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 (6 page)

ten

Ackerman left to talk
to Detective Lapides, and for a moment before Commander Johnson arrived, Ms. Washburn and I had a moment to talk privately.

“What did you mean, you don’t think the head was taken out of the facility?” she asked me. “Do you think it’s still here?”

“I was trying to gauge Ackerman’s response,” I answered. “I wanted to see if he looked surprised, or worried. If he looked surprised, he is probably an incompetent manager and doesn’t know what is happening under his own roof. If he looked worried, he most likely has some knowledge he’d prefer we not find out.”

“How did he look?” Ms. Washburn asked.

“Confused.”

Before she could question me further, the conference room door opened and Commander Johnson, lit from behind, stood in the doorway, seeming to survey the situation before he entered. It occurred to me that if this were a satiric motion picture like
Dr. Strangelove
:
or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
, he would have a great number of medals pinned to his shirt and might even be carrying a riding crop. He had neither.

Instead, the commander was wearing the company uniform—a light blue denim shirt with short sleeves and the initials GSCI embroidered on the left breast pocket and a pair of cargo pants. He was wearing a pair of Nike cross-trainers with a blue “swoosh” across the sides.

Commander Johnson stood straight and tall to the left side of the conference table where Ms. Washburn and I sat. He clasped his hands behind his back and stared straight ahead, over our heads.

“There is no need to stand at attention, commander,” I suggested.

“I am at ease,” he responded, and I made a mental note to ask Ms. Washburn later if his voice had a tinge of condescension in it.

“Please sit down,” I said. “I am not a police official. This is an informal inquiry commissioned by the institute.”

The commander grimaced, as if I had suggested he remove his pants. But he sat down in a chair immediately to our left and folded his hands carefully on the table before him. I thought he looked very formal.

“Commander,” I began. “Is that a rank you acquired in the service?”

His mouth tightened just a bit, which I noticed because I was being careful to observe his facial expression. It was difficult for me, because I usually prefer not to see a person’s emotions on his face; I find it terribly personal and embarrassing. In this case, however, it was necessary in order to answer the questions at hand.

“No,” Commander Johnson replied. “ ‘Commander’ is a title given to me by members of my neighborhood watch committee. When I served in the Army, I was a corporal. I served during the first Gulf War.”

“Where were you stationed?” Ms. Washburn asked. The information was not relevant to the questions I had to answer, but it was possible she could discern something about the commander’s character from his answer.

He looked away, much as I usually do when someone is speaking to me. “Fort Dix,” he said softly.

“Here in New Jersey?” Ms. Washburn said. I thought she sounded surprised.

“Yes,” Commander Johnson acknowledged.

“You became chief of security here five months ago, is that correct?” I asked him. I took no notes, but Ms. Washburn had a pen and notebook provided by Ackerman.

“Yes. It was my understanding that Miles Monroe, the previous chief, was dismissed, but I never met him.”

“Was he incompetent?” I asked.

The commander’s face did not change. “I would have no way of knowing,” he said.

“When did you first find out about the disappearance of Ms. Masters-Powell’s remains?” I asked.

Commander Johnson seemed to be anticipating that question, because the answer came quickly and without hesitation. “This morning, at approximately oh-seven-thirty,” he said. “I was not scheduled to come on duty until oh-eight-thirty, so the night shift commander, Mr. Feliz, called me at home.”

That was when something occurred to me. “Quickly,” I said to the commander, “what are the dimensions of this room?” I stood up straight.

Ms. Washburn started at my action, which made me wonder if I’d done so too fast. Commander Johnson barely reacted at all. He merely said, “Twenty feet by fourteen.” He did not have to consult any data source; he knew the dimensions “off the top of his head,” a common expression that suggests very strange images.

I’d realized that I hadn’t gotten my body into motion even once since lunch. I was behind on my day’s exercise. So I began to walk purposefully around the perimeter of the room, making sure to bend my knees properly and raise my arms over my head with every other step. Calculating mentally, I concluded that twenty-six laps around the room would equal the third of a mile I should be doing at this time of day.

While I walked, however, it was still necessary to continue the questioning of Commander Johnson. “So when Mr. Feliz called you about the missing remains, how did he say the loss was discovered?”

