Front Cover

by Elizabeth Butt

BLADE, the sharpest operator in England, sat in his small office, relaxed. After three years spent following a short, thin Russian spy around Europe, it had been a relief to be relieved of that chore. (Not really a bad one, though, as he had split the work with his Canadian, American, and French counterparts.) Now, after a six-week vacation, he was sleepily hoping that Em, his boss, would be in no hurry to use his skills. But…

“Get Blade.” The way Em roared, his secretary could seldom tell whether the order came through the intercom system or penetrated the supposedly sound-proofed door, but she hurried into action.

Swiftly she dialed the number of the phone watched over by the guardian of Blade’s office two floors below in the tall labyrinthine building. When the orange light came on indicating a connection, she said, “Put your computer on to talk to mine so we can get the identification routine over.” The orange turned to green, she punched yet another button and the two computers began their communication – understandable only to other computers.

As usual the computers had much to “say” to each other; time passed, the secretaries fiddled, finally identities of all parties were confirmed, scramblers turned on and everything ready, but when his secretary tried to phone through to Em, silence suggested that Em, tired of waiting, had walked down two flights of stairs and was talking to his sharpest operator in the office below. He was saying, “It’s only a vague rumor that there is a blast off of some kind at this Sand Dune Flats. I can’t find the town on any map we have, nor can Research. Utah is indicated. While it is vague, it is definite and must be investigated. Start immediately. Make no contact with us until you can confirm the blast off and the purpose – and where the hell Sand Dune Flats is located. Interim reports had better be on picture postals sent to Prim’s flat – hand-written, of course – the message to follow the sentence, ‘Wish you were here.’ Keep it cryptic, like a tourist should.”

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Whistling cheerily, Em returned to his office. He had read about this blast off in both Newsweek and Time; but the brief paragraph had made no sense to him, nor to the Code Department. Blade just might be able to find out what it was about. Em could forget it. And worry about something else.

Within minutes, Blade left his office. Since he would be traveling in the United States, he had changed to drip-dry sport shirt and slacks, put on his oldest sports jacket, collected dollars from the safe and added them to the items already packed in what looked like a portable radio. It played, too.

The monorail carried him to the airport in minutes, and through a little luck and the fact that he had at one time or another dated several of the ticket sellers, he secured a seat on the next jet to the U.S. Once the plane was airborne, he glanced around casually, saw no one who looked suspicious, leaned back, closed his eyes and began to plan a course of action to follow upon landing. Unfortunately, the plane was a little warm, he had been out very late the night before, so once his eyes had closed, he fell into a deep sleep.

By late afternoon the jet was off-loading passengers near Baltimore, the airport at New York being fogged in, or something. Since the U.S. lines had gone on strike suddenly, the limousine service was not operating. Passengers straggled out with their luggage to begin bidding for the few available taxis, making up groups to split the cost.

Blade determined to taxi on to Washington where he could consult with the office of an oil company that had detail maps of each state. Once he knew the exact location of his destination, he could no doubt get a train. However, his tentative question to a driver about the rate made him realize that prices had gone up since his last visit to the U.S. some weeks earlier, and as usually happened, he had underestimated dollar requirements. He would have to exercise some care. He was damned if he’d share a cab with two young mothers and five offspring under the age, he guessed, of four.

One part of his mind worked on this problem to see if it was possible, and this distracted him in making an arrangement with the taxi driver. When a stranger, a short, stocky type with a pleasant smile on his round face, came up and said, “How’s we share the cab, mate?” Blade grasped the opportunity; the two men entered the taxi and it roared off.

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They were half way to Washington before Blade remembered that no word had been exchanged about destination. Of course the stranger might have overheard his negotiations with the driver, but Blade began to suspect that he was being followed.

“My name’s Smith,” Blade said suddenly, watching for any reaction. There was none.

“Glad to know ya. I’m Booterfield.”

“American?”

“Sure. Army. Been in Germany. Home on leave.” The chap spoke quite openly. Blade spoke openly, too.

“I work in London. Vacation. I’m going to visit a sister in Washington – somewhere out in Virginia, that is.”

“Well, what ya know! I’m visiting a sister, too; only mine’s out in Maryland.”

By the time the two men parted on F Street, Blade’s suspicions were calmed. However, just to be doubly safe, he found a bus headed for Virginia and boarded it. Booterfield was not there to see him leave the bus at the first stop across the bridge in Virginia to wait for a bus back to the city.

