The Broken Heart Machine: Part 2

This is part 2 of a short story, The Broken Heart Machine, that I’m posting online. You can find Part 1 here. The story is set during World War II. Paul Wiezerski, an American solider, is on a special assignment in England at Bletchley Park. Bletchley Park is home to a top-secret effort to decrypt Nazi communications. Paul discovers that strange messages are being captured at Bletchley–messages that appear to come from someone from Paul’s past.

Bletchley Park

That evening, Paul was at work in Hut 6, gnawing at a hunk of an encoded Luftwaffe message. He looked up to see Reggie Cheevers standing at his side. Behind Reg was an armed guard.

“Yes?” said Paul, blinking slightly. He’d been lost in the effort of deciphering the intercept.

Reggie wrung his hands and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “They want to see you up at the house,” he said.

“Who’s ‘they?’” asked Paul.

Reggie glanced around. The half dozen other men and women in Hut 6 were watching, the tiny room offering no privacy.

“Major Field,” said Reg. “And a gentleman from London.”

Paul frowned. Major Field was the officer in charge of personnel at Bletchley Park. And a ‘gentleman from London’ could only mean British intelligence.

“What’s this about?” asked Paul.

“I…I had to tell them,” said Reg. “You know something.”

“Enough talk,” said the guard. “Let’s be havin’ you.”

Paul stood, his height and his laborer’s build making it perfectly clear to the guard, over whom Paul now loomed, that he was coming of his own free will.

“Code rat? Or just a rat?” said Paul as he walked past Reggie.

The guard led Paul across the grounds to Bletchley Manor, an ugly, many-gabled house that had become the headquarters of this secret operation. It was evening, and the grounds were dark, the manor shrouded with blackout curtains.

The guard knocked on the door. He was admitted by a solider with a Tommy gun.

This was the first time Paul had been inside the manor—mere corporals usually didn’t rate a visit. He wasn’t impressed; weak electric lamps illuminated a shabby foyer. The chandelier was dusty and the carpets threadbare. He could see where paintings had been taken down from the walls; perhaps the lord of the manor had fallen on hard times and sold them.

“Good,” thought Paul.

Paul and his guard mounted a wide staircase. At the first landing they turned right and stopped in front of another door. The guard knocked once, then opened it.

Paul stepped into a small room. Major Field stood next to a battered filing cabinet, an unlit pipe in one hand. A civilian in a tailored suit, his face half hidden by an ornate Tiffany lamp, sat behind the Major’s desk. Paul saluted the officer.

“Yes yes,” said Field with a perfunctory gesture. He motioned toward the man behind the desk.

“Do have a seat,” said the civilian. His herringbone jacket was crisply pressed and an Eton necktie was deftly knotted at his throat.

“My name is Cross,” said the man. “May I get you something? Tea? Or do you prefer coffee?” His voice was like polished silver—the unmistakable burnish of the British upper class.

“Actually, I’d prefer a cigarette,” said Paul, sitting in a hard-backed chair in front of the desk. He hadn’t smoked before joining the military, but he found the cigarettes helped him focus during the long hours wrestling with codes and encryption.

Cross reached into his suit pocket and produced a slim silver case. As Paul reached through the light of the lamp he was suddenly conscious of his hand—rough and callused, and his thumb and index finger stained with ink. He paused for a fraction of a second, aware of Cross’s gaze. He snatched a cigarette from the case and sat back.

Paul took a lighter from his shirt pocket and sparked the cigarette. He resolved not to be the one to speak first.

After a long minute of silence, the Major cleared his throat and put a thick folder on the desk in front of Cross. Paul’s file.

Cross leafed through it, reading off the salient points of Paul’s biography. “Wiezerski, Paul. Born December 2nd, 1917 in the American state of Illinois. Third of four children. Raised in a cold-water tenement in a rather unsavory Chicago neighborhood. Wiezerski perre worked in a slaughterhouse. Mother was a laundress.”

He looked up at Paul, as if for confirmation. Paul nodded.

“With an upbringing like that, one would expect that you’d follow your father’s footsteps into the slaughterhouse. Instead, you graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in maths,” said Cross. “How did you escape?”

“I didn’t escape,” said Paul. “I spent my days in school, my nights on the killing floor.” For a moment he was there again, the brutal heat of the pens in summer, the bitter cold in winter when the blood and piss congealed into a ghastly slush at his feet.

“Straight out of Dickens you are,” said Cross. “Or perhaps Horatio Alger—pulled yourself up by your bootstraps and all that.”

Paul said nothing.

“After graduation you enlisted in the Army Air Corps,” continued Cross. “They put you to work almost right away as a cryptographer.”

“Cryptanalyst,” said Paul. “Cryptographers make codes. I break them.”