There was no answer, which forced me to look down, although it is always better to keep one’s neck straight while exercising. Ms. Washburn and the commander were watching me walk around the room with similar facial expressions, which I believe indicated they were surprised by my actions.

“It is my time for exercise,” I explained. Ms. Washburn immediately smiled and nodded, but Commander Johnson’s demeanor was unchanged. “So please, commander, if you would?”

“Oh! Yes. Well, when I arrived, Feliz told me he had run the routine sweep of the facility at zero hour and at oh-three-hundred, and had found nothing amiss. But when he returned to the storage chamber at oh-six-hundred, he found the door ajar and the power disconnected from one receptacle.”

Johnson watched me until I was behind him, shook his head a bit, and went on. “Thinking that someone had badly handled the one receptacle, and fearful that the guest inside might be damaged, Feliz reconnected the power cable immediately, and then called Dr. Lanier to check on the guest. He said she arrived very quickly, and upon examining the container, discovered it empty.”

“So it was Dr. Lanier who confirmed that nothing was in the disconnected receptacle?”

“Yes,” Commander Johnson nodded. “As the ranking medical expert on that shift, she would be the one to look into any unusual activity among the guests.”

I was on my eighth lap around the room. This was not going as quickly as exercising at my office, because the room was smaller and more fully furnished, and I had to dodge chairs whenever I passed Ms. Washburn or Commander Johnson. But another eighteen laps were necessary, and there was no avoiding them.

“Did you examine the chamber and determine how someone got in to do the damage?” I asked, breathing just a little heavily.

I couldn’t see Commander Johnson’s face at that moment, but his tone suggested he was insulted. “Of course!” he bellowed. “It was a serious security breach, and I am the chief of security.”

A moment passed before I realized that he was not going to elaborate further. I’d made up almost a third of a lap before I asked, “How did you determine the break-in was accomplished?”

“There was no evidence of a break-in,” the commander said, his voice once again taking on a conversational tone. “No scratches on the doors or the locks, the keypads, or the windows. Nothing.”

“And when you reviewed the video taken at the entrance to the chamber?”

“No one entered through that door between the time Feliz did his oh-three-hundred sweep and the time he returned at oh-six-hundred,” Commander Johnson replied.

“On the contrary,” I said. “Someone must have entered, or the damage would not have occurred. What you’re saying is that the video recorders did not register someone entering during that time period.”

“I suppose so,” he allowed.

I was on lap number thirteen, the halfway point, when I asked, “What about an analysis of the video surveillance from after the break-in?”

“Why would I look at the video from after the break-in?” Commander Johnson wanted to know.

Ms. Washburn answered for me. “Because that is when Dr. Springer came back to the storage chamber and someone killed her,” she said.

“That’s a matter for the police,” the commander sniffed. “They are no doubt looking at those time periods now.”

“Why didn’t you call the police when the head was discovered missing?” I asked. “Wouldn’t that be standard procedure?”

Commander Johnson nodded enthusiastically and pointed a finger at me, which was confusing. I hadn’t had anything to do with the decision not to inform the authorities. “That’s exactly what I told Dr. Ackerman we should do. But he was so worried about anybody finding out—and if it were in the police reports, the newspapers would know—that we never called the police. But I made sure my objection was on the record.”

Six laps to go. My arms were getting tired, and I felt a comfortable bead of sweat just under my hairline, which indicated the exercise was having its desired effect. I asked the commander what steps he had taken to secure the area after Ms. Masters-Powell’s remains had been discovered missing.

“I sealed the storage compartment myself,” he answered, and I believed his tone indicated a perceived insult. “There was video surveillance throughout, as you know. No one could have gotten in.”

“And yet,” I said, my breath coming just a little heavier now, “Dr. Springer entered not only the outer room, but the chamber itself, and so did someone else, who killed her. How is that possible?”

“I have no idea,” Commander Johnson said. He spoke through clenched teeth. I thought for a moment, with three laps left before I could sit again, and asked him the only question I thought he might be able to answer.

“Is there a vending machine with water bottles on the premises?”

His eyes widened for a moment, for reasons I could not discern, and then he shook his head. “But you can find water in the breakroom, one level up,” he said. He pointed to the ceiling, as if I had no idea where “up” might be.

Ms. Washburn cleared her throat, which I’ve learned is a signal that someone might want my attention, so I turned toward her. “I think Detective Lapides wants to talk to us,” she said and pointed at the door. Sure enough, the detective’s face was visible in the window.

