I would have noticed sooner if I had any close relatives still alive. Or anyone close to me. At least I think I would have.
It didn't help that all the major documents concerning my life sit in a few battered cardboard boxes in this rathole the managers laughingly call an apartment. Papers, pictures, news stories never published, and a cracked porcelain mug or two, I rarely disturbed them just in case I had to fly by night again. One day, however, I dug through an old Kellogg's carton and accidentally yanked out my birth certificate. It was brown with age, stained by beer and oil and God knew what else, and you could tell an old-fashioned nib had been used by my parents and the nurses to scribble on it.
I smiled wistfully, thinking of Mom and Pop, and of my grandfather, Anton, who did his best to scare the beejesus out of me with his tales of "the old country."
My eyes lingered on the date of birth. There was something wrong with it, but I couldn't figure it out.
"Nineteen twenty-two," I muttered aloud.
That sounded right, though I hardly marked birthdays any more. I remembered New York during the Depression, Pearl Harbor and FDR on the radio -- 1922 had to be right. But. . .
I did the math, then I had to have a beer. I dropped into my ratty armchair and stared at an ancient tobacco splotch on the wall.
It wasn't possible. I couldn't be that old.
I did the math again. I was no Einstein, but I could add and subtract.
Everyone knows how time passes faster, subjectively, the older you get. I thought over my life of the past ten, twenty, thirty years. Hell, there wasn't that much to think of. Frustrations, travels, stints at one newspaper or another, seedy hotels and rooms by the week -- a century of that could blur by with hardly a yawn on my part.
Still. . . It wasn't possible. I struggled out of my chair and checked my cracked mirror. I was no prize, but I wasn't ready for the nursing home. I didn't look all that different than I did in my Vegas days -- or, at least, my years with INS in Chicago. . .
I mussed my hair. A bit thin, but it was thin in '75. Grayer that it used to be, but that, too, was understandable.
I sat back in the chair and pulled the dusty Kellogg's box onto my lap. I was overlooking some factor. Maybe I couldn't add, after all. There was some simple thing that would click into place and make sense.
Now, why had I pulled out the damned box in the first place? Oh, yes. April 21 was Miss Emily's birthday, and, recalling her love of whodunits, I remembered having a collector's item right up her alley: an ancient, yellowing paperback copy of The Fabulous Clipjoint by Frederic Brown. I dragged aside typewritten pages, road maps, and a few clippings before it hit me.
Miss Emily. Her birthday.
In an old, old column of hers, I could have sworn she wrote that she was born in 1885. Yes -- she mentioned life on the frontier as a little girl.
I slapped my hand to my forehead. Now, Emily Cowles was no Richard Malcolm -- she looked, sounded, and acted old. But she was approaching the Guinness Book of Records category if I was remembering right. Was I?
I wrapped the book in crepe paper and set it aside for the night. Tomorrow I'd pop up, fresh as a daisy, and figure it out.
I dragged myself to the Los Angeles Disgrace -- I mean Dispatch -- around 10:00 AM, the old book in my pocket. I almost collided with a beefy, bulldoggish figure.
"Move it or lose it, Kolchak!" snarled Janie Watkins.
I shifted my carcass, contemplating another mystery of life. I had acquired a permanent entourage of people who followed me around the country. Me, Carl Kolchak, the Journalistic Pariah. Janie had reigned as warrior-queen of the Las Vegas Daily News for several years. Once she picked up Vincenzo and deposited him in a trash barrel. You did lose it if you didn't move it where she was concerned. Anyway, when the winds of Fate blew me up Seattle way for one of the shortest work stints on record, she was there, along with Antonio Albert Vincenzo. Now she worked for the L.A. Dispatch.
I sat at my desk and hid Fabulous Clipjoint in the top drawer. I looked toward Vincenzo's office. I couldn't see him from here. So cold and mechanized we'd become. I never could figure out all the icons on my terminal.
But about Vincenzo. He was older than I by four or five years. That made him. . .
I shook my head. This got weirder as it went along. Vincenzo looked no different now that he did in the '60s -- except fatter.
"Good morning, Ms. Watkins," called a nasal voice.
"Don't start with me, Pencil Neck," warned Janie.
Ron Updyke passed the maze-walls of the cubicles. I glimpsed him in a strobe effect. He frowned behind his cheesy mustache as he did whenever someone reacted like that -- which was twenty times a day.
I must watch the tube too much, because I can only describe Updyke in televisual terms: a cross between Frank Burns of M.A.S.H. and Les Nesman of WKRP in Cincinnati, with just a hint of The Simpson's Ned Flanders. It didn't surprise me that he looked the same now as in '74 -- he has that peach-fuzz eunuch's face that looks the same at fifty as it did at fifteen. It did surprise me that he ended up in L.A., on the same paper as myself -- a rag he'd have turned his nose up at if he chanced upon it in a waiting room.
