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Mister Mottley and the Key of D

By Ellen Seltz All Rights Reserved ©

Humor / Thriller

Short Story

I'D SUSPECTED FOR YEARS that Mottley was mad, but only in passing as you might say. "Oh, Edmund," one would chuckle over a stiffish gin-tonic, "Mad, I tell you." But that night in Venice, standing on the balcony rail with an angry Slovak swordsman and a half-naked fiddler in front of us -- I really began to wonder.

The swordsman, to give proper names, was Count Janos Czobor, and he was not pleased with us at all.  I can't say I blame him, considering we'd more or less broken into his palazzo at two o'clock in the ack emma to steal a priceless antique violin.  And when I say, "more or less," I mean rather more than less.

It was that same violin Mottley was currently dangling over the abyss -- or rather, the canal -- in a thoughtful sort of way. "Now then, Czobor," he said.  A damn cheeky manner he had with the foreign aristocracy, always.  Which I suppose was only his upbringing, but I say, younger son of a Marquess or not -- it's a bit thick for an amateur catburglar to address a peer as if he were a spot-faced fourth-former. Or a professional catburglar, I suppose.

But so Mottley did, cool as you please. "Now then, Czobor, we wouldn't want anything to happen to the del Gesu, would we? Not when we've both gone to so much trouble over it?"

The Count's sword-point receded slightly from our vicinity, and I became aware that the girl -- the fiddler, you know -- was goggling at Mottley in what I can only describe as a marked manner. She appeared to be trying to bore a hole into his cranium and install some sort of pneumatic message-tube. I wish she had, for I'd no idea what she was trying to convey. Hand gestures might have helped, but she was hampered in that regard by the bedsheet clutched around her lissome and altogether pleasing personage.

Whether her pneumatic message got through, or whether the night breeze's antics with the sheet caught his eye, Mottley became engrossed in watching the girl's face.  A fatal error. Well, nearly fatal, as I'm sitting here telling you about it, aren't I? But it was a near thing.

The Count, emboldened by Mottley's distraction, made a lunge with his sabre. We both flinched back, but the gleaming blade snicked through the del Gesu's D-string.  Its dying twang carried me back to the answer I'd been seeking all night:

How the hell did I get into this mess?

Elgar was on the programme. That was all Mottley cared about. After an unbroken diet of Verdi and Paganini, an evening of Elgar was welcome to him as a buttered crumpet after a surfeit of fried sardines and cuttlefish al nero. However, when I leaned over between movements and whispered, "Was I right?" Mottley had to nod appreciatively. The girl was astonishing.

Naturally, it was the girl I'd come for. I'm not a brainy chap, short in the memory department. I daresay a goodish number of the old school chums I stand drinks to, are neither chums nor from my old school.  What I say is, once you've stood a chap a drink, he's as good a chum as any, so why quibble? But girls -- I remember girls, and this girl in particular. She floated before your eyes like spots after staring into a flame. So when I ran across Mottley in Harry's Bar -- you know, that new place down the Calle Vallaresso -- I had to bring him along.

"The most ripping girl, Mottley," I said.  "You won't believe it.  Plain as a post, shocking I tell you.  But full to the eye-teeth with IT."

When they reached the Salut d'Amour, the girl dipped and swayed against a rhythm from below and within. Her evening black, though quite correct in front, left her back and arms naked. To watch her flying bow was to understand, this was no quirk of fashion. She was stripped like a gladiator to face the notes. One by one and in their multitudes, she vanquished them in glory.

At the interval, Mottley dragged me to the bar. "Who do you know, Debenham? I have to meet her, tonight."

Getting an invitation was a word in the right ear and a buss on the right cheek. Half an hour after the concert's end, Mottley was kissing the blue vein on the back of the girl's long hand. Unlike an English girl, she took the gesture quite seriously. She asked us what we did.

"Do?" said I. "Do? My dear, you sound like an American! This is Lord…"

But Mottley shook his head. Mad, you see? Waste of a perfectly good title. Why, I'd take it if he doesn't want it, but they don't let one.

"Mottley, Edmund."  He produced a card by some legerdemain. "Specialist in Discreet Enquiries." Now, ordinarily Mottley 's face resembles nothing so much as an underdone Christmas pudding with two silver sixpence on top.  But the expression he wore now was keen and debonair. Oh, he was fair smitten, I could see.

And that was all I saw of him for the next four days. On the fifth day, I had a horrible dream. My room was on fire, and I was trapped under a bronze statue of Pan that fell from the baroque ceiling right across my legs. I cried out, and found Mottley sitting across my legs smoking a gasper. That was worth another cry, let me tell you.

