Off the Wall

Nina Wachsman

Nina Wachsman is a former art director and currently the principal of a digital marketing agency in New York City.
She writes mystery and speculative fiction and is a member of Mystery Writers of America, the Authors Guild, and Sisters in Crime.

You’d never catch me hanging in a place like this before, smelling of old beer and old men. It was all the bad publicity, it alienated the Collectors.

You should have known me when I was on top of the game. Morphing was still new and few artists had mastered it. Not everyone could handle the drugs that would transform you into a piece of art a Collector would be proud to hang on the wall. We were a small group, known to the gallery owners and dealers, and cultivated, like rare hothouse flowers. There were parties loaded with the best Stimuli (especially the music, either tingling or throbbing) to trigger a Morph that would be as interesting and innovative as possible.

Oh, those parties! When you could hardly remember what you were when you came in and could barely recognize yourself when you came out. It took days to get back to your usual self, but who cared? If the Morph was successful and you sold, there was a nice fat contract —six months to a year—waiting for you with your dealer. The perks were there too, as most likely you’d be living in some penthouse or estate, with the best food and drink, all expenses paid, and a staff to wait on you at all times.

So, what happened, you want to know? Why am I hanging in a place like this? Well, when I tell you the story, it will become clear.

I had just come off a year of hanging in a mountain retreat somewhere in Colorado, tanned and relaxed and feeling refreshed. Ready for the next Morph, back in New York, where the best Collectors were, and represented by one of the top galleries. My dealer, Hans, an expert at the game, was adept at teasing multiple buyers or establishing a new trend, which ironically, only his artists could fulfill.

I had a nice, loft-like apartment on Tenth Street in the Village, stocked with ample supply of morphizine and art books, my only treasures. The Cubist and Futurist movements of the early 1920s were my sources of inspiration, and influenced my Morph, making it distinctive from most of the other artists. My unique talent was Fragmenting, projecting my fragmented self onto different planes, taking Cubism from two dimensions to three, sure to excite the most elite of the sophisticated Art Collectors.

Hans had scheduled a top-tier Collector’s party, a showcase for his high-ticket Morph Artists. Grabbing a two-pack of morphizine, I donned my black shiny raincoat and was on my way. The black pavement was shiny after a drizzle and my stiletto-heeled retro pumps clicked loudly across it as I followed the route to the warehouse site of tonight’s gallery party.

“The biggest Collectors will be coming, Liebchen,” Hans had gotten me into the habit of referring to Collectors as their own special entity with a capital ‘C’. Big Collectors were very busy and very rich, but in pursuit of their Collection they tended to come early and stay late, wanting to be certain of the art that caught their attention, before committing their millions to a purchase.

However, that night, at least, I was game—and if took a little more morphizine than usual, so be it. I was healthy, relaxed, and felt I could easily handle a full night of Morphing.

Wandering around by myself, (Hans was too cheap to pay for added chaperones for Morphing artists) I finally found a dressing room, where I disrobed, took out my syringe and sat on a rickety chair to shoot up the morphizine.

If you’ve never taken morphizine, you can’t imagine the initial rush as it sets your cells up to Morph. It leaves you feeling you’ve had a small taste of paradise. (By the way, in those days I scored the best morphizine you could get; the crap I get now barely gives me the same kind of buzz).

How does it work, you ask? I’m not totally sure, but one time a doctor tried to explain it to me:

Your DNA is like the instruction book for your genes, much like the instruction book that comes with a Lego set. Evidently, the DNA tells the genes and cells of your body how to structure itself, and how all the little tiny pieces should come together. Then, some scientist discovered that DNA can be altered, and with the injection of a new drug into the bloodstream and the right stimulus to activate it, it can direct cells to change the body’s structure.