Commander Johnson stood. “He’s already questioned me, so I assume he’s looking for one or both of you,” he said. He stood stock still, as if waiting to be dismissed.

I finished my last lap and sat. I wasn’t exhausted, but I had exerted myself. “Very well, commander,” I said. “Thank you for your time.”

Commander Johnson turned toward the door, but Ms. Washburn cleared her throat again. “Just one last thing, commander,” she said.

He turned back, looking confused. “Yes?”

Ms. Washburn pointed to her notebook. “For my records, sir. What is your first name?”

The commander, as he had so many times in the past few minutes, looked pained. “Alvin,” he said, and left.

eleven

Detective Lapides sauntered—I believe
that is the correct term—into the room with his hands in his jacket pockets. “So, Mr. Hoenig,” he began.

“Come with me,” I said and walked directly past the detective and into the hallway. Lapides looked somewhat surprised, something I’m accustomed to seeing, and followed me. I wasn’t sure, but I thought Ms. Washburn also joined us as we walked.

“Where are we going?” Lapides asked. “Have you found something?”

“Not yet,” I told him. “I’m still looking for it, but I have every confidence I’ll be there soon.”

“Where?” the detective wanted to know.

“The breakroom, one level up,” I answered. “I’m told there is cold water to drink there. Now, what were you about to say, detective?”

We reached the elevator, and I pushed the elevator call button with my knuckle. There was a silent moment, as I think the detective was catching his breath. He stared at me briefly.

“Well, first of all, Dr. Springer’s death is being investigated as a murder,” he said.

“Of course,” I nodded. What else could it be? “The bullet in the empty containment case would mean it could be almost nothing else.”

“Yeah.” Lapides seemed disappointed. “And I want you to know we have eliminated you and Ms. Washburn as suspects.”

Ms. Washburn bit her lower lip. I thought she might be trying to suppress a laugh.

“I wouldn’t think we were ever considered suspects,” I told the detective. “Clearly, we were not on the premises when the crime was committed.”

“Yeah,” he repeated, again with a slightly melancholy tone in his voice. I wondered what was making him sad. “But I’d like to ask a few questions about your discovery of the body.”

The elevator doors opened, and we moved inside. Ms. Washburn pushed the button for the next level up, for which I was grateful. So many fingers push elevator buttons that having to press one myself is an unpleasant task.

“Please feel free,” I told Lapides, since he had not yet asked a question.

“Here? In the elevator?”

“Why not? We know the same information in the elevator that we do outside, but if you’d prefer to wait …”

In that period of time, we had made it to the next level, and the doors opened. So we left the elevator anyway. But secretly, I had to admit the detective was starting to amuse me.

“What is your favorite Beatles song, detective?” I asked.

“ ‘Help!’ ” he said. “Why?”

Energetic. Articulate. Possibly sees himself as a victim. Aware of his own limitations.

“It’s a game I play.” Lapides probably identified with the need for assistance and took the song on its most literal level. “Please go on,” I urged him.

“Why were you going into the storage chamber before you knew Dr. Springer was inside on the floor?” Lapides asked as we walked down the hallway in search of the breakroom. It appeared to be an open area at the center of the level.

“We had been called in to answer a question about the disappearance of Ms. Masters-Powell’s remains,” I said. “I was about to examine the area in which her head had been preserved. But you knew that. You asked us that when you questioned us earlier.”

“Yeah.” This was getting to be a habit with him. “Did you smell anything in the chamber when you were in there?”

We reached the breakroom, which was simply an area that held a small table, three molded plastic chairs, a microwave oven, and small refrigerator. “Smell something? We were in protective suits with hoods, detective. It was not possible for us to smell anything.”

I opened the refrigerator. It contained a single apple, three cans of soda (all diet), and a brown paper bag marked
JS
. I looked at Ms. Washburn. “There are no water bottles,” I told her.

“No, but there is a water cooler in that corner.” She pointed. A half-full five-gallon bottle sat on top of the cooler, which was humming. “You can have a drink from that.”

“I won’t know for certain the amount I’m drinking,” I said. “I always have sixteen ounces of water at a time.”

“I guess you’ll have to estimate,” Ms. Washburn answered.

