The Ripper . . . appeared like a grotesque joke on his puritanical age--a maniac who wallowed in human entrails up to his elbows, who festooned his victims with their own innards, who rubbed society's nose in the dirt it had assiduously swept under the rug.
--John Godwin, Unsolved: The World of the Unknown (1976)
Well, I tried rubbing society's nose in its own dirt, and society assiduously swept me under the rug. Let me tell you, it's getting awful crowded under that rug. Society may have to order deep-pile carpeting.
Comic books, huh?
In my distant youth that would have been a resounding step backwards, but it's certainly better than that publishing firm that "went south," taking your multi-book deal with it, some years back. Maybe someday I'll even rank the exalted title of "graphic novel."
You were asking me how I ended up at INS in Chicago, when Vincenzo and I were aiming for the Big Apple. I'll let that short and painful tale take up a chapter or two, then I'll dive into what happened after I'd been with the Independent News Service less than a year. I'm sorry my notes are always in such a mess; they spend most of their time in the cardboard boxes I haul from place to place. I just don't have the time or patience to assemble them between placating A. A. Vincenzo and dodging cops.
Besides, piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of my life gives you something to do nights.
Jeff, you're a hell of a guy. I'm not just kissing ass. You got the other books out when I was so tired of pushing them I wanted to dig my own grave and pull the dirt in after me. You've proved yourself again by finding another publisher who isn't afraid to publish the truth, even a truth frightful and downright threatening to our fragile view of reality. Keep on swinging!
P.S.: Ya think ya could spare a twenty 'til next Thursday? I'm good for it.
Louise Harper had a big mouth.
This is not a sexist statement. I freely admit to having a bigger mouth.
We rolled along in the battered white Thunderbird, and Louise and I gave our mouths a workout.
"I've heard all I want from you," said Louise from the back seat. "You think you have problems? Here I was, one semester away from a degree, and what happens? You show up outside my houseboat one day . . ."
I fought the T-bird's slight pull to the right.
"Yada-yada-yada," came my brilliant retort.
Antonio A. Vincenzo was trapped in the car with us. He didn't have much choice: It was his car. Poor Tony.
We rolled east, ever east, on I-90. We passed through the Bitterroot Mountains and a baker's dozen of national forests, but don't ask me how pretty they were: I kept my eyes resolutely on the concrete lanes stretching out before us.
We spent a night in the cheapest roadside joint in Missoula. Louise took a room of her own and slammed the door in my face. Vincenzo sat up typing. Actually, he'd peck out three words and swear, peck out three more words and swear again, and so on.
I sat at half-mast in a wing chair, dozing between four-letter epithets.
"You ought to work on your resume, too, Carl," Tony chided. "You're not just going to walk in off the street and get snatched up by a major daily."
I took my hat from its perch on the wing of the chair. I spun it around on one finger like a Frisbee.
"Yeah. What'll I put for the Las Vegas Daily News? The Seattle Daily Chronicle? They'd deny I ever existed."
"It's a formality, Kolchak. They probably won't even check any of the 'papers. It just looks good."
"Then I'll write about how I covered the Berlin Air Lift for the London Times."
Tony frowned. "No need to be a smart-ass, Kolchak. Just write the truth."
* * *
We took turns driving. We had a flat a zillion miles past Billings. Guess who changed it?
As we rolled across North Dakota, Louise developed a sudden, unquenchable urge to visit Mount Rushmore. Tony joined in.
"Come on, Carl. We may not be by this way again."
"Sure," I agreed, turning south on 85. "I might just climb up Lincoln's nose and snap a few pictures for National Geographic."
* * *
We saw the president's heads. Teddy Roosevelt always looks like he's trying to hide behind the others. We ate in a little cafeteria like the one in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, with high glass windows looking out on the tall spruce and taller mountains. From our table we could see a big pine board nailed to a post outside. Letters had been burned into its surface: SCENIC TRAIL, with a burnt arrow pointing down the mountain.
I ate a brick-red sloppy Joe and a potato salad of latex-paint yellow. Important parts of the Primary Color food group. Tony had the same with a side barge of pasta. As I shoveled down the last of my cold and lumpy salad, Louise nudged my elbow.
"Carl," she said, "that nature trail looks interesting. What say we go for a hike?"
"Louise, have a heart--I'm eatin' here!"
"Come on, Carl," continued Louise, fluttering her long, black lashes. "We could both use the exercise."
"Don't you have to wait two hours after eating before hiking?" I asked hopefully.
"That's swimming," said Louise. "Actually, the best time to exercise is after eating. Your oxygen intake increases and the pores really open."
"I've got gallons of oxygen," I argued. "If that's not enough I can order more from a catalog. And my pores are so open you can read the 'paper through me."
Louise's slim fingers spider-walked over the top of my hand. Her magenta nails sank in.
"Walk with me, Carl," she said, biting her lower lip.
Oh. This was not a request. I wadded my napkin and tossed it in the greasy remains of my sandwich.
"We'll be back shortly," I muttered to Tony.
Vincenzo beamed at me for the first time since we'd met in Seattle.
"Take your time. Heck, I may just join you later."
He forked up a bite of chocolate cream pie. Yeah, I'd cut blazes for him.
* * *
The Scenic Trail twisted down the rocky hill at a forty-five degree angle. Louise bounced along like an antelope. I courted a sprained ankle with each step.
The trees looked like window washers clinging to a high-rise. Louise leaned against one when she heeded my call to wait. I stumbled over to her, waving my arms to keep from pitching forward down the rock and pine-needle slope.
