Kolchak: The Night Stalker
Dead Man's Gulch
Notes: The characters from the show, and Mel Barnes, are not mine. The town, the female ghosts, and the story are mine! Mel Barnes, as well as his approximate backstory and Frank Scott, are from the Bonanza episode Justice Deferred. This story was inspired by, of all things, a song by The Partridge Family called Only a Moment Ago. The 30 Losses prompt Haunting melody; 'Remember me' also provided inspiration. Thanks to Kaze, Crystal Rose, and D'Angelo's Song for plot help!
Carl Kolchak slumped in the driver's seat of the rented blue convertible, his hat falling back on his head. Outside the windshield the desert night was ominous and cold. A tumbleweed rolled past, turning over and over itself into the shadows. While still watching it, Kolchak held up his tape recorder and pressed Record.
"The ghost town. Simply put, it's nothing more than a term for a town that's no longer populated—a shadow of its former self. It has nothing to do with the supernatural. Or at least, it's not supposed to.
"America is filled with ghost towns. Although you can find them in every state, they're particularly numerous in the West. Some of them are among the last remnants of an entirely different way of life—the frontier of the late 19th and early 20th centuries."
He glanced to Tony Vincenzo, who was leaning back in the passenger seat. The other man's eyes were closed, but he was awake. He did not voice any objections to the recording, so Kolchak proceeded.
"On the evening of May 5th of this year, Tony Vincenzo and I encountered a ghost town that took its name much too literally."
"I never have enjoyed newspaper conventions. Neither has my editor, Tony Vincenzo. Instead of hobnobbing with newspaper big shots from across the country, I'd much rather be working on my latest scoop. But Tony felt it would give us more credibility—which we and INS admittedly need—if someone went to this convention. He intended to go, and somehow he managed to convince me to go along. I guess I'm just an old softie that way.
"The flight to Northern California and renting the car went without a hitch. It was while we were trying to get to the convention location that things started to go wrong. The directions weren't all that clear. But while I know I took the correct path, we still ended up nowhere near the hotel."
"You took the correct path? Kolchak, you were supposed to turn left, then right. You turned right, then left!"
"Tony, I was driving. Don't you think I'd know which way we went?"
"Half the time I don't know if you know up from down! And you don't know which way we went!"
"I remember distinctly. I'll prove it to you on the way back, Vincenzo. Now, will you let me tell the story?"
"Mmph. . . ."
"What was that, Tony? I didn't catch it. Well, anyway . . ."
The road was long and twisted. Instead of leading them closer to the city where the convention was to be held, it had begun plunging them into the desert some time back. Every now and then, a tumbleweed or an animal traveled across the road, forcing them to slow down to avoid a collision. The rock formations and caves visible from the highway were interesting, but only served to further declare just how far removed from civilization they were. The sun, beating down mercilessly on the car, soon prompted Kolchak to raise the top and turn on the air conditioner.
"I don't know, Tony. Unless this hotel is in a cave, it's not anywhere around here," he frowned. "I doubt anyone's even lived around here for years."
"The invitation said it was away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities," Tony said. "This is about as far away from everything as you could get!"
"If we see a town, we'll stop and ask for directions," Kolchak determined.
"If we see anything that even vaguely resembles a town, we'll probably be there!" Tony retorted.
"Touché, Tony," Kolchak nodded. "Touché."
It was some time later before what looked like a line of buildings appeared on the horizon. Kolchak leaned forward over the wheel, squinting at them through the last rays of the afternoon sun. "And there it is," he proclaimed.
Tony held up a hand to block the sun. "Maybe it's a mirage," he countered, only half-sarcastic.
"Always a pillar of good news, aren't you, Tony?" Kolchak said.
"Like you're an optimist," Tony said.
As they drew closer, the sounds of revelry filled the air. Someone was playing a vigorous fiddle. People shouted and laughed as they clapped their hands and danced.
