The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring\Summer 2006 Results

The Case of the Missing Third

Copyright © Jim Murphy 2006

I was awakened by the relentless pounding.

"Go away," I called. "Itís the middle of the night."

"Itís not; itís ten oíclock. Wake up, Bassil," said a voice I knew all too well. "I need your help, so please get dressed."

My case was hurled open, and above me stood Vivienne, the superbly beautiful first Viola. I always sleep naked, and was extremely embarrassed. I quickly popped my slide in, difficult for a trombone in its case.

"Vivienne," I protested, "since when do strings seek help from a bass trombone? You up-tight instruments look down on us, with our blurting and saliva traps, and besides, we donít play in the same clef."

"I canít understand a word, please put your teeth in."

"Itís called a mouthpiece!" I blurted, after screwing it into place.

"Thatís better." My protests were completely ignored. "Bassil, you must help me. You see, Iíve become acoustically involved with another instrument; to be precise, Dimitri, a third violin." She paused, and I realised that under her confident tone she was stressed well above concert pitch.

I almost twisted into a French horn with suppressed laughter, but I kept my composure. Our elegant lead viola Ė with a mere third! The idea seemed preposterous.

She was too emotional to notice, and quavered on. "Bassil, my darling Dimitri has vanished Ė utterly!" Without warning she burst into a cadenza of tears.

The strings are notoriously temperamental, being so highly strung, so I pretended to be deep in thought for a minute or two.

"Control yourself." I said at last. "This is no more than hysteria Ė why, heís only half your age. Maybe he has met someone else. Those female second violins are anybodyís, letís be honest. Has he been rhapsodised by one of them? Someone younger, perhaps?"

"Bassil, you speak as a truly base bass trombone. Beauty in a viola or violin increases with age, and Iím 198 years old. Even Dimitri is 86 Ė no factory second could compete with me. No, as I told you before, he has just disappeared Ė heís not in his case. All the second violins are accounted for. In seven days we leave on our two-month tour and honestly, Bassil, I couldnít stay in tune two days without Dimitri. Please find him for me. I know he wouldnít leave of his own accord."

"Has he ever gone before?" I asked.

"Only once," she said, "and then he left a note, a B flat or an A natural, I forget which."

I felt great pity for her Ė she was truly beautiful: all those superb curves; that sculptured neck; and the added allure of the viola shape. Strange, I thought, that Iíd never noticed violas before but then again, Iíd never studied any treble clef members very carefully. Wrong religion, musically!

"Viv," I said, "Iíll try to help, but I must get some details before I question all the other instruments."

She was aghast. "Question them! Bassil, thatís the last thing I want. You must be extremely discreet in your enquiries."

"Viv, be sensible," I said. "There are over ninety instruments in the orchestra Ė how else can I find Dimitri? Besides, do you really think your stringed compatriots havenít spotted a liaison by now? Nothing stays secret in this music room for long. Tell me, how long has your little duet been going on?"

"Ten days," she answered brightly, "ever since the Dvorak suite, when viola and third violin had that absolutely gloriously emotional duet together. Only twelve bars, but it was love at first sound. Bassil, I havenít felt like this in 180 years." She suddenly looked haunted. "Please find him for me. Iím terrified that he may have wandered into the percussion corner, and been beaten, or thumped, or even hammered."

All strings are paranoid about percussion.

"Viv, they wonít be to blame, but Iíll check. Maybe his owner took him home for practice?"

"Certainly not! The case and bow are still there."

"Then," I said deliberately, "I will help you if you will do something for me in exchange?"

Viv was a careful lady. "What?" she asked.

"You mentioned the tour." She nodded, and I continued. "Itís an all-Mozart series of concerts, right?" She nodded again.

"My assistant, Yooie the tuba, misses out, since Mozart scores for tuba are quite rare."

"There arenít any. Mozart never wrote for tuba; it didnít exist then. I thought youíd know that."

