Bronson Browne threaded his way along the streets of Whitehall, oblivious to the hundreds of workers pushing their way through the packed thoroughfares. Overhead, Big Ben’s chimes let everybody know they were late for whatever work they were headed. If the weary official hadn’t left his office a mere four hours before, then he would have considered himself tardy also.
He was a tall, refined man with a handlebar mustache of snow-white hair that drooped across his top lip, the sort ‘Great War’ Generals used to wear. As always, he was immaculately dressed in a suit of dark, mustard-colored tweed, which concealed his ample waistline nicely. Although only wispy clouds peppered the sky, he was prepared for all eventualities with a light, beige-colored, knee-length overcoat draped loosely across his arm; at no time was the English summer to be trusted.
He climbed the steps of the War Office, his hands shoved in his pockets, and walked inside. He ignored a Military Policeman’s warm greeting as he strolled across a foyer that bustled with pristinely-dressed soldiers, folder-carrying secretaries, and drawn-faced civil servants. His deep blue eyes burrowed a furrow into the tiled, marble floor as he headed towards an elegant, spiral staircase that wound itself up to his office on the fifth floor.
He placed one hand on the banister but hesitated. Turning slowly, he sat heavily on the steps. With his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped tightly together under his chin, he closed his eyes. Entering his sixty-third year, his face bore the hallmarks of a man a decade older. He’d devoted more than two-thirds of his life to the service of his country, but now he was at breaking point. He wondered how long he could continue; how long this bloody war would continue.
He didn’t know how long he’d been there when the guard touched his shoulder.
‘Are you okay, sir?’
Browne looked up and blinked. He peered into the man’s youthful, bright eyes.
‘Yes,’ he said, his voice quiet.
‘Ms. Kendrick called down. A man is waiting to see you.’
Browne shook his head. Like every other day, his first meeting was always the 10.00 am progress briefing with the PM. The last thing he needed now was the intrusion of an unwanted visitor, so why the bloody hell had Kendrick seen fit to squeeze in another appointment? He stared at the guard for a moment and climbed to his feet unaided, a deep rasping sigh escaping from his lungs.
He entered his outer office a few minutes later and scowled at his secretary as her fingers clacked across her typewriter.
She didn’t look up.
He grunted a ‘good morning’ before focusing his disdain on a scrawny, pimple-faced, young man, who was pacing a path through the carpeted floor. Despite the undernourished, spotty appearance, Browne guessed he was in his early twenties. He wore a dark, navy suit, maybe a size too big, that was covered with creases and chalk dust, making it look like it had been bought in a second-hand store. Browne’s eyes narrowed. He had seen him before – sometime last year, he remembered.
The young man stopped and turned to face him, removing a fist of chewed fingernails from his mouth. He took a cautious step forward and stuck out a saliva-coated hand. Browne glanced down before brushing past and opening his inner office door. The young man followed as though he was picking his way through a minefield.
Browne hung his overcoat on an ornate, wooden coat-hanger. He walked to the other side of his desk and sat on a worn, cracked-leather chair. He leaned back, the chair creaking under his weight.
‘Refresh my memory?’
The man looked at him oddly.
‘Your name.’ Browne’s face began to redden; he had no time for this nonsense.
‘Welchman, sir. Harold Welchman.’
‘One of those code-breakers,’ Browne said, recalling their only other previous meeting.
‘Cryptanalyst.’ Welchman said. His face turned pale as though he regretted making the correction.
‘Sir?’ the man said. He fidgeted with an untidy, black fedora.
‘What do you want?’
‘Oh… yes.’ Welchman fumbled inside his jacket pocket and retrieved an envelope. He handed it to Browne, who didn’t move to accept. Welchman dropped it gently onto the desk and began to turn around.
‘Wait.’ Browne slapped the arm of his chair.
His eyes moved from message to messenger several times before he snatched up the letter. Staring at the man, he plucked a small letter-opener off a green, felt pad. He sliced through the envelope in one smooth motion, shaking its contents onto the desk: a single white page, folded in two.
