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A Brush with Death

A Brush with Death by Joan Smith
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Cassie Newton once again joins forces with John Weiss, an investigator for Lloyds of London, when he shows up in Montreal on the track of ten fake Van Gogh paintings. The forger is murdered, with the cast of suspects including Hot Buns, a museum curator and a sheik. Along with the luxury and excitement she craves, Cassie finds herself facing deadly danger.

Mystery/Romantic Suspense by Joan Smith

Belgrave House; May 1990
162 pages; ISBN 9780515103045
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Title: A Brush with Death
Author: Joan Smith

You’d think when a man said he couldn’t live without you, he meant in close proximity—if not in the same house, at least the same city or country. But no, it seems my fiancé’s vital organs continue functioning just knowing I am on the same planet. While he capers around Europe, I am stuck in what Voltaire so vividly described as “quelques arpents de neige,” otherwise known as Canada. Voltaire got the environment right. He erred in the size. There must be zillions of arpents of snow. Whole mountains of it loom like elongated pyramids along the sides of the roadways, adding a further hazard to the little game drivers play here in Montreal. It’s called kill the pedestrian. If you think the Indy 500 is dangerous, you should try crossing St. Catherine’s some busy afternoon. I saw a mo­torist knock over a traffic cop at the corner of St. Kitt’s and Crescent yesterday.

But I digress. John Weiss, my fiancé, is not totally respon­sible for my being here. I want to finish my education, at least get a B.A. Because French is my major, I’m taking it at McGill University, in Montreal. I was tempted to join John in London, where he’s a very peripatetic investigator for a major insurance company. The last I heard he was in Holland. I’d only known him a short while when we got engaged, and at the time it seemed a sensible idea to wait till I graduated before we got married. I didn’t know then that John doesn’t write letters. Oh, he phones—long distance from London and Paris and Amsterdam, throwing me into conniptions of jealousy that I’m not with him.

The thing is, I haven’t heard from him for three weeks, and with Christmas fast approaching I want to firm up holiday plans. In two days my Christmas exams will be over, and I haven’t a clue whether we’ll be going to my home in Bangor, Maine, for the holidays, or to Plains, Nebraska, to meet John’s folks, or what. I could have gone to Mount Tremblant with the uni­versity ski club. I would have loved that, but I didn’t sign up because I hadn’t heard from John. I don’t know what to get him for Christmas either, but if he doesn’t get me an engage­ment ring, fur will fly, possibly also teeth and limbs.

All this makes studying for my exams very difficult. Before me sits a stack of notes six inches high that I should be reading. I am really not all that steady on the development of the novel in France. I keep forgetting whether it was Flaubert or Balzac who struggled over “le mot juste.” It must have been Flaubert. Nobody who poured out such mountains of prose as Balzac could have spent a day struggling over one word. I hope Ma­dame Bovary is on the exam. I loved Emma—as a character I mean. I think she would have been a pain in the ass to know personally. But when it comes time to discuss the character, the main thing I remember is that Flaubert, despite his strug­gling over the words, gave her three different eye colors—brown, deep black, and blue. And when pressed to identify her, he said he was Emma Bovary. I wonder what color his eyes were.

I went to bed that night with a headache and a vague feeling of unease. I was alone in the apartment that I share with a classmate. Sherry Cobden had finished her exams that afternoon and gone home. With my usual stunning luck, I had an exam on the last possible day, afternoon at that. I set the alarm for seven, to be sure I made it to the university in time for my second last exam, which I did. It went fine. Madame Bovary was on, for thirty marks. I recognized all of the excerpts in the sight passages and BS'd my way through the comments. I was in a good mood as I ploughed my way through campus toward the bus stop, hooded head bent into my collarbone against the gale-force winds. When the wind decides to blow in Montreal, you don’t try to identify the people you meet. If you manage to tell the people from the trees and avoid both, you’re doing well.

I saw a hooded, huddled form slogging through the snow and automatically nudged over to the edge of the path. The hood moved to the left to take a peek at me, and I readied a conspiratorial smile for whoever could be bothered to speak on a day like this. First I could only see an Eskimo-like ring of fur, with a red nose and a large mustache peeking out behind it. The mustache reminded me of John’s. I smiled.

