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Authors: Lee Falk

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BOOK: The Veiled Lady
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When the Phantom was almost at the mouth of the cave, he spotted the injured Gabe sitting erectly upright in a splash of deep shadow. "What's wrong?" the masked man asked in a low voice.

"I'm trying not to make waves," answered the pilot in a whisper. "Or much noise. I don't want to disturb this guy."

Moving silently ahead, the Phantom said, "What is it?"

"Not sure," said Gabe, "But it's three or four times bigger than me, it's got enormous teeth, and right now it's hanging upside down about thirty feet from me.

"A bat," said the Phantom softly. "A giant bat."

"It could be," agreed Gabe, whispering. "Since I noticed him, I haven't wanted to risk any quick moves. I think he's asleep up there."

Without further word, the Phantom motioned for Doctor Love and Karl to stay where they were, to remain still and silent. He climbed into the cave and slid his powerful arms under the black man.

"Easy does it," he said.

"Just don't nobody sneeze," said Gabe.

The Phantom had carried Gabe not more than a dozen feet when the first tremor came.

39

The ground beneath them jumped and buckled like a pulled rug. Leaves, twigs, and petals came raining down. Then it was over; the earth fell still again.

"Look out," cried Jan, gesturing violently. "It's awake!"

The Phantom set Gabe on his feet and whirled round to face the giant bat.

From out of the dark cave, it came flapping, a great silent creature, black as the shadows it had left.

"Yeah, that's a giant bat sure enough," said Gabe. "Worse than that," warned the blonde biologist.

"It'sDesmodus, the vampire bat."

"A vampire that size must get pretty thirsty," said Gabe, watching the gigantic bat go gliding up through the waning day.

"We'd better try a run for it," suggested Karl. "I'll give you a hand with Gabe."

The Phantom kept his gaze on the circling bat, on its wide snout and its vast shadowy wings.

"There's no time to run. He's going to attack us."

The giant bat reached the end of its climb and wheeled. Then it came swooping down toward them.

Feet firmly planted, Jan took her rifle and sent a shot at the diving creature. "He's so darn big," she said. "It may take several shots to hit a vital spot."

The Phantom chose not to use a gun, but rather the magic spear his old friend Guran had given him.

The great vampire seemed to be after Gabe, who was leaning now on Karl's arm.

The masked man put himself between them and the swooping bat. "Guran, I hope your poison is still working," he said and hurled the spear.

The poison point passed between the enormous bat's teeth, lodged in its throat. The creature gave one strange shriek, a mixture of rage and surprise. Then came spinning, crashing, to the ground.

It missed hitting any of the four, though the tip of one wing brushed Jan's blonde hair and made it flutter like a strong wind.

Lowering her rifle, Jan approached the dead creature. "No doubt about it," she said, nodding to herself. "VampireChiroptera, a lovely specimen." She made a quick entry in her notebook.

The Phantom tugged his spear free. "Lovely," He said, "and deadly. Like a good many things here."

"Like a good many things everywhere," said the girl. "The only thing different here inside is the size of things. You see, the

"Jan," said Karl, "we ought to get away from here. There could be more of these fellows in the neighborhood. You can lecture the Phantom when we're on safer ground."

Jan smiled. "Yes, you're right. Where to?" she asked the masked man.

The sky below the ceiling of mist was turning a very patchy blue, starting to blacken around the edges. "We'll probably be safer back in your copter, at least for tonight. In the morning, we can begin 40

looking for a way out."

"You mean," asked Karl, "there is a way out of this valley?"

"I think there may be several," said the Phantom. "One good one will do," said Gabe, "By the way, can one of you scientific types tell me what the earthshaking business was all about?"

"An earth tremor," said Karl. "A mild quake."

They began moving, single file, in the direction of the downed ship.

"But this is supposed to be a dead volcano," said "Not dead," said Jan, "only sleeping. It's probably quite unstable."

The Phantom, who was leading the party and walking in front of the pretty blonde scientist, said, "It's odd, though. There's been no activity from for countless years. Nothing in this century as far as I know."

"That doesn't mean she couldn't still erupt," Jan told him. "Look at what happened to the volcano in the Azores Islands a few years ago. Everybody thought that one was long dead, too, until it erupted again. No, we can never be really certain with volcanoes and quakes. The earth is-" She stopped herself, laughing. "That was starting to turn into another lecture. Excuse me."

Gabe, hurrying alongside Karl, said, "So, we can maybe expect more tremors, huh?"

"Well," said Karl, "let's say we can't rule out the possibility."

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

The next tremor came at the moment they got the campfire going.

The giant plants and flowers began to rattle and sway. Startled insects, each one as big as a baseball, went flurrying up through the fire-lit darkness. Great night birds cawed out in the blackness beyond the ruined helicopter.