"Oh, you're awake. Good," he said, exactly as if he hadn't just tried to frighten me to death.

"Mottley, what are you doing here?" Not the most scintillating conversation, but that would take breath.

"I've come to tell you a story, Debenham. Listen closely.

"Once upon a time there was a violin. A rare and precious violin, as beautiful as it was good. It was built by a mad genius and belonged to a famous musician, who played it before all the crowned heads of Europe. But the musician was foolish, and profligate, and fell into poverty. When he died, his heirs received nothing but debts -- and the wonderful violin.

"Years later, the musician's great-something-granddaughter learned to play. She was a prodigy. The wealthy and renowned flocked to see the tiny girl make magic on this treasured instrument. One day a wicked nobleman saw her, and coveted the violin. He promised her patronage, protection, advancement for her studies and her career. She left her parents and grew up under his care and tutelage. When she reached majority, the wicked nobleman revealed that he coveted more than the violin. All these years he'd kept account of her expenses -- travel, clothing, the conservatory, the concerts -- and demanded repayment. He presented her with a terrible dilemma. She could wipe out her debt by surrendering the precious violin -- or her virtue."

"Monstrous!" I cried. Which it was, but somewhere I detected a distinct odor of fish. It couldn't be from the canal, as I'd left all the windows shut. "Not bloody likely, though, is it? I mean, too Shakespearean for words, old chap."

Mottley sighed. "Isn't it? Even you wouldn't fall for that. She must think I'm a colossal fathead."

I offered him a sympathetic cluck or two. I know all too well the burning indignity of having a girl take you for a complete dope. And I deserve it, as I am a three-quarters complete dope myself. But Mottley, being generally well-endowed in the grey matter, must feel it all the more keenly.

"But why play on your sympathies?" I asked. "Does she want you to do something?"

Mottley stubbed out his gasper. "Didn't I tell you? She wants me to steal it --the del Gesu."

"Great Scott, Mottley! You can't mean to do it?"

He sighed again. "You see? If you'd been all for it, I'd know it was right out."

I  ghasted my flabber a moment. This turnabout was making my head ache. "If you don't believe her story, Mottley, why on Earth would you go through with this?"

He leant on his elbows, his hands clasped between his knees. "She is…extraordinary."

Oh, he'd got it badly. I joggled him with my knees. "But, my dear chap, you couldn't!"

He flopped back across me, hands behind his head. "I expect I could.  This business of enquiring discreetly has landed me in a few queer spots, you know."

I drew in my legs and sat tailor-fashion. I fixed him with as stern a gaze as I could muster at that hour of the morning. "Are you going to do it?"

"Don't know yet," he drawled. "I’m supposed to go round there tomorrow -- later today, I suppose -- get a look at the place." He stood up, finally. "Coming?"

Well, I went. Against my better judgment -- though I must say, my worse judgment wasn't exactly throwing a ticker-tape parade either.

Czobor's palazzo in San Polo was typical of the sestiere -- aggressively magnificent. The inlaid double doors were topped by an arch, and a figurehead, and a pediment, and a shield painted with the Czechoslovak flag. For good measure, they were flanked with pillars, scrollwork, moldings, and a surly pair of classical heroes flexing their muscles.

Just outside the door, Mottley really threw me a curve ball. "Call me Cheviot. Ralph Cheviot.  I'm a correspondent for the Sunday Journal, and I'm writing a story about the violin." Really, he should know better than to spring something like that on my feeble wits. I hadn't a moment to protest, before the door was opened by a brace of scowling thugs doing a creditable imitation of the statues beside them.

Mottley produced his card and the fiddler's name with equal aplomb. The girl received us in a salon on the piano nobile, overlooking the canal. She was swathed in a flaming red beach pajama, and greeted Mottley with a kiss on both cheeks. I got a handshake.

She introduced us to her patron, Count Czobor, and I was baffled by Mottley's friendly demeanor. I didn't know whether to snub the man or beg his forgiveness in advance, but I settled for a frosty nod. Or at least, I would have settled for one if I hadn't been attacked at that moment by a screaming ball of hair, determined to eat me from the ankles up.

"Good God! What's that?" I exclaimed. I tried to leap backward, but cannoned into a low settee and fell backward over its arm. I hadn't time to be embarrassed, as the Hairball from Hell discovered with glee that my face was now within range.