The next day a pretty employee of the oil company was helpful. Sand Dune Flats was a very small place, indeed. Once simply a gasoline station, it had expanded sufficiently to acquire a name and a post office during a brief mining boom; then as suddenly it became a ghost town. Now someone had bought it and was running it as a tourist attraction. It did not sound promising as the site of a secret blast off of any kind; but Blade had never seen Utah, and he was eager to be off. The only setback was that as he left the elevator, he saw a man with a group for the up elevator who looked quite a lot like Booterfield. Hurriedly Blade departed.

Transportation was a problem. The airline strike was still on, and Blade was reluctant to spend the amount necessary to charter a plane; Em would consider that action proof of lack of ingenuity. Em always claimed wit could outwit outgo. Blade settled for an overnight train for Chicago, but when he arrived he learned that a rail strike was being threatened, so he left Chicago on the first long-distance bus that was headed in the right direction. This gave him ample time to make additional plans, for it turned out to be a long-distance bus, but not an express. Several days later, the bus reached Denver, and Blade decided this was near enough to his destination that he could afford to rent a car for the rest of the trip.

Leaving the bus, Blade, now looking like an authentic tourist in his wrinkled slacks and soiled sport shirt, rented a car, studied the map he had obtained in Washington, traced the route to the town nearest Sand Dune Flats, had the tank filled with gasoline, ate a good dinner, and was ready to leave. On second thought, he decided to get a good night’s sleep first. Sleep on the bus had been broken and uncomfortable. He was pooped. And dirty. He also needed to do what he called “the drip bit.”

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The next morning, not too early (the desk had failed to awaken him), Blade left Denver, clean and tidy, driving west and later southwest. The sun was hot, the drive uneventful, but Blade kept steadily at it, stopping finally to buy gasoline and drink a Coke. The attendant told him he’d better fill the tank for there were rumors of a truck strike and gasoline might be in short supply later. Luckily Blade took the advice and the car had a large tank. For the strike began that same day, and when Blade next tried to buy gasoline, he was unable to find anyone who would supply him.

What gas was available was being saved for emergency equipment – fire trucks, regular customers, police cars, hospital ambulances, friends, girl friends, creditors, etc. By now, Blade was in Utah, about 60 miles from Sand Dune Flats, but only a scant 50 from the town of Witherspoon. He had been told that he would find a motel and two restaurants in Witherspoon so he had planned to stay there during his investigations.

The automobile now being useless, Blade turned it in and looked about to see what the possibilities were. They were not auspicious. He could choose between the swaybacked horse of considerable age and a motor scooter not much younger. The owner assured Blade, however, that the scooter would “go” and he would even put two gallons of gasoline in the tank. This would be sufficient to get the scooter to Witherspoon, might even take it to Sand Dune Flats if two of his secret pep-go pills were added; and two of these the man was prepared to sell for a price quite reasonable, considering their potency.

With considerable reluctance and a memory of the only horse available, Blade decided to buy. As the owner furtively brought a small tin box labeled “aspirin” from his pocket and withdrew two white tablets and dropped them in the small gas tank, Blade glanced about to see if they were observed. A short, stocky chap stood only feet away, watching closely. At first Blade thought it was Booterfield; then he noticed that this chap had long purple eyelashes and pink polka-dot eyes. The light had not been good in that taxi, but Blade felt sure he had not before seen these lashes nor these eyes. As Blade rode off he glanced back; the stranger had disappeared and only the scooter’s former owner stood there – laughing fit to kill at something amusing that had suddenly come to mind.

After a leisurely ride (the scooter did “go” but not at any great speed), Blade reached Witherspoon, and to his surprise, found it crowded. As he came into the small town – seemingly two blocks long and nothing wide – the streets were jammed with folk, all of whom, Blade suddenly realized, were young. Teenagers, if that. And all seemed to be chewing bubble gum and making bubbles, quite the largest bubbles of that kind Blade had ever seen. It was the most repulsive sight he could remember.

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Shuddering, he rode the length of the town, saw that there were not three motels, but each showed a NO VACANCY light. Figuring he had nothing to lose, Blade rode into the largest parking lot, entered and put a query to the desk clerk. At first the clerk simply pointed to the no vacancy sign on the desk; but after examining Blade carefully, he asked, “You a reporter?”

“No, I’m a tourist.”

“At least you’re not one of those kids. You with the gum company?”

“No, I’m a tourist.”

After further thought, the clerk admitted, “I do have one room. We’re beginning to redecorate and it’s fresh-painted and still messed up; but you could have it if you want. We didn’t want to put any of these kids in there, though – seeing it’s clean now; so you’ll have to promise not to take any of them in with you. OK?”

It was the easiest promise Blade had ever made. One he could certainly keep.

