By Capt. S. P. Meek
A telephone bell jangled insistently. The orderly on duty dropped his feet from the desk to the floor and lifted the receiver with a muttered curse.
"Post hospital, Aberdeen Proving Ground," he said sleepily, rubbing his eyes.
A burst of raucous coughing answered him. Several times it ceased for an instant and a voice tried to speak, but each time a fresh spasm of deep-chested wracking coughing interrupted.
"Who is this?" demanded the now aroused orderly. "What's the matter?"
Between intervals of coughing difficultly enunciated words reached him.
"This is--uch! uch!--Lieutenant Burroughs at the--uch!--Michaelville range. We have been--uch!--caught in a cloud of poison--uch! uch!--gas. Send an ambulance and a--uch!--surgeon at once. Better bring--uch!--gas masks."
"At the Michaelville range, sir? How many men are down there?"
"Uch! uch! uch!--five--all help--uch! uch!--helpless. Hurry!"
"Yes, sir. I'll start two ambulances down at once, sir."
"Don't forget the--uch! uch!--gas--uch!--masks."
"No, sir; I'll send them, sir."
Five minutes later two ambulances rolled out of the garage and took the four-mile winding ribbon of concrete which separated the Michaelville water impact range from the main front of the Aberdeen Proving Ground. On each ambulance was a hastily awakened and partially clothed medical officer. For three miles they tore along the curving road at high speed. Without warning the leading machine slowed down. The driver of the second ambulance shoved home his brake just in time to keep from ramming the leading vehicle.
"What's the matter?" he shouted.
As he spoke he gave a muttered curse and switched on his amber fog-light. From the marshes on either side of the road a deep blanket of fog rolled up and enveloped the vehicle, almost shutting off the road from sight. The forward ambulance began to grope its way slowly forward. The senior medical officer sniffed the fog critically and shouted to his driver.
"Stop!" he cried. "There's something funny about this fog. Every one put on gas masks."
He coughed slightly as he adjusted his mask. His orders were shouted to the ambulance in the rear but before the masks could be adjusted, every member of the crew was vying with the rest in the frequency and violence of the coughs which he could emit. The masks did not seem to shut out the poisonous fog which crept in between the masks and the men's faces and seemed to take bodily possession of their lungs.
"I don't believe we'll ever make the last mile to Michaelville through this, Major," cried the driver between intervals of coughing. "Hadn't we better turn back while we can?"
"Drive on!" cried the medical officer. "We'll keep going as long as we can. Imagine what those poor devils on the range are going through without masks of any sort."
On through the rapidly thickening fog, the two ambulances groped their way. The road seemed interminable, but at length the flood lights of the Michaelville end of the range came dimly into view. As the vehicles stopped the two surgeons jumped to the ground and groped their way forward, stretcher bearers following them closely. Presently Major Martin stumbled over a body which lay at full length on the concrete runway between the two main buildings. He stooped and examined the man with the aid of a pocket flashlight.
"He's alive," he announced in muffled tones through his mask. "Take him to the ambulance and fit a mask on him."
Three more unconscious men were carried to the ambulances before the prone form of Lieutenant Burroughs was found by the searchers. The lieutenant lay on his back not far from the telephone and directly under the glare of a huge arc-light. His eyes were open and he was conscious, but when he tried to speak, only a murmur came from his lips. There was a rattle in his chest and faint coughs tried in vain to force their way out between his stiffened lips.
"Easy, Lieutenant," said Major Martin as he bent over him; "don't try to talk just now. You're all right and we'll have a mask on you in a jiffy. That damned gas isn't as thick right here as it is down the road a way."
Two medical corps men lifted the lieutenant onto a stretcher and started to fit a mask over his face. He feebly raised a hand to stop them. His lips formed words which he could not enunciate, but Major Martin understood them.
"Your men?" he said between intervals of coughing. "We've got them all in the ambulance, I think. There were four besides yourself, weren't there?"
The lieutenant nodded.
"Right. We have them all. Now we'll take you back to the hospital and have you fixed up in a jiffy."
The entire rescue crew were coughing violently as the ambulances left Michaelville. For a mile they drove through fog that was thicker than had been seen in Maryland for years. They reached the point where they had encountered the congealed moisture on the way out, but now there was no diminution of its density. The main post was less than two miles away when they burst out into a clear night and increased their speed.
