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Capriccio 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; April 1989
170 pages; ISBN 9780515099843
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Capriccio
Author: Joan Smith

When Victor got me a job at a castle, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Me and a castle—we’d go together like Scotch and water, Fred and Ginger, Irene and Vernon. But I soon got used to grandeur, and in the end it was just another nine-to-five job. The castle is called Casa Loma, and it’s a spurious medieval affair on the banks of Walmer Road in Toronto. According to the tourist brochures, Major General Sir Henry M. Pellatt built the castle to entertain visiting royalty, but when the hordes of royal visitors fell off, it was turned over to the Kiwanis Club. They run it as a tourist attraction to raise money for their service work, and I conducted tours to finance my education. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I came to Canada to study French at McGill University, since Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world, and more accessible (i.e., cheaper) than Paris.

Before I decided to study French, I led a life of noisy desperation trying to get rich in Bangor, Maine. It wasn’t just greed, more like an adolescent daydream really. I blame it on De Maupassant’s short story, La Parure, in which the heroine feels she was born for “tous les luxes et toutes les d鬩catesses de la vie.” That about sums up my feelings.

My guidance counselor said I had an aptitude for languages, so I decided to learn French and become a member of the diplomatic corps. After graduation I hope to live in Paris, eat in fine restaurants, go to parties, follow the performing ails, and mingle with the rich and famous. A tawdry dream, but my own.

Spending the summer in Toronto had the bonus of throwing me into contact with Victor Mazzini, the only member of my family who enjoys that lifestyle. DonÂ’t be fooled by the fact that my name is Cassie Newton. Mom is from Milan and felt secure knowing I was staying with her brother, safe from the sex fiends of Bangor, Maine.

I led my last group of tourists through the echoing hall to the front door and bid them adieu. It was four-thirty; the castle closed at five, which meant there wasnÂ’t time for another tour, but some of the tourists liked to wander around on their own. During this last half hour, the guides collected in groups to discuss our illegal tips, our plans for the evening, and to sneak frequent peeks at our watches, willing the last stragglers to leave so we could get away a few minutes early.

It was a quarter to five when a new customer came in. There were no blistering glares for this latecomer. He was no tourist, but my uncle, Victor Mazzini, the celebrated violinist. He looked the way a world-famous musician should look. A flap of silver hair hung boyishly over the forehead of a face that was lean, tanned, patrician in cast, but with a touch of alley cat in the eyes. Flashing eyes, black as obsidian, darted over the collection of tour guides in their natty uniforms, down for a quick perusal of their legs, back up to the bosoms, and lastly took a passing glance at the faces.

He spotted me shaking my head at him and walked jauntily forward, arms out, to place a loud kiss on my cheek. Victor has retained his Italian soul, though he immigrated to North America several decades ago to make his career here. He was often away on tour, but kept a permanent pied-୴erre in a chi-chi condo on Bloor Street, downtown. A nice, safe, semi­-civilized little town, he called Toronto. He like the central location of Bloor Street and chose that particular building because it was set in behind a pretty stone church. He didn’t go to church, but being Italian, he felt at home in the vicinity. Priests and ministers spoiled church for him.

Victor claims to abhor the second rate, and itÂ’s ironic that his own Innate taste is so awful. He buys expensive things but manages to imbue them with a carnivalesque touch. The lightweight suit he wore, for instance, came from Savile Row, but with it he wore a dark brown, hand-stitched, silk shirt and a cream silk tie decorated with a brown treble clef sign two inches high.

“Am I going to get a lift home, I hope?” I asked, extracting myself from his perfumed embrace.


“Don’t tell me you walked!”

“In this heat? Are you crazy? I’ll meet you at my apartment around six,” he said. “I have some business to attend to.”

“Oh, about tonight.”

This was a very special night for Victor. He was scheduled to perform at Roy Thomson Hall. He had his violin case with him, and I assumed he was on his way there to do a last-minute sound check.

“Last time the stupid sons-of-bitches gave me a bum pickup for my fiddle. So what else is new?” he asked, with a hunch of his elegant shoulders and a toss of one long-fingered hand. “I’m driving down to the hall now.”