The face peeked out a little farther. I identified brown, liquid eyes behind the snowy eyebrows, and my hopes soared. The lips opened in a boyish grin, and there was no longer any doubt. Even without seeing his hair, which is brown and just beginning to recede a little in front, I knew it was John Weiss. His smile was unmistakable, with those white teeth overlapping just a tiny bit in front. My heart raced like a jet engine, and I felt tears scald my eyes, just before they froze.

“Cassie, is that you?” he asked. Puffs of breath hung on the zero degree air. Zero Fahrenheit, I mean. I can’t get used to the centigrade scale they use here.

I dropped books, notes, clipboard and threw myself into his arms, half-laughing and half-crying. He must have been doing bench lifts. He managed to get me, wearing about twenty pounds of sheep-lined suede coat and boots and a shoulder bag holding four books, into the air and swung me around.

“Where did you come from? What are you doing here? Why didn’t you write?” I peppered him with questions while my face hovered three inches above his, and the white world spun around me.

John isn’t one for wasting time. Instead of talking, he kissed me very thoroughly indeed. It was a—different—sensation, to feel a frosty mustache turn liquid against your face. I felt something inside me melt too, and I’m not talking about sensual arousal. He still loves me, is what I thought, and I have to admit that what was dissipating inside me was fear that I’d lost him. Our romance had been brief, and interrupted by a some­what engrossing mystery involving my kidnapped violin-playing uncle, the Great Mazzini, and a stolen Stradivarius. We didn’t really know each other inside out, the way you should before agreeing to marry someone. With John's globe-trotting life, the possibility was always there that he’d go falling in love with some mane of blond hair and lithe, tanned torso on the Riviera, and forget all about me.

After a long, reassuring kiss, he put me down and we scrab­bled around in the snow, trying to pick up all my junk with our bulky gloves. “I hardly recognized you,” John laughed. “Talk about all women looking alike in the dark. They all look like Eskimos here. In fact, I had trouble telling the women from the men.”

“Wait till you see the demoiselles with their coats off. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble.”

We had everything picked up, and I said, “Do you want to go to the coffee shop, or back to my place?”

“I rented wheels. I thought we might go out somewhere for lunch.”

“You’re planning to drive in Montreal? Brave man.”

“Yeah, I noticed they drive like Cariocas, and the snow adds a new challenge.”

It was a great relief not to have to line up on the street corner and wait for a bus. In winter, the cold, raw wind whips up from the St. Lawrence and can freeze you solid in two minutes. People are so anxious to get in out of the cold there’s a stampede at the bus doors. John had rented a blue Crown Victoria. He likes big cars. It was still warm, and I had the luxury of taking off my gloves and pulling down my hood. John did the same.

He turned and studied me from his melting brown eyes. “Yup, you’re a woman all right,” he smiled, and kissed me again, in a much more leisurely way than the first time. Then he said, “Where do you want to eat? Let’s make it someplace special.”

I noticed that beneath his Eskimo coat, John was wearing a very elegant dark suit, white shirt, and striped tie. I had thrown on a big sloppy sweater and wool slacks, with long johns beneath, which added an inch to my nether dimensions. During exams, I hadn’t bothered much about such details as hair and makeup.

“Oh lord, I can’t go to a decent restaurant looking like this. Let’s go to McDonald’s.”

“You look fine to me, Cass,” he said, and turned on the engine. To avoid parking problems, we went to his hotel, the Bonaventure, which is a very nice hotel. John’s specialty is recovering stolen property that his company has insured, and he makes a very good living indeed.

I felt like a poor relation in that fancy dining room, but John had enough class to cover me. When I first met him, he was masquerading as a cowboy, and I tended to think of him in that guise. He really did have a little touch of the West in his speech, but as he ordered from the French menu with no trouble, I realized he was cosmopolitan. Of course he would be, with his globe-trotting job.

I have an unnatural passion for luxury. Meretricious glamour always attracted me. Vuitton luggage, truffles, Dom Perignon champagne, anything in a Tiffany box. Thus far, these goodies are familiar to me only from the pages of Connoisseur mag­azine. You don’t see many Vuitton bags in Bangor. John says I have one foot firmly anchored in a castle in the air, the other on a cloud.