Kolchak raised an eyebrow. "They sound like they're having fun," he said.
"It sounds like something out of an old Western," Tony remarked.
"I can't argue with that," Kolchak mused.
Up ahead the highway branched off onto a dirt road. Kolchak turned to the left, driving towards the old town. His initial impression of the locale did not change when the architectural structure of the buildings—mostly low, close together, and old—could be better seen.
"I feel like we're about to walk into an episode of Gunsmoke," he commented.
"Why not Bonanza?" Tony grumbled. "We're closer to where it was set, anyway."
Kolchak regarded his editor in amusement. "Why, Tony, I didn't know you knew so much about Westerns," he said.
"I don't!" Tony retorted. "I just happened to remember that."
"Sure, Tony. Sure." Kolchak stopped the car at the edge of town, peering at the dirt street ahead—or more precisely, at the two horse-drawn carriages on either side of the entrance, with the horses facing each other. "How do you like that?" he exclaimed. "They've blocked it off to cars!"
Tony threw up his hands in frustration. "Then we'll have to walk," he said. "It must be some kind of Old West festival." Within a moment he had his seatbelt undone and was exiting the car.
Kolchak got out the other side. He kept his eye on the horses as he shut the door, trying to be as quiet about it as possible. The last thing he wanted to do was scare them into bolting.
"They're really going all-out with their festival," he observed, walking towards the small pathway set between the carriages. "I wonder if we'll find a phone in there at all?" He glanced above them. "I don't see any telephone poles."
"Maybe they only use cellphones," Tony said.
One of the horses whinnied as he walked past. He started, turning to look at the black-coated animal. "What's his problem?" he frowned.
"Oh, I don't know, Tony," Kolchak said, completely serious. "Maybe he thinks you're a relative."
Tony rolled his eyes. "And where are the people?" he demanded, refusing to comment to Kolchak's teasing. "I don't see anyone, but I can hear them clear as anything!"
"Maybe they're in the town schoolhouse or something," Kolchak said. "This place doesn't look too big. They have to be somewhere on the main street."
They went past a couple more buildings before Tony stopped short. Kolchak glanced back, questions in his eyes. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Tony said. He reached to straighten a sign out by a picket fence. "It says this place is called Dead Man's Gulch. I don't remember anything like that on the map."
Kolchak snapped an idle picture of the sign. "It's not really a name I'd want to advertise either," he mused.
Tony shook his head. "Dead Man's Gulch," he muttered, walking past. "It's loud enough here to wake the dead!"
"Well, maybe that's just what they have in mind," Kolchak said.
Tony fixed him with a Look. "Kolchak, is it possible for you to take this seriously at all?" he demanded. "We must be hours off-course! And it's going to get dark while we're stranded in some backwoods Western town with seemingly invisible people!"
"Oh, now, Vincenzo, it isn't as bad as all that," Kolchak said. "You know, sometimes I wonder if you know the meaning of a good mood. After all, you're only in one about two times out of every year."
"Kolchak . . ."
"Or would that be once out of every year? I know I've seen you in a good mood at least two or three times. I think once I even saw you smile!"
Kolchak looked to him. "Yes, Tony?" he asked, much too innocent.
Tony pointed to a building marked Cultural Hall. "The people are in there," he announced. "It's some kind of a dance. And you're right about them going all-out. None of them look like they belong in this century!"
Kolchak wandered over out of curiosity. The skipping and twirling couples went past the open door, not taking any heed of the newcomers at all. Their sweeping skirts and Western string ties definitely put him in mind of an earlier era. Every one of the revelers looked as though she or he had stepped directly out of America's past. The fiddle player up at the front was a grizzled old man, just as Kolchak had expected to see without consciously thinking about it.
He took several pictures. Despite the bright flash, no one so much as glanced his way. "They really are having a good time, aren't they?" he said. "Well, as much as I hate to crash their party, we do have to be on our way. Come on, Vincenzo." He stepped through the doorway.
