s e r i a l ,  p a r t  f o u r 


Agent Nine, Part 3
Agent Nine, Part 2
Agent Nine, Part 1



Episode One, Clues One and Two

Episode Two, Clues Three and Four

Episode Three, Clues Five and Six



Hugeous boots trod through the broken glass and cheeses that littered the floor around the dumbwaiter. Wide-awake eyes took in the scene. Reviewed, the cellar was a wasteland of ripe-smelling leftovers.

Clearly, it was time to move on. But which way was Agent Nine headed?

“There is no way to go but up,” she resolved. She seized one of the strands of rope stretched alongside the dumbwaiter, and, sawing methodically at it with a sharp Cheddar, turned over in her mind the events of the recent skirmish.

It had been long odds on Kid Alice. Her opponent had been a veteran. He had had twice her body weight and probably three times the education. Home advantage, too, was a factor he was entitled to claim. She had taken him.

A lucky break, she thought hesitantly. Well, and what if it was? A lucky break was the last thing you could take for granted these days. You didn’t turn your back on it just as things started to heat up—that was for darn skippy.

What of this episode to report to her boss, Agent Eight? Would he decide that she had done good?

And what would he report in his turn, she wondered, to their handler, the artful Inspector? Had the Inspector only been present to coach her, what wider patterns might not have been revealed at work! Out of this odd knot of her experience, what fine tapestry might he have woven?

Alice paused in her work, rope in hand. Come to think of it, out of the recent muddle, there was one moral that did stand pretty clear.

Agent Nine had taken action when it counted. Catch her alone in a tight corner, she comes up with a plan. She thinks on her feet and comes bouncing right back!

The rope snapped and the dumbwaiter fell with a crash to the bottom of the shaft, clean down to the hollow heart of the mountain. Alice was left laughing and coughing in wonderment. What a lot of phonies these Free-Lancers were turning out to be!

“There’s the garden-variety kind,” she told herself, “like that one clown from the dance. And then there’s the bargain-basement kind,” she went on, but caught herself prudently. “All the same, it would not do to get too big for my boots—fifty million Frenchmen can’t all be that wrong.”

Two ends of rope were left hanging down from a pulley somewhere at the top of the Villa. To one end, Alice tied herself. The other she fastened to the enormous, battle-scarred juggernaut of cheese and rolled it to the brink of the dumbwaiter shaft.

Four.… Three.… Two.… One.… Propulsion was instantaneous. Alice shot up the chute like a hiccup in a throat. She was back at the entrance to the dumbwaiter in the hallway above while the dust was still swirling over the take-off spot down below.

She stepped out the door, smoothed down her skirts, and reentered the Cupid hall.

Now, if Agent Nine had felt the need for a check to her confidence, it came to her soon enough. Back down in the cellar, she had made up her mind to march right through the shooting gallery, eyes fixed straight forward as if ignoring something indecent. But a morbid sort of curiosity now turned her face in time to see both paper airplanes still fixed where they had landed in the wall. And the same half-disgusted impulse made her stretch out her hand and touch the one that had nearly nailed her.

It felt so finely machined and smooth, it was almost slimy. Alice gripped a corner between thumb and index finger and tugged. The plane slithered out of the plaster. She held the contraption delicately, as though it could go off again at any time, and out of a urge to disarm it, rather than from any real insight into its workings, she set about unfolding the paper.

With the first seam, she uncovered writing. And as she continued methodically to unpack it, the creases melted away, so that at the end she was left with a smooth sheet of paper that preserved not a trace of the wrinkles that had given it structure.

The message that was printed in the middle of the page looked like this:

In the best tradition of the hard sell, the copy blended promise with threat.

Had the initial assault with the paper airplane too, then, been no more than an advertising gimmick? Make sales by first scaring the daylights out of your target market, then persuading them to do the same or worse to other people—using your product. Well! Alice had known some objectionable people in the insurance line back in Brooklyn, but for sheer chutzpah this stinker was hard to beat. She read on, indignation mounting.


The remaining space on the paper was entirely taken up by a great Chinese character in vermilion ink, the bloody footprint of some carnivorous animal.

