Carl Kolchak staggered across the roof of a massive high-rise building, his face muddied with dirt and sweat, his hands and jacket spotted with crimson bloodstains. A gash on his left forearm bled and stung, the skin raw to the touch, and his head pounded, the pain beating a rhythm in his skull.
After a seeming eternity, he found the exit, a long staircase leading down into the bowels of the building, and chuckled slightly as he glared at it. He was too exhausted to take one more step, much less a hundred.
He plopped down at the top of the staircase, leaning back and adjusting his hat. He watched silently as dawn broke over Chicago, splashing orange sunlight across the city, causing a thousand windows to shimmer like liquid fire.
With a weary sigh, he pulled the handheld recorder from his pocket, flicking the buttons to make sure it was still intact. Satisfied it still worked, he began to speak.
Another morning dawns on the city, a new day offering a million possibilities. But for one woman, there'll be no new days, no new chances. A caring, decent woman who made one wrong decision for all the right reasons, and let intelligence outweigh reason.
A philosopher once proclaimed that the human mind was similar to outer space. Like outer space, the mind is vast and labyrinthine, and in its deepest layers lie secrets.
What happens when those layers are peeled back, and the darkest recesses of the mind are revealed?
It started two weeks ago, on the first day of Spring...
Tony Vincenzo walked over to Kolchak's desk, studying the reporter, then gazing at the massive meatball sub next to him. The sub dripped with dark sauces which were barely contained by the sub's thin paper wrapping. Vincenzo sighed softly, relishing the scent of meat and onions.
Kolchak suddenly stopped and looked up from his typewriter, sensing eyes on him. He turned to see Vincenzo studying his sandwich. He warily looked at the sandwich himself, but saw nothing wrong with it.
"Is there something wrong," he asked curiously.
"Don't play dumb with me, Kolchak," Vincenzo replied sharply, pointing at the sub. "What do you call that?"
"Uh, I call it a meatball sub, Tony. What do you call it?"
"Don't get smart with me."
"Make up your mind, Tony. Am I playing dumb or being smart? I can't be both."
"We're both supposed to be on diets here, or have you forgotten?"
"Oh no no no, Tony. You're the one on a diet. I just said I'd help out, give you some moral support."
"And this is how you do it? By waving this delicious sub around? I've been eating carrot sticks and yogurt for the last week, day and night. Do you know what that does to a man?"
Ron Updyke walked by, wearing a meticulously cleaned and pressed suit, his hair and moustache aligned perfectly with his face. He looked like a prissy statue as he munched on a carrot stick.
"I grabbed one of your carrot sticks Tony," he said with a gleeful smile, "I love these things! They really hit the spot, don't they?"
Vincenzo and Kolchak studied him with distaste as he walked into the hall. Vincenzo slowly turned back to Kolchak, his voice low and guttural, as if he'd devolved into a lower animal state.
"Give me that sub, Kolchak."
Kolchak grabbed the sandwich, holding it close to him as if he were protecting his first-born child.
"No, Tony. Be strong. You can do it! March back in there and eat those carrot sticks! Show me some of that legendary Vincenzo self-discipline!"
Vincenzo swiped at Kolchak, trying to grab the sub, but Kolchak wheeled back, avoiding him.
"Did I come at a bad time," a female voice suddenly chuckled from nearby.
Both men turned to see Nina Carter approaching. She was petite and lovely, with glasses that highlighted her emerald eyes, and a thick bun of crimson hair that seemed to defy gravity as she walked, held together by two small pins. She was dressed in a casual skirt and top which seemed a size too big for her. It was one of the things Kolchak loved most about her, beauty and intelligence mixed with a heaping helping of eccentricity.
Kolchak jumped from his chair, sliding the meatball sub in his desk drawer and locking it in one smooth motion. "Nina," he said happily, walking over and throwing his arms around her, "We were just talking about you."
Nina nearly fell backward, taken aback by Kolchak's sudden embrace. She quickly recovered, wrapping her arms about him and kissing his cheek.