A chill breeze went by the moment he did. He paused, glancing up at the ceiling. "They must have some kind of modern conveniences," he said. "I just felt a blast from an air conditioner."
"I don't see an air conditioner!" Tony retorted as he stepped up beside him. He shivered, grumbling to himself.
"Aha, but you feel one, don't you?" Kolchak said in triumph. Without waiting for a reply he strolled further inside.
"Excuse me!" he called, trying to be heard over the music. "We're trying to get directions to . . . excuse me!"
A couple brushed past him, the woman's long blue skirts touching the cuffs of his pants. Neither she nor her partner looked his way.
Tony stared at the swirling dancers. He did not want to admit it, but he was uneasy. And the feeling was only continuing to grow the longer he watched the citizens spin and waltz around him and Kolchak without paying them any heed at all.
"What's the matter with you people?" he yelled. "Are you this rude to everybody who shows up from out of town?"
Kolchak backed up near him, almost colliding with an oblivious woman in pink on the way. "Tony, I don't think they even see us," he said.
"How could they not see us?" Tony shot back. "We're right here! Unless they're all blind, they . . ." He trailed off as a yellow-clad woman danced by, looking directly at him. And yet her eyes showed no sign that she was aware of his presence.
"See what I mean?" Kolchak said, fully sobered now.
Tony regarded the celebration in disturbed disbelief. "What's going on here?" he cried. "It was like she was looking right through me!"
Kolchak nodded. "I've only seen that once before," he said.
"What? Where?" Tony exclaimed.
"You won't like it," Kolchak said.
Tony opened his mouth to reply when a strange sound from outside cut him off. He looked to the door. It was amazing that he could even hear it with all the noise around them. It was a whistle, carrying out a somehow eerie, ominous tune. And it was coming closer every passing second. He could not even hear anything other than it.
The entire ballroom had fallen still. Tony looked around with a start. The music had stopped cold. But the people were not standing around, watching the door as he and Kolchak were. Now, the two of them were completely alone.
The color drained from Tony's face. "Kolchak," he gasped. "Am I seeing things or . . ."
"Has everyone disappeared?" Kolchak supplied. "They're gone, Tony. They're all gone." He was tense and grim as he turned back to the open door. His suspicions were, he was sure, confirmed. This town was a meeting-ground for two or more planes. And it was one-way; he and Tony could see them but they could not see anyone outside of their plane.
The whistle had broken the communication. A feeling of silence and dread was permeating the building, so strong it was almost tangible, but Kolchak's feet were planted to the ground. A glance at Tony said that it was the same for him.
The sudden footfall on the steps startled them both almost out of their minds. They stared with one accord, fighting to brace themselves for whatever would come through the door.
They were unsuccessful.
A figure drew itself up to the doorway, studying the scene inside the cultural hall. With one finger it pushed back the wide-brimmed hat, eliminating the shadows half-hiding its face.
Tony swore in shock. With very few exceptions, the new arrival was his mirror image.
"I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't that by any means. One of you is quite enough, Vincenzo."
"That thing only looked like me! It wasn't me! It didn't act like me in the least!"
"I have to agree with you there, Tony. It wasn't you. And thank God for that."
Kolchak managed to string together an intelligent sentence first. "Who . . . who are you?" he choked out. He was nearly as bowled over as Tony by this man's appearance. Of all people to turn up, what were the odds of it being a near-flawless double of Tony Vincenzo? Would a Carl Kolchak clone be next?
The stranger moseyed inside, his boots clomping on the hardwood floor. "Well, what have we here?" he said. His lips pulled back in what might have been intended as a friendly smile, but which only served to make him all the more unsettling. He stopped in front of Tony, leering at him. "I'd say someone's gone and run off with my face."
Finally recovering, Tony glowered in return. "Kolchak asked you a question!" he snapped. "And I want to know too. Who are you? And how did you manage to scare off everyone who was just in here?"
