Pierre had already visited a surprising number of countries in June of his fourteenth year, but he had never visited the United States. He had read about America, of course, and he often saw American tourists in Paris. But he couldn’t really imagine what it would be like to be walking around in Chicago (the windy city) or San Francisco (the city by the bay). He had read a book by Jack London about San Francisco, but that was set in the time of 1900, and he was sure it was very different now. Somehow he wondered how those Americans in their shorts and loud shirts would look in their own neighborhoods back home. Did they talk just as loudly in church and restaurants back home?
In all the thinking he had done about America, for some reason he had never thought about small-town America — the villages of New Hampshire, the farm towns of Illinois, or the logging towns of Oregon. And he had most definitely never imagined the deserts, mountains, rivers, and backwater towns of Arizona and Utah — in fact, he had never even heard of Utah, in spite of his extensive interest in geography. He somehow always imagined that his first visit to America would be to one of its great cities — maybe Chicago, or San Francisco, or New Orleans. (He liked the idea of New Orleans, since there was a culture of French language there, and you could have a madeleine and sweet dark coffee on something called Bourbon Street!)
You can imagine his surprise when he left his school at 4 in the afternoon on a nice, sunny Tuesday in Paris, only to find M. Grosnez of the French secret service seated on a park bench reading the daily Figaro newspaper. This was quite surprising, since M. Grosnez did not generally pop up in front of him like a rabbit or a prairie dog from his hole! And yet there he was. M. Grosnez asked Pierre to join him on the bench and engage in some conversation about football. How was Pierre’s favorite team, Dortmund, doing in this early part of the season? Was the star player Foudre having a great season? Once again, Pierre was a bit mystified, since M. Grosnez didn’t generally seem interested in sports.
But then M. Grosnez got down to business. “Pierre, you understand the concept of ‘cover’, I know… we are practicing cover now. I am pretending to be a friend of your father’s who happened to be in the park, happened to see you, and we began to discuss football. But now we can discuss more serious matters. And anyone who passes, anyone from the opposition, will think this is simply a casual family conversation.” But really, M. Grosnez said, there is a different topic we need to discuss.
M. Grosnez asked Pierre if he had heard of the new weapon that apparently the Americans had developed, the “acoustic bomb”. Unfortunately some news of this new weapon had leaked into the newspapers, and the government of France was very concerned. First, the Americans were not sharing any information about this weapon — indeed, they denied the rumors entirely. But more worryingly, the arch rivals of France in Bulgaria were apparently even now sending a team of experienced spies to America to steal the secret! And since tensions between Bulgaria and France were somewhat elevated right now — for example, the Bulgarian ambassador in Paris had punched the third secretary in the foreign ministry and pushed him into a swimming pool! — it was imperative that the Bulgarians should not gain this secret. And the Americans were such bunglers — experienced Bulgarian spies would cut through their defenses like a hot knife through Brie cheese!
Pierre said, this sounds very serious. I hope you have dispatched a team to America immediately, and that they will be able to defeat the Bulgarians. But M. Grosnez groaned into his hands, and confessed that this was precisely the problem: they could not send any official agents to America because of an agreement they had signed with the bungling, bumbling Americans at the time of Dien Bien Phu! No French intelligence operations on American soil.
So M. Grosnez made his proposition to Pierre: there was a people-to-people delegation of young French students traveling to America at the end of the next day, and M. Grosnez had arranged that Pierre might join them. But then it was further arranged that the organizers were informed that the group would be split in two parts, and one group would travel to Chicago and the other to San Francisco.
Pierre was delighted, because he could see where this was leading. And it meant that he would be able to visit one or the other of the cities he had always been so curious about. But M. Grosnez was not finished. He told Pierre that the laboratory, and therefore the secret, was located in a backwater place called Shiprock, New Mexico — wherever that was — and he had a ruse that would allow Pierre to leave the group and travel to Shiprock by himself to undertake this mission. The ruse was very simple. When the lists were made up for the two leaders going to the two cities, each leader was told that Pierre was joining the other group. And so Pierre would never be missed.