While Blade waited for the room to be readied, another room-seeker entered the office. The chap reminded Blade of the man he had last seen at the filling station where Blade had bought the scooter. Except that this man had yellow eyelashes and striped eyes and walked sort of bent over. He went directly to the desk, ignoring Blade. “I’ve got to have a room,” he said.

“Impossible.”

“Look, never mind the room. What I’ve got to have is a hot bath. If I can just use a tub for about an hour.”

“Impossible.”

“Batting the yellow eyelashes, he asked, “Have you ever ridden a swaybacked horse for 50 miles?”

The stranger was in dire need. The clerk raised an eyebrow toward Blade. “If this gentleman would share–”

The stranger turned to Blade with a pleading look, too exhausted and sore to pretend anything. Blade could not refuse. Also he felt it would be an opportunity to find out about the eyelashes and those strange eyes.

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Surprisingly soon the stranger, who had registered and introduced himself as John Smithers, was soaking in a tub of hot water, making happy gurgles to himself and absent-mindedly answering Blade’s questions. The eyelashes? Those were part of a set, all colors, that he had bought from a mail order house in Chicago. The eyes? Part of the same set, transparent colored films to be used with contact lenses, all colors and kinds; the polka-dotted ones were his favorites. They put folks off and gave him an advantage.

Baltimore? Well, yes, he was the chap in the taxi. Job? Well, why try to deny it since Blade obviously realized he was following him. At first, that is. When he had reported Blade’s general destination as Utah or thereabouts, he had been directed to keep an eye on Blade if possible but mainly to discover what this blast in the desert was. So why shouldn’t they join forces, since transportation was difficult and their job the same.

Which made so much sense that, after a good night’s sleep, they found that gasoline was available in small quantities at terrific prices, bought two gallons (splitting the cost but each putting the full amount on his expense account like any good spy would), crowded onto the scooter and departed carefully for Sand Dune Flats. Even on a cushion Smithers was still hurting from the long ride on the horse.

Long before they saw Sand Dune Flats, they heard it. It sounded like nothing either could identify but was the worst sound either had ever heard. Only hundreds of shrill voices over the noise of innumerable music groups (hoping for instant fame) could create such a sound. As the men came even nearer they began to pass signs.

WELCOME TO SAND DUNE FLATS
THE BUBBLY BUBBLE GUM COMPANY WELCOMES
YOU TO SAND DUNE FLATS
JOIN THE BUBBLY BUBBLE GUM BLAST July 2 – 4
EVERYBODY WELCOME
BUBBLY BUBBLE GUM COMPANY
BUBBLY BUBBLE GUM COMPANY
BUBBLY BUBBLE GUM makes BIGGER and BETTER
BUBBLES without BURSTS

Then came the first sign of habitation, a small stand with a huge sign over it reading BUBBLY BUBBLE GUM CONTEST – Register Here.

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With their minds in total confusion, the two men studied the sign and with one accord dismounted and walked over to discover what the contest was. Five beautiful girls, all chewing bubble gum and making bubbles, each dressed in a brief costume with a western theme, welcomed them by drawing guns and shooting packages of bubble gum at the startled men. The girls were only too eager to explain. The Bubbly Bubble Gum Company was staging its annual (this was the first year) bubble gum contests to find the champion bubble blower. The town was full of youngsters, each hoping to win something, for the event lasted for three days; there were contests for all ages, both sexes, every kind imaginable, all leading to the grand finale blast off that afternoon. Blade and Smithers asked, “Blast off?”

“Yes, it’s called a ‘desert blast,” and the final event is the ‘blast off.’ Cute, isn’t it?”

The girls all grinned at the two men, lined up and produced five bubbles of equal and, to their audience, incredible size. Without any bursting. After holding the bubbles for applause, the girls crossed their eyes, and the bubbles slowly diminished and disappeared.

Blade and Smithers walked back to the scooter. Each was thinking furiously. What the hell should he report! What started the rumor in the first place? After a cautious conference, both agreed that their bosses had been alerted by the brief paragraphs in the news magazines – brief because it was only an advertising stunt, mentioned at all because it was of interest to many, but written in a jargon comprehensible only to those under about fifteen. It would not do to report that.

So this is why two strangers secured a grant from the A*Z Agency (the one that gives money to those unable to qualify to borrow from any other agency), bought a spread high in the Utah hills, and are ostensibly raising sheep.

In truth, one is prospecting on the sly. The other is keeping in practice as a spy by trailing him. But you can recognize the latter, despite his masquerading as a sheep. He’s the only sheep in the entire flock that chews bubble gum.

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Colophon

Hand set in Deepdene; cover is in Caslon Italic and Copperplate Gothic; initial is Gill Floriated. Inks are Van Son Rota Brown and 40904 Black. Edited and published by Jake Warner and 530 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.

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