1943. As war in the Pacific rages on, Isabel Cooper and her codebreaker colleagues huddle in “the dungeon” at Station HYPO in Pearl Harbor, deciphering secrets plucked from the airwaves in a race to bring down the enemy. Isabel has only one wish: to avenge her brother’s death. But she soon finds life has other plans when she meets his best friend, a hotshot pilot with secrets of his own.
1965. Fledgling journalist Lu Freitas comes home to Hawai'i to cover the grand opening of the glamorous Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Rockefeller's newest and grandest project. When a high-profile guest goes missing, Lu forms an unlikely alliance with an intimidating veteran photographer to unravel the mystery. The two make a shocking discovery that stirs up memories and uncovers an explosive secret from the war days. A secret that only a codebreaker can crack.
Washington, DC, September 1942
There was perhaps no more tedious work in the world. Sitting at a desk all day staring at numbers or letters and looking for patterns. Taking notes and making charts. Thinking until your brain ached. For days and weeks and years on end. The extreme concentration drove some to the bottle, others to madness, and yet others to a quiet greatness that less than ten people in the world might ever know about. You might work for a year on cracking a particular code, only to have nothing to show for it but a tic in your eye and a boil on the back of your thigh. Failure was a given. Accept that and you’d won half the battle.
Isabel sat at her desk staring at a page full of rows and columns of five-letter groups that made no sense whatsoever on this side of the world. But on the other side, in Tokyo where the messages originated, she knew that Japanese officials were discussing war plans. War plans that were on this paper. As her eyes scanned the page, she felt the familiar scratching at the subconscious that meant she was close to seeing some kind of pattern. A prick of excitement traveled up her spine.
Suddenly, a hand waved up and down in front of her face, rudely pulling her out of her thoughts. “Isabel, you gotta put a lid on that noise. No one else can do their jobs,” said Lieutenant Rawlings, her new boss.
She forced a smile. “Sorry, sir, most of the time I’m not aware that I’m doing it. I’m—”
“That may be the case but try harder. I don’t want to lose you.”
Isabel had a tendency to hum during her moments of deepest focus, which had gotten her in trouble with her supervisors over the past year and a half while at Main Navy. In fact, she’d been transferred on more than one occasion due to the distracting nature of it. She’d worked hard to stop it, but when she went into that otherworldly state of mind, where everything slid away and the images moved around in her head of their own accord, the humming kicked back in. It would be like asking her not to breathe.
Lately, the whole team had reached a level of frustration that had turned the air in the room sour. Though they’d had success with the old Red machine, this complex supercipher seemed impossible to break. Faith was draining fast.
With her dress plastered to her back, and sucking on the second salt tablet of the day, Isabel put her head down, scribbling notes on her giant piece of paper. September in Washington burned hotter than a brick oven. Thoughts of her brother, Walt, kept interfering with her ability to stay on task. He would have turned twenty-five years old today. Would have been flying around somewhere in the Pacific about now, shooting down enemy planes, and hooting and hollering when he landed his plane full of bullet holes on the flattop. Walt loved nothing more than the thrill of the chase. Every time she thought of him, a lump formed in her throat and she had to fight back the tears. No one had ever, or ever would, love her more than Walt had.
More than anything, Isabel wanted to get to Hawai‘i and see the spot where his plane plunged into the ocean. To learn more about his final days and hear the story straight from the mouths of his buddies. As if that would somehow make her feel better. She rubbed her eyes. For now, she was stuck here in this hellhole of a building, either sweltering or shivering, depending on what time of year it was.
At 1130, her friend Nora waltzed in from a break, looking as though she’d swallowed the cat. Nora had a way of knowing things before everyone else, and Isabel was lucky enough to be stationed at the desk next to hers.
“Spill the beans, lady,” Isabel said quietly.
Nora glanced around the room, dramatically. “Later.”
Most of the team was still out to lunch, save for a couple of girls across the room, and Rawlings behind the glass in his office.
“No one’s even here, tell me now.”
Nora came over and sat on Isabel’s desk, legs crossed. She picked up a manila folder and began fanning herself, then leaned in. “I’ve heard from a very good source that the brass are tossing around names for the lucky—or unlucky, depending on how you look at it—crypto being sent to Pearl.”
Station Hypo at Pearl Harbor was one of the two main codebreaking units in the Pacific. Nora knew how badly Isabel wanted to be there.
Isabel perked up. “Whose names are being tossed?”
