THAMES VALLEY POLICE STATION, FEBRUARY 2015
Staff Sergeant Barnes looked at his watch. It was four thirty-five. Just another twenty-five minutes until his shift was due to end. He thought of the dinner he hoped his wife, Patricia, was already busy preparing, and wondered how everything would look in less than two years, when he reached retirement age and took his pension. John, a jittery young man with acne on his face, arrived from the post office, pushing a cart laden with a stack of envelopes. In this day and age of the internet and emails, Barnes thought, one would think there’d be less regular mail, but there seemed to be as many envelopes as ever on the cart. John stacked the mail on a worn table that stood perpendicular to Barnes’s desk.
“Watch out for the cup of tea,” the staff sergeant growled at him, and John just mumbled, “Yes, sir,” and ran for his life. Barnes had already decided that Donaldson, who’d be coming to replace him on duty, would deal with all the mail. He had no desire at all to do it himself. But one large, ocher envelope caught his attention. Written across the front of the envelope in large black letters made with a marker pen were the words: “To be opened by a chief inspector or higher only.” There was no sender’s address, and the postal stamp was from the central post office in Oxford, with the previous day’s date. Barnes felt the envelope and it appeared to contain a stack of paperwork, a thick booklet perhaps, or maybe documents from a law firm, he thought, but those usually came by registered mail and clearly noted the address of the firm. Something made him rise laboriously from his chair and pass the envelope through the X-ray machine. Apart from five large, thick staples, arranged in a single line, he saw nothing. He returned to his desk, sighed, and dialed an internal number at the station.
“Sir,” he said when he heard the voice of Superintendent Lewis. “We’ve just received an envelope in the mail that I think you should see.”
- • •
Superintendent Lewis opened the envelope in front of Barnes. The staff sergeant watched as the expression on his commander’s face went from one of impatience to one of perplexity, and he remained standing in front of the large desk until Lewis gave him a look that clearly said: That’ll be all. Barnes wanted to ask him about the contents of the envelope, but decided against it. His shift was coming to an end, and besides, Lewis had a reputation for being a grumpy and arrogant character. After Barnes left the room, Lewis called a number at Scotland Yard. “Hello, Henry,” he said. “You’re not going to believe this, but a highly classified document from more than sixty years ago has just landed on my desk. Apparently someone thought it was time to return it to official hands. No, it’s not the kind of document that should be forwarded through the internal mail service. I will bring it to you personally tomorrow afternoon. It’ll remain in my safe until then. I suggest you invite a senior representative from the Defense Ministry’s Department of Information Security to attend the meeting, too. Someone who has clearance on nuclear issues. Yes, certainly, I can stay for a short while after the meeting. Good beer, memories from the Oxford days, constructive gossip. Could it get any better than that?”