THE SON: 1951
The boy stared at his father’s effects, his eyes wide with fascination, his nose wrinkling at the pungent odor of naphtha. He’d been told a hundred times to stay out of the attic, could hear his mother’s admonishments that it “...was not the proper place for a boy to play....” But her stern words could not overcome the boy’s innate curiosity.
And now the dusty old steamer trunk lay open, its sand-colored exterior battle-scarred and dented, the stenciled name barely visible on its lid:
MAJ. MICHAEL THORLEY
He knew the contents of the trunk by heart: On top lay the khaki blouse of his father’s uniform, the single crown on each epaulet denoting his rank. It was devoid of any other markings. Below the blouse lay the pants, leggings, and boots. At the bottom of the trunk sat his “Tommy” helmet, leather “Sam Brown belt,” and a small automatic pistol, its blue-black finish gleaming dully. Instinctively, the boy reached for it and held it in his small hand, marveling at its weight. Looking closer, he spied the name, Carl Walther, etched into the barrel slide.
Curling his hand around the gun’s Bakelite grip, he aimed it toward the rough-hewn beams overhead and squeezed the trigger. It stuck. A sudden chill slid up his spine then, as if the temperature had plunged, and he quickly replaced the pistol next to a shiny German Pilot/Observer’s badge.
He turned his attention to a beloved relic, a leather-covered box with “Military Cross” stamped in gold on the lid.
Smiling, the boy reached for the medal, swung open the lid and stared in awe at the silver cross with its four crowns at each tip, the royal cipher—GR—in the center. The ribbon felt silky smooth under his ten-year-old fingers, its alternating stripes of white/mauve/white, the one splash of color.
The boy replaced the medal with a reverence that belied his years and reached for the helmet and the Sam Brown belt. He put them on, as he’d done countless times before, then stood. He turned to a tailor’s dummy enshrouded in a lacy wedding gown, the fabric yellowed with age.
The sun came out from behind a cloud, shooting shafts of golden afternoon light through the one oval window, making the dusty room glow like Aladdin’s cave.
Snapping his heels together, the boy brought his hand up in a salute, his palm facing outwards, his hand bouncing slightly as it hovered over his brow. He stared at the dummy. “Lieutenant Michael Thorley, Jr., reporting as ordered, SIR!”
The dummy remained silent.
The boy dropped the salute sharply to his side and nodded. “Very good, sir, at once.”
Hefting an imaginary rifle, he began to march around the attic, executing a Manual of Arms. He threaded his way through boxes of old books and newspapers with headlines that screamed: “MONTY TROUNCES THE DESERT FOX!” and “HITLER IS KAPUT!” He marched past a crate filled with his old toys, ignoring his once treasured clown doll, watching him now with its one remaining eye. The boy did an about turn and pretended to thrust a bayonet at an ancient Victrola, its brass horn now dulled and flecked with spots of corrosion.
“Die, Nazi bastard!”
Suddenly somber, he returned to the trunk and replaced the belt and the helmet exactly as he found them, and then lifted out an old photograph, browned and ragged at the edges. It showed a young man seated in the passenger side of a Jeep, his eyes staring out past the camera, his expression one of sadness.
“What happened, Dad?” the boy whispered, his index finger tracing the shape of the face in the photograph. “What bloody happened?”
Sighing, the boy returned the photo to its rightful place and reached for the trunk’s lid. It was time to go; his mother would be returning from her daily shopping any moment, and he wanted to be safely downstairs engrossed in his homework.
It was then that he noticed the slight bulge in the gaily colored paper lining the lid. Was something under there, or was it just a fault in the glue allowing the paper to bubble up in one spot?
Now more curious than ever, the boy reached forward, his slender fingers only inches away from the tell-tale bulge.
A door slammed downstairs.
“Michael? Where are you, dear?”
He slapped the lid closed, snapped the clasps, and heaved it off the floor with a grunt, his muscles straining.
“Michael?” his mother called out, closer now. “Are you up in the attic? You know how I feel about that. I’d better not find you into your father’s things again, or I shall put them under lock and key!”
With one last look to see that everything was back in its proper place, the boy scampered down the stairs, leaving the ghost of his father and his unanswered questions behind.
THE FATHER: 1941
Michael Thorley slipped the heavy Bakelite headphones from his ears, feeling the rush of cooler air play across his lobes, making them tingle like the jab of a thousand tiny needles. He sighed, rubbed his tired, burning eyes with the thumb and forefinger of one hand while the other, holding a pencil, completed the translation in swift short strokes.
