s e r i a l , p a r t  o n e






Once upon a time—it was back in the ’Twenties, to be more exact—on South Sixth Street in Williamsburg, in the parish of Peter and Paul, in the Borough of Brooklyn, in Kings County in New York City in the United States of America, a girl called Alice Rocket sat at a counter drinking a cup of hot stuff. She had ordered Postum to save on costs. She had been fired just the day before.

“I’m a bum,” she said. “I am all washed up.” She was fourteen years old.

Alice was down at heel in a very basic way, which is to say that the heels on her boots were all ground down. Her collar was frayed and the fuzz was wearing away in drab patches all over her coat. She did have a good-looking hat with a sharp dimple in it. This was the best item she had, and she wore it pulled down to shield the bags under her eyes. Lately, she had been having trouble sleeping.

Alice had lived in Brooklyn all her life. But it was hard for her to say just where to call home. Her mother was dead and her old man had run away. For a while, she had been able to pick up work here and there as a dance partner; but then the Gold Diggers’ Union had found out that she had lied about her age, and they had impounded her dancing shoes and put her name on a list. Now finding work anyplace in the borough was going to be tough, at least over the next couple of years.

“Time to move on,” she told herself.

If she had stepped up to the window, she would have been able to see across the water to the dense-packed buildings of Manhattan. At night, their lights shone like electric stars. The farther out you looked, the higher and mightier they rose. But in fact her attention generally roamed farther still, while at the same time keeping to her own side of the water; for the Williamsburg hash houses were haunted by sailors from the Navy Yard and below who liked to jawbone together over all the different places they had been, and for Alice Rocket this had long served for education and entertainment in one, for just as long as she had been taking all her meals out.

Late into the night, she would sit tight in the corner and let her ears pick up the strange names the sailors dropped between bites. Strange names like Shanghai. It was better value than the picture show, and sometimes, there was even live music to go with the talk, imported tunes with bold, unfamiliar rhythms; or else, homegrown standards so old and creaky about all they really had was their familiarity to recommend them to the tin ears of tired sailors.…

That particular dark night, Alice had been left to herself, and that suited her fine.

It was already pretty late, or else pretty darn early, depending on how you reckon it; and it was vile outside. The only other body in the joint besides the fry-cook himself was a tired old salt nodding off into his potatoes. (The tattoo on his arm read: Any port in a storm.) Then the door opened—in fact, it sort of slammed itself open—and Alice’s slightly older friend Louie, a powerful wind, and a lot of little bits of trash from the street all arrived at the Oily Boyd together at about six hundred miles per hour.

“Holy Palooka!” said Boyd, who was both Chef and Proprietor at this fine establishment; it had a grill at one end of it and a metal-top bar at the other, and a film of grease covered the whole affair as evenly as if it had been spread from an atomizer, all the way down to the barstools.

“Aw, g’wan and fry an egg.”

“Boy, you watch it with all those bits of debris and whatnot,” said Boyd.

“Aw, g’wan and flap a jack.”

Louie sat down next to Alice and took a long sip of her Postum.

“Mmh. Now that is fine coffee.”

“Boyd thinks you are a boy,” Alice said.

“I am a boy,” Louie said, “a newsboy.”

“You are a goil,” Alice said, “a chorus goil.”

“Broadway,” her friend snorted, “it can have my regards. Talk about dog-eat-dog—you could make that wolf-eat-wolf.” Louie rolled long-lashed eyes. “If there’s one thing I have loined in the theater, it’s this: It don’t matter what you are, it’s what you wear.”

Grubby fingers patted the flat newsboy’s cap. “Consequently, now I am a joinalist. Shortly, I aim to be a boy reporter.”

But now the cap came off as Louie got set to eat; and over on the other side of Alice, the sailor sat up and took notice. For despite the knickerbockers and stockings, despite the satchel of pages, ribbons of blond hair gushing forth like butterscotch were now making it plain that Louie was something much finer than the usual run of newsboys. She had plump little lips, and delicate nostrils that quivered as she spoke. She was such a hot patootie, in fact, that Alice generally felt aggravated after palling around with her for long periods of time and that’s why they were never really close.

