The Death Strain
The jigsaw puzzle of death began on a calm, quiet Sunday in the Cumberland mountains where Kentucky and Virginia rub shoulders. On that afternoon Colonel Thomas MacGowan walked toward the two soldiers standing in front of the doorway to the gray, flat-topped, two-story building.
"Red" MacGowan to his classmates at "the Point," but definitely the Colonel to everyone else, had already passed the outer security checkpoint and the main gate station. The two privates snapped to attention as he came up to the door. He returned their salutes with brisk smartness. Sunday was always a quiet day, in fact a boring day to stand duty, but he was in the rotating pool and this was the Sunday he'd drawn. He carried, the morning paper under his arm, crammed with the usual bulky Sunday sections.
As was his habit, Colonel Thomas MacGowan paused at the door to glance around at the stillness of the compound. He should have been relaxed, as befits a man on a boring tour of duty. Yet for some reason he was on edge, almost jumpy. Mildred had even passed comment on it during breakfast, but he'd chalked it up to a poor night's sleep. The Colonel was a traditional military man and not given to thoughts of extrasensory premonitions.
Beyond the flat, gray, unattractive main building, but within the fenced area of the compound, were the small cottages of the scientific personnel. Almost everyone was away this weekend attending the big seminar in Washington. The main building and the houses in back of it had suddenly appeared in the fastness of the Cumberland mountains one month, almost as if set down there by some giant hand.
He doubted that any of the residents in a fifty-mile area even suspected the building's purpose. Oh, there was talk of secret government work, and it gave spice to gossip during long winter nights. But communication between the scientific people at the compound and the residents was kept at a minimum.
The Colonel went inside the building, into a clean, antiseptically white interior with various corridors branching off from the main foyer and laboratories extending from each corridor. Before going up to his second-floor office, he paused at a steel door marked RESTRICTED-AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. He peered through the small glass window. Two soldiers stood inside, rifles in their hands. Beyond them another steel door, this one windowless with a slot across it, stood closed. Sergeant Hanford and Corporal Haynes were the two men on duty. They returned his glance with stone faces, and he knew they didn't like the Sunday detail any more than he did.
He turned, went up the short flight of steps and into his office. General O'Radford was in command of the compound, but the General was away in Washington and Colonel Thomas MacGowan was in charge. Perhaps that was adding to his edgy feeling, he told himself.
Red MacGowan spread the newspaper on the desk and began to read. The caption on the lead-column item leaped out at him at once.
INTERNATIONAL BACTERIOLOGISTS MEETING VIRUS STOCKPILING A POSSIBLE ISSUE
The colonel's smile was a little grim as he read the article.
"The International Symposium of Bacteriologists meeting in the nation's capital was concerned with the increasing creation and maintenance of deadly germ warfare viruses for which man has no known defense. The leading government bacteriologist, Dr. Joseph Carlsbad, has called such viruses an invitation to disaster. He has called for a halt to further stockpiling. Government officials have said there is no cause for alarm and that such defensive measures must be continued."
Red MacGowan's smile broadened at the line about no cause for alarm. They were right. An unauthorized flea couldn't get into the main building, to say nothing of the surrounding compound. He turned to the sports pages.
On the floor below, Sergeant Hanford and Corporal Haynes were peering through the small window at the tall, white-haired, thin-faced man on the other side of the door. They both knew him by sight, and he had to pass three security checks to reach that door, yet they had him hold up his ID pass.
Behind the man with the ascetic face there stood a mountain that walked like a man, some 325 pounds of flesh, Sergeant Hanford guessed, a Japanese, perhaps once a Sumo wrestler. He was flanked by two small, thin, wiry Japanese. The sergeant opened the door for Dr. Joseph Carlsbad and the scientist stepped into the small anteroom. "Thank you, Sergeant," the scientist said. "We want to go into the Repository area. Will you please tell the inside guards to admit us?"
"Have these men restricted clearance, sir?" the sergeant asked. Corporal Haynes stood back, rifle in hand.
