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.