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Title: Ask Miss Mott - A Short Story
Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim
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Language: English
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Ask Miss Mott
A Short Story with Illustrations by Floyd M. Davis

by

E. Phillips Oppenheim


First published in Collier's Magazine, 9 Feb 1935


This was the first story in the Miss Mott series. A radically modified version appeared under the title "Burglars Must Dine" in the collection Ask Miss Mott, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1936.


"My business," he said, "is crime." And so it began—one of the strangest adventures that ever befell the girl known to Scotland Yard as Detective Wragge's niece.



MISS MOTT looked up quickly at the sound of the knock at her office door. She had been engaged in the typical task of writing her advice to a young woman whose courtship affairs had become involved, and she had rather forgotten the flight of time. Her typist had gone, her messenger boy, and the lame but very pleasant young clerk who assisted in her various activities. In other words, Miss Mott was alone on the top floor of a building not far removed from the Adelphi and, the hour being long past office hours, she was not expecting a caller.

"Come in," she invited curiously.

From that moment onward, strange things happened. First of all, the door was opened. Then a man, crouching so that his face was hidden, slipped in and, moving to the switch, turned out the light.

"What do you want?" Miss Mott demanded, alarm in her tone.

There was no immediate reply, nor, for some reason or other, did Miss Mott expect one. Congratulating herself upon her presence of mind, she pulled the table telephone instrument toward her, and lifted the receiver. There was no answera curious deadness, in fact, at the other end of the line. She peered forward through the gloom and, although the sensation was unusual with her, she began to be afraid. Her visitor had donned a mask of some light color. He had now locked the door, put the key in his pocket, and was leaning back in the easy-chair which she kept for the more distinguished of her clients.

"I shouldn't worry about that, if I were you," he suggested, with a wave of his hand toward the telephone. "I've cut the telephone cord."

"Then you were guilty of a very impertinent action," Miss Mott declared with spirit. "Who are you, and what on earth can you want with me?"

"Keep calm, I beg of you," he enjoined. "Do you suppose that I should be likely to mount all these stairs, and pay you a visit at this inconvenient hour of the evening without wanting something? If you wait for a few moments in patience, you will certainly hear what it is."

"Wait for a few more moments," Miss Mott lied courageously, "and my secretary and clerk will both be back."

He laughed derisively, but not unpleasantly.

"My dear young lady," he pointed out, "since when have your secretary, and your messenger boy, and your director of intelligence, as I suppose you call the lame youth, returned at something after eight o'clock, when you have once dismissed them? They have all three left for the night. You are here, utterly alone, busily engaged in completing your column for 'Home Talks.' In other words, you are delving into other people's troubles, and answering the long string of queries which you invite every week under the heading of 'Ask Miss Mott'."

"You seem to know a great deal about my business," she remarked icily.

"Only," he assured her, "since you began to interfere in mine."


SHE liked his voice, and she was not in the least alarmed now, but she realized to the full the unusualness of the situation.

"Perhaps you will tell me," she invited, "when I had the misfortune to interfere in your affairs."

"I am coming to that," he promised her.

"Couldn't we have the light on?" she begged. "I don't like sitting in the darkness with a stranger on the seventh floor of a deserted building."

"Compromising, my dear Miss Mott, I admit," the voice from the shadows acknowledged, "but necessary. I am a very shy person, as most criminals are. My mask may disguise my features, but I cannot afford to give you the opportunity of taking note of other details of my person."

"You are sure that you are a criminal?" she ventured.

"Absolutely certain," he assured her. "Really, I should be a godsend to you. Not only am I a criminal, but I am a member of a gang which is very seriously looked upon by the police. If you were in the fortunate position of being able to deliver me up to justice, I have no doubt that you might commence your career auspiciously by touching several rashly offered rewards."

"Then, if that is really your position, why are you here?" she demanded. "I have nothing worth stealing, and I imagine a nicely brought-up criminal doesn't go about frightening young women, unless there's something to he gained by it."

"Very well put, Miss Mott," he answered. "I will tell you why I am here. It is to stop your interference in my legitimate business."

"But how can I have interfered with your business," she argued, "when I don't know what it is? And, furthermore," she went on, "if you have a business, how can you be a criminal?"

