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 (9 page)

Amelia was making enormous assumptions about a crime of which she claimed to have no knowledge aside from a secondhand analysis of the facility’s security measures. “That doesn’t explain a great many things,” I told her. “You don’t have a way for these people to have gotten into the chamber with a second cylinder. You don’t have a motivation for the second person, the backup, to help with the crime, since you believe that person was innocent. There are numerous security procedures being breached that you have not acknowledged. This sounds a little suspicious to me, Mrs. Johnson.”

She turned her head, but kept her hands out of my sight. “What do you mean by that, Mr. Hoenig?” she asked.

“Frankly, it sounds to me like you’re trying to cover up for your husband, yourself, or both.”

Amelia Johnson laughed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “I’m trying to help you.”

“You’re trying to lead me,” I countered. “That’s different. You want me to believe your theory, and you’re kind enough to provide just enough plausible detail to pique my interest. But the fact is, this little performance is all about trying to get me to think the way you want me to think, and not the way the facts in this situation would otherwise point me. I think you know a great deal more about this incident than you are allowing, Mrs. Johnson.”

“Oh, seriously.” Amelia tried to turn toward me quickly, and in the course of doing so, swept her hand through the field of infrared sensors.

I had only a split second to think, and that wasn’t going to be enough. I had barely turned toward the chamber door when the alarm sounded. It was loud and piercing and extremely disturbing. I felt my legs stiffen and my hands go to my ears.

Worse, I could hear the door lock automatically. There would be no way to get out until the alarm was disabled.

The alarm continued as I sensed myself drop to my knees. Amelia’s voice was ringing in the internal speakers, but I couldn’t make out the words. I believe Ms. Washburn’s voice blended in at the same time. Lights were flashing. The intolerable sound of the alarm seemed to get louder as it continued.

Amelia’s legs passed by me on her way to the chamber door, and she practically had to step over me, immobile as I was, now on all fours.

I was probably screaming. I forced myself up to a kneeling position again, but my hands were flapping at both sides and I felt like I
could not stand. The alarm went on and on, and I was aware of peo
ple running toward me. I thought I saw gray GSCI uniforms gathering in the antechamber on the other side of the glass. I put my hands back up to my ears. It didn’t help much, but it was something.

Amelia appeared to have a key card, because she managed to unlock the inner chamber door even as the alarm continued to sound. She stepped out and I lowered my gaze to the floor, trying desperately to ignore the horrible noise and stand up.

Ms. Washburn’s face appeared in my visor. She was not dressed in a protective suit, and she was holding her hand out to me. I shook my head. Instead, I turned to watch the commotion in the antechamber. At some point, this nightmare was going to end, and I had to concentrate on that. It was the only way to stay sane.

Men were rushing around the room, but the screaming, blaring, horrifying alarm continued until Commander Johnson strode in, unwavering, and walked to a panel near the rear of the room, where no one else was standing. He worked a series of levers, in succession, from left to right, and then took a key card from his pocket and swiped it in a built-in socket next to the levers.

The alarm stopped.

My breathing was still heavy, but after a minute, I could stand. Ms. Washburn held out her hand again, but I did not need assistance in getting to my feet. I let out my breath and removed the head covering of the protective suit.

“Are you all right?” Ms. Washburn asked.

I nodded. “The alarm has stopped,” I said.

“I was worried about you.”

“I understand. Thank you for your concern.”

She looked toward the antechamber door. “We should go out,” she said. “If you’re feeling all right.”

“I am better than that, Ms. Washburn, I assure you,” I told her. “I just discovered how the alarm system in these chambers is activated, and how it is disengaged. That might be useful information going forward.”

She narrowed her eyes and stared at me. “You mean that whole scene was a fake?” she asked. “You really weren’t paralyzed in terror?”