He’d just spent the last eight hours glued to an obscure radio station in Upper Silesia listening to farm reports droned in a stentorian monotone extolling the latest wheat and potato harvests. And it was up to him to take down every blasted word. Now that the farm reports had ended, the station would play Wagner’s Ring Cycle opera for the rest of the evening—all eight hours of it. It was time to pack it in.
Disgusted, Thorley threw the pencil onto the table next to the receiver and scanned the room through the omnipresent haze of tobacco smoke, wondering just what he’d done to deserve this stygian fate.
Barely ten by ten, with cracked, yellowed plaster and mahogany wainscoting scarred by years of neglect, the “Radio Room” was a rabbit warren squirreled away in the northeast corner of the Foreign Office building. It was home to five other men, each with his own receiver and headphones, listening intently while scribbling away on a pad of what they laughingly called paper: unlined straw-colored foolscap, hole-punched on one edge.
The irony was that no more than five stories below him lay the busiest address in London. At all hours of the day, one could get a bird’s-eye view of history being made down there at Number 10 Downing Street, where Churchill and his cabinet constantly came and went, busily conducting the war.
And here he was listening to blather. What he wouldn’t give to sit in just one of those meetings.
Snapping out of his reverie, Thorley mentally transformed the loops and whorls of the Pitman shorthand into the King’s English.
Boring. It was all so bloody boring he wanted to scream. And yet it was vital. His superiors—the old men who dressed in tweeds or expensive Savile Row suits and spoke of gardens and pheasant hunting in the measured tones of Oxford and Cambridge—wanted to know every detail of the German harvest. How better to know the state of the enemy’s fighting man, than to know if he was going to have a full belly the following winter. And there was the rub.
It was vitally important, yet utterly without challenge. A second-year language student could have done the work, but not without the airtight security clearance Thorley possessed. And then again, someone had to listen to all the minutiae, the drivel that came out of Hitler’s Third Reich, for amongst the dross might lay that inestimable pearl of truth that would mean the difference between victory...or utter disaster.
Shaking his head, Thorley gathered up the last of his translations.
“You all right, Michael?”
Thorley looked up and saw that the man next to him had his headphones off and was gazing at him with an expression consisting of equal parts concern and curiosity.
Cursed with a head of blazing red hair and a mass of freckles that covered every inch of his gangling six-foot frame, Roger Hornsby had the look of an innocent schoolboy. It was a look that engendered immediate trust, and had, on more than one occasion, engendered members of the opposite sex right into bed.
“I’m sorry, did you say something?” Michael asked, frowning at something on his pad. He erased one of the characters and replaced it with one very similar, then glanced at Roger.
Roger lifted a ginger eyebrow, his face splitting into a wry grin. “I asked you if you were all right. You look a bit knackered.”
Thorley nodded and stood, grabbing up his foolscap. “That’s the word for it,” he said, placing the headphones on the chair for the next listener. “I’ve bloody well had it.”
“Then Dr. Roger suggests that we raise a pint or two across the way. My treat.”
“Now that is an occasion,” Michael said, smiling for the first time. “Unfortunately, I must miss that epochal moment. Lillian’s making a bit of tinned beef this evening.”
“Good Lord, where on earth did she scare that up?”
Michael shrugged his narrow shoulders, the glint of humor still in his eyes. “She won’t say. Claims it’s a state secret.”
“My missus is always prattling on about such things, too. Ah, well, to wives and secrets, then,” Roger said, hoisting an imaginary glass. “I suppose now I’ll have to find some female companionship, instead of your sterling company.”
Michael laughed. “You’re a rotter, Hornsby, a real rotter.”
“Count on it, old boy,” Roger said, a sly grin crinkling the corners of his eyes.
Michael nodded to the others, grabbed his Trilby hat and gas mask box off the coat stand, and walked down the narrow hall until he reached the typists’ room, where he handed off his sheaf of papers to an owlish girl with milk-bottle glasses. “Just the usual,” he said.
The girl shrugged, placed the papers on the table next to her and immediately began clacking away on her Underwood, her expression one of grim determination.
From the typists’ room, Thorley took the stairs to the ground floor and was almost out the door when one of the Wrens came running. “Mr. Thorley, sir, please wait!”
Thorley turned, reluctantly. “Yes?”
The girl, a young slip of a thing with a mousy brown pageboy and bright red lipstick, thrust an envelope into his hands. Thorley started to shove it into his coat pocket.
“I’m sorry, sir, but you’re to read it straightaway.”
Sighing again, Thorley tore open the plain buff envelope and unfolded a single sheet of thick, creamy vellum. The name engraved at the top that brought him up short, as well as the twenty terse words written in a hasty angular script:
Your presence is required in the office of the Director at 54 Broadway Buildings, St. James’s, at precisely 1900 hours, Sir Basil.