"Me? Why, you can call me Mel Barnes." Mel sauntered back with a shrug, never taking his gaze away from the two newspapermen. "Don't mind them; I always have that effect."
"Well, why?" Kolchak exclaimed.
Mel stopped behind them, forcing them to completely turn to face him. "Oh, I don't know," he said, almost purring now. "I guess they're not that fond of my kind."
"And just what is your kind?" Kolchak was fed up. "Look, this ballroom was filled with people before you started to whistle! Then they all just vanished into thin air!" He narrowed his eyes. "They're dead, aren't they?"
Tony whirled to stare at him. "Dead?" he burst out. "Kolchak!"
Mel was unfazed. "Dead's a relative term," he said. "They didn't look dead, did they?"
"No, but they also looked like they'd been transported here from about a hundred and forty years ago," Kolchak said.
Mel laughed. It was a cold, heartless sound. "I like you," he said. "I'll tell you what I'm going to do. This here's my town. At least, I've gone and claimed it for myself, and around here that's pretty much the same thing.
"I don't get a lot of visitors out in these parts. But instead of claiming you two as permanent fixtures, I'm going to give you both a chance to escape." He sneered at Tony. "Anyway, I don't think this town is big enough for two of me."
"I was just thinking the same thing," Tony retorted.
"What do you mean, permanent fixtures?" Kolchak spoke up in indignation. "And you're giving us a chance to escape? What's keeping us from walking out of here this minute?"
Mel looked entertained. "Anybody who walks in here is automatically trapped," he said. "That's the curse on the town."
"Curse?" Kolchak and Tony echoed.
Tony stormed forward. "I've had enough of this paranormal garbage," he snarled. "There's no curse. I can walk out of this town any time I want!"
He walked into the doorway, fully intending to step onto the porch. Instead an invisible barrier sizzled to life. With a yelp of pain he flew backwards, crashing on the floor.
"Tony!" Kolchak exclaimed. He bent down next to the dazed man. "Are you alright?"
Tony groaned in response.
Mel smirked, sticking his thumbs through his belt. "Neither of you can walk out of this room unless you say you'll play my game," he crowed.
Kolchak gave him a dark look. "Then I guess we don't have any choice, do we?" he said. He fanned Tony's face as he spoke. "Exactly what is it we have to do?"
"Just wander around town. See if you can outsmart me." Mel touched the brim of his hat as he turned to go. "I'll always be watching."
Kolchak glared. Even as he watched, their jailer walked to the doorway and faded into nothing as he phased through the barrier. Somewhere outside, the unsettling whistle began again.
Tony shakily pushed himself upright, still trying to shake the remaining cobwebs from his mind. "Kolchak, what's going on?" he cried. "That guy can't make us run around like his lab rats!"
"Unfortunately, Tony, it looks like he can," Kolchak said. "What just happened to you will happen to us over and over."
"I can't believe this. He activated some kind of electric booby-trap!" Tony got to his feet, gesturing at the doorway. "Those people must have all been fake, too. Maybe they were some kind of holographic projection. There's all kinds of technology like that coming out these days!"
Kolchak sighed. "I know there is, Tony, but I don't think that's what's going on now."
Tony gave a weary, knowing nod. "I know, Carl. I know. It has to be something supernatural, doesn't it? All those people are ghosts. And Mel Barnes has some kind of amazing psychic power over the town."
"About that, I don't know. I admit that!" Kolchak said. "But about those people, yes, I'm almost positive they were all ghosts. We were watching them on their plane, from our plane. That's why they couldn't see us!"
"Uh huh." Tony turned away. "Well, you're right about one thing, Kolchak. I don't like it. I don't like it at all!" He started to move towards the door. "So let's drop the whole thing and just play this sick game, if that's what we have to do to get out of this creepy little town."
