Pierre in the Four Corners (part 6)

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As the army surplus truck rolled into Shiprock, Pierre and his friends had begun to create a plan for defeating the Bulgarians in their plot to steal the plans for the American acoustic weapon. They realized that they could not confront the Bulgarians directly — these were dangerous, violent, and well-trained agents who were determined at all costs to get the secrets they had been sent to steal. And it seemed as though they had a confederate inside the lab who would be passing the secrets to them. Pierre and his friends had one advantage — it seemed likely that they had at least a day’s head start at this point, since the Bulgarians had almost certainly lost their trail on the road to Albuquerque. But what could be done in less than a day to prepare their plan?

They decided that their plan must involve deception. Pierre realized that there was no real possibility of the Bulgarians sneaking into the secret lab and finding the weapons secrets by just looking around. The fences, guards, and dogs would make that impossible. So the American confederate must be the key to their plan. Somehow the Bulgarians must have located a worker at the lab who had access to the secrets and who would smuggle out the information the Bulgarians needed. And this meant that they must have a way of secretly contacting that person — call him W. So what if the French team could perform a “man in the middle” attack on this plan? Perhaps they could intercept the Bulgarians’ message on its way to W; change the message; and direct that the secret package be taken to a different rendezvous point. Brilliant, if it could be managed! This would be a very clever way of preventing the Bulgarians from getting the secret to the acoustic bomb, and it would also allow the French teenagers to bring the secret back to France.

Shiprock is a small town. Since the four French agents had a day to explore, they tried to identify some places where a watcher could observe the Bulgarians when they left a message for W. It would need to be inconspicuous; it would need to be close to the secret lab; and it would need to give them the opportunity to quickly switch messages. But this could all be done. They drove their truck to a fast food restaurant on the edge of town and parked in a remote part of the parking lot. They then walked to the neighborhood of the laboratory. And as they walked, they discussed disguises. They decided that Jack should dress up as a worker on a ranch nearby, with a denim jacket and a big cowboy hat. Olivier would dress in a Boy Scout uniform, available at the Dollar Store in town, and would set up a “Boy Scout Cookie Sale” table on the main street just down the road from the laboratory. (That was good for Olivier, because he had developed a particular fondness of American cookies!) Pierre would purchase a “long board” — a skateboard that skilled riders could zoom along on and practice jumps and other tricks. This is something Pierre was able to do. And Margritte would disguise herself as a McDonalds worker — the uniform was available at the Dollar Store too. (As a fashionable young person, she really didn’t like the silly yellow hat that came with the uniform, but she was willing.) Their idea was that they would observe the street in a carefully planned but random-seeming pattern, and keep their eyes open for the Bulgarians when they arrived.

And what about the Bulgarians? What had become of them? They had had one misadventure after another in their efforts to catch up with Pierre and his friends. First, it had taken them the better part of a day to get from the place in the Colorado desert where they had lost their trucks to Colorado Springs, where they were able to buy a used commercial van. It was painted in a curious way — Colorado Springs is the home of the Rodeo Clown Hall of Fame, and evidently this truck had seem some time as a clown truck! It was acceptable transportation, but it did attract attention. On top of that, as soon as they got into New Mexico they started arguing about which direction they should go — towards Albuquerque or towards Shiprock. They had come to blows, and two of them had to be left in a small hospital in Shama, New Mexico because of some bruising they had gotten in a fistfight with their pals. In the end they were at least 24 hours behind Pierre and his friends when they finally turned towards Shiprock. So when they rolled into Shiprock late on a Saturday night, they were quite ready for a night’s sleep in the Best Western in town before proceeding with their plan. They had a quick meal at the McDonalds, where Magritte saw them without being spotted, and she returned to the others to let them know that the Bulgarians had arrived.

Pierre and the others had been sleeping in the truck rather than risking discovery in a motel. Now that Pierre and his friends had located the Bulgarians at the Best Western (now down to a team of six men) their job was easier. Pierre suggested that he would follow them the next morning to see whether he could figure out where they planned to leave a message for their confederate W. On his long board he would just look like a New Mexico teenager, bored in a small town. Meanwhile, Olivier and Jack would work on formulating an alternative message for W, which they planned to substitute for the Bulgarians’ instructions. Here is roughly what they imagined the Bulgarians would leave as a secret message for W:


(The Bulgarians were not very good at making up plausible American names. Since Dragomir Borisov is a very common name in Sofia, they thought it would be inconspicuous in Shiprock too.)

If the French agents were able to discover the secret drop box where the Bulgarians would leave their message, they intended to substitute this message instead:


Finally, they had one last deception to prepare. They wanted the Bulgarians to be satisfied with the secret plans that they were given by W. So they went back to the Dollar Store again and bought the operator’s manual for an old-fashioned television, which had a great many technical descriptions and diagrams of the tubes, electronic circuits, and cautions that old-fashioned televisions usually involved. Taking this manual back to the truck, they carefully cut the pages from the manual, stapled them together, and prepared a cover sheet that contained the following information:


PROJECT 020-220-5664

JULY 10, 1965


This 40-page document was placed in a padded envelope that they carefully closed and sealed.