I rose and followed Updyke to his cubicle. He sat and switched on his monitor as I spoke.
"Oh Ron. . ."
He looked up, a tic in his left eye as if he expected the Sword of Damocles to drop on his pointed head.
"What. . . Carl?"
I leaned against the doorway formed by the portable partitions.
"I was just wondering. . . How did you end up working for the Dispatch?"
"Oh. Well, after Chicago, I worked in San Francisco for a while. Then Mr. Vincenzo saw my byline and called me from the Dispatch. He promised me carte blanche on my features if I'd move to L.A."
"Hmmm. All he promised me was some kibble," I muttered.
Ron plucked the top sticky off a cube of Post-It notes.
"Oh -- by the way, that, eh, friend of yours from the County Morgue called. I don't know why he couldn't leave a message on your phone. . ."
I snorted. "I forgot to set my voice mail."
Ron frowned under his mustache. "Well. He said you won a gel-pen set because the stiff was born on November 11?"
"Oh. Thanks, Ron."
I thought again. Bad habit. Gordon Spangler -- "Gordy the Ghoul" -- formerly of the Chicago coroner's office, had somehow ended up in L.A., too.
I felt a gravitational shift behind me, like Jupiter affecting a space probe. I turned to find Vincenzo with a fax in his catcher's mitt of a hand.
"Carl, the Dispatch is really very efficient," he began. "They actually planned things so you'd each get your own desk. You don't have to share Ron's."
"And a thousand rosy good morrows to you, Effendi," I said.
I started off, but Tony harrumphed.
"No, Carl, as long as you're both here, I've got some exciting news. Guess who's going to start working at the Dispatch as of today? Never mind, I'll tell you. Monique Marmelstein! Can you believe -- Kolchak! Where are you going?"
I scurried back to my hovel. I needed a breather. Better still, I needed a bigger brain. There were no convenient Cerebrums 'R' Us around, however, so I called long distance to the University of Nevada and asked for Doctor Kirsten Helms.
And I jumped in my ratty chair even as the operator obeyed. Dr. Helms! She was of indeterminable age back in my Vegas days -- certainly over fifty, and some unkind souls estimated she was in her seventies -- then!
"Dr. Helms, this is Carl Kolchak. Uh -- say, how old are you?"
A long silence followed that somehow put me in mind of a submarine under the Arctic ice cap.
"You continue to astonish me with your glib way with words, Mr. Kolchak," Dr. Helms said at last.
"Sorry, Doc, but I got a little rattled last night -- and this morning."
I explained about my birth certificate, Vincenzo, and Miss Emily. To my surprise, Dr. Helms let out a bark of laughter.
"So you finally noticed, Carl!"
"Are you seated, Kolchak? I have something startling to tell you."
"I am sitting, and I'm already startled," I answered.
"Good. . . Well, Carl, to be frank, you have been the focus of a study of mine for over fifteen years. You, and the people around you, including me."
"Indeed. The seeds of my interest germinated even before that. Do you remember, Carl, our discussion of immortality in regard to Richard Malcolm and Jack the Ripper -- my unofficial lectures on life and unlife concerning Janos Skorzeny and the Church Grim?"
"In your occasional communications over the years, you have mentioned your associates and coworkers -- I could hardly call them friends. I was particularly intrigued by your Emily Cowles. I looked up some specifics on her, Kolchak, in the mid-eighties. Her centenary came and went without comment. I then considered my own age. I am not, as you know, a 'spring chicken.' I developed a theory, and I contacted the people with whom you most frequently associated -- besides the scum of the earth you meet on the job."
I had the feeling Dr. Helms was being coy -- itself a bizarre thought.
"Dr. Helms, what sort of theory? About what, for that matter?"
"Well, Kolchak, have you ever heard of the Polynesian concept of mana? Roughly speaking, it is the power behind magic. Great chiefs and priests are said to exude mana and infuse their houses and clothing with it. In the Pacific islands it is thought to be a dangerous force. Indeed, the Polynesians describe it much like radiation, and they speak of the need to decontaminate the very earth over which a chief or priest has walked.
"I use the term for lack of a better name, Kolchak, but I believe mana 'contamination' can have its beneficial side."
I screwed up my face as if listening to the ramblings of Captain Vernon Rausch.
"Dr. Helms, I'm still not following."
"Typical. Let me cut to the chase, then. If half the anecdotes you've passed on to me over the years are true, you have rubbed elbows with numerous beings that might be termed eternal. Vampires. Demons. Gods! The Ripper, Dr. Malcolm -- who I still believe was the Count St. Germain, by the way -- and Helen of Troy. Your prehistoric ape-men, so lively after three million years, a single cell of their bodies generated an entire new creature.
