s e r i a l ,  p a r t  s i x 


Agent Nine, Part 5
Agent Nine, Part 4
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

Episode Four, Clues Seven and Eight

Episode Five, Clues Nine and Ten

It was the smallest messboy who was allowed to declare, “Ladies and Gentlemen, dinner is served!” and with a big wooden spoon he struck the gong: “P-o-o-sshh!”

The banquet hall was not the largest room at the Villa, but, without any doubt, it was the longest. Most of it was occupied by a single enormous long table made from a famous old tree that had been brought all the way from Norway and sliced lengthwise. (They did it by floating the log like a raft through the Skagerrak and the Heligoland Bight, and then rowing it up the Rhine River to Switzerland. Naturally, the Skagerrak and the Bight, which are technically speaking part of the North Sea, posed the loggers a challenge. But in fact the really tough part of the transaction was the second half, because, even though this is how they used to trade lumber all down the river, rowing from the ocean to Switzerland is going the wrong way—it’s rowing upstream.) This all happened in the year 1602, so the table was quite an antique and was protected from scratchy cutlery by a spotless white tablecloth of the same kind of fabric as Alice’s tuxedo shirtfront, although it wasn’t nearly as starchy. A row of crystal candlesticks down the length of the table was matched by crystal chandeliers on the ceiling. Alice preferred the paper lanterns in the garden.

When a young man wearing stockings and knickers pulled her chair out for her, she had sat down expecting the worst: different forks and knives for fish and grapefruit; maybe even special tools of the kind used for snails and asparagus. But instead, each guest got a plate, a bowl, a napkin, and a single fork and spoon. That was all. You could drink whatever you liked, and the waiter would bring the proper glass for it. Several seats down the table, the Makioka sisters and the Karamazov brothers were toasting each other with the tiniest of cups. When, just for kicks, Alice asked for a Moxie, she got the familiar old bottle with a straw stuck in it.

There was no chair for the spot at the head of the table. Although it was marked by its own table setting, nobody came forward to claim it. But the guests were taking their places everywhere else, and all around Alice, the sounds of conversation were warming up.

The boys in the band had set up in a corner of the room. They began to tune their instruments in the casual way that real musicians have. Alice looked on: some of them rubbed rosin on their strings or ran weighted rags through their horns to clean out the spit, which was kind of interesting.

Jimmy was the only one who wasn’t making himself busy. Then again, he didn’t look relaxed, either. He stood still at one side of the group. Someone important has to come before he can start, thought Alice. Nursing her soda at her place at the table, she watched and waited along with him.

Another waiter in powder and livery emerged from the hall. As clean and as grave as the other, he looked as though he had just stepped off the cover of a box of chocolates. But instead of striking a pose on a tin-foil wrapper, he was pushing an ironwork wheeled-chair.

A respectful hush settled over the band and spread gradually to the table. The waiter was taking his time. In the silence, Alice’s ears could pick out the creak-creak-creak of the wheeled-chair’s axle. It hadn’t been oiled quite enough. The wheeled-chair approached the band and Jimmy stepped lively, bending forward and kissing whoever was sitting in it…on the cheek, so it seemed. Then he joined the caravan, following demurely along the length of the room. Creaking steadily, the wheeled-chair rolled on towards the head of the table. The waiter parked it at the place of honor.

Its occupant could now be clearly seen.

She was a wee old woman, very well put together in a tightly fitted black dress. Over her head rose a crown of neatly packed, jet black hair. It was obviously dyed, but the job was so well done that its deliberateness only accented her stylish air. By contrast, she wore no makeup at all on her face, which was covered in delicate wrinkles like frost on a window. A single piece of jade rode high against her throat. In each of her eyes was a pinhead of light that could be seen from clear across the room.

The waiter whisked the wheeled-chair out from under her. All around the table, people sucked in their breath at once.

For one sclerotic moment, nobody breathed. They came to their feet and stood still in their places; their reflexes were completely scrambled. Then they exhaled sharply in relief, because the waiter was only being polite, and the wee woman stood before them on her own two feet, drily gesturing to them all to sit down. She was perfectly capable of standing up by herself, thank you.

She opened the proceedings in a thrilling voice, as clean and brisk as iced tea.

“My dear friends, enemies, and anonymous contracts,” she began. “Excuse me, I mean contacts. I won’t speak long.

“On behalf of the Amalgamated Free-Lancers and Congress of International Operatives, it is my pleasure to welcome you all to Locarno. For many years now, the Organization has had the privilege of opening the doors of the Villa to members of the profession for an Annual Grand Ball and Jamboree. The unofficial masquerade held the night before to give people a chance to get to know each other anonymously has also become something of a tradition in its own right.

“Let no one suppose, however, that the expectations of the Board rest with the fond memories of Jamborees past. There are several ways in which we hope to see this year’s function surpass the standards of previous years.

“In the first place, I must tell you how pleased I am to see so many new faces at the table tonight. This year’s turnout has indeed been exceptional.” (“Hear, hear!”) “With the arrival of Colonel MacGuffin from Antarctica, we have, for the first time in the Organization’s history, representatives of all continents with us here tonight.” (Polite applause.)

