Canadian Richard Hannay is at a London music hall theatre, watching a demonstration of the superlative powers of recall of "Mr. Memory" when shots are fired. In the ensuing panic, he finds himself holding a frightened Annabella Smith, who talks him into taking her back to his flat. There, she tells him that she is a spy, being chased by assassins. She claims to have uncovered a plot to steal vital British military secrets, implemented by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers. She mentions the "thirty-nine steps", but does not explain its meaning.

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