The American leaned forward on the table and glared at Howard. “Why the fuck did you allow this queer to get all this information in the first place?”
Howard leaned back and tried to look reposed and at peace, an attempt which he appeared to pull off for everybody but Miss Smithers, who sat at the end of the table taking shorthand notes. She had known Howard for many years, including right through the war, and she knew his little mannerisms, like the way his left eyebrow twitched when he was stressed. It revealed that he was stressed now.
“Basically, old chap, because he invented it all. Without him none of this would have existed,” Howard responded, waving his hand in the general direction of a bunch of files at the end of the table.
The American stood and paced up and down the length of the table for a couple of minutes. The other three men at the table sat in silence, their eyes following him. Miss Smithers took the opportunity to clarify a couple of her outlines. She hated sloppy shorthand but had to admit that during the last hour of talk some of her outlines had not been as good as they should have been. This disturbed her, but then the whole discussion that had taken place during the last hour had been rather disturbing. There was a sense of something that all the men knew but no one wanted to speak about.
“Right!” the American exclaimed, retaking his seat at the table. “Let’s go over this again, see if we have got everything right.
“This guy, this queer, knows the detailed mathematical principles behind our cryptography and parts of our nuclear technology. Right?”
“It goes deeper than that,” the small man to Howard’s left stated. His name was Primrose — Percy Primrose — a name Howard thought suited the man very well. He was an insignificant little fellow and Howard wondered what on earth he was doing in this conference. “He actually invented the mathematics that is being used, and it looks, from what we can gather from his research notes, as if he is heading into areas of mathematics that are totally new and are going off in totally unknown directions. God only knows what he might come up with next, he’s a bloody genius.”
“A queer bloody genius.”
This observation was made by the man seated at the opposite end of the table from Miss Smithers. He had introduced himself as ‘Colonel’ but had failed to give a name. Even if he had, Howard would have assumed it was false, just as he did not think the American was called Rogers. He was familiar with the US Embassy list and as far as he knew there was nobody on it called Rogers. Then again he had been introduced as Mr Jones and there was certainly no Mr Jones working in his department, not that anyone would find his department if they came looking for it.
“It doesn’t matter if he is queer or if he is a bloody genius, the only real questions are is he likely to defect and if he is what do we do about it?” the American blustered.
That, Howard had to admit, was the key to the situation: was he likely to defect? “Let’s go through everything once again, one step at a time,” he suggested. The three other men at the table nodded.
“Mr Primrose,” he began, thinking that this was the one person at the table under his own name (surely nobody would use a pseudonym like that), “would you give us an outline of nature of the information at risk?”
“Well, you know about his contribution to the war effort. It was work of bloody genius! He not only developed the systems that broke the Enigma and Lorenz codes. Don’t get me wrong, gentlemen, he did not break the codes — in fact the Enigma code had been broken before he ever got close to Bletchley; the Poles had done most of the work on that prior to the outbreak of the war.
“The problem was that although we could break the Enigma code we could not do it in a timely manner. It often took days, frequently weeks, and sometimes even months from the time we received a message to when it was decoded. To be honest we just could not keep up with the volume of intercepts that were coming in. It was his mathematics and ideas that provided the basis for the bombes and they enabled us to decipher the Enigma code quickly.
“They were bloody good at it as well. It was boasted that by 1943 we could actually intercept, decrypt and read a message before the captain of the U-boat it was sent to could get it decrypted and read. That’s a bit of wishful thinking but we were not that far off it either.
“The really important contribution he made was on the development of Colossus, the first programmable electronic computer.”
“I thought that was ENIAC was the first electronic computer?” the American interjected.
“No, the first programmable electronic computer was Colossus. It was designed and built by Tommy Flowers, but it was our man’s ideas and concepts on computing machines which gave Flowers the basis on which to design it, and his work on cryptographic probability was the basis for programming it.
“The problem is not his knowledge of current defence computer systems, because he does not have much. The problem is his knowledge of the mathematics of computer systems. Most of the mathematical work in that field is either by him or it is based on his work. The problem is not so much the secrets he is carrying in his head, as I don’t think he actually has that many — except for his knowledge of Bletchley Park, and we are pretty certain the Soviets already know about that — no, the problem is where his ideas and thinking could take him. If he comes up with new ideas and the Soviets have him that could be a major advantage for them.”
The Colonel leaned forward on the table. He was looking at Primrose, but his question was directed at Howard: “Is he likely to go over to the Soviets?”
“If you are asking if he is likely to leave and join the Soviets, I would say very unlikely. He is in most ways highly patriotic, which showed up quite strongly at Bletchley Park. But...”