All was ready. If only they could discover the location of the planned dead drop where the Bulgarians would leave their message for W. They began their watching at 6 am the next morning. By 7 am the Bulgarians were having a big southwestern breakfast at the diner at the Best Western motel — they had developed a great fondness for huevos rancheros with lots of cheese and salsa. After breakfast Olivier spotted two of them walking carelessly down the main street, whistling and seeming to be out for a quiet stroll. They even bought a box of cookies from him, apparently so they could blend in. But he noticed that they paid unusual attention to the drain on the street just past the corner, and one of them stopped to tie his shoe just over the drain. It would appear that Olivier had discovered the dead drop.

An hour later Pierre zoomed down the street on his long board, only to take a nasty spill on the road. A watcher would imagine that he had hit a stone and the long board had upended him! While regaining his feet, he felt in the drain — there was a metal tube lying just inside the drain! Quick as only a clever Parisian teenager could manage, he opened the tube, removed the piece of paper, and replaced it with the message that Jack and Olivier had prepared. Then he collected his board and rolled away. The whole accident had taken less than a minute!

It was now Margritte’s turn to be the watcher. She strolled down the street in her McDonald’s uniform, apparently on her way to work. As she turned the corner onto the main street, she saw another young woman walking towards her. This young woman carelessly dropped her handbag and leaned down to pick it up — and just as quickly as Pierre, retrieved the metal container from the drain. Then she walked off quickly but without signs of hurry. Margritte noticed one distinctive thing about her — she had bright red hair. But Margritte immediately formed the impression that the hair was a wig. And from the young woman’s gait, she also formed the impression that this was indeed not a woman, but a man! And it was a man of about 28 years of age, about 1.7 meters in height, and slender in build. Margritte was sure she would recognize him if she encountered him without his disguise. If fact, she was a bit amused — she had learned much better skills of disguise during her own training in Sofia than this dolt showed!

The fake message was passed, and now the French team had to work fast. They needed to have one person ready to collect the secret file at the Big Boy at 6 pm; another to drop the fake file at the drop point specified in the Bulgarians’ message well before 7:00; and yet a third to place an anonymous call to the US Army office at the laboratory telling them that an employee of the lab would be picking up a suspicious package at the pawn shop at 8:00 pm. It was all very complicated, but they managed each of these arrangements without fail.

And how did it all turn out? Just about as well as M. Grosnez could possibly have hoped! W did in fact drop the secret plans at the Big Boy restaurant as directed; he apparently had great confidence in his Bulgarian employers. The Bulgarians received the fake package of drawings that Jack had thoughtfully dropped for them at the expected drop point. When the Bulgarians opened the package they were satisfied — these technical drawings and all the electronic circuits and technical descriptions seemed to be exactly what they had imagined that the secret design of an acoustic bomb might look like. And a US Army military police detective was waiting inside the pawn shop when W arrived. W was quietly arrested. (He turned out to be a lab tech who had a gambling problem, and who had been bribed by a different Bulgarian agent some three months earlier.)

Everyone returned home. Jack went back to his retirement home in Arizona with great thanks from Pierre, Olivier, and Margritte, and Pierre and the others returned to New York in time to rejoin the international study group at the docks in Brooklyn where the Rapide was preparing to depart for Marseille. Margritte’s Bulgarian life was over, of course — she could never return to her home country. But M. Grosnez, when he was informed by Pierre of her loyal and courageous service to France during this hair-raising adventure, arranged that her mother’s citizenship in France would be extended to her as well, and Margritte began her studies in college in Lyons almost as soon as she arrived in France. And what about Pierre? He returned to Rue de Racine in Paris, threw down his rucksack, and called out to Maman and Papa, “Je suis revenu, mes parents!”, which you can easily translate for your selves: “I’m home, mama and papa!”.

Pierre in the Four Corners (part 5)

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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?

Pierre in the Four Corners (part 4)

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The Harleys were loud but fast, and Pierre, Margritte, and Olivier were rocketing across the flat desert country of eastern Colorado. They were heading south and planned to pass into New Mexico within about five hours. The Rocky Mountains were to the west, and the young people were amazed at how tall they seemed to be. They were snow-covered, and they seemed to go on forever, both north and south. This really was a big country!

The rumbling engines seemed to make enough noise to be heard in Denver. Olivier held onto Margritte for dear life, and Margritte piloted the heavy bike skillfully. She had become an expert on motorcycle riding in the Bulgarian secret service school! Riding the motorcycles was exciting and fairly comfortable, and it gave all of them a sense of freedom and safety. And to be flying along in the Great Plains of America, without a person in sight — what an experience!

They were glad to be on the road and far from the Bulgarian thugs, but Pierre was a little concerned. They were still almost 500 miles from Shiprock, according to the gas station map he had bought, and a lot could go wrong along the way. They would need to stop somewhere to spend the night — it was already 2 in the afternoon, and there were thunder clouds ahead. And since he had sent the telegram to the retired French soldier, Drunken Jack, and asked him to meet them at the train station in Albuquerque, they could not plan to go straight to Shiprock. If only he had known more about the geography of the American Southwest when he made that plan! On paper Albuquerque and Shiprock looked close together. But now that they were on the road, he knew it was many hours to Albuquerque, and at least as long from Albuquerque to Shiprock. Many things could go wrong, and there were always the crafty Bulgarians to worry about!