This was a zebra of a different stripe! First, Pierre realized that it meant that he would be on his own in traveling across America. At least he had studied English for years in school! And second, it seemed to imply that there would be no backup if things went wrong! Everyone in the expedition would think they knew exactly where Pierre was — and they would all be wrong!
Well, there was much to do. Pierre agreed — of course! So he needed to pack his clothes and whatever secret equipment he might be able to assemble. M. Grosnez would have the organizers inform Pierre’s Maman and Papa that he was joining this highly prestigious trip — they would be delighted. And Pierre would need to do some very fast research into train schedules in order to make a plan for getting from New York City, where the groups would separate, to somewhere near this unknown place of Shiprock. (Or was it Shipwreck? He wasn’t completely sure that he had heard M. Grosnez correctly.) For example, do you have to take a train from New York to Chicago, then to Seattle, then to Phoenix, then to Flagstaff? Or is there a more direct route? And can one ride a bicycle in the desert?
M. Grosnez gave him a money belt with several thousand American dollars in it — that’s a lot of cash — as well as a secret briefing note written in code that summarized what was known about the Bulgarians. And he gave him a telephone number, to be used only in extreme emergency, for a veteran of the French army who now lived in Arizona, and who might be willing to help if need arose. This gentleman’s name was Corporal Thierry, known to his friends as “Drunken Jack”. He was said to be an honest fellow with some skills and a real loyalty to France. But what a nickname!
M. Grosnez had two final words of caution for Pierre. First, the Bulgarians were known to be several days ahead, having left Sofia by boat at least two days ago. And second, M. Grosnez indicated that these Bulgarians were “rough” — trained by the Soviet secret service, and very willing to use violence if necessary. “So, Pierre, you must be both swift and extremely careful! Godspeed, young man, and use your wits!”
Pierre’s preparations proceeded well. His parents were delighted at this recognition of their son’s talents in identifying different species of butterflies — for this is what the organizers had told them to explain his inclusion –and Maman prepared a very tidy packet of special foods — dried Spanish ham, a sack of olives, cans of sardines (which Pierre had come to tolerate in his trip to Stockholm), a few boxes of biscuits, some dried fruit, and a box of very special French chocolates from Dijon (a special favorite of Pierre’s). But at the same time Pierre knew that it was imperative that he travel light — everything in a convenient rucksack that he could carry over his shoulders — because he had learned that Shiprock was in the desert, and there were no taxis to take you from point A to point B. With his clothing, a 2-litre water bottle, a light folded water container that would hold four litres, a light jacket and cap, a collapsable walking stick (from an adventure in the Alps not long ago), a pair of sturdy walking shoes, and a special sack of tools and devices that had proven useful in previous adventures, he had a compact pack of 18 kilos that he was able to carry without difficulty.
And so early the next morning he took the train to Marseille, where he joined the group of young people waiting to board one of France’s most famous passenger steamers. The ship was very large when viewed from the docks, and its great engines throbbed so deeply that the ground shook a little. There were several gangplanks for passengers as well as several for freight, food, and mail. Pierre had never met any of the students — they were from excellent schools from several cities in France — and he had never met the directors either. But everyone seemed friendly, a little nervous about their long trip, and eager to get underway. The directors welcomed them and asked them to move to gangplank 2 (second class) where they would board as a group, and they would be introduced more formally to each other in one of the dining rooms after boarding the ship. Pierre lifted his pack and his walking stick and joined the group as they all moved down the dock to the second class gangplank.
Only one thing caught Pierre’s attention and made him take a second look. As they were slowly moving down the dock, he saw a taxi come to a halt at the dock and a young woman got out. She stood still for a few minutes, watching the group of students carefully, and her eyes seemed to settle on Pierre for a moment. She was dressed in jeans, a sweater, and a large hat, with a long raincoat for protection, and she too had a rucksack in her hands. But there was something odd about her clothes … they didn’t seem French, somehow. Perhaps Polish? Romanian? Russian even? Pierre had learned that a person’s clothing says a lot about him … or her! And this woman seemed just slightly out of place. But before he could look more closely the young woman walked quickly down the dock to the first-class gangplank. Pierre had the uncomfortable sense that he would be seeing her again. Was she possibly … a Bulgarian? They would be at sea for ten days, and he would have other chances to try to make sense of her.