"In short, I believe you have been infused with their mana -- their auras -- their life-force, or unlife-force in some cases."
I gaped at the receiver. "Dr. Helms -- are you suggesting I'm immortal?"
Again she laughed. "I would hardly broad-jump to that conclusion, Kolchak. But you have been exposed to immortals and deathless spirits. I suggest that, perhaps, their mana has extended your allotted life span."
I sat quietly for a minute. It was a bizarre theory, but my birth certificate lay in that box on the floor, insisting I'd already passed the usual three-score years and ten.
"I took note not only of you, but your Emily Cowles, as I mentioned," continued Dr. Helms. "I contacted some of your coworkers with the story of conducting a sociological study extending over many years."
"Like those studies that follow a classroom of kids 'til they're grown up?"
"Precisely. I asked them not to discuss the study with anyone -- including you. It was not long before I decided your own contamination affected those around you."
"You're seriously telling me that I'm -- well -- long-lived because of my exposure to 'eternals'? And that Emily and Vincenzo and others are, too, because they've been hanging around me?"
"You must have suspected something along those lines, Carl. Why else would you call?"
I took a deep breath. This was something else. It was like the old comic book cliché of atomic mutations, but my "radiation" came from a long line of supernatural personages from a twelfth-century French knight to a pre-Columbian Indian wizard.
Something else occurred to me.
"Dr. Helms, you're sure you haven't told anyone about this theory?"
"I try to keep a professional silence about me, Kolchak, but your associates are not cretins, whatever you may think. Some of them may have figured things out on their own."
I let my arm hang limp for a minute. Was that why Vincenzo always hired me, no matter how thoroughly I'd been canned (and him with me, half the time!)? Was that why Updyke, Emily, Gordy, and the others "happened" to end up in Los Angeles? Were they chasing their own personal Fountain of Youth across the country?
"Carl? Are you all right?" buzzed Dr. Helms' voice.
She sounded concerned. For me or for her own Elixir of Life?
I shook my head. Sharp-tongued and intolerant she may have been, but Kirsten Helms was not that shallow. I lifted the receiver.
"I'm okay, Doc. At least there's nothing wrong with me that a few bottles of Jack Daniels won't cure."
"I remind you, Kolchak, this is only a theory."
"Yeah." I wiped sweat off my forehead. "Dr. Helms, I need to think about this. I'll call you later, if I may."
"Certainly, Carl. I will forward calls to my home if you need to speak after hours."
I dug around in the closet and found Montague Summers' The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. I read:
Blood is the vital essence, and even without any actual sucking of blood there is a vampire who can -- consciously, or perhaps unconsciously -- support his life and re-energize his frame by drawing upon the vitality of others. He may be called a spiritual vampire, or as he has been dubbed a "psychic sponge." Sensitive people will often complain of weariness and loss of spirits when they have been for long in the company of certain others, and Laurence Oliphant in his Scientific Religion has said: "Many persons are so constituted that they have, unconsciously to themselves, an extraordinary faculty for sucking the life-principle from others. . ."
Did I do that? I went these "sponges" one better, though, sopping up the energy of witches, warlocks, Aztec high priests, and living corpses. . .
I called Vincenzo and feigned sickness. He knew I was lying, but he could only sputter and threaten as usual. I buzzed my electric razor and told him I couldn't hear him on my cheap cell phone. Then I hung up.
That night I dreamed that Tony, Ron, Janie, Emily, Gordy, Monique and God knew who else gathered around a long table. They all wore Bela Lugosi vampire capes. I lay on a big platter with an apple in my mouth.
"Come one, come all!" called Dr. Helms, she in a cream-white suit complete with boater and cane. "The Universal Panacea! The Elixir Vitae! The Secret of the Ages Revealed! Shed the years and the wrinkles! Quick, folks, while it lasts!"
The vampiric host took out straws and plunged them into my flesh as easily as stabbing icepicks into cheese. They sucked greedily, and I woke screaming. I rolled off the couch and scattered empty bottles like bowling pins.
I stumbled around for a while and made a tarry sort of coffee. When I felt halfway sober, I called Dr. Helms again. No analyses or theories. We b.s.'ed a while. Helms rarely let her hair down, so to speak; most people thought her iron-gray tresses were frozen in a permanent bun. Finally she said:
"I have a bit of advice for you, Kolchak. If you continue to hold at your present apparent age, you may have to edit your past."
"Say you were born in the 'fifties instead of the 'twenties. Say you served in Viet Nam instead of Korea. Eventually you might have to upgrade to the 'seventies and Desert Storm -- if your benign contamination lasts that long. I'm willing to push up my own birth date a little -- and don't you ask what the original was."
