The Sticking Place
London, 1944. As the Allies prepare to invade occupied France, desperate to turn the tide of the war, Hitler boasts that he will destroy England first. Rumors abound of the Nazis’ new Vengeance Weapons: forty-ton rockets and bombs that fly by themselves. Super weapons that have been the stuff of science fiction—until now.
Is it a hoax? Even Britain’s best scientists can’t decide, but the Allies can’t afford to gamble. The success of the invasion hangs in the balance, and every tick of the clock brings Hitler’s threat one second closer.
Enter American Catherine Stearns who has finagled a job as a cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park, home of the Enigma codebreakers. Fresh out of Vassar, she’s eager to escape the shadow of her famous father and write her name large. When the chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service selects her to be his back channel at Bletchley, gathering information on the Nazis’ new weapons, Catherine seizes the chance to make her mark. Soon, she’s trading secrets in London’s dark corners, smuggling files, and breaking all the rules. But each time she solves one part of the puzzle, the Germans add a new piece.
In her quest to unravel the V-weapons riddle, she encounters two men who will shape her destiny: Paul Girard, the Alsatian agent she depends on for intel from Berlin, a man waging his own secret war; and Trevor Fox, the daredevil RAF pilot whose amorous interest both fascinates and frightens her.
When a document surfaces that has profound global implications, Catherine must find a way to trick the Nazi High Command into divulging the truth about their ultimate plan, armed with nothing more than her courage and wits.
Read an Excerpt
CHAPTER 1 – Rhode Island, November 1943
The phone rang just as she was passing the study. She hesitated. The call was on his private line and no one, not even his daughter, entered Arthur Stearns’s walnut-paneled lair without an invitation. But there was a war on and he was away—holed up with some State Department heavyweights down in Washington.
She picked up the receiver. “The Stearns Agency. Catherine Stearns speaking.”
“Miss Stearns, Colonel Addison here. From the War Office in London. Is Mr. Stearns available to take the call?”
She dropped The New Yorker she’d been reading and reached for a pencil from the neat rank beside the notepad. “He’s away at the moment. May I take a message?”
“Is there another number where I might reach him today?”
Her father had, in fact, left the number of his D.C. hotel, with instructions to call him between five and six p.m. should anything come up. It would take no more than a minute to dash to the kitchen where his itinerary was tacked beneath the house phone. Catherine hesitated, curiosity warring with scruples.
“I’m sorry, but Mr. Stearns is in conference. He left strict orders he’s not to be disturbed.”
The silence that followed was so complete, she wondered if she’d lost the connection.
“If he should check in, I’d be happy to deliver a message,” she repeated.
“I’m afraid I’m not authorized to leave a message with anyone but Mr. Stearns. Security matters. You understand.”
“Yes, of course.” She struggled to keep the disappointment from her voice.
“Should Mr. Stearns check in, I’ll give you the number he should call.”
“And ask for you?”
“No, I’m leaving shortly and will be away for the next few days. Whoever takes the call, though, will be expecting him.”
Catherine took down the number and repeated it back before hanging up.
In the premature dusk of the November afternoon, she stared out the mullioned windows at the expanse of lawn that stretched to the Atlantic. So, the War Office in London wanted her father. On a matter of high security. So hush-hush they refused to leave even a vague message.
Gazing at the number Addison had left, she wondered at its source. If she had a million dollars, she’d stake it all on SIS. Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service.
Wartime meant armies, navies, air power. It meant spies and counterspies. They all needed codes. They also needed someone to break codes, and to analyze what had been broken. That’s when they called Arthur Stearns, the “American king of cryptanalysis” as Roosevelt had dubbed him.
He’d worked in England during the Great War before Catherine’s birth in 1920. The Treaty of Versailles had brought him home, but the demand for his skills continued. Frequently called to Washington, he returned to his wife and child only to wall himself in this den, the door firmly shut, the sole sign of his presence a muffled voice speaking into the phone at all hours. Weekdays, weekends, holidays. It wasn’t until her mother’s… Catherine forced her mind to fix on the Constable print hanging opposite…death that Arthur Stearns took note of his thirteen-year-old daughter and systematically began to share with her the one thing he valued: codes. Their construction. Their internal logic. The ways in which they could be manipulated. He taught her everything he knew. And she’d soaked it up, asking endless questions so that she might remain in this room. With him.
Catherine poured herself a neat scotch from the case of Glenlivet her father kept on the credenza. The liquor burned her throat and sent a tremor through her body, but after a few sips she relaxed and admitted the truth: She was bored.
She counted the months—five—since her graduation from Vassar. She’d been top of her class. Mathematics and political science. In the privacy of her dorm room, she’d dreamed of stepping off the dais, diplomas in hand, and walking into a new life of calculated choices and decisive action. Catherine Stearns taking her place among the brightest and the best.
And here I am, teaching history and algebra to prep school kids. Not to mention, living at home with dear old Dad. Catherine grimaced and drained her glass. She’d been a fool to take the first job offer. An interview she’d gotten through one of her father’s old university chums. “Too timid,” she said to the silent room. “Too damn timid.”
She resumed the Cheever story she’d been reading, but her gaze frequently flicked to the clock on the mantel. At 5:05 she went to the kitchen and dialed the number.
“Catherine, I just got in. Give me a moment to shed this coat. Getting a bit nippy here.”
She held the receiver away from the hearty good cheer of her father and waited. She did not have to wait long. Arthur Stearns always barreled through business briskly.
“What’s up, Princess? No trouble, I hope.”
She winced at the childish endearment. “No trouble,” she confirmed.
“Glad to hear it. Meeting Bill Donovan and Allen Dulles for drinks in—good lord!—ten minutes.”
She plunged in. “Colonel Addison called. From the War Office in London.”
“Addison? Hmm. Oh yes.”
“He wouldn’t leave a message. I tried—”
“Don’t worry about it. Likely he wants a recommendation.”
“Recommendation?” she pressed.
“Intelligence matters. Looking for a codebreaker or two, no doubt. I’ll see to it when I get home.” There was a pause. She could almost hear him checking his watch. “Sorry, darling, but I’ve got to run. Time’s ticking.”
“Take care of yourself, Dad.”
“You, too. And Catherine?”
“My private line is private, even if I’m on a six-month caribou trek in the Arctic Circle. Understood?”
She swallowed. “Sorry.”
But the click told her that her father was already engaged in his evening plans.
“Time is ticking, Dad” she said softly. Then, before she could think of a million reasons not to, she dialed the number Addison had given her.
“GCCS. Deputy Director Travis speaking.”
GCCS? Sweat trickled down her ribs.
Never show your hand. The first rule her father had taught her.
She lifted her head. “I’m calling regarding the message for Arthur Stearns.”
She heard a faint creeeak on the other end and imagined Travis shifting in his chair.
Catherine soundlessly sucked in oxygen. “I understand you’re looking for a skilled cryptanalyst.”