THE KOLCHAK PAPERS:

A STRANGER IN A BAR

Michael D. Winkle

I've written about my hectic time in Seattle, Washington, elsewhere. If you are one of the fortunate few who stumbled upon an obscure paperback book with the tabloid-esque title The Night Strangler, don't worry: I didn't enter the following information into my notes, because at the time it held no significance for me. Later, however, it came back to haunt me worse than any curse or poltergeist.

Heaven knows how I ended up in Seattle when I'd started out for New York from Las Vegas. There I was, however, and I sought out the Seattle Press Club as a last resort, my resumes and clippings under my arm. At this point in my life I could barely afford a double scotch. I sat at the bar with a row of local reporters, feeling the outsider with a capital OUT. Believe it or not, I was reluctant to test the waters with any local 'paper. I didn't dive into conversation until I noticed a tall, thin young man studying me from a couple of stools down.

The guy was in his mid-twenties, skinny but projecting an aura of strength -- wiry I guess you'd call it. He had an oval face and a strong Kirk Douglas chin, dark hair, and sky-blue eyes focused on some point near my elbow.

I glanced down, lifting my arm and folio like a wing. A sketch artist's drawing of a gaunt, feral, barely-human face glared from a corner of a newspaper clipping.

The young man grinned at me in embarrassment.

"Sorry," he said, "but he looks interesting. Certainly more so than any mug they put in the Chronicle."

My scotch sloshed around in my empty stomach. I wondered if this whelp had ever looked down on a twisted corpse in a multi-car wreck, or a swollen floater dragged from a river.

"Interesting," I grumbled. "There's an understatement. It's only the greatest news story of the century, my friend. But nobody's heard of it."

"Really?" asked the whelp. "Now you have me hooked. Who is this guy?"

I swallowed the last of my scotch.

"Janos Skorzeny," I muttered, wiping my lips with a little square napkin.

The young reporter rose.

"Nasty customer?"

"The nastiest."

"I'd like to hear about him," said my new friend. "Maybe over another drink? Mr. --?"

"Kolchak. Carl Kolchak."

We moved to a booth. Once lubricated with more alcohol, I started in about Las Vegas, the Skorzeny murders, the lid slammed down by the cops and the D.A., and my final realization: Janos Skorzeny was a genuine blood-sucking vampire.

My friend grinned, an arrogant, disbelieving grin that made my own blood boil.

"Come on. A vampire? You've seen too many Hammer films. And downed too many Jack Daniel's."

Maybe I had had a bit much on an empty stomach. "Jimmy Olsen" here became every condescending and sarcastic face I'd seen over the past year.

"Why the hell not a vampire, my fine feathered friend? The world's getting stranger every day."

The young man tapped his finger on Skorzeny's nightmarish mug.

"But that doesn't make sense."

"What does, any more?" I demanded. "The Boston Strangler didn't make sense. The Zodiac Killer doesn't make sense. The Manson case was mass craziness."

"Jimmy" crossed his arms, the international signal for "I'm not accepting anything else you say."

"You don't make much sense, either, Mr. Kolchak."

My usual iron grasp on my choler broke.

"Where have you been living, in a cave? There's a world outside -- a world of facts! Come on, get your brain out of hibernation!"

The young whelp tried to edge out of the booth. I seized him by the lapels and rubbed his nose in good old newsprint from the Vegas Daily News.

"Can you read or do I have to spell it for you? V-A-M-P-I-R-E. Vampire, that's what it says."

"Jimmy Olsen" was probably wishing for that wristwatch that goes "zee . . . zee . . . zee . . ." He scooted out of the booth and tossed a ten on the scarred table.

"Listen to the official coroner's report!" I called desperately. "Blood drained from the victim's body --"

The young man sauntered away. He paused to talk to a square-shouldered man at the bar. The second man lurched my way, carrying a glass of milk. It was, of all people, my former editor, Antonio A. Vincenzo.

I outlined my reunion with Vincenzo in the above-mentioned paperback, as well as our venture thereafter to the Seattle Daily Chronicle and our meeting with its aging patriarch, Lucius Crossbinder. What I didn't mention was one minor question -- afterthought, really -- that I directed at Tony as we left the Press Club.

"Do you know that wet-behind-the-ears punk I was talking to?"

Vincenzo gave me one of his patented scowls (just like coming home again, I thought).

"Haven't caught his name, but I've talked to him a couple of times. He strikes me as an extremely bright young man."

I grumbled. This from a man who voted for Goldwater.


I forgot about "Jimmy Olsen" until I attended my first press conference concerning the Pioneer Square murders. It was an uninformative affair staged by the Seattle PD, and in particular by a burly Captain named Raymond Schubert, at the King County Medical Examiner's office. The cops gave us nothing on the murders, so I plunged into the murky waters, addressing myself to the coroner, Dr. Christopher Webb.

"Sir -- Carl Kolchak, Daily Chronicle. Was there a puncture or loss of blood in the case of Ethel Parker?"

The coroner pushed up his spectacles and blinked at me.

"I cannot say anything about a puncture wound, but there was definitely a slight decrease in normal blood content."

"How slight?" I pressed.

"About six or seven cc.s," said the doc.

I shrugged.

"Why wasn't it reported?"

"The amount of loss did not seem significant at the time."

"But not now," I continued.

The doctor truly considered me this time.

"You have a point there --"

But, of course, any respect winging my way must be shot down like the last passenger pigeon. Example:

"Excuse me," boomed Captain Schubert. "Who is this clown? Who let him in here?"

It went downhill from there. Schubert left us of the Fourth Estate with the refrain "No new leads" dancing in our heads.