Cross accepted the correction with a mock salute. “A breaker of codes. It’s a rather unusual job. How did you come to it?”

“Word went around that the military was looking for people who’d studied math. I told my C.O. I had a degree. I was given an aptitude test. I must have done all right, because they sent me to Washington. I was on a team that went after Japanese ciphers.”

“So how did you end up here? In Bletchley.”

Paul shrugged. “It wasn’t my decision. Two months ago they told me to pack my bag. I can only assume some officer somewhere thought I could  assist in your…ah…efforts.”

“Our efforts,” said Cross. “Yes. While you were at Chicago, you studied under William Strand, is that correct?”

Paul exhaled a cloud of smoke. “I took several classes with Professor Strand. It’s all in my transcript, which I’m sure you have a copy of.”

“A fascinating man, your professor,” said Cross. “Inheritor of a family fortune, with financial interests in steel, chemicals, and coal. And I’m told he was quite brilliant—one of the world’s top scientists.”

“That’s right,” said Paul.

“Also a Nazi sympathizer,” said Cross, wincing. “Spent the late ‘30s writing editorials in support of the National Socialists. Engaged in business with the Third Reich. And travelled to Germany in May 1940, the guest of Hitler himself.”

“Just because I took his calculus class doesn’t make me a Nazi sympathizer,” said Paul.

“No. But you were acquainted with him outside the classroom,” said Cross.

“In a way,” said Paul, stubbing out the cigarette in a delicate china ashtray on the desk.

“In a way? Corporal, you asked his daughter to marry you.”

“Yes. And Strand forbid her.”

“Why?”

Paul sighed. “Do we have to go through with this? I was debriefed in Washington about Dr. Strand. It’s all on record.”

“I’d like to hear it for myself,” said Cross.

Paul shifted in his seat, his eyes on the floor. “Because he didn’t want his daughter marrying a Pollock. He said I’d impregnate her with a litter of ignorant half-breeds.”

The interrogator’s eyes twinkled with a hint of amusement. “I suppose that’s not a surprising attitude from a Nazi. They do go on about racial purity.”

“It’s an attitude I get quite frequently from people who think they’re better than me,” said Paul. “Nazi or otherwise.”

Cross smiled, but there was no mirth there, only menace. “You continued to see Ms. Strand against the Professor’s wishes,” he said.

“We kept dating, but things went bad after my proposal. I was still in love with her, but a part of me was dating her just to thumb my nose at her father. And I think she stayed with me because she was ashamed of her father’s behavior.”

“And then what happened?” asked Cross.

“She and I graduated. Helen went to Germany with her father. She felt it was her duty to be with him. I signed up for the service.”

“You corresponded with Ms. Strand while she was in Germany?” asked Cross.

“I wouldn’t call it correspondence. I wrote her a bunch of letters, but she only sent me three telegrams in return. Maybe twenty words in all.”

And one letter, which was tucked away in his footlocker. The only letter she had written to him in her own hand. If Cross didn’t know about it, Paul wasn’t going to tell him.

“Do you know what the Strands were doing in Germany?” asked Cross.

Paul shrugged. “Helen said her father was tying up some business. And she was seeing lots of opera.”

“You believed her?” asked Cross.

“Look,” said Paul, “if you want to accuse me—or her—of something, just do it.”

“Corporal,” growled Major Field. “Keep a civil tongue in your head.”

“Corporal Wiezerski, consider this from our perspective,” said Cross. “You’re a former student of a Nazi sympathizer. You work on a project whose secrecy is vital to the survival of our nation. You engaged in correspondence with Ms. Strand while she and her father resided in Berlin, guests of Hitler himself. You must understand the kind of light it puts you under.”

“Of course I understand, but we’re talking about love letters,” said Paul. “I wrote her love letters. You’ve probably got copies of them in that file.”

Cross didn’t say. “The Strands were in Germany for six weeks, after which they returned to America. Is that correct?”

“Yes. I was in basic training. Helen came see me. She told me she and her father were going away again, but she wouldn’t say where, and she wouldn’t say how I could contact her.”

“Is that all?” prompted Cross.

Paul blushed. “She said I’d been a dear friend. I asked her why she had to go away. All she would say was that her father needed her. Then we parted. That was July of ‘40. I haven’t heard from her since.”

“And you’ve no idea where she or her father might be?”

“No. As far as I know, no one knows. They dropped off the face of the earth. It’s been almost two years since I last spoke with her.”

“And yet you continued to write to her?” asked Cross.

“Now and then I send a postcard to her address in Chicago–just letting her know what I’m up to, where I’m stationed. I never get any replies.”

“Never?”

“Never.”