“Oh, no,” I assured her. “That was quite real. But just because my Asperger’s places me in a difficult situation, it doesn’t mean I can’t
use
it.”

sixteen

It was getting late
in the day, and I began to be concerned that I would not be at my home for dinner at seven, as was the custom with Mother and me. But Marshall Ackerman had a more pressing deadline, and he was not being shy about it.

“It’s only a question of hours before that cranium is no longer viable, and you are falling to your knees in a storage unit because the alarm went off!” Ackerman’s hands were up at the sides of his head and his eyes were wide. There was a drip of sweat coming from his temple. He was biting both lips.

I began to wonder if he might be undiagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

“That will become fact within three hours,” I told him. “And I see very little hope of recovery before that time if there is no contact from the people who took the remains.”

Ackerman blanched and sat down behind his desk.

He had summoned Ms. Washburn and myself here after the incident in the storage chamber. For some reason, he seemed less confident of my abilities now, despite my having gained useful information through my observations during the alarm period. It did not make much sense, but it certainly seemed to be the case. I had to make sure not to fixate on that puzzle, because it would distract me from the larger question.

When Paul McCartney needed help with a lyric, he could consult John Lennon. In fact, he could ask George Harrison, Ringo Starr, George Martin, or any of at least a hundred other people involved in and dependent on the success of the Beatles. If a member of the New York Yankees was having a hitting slump, he could count on one of the others to “carry” him until the problem was resolved.

I had been working completely alone until this morning, and while Ms. Washburn had proved extremely helpful during our quickly developing professional relationship, I could not yet rely on her for answers to questions I could not answer on my own. But I was beginning to see the merit of working with others, no matter how difficult that might make certain circumstances.

“Samuel,” Ms. Washburn said. I regained my focus on the room.

Ackerman had raised his head and did his best to hold me in his gaze, but I was reading the small print on the diploma hanging on a wall opposite the chair in which I was seated and was uninterested in looking at his face.

“If your symptoms make it impossible for you to do your work, Mr. Hoenig, I don’t see how we can continue now, and it’s much too late for me to hire someone new,” Ackerman said.

“I do not have symptoms,” I informed him calmly. “I have personality traits that serve me quite well. And it is not my effort that is impairing our progress, Dr. Ackerman, but a serious dearth of facts as opposed to opinions.”

“Have you even formed a theory?” Ackerman asked.

“Not yet,” I told him. “There is no point in forming a theory when you don’t have enough facts. All we know at this point is that the cranium was removed from the storage chamber at some point between the final security check on camera last night at eleven fifty-two p.m. and the time Dr. Lanier discovered the specimen missing at approximately five thirty-seven this morning. We know that Dr. Springer was murdered in the storage chamber while the specimen container for Ms. Masters-Powell was out of its designated area. A gun was fired and there was a leak of liquid nitrogen, which caused the oxygen level in the small chamber to decrease sufficiently to suffocate Dr. Springer.”

“We knew all that this morning,” Ackerman protested. “All these interviews and you’ve made no progress?”

“All these interviews, and we have established no further facts,” I clarified. “I have heard the accounts of those involved, and will hear more accounts as soon as you decide this meeting is concluded, but all I know right now is that these people have chosen to tell me these things. I do not know which ones are true, which ones are impressions the witnesses had that are incorrect, and which ones are simply lies. That will require more time.”

Ackerman looked more tired than desperate, although I am certain that was just a function of his stressful day, and not his level of concern. He stared at me for a moment. “Go do more interviews,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to hold you up.”

“I wouldn’t think so,” I answered. “Robbing me would serve you no purpose.”

Ms. Washburn appeared at my right elbow. “It’s an expression, Samuel. Let’s go.”

While we were leaving the room, I believe I heard Ackerman mumble, “
Hold you up
, jeez.”

