February 1961. Extensive research
did not uncover
that the U.S. copyright
on this publication
By TEDDY KELLER
_Suppose a strictly
one hundred per cent American plague
showed up.... One that attacked only people within the
political borders of the United States!_
Illustrated by Schoenherr
* * * * *
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
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
hasn't showed up here. As far as I know, I'm in
"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
of hair that give him such a boyish
look. "May I remind
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
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
his wary and confused brain. "What's new?"
"I've gone though some of these," she said. "Tried to save you a
"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
"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
"What is it?" he cried suddenly, banging the desk. "People deathly
ill, but nobody dying. And doctors can't identify
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 accuratelypredict
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
"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
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
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
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
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 pointedvaguely
* * * * *
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
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
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,
rode every weathered wrinkle
and fear glinted behind the
pale gray eyes. "So you finally recognize the gravity
Andy's head snapped up, heated words searing towards his lips.
Bettijean stepped quickly around the desk and laid a steady hand on
"Colonel," she said levelly, "you should know better than that."
A shocked young captain exploded, "Corporal. Maybe you'd better report
"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
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
Your conduct here will be noted and--"
"Oh, good heavens!" Bettijean cried, her fingers biting
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
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
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
"Corporal!" the colonel
* * * * *
And from the door, an icy voice said, "Yes, 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
Andy fumbled for a cigarette and Bettijean passed him a match. A
captain opened his mouth to speak, but the colonel
"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
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
"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.
She move around the desk and sat, noting the phone book he had used,
studying the names he had crossed off. "Did you learn anything?" she
Andy coughed, trying
to clear his raw throat. "It's crazy," he said.
"From the Senate and House on down, I haven't found a single
"I found a few," she said. "Over in a Virginia hospital."
"But I did find," Andy said, flipping through pages of his own
scrawl, "a society matron
and her social secretary, a whole flock of
office workers--business, not government--and new parents and newly
engaged girls and...." He shrugged.
"Did you notice anything significant
about those office workers?"
Andy nodded. "I was going to ask you the same, since I was just
guessing. I hadn't had time to check it out."