"Carl--it's not going to work."
I peeled off my jacket, wheezing.
"You're right. Let's take the ski lift."
Louise frowned. Her frowns looked more like pouts; they were difficult to take seriously. However, she was dead serious.
"I mean between you and me, Carl. We had a few good times, but we don't mesh."
I took a deep breath of the advertised oxygen.
"Look, Louise, you can't blame me for what happened in Seattle. For Chrissake, Richard Malcolm killed some of your best friends. If I'd minded my own business like they wanted, he'd still be on the loose."
"What happened isn't it, Carl," said Louise, raking a strand of black hair out of her eyes. "Well, that's sort of it. But there's more."
"Well, please enlighten me."
"Carl, you just blew into town one day with nothing to your name but the clothes on your back--and that stupid hat!"
I reached for my head as if she were about to attack the chapeau in question.
"Now you're blowing out of town, and you're down to the clothes on your back again."
I leaned against a pine tree of my own. Bristly bark poked through my shirt.
"Well, I don't like to collect a lot of material possessions. It's just junk that weighs you down."
Louise blinked, squeezing out a little explosion of tears.
"So what are you, Buddha now? I lost everything but the clothes on my back, Carl. I lost my boat, my education, my career . . ."
I waved my arm in the general direction of Washington state.
"Career? Shaking your pert little behind in front of those drooling mouth-breathers who couldn't get any if it was the end of the world--"
"You know what I mean, Carl. I was, as my parents put it, working my way through college. Now there's no college. No prospects. Maybe no second chance."
Here came the water works.
Scratch that. It sounds sarcastic. Louise's tears were hot and real, swelling like grapes and trickling crookedly down her cheeks. She shook like a little girl.
"Now, Louise," I murmured, "it's not as bad as all that. New York's pure bedrock. Once we get there, we'll build a real life."
"If you land a job, Carl. If you aren't run out of town. My God! Run out of town! I thought that went out with tar and feathering."
I reached for her instinctively. She pounded my chest with the heel of her hand. Not hard, but I drew back.
"New York. That's all you talk about, Carl. The end of the Yellow Brick Road. Tell me, Mr. Super-Reporter, why did you leave New York in the first place?"
I suddenly found a pinecone on the trail endlessly fascinating. I studied its woody black scales as I muttered, "I--uh--left due to professional differences in opinion between myself and the New York Herald-Examiner."
"In other words, you were fired."
I edged my hat back and scratched my scalp.
"That was a long time ago . . ."
"I can't live like that, Carl. I can't be a Flying Dutchman sailing from city to city, living in the lap of poverty.
"I'm not belittling you or your talents, Carl. But you're . . . incompatible. With me, with the police, with the newspapers you work for."
I shifted from the pinecone to her.
"I won't kiss ass to climb the corporate ladder, if that's what you mean," I snapped.
"It is, and I think it's admirable," she continued. "But spending the rest of my life on the bottom rung--I'm not cut out for it."
Louise lowered her gaze and found the same pinecone. Her black tresses partly curtained her face as she said, "I had an ulterior motive for wanting to see Mount Rushmore, Carl. My grandmother lives near here . . ."
* * *
"Well! Peace and quiet at last!" remarked Vincenzo as he steered us along I-90 again.
Louise stared out at the hills of spruce. I pulled my hat down over my eyes. Occasionally a car-shaking pothole woke me.
"I'm glad to see you two iron out your differences," continued my former boss. "Looks like smooth sailing from here on."
The T-bird's engine gave an intermittent murmur like heart palpitations. I heard cars shoot by in the other lane. Louise shifted forward.
"Mr. Vincenzo, please turn off at Owanka."
"O-who-ah?" asked our hefty chauffeur.
I lifted the brim of my hat with one finger. We passed a green sign reading OWANKA--5.
"Just do it, Tony," I mumbled.
Owanka was a quiet little hamlet with a bandstand in the park and a white cinderblock Texaco station at one end. The sort of place to which city folk dream of moving, away from the pressures of modern life. A few years of the sidewalks rolling up at six P.M., though, and they'd be ready for Bellevue.
Grandma's house sat on the edge of town, tall and dark and stately like the Bates place in Psycho. Louise tumbled out with her small suitcase. I climbed out as well, but our parting was brief and casual.
I got in the front seat. Tony, looking puzzled (as usual), drove us away. Louise stood on the lawn, her suitcase at her feet like a faithful pooch, until we turned a corner.
We pulled back onto 90 before Vincenzo said anything.
"Well--she wasn't your type, Carl. She was too young."
"Thanks, Tony," I mumbled.
"And smart. And pretty. With a lot of potential."
I sank under my hat again.
The money--and Tony's car--gave out in Chicago. We stuck the T-bird in a seedy little shop and ourselves in a seedier pay-by-the-week flophouse on West Garfield. Tony brushed his good suit so often, I expected it to fray before it saw action.
"Come on, Kolchak," he said as he dressed. "It's only for a few months, until we get back on our feet. We don't fix the car, we walk to New York."
"Yeah, whatever," I said.
Tony scowled out of the cracked bureau mirror, the Man in the Moon with constipation.
"Look at you, Kolchak. Life's biggest loser. Are you really the same cocky bastard who was about to scoop up the Nobel Prize in Literature?"
I sat on a prison cot that passed for a bed.
"No, I'm not, Tony. D.A. Paine drove a stake through the cocky bastard's heart the moment he drove one through Janos Skorzeny's."