Kolchak chased after him. "There's more, Tony," he said. "There's another reason why I'm sure they're ghosts."
Tony threw his hands in the air. "Then why?" he demanded. "Why, for Heaven's sake?"
Kolchak grabbed Tony's upper arm and forced him to turn around. "Because," he said in grim urgency, "the way that girl looked through you is exactly how you looked through me when I was dead!"
Tony stiffened. "No. We are not talking about that." He pulled Kolchak's hand away and turned to face the doorway, extending a cautious finger to the space. This time there were no sizzles or sparks. Tony stepped through onto the porch and into the twilight.
Kolchak chased after him. "Why, for Heaven's sake?" he said, deliberately echoing Tony's cry. "Why are you so bound and determined to pretend that never happened? There's medical proof that I was dead! And I saw your pen fall, Vincenzo! I saw it roll across the sidewalk to a crack!"
"I know!" Tony finally screamed, spinning to face his reporter. "I know you were clinically dead! I saw your body myself! I saw the paramedics pronounce you dead at the scene! But now you're not dead. You're standing here yelling at me! And I can't explain it! Oh, I've tried to tell myself that maybe they made a mistake, that a lot of times people are declared dead when they're not. But that didn't happen this time! You were dead! You're so good at explaining things; explain to me how that's possible, Kolchak."
"What's to explain? Do you believe the Bible is true?" Kolchak countered.
Tony rocked back. "What's that got to do with it?" he snapped.
"What about Lazarus?" Kolchak said. "Do you believe he rose from the dead?"
"I . . ." Tony shook his fists above his head. "You're not Lazarus!" he cried at last. "Anyway, he was dead for four days, not one hour!"
"It's the same principle!" Kolchak said. "Four days, one hour . . . what's the difference? We were both dead and later on, we weren't!"
Tony waved a dismissive hand as he turned to go down the steps. "We're wasting time talking about this," he said. "Barnes expects us to play his crazy game. Let's get started!"
Kolchak hurried down the stairs after him. As much as he wanted to continue this confrontation and try to get to the bottom of Tony's aversive feelings, this was not the time. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself.
". . . He didn't even give us much in the way of instructions," he said then. "All he said was to wander around town and try to outsmart him."
"And promised he'd be watching. I know, I heard." Tony glanced up and down the silent street. "There's nothing to do but start walking. If we could figure out how he operates, maybe we could figure out how to beat him."
"It'd help if we knew something about who he is, too," Kolchak frowned. "You know, he's dressed like all the other people here were—like he's from another time. And he disappeared when he went through the barrier."
"So now he's a ghost too?" Tony exclaimed.
"I didn't say that," Kolchak said. "I'm only pointing out a cold, hard fact."
"That's what you were leading up to," Tony grumbled.
"Alright! It's a possibility!" Kolchak said, throwing out his arms. "A very good possibility," he muttered in addition.
Tony shook his head and walked past, turning left.
Kolchak ran after him. "I don't remember we decided to try this way first," he said.
"We didn't," Tony shot back. "I decided it on my own! The other way is how we came in. A character like Barnes wouldn't make it that easy."
Kolchak gave a thoughtful nod. "I can't argue with that logic," he said.
The darker it grew in Dead Man's Gulch, the more unhinging it became. Lights began to turn on in the buildings and outside on the streets, but there was still an untouchable silence over the town. Even when Kolchak and Tony spoke to each other, it felt as though their words froze in the air and went no further than the space between them.
Then, slowly, sounds started to return. People walked up and down the streets. They talked and laughed in restaurants and saloons. Music played in the background. The cultural hall, however, remained completely dark.
Kolchak frowned. "Seeing the citizens back again should make me feel better," he commented. "But it doesn't. If anything, now it just feels worse than ever. At any moment Barnes could decide to take them away."
Two girls came down the street, chatting and giggling. Tony froze as they passed right through him and kept going. He whirled, staring after them.
