The brochure referred to the various pieces as ‘exhibits’. It was an odd choice of words and one which Strickland found disturbing. On some fundamental level it was off. It was hollow and impersonal, manifested a disconnect between object and name which was stark and unsettling. These were, after all, human beings. That they were dead, had been dead for some time, did not alter that equation. They remained entitled to a certain . . . consideration, a measure of decorum and respect. Not even death could obliterate that right and render it void.
Strickland stared at the usher. The man was wearing a dark blue blazer and dress shirt, appeared to be in his early sixties. He seemed respectable enough but there was something false about his smile. It was forced and unnatural, as though he and Strickland shared some secret of which both were ashamed.
“The tickets, Roger,” Celia prompted him. “Give him the tickets, please.”
Strickland reached into the inside pocket of his jacket. He half hoped that the tickets would not be there. He might have forgotten them at home or left them in the glove compartment of his car. No such luck. He extracted first one then, reluctantly, the second. ‘Plastination: Bodies Revealed’ the tickets exclaimed in bold, black type.
“Thank you, sir.” The usher scanned the tickets. Strickland hesitated, waiting to see if he would add ‘Enjoy the show’. It was almost like attending a matinee at the local Cineplex. But the man’s face had become a mask, not registering any emotion at all. He stared through Strickland, not seeing him.
“Roger?” Celia tugged at his arm. “Relax, would you? You look as though you were walking in on a funeral.”
It was funny but Strickland felt that way, too. Death always afflicted him with a profound sense of unease, a conviction that some fatal threshold had been breached. No matter how he struggled against it, he could not escape a feeling of being trapped.
The first ‘exhibit’ featured a plastinate arranged in a posture of throwing a ball. Strategic portions of the body had been cut away, exposing the underlying musculoskeletal structure. No detail was spared. The figure resembled an anatomical display of the sort one encountered in a physician’s office, except that this was neither a display nor a reconstruction but an actual human being.
“Isn’t that incredible?” Celia walked around the exhibit, fascinated and awed in equal measure. She would, had it been permitted, have reached out and touched the plastinate to experience it more fully. Her eyes actually shone. “Look, Roger. Have you ever seen anything like this? The detail is unbelievable. You can examine individual muscles and tendons, observe how they work together. It’s all so startlingly . . . real.”
It was too real, that was the problem. Strickland found it difficult to look at the plastinate. He had seen worse in various war zones, of course – villagers hit by IEDs, children caught in crossfire, civilians ambushed and left to die amidst a pile of smoldering rubble. That was bloody and tragic. Wrenching. This was different somehow. It was clinical and detached. Antiseptic. There was an element of voyeurism implicit in it, unspoken and unacknowledged. Perhaps it was that which made Strickland turn away.
He pretended to study the brochure. The pamphlet contained a chatty account of the process of plastination, detailing how water and fat in individual cells was supplanted with a special polymer. The cadaver was treated then prepared for display. The subject of who ended up in the actual exhibits was also addressed. All were volunteers who had signed a consent form. Strickland could never figure this angle out. Why would anyone volunteer for such a process? Who would want to end up a freak in a carnival sideshow? To a man of Strickland’s temperament and outlook it was a decision beyond the bounds of comprehension.
“That’s amazing, Roger, don’t you think?” Celia tapped his forearm. “I’ll bet you don’t regret coming now.”
Strickland’s smile consisted of a slight tightening of his facial muscles. It was the best that he could manage. Celia was already heading toward the next exhibit, filled with enthusiasm. Strickland was about to follow then stopped in mid-step. All expression was erased from his face. He resembled one of the figures in the exhibition, wooden and lifeless.
“Roger? Honey? What’s the matter?”
Strickland wet his lips. “I know him,” he said, his voice hoarse with horror and shock.
“Know him?” Celia looked around the hall. “Know who?”
“Him.” Strickland gestured at the plastinate.
“Roger!” Celia frowned. “That isn’t funny! Suppose somebody was to hear you? You’d freak them out totally.”
“I’m not joking, Ceil.” Strickland turned, pivoting on one heel. His shoulders were hunched, his stomach and thigh muscles taut.
“But you can’t possibly know him,” Celia protested. “That’s absurd! What do you think – the promoters drive through local neighborhoods and grab people up off the streets?”