"Carl, ixnay on the akes-through-the-heart-stay. That's not a detail to give to a prospective employer."
"As you counsel, O Wise One."
Tony frowned and left, his hopeful resume clapped under one charcoal-gray sleeve. I lurched to my feet and watched from the grimy window as he hailed a taxi.
I clapped my hat on my thinning hair and marched resolutely to the door. Tony had inspired me.
To find a new position? . . . Actually, I decided that if he could spend money on a taxi, I could throw away a few bucks on a bottle of White Horse.
* * *
The lights snapped on. My eyeballs caught fire.
"All right, Kolchak, I've had it with you."
I groaned and rubbed my eyes. Vincenzo caught up my ankles and hurled my legs off the cot. I followed.
I pushed myself from the dusty floor, ready to punch someone. Vincenzo's meaty hands hooked my armpits and dragged me along.
"Whaddahell ya doon?" I yelled through the taste of shoe leather and septic tanks.
"I need you sober, Kolchak, or as near to that as you ever get."
I smelled more than saw the damp, gritty tiles of the bathroom. Vincenzo dropped me half over the tub like an old towel. The faucets creaked.
"Hey! Hey!" was the best I could come up with as rusty water rained on my head, sharp and cold as scalpels.
"We have one shot at this, Carl," Vincenzo yelled over the roar of the shower, "and you aren't screwing it up!"
I finally remembered which way was reverse. I flopped back against the urine-crusted toilet and sputtered.
"Do you have any last words before I pronounce sentence?" I growled.
Tony was a blurry image seen through trickling water and strings of hair, but I sensed his usual scowl.
"Listen up, Kolchak. Abe Marmelstein is in town."
I wiped my face with toilet paper, but the two-ply sheets simply disintegrated, leaving doobie-like twists on my cheeks.
"My old editor, Carl, back when he was just an editor. He's gotten it into his head to buy his own wire service."
I raked shreds of Charmin from my face.
"Abe Marmelstein? The Smiling Cobra of New York Abe Marmelstein?"
"The new owner of the Independent News Service Abe Marmelstein," said Vincenzo, making an effort to keep his voice calm. "That's all we need to know. They're re-vamping the old workhorse, and they need a few old plows to go with her."
I dragged myself up on the toilet lid, still a little stunned.
"Carl, this is the first piece of luck we've seen since--ever," continued Tony. "It might be a sign from on high, or something the angels let slip through while they were looking for more rotten tomatoes to throw. Either way, Kolchak, we are going for it."
He snatched down a towel with a frayed, ruglike fringe and tossed it to me. I mechanically wiped my face.
"Now give me those seedy pants and jacket, Kolchak. Maybe a trip to the cleaners can disguise them as actual clothing."
* * *
The INS building, a dark, blocky structure erected before the first World War, stood near the corner of Cicero and Ogden in downtown Chicago, so close to the elevated tracks I was surprised the passengers didn't climb in through the windows. Even in its glorious youth, the INS had been the poor cousin of Associated Press and United Press International, and if it still lived, it was only due to monetary transfusions from the pocket of Abraham J. Marmelstein, the "Smiling Cobra," believed by some to be the illegitimate son of William Randolph Hearst.
As Vincenzo and I were ushered into his presence by a frizzy-haired secretary, I decided the old rumor was wrong. Hearst was more likely Marmelstein's illegitimate son.
"Mr. Marmelstein, sir!" mewled Tony. "Thank you for seeing us on such short notice!"
He waved his hands Oliver Hardy fashion.
"Please, don't get up!"
"Nonsense," said Marmelstein.
Tony's former boss rocked back and forth in a huge leather business chair, and, with the help of a gnarled cane, he lurched to his feet.
"I'm as fit as I was when I stopped the presses for VJ Day," wheezed the old man.
The aging tycoon minced forward. He wore a black suit and white shirt several sizes too big, like a kid playing dress-up. He resembled actor Abe Vigoda, and his slightly bloodshot eyes met mine in a head-on collision.
He seemed to dismiss me after a second. A scrawny hand, mottled gray and pink, poked out of a tunnel of a sleeve.
"Mr. Vincenzo. A pleasure seeing you after all these years."
Tony's hand clamped over the old man's like a starfish glomming an oyster.
"You've been keeping yourself out of trouble, I hope?" asked Marmelstein.
"You know me, Mr. Marmelstein," said Vincenzo. "Steady and true."
Well, no one could argue with that. Vincenzo plodded through life kowtowing to the publishers, politicians and cops. It spelled success in a way, but kissing butts until the day I died was not a future I looked forward to.
"And this is Carl Kolchak, an ace crime reporter. Kolchak, A. J. Marmelstein."
Marmelstein's gaze raked me again. His right eye seemed more powerful than his left, giving him a Cyclops glare to match my old boss Llewellyn Cairncross'--without the benefit of Cairncross' eyepatch.
"A pleasure, Mr. Kolchak."
I grabbed a hand, scaly like a reptile's, but a reptile doesn't have little bristly hairs.
"The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Marmelstein," I blathered. "Let me just say that Mr. Vincenzo has told me so many things about you . . ."
So it went. Vincenzo has a wonderful sense of the mundane. He cut me off before my accolades started to sound like sarcasm. I was smart enough to remain quiet while they discussed old times.
Half an hour later we left Marmelstein's office and clumped down the stairs, gainfully employed again.