“Moving right along, I have beside me a man who needs no introduction, particularly among those of you whose presence helped make last night’s garden party such a success. Mr. Jimmy Dandy has brought his orchestra over from America to perform the very latest in modern styles for us. We are indeed fortunate to have this very talented young man with us tonight under the terms of an exclusive engagement.” (Salutation by Mr. Dandy. Cheers.)

Finally, if I may be allowed to end on a note of sobriety: As I am sure many of you remember, similar gatherings in the past have been marred by explosions and other liberties of that nature. Let me take this opportunity to state the wish of the Board that such solutions be kept to a minimum.” (Commotion.) “It is my duty to inform you that this Organization has resolved to take the most humorless possible view of casualties.” (Consternation.) “We have had complaints from the domestic staff.” (Catcalls. Cries of “Shame!”) “Although one may go back as far as 1889 before finding an instance of a Free-Lancers’ Ball in which someone was not bumped off in some way or another, generally during the auction or right before.” (Sensation.)

“Fire doors can be found at the end of the hall in either wing, just in case. The Board gratefully acknowledges the contributions of prominent government and corporate sponsors, many of them voluntary.” (Cheers, jeers, whistles.)

“Well, I think that’s all. Mr. Dandy, I leave the guests in your keeping. Let the games begin!”

Jimmy’s remarks were completely drowned out in the enthusiastic applause that greeted the speech, the entire text of which is reproduced above. Alice felt unaccountably moved. There was little that was inspiring or even informative in the wee woman’s words, but she found herself swept away with admiration for the way they were spoken.

“What voive. What perse,” she observed to her neighbors. “Who was that tomato, anyway?”

“That is the Chairman of the Free-Lancers,” said Manuela Palma, “La Notoria.”

“She is a clever old witch,” said Lupe Velescu. “But she is very well preserved. Oh, she has been around forever. I wonder how she does it?”

“Empires have tottered in her wake,” said Ali Hockaloogey. “Thrones tremble at the mention of her name.”

“And just what name would that be?”

“She doesn’t give it out. She just goes by a number,” they said.

Back in his corner, Jimmy was playing salon music. A restless feeling stirred in Alice’s insides. It was probably just hunger, she figured, training her eyes on her empty plate. But in no time at all, it seemed, they had drifted off in the direction of Jimmy and His Famous Rhythm.

The boys seemed to have gotten off to a ragged start. And it wasn’t ragtime they were playing. As she watched, one of the brass players put his horn down and left in the middle of a medley. She heard a funny sound and saw the tuba player turn blue and lean into his instrument. Jimmy helped him back up and made the band play on. Alice looked on, absorbed. She was sure that none of these events was scripted.

A little cloud of powder from the wig of a waiter standing just behind her tickled her nose. He was filling her soup bowl with broth from an enormous tureen. Steam rose from the bowl; a familiar smell came up all in a rush. Had this all along been the true answer to that empty feeling inside, Alice asked herself gratefully—chicken noodle soup!

The hall was soon filled with the clicking of spoons and other sounds of good cheer. But over in the musicians’ corner, dreadful things were happening. No one but Alice seemed to pay any mind: Jimmy was bravely waving his baton over a steadily diminishing number of players. They had scarcely gotten halfway through the popular tango, “Malaria in Buenos Aires,” when the bass player staggered off, one hand gripping his bow like a cane, the other hand clutching his stomach. The Second Trombone made a miserable retching noise with his horn and then made a miserable retching noise without his horn.

“Isn’t anybody wise to this?” Alice wondered. “Or are they all too high-toned to let on?”

But by this time, a whole procession of tin-foil waiters had entered the banquet hall, and that must have been what had everyone’s attention.

In the lead came another man pushing a wheeled conveyance. This time around, though, the conveyance had a distinct look of food about it—it looked like a weenie-vendor’s cart, to be precise. The main difference was that this machine had a big crank set in its side like the handle of a barrel organ. The waiter in attendance was followed by two others who carried smaller contraptions with cranks. Yet more waiters filed behind them bearing chafing dishes.

What the group did once they got to the table was pure ceremony. Alice had a hard time making it out. First, the man in the lead would set up his kit to one side of a diner’s shoulder. Then, with a steady movement that did right by the most exacting Swiss standards, he would turn the crank clockwise. Something long and thin would come winding out of a hole in the box and spill onto the empty plate in front of him, and then the fellows with the chafing dishes would step up to add their own heaping spoonfuls, and then finally the two men with the smaller gadgets—which were still big enough to be fire extinguishers—would hold up their canisters on either side and turn their own cranks over the plate until the favored guest had had enough. Then they took the whole show on to the next customer.

Only when a second team, advancing up Alice’s side of the table, had come close enough to start serving her friends did she figure out what was for dinner: Spaghetti. The thin strip that came out of the box was dough. You had to tell the waiter when to stop cranking, and then his assistants would let you select your favorite sauce.