"My dear young lady." he remonstrated, "my business is crime."

"Then what is your business with me?" she asked him point-blank.

He settled himself down more comfortably in his chair.

"I will explain," he promised. "You have, I understand, for several years. conducted an extraordinarily successful column in a paper called 'Home Talks.' You give advice, chiefly of course, to members of your own sex, who are in difficulties with their lovers, husbands, cookery or wardrobes. Excellent, so long as you stick to that. Lately, however, encouraged by certain minor successes, you have gone farther afield. You have placed yourself privately at the disposal of your clients who find themselves in any sort of difficulty whatsoever. In pursuit of your vocation, you have engaged a small staff, and you now call yourself, I think, an 'Intelligence Agent'."

"That seems to me a very reasonable definition of my activities," Miss Mott admitted coldly.

"I will not quarrel with it," he agreed. "You must permit me to point out, however, that you fly a little too high when you interfere in the enterprises of anyone so well known in the criminal world as your humble visitor."

"Who are you then?" she inquired.

"I have many aliases," he confided. "The one under which you would know me best, perhaps—but, wait a moment."


HE ROSE to his feet. and moved toward her. She was conscious of a sudden shiver, which, if it were not of fear, was certainly of some kindred excitement. Her pulses were stirred. She felt her heart beating more quickly. He made no attempt to come round to her side of the desk, however. He leaned over it, his eyes, through the slits in his mask, taking swift and appreciative note of her. She caught a gleam of something white in his hand, and was at once aware of a waft of delicate perfume.

"Violet Joe!" she exclaimed. "You are the man who is blackmailing—"

"Hush," he interrupted. "One of the first lessons of our profession—yours and mine, I mean—which must be learned and adhered to is 'no names.' I have a great many more serious crimes charged against me than the present one, but you may take it that it was from my agent that your messenger procured that little packet of letters yesterday afternoon at the Black Boy lnn at Cobham. I must congratulate you upon the idea. It was indeed a very cleverly thought-out piece of work, and I can assure you that it goes very much against the grain with me to insist upon having them hack again."

"So that is what you have come for!" she exclaimed.

"That what I have come for."

Miss Mott was not feeling quite so comfortable. She had an uncle in ScotIand Yard who was fond of telling her atories about thc famous criminals of the day, and she had heard some very ugly tales indeed about the gang with which Violet Joe was oonnected. She dimly remembered that a reward of a thousand pounds had been placed unon the head of the leader of thc gang.

"How do you know that I have not already parted with those letters?" she asked.

"Because," he answered. "—shall I be indiscrete for once and mention names?—Mrs. Bland Potterson comes back from Brizhton tonight, and she is almost certain to have asked you to deliver them into her own hand. That might almost be one reason why you are working late here. In any case, the letters are in that drawer on your right-hand side, and I am afraid that I must ask you to hand them over to me."

It was a very exciting moment for Miss Mott. How she longed to see behind that mysterious mask of light silk! The eyes and the voice had both their separate thrill, but, more than anything else in the world, she wanted at that moment to look into the face of Violet Joe.


"SUPPOSING I refuse?" she suggested.

"That seems such a foolish supposition," he argued, a touch of weariness inhis tone— "You are not a large person, Miss Mott. And you have heard a few things ahout Violet Joe, I dare say?"

"I have indeed," she acknowledged.

"Not all to my detriment, I hope?" he inquired anxiously.

"Mostly negative," she confided, sitting upright in her place. "I have heard that you absolutely decline to carry firearms in any of your enterprises, that you can break a man's wrist with your hands, that you are amateur boxer, a famous wrestler, and all those stupid things. They are part of the equipment of your profession, I suppose."

"Slight1y withering," he commented.

She shrugged her shoulders.

"One wonders," she went on, "why a man so well equipod as you to fight for what he wants should stoop to the lower branches of orime—perhaps I should say thc Iowest branch of all—blackmailing."

"Ah, but my dear Miss Mott," he expostulated, "you do not know Mrs. Bland Potterson. You have probably never met Mr. Bland Potterson. I can assure you that if you had made their acquaintance you would understand the joy—the positive extasy—of having them both shivering in their shoes."