Czobor laughed heartily. "Don't mind little Netvor. He never bites."

I begged to differ. The Count hauled the dog into his arms and cuddled it. That told me all I needed to know about Czerbo. The girl's tale may have been fishy, but only Satan himself could cuddle that monstrosity.

The girl motioned us to sit. I righted myself on the settee and Mottley joined me decorously. "Now," she said, "You hear something you will not forget."

Czobor pulled aside a tapestry on the wall, revealing the latest model of combination-safe. Mottley peered closely as the Count twiddled its knobs. He produced a gleaming violin, its patina proclaiming centuries of loving care.

Mottley was watching the girl. From the moment she rosined her bow to the last note she played, she was completely engrossed in her work. She ran the violin through its scales, her bow dancing over the notes like sun on waves. She noodled through snatches of the Elgar we'd heard before. She opened the music on her stand and set to work. I'd no idea how a musician attacks a song in rehearsal. She laid it bare and explored every cranny of it, like a lover on a summer afternoon. She forgot us entirely, while the violin throbbed and melted in her hands.

Afterward, she grinned. Mottley stood. "Magnificent."

Czerbo puffed out his chest. "The Guarneri del Gesu -- there is no tone like it. They say the Stradivari are the finest sound, but the del Gesu is alive. We will make her famous -- the del Gesu and I."

A tap at the door heralded one of the scowlers from downstairs, who murmured in Czobor's ear. The girl pulled Mottley out on the balcony to see the view, and I got stuck shaking hands with the Count's visitor.

"Fowler Nash," he said. "Antiques." He was a striking fellow, an Englishman with the peculiarly leathery look we do get when we're left out in the sun a bit too long. His dark hair had greyed, and he wore it too long for polite society. I caught a look in his eye that hinted he was used to a bit of impoliteness.

Czobor handed him the violin with great ceremony. "Mr. Nash, a great pleasure. I covet your opinion of our treasure."

Nash turned the instrument and held it up to the light. He nodded. "Golden period, no question. The label's quite correct -- the iota-eta-sigma. Those can be forged, but this workmanship can't."

He held the violin up by its neck and pointed. "The elongated f-holes, bass higher than the treble: distinctive. The whole shape is eccentric -- shortened body, the scroll-ears offset.  It's like a bumblebee. It shouldn't work, but --" He strummed the strings reverently. "It does. My, it does."

He handed it back to Czobor and lifted a case at his side. "Exquisite, sir. Is there somewhere I could set up my things? I'll need to do measurements, prepare my certificate."

"Of course." Czobor clicked his fingers, and followed his manservant to a side table.

The girl crossed the balcony, leading Mottley by the arm, their bodies close together, silhouetted against the afternoon sun.

Nash frowned. "Who's that?"

"Oh, that's Mo --" I suddenly remembered that Mottley wasn't Mottley. For the life of me, I couldn't remember what his alias was supposed to be. The distinct advantage of looking habitually vacant is that when you suddenly forget what you were saying in the middle of a sentence, it arouses no suspicion.

"…Muh good friend, don't you know.  Correspondent for the Journal."

"Cheviot," spat the Count. He didn’t mean anything by it, you know. It was just his accent. He spat everything.

"Ralph Cheviot?" Nash asked. "We have a mutual acquaintance -- John Forthright of Scotland Yard."  He peered at Mottley's retreating back. "Inspector Forthright speaks very loudly of him."

I wished to hear more, but never got the chance. The fiddler stormed in from the balcony, and next I knew, Mottley and I were deposited efficiently -- if somewhat untidily -- by the surly heroes outside.

I straightened my collar. "Let me guess. You told her no."

The next week was the longest of my life. The fiddler's ensemble was about to leave on tour, and Mottley was counting the days. Each one passed with no word, no answer to his messages.

I hadn't come to Venice to play nursemaid, but Mottley had the most acute case of lovesickness I'd ever seen. He mooned about, and I mooned about with him, haunting the city's outré clubs and listening to manouche jazz. He even started playing his oboe again - a filthy habit, I told him. Why not just take absinthe or cocaine, instead of giving us all brain-damage too?

After six days, I took the oboe away and told him to steal the damn violin or throw himself in the Grand Canal. I mean to say, a cheerful tune on the oboe sounds like a ward full of harpies with the colic, but a melancholy oboe will drive one right round the last bend.

