I sit on my hoverchair, fish the other half of my cheesesteak out of my drawer, and look up to see Brouwer with his elbows on my desk and his face in his palms.
“S’Met,” he burbles into his palms. He can’t have been there more than the second it took me to grab the cheesesteak.
“Again?” I ask.
He slides down his hands. “Another sculpture.” I glance away to avoid seeing the pink under his eyelids. “I think they like the challenge.”
“Done one Klee, done them all, I suppose.” I try to sniff my cheesesteak without him noticing. It’s still good. “Every sculpture’s different.”
He stands up and wanders back to his office. “Enjoy your lunch. They aren’t going anywhere. Hell, a few more might show up.”
The curator is standing behind a column in front of the museum entrance, peeking out sideways every few seconds. “Thanks for coming, officer,” she says under her breath as I reach the top step. “Again.”
“Maybe I should buy a membership.”
She frowns. “No need. Membership is stronger than ever thanks to the sympathy we’re receiving.”
“I wouldn’t call that a catastroKlee,” I joke as she leads me through a portrait gallery and out to the sculpture garden.
“Overfunding crushes the soul of art.”
Not a fan of Klee-slappers, apparently, but I can see why she feels that way. It’s the most depressing garden, sculpture or otherwise, that I’ve ever seen. Then again, forty-nine identical Burghers of Calais will dampen the mood just about anywhere. There are more burghers than people here, each with a bronze noose around its neck, each gloomier than a sculptor working in advertising.
“Looks like the 3D Print Gang,” I say as I squeeze between two burghers. One has his anguished finger positioned to scoop a bronze booger out of the other’s nose, a nice touch by 3DPG.
We stop in a gap between the burghers. Suddenly I feel like a sculpture: The Even-Keeled Art Inspector of Manhattan. “Any idea which one is the original?”
The Glum Curator points at my feet. I’m standing on a bronze plaque with the word ‘Guess.’ She says, “It used to be there. It could be any of them. Or none.”
“Lowered in by grav-crane?”
“That’s what the security footage showed until it went dark.”
We work our way out of the burgher mob. I rap a few with my knuckles, each one as solid as the next. Kids play between them, hanging off their arms and crawling through their legs. Too many kids. The sculpture garden has become a depository so their parents can pretend to react to portraits.
We walk back through the galleries. Every painting has at least one museum guest within an inch of nose-contact. It’s futile, of course, unless they happen to know the exact molecular structure of the original. We pass a docent saying, “The actual View of Toledo is one of only two known landscapes by El Greco,” unintentionally stressing the word ‘actual.’ I cringe as we pass a few more cold cases.
“Any idea what you’ll do with them all?” I ask the curator back in her office.
She glances at the definitely-not-real Brancusi on her desk. “We give out the forged paintings in the lobby and burn what isn’t taken. But the burghers are a pain.”
“We’d be happy to have one back at the station.”
“Will you pay for the truck and grav-crane rental? Can your floor support a ton of bronze? How big are your windows?”
“Not big enough.”
The Glum Curator laughs. She places her glasses on the physically perfect, fake Brancusi and rubs her eyes. “You know what the real tragedy is?”
I picture bronze burghers clogging the sidewalk in front of my apartment, in the park with gum stuck to their bronze robes, lamenting iniquity at the next urinal over. “It’s all going to become so damn common.”
“Yes, but not that many people actually find rapture in art. They’d just be depressed without it. The real tragedy is that enrollment in our classes is plummeting. Another few years of this and there won’t be any new artists.”
The resignation in her voice snaps something in me. If all of today’s masterpieces are doomed to become multitudinous kitsch, then tomorrow’s masterpieces never get made. It’s time to melt down The Even-Keeled Art Inspector of Manhattan for scrap. I switch to Dull Gret-mode.
“Don’t worry,” I say, fingering the plasma blade tucked into my belt. The curator smiles at me uncomfortably. “I’m going to make an example of these 3DPG fuckers.”
Graves is waiting for me in a booth with a gin and tonic. I can tell he was trying not to finish it before I arrived. I order a glass of Bordeaux at the bar and sit across from him. He smiles. He’s always happy to see me, and he’s a great listener, mainly because he likes hearing that the rot in my neck of the woods is catching up with the rot in his.
“How’s life?” he asks, trying not to sound too curious.
“Want a burgher from Calais? I’ll trade you one for a hundred-carat diamond.” He sighs, but I can tell he’s relieved we’re keeping pace. I warm him up a little more. “I remember back when people used to try pass of forgeries as authentic. Now, it’s not even clear what authentic means. I doubt five percent of what’s in the Met today is original.”
“Bastards,” Graves sneers, overdoing the disgust. He places a cherry-colored stone the size of a goose egg on the table. Light from a probably-not-Tiffany lamp glitters on each of its hundred facets, gathering like a flame in the center. A few people notice on their way to the bathroom, but none look twice. “Painite. Three hundred carats.”