The sun was beginning to set behind the mountains, and the air was turning cool. They would need to find a place to sleep — they couldn’t keep riding in the dark safely. And going into a roadside motel seemed risky, since the Bulgarians had been able to track them so easily. Would they have access to motel records somehow? It seemed better for them to find a place to camp for the night. Fortunately Pierre had brought some light camping equipment — a tarpaulin, a very light sleeping bag, a cook kit, and a few other odds and ends, and he was sure that Margritte would be well equipped as well. Olivier — he was not so sure, but with their jackets they would all be warm enough. Seeing a dirt road ahead, he waived his hand to Margritte and they steered their heavy bikes off the two-lane highway onto this deserted country road leading, apparently, into the mountains. All they needed was a little shelter where they could rig the tarp for protection, and they would be fine.

When they climbed a low hill, they saw a stand of cottonwood trees ahead. From his time in Africa Pierre knew that trees in dry land usually meant water, so he steered his bike off the road towards the cottonwoods. Sure enough, there was a shallow stream of cold, clear mountain water with the trees growing along both sides. All three of the adventurers were happy to find a place to rest and to stretch a bit — they were tired from their time on the road. But it was comfortable under the trees, and the air was pleasant. They still had some food in their backpacks which made a nice light meal, and the water in the stream was cold, clear, and clean. By now it was late, the stars were brilliant overhead, and all was peaceful — right up until they heard the sound of two trucks on the highway about a mile over the hill. The Bulgarians were back!

Now they would need all their wits and experience to escape their pursuers, and frankly, it looked very doubtful. But this is where the experience of Africa and Algeria came in to be useful. Pierre had had several adventures in Africa, and he knew how easy it was to travel cross country in desert land. And Olivier’s father had told him many stories about the Bedouins in eastern Algeria when they seemed able to vanish into the desert at night. The trick was to be silent and stealthy. So here is what they did. They knew they could not start their motorcycles. The Bulgarians would be walking quietly down the dirt road to surprise them. So they put another few sticks on their campfire and Pierre took out an old tape recorder from his pack. It had a recording of about an hour’s conversation the three had had back in Snakehide about how worried they were about the Bulgarians. He set the tape machine to play, and they took their packs and slipped into the darkness away from the road. Using all the skills of silent movement that all three had practiced in other times in their young lives, they moved into the dark away from the dirt road and then headed east towards the highway. In about twenty minutes they found the highway and they heard Bulgarian voices yelling in the distance. Margritte translated: “They must be here somewhere, the fire is burning and their motorcycles are still here. We’ll find them! Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!”

But the Bulgarians were wrong. As soon as the three young people reached the road they turned north and ran towards the trucks. Sure enough, the Bulgarians had left the trucks unguarded. Margritte quickly disabled one truck (she had learned a lot about machines in her spy training), and she used some of her spy tricks to start the ignition on the second truck. With a roar and with Pierre behind the wheel, they pulled into the center of the highway and took off driving fast due south towards New Mexico.

The highway was long and boring in the deep night darkness, but every hour they drove they realized that the Bulgarians were falling further and further behind. Then Olivier said suddenly, “The bikes! They will follow us on the motorcycles!” Margritte had a curious smile on her face, and she shook her pack lightly with a metallic rattle. Then she pulled two handfuls of wires and cables out of her pack and said, “I thought we might need these wires more than they would, so I stripped the motorcycles of all their electrical wires as we left. No one will be riding a motorcycle until they can get to a town.”

This adventure was becoming a bit too exciting, Pierre thought to himself. Always in the past he had managed to stay a few steps ahead of the enemy. But now his foes seemed to anticipate his every move. Would they also know that their destination was Albuquerque, not Shiprock? Only time would tell. But tonight they were safe, and by dawn they would be at the railway station in Albuquerque. With any luck they would meet Drunken Jack there, they would have a much-deserved hot breakfast, and they would be ready for the final stage of their efforts to deny the secret of the acoustic bomb to the crafty Bulgarians! Perhaps finally they would get the advantage on their enemies!

Pierre in the Four Corners (part 3)

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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:


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.

Pierre in the Four Corners (Part 2)

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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!

Pierre in the Four Corners (part 1)

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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.

Pierre’s unexpected return to Buwani-Buwani-Buwani-Bufani

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Some years back Pierre had found himself unexpectedly adrift in Central Africa, and his wandering in search of a ride back to France had taken him to a small city whose name itself posed a serious public health risk to its population. No, it wasn’t called anything like Ebola-ville or Malaria-central. It was called a name that was so amusing that whenever people said the name aloud, they tended to die laughing. You can imagine that it took all of Pierre’s wits and adroit adaptiveness to rescue the city and its residents from its unfortunate name. As Pierre had lifted away from the city using the only transport he was able to organize on short notice (a flock of buzzards looped together with silken threads, with a single chair hanging below), he had vowed to himself, “Mon dieu, this is a place I will never return to!” And with a few “Sacre Bleus” he lofted into the air towards the mountains to the west.

