Tuesday, May 3, 2016

"There Was a Smile on His Face As He Died, a Peaceful, Serene Smile"

"The Murder Ray."
By E. K. Jarvis (house pseudonym).
First appearance: Fantastic Adventures, April 1949.
Reprinted in Fantastic Adventures Quarterly, Fall 1949.
Novelette (38 pages).
Online at UNZ HERE.
(Parental caution: Strong language.)
"Kuvar's demand was simple: Pay his price or die. And of course, with the murder ray it was an easy task to make it look like suicide!"
When the mortality rate among a group of six affluent City Club members suddenly rises well above statistical averages, at first everyone wants to treat it as mere happenstance, but they soon must face the truth: Someone is forcing them to kill themselves even though they're not feeling in the least suicidal, and they're sure they know who's behind it (or so they think). The problem that's puzzling everybody isn't why, since obviously it's to extort money from them. The big question is how how is the killer doing it? Michael Trent definitely has an intense interest in finding the answer to that question because, if he doesn't, in less than four days he'll be as dead as the other victims, another apparent suicide . . .

Principal characters:
~ Samuel Beacon:
   "While Trent was looking down at his watch, Beacon took a pistol out of his side coat pocket, pressed it against his temple, and pulled the trigger."
~ Hogue:
   "Hogue, his mouth hanging open like a lizard frozen in the act of reaching for a fly, stared at Beacon in dazed disbelief."
~ Michael (Mike) Trent:
   "Four days is all I'll need you. We'll either have this thing licked by then or I'll be dead."
~ Kuvar:
   "The fact that he gave his victims two weeks to make up their minds, that he told them they would be sorry if they didn't buy, indicated that maybe he was selling them their lives."
~ Marks:
   "I think we're acting like a lot of old women. We're sitting around here worrying about something that's going to happen. Nothing is going to happen. Nothing can happen."
~ Police lieutenant (unnamed):
   "Hell, all five of you saw him shoot himself. The nitrate test shows he's the only man in the room who has fired a gun. If that's not suicide, I'll eat my hat."
~ Cullinane:
   "I hate to disagree with you but I think the cop was right."
~ Wallace Cooper:
   "We'll take this up with the police. We'll demand protection."
~ Parker:
   "Brother, you are on the spot! Well, I've got a partner. We'll both get on this right away and see what we can find out. It'll cost you sixty dollars a day . . ."
~ Patricia (Pat) Beacon:
   "I think these clippings prove that daddy had some idea of what was going on. I think he not only knew that a threat was being made on his life but had some inkling of the form the threat would take."
~ Landlady:
   "Sometimes maybe I see him carrying a kitty into the basement. Then maybe two three days later I find the kitty dead, maybe in the back alley, maybe in the garbage barrel, wher-ever he happened to throw it."
~ Wapping:
   "There was one other gadget that Trent looked at once, then quickly looked away. A comfortable chair with three dangling wires dropping down from the ceiling and a throw switch within reach of the right hand. It was an improvised death chair and it was certainly the last gadget Wapping had ever designed or used."
~ Art:
   "Just drive where I tell you, buddy. And don't try to argue with me because this is a gun I've got here in my hand."
~ Pinky:
   "He nervously changed his grip on the tommy-gun and wiped sweat from the palms of his hands."

Notable descriptive passages:

   "Aster Place was a street of small, one-story frame houses built so closely together that you could stick your head out of your kitchen window and eat your neighbor's meat balls and spaghetti right out of his place without bothering to reach for them. Although it was after eleven o'clock when Trent and Pat Beacon arrived at Aster Place, kids were still yipping in the street, a juke box was blaring in the corner tavern, and barefooted men and women were sitting on their front porches and gossiping in the summer night."

   "The place stank. It smelled of mice and rats and cats and dogs. The basement hadn't been cleaned in years and the musty air rose in little puffs at each step from the thick mantle of dust that covered everything. Whatever else he may have been, Wapping had not been a tidy housekeeper and his superstitious landlady had refused to enter the basement after he died there. A cot with rumpled bed clothing stood against one wall. A two-burner gas stove stood on a table. The sink was still covered with dirty dishes. Wapping had lived in a pig-sty and he apparently hadn't cared."

   "The men around him listened respectfully but without giving any indication that they had even the faintest understanding of what he was saying. They were policemen, accustomed to thinking of murder in terms of the knife and the gun. The explanation of a really scientific method of cold-blooded murder was miles beyond their mental ability. A bullet they under-stood, the way a knife worked, they could grasp, they knew something about poison, the common ways in which men kill each other. But a murder method invented by an erratic genius who had spent most of his life reading books in a dirty basement, a method that depended on an excellent understanding not only of the operation of the human brain but on a thorough-going knowledge of the generation of electro-magnetic radiations of exceedingly high frequency, that method they did not begin to grasp."

   "Witchcraft, in Chicago, in the twentieth century? Witchcraft in a world of concrete and steel, of motor cars and airplanes and bursting atoms? Witchcraft in an age that did not believe in witches, in an era that thought in terms of force and counterforce, of action and reaction, in a century that thought in the cold hard laws of science? Trent shook his head. He forced the thoughts of witchcraft out of his mind. To his way of thinking, that was all non-sense, all misdirected thinking on the part of a race that had not yet learned the laws of cause and effect. Witchcraft could accomplish certain results all right, if you believed in it. Modern psychology had pretty clearly established the way witchcraft worked. You had to believe in it for it to have an effect. Trent didn't believe in it."
- For indeterminate articles about topics broached in our story go HERE and HERE.
- We've recently encountered "E. K. Jarvis" HERE and HERE, and probably will again.

The bottom line:
   I see thee still,
   And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
   Which was not so before.
   — Shakespeare

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