"Come on, Carl," said Tony from a few steps ahead. "The taxi driver told me about this place called Manny's Deli. Swore it was as good as Katz's in Manhattan."
I got about halfway down the stairs when it hit me: Antonio Albert Vincenzo had dragged me from hopeless drunken stupor to member of the American work force in the course of a single afternoon. Not as a ditch digger, either, but as part, once more, of the Fourth Estate. I stopped cold and watched Tony's round head and broad blazer descend to the first floor.
"Son of a bitch," I muttered in amazement. "Son of a bitch."
UFOs are frequently seen in the area, along with misplaced animals, monsters, strange man-animal creatures, winged weirdies, and other bizarre entities that go bump in the night . . . Although we may now range some distance from the city-suburb complex itself, my point of contention is that it is still the power place that is Chicago that is drawing these phenomena into a state of manifestation.
--Brad Steiger, Psychic City: Chicago
So here we were in Chicago, Hog Butcher for the World, as another Carl, Sandburg, put it.
Two hundred years ago nothing but forest ran around the edge of Lake Michigan, though the Ojibwa Indians knew the area as She-kag-ong, "the onion place." The French claimed the territory, then the British, and the United States ended up with it after the Revolutionary War. In 1803, Fort Dearborn was built on the Chicago River. The local native population burned it in 1812, but the white men just kept coming. By 1833, Chicago the town was born, population 550. By 1837 it considered itself a city, having over four thousand inhabitants.
Despite the fact it sat in the middle of a continent, Chicago became a major port city. The community grew like the proverbial weed, with just under thirty thousand people in 1850 and over one hundred thousand in 1860.
In October 1871 the Great Chicago Fire destroyed one-third of the city. Whatever force struck Chicago blasted Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin. Entire communities vanished in flame, incinerated to the last building. Prairies and forests became oceans of fire. In Chicago itself, according to The History of the Great Conflagration (1872), by James Sheahan and George Upson, buildings far beyond the fire line burst into flame for no apparent reason, as if some "latent power," "something mysterious as yet and unexplainable," were blasting them.
No one could explain such a holocaust, and as it was a mystery, and a terrifying mystery at that, it became much more comfortable to say that Mrs. O'Leary's uncontented bovine kicked over a lantern.
The survivors built again, and by the turn of the century Chicago's population reached 1.7 million.
During Prohibition, Chicago became synonymous with graft, bootlegging, and gangsters, most of it under the rule of Brooklyn-born Al "Scarface" Capone. It was not because of the five hundred "rub-outs" he ordered, but because of unpaid income tax, that Capone finally went to jail.
After World War II, the midwestern metropolis prospered. Chicago Midway was, until recently, the busiest airport on earth. About 13% of the United States' rail-born freight passes through the city, as do most major bus and truck lines. The principal business section of the Windy City is called the Loop, so named because of the elevated railway fencing its perimeter. And upon its completion in 1974, the Sears Tower became, temporarily at least, the tallest building in the world.
Chicago has also seen many famous (and bizarre) murder cases, from H. H. Holmes' "Murder Castle" to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, from the intellectual youths Leopold and Loeb to "Killer Clown" John Wayne Gacy, from "Catch Me" killer William Heirens to loser Richard Speck's night of nurse killing.
* * *
Woodward and Bernstein would have taken one look at the INS newsroom, given it a pat on the head, and sent it on its merry way. I climbed the stairs of the musty old building and found the double doors with "INS" painted on each glass panel. Tony was already here, wearing a new shirt under his black vest. Next to him stood a scrawny fellow with sandy hair and a ratty mustache. His suit, with its ruler-straight creases, looked to have been assembled on his frame by a team of architects. An eyebrow rose in faint disapproval as he looked me over.
"There you are, Carl!" called Tony with a burst of Sicilian enthusiasm. "Come meet your fellow journalists!"
He raised a walrus flipper of a hand to indicate the thin guy.
"Carl, this is Ron Updyke. Ron used to work for the San Francisco Chronicle."
"Thrilled," I said.
"Likewise, I'm sure," said Updyke.
Updyke's handshake was cold and limp, like spaghetti out of the fridge. He waggled his mustache.
"Mr. Vincenzo tells me that you and he have been down on your luck. I'm glad you have the opportunity to join our little INS family. It's not the highest-paying position in the world--"
He ran his gaze up and down my seersucker.
"But at least you'll be able to afford new clothes."
He let out a superior little chuckle. I echoed it with a "Ha-ha" of my own and squeezed. Updyke's rat-smile shrank to an uncertain point. His hand wiggled out of mine like a rabbit escaping a snare. He worked his fingers as he continued.
"So . . . Mr. Vincenzo says you're an ambulance chaser."
"Ron, that's a lawyer," said Tony. "Carl is a crime reporter."
"Oh. So you'll cover the seedy underbelly of the city," said Updyke.
"That's me, the stained cummerbund of society," I replied.
This Updyke set my teeth on edge. Was he gay? A snob? Or did he just have a flagpole up his ass?
Vincenzo's wide paws clapped us both on the shoulder.
"I'm sure you two will get along like brothers."
"Yeah. Cain and Abel," I muttered.
Tony had not been going without meals, however poor we'd been. He passed between Updyke and me, and I fell into his wake like a lifeboat sucked down by the Titanic. He led me to a gray-haired old woman sitting at a desk.
"And this is our mistress of the agony columns, Miss Emily Cowles."
I smiled. I'd read some of "Dear Emily." Norman Rockwell in prose. Corny, but you just couldn't bring yourself to say so.
