The corridor of 169 Sheikh Khalid Street, Calcutta, was silent. The early morning sun, high enough - just - to clip the feathery tops of the bamboo swells lining the Hooghly river, slatted obliquely in the windows along its length as sharply defined columns of light, trapping in the beams a myriad of minute dust particles. The brightness of the beams cast the shadowed corners darker yet. The corridor had that Sunday-morning feeling about it.
Then a door closed noisily and the peaceful silence was abruptly shattered. Footsteps echoed off the high, ornately plastered ceiling as Brigadier Donald Reisman cut snow storm swathes through the beams of sunlight. He reached the door displaying his nameplate and threw it open. He strode in past his open-mouthed adjutant and snatched up the phone.
There was a pause during which Reisman’s eyebrows lifted and his forehead creased. “Well, have him come to my office as soon as he gets in!“ He let the receiver drop back onto its cradle, cutting short the muffled reply.
The adjutant thought that he recognised Reisman’s mood, yet he rose manfully to his feet. “brigadier…“ he began tentatively.
Reisman glared threateningly at the man, daring to break his train of thought. The adjutant thought better of it and he slid back down in his seat and made an elaborate pretence of resuming his work. Reisman stabbed at the intercom console. When there was no immediate, response to his call he spat out an oath and jabbed again at the button. This time he kept his finger there. The speaker finally clicked.
“Platten! Have you all gone on leave down there? I want you and whichever idiot you’ve got on Signal Ops up in my office now. And I do mean now!”
The adjutant rose silently and sidled from the room, intently studying a sheaf of totally unimportant papers. Reisman watched the door close behind him, a smile pulling at his mouth. Then he threw himself into the chair behind his own desk and began to crack his finger-joints one by one. The adjutant had misread his mood entirely. Reisman was not angry. He was tense, and he was impatient. He was also worried. He withdrew a slip of paper from his pocket and read it through yet again, probably for the fifth time that morning. He smiled grimly. And as he read his mind unconsciously gave the business a new codename.
He looked up from the paper as the name soaked through the mental barrier. PHOENIX. It could be no other. “From out of the ashes…“ He shook his head minutely, as if to remind himself that there was more at stake than finding a more apt codename.
All the same it was hard to believe. The thread had been picked up in - of all places - a Japanese prison camp! And It was not, as Reisman would have found easier to believe, one of the camps the Japs had set up in Singapore where, almost as the final bomb was falling, the trail had come to an abrupt end; but it was a camp in Rangoon. Another siege altogether.
Then he heard footsteps approaching down the corridor. He slipped the paper back into his pocket. Uncanny or not; true or not, Rangoon was obviously the place where they had to look. And they had to do it not only because of the piece of paper, but also – strangely - despite it.
There was a rap on the door. Reisman sucked in a lungful of air and exhaled it slowly. He spared an instant to reflect that only Desmond Potter could make a knock on a door sound sarcastic.
The door opened and a man in civilian clothes walked in. He closed the door behind him with - it seemed to Reisman - exaggerated care, and turned to face the desk. It was no secret to either of them that the invisible swords were instantly crossed.
“‘mornin’, brigadier.” From the corner of his eye Desmond Potter could see that the adjutant was not at his desk and that the two men were alone in the office. Walters passed it on then?“
“He passed it on,’ affirmed Reisman acidly, biting back the resentment he felt at Potter’s obvious conclusion that the arrival of the piece of paper in Reisman’s pocket was due solely to Potter’s own man, as opposed to the Signal Ops number downstairs. But that acidity was all the retaliation Reisman was going to allow himself. There were far bigger fish to fry.
Desmond Potter had only a small amount of military blood running through his veins. If asked, he had none at all. He certainly had no time for normal Intelligence Corps methods and ethics, wartime or otherwise. He was a major, but that was merely a device for keeping the books straight. Espionage, Potter pointed out at every opportunity, was not a game of rules. Yet it was for this very reason that Reisman had placed him in his present position as head of Group-Six, whose activities would have been hamstrung by such conventions. Reisman had also engineered it that his own powers over the Group were limited. Not ineffectual, jus limited. And despite the animosity that had pervaded his relationship with Potter from the very outset, Reisman would have it no other way; and it was one of his standing guidelines that only one thing was more damaging to healthy working relationships than mutual dislike. And that was mutual admiration.
As Director of Military Intelligence in the Far East theatre, and as a senior officer on the Joint Intelligence Committee, I.S.4, Reisman’s bailiwick stretched from Melbourne in the east, to the Persian Gulf in the west. Anything that came under the heading of Intelligence an Counter-Intelligence, between these two points, had Reisman’s stamp on it; from the everyday workings of the Corps, to the more devious functions of the Special Groups, the numbers of which were rapidly diminishing as the
Japanese Fourteenth Army pushed further and further westward.
Group-Six, with its official title of MIT-X, was Reisman’s particular brainchild and its existence was known to no more than a handful of people throughout the world. It was far better, Reisman reasoned, that the right hand be kept in ignorance of what the left was up to. In this case the right hand was the Corps. Whilst the left was Group-Six, who knew everything - or nearly everything - that there was to know about the Corps. And the system worked. The piece of paper in Reisman’s pocket was proof of this. Group-Six was the watchdog. And it was doing the job it was designed to do.