Victor liked to affect an air of ease before his concerts, but in fact there was a nervous tremor in the spread fingers. His black eyes darted around the lobby to where the stragglers stood in groups. One pair recognized him. It wasnÂ’t surprising as his picture decorated half the billboards and newspapers in town, heralding the concert.

A tall, muscular man with short, dark hair and a moustache was looking at him with interest. The man didnÂ’t look like an aficionado of classical music. Between the Western hat in his hand, the jeans and the leather boots, he looked more like a Willie Nelson fan. I thought the smaller, swarthy man in the blue polyester suit was with him, but as I looked, the smaller man walked away. The tall one nodded and smiled, and Victor nodded back.

Many of these discreet acknowledgments of recognition occurred in VictorÂ’s life. He cherished every one of them. If the recognizer was of a forward disposition, the next step was for him to approach and shake hands, maybe request an autograph. The tall man didnÂ’t seem to be an autograph hound. He turned and examined an undistinguished suit of armor hanging on the wall.

“Will you be home for dinner?” I asked Victor. He nodded, but distractedly. “What time are you leaving for the hail?”

“Sevenish—the concert starts at eight,” he said, looking around, hoping for more recognition.

Victor was a terrible ham. He always had some gimmick going to increase interest in his life and performances. He set down his violin case and pulled out a Cuban cigar about the size of a cucumber and slid the gold paper ring from it.

“No smoking,” I chided, pointing to the signs. “D馥nce de fumer. Se prohibe fumar. Vietato fumare—we even have it in Italian, especially for you. Put the stogie back in your pocket, Victor, like a good boy.”

“Damned country’s becoming fascist. A man can’t even have a cigar,” he complained, but pocketed it. “Is it permitted to visit the can? That’s really why I dropped in, Ever since Doc put me on this high blood pressure medicine, I’m like a leaky faucet. Where’s the closest?”

“The employees’ john is around the corner. I guess no one will object,” I said, pointing down the hall. “Right there, across from our lockers.”

Victor dashed off in a great hurry, his violin case under his arm, and I resumed my scrutiny of the stragglers. The crowd was thinning nicely—only six bodies left.

The tall man with the moustache and western hat ambled forward as soon as Victor left. “Pardon me, but wasn’t that Victor Mazzini, the violinist?” he asked politely. He had a pleasant voice, deep and rumbling. His eyes were nice too— brown, liquid and friendly as a puppy’s. I noticed right away that he was American, and felt kinder toward him, but he wasn't from my part of the country. There was a western twang in his accent.

“Yes, I thought you recognized him,” I smiled, waiting to gamer a bouquet of compliments to relay to Victor.

“Pretty hard not to. His face is on the back of just about every bus in the city.” There was nothing of the puppy in his smile. The brown eyes revealed a hint of the wolf as they flickered over my face and down for a quick assessment of my body. He had that mannerism in common with my uncle. He wouldn’t see much. Our uniforms are similar to the Girl Guides’. The oxfords issued with them are of an orthopedic cut.

I hadn’t thought of the cowboy as a wolf at first. He looked too down-home. Wolves should be more stylish, like Victor. This man was just regular folks. He was barrel-chested, with arms like legs showing below his short-sleeved shirt. Construc­tion worker, maybe? My own inclination in men is for successful academics and/or artists; lean men with world-weary expressions and intelligent eyes. Besides, the man’s hairline was in danger of receding. It wasn’t quite what you could call receding yet, but there was a discernible thinning, a little rounder half moon atop the forehead than nature had originally intended. The moustache was too big and shapeless, too.

I finished sizing up the tourist and said, “He’s giving a concert tonight at Roy Thomson Hall.”

“That’s the modern building downtown—kind of a round glass jar on top?” His smile revealed white teeth, just slightly overlapped in front.

I could strike architect from the list of his possible profes­sions. “Yes, it’s a newish building.. I take it you’re a tourist in town, Mr. …” I wasn’t hinting to learn his name, but it sounded that way, and encouraged him.

“Bradley’s the name, Sean Bradley. I’m a damned Yankee. I think you might be one yourself, if my ears don’t deceive me?”

“Guilty as charged.”

He shifted his weight to one foot and crossed his arms, revealing that he was making himself comfortable for a chat. “Where are you from?” he asked.