"I don't know either of them," Miss Mott acknowledged, "but I don't see what that has Lo do with it. In any case, I have the letters, and I am going to carry out my contract. I am not in the least afraid of you. Besides—"

"Well?"

"There is just one thing more that I have heard said of Violet Joe. He has never robbed or laid his hands upon a woman."

"Right," he admitted. "My problem then will be how to get the letters without using force—that is if I am to preserve my reputation."


"WELL, you're not going to get them," she assured him firmly, "and if you stay here much longer," she added with a sudden inspiration, "you will have my uncle to deal with."

"An who may he be?"

"Superintendent Detective Wragge of Scotland Yard," she answered, with a gleam of triumph in her eyes. "The name may be familiar to you—"

He laughed long and softly.

"Oh, Miss Mott," he expostulated. "I happen to know that your respected uncle is at Southamptnn to-night, the passenger list of thc Devonia in his hand."

"You appear to be very well informed."

He leaned back as though to laugh again. Then Miss Mott had the shock of her young iife, for she was young in years as well as in her eareer. Like a crouching cat through the darkness he was by her side with one spring. The drawer toward which her eyes had so frequently wandered was opened. His fingers had closed upon the letters. She struck out at him, and met only the empty air. She cried aloud, but that she knew was hopeless, for they were on the seventh floor of an almost empty building.

Violet Joe was back again in his chair pn the other side of the desk, the packet of letters in his pocket. His eyes were smiling at her through the narrow apertures of his mask. A breath of the perfume of violets lingered in the air.

"Sorry, my dear young lady," he apologized, "but, after all. you mustn't complain. Flash bank notes, which I suppose you got from Scotland Yard. were quite a clever device of yours, but tricky—very tricky. You might have got my poor messenger into serious trouble, supposing he had been obliged to change one—say, for his bus fare on the way home. If you stoop to that sort of thing, you must expect this sort of retribution."

He rose swiftly and unexpectedly to his feet, and she saw his outline in the gloom, the head thrust forward, listening intently. Then he crossed the room, and felt about as though searching for something. He was by the window now, a little distance behind her desk, moving noiselessly—an almost invisible presence. Suddenly she became conscious of a familiar but at that hour unusual sound. She heard the elevator, the terminus of which was two flights down, as it came rattling into its place. A cold wave of air swept through the room. Violet Joe had opened the window.

"You are going to have a caller, Miss Mott" he confided.

She listened. They both listened. This time there was thc faint but distinct sound of shuffling footsteps mounting the last flight of steps.

"Dear me!" Violet Joe sighed, "I must go—by the fire escape!"

He was halfway out of the window now. He looked at her, and there was a quality of laughter in his voice, as he pulled the key of the door from his pocket, and let it drop onto the floor. Then he swung away out of sight.

Miss Mott walked to the window and closed it. Then she turned the light on, and unlocked the door.


THE knock at the door came at last, and Miss Mott's apprehensions were not lessened by the sight of the visitor who made furtivc entrance. He could not, by any means, be called prepossessing. He wore the clothes of the shabby genteel clerk out of work, but the clothes themselves were very much more shabby than genteel. His linen was doubtful, and it was obvious that he was wearing his tie inside out. His coat showed ink stains, but least pleasing of all was his face—long and narrow, with closeset eyes, and unpleasant mouth.

"Good evening, Miss," he said, as he slipped across the threshold.

"Good evening," Miss Mott answered coldly. "What do you want?"

The young man deliberately closed the door bchind him. Then he approached the desk at which Miss Mott was seated.

"First of all, I have a matter of business no discuss with you, Miss," he began. "You do the answers don't you, for ladies and girls what gets into trouble in 'Home Talks'?"

"I do," she acknowledged. "Are you one of my readers?"

Her visitor chuckled.

"Not much, Miss," he scoffed. "I ain't come here to waste your time, either, nor mine. You've set up what you call an 'Intelligence Agency' on your own. You had a job from Mrs. Bland Potterson of Portland Place. You got some letters back for her. She hasn't had them yet because she's only returning from Brighton tonight. I'm after those letters."

"Blackmailer Number Two," Miss Mott observed calmly.