“What d’you think ?“ asked Potter, easing himself into the adjutant’s recently vacated seat. Reisman’s reluctance to pick up the usual gauntlet had not gone unnoticed.
Reisman took time to light up a cigarette. Then he said:
“I’d like to hear your view first, if you don’t mind.” There was no malice in the statement and Potter read none into it. The situation demanded clear thought, and if Reisman wanted to use him as a springboard from which to clarify his own conclusions then that was fine with Potter. The boot was often on the other foot.
“There are a couple of very good reasons why we have to be very wary of that particular interception.”
Reisman slipped the paper from his pocket, glanced at the text, then looked back at Potter. “And these are?“
Potter shifted his seat and brushed a non-existent speck of dust from his sleeve. “Coincidence is one. Though perhaps not the most important.”
Reisman nodded. “Go on.”
Potter leant forward over the adjutant’s desk and clasped his hands together firmly. “How long have we been chasing SPEAKER?“
Reisman pursed his lips but refrained from comment. The question was purely rhetorical, and both men knew it. Potter went on to supply the answer himself.
“Too damned long! And over too many miles! And how many times have we - or anyone else - intercepted an enemy signal that referred to him in any way?“
Again Reisman said nothing. Besides, he was way ahead of Potter’s line of reasoning. The man - if indeed it was a man - to whom the codename SPEAKER referred had made his existence felt back in ‘39, when it had become obvious that the guts of many Cabinet decisions had leaked beyond the walls of the War Office. This leak had continued, to a varying degree, right up to the declaration of war with Germany. The task of plugging the hole had first gone to M.I. Then the man had transferred his attention to M.I. itself, with the result that the file was passed over to the S.I.S. By this time the man had earned himself the nickname of “The Mole“.
Disaster had followed disaster, each preceded by a leak of some vital piece of Top Secret information. The big problem was that these leaks seemed to lack direction; they affected every service, at all levels. And the file, now with its SPEAKER codename, had grown larger and larger. But it was a file of “effects” only, there was not a single word in it that even hinted at the “cause “.
Then came Pearl Harbour. And the Japanese war. And as the Americans were still dusting away the effects of that first attack the leaks in Europe suddenly plugged themselves, only to be transferred to the Far East theatre - Reisman’s domain. The S.I.S. relinquished – gladly - the bulging SPEAKER file to Group-Six. Via Reisman.
Then, with all five of the Group’s field men picking up the traces, came Singapore.
“Never!“ Potter was saying, “is the answer to that one! Then Harry Wyler contacts us from Singapore and - how ever the hell he got hold of the information - he tells us that the man we want is working under the codename of FUJI. Right after that the axe falls on Singapore and, we presume, Wyler too. Then we intercept that…“ He indicated the Paper in Reisman’s hand. “A Class-A Military signal, originating from Tokyo and directed at the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Fourteenth Army in Rangoon, informing him that one of their agents, code-named FUJI -surprise surprise! - has got himself snarled up in the front-line campaign and is currently residing in one of his prison camps; and would the commander be good enough to ensure that no harm comes to him whilst he is there. That, brigadier, coupled with the fact that the message was relayed in the ENIGMA code - something else that has never happened before, to my knowledge - are a set of coincidences that stink! At any distance! They’re laying it all on a plate for us to sop up; codename and all!”
Reisman looked over at him steadily. “So you would do nothing ?“
Potter sat up straight. “I didn’t say that!“
Reisman raised an eyebrow. “Then what are you saying?”
Potter sighed deeply. “The code, brigadier. ENIGMA. Up to now it has only been used for diplomatic traffic. Now, suddenly, they use it for something else entirely. Something that they know we are desperately interested in.”
Reisman ground his cigarette out in the ashtray. Then he said: “The logical conclusion of which - ”
Potter broke into his sentence. “That they know - or at the very least they suspect - that we have ENIGMA. For my money they are willing to sacrifice SPEAKER to be certain, one way or the other, on that single point!“
Reisman, despite himself, felt an involuntary shudder pass over him. This, as with Potter, had been his biggest worry. Their possession of the ENIGMA machine was the secret of all secrets. It could almost - no, it could definitely be said - that it was the linchpin of all intelligence activity. Years of painstaking work had gone into its development and eventual construction, starting with the wooden mock up of it, built by a Polish mechanic who had worked on the original German model, to the final, working machine, completed by the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. The Germans, Reisman knew, still considered the cypher completely safe to use. And why not? The machine was a masterpiece of ingenuity - second only to the use of the one-time pad system - with which, without access to a duplicate machine, a message could be turned into an impossibly random set of numbers, utterly undecodable.
The Japanese had purchased an earlier, less complicated version of the ENIGMA machine as far back as 1930 and had since adapted it for their own use. But it had been a relatively simple task for the people at Bletchley to identify, and duplicate, the adaptation. The result of their work, a sister to the Japanese ENIGMA, was housed in Bob Potter’s cellars. And it had been on that machine that Archie Walters had produced the translation that Reisman held in his hand.
Reisman pulled a taut face and nodded gravely. “Unfortunately that does seem to be…”
He was interrupted by a knock on the door. He groaned inwardly as he remembered his summons to Major Platten. It did not seem so important now to tear a strip off the man for not recognising that particular set of numbers. But then, on the other hand, he should have done; it was part of his job. So it would have to be done now. Indeed it would have been too far removed from Reisman’s character to have backed away from a dressing-down once the die had been cast.
