Listen to the story

Pierre was a very accomplished fifteen-year-old who lived in Paris with his Mamam and Papa at 16, Rue de Racine. His accomplishments included the ordinary things — he was good in school, he was pretty good at sports, and he had a droll sense of humor. But what he was really good at, almost no one knew anything about — leastwhile his parents! This was his talent, cultivated over the past six years, of being a resourceful, clever, brave, and willing volunteer agent of the French security — a spy!

Now of course he was not an official spy — he was only fifteen years old, and had been practicing his skills since he was nine years old (or even longer if you consider the ruse he created at the age of six to demonstrate to his parents that Santa Claus was a fraud — but that is another story). So he was not on the payroll, he did not receive a stipend, even a secret one, and he took orders from no one. Nevertheless, when the chief of the security services, M. Grosnez, realized he was up against an especially difficult challenge, he often called upon Pierre for a bit of volunteer espionage, skulduggery, and general interference with the plans of the enemies of France. And those enemies were legion — at one time or another they included almost every country in the world. (Even the United States, on occasion, which led to an exciting trip for Pierre by train across the American deserts of the Southwest — but that’s another story too!)

Pierre and M. Grosnez had a secret arrangement. When the service needed to consult with Pierre, and perhaps involve him in a dangerous, complicated, and sometimes harebrained mission, they would arrange for the neighbor across Rue de Racine to hang out her laundry to dry on the balcony after the wash. This was a signal that Pierre should take a short stroll in the Jardin de Luxembourg and have a walking encounter with M. Grosnez (or sometimes his trusted assistant, M. Yeuxlouches). On this particular day in April, Pierre awakened in his bedroom and glanced out the window — and saw an amazing collection of laundry, from t-shirts to pantallons to underwear on the balcony just across the Rue de Racine. From the variety of laundry as well as the disorder with which they were thrown on the balcony railing, Pierre knew at once that the occasion was urgent, perhaps even a national emergency.

And so Pierre quickly prepared himself for a day of unknown challenges. He brushed his teeth, dressed in an inconspicuous school uniform and sneakers, had a quick breakfast of croissants and cafe-au-lait and orange juice, and was out on the Rue de Racine within 15 minutes. He had chosen this particular outfit because there are thousands of school children in Paris who wear school uniforms, and because this particular uniform design has many pockets. It has, of course, the normal pockets to put your hands in when you are strolling. But it also has pockets just above the knee for things you might need during the day — a small piece of sausage, a compass, or a handkerchief — and it has two secret pockets that you can only find by looking under the belt loops. It was, in short, the perfect costume for a young Parisian spy — stylish, inconspicuous, and useful.

As soon as he reached the street he looked up at the apartment with the laundry — and sure enough, the laundry was gone. He made a mental note to inform M. Nezgros that this was a bit of a giveaway — no one would take in the laundry before it had a chance to dry. Nonetheless, it had done its job, and he was underway to a great adventure!

So Pierre walked down the street to the Gardens, thinking about a particularly challenging math problem he had planned to work on later in the day. The problem was about how long it takes a soccer ball to travel from the midfield to the goal if it is kicked at a speed of 30 meters per second and is traveling at 20 meters per second the time it reaches the goal. It was a tricky problem because Pierre had to figure out a way to estimate the average speed of the ball. The easy part of the problem is how far the ball has to travel — it is 50 meters from midfield to goal. This is the kind of math problem that Pierre enjoyed because he could do it in his head without a piece of paper, using logical thinking as his best tool.

When he entered the east gate of the Gardens he stopped and looked around. He didn’t see any suspicious characters immediately, but he always liked to pay attention to his surroundings. He did see something kind of curious — apparently a seal from the zoo had escaped and was balancing a coconut on his nose in the fountain. Pierre could understand the escape — they are clever animals — but where in the world did the coconut come from? Before he could solve that problem, he saw M. Yeuxlouches a ways down the path, looking very worried. He hurried toward him when suddenly M. Yeuxlouches fell to the ground clutching his throat and babbling incoherently. Pierre had seen this happen once before — when one of his associates had been poisoned with bad watermelon seeds. And sure enough, he saw scattered around M. Yeuxlouches a half-bag of watermelon seeds.

Fortunately Pierre remembered the antidote for this particular poison — if the victim quickly drank a bottle of warm water and a pinch of coriander, he would recover. So Pierre pulled out his water bottle and thought about where to find some coriander. Fortunately there was an Indian food seller on the edge of the garden. Pierre ran to him and said, quick, give me some of your best coriander. It is an emergency! The fellow could easily see that Pierre was both honest and very serious, and so he gave him a handful of dried coriander and said, Godspeed, young man! Pierre administered the cure to the unfortunate M. Yeuxlouches, and he recovered quickly. But all he could do was hand Pierre a note, and then an ambulance took him away.

And here is what he found in the note. It was a message from M. Grosnez. “My dear Pierre, something most terribly unfortunate is developing. M. Yeuxlouches will give you more information when he sees you. But our agency is under attack by a bunch of bad guys from Beirut. I have been poisoned — I am recovering, thank you! But we must all take care. And I beseech you to find a way of traveling inconspicuously to Beirut and putting this conspiracy to an end. M. Yeuxlouches will give you all particulars, but the leader’s nickname is L’Oignon. Bonne chance!”

Well, Pierre was stymied for a few minutes. Never before had the security service itself been brought to its knees in this serious a way, and for the legendary director to have been attacked — mon dieu! But what to do! The unfortunate M. Yeuxlouches was out of the picture — he would be entirely unable to provide the details of the conspiracy that M. Grosnez had promised. He would be babbling incoherently for several days, and time was of the utmost importance. Gradually a plan began to emerge in Pierre’s clever mind. He had read in the daily newspaper just the day before that a union of clowns would be traveling from Paris to Beirut to advance the prestige of the profession of clowning. Humor is humor, whether in French or in Arabic! So it might just be possible for him to join this troupe, as a junior clown in training, and begin his secret investigation immediately as soon as he arrived in Beirut! This would take a lot of conniving, and he would have to practice his juggling skills, but it was possible.

But first, he would need to return home for a nice dinner with his parents and prepare his equipment for a broad and as yet undefined investigation in the field. What an amazing challenge he faced, and what a difficult piece of work it would be, given the limited information he currently had about the conspiracy and their intentions. If only the unfortunate M. Yeuxlouches had managed to whisper a few more details before he succumbed! All he had to go on was a peculiar nickname, L’Oignon (which means The Onion). But somehow, Pierre felt that it would give him a starting point for his investigation in the narrow alleys of Beirut.

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