The Artist's Touch (Art Medium, #1)
Two men haunted by more than the past.
Painter Stefan Cobbe was homeless and debt-ridden after the death of his wealthy partner, but the worst loss of all was his artistic inspiration. After two years of nothing, he’s offered patronage by an eccentric gallery owner and starts to produce again, canvas after canvas. The only problem? He can’t remember painting any of them—not one single brushstroke.
Luke Morganstern’s reputation as an art-fraud investigator is in tatters. He can’t afford to turn down any job, even a lousy one for an anonymous client who sends him after an unidentified forger in a remote cabin in Oregon. When the alleged forger turns out to be Stefan, the man he never stopped loving, Luke’s professional ethics are stretched beyond the breaking point.
As the two men take tentative steps toward reconciliation, evidence begins to mount that they’re not alone in the woods. Someone—or something—is watching. Something with sinister plans for them both. To escape, Luke must overcome his suspicions and Stefan must trust Luke with his deepest fears. Otherwise they could forfeit their relationship, their sanity—and their lives.
Publisher’s note: This is a heavily revised and significantly expanded reprint of Northern Light. The second book in the Art Medium series, Tested In Fire, is a first edition. Both are sold together in both ebook and print collections.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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This stretch of the Oregon Coast couldn’t be more different from the manicured white sand in front of Luke Morganstern’s high-rise condo in Sarasota. In place of the fragile shoal of sea shells, the beach sported sea wrack and piles of driftwood the height of stadium bleachers. Instead of the soft lap of Gulf wavelets, the surf beat itself to death on jetties made of rocks the size of Volkswagens.
The windshield wipers of the rental car thwapped and screeched in the never-ending, half-hearted drizzle, Oregon’s default weather setting ever since he’d arrived, as if the clouds couldn’t be bothered to muster up a real storm.
The weather sucked. The lousy rental car sucked. The road sucked. And anonymous clients teasing him with hints of a major forgery really sucked.
Damn it, he could be back on his balcony, sipping a beer, watching the sun set over the Gulf at the end of a liquid trail of crimson. But his mystery client—who doled out information in dribbles like there was an alphabet shortage—wanted to pay him to risk terminal mildew in soggy Oregon. Money talked, and if Luke wanted to hold on to that condo and balcony, not to mention the beer, he had to listen.
This was his first time on the left coast since he’d turned down the commission from the Prescott Gallery in Palm Springs five years ago. He’d gotten such satisfaction out of wording his snide refusal, flipping the professional bird at Marius Worthington Prescott the fucking Fifth, the asshole who’d stolen the only man Luke had ever loved. “Stole”? You practically handed him Stefan on a platter when you ran out like a fucking emo teen.
Now though . . . he’d grovel for the chance at a Prescott job, even if Marius were still at the helm and not two years dead. With a Prescott commission, he could have turned down this one and laughed all the way to the bank.
Luke’s mocking laugh cut off in a hard inhale as another semi tore past in the other lane, its draft rocking his rental car and making him regret the greasy eggs he’d eaten at the diner in Tillamook. Not so superior now, are you, you pathetic son of a bitch? Gone were the days when he could afford to turn down cases for trivial reasons like his broken heart.
Luke finally made it into Wheeler and pulled the car to a stop at the address Mystery Client had deigned to text to him. He peered through the rain-spattered window at the building behind its metal mask of scaffolding. Luke recognized the name, North Coast Gallery: Marius had invested in this place once, like he had in so many other small galleries. The tentacles of his influence had snaked through the art world until Luke hadn’t been able to turn around without seeing another instance of how much worthier Marius was of the man that they’d both wanted.
You won, you pretentious SOB, and a lot of good it did you. You’re dead. And Luke was a disgraced art-fraud investigator, one month away from flat broke.
He sighed, opening the door and using it to lever himself out of the car, his hip more wonky than usual after so many hours of tense driving. He crossed the street, scowling as he tried to remember who owned this place.
Boardman. That was it. Thomas Boardman, but for the life of him, Luke couldn’t put a face to the name. Which was odd— Luke never forgot a face, and once upon a time, he’d have been able to recite every independent gallery in the US and pick their owners out of any given cocktail party lineup.
He’d let that slide after the Hernandez fiasco too.
A trio of brawny workmen on the top tier of the scaffolding were giving the gallery sign a face-lift, removing the three-foot-high gold letters. North Coast Gallery was currently No Cost Gall. Maybe the workmen had a sense of humor lurking behind those stoic expressions, Carhartt jackets, and—whoa—Utilikilts.
Luke’s scowl transformed into an appreciative grin. Maybe Oregon had its good points after all.
He crossed the street, ignored the orange detour signs, and ducked under the scaffolding to get to the door. He pulled out his cell phone to check Mystery Client’s text message. Not that he needed to. M.C. wasn’t exactly verbose.
