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 (8 page)

“Charlotte,” I said, “what is your favorite Beatles song?” I didn’t really care about the answer, but the question was worth asking.

“Is this part of your investigative process?” Charlotte asked.

“It is.”

She barely took time to think. “ ‘You Know My Name, Look Up the Number,’ ” she answered. “That thing cracks me up every time.”

Complete and utter lunatic.

“Once again, thank you.” I watched as she walked out through the conference room door.

“What does that song mean?” Ms. Washburn asked.

“That she is a very strange woman,” I told her.

“News flash.”

fourteen

“The clock is ticking,”
Marshall Ackerman said. “We’re not sure how many more hours we have before it will be impossible to properly preserve Ms. Masters-Powell.”

“Based on the information you gave me, we have exactly five hours and thirty-seven minutes,” I corrected him. Ackerman had summoned Ms. Washburn and me back to his office only seconds after the interview with Charlotte had ended. “If you do not receive a ransom demand or some such communication from the people involved indicating the remains are being properly cared for, we will have a very poor chance of finding them intact after that. So I believe we are wasting precious time rehashing these facts. Is there new information relevant to the question that you can tell me?”

Ackerman looked oddly surprised. Later, I realized he probably wasn’t accustomed to being spoken to quite like that, but at the time I felt I was merely stating facts. People’s emotions are tricky things, and sometimes I forget that.

Ms. Washburn, standing to my side, told Ackerman, “Mr. Hoenig is concerned about the urgency of the situation and is doing everything he can to answer your question while there is still time to bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion.”

“He doesn’t need an interpreter,” Ackerman said with a growl in his voice. “He’s told me off quite effectively.” He turned his attention to me. “Yes, Mr. Hoenig, as a matter of fact I
do
have some information for you. Arthur Masters is on his way here, along with Ms. Masters-Powell’s mother, Laverne. And I thought I had asked you not to contact them if at all possible.”

“I didn’t contact them,” I told him. “I assume Detective Lapides did so.”

Ackerman nodded. “Yes he did, and when I asked him about it, he told me you had suggested it might be a good idea. Why would you do that when I asked you not to?”

“You asked me not to contact them about the disappearance of Ms. Masters-Powell’s remains,” I reminded him. “I have not. Detective Lapides is investigating the murder of Dr. Springer. That is a completely separate affair.”

Ackerman gasped, not in surprise, but almost as if he were fighting for breath. He made some noises that did not resemble speech, and the veins in his neck became visible. I looked to Ms. Washburn for some explanation, but she had turned away and had her hand to her mouth. She appeared to be suppressing a laugh.

“Just … just … just try to be discreet about this matter,” Ackerman finally pushed out of his mouth. “My business, this institute, relies on patrons like Rita Masters-Powell for its very survival. A challenge to her endowment for us could be crippling.”

That should have immediately reminded me never to take any piece of a question for granted. I felt my hand go to my chin and stroke it, which I’ve been told means I am thinking more deeply than usual.

If it was Ms. Masters-Powell’s endowment that was paying for the preservation of her remains, that meant her family either was not paying the monthly (or annual) bill issued by GSCI, or had provided
the endowment for her before her death. So Ackerman’s concern about Lapides contacting her family probably would not be motivated by a fear that his stipend would end if they were dissatisfied with the service for which they were paying; it would be because he was afraid they’d challenge her posthumous desire to have it paid. He was worried,
in other words, that he would be sued.

In moments like this, I especially missed having my mother nearby, since she understood human behavior and things like anger much more completely than I do. I get “agitated,” Mother says, when something is not logical, or when people act in an irrational way that keeps me from completing a goal. I know I should react differently, and had been working with Dr. Mancuso to find better outlets for the feelings of frustration and irritation. Some very interesting techniques had been suggested and attempted, but so far, my success had been somewhat limited.

The best analogy would be the kind of emotion that Paul O’Neill had exhibited during his days playing for the New York Yankees. Even watching on television with the sound turned off, I understood his frustration with making an out in a crucial situation, but knocking over a water cooler or throwing a batting helmet would not help to alleviate—

“Samuel,” I heard Ms. Washburn say just to my right, “Dr. Ackerman asked you a question.”