“I don’t like to estimate. It’s not exact.” I started to feel anxious, a clenching sensation in my stomach. I learned during childhood what that feeling meant, but even now, it wasn’t always possible to control it completely. I began by trying to play “Here Comes the Sun” in my head. But Lapides interrupted George Harrison’s lovely introduction, the acoustic guitar holding a capo on the seventh fret.

“Don’t worry about the water,” he said, reminding me of the matter that was causing my anxiety. “Think about the storage chamber. Was there any blood on the floor when you were in there?”

“Of
course
not,” I said a little too loudly (I could tell because Ms. Washburn’s eyes narrowed in concern). I walked with great purpose toward the water cooler and picked up one of the paper cups stacked next to it. “There is no indication of the capacity of this cup,” I told Ms. Washburn.

“It’s a four-ounce cup,” she said. “Drink four of them, and that will be sixteen ounces.”

The unease in my stomach was causing a slight sweat on the back of my neck. “How do you know it’s a four-ounce cup?” I asked.

“Will you stop worrying about the cup?” Lapides said. “Just drink some water until you’re not thirsty, and that’ll be enough.”

“No, it
won’t
!” I shouted, unable to contain myself any longer. I turned back toward Ms. Washburn. “How do you know this is a four-ounce cup?”

She walked around Lapides to look me in the face, because I was trying to avoid eye contact. “I know because that’s the same size and brand I use at home, and I use four-ounce cups.”

I heard myself breathe out, heavily. “You’re sure?” I asked her, and I watched her eyes. Her gaze was steady.

“Sure,” Ms. Washburn said.

My stomach stopped churning. I walked to the water cooler, took a cup and filled it. When I drank, I noticed the water was cold but had a slightly different flavor than the bottled water I get from the machine in my office. Still, it was a relief to drink that cup and the one I filled after it.

“Blood,” Lapides said, trying to remind me of something I had not forgotten. “On the floor. Of the chamber.”

“Just a moment,” I told him. “Two more cups.” I filled the third and emptied it as Lapides, seeming impatient, watched. After I’d completed the sixteen ounces of water I’d set out to drink, I turned to him.

“Dr. Springer had not been shot,” I said. “The empty containment vessel had been shot. There was no head inside, and even if there had been, there would have been no blood in it. Fluids are drained before the freezing process is initiated.”

“But liquid nitrogen had been released into the room,” the detective countered. “Wouldn’t the air have been freezing? Why wasn’t there more of a wound to her head when she hit the floor?”

Clearly, Detective Lapides was a person whose idea of science was formed by watching a good deal of television. “First of all, the liquid nitrogen released into the room would immediately have boiled, because it was no longer being kept at a temperature that could sustain it in a frozen state,” I said. “But even if the room had been that cold, a person’s head doesn’t simply shatter because it sustains an impact in cold weather. There was no blood on the floor because Dr. Springer’s head did not receive a severe blow; it was the lack of oxygen in the room that killed her.”

Lapides, who had been taking notes while I spoke, kept scribbling, but he managed to ask, “Did you notice anything unusual in the chamber?”

“Besides the woman’s body on the floor?” Ms. Washburn asked.

Lapides looked up sharply at her, and I decided I didn’t care much for the way the detective was interrogating us. He was doing his job, but not well. I wondered if his superiors would have sent him to the scene if it had been known from the outset that this was a case of homicide.

“I had never been in the chamber, or any other such area, before in my life,” I told him, deflecting his attention from Ms. Washburn. “So I have no basis of comparison to judge what is unusual and what is not.”

I believe Detective Lapides sighed. “You know what I mean,” he
said.

“I assumed you meant what you said. Was I in error?” I looked at Ms. Washburn for concurrence, but her hand was at her mouth—perhaps suppressing a smile—so it was difficult for me to determine whether I’d said something inappropriate. Sometimes I do take conversation more literally than it is intended, because many expressions do not really mean what they appear to mean. When was the last time, for example, that someone actually pulled your leg?

Now that I’d taken in sixteen ounces of water, it would not be terribly long before I would need to find a restroom, and I had not noticed where the facilities were in this building. It would be awkward to ask Ms. Washburn if she’d noticed, because she was a woman, and pointless to ask Lapides, since I did not believe he would have observed the area closely enough to know. I would have to ask a GSCI employee, and the prospect was not pleasant; I am not always comfortable asking strangers for information.