“That, I don’t know.”
“Should I remind Rawlings to remind Feinstein that I’m interested?”
“It couldn’t hurt, could it?” Isabel said.
“Sorry, love, but those men would just as soon send a polar bear to Hawai‘i as a woman,” Nora said.
“You seem to forget that one of the best codebreakers around is female. And the only reason most of our bosses know anything is because she taught them,” Isabel said, speaking softly. This was the kind of talk that could get you moved to the basement. And Isabel did not do well in basements.
“Neither of us is Agnes Driscoll, so just get it out of your head. And even Agnes is not in Hawai‘i,” Nora whispered.
“There has to be a way.”
“Maybe if you dug up a cache of Japanese codebooks. Or said yes to Captain Smythe,” Nora said with a wink.
Nora and Isabel were a study in opposites. Her short red bob had been curled under and sprayed into place, her lips painted fire-engine red. She had a new man on her arm every weekend and walked around in a cloud of French lilac perfume that permeated their entire floor.
“I have no interest in Captain Smythe,” Isabel said.
Hal Smythe was as dull as they came. At least as far as Isabel was concerned. Intelligent and handsome, but sorely lacking any charisma and the ability to make her laugh—one of her main prerequisites in a man. She had no time to waste on uninteresting men. Or men in general, for that matter. There were codes to be cracked and enemies to be defeated.
“Well, then, you’d better pull off something big,” Nora said.
Indiana, March 1925
Five-year-old Isabel Cooper had just discovered a fuzzy caterpillar in her backyard, and was bent over inspecting its black-and-yellow pattern when a wall of black blotted the sun from the sky. Always a perceptive child, she looked to the source of the darkness. Clouds had bunched and gathered on the far horizon, the color of gunmetal and cinder and ash. Wind swirled her hair in circles. Isabel ran inside as fast as her scrawny legs would carry her.
“Walter, come look! Something weird is happening to the sky,” she yelled, letting the screen door bang behind her.
Walter had just returned home from school, and was standing in the kitchen with two fistfuls of popcorn and more in his mouth. Mom had gone to the grocery store, and Pa worked late every day at the plant, so it was just the two of them home.
Walter wiped his hands on his worn overalls and followed his sister outside. From a young age, Isabel discovered that Walt, three years older, would do just about anything his younger sister asked. By all accounts he was not your average older brother. He never teased, included her on his ramblings in the woods and never shied to put an arm around her when she needed it. Outside, the wind had picked up considerably, bending the old red oak sideways.
Walt stumbled past her and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, gaping. “Jiminy Christmas!”
Daytime had become night.
“What?” Isabel asked.
“Some kind of bad storm a-brewing. Where’s Lady?” Walt asked, looking around.
Their dog, Lady, had been lounging under the tree when Isabel ran inside, but was now nowhere to be seen. “I don’t know.”
“We better get into the shelter. I don’t like the looks of this.”
“I need Lady.”
The air had been as still as a morning lake, but suddenly a distant boom shook the sky. Moisture collected on their skin, dampening Isabel’s shirt.
“Lady!” they cried.
But Lady didn’t appear.
Walt held up his arm. “See this? My hair is standing up darn near straight. We gotta get under.”
Isabel looked at her arms, which felt tingly and strange. Instead of following her brother to the storm cellar, she ran to the other side of the house.
“Lady!” she yelled again, with a kind of wild desperation that tore at the inside of her throat.
A moment later, Walt scooped her up and tucked her under his arm. “Sorry, but we can’t wait anymore. She’ll have to fend for herself.”
Isabel kicked and punched at the air as they moved toward the cellar. “Put me down!”
Walt ignored her and kept running. His skin was sticky, his breath ragged. They had only used the cellar a couple times for storms, but on occasion Isabel helped her mother change out food supplies. The place gave her the creeps.
“What about Mom? We have to wait for her,” she said.
“Mom will know where to find us.”
In the distance, an eerie whistle rose from the earth. Seconds later, the wind picked up again, this time blowing the tree in the other direction. From the clouds, an ink black thing stuck out below. Walt yanked open the door, threw Isabel inside and fumbled around in the dark for a moment before finding the light. Roots crawled through cracks in the brick walls. They went down the steep stairs, Isabel’s face wet with tears and snot.
“Come, sit with me,” Walt said, pulling her against him on the old bench Pa had built.