We started with a Bloody Marie, which John explained is a Bloody Mary with garlic, and very tasty. “I discovered this in Marseilles,” he said nonchalantly.

“What were you doing in Marseilles?”

"Recovering a three-million-dollar yacht that was supposed to have sunk off the Riviera. The guy had it painted and rerigged and took it to Marseilles to sell. He blew up a little tugboat and had some friends testify that it was his yacht, the Stella Maris.”

I hung on every rich syllable. “How did you find out?”

“I knew from the debris it was a scam, and just took it from there.”

“That must have been a good addition to your wallet. Why are you looking a little glum? Oh darn, they don’t have nouvelle cuisine.” I was not entirely distressed to have to submit to regular French cooking. In fact, I was smiling from ear to ear. John’s life is the stuff my dreams are made of—not just the European travel, but also with an exciting job thrown in to keep it from being totally decadent and eventually, I imagine, even boring.

His lips clenched a moment, in a way that makes his mus­tache jiggle adorably. “I’m a bit ticked off with the company, Cassie,” he said, and took a long drink of his Bloody Marie.

John drinks, but in moderation. The glass was emptying rather quickly. “The thing is, I tipped the company off to a possible crisis, and they went and gave the assignment to Jeff Penderson. Jeff’s a good man, I’m not knocking him, but I thought the Van Gogh assignment would be mine.

“Van Gogh? What do you mean?”

“You must have been reading about the ridiculous prices Van Gogh’s been getting lately. His Irises went for nearly fifty-four million, and the Sunflowers before that for not much less. A fairly insignificant little portrait was valued at four mil after Sotheby’s auctioned Irises. It cost sixty thousand to insure. Do you realize the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has two hundred and five Van Gogh’s? And there are weirdoes out there who just love damaging these priceless artworks. Van Gogh’s Berceuse was slashed a while back by some discontented artist. Insurance has become a nightmare for museums.”

“I begin to see the problem. I didn’t realize Van Gogh was that prolific, two hundred and five in one place.”

“There are over a thousand, all told. We’re only used to seeing the ones that have been reproduced, or are in our own American galleries, and maybe the Tate. The Sunflowers are the most famous, of course. He did a whole series of them. You often see a copy of The Starry Night from the Museum of Modem Art, I’Arlesienne from the Met, and of course the self-portrait with the bandaged ear. He did eight hundred oils and seven hundred drawings in the most prolific decade of his life, before he committed suicide in 1890. Hundreds of them are in galleries all over Europe, the Netherlands, and Belgium and France. The security threat is staggering, and some of those museums are not rich, I mean in money terms. For the ones we have insured, I wanted to be the expert. I suggested they beef up security, and we cut a deal on insurance.”

“Who’d steal them? He could hardly sell them . . . ."  

“The woods are full of closet connoisseurs. Selling them wouldn’t be any problem. It’s recovering them that’d be hard. They’d go into very private collections around the world. It wouldn’t be easy to get into the kinds of places they’d end up, with electronic security systems and guards and dogs and a lot of clout with the authorities too.”

My blood tingled in delight. “Are you on a case?” I asked.

He smiled and squeezed my band. “A very important one. Yours.”

“That’s wonderful, John,” I said dutifully. Well, I was happy, of course. “How long will we have? We have to make plans for Christmas.”

“We must do that,” he said, but already his mind had re­verted to Van Gogh. “I was so sure I’d get that assignment. I’d been studying all about Vincent van Gogh—I read his letters and everything. All three volumes. Poor bastard, what a rotten life he had. Only sold one painting in his whole life. Can you imagine, painting about a thousand, and only selling one? It went for peanuts. And now, when it’s too late to do him any good, he gets over fifty mil for one canvas. Not one of his best either, in my opinion.”

“It’s a kind of lunacy. No painting could be worth that much.”

“It’s like anything else. It’s worth what somebody’s willing to pay for it.”

“They must be people with more money than brains.”

John had lifted his empty glass, and the waiter came trotting with another Bloody Marie. I was more hungry than thirsty, and grabbed the celery that he set aside, the easier to gulp down the vodka.