"Don't be mad, Carl," she said softly, "I know I said we'd have lunch today, but I got held up at the lab again. As it is, I have to be back in twenty minutes, but I thought I'd drop in and see you."
"It's alright, we'll have lunch another time," Kolchak said with a sympathetic smile, "Are you hungry? They don't let you eat in the lab, do they?"
"No, I'm fine. I ate some carrot sticks on the way over here. I'm addicted to those things."
Kolchak burst into laughter at that, grabbing his side. Vincenzo grumbled loudly and stormed back to his office, slamming the door behind him.
"Did I say something wrong," Nina asked cringing in Vincenzo's direction.
"Nah, it's just a slow news day," Kolchak said, patting her shoulder, "One good war or murder, he'll be skipping around here like a kid."
Nina folded her arms closely to her chest, shivering slightly. "That's a cheery thought. I guess he didn't hear about the corpse they found downtown this morning."
Kolchak considered that a second, then shrugged. "Probably just a gang related thing. Winter's nearly over and the thugs are getting restless."
"Maybe. It was scary though, Carl. The corpse was found pretty close to the lab. Makes me wonder if I should stop working night shift altogether. Or maybe just leave Chicago altogether."
Her words hit Kolchak like a bulldozer to the stomach. He'd met her five weeks ago, interviewed her for an article he was writing on sleep disorders. The hours flew by, and what started as an informal question and answer session turned into a discussion on the finer points of jazz and the works of Joseph Conrad. The next day, Vincenzo read the article and immediately tossed it in the garbage, calling it "New Age Junk". That night, Kolchak and Nina had dinner in a small Italian restaurant. The candles made her eyes crackle like fireworks. She was everything he'd ever wanted.
But he could never tell her that, of course.
"Well, Los Angeles is pretty nice, if you can stand the smog," he said, forcing a chuckle that he hoped sounded convincing.
"I wouldn't send my worst enemy to Los Angeles, Carl," she laughed, "Listen, I like Chicago, it's just this murder's kind of got me a little on edge. I just wish I knew what happened."
Kolchak snapped his fingers, turning and grabbing his hat and tape recorder.
"What are you doing, Carl?"
"I'm going to head straight to the City Morgue and do what I do best. Ask annoying questions."
Nina smiled at his confident demeanor. She leaned in and kissed him softly, adjusting his hat to reveal more of his forehead. "My hero."
The two headed for the door as Kolchak stopped, leaning into Vincenzo's office. "Be back later, Tony."
"Where do you think you're going," Vincenzo snorted, "You have an article to write on Chicago's oldest woman, and it's due in two hours."
"Ron can have it. Old women are more his speed."
Vincenzo stood, about to yell a stream of expletives as Kolchak pulled a tiny key from his shirt pocket, tossing it onto Vincenzo's desk.
"The sub's in my top drawer, Tony," he said with a sly smile, "Don't eat it too fast, or you'll get heartburn."
He and Nina left the office as Vincenzo's eyes widened. He stared at the key with a mad smile, as if he'd just discovered a buried treasure.
An hour later, Kolchak whistled cheerfully as he strolled down the dark musty corridors of the City Morgue. His whistling drew puzzled stares from passing workers as he walked into the one of the rooms, where Gordy the Ghoul was filing a massive stack of papers in a cabinet that seemed too small. Gordy was one of Chicago's best morticians, a diminutive balding man with a squeaky voice, and Kolchak's main source of information. Though the other morticians kept their mouths shut, Gordy always practiced his freedom of speech totally. For the right price, of course.
"Gordy, how are ya," Kolchak exclaimed loudly, startling the mortician. Papers flew from his hand, flying in all directions like feathers in a hurricane.
He turned and glared at Kolchak as the papers rained down, landing on random areas of the floor. "Thanks a lot, Kolchak. It took me three hours to get those files straightened out. Now I've gotta start from scratch. Why don't you just shoot me next time?"
Kolchak shrugged apologetically. He bent down and started picking up the papers.
"Never mind," Gordy said, "You'll just mess them up worse. What are you doing here anyway? There's nothing going on. The city's been quiet for weeks."