“As real as your Burghers. The seller gave it to me as a sample from their ‘mine.’” He holds it between two fingers. “There used to be less than this in the entire world. Since a few years ago there’s so much it doesn’t seem to fit in the ground anymore.”
“So what will you do?” I ask, feigning concern. I know he’ll do exactly what he’s done since cheap synthetic painite first hit the scene.
“It’s my dilemma. If I deem this authentic, these frauds get a leg up. If I don’t, someone else will and I’m out of a job.” He sips his gin and tonic as if it’s the only thing keeping him cool in the jungle. “I’m a prisoner.”
There are real prisoners in the prisons and labor camps. Graves isn’t one of them. He was the top diamond appraiser at Tiffany & Co. until Tiffany started exclusively selling flawless synthetic diamonds. They fired him. Now he makes more than ever freelancing for any meth lab that synthesizes gemstones on the side. He wears his guilt as a badge of his former decency, and to drive up bribes. He also has contacts on the synthetic side.
“You ever have trouble with the 3D Print Gang?” I ask, pretending he’s honorable.
He folds his hands over the painite. His face looks still and dark without the reflected light. “How did you hear of them?”
“They escorted forty-nine burghers from Calais to the Met.”
“I’ve dealt with one of their subsidiaries.” So they have subsidiaries. “Don’t go after them.” He looks nervous. I think it’s his first authentic expression of the night.
I sip my Bordeaux. “Who said I’m going after them?”
He tenses. “So you’ve gone Dull Gret.” He finishes his gin and tonic and signals to the waiter for another. “Then you should know. The extra burghers sound like bait to me. 3DPG is big league.”
That much is obvious given that they have a grav-crane, forty-nine tons of bronze, and, apparently, subsidiaries. “What’s their next target?”
“Let it go.”
I grin. He winces. “Something big in Philadelphia. Asian buyers.”
“Good to know.” It’s obvious enough. I finish my Bordeaux and slide out of the booth.
“They’re just art forgers,” he says, staring at the painite. “Not murderers.”
“I’ll be fair,” I reply, still grinning. “I alKlees am.”
I grab the rest of my gear and head to Penn Station. Sunlight falls though the restored glass ceiling and bounces off the New Bean, blinding anyone who isn’t looking at the floor. Everyone on both sides got paid, architects, city officials, artist, but Chicago was nonetheless furious to see New York bootleg one of its landmarks.
It’s nine at night when I get off the Acela on 30th Street. There are too many people around for 3DPG to act now, so I take my second cheesesteak of the day in the first place I find that also serves Bordeaux. New York still hasn’t managed to make a better cheesesteak than Philly.
At eleven I start down Market Street. I’m not in uniform, but anyone who’s been touched by the law crosses the street anyway. I walk slowly and arrive at Independence Mall just past midnight.
I sit on a bench and lay my arm across the back. It’s a moonless night, but there’s plenty of light from Independence Hall and nearby office towers. The Liberty Bell sits in its glass room like a sleeping zoo animal. Spreading a symbol of freedom around the world doesn’t sound all that insidious, but I’m a cop and the law’s the law.
Then I see her: a mime loping across the Mall like a gazelle, black and white-striped shirt, white face-paint under a black beret. She stops in front of the Liberty Bell and commences pretend-squeegeeing the windows. There’s a mime on every block in Philly, but this one’s a little too silky, and she’s holding an optical tomographer instead of a pretend-squeegee.
She pretend-squeegees the other windows, nods with exaggerated satisfaction, and with a silent flourish of her hand slides the optical tomographer into her pocket. She skips twice, handsprings, and lopes back across the Mall.
I throw my vibrostar. Dull Gret. It slices through her knee in the middle of the Mall. The lower half of her leg bounces away like a football, and she face-plants on the grass and clutches her stump screaming. Definitely 3DPG: true mimes die in silence.
I get up from my bench and amble across the Mall. The vibrostar spins itself clean as it flies back to my belt. The mime writhes on the grass, screaming intermittently. Blood has splattered over her stripes and face-paint. She giggles, screams, giggles again, really more like a clown than a mime, especially with the spot of blood on her nose.
“Something funKlee?” I ask as I take the optical tomographer out of her pocket.
“Only you.” She throws back her head and shrieks. “Art cop!”
Then she starts to shrink, and I feel the perfect recliner chair support of antigrav. I reach for my heat pistol.
“We’ll drop you!” she shouts between screams.
She has a point. I put away the pistol and enjoy the air until I feel my ass pucker up to the grav-crane. Another mime runs below and flash cauterizes her knee-stump, which is bad news for me. They were planning this.