Still, Louie may have looked like a million bucks, but as she warmed up inside, her wet clothes started steaming, and she certainly began to smell like a dirty newsboy, or something similar that had been standing out in bad weather too long.

“What is this, the Blue Plate Special?” she said, looking at the dish in front of her. It was full of fried eggs and flapjacks. “Even a boy reporter has got to watch her figure. And that goes double,” she sighed, “if she is working for Mr. Hoist. I will have a Moxie and a stick of chewing gum.”

To Alice, the symptoms were clear: her friend had no money either.

“Sister, I would spot you if I could.”

“I know you would. Listen, Alice. This paper route business is a racket, just the same as dancing for dimes.” Louie drew in a bit closer. “I will tell you the woist. It ain’t that they don’t pay me sufficient to put some bones on the fights now and again. But these days, what with the oily morning edition, I am generally in bed before I loin the results. Then the foist thing I see when I get up to work is how much I blown the day before. It is all backwards, I tell you—no time to digest before I get the news ker-bap! in the snoot.”

(“Ker-bap!” the sailor murmured, listing tiredly to starboard.)

“You had a paycheck riding on a fight yesterday?” Alice knew her friend’s fondness for the manly art. “Have you checked the paper yet?”

“It ain’t no good, kiddo.” But Louie reached into her bag and handed over a rolled-up copy of the New York Bugle.

“You never know,” said Alice politely.

“I ain’t even told you the name of the pug yet,” Louie said, after a couple of minutes of concentrated silence. Alice had spent them, eyebrows knitted and lips barely moving, reading through the fights page.

“What was it about that maroon,” she said finally. “Was he tired, or what?” Their neighbor had capsized into a navy-blue heap on the floor.

But she had her finger on an ad in the corner of the page. It said:

“Alice,” Louie said. “Was you born yesterday?”

“I have been around the block a couple of times.”

“Every time, the same old block, kiddo.”

“Thank you for reminding me,” Alice said. “Now, what do you suppose it pays?”

“Can’t be good, they are advertising on the fights page.”

“‘Pep is a plus,’” quoted Alice.

“That is the part that gets me, too,” her friend admitted. “And it is the Hopper Building, a professional address of repute, besides which it is one of the tallest buildings in the City.… Look, Alice, I would say you got a shot at it, on account of you being the foist living creature in town to see the ad. But as to why you would want it—that is another question entirely.”

Louie had kept just one of her fingernails long, sharp, and red. She scored the four borders of the ad with it and lifted it neatly out of the page.

“An opportunity, Louie,” Alice said seriously.

“Well,” Louie said, “I would be remiss in my duty as a friend if I let you go off into the woild of commerce looking like that.”

She rummaged around in the canvas bag and took out a compact and powdered Alice’s nose and then brushed back her hair to reveal a shiny pair of earrings. She took these off and clipped them on Alice’s ears. When Alice gave her a concerned look, she blushed and said, “It is all just paste anyways.”

Louie told Boyd to look for the rag-and-bone man. Boyd sent his wife to the flophouse to wake him up. Then he topped off Alice’s mug with real coffee, on the house.

Louie looked at her friend all businesslike. “Sharp hat. Nix it.”

“No dice. It was my mother’s hat.”

“No dame ever wore a hat like that. That is a Fedora.”

“That was my mother’s name.”

“Nix the boots. They stink.”

The boots were hugeous and generous. They had thick rubber soles and storm welts. They had seen better days, but then, so had Alice. Between the three of them, they took no nonsense.

“You’re right, you’re right, what else are you going to wear on your feet. Let me shave your eyebrows so’s I can draw in better ones?”

“No,” said Alice stoutly.

“Well,” her friend sighed, “then ain’t nothing on oith can be done with your eyes. Round and black, like a pair of beetles. But you got a good set of lips. Try this lipstick—Number Toity-Tree, ‘Roadhouse Tomato.’”

“Say, thanks,” said Alice, wondering if she was grateful or mad.