Potter rose to his feet. “I’ll come back later.”
Reisman waved him back into his seat. “This won’t take long.“ Then he barked at the door: “Come in!“
The door slid open and the adjutant poked his head furtively into the room. He announced the arrival of Major Platten and Captain Wolff.
Platten was the first to enter. His uniform was immaculately turned out as usual, and not a single strand of his hair was out of place. His face held a newly scrubbed shine. Reisman made the mental note that he must have just got in.
Wolff was a complete reversal. The knees of his trousers bulged from long hours spent sitting at his desk. His had been hurriedly drawn up and one wing of his collar was pinned under it. His hair was a mess and face was red and flustered. Obviously he had been about to return to his quarters after a night of duty in the Operations Room.
Reisman, despite his impatience to get on with the business, mellowed slightly. How could he really blame these men? After all, all they had to go on was a standing instruction to look out for cyphers containing nothing but four-figured groups of numbers. For this - although it did not aid decoding in any way, shape or form - was a peculiarity of the ENIGMA machine’s output.
Platten, like the adjutant, recognised the symptoms; Reisman’s face and stance - he had risen and was standing feet apart, hands clasped behind his back - told him that this looked likely to be yet another hard day to add to all the rest. And Potter - that troublesome little man from the Taj Import Agency - was here, too, usually boded not at all well. For Platten knew that, despite the Import Agency front, the name was nothing more a cover. But a cover for what, he did not know. Nor did he care. It was quite enough that Potter seemed privy to Reisman’s ear.
Platten walked to the centre of the room and saluted easily enough. Wolff, a trifle more jerkily, followed suit. After a suitably long pause for effect Reisman delved into his inside pocket where he had placed the original communication, and he tossed it disgustedly onto the desk in front of him, sweeping up Walters’ translation in the same movement. His voice rasped gratingly.
“Seen that before ?“
Platten glanced down at the paper, then back to Reisman. Then he leant forward. As his fingers closed around the paper he was going over in his mind the events of the past few days, trying to recall something that he could have done wrong. Nothing sprang readily to mind.
He recognised the number groupings right away, they were what Reisman called his own, personal cipher. Then he saw something that Walters had scrawled on the bottom of the page in red. He didn’t know Walters, of course, so he assumed that Reisman himself must have done it. It was the word RANGOON. Walters had jotted it there because, being a place name, it was the first word out of the machine and, as such, it had a bearing on the remainder of the machine’s settings. And it was that word that reminded Platten that he had not given Reisman the latest news coming over the wires.
“Oh, brigadier,“ he said, letting the hand holding the paper drop to his side, “We’ve just heard from the Arakan.”
Reisman jumped to the wrong conclusion. “About that?“ He nodded down at the paper.
“No, sir. They just passed the word that – “
Reisman exploded. “The paper, man! The paper! I don’t give a tinker’s cuss for anything else!“
Platten knew that he had done it all wrong. But having made the mistake, he thought that he might just as well carry it through. He held up the paper. “This reminded me, sir. We’ve heard at last from General Torrance. He’s in Maymo. They’ve finally given up on Southern Burma. This came from the pilot of a recce plane who managed to put down in the Arakan. That’ll be the only one we’ve got left in the air, I shouldn’t wonder. As you know, sir, we still can’t raise Burma by radio, because of the jamming down there. And all the land lines are still out. So apart from that piece of news all we are getting is second-hand stuff from the coast, plus a snippet or two from up north. It doesn’t add up to a clear picture, but I think we can be reasonably certain about this one…“
Platten went on speaking but Reisman was no longer listening. He and Potter had exchanged the first non-hostile glance since their first meeting. Maymo was a very long way from Rangoon and, with the almost total lack of anything airworthy, getting a man back down to Rangoon was going to be the devil of a job. In fact, the more Reisman thought about it, the more impossible a task it became. As his mind calculated the chances his gaze slipped to a point somewhere between Potter’s head and infinity, during which time Platten had finished talking and a hush had descended on the room.
Captain Peter Wolff stood waiting for something to happen. He had received the news about the Burma campaign in a detached sort of way. He had been correlating the news - such as it was - as and when it came in since early yesterday evening, and by five that morning he had known that General Torrance would not have been able to get any kind of a holding action together in the Irrawaddy basin, not with the forces he had available to him; and certainly not after the mauling these forces had taken in Rangoon itself. So he was a little surprised to see the brigadier apparently taking it so badly.
Surely no-one, not even Reisman, could have been living in hopes of some eleventh-hour miracle which would allow the Allies to retake Rangoon. In fact, Wolff’s mind was so dulled at that moment that he would not have been surprised to learn that the Japanese Fourteenth Army was to be seen pushing the pitiful remnants of Torrance’s army up Sheikh Khalid Street if they’d care to look out of the window. Indeed, who the hell was there to stop that happening? The whole blasted military structure in the Far East was crumbling before their very eyes. Total disarray, it was, in Wolff’s book. And it seemed to him that the Intelligence Corps was the worst offender.