I turned my attention toward Ackerman, who had reddened considerably in the face since he last spoke. I wondered if he had expressed some anger toward me. “Excuse me, Dr. Ackerman,” I said, as I have learned to do in such situations. “What was the question?”

His eyes widened and seemed to bulge from their sockets, although I’m certain that did not literally happen. “What do you plan to …
do
about this?” he asked.

“Do about what?” I honestly had no idea what reference he was attempting to make.

Ackerman began to gasp for breath again, so Ms. Washburn spoke before he could. “About the impending arrival of the Masters family,” she said.

“They’ll be here in less than ten minutes,” Ackerman added, his head trembling slightly.

“Excellent,” I told him.


Excellent
?

“Certainly. That will allow me to question Commander Johnson’s wife while Detective Lapides is talking to Mrs. Masters and her son. And when he has concluded his questioning, I will be able to talk to them about the missing cranium.”

Ackerman opened a drawer in his desk—the middle one on the left side—and pulled out a plain brown paper bag. He was still breathing into it when Ms. Washburn and I left his office.

fifteen

Amelia Johnson had an
expression that my mother would say “looks like she’s sucking lemons.” Her lips were pinched tightly into an oval shape and her hair, severely pulled back off her face, was beginning to go gray. If I were reading her face correctly, Amelia had not been pleased by anything for years, if ever.

“My husband has been treated abominably,” she said, although I had not yet asked a question. “He is the chief of security for this organization. Yet when a situation arises, he is supplanted by an inexperienced
civilian
”—at this point she gave me an especially displeased look—“and will probably be blamed for everything that has gone on here, when it was all beyond his control.”

“I have not heard anyone blame your husband for either of the incidents that have occurred here today,” I told her honestly, although I had implied that he was responsible because as head of security, he should have prevented them from occurring. The fact that his wife was aware of the issues was probably a breach of contract, and could have been grounds for dismissal, but I have observed that marriage seems to have different boundaries than other types of relationships. It was, therefore, logical to assume she would have other types of information to convey. “Have there been problems with such things in the past?”

Amelia closed her eyes briefly, as if absorbing a hard blow. “How dare you suggest such a thing?” she asked. Her voice was harsh, it seemed to me, and there was an air of suspicion in her manner.

We had verified that one of the disgraced security officers from GSCI, Randy Morton, had relocated in Reno, Nevada, and was not on the East Coast when the incidents occurred. Ernest Deshales, the other, was in the Ocean County jail and had been for six months, having been convicted of armed robbery; so, strangely, he was cleared of any wrongdoing at the institute as well.

Amelia had insisted on being interviewed in her husband’s office. It was a dark, wood-paneled room, considerably smaller than Ackerman’s, with no photos on the wall to remind the commander of past triumphs, nor citations for past valor. It had no window, being below the street level. It was, in essence, a large closet.

Some interrogators who work for government agencies would have frowned on my allowing the interview to take place here, feeling the subject might be too comfortable in familiar surroundings. But I was not interested in intimidating Amelia Johnson, and she did not seem the least bit comfortable.

“I have suggested nothing,” I answered her. “I was asking if there is a reason you would suspect others in the institute of placing unwarranted blame on your husband, and you have given me no examples of past incidents that would suggest this is an established pattern.”

“Alvin has been the head of security here for only twenty-one weeks,” Amelia said without changing her facial expression from the previous level of disapproval and acrimony. “During that time, there have been suggestions that he has run a lax operation and that access to the secure areas of the building has been far too open. Neither of those things is the case.”

“Who made those suggestions?” Ms. Washburn asked. “Was it Dr. Ackerman?”

“Marshall Ackerman is a pompous windbag and a liar,” Amelia said in response. “But he is too easily swayed by those who work under him. He agrees with the last person who spoke with him, every time.”

“Who was the last person to speak to him about your husband?” I asked.

“Rebecca Springer,” Amelia answered. She looked me directly in the eye, with an edge of defiance.

I chose not to react. I would have chosen to react if I had thought it would further the investigation, but it probably would not, and simply would have inflamed Amelia’s passion, whatever it might be. “So you believe that Dr. Springer had some reason to deride your husband’s performance to Dr. Ackerman?” I asked.

“I think she was in love with my husband and angry that he spurned her,” Amelia said.

