s e r i a l ,  p a r t  t h r e e 


  Agent Nine, Part 2
  Agent Nine, Part 1




Ka-chung, ka-chung,” went the bogies on the train tracks. “Ka-chung, ka-chung.…”

It was monotonous, and a little upsetting. The only other sound that kept Alice company in the night train was a steady “harumph–harumph–harumph” that came from the bunk beneath her. It was Mr. Vinup snoring.

There was relief from this clatter only when they came to a halt at some station, but soon enough after the pauses the train would clear its throat, and then so would Mr. Vinup; and the tempo would start up again mechanically. Sometimes, too, the locomotive shrilled like a kettle, which was particularly hard on the nerves when passing through the tighter tunnels in France, when the noise was pressed into a concentrated shriek.

There was dread in Alice’s heart and soot up her nose from the smoke of the engine. Everybody on the train had looked suspicious. On the other side of the compartment, for example, were the mustache men, three of them laid out on top of each other. Whenever the train passed the lights of a city or the conductor shone his flashlight through the wagon-lit, Alice could see the mustaches puffing in and out of their faces with each dreamless breath. The conductors, too, grew more mustachioed as the train steamed its way deeper into Europe, an observation Alice made to her boss when he woke up the next morning.

“Take it from me, sweetheart, by the time this business is finished, we’ll see growth that’ll really be something to write home about.”

With the morning, things got moving, in an uncomfortable kind of way. The mustache men climbed out of their nightshirts and nightcaps and cleaned their bodies and faces with large handkerchiefs soaked in cologne. One of them unwrapped a newspaper parcel and exposed a lumpy cheese. Mr. Vinup got out of his bunk and stripped off the shirt he had slept in. He wiped himself with it and flexed his muscles. The mustache men murmured approvingly in French, and offered him bottles of cologne and lumps of cheese. Mr. Vinup opened the window and drank some fresh air instead. He had the biggest forearms in the world, but it was his chest that Alice couldn’t keep her eyes off.

“Mes-dames et messieurs,” the conductor was singing down the passage.

Alice said hesitantly, “The one shaped like a question mark.…”

Mr. Vinup sat up on Alice’s berth and turned his naked torso to her.

“That one was a blubber knife in a whalemeat locker on the old San Francisco waterfront, back in Nineteen-nineteen,” he began, not too gruffly. “You can touch it, if you like.”

Alice’s fingers went from scar to scar. Some looked like stars, others like proofreader’s marks. Her partner told her the stories.

Over here was the souvenir of an ambush on Long Island. Down there had been a false step in a Havana conga line. An accident—or was it?—at Niagara Falls up near the shoulder, a tumble down a manhole on Atlantic Avenue lower down the ribs. A stab wound from one of the Swiss Guards with a Swiss Army knife; a silver bullet from an actress, now famous in pictures (“and you can still see it gleaming there, under the skin,”); an appendectomy. That’s the way they passed the time to Paris, where they were interrupted by a blast of accordion music from the railway platform and the conductor’s brisk, “Attention, mes-dames et messieurs!

They ate on the sidewalk, just like the Parisians, and watched the other Parisians go by. Alice Rocket had been contemplating lunch among the French feistily, for she had heard travelers’ tales of snobbish waiters dishing out more guff than ratatouille. “I asked for no sauce,” she planned to say, “take it back to the kitchen. I’ve had enough of your crock, Monsieur.”

But when she confessed her apprehension to Mr. Vinup, he marched her down the promenades right past the fancier eateries. The customers were gazing out at the fashionable folk on the avenue with callow expressions that said: I’m Lost.

Waiters and Mr. Vinup alike sneered. “Americans, every one,” he explained. Yet among them were some truly famous writers.

Mr. Vinup instead brought her to a warrenlike part of town where the gutters were full of cigarettes and onion peels. There, they sat on barrels and ate one oyster after another, shucked on the spot by a grizzly man in a beret. The street’s narrowness made it if anything more like a catwalk; and the people here no less than in the swankier districts kissed and preened and showed off their fancy pants for the streetside diners. The glow of romance warmed and cheered Alice, and lunch in the end couldn’t have been finer.