“Maine. I’m working here for the summer.” He rotated his big hat in circles as it dangled from his fingers.

He had a boyish, open way about him. He looked like the kind of man who would say “Aw shucks, Ma’am.” “Inter­esting place,” he said, looking into the Great Hall. “It would make a dandy bowling alley.”

I thought I’d heard every possible foolish comment on the existence of a real castle in a modern city. “Yes,” I said, swallowing a smirk.

Sean tilted his head to one side and laughed. “Gotcha!” he said, pointing a finger at me as if it were a pistol. The ice

broke, and we talked for a few minutes about Casa Loma. When the conversation flagged, Sean said in a voice just a shade too nonchalant to be innocent, “What’s there to do at night in Toronto?” A wary light was in his eyes, alerting me that I was going to be invited to join him.

“The usual things—movies, restaurants, shows, music.

“Not much fun doing them alone,” he said leadingly.

“That’s the trouble with traveling,” I shrugged, not encour­aging, but not unfriendly either. Being an American, he seemed less a stranger.

“Maybe you’d be interested in showing me the sights?” he suggested.

“I’m afraid I’m booked up tonight. I’m going to Victor’s concert.” The threat of a violin concert will usually send a man like Sean scampering faster than the word “herpes.” I consider violin screeching one of the embalmed arts myself and was only going because I couldn’t get out of it.

He put on a considering expression, forehead corrugated. “I wonder if it’s sold out.”

“It is,” I assured him, but didn’t mention the spare ticket in my purse. “Are you a lover of classical music?”

“Who, me?” he asked, and laughed his deep, rumbling laugh. “I hardly know a violin from a Fender. That’s a gee-tar. I chord a little. But as folks say, I know what I like, and I’d like to spend the evening with you.” The look that accompanied this was a frank, friendly, and doggedly persistent.

I thought again about that extra ticket. It seemed a shame to waste it. “I have a spare ticket for tonight. Would you like to meet me there?”

“I feel like a panhandler! I wasn’t looking for charity. Let me buy it from you,” he offered, a hand already sliding to his back pocket for his wallet.

“That’s all right. I got it free from Victor. He’s my uncle. My guest had to cancel at the last minute. Wait a sec, I’ll get it from my purse.”

I was struck, as I went to my locker, with what an ill-advised thing I was doing. I never went in for Kamikaze dating. Till I went to Montreal, IÂ’d always lived at home, and my mother has less than liberal views on relations between the sexes. SheÂ’s an admirer of Phyllis Schlafly. I hadnÂ’t picked up a stranger all summer, but in spite of his wolf act, Sean Bradley had that open kind of a face that made him seem harmless. At least he didnÂ’t look like a lecher or pervert, and I didnÂ’t have to go home from the concert with him. I opened my locker, which none of us actually bothered to lock. We carried our money in our pockets and just kept our coats and purses and spare junk there.

The guard came out of the men’s john while I was at my locker. “Would you mind telling Mr. Mazzini to get a move on? It’s closing time,” I said.

“Where is he?”

“Isn’t he in there?”

“No, it’s empty. I’ll have to look around for him, Cassie. The Music Room—that’s where your uncle would be.” He wagged his head as he walked off, turning right at the end of the hall, toward the Music Room.

I closed my locker door and took my purse with me to leave. The other guides were coming into the narrow hallway now, chattering away.

The closing bell chimed as I went back to the lobby. I saw VictorÂ’s silver head among the last of the tourists on their way out. He must have gone to the Music Room while I was talking to Sean Bradley. The only ones left now were the little swarthy man in the shiny blue suit and a tall, blue-haired lady.

“Here it is—a good seat,” I said, handing Sean the ticket. “The concert’s at eight.”

“Thanks a lot. Maybe we can go out after and do some­thing?” he suggested.

“We’ll see.” I waved goodbye and watched him leave. He looked like a football player as he swaggered away, shoulders rolling. A big man, but with an athletic stride.

If we went anywhere after the concert, it would be to the party Eleanor Strathroy was throwing for Victor at her house in prestigious Forest Hill. I had planned to attend the concert and the party with Eleanor’s son, Ronald, a Bay Street stockbroker, but he’d been called to Montreal on company business the night before. I’d been going out with him a little that month—nothing serious, or even very enjoyable, though Ronald was an extremely eligible bachelor.

