s e r i a l ,  p a r t  s e v e n 


Agent Nine, Part 6
Agent Nine, Part 5
Agent Nine, Part 4
Agent Nine, Part 3
Agent Nine, Part 2
Agent Nine, Part 1




In the pitchest black of night, with the Villa behind her, Alice ran down the mountain path. Open sleighs and rickshaws had pulled up outside the big front doors. Were the Karamazovs and the Makiokas planning a joyride together? Alice blew past them without a glance.

Overhead, the crescent moon grinned down from a sky that was dark and rich. It was star soup as far as the eye could see.

The wind was harsh; it lashed at her overcoat, actually tearing big chunks out of it. She drifted through the darkness to a sort of glade. She couldn’t really tell whether the shapes looming around her were trees or big rocks. That wasn’t important.

There was something dead ahead that might be, though—a large pale obstacle resting in her path, a ghostly heap that made no windbreak and seemed nearly immaterial. It was: …a snowdrift? …a bathtub? …a hippopotamus? The wind that whistled through this mirage carried with it the smell of gasoline. Alice drew closer and the thing came into focus: it looked like—it was—an automobile. An automobile made out of wicker.

A creamy white roadster, open to the sky, its body made of wicker basketweave; you got into it by climbing up a flight of steps in back that unfolded where the rumble seat would have been. Jalopies get no tonier than this! This was authentic American glamour, the current year’s model from Kissel, purveyors to the choicest society set.

It didn’t take a detective to figure out who would be driving it. Wrapped up in long coat and goggles though he may have been, Alice knew him without a moment’s hesitation. He was truly the one person in the world she wished she was with there and then.

He hunched in front of the engine with his back turned to her, the tips of the hairs on his raccoon-skin coat silvered with frost by the wind. He had stuck the crank into the front of the car and was busily trying to start it up. Alice mosied up in her quiet way until she stood just behind him, and bent over him and spoke in his ear.

“Hotcha! Jimmy Dandy!”

Jimmy shot around like a snapdragon and stared at her, teeth bared. In his hand, he grasped the crank like a club or a gun. Alice doubled over in stitches.

“Haw! That was priceless!” she gasped, holding her sides. “You should have seen the look on your face!” The laughter went up her nose and tickled like fizz. It was choice.

It took some time for Jimmy’s features to compose themselves—longer than it took Alice to finish laughing. He looked for a while like someone completely different. And even after he put away his hostile expression, he seemed cold.

“Alice,” he said finally. “Yaas. What are you doing here? I’m busy with problems of my own at the moment.”

“I know,” said Agent Nine.

Jimmy put down the crank and leaned on one shoulder against the car. He took up his watch chain—his watch chain of brass with the tin whistle on it, the extra-long watch chain that draped down around his knees—and, twirling it in his fist, he said quietly to Alice: “Tell me anything, but tell me the truth.”

He was still spooked. On reflection, it was no wonder, really.

“Jimmy—Mr. Dandy,” Alice began carefully. “I know you have got a lot on your mind, and I know you have got business elsewhere. Well, so do I. I am in pursuit of a certain Miss Poppyseed Passion. She oined my ingratitude at the reception just a couple minutes ago by mortalizing a Countess friend of mine. Now it looks like for an encore she has gone and kidnapped my employer. So you might say that I have got an account to settle with her.

“What it might interest you to know is that, if my reasoning is correct, the lady in question is the very same skoit that set up your boys with a case of the squoits. So if it is justice you’re after, look no foither than me. I say we jern forces and give her an etiquette lesson.”

Jimmy kept cautious. “Keep talking,” he said. But his face was beginning to bend into a grin.

“You know that what I am saying is true.”

“That’s as it may be.”

“I want to help you track down the dame that done you doit. Don’t you get it, Jimmy—I tell you we could help each other.”

“Well now, Alice,” said Jimmy—and his smile was enigmatic—“One never knows, do one? Tell me this: What makes you so certain that I’m rarin’ to go chasing with you at this hour after someone who sounds more and more like the kind of gal who wouldn’t take well to it? I dare say this could land me in a whole mess of trouble.”

