My name is Thomas Veil. Or so I thought. One day I'm a photographer who's traveled the world; the next I'm in a mental institution with no friends, no job, no family, and a good measure of paranoia. Pursued by a government organization with no name, I wandered around the country, taking odd jobs and obsessing over my pursuers, trying to find out who, what, and why.
I took a photograph of the hanging execution of four men in the South American jungle; members of the US military stand by, watching. I didn't know it at the time, but that picture would turn my normal life into a waking nightmare. The Organization wanted my negatives, and would stop at nothing to get them.
So I took the negatives and made sure I knew where they were, sometimes on me, sometimes in a "safe place", but never in anyone else's custody. After the betrayal of my wife, Alyson, I learned not to trust anyone.
But then I found a glimmer of truth in the darkness of lies: Hidden Agenda, my troublesome photograph, was not taken in the jungle, but about five miles outside of DC. Naturally, I began to wonder what the picture really was of, or if my memories of having taken it were real.
My queries took me to Heritage House in Washington DC, a front for an FBI operation. From the director of Heritage House, I learned what I had suspected-the negatives I had were of a heavily doctored photo. After having been shot, the director helped me on the path to the next stepping stone, an operative codenamed Gemini. Turns out we were one in the same. I was the Gemini project, an experiment in brainwashing.
Who I really am, or was, I don't know, but I intend to find out.
I begin my current sojourn in the Mile-high City. It is winter, and without a steady paycheck, I have no money to buy warmer clothes. I have recently applied for a job at a local restaurant, and I hope I get it. For now, I am living off money I had from the Gemini safe-house, but it won't last forever.
I am not sure what led me to Denver, but it seemed like the place to start.
Shifty eyes from the staff greet me as I enter the store-or is it imagined?
"Can I help you, sir?"
"Uh, yeah, I'm looking for-" I broke off, turning sharply, looking for the moving figure I thought I'd seen.
"No-uh, never mind," I said, moving off to investigate my phantom. As it happened, my "ghost" was a young woman, shying away from me. She was fascinated by me. I could tell because she was unusually intrigued by a display of toilet bowl cleaner, not to mention the fact that she was blushing. Whether she was sent to hunt me down, or whether it was female curiosity...
"Why were you looking at me?" The woman shifted her stance and avoided my eyes.
"You caught my eye the other day at the restaurant. You look...familiar to me somehow."
"And that warrants following me?"
"I'm not going to hurt you." With her statement, I tense up, prepared for what may or may not be coming. She notices, and looks apologetically at me. I feel obliged to say something.
"I'm sorry, I'm...not the man I used to be, that's all."
"Who were you?"
"I was asking for your name."
"Tom. Tom Veil." Or at least I thought it was, came the unbidden end to my sentence, an ending which has plagued my mind, gnawing at my sanity. Then I noticed something odd. The woman looked like someone I knew, Ellen Combs.
Flashback: Ellen Combs in a straitjacket, in a barred cell, rolling back and forth on her bed, repeating "I want my life back"...
The present: The woman with the same eyes, the same hair, the same face. But something was lost behind her eyes. Hardly concealing my pain-and-joy emotional cocktail, I ask her name.
"Dianne Brown." So it wasn't Ellen.
Flashback: A black man, a patient in Calaway Psychiatric Hospital, playing ping-pong and singing ""I try to tell them who I am, but they don't believe me. You believe me, don't you, Eddie? ": JC.
Flashforward: The same man, now in a suit and position of authority. "Give up the negatives or die." Joe Carter had become Doctor Norik.
Back to now: Had Ellen become Dianne Brown? It was certainly possible, but was it true? I, Tom, had become Tom after being...who? Again, the nagging question.
I took my leave of Dianne, and went "home" to my apartment, along with the package of spaghetti I had just bought. I ate it, my thoughts on Dianne and Alyson, and eventually Laura, my first love, who had died in an airport bombing several years before.
The last string of memories were the most painful. I don't like to dwell on the painful and turbulent past. But then I realized that perhaps Laura was part of my life Before. Suddenly Laura's death takes on new meaning, and I begin to tear up.
"Laura..." I'm sobbing now, desperately wishing I had done what I should have done-take a picture of her, or something. I have nothing to hold on to her with, except my dredged-out memories, secret thoughts, and remnants of my love. But those are mostly painful.
The doorbell rings, and I am pulled away, out of my thoughts. Wiping away my tears, I open the door to find-
"Hello." A sheepish-looking Dianne greets me. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah, come on in. I'm just finishing dinner." Dianne was Ellen, I was sure of it. But then, a lot of things I thought I was sure of had recently been proven wrong.
"It's just-you look like-I feel like we've met before, but I can't place it. Like someone I've met in a dream."
"Dianne, would you believe me if I told you that we have met before?" She nodded. "Now would you believe we met in a sanatorium?"