The sailor dozed on. Louie decided to cut off most of Alice’s hair. A bob was the easiest style to try, not to mention the latest. But would bangs make her look too young? Louie borrowed a pot of wax from the kitchen and made a razor-sharp part and a kiss curl that looped over Alice’s forehead. Boyd gave them a plate of sandwich crusts on the house.

Mrs. Boyd showed up with the rag-and-bone man and with Smitty, whose real name was Julius Midscarcz. For sixty cents, the rag-and-bone man sold Alice a dress that looked O.K. from the front. Smitty shined Alice’s boots, although her toes stuck out the front and he got black boot polish all over them. Louie took up a collection and gave the rag-and-bone man fifty-four cents. Boyd gave Alice two cucumber slices on the house.

“Give me the hair cuttings,” said the rag-and-bone man. “I make wigs out of them.”

Alice put the cucumber slices on her eyes to get rid of the bags. Then she was set.

“Smile,” Louie said. She rapped on Alice’s front teeth. “That’s quality.”

It was still so early out that there were no trolleys to dodge on the way to the train. Against the dark sky, you could just see the cranes of ships berthed over by the docks, waiting for their crews to roll in.

Louie unhitched her stockings and gave them to Alice as she stepped into the Manhattan train. To her surprise, Alice found they were made of real silk. She pocketed them gratefully.

Then they stared at each other.

“Keep steady on your feet, kid,” Louie hollered suddenly, “and shift with the punches. Anyone try to catch you off balance, berng! you just come bouncing right back.”

The twin doors closed. “Skidoo,” Alice thought.




When Alice rumbled into Manhattan in a train she had all to herself, things were just starting to get moving in the city. People in apartments uptown and down were taking off their pajamas and getting their hats, not forgetting to brush their teeth with Dent-O in between. But whistles were not yet blowing, steamers were hardly docking, boilers were not totally stoked, and joints would not be jumping for a while. Some folks were already stomping at the Savoy, but actually they were still stomping from the night before. Since everybody else was rubbing sleep out of their eyes, it was a safe bet that Alice had stolen a march on the rest of New York.

She got to the Hopper Building, the gleaming skyscraper on Madison Square, and was saluted by a doorman in a splendiferous but dignified tailsuit.

“You are magnificent,” she told the doorman.

“Do you have an apperntment?” he asked.

“Oh–twenty-seven–oh,” said Alice calmly.

They bowed at each other and the doorman gestured at the elevator.

“The elevator boy won’t be here for half an hour. Do you drive?” he asked.

“There is no way to go but up,” replied Alice Rocket, and climbed into the machine. Soon, she was in front of Room 0–27–0.

On the frosted glass on the door it read: “C. VINUP. PRIVATE I(nvestigator).” The door had half a dozen keyholes in it, each with its own polished brass lock. Alice rapped on the glass a few times. When nobody came to answer, she decided to whistle in the hallway to kill time.

She whistled “Long, Long Ago” and “Potato Head Blues” and “The Lady in Red.” She whistled “I Love the World, I Love the Navy.” She whistled “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” When she got done with that, she turned the handle on the door. It opened easily, although it squeaked a bit.

Alice stepped inside. She noted with interest that there was a big anvil hanging from a rope above the door where she came in. Otherwise, the office was pretty normal-looking.

There was a waiting room and a second door behind what she supposed was the secretary’s desk. It, too, had lettering on the glass. PRIVATE, it read. Trespassers will be DEMORALIZED. Through the glass, Alice could make out a desk beyond; and at the desk, a still figure.

She knocked on the door. “I am already demoralized by this party’s rudeness,” she thought, but she did her best to sound respectful. “Mr. Vinup,” she said. “It’s me, Alice Rocket—or should I say, it’s I.”

There was no answer. “I demand to see Mr. Vinup!” Alice declared, and yanked open the door.

Mr. Vinup sat facing the door with a serious expression. He had a fat cigar wedged between his teeth. His nose was shaped like a hatchet and his jaw was square. He was dressed in a conservative gray suit and alligator shoes. All his clothes were well pressed, but the shoulders were a little dusty. A piece of fly paper twisted idly overhead.