"I'm delighted to meet you, Miss Cowles," I said, taking her wrinkled hand in mine.
She smiled up like your favorite aunt.
"Oh, do call me Emily, Mr. Kolchak," she suggested.
I parked my keister on the desk next to hers.
"Only if you call me Carl."
Updyke harrumphed like a choking poodle.
"Excuse me, 'Carl', but you're on my desk."
I glanced at him and at the mahogany chunk of furniture I sat on. Papers, books and blotters lay in regimented lines, excepting the pile of clippings scattered by my ass. I rose and brushed the latter off the seat of my pants.
"Don't you worry about it, 'Ron'," I said, clapping him on the back. He coughed from the impact. "You can come sit on my desk any time you like. After all, we're just one big happy INS family, right?"
Updyke smiled weakly. I wondered how he would have fared in the deep waters of the Vegas Daily News with the likes of Janie Carlson, Llewellyn Cairncross, and our glorious publisher, Jacob E. Herman, "Herman the Heinous." Can you say "piranha bait?" On the other hand, journalism classes across the country were churning out a whole generation of Updykes--they still are. Don't get me started on the TV news.
* * *
Anyway, I settled into my new life at the Independent News Service. I snooped, listened to police bands and typed; Tony butchered my stories and yelled; I yelled back, and eventually the bleeding carcasses of my copy limped out over the wire. It wasn't all bad, however, especially with Miss Emily sitting next to me.
"Oh, Carl," she greeted me one fine autumn morning, "my neighbor, Mrs. Lamont, was telling me about her attractive, unattached daughter."
I flashed my usual tolerant grin.
"Now, Emily, dear, you promised you'd stop playing matchmaker. You sound like a re-run of I Love Lucy."
She waggled her thin finger at me.
"Oh, this isn't like that at all. You and Irene have a lot in common. She investigates crimes too, you know."
"Irene Lamont? The Siren of Chicago South? Thanks but no thanks, Emily. That would be sleeping with the enemy."
Nothing flustered the curly-haired old gal.
"I'm not so sure, Carl. I think you and she would hit it off."
"The operative word being 'hit'," I said. "Maybe in my next life, Emily dear."
* * *
The months passed, and New York seemed farther than ever. I managed to buy the banana-yellow Mustang that the local wags christened the "Yellow Submarine." Hell, a few more months, and I would have enough stashed away to make a stab at the Big Apple.
All in all, it was an easy existence--until that day in May when Emily opened her morning mail and let out a little "Oh!"
"Carl--come look at this strange letter," she said.
I left my story about a cache of hand grenades found in a warehouse and stepped over to her little brown desk.
"What is it, Emily?" I asked.
From her mound of white, pink, green, and blue envelopes, she picked up a wrinkled sheet of yellowing paper larger than standard typing size--foolscap, I think it's called.
"It's most odd, Carl. I don't know what to make of it."
I glanced over the paper. It was soft and fuzzy like old felt and gave off that dry, musty smell of newspapers left in the sun. There were only a few lines: a heading, "From Hell," and a poem, scribbled in red ink. The handwriting was worse than mine.
The letter read:
I'm no author, but I'm a Hack
I'm the Knife but I'm no Mack
I've been gone but now I'm back
Your old, light-hearted Saucy Jack.
"I don't know what to make of it, either, Emily," I said.
If by chance you happened to be in the Windy City between May 26th through June 2nd of that year, you would have had very good reason to be terrified. During this period Chicago was being stalked by a horror so frightening, so fascinating, that it ranks with the great mysteries of all time. It has been the fictional subject of novels, plays, films, even an opera. Now, here are the true facts.
MAY 21, 3:00 AM
Across the state line at Werner's Boom-Boom Room in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Michelle Shiffman, dancer, whatever, had just finished her last number.
I mean, really her last number.
The colored lights slid over her body, blue, red, and yellow, as she swung her arms and hips to the simple electric organ music. Unlike her sister dancers, who at best tolerated the job for the pay and tips, Michelle genuinely liked Werner's. She enjoyed showing off her slim, well-curved form and sleek, honey-brown hair. She liked the customers, honest blue-collar workers for the most part, who came to the bar to unwind after ten-hour days at the railroads or Lake Michigan ports.
She also enjoyed one of the perks of being Werner's star attraction: her own dressing room.
Michelle waited until the music, a closed loop of tape which she had long since memorized, reached its climax. She about-faced on the round, blue-carpeted stage and skipped lightly down the steps, her spangle-covered bikini flashing like sunshine off the lake. As the next dancer, Roberta Carrol, took her place on the tiny stage, Ms. Shiffman vanished through a door painted with the warning word MANAGER then stepped across a narrow hall into her dressing room.
Ensconced in her private sanctum, she slipped on a feather-light robe, lavender with silver glitter. She sat at her vanity table and checked her eyelashes in the mirror. She had complained that very afternoon that her new artificial lashes were falling away too easily in the muggy, smoke-filled lounge.
The realization that her dressing room was not as private as she might wish came when she heard the greasy scrape of steel against steel. Michelle probably saw him in the mirror first; he had been standing patiently for God knew how long in a closet-sized niche behind a rack of gaudy costumes. One could see part of the niche when seated at the vanity; at the very least she would have seen two hands, in gray lambskin gloves, drawing a sabre-like blade from its walking-stick sheath.