"You can call me what you jolly well like," the young man replied. "It was one of the big five who pinched them first. You settled with his messenger, who was a pal of mine, at Cobham this afternoon, and you've got the letters waiting to give them back to Mrs. Bland Potterson."

"Well?"

"She'll have to pay twice over for them, that's all, because I've cut into the game," the intruder announced with a grin. "No use making a fuss, Miss," he added, unpleasantly. "Hand over the letters."

"You are unfortunately too late," Miss Mott told him. "A previous visitor—probably the gentleman to whom you refer as one of the big five—was here half an hour ago and, finding me alone and unarmed, has, in most chivalrous fashion, possessed himself of them."

The young man leaped forward and thrust his very disagreeable face within a few inches of Miss Mott's.

"You've got those Iettors," he snarled. "Tell me where they are!"

"I have told you I haven't got them," she reiterated. "I haven't got them, and if I had I wouldn't give them to you."

"I'll teach you, you little devil!" he muttered, and seized her by the shoulders.

She shrieked madly—shrieked and shrieked again. He only laughed.

There was a sound which, to her dazed ears, seemed like the smashing of of a thousand window panes. The carpet all ovcr the further side of the office was littered with glass and broken wood-work. The man in the mask, his hands upon the sill, leaped into the room. He asked no questions. He came at Miss Mott's assailant like a wildcat. Miss Mott, opening her eyes from the horror which was encompassing her, heard a yell of agony, and saw her tormentor lying motionless in a far corner of the room. The smell of violets was in her nostrils, the fire of a pair of burning blue eyes blazed into hers. Nevertheless, the newcomers voice, when he spoke, was remarkably steady.

"Turn out the light," he directed. "I've cut my cheek and my hand, and I shall have to take my mask off. I do not wish you to see my face."

She moved over to the switch, and obeyed. The blood from his cheek was dripping onto the desk.

"You had better get out and go home," he told her. "Here are your letters. I only wanted them to punish those beastly people, and they're not worth all that fuss anyway. Get your hat."

"But you must let me bathe your cheek," she begged, stopping short.

"I have already told you," he said sternly, "that I will not allow you to see my face. I will leave this rubbish upon the stairs. He can tell his own story to anyone he pleases, when he re- covers. Now go home."


MISS MOTT was very nearly cured that evening of any secret feeling of fondness she might have had for the women and girls whom she addressed every week in her column of "Home Talks" as "My dear friends." The butler at the great house in Portland Place gazed a little more haughtily than usual out of his front door at her timid summons. He rather resented visitors at this unusual hour.

"Mrs. Bland Potterson has just returned from Brighton, Miss. If you are the young lady whom she is expecting, I will take you to her. Otherwise the mistress is not at home."

Miss Mott gave her name, and was conducted through scenes of Tottenham Court Road magnificence into a glaring drawing-room, brilliantly illuminated.

"The young person whom you were expecting, madam," the man announced.

A rubicund lady, dressed in clothes which seemed all too short and too tight for her, nodded patronizingly, and pointed to a seat.

"So you're Miss Mott," she remarked, folding her hands in front of her. "Parkins, tell your master that Miss Mott is here."

"Very good, madam."

"I have brought your letters, Mrs. Potterson," she confided.

"How clever of you, my dear!" the lady exclaimed, leaning forward and positively grabbing them from Miss Mott's outstretched hands. "Well, now, I am glad I thought of writing to you. Bothered to death I was about those letters. You see, my 'usband's by way of being a public man—may have a knighthood next year—it might run to a baronetcy—and when you get into circles like that, you see, young woman, there must never be any scandal. Not a breath of it."

Into the room bustled Mr. Bland Potterson, and he was very much what one would have imagined the husband of Mrs. Bland Potterson to be like. He, too, was short. He was sleek. He was pompous.

"My 'usband," Mrs. Bland Potterson announced. "This is the young lady who's got back the letters, 'Erbert. She's brought them with her."

Mr. Bland Potterson smiled as amiably as he knew how. His cunning little eyes were devouring the packet.