"I do." I sat back and considered my words carefully. "Vivienne, if you could have a serious word with Victor the Concert Master, you both being strings, maybe Yooie could be included." I leant forward and spoke quietly. "If I find Dimitri could you get the Dvorak suite included in the tourís repertoire?"

She shook her bow. "No hope! Dvorak isnít Mozart. Itís a Mozart tour Ė how can Dvorak be included? We are celebrating the centenary of Mozartís birth, or death, or something. We have them every ten years."

I persisted. "Dvorak would be a great encore? Mozartís such a drag; people would welcome it as a change. And besides, we know the Dvorak stuff backwards, so thereíll be no wasting time with stupid rehearsals. Please ask Victor."

"Iíll try, but no guarantees." She suddenly smiled for the first time. "Iím well aware that the Dvorak suite includes bass trombone, and Mozart doesnít. Iím not a fool, Bassil. Itís you who wants the tour. Am I right?"

She was a very shrewd lady.

"Tours donít worry me," I lied. "Iíd sooner stay here. But Yooie hasnít been on one yet. Heíd love it."

I wasnít sure whether she believed me or not, but I marked her highly as a judge of character. She left soon after, relieved to have passed her worries on to someone else. I decided to do the same, having no idea what to do next.

I called on Yooie, who was not only the tuba of the orchestra but also my trusted assistant and strong man. A hard, tough customer, he even changed his own valve oil. Often his bluster and noise had covered for my musical shortcomings in a screaming fanfare.

He was polishing himself, a huge job for an instrument of his size. It kept him fit, he maintained. All the instruments loved Yooie. When he had first joined the orchestra he made his mark in only seven days. His owner turned two pages instead of one in a concert, and Yooie launched into a frenzied fortissimo finale Ė 68 bars too soon! The entire orchestra was thrown into disarray, and only seven instruments made it to the end. Fortunately we were doing Shostakovich, and the audience didnít notice; they even applauded warmly.

Yooie owed his name to the fact that, when still small, he was mistaken for a euphonium, and the nickname stuck.

"Yooie," I said, "Iím working hard to get you on the Mozart tour."

"Donít bother about it, Bassil. I know you hate being left behind, but I can do without the hustle and bustle of a tour."

"Donít let Vivienne know that. Sheís going to try to amend the program so that we both go."

"You go, Bassil, and Iíll stay here. Those tours are all play and no shirk."

"Help me with a problem, Yooie, and weíll both go," I replied. "Besides, the tour doesnít involve any work at all. We already know the Dvorak ditties. The fiddles can saw away on the Mozart bits Ė heís not my favourite anyway."

"Youíve never played him. But anyway, what's your problem?"

"Vivienne has lost her man."

"You mentioned her before, whoís Vivienne?"

"Sheís our lead viola. You must have heard her."

"Bassil, when I play, youíre usually playing alongside, with the tenor trombones, percussion and trumpets. In front of us are the basses and the cellos, and you expect me to hear a bloody viola? Get real! All I ever hear is ďoompah, oompahĒ. Anyway, what does she want?"

"She wants us to find Dimitri."

"Iíll bite, who's Dimitri?"

"Her boyfriend; heís a third violin."

"Third violin! Bassil, on stage I can barely see the first violins!"

"Third violins are just like the firsts, but they play softer during rehearsals and too loud during performances. Anyway, Dimitri has disappeared and Viv, whoís going to get Dvorak into the Mozart tour for us, is reaching screeching point. So I offered to find him for her."


"What do you suggest?"

Yooie smiled. "Youíre the great detective."

When challenged Iím a great believer in ad-libbing. "Iím prioritising the lines of enquiry," I replied, "but meanwhile why donít you snoop around and see what you can find out."