Michelle gaped in disbelief, being no more prepared to face destruction than you or I. As the man strode purposefully into the lights of her vanity, her eyes took in his dark clothing, his Shadow-like slouch hat, and the rippling black cape, its scarlet lining like blood on funereal curtains. She saw his Satanic beard and mustache, his high cheekbones, and his narrow chin. It was the predatory glint in his black eyes, however, that made her scream.
She barely had time to twist in her chair before the man's arms and cape enveloped her. The man was in a hurry; he had a schedule of sorts to keep, and he did not know of Michelle's fondness for dancing, which kept her on stage through three pre-recorded numbers.
He seized Michelle's smooth honey tresses in his left hand. He dragged her head back, exposing her pale throat. Her trachea vibrated beneath the skin as the music of her scream reached his ears.
His slash was quick and professional, cutting muscle and cartilage and arteries like butter. He let her drop. Michelle landed on her side, graceful even in death. Her blood jetted out in a vermilion fan over the already red carpet.
The killer stepped from the dressing room and closed the manager's door behind him. Michelle Shiffman's death had been dull and workmanlike, but she had at least died, and her blood flowed at the right place and hour. Artistry could come later.
Bartender Dale "Klinger" Fergusson, so called because of his resemblance to M*A*S*H star Jamie Farr, barely heard Michelle's screech over the muted conversations, tinny music, and calls of encouragement to Roberta Carrol. He noticed a man wearing a floor-length cape stepping out of the manager's door. He edged out from the end of the bar and threw open the door as the caped man threaded his way among the tables.
Fergusson could not tell whether Michelle was dead or alive. The mere fact she lay on the floor indicated something wrong. Not one to hesitate, he pointed at the black-garbed stranger and yelled, "Hey! Grab that guy!"
Roger "Race" Buchanan, the bouncer, lurched away from the front door to intercept the killer. The stranger swatted him in the ribs hard enough to send him over a slightly tipsy out-of-town businessman and over the polished teakwood bar itself.
Within seconds, four or five of the bar's regulars surrounded the man in black. The killer grabbed a truck driver from St. Paul and hurled him across the room into the wall, bringing down several cheap landscape prints and a chunk of walnut paneling. A foreman from Milwaukee's power shovel assembly plant tackled the man around the waist. A sledgehammer punch flipped him onto the blue dance stage, from which Roberta Carrol was swiftly retreating. A Teamster found himself being swung 'round like an ice-skating partner and flung into the second mate of the Great Lakes freighter Michipicoten.
After this momentary diversion, the killer vanished into the night as mysteriously as he had appeared.
MAY 24, 11:30 P.M.
Three days later, Milwaukee again. Debbie Fielder, twenty-two, five feet nine, weight one-twenty, hobbies breaking horses and collecting bone china. Debbie wanted to be successful. She should have settled for being alive.
She slowly ascended the back stairs of Milwaukee's St. Francis Xavier Hospital, her shoulders slumped within her white leather Norfolk jacket. She had entered (and lost) Wisconsin's yearly Miss Physical Therapist Contest, hoping the publicity would further her career. Debbie got the publicity, but it didn't do much for her career.
The police paid little attention to the testimony of sixty-eight-year-old May Sondheim, the sole witness to the tragedy, because of certain "improbable" details in her story. At around 11:15, May had looked out her bedroom window, which had a view directly down the alley on the west side the hospital. She noticed a man in black, with a billowing accouterment that might have been a loose trench coat or cape, climbing the fire escape of the hospital. He crouched on the steel balcony on the second floor like a gargoyle, nearly invisible in the darkness. He appeared to be watching a basement entrance of the hospital. A yellow banner hanging over the entrance proclaimed, in letters large enough for even Mrs. Sondheim's rheumy old eyes, MISS PHYSICAL THERAPIST--CONTESTANTS ONLY.
Several minutes later, a woman--Ms. Fielder--climbed the concrete basement steps and headed for the parking lot on Water Street. The woman, according to Mrs. Sondheim, slowed nearly to a stop. She looked pensive, as if sensing danger. If she did, she could not figure out from which direction disaster approached.
The man on the fire escape hopped onto the black railing, balanced there for a second, and jumped off, his cape billowing out into a manta-ray silhouette. He dropped twenty-five feet and landed as easily as if he had stepped off a curb. Debbie Fielder screamed as he slid his rapier-like weapon from his cane. She ran, tripped in her white pumps, and crashed against the grimy brick wall of the alley. She raised her arms, still screaming, and received several defensive wounds on her hands.
The man slashed his way down like a thresher in wheat, and his thin steel blade cut more than throat this time. Mrs. Sondheim drew back into the depths of her apartment, feeling a pressure like a squeezing fist around her chest. She thought it might be a heart attack; nevertheless, she called the police before summoning aid for herself.
MAY 25, 10:00 A.M.
Tony Vincenzo and I were debating my coverage of the robbery at First County Bank and Trust, where thieves had escaped with over one hundred thousand dollars. For reasons I've never been able to understand, Vincenzo has always confused my reporter's clever ingenuity with what he calls "high-handed lunacy."
Before laying into me, he stomped over to the gumball machine he'd installed in his office at Christmas. He twisted the knob to produce a handful of colored spheres and popped a white marble into his mouth. His doctor had suggested that the frequent chewing of gum would alleviate the tension that acerbated his ulcer. Goodness knew what caused that.
I leaned back against his desk. I used to plop my behind right on Tony's calendar-blotter when listening to his tirades, but I started feeling like Charlie McCarthy facing off with an apoplectic Edgar Bergen.