“How do you like the wide world so far?” asked Mr. Vinup between mouthfuls of mollusc and brown bread.

“The woild is my erster,” said she.

The sky became black over Switzerland, a deep and thirsty sea of night that loomed ever closer as the train climbed higher, and threatened to swallow it up as it had the stars. There were times when they shot straight up the sides of Alps and other times when they raced down corkscrew rails around the mountains; tunnels were plentiful, and the engine nearly bust a gut. And when they finally arrived at the station of Locarno, they had to change trains all over again. But the night no longer held fears; Alice was not even tired.

Their train awaited them on an unofficial siding separated from the regular platforms by a thick velvet rope. Halfway between a real train and a Christmas toy, it was painted in colors so bright that you could tell them apart in the dark. Mr. Vinup and Alice were pointed to a pair of seats by a man who wore no uniform but nevertheless seemed to know what he was doing.

Mr. Vinup showed him the invitations to the Jamboree and offered to pay for a ticket.

“All for free,” explained the civilian out of the corner of his mouth. He was so tough he had trouble even speaking.

“Free-for-all,” replied Mr. Vinup smartly, and the two invites were accepted. Under his snappy tuxedo the man wore not a cummerbund but a weightlifter’s belt, and from this belt dangled an industrial-caliber key fob with a full complement of keys. He took a couple off at random and gave one to each traveler.

Alice’s key was tagged with the number nine. Mr. Vinup thought he had been given a room somewhere on the fourth floor; but just as they were comparing tags a roar of fury erupted behind them and they turned to see the thickset man tearing up the pass offered by the funny little guy who had been standing next in line.

The Free-Lancers took in the situation at a glance. Their would-be companion had botched the password. And the heavy’s muscles were going to stretch out the snappy tuxedo, maybe to the point of no return—he was a full-grown specimen, no question about it. He seized the other and began shaking him like a cutlet in a paper bag full of flour.

“Bloody murder!” screamed the little guy.

Alice watched with interest—not the unequal combat between the big man and the small man, but the unequal combat between the big man and his wardrobe. He finally succeeded in bouncing the gatecrasher right back over his shoulder and onto the platform, and then to Alice’s joy his dickey snapped at the bottom and it was so stiff it flipped up to hit his double chin and tuck itself up in a tight roll at his collar, so that he looked like an opened can of sardines. In the meantime, the train had begun to move, helped uphill by a velvet-sheathed cable in the middle of the track. Mr. Vinup and Alice took their seats in the carriage and were tugged off smoothly to the Villa Febrile. Everybody on the train looked suspicious. And suspiciously.

At last the Villa Febrile! It was a piece of work, all right.

The Villa, a celebrated example of the Romantic style of building

—to quote the brochure provided by the Swiss Tourism Office—

is a private retreat overlooking Lake Maggiore. Its architecture is notable for many fine features, best appreciated by the casual visitor from the deck of a boat, as the estate is patrolled by members of the staff with armed dogs. The City of Locarno appeals to the tourist’s natural sense of discretion.…

The brochure went to cite some interesting facts and figures.

On top, the roof was crowned by eighteen chimneys, six of them for the kitchen alone. Down below were the cellars, vaults cut into the solid rock, full of aged wine and aged ham and cheese. Out back stretched the lake, its shore adorned by a tea pavilion and a bandstand where, at the moment of the train’s arrival, a band was playing a fandango and guests were playing with each other. And in front—where entranced Alice made her entrance on dancer’s feet—she passed through a colonnade into the Villa’s foyer, with its famous Allegory by Trompeleoni, the Baroque master’s trademark plaster limbs rebounding con brio from out of the ceiling (it depicted the triumph of Prudence over Valor). As a whole, the building was massive yet delicate, its soaring wings supported on a rock-solid foundation; an Italianate prima donna, as the brochure said, or—as Alice thought—a grand piano.

