The Van Gogh Deception
The Van Gogh Deception
Copyright 2010 by Michael Paulson, all rights reserved. No portion of this novel may be
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This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations are fictitious or used
fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or people is coincidental.
An Overheard Conversation
The color of Paris is gray.
You are probably thinking how can La Ville-Lumière--the city of lights--be gray?
I came to that conclusion after moving into my flat, an hour ago. I reside on the first floor of a boarding house above Cafe de Flore at number 17172 Boulevard Saint-Germaine. The building is Haussmannian in architecture. It was built around 1860. The landlady of this not-so-luxuriant establishment, Mme. Flaubert, is a libidinous soul of seventy-some years.
There are four floors in her establishment. Each contains four apartments--except for the top one. The penthouse suite, where Mme. Flaubert resides, occupies that entire level. The dear woman needs the space. You see, she shares her expansive quarters with two young men.
I will let you think about that. But be warned. No matter how you construe it, you will be spot-on.
According to Mme. Flaubert, my rent includes the evening meal. Each dining, she assured me, would be an unforgettable experience. Unfortunately, I missed this evening's offering while reclaiming my trunk from a storage rental. This, of course, explains the unending growling from my stomach.
Bathing and bodily-function facilities are as convenient as in any Parisian boarding-house, or so Mme. Flaubert claimed. Merely a brisk jaunt to the staircase, followed by a two-floor sprinting ascension, supplanted by a leisurely lope down the third floor hall to the last door on the left. What could be more opportune in the middle of a cold night?
My name is Stuart S. Stuart. The 'S' also stands for Stuart. I was named after my uncle who, at the time of my christening, was regarded as the epitome of success--at least for my family. Why not? Uncle Stuart is educated. He is an artist of some repute. But, most importantly, my uncle is very rich. However, reputations are often misleading.
Some time after I graduated from high school, Interpol instigated allegations concerning Uncle Stuart. At the end of these, this international police agency claimed to have proof that my uncle's fortune was acquired through theft. More precisely, Uncle Stuart forged works-of-art by various masters and sold them to an unsuspecting public. As you might suspect, those who were cheated wanted my uncle's blood. Fortunately, at least for my uncle, he was able to avoid arrest by abandoning his beautiful villa at Cote d'Azur in France, and fleeing to a slightly smaller accommodation in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
If you are wondering why a move from France to Brazil would be expedient when Interpol is in hot pursuit, the answer is quite simple. In Brazil, extradition laws do not apply.
Naturally, my family was stunned by Interpol's claims. My mother immediately disowned Uncle Stuart. In fact, the entire Stuart Clan agreed it was the best thing to do. Except for me, of course. How could I? During my school years I spent every summer with Uncle Stuart, enjoying France and all it had to offer. Besides, what business was it of mine how my uncle earned his living? If the rest of the world had a complaint against him, so be it. But leave me out of the ruckus.
Like my disreputable uncle, I am an artist: a painter. Unlike him, I do not create forgeries. I must confess, however, to replicating the techniques of Degas, Miro, Klimt, Matisse, and Van Gogh numerous times while being tutored by Uncle Stuart. He insisted. But those paintings were merely his way of instructing me in the painter's craft.
Unfortunately, my own creations, while technically well-formed, are bereft of soul--or so goes the general critique. At first I took offense at this assessment. Could the critics not see the depth and breadth of my talents? Did I not depict all the nuances of each image in precise detail? In each work, had I not captured the breathtaking techniques of a dozen or more masters of the art? Then it slowly sank in. The critics were absolutely correct. I was mimicking life on canvas instead of capturing it.
What was I to do? Abandon my dream? An artist lives only when he creates. Anything less is mere existence.
I did, quite briefly, consider joining forces with Uncle Stuart. But when I suggested it, my mother threatened suicide. She did so with such fervor the poor dear required hospitalization. My father, of course, celebrated her invalided departure. After nearly thirty years of a marriage built upon mutual tolerance, he was looking forward to what he hoped would be her funeral.
But I am digressing from my story.
It was Uncle Stuart who suggested I go to France. There, or so he declared, I would find the creative inspiration I lacked. But how would I survive? The cost of living in Paris is unconscionably high. To my delight, Uncle Stuart offered to fund the entire venture. So I packed my bags and made the journey.
But after several months of trying to stimulate my creative juices, artistic success continued to elude me. Uncle Stuart told me I was trying too hard. He said to give it time. That, all I needed was one great adventure and it would come together.