Cross stroked his chin, and then changed the line of questioning. “Are you aware that Dr. Strand met with Werner Heisenberg on more than one occasion while in Germany?”

“The physicist?”  asked Paul.

“Yes.”

“I had no idea.”

“And did you have any idea that much of Dr. Strand’s research had military applications?” asked Cross.

“Military applications? No.”

“I shudder to think what kind of help Dr. Strand might have given the Nazis,” said Cross. He leaned forward and pointed a finger at me. “I want to know what secrets he passed on to them.”

“I’m telling you, I have no idea.”

Cross stood and moved to the window. He lifted an edge of the blackout curtain and peered into the darkness. In the distance came the ‘crump crump’ of anti-aircraft fire. Another Luftwaffe bombing raid had begun.

“If we’re finished, I should get back to my post,” said Paul.

“We’re not finished,” said Cross, sitting down again. “Why would Ms. Strand try and contact you now, after all this time?”

Paul shook his head. “I told you, I haven’t heard from her in ages.”

“So you aren’t aware of the wireless messages?”

“What wireless messages?” asked Paul.

“Don’t pretend to be ignorant,” said Cross. “We know Cheevers shared them with you.”

Paul dropped his eyes to his cigarette.

“Dreamland on the Stroll,” said Cross. “A rather odd transmission for Nazis to send. It would have taken us months to puzzle out the reference, but you understood right away.”

“It could be anything,” said Paul. “Maybe the Nazis are trying to confuse you. Or it’s just a radio operator fooling around.”

“We’ve considered that,” said Cross. “But the simplest explanation is that the message was meant especially for you.”

“There’s no reason for Helen to contact me,” said Paul. “She made it plain we wouldn’t see each other again.”

“Then why send a message using a code tailor-made for you?” asked Cross.

“Who says it’s for me?”

“Corporal, how many people here do you think have gone dancing at negro nightclubs in Chicago?”

“Then what about the second message?” asked Paul. “Cheevers shared that with me too. But there’s nothing in it about Chicago. Just something about stone huts. If it’s a code, I’ve no idea what it means.”

But in the back of his mind, a meaning was beginning to take shape. A wild idea, utterly improbable. Clochan. He had seen the word before, in Helen’s letter. Suddenly the wireless transmissions did make sense. They were a call—a summons. And Paul knew what he had to do.

Cross was about to speak but was interrupted by a knock at the door. The Major opened it and spoke in whispers with a figure in the hall. He turned to face Cross.

“A communique from London. They need a response right away.” The Major’s eyes fell on Paul.

“I can go,” said Paul. He made to get out of his seat but Cross held up a hand.

“You stay there,” he said. Cross stood and went out into the hall with the Major.

Paul was alone in the office. He glanced at the Major’s desk. Cross’s cigarette burned in an ashtray. Then Paul noticed a stack of papers—leave forms. The Major had been signing passes to allow people off the premises.

With a glance at the half-opened door, Paul slipped out of the chair. He rifled through the passes and found a blank one at the bottom. He slipped it from the stack and folded it into a tiny square, then jammed it into his pocket.

He sat back quickly. Cross and the Major came back into the room.

Cross returned to the desk but didn’t sit down. He leafed through the dossier.

“I don’t trust you, and I don’t want you mucking about in our business,” Cross said. “So I’m having you sent back to America. Let your own government worry about you.”

“What?” said Paul.

“I can’t have you here, in the heart of our most secret operation. The paperwork is being assembled now. You’ll report to your duty officer at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow to receive your transfer orders. A lorry will take you to Portsmouth. From there you’ll board a merchant ship bound for Norfolk. Assuming the ship isn’t sunk, you’ll be home in a week.”

“You can’t send me away!” protested Paul.

“I should have you arrested,” said Cross. “But your government wouldn’t take kindly to me imprisoning an officer without more evidence. So the best I can do is send you packing.”

Paul opened his mouth, then closed it again. He rose from the chair, snapped his heels together and saluted Cross. He turned and did the same for the Major.

“You can say farewell to your fellow code rats,” said Cross. “And tell Reginald Cheevers he did you no favors in sharing those intercepts. We’ll deal with him next. You’ll go to your barracks and stay there until morning. If I see you anywhere near a wireless I’ll have you shot. Understood?”

“Yes sir,” said Paul.

“Then go.”

Paul left the office. A guard was waiting. He escorted Paul off the premises and down to Paul’s barracks, a low Quonset hut that slept six men. The guard waited for Paul to enter, then shut the door behind him.

The hut was empty. Paul paced up and down the narrow aisle between the bunks. A plan formed in his mind. It was desperate and stupid, but also his only opportunity.