When Alice arrived at the Villa, on that warm spring night, the sweet strains of dance music followed her into the foyer and kept her shuffling on the buffed marble slabs. With one ear tuned to the direction of the lake, she found nothing to complain of in the boys’ technique. But she fancied she picked up a certain cramped feel to their play, as though something might be holding them back.

“Could be the bandleader,” she mused, “and then again, it could be the crowd. Where you don’t get no spark, you can’t play with fire.” Alice moved on, with enjoyment, to a consideration of the various steps that might be taken. When her attention made it back to the foyer, she discovered that her suitcase and her partner had both vanished from her side, whisked away by well-disciplined bellboys.

Thus relieved of her baggage, she lost no further time in heading down the lawn to the rumpus. Chinese lanterns in the trees set the lake aglow in popsicle colors. She could see beyond to the willows feeding their long tendrils down to the water; she could hear the players’ backbeat echoed in the chorus of the local frogs. Sleek waiters with chafing dishes shifted position before her like soldiers in a ballet. With escorts like these, who needs a partner? thought Agent Nine.

As the music grew louder, so too did the laughter of the guests and the tinkle of their conversation. Brushing a leafy branch out of her path, she spotted prowling shadows amid the shrubbery, keen at play at hide-and-seek. It’s a game for grownups, she realized. And not only among spies.

Alice ducked across the sagging line of paper lanterns – lime, grape, banana – and found that she had stepped into the Land of Incognito. The guests looked like carbon copies of each other--the men in black dinner jackets and little black ties, the women just slightly less uniform in little black dresses. Most forbidding, each guest wore a party mask that erased the eyes from his or her face. The blank-faced couples spun in time to the music, each pair a mirror-fragment of the whole--a kaleidoscope of sorts, but one without color, as though pieced together out of silhouettes. Alice tried to break the crowd up into distinct persons, but variety was only present in the masks. Nobody would talk to her, or even acknowledge her arrival; the Free-Lancers gazed demurely through their eyeholes right past her as though she didn’t exist.

Alice began to miss Mr. Vinup. Searching in vain for a familiar face, she turned at last to the staff, whose gaudy livery far outshone anything the guests were wearing at this very understated fancy dress party. Against this apparent handicap, they were doing their best to stay invisible. (In fact, given the topsy-turvy system of the masquerade, where you had to be anonymous before you got noticed, the waiters’ distinctive appearance might have actually worked to help keep them out of sight.) A good server makes it his job to avoid attracting attention, and that’s just what the staff at the Villa were doing; they were true to their training, and lay as low as lizards.

Fortunately, Agent Nine did succeed in catching one waiter’s eye.

"If Mademoiselle permits...," he said crisply.

Her baggage was there in the room, and someone had actually unpacked undies and sundries and laid out her party dress for her, on a mattress so delicate that it seemed to give under the weight. Alice went in the bathroom and cleaned herself up with various complimentary accessories, laid out like intimate party favors in a soap dish of mother-of-pearl.

Refreshed, she opened the door to find a pert French maid standing by at the threshold. In one hand, the maid carried a silver tray with a pitcher of water. In the other, she was holding the empty glass in an odd position, high up by the side of her face. She replaced this quickly as Alice came out and offered her up the tray.

Next to the glass, Alice found a mask of her own. Like everything else in the place, it seemed to involve a lot of ornamentation. Still, it would fit the bill nicely, and once Agent Nine had fastened it over her eyes, she felt greatly more confident. Shaking the maid by the hand, she sallied back to the event through a nearby pair of French doors and soon set herself to mingling with the crowd.