“Let me … rephrase my question,” Lapides said. “Did anything you saw in the storage chamber—with the exception of Dr. Springer’s body—seem worth noting? Is there anything you think that I should know?”

There were a great many things I believed Detective Lapides should know, but I knew enough about conversation after many hours of social skills training to realize that he meant something else by his question. “It seemed odd that Dr. Springer was in the room with Ms. Masters-Powell’s receptacle the only one out of place,” I said. “The administration of the facility and its security team already knew the remains were missing. Why would she be going in to examine an empty vessel?”

Lapides mumbled “empty vessel” as he scribbled, then asked, “What else did you see?”

I closed my eyes to better picture the room. “There were full-body receptacles at the far end of the chamber, and the partial remains—the crania—were kept nearer the door that could open, I presume to better accommodate any slight changes in temperature created by the inner door opening and closing as staff entered or left the room. The chamber had a relatively low ceiling, not terribly so, but certainly not high; I would estimate it at eight feet. The walls were painted a pale blue. The floor was a nondescript linoleum pattern, but not tiles; it was rolled out. The receptacle lay on the floor behind Dr. Springer, was clearly damaged, and had the patient’s initials engraved on it. The lighting was from the ceiling, and recessed. And there was still some nitrogen in the air when we entered.”

When I opened my eyes, I added, “And now you must excuse me.” I walked briskly into the hall to make an attempt at locating a bathroom without having to ask anyone for its location.

“Mr. Hoenig,” I heard Ms. Washburn say behind me, “there is a restroom just around this corner; I noticed it as we walked from the elevator.” Ms. Washburn was proving to be invaluable.


Wait
a second!” Lapides shouted at me as I reached the door. I turned. “I’m still questioning you.”

“And you may continue to do so when I come out, but I sincerely believe this takes precedence, detective.” I did not wait to hear his response.

Suffice it to say, it is not normally my first choice to use a public restroom. Such a situation, in which I am unable to rely on my mother’s impeccable cleanliness, is at best distasteful, and more often borders on horrifying. But there simply wasn’t time now to leave the building, drive to my mother’s house, use the bathroom, and then drive back to GSCI. Luckily, the facilities here seemed well cared for, no doubt because the institute required certain baseline standards of germ containment. Still, I spent no more time there than was necessary and was careful to wash my hands carefully before exiting.

I presume Lapides had taken it upon himself to ask Ms. Washburn about the chamber, because when I emerged from the bathroom four minutes after entering, she was saying, “The suit made it hard to see in great detail anything but what was right in front of me. I had very little peripheral vision.”

It was one thing when he was questioning me, but his hectoring Ms. Washburn again seemed unfair. “Come now, detective,” I said to Lapides. “You’ve asked us all this before, and you’ve gotten our answers. Tell me: What is it you
really
want to know?”

The detective looked either confused or insulted. “I’m conducting a murder investigation,” he said with a great sense of pomposity in his voice, enough that I could recognize the inflection. “I don’t have to explain my methods to
you
.”

It was true; he had no obligation to me at all—I am not a resident of his jurisdiction. Still, I felt it was important to press on. “I am not asking you to explain your methods, since they are quite obvious,” I said. “I am asking you to get to the point, as I also have questions to answer, and a much stricter deadline than yours. What is it you want to ask me?”

“I’m trying to gather any information you and Ms. Washburn might have from your time inside the storage chamber,” he reiterated. But his hairline was already dark with sweat.

“Detective,” I admonished. Ms. Washburn gave me a look that indicated she was appreciative but did not really see which direction I was taking.

“Oh, all right,” Lapides said, curling his lip.

I looked at him, all attention.

“Mr. Hoenig,” he began, “I’ve been a detective on the force here for six years, and a cop for fourteen.”

I didn’t see how this professional biography was relevant, but I let him talk without interruption.

“In all that time,” Lapides continued, “I’ve never worked on a homicide investigation before.”

“Never?” I asked.

“We have two murders here every
decade
,” the detective lamented. “And most of those are obvious—family members taking a knife to each other, that kind of thing. It’s never fallen on me before.”

“I don’t see how this has anything to do with us,” Ms. Washburn said. “Mr. Hoenig and I didn’t kill anyone.”

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