Ms. Washburn’s eyes blinked three times.

“Are you suggesting that Dr. Springer approached your husband about having an affair and he rebuffed her?” I said, simply to be sure I understood correctly.

“I’m not suggesting it; I’m saying it,” came the reply.

“You realize that if what you’re saying
is
the case, it gives both you and your husband a very strong motive to want Dr. Springer dead,” I said.

“Maybe, but I didn’t kill her, and neither did Alvin.”

“I’ll accept for now that you’re telling me the truth,” I answered. “But assuming you did not kill Dr. Springer, how do you know your husband didn’t?”

Amelia raised an eyebrow. “He told me,” she said, as if that settled it. The women I had interviewed about this question were either unrealistically trusting, or lying.

“You asked your husband if he killed Dr. Springer, and he denied it?”

“Of course,” she said, waving a hand. “He wouldn’t have done something like that. This is just a plot to make him look bad.”

Some people are conspiracy theorists. They believe that no crime is as simple as it might appear. Others are paranoid personalities who think there is a threat to them personally in almost everyone they meet. What appeared to be the case in Amelia Johnson was a combination of the two: a woman who believed that everyone was interested in hurting herself or her husband, and that no matter how simple an explanation was available—like the idea that her husband was merely an incompetent security officer—there had to be a more complex solution.

“Well, I’m not trying to answer the question of who killed Dr. Springer,” I told Amelia. “I’m trying to answer Dr. Ackerman’s question. So do you know what happened to the missing head?” I was no longer asking Amelia questions and expecting helpful answers. I was now asking questions simply to observe her reactions and see how her thought process operated.

“If you like,” she said, “I’ll show you.”

_____

The storage chamber was empty when we arrived, having taken some time to get security clearance, first from Commander Johnson and then from Ackerman when the commander decided that he would recuse himself from security decisions involving his wife. Both men had offered to join us in this “demonstration,” as Amelia Johnson insisted on calling it, but I had declined their offers, believing that the fewer people in the room, the easier it would be to concentrate on the matter at hand. I am not fond of being in crowded spaces, and too many voices speaking at the same time can have an adverse effect both on my ability to focus and my nerves.

“This is not the same chamber in which Ms. Masters-Powell’s remains were being stored,” I mentioned. We had gone through a door marked C, not D, and the police tape marking the quarantine was not present here.

“No, but it is identical,” Amelia answered. “Alvin told me that all the storage chambers are exactly the same, and the security equipment used in each matches as well.”

Ms. Washburn, remaining somewhat apart from Amelia and myself, seemed nervous in this room. This was understandable, given the events that occurred the last time she and I were in such a facility. She was taking notes, however, clearly making an effort not to let her emotional state interfere with her work.

Amelia walked to the door to the inner chamber, picked one of the protective suits off the hook, and threw it toward me. Startled, I let it fall to the floor. “Come on,” Amelia said. “We’re going in.”

As squeamish as I had been the last time I’d had to wear a suit that many had worn before, this time my distaste was compounded by having to pick the clothing up off the floor. I knew the floor must be extremely well scrubbed on a regular basis, but that did not help very much. I hesitated as I bent to retrieve it.

“Would you like a different one?” Ms. Washburn asked quietly so Amelia wouldn’t hear.

I shook my head. “But thank you,” I told her.

It took one minute and twenty seconds for Amelia and me to don the suits. It was agreed that Ms. Washburn would wait outside in the antechamber, since three people would make movement inside difficult. We knew the commander and possibly Ackerman were probably watching on security monitors somewhere else in the building.

Of course, it was considerably easier to open the inner door this time, with no corpse blocking the way on the floor. Amelia entered first, ostensibly leading the way to what she considered enlightenment, and I closed the inner door behind me once I was inside.

“How do you know what happened?” I said through the protective mask. I was aware of some communications link that existed in the suits; I was able to hear Amelia’s voice, but it sounded amplified and nondirectional. This had been the case with sound the last time we’d entered the storage chamber as well.

“My husband is the head of security,” Amelia said. “I know all there is to know about the facility and the way it’s watched. There is only one way to remove a specimen without setting off loud, very effective alarms.”

“So you are speculating,” I answered. “You don’t really have any first-hand knowledge of the crime.”