“He was in my unit. Special Ops. We graduated out of Fort Benning together.” Strickland pitched his voice low so that only Celia could hear him. “His name is Brad Stanhouse.” Strickland paused. “His name was Brad Stanhouse. This is him.”
“Listen, it was probably a bad idea, my insisting that we come. This wasn’t at the top of your list of things to do, I know that. But now that we’re here, why not at least try and enjoy it.”
Strickland scowled. Celia didn’t believe him. She thought that he was making it up. “That is Brad Stanhouse,” he insisted. “No two ways about it. I went through training with him. We served in the field together.”
“Roger, have you any idea what the odds are of this being somebody you know? Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. About the same of my flying into a random city and discovering my lost twin sister waiting at the terminal to greet me. This isn’t him. Maybe there’s a superficial resemblance. But this isn’t him. Trust me on that.”
But Strickland kept staring at the figure, mesmerized. He knew how bizarre it must sound, how totally improbable. And yet – he was certain that this was Stanhouse. Or was almost certain.
Celia clutched Strickland by the arm, dragged him away. “Next exhibit,” she insisted. “Try and enter into the spirit of things, Roger. This is instructional. It isn’t some heavy, grim session of psychoanalysis. Don’t try and make it one.”
The second exhibit depicted a plastinate in the act of running, emphasizing the musculature of his legs and the action of the hip and knee joints. Several people were examining the figure, speaking in low, confidential tones, as they might in an art gallery. Strickland was struck at once by the terror engraved on the plastinate’s face. It was visceral, raw. It was as though he had been frozen in the very act of fleeing for his life. The terror communicated itself to Strickland, brought back all manner of memories which he had tried very hard to forget. His palms began to sweat and his heart pounded.
“How do they manage to pose the figures, I wonder,” Celia was saying. “It must require a lot of skill to capture them in so life-like a fashion.” Celia’s voice and presence reassured Strickland, helped convince him that his reaction was only a passing flashback. He stood very still, waiting for the feeling to pass. “This one’s young, too,” Celia remarked. “In good shape. Probably no older than you are.”
It was that final comment which led Strickland to examine the face. Some faint aura of recognition settled over him, a dawning realization that . . . Strickland’s head snapped back. He ducked into a crouch, grasping at his side for the rifle that he was certain must be there.
“It’s Barnes. Todd Barnes.” Strickland’s voice was tight with panic. “We served on the same detail in Tajikistan. Him and Stanhouse both. I had drinks with him just last February. Christ, he can’t be dead. Can’t be!”
“Stop this, Roger! Right this minute. Listen to what you are saying!” People were beginning to look at Strickland. They shied away, stepping sideways to avoid him.
“It’s more than a coincidence, Ceil. First Stanhouse. Now Barnes. There’s a connection. We all served in Tajikistan together. We weren’t just covert. We were Black Ops. Nobody wanted to acknowledge us or admit what we were doing. There was no paper trail, no written orders, nothing. For all intents and purposes we didn’t exist.”
“That’s fine, Roger. That’s excellent. Only let’s discuss it back at the condo. Not here. Whatever you want to talk about, whatever speculation you care to indulge in, that’s the place to do it.”
“You’re right!” Strickland’s expression was fixed and hard. “They could be watching us. They could be monitoring our conversation. We don’t dare admit that we’re on to them.”
“They?” Celia’s tone was pained. “Roger, honey, you’ve got to come back to reality. This is me, Celia. Remember?”
Strickland grabbed Celia’s arm. “I want to conduct a quick walk through of the exhibition. See what further evidence exists. I can’t be certain what this means. It’s possible – I hesitate to say this, I don’t want to frighten you – but it is possible that someone decided to eliminate all physical evidence, any eyewitnesses who could provide testimony about the mission. The policy has become a liability. Nobody can afford to be associated with it. There are people in high places . . .” Strickland dragged Celia along to the next exhibit. He sucked in his breath. His whole frame shivered in a sudden spasm.
“Jay Aaron Tolliver,” he said, his lips barely moving. “From Sausalito. One of the savviest operatives ever to don the uniform. How an assassin managed to get the drop on him I can’t imagine. Nobody outwitted Tolliver. Nobody!”
“Roger, it’s time we went home. You and I need to talk. It’s my fault, I admit it. You’ve been back in the country – what? Fourteen months? I never should have asked you to come to the exhibit.”