Warmth flowed out of him like honey, and she instantly felt better. But then she thought about Lady and her mother, who were out there somewhere. Her whole body started shaking. Soon, a rumble sent vibrations through the wall and into Isabel’s teeth. Too scared to cry, she dug her fingers into Walt’s arm and hung on for dear life. Suddenly, a frantic scratching came from above.
Isabel jumped up, but Walt stopped her. “You stay down here.”
Walt climbed to the top and opened the door. The wind took it and slammed it down hard. A loud barking ensued, and Walt fought with the door again, finally managing to get it open and bring Lady inside. The air possessed a ferocity Isabel had never seen before.
Lady immediately ran down the steps and started licking Isabel’s arms and legs, and spinning in circles at her feet. Isabel hugged the big dog with all her might, burying her face in Lady’s long golden fur. When Walt came back down, the three of them huddled together as a roar louder than a barreling freight train filled their ears. Soon, Lady began panting.
Walt squeezed Isabel’s hand. “It’s okay, we’re safe down here.”
He had to yell to be heard. And then the light went out. Darkness filled every crack and crevice. The earth groaned. The door above rattled so fiercely that she was sure it would fly off at any moment. All Isabel could think about was her mother out there somewhere in this tempest. Soon, her lungs were having a hard time taking air in.
“I can’t breathe,” she finally said.
“It’s just nerves. They act up in times like these.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I had it happen before.”
She took his word for it, because it was hard to talk above the noise of the storm, and because Walt always knew what he was talking about. Then, directly overhead, they heard a sky-splitting crack and a thundering boom. The cellar door sounded ready to cave. Isabel and Walt and Lady moved to the crawl space under the steps. The three of them barely fit, even with Lady in her lap. Lady kissed the tears from Isabel’s face.
Finally, the noise began to recede. When there was no longer any storm sounds, Walt went up the steps with Isabel close behind. He pushed but nothing happened. Pushed again. Still nothing.
“Something must have fallen on it,” he said.
“I have to pee.”
“You’re going to have to wait.”
“I can’t wait.”
Walt banged away on the door with no luck. “Then I guess you have to go in your pants. Sorry, sis.”
Isabel began to grow sure that this was where they would live out the rest of their short lives. That no one had survived the apocalypse outside and they would be left to rot with the earthworms, roots growing through their bodies until they’d been reduced to dirt. Her whole body trembled as Walt spoke consoling words and rubbed her back.
“They’ll find us soon, don’t you fret.”
Lady licked her hand, but Isabel was beyond words, shivering and gulping for air. Every now and then Walt went up to try to push the doors again, but each time, nothing happened. She vowed to herself that she would never, ever be trapped underground again. She’d take her chances with a twister over being entombed any day.
It was more than an hour before someone came to get them. An hour of dark thoughts and silence. In the distance they heard voices, and eventually a pounding on the cellar door. “Are you three in there? It’s Pa,” said a voice.
“Pa!” they both cried.
“We got a big tree down on the door up here. Hang tight, I’ll get you out soon.”
When the doors finally opened, a blinding light shone in. Pa reached his hand in and pulled them out, wrapping them in the biggest hug they’d ever had. Never mind that the old truck was upside down and one side of the house missing.
“Where’s your mother?” Pa said.
“She went to the store,” Walt said.
Pa’s face dropped clear to the ground. “Which store did she say she was goin’ to?”
“She didn’t say, but she left just as soon as I got home from school,” Walt said.
Only half listening, Isabel spun around in disbelief at the chaos of branches and splintered wood and car parts and things that didn’t belong in the yard. Sink. Baby carriage. Bookshelf. It appeared as though the edge of the tornado had gone right over their place, leaving half the house intact, and obliterating the rest.
“Son, stay here with your sister. And stay out of the house until I get back. It might be unstable,” Pa said, running off to his car.
“Mom will be okay, won’t she? The store is safe, isn’t it?” Isabel asked.
“Sure she will. Pa will be back with her soon,” Walt said.
They wandered around the yard, dazed. This far out on the country road, the nearest neighbor, old Mr. Owens, was a mile away. Drained, Isabel sat down and pulled Lady in for a hug. Pa didn’t return for a long time, and when he did, they could tell right away that something was wrong. His eyes were rimmed in red, like he had been crying. And Pa never cried.
“Kids, your mom isn’t coming back.”
That was the first time Isabel Cooper lost the most important person in her life.
Excerpted from The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman. Copyright © 2022 by Sara Ackerman. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.