What was that figure? Fifty thousand, was it? About that. Fifty thousand fifth-columnists operating in Burma alone. The whole country was a gigantic breeding-ground, for them. They must be hanging from the trees and crawling out from the rice-sacks! And that was just Burma. How many more here in India? Just waiting for the word to sabotage everything in sight that wasn’t nailed down! And here was “169 “, the hub of the Intelligence Corps in Far East, tearing its hair out because a single enemy was running rings around them. For Christ’s sake! It was not beyond the realms of possibility that at least half dozen were already sharing the coffee and biscuits in lunch-breaks! There might even be one in this very room! Who the hell knows? Spies were in vogue now. So why not?
It crossed Wolff’s mind then that life had been far simpler, and far more comfortable, back in his cosy Whitehall office. No interminable Yellow-Alerts there. God, the Yellow-Alert! It was worse than the war itself. The Yellow-Alert was everyone’s enemy! Right down to the cleaners. Was it really only four months ago that Reisman had issued the orders? Four whole months? Sixteen weeks of extra-precautionary measures; of hand-delivered memos, where before. a telephone call would have sufficed; of the dreaded Eyes-Only, where the head of each successive shift passed on its day’s work and findings in a hand-written report that had to be ceremoniously destroyed after it had been read and digested. And of the weekly reports - again hand written - that had to be handed to Reisman personally, with no copies made. And the thousand-and-one other nerve- fraying processes that went to make up Reisman’s version of a Yellow-Alert.
There was not, Wolff was sure, a single man or woman on the station who would have hesitated, even for an instant, to defect to the other side if it looked as though a Red-Alert was on the way! The ramifications of one of those were too horrible to contemplate.
Reisman caught himself on. Negative speculation at this stage was less than useless. Quick action was needed. It was Wolff, shuffling uneasily from foot to foot, who reminded Reisman that he still had some carpeting to do. He straightened his backbone and waved at the paper Platten still held loosely in his hand.
“Be that as it may, Major. I asked you a question. Have you seen that paper before?“
Platten drew a discreetly inaudible sigh. His thoughts had been essentially those of Wolff’s. He had been under the impression that his news about Rangoon had in some way upset Reisman. But now it seemed that the opposite was true. Reisman appeared now not to give a fig for the fate of Southern Burma. It was all this damned paper. He lifted his arm and looked again at it. He shrugged lightly.
“It’s the priority code, sir.”
Reisman heaved a sigh of his own. “And you, captain. What do you make of it?“
Wolff took the paper from Platten and scanned it. But he could add no more than Platten had. It was Reisman’s priority code; end of topic. Surely Reisman wasn’t expecting him to know what the damn numbers meant! But he scanned it once again, struggling to find something that would fire his flagging enthusiasm. He found nothing, glanced over at Platten, hoping for some moral support, but all he got was a blank stare. At least he was not alone in his obvious ignorance. But he felt that he had to something. Anything! So, in a sudden burst of inspired self-confidence, he said, “I don’t think I was on duty when this came in, You see, when the Monitor Room gets a signal, they - .“
“I know what the bloody hell they do, captain!“ spat Reisman, shooting Wolff down in flames. “I ought to, I invented the blasted system! And because I did, because I take pains to see that it runs smoothly, I also know’ you should have had an Eyes-Only from the operator concerned…“ He turned to Platten. “And it is your job, Major, to see that these procedures are carried out, regardless of message-content! Tell me, Major, what time were we honoured by your presence this morning?”
Oh, God, thought Platten, we’re slipping down to that level again. He braced himself. “Eight-thirty” he ventured. He knew that it would not have been good enough if he had arrived in the building at four-thirty, with Reisman in that kind of a mood.
“Eight-thirty,“ repeated Reisman coolly. “That is a luxury denied most of us. It is as well that at seven-thirty I was in your section on quite a different matter when I saw that paper…”
Potter, who had been wondering why Reisman would be conducting such an interview in his presence, grinned humorously to himself. What Reisman had said, of course, was not true. Waiters had passed both pieces of paper on to Reisman no more than thirty minutes ago.
“…though why,” Reisman was saying, “it was left for me to find, is beyond me!“ He glared at the two men for a moment. Then, with a sigh of long-suffering, he said:
“You can both thank your lucky stars that there are bigger fish to fry at this moment. Right, captain, get back down to Ops and run a check. I want to know who was at the monitor when that came in. I also want to know why you did not get an Eyes-Only. When you’ve done that I want you to check back and see if you’ve missed anything else. Off you go.”
Wolff saluted quickly and turned on his heel. He had already said goodbye to the hot bath he had been looking forward to. But it was well worth the sacrifice just to get out of that room.
When Wolff had gone Reisman addressed himself to Platten. “And you, Major, I want details of every piece of transport at present at our disposal. And, whatever it takes, I want to know – precisely - the situation in Southern Burma.“
Platten opened his mouth to speak. Reisman held up a hand. “For the moment, just listen. Very soon we will be putting into operation an F-Class sortie behind the enemy lines, which is why I want to know exactly where those lines are. And this sortie ventures into realms of secrecy that you will not even be able to guess at. And I only tell you this much so that you will shake yourself, and the entire station, out of its apathy. We’re in trouble, Major. Real trouble! And I don’t exaggerate. Do you get my drift?”