Doctor Fang! Alice’s arteries hardened at the sight of the name. Though she could not read the language at the bottom of the page, all the foreboding with which the Inspector had revealed his hunch back in London was spelled out for her in that mysterious symbol. The enemy were flexing their muscles and cackling: “We’re back!

The rest of the message was easy to understand. This Poppyseed Passion up in Number Sixteen must be Fang’s agent in Locarno. The three-sided shape in which the words were arranged—that must be what they called a Triad. And that persistent noise that was annoying her was the piece of paper itself, rippling in the air and amplifying the vibrations made by Alice’s trembling hand.

She had the jitters all the way back up to her bedroom. Lying down didn’t help. Neither did bouncing up and down on the bed. Alice got up, paced the floor, and finally took her little tackle box out of her suitcase and unlocked it with her skeleton key.

Compass; compass; styptic pencil: She fingered the items one by one and struggled to replace her strange emotion, the nocturnal brew of mischief and fear that was making her crazy, with a more cool-headed assessment of the campaign ahead.

In the end, of all her tools, it was the little switchblade-comb that seemed most apt to the moment. Swearing softly, Alice forced the fine teeth through the snarls and tangles that had collected on her head. It took a half hour of this kind of treatment before she felt straight enough to face the obvious next move: the invasion of Suite Sixteen.

Agent Nine put aside the idea of forcing a break-in once she realized she had nothing dark to wear. Instead, she settled on a slyer tactic: she would go to this Poppyseed person’s door and brazen it out as a prospective buyer. “Pardon me, Ma’am? Yes, I was put on your foim’s mailing list recently, and I wanted to inquire.…” This had the advantage of not requiring anything more elaborate by way of preparation than fixing her hair and readjusting her mask. By the morning, Mr. Vinup would surely be through with whatever secret mission had taken him away from her tonight, and together they would come up with a plan of action that would benefit from any information she could collect in this way.

She assessed herself in the mirror. The tussle in the cellar had left her with skinned knuckles, but no really bad marks. She started scrubbing her face and noticed that there was more grime on the parts left exposed by her mask than the skin around her eyes and forehead. She looked like a reverse raccoon! Most of the dirt must have gotten picked up during the bumpy descent in the dumbwaiter, she figured, because after all she had been unmasked ever since she took the thing off during her interview in the cellar…oh, for crying out loud…her mask must still be down there.

Confronting representatives of the infamous Doctor Fang with her face naked was a troubling proposition to Alice. It was with no little satisfaction that she located among her gear a very modernistic pair of sunglasses. Rubber and chrome, adorned with cogs and wires: when she put them on her head, she had gained several pounds.

She admired the look in the mirror: composed, well prepared. Next to a dial by the earpiece nestled a canister. Delirium was the word on the label. Three doses, she remembered.

“The X-Ray Goggles,” she mouthed, “the Ex-Spex.” What have I to expect? she wondered silently, and slipped out of the room.

Eleven.… Twelve.… Thirteen.… A dim and serpentine corridor, gas valves on the walls squeezing out runny pools of light that threw shadows and so obscured rather than illumined: Agent Nine slunk her way past the numbers on the doors. Fifteen was here on the left, Sixteen would be on the other side. She could make out the dark rectangle of the door now and something else: there was a figure, still but tense, poised outside the room.

It was a lady, Alice could see—she would have been all but invisible in her black costume, but white patches on her head, chest and skirt betrayed her silhouette. Careless choice for work clothing, Alice thought, and then realized she was looking at the maid.

If it wasn’t the same dam’zelle who had dished up her mask along with a glass of water back when the evening’s games began! There was no mistaking that mincing posture. Or that tray with the pitcher. She had brought along the glass, too, but she was holding it at the door and pressing one of her ears against it.

Poppyseed Passion in Suite Sixteen was evidently already engaged with somebody else. And the maid at the door was intent on every word being spoken on the other side. She stood glued to the glass, frozen except for an occasional twitch in her muscles, ignorant that she was now exhibit as well as audience.

Clearly, the thing to do now was to take her place.

“This will be easiest to handle if she is a real maid,” Alice told herself. “The crafty little interlope.”

She stalked up behind her prey until she was so close that she could see a mole on the back of her neck. Now to initiate the confrontation.

What would her boss do in a situation like this? Alice cleared her throat: “Harumph!”