Well, in this adventure we find Pierre on his way in a shipping container to none other than — B-B-B-B! Now this predicament leads to several hard questions — why a shipping container? Why this laughable destination? And did he think to bring his special bag of tricks, disguises, and machines that make rude noises? So let me go back two weeks, to a quiet summer afternoon just off the Jardins de Luxembourg near Pierre’s home. His Maman and Papa were napping in the apartment in their overstuffed chairs, and Pierre was bored. So he decided that a short walk in the Jardins was just what the peacock ordered. (Yes, Pierre sometimes had some unusual metaphors when he thought to himself!)

The day was warm and Pierre was dressed casually in a pair of khaki shorts, a Dortmund football shirt, and a sturdy pair of trainers (or what we in America call running shoes). But because Pierre had learned years ago that even a walk in the park can lead to unexpected adventure and danger, he also had a few items in his large pockets: a ball of stout string, a flashlight with a super-duper battery, a Woodsman tool-knife (you’ve seen them, haven’t you, with all their mysterious tools folded into the handle?), and a half-kilo piece of Spanish sausage. (As you see, in those days Paris was a convenient place to gather international supplies for your adventures, though Pierre had never found a source for a proper Australian boomerang or an Argentine bolo.) Thus laden, Pierre slipped out the window and descended to the street. (Whenever possible, Pierre liked to practice his “exit” skills by descending the water drain from the apartment. You never knew when these skills would be needed!)

Pierre sauntered along Rue de St Boris and entered the gardens, just in time to hear a loud squawking. Looking across the small pond, he saw a man trying to stuff a full grown goose into a sack, and of course the goose was no pushover. There are lots of children in the park who like to tease the geese, and believe me, the geese have learned to give as good as they get! So things were not going well for the goose thief. Nonetheless, Pierre felt that the goose could use some help, so he ran around the pond and grabbed the assailant by the sleeve. “Excusez-moi, monsieur, but you must leave the goose alone.” The fellow gave Pierre an evil startled look and started to slap him away, but in a comedy of errors he slipped on the muddy bank of the pond, fell on his face in the nasty water, and splashed away to make his escape.

Pierre was baffled — why had the man tried to goose-nap the poor bird? But as he pondered, he notices that the ruffian had dropped an envelope as he had fallen into the pond. Picking it up, he found a slip of paper with one word: HMS Seau-rouille. (I know, that’s technically more than a single word.) What did it mean? But Pierre was rather experienced at searching for clues, and when he sniffed the paper he caught an unmistakeable odor of sardines and salt air. Putting two and two together, he concluded that the man had come straight from the docks in Marseille, and the word on the paper was the name of the ship that he was intending to return to with his captive bird. Further, because sardines are a well-known food for large birds on long ocean voyages, he deduced that this particular goose-napping was simply the little finger of the gorilla — there was much more to this conspiracy than a simple bird-napping. (A less inventive child might have said “tip of the iceburg” but there you have it — Pierre was nothing if not inventive!)

So Pierre thought it was necessary to look into this caper more closely. There was not a minute to lose — it was already 4 in the afternoon, and ships generally sail from Marseille at about 8 pm.

So you can imagine what happened next — Pierre rushed to the Metro, caught the last train from Gare de Lyons, and made his way to the docks — just in time to see the great dark freighter Seau-rouille slipping out of the harbor. Pierre had missed the boat! He was not flustered, however, and whistled up a water taxi. To the startled pilot he said, “Follow that ship!”, and in a few minutes he was silently clambering up the anchor chain 10 meters to the deck of the Seau-rouille.

On board he found a great confusion. There were dozens of cargo containers, there were evil-looking ship crew members — none of whom looked as though he had bathed in quite a while — and there were at least a thousand large European geese honking and jabbering, scattered all over the deck.

But what kind of caper could this be? Who would steal an enormous flock of geese and transport them — somewhere? And where in the world was this ship going, anyway?

By peculiar coincidence the first member of the crew to notice Pierre was — the very man whom he had seen in the Jardin. And even worse — that man recognized Pierre as the boy who had caused his disastrous fall into the stinking pond! In a flash the ruffian caught Pierre by the arm, lifted him in the air, and tossed him into one of the containers to be dealt with later.

But this is where Pierre’s well-known luck and resourcefulness once again came to his aid. By the time the ruffian returned — let’s call him Frederic, or Freddy — he had forgotten which of the containers he had used as a temporary prison for his captive. He and the other member of the crew went from one container to the next, pounding on the sides and yelling, “Are you there? We have some nice baguette to share with you!” But of course Pierre was too smart for that simpleton’s ruse. He remained quiet, and eventually the crew, almost comically stupid, forgot what they were looking for. (I think that Ulysses had an adventure something like this on his trip to Alexandria.)