Platten nodded, not really sure whether he did or not. Reisman nodded. “I hope you do. Because we are not dealing with your everyday saboteur, though God knows we have enough of those on our hands. And a war still has to be fought. I want you to split your section in half. When the Chief of Staff gets in I’ll have him liaise with you on it. We are going to be running two shops from here on in. One to carry on normal business and the other, hand-picked - we’ll draw up the list later - to concentrate on the coming operation, which will be codenamed PHOENIX. And I want this last group to be isolated from the rest. We’ll sort that out later, too.“
Platten could not stop himself from glancing over at Potter. Reisman had, on occasion, spoken about classified business in front of him, but never before in such depth. Reisman caught the action.
“You have a question regarding Mister Potter ?“ he asked, his eyes narrowing to slits.
Platten brought his eyes back on Reisman sharply. “Er..no sir. Of course not.”
Reisman grunted“. “Then keep it that way. Off you go.”
Platten nodded, accepting the dismissal, saluted and left. Potter rose to his feet. “I presume that you’re very certain about the classifications of those two men.”
Reisman nodded briefly. “I am as certain about theirs as, I hope, you are of your field men.” For an instant the air between them crackled with a charge of static electricity. But Reisman, remembering his earlier resolve on that subject, quickly dissipated it. He took out his cigarette-case, stepped from behind the desk and offered it to Potter.
Potter grinned. “I don’t smoke, brigadier. Remember?” But Reisman’s mind was already on other things. He snapped the case shut and slipped it back into his pocket, without taking one himself. “So, what do we do? Do we follow up the interception? Or do we ignore it?“
Potter walked to the window and stared out at the filling street. “I think that question is dependent upon whether or not we can get a man down there. No transport, no operation! We’ll probably find that it’s going to be as simple and uncomplicated as that! “
Reisman sucked his teeth. “But if we follow it up we hand them confirmation that we have ENIGMA. And that we do not want to do, not at any priceI”
Potter nodded glumly. “Then again you could be right about the coincidence factor. And if we do nothing we could lose our only chance to get a crack at SPEAKER. . .“
Both men lapsed into an uneasy silence, each with his own thoughts. And the seconds ticked by.
After a long time Potter turned from the window. “Brigadier,“ he said, still half immersed in thought,” Do you have an operative in Rangoon ?“
“Eh? Oh, probably. Ah, yes, we have. Or, we did have before the Japs took over. Why do you ask? If you are thinking of using anyone other than a Group-Six man on this, then you’d better think again! I’m not – “.
Potter cut in. “Who is it? “
Reisman eyed him steadily for a moment. Then he turned to the intercom, selected a button and depressed it.
“Is Major Platten back down there yet?“
A voice answered. “Just a minute please, brigadier…”A pause. Then, “Yes, sir. He’s coming now.”
“Major Platten. Yes, brigadier?“
“Platten. Pick up the scrambler, will you.”
Fifteen seconds later one of the phones on Reisman’s desk buzzed insistently. Reisman snatched it up. For several seconds the earpiece issued forth a stream of watery sounds. Then there was a click.
“Platten here, sir. Do you hear me? “
“I hear you. Who have we got down in Rangoon?“
Reisman clicked his tongue. “Of course, under-cover! “
“Well, sir, I can’t be certain that we have anyone down there now. Not with the – “
“Damn it, man. Then who did we have down there? “
“Uh, just a second, sir. I’ll check.”
Reisman waited impatiently, with Potter hovering over his shoulder. At last Platten came back on the line.
“Are you there, sir?”
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Our field agent was a man called Khalif Al Thani, sir. We were getting reports from him up until…ah, two days before Brigade pulled out, sir. Nothing since.”
“You’ve no idea why he stopped sending?”
“Well, yes, sir. The jamming. It cut out all radio communication. If you remember…“
Reisman clucked his tongue self-admonishingly. “Yes, of course. So there’s no hard evidence that this man has gone under?”
“No, sir. None at all. Do you want his file? “
Reisman glanced up at Potter, who had been listening to the conversation, his ear close to the receiver. Potter nodded.
“Yes,” said Reisman, back into the mouthpiece. “Send it up. I’ll speak to you later.” He hung up and turned to Potter. “What’s on your mind? “
Potter waved a loose hand in the air. “Just an idea. What was the name of that prison camp they’re supposed to be holding our man?”
Reisman consulted the paper. “It’s the Poontai Penitentiary.”
Potter nodded gently, walking back to stare out of the window. Reisman waited for a moment, his fingers drumming an impatient tattoo on the desk-top. Then, with a final parradiddle, he stood up. “Look, Major Potter, do you mind letting me in on whatever it is going through your mind!“
Potter did not answer immediately, and Reisman, his impatience growing, slapped the desk-top with the palm of a hand. “Now, look!“
Then Potter turned. “Sorry, brigadier. I was turning a possibility over in my mind.”
Reisman sucked in a steadying breath. “Well, are you ready to share it now ?“
Potter said: “I think we ought to take a stab at something, even if it’s only an attempt to put a face to the codename. If we do it carefully I don’t think we’ll compromise ENIGMA. We could do just what Tokyo wants the C.I.C. Fourteenth Army to do. Pin him down, then watch him; like a hawk! At the very least we’ll be picking up Wyler’s thread.”
Reisman gave it some thought as he lit himself up a cigarette. Then he nodded. “You could be right, Potter. You could be right…“ Then pulled a wry face and shook his head. “Damn it, it’s no good!“
Reisman sat heavily in his chair. “Two reasons. Transport. And communications. Both of which are in pretty short supply. And there’s a third reason, too.”