He stabbed his thick index finger at me, but he was too busy chewing to say anything. I raised both hands unto Heaven.
"I did not state that I was a police officer," I said calmly.
"No, but you acted like a police commissioner," Vincenzo retorted. He passed around the old oak desk and dropped into his wooden office chair. "You commandeered a private automobile . . . You placed six people under arrest . . ."
Ye Ed looked ready to crack up over that last one. I turned to face him, waving my arms only a little.
"They were interfering!" I explained. "Because of them I missed one of the biggest stories of the year."
I looked off at a spider web the janitor had missed and continued petulantly: "I placed them under citizen's arrest. That's my right."
Tony's face slid toward the infrared end of the spectrum.
"Well, I have a few rights too, and I plan on exercising one right now!"
We both opened our mouths to fire salvos, but a low rumble shook the floor under us. We paused for the inevitable.
A silver-bright el rolled casually past the windows, rattling the shelves of INS's journalistic awards and setting Vincenzo's framed horse pictures to dancing. I stared down at my tennis shoes for a moment, wondering again why people kept complaining about them. They were fairly clean and relatively new.
The train, twenty cars if it was one, finally clattered down the elevated tracks. I poked a finger at Tony again.
Vincenzo held up his hand.
"Last night--Last night, in one brief moment of total madness, you managed to tear asunder the many ties this news service has built up over a period of years, with the police department, and Captain Warren--who hates you, by the way. A lot."
I nodded and played with the tip of my tie.
"Okay . . . What's the bottom line?"
"The bottom line," repeated Tony. He squeezed the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger and finished up softly, as if breaking the news of a death in the family.
"Carl . . . Miss Emily went on vacation this morning."
MAY 25, 12:30 P.M.
Ike, our teenage Ichabod Crane lookalike, sauntered my way with his usual snide grin and upended a cardboard box larger than he was. An avalanche of envelopes in various pastel shades cascaded onto my scarred veteran of a desk.
I spun away from my Underwood and glared at the blizzard of correspondence. I'd already dragged over a laundry basket of notes from Miss Emily's desk, all smelling of rosewater and potpourri.
"Good morning, Miss Emily," said Ike with a straight face.
My glare angled up at him. Ike was the skinniest person I'd ever seen outside of Dachau. His nose was thicker than his neck. His pinstriped shirt made him look even thinner.
"Go play with your pimples," I suggested.
Ike shrugged and carried off the box. Vincenzo emerged from his glass-lined office, hands stuck loosely in his pockets.
"How's it going?" he asked.
I grabbed a handful of envelopes and shook it at him.
"Have you read these? Have you ever read any of these letters?"
"Sure I have."
Tony stood by my desk, his gut not quite resting on my supply of 8 1/2 by 11 sheets. I picked up a yellow missive with a pink border, which had been held shut with a stick-on drawing of a kitten.
"'Dear Emily. When a person has been doing something with another person and another person, and she finds out that the same thing has been going on with other persons, many of whom are personal friends, or related, what is a person to do?'"
Tony chuckled as I flipped the letter away.
"Sure, you get a few screwballs. But by and large they're mostly sincere people."
"Mmmmm," I grumbled.
"They're just bewildered--confused, that's all," continued Ye Ed. "Now Carl, all I want are some simple, honest answers. Homespun, grassroots."
"Homespun, grassroots," I repeated, rolling a sheet of paper into the old manual typewriter. "You mean, don't go for a Pulitzer."
"Now, answer every letter with a return envelope."
Vincenzo leaned over my desk with fatherly concern.
"Look, this is only for a week, Carl, until Emily gets back."
I nodded. "Sure."
Tony headed back to his office. I picked up another missive and read aloud:
"'Dear Emily: The three dumbest things in the world are you, your column, and your paper. I am overwhelmed by the accumulated dumbness. P. S.: Do you know of a cure for acne. A friend of mine has it.'"
I studied this envelope as well, pink with way too much postage, only to hear "Hang in there, Miss Emily," accompanied by a twitter of laughter.
I rotated in my office chair. Ron Updyke was wiping his hands meticulously on a yellow towel. He feared the germs that lurked in the INS men's room, so he brought his own towels, soap, and (I swear) sterilized toilet seat covers.
"Let it all hang out, Uptight!" I called as he headed for his desk.
Updyke about-faced stiffly, his mustache bristling and his little fists clenched.
"UP. DYKE," he corrected.
"Certainly," I agreed.
Updyke slapped his towel on his desk and marched straight into Vincenzo's office. I picked up another letter and yanked out its contents as Updyke cornered our Managing Editor and started complaining.
"'Dear Emily: Since I last wrote to you, the man living across from me at the south end of Wilton Park has come back. He's up to his old tricks, prowling around nights in that foolish costume, looking right through me with his X-ray eyes. Can he kill me with his eyes, or will they only make me sterile?'"
I simply sat, the musical clatter of the Teletype filling the air. I turned the letter, a heavenly blue with a border of white lace, this way and that, as if to savor every atom of its being. In Vincenzo's office, Updyke put on a shadow play of waving his arms and working his jawbone, while Tony stood, placating him with practiced inertia.
I tossed the letter onto the mound of its sisters with a languid flick of the wrist. I slapped the top of my desk.
And I thought re-writing Charley Creech's obits was bad.
I rose, grabbed my camera and recorder, snatched my jacket from the mahogany coat rack, and clapped my hat on my thinning hair. I marched resolutely toward the exit. Vincenzo spotted me through his plate glass office wall and lurched past Ron. I charged by Ye Ed without a glance.
