Listen to this story

As I am sure you recall, the intrepid Pierre had boarded the passenger steamer Rapide in the late afternoon of a sunny day in June, where he joined a group of French high school students on an educational exchange visit to America. All the students had been selected for their aptitude in the sciences and in mathematics, and they would meet American students, practice their English, and visit Le McDonalds. And perhaps they would get a chance to practice some of their knowledge of biology, chemistry, or geology in the American countryside — these are all subjects that smart French high school students particularly enjoy! (For example, every French schoolboy knows how to mix the blue liquid X with the yellow powder Y and create a horrible cloud of green smelly smoke! Most entertaining!)

But none of the other students whom Pierre met that afternoon knew one secret thing about Pierre — in addition to being smart, he was a secret partner with the French secret services, and he was traveling to America with an important and risky assignment. He was to find out what he could about a secretive American weapons project, the acoustic bomb, and find some way of preventing a team of experienced and nasty Bulgarian agents from stealing the secret. And he was asked to do all of this with no backup — no transportation, no fancy cars, no secret agents with whom he could consult for advice and support. He was on his own! The only asset M. Grosnez had offered him — besides a fat money belt — was the telephone number and address of a retired sergeant in the French Army who had settled in New Mexico and who went by the nickname of Drunken Jack! Pierre had the idea that Drunken Jack would be exactly the kind of rundown, seedy ex-soldier in a stained beret who would be more trouble than he was worth, and who would offer exactly zero help in a pinch. (As you will see, Pierre was both right and wrong in this assumption. Jack was indeed a bit seedy, but he turned out to be the right man at the right time. But we will get to that.)

The voyage from Marseille to New York was expected to take eight days at sea. The students were each assigned to a cabin with a roommate. Pierre’s roommate was a fat boy from Clemenceau named Olivier who kept losing his glasses and tended to spill things — but he was a nice chap, and Pierre was sure they would get along. But as for being a possible ally in this quest — mon dieu! Impossible! (Here again, Pierre was mistaken. Olivier plays a crucial role in the story we are about to hear!)

But first things first. All the students were eager to find out where they needed to go for their meals on the ship. And Pierre had a specific concern — the shady young woman who had boarded the ship at the last minute on the first class gangplank, and who seemed to pay a little too much attention to Pierre. Pierre was aware of the crafty Bulgarians, but he couldn’t imagine how they would have known that he would be on this ship, or even that he had a role to play for France. But how could he find out more about this mystery girl? Since she had boarded on the first class gangway, she would be having her meals in the first class dining room. So he would not have the opportunity of observing her unobtrusively. How could he get more information about her?

As he was pondering he took a short walk on the deck. There was a loud call above — a seagull or a buzzard or a monkey by the sound of it — and he looked up quickly — only to walk right into another person who was also looking up. And if you can believe it, it was the very same shady girl that he was wondering about. He looked at her carefully, and she spoke to him in French but with a heavy accent. “Pardonnez-moi, mon fils — j’étai distrait“. And to his astonishment, she unobtrusively slipped a matchbook into his pocket and then strolled on, looking once again at the wheeling seagulls above the ship.

This was a most peculiar encounter. First of all, Pierre was not happy that he had encountered her so directly — if she was from the opposition, he had hoped to get more information before deciding how to handle the situation. But second, what in the world was the matchbook all about? Pierre had the presence of mind to simply continue his stroll, with his mind racing. When he got to the stern of the boat he was sheltered from view and took out the matchbook. There were seven short words written in pencil inside the book: “I am Margritte, meet at flagpole 22:00.” What was this about? Plainly their encounter was no accident; plainly this Margritte — if that was indeed her name — was not French; and plainly she wanted to keep their rendezvous a secret. But was she from the opposition? Was she perhaps intending to do him harm? Did she hope to learn about his secret mission? Pierre determined that he would appear at the designated place, but he would be prepared for anything.

Things did not go exactly as planned. It is of course completely dark at 22:00. But as it happened, that evening was the occasion of an unannounced emergency test on the ship. The electric power on the boat was to be turned off at 21:00 and turned on again at midnight. So the deck was pitch black at five minutes before 22:00. And on top of that, a heavy storm had brewed up in the past several hours, with strong winds, heavy rolling waves, and driving rain. Fortunately Pierre was always well prepared. This evening he had a small pocket flashlight and a rain slicker, and during his walk in the afternoon he had memorized the layout of the deck. The ship was large and confusing, but Pierre found his way quickly to the flagpole at the front of the ship. And there he encountered the second surprise of the day. The young woman was there, all right. But she was being lifted in the air by a bulky, mean-looking man in dark clothes who very evidently planned to throw her overboard! She was crying for help, but the wind and rain made her cries impossible to hear more than a few meters away.