Thorley’s pulse quickened, and a lone trickle of sweat began the long slow journey down his spine. He was being asked, no—ordered to appear at the headquarters of MI6, the arm of Britain’s Secret Service responsible for intelligence gathering outside Britain’s borders. And while his work as a translator for the Foreign Office touched upon MI6’s territory, there was no reason for them to be calling him in. Unless, somehow, he’d failed them, botched up a translation. Sometimes one word could change the whole meaning of a sentence, cast a more ominous light on something one would at first think to be an innocent statement. Or, as with troop movements, that one word could mean the difference between knowing the true whereabouts of a certain Panzer division, or where a Luftwaffe squadron was based. The German language could be capricious in that way. Something was wrong and they were probably going to pack him off to the Outer Hebrides, Scapa Flow, or some other godforsaken place where he could do little harm, and less good. The thought of that possibility drove his spirits into the depths of despair, for as much as the work bored him at times, it made him feel vital—needed.
But as quickly as the depression descended on him, it lifted when he realized that a transfer would come in the form of a personal visit by his superior, Sir Basil Ravenhurst, during regular hours. Sir Basil, as fair-minded a man as any he had ever worked for, would take him aside and, with solemn regret, tell him that his services were needed elsewhere. Thorley had seen it happen more than once. And even if that were the case, he could always resign and go back to his old post as a Professor of European Languages at Balliol College. Would that be such a bad thing? And suddenly he knew that it would, for he’d spent far too much time there to go back to the cobwebbed halls of Oxford.
Thorley tore his eyes from the note and glanced up at the Wren. She had an expectant look on her round unlined face.
He started to speak, to ask her what it was all about, but he swallowed the words, knowing it was useless. Everyone tended his own garden; it was an unwritten and unspoken law every bit as sacred as those debated in the Houses of Parliament. It was the reason Thorley had not asked Roger what station he’d been listening to—it wasn’t cricket, as some would say. Thorley handed back the note.
“Tell Sir Basil I’ll be there,” he said.
“Very good, sir.” The Wren spun around and headed back the way she’d come, the heels of her sensible shoes clacking across the parquet flooring.
It never ends, Thorley thought, taking off his hat. The meeting would convene in exactly one hour, which meant he had no time to go home, and the special dinner Lillian was preparing would now go to waste.
Tramping back up the stairs, he walked into an empty office, picked up the phone, and dialed: BRIxton-1631.
Her voice caressed his ear like warm velvet, in a way that always made his mouth go dry. This time it only made him feel guilty.
He and Lillian had only been married a year. She’d swept into the room at a Foreign Office party on the arm of a Flight Lieutenant and had abandoned the poor sod the instant their eyes met across that smoke-filled room. Until that singular blinding moment, Thorley had always pooh-poohed the idea of love at first sight, thought it the stuff of Hollywood claptrap. And, yet, one look into Lillian Dudley’s hazel eyes and Thorley was lost.
They’d spent the entire evening together pouring out their life stories: his in sheltered academia, hers spent in orphanages and foster homes, and not even the air raid that drove the party into the basement shelter could stanch the tide of romance. He noted, with no small irony, that it now seemed as if they spent more time apart than together.
“It’s me, love.”
He heard her sharp intake of breath. “Dear God, Michael, where are you? Dinner’s almost on.”
“I’m still here, something’s come up. Sir Basil’s ordered me to a meeting at MI6 in about an hour. Knowing those chaps, it could last quite a while.”
“That sounds serious,” she said, her voice edged with concern.
“It’s always serious. I just wish I’d left thirty seconds earlier. Are you cross with me?”
“No,” she said. “Just disappointed. I wanted this evening to be special.”
“Every evening’s special with you.”
“You always know how to make it all right,” she said.
“And you’re always the trooper.”
“Oh, Michael,” she said, the disappointment in her voice becoming palpable. “Will you at least have a sandwich while you’re out?”
“I will, sweetheart. Got to go. Love you. And sorry about dinner.”
He replaced the phone in its cradle and glanced at the large clock hanging on the far wall. Half past six.
He’d have just enough time to walk it.
Returning to the ground floor, he put on his hat, grabbed his cardboard box and rushed out the door.
Outside, the sun hung just above the spires of Westminster Abbey, that venerable sepulcher of Kings and Queens, sparking off red-gold reflections that dazzled the eye and stirred the soul. Thorley shivered, feeling the cool breeze that blew in off the Thames. It was early August, and yet it still felt as if winter lurked in the shadows.
Turning up his collar, Thorley turned south on Whitehall, heading toward Parliament Square a block away.