Browne flicked it open and twisted it around for a better look. As his eyes scanned the words, his annoyed face grew darker. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the young man twitching uneasily from one foot to the other.
‘Turing sent this?’ Browne asked.
‘Have you read it?’ Browne looked up, his eyes focusing on Welchman.
‘I deciphered it this morning.’
‘How many have seen it?’
‘Just me and Alan.’
Browne let out a low growl. He knew damn well that was a lie; he could see it on the young man’s face. A message of this importance would have scaled the Bletchley hierarchy.
‘I thought Turing decrypted naval correspondence?’
‘So why has he seen this? This has nothing to do with the Navy.’
The blood drained from Welchman’s face to the point where he looked like he was going to lose his breakfast over Browne’s rose-red, Qalin rug. He stuttered to find the right answer.
‘Damn it, man, spit it out.’ Browne planted an elbow on his desk, gripping his head in his open hand. He could barely look at the young man.
‘He used to be my mentor.’ Some spittle splashed on Browne’s desk, and Welchman’s face turned a sickly grey.
‘So what? Don’t you people have procedures for this sort of thing?’
Welchman mumbled a reply which Browne couldn’t make out.
‘Pardon me?’ Browne’s eyes flamed.
‘I trust him.’ Welchman shifted uneasily, looking like a startled gazelle trying to evade a predator.
‘Good. So do I.’ He pushed the letter to one side and fished a pocket watch out of his waistcoat. He glanced at it before snapping it shut, the click resonating like a low-caliber shot.
‘Ms. Kendrick.’ His voice boomed.
‘Please contact the Colonel,’ he said, as she entered the office. ‘Tell him to drop whatever he’s doing and come here immediately… an important message has been delivered to us. And pass on my apologies to the PM. Unfortunately, I will be unable to attend this morning’s briefing, but do insist that he fit me in at his next available slot.’ He was almost going to add, ‘even if he has to postpone a phone call with Roosevelt.’
Ms. Kendrick hurried out without comment, closing the door behind her.
If a picture was a thousand words, then Browne’s expression spoke volumes of encyclopedic proportions. He sat deep into his chair and stroked the side of his face, the sparkling eyes of the morning dulled by the latest burden weighing heavily on his mind.
‘I would have expected a message of this importance to have been delivered by Turing himself,’ he said, at length.
‘He’s waiting to see if we can intercept anything further which might be related.’
Browne looked as though he didn’t believe that either. He shook his head solemnly and silently wondered what sort of place they were running up there.
‘So, no further problems after those experienced last year?’ He pointed to one of the leather-backed armchairs on the other side of his desk, his eyes never shifting away from the young man.
‘No, sir,’ Welchman said, sitting down.
‘You can relax now. Your job here today is almost done. The Colonel may have some questions for you once he’s read this. You can head back to your Hut once he’s satisfied.’
Beads of sweat appeared across Welchman’s brow. It was apparent he’d rather be anywhere else than there.
Following a sharp knock, Colonel Cumming swung the heavy oak door inward as though he was swatting away an annoying insect. He marched boldly into Browne’s office, spotting his superior in front of the fire-place chewing on a cigar. He immediately detected a pervading anxiousness before his eyes settled on a young face peering out from behind an armchair. A momentary lapse of recognition was followed by a sudden glare of disgust, which forced the young man to recoil from view.
The Colonel scowled at him as he plonked himself into the other armchair and, within seconds, had made the assumption he was nothing more than an errand boy, a lamb to the slaughter, sent by Bletchley’s code-breaking cowards.
Cumming was a tall, robust man with a swathe of bristling coal-black hair. His chest was as broad as a royal carriage door, illustrated by the fact that the buttons on his tunic strained to keep it all in. He was generally a softly spoken gent with the stoic heart of a lion and the cunning intellect of a master chess player, and it was for those reasons that Browne had requested he be transferred to his staff, reporting directly and only to him.
