s e r i a l ,  p a r t  t w o


  Agent Nine, Part 1




Mr. and Mrs. Ulterior strolled off the boat-train of the Transylvania. Such a blanket of fog hung over the city of London that no one could tell if it was day or night.

“It is thick as pea soup,” observed Alice.

“You’re not the first one to think so,” said Mr. Vinup.

The connection from their ship to the boat-train had gone off without a hitch in Southampton; and once on their feet, the Ulteriors lost no time catching a cab and heading for an address in Bloomsbury.

In London the cabbies were polite; with the geography of their city as crazy as it was, they wanted to keep arguments to a minimum. There were bowler hats and sensible shoes aplenty; and it was the quaint custom of the natives to carry umbrellas everyplace, even when it wasn’t raining, and never unrolling them, even when it was. The city was cleaner and quieter than New York and there were statues of generals everywhere.

“Keep your eyes peeled, kid,” Mr. Vinup told Alice as they navigated through a particularly dense patch of fog. “One of these houses is not like the others. That’s the one that belongs to our client, or I guess you could say our sponsor: Inspector Pundit of Scotland Yard. Pundit’s a kind of English G-man. He’s got talent, kid, and his own ways of doing things. You’ll see--he likes to talk, too.”

Scotland Yard? “So we are here on a job for the English Government?”

“Don’t expect the Limeyjuicers to put it that way. The Inspector contracts a lot of work out to Free-Lancers, but out of professional courtesy I don’t ask whose payroll he bills us to. I guess you could say Pundit is a part,”—he stuck his jaw out a few inches further—”is a certain part of the Limey Government. I would hesitate to say his views are representative of the rest of His Majesty’s brass hats, or even, come to think of it, of the rest of Scotland Yard.”

They arrived at a street of row houses and walked down the block, checking the numbers on each door. It was hard to make out the addresses through the blur. Dead ahead of them, a window opened in the fog and let escape a patch of color so loud that it just about sang out. And it turned out to be closer to them than it seemed, for in another minute Alice and Mr. Vinup had walked straight into a tall African woman with a jar on her head. All three took a tumble, and the jar bounced off the wet cobblestones and flew into Alice’s chest and knocked the wind clean out of her.

The African lady picked herself up and began to smooth out her robes, which were printed in brave, terrific hues that had gotten scrambled up like a kaleidoscope and had to be draped all over again just so. The whole while she did not take her gaze off Mr. and Mrs. Ulterior. Astonishment stretched out her features until her face looked as though it had blown itself out with a really intense sneeze and was just recovering. And though she had said nothing, all at once from out of the fog crowds of Africans appeared and gave her thoughtful attention. There were men and women dressed in gowns and kerchiefs of every color. Some helped the lady with her folds, another one came after the jar; many of them stood around in serious groups and discussed the accident in a strange tongue.

Alice had landed hard on her feet in a puddle in which streaks of African colors were mingling on the surface like oil. On the edge of the reflection, she caught a blurry glimpse of a small child running with a stick in his hand like a soldier with a flag. He darted up the steps of the next house and was gone.

Alice shook her head, scattering rainbow drops, and held out the jar in her arms to the Africans. “Excuse me,” she said.

Excuse you, excuse you,” chorused the Africans.…

“Come on,” said Mr. Vinup. “This is clearly the place.”

He walked up the steps of the nearby house and rapped at the entrance. Fixed above the threshold, smeared with vermilion that made it glow from out of the wall of dull brick, Alice noticed a potbellied idol with an elephant’s head.

The door was opened by a tiny, dark girl in a perfectly fitted maid’s uniform. She had bright black eyes and a dazzling smile. She couldn’t have been more than twelve.

“Who shall I be saying is calling?” she said.

“Mr. and Mrs. Ulterior—,” began Alice.

“Curt Vinup, Private Eye,” said Mr. Vinup. He took a calling card out of his pocket. He twisted one corner of it in a peculiar way and put it on a tray offered by the maid. She beamed shyly and tipped her head to one side.

Alice stopped her as she turned to go inside.

“Say, Miss,” she began. “Just what is that you’ve got up on the door?”

“He is the god Ganesh,” the girl said softly, “the God of Good Beginnings. And he takes away the obstacles from your path.”

Alice considered this for a moment. “What about for happy endings?” she asked. “Is there one of those too?”

“One can’t have everything,” said the girl. “I am of belief that it is up to you, but who can say?”

“She ain’t English,” Alice realized as they walked into the vestibule, which was papered in an odd assortment of what might have been the marbled endpapers of antique books. A dense Eastern carpet covered the floor. There was a general effect of too much pattern. And this effect was only heightened when they got to the parlor, which turned out to be full of African people and their baggage.

Actually, there was a constant coming and going of Africans through the parlor, orderly but very busy. It was a sort of parade. Those who came into the house were bringing in a marvelous collection of goods, carried in bundles balanced on top of their heads. There were tubs of root vegetables and brilliant bales of cloth and rattan cages with cuckoos in them. There were more earthenware jars like the one Alice and Mr. Vinup had walked into, there were bunches of bananas in many colors, and.…

“Gourds and calabashes, O-ho,” said a voice that came closer, accompanied by a good smell and a delicate crunching noise. “All first-class, I say really first-class. Glorious artworks—so the metal is cast, the wood is carved. These would be wild mushrooms— enormous sizes! outrageous shapes! Drums and horns for making music, arré!…costumes and masks for dancing—even so!—cutlasses and flywhisks for crushing my enemies.”

The voice that answered him was strangely high-pitched, something like a flute. “I didn’t know what would please you, Inspector. So I brought along everything I could think of.”

“Highly singular items, your Majesty,” said the first voice. Bubbling underneath the careful English was some other, more liquid language trying to get out. “I say, splendid aromas—this must be orris root. How really, really good of you.”

And the speaker came into view.