I immediately regretted my words, as Mottley chose the heist. He perked right up and started delegating. My job was to round up as many chums as possible (the larger the better) and convince them to crash a party at Czerbo's palazzo at a particular time the following evening. I had to concede the brilliant simplicity of this ruse, for a well-lubricated hearty will expect chuckers-out at any party worth getting into, and would keep the scowlers busy a good while. Once inside, he'd crack the safe, while I was to watch his back. This confused me for a moment, as I couldn't very well see anyone sneaking up behind us if I were looking at Mottley's back, but he soon sorted me out.

The next night, the plan went off swimmingly. A few rounds of drinks along the Lido, and our pack of misdirected chums was coursing to San Polo like hounds after a sausage. They kept the Count's surly housemen so well-occupied, Mottley and I slipped right past them.

In the upstairs salon, Mottley flung back the tapestry and applied his ear to the safe.

"Mottley!" I said, "Where did you learn safecracking?"

"Do you really want to know?" he snarled.

I didn't. He spun the knob. The sound of the rumpus downstairs drifted through the window, but the room itself was deadly still. Then, quite suddenly, it wasn't still at all. Little Netvor had found us.

The beast leapt snarling upon my trouser-cuffs as if they were personally responsible for all the ills dogflesh is heir to. "Back!" I cried helplessly. "Leave it, you little --"

"Shut up!"  Mottley hissed. "I can't hear!"

He was right. If I tore the mouthful of trouser from the monster's grip and it gave tongue, it was bound to alert the housemen. I took off my jacket. I took a deep breath and swooped. It was a hard-fought battle, but I had the advantage of reach and strength. Though sweat, blood, and even a few tears were spilt, Netvor the Terrible was at last transformed into a neat and harmless bundle.

In the silence that followed, I could almost hear the lock tumblers ticking over. Then I heard something else.

"Mottley, are you sure Count Czobor isn't at home?"

"No, he's receiving an award for philanthropy at the Opera gala tonight. Won't be home for hours yet." He snorted. "Philanthropy, I ask you."

The sound continued. It was certainly voices. Two people were having some sort of argument in the next room but one, but I couldn't make out the words.


"Be quiet, I tell you!"

The voices continued. I realized with a sinking feeling that those two people were not arguing. They were in complete agreement.  A regular concert of mutual appreciation, if you take my meaning.

"Mottley, someone's at home."

"I told you, Czerbo's due at the Opera on the 6th. He'll be there all night."

I grabbed his arm. "Mottley, it's the 5th!"

Mottley turned to me in complete surprise. "When?"

"Today. Thursday, February 5, 1931."

Mottley's face went pale as a blancmange. He turned back to the safe.  He'd had a reputation as a linguist at school -- I believed it now, for he could curse fluently in at least six tongues.

Now, a chap with any nugget of common sense would have barged off out the window, sharpish. Indeed, it was this course to which I earnestly entreated him, plucking the while at his sleeve. But no -- Cupid's arrows make madmen of the best of us (or so I hear), and when one is mad to start with (which, as I mentioned before, Mottley certainly is) why then! Love turned him plum loony.

On he went with his clicking, slapping a hand over my mouth by way of explanation.

And that's how it came to pass, that just as Mottley swung open the safe, he joggled me.  This caused me to lose my grip on the Hellhound, which launched itself in a backward half-gainer from my arms and shook off the shreds of my dinner jacket. It screeched and bounded round my knees like an India-rubber ball possessed by the tortured souls of the Seventh Circle.

From the next room but one, I could hear the Count's cry of something Slovakian, probably translating to "What the devil?" Followed by rushing feet and the clearer cry of, "Stop, thief!"

The rest you know -- violin, balcony, sabre (snatched off the mantelpiece), naked fiddler, and the surly chuckers-out hovering just behind the Count. And of course, the twang.

As the echo died away, Mottley turned to me with a smile so bone-chillingly barmy that I nearly fell off the railing.

"Of course," he said. He swung the del Gesu wide and slammed it into the stone wall with a splintering crash.

Czobor gasped. The surlies grunted. The fiddler screamed, and Mottley watched as a shining silver sliver twirled into the air from the wreckage of the lovely instrument. He leapt to catch it, crying, "Shift it, Debenham!"

The general advice for those contemplating a leap into the canals of Venice -- fully clothed or otherwise is -- don't. It could have been worse. It could have been summer. 

I was not popular with the concierge at my hotel. The poor fellow couldn't decide whether to turn my stinking, sopping form away or hustle me out of sight to my room. A damp bank-note reminded him where my room-key was hanging. I found a missive on the dressing-table: Stazione Santa Lucia. Now. M.