I snorted. "Doc, you know how I feel about covering up the truth -- worse, sticking in believable half-lies here and there."
"It's your call, Carl. Of course, someone sometime might look up old, faded photographs and news stories, decide you're some sort of warlock or vampire, and come after you with silver bullets."
"I'm serious, Carl."
"Well, it's another thing I'm going to have to think about. Good night, Dr. Helms."
The next day I climbed the stairs to the Dispatch offices like a spy entering an enemy camp. Vincenzo popped out of his office and blocked the narrow hallway like a border guard.
"Well, Kolchak, I see you survived your bout of the thirty-six-hour flu."
"I thought you never got sick, Carl."
"Oh, I'm the picture of health, Tony. Don't feel a day over seventy."
Vincenzo gave his usual confused squint.
"You missed Monique's big welcome party. At least you're on hand for Miss Emily's birthday. You did get her something, I trust?"
"You trust right, Fearless Leader."
Tony turned away. "Well, get it and bring it down to the coffee maker. We waited for you before lighting the candles -- at Emily's insistence, I might add."
I found the little paperback and slipped it into a crumpled lunchbag stuffed in my desk. I headed for the south end of the second floor, where they'd set up the folding tables. A big rectangular cake with a few metaphoric candles sat on one table, and presents, much larger and better wrapped than mine, flanked it on the others. The pink one with the lacy bow had to be from Ron.
The staff of the Dispatch milled around the refreshments. My "entourage" stood off to one side: Emily, Ron, Janie Watkins, Tony. A roly-poly woman forced her way past our City Editor and trotted down the aisle.
"Mr. Kolchak! How nice to see you again!"
She skidded to a halt, fortunately; I didn't think I could survive a head-on collision.
"Hello, Monique," I said.
She grabbed my hand and pumped as if priming the well.
"Imagine us all here together again," she blathered. "Amazing, huh?"
"It's something, all right."
"I'm gonna write fashion columns and Hollywood gossip. I told ya I could be a journalist!"
She went on about old times. And shook my hand. I nodded and grinned the way you do when the other guy won't shut up. I studied Monique's rosy cheeks and black hair: She didn't look any older, either.
I finally worked my hand loose when Tony raised his.
"All right, everybody. Now that we're all present and accounted for --" He gave me a look. "-- We can light the candles."
He struck a match and did so. Everyone closed in on the big white cake. How many of them were here because I was? Could all my old cronies have shown up at this one disreputable rag by coincidence?
I confess I wasn't too happy with Dr. Helms' theory. I felt like I was being used. Exploited. Violated.
Miss Emily ambled up next to Vincenzo. Tony led us in "Happy Birthday."
I picked out Ron Updyke's nasal tones. I gave him a nasty look as I lip-synched with the others. He glanced back and blinked nervously. His voice faltered.
Ron Updyke. Why would he work at the Disgrace? Why would he work with me again, or even Vincenzo? He acted so naïve. . . but maybe it was a front.
"Happy birthday, dear Emily," sang everyone, "happy birthday to you. . ."
Our queen of the agony columns bent (not too far, with her elderly stoop) and puffed her well-powdered cheeks. Vincenzo bent to help her with the candles, but with a noisy exhalation, she blew them out. The crowd gave exclamations of surprise and approval.
Janie cut the cake and shoved saucers with white-icing-ed chocolate at people. They accepted with thanks if they knew what was good for them. Emily waved spastically at me.
"Oh, Carl! Come have some cake and ice cream!"
I edged up, and Vincenzo grudgingly made way. I handed Emily her present, and I caught a saucer with cake on it, Frisbee-tossed by Janie.
"Happy birthday, Emily," I said.
"Nice wrapping job, Carl," grumbled Tony. "You yank that off a wino's bottle of Thunderbird?"
Emily hushed him and pulled out Fred Brown's mystery novel.
"Oh! The original Dell paperback!" she exclaimed. "Thank you, Carl."
She puckered up, and I had to lean over so she could reach my cheek. As I straightened again, I noticed something.
"Miss Emily -- where's your cane?"
She gave me a wrinkled smile.
"You know, Carl, since I started here at the Dispatch, my arthritis hasn't flared up once. I feel years younger. It must be the climate."
I suddenly felt like an A-1 jackass. If what Dr. Helms said was even remotely true, I'd been given a windfall many would have killed for -- and had, as I knew from personal experience. I'd be the most selfish bastard on the face of the earth if I didn't share the wealth.
Besides, what would life be like without Ron to torment, Vincenzo to yell at, and especially Emily to smooth the feathers?
I scooped up a forkful of fluffy chocolate cake, lifting it like a toast.
"Happy Birthday, Dear Emily -- and many more."