A compelling story about tenacity and friendship, inspired by the real codebreaking women of Australia’s top-secret Central Bureau in WWII. For readers who love Judy Nunn and Kate Quinn.
1943, Brisbane: The war continues to devastate and the battle for the Pacific threatens Australian shores. For Ellie O’Sullivan, helping the war effort means utilising her engineering skills for Qantas as they evacuate civilians and deliver supplies to armed forces overseas. Her exceptional logic and integrity attract the attention of Central Bureau – an intelligence organisation working with England’s Bletchley Park codebreakers. But joining Central Bureau means signing a lifetime secrecy contract. Breaking it is treason.
With her country’s freedom at risk, Ellie works with a group of elite women who enter a world of volatile secrets; deciphering enemy communications to change the course of the war. Working under immense pressure, they form a close bond – yet there could be a traitor in their midst.
Can the women uncover the culprit before it’s too late?As Ellie struggles with the magnitude of the promise she’s made to her country, a wedge grows between her and those she holds dear. When the man she loves asks questions she’s forbidden to answer, how will she prevent the double life she’s leading from unravelling?
‘An intriguing story of courage, friendship and resilience.’ – Belinda Alexandra
Brisbane, Queensland—April 1943
Ellie O’Sullivan lay on the tarmac, shaded by the wing of the Lockheed Lodestar. She tightened the wheel bolt, happy this was her last task for the day that had started at 4 am. She adored her engineering work at Qantas Empire Airways but realising her dream had come at a cost with this war that had torn her family—and countless others—apart.
Ellie stood, placed her hand on the wing and sent a silent prayer, just like she did every time she finished working on one of these beautiful metal birds. She hoped this simple act kept the air crew safe on the flight to New Guinea to drop medical supplies and food to the Allied troops.
The midday glare hit her eyes and she shaded them with her hand. A man dressed in a navy blue suit and dark grey hat walked with purpose towards her. He exuded the same air of confidence he had the previous two days.
‘Good afternoon, Miss O’Sullivan.’
‘Hello, Mr Andrews.’ Ellie wiped her hands with the rag and shoved it in the back pocket of her overalls. ‘Today’s not the day.’
‘I really hope it is, Miss O’Sullivan. As much as I enjoy getting out of the office, I do not wish to spend time on a hot tarmac.’
‘Until you can give me a decent reason as to why I should go with you, then you’ll have to keep up the visits.’ She glanced over at Kat Arnold, her co-worker and roommate, who watched from the edge of the hangar.
‘Miss O’Sullivan, as we’ve discussed, I am not at liberty to divulge details until you come with me.’ Mr Andrews motioned with his hand to follow him.
Ellie crossed her arms.
‘Miss O’Sullivan …’
‘Can’t you find someone else to harass?’
‘There are very good reasons we wish to speak with you.’
Kat took a step out of the hangar. Ellie cupped her hand around her mouth and called, ‘It’s okay, Kat. I’ll see you in a bit.’
Kat tilted her head to the side as if asking ‘are you sure?’
Ellie gave a broad smile and waved off her friend. Kat disappeared into the hangar, no doubt compiling a list of questions to bombard Ellie with later.
Mr Andrews reached into his suit pocket and pulled out an envelope. ‘I am not supposed to hand you this until you’re in the car, but I see I have no choice.’
Ellie accepted the envelope and studied her name written with expert penmanship. On the top right-hand corner Confidential had been stamped in red ink. She opened it slowly, her greasy fingers leaving streaks on the stiff paper.
Dear Miss O’Sullivan,
We request you accompany Lieutenant William Andrews to attend a skills test for potential work within our organisation. It is a matter of urgency and importance.
Commanding Officer Albert Buckley
Ellie looked up at Lieutenant Andrews. ‘Who is Commanding Officer Buckley?’
‘He works for Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur.’
‘He’s in charge of the Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific, right?’
She waved the letter in the air. ‘Is this supposed to scare me?’
‘It is supposed to show you the seriousness of this situation,’ he said.
‘What situation? Why can’t you just tell me?’
‘The only information you need right now is that if you pass this test, you will be involved in an operation that is integral to helping the Allies win this war.’
‘I’m already contributing to the war effort. The government has taken over most of QEA’s fleet so we can rescue people and get essential supplies to our troops.’
‘I appreciate the value of your work.’ His tone was measured. ‘If you could just come with me then you’ll have ample opportunity to discuss this with the person in charge.’
‘General MacArthur?’ she asked.
‘No, but these are his wishes.’
‘Why don’t you wear a uniform if you’re a lieutenant?’ she asked.
‘I must remain inconspicuous when visiting potential candidates. We do not want to raise suspicion among your colleagues.’
‘Do you work in Intelligence?’
‘This question shows me you’re already a good candidate. Now, will you come with me?’
Ellie’s fingers wrapped around the letter. She had two choices—stand and argue until one of them melted onto the tarmac or do as Lieutenant Andrews requested and get it over with.