So now Pierre was safe, for the time being at least. But how was he to survive the trip locked in a shipping container? What would he eat and drink? Water was the first necessity — a person can’t go longer than a day without water. So he searched the dark container on his hands and knees and found a number of interesting things. There was a set of encyclopedias — apparently printed in Arabic; there were twenty barrels of two-penny nails; there was a crate of racing goggles; and — there was a chemistry set! Now Pierre was a whiz with chemistry, if only he could find a light. But fortunately he had his flashlight in his pocket. He opened the chemistry set and immediately saw that he could make a water condenser that would extract moisture from the air into a beaker. All he had to do was to mix chemical X with reagent Y, which instantly created a very cold compound Z; place the compound into a metallic beaker; and watch as the water droplets formed. Over eight hours the rig would produce two liters of water — plenty for his needs. And of course he had a half-kilo of sausage. So he would be fine for food and drink in the container. But what then? And where on earth were they heading?

You might imagine that being locked in a steel container would be a particularly bad place for making any navigational observations. But Pierre had a few clues. First, the engines were throbbing loudly, and he could deduce that they were going at about 14 knots. That’s not fast, but it’s not dawdling either. They had been traveling about two hours, so if he could keep track of the time he could estimate how far they had traveled. But second, he could hear some of the sounds around the ship — sea gulls, waves slapping the hull, and even the up and down of the swells of the sea. The swells give you some sense of direction of travel, and the birds make different sounds depending on how far you are from shore. From all of these clues he deduced that they were exiting the Mediterranean and had turned to the south — along the west coast of Africa! From here there were only a couple of likely possibilities. One was a long run the whole length of Africa to Jo-Burg. But the shorter trip was to Ostabuca, where there was a great river. He would know in only eight hours which kind of voyage he was on.

Sure enough, in about eight hours the sounds of the ship’s engine changed. It was slowing, and he could feel the ship turning the the port side — into a harbor! From his knowledge of African geography he guessed it was Ostabuca — and if they continued on, they were traveling up the great Ostabuca river. But what city could they be heading for? Suddenly he remembered his adventure in the city in Central Africa where even speaking the name raised the possibility of dying laughing — let’s call it “B-B-B-B” for short. And furthermore, he now saw the whole outline of the plot as clearly as you might see the Big Dipper in the night sky. The people of this city liked all kinds of food. But they particularly liked a treat they called G-burgers — or what we might more fully call “Goose-burgers”. This cargo of stolen geese was destined for the illicit goose burger market of B-B-B-B!

Now Pierre could make his plans. Subduing the crew would not be a problem — he had an idea about how to do that already. Releasing the geese and allowing them to find their way back to France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Germany, and all the other places in Europe from which they had been stolen would also be fairly easy. But how to make his own escape? And here he came to the most brilliant part of the whole episode. If he could only select the dozen geese that had been stolen from the Jardin de Luxembourg, he could use the same ruse he had used the last time he had escaped from B-B-B-B. If only he could find some silk thread, the rest of the story would flow like clockwork. (And not one of your stupid Bulgarian clocks that runs like the digestive tract of an elderly cow, but a fine Swiss clock with a 24-jewel mechanism!)

Well, where can you find silk on a ship? Anywhere there are spiders. And there were plenty of spiders in the container — nice, small, inconspicuous, non-biting kinds of spiders. So all Pierre had to do was to carefully harvest about five kilometers of spider webs and he would be all set.

His plan was brilliant. The engines stopped, and the crew members suddenly remembered there was an intruder on board. They began opening every container, determined to find Pierre and throw him overboard. But when they opened the hatch to his container, Pierre was all ready for them. First he made a very short speech that included a couple of good jokes. The bad crew members started giggling and wanted more. Then Pierre shouted out with all his strength, three choruses of “Buwani-Buwani-Buwani-Bufani!”. The crew members got into the mood and started chanting along with him, their giggles turned to chortles and then full-bodied laughs — and then, one by one, they began to drop in their tracks. Sure enough, the old magic still worked. The name of this city can still make you die laughing!

Fortunately for the crew, they did not die — they were incapacitated for some days, and were then turned over to Interpol on Pierre’s evidence that they had goose-napped from all the fancy parks in Europe. Eventually they were sentenced to long terms on a prison island in the Atlantic Ocean, and worst of all — they heard loud bird honking from morning to night, every day throughout their sentence! Never a minute’s peace! And Pierre was able to find twelve strong geese from the Jardin based on the peculiar green water marks on their feathers — the pond really was rather dirty. Using the small harnesses Pierre had crafted from the spider webs and securing them to a small deck chair on the Seau-rouille, Pierre was wafted into the air as easily as a seal slipping off an ice flow. And these great migratory fowl made their way across Africa, across the Atlas Mountains, across the Mediterranean Sea, across France, and directly to the Jardin and its stinking pond. Honking like crazy birds, they made their descent. Pierre scrambled from his deck chair, stretched his legs, gave one quiet chant of “Buwani etc.”, and hurried home in the setting sun.

Pierre Visits the Stockholm Harbor

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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.

Pierre and the Six Pierres

Desert Island Inmate
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Pierre was an intelligent and resourceful Parisian boy, much more interested in world affairs than other young boys of his generation. He had travelled by accident to many places — to Africa, to other parts of Europe, and even to the United States. And on each of his adventures he had learned new and useful things about gathering information, planning a campaign, and creating a group of partners who would join him in his plan.