I walked away, feeling the pleasure that only delegation can afford. My wanderings took me into every corner of the instrument room except the percussions Ė it pays to be cautious - but no trace of Dimitri could I find. I inspected his empty case, but found nothing unusual Ė no resin stains to indicate foul play, the bow still in position and no indication of a rapid departure. Everything was abnormally normal, which made me suspicious.

"Have you found anything?" Vivienne was at my elbow.

"Iím studying everything carefully," I replied. "There are some unusual aspects to this case."

"Such as?"

"I see no signs of violence, which is a good sign. Iíll keep you posted. Any news about changing the tour?"

"Not a chance, Bassil; Victor wasnít there, but his second, Oscar, was aghast at the idea. He was quite rude about my taste. He suggested that I would play the Merry Widow for a Bridal Waltz. He added that playing Dvorak would not only make a mockery of a Mozart program, but also require another bus for the extra players and instruments. Thatís it from me, Bassil."

I was crushed - I love tours. Theyíre better than being stuck in an instrument room all day. Yooie, I was sure, would turn up something on Dimitri, since people who mistrust me would tell him their most intimate secrets. I never understood why. I never understood Vivís bit about The Merry Widow either.

Sure enough, ten minutes after Vivienne left Yooie returned. I could tell he had news.

"The tour is proving difficult," I said.

"Thatís fine with me. What are you up to?"

"Iím studying this violin case."


I extended my slide to tower above him. "Because, my dear Yooie, this is the Case of the Missing Third."

He snorted. "I wish you wouldnít keep chanting the obvious, Bassil."

"Anything on Dimitri?" I asked. "Iíve spent several hours checking his case and Iím convinced that he left of his own accord."

"Youíre right, he did."

"So you have discovered something?"

"See for yourself," he replied. He reached into his massive bell and dragged forth a puny, struggling piccolo, one of the midgets of the orchestra.

"This little bloke is too small to hide a secret. Youíre in for a surprise, Boss."

The piccolo was screeching in terror; heíd never been on the receiving end of a belligerent tuba before.

I loomed threateningly over the tiny pipsqueak. "Tell me what you know about Dimitri." I ordered. The piccolo trembled in fear.

"I know nothing about Dimitri. I told that to your big sousaphone."

This was a studied insult to a tuba, and Yooie was ready to thump him. I intervened.

"Little weed reed," I said menacingly, "donít play games with us, or Iíll put you back in Yooieís bell while he plays his warm-up exercises. Youíll never play in tune again. Now, what do you know?"

"Ask him about instrument smuggling, Boss," boomed Yooie.

"What instrument smuggling?"

"Oh, thatís nothing," chirped the subdued piccolo. "Early this morning I saw two fiddles moving a weird box through the instrument room."

"Who were they?"

"I donít know. It was dark."

"Where did they go?"

"Into a rehearsal room, I donít know which one. Can I go now, please? I donít know anything else."

I looked at Yooie.

"Let him go, Boss." He nodded.

Released, the piccolo trilled away. Yooie smiled and took control. "Come with me," he chuckled, and strode off purposefully.

I followed him to one of the small rehearsal rooms, with its strong soundproof door shut tight.

"Theyíre in there," he said.

I pressed my ear to the door, and I could faintly hear the sound of strange music coming from within.

"Have a peep through the keyhole, Boss."

I followed his suggestion, and saw a sight that sickened me. Lying on the floor of the room in the semi-darkness, I could make out the shapes of two violins, both writhing and double-stopping in ecstasy, while around them a flaming red concertina danced and played.

I was shocked. Never had I witnessed such blatantly lewd and immoral conduct. It was time for a brass fanfare.

"Yooie, the door," I commanded, and with a deafening blast we smashed our way into the room. As I had expected, one of the wretches was Dimitri, but the other remained concealed in the shadows. The concertina screeched and shook her bellows with fear at being discovered.