“Are you interested in hitting the slopes over Christmas?” he asked. “Some good skiing in Quebec.”

“ want to go home for Christmas!” I exclaimed.

“Oh, yeah. Well, it’s only the nineteenth. You could cut a few classes, and we’ll head up to the Laurentians for a couple of days."

“I’m writing exams, John. If you’d let me know you were coming—and why didn’t you write, or phone, since you ap­parently have a phobia of pens?”

“Exams! Oh shit. Do you have to . . ."

“This just happens to be my career we’re talking about. Of course I have to. You were the one who thought I should finish at the university,” I reminded him.

He took another swig of the drink. “I probably never would have heard the end of it if I hadn’t.”

I am not slow to wrath, and John is not usually bitchy. My joy at seeing him was quickly congealing to annoyance at his attitude. “Why don’t they bring our food? I have to study this afternoon,” I said impatiently.

John didn’t say anything, but the brown eye he flashed at me had lost its puppy warmth. He sensed my mood and asked, “How is the studying going anyway?”


“I’m sorry I’m such lousy company. It’s just that I was really hot on the Van Gogh thing. It would have meant we could more or less settle down, somewhere in the Netherlands probably. I wouldn’t have to be jauntering all over the world. I’m getting a bit tired of it. The glamour wears thin after you’ve circled Orly or Dorval or Leonardo da Vinci airport for the umpteenth time. You begin to wonder just what the hell you’re doing, living half your life in the clouds, and the other half chasing after crooks.”

“The Netherlands!” I said weakly. When I dream of our future life, I assure you it does not involve dikes or tulips. It was those disparaged trips to Paris and Rome that whetted my appetite. “Holland, huh? How nice. I’m studying the wrong language.”

“The Hague’s a nice, clean city.”

“Clean, yes.” Cleanliness I could get at home. I picked up my glass and drained it, and lifted it for a refill.

He studied me carefully. “You don’t like it.”

“Not much.”

“What is it that’s turned you off?” I watched with amaze­ment as his face stiffened, and his eyes took on a look of some negative emotion. “Is it another guy?” he asked, in a hard, don’t give a damn voice, that didn’t fool me for a minute.

“No, silly. It’s Holland.” He gulped noiselessly, his jaw unstiffened, and a quiet little smile lifted his lips. Not anger then; it had been fear. “Couldn’t Paris be your basis of op­eration? You said Paris had Van Goghs too. And anyway, Jeff got the job, you said.”

“Yes, Jeff got the job, so we can forget about the Hague. Oh good, here’s our food.”

The beef, simmering in a wine and mushroom sauce, melted in the mouth. The snowpeas were just right, with a vestige of crunch, and lightly sautéed in butter and shallots. I have never had bread like they make in Quebec anywhere else. A puff of yeasty air, held in place by a crisp brown crust. The Médoc John chose to go with it wasn’t bad either. I could hardly find room for the chocolate mousse. When I tell you I left two whole forkfuls on my plate, you will realize the meal was more than filling.

John scrawled his signature, hardly glancing at the bill, though my Argus eye noticed that it came to three figures. It was cheap at the price.

“It’s almost worth the lethal traffic for a meal like that,” John said, patting his tummy. “So, I guess I take you to your place to hit the books. Can I see you tonight?”

“You bet. What will you be doing this afternoon?”

He hesitated a telltale moment before answering. “I have a little something I have to look into.”

My sixth sense received a red flash. “John, are you on a case? You said you came to visit me!”

“I did! Of course I did. But while I’m here, there’s a guy I want to look up.”

He was helping me on with my coat, lifting my hair out from the bunched-up hood with loving, clinging fingers.

“What guy?” I pinned him with a demanding stare.

“No, you’re busy: You go on and study. I’ll see you to­night.”

“What guy?” I repeated.

“Well if you must know, he’s a forger, Yves Latour by name, but . . .”

Blood sang in my veins. My ears hummed, and the portals of paradise opened a crack. “I’ll study tonight. Tell me all about him while we drive to his place. Are we going to do a stakeout?”

He shook his head and laughed. “It looks like it.”