Newly anonymous Alice reentered the fray and straightaway was recognized. The one constraint that remained to the free and cordial flow of conversation had to do with the way introductions were made. It seemed that none of her colleagues chose to exchange their real names—or even approximations of real names. Agent Nine quickly caught on. She met the Crusher and the MacGuffin, for example. She met a very suggestive and recognizable-looking person who called herself an Adventuress. The Adventuress had full lips left exposed under her mask and full calves exposed under her dress. When speaking to Alice she laughed and made dimples everywhere, but with men she was more inclined to pout. Alice talked to her and the others with great interest, trying to remember everything about how everybody looked and spoke, what they said and what they hid. She was sure she was meeting people she had glimpsed in passing in the pages of the Index.

The men danced boldly with the women, and indeed with other fellows and the dames with other dames, and the band vamped wickedly on. All those masks were making the couples look like certain kinds of animals, and although the masks were varied and ingenious—some had sequins, some big attachments of papier-mâché—the impression they gave was of mostly snakes and pussycats among the women and foxes and owls among the men. This was not to say that many people didn’t seem beautiful. There was a lady in silk somewhere on the margins who was offering a broad-shouldered man a cocktail snack with a pair of chopsticks. Behind his mask, Alice detected Mr. Vinup.

She thought: He’ll never take it. She was mistaken.

A vulpine type in a black leather tuxedo now emerged hard by Alice’s shoulder. Clicking his heels together, he asked her to dance. The music was insistent. He tossed her around with smooth, practiced steps and introduced himself: the Continental.

“Agent Nine,” said Agent Nine.

Once he had her securely in his clinch, the Continental asked her uninnocently: “Haven’t we met somewhere before?”

Alice told him: “You are fresher than the onion dip.”

“Then you must pardon my crudité,” he smiled, and he seized and dipped her as she had never been dipped in her life as that newfandangled cadence trilled on into vertigo.…

Upside-down, it was a new slant on the garden. Alice saw for the first time that it was full of statues that were missing their arms and legs. Had they been dismembered, she wondered dreamily, so their limbs could be mounted in the Allegory in the front hall?

Agent Nine uncrossed her eyes and replaced his hands. This would be her last test tonight. Those statues had been ready-made all broken up in order to look more antique.

“You swept me off my feet,” she told the man. “And you will pay for it.”

All the phonies Alice had known back home had done their best to seem as natural as possible. Once you figured out that what was on the surface was false, you could strip it off to expose what lay beneath, which would be true. A basic two-step maneuver—it had used to seem so simple. But here in Europe, she was getting to know a new kind of phony. This second kind seemed false right there on the surface and dared you to call them on it. What kind of fancy footwork was that?

She marched up to the band, who were just wiping up their sweat, and demanded: “You fellows speak English?”

“Ya-a-as, we get by, Miss. We get by.”

Alice thrilled to the familiarity of the lingo and of the voice that spoke it.

And in fact, not a soul who had spent any part of that decade in the States would have failed to recognize the buttery tenor. In spite of the darkness, in spite of the ghost-white party mask, underneath the layers it could have been no other—the bandleader was surely Jimmy Dandy himself. For in its own time, the outfit that he led—which was called, simply, His Famous Rhythm—was as well-known at shotgun shack shindigs as at the ballroom affairs of the poshest society folk, not to mention all venues in between.

Was Alice fazed? Au contraire—was she jazzed!

“Give us a Charleston, boys, for Pete’s sake!”

“That’s powerful magic,” replied the famous Jimmy Dandy, but he took up the penny whistle he wore clipped to his watch chain and picked out the first few bars all by himself.

Nobody knew how to dance a proper Charleston like Agent Nine. The people gathered and watched in a circle. They were all blissed out but most didn’t dare join in. The Continental advanced, then beat a hasty retreat. After that, everything got crazy.

There was a little messboy who tapped out the rhythm on his spoons. The guests roared their approval and cheered both of them on and all Alice’s joints were jumping. Her hat flew off more than once but people kept on tossing it back in the ring.

That band knew how to play, and they planted demon ants deep inside Alice’s pants. She stormed up and down the lawn in her hugeous boots and pumped some solid weight into the flighty Charleston steps. From time to time she remembered to check the crowd to see how Mr. Vinup was doing, but he was nowhere in sight.

