Vivian was instantly unnerved by the surreal display of skinless bodies inside the museum gallery. Some were chopped into parallel sections and sealed between glass plates. Others were largely intact and posed in daily activities such as throwing a baseball, playing a saxophone, or embracing their lover. Each body, donated by the once living man or woman, was missing its skin and infused with silicone. Vivian wasn’t sure where to look first.
She examined a pair of men positioned as if they were playing tennis before inspecting an ostrich consisting almost entirely of hardened muscle. Another display depicted only the left half of a man, revealing the organs from a profile view.
Perhaps most curious of all was a giraffe frozen in the middle of a stride. The ambient, red-hued light only heightened the visceral effect of the bodies.
“Plastination, a truly marvelous technique developed by an intrepid Gunther von Hagens,” Gavin said, reappearing by Vivian’s side. “Pioneered in 1977 at Germany’s University of Heidelberg, it preserved bodies in various stages of dissection. Hagens patented the process of removing water and fat from bodies and replacing it with silicone, polyester, and epoxy. Formaldehyde may be useful for preserving the organs and achieving a mild level of rigidity—for example, inflating a stomach or bending an elbow at an angle. Once they are injected with plastic, this results in a specimen that will neither decay nor contain any trace of formaldehyde.”
“How is this accomplished?”
“There are four primary stages in plastination: preparation, dehydration, forced impregnation, and gas cure.”
“Okay, you just lost me at the forced impregnation part.” As Vivian turned away, she noticed a handsome, somewhat familiar-looking face at the other end of the gallery. It wasn’t a plastinated cadaver but another living human being. He seemed to vanish between the plastic bodies like a flicker of brilliance. As Gavin’s voice droned on, Vivian’s eyes searched rapidly for the stranger who eluded her. A slight chill rose on the back of her neck. For the longest time, she wondered if she had only imagined the man. She scanned the crimson room.
“Are you paying attention?” Gavin piped up.
“Forced impregnation, got it... What’s the next one?”
“First, formalin is pumped into the arteries to halt the process of decay. The skin, fat, and connective tissues are removed prior to dehydration. The tissue or organ must be dissected and arranged in its final form for presentation. It is then dehydrated and drained of its water contents. The specimen is bathed in industrial methylated spirit for two weeks, where it must be stirred daily. It isn’t as simple as dumping a body in solution and letting it soak, you see?”
Vivian leaned in close to observe a plastinated ballet dancer. “These bodies have eyelashes! How in the hell do they—and what is that smell? It smells like...”
“Nail polish remover? What you’re smelling is acetone, the primary chemical in plastination. It’s very striking, isn’t it? The specimen will dehydrate in three baths of absolute acetone. Depending on the size of the specimen, the Žižkov Fiend would require five to ten times the volume in acetone. Once immersed, the sample is placed in a freezer, whereupon the chemicals will draw the water out of the tissue.
“Four weeks later, the specimen is ready for impregnation. It is lowered into a vacuum chamber at a low temperature, where the acetone is boiled off and replaced with silicone rubber. As the acetone vaporizes and leaves the cells, it will draw the liquid polymer or silicone in behind it, filling the specimen with plastic. Judging by the size of his specimens, the killer’s process must run into weeks of impregnation at a time.”
“I really hate how you keep using that word.”
“My apologies. But ahem, we are moving on to the final phase... At last, we have come to the grand conclusion of this process. Once the specimen is plastinated in silicone, it is cured with heat, special gas, or ultraviolet light. This helps the specimen achieve suitable rigidity.”
With each successive room they traversed, it seemed to peel away another layer of fascination to Gunther von Hagen’s plastinated creations. Next, they encountered a menagerie of skeletons that gradually began to acquire muscles. The brain, heart, and nervous system received their spotlight in due course, sometimes isolated completely from an encasing body. Alien-like, a brain and nervous system floated in the dark by a web of filaments and hooks. And what exhibit would be complete without a foray in the digestive and reproductive systems? For all of Vivian’s expectations, the exhibit wasn’t nearly as frightening as she anticipated.
There was an illuminating and beautiful quality about seeing what humankind consisted of under the surface. It was even more humbling to see those complexities preserved for eternity. The Žižkov Fiend, on the other hand, was no master artist. He used his skills to slice, mash, and alter the natural shape of a human into something perverse in its essence. Instead of a man or woman, one was almost tempted to see a new entity in his crime scenes: a creature that had never been witnessed before, with disjointed limbs, eyes in the wrong places, sometimes modified with prosthetics. What was the goal of this mutilation and putting it on public display?
“How do you know so much about plastination?” Vivian asked.
Gavin paused awkwardly.
“Don’t tell me. You’re the Žižkov Fiend’s secret apprentice.”
“My dear Vivian, have you forgotten my former career before I became a medical examiner and a glorified barkeep?”
“I haven’t forgotten. You were my anatomy teacher…”
“And you remember how I sometimes brought anatomical models to class?”
Vivian mulled it over.
“Jesus Christ! We were handling actual body parts in class? Those weren’t models?!”
“No, there’s a keen difference. These body parts were donated, sanitized, and plastinated.”
“But I—you—that’s disgusting, Gavin!”
“It was educational!”
“I’m beginning to understand why your velvet-clad ass was fired!” Vivian sighed and shuddered. “Okay, I’m fine. I just needed a few seconds. Now mix me an absinthe, you glorified barkeep.”