Pierre had to make a very fast decision. Should he help this girl who might be part of the opposition? Or should he disappear into the night and leave her to her fate? Really, there was no choice. He knew nothing in particular about this girl, this Margritte, but she was a young person, evidently only a few years older than he, and she would certainly perish if she were thrown overboard. But what to do? The thug had not yet seen Pierre — Pierre is very silent when he moves, and he too was dressed in dark clothes — so Pierre had a few seconds to arrive at a plan. He had a bottle of hand soap in his pocket. He remembered how slippery liquid soap is on a metal surface. So he silently sprayed the whole contents of the bottle on the deck ahead of the blundering thug’s path to the side of the ship. Sure enough — the thug stepped heavily onto the soapy deck and immediately his feet slipped out from under him. He dropped the girl and continued to slide across the deck — and slipped immediately under the guard rail and disappeared without a sound into the thundering sea below. The assassin was undone!

Pierre turned to Margritte, who was stunned from her fall to the deck. He asked her what was happening, and she spoke with confusion. But he eventually understood that her story was quite complicated. Yes, she was an agent of the Bulgarians. They had been training for weeks for their mission to America. Somewhere along the way word had come to the Bulgarians that there was a French agent who was determined to frustrate their plans, and that it was crucial to discover his travel plans and put him out of the way. But this is where Margritte’s own history came into the drama. True, she was Bulgarian. But her mother was French, and she always felt a secret love for France. She determined, back in the training camp in Sofia, that she would secretly come to the aid of the French agent — whoever he was. And then crucial and very specific information came through to the Bulgarians — their spies were everywhere in Paris — that the French agent was a fourteen-year-old student who would be traveling on the Rapide with a group of other students. Her task was to determine which of the boys in the group was the secret agent and pass his name to Oleg the Bulgarian thug — Oleg would take care of the rest.

But unfortunately Oleg had coincidentally observed the interaction between Margritte and Pierre. As a suspicious sort of person, he had jumped to the conclusion that Margritte was intending to betray her mission, and that Pierre was indeed the secret agent. He determined to throw Margritte off the ship, and then to do the same to Pierre at a later time. Only Pierre’s quick thinking had saved the day. Pierre was immediately concerned about the rest of the Bulgarian team. Margritte informed him that only Oleg and she had been assigned to this part of the mission — the bosses were confident that Oleg could handle a fourteen-year-old boy! And now that Oleg was out of the picture, their secret was safe.

So now they needed a plan. Margritte was still a trusted member of the Bulgarian team, and she was scheduled to make contact at the port in New York. She had not yet identified Pierre as the secret agent, so Pierre was not suspected. And no more violence would occur on the ship until their arrival in New York — they would have time to make plans for how to most effectively and safely interfere with the Bulgarians’ nefarious plans to steal the design of the acoustic bomb.

The first step in their plan was a complicated one. They needed to put the Bulgarians off the scent, and the easiest way to do that would be to identify a different student in the group as the secret agent. But who? Pierre then had a brilliant stroke of genius. He remembered his cabin mate, Olivier, and he realized that Olivier’s natural talents of clumsiness and evident harmlessness would make him the ideal target of surveillance by the Bulgarians. His obvious cluelessness would throw the Bulgarians off the trail. So Pierre proposed to bring Olivier into the adventure and ask him whether he would be willing to play that role. If so, then Pierre — no longer a suspect — would have great freedom of action, and would also be able to keep an eye on Olivier to make sure that nothing bad happened to him. It was perfect.

It turned out to be more than perfect — it turned out to be fantastic! When Pierre shared the secret challenge with Olivier, Olivier announced that he too had a secret life. His father was a lieutenant-colonel in the French army, and had given Olivier a lifetime of instruction in being inconspicuous and capable. Though he seemed clumsy, unlucky, and a bit dumb, this was all a charade. He was smart and resourceful, and he was entirely willing to be identified to the Bulgarians as the likely secret French agent. He would serve as decoy in the operation.

So now there was an unlikely team working to save France from the Bulgarian threat: Pierre; Margritte, the Bulgarian double-agent who loved France, and Olivier, the surprisingly formidable fat boy from Clemenceau. Together they had a chance to outwit and defeat the experienced team of Bulgarian spies, assassins, counterfeiters, and barbers who had been dispatched to steal the American secrets. (The Bulgarians were very proud of their good looks, and always traveled with a barber if it was possible.)

Pierre had one more thought about how to make their quest more likely to succeed. He would need to call upon Drunken Jack, the retired French army sergeant in New Mexico. Perhaps DJ would bring his own special talents to the undertaking! And so Pierre composed a mysterious telegram to DJ, to be transmitted from the ship before arrival:


Or in code based on Pierre’s one-time cypher book:


So many uncertainties, and so many things still to try to arrange! Would DJ be willing to join this team with such a small amount of information? Would he be at all helpful? Would the group be successful in finding their way to New Mexico at all? Or would the Bulgarians kidnap them? And is it even possible to get a decent croissant in the United States? Only time will tell!

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