"You see," Mrs. Bland Potterson explained, "they are all signed by the wretched girl's Christian name, which was Ellen. She was with us when we lived at Forest Hill, where we 'ad a much smaller establishmcnt. 'Ousemaid, she was, and a very bad one at that. Well, as the letters show, she got into trouble. The first thing the 'ussy does is to try to get to see my 'usband alone, He's too clever for that, and keeps out of 'er way. The impudent 'ussy then actually came to see mc, and an outrageous story she told. Out of the 'ouse I packed her pretty quick. My 'usband may have his weak moments—gentlemen do, it seems to me now, since the war—but not with servant girls."

Mr. Bland Potterson fingered his tie impressively.

"I should think not," he declared.

"What happened to her?" Miss Mott asked quietly, with a sudden inexplicable curiosity.

"She appeared to have no friends," Mrs. Bland Patterson confided, "They took her in at some sort of institution, I believe, to have her baby. Her last letter was written from there."

"And now?"

"She died," was the indifferent and yet somewhat shamefaced reply. "She was a vicious little cat even on her deathbed. She got the clergyman to write that last letter there for her. Spiteful little beast!"

"And the child?"

Mr. Bland Potterson jangled the keys in his pocket.

"Who the devil cares anything about the child?" he demanded, "They put her into the workhouse, I think. Best place, too. Anyway, like a couple of mugs we kept her letters—some of them to my wife, and some of them to me—and they were stolen by a servant. Now you know the whole of the story, Miss Mott, and the letters are going upon the fire within the next few minutes."

Mrs. Bland Potterson leaned over and opened a bag upon the table by her side, From amongst a sheaf of inoney she selected a fiverpound note, and showed it to her husband.

"Yes, yes, my dear," hc agreed, with a wave of the hand, "We can afford it. Certainly."

Mrs Bland Potterson handed the fivepound note over to Miss Mott, and rang the bell.

"There you are, young lady," she announced, with ponderous grandiloquence. "Don't say a word, I beg of you. You're very welcome."

Miss Mott was feeling a little confused. She looked at the note, she looked at Mrs. Bland Potterson, she looked at the short, pompous figure of her husband, she looked at the butler, waiting to see her out, and gained at last some inspiration. She handed the note into his eager fingers.

"Perhaps you wouldn't mind getting me a taxi," she begged.


MISS MOTT, as shc crossed the pavemcnt toward the waiting taxi, was very angry indeed. She was angry with herself, she was angry with the obsequious butler, she was more than ever angry with Mr. and Mrs. Bland Potterson. It seemed to her, however, that the climax had been reached when she flung herself back in the corner of the taxi7 cab and became conscious that it was already occupied!

"Who are you?" she cried, leaning forward. "This is my taxicab."

"Then I cannot congratulate you upon your choice, Miss Mott," a voice answered. "It is a very poor vehicle."

Miss Mott gasped.

"What on earth are you doing in here?" she demanded.

"I followed you," her dimly seen companion confessed. "I wanted to see how you got on with Mr. and Mrs. Bland Potterson."

"Beastly people!" she exclaimed.

He laughed softly.

"I had an idea you would not be pleased," he said. "I have to ask you a delicate question, Miss Mott. Please do not refuse to answer me."

"Well?"

"How much did they give you?"

"Five pounds," she answered scornfully. "I gave it to the butler."

This time his laugh, although just as soft, was more prolonged.

"I told you what unpleasant people they were. I am going to call on them myself in a few minutes."

"What do you mean? What do you want with them?"

"That would take too long to tell just now," he answered. "We are, I gather, on our way back to your rooms."

"We are just there."

"Then, will you be so kind," he begged, "as to slip into an evening gown—black would suit you very well, I think, with your pretty hair and your perfect complexion. I should like to dine somewhere where the light is not too good nor the music too loud—say Ciro's Grill Room—in an hour. I want to tell you about Mr. and Mrs. Bland Potterson."

"I think," Miss Mott said deliberately, "that you are mad!"

"And I think," he rejoined, "that you are terribly attractive. In one hour's time, I shall be waiting for you in the hall."

"I shall not be there," Miss Mott declared positively.

"I shall hope fur the best," the man replied.


MR. and Mrs. Bland Patterson were still indulging in their orgy of complacent self-congratulation. The door was thrown open. The butler once more insinuated his bland presence.

"The Honorable Mr. Gervase Mailincourt," he announced.