I was willing to persevere, of course. What young artist would not enjoy living in Paris? The sights. The smells. Well, the sights, anyway.
Unfortunately, about that same time my source of funding became an issue with my mother. She vowed to hang herself if I took another nickel from Uncle Stuart. Naturally, my father told me to ignore her threats. If there was a chance of my mother stretching a rope, he wanted to explore it. I, being a loving son, immediately complied with my mother's wishes. I instructed Uncle Stuart to refrain from sending my monthly stipend.
That decision, of course, did not work out well. Within a short time, I was evicted from my hotel. A few days after that, I ran out of money entirely. In fact, I was at the point of selling my blood to purchase passage back to the United States when Uncle Stuart stepped in, again. If I could not accept his money, then he would assist by finding me employment. To that end, he arranged an internship at Musée du Louvre.
My work at the world's most famous museum is undemanding. I am employed by the painting-restoration department on the second floor of the Richelieu wing. It is not a glamorous job. I am a paint color-mixer, and general helper. The pay is not great. But it meets my needs. In fact, my first week's remittance allowed me to abandon the dumpster, in which I was sleeping, for this depressingly gray flat.
I have one friend in Paris. A sympathetic coworker named Maryse Rousseau. She took pity on me after hearing about my difficulties in locating reasonably priced accommodations. It was through her intervention with Mme. Flaubert that I came by this less than luminous residence. Not that I decry Maryse's assistance. Quite the contrary! Without her, I would still be studying the walls of that dumpster instead of the unending gray in this dismal flat.
Naturally, after receiving Maryse's kind assistance I extended an offer in kind. Surprisingly, she did have a small request. Maryse asked me to store a very ugly sculpture, in my flat.
I, of course, agreed. Who was I to deride a five-foot welded-construction of cast-off automobile parts supported by a massive lead base clumsily inset with chips of glass? Particularly, since the creator of that metal monstrosity was none other than Maryse Rousseau.
Considering Maryse's assistance in securing this flat for me, you are probably wondering about her relationship with the ribald Mme. Flaubert. It is the same as mine. In fact, Maryse lives next door to me. I find that quite erotic. I find everything about her quite erotic. Right now, through the thin wall separating our flats, I can hear Maryse puttering about. Naturally, I am imagining her doing so stark naked.
Stop scolding. I know it is a crude way to mentally treat my one and only friend. But you must understand. Maryse Rousseau, unlike this fetid place of repose, is breathtakingly beautiful. I and my magic-nightstick--that all-reasoning tool each man carries between his legs--are fascinated by her. In fact, whenever she comes near we both rise to the occasion.
Yes, yes. Considering my romantic history--or the successful lack thereof--getting involved with a woman is the last thing I should be considering. Unfortunately, my all-controlling nightstick operates on a level quite distinct from cognitive reasoning. As such, I am trapped within his resolve to pursue and propagate with the beautiful Maryse!
For a French woman, Maryse Rousseau is tall. She is also very slender with shining black hair. It drifts down her back like molten basalt. From behind, if one is watching her hair instead of another hypnotically moving attribute, her tresses catch the light and shimmer. It is as if the basalt is cooling into reflective crystals only to re-melt each time she moves. Her skin is tanned a caramel hue. It looks as soft as warm butter and gives off an intoxicating vanilla scent. Her eyes are large and brown with flecks of gold, and jade. One look from those and my heart melts. Her ears are tiny and delicately formed. She adorns the lobes with diminutive, gold earrings. Her lips are full. When they spread into a smile, my passions leap. When they pout, my magic-nightstick tries to beat its way out of my whiter-than-whites, in order to assuage her unhappiness. Her nose is exquisite. I have no doubt it was carved by an angel.
From the front, most men would agree that Maryse could start her own dairy. From the back, the allure is heart-thumping. From any direction, watching her stride is like seeing a moving metronome with wondrous attachments. When she bends over, it is a religious experience! I have only seen her do this once. But the vision is emblazoned upon my memory like a firebrand. Each night, before I go to sleep, I replay that scene in my head--several hundred times.
Unfortunately, Maryse is married. Although, strictly speaking, she is estranged from her husband. They are going through a divorce. I have not been told the details. But it is quite obvious she is the one who desires to be shed of him. I have never met her husband, but I imagine he is suicidal over their separation. Who would not be?