The Strathroys were members of the elite WASP society in Toronto. His mother was very big on charity committees and in social affairs. Eleanor was a widow, and Victor’s current squeeze, so I met Ronald through Victor. He took me to all the right places: the Granite Club, the St. Lawrence Yacht Club, and to private parties where I could start training for my future life as a diplomat and sybarite. Caviar, for instance—I could now eat caviar without gagging, and I was learning a little something about wine. He drove the right car (Mercedes), wore the right clothes (tailor-made), and spoke good but incomprehensible English. His conversation was about guar­anteed investment certificates and long-term annuities and such excruciatingly dull, but no doubt necessary things.

The stuffiness I didn’t mind as much as the tendency to show off. He never introduced me as Cassie Newton, but as “Cassie Newton, Victor Mazzini’s niece.” His dates had to be special in some way. We enjoyed a symbiotic social relationship; he only took me out because of Victor, I only went to get to the places he could take me. There was the added bonus that he wasn’t lecherous—in Ronald’s case, that was a bonus. You never had to fight your way out of the Mercedes. He was always there to hold the door and walk you to the elevator.

Well, tonight VictorÂ’s niece would be going out with a far from perfect stranger sheÂ’d picked up at work. If I liked the way he behaved himself at the concert, and if he showed up in a decent jacket, IÂ’d ask him to EleanorÂ’s party afterwards. If not, IÂ’d hitch a ride with Victor.

I got a lift to the apartment with one of the tour guides, and hurried off bustling Bloor Street into the air-conditioned lobby to swish up on the elevator to the seventeenth floor. I enjoyed the elegant building as much as Victor—probably more, since he was used to such things. Victor had a maid who prepared dinner before she left at five. There was a note on the kitchen table. “Cold chick. and salad in frig, buns in oven to be heated. Fruit and cheese and leftover choc. cake for dessert. Enjoy.”

About five hundred calories of the choc. cake would be enjoyed before dinner. Nobody should go through life without reading Proust and without trying Rhoda GardinerÂ’s chocolate cake. It was sinfully rich, and definitely addictive. My mouth salivated at the very thought of it. I cut off a wedge, put it on a plate, and headed to the living room. I turned on the radio, then sank down on the sofa and leaned back, kicking off my shoes.

Doleful classical music moaned from the hi-fi, telling me that Victor had been the last listener. Rhoda liked country and western, and I preferred light rock. I switched the dial and luxuriated with the cake, thinking about the night. When I saw the Toronto Star on the coffee table, I opened it and flipped to the Entertainment Section to see what they had to say about the concert.

It was the usual stuff—a rehash of Victor’s career, his recent tours, his records, a few references to the more spectacular moments in his life. The time he walked off the stage in Boston due to a noisy audience was, as always, mentioned, along with a comment on his flamboyant affair with the soprano from the New York Met, and a discreet, non-libelous reference to his drinking problem—that would infuriate Victor. He was dry nowadays. Maybe I should hide the paper till after the concert.

In the accompanying picture, he held not his famous Guarneri violin, but a large cigar. His head was cocked to one side, and the famous Mazzini smile flashed. A close examination of the picture showed some resemblance to Mom—the eyes, the wide, warm smile—but Mom was a woman of a certain age and a certain weight and a certain rigid coiffure held in place by lashings of hair spray that robbed her of style.

The article described Victor’s violin. It wasn’t just any old Guarneri, but a Giuseppe del Ges񮠇iuseppe was the greatest of all the Guarneris. One of them worked with Stradivari. In fact, a del Ges񠷡s second only to a Stradivarius. “Like Paganini, I prefer the more robust tone of a Guarneri to the sweetness of an Amati or Stradivarius,” Victor often said to the press. I suspect his taste would change if he could ever get his hands on a Stradivarius.

There was also a tantalizing hint of the “surprise” Victor had been using as a gimmick for this show. I had an unconfirmed idea what that surprise might be but hadn’t mentioned it to anyone, not even Victor. When the cake and the article were finished, I set the table. We’d have to eat early to allow my uncle to get to the hall on time. He wouldn’t eat much tonight, but he’d make up for it later at Eleanor’s party. Shrimp and lobster, champagne, caviar—Eleanor threw the greatest gour­met bashes in town.

