Listen to the story

Pierre returned home to the fancy apartment where he lived with his mother and father on Rue de Racine to find the whole place in topsy-turvy land. This adventure took place when Pierre was nine years old and was just beginning to develop his special talents as a … gulp, a spy for the French government. But on this particular day he had no inkling that there was an adventure to be had. It was October in Paris, and nothing much was happening in that great city. So you can imagine his amazement to find his diplomat parents in a frenzy of packing their many trunks, valises, suitcases, hatboxes, shaving kits, and briefcases. but for what?

Now Monsieur et Madame had no idea of their son Pierre’s special talents. So far as they were concerned, he was making satisfactory progress in the fourth grade, he was a good reader, and he never created a problem in the peace of the home. This satisfied them entirely. And as a result, they rarely shared much information about their work. But you won’t be surprised when I tell you that Pierre knew much, much more about their jobs as diplomats than they would ever expect. They tended to leave secret documents lying around on the coffee table in the salon, they talked in mysterious “secret” language about their assignments over the breakfast table, and they often spoke with their superiors on the house telephone. As a result, the precocious Pierre was very well informed indeed about their assignments in Paris and in their travels.

It isn’t that Pierre was a sneaky kind of child. It was just that he more or less instantly recognized the significance of a document, a hint in conversation, or a shady encounter on the street. He was very quick to catch on to the drift of things — at home and out in the wild, wild world. And this, as you can certainly imagine, is a marvelous gift for a spy.

So Pierre quickly figured out quite a bit about what was going on when he arrived home that day. Maman and Papa were in a frenzy of packing, they were carefully checking the dates on their passports, and they were digging in the spare change jar looking for Swedish kroners. Therefore Pierre arrived at a quick conclusion: they had been belatedly ordered to travel to a foreign country on a boring diplomatic mission, they needed formal clothes, and it was Sweden where they expected to visit. So when Papa said, Pierre, we have a short trip to take. Madame Bouillabaisse will be visiting to take care of you, … he knew exactly what to say. He said: Papa, I am very excited, I have a special project at school. I am to use the old encyclopedia to write a report on a very exotic place, the port of Stockholm. Have you heard of it? Papa was astounded, and said, my dear Pierre, what a marvelous coincidence. But you shan’t use a boring old encyclopedia for your report, you will travel with us. Because we have just been ordered to Sweden! You can write your report based on first-hand observation.

This was of course exactly what Pierre had hoped for. So in a flash he darted to his room, pulled out a single battered suitcase, and filled it with underwear, jeans, shirts, a dark cloth jacket, a toothbrush, a pocket radio, and a small but heavy sack of items that might turn out to be useful.

The next day they piled into an ancient cab and drove to the Seine River, where they boarded a nondescript old motorboat. The boat took them down the Seine for several hours till they reached the English Channel. Upon gaining the open water they turned north and traveled almost 18 hours into a driving wind, when they entered sovereign waters. It was not Norway, it was not Denmark, and it most certainly was not Ethiopia. It was Sweden, and the lights of a great harbor greeted them like a giant but tired Christmas tree.

Papa told Pierre that they would be in this great city for only three days, that Maman and Papa would be occupied for much of that time, and he would be able to leave the hotel and take the tram to the Stockholm Museum to do research for his project. He should be sure to take a jam sandwich with him, because most people ate nothing but pickled herring at the lunch hour in Sweden.

Sure enough, the next morning mother and father dressed in formal clothes and left the hotel at half past eight after a very nice breakfast of pickled herring, sour cream, and blintzes in the dining room. And Pierre too departed the hotel. But instead of taking the tram #4 bound for the museum, he got on the #16 that was headed for the docks. And that is where Pierre’s real adventure began.

On the tram he spotted a small group of rough young men dressed in leather jackets and carrying canvas bags with heavy metal gear in them. One of Pierre’s favorite books was a series about the criminals of Europe, and he had just recently read a book on boat hijackers. They were young ruffians who would find their way onto a commercial ship, befriend the crew, and then when the boat was far out at sea they would produce their weapons and force the crew to change course. In the middle of the sea, far from land, they would join a second boat, and the ruffians would transfer everything of value from the commercial ship to the criminal barge. This group of hooligans on the tram looked very much like just such a group of bad guys.

So Pierre decided to follow them. He was only nine years old, you remember, and so no one gave him a second look. He had a school bag and in it, the canvas bag with the heavy stuff that he had brought from Paris.

When this group of roughnecks got off the tram at the harbor stop, Pierre followed them, as if he were a sightseer. And he followed them all day, until late in the afternoon they went into a very seedy cafe for a meal. And there the conspiracy began. They separated and sat down with different group of seamen, and began making friends. Using elaborate hand signals — probably Sicilian, by the look of it — they communicated with each other. And when one signaled that his new friends were from a prosperous merchant ship in the harbor they all drifted over. After an hour of laughing and drinking, the crew members invited them to visit their ship. The hunt was on!