As the two machines drew up in front of the post hospital, the driver of the leading ambulance swayed in his seat. Blindly he pulled on his emergency brake and then slumped forward in his seat, his breath coming in wheezing gasps. Major Martin hastily tore the mask from his face and glanced at it.
"Take him in with the rest!" he cried. "His mask must have leaked."
As they entered the hospital, a sickening weakness overcame Major Martin. From all sides a black pall seemed to roll in on him and bits of ice seemed to form in his brain. He reeled and caught at the shoulder of a corps man who was passing. The orderly caught at him and looked for a moment at his livid face.
"Sergeant Connors!" he cried.
A technical sergeant hastened up. Major Martin forced words with difficulty through stiffening lips.
"Call Captain Murdock," he wheezed, "and have him get Captain Williams. I'm down and probably Dr. Briscoe will be down in a few minutes. Telephone the commanding officer and tell him to quarantine the whole proving ground. Have the telephone orderly wake everyone on the post and order them to close all windows in all buildings and not to venture outside until they get fresh orders. This seems to be the same stuff they had in Belgium last December."
As the last words came from his lips he slowly stiffened and slumped toward the ground. The sergeant and the orderly picked him up and carried him to a bed in the emergency ward. The orderly hurried away to close all of the hospital windows while Sergeant Connors took down the receiver of the telephone and began to carry out the Major's orders.
Dr. Bird glanced at the news-paper clipping which Operative Carnes of the United States Secret Service laid on his desk. Into his eyes came a curious glitter, sure evidence that the famous scientist's interest was aroused.
"Last December when we discussed this matter, Doctor," said the detective, "you gave it as your opinion that Ivan Saranoff was at the bottom of it and that the same plague which devastated the Meuse Valley in Belgium would eventually make an appearance in the United States. You were right."
Dr. Bird bounded to his feet.
"Is Saranoff back on this side of the Atlantic?" he demanded.
"Officially, he is not. Every customs inspector and immigration officer has his photograph and no report of his arrest has come in, but we know Saranoff well enough to discount negative evidence where he is concerned. Whether he is here or not, the plague is."
"When did it appear?"
"Last night at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. It has killed eight or ten and twice as many more are sick. The place is quarantined and a rigid censorship has been placed over the telephones, but it is only a matter of time before some press man will get the story. I have a car waiting below and a pass signed by the Secretary of War. Grab what apparatus you need and we'll start."
Dr. Bird pressed a button on his desk. A tall, willowy girl entered, notebook in hand. Carnes glanced with keen appreciation at her slim beauty.
"Miss Andrews," said the doctor, "in five minutes Mr. Carnes and I will leave here for Aberdeen Proving Ground in the Government car which is waiting below. You will see that Mr. Davis is in that car and that traveling laboratory 'Q' is ready to follow us."
"You remember that mysterious plague in Belgium last December, do you not?"
"I was unable to get over to Belgium, but an army surgeon and two Public Health Service men went over. You will get copies of all reports they made, including especially any reports of autopsies on bodies of victims. I want all data on file in the Public Health Service or the War Department. You will then obtain a car and follow us to Aberdeen. Arrangements will be made for your admittance to the proving ground. The Belgian plague has made its appearance in the United States."
Swiftly the expression of the girl's face changed. Her dark eyes glowed with an internal fire and the immobility of her face vanished as if by magic to be replaced by an expression of fierce hatred. Her lips drew back, exposing her strong white teeth and she literally spat out her words.
"That swine, Saranoff!" she hissed.
Carnes sprang to his feet.
"Why, it's Feodrovna Androvitch!" he cried in astonishment.
In an instant the rage faded from her face and the calm, immobility which had marked it reappeared. Through the silence Dr. Bird's voice cut like a whip.
"Miss Andrews," he said sternly, "I thought that I had impressed on you the fact that even a momentary lapse from the character which you have assumed may easily be fatal to both of us. Unless you can learn to control your emotions, your usefulness to me is at an end."
Although Carnes watched closely he could not detect the slightest change of expression in the girl's face as the doctor spoke.
"I am very sorry, Doctor," she said evenly. "We were alone and I allowed the mask to slip for an instant. It will not happen again."
"It must not," said the doctor curtly. "Carry out your instructions."