Wrists and head wagging expressively, he was a handsome, brown-skinned man turned out in elaborate taste: a shawl of rich silk; a pair of patent-leather formal pumps; a long frock coat that could be seen, on inspection, to be brocaded, black-on-black. He gave the impression of being meticulously well cared for; and, much like an expensive piece of equipment, his various parts were kept supple with special lubricants: there was pomade in his hair, colored paste on his forehead, mustard oil on his skin, and something in his mouth that turned his teeth and lips red. His clothes were soaked with perfume; and the crunching noise that he made as he walked was caused by the starch that saturated his dhoti, the fine-tissued garment that enveloped his legs--it was a great, crunchy wad with the sheen of waxed paper and pressed grooves like corrugated cardboard. Hooked over his shoulder was a cotton umbrella. His appearance pleased and frightened Alice.

His companion was a huge, barrel-chested old man. It was hard to tell just how huge a man—dressed though he was in the style of his fellow Africans, his was the most splendid, expansive robe of all; and it made of him a big, billowing square like a box kite. Perched on top of the square was a wrinkled face; it did not smile, but it was a happy face.

“You have guests, Inspector,” he warbled.

“A time for introductions,” cried the Inspector—for it was none other than the famous Pundit. “Well, sir, this is Mr. Vinup, a colleague of mine from America. And this must be Agent Eight-and-a-Half. Eight-and-a-Half,” he repeated, with intent eyes that moved first to a piece of paper in his hand and then rested on Alice, “my dear, you must have a finer name than that.”

“Alice Rocket,” said Alice Rocket, “New York, U.S.A.”

“Agent Nine, I think,” said this fascinating man. “Cer-tainly. And I am Inspector Pundit of Scotland Yard. And this is my house—it is a safe house—and all here are friends, and this is the King of Katunga.”

“Charmed, I’m sure,” said the King. He took Alice’s hand and kissed it delicately. Then he took Mr. Vinup’s hand and they gave each other a very long and firm handshake.

“Scotland Yard welcomes you to London, Agent Nine,” said Inspector Pundit, folding up the paper. “All is jolly good, excepting perhaps the weather.”

He turned to pass the note back to a small child who followed him, and Alice now saw that it was the elusive boy with the stick she had seen during her mishap outside. The Inspector tucked the paper into a cleft in the stick and resumed. “The English weather is a source of regret for the King and me, such a departure from that typical of our native lands. But one must make the best of things—are you fond of orchids, Mr. Vinup?”

“Flowers, you mean—?” said Mr. Vinup, but they were already walking deep into the house, up a flight of stairs, down a hallway where the gaslight lit up dust motes hanging in the air. The Inspector led the way, umbrella in hand. Yet another child soon emerged from the shadows and handed him a key. Pundit found a keyhole in the darkness and turned the lock.

The first thing you noticed was the smell—you couldn’t help but notice it; it blew out of the room as soon as you entered and engulfed you and drew you in, heavy and wet, as though the odors were trying to burrow into your pores. It was beyond sweet. It was downright treacly and it might have been a wonderful, rich smell, only there was too much of it. Soon, Alice felt as though she had had too many malteds.

The room would have turned out to be clean and white, with a high ceiling — it was impossible to see the room for the flowers. Inside, it was like walking through a salad bowl; every few steps brought them to another flower pot on the floor, and smaller shoots were set on shelves along the walls in rows; more plants grew in baskets hung from the ceiling and even glass tubes that nourished young roots in a broth. Each variety was tagged with a Latin name on a piece of brown paper. With the flowers all breathing together in rhythm, the oxygen so thick it came on like liquid, the radiators kept up piping hot, it was a sleepy-making room.

The wall next to Alice shone strangely. She touched it and found it was a big window that curved outwards in a generous bulge; it was covered with vapor from the fog outside and the humidifiers that whistled in the corners of the room. Alice wrote on the glass with her finger: “no. 33, hothouse tomato.” A fleck of pollen found its way up Mr. Vinup’s nose and he sneezed loudly. Petals came showering down all around him.

“If there is a heaven on the face of this earth,” Pundit remarked from under his umbrella, “it is this, O! it is this, O! it is this! The English also have their gardens; they trim and clip their shrubberies and, having disciplined them just so, train them to grow in mazes. Our Eastern taxonomies grant order to chaos, not contrariwise.”

He placed both hands on a pair of rubbery leaves in front of him and parted them.

In front, in a clearing, stood a single, potted plant that was still being unwrapped by one of the uniformed boys of the house. A girl in galoshes stood by with a watering can that had steam coming out the spout like a teapot. Both children observed a scrupulous care for the plant. It had dark, pendulous flowers with petals that opened barely a crack. A long, hairy pistil wagged out of the aperture. The flowers, Alice noticed, feeling oddly ticklish, were like grinning mouths with their tongues sticking out. They smelled like wine and dirty shirts.

Pundit turned reverently to the King. “Had you brought me nothing else, my friend, this would still have been thousandfold reward.”

“May it not cost you as it has cost others,” answered the King. “Of all the things produced in my lands, natural resources and native manufactures alike, this flower is strong in witchcraft. The country it grows in has a curse on it; paddling upriver to the forest where it lives, one of my boatmen was eaten by the fish of the river and four others were struck down with sleeping sickness. They are dreaming still, in the Government hospital at Lagos. This is not a gift to give a friend; its care does not come cheap. Remember to give it plenty of fertilizer.”

It is the only specimen in Europe,” said Pundit to Mr. Vinup and Alice. “Imagine my bliss. I shall be submitting a paper to the Royal Gastronomical Society.”

He seized one of the blossoms and tugged at it firmly. After a brief struggle, he succeeded in ripping the flower off its stalk; yellow sap frothed up from the stump. Inspector Pundit rubbed the petals between his fingers rapidly. They seemed to dissolve with the friction, leaving, besides some stains on his fingertips, only a few veinlike fibers. He put one of these in his mouth and sucked it up like a noodle.

