Sergeant Major Andrew McCloud ignored the jangling telephones and the excited jabber of a room full of brass, and lit a cigarette. Somebody had to keep his head in this mess. Everybody was about to flip.
Like the telephone. Two days ago Corporal Bettijean Baker had been answering the rare call on the single line--in that friendly, husky voice that gave even generals pause--by saying, “Good morning. Office of the Civil Health and Germ Warfare Protection Co-ordinator.” Now there was a switchboard out in the hall with a web of lines running to a dozen girls at a half dozen desks wedged into the outer office. And now the harried girls answered with a hasty, “Germ War Protection.”
All the brass hats in Washington had suddenly discovered this office deep in the recesses of the Pentagon. And none of them could quite comprehend what had happened. The situation might have been funny, or at least pathetic, if it hadn’t been so desperate. Even so, Andy McCloud’s nerves and patience had frayed thin.
“I told you, general,” he snapped to the flustered brigadier, “Colonel Patterson was retired ten days ago. I don’t know what happened. Maybe this replacement sawbones got strangled in red tape. Anyhow, the brand-new lieutenant hasn’t showed up here. As far as I know, I’m in charge.”
“But this is incredible,” a two-star general wailed. “A mysterious epidemic is sweeping the country, possibly an insidious germ attack timed to precede an all-out invasion, and a noncom is sitting on top of the whole powder keg.”
Andy’s big hands clenched into fists and he had to wait a moment before he could speak safely. Doggone the freckles and the unruly mop of hair that give him such a boyish look. “May I remind you, general,” he said, “that I’ve been entombed here for two years. My staff and I know what to do. If you’ll give us some co-operation and a priority, we’ll try to figure this thing out.”
“But good heavens,” a chicken colonel moaned, “this is all so irregular. A noncom!” He said it like a dirty word.
“Irregular, hell,” the brigadier snorted, the message getting through. “There’re ways. Gentlemen, I suggest we clear out of here and let the sergeant get to work.” He took a step toward the door, and the other officers, protesting and complaining, moved along after him. As they drifted out, he turned and said, “We’ll clear your office for top priority.” Then dead serious, he added, “Son, a whole nation could panic at any moment. You’ve got to come through.”
Andy didn’t waste time standing. He merely nodded to the general, snubbed out his cigarette, and buzzed the intercom. “Bettijean, will you bring me all the latest reports, please?” Then he peeled out of his be-ribboned blouse and rolled up his sleeves. He allowed himself one moment to enjoy the sight of the slim, black-headed corporal who entered his office.
Bettijean crossed briskly to his desk. She gave him a motherly smile as she put down a thick sheaf of papers. “You look beat,” she said. “Brass give you much trouble?”
“Not much. We’re top priority now.” He ran fingers through the thick, brown hair and massaged his scalp, trying to generate stimulation to his wary and confused brain. “What’s new?”
“I’ve gone though some of these,” she said. “Tried to save you a little time.”
“Thanks. Sit down.”
She pulled up a chair and thumbed through the papers. “So far, no fatalities. That’s why there’s no panic yet, I guess. But it’s spreading like ... well, like a plague.” Fear flickered deep in her dark eyes.
“Any water reports?” Andy asked.
“Wichita O.K., Indianapolis O.K., Tulsa O.K., Buffalo O.K., --and a bunch more. No indication there. Except”--she fished out a one-page report--”some little town in Tennessee. Yesterday there was a campaign for everybody to write their congressman about some deal and today they were to vote on a new water system. Hardly anybody showed up at the polls. They’ve all got it.”
Andy shrugged. “You can drink water, but don’t vote for it. Oh, that’s a big help.” He rummaged through the clutter on his desk and came up with a crude chart. “Any trends yet?”
“It’s hitting everybody,” Bettijean said helplessly. “Not many kids so far, thank heavens. But housewives, businessmen, office workers, teachers, preachers--rich, poor--from Florida to Alaska. Just when you called me in, one of the girls thought she had a trend. The isolated mountain areas of the West and South. But reports are too fragmentary.”
