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 (7 page)

“I don’t think you did,” Lapides answered. “But I do have a question for you.” He turned to face me directly, and I fought the urge to look away.

“Yes?” I asked, my voice sounding steadier than my eyes felt.

“What do you think I should do next?” Lapides asked.

twelve

Ms. Washburn insisted on
our leaving the building before I could answer Lapides’s question. She argued that it was possible the entire facility was wired for surveillance—which Ackerman had indicated was the case—and that our conversation could not be confidential if we remained inside.

She also mentioned that she wanted to make a cellular phone call to her husband, and that she was unable to receive a proper signal inside GSCI. In what I thought was a friendly gesture, I did not mention that any electronic surveillance inside the facility was probably being done on the outside grounds as well.

I believed that any conversation I could have with Lapides would be uninteresting to anyone listening in, anyway.

Ms. Washburn stood to one side, talking to her husband. I did not attempt to hear her side of the conversation, as it was not relevant to my business, but I was surprised at how quickly I had started to think of her as an associate in Questions Answered. I realized we had agreed that she would work with me only for this day, but perhaps it would make sense to make the arrangement indefinite. I would talk to her about that later, assuming I could consult with my mother at some point. Mother is very good at noticing when I am acting impulsively or misjudging the intentions of another person I have met.

Lapides, his shoes sinking slightly into the mud in this desolate field behind the facility, looked at me for some time before I met his eye and saw his expression was an expectant one. He was waiting for an answer to his question.

“You realize that my business is answering questions for other people,” I began.

Lapides started to reach into his inside jacket pocket. “How much do you charge?”

I held my hands up, palms out. “I was saying that only because I want to emphasize that I am not a criminal investigator,” I said. “I am not trying to charge you for the question you asked.”

“You notice things,” Lapides answered. “You seem to understand things. If there’s something you’ve seen that can help me figure out what to do, I need to know about it.”

I did not take the opportunity to explain about Asperger’s Syndrome, nor to suggest that my knowledge of human behavior was academic, not instinctive. I made sure to look the detective in the eye and told him, “Very well, then; I will tell you what I think you should do, but I do not guarantee success.”

A few moments went by as I awaited a response, but I got none, other than Lapides taking a reporter’s notebook out of his back pocket and digging a pen out of his jacket to take notes.

“First, find out how many storage chambers like the one we saw are on the premises. I counted three, but I have not seen the entire facility. Then, call in a security expert other than Commander Johnson or anyone on the GSCI payroll, and have that person check the wiring on all the video and audio surveillance used on the level where the murder took place. Find out from employee records if Dr. Springer was married or had family nearby, if you haven’t done so already.”

“She was divorced, no children,” Lapides said. “The ex-husband lives in Missouri, and is there now. He’s not a suspect at the moment.”

“Good,” I continued. Lapides looked pleased with himself, like a pupil who has unexpectedly given the teacher a correct answer on a difficult arithmetic equation. “Concentrate on interpersonal relationships among the employees here. Were there any romances going on? Is there some jealousy that might have been a motive? Or is this strictly tied to the disappearance of Ms. Masters-Powell’s remains? Talk to Commander Johnson’s wife. It’s a coincidence that she was present today, and any coincidence, especially when her husband was called in early to deal with an extraordinary situation, is suspect.”

Lapides was rapidly scribbling down as much as he could remember. “Am I talking too fast?” I asked him. He shook his head violently as he scribbled more.

“Then I would look into the possibility that Ms. Masters-Powell’s family might be upset with the kind of service her remains have been given here, and therefore might have taken out their aggression on Dr. Springer,” I continued. “Summon her family here and question them separately, so they can’t coordinate their responses.”

“Wouldn’t they be able to do that on the way over here?” Lapides asked without looking up from his pad.

“You’re assuming they all live together and will come here in one vehicle,” I answered. It was becoming difficult to imagine how Lapides had been promoted to detective to begin with. “I doubt that is the case.”

Lapides stopped scribbling long enough to reach into his jacket pocket and pull out a pack of cigarettes. I felt my eyes widen.

“Please don’t smoke,” I said. “I won’t be able to think of anything except your lungs filling up with tar.”

The cigarette packet disappeared into Lapides’s coat. He stared at me. “What’s
wrong
with you?” he said.

“Nothing is wrong with me,” I responded. “I have what you would call a disorder, but I consider it merely a facet of my personality.”

I wasn’t sure Lapides would ever close his half-open mouth. “Uh-huh,” he said.

But there wasn’t time to respond before I heard Ms. Washburn raise her voice into her cell phone. “There’s no reason to yell at me!” she said, and both Lapides and I turned our heads in her direction. “I’ll call you when I can!” She closed the phone and was putting it back into her purse when she realized we were looking in her direction.