So even though he was only 15 years old in the year of this story, he had experience beyond his years. And his studies in the special school of intelligence and tradecraft had given him much skill in the secret arts of espionage and stealth. This was a good thing, because he would need all the skill he had to succeed in his current adventure.

So let me give you a little background. Pierre had recently had a secret meeting with an official of the Security Service, M. Squinty-eyes, at the Garden of Luxembourg. M. Squinty-eyes had been poisoned, so he was not able to give much information, but he did let Pierre know that there was a complicated conspiracy in Beirut against the French, that the ringleader was a fellow named L’Oignon, and that they were very dangerous. So Pierre had prepared himself as well as possible and had joined a union of clowns that was sailing for Lebanon that very morning.

The voyage itself was a great and perplexing adventure. Imagine yourself on a tramp freighter, crossing the Mediterranean Sea with only the crew of the ship HbabaHbaba, who all came from a little-known country in East Africa and only spoke their local language, and a union of almost fifty clowns! (Pierre did learn the meaning of the name of the ship, HbabaHbaba, which in the crew’s local language means “A bathtub that shakes and shivers when the slightest storm approaches”.) The crew themselves were skillful, but the clowns were something else. When they were not practicing their special skills on the open deck — riding unicycles, juggling jars of marmalade, teasing a lion brought on board for this very reason, and making crazy faces at each other — they were messing with the telegraph machine in the radio room, swinging on the tiller in the pilot house, and letting out the anchor just to listen to the rattle of the chain. It was a thousand laughs and a few tears to take the two-week journey from Marseille to Beirut, believe me!

When the HbabaHbaba slid into its dock in the harbor of Beirut, Pierre knew that his adventure was about to begin. And he had not a single ally in this adventure. So this would be the first thing he would need to do — somehow he would need to find some friends and allies who could help him in his investigation and his campaign against the mysterious conspirators. But Beirut in those years was a grungy, rackety port city, and he wouldn’t be able to simply go to the “Club of Expatriate French School Boys” to find his future allies. He would have to work the streets. And somehow he would need to get a clue about how to find the mysterious fellow L’Oignon!

So the intrepid and smart young French boy walked down the gangplank, directly onto a dark alley in the port of Beirut. There were twenty-two seedy bars in view, three shops for buying sailor clothes, and not a single bookstore. But Pierre quickly spotted a business that might be a start for him — a barber shop with a tall striped pole in front. Pierre knew from his many previous adventures that all men sooner or later need to get a haircut, so if he could find a way of loitering in the barbershop he might be able to locate some possible allies. He went into the shop and said to the barber, I’ve just come from Marseille and I have no money. Could I work for you, sweeping the floor, for a few francs a day? The barber was willing, and Pierre now had a job, a place to sleep (the barber said he could curl up in the barber chair at night), and a few coins to buy his food with. But better, he could spend all his time in the barber shop for a week, and perhaps find a few possible companions. He intended to spend up to a week on this crucial task.

On the first day, a Monday, a dozen men came into the shop for a haircut, and each was worse than the other when it came to being a possible companion in this adventure. Several were obviously criminals; another seemed very nice but he had to walk with two crutches, and the others plainly lacked courage, intelligence, or honesty. But then a young man came into the shop and asked for a haircut. Pierre immediately recognized in him the qualities of courage, intelligence, and honesty that he was looking for, and he started a conversation with him. It turned out that this young man had just finished school, had planned to go to sea as a sailor, but had found that he suffered horribly from seasickness. So he was in a quandary — what to do? Pierre asked his name, and the young fellow said, my name is Pierre! What a coincidence! So Pierre from Paris (our Pierre) told him a little about the adventure and invited him to join. Pierre the second immediately agreed, and PfP’s team began to take shape.

In the next six days Pierre from Paris was successful in finding five other companions — a retired bookkeeper, one of the clowns from the original trip on the HbabaHbaba, a philosophy professor from the University of Beirut, a reformed pickpocket, and a golf professional who had been stranded in Beirut when the airline he traveled on had gone broke. All of the new companions had a few things in common — they were smart and resourceful, and they were honest. But each of the companions had some special skills that Pierre knew might come in handy — picking pockets, solving paradoxes, juggling. They had one other thing in common, and it was something that that really couldn’t be explained. They were all named Pierre!

Pierre was baffled at this coincidence, but he accepted it. He decided that he would adjust their names by adding to their names the day that they joined the team. So the bookkeeper was called Pierre Monday; the clown was called Pierre Tuesday; and so forth. And with this decision the team was complete; the team of Pierres would take on the still-mysterious conspirators and would find the ringleader L’Oignon. And he took another important decision on that day: he worked out an agreement with the barber that his team could use the storage room of the shop as their headquarters and their sleeping area.

The team of Pierres took the morning of the Monday of the second week to try to create a plan. They agreed that there were two tasks that were most important: figure out the nature of the conspiracy, and locate the mysterious L’Oignon. Pierre Monday had an idea about finding the ringleader. He felt that gang leaders need a lot of action and stimulation. So he proposed that he would visit a great many clubs and bars in Beirut and see whether anyone let drop the mysterious word “L’Oignon”.