With a clattering of high heels, the maid spun around, unbalancing her tray and slopping water on her apron. The pitcher took a tumble. Alice recovered it deftly and pointed it at her quarry.

The woman’s face went first red, then white. She blinked her soft doe eyes and licked her lips rapidly, and the lace parts on her uniform went all aflutter.

“W-w-would you like a glass of water, Mademoiselle?” she got out.

“I am obliged,” said Alice, taking the glass from her hand. “And there is a foither transaction I would like to complete before the close of our business today. To wit: a good time for you to make yourself scarce from this place is right this very minute. Do this quietly and don’t give me no sassafras and I will refrain from making my thoughts about the soivice here known to the management.”

The maid appeared to hesitate. “Excusez-moi?” she said.

“Beat it, Monique,” said Alice savagely, and watched the help high-tail it in the direction of the emergency exit.

“Never, never fink on anyone to the management,” she sighed to herself. “That’s as golden a rule as I know of. What a break she didn’t call my bluff—I would have had to sock her or something and hope for the best, I guess.”

The maid’s eager breath as she listened at the door had covered the glass in Alice’s hand with a layer of fog. Seized by a scruple in the middle of her underhanded task, Agent Nine wiped it off on her skirt. It made her feel a bit better as she applied the glass between her ear and the door.

Faint murmurs made no sense at first. But gradually, as the bubbling noises separated inside her ear to become syllables, she became able to distinguish two voices.

One was melodic and husky. That would be a woman’s voice. The other was more flat and somehow familiar—a man’s voice that was struggling, it seemed, to maintain a matter-of-fact tone but was not succeeding.

As the discussion picked up momentum, Alice found herself the hapless chaperone at a romantic interlude.

***Romantic Interlude***

the Lady: You handsome—

the Gentleman: Toothsome.

L.: Winsome—

G.: Lissome.

L.: Wholesome—

G.: And then some.…

L.: Oh, Mr. Vinup!

G.: Please, call me Vinup.

With trembling hand, Alice reached for the dial on the side of her glasses and turned on the X-Ray Goggles to see what she already knew she would see.

The air filled with the smell of vinegar and burning cardboard. The lenses at her eyes clouded up in a rich indigo color. During the next few seconds, all she could see was a cloudy swirl like the surface of a marble; and then the darkness dissolved as the curtain went up on the photoplay.

Two people were moving like ghosts in floating patches of blue and white. The figures danced in silence, their only accompaniment humming and popping noises from the engine on Alice’s eyes. Science had given Agent Nine the power to see through a two-inch layer of wood. This was the world beyond the door, the love nest of Suite Sixteen.

Cool China blue tints revealed the silhouette of Poppyseed Passion, the silky lady with the chopsticks from the party in the tea garden. Her face was an oval, symmetrical and perfect. It moved little; even her eyes and mouth looked like finishing touches painted on by an artist. Alice trained her lenses on the face and the party mask and the makeup seemed to dissolve; but the eyes had a pride and depth that stopped her vision ray cold.

It may have been that two inches of door was too much of a buffer. Alice turned her sights instead on the long, sinuous body that lay wrapped up, fishlike, in a sheath of silk. Where other people had spines, this one had a coil—from the smooth, pale throat all the way down to the littlest pair of feet Alice had ever seen.

Poppyseed Passion rose, looking like a pillar of liquid, and approached her partner and settled in his lap in a single eddying movement, and then her hideous long fingernails reached up and hooked Mr. Vinup’s mask up over his mouth.

Then it was all over. Alice couldn’t stand any more.

She had seen enough. She had seen too much. She had only seen what she expected.

Oh, the tramp! Dad blast it! And oh, the chump! The oldest trick in the book! Alice gnashed her teeth. As for she herself, here was a third of her precious supply of Delirium already all used up, and on what? Sneaking peeks at a Pekinese hoochy-coochy girl.

“It’s a crying shame,” she groaned. “One of the finest agents in the business, to go and make a fool of himself like that.” Right there in the hallway outside Number Sixteen, she danced a dance of rage.

Agent Nine! The mission must not be allowed to end in this way. Far off in the cellars of London, the spymaster waits in his lair, quietly standing pat. The stakes are rising before his eyes. Wild card, it’s your call. Are you a joker, or are you an ace?