There is no need to cluck your tongue. I know, I know. Falling for someone who is married is futile. However I cannot help myself. Maryse Rousseau is my fantasy come-to-life. And from my magic-nightstick's prospective, she is a Godsend. He has been dancing ever since I first laid eyes upon her. I suppose if I were to admit it, Maryse is an addiction. But what an addiction! One visual dose of her and I am sprinting through clouds all day! Curiously, I feel as though I have known Maryse for some time. Long before this latest trip to France. But that is impossible. I would have remembered her awe-inspiring attributes.
Getting back to my hideous domicile...
My flat has one room. This is quite large and rectangular. It has a very high ceiling. But it has only one window. Consequently, trying to make my flat double as a studio will be extremely difficult. There would not be enough light. The window, itself, is a small, vertical-swinging affair. Beyond it is a view of the alley and the usual collection of garbage cans. On the other side of the alley is an abandoned warehouse. The latter lifts seven gloomy, brick stories to the sky. Its broken windows seem to stare down at me, accusingly. Probably, because of last night's dream concerning Maryse and my magic-nightstick.
My flat has three pieces of furniture: A gray velveteen davenport, which pulls out into a bed; a full-length mirror, for those occasions when a young man might dress to go out for a romantic evening; and, a makeshift table of bricks and planks. The table rests between the davenport and the window. The mirror is propped at an angle, in one corner--next to Maryse's hideous sculpture.
As mirrors go, it is not the best. In fact, it is cracked from top to bottom right down the middle. But I don't plan any outings, any time soon. Consequently, I do not anticipate a need for its reflecting qualities.
The wooden floor in my flat has been painted countless times. How could it not since first being laid in 1860? Each coat of paint varies slightly in color. However every layer of pigment is one shade of gray or another. In several places these have worn so thin I can see the wood-grain in the planks.
Curiously, the paint is nonexistent in a single spot about the size of a basketball. This anomaly is midway between the door, and the window. Upon examination, I took this to be the result of tap-dancing footfalls by countless previous residents, desperately trying to dissuade a resolute band of invading cockroaches. However that theory does not take into consideration the finger-size hole in the ceiling directly above the spot.
But once more, I have drifted.
What is the first thing you notice about a place, when entering? Its design? Its color? Its size? No. You notice its odors.
Smell is unavoidable in a building. The new ones reek of paint and resins. The old ones are fouled by the leavings of previous inhabitants. Ancient ones, like Mme. Flaubert's Boarding House, are standouts in the stench arena.
Right now, my nasal passages are in a state of torment. Try as they might, my nostrils cannot filter the overpowering essences of garlic, urine, mold, more urine, vinegar, and even more urine. Doubtlessly, the lengthy traverse to the toilet explains at least one of the prevailing odors. Be that as it may the stench makes my eyes water, my sinuses clamp shut, and my magic-nightstick hide its head. Perhaps if I open the window...
Will you look? There I am, my reflection trapped in that broken mirror. Can you believe it? I have the coiffure and beard of a Neanderthal. Not to mention those deep hollows in my cheeks, and the dark smears beneath my eyes. I am coming across like something black-haired from a Neolithic cave!
Never mind. Tonight, I shall get a good rest. Tomorrow I will not only look considerably better but I shall receive my second pay-packet. Since my rent is paid, those monies can be used for a luxury or two. Obviously, a haircut is overdue as well as a beard-trim. And, if there are a few coins left over, I shall treat my wardrobe to a trip to the nearest launderette.
Did you hear that? Out in the alley something crashed.
For those of you who have not visited France and are considering it, we Americans are hated here. Even when fluent in the language, as I am, we are openly reviled. If you are mugged in Paris, do not bother to telephone the police. They will not come to your assistance. If you are injured, the same is true for emergency medical services. You will have to manage your own surgical procedures - whereupon you will be arrested for practicing medicine without a license. Right now, I suspect a burglar is on the prowl out there. Excuse me while I check it out.
Ah, the source of the noise is quite obvious. Fortunately, members of the Parisian criminal element are not responsible. Working in unison, a dozen or so rats have toppled a garbage can. Will you look at them? They're the size of well-fed cats. In fact, every one of them is plump enough to roast. A little salmorejo sauce, a glass of burgundy, then for desert... Dear God, what am I thinking?
"Damn it, Buji, we've waited three months for that money!"
Before you start scolding, that was not me cursing. It was someone else. I do not know who. I am supposed to be alone in my flat. At least I hope I am alone. I certainly did not agree to double occupancy when Mme. Flaubert and I negotiated price--despite her hand on my thigh.
"Calm down, Bouvier. We'll talk to him. We'll get our cut."
