The Avenging Ray
The day was a hot one, and I was relieved to see my destination. I had intended to walk from my hotel to a remote pub in the next valley and lunch, but a couple of unintended diversions had considerably extended the supposed two hours walk. Still, the purpose of the holiday was to take me far from my usual urban setting and put me and my laptop firmly in the country, there to produce deathless prose. Or something along those lines. So far I had only scribbled a few lines in my notebook, mainly to do with the rush of the wind and the silence, which taken together made no real sense at all.
I entered the cool darkness of the pub, and looked approvingly at the line of hand-pumps. A minute later and I had not only a pint in my hand, but a promise that food would shortly be brought to me. I took off my rucksack and sat down in a corner, pulling from it my little laptop. Ignoring its concern about the total lack of available networks I opened a new document and then took a long drink from my glass. The blank page looked back at me. The arrival of the food and its consumption absolved me from typing anything further for a little while. Finally I opened my notebook and typed in something about solitude in the midst of nature. I stared at it for some time and then shook my head.
‘Having a little writer’s block?’
I turned to see a man dressed in tweed watching me from a nearby table.
‘I am a little,’ I confessed. ‘How did you know I was writing?’
‘Your notebook has ‘Story Ideas’ written on the front.’ He tapped his nose. ‘I may not quite be Nayland Smith, but I can occasionally reach a conclusion.’
‘Nayland Smith? Unusual you should say him, and not Holmes?’
‘I am rather a fan of the more outrageous twenties and thirties fiction. The Saint, Bulldog Drummond, Richard Hannay, Jonathan Mansel... Those are my heroes.’
He spoke in a sonorous and almost histrionic fashion. I found it rather amusing.
‘Interesting you say that. I like that era myself. The enemies are always such good enemies, totally evil machinators against society, starting a war to sell arms, that kind of thing. Everything black and white – no shades of grey.’
He nodded. ‘And they always have the most interesting devices that they have made themselves in their garage.’
‘Of course – a new and deadly gas, some amazing lifting gas for their airship, a new explosive –’
‘Or a death ray. What do you write?’
‘Rather more up to date thrillers – or rather I would like to – I have not had anything published yet.’
The man nodded.
‘I have rather a jolly idea for a story, if you would care to hear it.’
I noticed that both my and his glasses were nearly empty.
‘Perhaps in exchange for a pint? I’m Ian, by the way, Ian Watson.’
‘That would be most kind of you. My name is Jennings-Brown, or Anthony, if you prefer.’ I fetched the drinks and sat down, telling my conscience that there was surely material for a character here just in the way he spoke.
‘It is rather a simple idea, really. A man – he would have to have some skill in radio communications, I think – is acquainted with a rather pretty lady, who likes to ride. Sadly an RAF jet startles her horse and she is thrown, hits her head and dies.’ He paused, took a long drink from his glass and looked at me. ‘Clear so far?’
‘As crystal,’ I said. ‘Very tragic.’
‘Very... So naturally – for he loved her of course – he is rather bitter – and – this is where his skill with radio and so on comes in – he builds a Device.’
‘With a capital D?’
‘Naturally,’ he said with a smile. ‘But to continue, this Device is designed so as to confuse the terrain-following radar that the jets use to fly so low down the valleys. You may not know it is entirely automated.’
‘It’s dangerous work,’ I said. ‘Wasn’t there a crash only a week or two back?’
‘There was indeed.’
‘How big would this Device be?’
‘Oh, biggish, I suppose. I imagine it would need plenty of power to confuse the radar pulses. He would have to move it to likely locations where the planes would come overhead.’ He was silent for a minute.
I prompted him to continue. ‘Well, what comes next in the story?’
He shrugged. ‘He will of course cause one or more jets to crash, perhaps grounding the Tornadoes for a time. But then? You will have to think up that bit – obviously a dramatic ending, but whether he emerges as a hero or villain I am not yet certain... Possibly he could demand the RAF stop low-flying in the Lakes in return for his secret?’
I thanked him, though the tale seemed a little bit too unlikely to me in an age where technology was ubiquitous, and we returned back to the subject of interwar thrillers. When we had finished our beer, he invited me to look over his collection, saying his house was not far away, and that I would be welcome to borrow a volume or two to read during my stay.
I saved the few scant words I had written, packed up my laptop and followed him out of the village and up a small road. The house was a little further away than he had said and up a steep hill. It must have once been a small farmhouse, standing isolated with sheep grazing the peaceful slopes around it. A big Toyota stood in front of it.
We entered the house and he took me into his living room. It was lined with books, and he proudly showed me some of his finds, a rare copy of the first Saint book, damned by its own author, some first editions of Valentine Williams and other treasures. I borrowed a Seamark I had never read, and we arranged to meet in a couple of days time to return the volume.
As I was turning to go I noticed the view from his window. It looked out up the valley at the hills above, a swathe of purples and greens and greys. Arrogant and eternal. I took out my notebook to scribble down the image. Just then a gust of wind fluttered the canvas cover of a trailer standing near the car and I caught a glimpse of something electrical.
‘Is that your aircraft-downing death ray?’ I joked.
Jennings-Brown looked at me startled, and then his eyes went to the aerial-studded assembly that the wind had exposed. Suddenly I knew his story was no story, but the truth. I started to back away, but he was on me in an instant. My head smashed against something as I went down, and a burst of stars faded into blackness.
I came round to find myself securely tied to a chair. He was standing before me.
‘How did you know?’ he rasped.
‘It was a joke, only a joke. And surely you are joking now,’ I said, rather desperately.
‘In the words of a hundred villains, you know too much. And one thing I have learned from those books is that ornate and complex methods of murder rarely work. A simple slip, I think, a knocked head, a walking accident...’
I stared at him unbelieving, and opened my mouth to argue, but then came a rising howl in the distance, and he stared behind me out of the window, his face twisting in anger.
‘They are flying... Perhaps I have a better plan – you can become another who was fatally surprised by a jet... But first you can watch my work.’
He turned the chair, so that I could do nothing but look out of the window. I watched him attach the trailer to the Toyota, and drive away. And then I threw myself sideways. It took several attempts before I toppled the chair. I twisted and scrabbled with my bound hands and finally got a hand to my mobile, working it out of my pocket. Scrabbling, panic building in me as I heard the howl of jets again, I poked at it until the screen flicked on. He had forgotten voice recognition.
I gabbled out my story, a description of the Toyota, my best idea of my location. In the distance I could still hear jets. Had I been in time? Soothing voices told me that help was on the way, and I relaxed as I heard a vehicle crunch up the gravel outside, but it was not the police who entered. It was Jennings-Brown, his face convulsing in anger as he saw the phone in front of me.
‘He’s here!’ I shouted, but then his heel came down on the phone, shattering it. I lay there helpless as he lashed out with his feet, but then were sirens, fast approaching cars, and he turned to flee. There were confused noises outside, police rushing into the room, reassuring, untying me. I stood up stiffly and was helped outside to the cars to find Jennings-Brown already cuffed and cursing foully in the most approved style.
Of course it was all hushed up and never in the papers. I expected to be told to keep quiet about it as well, but when I tentatively asked they said it would be quite all right to write it all up as a story, as long as I was not too precise about names and dates and waited a little while, so they could work out exactly how Jennings-Brown had done his trick. And so, one day when I was short of ideas, I did.