“What is it?” he cried suddenly, banging the desk. “People deathly ill, but nobody dying. And doctors can’t identify the poison until they have a fatality for an autopsy. People stricken in every part of the country, but the water systems are pure. How does it spread?”
“How? There must be hundreds of canneries and dairies and packing plants over the country. How could they all goof at the same time--even if it was sabotage?”
“On the wind?”
“But who could accurately predict every wind over the entire country--even Alaska and Hawaii--without hitting Canada or Mexico? And why wouldn’t everybody get it in a given area?”
Bettijean’s smooth brow furrowed and she reached across the desk to grip his icy, sweating hands. “Andy, do ... do you think it’s ... well, an enemy?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know.”
For a long moment he sat there, trying to draw strength from her, punishing his brain for the glimmer of an idea. Finally, shaking his head, he pushed back into his chair and reached for the sheaf of papers.
“We’ve got to find a clue--a trend--an inkling of something.” He nodded toward the outer office. “Stop all in-coming calls. Get those girls on lines to hospitals in every city and town in the country. Have them contact individual doctors in rural areas. Then line up another relief crew, and get somebody carting in more coffee and sandwiches. And on those calls, be sure we learn the sex, age, and occupation of the victims. You and I’ll start with Washington.”
Bettijean snapped to her feet, grinned her encouragement and strode from the room. Andy could hear her crisp instructions to the girls on the phones. Sucking air through his teeth, he reached for his phone and directory.
He dialed until every finger of his right hand was sore. He spoke to worried doctors and frantic hospital administrators and hysterical nurses. His firm, fine penmanship deteriorated to a barely legible scrawl as writer’s cramp knotted his hand and arm. His voice burned down to a rasping whisper. But columns climbed up his rough chart and broken lines pointed vaguely to trends.
It was hours later when Bettijean came back into the office with another stack of papers. Andy hung up his phone and reached for a cigarette. At that moment the door banged open. Nerves raw, Bettijean cried out. Andy’s cigarette tumbled from his trembling fingers.
“Sergeant,” the chicken colonel barked, parading into the office.
Andy swore under his breath and eyed the two young officers who trailed after the colonel. Emotionally exhausted, he had to clamp his jaw against a huge laugh that struggled up in his throat. For just an instant there, the colonel had reminded him of a movie version of General Rommel strutting up and down before his tanks. But it wasn’t a swagger stick the colonel had tucked under his arm. It was a folded newspaper. Opening it, the colonel flung it down on Andy’s desk.
“RED PLAGUE SWEEPS NATION,” the scare headline screamed. Andy’s first glance caught such phrases as “alleged Russian plot” and “germ warfare” and “authorities hopelessly baffled.”
Snatching the paper, Andy balled it and hurled it from him. “That’ll help a lot,” he growled hoarsely.
“Well, then, Sergeant.” The colonel tried to relax his square face, but tension rode every weathered wrinkle and fear glinted behind the pale gray eyes. “So you finally recognize the gravity of the situation.”
Andy’s head snapped up, heated words searing towards his lips. Bettijean stepped quickly around the desk and laid a steady hand on his shoulder.
“Colonel,” she said levelly, “you should know better than that.”
A shocked young captain exploded, “Corporal. Maybe you’d better report to--”
“All right,” Andy said sharply.
For a long moment he stared at his clenched fists. Then he exhaled slowly and, to the colonel, flatly and without apology, he said, “You’ll have to excuse the people in this office if they overlook some of the G.I. niceties. We’ve been without sleep for two days, we’re surviving on sandwiches and coffee, and we’re fighting a war here that makes every other one look like a Sunday School picnic.” He felt Bettijean’s hand tighten reassuringly on his shoulder and he gave her a tired smile. Then he hunched forward and picked up a report. “So say what you came here to say and let us get back to work.”