Ms. Washburn walked to where the detective and I were standing. I could not read her expression, but given the context (as I have been taught to do), I believe she looked a bit embarrassed. “My husband is a little excitable,” she said.

“I guess,” Lapides said. He turned to face me again. “What else do you recommend, Mr. Hoenig?”

“That’s all for now,” I answered. “If you feel you’ve run into trouble again, let me know and I will do what I can.”

“What are you going to be doing?” the detective asked.

“I have to answer the question about the missing remains,” I told him. “I will be here questioning witnesses, as you will, but about the other issue.”

Lapides nodded with an air of resolution and began walking back toward the building. When I did not make a move to follow him, Ms. Washburn put a hand on her hip and studied my face.

“Why aren’t we heading back?” she asked.

“Why is your husband concerned about your working with me?” I countered.

“How …”

I think I grinned at her. Sometimes I can be immodest. It comes from people having lowered their expectations of me because of my Asperger’s Syndrome. “During your conversation with your husband, you glanced in my direction nine times. Each time, your expression was either anxious or angry, in my judgment. I hadn’t given you any reason to be angry with me, so I determined you were angry with your husband, and it had something to do with me. And since I have never met your husband, it’s logical to conclude that he was concerned about your working with me. Just because I don’t always make eye contact, Ms. Washburn, does not mean I’m not observing.”

She studied me for a moment, and said, “I was going to ask, rhetorically, how my husband could have the nerve to suggest I shouldn’t take any kind of work I see fit. I was making those faces at you during the conversation because I thought you’d understand that I was annoyed with him.”

As I said, there is a danger in making assumptions about human behavior. “How did you resolve the matter with your husband?” I asked.

Ms. Washburn started back in the direction of the GSCI facility. “Let’s go question some witnesses,” she said.

thirteen

“I am not a
blogger,” Cha
rlotte Selby said. “I am a
citizen journalist
.”

Charlotte, a woman in her early forties, I’d judge, and just barely taller than five feet, sat across the table from Ms. Washburn and me in the conference room at GSCI. She had dark brown hair and a face that was almost diamond-shaped, with a pointed chin and a narrow forehead. Given the usual stereotype, one might have expected to find a younger person in the role of blogger on “technological and spiritual issues,” as Charlotte called her topics, but again, it is always a mistake to assume something without having facts to back up the theory. Charlotte was, certainly, not the usual blogger. Or citizen journalist.

Some people with Asperger’s Syndrome call themselves Aspies. I don’t. The words one uses to identify oneself is a personal choice.

“As a citizen journalist,” I responded, giving her the courtesy she had requested, “what was your purpose in being here this morning?”

“I work for Eyeintheskyonline,” she said, jamming all the words together the way they would appear on a Uniform Resource Locator (URL), or web address. “We cover all news, with a particular interest in life preservation and the afterlife.”

It would have been counterproductive to voice any skepticism, so I pressed on. “And you considered Garden State Cryonics Institute a story?” I asked. “The facility has been here for seven years.”

“I heard about the missing head,” Charlotte said plainly. “I was here waiting for an interview with Ackerman, but he was out.”

“Yes,” Ms. Washburn said. “He was out getting Mr. Hoenig to look for the remains.”

“You’re not with the police?” Charlotte asked me. I indicated that I was not, and she immediately reached into her purse and pulled out the same kind of reporter’s notebook that Lapides had used during our interview. “So tell me: What have you found out about this missing head and the dead scientist?”

I stopped for a moment, gave the matter some thought, and replied, “I think I prefer not to be a resource for your journalism.”

“You want to be off the record?” Charlotte asked.

That was very clever; most people would have accepted the term as meaning what I had said. But I was familiar with the ethics of journalism, citizen or otherwise, having studied the topic as a student and recently for a question a client had asked about what he considered the “outmoded” concept of print reporting.

I shook my head. “No, I prefer not to supply you with any information, either for publication or for background,” I said. “Please tell me—”

“I don’t think so,” Charlotte said. She put down her pen and folded her arms.

That was odd. “I’m sorry?” I asked.

Ms. Washburn, who had been watching quietly and tending to the small recorder I was using to tape the interviews, looked at me and said, “I think Ms. Selby is saying she won’t cooperate if you won’t allow her to write about it, Samuel.”

“Damn right,” Charlotte agreed.

That position did not make any sense. I needed the information Charlotte had to complete my answer of Ackerman’s question. Why would I share all my research with her?

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“What’s to understand?” Charlotte asked. “You want something, I want something. If we both cooperate, we both get what we want.”