“Your fault?” Strickland smiled at Celia. “What do you mean? You may just have saved my life. You can bet that if the CIA targeted all these guys then I’m on the list, too. The people in the intelligence community are professionals. They never leave a job half finished.”
“Oh, Roger!” Celia put her arms around Strickland. “Whatever did they do to you?”
Strickland was surprised, pleased, by Celia’s show of affection. But he wasn’t about to allow himself to be distracted. “The authorities must have suspected that the story was about to blow wide open. Once word leaked, it would have meant their careers, would have meant jail time. They would have been desperate, crazy desperate, to stop it. All it would take was to eliminate the four men in my team. The bastards!”
“Roger, listen to me! These exhibits, these plastinates, they only resemble the men you served with. Stop and think: is there any distinguishing mark or insignia by which you could identify them?”
“Why,” Strickland wondered that he had not thought of it before, “of course! Every member of our unit, before being posted to a theatre of combat, had a computer chip, a micro wafer, implanted on the inside of their thigh. It contained a complete medical history and leaves a distinct scar. You’ve seen mine. Even were the killers to acid wash it there would still be traces visible.”
“O.K. Roger, I’m going to check. And when I fail to find anything, will you then be satisfied? Will you drop this insane obsession?”
“Ceil, you can’t do that. You can’t touch the plastinates.”
“Oh, no? Watch me.”
Abruptly Strickland’s eyes narrowed to twin black points. He grabbed Celia’s arm. “Don’t turn around. Don’t make any sudden movements. The man in the herringbone jacket, he’s following us. I thought maybe I was wrong. But he’s carrying a concealed firearm. He’s government. Everything about him says that he’s government.”
“Roger, you are freaking me out. I want you to stop this!”
“Start walking toward the exit. Slowly, like we hadn’t a worry in the world. Try and stay close to other people. They won’t act with innocent civilians in the way. They’re maneuvering for a clean shot.”
“Roger . . .”
“Not now. Keep walking.” Strickland felt himself easing into combat mode, his senses on hyper-alert. The hit man was several steps behind them, matching their pace. His face was a blank mask, anonymous and cruel.
Strickland began to walk faster. The walls of the Museum were pressing in around him, squeezing him, making the blood in his temples pound. The government would not send only a single agent, he was certain. They knew his background and training. There would be multiple operatives blending in with the crowd. Strickland stared at the passing faces, wondering which concealed a potential assassin.
Suddenly Celia, who had been right beside him, was swept away. The man in the herringbone jacket stepped forward, reaching beneath his armpit. Strickland spun on his heel, slammed his elbow into the man’s face. He went reeling backwards, sprawled to the floor, nose and cheeks smeared with blood. A woman screamed.
The room exploded in chaos. People began to run. Strickland was jostled and pushed back. He searched frantically for Celia, finally spotted her being restrained by a hulking figure whose bearing and calm, practiced efficiency betrayed a military background. Two others approached Strickland from opposite directions. They had hard, angry faces, stared at Strickland as though they already considered him dead.
Strickland vaulted over a nylon rope as they rushed him. He grabbed hold of the nearest plastinate. Sweet Mother of God, it was Cunningham! Aubrey Cunningham, a man Strickland thought of almost as a brother, the soldier who had had his back all through the mission in Tajikistan. Grunting, Strickland pushed the figure. The plastinate lurched forward, slammed into the lead agent, skull against skull, took him clean off his feet and laid him on the floor, unconscious.
The second agent tripped, sprawled forward and as he did so Strickland caught him flush on the temple with the flat of his hand. The man’s eyes rolled back into his head. He collapsed in an inert mass. Strickland swung about, prepared to meet any further attack. But none came. He was master of the field.
The tension drained from Strickland’s body. A great weariness settled over him. Looking at his old friend and comrade Cunningham, Strickland was overwhelmed with grief and a burning sense of outrage. So valiant a soldier, so stout a warrior, to have it all end like this! Strickland knelt by Cunningham’s prostrate form. He cradled Cunningham’s head, did something he had not done in many, many years. He cried.
He was still kneeling there, staring at the distinctive butterfly-shaped scar on the inside of Cunningham’s thigh, when they came and took him away.
Canfield aspires to worry less, for which purpose he has taken up the study of children, and to laugh more, for which purpose he has taken up the study of politicians.