"Dimitri," I blasted, "how could you leave the beautiful Vivienne for this debauchery? You have made that lovely ladyís life utterly miserable. Surely she deserves better than a wanton lecher like you. Youíre on the downward slide, Dimitri. Keep behaving like this and youíll end up in the gutter with the mouth organs and banjos."

"Bassil, you donít understand. I love Vivienne dearly, but this is just something I had to do. Youíre a bass clef man Ė I donít expect sympathy Ė but now that youíve wrecked our class I will get back to Viv."

He left quickly, and I turned to the concertina.

"You, guttersnipe, get out!" I ordered.

"No! Stay where you are! Donít let that twisted parallelogram of wind order you around."

I was stunned - the other violin had spoken with authority. It was Victor, our beloved, suave and urbane Concert Master, our lead violin and most valuable instrument, reputed to be over four hundred years old. And he was angry, to screeching point.

"You extendable, expendable idiot!" he raged, "sheís no guttersnipe. She is a very talented performer, and makes a very good living in the inner city pubs. She helps us to further our musical education."

I snorted with disdain. "A concertina for education! Now Iíve heard everything. What do you think, Yooie?"

Yooie, who towered over the dignified old man, said, "What musical education? And why a concertina?"

"Because a concertina does things we canít do." Victor was not at all intimidated. He smiled as if he was in complete control. He turned to me.

"Bassil, play to me, if you please, the first few bars of the William Tell Overture."

I was amazed at the request, but I played them as I knew them, "Oompah, oompah."

"Correct, and utterly tuneless." Victor hissed. "Let me sing you my bit, since I don't have my bow. Da-da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum-dum-dum. When I play the overture I play my part, and thatís all I ever hear, while you do your bit and thatís all you ever hear. Thatís the problem that we face, none of us in the orchestra ever hear the entire work. I know it sounds unbelievable, but some of the pieces we play are actually quite tuneful, and it takes someone like Connie here to educate us. Connie, please play the William Tell Overture for us, my dear."

The shameless little strumpet stretched herself out full length and started to play, treble and bass combined. I was amazed, and filled with remorse. It was quite wonderful, so good that Yooie couldnít restrain himself, and joined in. I realised that I had never heard the melody before.

Victor was ecstatic. "Now can you see why the audience clap at the end? They hear the entire tune, and we donít. And Connie helps us by playing our pieces in a way we can never hear on the platform." He turned to the breathless bag of bellows on the floor. "Thank you Connie my dear. Get your breath back, and weíll see you at the same time in two months, after the tour?"

Yooie opened the door for her very respectfully. After she left Victor added, "Her versions are a trifle bowdlerised, but you must agree they help a great deal."

"Theyíre marvellous," chimed in Yooie enthusiastically.

I was chastened. "I apologise, Victor," I said, "Iíll let the entire orchestra know what youíre doing. I"m sure theyíll be appreciative."

"No! You must not! Not for two reasons." Victor was most perturbed. "Firstly, if our beloved Administrative Committee knew that a concertina and microphone could replace the entire orchestra weíd all be out of a job: secondly, some of our fellow instruments are more than somewhat snobbish. If they knew of my friendship, however platonic, with a concertina, they would plot and rumble against me, and in a minor key. Please tell no-one of this, Bassil, and Iíll owe you a favour - sincerely, I mean it."

I pounced. "Victor, letís do each other a favour," I replied, beaming happily.

Next morning I was awakened once again by someone rapping loudly on my case. I dressed quickly and peered out. It was Vivienne, this time smiling broadly.

"So whoís the clever boy?" she beamed. "Thanks, Bassil, for getting Dimitri back. He wonít tell me how, but hereís a thank-you present."

I was delighted, she handed me a small jar of exquisite French slide oil.

"And Victor has included Dvorak on the Mozart tour. Did you know?"

"I honestly had no idea - how nice!"

Our lead viola chuckled. "You know, Bassil, for a bass clef man, youíre a clever fellow, arenít you?"

I smiled. "I suppose I am," I replied with a humble glissando.