“Excuse me,” Alice said, but Mr. Vinup just stared. She noticed the cigar was unlit.

“He’s dead,” she thought.

Alice Rocket tiptoed very carefully around to the back of the dead detective’s swivel chair. She wanted to check his back to see if there was a knife in it. She touched his nape and shuddered. It was as cold as a rock.

Alice began to get gooseflesh. She felt sorry for Mr. Vinup. The office smelled like carbon paper and aftershave. Everything in it was looking cheap and washed-out—a sad, square room full of cheap, putty-colored objects. Except for the big globe of the world on the desk, which was cheerfully blue and round and almost seemed to be smiling. On the outer end of Outer Mongolia, Alice found a country that she hadn’t known existed. Say! Did somebody just clear his throat behind her?

—No, there was nothing there but the window. She realized that she was getting jumpy and wished that she had gotten just a bit of sleep.

“What do I do,” she said to herself. “I can’t leave—I got no train fare home. If I call the police, it’s a cinch they will think that I have done it. And what if the lug that did do it is still—”

“Put up your mitts, or you’ll be as full of lead as a Number Two pencil before you can say ‘Ticonderoga.’”

It was a hard voice that came from behind, telling her next to turn around slowly. Alice followed the advice.

“My, isn’t this a pretty picture,” said the man in the window. “What’s your little game, lady?”

Alice smelled motor oil and the suggestion of smoke and realized that the man had what appeared to be a machine gun pointed at her chest. She began to blush.

“Don’t pernt that at me,” she said in an unnaturally small voice. “I won’t tell the Law, honest. What’s it to me if Mr. Vinup bought the farm. I didn’t see nothing—”

“Won’t tell the Law, lady?” said the man sharply. “Well, I am the Law—in a manner of speaking.” He put the machine gun back in the pocket of his trenchcoat and flashed a license mounted on a piece of leather.

“What’s it to you if Vinup bought the farm? Why not ask, What’s it to me? A lot, considering”—here he squinted at the license—“I am Curt Vinup, Private Eye.”

“You—!” said Alice. She could think of nothing else to say.

And yet—and yet it was true that there was a certain—and as the man climbed through the window and into the office, the resemblance grew. Truth to tell, his features seemed every bit as stern and immobile as those of the stiff in the chair. He had evidently lowered himself down from the next floor up, for he unhitched an elastic band from the back of his suspenders, and it bounced back out the window and vanished upwards. When he took off his trenchcoat and hung it on Mr. Vinup’s coat rack, he turned out to be wearing a businesslike gray suit underneath, well-pressed despite his feats of gymnastics.

The man sat wearily on the desk and took off his overshoes. Noting their grippy soles, Alice saw that they were top-quality rubber that would provide traction on slippery surfaces and ensure a tight spring in your step.

He said, buttoning up his gators: “There are only a few pieces of this puzzle that are still missing. Do you mind telling me how you got past the mantrap?”

“What mantrap? I am a goil.”

“The trap in front. The trap that would have squashed you flat as a London apartment as soon as you tried anything with the locks.”

“The door was unlocked.”

“The door was unlocked—harumph! A likely story. Don’t think I’m not wise to you and your gang of thugs. Who are you working for, Archie Mascara’s boys, is it?”

“I am not working for anyone at the moment,” Alice said. “You sure know how to make a goil feel like an ant. I came here looking for emplerment with Mr. Vinup, but I find my prospects have arrived at an impasse on account of he is deceased.”

She stared hard at the man. He was possibly Mr. Vinup’s brother.

“Save your breath,” he snapped, working the angles of his jaw. “I’ve had just about enough of this malarkey, lady. If you sing now, it’ll go easier when you face the men in blue.”

“‘Discreet companion,’” said Alice. “‘Nature of work confidential. Pep’s a plus.’”

The Vinup double shot a long, suspicious look at Alice. He walked around the desk without letting her out of his sight. Then he sat down in a chair with his back to a corner and stared at her with his mouth closed. Then he got up and took a bottle of aspirin out of a desk drawer and took a few without any water. Then he sat down again. He looked tired.

