorry, and told her so. “That is what the publication is called,” I said. “I believe Asperger’s Syndrome is not a mental disorder, but that is the way the medical profession chooses to classify it.”

Ms. Washburn nodded. Mother chuckled. “You left the mayonnaise out there, didn’t you, Samuel?” she asked, then walked to the door without waiting for my answer. She left the room through the kitchen door, which swings open and closed, like those in many restaurants, including the one that was once linked to the kitchen of San Remo’s, now my back room at Questions Answered.

I looked at Ms. Washburn and tried to gauge her mood, based on what I’ve learned about facial expressions and body language. Since I had only known her a few hours, the task was made more challenging, but purer. She stood facing away from the sink, watching Mother leave the kitchen, and then she turned toward me. Her hands were crossed in front of her, arms down, and her face turned upward slightly when she realized I was looking at her.

“You’re nervous,” I said after a moment. “Why are you nervous? Did I do something unusual?” Sometimes, it is very difficult to know, because I always think I’m acting very rationally.

“No,” Ms. Washburn said, shaking her head slightly. “You didn’t do anything. I was a little startled to see you looking at me just then.”

“What do you think about what my mother said?” I asked her. Ms. Washburn’s opinion was becoming more important to me. She didn’t know me very well but had defended me more than once since we’d met. And she did not seem to be “weirded out” (an expression I’ve heard more than once) by what some would consider odd behavior on my part. I was beginning to think she could be a valuable asset to Questions Answered.

“Which thing she said?” Ms. Washburn asked.

“When we were discussing the murder of Dr. Springer,” I reminded her. “About my responsibility to help when I can help.” It occurred to me that Mother was taking an unusually long time to fetch the mayonnaise and might have orchestrated this situation to give Ms. Washburn and myself a moment to discuss this very topic.

“I think your mother has a very high opinion of your talents,” Ms. Washburn said. “And from what I’ve seen, that opinion is pretty well justified. But you have to decide if you’re interested in making waves with the police department and doing something you haven’t been asked to do simply because you might be of help to a woman who is already dead.”

I nodded. “That was a concise, accurate assessment of the situation,” I told her. “But I asked for your opinion. What do
you
think I should do?”

Ms. Washburn’s head lowered. She was thinking.

“Don’t try to determine what I want you to say,” I said. “I’m asking you because your opinion will help me decide. I require your perspective.” That hadn’t come out sounding exactly the way I’d wanted it to, but it would have to suffice.

Her head snapped up, and she looked me directly in the eye. “All I can think,” she said, “is that if it were me, I’d want you to find the person who did that to me and bring him to justice.”

“Or her,” I corrected.

“Or her?”

“Bring him
or her
to justice. We can’t narrow our list of suspects to men.”

Ms. Washburn smiled. “No. Of course not.”

“All right, then,” I told her. “I will take that into account as I decide how to proceed.”

Mother burst in through the kitchen door, which swung wide at the force of her push. “There’s nothing to decide, Samuel,” she said. She advanced upon me, her face displaying determination rather than fury. She hadn’t even bothered to retrieve the mayonnaise. “I have a question for you.” She took a dollar from her apron pocket and pressed it into my hand.

I had worried she’d do this. “Mother …”

“Who killed Dr. Springer?” Mother asked defiantly.

Now I had no choice.

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