No other trace. Madmen don't drip, I suppose.

I found Mottley leaning on a pillar in the main concourse, smoking one of his endless gaspers and watching the luggage lockers. "What's going on? Why are we here?"

A flash of silver dangled from Mottley's hand. "The key inside the violin. It belongs to that locker over there."

"What's in it?"

"Why, the del Gesu, you lackwit.  What did you think would be in it?"

"The great Cham's beard? How should I know? You smashed the del Gesu, Mottley!"

He took another drag. "Of course I didn't. That wasn't the del Gesu, sounded nothing like it."

I boggled. It's the inbreeding that does it, you know, these aristocratic families. I suppose it's all for the best that he can't seem to find a girl -- these conditions are hereditary. I began to wonder when the carabinieri would find us. After all, he'd broken into the home of a well-known foreign diplomat and smashed up a priceless antique.  Hopefully with Mottley's money and my connections, we'd be able to find a decent solicitor.

Mottley continued unabashed. "The violin we heard her play was a golden-age del Gesu -- rich, dark, vibrant. The one in the safe was a substitute. It looked all right, but that D note…" He shook his head.

My head was starting to ache again. "So the del Gesu wasn't the del Gesu.  And the damsel in distress?" I felt for my cigarette case.

"No damsel, I suppose. But distress is the question. If she could make the switch any time, why recruit our help? There's a piece missing somewhere -- a lost harmonic, if you will."

I froze in mid-light. "The dealer!"

The flame spurting from the end of my cigarette broke my reverie.  I stomped it out. "When you went off to see the damsel's etchings, there was another Englishman there, some kind of antiques expert. He handled the damn fiddle, inspected it all over."

Mottley lunged at me, his grey eyes shooting sparks in the shadow of the pillar. "What was his name?"

"Ah….Ford? Studebaker? Some kind of American car." He glared at me till I felt quite ant-like. "Sorry, old chap. It's gone." I perked up. "But he knew you."

Mottley clasped my lapels in what I cannot describe as a friendly manner. "You told him my name?"

"No, no! I couldn't remember your pen-name. Czobor told him. He said he'd heard of you from your friend John Forthright."

Mottley released me. "Damn." He paced between the pillars, shaking his hands in that way he has when he's thinking furiously. "Whoever this blighter is, he's run in with Scotland Yard."

"So have you!" I objected. "That doesn't make you a thief."

Speechless, Mottley ran both hands through his slicked-back hair, making it stand up like a parrot's poll. I remembered what we'd just been doing. "Oh."

We leaned against the pillar, one either side, and watched the lockers. I lit another gasper. Trains came and went. I stretched my stiff back. It had been a long night, and a longer morning. "Tell me again why we haven't opened it?"

"I want to see who comes to collect. If it's the dealer, then she's been done dirty. If she comes herself, then she's using any tool that comes to hand."  He flicked me a sidelong glance. "Rather a blunt instrument, we were." He glanced up the concourse. "Psht." He drew back into the shadow.

A curious little procession approached. In front, the station-manager strode in starched pomp.  Behind him, a uniformed attendant scurried, wringing his hands and whimpering, "Irregular…oh, dear, most irregular…" The girl swept along behind them. She was dressed for traveling in a spanking white suit, with a fox around her neck and diamonds at her ears.

She stopped before the lockers. "Here, I tell you. This is the one. Have I not shown you the rental receipt? He would not open it for me, this…"

My Italian wasn't quite good enough to keep up. I could tell it wasn't complimentary, though.

A sharp whistle broke from the other side of the pillar. The three turned to us. Mottley stepped into the light, and the fiddler gaped.

Mottley stared at her a moment. I wish I were better at reading faces, for I can't describe the look that went over his. I just know it left me terribly sad.

With a sharp flick, he tossed the key in a high arc. The girl put out her gloved hand and caught it. Her face melted, and she looked very, very young.

Mottley spun on his heel and walked away. He left me flat-footed, but I soon caught him up.

"Mottley!" I cried. "It could be empty. The real thief may be long gone with the violin."

 "It doesn't matter anymore," he said.

That struck me still. "Of course it matters!"

"Then you stay," he muttered and kept walking. But you know, in the end, I didn't.

She's quite famous now. You'll see her posters at Covent Garden, the Salle Pleyel, Carnegie Hall. Plays a Stradivarius.  Well, she'd have to, wouldn't she?

Would you have another spot of Mottley?

A preview chapter for Book 1: Mister Mottley Gets His Man is available right here on Inkitt.

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