"Kolchak, where do you think you're going?"
"I'm going out!" I answered as I rammed open the double doors. "I can't stand it, I'm going out and seeing what's on the loose!"
I could feel Tony's blood pressure rise.
"What's happening here is the Miss Emily column, not anything on the loose!"
He stomped after me but paused at the door. As I trotted down the stairs, he called out the choleric sign-off I would hear frequently in the months to come:
"Kolchak, come back here!"
MAY 25, 1:00 P.M.
My flight from the bewildered and confused led me to the Chicago Press Club. As it was early, I ordered a scotch and water and actually let Louie the bartender put in the water.
At one end of the bar a clot of newsfolk muttered and pointed. Before I could make anything out, Joey "Ace" Langdon of the Sun-Times plopped himself onto the stool next to me.
"What's all that about?" I asked.
Langdon turned his Beatles haircut and tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles to me.
"More letters from Jack the Ripper," he explained.
"Hah!" I laughed. Ace ordered bourbon. "That nut's old news. He sent his love letter to Miss Emily weeks ago."
Ace shrugged in his ill-fitting brown suit.
"The Sun-Times has received three already. So's the Daily News. But it looks like there's been a new development."
Louie set down a glass and Ace mouthed thanks.
"Seems Jack is taking credit for those two murders in Milwaukee."
* * * *
For each well-organized and insightful letter to the editor you see in the back of Section B, there are drawers full of hateful, illiterate, or just plain goofy missives written in everything from grease pencil to burnt umber crayons. My favorite showed up at the Las Vegas Sun signed Jesus H. Christ. The H., he explained, stood for Heironymus.
Since "Jack" had done nothing but write, the letters sent to Chicago's major dailies were consigned to the circular file. But now, apparently, Jack no longer believed the pen was mightier than the sword.
I slid down the bar to join my brothers in journalism. Heated words filled the air like the cigarette smoke above their bullpenning session.
"It's coincidence," argued Ted Verdane, a tall blond Swede from the Milwaukee Journal. "A couple of murders, he's been playing Jack the Ripper--naturally he confesses to them."
Harry Reinman from the Tribune shook his head.
"Our letter was received this morning, and it mentions two murders. Fielder was killed, when, last night at midnight? He must have sent it before Number Two."
"Then why Milwaukee?" demanded Ted. He took a swig from a Michelob bottle and smacked it down on the bar. "He's mailed all his letters to Chicago papers."
"Misdirection," said Reggie Alvanicci, a dark Italian crime reporter from the Daily News. "Like the Zodiac Killer, saying flat out after a while that he would try to hide his murders rather than announce them."
Bennie Schwartz, a stringer for AP in Hammond, edged up on my right.
"I think the original Jack the Ripper did something like that. Whadda you think, Kolchak?"
I swelled like a rooster and spouted my worldly wisdom.
"The witnesses at Werner's all agreed Michelle Shiffman's killer wore an old-fashioned black suit and red-lined opera cape," I pointed out. "A black slouch hat and a cane. He's dressing the part, at least. I've seen that image in a dozen old movies."
"Jeez, why the Ripper?" asked Ted Verdane. "If we were in foggy old London town, maybe, but Milwaukee?"
Harry Reinman pointed at him, his finger bent around a shot glass.
"There's, like, a cult following for the Ripper," he said. "Last November, there was the Maida Vale murder--made headlines all over the world. Remember? A woman killed in London, with the word 'Ripper' painted on the wall?"
Everyone muttered. I proceeded to open my mouth and stick my white-sneakered foot in.
"A guy going as far as the killer in Werner's probably thinks he's the genuine article. May be a relocated Limey. Probably wears old-fashioned clothes, drinks tea, eats crumpets--the whole nine yards. That's what the police should look for."
--Prowling around nights in that foolish costume--
I didn't know where that ragged strip of thought came from, but I forgot it as Ted Verdane snorted.
"Thinks he's the real Jack the Ripper, eh, Kolchak? No worse than thinking he's a real vampire, huh?"
"Huh?" "What?" "Vampire?"
I gave my best scowl. Ted nodded his Aryan head of blond waves at me.
"Kolchak's been holding out on us, fellows. He's quite famous in some circles. I almost missed it. My kid rode his bike down to the 7-Eleven and found it by the comics rack."
Bennie squinted at me.
"What's he talking about, Kolchak?"
"The Night Stalker," I answered.
* * *
The conversation shifted from the Milwaukee killings to an obscure paperback book called The Night Stalker. For once I lived up to my vow not to discuss the Skorzeny affair. I slipped out while Ted told everyone about the book and its appropriate place on the wire racks next to Swamp Thing and Creepy.
I wondered how they'd act if they ever read about my Seattle experiences.
Hell. I had letters to answer.
MAY 26, 1:00 A.M.
Miss Emily's column typically printed three letters a day, along with the dear old lady's advice. Three was as much as I could stomach. I turned 'em in, grassroots, poison ivy, and all, caught a brief catnap, and rolled back out on the streets, scanning the sidewalks like a rich and horny john.
Carl Kolchak, Tony Vincenzo, and related characters are copyright © by the Estate of Jeff Rice. The articles and fiction on these web pages are not for profit and are not meant to infringe on the copyrights of Jeff Rice, Darren McGavin, Rudolph Borchert, Mark Dawidziak, ABC Productions, Dan Curtis Productions, Francy Productions, or Universal Studios.