“Saffron of Katunga,” he murmured, enraptured. “Rarest of spices, choicest of condiments. My thanks to you, your Majesty. Please convey my blessing to your daughter and for yourself and the ladies and gentlemen of your court, sir, my warm gratitude, my fond wishes for a safe journey home to Africa. Miss Rocket, Mr. Vinup—I invite you to dine with me in my inner chambers.”

Pensive, he wandered off into the foliage.

The King, Mr. Vinup, and Alice walked in silence out of the room the way they had come in. Alice had never seen so much…so much stuff in all her days. Africa and India, the elephant countries, the hot places where parrots and banana trees come from. Was that why the Inspector’s house looked like a museum? Indians had peculiar ways; Alice had heard they thought dogs were dirty but kept cows as pets. And the Inspector himself, who was clearly a capable man, wasn’t wearing any pants. Was this England? Just the other side of the door, the national bird, it seemed, was the pigeon.

All in all, there was more here than met the eye. Curiosity fought the cat for Alice’s tongue.

“...Is it some sort of holiday in your country, sir?” she asked finally.

“It shall be; henceforth, I shall declare it so,” exclaimed the King. “What I owe that sweet gentleman could not be paid amply, though tribute were sent him over the lifetime of one of the royal tortoises of the gardens of Katunga.”

“Pundit’s methods are a little unconventional, but he always gets his man,” remarked Mr. Vinup.

“Or the girl,” said the King. “Imagine, Miss Rocket, a young lady, sleek and cultivated, even as yourself. My daughter, the Princess. Oh, of sons I have many, fierce and fine princes. But my daughter was my dimpled child, sweet tenderness and comfort to me, balm of my old age.…

There in the sitting room, the King held court, in tones of royal palaver.

“Each year, an ill wind enters my country from the great desert that stretches across all the north of Africa. It is called the harmattan, and it waits until the coolest of times begins. It is dry air. It was four years ago that the harmattan blew a bitter chill across the land, and with it—they seemed to come sailing in on the wind itself, you can just picture them—came the strangers out of the north, tall, slim riders wrapped up in cloth to their eyes. These men are known as Touareg. Their cloth is a smooth, deep hue of blue, and their skin is a light color, but that’s something you don’t see; it is said that their faces are handsome, but all they show of themselves is the eyes, which are hard. They drift across the sands on secret errands and obey no authority or laws except those of their wives. The Touareg deal in salt and in human beings. Once in a while, they meet in the walled mud cities of the Sahara and bring little boys and girls to market.

“Timbuctoo in the French territory far to the north was their capital. It was there that they carried away my daughter when they stole her, swiftly—”

“In the dead of night,” proposed Alice.

“No, child; it was in the haze of midday,” said the King. “You understand that following on the harvest season, and with the air so full of dust, there was nothing for folk to do in the middle of the day but take time off. Consequently, half-past three is a convenient time for kidnappers. Well, they took her out of bounds as we lay sleeping; and it was not till the evening meal, which we in Katunga customarily take around midnight, that the crime was found out.

“I offered a magnificent reward for her return and threatened to close all wine shops and dance halls; I convened the Council of Seven and sought aid in secret places from the spirits of my ancestors—but these are things to be expected of any African prince worth his kola nuts. When it came to statesmanship—action—I was, it seemed, quite paralyzed by wicked circumstance.”

“But you were the King!” cried Alice.

“Outside of the Kingdom of the Lord,” sighed his Majesty, “no nation is greater or lesser than any other. But in truth, there are strong kings and small kings. George, who bears a lion on his shield, is King of England and of other lands across the seas. He need tiptoe lightly around no man. For my part, I, my dear, am King in Katunga, which is a beautiful country. But though I am splendid and rich—”

“You did not skimp on presents for the Inspector.”

“You should see what I pay in taxes—raw materials and native manufactures alike!—to King George. That is what it means to be King in a small way.

“Do I send my horsemen on the track of the robber caravan? By daybreak it may have passed into the lands of Brother Mahmadu. He is my good neighbor, but his country is out of bounds to me. Do I call out the Native Constabulary? They are Native in name and complexion only, for my Chief of Police is an Englishman by the name of Hobson-Jobson. Do I declare a State of Emergency in the realm, and seal off my borders, so that none may enter or leave without the explicit permission of the Court? Let word of this but reach King George’s men at Government House in Lagos by the sea. They will presently want to know why I have been feeling so uncomfortable lately, and perhaps recommend that my wall-eyed nephew Cornelius, who is a Christian, be appointed to assist me in the affairs of State!

“Do I sully the memory of my righteous and warlike ancestors, and send my emissaries into the desert with a princess’s ransom, there to bargain with the Touareg in their cities of mud? Their home is in the French zone; and my country lies under the protection of the British. The French will wish to know why they should issue papers to let my noblemen in; and the British will wish to know why they should let them out. And especially when accompanied by so much disposable income!

“Lastly: do I take it up with King George, and presume upon his ever-ready offer of British protection? Then will the hearts of his Government Men truly be gladdened, and George’s regiments will be sent into the streets of Katunga, perhaps to protect me for some time. But this actually does no favor to either King, nor to my townsfolk, nor even to his soldiers in their Bermuda shorts.”

“George the Fifth has got his troubles too,” pointed out Mr. Vinup. “He has politicians to deal with, and he owes a lot of money to the United States.”

“That’s par for the course,” said the King severely. There was a pause.

“—Inspector Pundit always gets the goil,” suggested Alice.

“Inspector Pundit always finds his man,” the King responded. “For I had counseled myself: ‘I should take the matter up to London direct.’ I had indeed been invited to the horse races at Ascot that year. No one would have thought it untoward if I had sought a word or two of advice from the King over a casual cucumber sandwich between the races. Unofficially, you understand. The official offices of Government were to be avoided at all costs. But at the very top—who knows?—perhaps a King may have a private person to give service in time of need, such a one as would be astute and discreet and absolutely reliable. This was my hope; and with my heart thus in my mouth, I crossed the water to England.