The Mall slides out from under me. The grav-crane drops me in a dump truck full of trash bags, not a few of them leaky. I reach for my heat pistol, but another mime passes a sleepylizer over my face. I feel trash juice trickle over my lips as I lose consciousness.
I awake to soft LED lighting, an almost surely illicit Calder mobile hanging from the ceiling, and what I assume is the trashiest morning breath I’ve ever had. I try to sit, but I’m strapped to a table. The air vent over my crotch tells me I’m naked.
“He’s up,” I hear a man say.
The table tilts up to vertical. I’m in a well-lit, glass-walled laboratory like they used to have in fancy biotech companies. Through one wall I see an assembly line of canvases: first heat aging, then a dozen automated nozzles brush and dab and scumble paint, then more aging for ninety-second Turners, Morrisseaus, and Brueghels. Dull Garbage. Through another wall an autosculptor deposits a new Liberty Bell every four minutes, complete with crack and patina, while a carbon-stacker and wood-warper form the elm yokes. The yokes are the real bottleneck in the process.
“You know I’ll get you eventually.”
“Fuck off, art cop,” a female voice replies.
I twist and see the de-kneed mime lying on a table like mine. A flesh-loom is reconstructing her leg. Behind her table another flesh-loom is performing something like a reverse vivisection on a twitching mound of tissue, obliterating the cheesesteak craving I woke up with.
“I’ll leave as soon as you unstrap me,” I say. I don’t mention the pain in my rear, no doubt a memento of the grav-crane’s kiss.
“Don’t worry about him, Zala,” says the man before she can respond. “We’ll get what we need.” They need the data in the tomographer for the Liberty Bells, but I don’t see any value in forging my undies.
Zala pushes aside the flesh-loom and gets off the table. She hops on her toes and flexes her new leg. The mismatched skin accentuates her beautifully muscled calves. “We’re fighting the good fight, not you,” she says.
“By devaluing art?”
“By devaluing old art.”
“What’s wrong with old art?”
“It’s the only kind the Premier tolerates.”
“He’s a man of classical tastes.”
“Bouguereau!” she sneers. “We never target the work of living artists. By commonizing old symbols, we’re spurring the demand for new ones.”
“Then why is no one signing up for art classes anymore?”
“Maybe not at mausoleums like the Met, where they’ll never see their own work anyway. The underground schools are thriving thanks to us.”
“The ilKleegal ones,” I retort, unable to resist.
“What was that?” asks the man.
“I said, ‘The il-Klee-gal ones.’”
“I think we’re good here,” he says.
Zala smiles as she walks toward me. Her gymnast’s gait is so elegant, her pale calf like a stripe in a Rothko. I smile back. The last thing I see is her baby-smooth heel speeding toward my face.
This time the wet slap of the Staten Island Sound rouses me. A boat vanishes into the night. I gurgle water and oil slick as I bob in the wake of my new friends, 3DPG. It’s a cold night, and I feel like there’s a ten-cheesesteak pileup in my ass, courtesy of their grav-crane. I swim to the shore and sit on the mud beside cans and tires and spent grav cartridges until I finish shivering myself awake.
I need to go straight to the station to have a shot at stopping the Liberty Bells. I stagger up the shore, naked and slimy as man’s first ancestor. Soon the Statue of Liberty comes into sight. Immensity is the only real protection against forgery.
Behind some oil drums a heap of paintings shakes in the wind. I break the backings off some Miros and wrap the canvases around my hands and feet. Then I find a big O’Keeffe, punch a hole through the middle, and wear it like a poncho.
People smile as I come up to the ferry terminal. I’d smile too if a head poking out of a huge flapping vagina lined up next to me. I stand outside on the ferry’s upper deck, opening and closing my hands on the railing, away from the other passengers. Frostbite is easy enough to fix, and I’m afraid to sit down given the agony in my backside.
I stand at the gangway well before we start to dock, to get off first and avoid the other passengers. I feel a tap on my shoulder. One snide comment isn’t bad given the circumstances. I glance back. It’s an older man, smiling like the passengers behind him.
“Thank you,” he whispers.
The gangway clanks onto the pier and I hurry off. The sun is up. I won’t get frostbite. But, everyone will turn to see at the huge fallopian tube hobbling up the sidewalk. “Happy to oblige!” I shout at the smiling onlookers. Some of them nod in a way I’d find encouraging under any other circumstances.
I clamber up the station steps. Each footfall is a thunderbolt in my rectum. I realize I’m weak with hunger when I struggle to open the door. At least I can do something about that. My colleagues are staring at me, gaping, not smiling. I should have heeded Graves’ warning about 3DPG. This day will hang over me for years.
