Listen to this story

Pierre, Margritte, and Olivier were safe for the moment — but they would be docking in New York harbor in just a little more than a day, and the Bulgarians would be waiting for them. So they needed a plan. Each of them had some skills that would help — Olivier had learned a lot from his father, Pierre had already had some rather exciting adventures in the world of espionage, and Margritte had been trained in her tradecraft by the very skillful, if fairly nasty, bosses of the Bulgarian secret service. So they had some tricks up their sleeves! And of course the Bulgarians didn’t know of Pierre’s secret identity, they didn’t know that there was more to Olivier than met the eye, and of course, they didn’t know that Margritte had gone over to the side of the French. So the young agents had surprise on their side.

But how to turn the tables on the Bulgarians! Their enemies obviously had all their plans in place, they knew where the secret weapons lab was, they had surely arranged transportation to Shiprock (yes, it’s a crazy name, but that’s where the secret lab is located!), and they would stop at nothing to get the plans for the weapon. Pierre had the idea that they might even have a confederate at the lab, an American on the staff who had agreed secretly to work on their behalf for money. (Though what an American would do with a million Bulgarian lev, he was not at all sure!)

So transportation was the first thing they needed to solve. And they also had to decide — should Margritte play the role of a double agent, staying with the Bulgarians and helping from that side, or should she defect as soon as she debarked in New York and join the French students as a political refugee? Finally, how could they manage to have Olivier depart from the group and travel to Shiprock? If he were missed the leaders would call the cops, and this would ruin everything.

But after spending a few hours in the main dining room after the dinner setting was cleared, they made some progress. Pierre believed the old spy’s saying, “Plan for what your enemy CAN do, not what you HOPE he may do,” and on that basis they decided it was likely the Bulgarians had made arrangements for a small private plane to fly them across the country to a landing strip somewhere near New Mexico or Arizona. This only makes sense, since time was crucial, and they couldn’t risk that their plans would be revealed before they made the theft. And for Margritte — they came up with a brilliant plan for her role in the next few days. She would not defect, but would rejoin the Bulgarian thugs. She would explain that Igor had gotten a line on the French agent on the boat — that it wasn’t a student at all, but a large and powerful member of the crew; that Igor had confronted him, there was a fight, and Igor went overboard. She had seen it! Pierre and Olivier thought that the Bulgarians would accept this, since it was inconceivable that a student from a French high school had tossed Igor overboard! She would then go with the Bulgarians to the private landing strip somewhere near New York, and Pierre and Olivier would follow in a taxi. At the landing strip she would remove the starter coil from the engine of the plane — it didn’t matter whether she took the left engine or the right engine — and place it in her rucksack. When the plane wouldn’t start the mean Bulgarians would send her off in a taxi to call for an aircraft mechanic, and she would rejoin Pierre and Olivier, and they would be off.

The only unresolved questions were — how to cover Olivier’s absence from the group, and how to get to Arizona or New Mexico. Olivier himself solved the first problem. He was quite clever with electricity. So before the ship Rapide docked in New York, Olivier spliced the line from the ship’s antenna to the radio room, placed a morse code key in the line, and sent a telegram to the ship’s captain:

CAPTAIN: ATTN: OLIVIER NEEDED URGENTLY IN FRANCE. FATHER ILL. TAXI WAITING IN NEW YORK TO RETURN HIM TO AIRCRAFT FOR FLIGHT TO CDG. PLS ACK. US EMBASSY, PARIS

Fortunately Pierre knew all about the procedures of the embassy and its emergency communications, and this was a convincing message. And notice how well the instructions fit with the plan they had developed: Pierre and Olivier were to depart from the ship by taxi to follow the Bulgarians to the air strip. Brilliant! And in fact, it worked perfectly. The captain quickly came to Olivier’s cabin, informed him in serious tones of his father’s illness, and asked him to be prepared for a rapid return to Paris. And Olivier agreed. And what about the captain’s acknowledgement, you ask? Did that put the cat among the sparrows, so to speak, when it reached the embassy in Paris? Not at all! With the line spliced, the outgoing message was intercepted by Olivier and never went further than the twenty meters to the top of the ship.

So far, so good; but what about transportation to the very far-away destination of Arizona, or New Mexico, or somewhere way out in the American desert? How were they to manage that? Here Margritte had the best idea of the day. She had learned from talking to Pierre that he had taken flight lessons in his school. What if they could return to the plane while the Bulgarians were off drinking large amounts of American Coca Cola and eating hamburgers (every Bulgarian, even the mean ones, dream of having a burger and a Coca Cola in America!), replace the starter coil, and stealthily depart and leave the Bulgarian thugs behind? The Bulgarians would then be forced to return to Grand Central Station and figure out a train schedule that would take them from New York to Chicago, Chicago to Denver, Denver to Albuquerque, and then they would have to improvise some way of getting from Albuquerque to Shiprock. This would take them days — and with all the burgers they would be eating, they would be in no condition for any funny business when they arrived! It was brilliant.

What wasn’t so good was the plan for the aircraft. It’s true that Pierre knew the basics of how to fly a twin-engine Cessna. But this plane was a little different than the ones he had practiced on. And more to the point — they didn’t have a flight plan, so they didn’t know where they could safely land for refueling. Of course they didn’t want to follow the same plan that the Bulgarians had put together, since the Bulgarians might tumble to that and intercept them. So they would have to get up to about 15,000 feet and set the compass heading to WSW and hope for the best. They would have fuel enough for eight hours of flying time, which would take them about 2400 miles (3900 kilometers). But Albuquerque is about that distance, and they had to fly over the mountains, which consumed even more fuel. So they would need to land somewhere to refuel. How can they solve that problem? Hmmm… As it happened, Olivier had the breakthrough. He remembered that his father had said that the natural gas pumping stations in Algeria were a long way from highways, so the engineers had to fly by small plane to visit them. Maybe the same would be true in Colorado. If so, they could watch the ground underneath them, look for a large field of gas wells in eastern Colorado, and spot a landing strip. Surely there would be fuel there. And so it happened. Their flight from New York City was long, boring, and uneventful until Pierre announced, “It’s dawn, and we’ve just passed into Colorado. Everyone look for a gas field.”