“I had no sooner set foot on the East India Docks than an envoy of Scotland Yard arrived. The Inspector was acquainted with my problem; it was of personal interest to him; he would see me at once. All this, though I had taken pains to maintain a low profile, travelling incognito under the name Eggliton Stanisclaus!”

“Well, in London, a large gentleman of color, dressed like yourself—,” began Mr. Vinup.

“My regal bearing is unmistakable,” concurred the King. “Now, I saw that the Inspector was a man of resource. His intelligence of my affairs was phenomenal. He refused to accept payment. In short, I was highly suspicious.”

“What was your move?” asked Mr. Vinup.

“I attended the races and left the affair in his hands. Indeed, I had no choice,” said the King. “The Inspector knew all. To this day I know nothing of what was in his heart. But I will lay the tribute of all Yorubaland at his feet. For four years his men followed the tangled trail from Timbuctoo. The spoor led to Marrakech and the Salt Citadel of the Three Farouks. He traced my child to the Kasbah Klub in the City of Dervishes and finally found her in a sanatorium in Pennsylvania.”

“But why—,” began Alice.

“Well, I guess a real princess would fetch top dollar on the international market,” said Mr. Vinup.

“Four years,” said the King. “My child had grown into a woman. Can you imagine, my dear Miss Alice, that at the hands of those villains, she had grown a full foot, yet gained nary a pound? Who indeed would have thought that the Silent Patient of Room Twelve would turn out to be my long-lost daughter? The deduction was nothing less than a stroke of genius.”

“So you got her back, sir,” said Alice. “Safe and sound all over again.”

“She is here with me in London—,” began the King, but another voice rang out from behind:

“Palaver is finished!”

The Princess turned out to be very grand. Her body was poured into a wriggly dress by Albino Pétard, the famous French designer. She sure doesn’t look hungry, Alice thought with a twinge. This kid’s got figure enough for two flappers.

The Princess wound her way over to her father and draped one arm around his neck in a familiar way. “Daddy, do hurry, or else we shall be late for the opening.”

She turned to Mr. Vinup and Alice. “The most divine little spot,” she explained, “one of the new cocktail-jazz lounges. And they say the piano player really knows how to shake.”

The King had already turned back up the stairs to change into a coat (black) and formal tie (white). The gaily dressed West Africans with their exotic packages were returning to fill the hall around his daughter. The bundles on their heads were printed with words such as millinery, Harrod’s, By Special Appointment, and sale.

“I do so adore London,” she purred, “it is too sweet. All my father thinks of is returning to Katunga. Whatever is there to do on that horrid Equator?”

“It’s my foist time in London, too, Miss,” said Alice.

“Did you have your hair bobbed here?” asked the Princess. “I find it ever so smart. You must bring me for a visit to your beauty parlor.”

“It may not be the sort of neighborhood you are accustomed to,” said Alice.

“Do tell—is it a long way from Piccadilly?”

“We’re Americans, your Highness,” explained Mr. Vinup politely. “We’ve just arrived from across the Atlantic.”

“Oh!” exclaimed the Princess, and went on to say, in a tone that had abruptly gone cold, “…I’m afraid I find traveling rather a bore.” But there was no control to her voice. She sounded suddenly ill, like a radio overcome by static interference. Her pupils dilated until they took over her eyes entirely.

The next instant, she was fine again. “Well, I mustn’t keep my hosts waiting,” she said brightly. “If you’ll permit me,” and she wrapped on a fur coat made out of some wild African animal and was gone. Her many shopping assistants melted away.

As the room emptied, Alice again spotted, hovering in back, the boy with the messenger stick. He had apparently detached himself from the Inspector back among the orchids, and followed her on to the parlor. In the rubbing of an eye, he had fixed a new message tight in his stick and disappeared.

Promptly in time with this exit, another of the ubiquitous children of the house emerged from a nook like a cuckoo from a clock to show the visitors to their rooms. Mr. Vinup had the triangular space under the staircase—“Rooms are somewhat scarce at the moment,” said the boy—and Alice was led up a stairway that got ever steeper and narrower until the two came to a place where there was a cord hanging down from the ceiling and not much else. The child set his kerosene lantern down among the dust woollies and pulled on the rope. A set of collapsible stairs unfolded to the floor. Alice went up through the opening so uncovered and entered a vast, drafty attic with bare rafters way up high. From the beams someone had draped a hammock; and next to it dangled a rope ladder. Next to that was a lot of wet laundry on a clothesline.

Alice blew some tired air out her lips and walked over to a small window to look at the view. Dimly, chimney pots could be seen here and there, giving off coal-smoke that melted in the larger ocean of fog. When she turned around from the window, she saw a little girl industriously building a fire on her floor to dry out the laundry overhead.

Somewhere, somebody was ringing a bell. Alice had changed out of Mr. Ulterior’s shooting jacket and pantaloons and scrubbed herself with some industrial soap from a bottle she found next to the wash basin. She took out a package from a New York department store and unwrapped dress, knickers, girdle, garters, gloves, slip, shoes, and stockings. Mr. Vinup had bought it all for her as a complete boxed gift set. Alice put it all on except for the girdle. Then she took off the shoes and laced up her old boots and went on down to dinner.


One of the soft-eyed children took her hand and brought her down bare brick corridors that were like alleyways. Alice began to wonder why she had bothered with all the fancy plumage.

They arrived at a bare, whitewashed room occupied by a plain card table and a pair of chairs. That was all the dressing; there were no windows, only a little door that looked as though it might belong to a closet. A lone light bulb winked from the end of a long wire that hung from the ceiling. The table was set for dinner for two.

In one of the chairs waited Mr. Vinup, uncomfortable in a tuxedo.

“That is a sharp set of drapes,” Alice told him.