Third gallery, east wall.
Luke didn’t hurry because why bother? He doubted M.C. knew a forgery from a Frappuccino. So he strolled, checking out the place.
The gallery was almost empty this early on a gloomy Tuesday. A trio of teenagers who probably should have been in school hovered in the corner, sneaking peeks at a larger-than-life male nude in acrylic on canvas. An elderly man leaned on a cane, studying a morose bronze salmon. A woman jostling a stroller holding her snoozing infant twins sat on a bench and slumped against the wall, glassy-eyed, under a triptych of Mapplethorpe photo reproductions.
Clearly, No Cost Gall wasn’t fighting off the crowds, which begged the question of how Boardman could afford the upgrades to the facade. No matter how slick the exterior, it couldn’t compensate for the lackluster contents. The pieces on display were an odd mix of quaint, intriguing, and just plain awful—and whoever handled the lighting should be shot.
Once he got to the third gallery, he could barely see the east wall because of the menagerie of chainsaw animal sculptures that crowded the floor. How anybody imagined this layout was—
Holy shit on a palette knife.
The picture in pride of place at the end of the room drew Luke like the promise of sunshine.
With a chainsaw grizzly looming at his back, Luke forgave Mystery Client everything: the bogus secrecy, the white-knuckled drive on substandard roads, even the relentless Oregon damp.
Because fuck me blind. An Arcoletti. An actual, honest-to-God, genuine fake Arcoletti. Luke’s personal Holy Grail of art fraud.
He pulled out his cell phone and texted Mystery Client. I’m in.
Good old M.C. responded with a link to a map resembling a diagram of the large intestine. Luke’s grip on his cell phone tightened. A road that tortuous screamed mountain. He rubbed his hip to ease the never-absent ache, tempted to back out, hop on the next plane back to Sarasota, and tag Mystery Client with a Screw you and your games. Find another art investigator.
His thumbs hovered over the keypad. Two years ago, he’d have sent that arrogant text—or worse. Two years ago, he’d had his pick of plum jobs all over Europe. Now, his anemic bank account shared dwindling life support with his battered reputation.
But the memory of Jean-Pierre’s parting taunt, his voice mocking as only the pain-free and stupidly confident could be, was the kicker that made Luke tuck the phone in his coat pocket. “Afraid of a little hill? Did you break your balls as well as your leg? You are not the man you were, cher.”
But an Arcoletti, damn it. Mountain or no mountain, switchbacks or no switchbacks, it was the one lure he couldn’t resist.
And bum leg or no bum leg, he’d prove to the skeptical art world that he could still kick major forger ass.
* * * * * * *
Stefan Cobbe peered out the cabin window, across the expanse of matted weeds to the blind end of the studio. No windows on this side—eastern light played hell with color and shadow—and he couldn’t see the door on the south side either, so why couldn’t he tear himself away?
Thomas Boardman, his benefactor and lately his agent, had been inside the studio for twenty minutes, each second ticked off by the camelback clock on the sideboard and the skitter of Stefan’s nerves.
Something’s in there. Something I can’t remember. Something I’m not sure I want to know about.
Dread squirmed in his belly like a colony of maggots, nearly as bad as the morning he’d refused to set foot in Marius’s plane on that last fateful Vegas trip. Don’t be an idiot. The studio can’t very well crash and burn on the hillside. Thomas was in no danger. Only Stefan’s artistic vision and livelihood—not to mention his sanity—were at risk this time.
A trio of crows rose, cawing, from the tree outside the studio door, and Stefan leaned forward, balancing on the balls of his bare feet, his fingernails jabbing his palms. Please. God, please. But when Thomas stepped out into the drizzle and frowned at the sky, brushing at the shoulders of his black duster, he was empty-handed. Stefan sank onto his heels, shoulders slumped, and let his forehead fall against the chilly windowpane with a thump.
He slid his left hand out of his pocket and uncurled it. In the gray light, a splotch of cobalt winked at him from the crease at the base of his ring finger, a sly flicker hinting he’d done something last night other than simply pass out. Stupid of him to believe a spot of paint. Doubly stupid to believe in the welling apprehension, the anxious certainty that something had happened in that studio during the dark missing hours.
At the first slap of Thomas’s shoes on the porch, Stefan opened the door, tugging it past the warped spot on the floor, then stood aside like an unkempt butler.
Thomas took one look at him and laughed. “Good morning, Merry Sunshine. A bit hungover, are we?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.” Stefan didn’t remember drinking any more than he remembered anything else, although a bender might explain why his eyes burned and his skull felt too small to contain his brain. Headache didn’t begin to describe it.