His question took Alice aback. The situation had seemed obvious from the moment she saw him with his getaway vehicle. Was he testing her in some way?

“On account of she has already landed you in a whole mess of trouble,” she pointed out. “On account of you are a man of repute, and you have got a name to clear. On account of—for Pete’s sake,” she exclaimed, suddenly fierce, “what else do you mean to tell me you are doing here in the dead of the night, revving up your automobile while the boys in the band are all bunked up with the bellyache? I suppose it could be that you are running away—but in that case, I’d say you was running away from yourself.”

The famous Jimmy Dandy heard her out attentively, nodding his head with each point. “Yaas…,” he purred, “Yaaas.” There seemed to be a lot going on inside his head.

The wind whipped at the edges of his enormous raccoon coat. In the shadows, he looked something like Dracula. She suddenly noticed that he was holding her face in his hand like an apple and that she had become immersed in a pair of rich, dark eyes, two mugs brimful of hot chocolate and cream.

“Alice,” he said quietly. “Why, you’re just a young girl yet. But I dare say you’re ever such a sharp one. This wouldn’t be your first time on the Continent?”

“It’s my foist time overseas.”

“Really. Wherever did you learn how to dance that way you do?”

“Brooklyn, New York.”

Really. Did you have time to see the sights in London before crossing over here?”

“Just the better part of a day. There was such a fog over everything—”

“Yaas, the weather there surely does leave a lot to be desired. Who are you working for, Alice?”

“Oh, Jimmy,” Alice said breathlessly, “what would you want to go and sperl a poifeckly good evening for?” For some reason, the stitches were returning.

The truth was, she had only just stopped herself from spilling him the entire kit and kaboodle, going all the way back to that very late night back in Brooklyn. But how did he know she had been to London?

“You’re a Free-Lancer, of course,” Jimmy said ruefully. “I was just forgetting. Well now, you sure have gone and fallen in with a queer bunch of people. But I’ll say no more. It’s plain as day you know how to take care of yourself. You’ve got a quiet little baby face, Alice, but that’s an old pair of eyes in there looking out on the world. Yaas, those eyes have seen a lot, I dare say.”

Abruptly, he turned and strode rapidly back to the car. He opened the door on the passenger side and ushered her in.

He took her suitcase and strapped it onto the side. “And while I step back down to give the engine a talking to, you might as well tell me where we’re going.”

Alice settled down in the plush leather nest, inhaled the delicious smell of calfskin and motor oil. Holding court from the bucket seat, she laid out the plan of attack.

“What I figure is, she is heading back to whencet she came. She has completed her mission and now she’s reporting to the man in charge. And she has a prisoner to sequester in a clerster somewhere. She don’t have much of a head start. I say we cover the road to the nearest port. With wheels like yours, we can flush out anybody in the area if we only get the direction right. And if we lose her tonight, we head on to the coast, and poichase two tickets for Harbin.”

Jimmy’s head popped up over the hood. He had the engine running and the headlights on.

“Harbin,” he cried. “The international city in the far northeast of China. Political disputes and mining concessions. Warlords, smugglers, refugees. That Harbin?”

“Yes, Harbin,” said Alice. “That’s where she is from.”

Over the next few minutes, as he continued to rummage outside, she told him what she had learned from her interview with the Countess. Jimmy worked on in silence. Once she had talked through her piece, there was nothing to do but to try to keep warm. She stared straight ahead, watching the clouds of cold breath that emerged from her mouth in the splash of electric light from the car.

“Southward lies the sea,” Jimmy’s voice said finally. “But our alleged Miss Creant won’t be going by sea, not if she knows her onions, she won’t.”

“My geography is a little rusty,” admitted Alice. “But how are you going to get us from here to China without booking a passage on a ship?”

He straightened up to look at her then.

There is another way,” he said significantly. And with the sudden flare of a match, he touched off the pile of brushwood he had been collecting, and it sent up a dazzling sheet of flame that lit up the entire night.