Agents Eight and Nine tucked their napkins in their collars and talked pleasantly about homesickness. There were plates and spoons of stamped tin but no forks or knives on the table. In the center stood some yellow flowers in a vase.

“More of his fancy flowers from upstairs, I suppose,” said Mr. Vinup.

Alice identified them: “Stinky Susans.”

Presently, four solemn children with outlandish hats appeared and threw the closet door open. Inside was Pundit, squatting on the floor. Of his beautiful clothes, only the pleated white cloth for his lower part was left.

Inspector Pundit grinned and wagged his head. Alice caught a glimpse of beads of sweat that covered his body. Then out the door came heat and a cloud of oily smoke that carried with it the smell of paradise.

“My dear friends,” the Inspector said from within, “welcome to the absolute penultimate.”

Mr. Vinup had stood up. He walked over to peer into the cloud, but Pundit’s face appeared from the darkness with a finger at the lips.

“Sssh.… Beyond this threshold you must not cross. This is my inner sanctum, private of privates.”

“That is his kitchen,” said Alice, who had figured out that their host was cooking on the floor.

“My Brahmanical kitchen,” Pundit amended. “My exclusively first-class, tip-top kitchen. For the time being, you will be sitting outside and dining; I shall be sitting inside and dealing. These are the rules of the house, and very, very old ones they are.”

“‘For the time being…?’” she repeated.

“As long as the game of this lifetime is lasting,” said the voice through the vapors. “Perhaps in the next round, we shall all eat together.”

“Every darn thing you say always has to sound like a riddle…,” Mr. Vinup began; but Alice found herself strangely intrigued.

Ignoring her boss’s look, she chose her words carefully. “Are there ever different games people also play,” she asked the dim doorway, “to rules that are likewise different?”

“Even so,” said Pundit’s voice. “In-finite games, in-finite illusions.…” She could just make out the gleam of his eyes. “But I must play out my own game first, Agent Nine. I am not complaining. I am holding some first-class cards in my hand, and it may be that you are one of them.”

“I am a wild card, Mr. Inspector,” Alice told him, suddenly fierce. “I am a foim believer in making my own rules in life. And I will take things as they come.”

“You are wrong, Agent Nine,” the Inspector said warmly. “No child is born to an unformed path. Not even an outcaste or foundling.…

“But,” he added, “you are not being foolish. And I think that you may be my ace.”

The children with the hats brought out a harmonium and a violin and a ukulele and a box of oats. They played the harmonium like a piano and the violin like a cello and the ukulele like a harp and squeezed pure melody out of the oatmeal box.

“Eat,” said Pundit from his spot in the shadows, and more silent children appeared from the kitchen with dishes full of wonderful food that shone yellow like syrupy sunshine.

“Hits the spot,” said Alice. “What is it, anyways?”

“Spiced spice,” said the Inspector. “And rice.”

For dessert they had deep-fried fat, and as the musicians kneaded his feet and applied what sounded like a vigorous neckrub, Inspector Pundit got to the point.

“It’s a singular tale. Indeed, in my professional experience I am never encountering anything quite like it. How to extract the origin of this par-ti-cular daisy chain of circumstance?”

“Go easy on the mustard and mayo,” Mr. Vinup suggested.

“Even so, my poetical American friend. What, then, do you make of this?”

From somewhere in the murk he produced a bottle and passed it, at the end of an outstretched arm, to Mr. Vinup. The detective opened it, rattled it next to his ear, and held it upside down and smacked it. A rolled-up piece of paper slid out.

“A message of some kind, I suppose,” said he.

“It don’t look like Moxie,” said Agent Nine.

Mr. Vinup unrolled the paper and smoothed it out. It was nice and stiff, writing paper for elegant people. The top was stamped with a coat of arms: a white bear, a double cross. Underneath were a few inky lines of handwriting, tangled and confused. Something about the letters was all wrong. It was, in fact, impossible to read them.

Mr. Vinup puckered up his chin and shot the Inspector a hawk-eyed glance. He polished up his tin plate with the starched white hanky from his tuxedo pocket.

“The oldest trick in the book,” said he.

He held the dish up next to the writing and began to spell out the words as reflected in the buffed-up surface. But the letters were as gnarly and vexatious as before.

“For the love of Mike,” groaned Mr. Vinup. “So it wasn’t the old backwards-mirror-writing trick after all. Is my face ever red.”

“Your hanky is all yellow,” Alice pointed out.

“Do not lose heart, Mr. Vinup,” the Inspector said. “For it is the old backwards-mirror-writing trick. Only, this letter is written in Russian,” and he handed them a translation, properly typewritten on Scotland Yard’s own stationery.

For Sale, went the message, Details of PYRAMID SCHEME.

“That’s as close as I am getting,” Inspector Pundit explained, “to the original Russian expression.”

Secret designs of mad scientist can now be revealed.

Blueprint to be offered to interested parties at auction to conclude Annual

Jamboree, Villa Febrile, Locarno, Switzerland.

I offer two bargains.

a) ignorance = bliss… it's still free

b) knowledge = power… bids to start at 90,000 dollars, Mexican

The choice is yours.

Pundit said, “The author is the well-known Countess Lubyanka.”

“Holy Crow!” Mr. Vinup exclaimed, smacking his forehead. “So that explains it!”

“Never hoid of her.”

“She’s a society dame,” said Mr. Vinup.

“A secret society dame. Even so.”

The Inspector clapped his hands twice, making a hollow sound. The children detached themselves from the Master’s scalp and dissolved into the closet room.

“The Countess did not intend this message for my eyes. But fate is working its cus-tomary mischief. Now the affair is in our hands. We ignore it at our peril.”

Mr. Vinup said: “Pundit. Just how did this affair wind up in our hands?”