Within an hour they spotted what they were looking for — a gas field, a landing strip, … and a small group of trucks parked on the side. They were kind of concerned about the trucks, but they needed the fuel, and Pierre went into his landing pattern. They touched down at a very safe 80 miles per hour and were whistling along the runway when Margritte suddenly shouted, “Take off, take off at once! Vite, vite, vite!” Pierre was accustomed to emergencies and quick action, and he could tell from her voice that this was urgent. He pushed the throttle forward, the plane leapt ahead, and with a wobble the small plane was back in the air. And just in time — they hear a whoosh in the distance, and Margritte said very calmly, “That was a Bulgarian anti-aircraft weapon. They’re not very accurate.” Somehow the Bulgarians had tracked them and had gotten to this apparently isolated airstrip ahead of them. How could that have happened?

Pierre realized that they had to have a calm discussion of what to do next, they needed fuel, and they needed lunch. So he took a risk. He spotted a straight country road ahead in the flatlands of Colorado, and a town about two miles ahead of that. He landed the plane on the road, as neat as could be, and rolled to a stop. They quickly hopped out of the plane and looked around to see if they had been observed, but there was no one around. They needed to conceal the plane, and they needed supplies. Somehow it seemed as though the Bulgarians were always a step ahead of them — they were better at this than anyone thought! But Pierre, Olivier, and Margritte were pretty good too, so they still had hope.

Here’s what they decided to do. The plane was somehow a problem — the Bulgarians had tracked them, and it was likely that this had to do with the plane itself. So now was the right time to get rid of the plane and find another mode of transportation. But what would work? They were still too far from Arizona or New Mexico for walking, or riding a donkey or a horse, and they were miles from the nearest railroad. What to do, what to do? The only thing they could think of was to walk into the town and see if there was a solution there. Maybe a traveling salesman would give them a ride to New Mexico or wherever. Anyway, they could get something to eat, and they were all hungry!

They walked along the road, and even though it was still morning the sun was very hot. Margritte didn’t have a hat, and Olivier had one but it was a silly French Foreign Legionnaire’s hat that his father had given him. Only Pierre had a proper walking hat, an American ball cap that he had once bought in Paris at a memorabilia shop. (It was from the Baltimore Orioles, if you are curious.) If they were going to be in the sun, they would need better equipment. And water! Mon dieu, it was a good thing that they were only two miles from the town.

They had walked twenty minutes when Margritte said, “wait, what about the plane? We can’t just leave it there — they will spot it from the air for sure, and then they’ll know where we are.” So — they returned to the plane. Looking around them, they saw that they were on the edge of a steep wooded hill. If they all pushed very hard, it was possible to roll the plane across the road and onto the dry grass. Continuing, they pushed the plane to the edge of the hill and over. With a loud scraping sound the plane slid down the hill, into the shrubs and small trees, and disappeared! Yes, I’m telling you, it wasn’t possible to see that small plane when it was covered with grass, bushes, and small trees if you were more than ten meters away! Good work!

The rest of the morning went much better. When they arrived in the town, a little place called Snakeskin, they found it was rather pleasant, and larger than it appeared from the air. And on the outskirts of Snakeskin they saw something very promising — a used motorcycle shop! Pierre stopped in the road and stared, thinking and thinking. Then he asked — do either of you know how to drive a motorcycle? Margritte said she was an expert — it was part of her training in spy school. Pierre also knew how to drive too, though he was not an expert. Only Olivier had never ridden a motorcycle before. And given that he seemed a bit clumsy, this didn’t seem like the right time to teach him. So Pierre said something very sensible: “We will purchase two used motorcycles, good condition, not likely to break down in the desert. I will drive one and Olivier will ride behind Magritte. We can strap our rucksacks on the back of my bike.”

The motorcycle in America is a larger machine than its counterpart in France or Bulgaria. These were machines that some Americans call “hogs” or Harleys — made by an American company in Milwaukee, and a symbol of outlaw America. You almost have to have a bunch of tattoos to ride them, and a bright red bandana around your neck. But they would do! They have a big gas tank — the range of a Harley is about 300 miles if you’re careful about gas consumption and don’t roar your engine too much — and they still had about 500 miles to cover. So they would have to find gas somewhere, but they would be very hard to find by the Bulgarians! Pierre extracted $1,000 from his money belt (remember that M. Grosnez had given him quite a bit of money!), and he bargained the dealer down to a sale price of exactly $1,000 for the two hogs, each with a small American flag for the handlebars, and a bright bandana for each of the three teenagers. Somehow they looked older and wiser and badder as they mounted their bikes. Margritte gave the starter a strong kick, revved the engine, did a small wheelie (Olivier wasn’t ready for that and almost fell off the back!) and shot out into the road, with Pierre close behind. All three shouted, “Yeeha! We’re off for Bozeman.”

Wait, what’s this about Bozeman? Well, if you’re a spy on a secret mission, you need to lay a false trail about where you’re off to. And sure enough, when the Bulgarians painstakingly tracked them to Snakeskin two days later, all they could find out was that they were stupid college students and were heading for Bozeman, Montana, for some kind of rock-and-roll music festival. That cost the Bulgarians another couple of days on a false lead! But if you want to know more about what comes next, you’ll have to wait for the next installment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s