But it wasn’t difficult to choose, because the waiters kept on moving around the table in perpetual motion, giving everybody seconds, thirds, and fourths, until everybody had sampled a little bit of everything; and then they moved onto the next course, which was more spaghetti. The things that came at the end that looked like fire extinguishers were the biggest pepper grinder and cheese grater in Europe.

The waiters explained everything to each guest in turn. They had memorized all of the dishes and could repeat the choices perfectly, but the best way to describe it all here might be to draw up the menu that nobody ever received. Then the meal would have looked something like this:

Its taste defied description, but many people tried.

“Wholesome, yet strangely satisfying,” said Lupe, who was sitting two seats down from Alice.

“It is like almonds of Damascus,” said Ali, who was sitting across the table. “Like rose water of Shiraz. Like artichokes of Jerusalem with whipped cream on the side.”

¡Ai, yai, yai! I like eat very much,” said Manuela Palma, who was sitting on the left.

“More!” said Horst von Scharnhorst, who was sitting on the right.

The latest of many sneaky glances at the band revealed a woodwind quartet. Alice tucked hastily into her food and tried to make small talk with her neighbors. But this was a harder task than she at first supposed. For while they both acted perfectly cordial and charming, the partners on each side of her soon showed themselves to be as distracted by other business as Alice herself.

Willowy Manuela Palma, elegant in black lace and an embroidered shawl from Manila, kept holding her fan in front of her face as she held court at the table. Her sights were fixed on some person seated far beyond her neighbor. As her lips sported and laughed with Alice, her dark eyes duelled with this other, alternately veiled and given meaning by deliberate movements of the fan.

Horst was little better. Enjoying his own jokes with a peculiar, gurgling laugh, he had begun to tell Alice a long and tedious funny story. But every time, it seemed, that he finally approached the verb, a waiter would appear behind him bearing a telegram. This Horst would read intently and stack up with the others, impaling it on the pointy tip of his spiked helmet, which he had put on the table next to the butter dish. Then he would start the story all over again from the beginning.

In this way, endless rounds of spaghetti piled up, the stack of notes grew higher, and the music sounded fainter and fainter all the while.

Yet another message arrived for Horst in the middle of the salad course. He smoothed out the paper, folding up his brow. After a moment, he handed it to Alice.

“I believe this must be for you,” he said.

It was not a telegram, but rather a piece of paper on which someone had written in evident haste and Worcestershire sauce.

it said on the outside, and folded inside was this message:

Mr. Vinup—of all people to have rescued her dinner. The handwriting was all a jumble. Jeepers! Alice experienced a wave of sympathy for her boss. He must have spent the entire meal poised for odd moments to add words to the note in his lap. The witch must not be letting him out of her sight for more than a second at a time.

But all along—she pieces it together now—Mr. Vinup, sound professional that he is, remains observant. He notices the traffic in telegrams going back and forth to Major von Scharnhorst. He completes the message in secret, sneaking it, with a deft twist of the wrist, onto the tray of the passing waiter. Was that not how it was done?

She peered down the length of the table, past the tiaras and chokers catching the candlelight and the feathered headdresses bobbing all down the line as ladies masticated their pasta. Mr. Vinup sat stalwartly twirling his fork in his noodles. He escorted, as always, Poppyseed Passion, newly revealed to be none other than Fang’s own daughter. His bluff was magnificent. To all appearances, he seemed wholly absorbed by whatever that sly creature was saying.

Dessert had arrived. The meal would soon be cleared away. Then Alice would lose her chance to answer the message. Mr. Vinup needed a reply right away.

Nonplussed and outclassed was young Alice. On either side of her sat veterans of the game, both of them clearly old dogs full of tricks; they had been trading whole conversations in code since the soup course began. Perhaps their advice could be had. But perhaps not simply for the asking.

She looked to the left. Manuela was hunched intently over the table in a way that reminded Alice of a sidewalk gambler with a pair of dice. She had finished her transmission and was now receiving. Her ear hovered over a pair of castanets, which chattered out a pattern of dashes and dots—untouched, as Alice saw, by human fingertips.… Chip tippy-tippy Chip tippy-tippy Chip tippy-tippy Top, she heard, and then the Señorita, suddenly mindful of the presence of others, withdrew her fan from where it had been tucked away in her bodice and unfolded it in front of her secret.

It was going to have to be Horst, at Alice’s right. She turned to the stumpy officer, a bland look on her face, and addressed him in a very mature voice: “Major.”

“At your service, Fräulein.”

“Tell me, do they enjoy dancing in Joymany?”

“Many in Germany find enjoyment in dancing.”

“And if I may ask you a poisonal question, Major—are you inured to this German enjerment of dancing?”

“My dear lady, I have even endured injuries in Germany in my enjoyment of dancing.”

“Ah ha,” said Alice, quickly asking, “Did you enjoy many injuries in Joymany during your endurement of dancing?”

“I in Germany incur many during my inurement of dancing.”

“I encourage many more,” said Alice, and pounced. “The band tonight is truly extraordinary,” she stated baldly. “Have you given much thought to a partner?”

“Well,” said Scharnhorst, and he became a little bashful, “as it happens, an old acquaintance from Heidelberg—”

“Because a friend of mine has been giving you the hairy eyeball all evening.”