“Long ago, I familiarized myself with the ebb and flow of the river that runs its not-so-innocent course through London Town. And I cultivate ties with the mudlarks, those salutary young people whose enterprise keeps the banks of the Thames free of flotsam—”

(“That’s poor children that don’t go to school and make their living by selling people like him trash off the riverbank,” explained Mr. Vinup to Alice.)

“—and jetsam. We have little time to waste. The Annual Jamboree at Locarno is three days hence. You must leave for Switzerland at once.”

Pundit cracked open a bulky book and found them the schedule for the night train to Europe. Alice could make out the words on the orange-glowing cover: Thos. Cook & Son, Continental Timetable.

Mr. Vinup grabbed the volume. “You’re saying we leave London at midnight.”

“Even so,” the Inspector said quietly. “From Vic-to-ria Station.”

“Victoria–Dover,” grunted Agent Eight. “Calais by train ferry; change at Paris, Gare du Nord! Two hours in Paris, enough for a meal, not enough for dessert. Then Gare du Nord–Strasbourg–Basel–Locarno. Pundit, you’re nutty. Have you thought about visas? We’re going to cross French and Swiss frontiers—where is all that paperwork going to come from this time of night?”

The boys who had been sent off now trooped back into the room through the outer door. Each one carried a covered dinner dish. They were still wearing the hats that still seemed outlandish. And there was one more, who wore no hat: Alice’s shy friend who had opened the door to the house that very same morning, which now seemed something like a lifetime ago.

There was nothing here of messenger sticks or of note-passing in private, Alice was satisfied. The first child in line marched quite straightforwardly up to Mr. Vinup and said in a loud voice: “Passports please!”

The detective took the two passports out of his breast pocket and the boy took the dish cover off and picked a set of rubber stamps off the plate and decorated the back pages with the visas of European nations.

“Well,” Mr. Vinup said. “I guess you folks know how to do things pronto.”

“And now a word, Mr. Vinup,” Inspector Pundit smiled, before Alice had had the chance to get a look at her own passport. “Your confederate is clearly a very astute young person. I congratulate you on your good fortune. Her step is steady and her aim is true. Train her properly on the target, and you have a formidable weapon.”

“Say, what’s the big idea—,” Alice began.

He had forked over a sheaf of folded reports to her boss at the end of a stick.

“Restraint may be learned,” the Inspector observed, “but deceit, I fear, is a God-given talent. It may be a fortunate thing that you are not a the-atrical agent, Mr. Vinup.

“Repeat after me,” he said suddenly to Alice, “‘The oil in the world stays moist beneath the soil.’”

Alice tried.

Mr. Vinup turned wordlessly to the picture page in her passport and began scrubbing at it with a big pink eraser.

“You mean to say you can change the name…?

“For the time being, Miss Rocket,” said Pundit, “I believe you will be doing well to limit yourself to one personality. The one you have already is ample.”

Thus was John Q. Ulterior deleted from existence and memory.

“If anybody asks about the facial hair you got here in the picture,” Mr. Vinup advised, “act really huffy and say you don’t care to discuss it. They’ll back down and apologize. You’ll see.”

The next boy issued two elaborate tickets. Agent Eight looked them over. “First class all the way. That’s very handsome.”

“Courtesy of His Majesty’s Government.”

“I don’t suppose you could book us on the next train out of Paris? I used to have a friend there named Fifi I wouldn’t mind looking up.”

“I can’t change your reservation, sir. These tickets are real, sir.”

“Oh,” said Mr. Vinup. “No wonder they seem to be in order.”

The third waiter boy also chose Mr. Vinup. Whisking the cover off, he displayed a plateful of cash. The bills were nicely stacked up and taped together in crisp blocks. Mr. Vinup carelessly picked up a wad and riffled through it with his thumb.

“Mexican dollars, I suppose. How much is this in American?”

“It is an improbable amount,” said the boy, and gave him a receipt to sign.

The fourth carried a big black book in his little white-gloved hands. Letters in white ink on the book’s cover said: Index. The Inspector found a place for this in his muslin folds and then signaled to the girl with the smiling eyes.

Hers was the last dish left uncovered and she brought it over for Alice to take the lid off herself. Underneath there was a neat metal box. Alice took it in her hands and put it in her lap. It felt comfortably heavy.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Best to keep it under wraps,” whispered the child. “That package contains more sheer destructive power than a rampaging herd of elephants.”

Alice blushed. The designs of a scientist, however mad he might be, suddenly seemed like a tame proposition.

The children left.

“Now, Agent Nine,” said Pundit, stepping out of his sooty den at last, “the questions you have not asked shall all be answered.

“From this moment on, your business will be getting at answers without asking questions. Sometimes you will be tricking confidences out of others, for they are letting things slip that afterwards come to make sense; sometimes you will be keeping track of hidden movements, watching silently from shadowy corners; sometimes you will have to piece together whole conspiracies out of scraps and shards of gossip. But at this first of the numberless stops along your journey, for the sake of the Lord of Good Beginnings, let all answers be clear tonight.”

He laid out two fine looking documents on the table. They were something in between a dentist’s diploma and a lottery ticket. Engraved letters at the top announced: Amalgamated Free-Lancers—Convention of International Operatives.

This was followed by a lot of twiddly bits and fluffernutter, along with the words, “Annual Grand Ball and Jamboree, Villa Febrile, Locarno.” And below that were printed big block letters: Admit One, and a blank. Alice noticed that someone had already written Mr. Curtis Vinup on one and Miss Agent Nine on another.

Annoyed, she said, “I thought my name was now Alice Rocket.”

“They don’t check I.D. at the door,” said the Inspector.

“Stick with me, kid,” said Mr. Vinup enthusiastically. “Oh, it’ll be a regular ripsnorter. A hullaballoo. Dangerous dancing, small talk full of big meaning. Grand, if you like that sort of thing.”

“Check your scruples at the door, Agent Nine.”

“If it is so swell and all, Inspector, why is it you ain’t invited yourself?”