She turned on her heel and left the office. Carnes looked quickly at Dr. Bird.
"Surely that is Feodrovna Androvitch, Doctor?" he asked.
"It was. It is now Thelma Andrews, my secretary. She changed her name with her appearance and politics. I have been training her since last August. This is her first official appearance, so to speak."
"In view of her past associations, is it safe to trust her?"
"If I didn't think so, I wouldn't use her. She has ample reason to hate Ivan Saranoff and she knows how much mercy she has to hope for from him if he ever gets her in his clutches. We can't play a lone hand against Saranoff forever and I know of no better place to recruit an organization than the enemy's camp. Thelma saved our lives in Russia, you may remember."
"But even when she was rescuing us from the clutches of Saranoff's gang, she was an ardent communist, if I remember correctly."
"Theoretically I believe she still favors the world revolution, but she hates Saranoff even more than she does the bourgeoisie and I believe she had come to be willing to accept capitalistic institutions for the present, at least as far as this country is concerned. At any rate, I trust her. If you have any doubts, you can have her watched for a while."
Carnes thought for a moment and then picked up the telephone.
"I have plenty of confidence in your judgment, Doctor," he said apologetically, "but if you don't mind, I'll have Haggerty trail her for a few days. It won't do any harm."
"Very well; and if any of the Young Labor gang should penetrate her disguise, he'd be a mighty efficient bodyguard. Do as you see fit."
Carnes called the number of the secret service and conferred for a few moments with Bolton, the chief of the bureau. He turned to Dr. Bird with a smile of satisfaction.
"Haggerty will be on the job in a few minutes, Doctor."
"Good enough. The five minutes I allowed are up. Let's see how well she has performed her first task."
As they emerged from the Bureau of Standards, Carnes glanced rapidly around. In the front seat of the secret service car which he had left sat a young man whom the detective recognized as one of Dr. Bird's assistants. Behind the car stood a small delivery truck with two of the Bureau mechanics on the seat.
Dr. Bird nodded to the mechanics and followed Carnes into the big sedan. With a motorcycle policeman clearing a way for them, they roared across Washington and north along the Baltimore pike. Two hours and a half of driving brought them to Aberdeen and they turned down the concrete road leading to the proving ground. Two miles from the town a huge chain was stretched across the road with armed guards patrolling behind it. The car stopped and an officer stepped forward and examined the pass which Carnes presented.
"You are to go direct to headquarters, gentlemen," he said. "Colonel Wesley is waiting for you."
The commanding officer rose to his feet as Carnes and Dr. Bird entered his office.
"I am at your service, Dr. Bird," he said formally. "The Chief of Ordnance has given instructions which, as I understand them, put you virtually in command of this post." There was resentment in the colonel's tone.
Dr. Bird smiled affably and extended his hand. The old colonel struggled with his chagrin for a moment, but few men could resist Dr. Bird when he deliberately tried to charm them. Colonel Wesley grasped the proffered hand.
"What I want most, Colonel, is your cooperation," said the doctor suavely. "I am not competent to assume command here even if I wished to. I would like to ask a few favors but if they should prove to be contrary to your established policies, I will gladly withdraw my request."
Colonel Wesley's face cleared as if by magic.
"You have only to ask for anything we have, Doctor," he said earnestly, "and it is yours. Frankly, we are at our wit's end."
"Thank you. I have a truck with some apparatus and three men outside. Will you have them guided to your laboratory and given what aid they need in setting their stuff up?"
"My secretary, Miss Andrews, will arrive from Washington later in the day with some information. I would like to have her passed through the guards and brought directly to me wherever I am. You have the place well guarded, have you not?"
"As well as I can with my small force. All roads are patrolled by motorcycles; four launches are on the waterfront, and there are seven planes aloft."
"That is splendid. Now can you tell me just what happened last night?"
"Captain Murdock, the acting surgeon, can do that better than I can, Doctor. He is at the hospital but I'll have him up here in a few minutes."
"With your permission, we'll go to the hospital and talk to him there. I want to examine the patients in any event."
"Certainly, Doctor. I will remain at my office until I am sure that I can give you no further assistance."
With a word of thanks, Dr. Bird left, and, accompanied by Carnes, made his way to the hospital. Captain Murdock was frankly relieved to greet the famous Bureau of Standards scientist and readily gave him the information he desired.