“That,” interrupted Primrose, “was before his prosecution in ’fifty-two. All the signs are that he feels let down by the establishment; that they ought to have done more for him, protected him in some way.”
“Why didn’t you look after him?” the American asked. “He was quite an asset!”
“We did not know,” Howard responded. “If we had we might have done something... put pressure on the police not to proceed. God knows we’ve done it enough times in the past; we did it again just last week... an atomic energy bod caught in a public toilet in Brighton. He had the sense to contact his superiors and they red flagged it through to us. Our man didn’t, though. It happened up in the provinces and the first we knew was when details of his trial appeared in the press.”
“Don’t your prosecutors flag high profile individuals up the command chain?”
“No, they don’t. We don’t have the type of system you have in the States. Prosecutions are in the hands of the police, and they decide whether or not to pursue the matter.”
“Holy shit, no wonder you’ve got a problem.”
“Yes, well, back to the question in hand. Is he likely to defect? I doubt that there is much chance of him doing so directly but there is a strong possibility that he might do so in stages. Whilst on holiday in Norway he made the acquaintance of a Norwegian homosexual man whom he calls Kjell. We have reason to believe this name may be a cover.
“We know that Kjell came over last year and was supposed to visit him, but for some reason the visit did not take place. We think Kjell may have spotted the parties who were watching the house. They were, after all, only local police, and if Kjell is Soviet he will certainly be well trained.”
“Is he Soviet?” the American asked.
“We’ve no idea. Norwegian intelligence are not that co-operative, considering they are NATO allies. We’re just having to work on the assumption that he is Soviet. Anyway, Kjell, whoever he is, returned to Norway. I must say that at that point we thought matters were fairly well settled, but then it turned out that our man was making steps to learn Norwegian and Danish. It seems that he has had contact with Oslo University and there have been indications that there would be a place for him there if he wanted to take it up.
“We do not know if a formal offer from Oslo has been made to him or not, but what we are certain of is that if he gave any indication that he was interested an offer would certainly be made by Oslo. As I said, to date there has been nothing official, that we know of, but we are fairly certain that he has established informal means of communication with his friends in Norway that we are not able to monitor. He would have learnt enough about those types of things while he was at Bletchley and he has a number of sympathisers and supporters who would help him.
“A few weeks ago we received two pieces of intelligence which raised alarms. The first was that he had indicated that his future research work would be in the field of particle physics. This, of course, caused us some concern, as it did not fit his academic position in Manchester. The second was that Oslo University were about to get a ‘big name’ joining them in a new role.
“It is our considered opinion that he is about to leave Britain and take up an academic post in Oslo — and that poses a risk.”
“What is the scope of the risk?” the Colonel asked.
“Once he is in Oslo,” Howard replied, “we can be fairly certain that he will come into contact with his Norwegian queer friends. They seem to be a lot more accommodating to such people over there than we are. A number of them are known to be pacifists and hard line socialists. Whether or not Kjell is a Soviet agent is immaterial; others in that group will almost certainly be so and we cannot expect that they will forego trying to get him to go over.
“Even if he is not willing to do so, there is a risk that they could arrange for him to change sides without his consent. There have been couple of recent defections that are somewhat suspect in that regard.”
“So,” commented the Colonel, “what you are saying is that whether or not he has any intention of defecting we just can’t take the risk of having him wandering around in foreign lands.”
“Can’t you just pick him up and shove him in some nice psychiatric hospital somewhere?” the American asked.
“We don’t really have nice psychiatric hospitals over here,” Howard responded. “Anyway, there are too many rules and regulations around now that prevent that sort of thing. Far too many of our landed families have played that game so as to get an inconvenient relative out of the way.”
“Well, we have an inconvenient queer and I must say my government is somewhat concerned about him. In fact the President made it clear to me just how concerned the administration is.”
“In that case,” stated the Colonel, “it seems we have no alternative but to make sure he can’t go to Oslo... or anywhere else, for that matter.”
He looked round the table at each of the other men. As his gaze fell upon them each nodded his head in agreement.
“In that case then, gentlemen, I will make the necessary arrangements.” With that, he picked up the pile of folders next to him and placed them in his briefcase. He stood. “If you will excuse me I have things to attend to.” There was no response as he exited the room.
“Well, I’d better get back to the Embassy. Can I give you a lift Primrose? I believe I pass your place on the way.”
Primrose accepted the American’s offer of a lift and the two left the room together.
Howard sat in silence for a few moments, thinking that there should be a nasty taste in his mouth, but for some reason there wasn’t. He stood and moved over to where Miss Smithers was seated. Taking hold of her notepad he ripped out the pages of shorthand.
“I’ll burn these. This meeting never took place.”
© 2014 Nigel Gordon
My thanks once again to Alien Son for the editing.