There was a deal in the making, if she could only figure out how to see this thing through. A certain Countess would have to be found. Then certain talks would be held. Agent Nine would turn over a lot of money, accompanied by as little information as possible. Somehow, in return, satisfaction must be guaranteed.

“Or money back, your Ladyhood,” Alice rehearsed. “We demand delivery on our piece of the auction.”

The auction was scheduled to follow the Jamboree. That was tomorrow. The Countess would have to be found well before. Tonight, then.

A place to think, that’s what she needed. Her nerves were a little worked up; she was a little tender. Someplace quiet where she could go, someplace comforting where the stream of thought could flow—that would truly be the ticket.

She thought of places with chairs that were cozy and with food that nurtured, like pie; with springtime trees and maybe a bubbling brook outside. She was a city kid having a country moment. Someplace with good company to confide in, where she could gaze across a table and see herself reflected in the eyes of someone she could trust.

That lunch place a couple of miles north of town—Mr. Vinup had taken her there her first, sunny day on the job. It had been a swell place.

Failing that, there was the lady’s john.



Past midnight. All masks were off.

Alice Rocket sat on a tuffet next to the running water. She looked at her reflection. There was a cloud on her brow that made her look tired. “That’s funny,” she thought. “I don’t feel so tired.”

Each seat at the mirror bank had its own lamp, and installed with each lamp was a dial that was marked with degrees from gentle to harsh, so you could adjust the lighting if you felt like flattering yourself, or—no less usefully—if you felt like coming to terms with your flaws. Alice turned it all the way down to gentle. A halo of warm light rinsed her cloud away.

The ladies’ lounge was a garden, it was a grotto of ablutions and devotions. The banquettes and stools were covered in velvet like moss. The wallpaper had flowers on it. The toilet tanks had mufflers that limited noise to a gentle sigh. There were different kinds of lotion on tap, not to mention different kinds of maid on call, professionals who could help you with manicures or simple backrubs. And music came in through a brass hole in the ceiling.

Alice settled in. The sanctuary provided her all that was needed. She dipped her fine-toothed comb in a jar of Barmecide on the counter and set to work on her head. The mirror on the wall behind gave her a helpful rear view. In collaboration with its opposite number facing her, it showed an endlessly deep pattern of overlapping Alices, front-to-back.

To the left of her and to the right of her, there were close to twenty other women doing just the same thing. And yet each one of them was also, like Alice, alone in the garden. If they ever did speak with their neighbors, all the chatter beyond the hedges of their own conversation just sounded to them like so much birdsong and rustling of leaves.

An outsider could have seen more than one person at a time. She could have seen the women troop in and strip off their masks at the door, and then proceed to the mirror and their intent self-examinations. Generally speaking, of course, because of the nature of the place, there were no outsiders in the ladies’ lounge; but Alice had now turned the dial to harsh and for the first time was noticing the other people in the room.

Anything was better than looking at herself in that light. All of a sudden, she had bags sagging down to the cheekbones. “This intelligence business sure is aging me,” she said to herself. “At this rate, I will have toikey wattles before I see twenty.”

Whatever had happened to the garden? A little panicky, she shot a glance around the room—

Rows of dames, masses huddled up at the countertop. There was a sameness even in the variety. The women’s faces were immobile and blank until painted. In that, they seemed like machines. Their arms and fingers worked in a flurry of motion. That was also machinelike.

The fingers wielded an assortment of tools from the countertop. They dug and filled holes and laid foundations. They installed planes and shadows. As the faces were completed, the drones gave them stretch tests and dusted them off with a protective finish against damp.

All masks were off—bring on the masks. Alice asked herself a question: What’s underneath all that crust to begin with?

Indeed! Since if character was applied by layers, then another thing followed: Any one of those women might actually be the Countess. Agent Nine thought of the mug shot from the Index. “She may well be in disguise…,” the Inspector had said.

The platinum coif—peroxide? The elegant eyebrows—crayon? The schnozz.… But even that might have been putty or something like that.

She realized that the question of whether there was a real Countess behind the image at all was a useless one. Somewhere in the Villa there was a woman who called herself a Countess. She could not know or care about Alice’s existence. It was up to Alice to make herself known.