What, me worry? Alice thought. He was sure to be having a fabulous time.

“You’re the belle of the ball, sugar, you’re the belle of the ball,” Jimmy shouted. He veered into a waltz and everybody spun like tops until the whole world spun along with them. The action only came to an end when the Crusher grabbed the ukulele away from the ukulele player and tried to play it himself. Then there was a big fight between the band and the guests, but nobody got hurt. It was really the best kind of party.

With things winding down, Alice retreated to the powder room. It was full of other stragglers. The Adventuress had been caught in the kisser by a banjo and was trying to check herself out in the mirror in a discreet way.

“What’s a girl to do,” she joked to Alice’s reflection, “my face was all black eyes and fat lips to begin with.”

“Wait right here,” Alice told her, concerned. “I got a styptic pencil up in my room.”

“My sweet. It’s awfully kind. But I couldn’t unmask yet.”

“The party’s over.”

“That may be,” was the answer, “but the evening’s entertainment has only just begun. Have you no little item of business to transact, dear colleague? Some assignation that might be settled here in Locarno with least encumbrance to the other party and yourself while you are both wearing masks? By Convention protocol you are nameless and thus blameless until midnight tonight.”

“And if I was to wear my mask tomorrow?” Alice was puzzled.

“Oh, but tomorrow is for being seen.”

“And just what is it you’re here looking for, sister?”

“Just a good time,” said her wriggly friend.

Agent Nine left the powder room thinking hard about her mission. The Villa was not exactly a hotel; there was no front desk where she could ask which room Countess Lubyanka was in. Or which room her boss was in, for that matter—Mr. Vinup had pulled off his disappearing act with finesse. He was probably already hot on the trail, she mused on her way through the hall, and it would just be embarrassing if she tried acting like a hero on her own and wound up being a stupe. Still, there was a job to be done, and it was maddening not even knowing what it was she was after.…

Somebody was after her, though—a sudden rent in the air tickles the side of her face and a tense little shard slices past her, whistling through space—

Agent Nine spun around on her heel and took cover behind a nearby sculpture of Cupid, and there she remained on guard, with her eyes peeled and her dukes put up, until at last—a second? an hour?—thank goodness some other people walked into the hall and Alice Rocket was safe.

No longer alone with her unseen challenger, Alice sidled back into the open to look for the whistling blade. She tried to look calm. It was a funny thing: at the moment of confrontation, she had shed not a drop of sweat; but now that the threat had passed, she was able to relax a bit and indulge her flesh in its desire to creep.

Nauseated and all at once very tired, she found a paper airplane protruding from the wall behind the statue. The missile had landed with such force that it had been driven a good four inches beyond the plaster and was still bristling with the impact. The plane’s edges and creases had been honed to razor sharpness. Someone had sent her murder by airborne express!

“W-why, of all the…,” she began shakily to herself.

But as the freshman Free-Lancer bit down hard on her lip and began to examine the damage, she found that her fear was giving way to a sense of professional respect. However grudgingly, Agent Nine felt forced to admit that whoever had sent this pointed message her way had certainly taken his or her time over its delivery. Yes sir, she conceded, sliding her finger along the plane’s clean lines, she had to hand it to the other side; they seemed to know their business, all right.…

Uneasily, she realized that her fellow guests had moved on. Once again, Agent Nine stood alone.

But not for long.

Frozen anew, Alice watched as a man in black approached from the far end of the hall.

He was a guest like all the other guests, dressed correctly for a formal evening out. Was it swagger and mask, combined, that suggested the image of a showdown in a cowboy picture? How can we be here at the final reel already? Alice wondered, suddenly resentful. She hadn’t even met the Countess yet, let alone had a real chance to unwind. The unfairness of it all was stupefying!

Agent Nine stepped out to the middle of the floor. “Let him go ahead and make the sudden move,” she told herself wildly. “Whatever comes next, I do not yield the toif.”