He dragged his foot locker from beneath his bunk and opened it. He removed his spare uniforms, neatly folded, and a few civilian shirts and pants. Underneath the clothes were a handful of personal effects, including an algebra textbook. He lifted the textbook out of the locker and shook it. Several leaves of paper fell onto the bunk.

He gathered them up and began to read. It was the letter Helen had sent to him while she was overseas with her father. He scanned the pages, his eyes tracing the graceful script of her hand.

She had written to him from a house in Ireland that her father had rented, on the southwest coast in County Kerry. They were staying for a week, a pastoral respite after the frenetic pace of Berlin.

Paul scanned the letter until he found the passage he wanted.

I walk down to the seaside most days,” she had written. “There’s several clochan near the shoreline, deserted now but still in good repair. Sometimes I sit inside and imagine what it would be like to live here hundreds of years ago. The land is so empty. You feel as if the rest of world no longer exists. It’s just you and the sea and the wind and the gulls. The isolation is terrifying—but also very beautiful. I think I could be at peace here, alone among the stones. I could grow old here, a withered crone in a rough wool robe, a peat fire in my hut, until my bones join the stones and the world passes away.”

Paul remembered how those words had chilled him. They were laced with melancholy. Hardest to bear was the phrase “alone among the stones.” Why alone? Why not share that solitude with him? The letter had filled him with foreboding. And for good reason–when she returned to the States, she had broken off their relationship and then vanished from his life.

He read the letter again. The clochans were in a place called Slea Head, near the village of Fahan.

“Dear God,” he thought. “Is she waiting for me? Just a few hundred miles away? Calling out to me?”

He had to find her. Quickly he packed up his trunk and stowed it away. He took her letter, read and reread the salient passages until they were fixed in his mind, then took his cigarette lighter and set the pages on fire. The flames ate the paper. He stomped out the ashes.

He changed from his uniform into civilian clothes, gathered up the little money he had, and flung on his coat. He put his passport and military I.D. into a coat pocket.

Then he took out the blank pass he’d stolen from the Major’s office. It was a simple matter to fill out the salient details and forge the Major’s signature. With that finished, he shoved his locker back under his bunk, then went to the door of the barracks. He opened it quietly and peered outside. There was no guard.

He checked his watch. The time was just after 7:30 p.m. Harold’s shift would be over by now, and Paul needed to see him. He walked quickly to the rec room, a small hall that had been repurposed for civilian employees to unwind. It had ping pong, a few card tables, and an upright piano. He found Harold at a card table, bent over a crossword. Paul tapped him on the shoulder.

“Oh, hello,” said Harold. “What’s the matter, officer’s club not good enough? Decided to slum it with us civilians?”

“Listen Harold, I’ve just been given leave. The higher-ups thought a little R&R might do me good.”

“Ah yes?”

“I thought I’d go down to London, see some sights,” said Paul. “Could I borrow your motor bike?”

“Oh, absolutely,” said Harold. He was one of the few people at Bletchley with personal transportation, but for the most part it remained locked to a pole behind Harold’s quarters.

“You’re a pal,” said Paul. “I’ve got some gas rations set aside, so I’ll bring it back with a full tank.”

“No trouble, no trouble,” said Harold.

“I’m leaving tonight,” said Paul. “Very soon in fact. Could I have your keys now?”

“Oh? Why yes, of course.” Harold dug around in his pockets for a moment. Paul glanced around the rec room, wondering if this conversation was being noted.

“Here we are,” said Harold. “This one’s for the lock, and this will start her up.” He put two keys into Paul’s waiting hand.

“The clutch sometimes sticks in second gear, and you’ll want to check the oil, but she should get you to Londontown without a hitch.”

“Thanks,” said Paul. “I owe you.”

“Not at all,” said Harold. “How long will you be gone?”

“It’s just a 48-hour pass,” said Paul. “You’ll see me soon enough.” He patted Harold lightly on the shoulder and then turned and walked out of the rec room before Harold could extend the conversation.

He retrieved the motorbike and walked it down to the front gate. His pass was scrutinized by a pair of guards at the fence, and then once again by a solider in a gatehouse.

“Forty-eight hours and a motorbike,” said the soldier enviously as he handed the pass back to Paul. “Make good use of ‘em.”

“I plan to,” said Paul. He walked the bike outside the borders of Bletchley, strapped on the helmet, pulled the goggles down over his eyes, and kicked the machine to life. He drove south until Bletchley fell from view, then found the nearest intersection and headed west.

Read Part 3 here.

3 thoughts on “The Broken Heart Machine: Part 2

  1. Pingback: The Broken Heart Machine: Part 1 | Andrew Conry-Murray

  2. Pingback: The Broken Heart Machine: Part 3 | Andrew Conry-Murray

  3. Pingback: The Broken Heart Machine: Conclusion | Andrew Conry-Murray

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