With a wide-eyed gape came her reply: "It's always felt as though there was something broken in me, but me in a mental hospital?"
"You would have known me as Doctor Bellamy. Not Tom Veil." Bellamy was the doctor who hammered home for me the reality of my situation. In return, I'd taken his identity as a sort of warped revenge.
"Bellamy...that name...means something...to me...but I'm not insane. At least I don't think I am."
"That's the problem with lunatics, they never think they're insane." The room fell silent, and a sort of chill ensued. When next someone spoke, it was Ellen, or Dianne, or whoever she was.
"Tom, do you...I mean, are you..." She was fidgeting nervously; "What I'm trying to ask is..."
Taking a sip of water, I looked at her expectantly.
"Are you married?"
I'm about to answer when a cloud passes over my face. I realized that I'm not really sure. Does Alyson count? Did I remarry after Laura? (Because Laura, I have convinced myself, was not part of the nightmare that someone made for me.)
"I understand if it's a private thing; I just want to know for the record."
"It's not that. I just...I don't really know anymore. It's too complicated; don't ask me to explain."
"Oh." She looked uncomfortable, as if she realized she may be talking to a madman.
"I know what you're thinking. You think I belong in a mental hospital, don't you?" Her mouth opened and closed shyly. "I can tell that's what you're thinking, 'cause that's what everyone else thinks."
"But I'm not sure."
"About what? About me? About you?"
Ellen shifted nervously. Her reply was whispered: "About anything."
Over the next few days, I visited her apartment, she visited mine, and we had several lunches together. She seemed like good company, but I can never be too sure-about anything.
"What do you do for a living?" I had to know. It might help me figure something out.
"I'm a pharmacist," she said over a mouthful of chicken alfredo.
And, I have to admit, I see a certain irony in a former mental patient working in a drugstore.
"So...if you don't mind, Mr. Veil-"
"Call me Tom."
"Alright, Tom, who do you remember being married to?"
"Her name was Alyson. She was nice, beautiful, and easily bribed with cheesecake. I might almost suspect that that's how they got to her."
"At an exhibition of my work, I got nervous from all the publicity. I managed to convince Alyson to let me leave early. We went to the restaurant, and we started talking, and she brought up the topic of my mother, saying how she should have been invited. I told her that Mom wouldn't attend my funeral. I was about to go to the bathroom, but then a waiter dropped a tray of plates." A crash rang through the building as a young blonde waitress dropped two refill pitchers.
"Just like that..."
"Oh, uh, where was I? Plates crashing...oh. When I came out of the bathroom, my wife was gone, an older couple was at our table, and no one knew where or even who Alyson was. The next day, I was getting desperate. I hid in the back of our car, and got up when she got in. She denied knowing me, then she finally admitted that they pressured her into going along with their grand scheme. The police pulled us over, and Alyson-Alyson told the policeman that I had attacked her, and that I was sick and needed help. It was one of the most painful times in my life." I was trying not to choke up.
Three black cars pulled up outside the restaurant. I knew who it was. I grabbed Ellen, who had just enough time to take out enough cash to pay the bill. We bolted, completely forgetting we had a car at our disposal. I was gripping Ellen's upper arm as we fled down the alley.
The little voice of self-preservation told me to leave Ellen; after all, she was slowing me down. She had betrayed me, another Ellen had betrayed me, but I was giving her a second chance, but was that betrayed? I knew I could never live with myself if I had left her in the hands of the Organization, so I held on to her tightly.
Dashing through a back-alley gate, we ran into barbed wire on the other side. Ellen yelped in pain, but diligently kept running until finally we slowed, composed ourselves, and walked into the Bank of America. Thankfully for us, today was a busy day.
Figuring that Denver was no longer a safe place (but then, where is?), I walked to the lobby couch, and inconspicuously lifted the cushion to take out the negatives. Ellen gave me a quizzical look.
"Are those...?" Ellen was unsure of how to ask the question, but the answer was yes, those were the infamous negatives.
"I dunno why I even keep them around. They aren't real. Security blanket, I suppose." Getting a confused look, I went on: "These are the doctored negatives, the ones of the South American execution. The real ones have, not Chilean revolutionaries, but United States Senators on the gallows."
Ellen's eyes went wide. "Why? Who?"
I looked sharply as a teller suddenly dropped a large stack of paper.
"Not here. Let's leave. Now."
"But how? We left our car behind! And those men-"
"Don't you get it? Wherever those men are going, people drop things. It's their signature giveaway."
"You're just being paranoid, Tom."
"No, I'm not. Let's go." I semiforcefully took her out of the door, and we hurriedly walked across the street to McDonald's. So as not to seem too much out of place, I ordered a Butterfinger McFlurry.
"The negatives, Tom?"
My head jerked up in fear.