“Watch it with that stuff!” Alice called in genuine fright. “You’ve got me sitting up here on a heap of gasoline and wicker.”

“So climb on out of there,” laughed Jimmy. “Ain’t you cold?”

It was grand to join him by the side of the fire. She couldn’t figure him out—one moment he would be scaring the dickens out of her, and in the next she was feeling all toasty and safe just sitting there on the ground next to him. The blaze was brisk and thrilling, and her friend had brought along a string of sausage links. As she speared them on a stick, he thumbed through a familiar orange book.

“Say, I seen that before,” she said. “That’s the Cook’s railroad timetable, ain’t it?”

“I dare say,” came the answer, “and it also includes schedules for the major steamship lines. As it happens, it’s just told me a useful thing.”

Putting the book down, he picked up a long stick and began to draw in the dirt.

“To get from here to the coast is no tall order,” he began. “By tomorrow we can be in Genoa, which is a port of call for a lot of passenger liners headed to the East. We may not be lucky enough to pick up a China-going steamer there straightaway, but chances are good that in a day or two we’ll be en route for Egypt and the Suez Canal. And since all the traffic from these parts bound for China and Japan passes through the Canal, just as long as it stays open, Egypt remains the fail-safe connection of three continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. So say it takes us five days to get to Egypt from Genoa. That means we could be sailing for Yokohama within the week.…”

A jagged, lumpy thing took shape on the left-hand side of the drawing on the ground. Jimmy attached it to a much larger, bulgy thing on the right.

“This on the left here, we’ll call this Europe. The rest is all Asia. Well now! To get from the Suez Canal”—and he marked the lower left-hand corner of Asia with an X—“over to Harbin”—he placed a second X in the upper right-hand corner—“I dare say we’ve got all this in between to get around.”

With a sweeping gesture, he traced an arc from the Canal around the bottom of the landmass. Skidding past shapes representing India, China, and beyond, he stopped the stick just short of Harbin, letting it rest at a point offshore.

“The ship will get us as far as Yokohama, Japan. But cogitate on this: the fastest steamer in service can’t make the voyage in under a month. After that, there’s a ferryboat train leaves daily from Yokohama for Harbin.” Now his stick crossed the blank distance to the second X, completing the link between the two cities. “That makes another four days on top of our month, in addition to the week we’ll have spent getting to Egypt.

“What I’m saying is, if you add up all the time we’re going to need from where we are at today, getting from here to Harbin by the seaborne route will take upwards of a month and a half. In other words: All boats to China are slow boats to China.”

In the flickering light of the campfire, Alice gazed at the makeshift map scratched in the turf and thought about slow boats to China. The fire spat sparks that landed like meteors all along the stops of their journey. To each port of call, a snapshot, Alice thought: Onion-topped towers, burning sands and sheiks; pearl fishers, tigers, brass Buddhas, pagodas; open-air markets that sold nothing but fruit; flying fish clowning in the spray. It was a fortune that could have come straight out of a cookie—a month and a half on the trade winds with Jimmy Dandy.

“But look—”

Right in the space where Europe joined Asia, Jimmy had planted another X. “Moscow, capital of Russia,” he explained, and with a well-aimed slash, he connected it with Harbin, direct.

He tapped the new line with his stick. “Here ’tis. The straight line from Europe to Asia: the Trans-Siberian Railroad. It takes you from Moscow to Harbin in one week, lickety-split. This here is the path she will choose.”

“I expect it’ll be snowing in Russia?” said Alice, rudely diverted from her plans of summer seas.

“This time of year? I dare say.”

Alice huddled closer to the fire and opened up her tattered overcoat. She was so close to the flames now, it was ticklish. Seeing how cold she was, Jimmy wrapped his own fur around her. He squatted down close by her, his blazer collar turned up around his neck.

“We’ve got to get to Moscow by Thursday at five. We’ll be setting a fair pace—precious little time to enjoy the scenery. But I reckon the first thing we need to do is get you a proper motoring coat, sugar.”