Reisman looked up at Potter quizzically. “Let’s assume that we did manage to get someone down there…“
Potter cut in: “That’s not what I had in mind. Our operator, if he’s still operating, could be already down there. Your Al Thani fellow. Unless I miss my guess, he - ”
There was a knock on the door. The adjutant came in with a blue file envelope in his hand, which he handed to Reisman. “Major Platten has sent this up for you, sir.”
Reisman took it and the adjutant turned to go. Reisman said, “Where’re you hiding yourself, Henry? “
The adjutant paused in his stride. “Ah, I’m next door, sir. With Colonel Myers. He’s waiting to see you. I – ah - I told him that you were busy.”
Reisman nodded. “Well done, Henry. You’re right, I am busy. Very busy. Try to get Colonel Myers to come back later, will you. He’ll understand.”
“Yes, sir. “
When they were alone, Potter relieved Reisman of the file and quickly scanned through it. After a few moments he tapped one of the pages significantly. “I thought as much. Your man Al Thani. He’s an Arab, but he apparently passes for a Burmese. And he speaks the language, it says here: ‘Better than some locals…‘ He runs a couple of businesses down there.”
Reisman shook his head. “As I was saying before we were interrupted, none of that will help. How, may one ask, is anyone - whoever the devil it is - going to pick SPEAKER from out of a crowd of P.O.W.s? Besides having to be a mouse, he’d also have to be a mind reader!“
Potter knitted his eyebrows together. Then, with a sigh, he let the file fall to his side. “Yes, blast it!”
Reisman smiled crookedly, and nodded. “And there’s still the question of communications.“
Both men lapsed into silence again. Then Reisman seemed to perk up. He leant forward to the intercom and pressed a button.
“Yes, brigadier?” came the immediate response.
“Get me Major Platten again, will you ?“
Potter was back at the window, the file held behind his back. He heard Reisman on the intercom but he didn’t turn. Eventually Platten’s voice came on the speaker.
“Yes, sir. I’ve sent it up already. It…“
“Yes, yes! I’ve got it. Now, Platten, think carefully, when did that submarine pull out for Diamond Harbour? You know the one, the one with the impatient captain.’
Reisman nodded at the speaker. “That’s it. How long’s it been gone?”
There was a brief pause. Then Platten caine back on the air. “Twenty-seven hours, sir.”
“You’re sure? “
“Yes, sir. I handed the captain our despatch box for C.I.C. Ceylon personally.”
Reisman grunted. “Are we still in radio contact with it?”
“I assume so, sir. We haven’t had call to contact it, but it can’t have got that far away. And there’s nothing wrong with communications at sea, sir.”
Reisman thought for a moment. Then, positively, he said: “Call it back !“
“Call it back, sir ?“ repeated Platten, a puzzled edge to his voice.
“I mean, Major Platten, call it back here! I want that submarine!”
Potter, his forehead lined curiously, turned from his contemplation of the street as Platten, with something approaching horror in his voice, said:
“A recall, sir?”
“You heard what I said, Major. Get that submarine back here post-haste! That is unless you can find me a battleship! “
There was a short, pregnant pause, before Platten came back.” I’ll have to contact Admiral MacDonald, sir. I had the very devil of a job to get him to hold up its departure whilst I got the despatch box on board. The admiral went to great pains to explain to me that the submarine constituted his entire navy at the moment. Sir.”
Reisman leant further forward to the intercom. “I don’t care if you’ve got to contact Winston Churchill! Get that sub back here!” He flicked off the speaker switch and sat back in his chair. By that time Potter had walked back to the desk. Reisman looked up at him, his face set like concrete.
“We are going to do something, Potter! Who’ve you got available from the Group? “
Potter frowned momentarily as he wondered what Reisman was up to. Then he remembered that he had done much the same for Reisman a little earlier. He shrugged. “Walters is on duty in the Comm. Room, of course. And Barney Lafarge is at the hostel.”
Reisman nodded, happy to be holding the reins and glad to be able to return to Potter some of his own. “No-one else?”
Potter shook his head. “No, brigadier. Thompson is still en route back from the U.K. And Napier is down at Chittagong. I don’t have a clue when Thompson will get in, but Napier should be back the day after tomorrow. So, for now, there’s only Walters and Lafarge. As for Wyler, your guess is as good as mine.”
Reisman nodded. “Lafarge, then. He’s a good man.”
Potter, still none the wiser, straightened. “They’re all good men, brigadier! “
Reisman smiled. “Of course they are, Potter. In this Instance, I mean that for what I have in mind, Lafarge is more suited than Walters.”
“What do you have in mind, brigadier ?“ Reisman rose to his feet, stepped past Potter and began to pace the distance between desk and window. He said, “I’m going to send Lafarge down to Rangoon by the back door. There is no jamming problem to the south - to sea ward - so Lafarge is going to contact Al Thani. That way, when my man has identified SPEAKER - and I’ll tell you later how he is going to achieve that - Lafarge will be on hand to take over. As you say, Major Potter, if we can’t clobber our man, we’ll sit on his damn tail until something resolves itself!“ He paused in his step. “This is not going to be easy to achieve. Far from it. Such an operation would have been difficult with Speaker out in the open. But with him - as you pointed out - in the middle of X number of P.O.W.s, it will be nigh on impossible. But we’ll do it. By hell we will! “
H.M. Submarine Cutter snubbed her nose in the short swells that marched relentlessly towards her over the Bay of Bengal. The spray rose in a cloud - dazzling-white under the mid-morning sun - to be flung back by the gusting wind. Enough seawater was retained in these gusts as it whipped back past the bridge to make the men of the watch pull their oil-skins tighter about them. These men were cold and tired and, what was probably worse for them, they were bitterly disappointed to find themselves once again heading east. But their eyes lost none of the vigilance because of it. They peered, two through binoculars, two with the naked eye, at the horizon to the left of them. Gulls circled the bridge calling down their derision.