Mr. and Mrs. Bland Potterson were surprised. The young man who was approaching them was without doubt a person of consequence. Mrs. Bland Potterson smiled in greeting.

"I must alnololzizc for this intrusion," the newcomer said. "My only excuse is that I shall merely keep you a matter of two minutes."

"Something to do with the election, perhaps? Mr. Bland Potterson suggested. "Take a chair, Mr.—er—Mallincourt."

"Your surmise is correct," the visitor agreed. "It has something to do with the election."



He produced a packet of letters from his pocket, folded together and secured with a rubber band.

"A quarter of an hour ago," the young man went on, "you bought and have doubtless already destroyed a packet of letters written to you both by the domestic servant whom you, Mr. Bland Patterson, seduced. You imagined that you were destroying the originals. You were not. You were destroying copies which had heen palmed off upon a cheap blackmailer. The originals have been kept for aa different pur- pose. Here they are. Ten thousand pounds would not buy them, Mr. Bland Potterson. Your resignation from your candidacy of the Western Division of St. Pancras would and will."

Mrs. Bland Patterson collapsed in her chair. Her husband sat with his mouth openincapable of speech.

"Who are you?" Mr. Bland Potterson demanded at last.

"I am n patriot," the visitor replied. "I live for the sake of my country, and I conceive it very much against my country's interests that you, sir, should become a member of the British Parliament. Mr. Hulings Johnson is an infinitely better man. All my friends wish Mr. Hulings Johnson to be elected. As there will be no time to secure a new candidate it seems to me that he probably will be. The time is very short. I should recommend, sir, that you take to your bed tonight, send for your doctor, announce your illness and communicate with your party organization."

The young gentleman who had introduced himself as the Honorable Gervase Mallincourt once more waved the letters in their faces and turned toward the door.

"If the announcement of your resignation, sir, appears in the newspapers tomorrow, upon my word as a gentleman the letters will be destroyed or returned to you—whichever you prefer. If it does not appear I shall be on the platform of your meeting at two o'clock in the afternoon. Do not trouble to ring, I can find my own way out."


"I CAME," Miss Mott said severely, "because I was curious."

"And you will remain," her companion replied, as they descended the stairs into the Grill Room, "beeause you are going to have a delightful dinner."

"What have you done to yourself?" she asked. "You look about twenty years older and, although you have been frightfully clever about it, I know that that is not your own hair, and those lines in your face are not natural."

"We criminals," he assured her, "get into the way of this sort of thing. You may yet see me as Father Christmas. How thankful I am," he went on, as they seated themselves in the bar and ordered cocktails, "that you are on the right side of the fence. You will never need to disguise yourself. On the whole I sm glad that you did not wear black —although I'm afraid that that was obstinacy—that particular shade of gray goes with your eyes. You are very distracting, Miss Mott—"

"I did not rome here to listen to you talking nonsense," she said severely,

"Of course not. I know that," he acknowledged. "Wait a minute. This has been a busy day. Let's drain these cocktails, then I will take you to the little corner table I have engaged. You shall read the menu of the dinner I have ordered and then, when I am quite sure that nothing would induce you to get up and leave me until after the dinner has been served, I shall tell you what you are dying to hear."


MISS MOTT read the menu and gave a little sigh of content. She had a weakness for exquisite food.

"Nothing," she assured him, "would induce me to leave until after the strawberries!"

"Then here is the truth," her companion confessed. "Such matters do not come within the sphere of our activities as a rule, but I have a young cousin, brilliantly clever, who is aching to get into Parliament. Mr. Bland Potterson's withdrawal at the last moment will make the seat a certainty for him. How we got to know about the letters doesn't matter. We should never have done anything about them in an ordinary way—not in our line at all—but in a good cause, against a Bland Pot- terson, everything is admissible, The letters you got back were copies. I have just shown the originals to Mr. Bland Potterson, I think that he would have given me more than five pounds for them but I told him that there was only one price. That he will pay. Tomorrow night you will see the announcement of his sudden illness and retirement!"

Miss Mott's lips parted in a faint smile, There was a twinkle in her eyes as she watched the Amontillado being reverently poured into her consommi.

"Perhaps," she murmured, "after all, five pounds were as much as my copies were worth."


THE END

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