A slow smile played on Pundit’s face. He looked Satanic, and yet wholly friendly. “Shabash. It is well asked. How best to answer?

“In this way, Agent Nine—here in London, I have a job. You and your employer, on the other hand, are Free-Lancers. That is to say, you leave no records, you pay no taxes, you have no affiliations. You are not merely uninsured, you are uninsurable. Your responsibilities expire along with each contract. Mine are not negotiable. My friends and my enemies know me for a servant of the King—that is actually how they are knowing they are my friends and my enemies. But you are an il-lus-trious blank.

“It is true that not all at the Free-Lancers’ Ball will be Free-Lancers. There will be government ministers, with and without portfolios, and police detectives from all the major metropolitan bureaus. But I have my friends and my enemies, and with friends like mine…in this matter, it is best to remain incognito.

“Agent Nine, none must know who has sent you to Locarno. None must know that I need the secret weapon, none must know that I know it exists. Best if no one knows that you know I exist.”

“So we attend the affair. We woim our way over to this Russian dame. And then we have a tête-à-tête with the three of us.”

“Does it seem like a simple thing, then?” The three of them had been hunching lower and lower around the table. Now it was a regular council of war.

“I am full of beans, Mister,” said Agent Nine. “But no, I would suppose that simple it ain’t. You figure some kind of secret weapon is involved?”

“The invention she mentions is doubtless a device of doomsday di-mensions.”

“The Countess plays the game for high stakes,” observed Mr. Vinup.

“Oh, as to the use of the funds, Mr. Vinup, you have carte blanche. Spend as much as it takes to purchase or otherwise obtain the object of my desire. You can keep the change if you come in under budget. But I am not thinking it likely.”

The Inspector split open the Index. It made a crisp cracking sound. The pages were covered in rows of portrait photographs. Many had notes scribbled underneath them or clippings stapled on top. The only thing that made it any different from an ordinary high school yearbook was the look on everybody’s face. A degree of sophisticated evil was present on those pages that would have put most people’s classmates to shame.

Double agents, triple agents—and was that the Inspector himself?—stared momentarily out of his world-class collection of mug shots. He called the Free-Lancers’ attention to a photograph of Countess Lubyanka. Platinum hairdo; dramatic eyebrows; heavy-lidded eyes to flirt with the picture-taker: a beautiful woman, a big nose.

“She has a thousand aliases, of which her real name and title are possibly false as well,” Pundit cautioned. “She may well be in disguise at the ball.”

Mr. Vinup studied the Index grimly.

“This is your chapter on Small-Time Tattletales and Stoolies,” he said finally. “Now, I want to know if you’ve got any ideas about the big shot that she thinks she’s got buffaloed. If there’s anyone out to cattywhompus our act, it’s a cinch it’s going to be the offended party.”

“I am making no innuendoes,” said Pundit. “But…a Pyramid Scheme…I wonder.…” He leafed one heavy page past another, gazing lovingly upon his enemies—old, new, and unsuspecting.

“Section H, Criminal Masterminds. Whom have we here?… Anna Mañana, silent but deadly…Cardinal Marzipan, Eminence glacé…Professor Piltdown, the Geological Genius…Lord Iceberg (this was a blurry shadow in the back of a crowd), even so…Lady Iceberg (even fainter), even more so.…”

But now his fingers hovered over the photograph of an ancient man, a hundred years old if a day. On the dome of his head rode an exotic, fur-trimmed hat topped with a peacock feather. Fixed to its front was a button marking high Imperial rank. Mr. Vinup saw and recognized: those beady eyes, that batlike skull—

“I thought he was dead!” he gasped.

“Word has reached me that he is still at large somewhere beyond the Great Wall.”

The Inspector’s hand traced over cheekbones that stuck out like eaves from an Eastern temple. He looked up and directed pensive words at Alice, but she got the impression he spoke to himself.

“His name is Doctor Fang. This picture was taken over twenty years ago, in the days of the old Manchu Dynasty. It was a spirited game he played then. The Doctor is Lord of the Triads, the Chinese secret societies. It is said that he toils at mastery of the Eastern and Western sciences in a hidden laboratory where it is always night. And I know he has long dreamed of a miracle weapon with which to dominate the world.…

“He is wise, and his mind is quite poisoned. Refreshments?”

He put away the book awkwardly and kindled the charcoal in the bottom drawer of a samovar. They sipped the strong tea in silence. Pundit closed his eyes and drank in the cup’s vapor through his nose. Mr. Vinup, too, seemed grateful for a break.

China…, the Orient…, Alice thought in the silence. It might be an interesting place to visit, at that. Always night.… She squeezed the package on her lap and at discreet intervals yanked at the latch that kept it closed. Was it something in the tea that was making her so punchy? she wondered, and tried prying open the lock with a spoon. She succeeded only in bending the spoon into a strange shape and quietly put it back on the table, where it caught Mr. Vinup’s eye.


Arré! Agent Nine, I should be issuing you your kit. The contents will enable you to create havoc and mayhem on the grand scale.”

“It’s locked, I think.”

“Oh-ho. You wouldn’t chance to have a hairpin?”

“Here, let me see that,” said Mr. Vinup, already fishing in his pocket.

He located a wad of “Roscoe’s” brand bubble gum, chewed it, and worked it well into the keyhole. Then he packed some ice around the gum until it was a cold and hard lump and he turned it and the keyhole moved with it; and after the lock sprang open he struck a match off his shoe and held it close until the gum melted into a gooey mess and drained back out of the keyhole onto the tabletop while Alice looked on, fascinated.

Mr. Vinup handed her back the kit, put the gum in his mouth, and blew a bubble. When he was done, he said: “Roscoe’s.” Alice opened the case.

It was about the size and shape of a first aid kit or a small tackle box. The inside lining was quilted and held a variety of instruments.

“As I read off the checklist, please confirm that you are in receipt of mer-chandise.”

Her spine was tingling where it touched the chair, but she made sure her fingers were steady.