“Believe me, this is more than a guess,” Amelia said. “Any other theory can be proven impossible. I’m sure this one can’t.”

That statement did not increase my confidence in Amelia’s reliability or her husband’s ability to maintain security, but there was no harm in seeing what she thought was the
only
solution possible. Just because it came from an unreliable source did not make the idea itself incorrect.

She walked to the second-farthest chamber from the door. “This is the same location as Rita Masters-Powell’s, yes? You’ll notice the surveillance cameras there and there.” She pointed to two locations on the ceiling, where indeed high-definition video cameras were mounted.

Amelia turned her back slightly to me, making it impossible to see her face or her hands. “Look at the cameras now,” she continued. “Can they see what I’m doing?”

“Their view would be somewhat obscured, but you are hardly invisible,” I told her. “If you are suggesting that the surveillance material showed no break-in simply because the intruder’s back was turned—”

“I am not suggesting that at all,” Amelia cut me off. “But I am suggesting that anyone entering the chamber with the intruder would not necessarily be able to see what was happening very well.”

I acknowledged that with a nod. “Proceed,” I said.

“Let’s say there wasn’t one intruder, but two,” she went on. “Perhaps there was a routine check to be made on the specimen, or they had reason to think something was wrong. They would have entered in this order, the way we did, with the person who was planning to steal the specimen coming in first.”

“So we are assuming that both people in the chamber were not involved in the theft?” I asked.

“I think that’s unlikely,” Amelia answered. “If more than one person working at the institute had been involved, there would have been gossip by now. There would have been rumors. There’s been nothing.”

“Why couldn’t it have been one person, then?” Ms. Washburn’s voice came through the speakers in the suit’s headpiece. I glanced through the glass and saw her speaking into a microphone, her finger on a button on the control panel.

“I’ll show you,” Amelia answered. I thought her voice sounded annoyed, and that seemed odd. Ms. Washburn had not asked an inappropriate question; in fact, it was exactly what I was going to ask.

Amelia reached toward the container in front of her. “One person reaching in and breaking the infrared seal around the container would set off the alarm, assuming the container had not been cleared ahead of time by security. But if two people were here, one could break the seal while the other neutralized it.”

“How is that possible?” I asked before Ms. Washburn could break in. Perhaps it was the fact that another woman was questioning her that made Amelia angry.

“Look.” Amelia carefully pointed with a gloved hand at very small openings in the walls surrounding the container. “These are infrared signal sources.”

I nodded. “Yes, I saw them before. They will register any movement around the container. I assume they have to be turned off before any routine maintenance is done.”

“That’s right,” she agreed. “But the security log will show that the infrareds are usually disarmed from the outside chamber. If someone wanted to do something
without
it showing up on that log, they’d have to disable the sensors from in here.”

It occurred to me that this was only one of numerous obstacles in removing the head from the chamber without being detected, but it was worth knowing how it could be done. I nodded toward Amelia. “How?”

“It’s possible to blind the sensors without tripping them,” she answered. “You can use spray bottles to identify them, and then mist enough to convince the sensors there is no movement when you’re moving the container.”

“Why would I want to disable the sensors?” I asked. “I am not under suspicion for the theft.”

Amelia stood looking at me for a long moment. I couldn’t see her face, so it was impossible to read an expression. “I meant
a person
could do it. Not you.”

“I see. But wouldn’t even bringing a metal can of aerosol spray into the chamber violate numerous security regulations and set off alarms?”

She nodded. “But a small plastic spray container probably wouldn’t be detected,” she said. She held up just such a bottle, which appeared half filled. “Like this one.”

Before I could even contemplate what she might do, Amelia sprayed mist, which I assumed was water, into the path of the infrared sensors. I gasped, hopefully not audibly, fearing that her theory was incorrect and the alarm would sound. But thankfully that did not happen.

“One person would have to keep the mist flowing at just the right level, not so heavy that the sensors would notice movement from the water bottle. They couldn’t stop until the cylinder was removed from the chamber and there was no more movement.”

“Wouldn’t the security system notice the absence of the cylinder once the mist was discontinued?” I asked.

“Certainly,” Amelia said. “I figure they brought another one, weighted properly, to replace the original one.” She demonstrated by miming such a move without actually putting her hands in the range of the storage assembly.

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