The minutes wore on.
Then, mirage-like to begin with, a thin, pale-green strip appeared on the northern horizon. In those first few seconds of its appearance it might have been missed had the men not been looking for it specifically. The watch officer called down the hatch tower.
“Pass the word for the captain. Land on the port quarter!”.
The captain clattered up the ladder. He took the proffered glasses and looked briefly out over the white-horses. He nodded and handed the glasses back wordlessly.
“Forty-eight degrees,“ ventured the watch officer.
The captain grunted. The information was unnecessary. He had known exactly where the landfall would be. He nodded again to the watch officer and went below.
“See that land over there, number one,“ said one of the men. “If we ‘adn’t gone arse-about-face that’d be Diamond ‘Arbour.”
The officer leant forward on the bridge coaming and looked at the lengthening strip of land. “You can blame our passenger for that little navigational error.”
The man nodded sagely. “Queer bird. Civilian, you reckon?“
“Don’t know, Bates. You’d best ask him.”
Bates shook his head. “Not bloody likely! I’d just as soon not know. If you ask me ‘e’s some kind of a nut. All ‘e does is sit on ‘is bunk all day. What ‘e wants with this part of the world I’ll never know!” He nodded out at the strip of land: “Y’see that? Crawlin’ wiv Japs, that is, number two. An’ our frien’ below like as not wants to be put in amongs’ ‘em. Bloody queer bird!“
The watch officer grunted. He did not care one way or the other, just so long as it was done quickly so that they could get out of there.
Just then the bow bit into a particularly high swell. One half of a rainbow appeared momentarily in the spray before it engulfed them. Some of the spray inevitably found its way down the hatch. Down there the navigating officer looked up from his work and glared disgustedly at the gathering pool of water under the hatch. The captain was still in the control room so he refrained from comment.
“You’re here,” the captain was saying to a short, bull-necked man in civilian clothes. He was making no attempt to disguise the contempt in his voice.
Barney Lafarge was totally unmoved by the captain’s manner. He had lived with it for three days, ever since the ancient seaplane, on the very limit of its first-leg endurance, had landed him alongside the submarine. “Thank you, captain,” he said civilly, his accent more Texas-American than his native Canadian.
The captain hesitated. He was clearly having a mental tussle with himself. The flat of his right hand tapped a light rhythm on his thigh. There was not a man in the control room, Barney Lafarge included, who was not aware of what was going through his mind. At last he turned to his executive officer, who had been standing next to the engineer, waiting.
“All right, number one,” he said quietly, resignedly. “Stop engines and double, no, treble, the deck watch! And keep a sonar sweep going“ Then back to Lafarge. “Let’s go to my cabin.”
Lafarge nodded and preceded him through the bulkhead hatch. When they entered the cabin the captain drew across the heavy curtain. Lafarge seated himself and waited. He knew what to expect. The captain stood over him for a long while, glaring down at him. Then he flipped down the jump-seat and sat heavily.
“Now I’d like to know just how bloody long you think I’m going to risk my ship in these waters.”
“You know the answer to that already, captain,” said Lafarge firmly, yet with respect.
“Damn you!“ cursed the captain, his frustration gushing out. “You, and your blasted cloak and dagger! This is a submarine, not a London bus! Don’t you people realise…”
“We do realise, captain,“ interrupted Lafarge evenly. “And, speaking personally, I have the utmost sympathy. I can assure you that there are a hundred other places I’d rather be than here! But we’ve both had our orders. And we’re both going to carry them out!”
The captain gripped the edge of his table, his knuckles turning white. “Stow that kind of talk, Mister! I don’t need you or anyone to tell me how to do my duty!”
“captain,“ went on Lafarge placatingly. “You’ve had a rough time of it. Singapore must have been hell on wheels. And your men must be wondering just what the devil it is they’ve been let in for…”
Now the captain interrupted, his voice more controlled, “Do not concern yourself over my men! They will do exactly what they are ordered to do. They are navy, Lafarge! “
“I know that, captain. Look, we’ve got to do this job. Neither of us has the privilege of choice.“ Lafarge smiled then. “If it makes you feel any easier it is on the cards that you’ll be putting me ashore within - hopefully the next few hours...“ Actually Lafarge knew this would not be the case, but he was willing to say anything to keep the captain happy for that bit longer. “…and you can go back to using this ship the way it was built to be used. As for me, I’ll be stuck, on my ownsome, in the middle of the Japanese Fourteenth Army, with nothing more substantial around me than that cloak and dagger you mentioned. Not the healthiest of prospects, eh, captain?” There was no doubting that his smile was genuine. But then, Lafarge was well practised in the art of genuine smiles.