“Well, at least you’re punctual,” he said.

“I am Alice Rocket,” said Alice, surprised.

“Miss Rocket, my name is Curt Vinup. Swell. Now everyone’s jake.”

“So when do I start?” Alice asked. “And if you are Mr. Vinup and everyone else is Jake, who is the gentleman at the desk?”

“Lady—,” began the detective. “Miss Rocket. When I placed that ad in the paper, it was a serious business.”

“I am serious,” said Alice. “And who is the gentleman at the desk?”

“I need a sidekick, not a lady assistant. This is a dangerous affair.… These are murky waters.… I’m on the level, see?” he finished suddenly.

Picking himself up, he flicked open a nickel-plated cigarette lighter. Alice took careful note of the monogram, which said: C.V. He held the flame before the figure in the swivel chair. The nose began to drip liquid and then crumpled and lost shape entirely. Mr. Vinup put his fingers on the lump and played with it until it looked like his nose again.

“I had this ordered specially. An excellent likeness from the firm of Aspic Brothers, of Buffalo.” He looked unsmilingly at Alice. “Wax,” he explained. “Can you habla Espańol, Miss Rocket?”

“Mr. Vinup,” said Alice. “I am smart and I know from hard knocks.”

“Work hard?”

“I am no slouch.”

“One dummy is all I can handle at the moment,” remarked Mr. Vinup severely. “What are your qualifications?”

Alice gazed sadly in the direction of the floor. She shuffled her feet on the linoleum, where they made no noise.

Then she looked up. She had had an inspiration.

“I am a gumshoe, too,” she said proudly. “I keep steady on my feet. And anybody try to catch me off balance, berng! I come bouncing right back.”

Mr. Vinup reached into his pocket and produced a magnifying glass. He held it at arm’s length towards the floor and looked through it at her hugeous boots. When he raised his eyes to meet Alice’s own, a thoughtful look had softened his face.

“A good pair of rubber soles can save your life,” he said quietly. “Don’t you forget it, Miss Rocket.” He put his lens back in his pocket. “Under the right circumstances, of course.”

“Take a chancet,” Alice told him, “just this oncet.”

“Chance, lady,” the detective said, poker-faced again, “is my line of business.”

He folded his arms, deliberating. Alice studied him back and thought: He looks exactly like a cigar-store Indian. She held her gaze steady.

The wooden face broke into a smile.

“Well, you don’t lack for pep, Miss Rocket,” her prospective employer said. “Tell you what.” He held out his hand. Alice held her breath.

“Why don’t you leave your parents’ number for my files? Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

“I do not have any parents,” said Alice, stung.

But Mr. Vinup seemed no less stung by her answer. “No parents?” he repeated.

“What about guardians?” His tone and face had hardened again. “What about next of kin?” He was administering the third degree, and no mistake. “Do you mean to tell me, Miss Rocket,” he said, enunciating very clearly, “that you have no dependents or antecedents of any kind?”

“Nix,” she confessed.

“I see,” said Mr. Vinup with sudden decision.

He strode over to a file cabinet and, withdrawing a manila folder, cleared his throat.

“Harumph! I want to make it clear, Miss Rocket, that I’m not a Government man. I own and operate a business; I’m what is known in the press as an agent provocateur. (The French press, in particular.) But in the trade we prefer to refer to ourselves as Free-Lancers. I hire my services to those in the market for international secrets. The clientele is a select group, and I reserve the right to refuse service to customers clearly on the side of evil. Or to anyone bent on world conquest, whatever their ideals—I have got no patience for that. The firm of Curt Vinup, Private Investigator does not undertake divorce cases or other acts of sabotage. My qualifications are highly regarded in the circles of intrigue, Miss Rocket, I know how to operate a wide range of lethal equipment and I am a master of disguise. And I am very careful. There is no code of business ethics in my line, and the competition is ruthless.