The group headed noisily towards the ship, and silently behind them, almost like a shadow, crept Pierre. And as they boarded the gangway, that same shadow slipped along behind and disappeared behind a pile of ropes on the deck.

At midnight the ship cast off, and by 8 in the morning the crew was at breakfast. But now their friends from the night before reappeared, this time with scary clubs and other heavy tools they had found on the ship. They threatened the crew and tied them up, and their takeover was complete. They locked the crew in the galley and redirected the ship’s course to a point deep in the North Sea.

Things looked grim indeed for the crew. However, no one knew that there was a single stranger on the ship as well. But he was just a boy, not able to overpower this group of young toughs who had taken the ship. But he had his brain, and he used it.

There were eight members of the gang. The leader was a mean one named Alphonse. (It is possible he was so mean because he had such a silly name.) Alphonse had one guy, Philippe, who did everything he asked, and there were six others who simply followed orders. Pierre had read quite a bit about small groups of outlaws, and he had learned that they often depended completely on their boss. So, eliminate the boss and you can maybe handle the rest. Pierre decided that he needed to figure out how to get Alphonse and Philippe off the ship.

Pierre also knew that crooks were often fairly dumb. So he decided to work on Philippe first. Have you ever seen how you can drive a kitten crazy by flashing a red light around the room a little too fast for the kitten to catch? Well, that was Pierre’s plan for Philippe. He didn’t have a light in his bag, but he did have some very fine fishing line. He attached a gold twenty-kroner piece to the line and placed it on a passageway on the deck. When Philippe came by, big dumb oaf that he was, Pierre twitched the line and Philippe saw the gold coin. He lunged to pick it up, but from his hiding place Pierre flicked it away and it disappeared. Philippe cursed and walked on — and saw the coin again on the deck ahead of him. Again he lunged, and again it disappeared. Finally Pierre placed the coin on the railing of the deck. When Philippe saw the coin he was enraged, he leapt forward, the coin disappeared — and over the side went Philippe! With a great cry of anger he landed in the water with a splash, and the ship quickly left him behind.

Now for Alphonse. No one had missed Philippe yet, and the bad guys were very busy preparing to transfer the cargo to the ship they would soon meet. Alphonse had taken the captain’s quarters, and decided that he immediately needed a hot cup of coffee. Pierre didn’t think the disappearing coin trick would work for Alphonse, but maybe the “mysterious voices” routine would get him.

So Pierre put on a white mess apron and gathered up a cup of hot coffee. He then carried it on a tray to the captain’s quarters. But he took with him a few things from his special bag, including a pair of mechanical teeth that would clatter when you wound them up. These he placed behind the chair where Alphonse was sitting. And just as he handed the coffee to the bad crook, the teeth began to chatter. Alphonse was startled and demanded, what was that? (His addled mind had taken Pierre to be a galley boy, forgetting that the whole crew was supposed to be locked up.) Pierre responded, “Oh, that’s the spirit of the last captain of this ship. He seems to want to stay on board, even though he perished in a terrible storm five years ago.” Alphonse, it seemed, had an unwholesome fear of spirits and demanded that it should shut up. But actually, the chattering became louder. And in the meantime, another toy from Pierre’s sack added to the noise. It was a small device that made a low moaning sound when it was wound up. Now the chattering and the moaning was truly awful, and Alphonse became even more agitated. It was time for the coup de grace. Pierre secretly activated his third toy, a wooden drum that sounded a loud, slow beating sound. It now sounded as though a terrible spirit had taken control of the whole ship! Alphonse yelled, make him stop, but Pierre said, I’m sorry, monsieur, but when he is agitated he won’t stop until he has spilled the blood of a person with a dishonest heart! With that Alphonse leapt from the chair, ran to the hatch, and jumped over the rail into the cold North Sea far below.

Now all that remained was to subdue the disoriented remaining ruffians. They were without a leader and were frightened. Pierre quickly ran to the galley and freed the crew, and let them know the locations of the remaining six bandits. It was the work of a minute for them to fall upon the remaining bandits and subdue them. The radio man then called the Coast Guard, and the ship was saved. The Coast Guard was able to overpower the barge that was steaming towards the meeting place, and that gang of bandits was arrested as well. With all the troubles behind them, the ship returned to port.

Pierre had experienced quite a lot during this day of action, and as soon as the ship reached port again he hurried to the tram, and from there to the hotel. Maman and Papa were already dressing for dinner and wanted to know whether he had conducted research on his project about the port of Stockholm. They had not even missed him at dinner the previous night! Yes, dear parents, I have much interesting material to put into my report!

Their business complete, the family hired a small boat to take them back to Paris. As their boat cleared the harbor, Pierre was quite certain that he saw two bedraggled figures clinging to a floating carcass of a large, disgusting dead fish, splashing in the water and shouting at each other for having been such idiots and blundering fools. He was quite sure that their days of being water outlaws were finished — they would never find the nerve to attempt another such crime.

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