At six-fifteen, Victor still hadnÂ’t arrived. I became a little worried and called the ball, but he wasnÂ’t there, On his way home then. HeÂ’d grab a wing of cold chicken when he got here and call that dinner. I wished I had his will power, but rationalized that a woman whoÂ’d been on her feet all day required more nourishment. I took a peek in his room and saw his tux was gone. It had been there in its plastic bag from the cleanerÂ’s yesterday. Actually my uncle hadnÂ’t sounded very sure about eating at home. Maybe heÂ’d gone on to the hall already, stopping on the way for a snack. He wasnÂ’t a creature of habit. Lord, I hoped it wasnÂ’t a glass of wine heÂ’d stopped for, which had a way of multiplying to three or four glasses if the company was convivial. But really he had been very good lately. When he still hadnÂ’t got home by six-thirty, I went ahead with my own dinner.

The only worry in my mind as I showered and dressed was whether IÂ’d been wise to give that ticket to Sean Bradley. But a fellow American with those liquid eyes and overlapped teeth couldnÂ’t be dangerous. He wasnÂ’t really a cowboy, I thought. What was he, and where was he from? The accent wasnÂ’t heavy enough for Texas, and the clothes werenÂ’t good enough for him to be an oil baron. A school teacher, an engineer? He didnÂ’t look like a magnificently successful professional; heÂ’d be a toiler in one of the lesser but still worthy professions. Not one of the worldÂ’s great men, but he was all right for a casual date.

I brushed my tawny hair out loose and caught one side back with a white nacre barrette. For this grand occasion I had bought a wisp of white raw silk that made my Visa card tremble in shock. It looked like a fancy dust rag on the hanger, but much better on the body. A piece of the material was cut on the bias and draped over one shoulder, giving the effect of a toga, it fit fairly close around the waist, and draped again over the hips. It looked best on a long, lean body, which mine was in the process of becoming on those days when Rhoda didnÂ’t bake a cake. It was lean enough that Victor included me in his condemnation of modern womankind, determined to destroy GodÂ’s greatest creation, the female body. He preferred full-figured Balzacian women.

I went back to my room to do my face. I have a bold, mannish face, with a square jaw and a long straight nose that is redeemed from masculinity by full lips. “The lips of a harlot,” Victor once said. He tries to be shocking but only sounds quaint. I colored my harlot’s lips, put some gel on my cheeks and a brush of frosted burgundy shadow over my dark eyes and was ready.

I picked a mauve mohair shawl and went down to the lobby. The doorman hailed a cab, and I drove off to Roy Thomson Hall with a tingling air of excitement hovering around me. I wondered if Sean would wear a jacket. In the heat of summer, some of the audience would be in shirt sleeves, but there would be no shirt sleeves at EleanorÂ’s party. If he came too casual, I just couldnÂ’t invite him, thatÂ’s all.

Sean hadn’t arrived yet when I was ushered to my seat. Inside, the hall is shaped like a horseshoe. The mezzanine and balcony seats curve around the stage and are angled to give a good view. The ceiling is a dazzling collection of acoustical banners, acrylic discs, and stalactites with two big circles of lights in the middle. I passed the time by looking around at the hall and the audience while waiting for Sean. Victor says the acoustics could be plusher, especially for strings. He men­tioned a lean, transparent sound, but added that it was “very intimate” for a hall of nearly three thousand seats. I didn’t think Sean would be enough of a connoisseur to worry about the acoustics, and I knew I wasn’t.

I got there at ten to eight. At two minutes to, Sean still hadn’t come. I was disappointed at first, then angry at the waste. The house was sold out, and any of my friends would have loved to get the ticket—or could have been coerced into using it anyway. He’d probably picked up some woman at a bar. Damn! My watch showed one minute to eight. An expectant hush permeated the hall as the audience waited for the lights to dim and the curtain to rise. I waited with the others, feeling an urge to tell my neighbor I was Victor’s niece. But first I’d make sure he turned up, and turned up sober. It was eight o’clock now, and the hush was deafening.