‘My shift’s finished so I’ll get my things.’ She made her way to the hangar and entered the ladies’ change room. Kat was nowhere in sight.
Ellie washed her hands with vigour, yet the grease stubbornly remained in the creases of her skin. She unbuttoned her overalls and changed into her day clothes—a simple floral dress, hat and lace-up shoes.
Ellie made her way to where Lieutenant Andrews stood next to the Lodestar.
‘She’s a beauty, eh?’ Ellie ran her hand along the wing, her fingers brushing across the rivets. ‘There’s something magical about taking to the skies. A freedom that can’t be found anywhere else.’
‘Free as a bird, so they say.’
‘Exactly.’ She dropped her hand to her side. ‘But you’re not here to listen to my musings.’
‘I actually find them interesting,’ said Lieutenant Andrews. ‘Although I do request we move along.’
Ellie walked with Lieutenant Andrews to the car in the visitor’s carpark. He went to open the back door, but she took a step towards the front.
‘If you wish.’ Lieutenant Andrews opened the passenger door and she got in, the leather creaking as she settled herself against the seat.
Silence filled the car as they drove away from the airfield. Ellie concentrated on the vacant paddocks that led to streets lined with one-storey suburban houses, a bridge over the river and, eventually, the city centre.
They drove past the soldiers on the streets—Australian, American, Dutch, British, Free French, New Zealander, Chinese, Filipino, Indian and Canadian. They were a common sight with over one hundred thousand troops now using Brisbane as the staging post for fighting the war in the Pacific.
Lieutenant Andrews continued through the city centre and to the grand suburb of Ascot, where impeccable gardens surrounded beautiful mansions. He turned on to Mayfield Street where he parked in front of a small weatherboard house. She got out and walked with him down the garden path but faltered when they reached the steps leading to the front door.
‘Miss O’Sullivan, I understand your hesitation but—’ The wire door swung open and a portly woman of around sixty stepped out. Her grey hair was pulled into a tight bun. The smile lines around her eyes helped Ellie relax—only a little.
‘Miss O’Sullivan, it is so lovely of you to join us. I’m Mrs Jocelyn McGinnis.’ She held open the door.
Ellie stepped inside, the cool air wrapping around her. The walls of the hallway were bare, except for picture hooks and faint rectangular shadows where frames had once hung.
She followed Mrs McGinnis into the front room that contained two desks and four chairs. Mrs McGinnis motioned for Ellie to sit on a wooden chair in front of a desk.
‘Tea with milk?’ Mrs McGinnis asked.
Mrs McGinnis passed the cup and Ellie reached for it, her hands shaking.
‘Tea is a rare commodity these days,’ said Mrs McGinnis. ‘Yes.’ Ellie took a sip, delighting in the sweet richness. Ever since the Japanese had entered the war and closed off the route to Ceylon, tea had been rationed and coupons were needed to buy it. Understandably, the military had priority over Australian civilians.
‘We appreciate you resisting our request. It shows you are not willing to take anything at face value.’
Ellie put her cup down on the saucer. ‘Could you please tell me what this skills test is for?’
‘I’m afraid that’s not possible.’
Frustrated, Ellie looked around. The room was immaculate, not a paper in sight. There were no photos of family members, no half-empty glasses of water, no pencils scattered across the highly polished wooden desks.
‘Miss O’Sullivan, I promise all will be revealed in time.’
Ellie leaned forward. ‘I know this has something to do with General MacArthur but all this cloak-and-dagger stuff is a little … a lot … disconcerting. Can you please just give me something?’
Ellie straightened her spine. ‘What does she have to do with this?’
‘Florence is a member of our organisation and she gave us your name.’
‘She’s here? In Brisbane?’
Florry had left Qantas a year ago to look after her mother up north. She hadn’t kept in touch with Ellie, despite promising to write regularly. It had upset Ellie initially given they were such good friends, but she’d figured Florry had a good reason. And now Ellie had an inkling as to why.
Mrs McGinnis opened a drawer and took out a stack of paper. She placed it face down on the desk and handed Ellie two pencils. ‘Please complete this to the best of your ability. You will have three hours and once you start you cannot leave this room. Would you like to use the ladies’ first?’
Ellie looked at the papers. There was no chance of excusing herself from this test. Besides, the Florry connection intrigued her.
‘Maybe I should do this tomorrow? After I’ve had some sleep? It’s been a long day and I’m not exactly at my best.’
‘Which is why we would like you to do it now.’
‘If you could just tell me a bit more about …’ Her words trailed off when Mrs McGinnis gave her a stern look. Ellie stood. ‘Can you please direct me to the loo?’
She followed Mrs McGinnis down the hallway and outside the house to the toilet. Mrs McGinnis hovered outside. Ellie took her time, trying to figure out why Florry had resurfaced in such an odd way.
Ellie sucked in her breath.
Was Florry a spy?