I head to the evidence room and pull open the freezer. It’s gone. I can still taste trash juice and the fake-mime’s heel, and my emergency cheesesteak is gone. I go Dull Gret. I charge into Brouwer’s office, ready to rain a fury of lost Liberty Bells and cheese whiz.
Then I freeze. At first, I wonder if I’m looking at a blown-up photograph. The pain in my ass is so bad I have to prop myself against the doorframe. They both smile, but not like the ferry passengers. They leer as if I’d wandered out of the drunk tank.
“Kleefect timing,” says the one holding my emergency cheesesteak.
I turn to Brouwer. “He’s not me!”
“If he’s not, he’s better,” Brouwer replies. “He stopped the Liberty Bell heist. You couldn’t even stop a few burghers.”
“Plus I’m not hiding an optical tomographer in my rectum,” says the man who is indistinguishable from but definitely not me.
I go beyond Dull Gret. I go Kandinsky. I go Pollock. I’m an unfocused pointillist rage. I reach for my plasma blade, but all I grab is the breeze under my nuts. Then I lose consciousness, this time all by myself.
Something soft and greasy prods me awake. It smells incredible. I open my eyes. My doppelganger is poking the half of my emergency cheesesteak through the bars of my cell, smiling too earnestly for anyone over a day old.
I finish the cheesesteak in about seven seconds, avoiding eye contact until after I’ve pulled a Miro off my hand and wiped my lips. “What’s your plan?” I don’t ask why. I would have done worse to anyone in 3DPG.
“It depends on you.”
“I want the other half of my cheesesteak.”
“It’s too late for that.”
“Then I want my identity.”
“That’s mine now.”
I use the bars to pull myself up. I’m still wearing my cervical shroud, but the only thing in my ass now is poop, thankfully. “In exchange for what?”
“I’m a mound of tissue with a handful of your memories.” I recall the reverse vivisection in 3DPG’s lab and swallow back down a chunk of the cheesesteak. “I want to keep being you, that is, of course, while secretly serving the 3D Print Gang.” He glances toward the corner of my cell.
I see my clothes, neatly folded, undies and all. “What’s your game?”
“I’m just offering you your clothes,” he replies with total sincerity. “One of our subsidiaries shipped the Liberty Bells an hour ago, by the way.”
I’d need more cheesesteak to get really angry, but I can still withhold satisfaction. “Fuck off, mime.”
“You prefer to remain dressed as female genitalia?”
“I still look better than you,” which is totally false given that he’s a healthier, cleaner version of me, but it’s the best I can do at the moment.
“You won’t even take the undies?”
“I like the freedom of my O’Keeffes.”
He opens the cell door, which apparently was unlocked the whole time. “In that case you may go.”
Since everyone thinks I’m a crazy clone, I use my exit as an opportunity to flip off some colleagues I never liked, press my butt cheeks up against the window on Brouwer’s door, and wipe my greasy Miro napkin on the bulletproof glass in the lobby. Thus begins my midlife crisis.
I have no idea what I’ll do as I step out onto the sidewalk. My identity is copied and meaningless. No keys or wallet. I can’t go to my apartment, or the Met. Graves would be far too delighted if I called him up. For now, I bask in my comeuppance, marveling at its abruptness.
Pedestrians continue to smile at me as I roam the city. I smile back, having exhausted my spite in the station, and they nod as if I’ve done something good. Perhaps Graves and I weren’t so different, the same images, polarized. He blesses the kitsch, squeezing out the non-kitsch. I damn the kitsch, but in turn banish the new and good. The experimental. The avant-garde.
I keep walking, watching the pavement in contemplation, until I feel something enter my left nostril: a bronze finger, belonging to the bronze hand of a burgher from Calais. I laugh. It’s bizarre here, out of the museum, bronze noose under its anguished face right in front of a designer cupcake shop. Almost as bizarre as a man wearing Miro socks, a vagina poncho, and nothing else.
Then it hits me. All these people really are smiling, not leering. Approving. Appreciating. I’m performance art, and the illegal, distasteful to the Premier variety at that. At least I think I am, and so do all of them.
A grin spreads over my face. “Ha!” I start to run down the sidewalk, my gonadic cape whipping behind me, exposing my own genitals to hundreds of bystanders, when I trip and face-plant on the cement.
I roll onto my back, dazed. A mime in capris is standing over me, sticking out a well-muscled leg, which rather attractively contrasts the rest of her skin.
“Haven’t you had enough fun with me?”
“Now it’s time for you to have fun with us,” Zala replies.
“You want me to join you?”
“We need someone with your experience.”
“Do I have to dress like a mime?”
“Not if you have your own clothes.”
I look myself over. I don’t. But even performance art has its limits. “I guess I’m 3DPG now.”
She offers her hand and helps me up. “Up for a Kleesteak?”
JOSH TAYLOR is an engineering professor at the University of Toronto. This is his first fiction publication.