“Sergeant,” the captain said, as if reading from a manual, “insubordination cannot be tolerated, even under emergency conditions. Your conduct here will be noted and--”
“Oh, good heavens!” Bettijean cried, her fingers biting into Andy’s shoulder. “Do you have to come in here trying to throw your weight around when this man--”
“That’s enough,” the colonel snapped. “I had hoped that you two would co-operate, but...” He let the sentence trail off as he swelled up a bit with his own importance. “I have turned Washington upside down to get these two officers from the surgeon general’s office. Sergeant. Corporal. You are relieved of your duties as of this moment. You will report to my office at once for suitable disciplinary action.”
Bettijean sucked in a strained breath and her hand flew to her mouth. “But you can’t--”
“Let’s go,” Andy said, pushing up from his chair. Ignoring the brass, he turned to her and brushed his lips across hers. “Let them sweat a while. Let ‘em have the whole stinking business. Whatever they do to us, at least we can get some sleep.”
“But you can’t quit now,” Bettijean protested. “These brass hats don’t know from--”
“Corporal!” the colonel roared.
And from the door, an icy voice said, “Yes, colonel?”
The colonel and his captains wheeled, stared and saluted. “Oh, general,” the colonel said. “I was just--”
“I know,” the brigadier said, stepping into the room. “I’ve been listening to you. And I thought I suggested that everybody leave the sergeant and his staff alone.”
“But, general, I--”
The general showed the colonel his back and motioned Andy into his chair. He glanced to Bettijean and a smile warmed his wedge face. “Corporal, were you speaking just then as a woman or as a soldier?”
Crimson erupted into Bettijean’s face and her tight laugh said many things. She shrugged. “Both I guess.”
The general waved her to a chair and, oblivious of the colonel, pulled up a chair for himself. The last trace of humor drained from his face as he leaned elbows on the desk. “Andy, this is even worse than we had feared.”
Andy fumbled for a cigarette and Bettijean passed him a match. A captain opened his mouth to speak, but the colonel shushed him.
“I’ve just come from Intelligence,” the general said. “We haven’t had a report--nothing from our agents, from the Diplomatic Corps, from the civilian newspapermen--not a word from any Iron Curtain country for a day and half. Everybody’s frantic. The last item we had--it was a coded message the Reds’d tried to censor--was an indication of something big in the works.”
“A day and half ago,” Andy mused. “Just about the time we knew we had an epidemic. And about the time they knew it.”
“It could be just propaganda,” Bettijean said hopefully, “proving that they could cripple us from within.”
The general nodded. “Or it could be the softening up for an all-out effort. Every American base in the world is alerted and every serviceman is being issued live ammunition. If we’re wrong, we’ve still got an epidemic and panic that could touch it off. If we’re right ... well, we’ve got to know. What can you do?”
Andy dropped his haggard face into his hands. His voice came through muffled. “I can sit here and cry.” For an eternity he sat there, futility piling on helplessness, aware of Bettijean’s hand on his arm. He heard the colonel try to speak and sensed the general’s movement that silenced him.
Suddenly he sat upright and slapped a palm down on the desk. “We’ll find your answers, sir. All we ask is co-operation.”
The general gave both Andy and Bettijean a long, sober look, then launched himself from the chair. Pivoting, he said, “Colonel, you and your captains will be stationed by that switchboard out there. For the duration of this emergency, you will take orders only from the sergeant and the corporal here.”
“But, general,” the colonel wailed, “a noncom? I’m assigned--”
The general snorted. “Insubordination cannot be tolerated--unless you find a two-star general to outrank me. Now, as I said before, let’s get out of here and let these people work.”
The brass exited wordlessly. Bettijean sighed noisily. Andy found his cigarette dead and lit another. He fancied a tiny lever in his brain and he shifted gears to direct his thinking back into the proper channel. Abruptly his fatigue began to lift. He picked up the new pile of reports Bettijean had brought in.