He made the sudden move.

The wheeling skid, the drive of his right arm into his jacket, the blurry gesture he made with the gun as he got his bearings: Alice saw it all and dug in her heels and waited for the noise.

Something like a full minute passed. There was a harsh coughing sound, but he was making it in his throat. But the stranger’s rooty-toot-toot was still pointed right between her eyes. He brought his other arm up slowly, reaching for his pocket once again—

It was a polka-dot handkerchief. Mopping his temples, he began to swear in French.

Mort de ma vie!” he complained. “Death of my life! Quelle horreur!

Though his hand stayed firm, the rest of his body was shaking like a blancmange. He replaced his hanky and felt about on the wall behind his neck.

There in the plaster, another stiff, shiny paper plane had lodged itself. The man ran a fingertip along the edge of one of the wings and a red line opened up on the fabric of his glove. He brought his fingers to his mouth then and kissed them. The gesture left a trickle of blood on his chin.

Ooh, la-la, but that is neat work,” he said. His accent was similar to that of a Brooklyn maître-d’ of Alice’s acquaintance.

Alice still held her ground on the parquet. Now the Frenchman approached. Minty breath and a big, nervous Adam’s apple preceded the rest of him; leading off in front came the barrel of the gun. A mixture of passivity and revulsion overcame her and she began to follow his cue, meeting each of his steps with a backwards pace of her own, as if they were partners in a remedial dancing class. So much for the belle of the ball, she thought, realizing too late that she had allowed him in this way to propel her to a quiet spot in front of a door.

“After you, ma petite,” he murmured, and pushed her through the doorway.

He thrust himself in right after, closing the door behind him. Perhaps he had been expecting a closet. He certainly seemed as surprised as his victim to be rushing downstairs in a dumbwaiter.

It may have been a large example of its kind, but it would never have passed inspection as an elevator, not even for a maximum occupancy of one-half. As the Frenchman stepped in, the floor gave immediately under the weight, and both passengers barely had time to scrunch themselves in even as the box swept them down the chute. Protuberances, of which the stranger seemed to have many, could graze the inner wall of the passage on the way down if not tucked securely inside the rather intimate space—of course, since he had been the latter to enter, he occupied the open side of the box and was more vulnerable to erosion.

It was pitch dark inside, and the descent took a long and rattly time. Wedged into one corner, transfixed by a nervous knob that could have been an elbow, a gun, or an Adam’s apple for all she knew, Alice dangled with her enemy at the end of a rope and tried to come up with a plan.

The cramped space had been seized, fit to burst, with a spell of the jitters. Were they coming from him, or from her? In the dark, it was hard to tell just where she left off and he began. Well, it would only be natural to be scared, Agent Nine told herself—she was stuck in a box with a strange man who wanted to murder her.

But why was he taking her on this little ride? she thought on. Why not get it over with right away? He had come into the hallway to check and see if his vicious dart had done the trick. Was he trying to get rid of the evidence—namely, her?

Quelle unfriendly reception, Mademoiselle.” She could feel his lips next to her ear. “Why were you trying to kill me?”

Correction: she was stuck in a box with a strange man who wanted to murder her. Only, it seemed that he thought that she had tried to murder him. So, then, the jitters were his.…

“Just how are you insinuating that I tried to rub you out?”

“Mademoiselle, j’accuse! Would you deny it? Nom d’un nom!

“Was it a lethal projectile of paper manufacture like the one that you threw at me?”

“Now you claim that you are the victim? Crème de la crème!

“I am coming clean with you,” Alice explained. “Speaking for my own self, you can picture me just standing in the hallway, minding my own business, when Zip! by my head—is it a boid? Is it a plane? It’s a speeding bulletin. Is it something like that that happened to you?”

The second paper plane had been meant for him, and some third party had fired it—the same third party who had tried to nail her. But why?