"Well actually," Kolchak said, starting to step forward. He stopped and narrowly avoided stepping on a piece of paper. Slowly, he stepped around the papers, as if walking through a mine field, making his way over to Gordy. "Actually, I wanted to ask you about that body that was found this morning, down on 23rd Street."
Gordy sighed, holding out his hand. "You know the drill," he said firmly.
Kolchak fished in his pockets, pulling out a 10 dollar bill and handing it to Gordy.
"Ten dollars? Come on, Kolchak. I wouldn't tell you my name for that."
Kolchak grumbled, opening his wallet and finding it pitifully empty. A small piece of paper stuck out of one of the compartments, and he pulled it out, handing it to Gordy.
"Take that, it's a certificate for a free dinner for two at Stromboli's."
Gordy studied the certificate, holding it up to the light. "Do they have lasagna?"
"Of course they have lasagna, Gordy! They're an Italian restaurant. You can take a special lady there. They've got candlelight, music. It's a real classy place."
Gordy tucked the certificate in his pocket, sighing with melancholy. "Alright, Kolchak, you win. But you're going to be disappointed."
"A pretty standard homicide, huh?"
Gordy gingerly walked over to one of the storage cabinets, Kolchak following close behind. Gordy pulled open one of the cabinets, reveal a corpse covered by a thin sterile sheet.
"It's not a homicide," he said, whipping back the sheet, "It's a suicide. The guy hung himself. Take a look."
Kolchak leaned in to get a closer look. Even after all these years, he still felt a chill when gazing on a dead body. The dead man appeared to be in his late 40's, plump, with thick dark hair lightly greying on the side. His chest was dark, the skin an olive complexion. His face was light blue in color, caused by the cutting off of oxygen to his brain. There were deep impressions on his throat, caused by the thick rope of a noose pressing into his skin.
"Poor guy," Kolchak said sympathetically, "Probably lost his wife or his job. Or both."
"Well whatever he did, it must have paid well," Gordy said, "You should've seen the shoes he was wearing. They were imports. Probably set him back a couple hundred dollars, at least. I hated to cut them off him. They were pretty scuffed on the bottom, though."
Gordy started to cover the corpse as Kolchak stopped him with an upraised hand. "What do you mean, you had to cut off his shoes? That's not standard procedure, is it?"
"It is when his feet are swelled to twice the normal size. How else was I going to get them off?"
"Swelled, huh? What would cause that?"
Gordy sighed, looking at his watch. "Come on, Kolchak, I've got work to do. You saw the dead guy, what more do you want?"
"Humor me, Gordy. Tell me about the swelling. I'm just curious."
"It was probably caused by the lack of oxygen. When the neck's snapped like that, blood deposits start to form in certain areas of the body. In this case, the guy's feet."
"Probably," Kolchak said with a jabbing finger, "You said probably. Is there anything else that might cause his feet to swell like that?"
Gordy shrugged, waving his hand dismissively over the body. "Physical exertion could do it. Say this guy didn't walk much, did a lot of sitting and driving. Then all of a sudden he walks 10 miles in a pair of tight imported shoes. His feet would balloon up like crazy."
Kolchak studied the corpse again, pulling back the sheet to reveal his bloated feet. "Running would do the same thing."
"Look at the guy, Kolchak. Does he look like a guy who runs?"
"You said the bottom of his shoes were scuffed. Walking wouldn't cause that."
Kolchak leaned back, stroking his chin in thought.
"Why would a man run until his feet swell, then hang himself? That doesn't make any sense."
Gordy slammed the cabinet shut, barely missing Kolchak's arm. "Maybe he had an irritating reporter wasting his time. Come on, Kolchak, give me a break here. As it is, I'm already going to be in trouble with the Department..."
"Good idea," Kolchak proclaimed, "I'll visit the Police Department! They're a virtual fountain of answers!"
He patted Gordy on the shoulder, took two massive skips over the paper debris, and left the room.
God help them, Gordy thought as he studied the door for a moment, then knelt down and began collecting papers. He wondered if it was too late to change jobs. He'd love to do something more exciting.