"They have visitors' passes and general security clearance." The scientist smiled. At a gesture, the three men produced their passes. Sergeant Hanford picked up the telephone. It rang at once in the windowless second-floor office where Colonel MacGowan had just finished reading the sports section.
"Dr. Carlsbad is here, sir," the sergeant said. "He wants to go into the Repository area and he has three visitors with him." He paused a moment and then went on. "No, sir, they only have general visitors' clearance," he said.
"May I speak to the Colonel," Dr. Carlsbad said. The sergeant handed him the phone.
"Colonel MacGowan," Dr. Carlsbad said, "I have three visiting bacteriologists from Japan with me. They're attending the symposium in Washington. But of course you know about that. I didn't think to get restricted personnel clearance for them but I'll vouch for them. After all, I had to sign their general clearance myself, didn't I?" He laughed, a small, comradely laugh. "I'll assume full responsibility, Colonel. I just didn't think to ask General O'Radford for restricted clearances when I saw him in Washington. I would be terribly embarrassed if my colleagues here came this distance for nothing."
"Naturally, Dr. Carlsbad," the colonel answered. Hell, he told himself, Carlsbad was Scientific Director of the place. He, if anyone, ought to know what he was doing. Besides, there were two more armed guards inside the area.
"Give me the sergeant, please," he said. When the sergeant put down the phone, he turned and called through the slot in the steel door. In a moment it was opened by a soldier wearing sidearms. Dr. Carlsbad and the other men went into the Repository area and the door was shut after them at once.
It turned out the colonel was right about one thing. The good doctor knew very well what he was doing. Casually he took the other men down a corridor lined with rows of small steel boxes, each about the size of a cigar box but tightly latched and made of heavy-gauge steel. Beside each box was a chart listing the contents of the box and the scientific uses for it.
"No one can leave the base with one of these boxes," he explained to the huge Japanese, "without orders countersigned three times by the Commanding Officer, the head of Bacterial Warfare Section Ten and by one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
Dr. Carlsbad pulled one of the steel boxes out of its slot and out of the corner of his eye he saw the two soldiers, one at each end of the corridor, reach for their guns. He smiled and pushed the box back into its slot again. The huge Japanese strolled casually to the far end of the corridor and smiled pleasantly at the soldier while Dr. Carlsbad and the other two men moved to the opposite end of the room. Still smiling, the large man lashed out with one arm and grabbed the soldier's throat with a hand that closed entirely around it. Squeezing at the right spots, the Japanese killed the soldier in less than five seconds.
Meanwhile at the opposite end of the room the two men had casually sauntered over to the guard and, acting as one, plunged two daggers into him. That also took a matter of seconds. Dr. Carlsbad yanked a particular box from its slot; he knew the vial inside the metal box was securely locked in place and protected from breakage and accidental dislodging.
"The window is behind us on the right wall," he said tensely. Later on, Sergeant Hanford was to report that Dr. Carlsbad's usually bright eyes had seemed extremely intense and burning, the eyes of a man on a holy mission.
The windowpane was found later, cut out silently with a plastic-handled, diamond-tipped glass cutter which had gone through the electronic eye at the main gate undetected. It was left behind with a note. The four men were last observed walking casually across the grounds to the rear of the compound where the cottages stood. Private Wendell Holcomb, on sentry duty near the side fence, saw the quartet. He had no reason to question them inside the compound, knowing that they had to have passed all previous checkpoints of the security system. Besides, he recognized Dr. Carlsbad at once.
In his windowless office, Red MacGowan was feeling more restless. He wasn't worried about Dr. Carlsbad, not really, but he had permitted him to take in three people not cleared for restricted area. In twenty years Red MacGowan had never violated a rule, and it ate into him that he'd done so in this instance. He picked up the blue telephone and rang Sergeant Hanford downstairs. When the sergeant told Colonel MacGowan that the doctor hadn't come out yet, MacGowan slammed down the phone and took the short flight of steps three at a time.<...