Ja—?” asked the Major noisily. “Tell me please, Fräulein. You have my word I shall be discreet.”

“It is my charming Chinese friend,” said Alice, feeling so pleased with her scheme that she was able to make this statement quite calmly, “Miss Poppyseed Passion, of Harbin.”

She gestured down the table, indicating the spot at which the subject of discussion sat demurely, not an eyelash betraying the furious game of footsie going on underneath her.

Himmel,” said Scharnhorst. “She is quite amazing.”

“She soitainly is,” said Alice generously.

“It will have to be a polka,” the Major said dreamily. “I am seen at my best with the polka.”

“I tell you what, Major. Let’s send her a note. I will vouch for your good intentions. Keep her on her toes till that moment we are waiting for, when the band strikes up a polka and you cut in on her partner.”

“But that is excellent, young lady—excellent!” Scharnhorst crowed in high good humor, and repeated this opinion in his native tongue. Alice thought he was sneezing.

Gesundheit,” she said. The Major was now howling like a wolf at the chandelier.

“Just one problem as I see it.”

“Submit it, Fräulein. I am all attention.”

“How”—this was the question she had been keeping in reserve—“do we get the message to her without Romeo butting in?”

“What a ruffian indeed is he who appears to be with her.”

“Perzactly the problem, Major. He is insatiably jealous.”

“Curse that simian specimen. Has he his eye on her at all times?”

“Watches her like a hawk. Just look at them.”

Mr. Vinup was still mesmerized.

“Well then, my dear Fräulein, we shall utilize a technique that is simplicity itself.”

“What is the plan, Major?”

“The old dropped napkin gambit.”

“The old dropped napkin gambit?”

“Naturally. You will, to your friend, on a napkin, by a waiter, your message send—written in invisible ink. We shall arrange with the waiter to deliver the message by pretending to pick it up from the floor next to her. Then, if that chimpanzee intercepts it, he shall be none the wiser, thinking it simply a case of a dropped napkin.”

“But how do you know she won’t think it is just a dropped napkin?”

“My dear young colleague, she will still be retaining her old napkin on her lap. Anyone with presence of mind will recognize that, while one dropped napkin is an accident waiting to happen, two is a waiter happening to be exigent.”

Horst von Scharnhorst was clearly not to be trifled with. The plan was an improvised masterpiece, and she told him so. There was just one thing that was bugging her.

“Where do we get the invisible ink?”

Also, lemon juice will do just as well. You simply hold the message to a candle and the letters turn brown,” chortled Scharnhorst, and he snapped his fingers and barked for the waiter: “Herr Ober!

When the waiter returned with a plate of cut lemons, the Major got busy. In a gesture of sudden and immoderate violence, he ripped the stack of notes off the point of his helmet (“Just scraps of paper,” he reassured his startled colleague), and replaced them with a lemon half. As he twisted the fruit on the spike, the juice ran down the sides of the helmet and collected on the plate underneath. Horst removed the helmet and added his fork and stiffly handed the plateful of juice to Alice.

Bitte,” he said.

Alice smoothed out her napkin on the table next to him, dipped the end of the fork in the plate, and prepared to take dictation.

“‘To my dear friend, Fräulein—’ What did you say her name was?”

“Poppyseed Passion.”

“Charming! ‘To my friend, Fräulein Poppyseed Passion. I send you this note with my girlish regard. It is an introduction for my old friend, Major von Scharnhorst.’ Have you got that?”

“Loud and clear, Major.”

“Excellent. ‘I know the Major to be a sensitive and cultivated gentleman, fond of music, horses, and the fine things in life. He is a bon vivant, a merry rascal, and—hmf—an all-around good fellow. He made his name in the recent world war as a chivalrous ally and imaginative opponent. The Major now most earnestly wishes to make your acquaintance. He shall call on you at the first available polka.

“‘References, Professor Wolfgang Heimlich, Heidelberg University; his Majesty Wilhelm II, formerly Kaiser of Germany.’

“I suppose that is everything, ja?” he said busily. “Wait, we must put in all those pretty things about her eyes like butter cookies and wonderful calves like pretzels and so on. Well, you can fill in some of that, I imagine. To tell you the truth, such details are not really my specialty.”

Alice put fork to juice and wrote invisibly:

Whistling for the waiter, she hit up Horst for a banknote. Then she took the waiter’s pen and scribbled on the money behind the crook of her arm. The Major couldn’t see it, but here’s what she said:

She sent the waiter on his way and was pleased to see that Mr. Vinup received his message without complications.

Horst von Scharnhorst, on the other hand, was furious. He, too, had seen the waiter head straight for his rival. Muttering something darkly in his own language about thunderweather and pigdogs, he threatened the waiter with a good thrashing once he got his hands on him. But the dinner was winding up, and guests were already leaving for the ballroom. Trying hard to look innocent, Alice comforted the Major.

“Well, now I guess I really have seen everything. You just can’t depend on them waiters, can you?” She punched him on the arm.