Maybe he'd give accounting a try.
Jerry Harper stared with satisfaction at the empty glass in his hand. Normally, he stopped in Bennet's Tavern to have one drink before going home. When business was really good, though, he'd have a second one.
It was a two drink night.
"Give me another," he said, sliding the glass to the bartender. He studied her as she turned to fill the glass.
She's a real doll, he thought with a wry smile. It was a joke that was funny to him alone, a man who owned a store full of dolls.
Three years ago, he'd gotten an unexpected windfall from a dead uncle in the amount of $20,000. Tired of his job, even sicker of his boss, he took every dime of the money and built "Doll Land", selling everything from Barbies to Raggedy Anns to Teddy Bears, including accessories. Open 9-6 Monday through Saturday, 10-2 on Sunday.
His wife thought the idea was so ridiculous, she ran off with a college kid that lived three houses down. Most of his friends abandoned him also, and started referring to him as "That crazy doll selling fool".
Amazingly though, it had worked. Business was slow at first, but over time, he developed a customer base. They came regularly, then brought their friends. And today, he found out he had enough money to open a second store, the first of a possible nationwide chain.
Take that, you little college punk.
He took the glass from the bartender, winking at her as he downed it in one delicious gulp. He savored the bitter warmness of it for a moment, then glanced at his watch. It was 8:15, and he had a date at 9:00.
"Damn," he spat, jumping from his seat and getting a couple stares from nearby drinkers. He pulled a ten dollar bill out and slapped it on the bar, quickly running out of the tavern.
Outside, he stopped for a moment, a little disoriented. He enjoyed liquor, but never could handle it very well. Where's my damn car at?
He rubbed a hand across his eyes, closing them as he tried to collect his thoughts. He was going to be late anyway, no sense in panicking now.
Calm now, he opened his eyes to see a masked person standing before him. The person wore a long grey cloak that disguised their body, making it impossible to tell whether they were male or female. The mask itself was deep ebony, its features twisted in an expression of agony and despair. As he studied the mysterious figure, Jason did the only thing that seemed natural.
He laughed out loud.
"Pretty spiffy costume," he said, "You going to a party or something? I would have gone as the Lone Ranger myself. Gotta love that guy."
A couple strolled by arm-in-arm, and Jason turned to them, still laughing. "Check this guy out," he said, jabbing a thumb in the direction of the mysterious figure, "Ain't he somethin'?"
The couple gave Jason a horrified stare, as if he were a raving madman, then continued walking forward, giving him a wide berth.
Only you can see and hear me, Jason. And I know what terrifies you.
The voice was shrill and spasming, each syllable a guttural cry from the grave.
Every nerve in Jason's body screamed to move, to run away, but he couldn't now. He was paralyzed, transfixed as he gazed back at the being before him.
It leaned into him, it's face just inches from his, studying him as if he were on a dissecting table. He suddenly felt a sharp pain in the back of his skull, more powerful than any headache he'd ever felt. He couldn't wince or make a sound, tears dripping from his eyes as he stood helpless under the being's gaze.
Yes, heights are your weakness, aren't they? Your heart races at the very thought of being up high. Face your fear now, Jason. See that building across the street?
Jason saw it, but couldn't respond.
Run to the top of it now, then throw yourself off. It will be alright. I'll be here to catch you.
Jason fought the urge to run, but to no avail. His feet seemed to move of their own accord as he ran faster than he ever had, into the building, then into the elevator. As he ascended to the 30th floor, memories flooded his mind. That accident ten years ago, when he was working on his neighbor's roof and fell off, breaking his leg. Seven years ago, when he met Linda, and married her on a chilly day in September. Three years ago, when he saw the note, saying she never wanted to see him again.
He exited the elevator and walked to the nearest exit. He continued to fight it, even as his feet raced toward the edge of the roof.
As he hurtled downward to the cold pavement, he could see the masked being, slowly disappearing like a fog in the morning light, and he once again had control of his body.
Just enough time to take one more breath before embracing darkness....