Agent Nine was in an uncomfortable position—matchmaker between a person she dared not name and someone else she did not even recognize. In fact, a name was just about the only thing she knew about the Countess; and, come to think of it, she didn’t dare use that either. In this place, it was a cinch that if you addressed a message to somebody, it would get looked at by somebody else—

“That,” she observed, “is for darn skippy.”

A message for her Feminence, the Countess Lubyanka: could it be delivered to her eyes only? It would have to be posted someplace in the Villa, its address left unstated, yet somehow implied. It would have to say just enough to the intended, while saying as little as possible to anyone else. Alice was going to execute a variation on that classic spy maneuver, the “drop.” She racked her brains for a spot the Countess was likely to visit sometime in the course of the night.

“If you please, Miss?”

Alice turned to meet the voice and was startled by what looked for a second to be a very large New England boiled dinner sitting next to her. She quickly turned the lighting back towards gentle.

Her neighbor turned out to be a rosy-cheeked woman with a pair of binoculars. She was wearing a smocklike dress in an unflattering foliage pattern. There were bunches of leaves stuck in the veil on her hat. Embarrassed but self-righteous, Alice told herself: It was a reasonable mistake.

“What can I do for you, sister?”

“Can I bother you for a light?”

Alice wasn’t wearing anything with pockets. But while she was thinking up polite ways to say no, her hand found something nubbly tucked into the garter on her thigh. This actually turned out to be two things: one of them was Louie’s lipstick, and the other was in fact a box of lucifers. Alice was a little mystified.

The Inn at Mott Haven was the name on the logo. “Pie of many kinds our specialty.”

“Well, fine,” thought Alice, and aloud she said, “Here, lady, keep the pack.”

“Much obliged,” said the leafy lady. Striking one of the lucifers off the countertop, she lit up a stub she held in her fingers, producing some wet black smoke. She let it burn until the flame surprised her fingertips and then shook it until it was doused. What she was left with was stinky, but no cigar. It was a nicely charred cork, is what it was.

Working briskly, the woman rubbed the cork in broad strokes across her face. She drew patches of black until all the blanks had been filled in. Then, binoculars in hand, she got up and turned to Alice. She was already blending into the background—her edges were starting to look fuzzy. When she smiled through the blackness, it was like a flashbulb.

“Toodle-oo,” she said.

She skulked off, moving, Alice had to admit, much the way a shrubbery would move—assuming for the moment, of course, that a shrubbery could move. Oh, these professionals, what a lot of peachy tricks they knew. Alice fingered her lipstick and went to sit by herself in a stall.

She found it hard to be alone even in the toilet stall. Alongside the one seat, there was an alternative thing. It was parked undeniably in front of the commode and it was smiling at her.


Alice’s attention was torn away from the whatsits. Somebody outside was screaming.

Clearly, something chaotic had entered the ladies’ room. It had an urgent word and it would not stop: “Ple-e-ase!

It sounded like a man and it was speedily coming closer. Alice could hear him stampeding straight for her stall. She had no time to—

Through the door burst a petite, dapper man with a smooth face like a china doll’s. He petrified himself against the inside of the stall and looked at Alice with desperate eyes.

Fear—it was said that dogs could smell it on people. Fear clung to this particular specimen as though he had rolled in it.

“P-p-please,” he said. “S’il vous plaît. Achtung.”

“Please what?”

“Help,” he barely breathed. It touched Alice’s heart.

“Relax, Mister,” she said. “Here, why don’t you have a seat on the, uh.”

“The bidet.”

“Say, what is it, anyways?”

“It’s for cleaning up.”

“Cleaning up?”

“You know, afterwards,” said the man, and turned a knob. Instead of flushing out the bowl, as Alice would have expected, the water squirted straight up.


The ’fraidy man turned off the flow and sat down. “Please,” he reminded her.

“Oh, for pity’s sake,” said Alice. “Who are you running from?”

“There’s no time for explanations,” the man said intensely.

“Then there’s no time to waste,” she declared in a sudden rush of sympathy. She whipped off her dress and thrust it into the little man’s arms.

His face glazed over like a vintage Ming. Alice couldn’t tell whether she had dazzled him with the originality of her plan or just scared him some more. He was as wide-eyed and stupefied as a display window dummy.