The ground seemed to bounce and resound, as though an angry giant were stalking them and advancing ever nearer. The metal walls of the downed plane groaned. Enormous seedpods, hanging up in the black of the night, popped and spouted seeds like buckshot.

There was one final ripple of the ground underfoot, then the tremors ended.

The bearded Karl, who had frozen when the quakes began, resumed the motion of what he'd been doing. He bent, dropping a fresh log on the large crackling fire they'd built in the space which had been cleared around the fallen ship.

Jan, with a rueful smile, shook her head. "Looks like there'll he a slight delay on the coffee." The coffeepot lid had popped off during the series of earth shocks, spilling coffee and water on the ground around the fire.

"We'veplenty of water," said the Phantom. Earlier in the evening, he'd located a brook of drinkable water nearby. He passed a canteen to the blonde girl.

"And plenty of time to wait for it to perk," said Gabe. "We're serving an indeterminate sentence

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here."

"Don't be so pessimistic, Gabe," said Karl, dropping one more section of gigantic dry-weed stalk on the fire. "We've got the Phantom helping us now, remember?"

"And you got me holding you back." The pilot was sitting near the fire, his injured leg straight out in front of him. "This is our second night down inside and we're right back where we crashed."

"Your leg's looking much better," Jan reminded him while she put a new pot of coffee on the rock oven they'd constructed. "By tomorrow you should be in much better shape."

Gabe turned to watch the Phantom, who was crouched near the now-upright copter. "You really think we got a chance to get out?"

"Yes."

"How?"

"There are a couple of possibilities," said the Phantom. "I'll check those out tomorrow."

Gabe next asked Jan, "You're really ready to leave without taking anything?"

The girl watched the coffee begin to perk. "Well, I suppose I would like to bring a few of these darn giant insects back with me," she admitted. "But they're too bulky to pack. Hopefully, we'll be able to make another visit to and come a little better prepared to cope."

"I don't mean insects." Gabe glanced again at the Phantom and did not continue.

Karl was holding his palms toward the fire, not because the night was cold here in the steamy volcanic valley, but simply because this was what you did with a fire you'd helped construct. "Every now and then, Gabe," he said, "I get the idea you think Jan and I are down here for some entirely different reason than the one we have. Do you?"

Gabe grinned, shaking his head. "I guess maybe I don't quite understand the scientific mind. Forget it."

"Coffee's ready," said Jan. She fished four bright-colored plastic mugs out of a knapsack.

"Everybody want some?"

"None for me." The Phantom moved further away from the bright-orange glow of the fire. He stood almost in the shadowy night, straight and with arms folded.

Sipping his hot coffee, Karl said, "What about these earthquakes, Jan? I wonder if what we've felt so far is just a warmup for the big one."

Jan was kneeling on the moss, her steaming mug of coffee held in both hands. "No way of telling, Karl."

"This must be what it's like living in California," suggested Karl, "along the San Andreas fault.

Waiting for the next quake to hit."

"After a while you grow indifferent," said Jan, "start thinking of other things, I'm sure." She stood, 42

and rested her untouched cup of coffee near a wheel of the copter. "Other things such as dinner. I'll get busy with our tinned goods."

While the girl walked to the pack which held the supplies, Gabe said, "I'd like to go to California someday, when I get a little dough ahead. I hear things grow pretty big in California, too."

"Not quite this big," said Karl, laughing. "Need any help, Jan?"

The girl had selected two tins of potted meat from their stores. "No, I can manage." Brushing back her hair with the side of her wrist, she glanced at the Phantom. The large, broad-shouldered masked man was standing almost completely in darkness now. "You do eat, don't you?"

The Phantom gave her a slight smile. "Yes, I was hoping to."

"You never know," said the girl, "with your legendary figures."

"Don't mind Jan," Karl told him. "She always kids people she likes."

After they had eaten, Karl, Gabe, and Jan retired to their makeshift bunks in the cabin of the helicopter. A tan blanket had been strung up to give Jan some privacy. Karl had suggested shifts, but the Phantom assured him he'd tend the fire through the night.

Long after midnight, a figure dropped silently from the ship.

The Phantom looked across the flickering orange fire. "You should be resting."

"I've been like this ever since I was a kid," said Jan, sitting on the ground near him. "Whenever I went on a vacation, I was always too excited to sleep the first few nights."

"And this is like a vacation to you?"

She hugged her knees, watching the flames. "In some ways, I guess," Jan said. "It's all been incredibly exciting, despite the narrow escapes. Fascinating, too. There can't be many places on the planet where life has evolved the way it has here in the valley of ."

"How do you account for what's happened here?" the masked man asked her Bight now, the biologist replied, "I can only give you a rough theory. But obviously the unique atmo-spheric conditions here inside the volcano are the cause of these mutations. Rich chemicals and gases pour from the earth. The result is that the soil and air are super-rich."