The way she had explained it, the theory seemed to make sense. But I was sure it did not. I am not terribly skilled in quick conversation, however, as I tend to think through each word the other person has said. So I was pleased that Ms. Washburn jumped into the fray.

“Let’s look at it this way,” she began. “If you give us any information that helps Samuel answer the question at hand, he will give you an interview that you can use on the record.”

“But—” Charlotte tried to interrupt her, but Ms. Washburn was already continuing.

“The interview will take place only after the question is answered, and will last no longer than twenty minutes. Samuel’s representative will have the right to examine any quotes you intend to publish before you do, and to veto any section Samuel believes is inaccurate or does not represent his intention when he was speaking. Is it a deal?”

Charlotte appeared to be either stumped or irritated. “That is not acceptable,” she attempted. “I will not allow for an interview subject to see the material before publication. I have journalistic ethics to consider.”

“And if Samuel does not talk to you, you’ll have only your own ethics to consider,” Ms. Washburn countered. “Samuel is very careful about his image. Because of certain aspects of his personality, he is inclined to respond in unusual ways. If he does not understand your tone of voice or an idiom you happen to use, he might answer you with a response that would not represent the answer he would give if he understood the context. So those are the conditions. Take it or leave it, Charlotte; that’s all you’re going to get.”

Charlotte’s eyes narrowed. I didn’t have to read her expression to understand her thought process: She could refuse to cooperate, but she would come away with nothing for her trouble. She could try to negotiate, but Ms. Washburn was clearly not giving up much of my time or expertise. So she pursed her lips, emitted a sigh, and nodded.

“All right, but I get to watch him conduct the other interviews for my reportage.”

Ms. Washburn smiled. “Not a chance.”

“Oh, fine. You can’t blame a girl for trying. God, I need a cigarette.” The institute was a complete nonsmoking facility; she would have to wait.

Now that the ground rules had been established, I could continue with the questioning and assume Charlotte would be more forthcoming wit
h her answers. I made a mental note—hardly my first of the day—to thank Ms. Washburn for her efforts on my behalf.

“Very well,” I began. “How did you find out about the missing remains of Ms. Masters-Powell?”

“I have sources in the facility and no, I’m not going to tell you who they are,” Charlotte said. Perhaps her answers would not be more forthcoming after all. “I got a call this morning that there was a head missing, so I hopped in the car.”

“Was this the first time you’ve been to the facility?” I asked.

Charlotte waved a hand. “Hardly. Check the visitor records. I’ve been here five, six times in the last year. I find the process fascinating, and my readers like to know about any possibility that death might be reversible.”

Reversible death.
The phrase itself seemed oxymoronic, and yet, this entire facility and a number like it were counting on exactly that becoming possible. “Have you posted about the institute before?”

She nodded. “Twice. Once just a general feature that it existed, and then about two months ago, I ran a lengthy interview with Marshall—Dr. Ackerman—and a couple of the family members of people who were being stored here. I think Rita Masters-Powell’s brother, Arthur, might have been one of those.”

“Do you have a laptop with you?” I asked. “I’d like to see those postings.”

“I have one, of course,” she said, pulling a Dell laptop from the bag she had stored under the table. “But I can’t access the Internet. This building’s Wi-Fi network requires a password, and I don’t have one.”

“Perhaps we can get a look at your posts on one of the institute’s computers later,” I said. “Now tell me, once you arrived here this morning to cover the story, what did you discover, and to whom did you talk?”

Charlotte made a face that indicated she was thinking, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed Ms. Washburn raise an eyebrow.

“Well, like I said,” Charlotte began, “Marshall—Dr. Ackerman—was out when I got here. So I talked to Commander Johnson and his wife for a few minutes, after I got past Lorraine, the receptionist.”

“And what did the commander and his wife tell you?”

“Amelia didn’t know anything,” Charlotte answered, with a tone that I believe indicated she had no high regard for Commander Johnson’s wife. “But the commander was very upset because he said he was being bypassed on the most important security problem that had arisen since he has worked here.” She consulted a page on the reporter’s notebook. “Yes. Here. ‘He didn’t even ask for my advice. He won’t even let me down there.’ You see he was quite upset.”

“Marshall Ackerman wouldn’t allow his head of security into the area where valuable human remains had vanished?” I asked. Commander Johnson had not mentioned that when I’d questioned him. Why wouldn’t the head of the facility let his handpicked security officer investigate? Why come to me first?

“That’s what Johnson said,” Charlotte answered. “I asked him why that was, and he sort of grunted at me and left the room.”

“Do you know how Ackerman met the commander?” I asked. “I understand he’s been working here only five months.”