Thomas sailed past Stefan, trailing a too-heavy cloud of L’Homme. Marius’s cologne. The scent didn’t blend well with the smoke from the woodstove or the inescapable smell of paint solvent clinging to Stefan’s clothing. Thomas’s scarf, fringed silk in delicate lemon, mocked his pale-blond hair, turning it drab and colorless, although it complemented the pastel pink of his bald spot.
Stefan dropped his gaze to the floor and contemplated his bare toes while contempt warred with gratitude in his chest. Thomas was a nice guy. Generous, as Stefan had ample reason to be thankful for. But he obviously had a picture in his head of himself as the successful gallery owner, entrepreneur, influencer—in other words, Marius—that he wasn’t able to pull off. It made him a bit pathetic, and Stefan was embarrassed for him on his behalf.
Stop it. Don’t be an ungrateful asshole.
After all, if it weren’t for his chance encounter with Thomas, who’d remembered him from one of Marius’s gallery galas, Stefan would still be living in his dead car in the parking lot behind Karla’s Krab Korner, waiting for those Vegas goons to extract from his flesh what they couldn’t get from his wallet. Thomas’s unexpected offer of patronage, complete with studio, room, board, and unlimited art supplies, had seemed like a gift from the art gods.
But with each visit to the cabin, Thomas borrowed one more trick, one more affectation, from Marius. Marius’s cologne, Marius’s coat—Marius’s scarf color, for God’s sake. As if he were auditioning for the part of Marius now that Marius was dead and couldn’t fill the role himself.
“Hair of the dog?” Thomas held up the bottle of Scotch from the sideboard.
Stefan’s stomach rebelled at the suggestion. “God, no.”
Thomas’s colorless eyebrows rose an inch, but he shrugged and set the bottle down. “Your choice, of course. Groceries are on the porch. Here’s your mail.” Thomas pulled a handful of envelopes out of the inner pocket of his coat and tossed them onto the kitchen island counter. “I stowed the art supplies in the studio. Good thing I made it up here today. You were getting low.”
Stefan’s breath caught. Supplies. He’d used supplies. “Did you . . . Was there . . .” Ask him, you cowardly piece of shit. “Did you like . . . it?”
“The new painting? Yes, indeed.” Thomas’s round face creased in a smile.
Stefan took his first deep breath of the day. The studio held a painting. He clenched his left fist around the tiny blot of blue that hadn’t lied after all. “I wasn’t sure if anything—” He coughed to cover his near-confession. “I mean, if it was ready. You didn’t bring it out.”
“It’s dry. Ready to go. But I didn’t want to carry it outside in the rain.”
“Oh.” How can it be dry when I only painted it last night? Except somehow they always were. Even the first ones, the ones Thomas didn’t know about. The ones Stefan refused to think about. The ones that terrified him so much he couldn’t enter the studio in daylight. “Of course not.”
“I’ve got some waterproof wraps in the Caddy. I’ll collect it before I go.” Thomas patted Stefan’s shoulder, his touch lingering just a shade too long, and Stefan forced himself not to pull away. “Don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll sell something soon.”
Stefan didn’t flinch at the condescension in Thomas’s tone. Hell, he’d jettisoned his pride two years ago on his first visit to a pawn shop. “I’ll pay you back first thing. For the supplies, the food, the rent. Everything.”
“I’m sure we’ll come to a mutually acceptable arrangement.” Thomas chuckled and gave Stefan’s shoulder another squeeze, then—thankfully—released him and stepped back. “As they say, I know where you live.” He pulled on a pair of leather driving gloves. Marius’s brand. “Could you manage two more by the end of next week?”
Stefan’s belly roiled at the idea of entering the studio. He squeezed his fist tighter, clutching the stray dot of paint like a talisman. “I . . . don’t know. I’ll try.”
“Excellent. I have big, big plans for November.” Thomas waggled his nearly invisible eyebrows and bustled out. Ten minutes later, his black Cadillac purred past the cabin on the way down the hill.
Shivering in the damp chill of the morning, the wooden slats of the porch rough against his feet, Stefan asked himself what he would do if Thomas took that last step into Marius’s empty shoes and added Marius’s lover to his list of must-have accessories. He clamped his lips shut against a surge of nausea. Man up, Stefan. You’ll do what you must. You owe him whatever he cares to ask for. Because thanks to Thomas, Stefan was finally painting again.
Even if he couldn’t remember a single brushstroke.
Luke swallowed against the dryness in his throat, the steep rise of the road in front of his rental car sending him back two years to the hillside in Italy—to the hours spent in the crumpled Fiat, metal ticking in the descending chill of the night, pain like fire in his thigh and hip, as he prayed for someone, anyone, to find him.
