Prologue – Into The Lions’ Den

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Bronson Browne threaded his way through 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 ago, then he would have considered himself tardy also.

He was a tall, refined man, with a handlebar moustache of snow-white hair that drooped across his top lip and down to his chin, the sort ‘Great War’ Generals used to wear.

As always, he was immaculately dressed in a suit of dark, mustard-coloured tweed, which

concealed his ample waistline nicely. Although only wispy clouds peppered the sky, he was

prepared for all eventualities. A light, beige, 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 trouser pockets and

walked inside. He ignored a Military Policeman’s warm greeting as he ambled 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 banisters, 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 just called down. There’s a man waiting to see you in your office.”

Browne shook his head. Like every other day, his first meeting was always a

10.00am progress briefing with 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 unaided to his feet, 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 him to be 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

just 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 him and opening his 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 ide of his desk and sat into an old, 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 suddenly turned pale as though he regretted

making the correction.

“And?”

“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 a white

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 twitch uneasily from one foot to the other.

“Turing sent this?” Browne asked.

“Yes sir.”

“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?”

Welchman nodded.

“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, and gripped his

head in his open hand. He could barely look at the young man.

“He used to be my mentor.” Some spit splashed on Browne’s desk and Welchman’s

face turned a sickly grey.

“So what? Don’t you people have procedures up there 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 small 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 like this 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 obvious 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 soft 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 asked, his voice 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. elchman nodded.

“How many know about this?”

“A handful,” Browne said. He threw his eyes to the ceiling.

“You’ve read this?” Cumming looked sidelong at Welchman.

“Yes Sir, I decrypted it a few hours ago.”

“One ray of light in an otherwise dreary day.” Browne 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 bother to turn around and acknowledge Browne’s promise. Instead,

he quickly disappeared out the door, almost knocking over Ms Kendrick who was 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.

“Similar?”

“We never considered this was 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. I suppose we can

modify… maybe 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 and made a quick calculation. “You have

twenty-four hours to formulate a plan.”

Without being dismissed, Cumming stood silently and marched out the office lutching Welchman’s message in his fist. By the time he passed Ms Kendrick, the colour

had returned to his face; an indication of his surging adrenaline.

This was what he excelled at: 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 scare, 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. But

that was irrelevant. Hitler had diverted his armies south, away from Moscow with the

intention of snatching some new atomic weaponry from beneath the Allies’ noses. Preventing

that was the only thing that mattered.

Now read the prologue for An Act Of God…

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