Charlotte nodded. “After he fired Miles Monroe, Marshall wanted a military man to head the facility’s security team. But most of the good ones are either still in the military or priced too high for the institute, so he ran an ad in one of the enthusiast magazines, and he found the commander.”

Marshall Ackerman had said his previous security chief had “left to pursue other interests.” “Ackerman dismissed Mr. Monroe?” I asked.

Charlotte looked at me with an expression I recognized—she clearly thought I was not as competent as I should be. “Yeah. There were allegations employees were mistreating some of the ‘guests,’ and Marshall wanted that stopped. So he got rid of Monroe and brought in Johnson.”

“What do you mean, ‘mistreating the guests’?” Ms. Washburn asked. It was an excellent question, one I had been planning to ask.

“Some employees—two of them, both fired now—were accused of … using one of the heads in a game of office basketball,” Charlotte said. She did not look me in the eye when she said it; she seemed instead to be profoundly interested in the American flag on a pole in the corner of the room.

Ms. Washburn, however, looked directly at Charlotte, and she whitened. She began to say something, stopped, and shook her head. It was obvious to me that Ms. Washburn was appalled by what she’d heard, but it was not an isolated tale. There had been allegations of similar atrocities at the facility where the Red Sox slugger Ted Williams’s cranium was being stored, although they were never substantiated. Someone at GSCI might have gotten the idea for a grotesque prank from those stories.

“Do you know the names of the dismissed employees?” I asked. “Could one or both of them be responsible for the theft of Ms. Masters-Powell’s remains?”

Charlotte began rummaging around in her purse. “I don’t think so,” she answered, “because one of them moved to Nevada and the other was dumber than a post. Ernie Deshales wouldn’t have been able to mastermind shoplifting a Snickers bar from a 7-Eleven.” She pulled a snip of paper from the purse. “Here ya go. These are the two guys who got canned for the vandalism. Deshales and Randy Morton.” She gave the paper to Ms. Washburn, who, having recovered from her shock, copied down the information on it and handed it back to Charlotte.

“Do we have contact information for both?” I asked Ms. Washburn, and she nodded. “Good. Now Charlotte, it sounds like this facility has been under clouds of suspicion for some time. Why did you not report on these allegations on your blog?”

“I didn’t see the point,” Charlotte answered, with a tone I recognized as impatience, probably with my perceived stupidity or naïveté. “I knew the rumors were false. Nobody did any damage to the people being stored here.”

“How did you know that?” Ms. Washburn asked.

“Marshall told me,” Charlotte said, her tone indicating that Ms. Washburn was no more intelligent than she thought I was, and that it was a sad state of affairs.

“Of course,” I said. “Are you having an affair with Marshall Ackerman?”

Charlotte’s head receded; she reacted as if struck. “I beg your pardon?”

“Are you and Marshall Ackerman lovers?” I asked. Perhaps my wording had been imprecise the first time I’d asked. I had no idea if either Ackerman or Charlotte was married, so the word
affair
could have been used out of its proper context.

“I will not dignify that disgusting question with an answer,” Charlotte said, indicating that the truthful response would have been yes.

“As a citizen journalist, is it not your responsibility to your readers to double-check every fact and get more than one source on everything you report?” I was attempting to appeal to Charlotte’s sense of professional ethics.

Unfortunately, she did not appear to have such a sense. “It is only my responsibility to get the information right,” she answered. “In this case, the word of a respected industry leader like Marshall Ackerman was enough to put the entire silly rumor to rest.” Her voice was so matter-of-fact, it almost obscured the truth, which was that what she was saying made no sense.

“I see. Well, thank you for your help on this matter, Charlotte.”

But the blogger simply sat there staring at me for a long moment. So, in a signal that the interview was concluded, I used a tactic that I’d been taught in Dr. Mancuso’s social skills training sessions. I stood up and extended my hand. “Thank you,” I said again.

“That’s it?” Charlotte asked, seeming incredulous.

“Have I missed something I should have asked?”

“Don’t you want to know who I think stole the head?” she said.

If it was just Charlotte’s opinion she was offering, I must confess to being less than breathless in my eagerness for its revelation. But if it would help get Charlotte to leave the room more quickly, I would have to accept the offer and move on.

“Of course,” I said. “How silly of me. Who do you think is behind the theft?”

“Rita’s brother, Arthur. The little weasel hated his sister and would never want to see her come back from the dead.”

There was silence in the room for some time after that. Eventually, I looked to Ms. Washburn and said, “We should make sure that Arthur Masters comes here for questioning immediately. Thank you for your help, Charlotte.”

She looked quite pleased with herself as she stood up and gathered her belongings. “Don’t forget, we have a deal on an exclusive interview.”

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