That also was not me. It is a different male voice from the first. Triple occupancy? Mme. Flaubert will certainly hear about this--unless, of course, the other occupants are diseased figments of my imagination, or they have a picnic basket to share. A leg of chicken... Some potato salad... Maybe a garlic pickle...
"And if the dirty bastard continues to stall?"
That was definitely not my imagination. It was the first voice, again. Without a doubt, that fellow is a type 'A' personality with homicidal tendencies.
"We won't give him that option."
I have never been a believer in the supernatural. Spooks are fantasy material for novels, and movies. But the rising hairs on the nape of my neck suggest something in my little hovel is seriously not right--smells aside.
"Your frigid bitch might think otherwise. What then?"
"Leave her to me!"
If you were a fly on the wall you would see me slowly turn away from the window and dart my eyes from corner to corner. Doubtlessly, my eyes would look enormous. Not that I have enormous eyes. But they get that way when I am terrified. And what could be more terrifying than a pair of ghosts holding a conversation--in my flat?
No. My original contention of single occupancy is completely correct. There is not a living soul in sight. So, I must be hearing complaints from the dead.
"I say we cut Baudouin out, altogether!"
Baudouin? Where had I heard that name before? I think it was at work. Or had Mme. Flaubert mentioned it when she told me there was a third opening in need of filling?
I will let you think about that, too.
"You're going to get us all killed, Bouvier!"
"Not if we handle it right."
Ah, so the voices are coming from the mirror. There is, as I recall, precedence for such hauntings. I do not remember the title of the story. But it involved a beautiful young woman, a vain stepmother, a poisoned apple and seven little guys who had a diamond mine.
"Don't be ridiculous!"
"The greedy bastard's getting a third, isn't he? For what, Buji? Sitting on the diamonds for three months and then stalling on the payout? If you don't have the stomach for killing Baudouin, I'll do it!"
Wonderful! Not only does my flat stink, but it is haunted by Murder Incorporated.
"If you kill Baudouin, François Chiappe will hunt us down. I didn't steal sixty million to end up in that Mafioso's sights."
Diamonds? Sixty million? François Chiappe? Mafioso? Not only was I listening to ghosts, but rich ghosts who were acquainted with the current head of the Corsican Mafia!
"Chiappe doesn't worry me."
"Then you're a fool!"
"I say we put it to a vote, Buji."
Democracy in action among the dead? Who would have thought?
I went over to the mirror and tilted it toward me. Other than a wall fitted with a ventilation cover, there was nothing behind it. Then I heard the sound of scraping chairs. This was followed by the tap-tapping of quickly receding footfalls.
Obviously, those noises are coming through the ventilator. Well, that is better than having a pipeline to ghost-hell. But where would that conversation have originated? There is the café, directly below. Those two men could have been sitting in chairs beneath an overhead vent. But the source could also have been from somewhere else. Such as in Mme. Flaubert's Boarding House?
I set the mirror aside, shoved the sculpture away and then squatted down in front of the vent. The two mounting screws were loose as if it had been removed recently. Had some prankster placed an electronic device behind it to play the dialogue I had just heard? The French are known for their love of playing pranks on Americans.
Using my thumbnail I backed out the screws and removed the cover. But to my surprise, nothing out of the ordinary was being hidden by the cover. Well, nothing that would replay a recorded dialogue. But there was one small curiosity. Mounted next to the ventilation pipe was a brass speaking tube, its open end pointed toward the vent cover. So, had the sound come through the vent or out of the speaking tube? Was the tube connected to the restaurant? Or was it connected to another apartment? Perhaps, Madam Flaubert's?
I pushed the cover back in place, and then thumbed the screws in to hold it there. Then I stood up and put the mirror and sculpture back into their respective spots.
I know what you're thinking. I should telephone the police. But what would I tell them? Some crony of François Chiappe is going to be killed? What's new about that? Mobsters probably lose a man every month to nefarious action.
Yes, yes. I agree I have a responsibility to all of humanity. But you're not considering possibilities. Although I did not find an electronic device to replay a recording, the entire conversation still could have been a joke. Isn't it more likely that two other tenants at Mme. Flaubert's, sitting in front of the vent or speaking tube in another flat, staged the entire conversation for my benefit?
All right, all right. I agree it could be for real. I admit the anger in the voices sounded genuine. But you're forgetting the Parisian perception of Americans. I could possess a taped confession, a video of the forthcoming murderous event, and serve popcorn topped with slightly salted Béarnaise sauce during its viewing. And still the police would doubt my veracity.
No. I don't care what you say! I'm staying out of this.
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