"That's what causes these giants we've been running into?"

"I'm fairly certain, yes," said Jan. "You notice so far we've seen only enlarged insects and small mammals. The combination of atmosphere and nutrition, the ecological picture, probably only works on the smaller orders of plants and animals. Don't ask me why." From a pocket, she took her black notebook and tapped it on her knee. "I think, for Gabe's sake in particular, we ought to go ahead and try to leave now."

"But you'd like to come back?"

"You're darned right, I would," replied Jan. "I want to study these giants, find out the why and wherefore." She gestured at him with the hand holding the notebook. "Suppose I can find out their

43

secret, determine the precise combination of factors which account for this fantastic growth."

"I don't imagine you'd want to grow more giant bats."

"No, not bats, of course," she said. "But what about giant food animals, and giant vegetables and fruit? You know, I've sampled some of the berries and fruit growing here. They're perfectly all right.

Now on the outside, with a forced growth or a freak giganticism you don't wind up, often, with anything too edible." She was leaning toward him. "Do you know what's lacking in the diet of so many people in the world? What's lacking right here in some of the impoverished sections of Bangalla? It's protein, both meat and vegetable protein. Why, golly, if we can get at 's secret, think what we could do toward feeding people. And that's only one-one-of the more obvious applications of what's to be learned here."

"Yes," said the Phantom, "some of that had occurred to me." He was kneeling on one knee beside the fire now. "One thing which worries me, though, is-"

"The earth tremors," said the girl. "I know."

"I've lived in Bangalla for many years," the Phantom told her. "Besides which, I know much of what has happened all over Bangalla in centuries past These quakes are something new."

"Then you think may be coming back to life?"

"rm afraid so, yes," said the Phantom. "If she erupts while we're still down inside. . .

Jan sighed. "I've been afraid of the same possibility," she admitted, "What about the escape route you've spoken of?"

"Outside the volcano," said the masked man, "in the Llongo country is a river called the River of Fire."

"Yes, I've heard of it."

"The river originates here inside ."

"I see," said Jan. "So if we can locate the river, we can follow it out."

The Phantom nodded. "Once we do find it, though, the journey out won't be easy. The river turns into a waterfall when it leaves the mountain and comes cascading out about a hundred feet up," he said. "But I'm fairly certain the river passes through some kind of natural cave on its way to the outside."

"Then we might possibly reach that cavern and make our way down the outside of the volcano that way?"

"Yes, I'm counting on it," the Phantom told her. "As I've said, leaving here by the River of Fire will be difficult,"

Jan asked, "Not as difficult as scaling the inside of the volcano and climbing some twelve thousand feet?"

"You and Karl seem to be in good condition," said the Phantom. "You might be able to do it, but not with Gabe,"

44

"Then it's the river route for us," said the girl. "Maybe Gabe will be well enough tomorrow for us to begin."

The masked man said, "Tomorrow morning early, I'll take off by myself. I can travel faster alone.

When I locate the River of Fire, I'll come back for you..."

"Yes," agreed Jan, "that'll be a lot easier on Gabe." After a quiet moment, she said, "I think he's dis-appointed we're not hunting for treasure or something. Do you think there's any truth to those legends?"

"There's a grain of truth in all legends," answered the Phantom,

"Then there might really be gold and jewels here in the valley someplace?"

The masked man shook his head. "I entered the volcano from the place where the sacrifices were once made. I saw the remains of many of those unfortunate maidens. There was no sign of treasure,"

he said. "Perhaps no golden trinkets and rare gems were ever thrown from the bare spot. Or perhaps the ancient priests saw to it that whatever there was of value found its way to their private treasure coffers rather than to the bottom of the volcano."

The slim girl sat staring into the flames for a long moment. "What of the legends of the Phantom?"

she asked at last. "Are they all true?"

"There's a grain of truth in all legends." He had moved back away from the fire; night shadows masked the lower part of his face.

"Seems to me, I heard the Phantom has lived in these forests and jungles for centuries," said Jan.

"How true is that?"

The flames made the dark shadow patterns on his face change constantly. Finally, the Phantom answered, "I've lived here most of my life."

"Have you ever been to America?"

"Yes."

"You always come back to Bangalla?"

"There's always a great deal to be done here." The masked man walked to a pile of firewood, selected two new pieces to add to the blaze. "Perhaps, it's time you turned in, Doctor."

Jan stretched her arms straight up, then rose slowly to her feet. "Why do you do all this?" she asked him.

The Phantom took her arm, leading her back to the helicopter. "Why are you a biologist?"

Jan stepped up into the dark ship. "Yes, I see." The Phantom returned to sit beside the fire. There was a slight smile on his face.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

BOOK: The Veiled Lady
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ads

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