“It’s a tough racket, kid, but it has its perks. I can’t afford to pay you a whole lot as a starting salary, but you’ll have plenty of dough for expenses—just keep the receipts. You can get into nightclubs for free, if you like that kind of thing.”

“I do not need a lot of cabbage,” said Alice.

Mr. Vinup made an appreciative sound in his throat. “And now to make things official. Miss Rocket, I am not going to take out any contracts—in our business, that word has a specific meaning—but I am going to assign you a code number. For the purposes of this job, I have been designated Agent Eight. Guess that makes you Agent Eight-and-a-Half.”

Eight-and-a-Half. Alice felt stirred to ask a simple question.

“What happened to Agent Seven?”

Mr. Vinup narrowed his eyes. “Secret-o profesional, as our friends say South of the Border.”

Now, moistening his finger, he leafed through the manila folder. There were long strips of photographic negatives, schedules of the tides, chemical formulas, horoscopes, fake I. D.’s, football tickets, a bird watcher’s guide, a map of the canals of Amsterdam, and what appeared to be a recipe for chipped beef on a biscuit. And then there were dozens of other things that Alice could only guess at.

“You have a passport, of course?” He seemed preoccupied.


“Good. We sail for England tonight.”

Mr. Vinup found the objects of his search and handed them to Alice. She had to study them for a minute before she recognized what they were—tickets for a ship. Two first-class berths on the S. S. Transylvania, due to sail from New York to London at six o’clock that very evening. They were made out in the names of Mr. and Mrs. Ulterior.

It seemed there was not a minute to lose. “My wax-faced understudy will keep house and stop bullets for me. We have to vamoose.”

“Away!” agreed Alice, waving her fist.

Her hands felt warm and she opened and closed them rapidly, feeling that she couldn’t clench them hard enough. Suddenly her heart was pounding and her mouth was full of spit. She wanted to get on the road. She wanted to drive cars, sail boats, shoot off firecrackers. “We’re off to the races,” she told herself.

She walked arm-in-arm with Agent Eight out of the office marked PRIVATE and paraded through the waiting room. The desperadoes of the world had arrived. There were a dashing young man in a cape and a dwarf with a knife and and a woolly-looking agitator in a moth-eaten sweater and a dame with a really square head. There was somebody’s grandma, or was it somebody’s grandpa; there was a tattooed lady in a Mexican sombrero. The only sounds they made were heavy breathing and fidgeting as they sat there waiting for Mr. Vinup to give them the job. They were tough-looking customers, every one; but Alice had beaten them all to the draw.

It was spring outside in the streets of New York. Big lumps of snow, colored black from the cinders, lay melting on the curbsides into the gutter. The doorman was whistling as he showed Alice and Mr. Vinup out. He snapped them both a salute.

Events moved rapidly after that. Alice remembered, as if in a dream, getting into a low, bottle-green Bugatti with Mr. Vinup and tearing off down Fifth Avenue. She kept her hat in her lap so it wouldn’t fly off and, feeling the wind in her hair, wished it were still long the way it used to be. They took a roundabout way to the pier, picking up disguises and ammunition and other supplies, deliberately motoring out of town and making a loop on a country highway, in order, as Mr. Vinup said, “to throw others off the scent.”

They had a proper lunch at a little roadside restaurant and Alice had chowder and chops and pie of many kinds. Mr. Vinup performed a variety of mysterious acts. He parked on the side of the road five miles out of Yonkers and dug a hole at the foot of a crabapple tree. When he came back to the car, he had a passport for Alice. He burned papers in a village graveyard in Bronxville and gave a fifty-dollar tip to a gas pump attendant. Alice remembered best the billboards that lined the road back to New York. Taken in sequence, the signs added up to make a new song she had never heard before:

The last sign said: BURMA SHAVE. “Must be some kind of soap,” Alice thought.

As they climbed the gangway into the ship, Mr. Vinup turned to Alice. His voice sank to a sinister whisper. “Was the door really unlocked?” he asked.

“I did it with a hairpin,” Alice said.

“But your hair is bobbed,” said Mr. Vinup.

Secret-o profesional.”

“Harumph!” Mr. Vinup said.



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