She would have to sort things out fast. The smell of mint was receding, overcome by a new odor: garlic sausage and dust. The dumbwaiter was nearing the next stop on its route, and Alice now realized where that would be. They had reached the cellars she had read about in the brochure.

The side of the chute opened up and the peppermint man, suddenly sprung, careened through the rift, tumbling like a bowling ball released down the trench. Out plunged Alice in his wake. Relieved of their load, the dumbwaiter’s ropes snapped taut, with an audible squealing of pulleys.

The light was dim and the air was stuffy down below, but compared with the inside of the old box, it was like a visit to the beach. Alice walked through cobwebs to where an enormous wheel of cheese rested on its rim. She stationed herself up top. The gunman took up his post by a wall lined with dusty bottles and pinioned her with a wary eyeball.

Fear gave way to a nagging desire in Alice’s bones. She cracked her knuckles, pausing carefully between each popping sound so as not to alarm her companion. Ten digits later, she felt a little more relaxed, but she was mindful that he still stood there, revolver cocked and waiting.

“Now, Mademoiselle,” the Frenchman began, “you will allow I have been patient. The appropriate thing is to commence an investigation according to the principles of deductive reasoning. I need not point out that your only course is full cooperation.”

“It seems I do not have a cherce.”

D’accord. From your identity, we shall deduce the identity of your employers, and proceed to the motive that has placed me on your list.… Eh bien, the first premise: Who are you?”

“Agent Nine.”

“Don’t be coy. What is your name?”

“Alice Rocket.”

“Alice Roquette, nationality Américaine. Mademoiselle Alice, I must ask you to unmask.”

Alice’s bare face warmed to a grin as the man stared on, irresolute. She sensed the time had come to help him along.

“You want to know who I am. I tell you,” she said. “You want to see my face. I show you. It don’t tell you nothing. Why should it?

“I know I didn’t try to kill you. For the reason that I got no reason to want to kill you. And I know you didn’t try to kill me. For the reason that you are the one that’s asking the questions. Brother, it’s somebody else out there trying to bump off the two of us.” She was surprising herself with the businesslike tone in her voice.

“Now, if it is some toid party,” she continued, “it may be that they know something about us we do not. So there is one single item of clarification that will soive your best interests and mine. If we are in this together in some way and you can not see your way clear to telling me what you are doing here at the Villa, that is all right. Because I am going to tell you what I am doing here.”

“How do I know you will tell me the truth?”

Alice was taken aback. “The way I figure it, I got nothing to lose.”

“The way I figure it, you have all to lose,” mimicked the Frenchman. “I believe you tried to kill me, Mademoiselle. That is why I do not trust you. C’est logique.”

“But I was attacked in that hallway, for crying out loud!”

“I see no proof of that.”

Sweet jumpin’ Christopher, this was going to take all night. Alice could see that a spider had taken advantage of the immobile crook in the gunslinger’s arm and was already starting work on a web. “The last time I had such a lummox on my hands,” she reflected, “it was Mr. Vinup at the job interview.…”

She said suddenly: “Proof? I got proof for you—right here on my face. Step over here by the light. I’ll show you the nick in my ear where the thing clipped me.”

Alice walked through the murk to where a lantern hung from a hook set in the ceiling. She set her hand on a pendulous Parma ham by its side and as her interrogator came into view, she heaved. The meat caught the foe square in the face. He went off reeling in circles and mumbling in his native tongue.

Alice hit him with everything she had. She pelted his head with round, hard Goudas and swabbed his jaw with an aged Provolone at the end of a rope. She peppered him with pepperoni and slammed him with a kosher salami. The man grew helplessly punch-drunk and shot a round into a cask of uncertain vintage; it spurted bloody-looking wine all over his evening clothes. “Nom d’un nom d’un nom,” he kept saying. It was a massacre.

Agent Nine set loose the great wheel she had been sitting on. “Voilà,” she warned.

With a horrific noise it rumbled forward, crushing lesser cheeses in its path. “Quelle fromage,” yelped the enemy, fumbling his weapon. Alice recovered it from a pool of whey.