Initially, the drug was used to retool the DNA and restructure the genes of people who were born with disabilities caused by missing or non-functioning genes. With the success of this application, the excitement of more possibilities grew, after scientists discovered that some people were more responsive than others to DNA-change. These people had genes which were dynamic and would bind and move quickly and easily once the drug and the stimulus were administered, and experienced few, if any, side effects. Oddly enough, those who responded so well to the drug had a high creative instinct and became Morph Artists.

Since there were no serious side effects to taking the drug now known as morphizine, it was made easily available to Responders, although artists have to take a blood test to confirm their response everytime they refill a prescription for morphizine. 

So here I was, eyes closed as I reveled in the euphoria produced by the first rush of morphizine into my veins, and I took my time before getting up and into the Morph. Even without Stimuli like music or flashing lights, my body was beginning to morph. My fingers extended into tendrils, turning green, and my hair began to grow into vines, encircling my body. Feeling good, I slithered out of the dressing area to where the music caused the floor to throb, while trying to control my feet from morphing, until I got to the heart of the party.

I followed the throbbing floor to a white metal door, which was a struggle to open with my fingers already morphed into tendrils. I stepped onto a painted metal catwalk surrounding a giant fish tank filled with colored oozing things. The music made both my legs and the catwalk vibrate with its syncopation, and I had to concentrate to prevent the Morphfrom rearranging my cells randomly to the rhythm. It not only took the right DNA, but self-control to direct the Morph into the kind of art a Collector would appreciate.

I climbed down the ladder into the tank, and let the warm water engulf me. Concentrating on fragmenting, not angular but smooth. My tendrils stretched and diversified into more branches through the pulsating water.

With the disintegration of your usual form, it takes the power of imagination to reshape every cell in your body. As the Morph progresses, the connection between consciousness and emotion grows fuzzy, and oblivion sets in. It’s important you understand this now, so you’ll understand what happened later.

I remained in a semi-conscious state until 4:00 am when, at last, the morphizine began to wear off. The water in the tank had grown cold and goopy, and I tried to avoid oozing forms clinging to the walls as my tendrils slithered upwards. With a shiver that shook my entire form, I emerged, restored to my natural shape. However, the Morph was now stamped into my brain, and at the right price, I’d recreate it for the Collector who wanted to buy it.

Hans was waiting for me when I exited the dressing room, a big smile on his professionally reconstructed face. “Well, you did it this time, Cecilia,” he said as he kissed me on both cheeks, “You’ve caught the big fish. The biggest Collector of Modern Art of the western world, Sir Giles McCullen.”

“You’re kidding,” I said, skeptical.

Hans patted his jacket pocket. “Got the contract right here, already signed by the Collector and now ready for your signature.”

Landing in the art collection of Sir Giles McCullen, one of the richest men in the world, was the ticket to stardom. Sir Giles was a leading Collector, and an influencer, and I was to be his first Morph acquisition.

Han’s answer to my next question of, “How much?” staggered me with its outrageously high amount. His surgically enhanced facial muscles strained as they widened into the biggest grin I’d ever seen him attempt. Grabbing the papers he offered, I did a quick scan, looking for the location and start date. Two days! Not much time to get a full supply of morphizine, but, luckily, the location was a penthouse apartment on Park Avenue, not some lonely far-off estate, so delivery from a nearby pharmacy would be feasible.

“Wait a minute. It’s only a 3-month contract!” I looked up angrily, “what’s with that? I thought we don’t do samples.”

Hans tented his fingers before his face, “He likes to rotate his art and allows nothing to hang for more than a month or two. For Sir Giles McCullen, you’ll do three months or whatever time he wants, capisce? You’re getting the three because you’ll be his first Morph Art, and I convinced him he should take more time with it. The good news is that after he’s done with a piece, he usually makes sure to pass it along to another prestigious Collector. So, you’re far from being left out in the cold. This will turn into a never-ending gig. Promise.”

Oh, well. Hans was as ambitious as I was, and would ensure the commissions would keep rolling in.

Within two days, I found myself in the stark white entry of Sir Gile’s penthouse on Park Avenue. My contract required me to hang for about 6 hours a day, beginning at seven o’clock in the evening when Sir Giles got home, and ending when he retired to his bedroom, at around one in the morning.