Pierre Thursday (the clown) had a brilliant idea for the first task, finding the conspiracy. His idea was very simple: France had an embassy in Beirut, and it would be an obvious target for conspirators. The great French shipping company LeClerc Freres had a major set of offices in the port; this too would be an obvious target. So Thursday’s idea was simple: perhaps Thursday and Friday could observe the embassy for a few days, while Tuesday and Wednesday could set up an observation point around the LeClerc offices in the port. They would need walkie-talkies to keep the observers in touch with each other, but Thursday had an idea about that too: he could put on a clown show, collect the tips, and use the money to buy the WalkieTalkies. This worked great — the clown show collected almost one thousand Lebanese dollars, which was more than enough for the WTs and enough left over for other expenses.

This plan paid off almost immediately. Tuesday morning Tuesday (who was observing the port) clicked his walkie talkie to report that there were five or six suspicious fellows who seemed to have a great deal of interest in the shipping office. At about the same time, Thursday called in to say that there was also a group of shady young men who were observing the embassy. But now the confusion of the situation appeared. Thursday called later in the day to say the Palestinians seemed to be planning some kind of sabotage of the embassy, while Tuesday called to say that the Germans were planning to plant a bomb in the shipping office. But wait — Palestinians and Germans? Was this one conspiracy? Or were there two different conspiracies underway?

Pierre realized they needed more intelligence. So he asked Tuesday and Thursday to manage an apparently accidental encounter with one of the conspirators they each were observing, and try to work the conversation around to the subject of the other group. Tuesday was the first to be successful. He bumped into one of the Germans, and after a few pleasant words, he said he had recently seen a Palestinian who seemed to be from Hezbollah. The German became very angry, saying that those Palestinian dunderheads were ruining everything. Something similar happened with Thursday, except the conversation went the other way. The Palestinian he encountered tried to bribe him to infiltrate “a German group of terrorists” who were currently working in Beirut. So it was now clear — the two groups were not working together at all; they were both conspiring against France, and they most definitely did not like each other; so perhaps there was an opening for an initiative for Pierre!

Pierre quickly seized the opportunity. He decided to implicate both groups in a complicated plot against the other; he would let the Lebanese police know about these violent plots; and he would suggest that perhaps the Lebanese police should arrest both groups. And here he had a brilliant idea. As you know, clowns are natural mimics; they can imitate anyone almost perfectly. So Pierre asked Thursday (the clown) to approach members of both groups dressed as a Beirut constable. He would solicit bribes from them, he would spill his beer on his vest, and he would curse the Germans or the Palestinians to the members of the other group.

So now, when the real police mounted their arrest plan, both groups of terrorists thought they knew how to handle the problem. They offered bribes, they insulted the police to their face as “beer-guzzling swine”, and they said how much they hated being in this disgusting country. These antics made the police very mad, and they arrested every member of each group by the end of the day. The magistrates took account of the evidence against them, and they found them guilty of over a dozen violations of the law. They sentenced all the conspirators to fifteen years on the notorious Lebanese prison, “Sans Espoire” — on each count! So the conspirators were sent off in a prison ship to the island where Sans Espoire is located, and so far as I know, they are still there.

But there is still one stone unturned: where is L’Oignon, the mysterious leader of the conspiracy? And which conspiracy did he belong to? This remains a mystery to this day. Some who know the details of the adventure believe that he simply escaped, and will strike again one day. Perhaps he had gone to the cinema on the day of the arrests. Others believe he was a member of the German gang, and that he is now serving a very long sentence in a Lebanese island prison. Yet others think that he never really existed — that L’Oignon was simply a myth, a rumor, and a shadow. What do you think?

Pierre and the new assignment

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Pierre was a very accomplished fifteen-year-old who lived in Paris with his Mamam and Papa at 16, Rue de Racine. His accomplishments included the ordinary things — he was good in school, he was pretty good at sports, and he had a droll sense of humor. But what he was really good at, almost no one knew anything about — leastwhile his parents! This was his talent, cultivated over the past six years, of being a resourceful, clever, brave, and willing volunteer agent of the French security — a spy!

Now of course he was not an official spy — he was only fifteen years old, and had been practicing his skills since he was nine years old (or even longer if you consider the ruse he created at the age of six to demonstrate to his parents that Santa Claus was a fraud — but that is another story). So he was not on the payroll, he did not receive a stipend, even a secret one, and he took orders from no one. Nevertheless, when the chief of the security services, M. Grosnez, realized he was up against an especially difficult challenge, he often called upon Pierre for a bit of volunteer espionage, skulduggery, and general interference with the plans of the enemies of France. And those enemies were legion — at one time or another they included almost every country in the world. (Even the United States, on occasion, which led to an exciting trip for Pierre by train across the American deserts of the Southwest — but that’s another story too!)