The captain was silent for a moment. “All right,” he said at length, no friendlier, but definitely less hostile. “But I warn you, I’m not going to sit here wallowing on the surface like some pregnant porpoise while your people make up their minds what they want to do! If we sight anything larger than a piece of driftwood I’ll take her down. And I’ll defend myself if I have to!“
Three days before, the captain had received orders from Navy Headquarters in Calcutta that he was to set a new course for Southern Burma, and that a passenger would be airlifted to him when the submarine was within the limited range of the only seaplane they had available. When Lafarge had been picked up he carried with him written orders that the captain should place his ship under the instructions of the Intelligence Corps until further notice, and that Lafarge must be considered the voice of the Corps.
A day out from the Arakan, Lafarge had used the ship’s radio to try a call to Reisman’s man in Rangoon. That first attempt had been unsuccessful; the jamming of the airwaves was still too pronounced. A second attempt met with success. Reisman’s coded message to Khalif Al Thani had been passed on. Lafarge had then instructed the captain to head for a point south of the Irrawaddy Delta, and to remain there, on the surface; so that Al Thani could contact Lafarge when, and if, he was able to carry out Reisman’s instruction. Part of Lafarge’s brief had been to ensure that on no account was the captain to engage the enemy, thereby tipping the Japanese off that a British submarine had returned to the Bay of Bengal.
Lafarge said: “Sounds fair, captain.” Actually Lafarge was by nature a survivor, and he would much prefer to be out of touch just below the surface, rather than fish-food on the bottom. He rose to his feet. “And now I think I’ll sample some of your ward-room coffee.”
The sun was well down on the horizon that afternoon when a rating called Lafarge to the radio room. The operator slid out of his seat and handed Lafarge the head phones. Lafarge nodded that the operator should make himself scarce, then he squeezed into the narrow confines of the room and into the seat. He saw the captain appear in the doorway. Lafarge smiled over his shoulder at him.
“This could be the answer to your prayers, captain.” The radio-operator was still at the doorway. Lafarge glanced at the captain meaningfully, with a slight inclination of his head at the man. The captain pursed his lips in annoyance. Then, with a jerk of his head, the operator was dismissed.
“That to your liking, Lafarge ?“
Lafarge nodded. “Thank you, captain.” He picked up a pencil and pulled the message pad closer to him. For at least a minute Lafarge heard nothing on the headset but the hiss of the carrier wave. Then he heard the call-sign being tapped out. Lafarge waited for the pause, then he returned the call-sign.
The code numbers - one of the less complicated and largely up-dated Corps codes - came thick and fast. And they did not come twice. As soon as he was finished the man on the key in Rangoon sent the “closing-down” signal and the headphones were filled with nothing but static. Lafarge smiled grimly. The man must have been under pressure. He slipped off the head phones and began to decode the numbers he had written on the pad.
“CONFIRMING ASSIGNMENT COMPLETED STOP UNABLE TO AVOID PERSONAL CONTACT WITH SUBJECT EXC…“
Lafarge frowned. Al Thani had inserted the abbreviated exclamation mark. What the hell did that mean? Actually Lafarge - on Reisman’s personal order - had been left in total ignorance of the original message sent to Al Thani. That message had been relayed in a one-time-pad code. Lafarge had not questioned Riesman’s motives behind the arrangement because, as far as Lafarge was concerned, he was there purely on account of Calcutta’s inability - due to the jamming problem - to contact Rangoon direct. Lafarge did, however, think twice about the reason why Al Thani’s reply should be recoded yet again, before being transmitted back to Calcutta. But he had looked at the subject with only a mild degree of interest. It was not, after all, Lafarge’s place to question the old man’s procedures. Lafarge shook his head slightly then carried on translating.
“SUBJECT INSISTS THE FOLLOWING BE PASSED ON STOP GDXBGIRAX CDM CKCKX COM PX…“
Lafarge stopped writing when he realised that it was coming out as gibberish. He checked back to see if he’d missed a change-of-grouping instruction. He hadn’t. So he tried again to make some sense of it. It still came out as gibberish. He pulled a hand hard over his face and sat back in the chair for a moment.
It was the captain. Lafarge glanced up at him. “Must be getting addled in my old age.“ He smiled lamely.
The captain pulled an exasperated face and tapped his fingers on the bulkhead. Lafarge returned to the problem. It was no good. On his third attempt Lafarge realised what had happened. Al Thani’s subject - whoever the hell that was - had passed on a code of his own! Lafarge sighed deeply and went back to the task.
“BFX COM SSPOXI COM XXX STOP WILL STAND BY THIS FREQUENCY FOR FURTHER INSTRUCT ENDIT”
The captain saw that Lafarge had stopped writing again. “Is that it? “
Lafarge shook his head, but he did not turn. He was already flicking through his book to find Reisman’s code-of-the-day. Five minutes later, with the captain growing more and more impatient, it was done. Lafarge reset the transmitter and sent off his message. Then he looked up into the expectant face of the captain.
“When I get the reply to that little lot I might be able to let you off the hook !“
The captain’s face hardened and, for a moment, it looked to Lafarge as if there were going to be another confrontation. Then the captain pushed a lungful of air from out between clenched teeth, slapped the bulkhead with an open palm and stormed off.
Lafarge wandered back to his cabin and lay down on his bunk, content in the knowledge that he’d very nearly finished what he had come to do. Then, disregarding the standing orders on the subject, he lit up a cigarette.