For my off-hours, I had been given a cozy large room with a private bath, with big picture windows framing a stunning view of Manhattan. The lap of luxury and the kind of life I’d always imagined, complete with an efficient and courteous staff to tend to my every need.

You’ve heard of Sir Giles McCullen, haven’t you? Want to know what he was like before the murder, don’t you? Well, I couldn’t tell you. I never spoke to him, and he never spoke to me.

Usually, Collectors couldn’t stop asking about the Morph, because it was the one experience they couldn’t buy. Even if they were to shoot up a ton of morphizine, there’s no way to force a Morph; it was all up to the DNA.

Sir Giles, however, seemed to have no desire to know more about the Morph, and the only reaction I got out of him was a lift of an eyebrow on the first day he sat down to dinner and noticed me on the opposite wall.

Sir Giles may have initially been attracted to my creation, the fragmenting of the physical plane and the creation of tendrils that glinted, mercurial and ephemeral, in different lights. Though he lacked understanding of Morph Art, he obviously had been informed of the need for continued Stimulus to maintain it and arranged a full-spectrum light show along with pulsating music to play during the hours I was scheduled to be on the wall.

In my off time, I kept busy by meandering around the apartment or swimming in the infinity pool on the terrace. Occasionally, Sir Giles would see me in my ordinary human form, but his face never registered a flicker of recognition nor the inclination to speak to me. When I wasn’t on his wall, I was invisible, just like everything else in his household.

In that vast complex, servants and assistants were ever ready to receive his orders, and they too were treated as invisibles. It was not intentional or derogatory; it was just Sir Giles. He had a lack of interest in anything once collected, and anyone already on his payroll.

Except for a beautiful man. Many know of his obsession with Michelangelo’s David, and it was rumored he’d purchased it, although was persuaded to leave it where it was, in the museum in Florence. It was also whispered that Sir Giles seemed to have a passion for collecting a living embodiment of Michaelangelo’s artistic ideal and had many flings with David-like young men, who all signed non-disclosure agreements, of course.

Now, let me set the stage for Sir Giles’ final night on earth.

I was hanging in my spot in the dining room when Sir Giles came home at his usual time, accompanied by a tall, blond, perfectly proportioned young man who looked like he had been chiseled out of ice. Sir Giles was in constant movement, picking up a glass, pouring a drink, tinkling the ice. He tapped his fingers repeatedly on the side table not more than two feet from where I hung, but he ignored me, didn’t even try to show me off to his guest. He did not acknowledge the staff or the dinner they laid out for him and his guest on the long dining table.

Sir Giles was in his late fifties, with graying hair, and he sported a beard that hid the lower half of his face. He could not take his eyes off the young blond man, as if he were some new treasure to be added to his collection.

Reality gets hazy when you’re into a Morph, but I remember snippets of the evening. I could see the young man, as he tried repeatedly to engage Sir Giles in conversation and waited and waited for some response. After absolutely no reaction, his guest reached for knife and fork and began to dig into his dinner.

While in the middle of a Morph, your senses feel like they are on overload. Waves of disgust and disappointment were emanating from Sir Giles. He must have said something to the young man, who paused for the first time in his eating. Rising slowly, I could see the glint of the knife clutched so tightly in his hand, and felt the anger, like a hot wind, simmering from the young man. Although my senses were in high alert, my consciousness was not, and so when the young man began to shout at Sir Giles, with the knife still in his hand, I could not summon any muscle to react or even to open my mouth.

If Sir Giles noticed the knife or the young man’s anger, he did not seem to react to it, and instead, reached for a tumbler, poured something into it, and offered it to the young man to drink. The young man took it and downed it in one gulp, then wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his white shirt, leaving a faint brown stain.