I slipped out before they finished. The door to the conference room opened and shut behind me; I turned to find the same smooth-faced guy from the Press Club.

"You again?"

"Jimmy Olsen" raised a hand.

"Whoa! Truce. I just wanted to apologize for the way I acted the other day."

My hedgehog spines stayed up: people don't apologize to Carl Kolchak.

"Yeah? Why? Ya want some part of your ten dollar bill back?"

He smiled, the sort of smile you give to cranky children or arguing heads of state.

"Not a bit. I just wanted to say I spoke out of turn back at the club. You do know your stuff, Mr. Kolchak."

He poked a thumb back at the press conference.

"You were the only one to ask a pertinent question in there. Everyone else milled around like cattle at a trough."

I hummed uncertainly.

"Well -- I'm familiar with cops and their way of glossing over things. Take these two killings. Two strangulations -- common enough. But strangulations and loss of blood -- unusual. And if there's a puncture wound in both victims -- I'm thinking it's the same guy."

"Jimmy" nodded. "That's the sort of chutzpah I'd like to bring to the Daily Chronicle -- if they hire me."

I blinked. "I thought you did work for the Chronicle."

The young man's grin became one of embarrassment.

"Did I give that impression? I'm more of a hanger-on. Actually, I'm hoping to go into law . . . but if that doesn't pan out I'd like to be a journalist. Hanging around crime reporters is good experience for either career, I think."

"Yeah. Well." I adjusted my worn seersucker and hat. "I'll let you know what I find out about the Gail Manning murder."

I left the young man outside the Medical Examiner's office. I felt a little annoyed that he essentially passed himself off as a reporter, but other events in my turmoil-filled life drove all thought of him out of my mind.


The would-be reporter, would-be lawyer popped into my life one last time in Seattle, the last night I spent in that city.

The police and Lucius Crossbinder, owner of the Chronicle, had buried the truth about Dr. Richard Malcolm and his Elixir of Life deeper than his alchemical chambers beneath the city. Yours truly was without job, without career, without hope.

I threw a few items together at my apartment, but the thought of packing even my meager possessions was too much for me. I stumbled out into the night and went on a pub crawl in my last orgy of self-pity.

I'd visited my fourth or fifth bar when a voice rose above the usual background clamor.

"Mr. Kolchak! Heard what they did to your story. Tough break."

I peered through a haze of my own blood vessels at the smooth-shaven face of "Jimmy Olsen".

"Tough," I repeated. "The toughest. You try to warn people, help people -- and they screw you up the ass. I'm the boy who cried wolf, except there was a wolf all the time. I'm the Cassandra of the twentieth century -- 'cept I'm a guy."

"Yeah, well . . . you got to admit, saying a man's been murdering people for a hundred years to make himself immortal is a bit much to swallow."

I'd been staring at a little round cork coaster on the bar top. I straightened (nearly falling over backwards), and stared Mr. Wanna-Be in the eye.

"You know about that?"

He shrugged. "I hang around the Chronicle. And the cops. I hear things."

Somehow I ended up telling him about the whole damned affair over shots of Cutty Sark. Alchemy, the Comte St. Germain, the Elixir of Life, Richard Malcolm/ Malcolm Richards, who had discovered the secret to semi-eternal life. Eventually "Jimmy" led me out to a battered orange Volkswagen bug and drove me home. He even lapped my arm across his shoulders and guided me into my efficiency apartment. I flopped back on the moth-eaten couch.

"Damn!" I muttered, looking over the place. "Gotta pack by tomorrow."

My gaze fell on a stack of old, hefty volumes on my rickety kitchen table. A stab of fear cut through my whiskey haze -- not of vampires or immortal killers, but of far worse -- Dr. Kirsten Helms, who had lent me several rare works on alchemy.

"Shhhhh . . ." I half-swore. "I gotta get those books back to the university!"

I leaned forward, then fell back, my sense of balance shot.

"Jimmy Olsen" looked over them: New Pearl of Great Price: A Treatise concerning the Treasure and Most Precious Stone of the Philosophers; Blut und Gelt; The Hermetic Museum, published in 1678 yet; and Dr. Helms' own Alchemy and Avarice.

He touched one book with a finger as if afraid it would bite. He picked up crumpled pieces of yellowing paper.

"What's this?" he asked.

"Before the cops hauled me up, I grabbed Richards' notes and wadded them into my pockets," I muttered. "Thought they'd take 'em when they booked me, but they didn't book me. That would have been like admitting something happened down there."

"What are they?"

"I think they're part of his formula -- his research. Lot of damned codes and drawings of snakes and birds and beakers -- symbols they used in alchemy. Wan' Dr. Helms to look at 'em . . ."

The would-be reporter gave a grin of perfect white teeth.

"Don't worry, Mr. Kolchak. I'll take care of it."

I smiled through a haze of alcohol and tears. "What a pal, what a pal, whadda pal."

The young man put everything in a cardboard box.

"Hey!" I called as he opened the door. "I don't even know your name."

My pal grinned again. "Bundy. Theodore Robert Bundy. Call me Ted."

He carried the box into the night. Its contents never reached Dr. Helms.

I left Seattle the next day. Ted didn't.

On January 31, 1974, Linda Healy disappeared from her basement apartment in Seattle, leaving behind bloody sheets and a bloody nightgown bizarrely hung back in her closet. On March 12, Donna Gail Manson disappeared on her way to play at a jazz concert in Olympia. On April 17, Susan Rancourt vanished on her way to Ellensburg. May 6, June 1, July 14, October 2 . . .

Like I said, it haunts me.


The Kolchak Papers

Fantasy World Project