An interview with Dr. Harold Lanier proved completely unenlightening. The doctor, a second-rate medical man from my observation, had been filling in for Dr. Springer and others on sporadic basis for two years and barely seemed to know anyone who worked at GSCI. When I mentioned Dr. Springer’s name, he asked me who that was, and when I mentioned the missing specimen, his reaction was simply that he’d discovered it missing while performing a routine check and had “no idea at all” what might have happened to it. Once dismissed, he went quietly back to his post, which, according to every other GSCI employee I spoke to, was what he always did. “Hal Lanier is roughly as interesting as oatmeal,” one of them had said.

I was less anxious to continue the interviews with GSCI employees, most of whom would not have had access to the secure areas, than I was to check on the progress of Detective Lapides, so Ms. Washburn and I took the elevator to the second level, where he was conducting his interrogations in the common area usually reserved for employee breaks and informal meetings with business associates, Ackerman had explained on our tour.

It was a mistake. Interviewing possibly hostile subjects (in this case, the Masters family members) in an open, inviting space decreases the interviewer’s ability to intimidate. It makes the subject relax, and—even more seriously—allows the subject to become distracted by outside motions or sounds. Lapides was not a very good detective, but at least he knew it.

“I’ve done as you suggested,” he told me quietly while one of his uniformed officers sat with a man of about forty and a woman who, judging from her age, was probably his mother. “I have Arthur Masters here, Rita Masters-Powell’s brother.”

“And the older woman is his mother?” I asked.

“Yes. Laverne Masters. When I called Arthur, she was over at his house and insisted on coming along.” Lapides looked almost apologetic, as if he had somehow let me down. “I couldn’t talk them out of it. I know you said they shouldn’t come together, but there was no other way.”

There was no point in explaining the difference between what I’d said and what he had heard in our previous conversation. “On the contrary,” I told him. “It’s very helpful that they are both here. Have you gotten in touch with the former head of security, Miles Monroe?”

“Not yet. He appears to be on vacation. In Sydney, Australia. The time difference is enormous.” It was a sixteen-hour difference, but there was nothing to be gained by telling Lapides that.

“Have you found someone to check the security system’s wiring?”

“I have someone willing to do it, an expert the county prosecutor’s Major Crimes Division uses, but Ackerman is refusing to let anyone into his secure facility.” Lapides started to reach for his cigarettes, looked at me, and took his hand away from the pack.

“I will talk to him about it,” I said. “What about Ms. Masters-Powell’s ex-husband?”

“I don’t want to wait until he can get on a plane,” Lapides said. “But I want to see him, not just hear his voice over a phone. I think the eyes are the window to the soul.”

That was an expression I’d heard before and it had been explained to me, so I did not try to picture a window in someone’s face. But Lapides’s use of the cliché reminded me of the Beatles song “It’s All Too Much,” a George Harrison composition from the
Yellow Submarine
soundtrack, which had a line about looking into a woman’s eyes and seeing love there. It has always seemed an odd line to me; love is not something immediately visible. It is an emotion, and while I have spent long hours studying facial expressions for emotions like fear, elation, anger, and disapproval, I have never recognized one that signaled love.

That thought wasn’t helping. “See if Mr. Powell has a computer with a video call feature like Skype,” I said. “You—and, if you would permit me, I—would be able to see his expression and hear his tone of voice at the same time.”

Lapides’s face brightened. “I’ll get an officer on that right away. Thank you, Mr. Hoenig.”

“Not at all. May I question the Masters family members when you have completed your interrogation?” I asked.

“I’m almost done. Just give me a few minutes.” Lapides nodded, then walked back to the table where Arthur and Laverne Masters were seated.

Ms. Washburn, who had given Lapides and me space while we were talking, moved back to my side and spoke softly. “What have you found out?” she asked.

“That Lapides might have some potential as a detective, but he’s going to need a great deal of help,” I answered very quietly. I have learned about voice modulation. If I had said that in a normal tone, Lapides would have heard me, and he probably would have been offended, although it was actually a compliment, given that I had previously thought him hopeless in his chosen field.