“A coat,” Alice repeated. “A new coat.…” Motoring coats were handsome, if they were made to fit you snug around the waist. The leather ones squeaked when you walked. So just what was he saying?

“Jimmy—you don’t mean to tell me you want to drive the Kissel all the way to Russia?”

“I make considerable good time with it—I dare say it can beat any train they care to tell me about in old Mr. Cook’s orange book. Why, it’s nothing but an engine hitched to a load of air! What about it, Alice? Are you on?”

“Where do I sign?” said Alice, giggling madly. She didn’t know anymore where their paths were headed, but all of a sudden it was clear that—however it all turned out in the end—things were going to be mighty interesting in the meantime.

Her companion, by contrast, was coming across all serious. “Moscow is the bottleneck, now. Do you get it? If our alleged Jane Doe intends to get to Harbin, she’ll be on that platform at the station at five on Thursday—however she chooses to get there. If we miss her on Thursday, we’ll stick around in town and try the same trick when the next train leaves on Sunday. I dare say we need never actually get on the train for Siberia a’tall.”

Alice put her Oriental dreams aside. Jimmy had her thinking professionally now. She tried to look at the plan from the point of view of the enemy, to probe for weak spots and rain on their own parade.

“What if she gets there before us? What if she has a private areo plane?”

“The Russians have an air force for keeping people like her out. Even if they let her through, they’d never give her permission to land.”

“Supposing she misses the Toisday train,” she tried. “Are you positive she will be sticking around in town until Sunday? There’s no other connections in between?”

“The express to Harbin leaves two days a week. The book says there’s local trains that come and go in that direction, but they won’t be gaining her any time on the trip, and I reckon it means changing trains further out East. Now, I don’t know if there’s much for a person to do with her spare time in Moscow, but—have you ever been out to the steppes of Siberia, Alice?”

“Ixnay,” she confessed.

“Well now, neither have I—but I’ll wager my hat our alleged rogue female will do her waiting before she gets out thataway, and not after. A body’s liable to get weary out there in Siberia, where the sun don’t shine.”

He eyed her shrewdly, clearly pleased with himself. “Any other questions, comments, or remarks?”

Alice was reminded of something that had disturbed her. She spoke abruptly: “You are the fellow with all the answers, I see.”

“I surely am that,” he replied.

“I would like to ask you one more geography question,” she said, “on account of how you seem to be unusually well informed on the subject for a bandleader.”

“Well, I am world-famous,” Jimmy offered.

“Level with me, James,” she said sternly. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “How did you know I was in London before I came here?”

Jimmy’s laughter came fresh and rich in response, making her feel like a stupe. “Why, shucks, Alice, that,” he said, with a broad gesture of relief, “I didn’t rightly know what you were going to ask me. Just take a look at your own suitcase, shorty. It’s written plain as day on the sticker they labeled your bag with when you left New York Harbor—‘S. S. Transylvania.’ I dare say everyone knows that’s a London-bound service.”

“Well, if that is the case, you didn’t have to carry on so confounded mysterious,” Alice said, a little sulkily. She peeled off Jimmy’s fur coat and held it out to him at arm’s length. “Shall we get going?” she said.

“No, give me the old coat,” Jimmy told her. Taking the shabby old number in hand, he carefully helped her back on with his own, warm coat; and then he shook out Alice’s poor old tatterdemalion chesterfield and tossed it on top of the fire, which it soused like the wet blanket that it was—but not before the fire, with a hot, hissing sound, had burned it up and left it a limp slab of carbon.

A little charred piece of fabric fluttered up in the heat and drifted back down slowly into Alice’s palm. It was shaped kind of like a heart.

Alice climbed into the passenger seat. Jimmy took the wheel.



Links to Previous Episodes:

Agent Nine, Part 6
Agent Nine, Part 5
Agent Nine, Part 4
Agent Nine, Part 3
Agent Nine, Part 2
Agent Nine, Part 1



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