“Let’s face it, it could be woise—that big lug will never get it in his mind to hold the napkin to a light. Your message is as safe with that baboon as it would be with the Kaiser himself. My advice is, let’s go on into the ballroom. The boys in the band are all hot to set up, and it’s a cinch they’ll play a polka sooner or later.”

Jawohl, the dancing, that’s right!” exclaimed Scharnhorst, warming to the task. “Donner und Blitzen,” he bellowed, “I’ll show them! Tonight, Horst von Scharnhorst shall dance as he has never danced before!”

He snapped upright and began unhitching his sword from his belt and discarding his heavier medals. Alice looked on, impressed but confused.

“Well, for heaven’s sake, Fräulein, do not just sit there—help me. I have already one too many injuries endured in Germany during my enjoyment of dancing.”

Together, they unscrewed the spike from his helmet and his wooden arm from his elbow and carefully unbuckled his spurs. Scharnhorst put his monocle in his pocket along with the medals and strutted off to give battle on the dance floor. Alice followed a respectful distance behind.

Three obstacles to Alice’s success emerged as soon as she entered the ballroom.

The first was something called a dance card. There was a waiter with a tray posted by the entrance, and every lady guest who passed him received a card like a menu with a schedule of dances printed on it. Next to the names of the dances were blank spaces. A little pencil with no eraser was attached to a ribbon at the top of the card; you were supposed to use it to write in your partner for each number before the dancing even began. A polka was listed three-fourths of the way down the schedule, but that did not reassure Alice. She was worried that the system might discourage men from cutting in at dances—and then what would become of her plan to use the Major to get rid of Fang’s daughter?

“Woids fail me,” she muttered, taking up her place by the wall. The pencil hung limply from the card in her hand and bounced at her knee.

The second obstacle was the acquaintance of Scharnhorst’s from Heidelberg. He ran into her almost immediately. Indeed, the strange thing about it was that he should have avoided running into her at all before then, for she was a difficult presence to miss. Six feet tall, hair that shone like gold and a sequined outfit that shone like silver; the boyish lines of the flapper dress she wore were strained—demolished—by a body that was all woman and then some.

When she walked, it was the shifting of tectonic plates. When she danced— It’ll be a mercy if she ever lets him go, thought Alice fretfully, as she watched Horst von Scharnhorst dance as he had never danced before, rapt in the embrace of Venus von Willendorf.

But these two obstacles seemed trivial compared with the third: the total surrender of Jimmy Dandy and His Famous Rhythm. The wee woman in black had made one more announcement, plowing her wheeled-chair through the crowd and up onto the stage where the band was to have played.

“Guests of the Congress, dear comeuppances,” she said. “Excuse me, I mean accomplices. It is my unhappy task to inform you that Mr. Dandy and his musicians will not be performing tonight. It seems that all the members of the band have been sent to bed with a mysterious case of food poisoning.

“I have a related announcement for the colleague responsible for this tasteless bit of foul play. My friend, unless it was your intention to mess with the hired entertainment, I can only conclude that your doctored dinner found the wrong target. That was a clumsy job, and its failure serves you right, whoever you are. Our party will go on. The laugh is on you.

“Well, I think that’s all. Alphonse, the phonograph, please.”

But, however grand the wee woman’s attitude, the unlucky truth was that the phonograph wasn’t much of a substitute, even if all the platters were recordings of the Jimmy Dandy Band. The one interesting thing about the phonograph was how much it looked like the spaghetti machine. The same waiter wheeled it on the stage and turned a crank in the same place. It took two other attendants to mount the giant speaker horn. Once assembled, the record player looked like the mythical Horn of Plenty, but what came out of the spout was something less than miraculous. The itchy, whiny tone of the recordings could make the peppiest rag seem sad. And the louder they made the music play, so as to make it fill up the giant ballroom, the harsher became the electric fuzz that muffled the melody.

Alice checked each record played against the program on her dance card. The first two numbers seemed to conform to the schedule, but that in itself was no guarantee. Dodging through the couples, she made her way over to the stage. It turned out to be taller than it had looked from across the room.

“Hey, Mister!” Alice was addressing the ankles, shapely in silk stockings, of the waiter who tended the record player. “Polkas. Are you playing any polkas?”

“Mademoiselle is a fan of the polka?”

“Well, not as such,” she said with embarrassment.

“I am not permitted to honor special requests,” the waiterS explained. “I have instructions to play my records in the order given.” He held the platters down to his feet so that she could see. They were stacked on a dish like pancakes.

Alice supplied herself with a silent translation: “Lerter elsewhere, if you please.” Aloud, to the waiter, she said: “Thanks anyways.”

The Grand Ballroom occupied an oval space at the heart of the Villa. It was done up in High Modern style. The lights were set in the ceiling behind thin metal shutters. They winked and peered and rolled knowingly, like peek-a-boo eyes or camera lenses, each according to some secret timing of its own. The floor was glass, and polished so bright that from certain angles you could peek up the other dancers’ skirts and see what they had on underneath.

But what was more striking was that footprints had been printed onto the glass like bold rows of punctuation marks and arranged in special patterns like clues. The patterns looked at first like dance diagrams. But a seasoned detective could have told you that there were chase sequences, as well as more roundabout stalkings, among them. Many tracks led into or out of the walls, and in the grand sequence in the center, a lady, a lapdog, and a peg-legged pursuer all swirled down a spiral into a vanishing point.