“Don’t just stand there,” she said sharply. “Take your clothes off.”

Soon she had him down to his drawers. These were quite extraordinary. Knowing it was not polite, however, Agent Nine did her best not to look. “Don’t move,” she directed as she painted his mouth with Number Thirty-Three. “You’ll sperl the Cupid’s bow.”

Her heightened nerves caught the sound of the lounge door opening. A familiar voice drifted in from the hall. “Cherchez les Femmes.”

Alice sampled the air: peppermint. Her friend was set to bolt. She rubbed some lipstick on her thumbs and rouged up his cheeks with it. Fortunately, her dress had turned out to be a perfect fit.

She took off her earrings and clicked them onto his ears. Remembering words spoken really not so long ago, she told him: “It’s all just paste anyways.”

“Thank you,” whispered the China doll man. “Grazie. Grácias. Mahalo.”

He sashayed out. “Gracious,” thought Alice.

She was left in her slip along with a men’s dinner outfit, complete but for shoes and socks. She would have to work fast. She sat at her post and wrestled with the boiled dress shirt and collar. The jacket followed with comparative ease, and it was then that the Frenchman—who had been methodically walking all down the row of stalls and opening each door one by one in order to check and see, by that sheerly logical technique known as the process of elimination, whether his victim was hiding in any of them—it was right then that her old French friend arrived at her station. He did not bother to knock.

“’Allo—Agent Nine!” he exclaimed unpleasantly. “Sans-culotte and hors de combat!

For the first time, Alice got a look at the face without the mask—and the smile it was cold and the eyes they were bullying. He had been swift to jump to certain conclusions, and had already shelved his sympathy along with his surprise.

He stood over her, his hand playing with his pistol in an absent-minded way.

“Fancy meeting you here, Mademoiselle Alice. A remarkable coincidence—n’est-ce pas?

Alice was seized with disgust. “Pardon my French,” she shouted. “No #!*#! men allowed!”

“With regard to convention, Mademoiselle, your argument is doubtless correct. But logically speaking, it appears to be flawed.”

Alice grabbed the first thing that was near—it was, once again, Thirty-Three, “Roadhouse Tomato”—and lunged for his logical, methodical, methodological modicum of a face. She made two vivid slashes, as if doing so would cancel him for good and his argument along with him. They smeared a big X on his face in lipstick.

Monsieur dabbed at his nose with a white-gloved hand. A red spot came away on his finger. “A tour de force,” he said, and tried unsteadily to smile. Then he fainted.

Alice pulled on her pants, tucked in her shirt, got up and looked down at the logician. He had crumpled up in a heap at the lip of the bidet. She seized him by the back of his collar and dragged his head over the basin. She turned the knob. Up squirted the water; it sprayed his face and dissolved some of the lipstick, stirring up crimson streaks of liquid that dripped back down into the bowl.

He came to, staring into what seemed to be a bidetful of blood.

Nom d’un nom,” he mourned. “It’s déjà vu all over encore.”

Alice escorted him out as far the lounge. He lost no time. That took care of that!

At the first sign of trouble, everybody else had prudently abandoned the field. Even the music hole was silent. She had the place to herself.

Once again, she approached the mirror. Excepting the men’s clothing, she looked about the same as before. A thousand haggard Alices squinted back at her; they came as close as the surface of the glass and were backed up all the way to the vanishing point. “Sang frerd,” she said to herself.

She drew in yet closer, but she was no longer really looking at her reflection. If she had been, she would have noticed the tip of her tongue just sticking through her lips to one side. Agent Nine was concentrating.

In her right hand, she still wielded the lipstick. She printed on the mirror in big, neat letters. Once finished, she climbed up on the counter and put her mouth at the brass-lined hole in the ceiling.

“Music, please,” she said.

A clarinet player at the other end of the tube struck it up—a little sheepishly, but sweet nonetheless.

This is what the message said.

Agent Nine stepped back to admire her craft. The twin mirrors splashed her backwards-mirror-writing back and forth across the breadth of the room. Her proposition was flirting with itself.

“And if that don’t do the trick,” she concluded, “I simply do not know, because my cosmetic is worn down to a stump.”



next page



contents download subscribe archive