She leveled the gun at her former tormentor. “Mitts in the air,” she said grimly, “or you’ll be as full of holes as Swiss cheese before you can say ‘Emmenthal.’”


He waited, slumped on the floor of the cellar, purple with bruises, and soggy. Alice stood over him with the rooty-toot-toot and readjusted her clothes with dignity.

As she had calculated, the assault of illogic had devastated him. The moment was rich, but Agent Nine checked herself. You can’t afford to get sentimental in a situation like this, she thought grimly. Time is scarce and there’s a job to be done.

She set her teeth and clenched her fist around the butt of the pistol. The next step was only logical.

She handed the weapon back to its owner.

“What does this mean, Agent Nine?” the masked man asked. His voice had real sincerity in it. But his hand reflexively clutched at the gun and pointed it back at Alice.

“Nothing’s changed, Mister. Only now I figure I have done about all a goil can do within reason to get a fellow to trust her. I am going to tell you the particulars of my assignment. And you are going to listen.

“If it is my mission that you have been informed about in some way, I am about to make my position very clear. On the other hand, if you do not get my meaning, that would mean that it is none of your business. And in that event, I would thank you to fuhgetaboutit.”

Agent Nine set her hands on her hips. She said evenly: “I am here to deliver a pile of lettuce to a certain tomato that can spill me the beans on a load of baloney.”

A sharp intake of breath momentarily sucked all the mint out of the air. The Frenchman shook his head in emotion. Was it awe, or simple relief?

La pièce de résistance,” he began. “You are to be congratulated on your sang-froid.”

He got up, combing curds out of his hair with his free hand. “Your argument is persuasive, Mademoiselle. Formidable. You leave me in ignorance of your purpose here. We can establish that we have nothing in common and part as friends. Quelle.… Quelle…,” he petered off, and then held out his left hand and exclaimed pungently, “Fuhgetaboutit!”

Alice let him take her hand in his but she withdrew it before he could kiss it. “You wouldn’t be holding anything back from me—would you, Mister?”

Her companion delivered one of the well-known Gallic shrugs. He grew philosophical and thought aloud in a superior tone of voice.

“I am evidently neither an ally nor an enemy of yours. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the attack was an accident, or even a random affair of la chance. There are a thousand reasons for these macabre tricks among the conventioneers. Two years ago, I had a spirited encounter with an alligator in the passepartout. It turned out to be employed as a bodyguard by a friend of mine.

“This time, it may have been a case of mistaken identity. Or an applicant for a Free-Lance position demonstrating his skill. Again, we might suppose that some observer has employed this device to challenge us to betray to his view, at the moment of crisis—en garde!—the weapons we are carrying.”

And at last—realizing that Alice had never betrayed anything more incriminating than a desire not to be messed with—he put his gun back in his pocket, with an elaborately casual air, as if to say: “Oh, this old thing.”

Alice was left feeling unsatisfied and undervalued.

“Is that the best you can come up with?” she asked. “Something like this, it is hard not to take it poisonal.”

“As you please, Mademoiselle,” the masked man returned. “We may assume that your reputation has preceded you. You are the object of an assassin’s assignation at Locarno. He espies you in the hallway and strikes; he misses. I, inadvertently, rescue you by arriving in the midst of an encore, and in a fit of pique he attempts to slay the innocent witness—namely, moi.”

With a fastidious gesture, he opened a penknife and cut some slices of ham and cheese. They chewed meditatively for a spell, neither one looking at the other. It was the right time for a snack.

Alice thought it all over and said: “The honest truth as I see it is, until our little ruction in the hallway, I did not think I had an enemy in the woild.”

“In that case, there remains one other possibility,” the logician observed. “If someone did indeed intend you for the coup de grâce, it was not an enemy. It was a friend.”

With these words, he took sudden French leave and Alice was alone in the cellar.

On reflection, it was far from a relief.

It was a triumph.




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