Standing off by a pair of loafers somewhere, Alice watched the other guests take to the floor. They looked like pairs of animals from a toy Noah’s ark, only they were all mismatched. Each one danced just as she or he pleased.

Mr. Vinup and the Daughter of Fang were one example. The Major and his Venus were another. In her splendid, tight dress of metallic scales, the Major’s partner resembled an enormous fish, or, possibly, a buoyant Zeppelin. She made Scharnhorst, next to her, look like a fire hydrant. They were cutting a rug at the edge of the vortex.

Manuela Palma danced with “Johnny” Buenaventura. Manuela, her petticoats cascading behind her, left a trail of rose petals wherever she went. “Johnny” hardly shifted from one downbeat to the next, and neither did the toothpick he held between his lips. The fancy shirt he wore was woven like latticework out of some kind of fiber. Holes in it combined to make pictures woven into the fabric like windows; Alice saw anchors and bleeding hearts and other masculine objects, tattoos in negative on the skin.

Most mismatched of all were the Karamazov Brothers and the Makioka Sisters—Misha, Sasha, and Yuri in long coats and tall hats, leaping over their swords with great swooping steps; Michiko, Sachiko, and Yuriko wrapped up in kimonos, their arms and necks wobbling like marionettes.

The Countess went through the steps with Ali Hockaloogey. The Plant danced with Monsieur de Menthe. The China doll man was nowhere to be seen.

Nobody approached Alice Rocket. Nobody put his name on a blank space on her card. Men and women alike stopped by for polite chitchat with her; but no one would dance with a girl in a tuxedo.

Sheepish in lone wolf’s clothing, Alice faltered. Whose manners were bad—was it them, or was it her? People had danced with whomever they wanted just the night before; but the night before, they had all been wearing masks.

She traced an arc on the floor with each of her feet, looking a bit like a skater checking the ice. She closed here eyes and listened to the sad, gaspy music. And what she felt she kept on hearing was a faint cry for help.

“Help us,” said Jimmy and the fellows in the band. “Save our sound. Jam, you sweet thing, mess it up. We dare say—there’s no one else who can do it but you.”

“Agent Nine dances by herself!” she resolved.

She lifted her arms with her palms held out, as if to shut up the rest of the world; and she danced in place, listening to the music, making the music better inside her head. Softly at first, the rhythms of her journey came tripping in, picking it up, picking it up.

Chip tippy-tippy Tip, Chip tippy-tippy Top—Manuela’s castanets.

Ka-chung, ka-chung.… Ka-chung, ka-chung (harumph–harumph–harumph). That was the night train from Calais to Paris. Her feet danced it express.

In Germany, enDuremany, my injuries inUremany; encouragement–during my–enjerment–of dancing!

Her chest was pounding; she moved with this beat that her own heart had found. The warmth of her body and the dizziness in her head were like having a fever. Alice tumbled and rolled with her ghostly memories. Her soul lightened as she danced them away.

Excuse me, have you got the time?

Our time may be synco-pate, but timing is deli-cate; an off-beat line isn’t worth two bits—

It stopped her cold. She opened her eyes: she had wound up clear across the floor. A string of footprints by her feet headed out of the room…a leading ellipsis.…

Oom-pah,” the phonograph was saying. “Oom-pah pah.”

Agent Nine would welcome the polka, but not with a dance. Over in a corner of the room, she could see what she needed: the Major.

Now he goes trotting up to the enemy; now he clicks his heels, now he bows. Mr. Vinup, released from the spell, detaches himself and is gone. Mission accomplished.

Alice leaves the choreographicked floor behind. The oom-pah sees her through to the pastry kitchen. Through the broad swinging doors: she slips past unseen.

There’s a sudden flash of white light—

Whoosh! Alice found herself drenched in flour and confectioner’s sugar. It was like walking into a snowdrift. The difference was that it was mighty warm inside the pastry kitchen, because apparently there were ovens all along the walls. But it was hard to make out anything distinct. The one thing that was clear was that it was time to clean up.

Gnomelike figures in tall hats went scampering back and forth in the clouds. Those were the pastry cooks. Three had lined up, clutching a monstrous tube like an alpenhorn under their arms. Tugging a chain on a motor somewhere behind them, they pointed the schnorkel in Alice’s direction and—b-brazzz—the flour was all whipped back up into the spout. Then, encouraging each other in the four official languages of Switzerland, the bakers turned the spout in all directions, and the flour came flying like a sideways tornado. The noise was deafening.

But when the powder had all cleared, the room looked the same as before. It turned out that most everything in the pastry kitchen—the smocks, hats, and faces of the pastry cooks, the enamel ovens and great steaming pipes—had been white to begin with.

Alice searched methodically among the faces of the bakers for one who might be her boss in disguise. But the round and mealy faces under the tall paper hats could not have been more different from the hard, blocklike features of Mr. Vinup. Nervously considering the possibility of having been stood up, she found herself chewing on some uncooked biscuit dough.

