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
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
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,
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
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
“Come on,” said Mr. Vinup. “This is clearly
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
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
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
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,
“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
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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,”
“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,
“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,”
“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
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
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
“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
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
“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,
“Spiced spice,” said the Inspector. “And
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
“Go easy on the mustard and mayo,” Mr. Vinup
“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
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
“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…
b) knowledge = power… bids to start at 90,000 dollars, Mexican
The choice is yours.
Pundit said, “The author is the well-known
“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
Mr. Vinup grabbed the volume. “You’re saying we
leave London at midnight.”
“Even so,” the Inspector said quietly. “From
“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
“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.’”
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
“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
The next boy issued two elaborate tickets. Agent
Eight looked them over. “First class all the way. That’s very
“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
“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
“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
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
“They don’t check I.D. at the door,” said the
“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
“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
“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.
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.
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
“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,”
“‘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
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,
“Is that my tool of mass dishtruction?” she
“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
“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
the exit cue
is the crucial clue
in the cloak-and-dagger paradigm.”
“Your version of subversion sounds like
“To be an agent provocateur takes a good
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
slaphappy passwords can land you back-asswards,
I’m saying too much encryption
will baffle description.
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,
“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
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.