Listen to this story

Margritte and Olivier were drowsing in the truck as Pierre drove carefully towards the south. It was very later, about 4 in the morning, and the excitement of the day had left them all tired. Pierre asked Margritte to drive the truck for a few hours while he took a rest, and she took the wheel. They were now in the middle of New Mexico — they had passed the sign pointing the direction to Shiprock hours ago and were still heading south. In two hours Margritte woke Pierre again to say that they were approaching Albuquerque. He quickly gathered his wits and gave her directions to the railway station. As they drove down the street to the station he realized that he didn’t know what Drunken Jack looked like. Worse, he had told DJ to look for a group of young people pulling a wheeled stuffed elephant — and they had nothing like that with them! How could they rendezvous with Drunken Jack after all this time and effort in seeking him out?

Fortunately, it wasn’t as hard as Pierre feared. As soon as they parked the big army surplus truck across from the station a large man in a green beret stood up from under a tree next to the station. He began singing, and instantly Pierre knew that it was a French army battle song! This must surely be Drunken Jack. But he also knew that the Bulgarians had tricked him several times already, so he was determined that he would confirm DJ’s identity before trusting him. He sauntered up to the man, and without looking at him, he said a few words in Arabic. He knew that most men who had served in the French Army in the previous twenty years had served in Algeria, and they would recognize a few phrases of Arabic. (Pierre, who was very good with languages, had learned a little bit of Arabic during his adventure in Morocco, but that is another story.) The phrase he spoke in Arabic could be translated loosely as “Excuse me, but your donkey peed on my feet.” (It is something that the old soldiers say to each other — it always brings a big laugh!) Instantly the man singing the army song stiffened, listened again, and then burst out laughing. “My young man, surely you must be the very same Pierre I have been waiting for for two days outside this stinking railway station. Mon dieu, it is worse than the station in Agadir! You are very late.” And he extended his hand.

Pierre was very relieved to have made contact with DJ. He was also very happy at the signs that DJ was indeed a serious man, far from his nickname, and a person you could depend on. He had, after all, waited for several days in the hot sun outside the station, simply waiting for the arrival of a person he had never met, in order to answer the call to service for France! Pierre did feel he needed to ask him one question, however: “Monsieur, could you please tell me how you got that ridiculous nickname? It made me doubt that we could rely on you!” DJ laughed and replied in fast colloquial French, “Mon fils, don’t you know that you get the strangest nicknames in the army for no good reason at all? I had a friend who was called “Sleepwalker” the whole time he was in the service, in spite of the fact that he had never fallen asleep once on duty. I myself have a Frenchman’s appreciation of wine in moderation — but never to excess! Ah non!”

Pierre brought Jack to the truck and introduced him to Olivier and Margritte. When he asked the last name of Olivier he gave a low whistle. “Young man, I knew your father in the army! He was a grand officer and a fine leader.” Olivier was very pleased. Pierre then explained about the mission and about the team of Bulgarian spies and assassins who were trying to steal the secrets to the American acoustic bomb — and who were alarmingly good at their work. And he explained that Margritte had been one of them but had decided to switch sides because of her love of France from her mother. Jack had never had a mission with agents as young as these teenagers, and he was a little doubtful. But when he heard the story of the ship, and the theft of the Beechcraft, and the hurried escape across the desert by motorcycle, and the theft of the Bulgarians’ own truck, his doubts were settled. These children — so he thought of them — were resourceful and didn’t scare easily! He would join them, and he would offer all the assistance he could provide. In short order, they had a huge American breakfast in the station diner, they laughed at jokes only a Frenchman (or woman) could find funny, and they prepared for the final leg of their journey. On to Shiprock!

The road from Albuquerque to Shiprock is a two-lane road through the highlands of New Mexico and across several reservations. Shiprock is on the edge of the Navajo Nation Reservation, and it is only a few hours from Santa Fe and Los Alamos. And in case you haven’t heard of Los Alamos, it is the home of the atomic bomb. Less well known is a secret American military lab in Shiprock. With two dozen scientists, a few dozen technicians, and a handful of engineers, the lab is busy 12 hours a day. It is surrounded by two rows of fence with big German shepherds in between, and the gate is guarded by armed soldiers of the US Army.

Any untrained observer would say that this facility is perfectly secure and that it would be impossible for spies to break into it. And yet, any experienced spy knows that this kind of security is more like a movie stunt than a reality. There are many ways of getting access to the drawings, reports, and machines that are being developed in the lab’s many rooms. Here is one way. An agent — call him Zed — establishes himself as a regular in a coffeeshop in Shiprock. He is a friendly, talkative man with a vaguely midwestern accent, and after several weeks he has talked with several dozen other regular customers. One of those customers occasionally wears his name badge which has the letters “SFLF” across the top. Call him X. Zed and X become friendly, and Zed lets it be known that he is a geologist and is interested in the sedimentary rocks of the region. He has a sample that needs to be exposed to a solution of acid to test for its metal content. But he doesn’t know about the scientific facilities in the area. X says that he works in a lab, and maybe he could help. This is an entry point for Zed! Zed says he is willing to pay a lab fee to have the sample tested, and X agrees. Zed happens to know that SFLF stands for “Shiprock Federal Laboratory Facility”. They agree to meet the next morning. Zed has prepared a special briefcase containing the sample — and with a highly sensitive audio recorder hidden in the lining of the briefcase. The recorder is voice-activated. When X returns the briefcase with the sample, Zed gives him $500, and he has gained a 24-hour recording of all the conversations that have taken place in this particular lab. X is none the wiser, and there is enough technical detail on the recording to allow the intelligence service to piece together the most important details of a secret project underway. He has also gained access to a trusted employee to the facility who can perhaps be persuaded to perform other services for more money. The soldiers at the gate, the wire fence, the dogs — none of the security precautions have protected the secrets.

As the four French patriots drove along US 550 towards Shiprock they discussed the problem of defeating the Bulgarians — either by preventing them from gaining access to the secret lab, or by stealing the secrets themselves and bringing them to France. Each of them had some ideas about how they might proceed. Jack, as a former soldier, had the idea of waylaying the Bulgarians on the highway, detaining them, and turning them over to the Navajo Nation tribal police force. It is well known that the Navajos are very, very patriotic, and the Bulgarians would not be allowed to return to their nefarious deeds. Olivier’s memories of the stories his father had told him about Algeria made him think Jack’s plan was a good one — direct confrontation with the enemy. But Margritte was very opposed. The Bulgarians are very tricky and very dangerous. “If we try to stop them on the road it will turn to violence, and we don’t have the ability to overpower them.”

Pierre’s mind worked with the problem from every angle. His previous cases had taught him that most problems can best be solved by craft and delicacy, not by force and violence. But how could they fool the Bulgarians? And then he thought of a trick that the Parisian police had played on a gang of jewel thieves a few years ago. They had learned of a conspiracy to rob Leclerc Freres of a large shipment of diamonds. The police had taken a vacant store across rue Lafayette from the offices of Leclerc Freres and had the door and windows painted with appropriate signs, and the signs were taken down on the real Leclerc office. When the thieves arrived, they were fooled. They entered the fake office, where they were immediately arrested with no risk to the diamonds or the staff. Could something along these lines be done in Shiprock? And really, how did the Bulgarians plan to steal the secrets anyway? Did they have an American confederate prepared to help them?

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