It was then that she noticed the large Chocolate Shape. It was one of the very few colored things in the kitchen. Alice regarded it hungrily, wondering whether second desserts were reserved for the likes of the wee woman.

“Just a nibble,” she said to herself. “Just a nip to keep me company while I wait.”

She strolled over to where the king-sized confection reposed on a gurney of its own. She stretched out an inquisitive finger to try the surface.…

“Congratulations, partner. The plan went off without a hitch.”

It was actually really good to hear Mr. Vinup’s voice again. Agent Nine made herself comfortable on a countertop. Breathlessly, and with no small sense of accomplishment, she made a full report of her findings at the Villa Febrile.

Of her latest maneuver, her boss had this to say from within the Shape: “That little number you came up with just now was one of the neatest improvisations I’ve ever seen. And where did you come up with that old coot to take my place? Sure was a touchy cuss. Said he’d challenge me to a duel if I wouldn’t back off and let him dance with my date.”

Alice now took the plunge and confided to Mr. Vinup her suspicions about the lady in question. She summed up all the hints she had weaseled out of the Countess that pointed to Fang as the ultimate source. She discussed how an involvement by Fang in the Pyramid Scheme affair could radically expand their field of operations. And she pulled no punches when it came to making Mr. Vinup understand that, in his entanglement with Fang’s daughter, he was playing with fire.

She was gratified to hear Agent Eight express his agreement on that score.

“That dame’s about as safe as a rattlesnake that’s had jalapeños for lunch. But it takes two to entangle, as they say south of the border, and old Curt Vinup knows a trick or two.”

As for the question of their next move:

“Miss Rocket, allow me to share with you one of the secrets of the business. In every situation of this sort, it helps to recognize that there are always two possible alternatives. There’s the standard solution, and then there’s the radical solution. It’s a little principle I picked up at school.”

“They teach you this at spy school?” Alice wanted to know.

“No, playing football. I quarterbacked for State…harumph! Miss Rocket, let’s recap our options. I think that what we have here is a case for the radical solution. We can:

a)—Compensate the Countess Lubyanka to the tune of ninety thousand fish. Or we can:

b)—Execute an end run around the Countess and stake it all on a long pass into the jaws of the dragon. Braving countless obstacles, the least of which is total ignorance of the Chinese language, relying only on wits and guts, I infiltrate the Triads and stage a daring raid on the secret headquarters of Doctor Fang. He’s lived too long already—”

You infiltrate the—say, wait a minute,” exclaimed Alice. “What am I supposed to be doing all this time that you’re raising a hoot and a holler out East?”

It was her plan, she told herself; she was the one who had put the idea into his head.

“See here, Miss Rocket,” Agent Eight explained, “somebody’s got to keep an eye on the Countess and whoever it is she cuts a deal with, all the way from the end of the auction tonight until whenever we can intercept the blueprints. We can’t afford to let them fall into anyone else’s hands. There it is, partner. It’s a tall order, but I’m counting on you to do it. What do you say?”

“I say we punt,” Agent Nine said sourly.

Two fingers popped through the crust of the dessert from inside. Mr. Vinup’s eyes showed up at the holes, appealing for patience.

“There’s another thing you should know about the standard solution,” the boss said slowly. “The Countess is pretty smart. It’s a cinch she’ll be able to tell the difference between real and funny money.”

Alice was taken by surprise. “Funny money?” she repeated. “Are you telling me the Inspector passed us the phonus balonus?”

“The Inspector,” Mr. Vinup sighed, “is either a lot slicker or a lot dopier than I thought. I’m not saying that the dough he gave us is counterfeit—I can’t tell, can you? No, Miss Rocket, our difficulty is that whether it’s phony or not, the cake we’re carrying simply ain’t got no value to it.

“Do you know why an operator like the Countess requests Mexican dollars in a transaction of this nature? What’s wrong, you might say, with our own, homegrown spondoolicks? Why not Swiss francs, English pounds, a check drawn on a reputable bank? Here’s why: Because at bottom, none of same are anything but pieces of paper with fancy writing on them. And say you’re prone to the kind of situation, like the Countess, where you do a lot of traveling on impulse. You’ll find that in places like Africa or China, you can’t always pass on a plain old dollar bill.

“Enter the Mexican dollar. Most of the world’s currencies are backed up by reserves of silver or gold in big government vaults in the country of origin. But Mexican dollars don’t have to be backed up by anything. They are made of pure silver, and that’s the reason why a Mexican dollar is always worth exactly no more or less than the metal that it’s made of. Its value is constant wherever you go. Except when it’s not a coin.

“Do you get it now? Paper money is fine for traveling—if all you’re worried about is how much it’s going to weigh. But we’re going to have a lulu of a time finding a Swiss bank that’s willing to take in our pile of Mexican bills and return us ninety thousand silver coins. Most likely we won’t be able to find a place that even has a stash that size.”