He flexed his fingers and took a firm grip on the steering wheel, the gearshift, and his fricking neuroses. It was only a mountain, for God’s sake, an inanimate geological formation. Impossible for it to harbor some hidden evil agenda. He put the car in gear and crept up the first incline, the needle of his speedometer barely quivering above zero.
Suddenly, a big-ass black car barreled past him one hairpin curve up the hill and nearly blew his mid-sized rental off the road. Shit. He blotted the sweat off his upper lip with the back of his hand. Between the mountain and the trip up the coast, he’d learned his lesson: next time, he was springing for the full-sized model. Hell, the biggest SUV on the lot, screw the cost. Then he’d load the trunk with bricks.
Nearly two hours later, he nosed the car up the last rise and parked at the edge of a rough plateau. The odometer swore he’d only driven seven miles. Luke swore back and escaped from the car, gulping in lungfuls of damp air laced with the tang of pine.
He leaned on the hood while his heart rate returned to normal, and checked out the forger’s setup. A post-and-pier log cabin stood off-center in a clearing ringed by shaggy evergreens. Fifty feet beyond the cabin, nearly at the forest’s edge, was another structure, twice as long and half as wide, like a single-gabled house sliced in half down the roofline, with high and low banks of windows on the taller north side. Typical artist’s studio, although Luke hadn’t seen a telephone pole or transformer tower for miles. This whole place had to be off the grid.
A survivalist forger. Outstanding.
Matte-black solar panels covered the south-facing roof slope on both buildings. Luke shot a glance at the looming trees, cloud cover, and spitting rain. Yeah, good luck with that. The long white lozenge of a propane tank behind the cabin and the generator behind the studio suggested Survivalist Forger wasn’t a total moron. He had his backup power plan in place.
A curl of smoke drifted out of the cabin’s chimney pipe, but no vehicle stood in the patch of weedy gravel in front of the shed-roofed porch. Could Survivalist Forger have been the homicidal driver who’d nearly sent Luke hurtling over the edge of the road? Unlikely. That shiny black tank didn’t match these less-than-luxurious accommodations. But how else did the guy get around? Mountain bike? Pack mule? Broomstick?
Luke crossed the clearing under the goggle-eyed stare of the cabin’s windows, fir trees closing behind him like a ragged green cage, and mounted the sagging porch steps. The hair lifted on his neck, and he paused, scanning the woods, suddenly sure that he was being watched.
Rubbing the back of his neck, he tried to shake it off. One of the meager pieces of information M.C. had given him before he’d taken the job had been a link to some bogus paranormal investigation show. It had been filmed in Oregon, so Luke had taken it as a weather warning and packed accordingly. He didn’t buy the woo-woo shit, but this place was pretty remote. It didn’t need haunting to make it one creepy-ass spot.
He steeled himself and turned his back on the trees.
The cabin’s unpainted door had no dead bolt, and the door handle was a simple lever. Pretty ballsy to live out here with no locks. He offered a brief prayer that Survivalist Forger didn’t rely on a blue-ribbon gun collection for security.
Luke knocked on the door: three sedate raps. See? I can be polite. Even to lying, cheating, scum-sucking art forgers. No response, as he expected. He raised his fist to indulge in a little cathartic door-pounding, because really, who’d complain? The raucous crows circling the clearing? The soggy squirrels eyeing him from the trees? His hostile imaginary observer? But before he let fly, he heard the pad of feet approaching from inside.
The door creaked open, then stuck halfway on an uneven patch in the floor. “Thomas, you don’t have to knock.” A long-fingered hand grasped the edge of the door and tugged.
Luke’s stomach swooped at the sound of that voice, at the shape of that hand, and he nearly launched himself off the porch.
Shit-fuck-goddamn-son-of-a-bitch. He was going to kill Mystery Client.
His Survivalist Forger was Stefan fucking Cobb.
The door unstuck, leaving Luke face-to-face with his ex-lover for the first time in seven years.
He didn’t know whether to cry, yell, or run like hell.
Stefan’s eyes widened, and his mouth opened on a quick inhale. With his broad forehead under shaggy hair the color of brown sugar, his prominent cheekbones and those eyes, still the same blue as the Gulf beneath Luke’s balcony window, he looked like an orphaned Siamese kitten.
“Luke?” Stefan’s voice was a rough whisper, half wonder and half fearful disbelief. Before Luke could react, Stefan lunged and trapped him in a clinch.
With Stefan’s arms wrapped tight around his ribs, the run like hell option was off the table, but Luke kept his back straight, his chin up, and his fists clenched at his sides, because, ex-lover or not, Stefan Cobb could very well be a lying, cheating, scum-sucking art forger.
But Stefan’s breath hitched, and he pressed a damp cheek against Luke’s neck.
Luke’s hands crept to the small of Stefan’s back, even as the same poisonous inner voice that had triggered his exit all those years ago whispered, Who’s Thomas?