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."