“But technically, Mr. Vinup,” Alice began. “Legally, I mean to say—”

“Legally, sure they’re obligated to recognize that the paper is the same thing as the metal,” the flat voice said from within the Chocolate Shape. “Of course, the honest truth is the two things are not the same. Legally, your Countess is obligated to recognize that they’re the same thing, and so legally this problem doesn’t even exist. But we aren’t really dealing in a legal business, capeesh? And in any case, our time is running out.”

There seemed to be nothing left to argue with. Mr. Vinup had it all thought out. All of Alice’s hard work had only gone to confirm to her boss that he had been on the right track with Miss Fang all along.

“How long have you known about this?” she asked wearily.

“I knew the money would be trouble as soon as I tried to change it in Paris. But to be absolutely on the level, Miss Rocket, paying off the Countess was never really—harumph!—an option from the beginning.”

“A minute ago, you called it the standard solution.”

“That’s why,” said Mr. Vinup in a soft voice. “There are plenty of G-men and secret police in this world already, Miss Rocket. The standard solution belongs to the likes of them. Well, let ’em have it, see?

“You and I, kid, have a different calling: we are Free-Lancers. If Inspector Pundit had wanted the standard solution, he could have done it himself. But it’s clear he’s already settled on the radical solution, because otherwise he would never have given me the job. From which it follows that in my own position, Agent Eight-and-a-Half.…”

“Agent Nine,” she said mildly. She had gotten the point.

“We had better get back to the ball,” Mr. Vinup announced. “Miss Fang’s water will be getting hot. You and I will leave by different ways and attend the auction separately. Once the Countess’s blueprints are sold off to the highest bidder, we can meet again to discuss a plan to divert them to us.”

But it was not to be.

Alice returned to the ballroom and walked into a weird scene. A new record had been put on in the meantime. All of the dancers were now scattered all over the dance floor, and each one danced by him or herself. They stood rooted to their places, moving in unison like a crowd of people doing open-air calisthenics. But their movements were fluid and drowsy. It was as though all that spaghetti everybody had eaten at dinner had come alive inside of them and was making them wriggle like snakes.

The music playing was a simple tune, neither fast nor slow. It wasn’t loud, but it was hard to ignore. It wasn’t pleasant, either, but it sure was catchy. The only instrument on the recording was some kind of reedy flute, and whoever was playing it never once paused for breath. He just tooted on. The tune was monotonous. Alice was dancing along.

How had that happened? The music just kept on nagging like an itch, and the easiest way to scratch it seemed to be to squirm along like this.…

The rhythm never changed. The song wound on without a break. Alice danced. The other guests danced. In front of her eyes, the Countess danced. The Countess danced!

There was a mad look on her face. Where others wriggled and shimmied, she was jerking savagely and bucking like a malfunctioning motorbike. Something in the song had tripped off the haywire. The music was tearing her apart.

Somewhere upstairs in a far corner of her brain, Alice saw the Countess dancing and knew that it was horrible. As if through a telescope, from distant miles away, she watched the Countess self-destruct:

She pirouetted;

and thrashed;

and flailed, rittle-rattle;

and do-si-doed in circles. She twirled, whirled, unfurled.

And suddenly—suddenly, because the music had no beginning and no end, the record simply came to a stop after an amount of time that could have been one minute or a thousand for all that any of those dancing noticed its passage—the Countess spun out of control; and with a wrenching twang from inside her chest she snapped and crashed and burned out, like a chicken with its head cut off that finally realizes its head has been cut off.

The music ended and the people halted where they stood, flushed and glazed with sweat. Then they saw the Countess on the floor and gathered around. There was a hubbub of voices—



“…Outrageous. I wonder if the Countess.…”

Something was shuddering in the crook of the dead woman’s neck. It was the Countess’s pet polecat, Nicholas. Oily tears ran down his streamlined shape as he tried to burrow under her body.

Clearly, it was too late for smelling salts. Alice left to check the phonograph for clues. The record on the turntable looked ordinary enough, although it had no B-side. All it said on the label was the name of the song: “Last Asp.”

It was now obvious that the boys in the Jimmy Dandy Band had not been slipped a mickey by accident. Whoever it was that had done in the Countess had had to get them out of the way first. With the others behind her noisily confabulating over the way in which the deed was done, Agent Nine attended to the question of who might have done it.

She considered possible motives. The person with the most to gain from rubbing out the Countess before the auction would be the person who didn’t want her secret revealed. There didn’t seem to be much to quibble with in that proposition. Add the rider that the murderer be someone possessed of a technique so devishily clever that the best minds in the business were completely hocused…and the answer became as plain as the nose on the late Countess’s face: Poppyseed Passion, Daughter of Fang.

And where was that red-handed mandarin now? Nowhere to be seen. Halfway to Harbin on a swift boat to China.

And where was Mr. Vinup? He had not been present at the dance of death either; or, if she had missed him then in her distracted state of mind and all, he was present no longer—that was for darn skippy.

He was with that woman, then. He was in terrible danger.

A job for Agent Nine.

Alice’s nerves are jumping and the dudgeon is high. She flies away from the party and up to her room. Over the tuxedo, she throws her old overcoat. She secures her suitcase against the wind with a piece of string in the middle and gathers it up in her arms.

“Get your hats,” she whispers. And she’s off into the night.




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