“What’s our next move?” Ms. Washburn asked.

Lapides was speaking to the younger man and leaning on the table at which he sat, palms down. If he was trying to look like an intimidating interrogator, the effect was less than he might have hoped. By a considerable amount. If Lapides was attempting the “good cop” technique, trying to ingratiate himself with the subject of the interrogation, the expression on Arthur Masters’s face indicated he was being no more successful.

“When Lapides is done with the Masterses, we will have our own chance to ask them questions,” I said. “And based on what I’m seeing, we will probably have a greater degree of success.”

“I don’t see how we could do worse,” Ms. Washburn mumbled. She was being a little cruel, perhaps, but certainly accurate.

Across the room, I saw Lapides stand fully erect, taking his hands off the table and staring down at the seated Arthur Masters. “You’re going to have to explain all this
sometime
,” he insisted loudly.

The uniformed officer standing near Lapides looked, if I was reading his face correctly, embarrassed.

“Go on, you’re done,” Lapides told his charges. “Mr. Hoenig has some further questions for you.”

“I don’t understand,” said the woman, whom Lapides had identified as Laverne Masters. “Are we finished, or are there further questions?” It was a good point—even I had been somewhat confused by Lapides’s statement, and I already knew what the plan was supposed to be.

“Mr. Hoenig is not with the police department, but he is conducting an investigation for the institute,” Lapides explained. “You’re not obligated to talk to him, but we would all appreciate it if you would.”

“I don’t see any reason we should submit to more of this badgering when we’ve clearly done nothing wrong,” Laverne told him. She stood and held up her hands, apparently anticipating her son helping her on with her coat, which was draped over a nearby chair.

But Arthur Masters did not come to his mother’s aid immediately. “Who is this Mr. Hoenig?” he asked.

I took the opportunity to walk over and extend my hand. “Allow me to introduce myself,” I told him. “I am Samuel Hoenig.”

Arthur stood up but did not take my hand, which was actually something of a relief to me. “And what is your capacity here, Mr. Hoenig?” he asked. “Do you think we killed someone, too?”

“I most certainly do not,” I answered, because I saw no possible explanation that could put Arthur or Laverne inside the institute facility at the time of the murder. “But I think your knowledge of the situation and your information on your sister’s dealings with the institute could be instrumental in discovering exactly what happened, both to her remains and to Dr. Springer.”

“So you want to talk to us as witnesses, not suspects.” Arthur appeared to need clarification, although that was precisely what I had just said.

I decided not to overstate the obvious. “Yes,” I said.

Arthur looked at his mother. She raised her eyebrows, a gesture I’d always interpreted as a sign of surprise, then nodded quickly. Arthur looked back at me. “All right, Mr. Hoenig. Ask your questions.”

Laverne sat down, and Arthur was about to do the same when I interrupted. “I am not using this space for my interviews,” I told them. “Please come with me down to—” I stopped, because Ms. Washburn, coming up on my side, was shaking her head rather violently. She drew near enough that we could speak without being heard by the Masterses.

“We’re not going back to that conference room,” Ms. Washburn said with a determined tone. “I’ve been in that room all day, and it’s a windowless, airless box. No more.”

“But that is where I have set up my center of operations,” I protested.


I’m
your center of operations,” she answered, “and I’m saying no. Besides, you start jogging around the room and waving your arms in the air every twenty minutes. It scares the people you’re interrogating, and you’re due for another jog around the room in five minutes.”

That was at least technically true—it was actually seven minutes—but since I had resumed my regimen of exercise, the answers coming from witnesses had been unusually terse, and sometimes took a long time coming. Sometimes I had gotten the impression that the subjects were not listening to the questions so much as counting the moments until they could leave. It was odd how a man trying to elevate his heart rate could so disturb fully grown adults, but it was unmistakable.

“What do you suggest?” I asked Ms. Washburn.

She smiled. “I have just the place,” she said.

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