The early evening crowds thickened as he crossed King Charles Street and passed in front of the Treasury. On his left, looking like some giant medieval toad, sat the red-bricked, turreted building that was Scotland Yard, headquarters of London’s world-famous police force.
Normally, Thorley felt a certain irrational sense of security seeing it there as he passed it day after day. Now, he found himself growing more anxious, turning the summons over in his mind as a cat would play with a dead mouse.
Reaching the square, Thorley turned west into Great George Street, fighting through a phalanx of grim-faced clerks determined to reach the tube station on the Embankment.
And everywhere he looked Thorley saw uniforms.
Army. Navy. RAF.
Proud men, vitally committed to their nation’s survival, men whose eyes gleamed with danger and purpose, their girlfriends clinging tight to their arms, breathless and heady with romance.
These men exuded a decisive power and it made Thorley self-conscious. For even though he was every bit as committed to England’s survival—a commitment that no one who knew him would ever question—he nevertheless felt inadequate, as if he were still an outsider.
Moments later, he passed into Storey’s Gate and then right into Old Queen Street. Here the crowds dwindled to the occasional passerby.
Sensing that time was growing short, he quickened his pace, turned onto a narrow carriageway that widened into Dartmouth Street, then doglegged into Broadway.
Moments later he stood in front of number 54.
It was an unprepossessing group of terraced houses in the ubiquitous Georgian style so common in the mid-to-late-eighteenth century when most of the Westminster area was built, and it was for precisely this reason, as well as its proximity to the center of power that made it the perfect choice for the Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6.
Organized in 1909 as the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau, its main purpose was to neutralize the effectiveness of foreign agents working on British soil, primarily German agents sent in by Kaiser Wilhelm II. In those days it was run with a benevolent iron hand by Sir Mansfield Cumming, a former Captain in His Majesty’s Navy. By 1922, it had become the SIS, or Secret Intelligence Service, and operated under its own mandate to ferret out and destroy threats to British interests wherever they might be found. Cumming himself had recently retired, yet his presence remained tangible. His successor signed all documents as Cumming did: with the moniker “C”.
Glancing once more at his wristwatch, Thorley steeled his nerves and walked into number 54 through the massive glass and wrought iron door, the glass now crisscrossed by adhesive paper strips to reduce the dangers of flying glass in case of bomb blasts. It was one more reminder that life in Britain had changed for the duration.
Inside, Thorley found himself in a tiny dimly lit foyer of dark paneled wood that smelled of oil soap and furniture polish. It was devoid of any ornamentation, save for the portraits of several nameless seventeenth century nobles lining the walls, their catlike eyes gazing out of faces draped with long powdered wigs and haughty disdain.
Beyond the portraits and the sumptuous Persian throw rug that covered the walkway sat a plain utilitarian desk that belied the old-world look of the building, as did the straitlaced naval officer perched behind it. The boy, for that is what he appeared to be in his tidy Lieutenant’s uniform, had the well-scrubbed look that one saw so often on the children of the privileged. Thorley approached, and was about to speak when the young officer opened a fat ledger bound in red Morocco leather and pushed it toward him. He then handed Thorley a heavy Monte Blanc fountain pen.
“Please sign in, sir.”
Thorley scrawled his name on the next empty line and handed back the pen, noting that his name lay directly under that of Sir Basil’s. The officer glanced at the ledger and nodded. Thorley could almost hear the boy’s mind counting off a mental checklist.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Thorley. You’re expected.”
He motioned to a Military Policeman Thorley hadn’t noticed before. The man moved forward and took a position that placed him squarely between Thorley and the stairs. He watched Thorley with a flat beady-eyed stare that betrayed not the slightest emotion. It made Thorley even more nervous.
“The Director’s office is on the fourth floor on the Broadway side,” the Lieutenant said, breaking into Thorley’s thoughts, “Sergeant Hutchins will escort you. Please do not venture onto any of the other floors, and do not speak to anyone you may meet in passing. Is that clear?”
Thorley noticed a tiny smirk on the Lieutenant’s face. Was it mockery, contempt? He couldn’t be sure, but it was enough to make him forget his fear for the moment.
“Quite clear,” Thorley said, his voice tight with annoyance.
“You may proceed. And please be so good as to hang your hat and gas mask over there.” He pointed to a coat stand by the stairs.
Keeping his face neutral, Thorley mumbled his thanks and moved toward the stairs, placing his things on the coat stand as he passed. The military policeman dogged his heels. He knew the lieutenant was still watching him, could feel his eyes probing; and he realized that even though the boy had been the essence of courtesy, his eyes had been the same as those he’d seen in the ancient portraits: cold...suspicious...dead....
Grabbing the carved oak railing, Thorley mounted the stairs, his mind turning uneasy somersaults.