Now Inspector Pundit sing-songed the items off the list in a tumbling stream of sound, and Alice Rocket, deep underground in a safe chamber with the spymaster of London himself, reached into her little toolbox-of-the-trade and with his every utterance her hand found a gift, a shape given each word.

He began: “‘One (1) set skeleton keys.’”

“Check,” said Alice. There were several keys looped onto a ring. As soon as she got a chance, she would try them out on the kit. And then keep them in her coat pocket.

“‘One (1) compass.’”


“‘One (1) compass.’”

“Check.” One was for tracing circles, the other for finding the way.

“‘One (1) styptic pencil;

“‘One (1) bottle standard issue smelling salts;

“‘One (1) bottle iodine tablets for use in disinfecting water supply;

“‘Set of five (5) smoke cartridges.’”

“Check, check, check, check–check–check–check–check,” said Alice.

“‘One (1) collapsible unit, hair-trigger blade.’”

“A switchblade,” said Alice, flicking it. But it popped out all incongruous.

“A fine-toothed comb,” corrected Pundit. “‘One (1) heavy-duty electric torch.’ I believe you Americans call these things flashlights.”

Now this was a real corker, precision-milled of brass and nickel. It shot a beam of white light to a range of thirty feet. It had a flash button for signaling. It was a beaut.


“‘One (1) pair X-Ray Goggles.’”

“Yowza,” said Alice in wonder at the pendulous rubber eyewear she had fished up.

“Like all sunglasses, these prevent others from knowing what you truly mean and cause you to look powerful and composed. But they also enable you to see right through the other persons. The lenses are powered by a rare chemical compound called Delirium. Your pair is good for three doses. Conserve the fluid—it is essential.”

“A-O.K.,” said Agent Nine.

“‘Delirium is a registered trademark of Scotland Yard Laboratories.’ Even so.… ‘One (1) May Day Ray–d–o, for emergency use only.’”

This was a small object wrapped in brown paper and official tape that said: property royal air force. It was the same size and shape as a kazoo.

“The Ray–d–o is your means of last resort to receive British aid. Tactical air support will be provided you, courtesy of a special understanding with the Intelligence Wing of the Royal Air Force.” He was no longer reciting.

“This service lies outside the jurisdiction of the Yard. I charge you to use this only in the direst circumstance. It comes at great expense, but we are looking after our own, Alice Rocket, Agent Nine.”

“Is that my tool of mass dishtruction?” she asked.

“It is customary in the British police to report for duty unarmed. The authority of your office—”

There was still a can of red herrings.

“Is this it?”

It was the last thing in the kit. Alice held it out in her hand. She passed the item to the Inspector, who turned it thoughtfully in his fingers.

“Even so…,” he tried, nonplussed. But in fact the longer he examined it, the less confident he looked. The light of recognition had left his face. “Singular, sin-gular. Indeed. I don’t eat herrings, actually, it’s against my religion.…

“I can’t recall. It must have been included for some reason. The inventory ends with a blank—”

“At least it don’t end with a bullet,” said Mr. Vinup, and he and Pundit laughed. Pundit gave the can back to Alice.

“Don’t lose the key,” he said.

The Free-Lancers got packed up and ready to go. Inspector Pundit walked them to the door.

“Any last woid of advice,” Alice wanted to know.

“Several,” the Master told her slowly, “to be used between friends. Ask me to tell you what time it is.”

Agent Nine bit her lip thoughtfully. She said: “Excuse me, have you got the time?”

Mr. Vinup threw a glance at her and almost winked. Then he rattled off, and Pundit responded:

“Excuse me, have you got the time?”

“Our time may be syncopate, but timing is delicate—
        the exit cue
        is the crucial clue
        in the cloak-and-dagger paradigm.”

“Your version of subversion sounds like pantomime.”

“To be an agent provocateur takes a good interlocutor—
       every spy
      needs an alibi
      for a getaway from the scene of crime.”

“I guess an off-beat line isn’t worth two bits.”

“Acrostics and crosswords inspire caustic and crass words,
slaphappy passwords can land you back-asswards,
       I’m saying too much encryption
      will baffle description.
      Transcending charivari
      requires delivery—
      So brother, can you spare a rhyme?”

Mr. Vinup stood by Pundit at the foot of the stoop. He was mopping his forehead. “A couple lines we haven’t had before, I think?”

“Enemy agents keep on memorizing the password,” explained the Inspector. “So I am ceaselessly adding to the countersign. Now it is very secure. If you find you are having trouble with the longer passages, I recommend that you stick with the simple part.”

He was standing on the step right behind Alice, his slim, tapered hands resting on her shoulders. Now he spread his fingers over her head and softly drummed the syncopation into her skull.

“The words,” he said soothingly over the fingertip tattoo, “the words themselves are not so important. What people are saying is not where their meaning is truly reposing. When you listen, listen rather to the timing, Agent Nine.

“Attend well,” he told her, rapping hollowly twice with his thumb: two duds. “I have built a flaw, as you hear, into the third line of the password. Those who make the mistake, they are working with us. Do not trust anyone who does not talk the talk. But do not trust anyone who is too smooth either—that is the lesson.”

A pert black cab pulled up at the curb. The license plates and the sign on top were blank. A flag fluttered on one fender. In the sky, thunder was rumbling like a discontent stomach, but with the mist and all it was hard to tell if it was raining or not.

Just as Mr. Vinup was closing the car door, the Inspector materialized at the window. He made mysterious passes in the air with his arms. Sparks of static electricity crackled in his beard.

“Nothing up my sleeve,” he said grandly.

Looming out of the fog, solitary and clearly shirtless, the Inspector’s body and its rhythm seemed for a moment to eclipse all of London. With a final, elegant gesture, he plucked an object out of the nothingness and presented it to Mr. Vinup.

It was Mr. Vinup’s curried handkerchief.

“Don’t forget to write,” he said.




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