“I should like to write you the kind of words that burn the paper they are written on—but words like that have a way of being not only unforgettable but unforgivable. You will burn the paper in any case; and I would rather there should be nothing in it that you cannot forget if you want to.”
— Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
THE LATE FEBRUARY FLURRY could not do much damage. The falling flakes gave over to freezing drizzle in capitulation to the distant but oncoming spring, and the snow withdrew from the ground like a shadow at noon. When the next day dawned, driving conditions were not what any prudent Englishman would have called ‘navigable.’ But Newton Geiszler, Ph.D., was neither prudent nor—to his relief—an Englishman. On the morning of February 23rd, he rode his motorcycle to the office.
Division headquarters was decried by most of its employees as insecure. For the most secret office in the capital, its location was the city’s worst-kept secret. Ten years had passed, they said, and had we learned nothing? Vice Chief Victor had said that once, as an experiment, he got into a cab and asked for their headquarters. The cabbie took him straight there, asking only if he wanted to go in front or round the back.
This tradition was perfectly satisfactory to Newt. He parked his noisy American combustion engine in the underground garage per usual and walked the remaining blocks on foot. He climbed the concrete steps of the Century Building, greeted the front desk receptionist (to cheery reply), the morning watchman (to no reply), and pushed the button for a lift going down. His pressed colleagues had already pressed for the lift up. They gave him their usual curt greetings, and when their lift arrived first, they stepped in. The doors closed on Dr. Geiszler, hands in pockets, waiting for his ride down to the basement.
Everyone knew that the radio coding lab in the Century sub-basement was run by eccentrics. In the oblique language of the Division, they were known as “specialists,” but their nickname in mixed company was the “Looney Tuners.” Geiszler and his acerbic colleague Gottlieb, under operations manager Hal Weeks, ran radio technology and cryptography research. They developed new technology and techniques for signals interception and analysis. Newton Geiszler was an engineer, taking apart Soviet surveillance tech and building it better for the Division. Hermann Gottlieb was a cryptanalyst, analyzing enemy codes and writing ways of undoing them. These methods they passed upstairs, to ops and the coding bay respectively.
Upstairs, Weeks did his faltering best under the excessively watchful eye of Vice Chief Victor. (Victor was his only name—whether it was his Christian name or his surname was unknown.) It was he who had cleaned the Division out, top to bottom, in the crisis; but his paranoia had not stopped there. Over the next ten years it had only grown worse. He prowled the halls and filing cabinets and databanks, sniffing out double agents where there were none. And he did it all with the tacit blessing of the unseen Chief, who had no name at all.
Geiszler and Gottlieb survived on their reputation as insufferable but effective. They were tolerated for their abilities and laughed at for their bickering. Colleagues speculated on whether they actually hated each other, but by and large, they thought not. Gottlieb and Geiszler looked out for each other the way people at the bottom do. And if any of their colleagues had discovered that they had keys to each other’s apartments on their respective keyrings, perhaps that would not have been any surprise.
Newt entered the door code and was admitted, with a beep, to the lab. All the desks were empty except for Dr. Gottlieb’s. His most punctual colleague was already hard at work.
He spared him an over-the-glasses glance. “You’ve survived another commute, I see.”
“I told you I would,” said Newt, setting down his bag and unbuttoning his jacket. “It’s a lucky day.”
“Is it?” said Hermann.
“Check your calendar, Doctorate in Mathematics,” Newt said. “The date is all primes.”
“My degree is in mathematics, not number trivia,” Hermann said, looking back at his dispatches.
“Of course. My apologies. Primes. So trivial. So rational. So concrete. Can’t have that.” Newt hung up his jacket. “I’ll come back when the date aligns with something nice and imaginary. Some abstract, abstruse equation that has no bearing on the real world.”
“You do that,” Hermann replied. “In any case, it’s 1973. There will be prime dates all year.”
“Exactly.” Newt picked up his bag and headed towards his office door. “So it’s going to be a very lucky year.”
“Superstitious,” Hermann called after him without looking up. “And irrational. Just like every year with you.”
But it was Dr. Geiszler’s optimistic superstition that bore out, because lying on his desk was a very special file. He opened it, and right away saw two things: one, that it contained a blueprint for a top secret new transmitter, and two, a label making clear that this was not for his eyes. This file was fifth-floor only.
Newt ran out into the hall to see the receding back of the useless kid who’d delivered it. He called him back and handed him the file: “I don’t know whose desk this was supposed to be landing on, but it’s not mine. Don’t worry. I won’t tell them. Morning, Wesley,” he added to their labmate, who was just arriving. Wesley appeared not to hear. Newt returned to his office.
His employers knew that he was exceptional, perhaps even a genius in his field. They were lucky to have him in the Division at all, they said. By all rights, he should have been at the D.O.D. in his motherland. But what they did not know—what he had succeeded in concealing for nearly two decades—was that Dr. Geiszler had an eidetic memory.
One look at the blueprint was all he needed.