"The story of your negatives."
"Oh, right." As relieved as I am by that, I can't help but stay suspicious. "There is a government organization involved in this, Ellen. I mean Dianne. They erased me. You too. I know why they altered that photo. They did it to get to me."
"I'll get it, Tom." I stared at her suspiciously. "It's not like I'll drug you here, with all these people around." I concede. And she may have reason to drug me elsewhere? The question came to my mind after having absorbed what she said. I got no more time to reflect, however, as Ellen came back.
Taking the treat off the tray, I continue:
"I was a little project of theirs, to see if their conditioning could hold up. It did, even after I've seen the video of me being brainwashed. Even when I found the original negatives."
"Did you take them with you?"
"I'd have been stupid not to."
Seven men in dark suits are approaching. I can think of nothing else to do, so I listen to the voice of self-preservation, and dash into the (empty) PlayPlace.
Climbing into the works, I get one of those "what the heck am I doing" moments. I don't hesitate, knowing that one second could mean the difference between life and death. Up I go, until there's nowhere to go but down again.
Crawling around in confined spaces built for toddlers is not my specialty, and, before I know it, I have bruises to add to my growing list of injuries. I see the slide ahead and make a run for it, but as I pass a side corridor, I feel a sharp pain pierce my arm, like a pin. I make it to the slide, and start going down, but my senses are left in the tunnels. The last sound I hear before I completely black out is Ellen screaming as I come out of the slide.
I awake to the sound of an air conditioning unit and one or two sets of pacing footsteps. I've been handcuffed, and the chain is cuffed to the chair. It's dark, sweltering and stuffy, and I'm not in the most comfortable of positions.
"Nice place you got here."
"I'm glad you approve." It's a woman's voice, stern but kind. I mutter something about deja vu.
"What's wrong, Tom? You should be happy to see your wife."
"Yeah, except it's dark. Let me guess: 'Where are the negatives, Tom'?"
"Don't play games with me."
"You know, I miss the days when I could actually trust the person I'm married to."
"Tom, where are they?" This time, it wasn't Alyson. I don't know this voice, but it is undoubtedly female.
"And you think I'll tell you why?"
"Tom," Alyson said, "I don't want to hurt you."
"That's what you said last time, when you had a gun to me."
The other woman piped up. "Alyson has a gun, and she's trained to use it." A handgun cocked. "And furthermore, so do I. I'd have no hesitation shooting you. Tell us where the undoctored negs are, and we might give you a quick and painless death."
"Alright, but I've gotta go get them."
"You'd think we'd fall for that old trick?" Alyson sounded like she meant business.
Resignedly, I said: "Well, it was worth a try. But you're still assuming one thing."
"That I know where they are." I could tell from the silence that they were skeptical but nervous. "I might not."
"But then again, you might."
"Optimist," I muttered blackly.
"You only see one variable." The other handgun cocked, and I heard Ellen whimper.
"No, don't do that to her! Alyson, damn it, I know you're better than that!"
"I'm waiting for the location of the negatives, Tom." Alyson seemed patient but rushed.
"Go ahead, blow my head off. It doesn't matter-one way or the other, you're still a murderer."
The dim light goes off.
Gunshot, gunshot, gunshot.
They'd really done it. They'd shot Ellen. And I sit in the darkness, silent sobs.
"You-you-b..." I can't bring myself to call them what I want to. A rectangular light appears; the doorway. I look over, Ellen's face in shock, eyes open wide, bloodstain on her shirt.
Hours (or perhaps days) later, Alyson reenters.
"Alyson, just tell me you weren't the one who pulled the trigger. Just tell me that. Just that one thing." I'm still internally wailing.
"You have to not know, Tom." Now she was speaking in a motherly tone. "Where did you put the negatives, Tom?"
I give a laugh of grief. "You think that 'cause you killed someone I'll give you what you want? Up until the moment you pulled the trigger, I was almost gonna give 'em to you. But not anymore. Anything worth killing for is worth dying for, right?"
"Tom, it's just a photograph."
"Then why is it so important to you? It's just another test of Gemini stamina, isn't it? Well, end the experiment, Alyson. If you have the guts. Otherwise, get outta the game, 'cause Alyson, it's not your style." From the silence, I assume my tactics had done just what I wanted them to.
The next day (or perhaps later that one), they bring me food and water with a note in Alyson's handwriting that reads I'm sorry. I tear it up. I gulp down my meal, only to pass out seconds later.
I wake up in a deserted parking lot in some rural town. The slight wind is blowing the rope on the flagpole so the clip periodically hits the metal pole. There is no other sound.
I desperately want to go to where I left the original negatives, to make sure they're still there, but I know that's exactly what they want me to do. I get up, look around for anyone that might be watching, and set off walking, a lone truthseeker in a world of black and white.