Pierre and M. Grosnez had a secret arrangement. When the service needed to consult with Pierre, and perhaps involve him in a dangerous, complicated, and sometimes harebrained mission, they would arrange for the neighbor across Rue de Racine to hang out her laundry to dry on the balcony after the wash. This was a signal that Pierre should take a short stroll in the Jardin de Luxembourg and have a walking encounter with M. Grosnez (or sometimes his trusted assistant, M. Yeuxlouches). On this particular day in April, Pierre awakened in his bedroom and glanced out the window — and saw an amazing collection of laundry, from t-shirts to pantallons to underwear on the balcony just across the Rue de Racine. From the variety of laundry as well as the disorder with which they were thrown on the balcony railing, Pierre knew at once that the occasion was urgent, perhaps even a national emergency.

And so Pierre quickly prepared himself for a day of unknown challenges. He brushed his teeth, dressed in an inconspicuous school uniform and sneakers, had a quick breakfast of croissants and cafe-au-lait and orange juice, and was out on the Rue de Racine within 15 minutes. He had chosen this particular outfit because there are thousands of school children in Paris who wear school uniforms, and because this particular uniform design has many pockets. It has, of course, the normal pockets to put your hands in when you are strolling. But it also has pockets just above the knee for things you might need during the day — a small piece of sausage, a compass, or a handkerchief — and it has two secret pockets that you can only find by looking under the belt loops. It was, in short, the perfect costume for a young Parisian spy — stylish, inconspicuous, and useful.

As soon as he reached the street he looked up at the apartment with the laundry — and sure enough, the laundry was gone. He made a mental note to inform M. Nezgros that this was a bit of a giveaway — no one would take in the laundry before it had a chance to dry. Nonetheless, it had done its job, and he was underway to a great adventure!

So Pierre walked down the street to the Gardens, thinking about a particularly challenging math problem he had planned to work on later in the day. The problem was about how long it takes a soccer ball to travel from the midfield to the goal if it is kicked at a speed of 30 meters per second and is traveling at 20 meters per second the time it reaches the goal. It was a tricky problem because Pierre had to figure out a way to estimate the average speed of the ball. The easy part of the problem is how far the ball has to travel — it is 50 meters from midfield to goal. This is the kind of math problem that Pierre enjoyed because he could do it in his head without a piece of paper, using logical thinking as his best tool.

When he entered the east gate of the Gardens he stopped and looked around. He didn’t see any suspicious characters immediately, but he always liked to pay attention to his surroundings. He did see something kind of curious — apparently a seal from the zoo had escaped and was balancing a coconut on his nose in the fountain. Pierre could understand the escape — they are clever animals — but where in the world did the coconut come from? Before he could solve that problem, he saw M. Yeuxlouches a ways down the path, looking very worried. He hurried toward him when suddenly M. Yeuxlouches fell to the ground clutching his throat and babbling incoherently. Pierre had seen this happen once before — when one of his associates had been poisoned with bad watermelon seeds. And sure enough, he saw scattered around M. Yeuxlouches a half-bag of watermelon seeds.

Fortunately Pierre remembered the antidote for this particular poison — if the victim quickly drank a bottle of warm water and a pinch of coriander, he would recover. So Pierre pulled out his water bottle and thought about where to find some coriander. Fortunately there was an Indian food seller on the edge of the garden. Pierre ran to him and said, quick, give me some of your best coriander. It is an emergency! The fellow could easily see that Pierre was both honest and very serious, and so he gave him a handful of dried coriander and said, Godspeed, young man! Pierre administered the cure to the unfortunate M. Yeuxlouches, and he recovered quickly. But all he could do was hand Pierre a note, and then an ambulance took him away.

And here is what he found in the note. It was a message from M. Grosnez. “My dear Pierre, something most terribly unfortunate is developing. M. Yeuxlouches will give you more information when he sees you. But our agency is under attack by a bunch of bad guys from Beirut. I have been poisoned — I am recovering, thank you! But we must all take care. And I beseech you to find a way of traveling inconspicuously to Beirut and putting this conspiracy to an end. M. Yeuxlouches will give you all particulars, but the leader’s nickname is L’Oignon. Bonne chance!”

Well, Pierre was stymied for a few minutes. Never before had the security service itself been brought to its knees in this serious a way, and for the legendary director to have been attacked — mon dieu! But what to do! The unfortunate M. Yeuxlouches was out of the picture — he would be entirely unable to provide the details of the conspiracy that M. Grosnez had promised. He would be babbling incoherently for several days, and time was of the utmost importance. Gradually a plan began to emerge in Pierre’s clever mind. He had read in the daily newspaper just the day before that a union of clowns would be traveling from Paris to Beirut to advance the prestige of the profession of clowning. Humor is humor, whether in French or in Arabic! So it might just be possible for him to join this troupe, as a junior clown in training, and begin his secret investigation immediately as soon as he arrived in Beirut! This would take a lot of conniving, and he would have to practice his juggling skills, but it was possible.

But first, he would need to return home for a nice dinner with his parents and prepare his equipment for a broad and as yet undefined investigation in the field. What an amazing challenge he faced, and what a difficult piece of work it would be, given the limited information he currently had about the conspiracy and their intentions. If only the unfortunate M. Yeuxlouches had managed to whisper a few more details before he succumbed! All he had to go on was a peculiar nickname, L’Oignon (which means The Onion). But somehow, Pierre felt that it would give him a starting point for his investigation in the narrow alleys of Beirut.