Welchman, sitting precariously on the edge of the chair as though he was balancing atop Nelson’s Column on a breezy day, nodded a greeting to the Colonel. Browne walked to the other side of the desk and sat down with an emphatic thud. He slid Welchman’s message across to Cumming, who, almost reluctantly, moved his suspicious eyes away from the young man.
Cumming inspected the document for over a minute, during which time a sickening, greyish pallor washed across his face.
‘What do you make of it?’ Browne said.
‘Authentic?’ Cumming’s voice was barely a whisper.
‘It would appear so.’ Browne’s eyes shifted sideways to Welchman.
‘And you’re that code-breaker fellow from last year?’ Cumming said, without looking up.
‘How many know about this?’
‘A handful,’ Browne said, throwing his eyes to the ceiling. He tapped the desk and shot Cumming a questioning look. The Colonel shook his head almost imperceptibly.
‘You can leave us now.’ Browne said, dismissing the young man with a crisp wave of his hand.
The codebreaker jumped as though a switch had been flicked and electrified the chair. He hurried towards the door.
‘Tell Turing we’ll be paying him a visit very soon.’ Browne’s voice growled like a predatory mountain bear.
Welchman didn’t turn to acknowledge Browne’s promise. Instead, he quickly disappeared out the door, almost knocking over Ms. Kendrick, carrying a tea-tray. She snorted her disapproval before placing the early-morning refreshments on Browne’s desk and shutting the door behind her.
‘Ideas?’ Browne said.
‘We’ve considered several for similar scenarios.’ Cumming looked off through the window, careful to use the term ‘we’ instead of ‘I’; he wasn’t about to land himself in any more hot water.
‘We never considered this a possibility.’
‘It’s your job to consider all eventualities and have a contingency in place for every one of them.’ Browne’s response was as biting as the North Sea wind in winter.
‘Yes, sir. We just don’t have a strategy for this exact scenario. We can probably merge a couple of existing plans. I mean… we never considered anyone else was this close to a breakthrough.’
‘Well the Russians are, and what’s worse, the Boche knows about it. You need to fix this… quickly.’
‘I’m well aware of the gravity of the situation,’ Cumming replied evenly. ‘If this communiqué is to be believed, then it could be over for us. Maybe it’s a fake, have you considered that?’
Browne glared at him, his face swelling like an over-ripe tomato at a country fair. Cumming exhaled gently.
‘Okay. So it’s genuine. That means whatever we’ve done in the past, our plans for the future will count for nothing.’ Cumming dropped his head.
‘How could this have been missed?’
Cumming felt the question was more an accusation aimed directly at him.
‘I mean, it’s not just any bomb, it’s the bomb.’ Browne paused and drew a deep breath. ‘We have people over there, don’t we? How the hell could the Russians have kept this a secret? This sort of research isn’t like baking a bloody cake. It takes time, effort, resources.’
Browne turned and walked to the window. ‘How far behind are we?’ It seemed as though his anger was slowly receding.
Cumming closed his eyes thoughtfully and tapped his forehead lightly.
‘A few years. We’re having trouble getting everybody to agree. The project is slow getting off the ground.’
Browne glanced at the mantelpiece clock. ‘You have twenty-four hours.’
Without being dismissed, Cumming stood silently and marched out the office clutching Welchman’s message in his fist. By the time he passed Ms. Kendrick, the color had returned to his face, an indication of his surging adrenaline.
This was, after all, his talent. Tight deadlines, a near-impossible task, a ruthless superior, and the choking cloak of disaster hovering over him, imploring him to fail. A watertight strategy was required to avert a course of history that he had neither predicted nor desired. Resources were scarce, time was tight, and, somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that whatever plan he could conjure up would eventually be filed away in some ‘Top Secret’ archive never to see the light of day. But that was irrelevant. Hitler had diverted his armies south, away from Moscow with the sole intention of snatching some new atomic weaponry from beneath the Allies’ noses. Preventing that was the only thing that mattered.