Sir Giles turned away to the window. The turmoil of emotions surging from the young man was so powerful, it caused new branches to sprout from my tendrils, which inched down the walls towards the source of the sensation. The young man came closer to Sir Giles, who suddenly turned and struck him full across the face. Stunned, a red splotch appeared on his cheek, and he placed a hand on the mark, as if feeling for damage. Suddenly, the young man’s arms shot out, and then in a flash, Sir Giles was propelled through the picture window with a trailing scream.

I was too far into the Morph to pull myself off the wall or call out for the staff or reach for the phone to summon the police. It took all my willpower and control to prevent myself from Morphing to the waves of fear and anger blasting from the young man. He still had not noticed me as a live person, though he came close enough to me on the wall to hear him snarl. I watched helplessly as he grabbed a tabletop sculpture, and tossed it out the shattered window after Sir Giles.

Paralyzed, I was in my position, because aside from taking morphizine I had ingested a Fixative pill to keep the Morph in the exact position that Sir Giles had paid for. It was the Fixative, not the morphizine, which locked me in place, as I kept explaining to the authorities. Besides, I was in danger. The young brute could have taken me in his arms and tossed me out after the sculpture he just threw, and I would have been helpless to save myself.

Luckily for me, the servants must have had heard the window shatter, and they had called the police, who burst into the room, handcuffing the young man before he could get away.

After twenty-four hours, the Fixative and the morphizine was out of my system, and it was my turn to be interviewed by the police, who had already completed their discussions with the suspect and Sir Giles’ staff.

An eyewitness, wasn’t I, you say? What I saw should have put that young murderer away for good, but my testimony was discounted. The Defense Counsel turned the case against the Morph, and public opinion turned against me, as if I had committed a crime. They claimed I could have saved Sir Giles, but I was “under the influence of morphizine” and “in a state of disarrayed molecular structure” which disqualified me as “an individual capable of testimony”. In short, I was ruled to be an Object, since the Morph had deprived me of my humanity. Therefore, I was disqualified as a witness to an act of murder.

The press had a field day, and I’m surprised you don’t recall it. Artists like me were condemned for going to such extremes for the sake of newfangled creativity, demonstrating our defiance of basic ethics and standards of humanity.

There was a public debate, with vocal protests about the dangers and depravity of the Morph from one camp, and criticism of the judiciary for ruling an artist was no longer a member of the human race but an Object while in the midst of art performance, from the other.

“Accidental death” was the official ruling–not murder, and the beautiful but deadly young man got off with no charges filed against him. Wouldn’t you know, it turned out the young man was also an artist, a sculptor of some new technologically advanced non-melting ice? Now, with new notoriety and Hans representing him, he became the newest Art Star.

At Hans’s suggestion, I left town and he promised to get me back into circulation once the publicity died down. I should have known better than to trust Hans.The estate of Sir Giles McCullen paid out the rest of my contract, keeping me in some basic comfort as I waited for Hans to send me a new commission.

However, Hans was sad to inform me that my role in Sir Giles’s death, contrary to the judge’s ruling, had stirred the Collectors to realize the artist was not an Object, but a human being, who had a fly-on-wall-intimate view of their personal lives. Not an appealing thought to Collectors, who believed their wealth allowed them to indulge in anything they chose, secure in the privacy of their homes. The art they buy for their walls should tell no tales, but an artist hanging on their walls, no matter how altered their physical shape, was seen as an invasion of their privacy.

My short-term exile became a long one. Outside of New York, there were still wanna-be Collectors who still wanted to get in on Morph Art, so I found work for a time. Then, like everything else in the art world, the Morph went completely out of fashion. Nowadays, I can count my Morph gigs on the fingers of one hand, and with morphizine so much harder to come by, it’s probably time for me to retire.

That’s my story, so have another drink, on me. I bet it’s not every day you meet a witness to a famous murder, even a discredited one.

That’s why I landed here, an oddity, in this rundown, godforsaken bar in Newark. No matter what I see, and man, I can tell you, I see a lot, does it really matter in the long run? No one’s buying it.