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
“Aw, g’wan and fry an egg.”
“Boy, you watch it with all those bits of debris and whatnot,”
“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
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
“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
“What was it about that maroon,” she said finally. “Was he
tired, or what?” Their neighbor had capsized into a navy-blue heap on
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
“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
“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
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
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
“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?”
“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
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
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
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
—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
“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
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
“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
“I need a sidekick, not a lady assistant. This is a dangerous
affair.… These are murky waters.… I’m on the level, see?” he
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
“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
“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
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. 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
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,”
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?”
“I did it with a hairpin,” Alice said.
“But your hair is bobbed,” said Mr. Vinup.
“Harumph!” Mr. Vinup said.