Quest of the Spider
Chapter I. THE PLOTTERS STRIKE
A COMET hurtled through the cloudy summer sky. It was a man-made comet of toughened steel and alloy—the New Orleans-New York passenger plane. A hoarse, unending snarl of power poured from the exhaust stacks of the three speed-cowled motors.
About a dozen people lounged in the cabin. Some toyed with magazines. Others played bridge. They could not have been more at ease under a reading lamp at home.
Two of the passengers were not so calm, however. Their faces were tense. Their eyes held fear.
It was plain they were not scared merely because they were riding in a plane. Their gaze fanned the surrounding clouds time after time. It was as if they momentarily expected some hideous fate to pounce from the dingy heavens.
"Take it easy, Edna," murmured one of the two. "I think we are safe here."
The speaker was a man. He bulked big in the wicker plane seat. His rugged hands were drawn into knobbed fists. His blond, coarse hair was peppered with gray at the temples. It had been touseled by nervous stroking of the man's blunt fingers. He seemed very worried.
The man looked like a picture an imaginative artist might paint of that two-fisted Norseman, Eric the Red.
HIS name actually was Eric. He was "Big Eric" Danielsen, president of Danielsen & Haas, the largest lumber company in the southern United States. Every man in the lumber business had heard of Big Eric, who had worked up from lowly shed stacker in a sawmill to power and millions.
"Big Eric Danielsen—now there's a white guy!" they'd generally say. "Hasn't got an enemy in the world!"
They would have changed their minds, could they have seen Big Eric's drawn face and tense muscles as he sat in the speeding plane. He was like a man apprehensive of being stricken by a fiendish enemy at any instant.
"Try to get some sleep, dad," suggested the young woman Big Eric had addressed as Edna. "You sat up all night with an automatic pistol, and don't try to say you didn't! I awakened during the night and saw you!"
The resemblance between Edna and her father was strong. She had his firm features, blond hair, and blue eyes. She was nearly as tall as Big Eric. And she was a ravishing beauty.
A famous motion-picture concern had once offered Edna Danielsen a young fortune if she would enter the talkies. The company had been flabbergasted when the entrancing young woman pointed out that her salary as an executive vice president of her father's lumber corporation exceeded the film offer. It was an event when such beauty and brains came together.
The fact that the men passengers on the plane—those who didn't have their wives along—had selected seats where they could steal a covert look at Edna now and then, showed what a pippin she was.
One man passenger alone had not done that. Strangely enough, this fellow was the cake-eater type who usually ogle pretty girls in an ill-mannered fashion. His hair was slicked down until the top of his head resembled the greased back of a black turtle. He had an evil face.
A moment before, this unsavory fellow had visited the washroom in the rear of the plane. In passing Big Eric and Edna, the man had carefully kept his face turned away.
"There's something queer about the way that man acts!" muttered Big Eric.
"I was just thinking the same thing, dad," replied the gorgeous Edna.
The plane cabin was partially sound-proofed. Up forward in the pilot's compartment, they could hear the assistant pilot talking into the radio-telephone instrument, which was in communication with the nearest plane dispatcher of the air line. The man was giving the condition of the air they were passing through, and getting information on visibility ahead, as reported by other planes.
"I'm gonna keep an eye on that slick-haired gigolo!" growled Big Eric, still watching the evil-faced man, who sat forward. The massive lumber king removed a large army automatic from a hip pocket. He put it in a coat pocket, where it could be gotten at more swiftly.
"Don't do anything reckless, dad!" warned Edna.
Big Eric tried to chuckle. He was under such a strain that the sound he produced was hardly more than a hollow rattle.
"I'm not so jumpy that I'll start shooting everybody that looks suspicious, just on the chance that I'll get the Gray Spider, or one of his men."
At mention of the Gray Spider, dread flashed to Edna Danielsen's pretty face. It was obvious the name had a terrible significance.
"Do you—think our trip to New York will really be of any help?" she asked hesitatingly.
Big Eric clenched his jaw and said firmly: "I’m sure of it!"
"I have never met the man we are going to see," murmured Edna.
"Brigadier General Theodore Marley Brooks!" Big Eric's rugged face lost some of its worry. He spoke reminiscently. "I met him when I was working my way through Harvard. We were pals. I was a plodder. Ham was a brilliant man, one of the quickest thinkers I ever knew. But we got along swell."
"Ham—is that his nickname?"
"Sure. Ham got it in the Big War. He was always a lover of adventure. Even back in college days, he carried an innocent-looking black cane that was in reality a sword cane. It got him out of many a tight spot. He was always tumbling into trouble. But he still managed to become the greatest lawyer Harvard ever turned out.
"In the World War, he advanced to a brigadier generalship. His quick thinking saved the lives of thousands of our soldiers."
Edna Danielsen seemed doubtful. "But can even a great lawyer and quick thinker help us? The Gray Spider must have hundreds, thousands, of men in his evil organization. A lawyer can't whip an army! Not even a superman could!"
Big Eric's firm lips arched in a tight smile. "That is exactly why I’m going to see Ham Brooks. Ham knows a person who is just what we need—a superman!"
"I don't understand!" Edna was puzzled.
"Doc Savage!" Something like awe was in Big Eric's voice as he spoke that name.
He mentioned Doc Savage in the same manner an Italian peasant would speak of Mussolini, or a deeply religious Mohammedan would refer to Allah, or a Christian minister to his Deity. It was obvious from Big Eric's tone that he considered Doc Savage nothing less than a supreme being.
"Ham knows Doc Savage!" he said proudly. "We may be able to get Doc Savage to help us against the Gray Spider!"
Big Eric spoke as if he believed that would solve everything.
PRETTY Edna Danielsen puckered her charming forehead in an amazed fashion. "You speak of this Doc Savage as if he was just about the most remarkable person in the world," she murmured; "yet, I’ve never even beard of him."
"You never heard of Clark Savage, Jr.?"
"Oh!" gasped Edna. "Is thatyour Doc Savage? Why, he's the wizard who perfected that new species of fast-growing tree. Why, with that rapid growth, the forests of this world will never be exhausted! But what good will he do us? We don't need forests!"
"No," grinned Big Eric. "But this Doc Savage is just as great in other things. Medicine, geology, engineering—all these fields are his familiar territory—"
"And still," interrupted Edna, her mind centered upon their immediate troubles, "that doesn't help us out in the least! Neither your Ham nor your Doc Savage can cope with the Gray Spider!"
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