Kolchak sighed, patting him on the shoulder. "Get used to it, Tony," he said. "We don't exist in their world."
"But we're right here in their world!" Tony protested.
Kolchak gave a thoughtful nod. "The two realms exist in the same space, but for the most part they're unaware of each other," he said. "When one can see the other, it doesn't go both ways. At least, that's certainly how it's been from my experience."
Tony walked faster, getting ahead of Kolchak. He did not want to get into that again. Not now.
An old sheet of newspaper tumbled through the road towards them. Tony reached and caught it before it could plaster itself across his chest. But as he looked at the front page, his mouth fell open. "No," he whispered. "It's not possible."
Kolchak caught up with him, peering over his shoulder. Whistle Murders Continue After Suspect Hanged, the headline shouted. A grainy picture showed a scruffy, distraught man facing the camera. Below it the caption read, Frank Scott still proclaims innocence moments before death.
Kolchak raised an eyebrow. "Oddly enough, he looks like both you and Mel Barnes," he said. "If he shaved and combed his hair, he could be Barnes' identical twin."
"This paper is dated decades ago!" Tony ranted. "And it's not even local; it's from some dinky town in Nevada! This Frank Scott guy was hanged in Virginia City!"
"No. Really?" Kolchak peered more closely at the paper. "I wonder what it's doing all the way out here? And the Whistle Murders . . . hmm. That's interesting."
Tony skimmed over the article. "Apparently there were reports of several girls having been murdered in towns throughout Nevada," he said. "They were always strangled. And people in the vicinity claim they heard a weird song being whistled right before they heard the screams. When this Frank Scott was accused and caught in Virginia City, people in the other towns figured he was the one behind it all. Now this article says a girl was murdered near Carson City, same M.O. as the others, after Frank Scott was executed!"
An eerie whistle floated through the air moments after Tony finished reading. Both he and Kolchak tensed. Just as before, a dark, evil feeling was beginning to make its way over the town. The tangible silence came suddenly and not in degrees.
A blood-chilling scream broke it. Both men started to attention, looking to the direction. "It's coming from over there!" Kolchak called, pointing to a dark alley just ahead to the left. Without waiting for Tony he broke into a run, tearing around the corner.
It was almost like running into a freezer. The alley was cold, moreso than it should be. And it only got worse the farther in that he went. It was like it had been at the cultural hall, just ten times more intense.
He was already too late when he ground to a halt, Tony stumbling and stopping right behind him. A pretty young girl in a blue dress was sprawled on the ground, her neck twisted at an unnatural angle. Red marks were pressed against her pale throat. Her eyes, open and unseeing, gazed up at the men as though accusing them of being unable to save her.
Kolchak bent down in sickened horror. With one hand he brushed the wavy blonde hair away from her face. Tony knelt down next to him.
"Is she a ghost too?" he asked, his voice hushed. "Or was she . . ."
Kolchak shook his head. "I don't know," he rasped. "I can touch her, but it could be one of Barnes' tricks." He got up, looking to the right and then to the left. The murderer's flight had been almost instantaneous. Now there was no sign of anyone. And the horrible stillness had settled in again, after the girl's cry.
Tony stood as well. "Let's split up," he suggested. "He can't have gone far."
A frown crossed Kolchak's features. "I don't know, Tony," he said. "It's probably not a good idea to split up in a place like this."
"What are you saying, Kolchak? We can't let him get away because of a few weird effects!" Tony snapped.
"A few weird effects?" Kolchak burst out. "What about the silence? This . . . this feeling of utter evil? That's more than a cheap film trick!"
For a moment Tony had nothing to answer. From the fear that flickered through his eyes, he knew Kolchak was speaking the truth. But then he turned away, brushing past Kolchak to take the right side of the alley.
"I'm going this way," he said. "You take the other side. We'll meet back on the main street in ten minutes."
Kolchak watched him in frustration. "You're a fool, Vincenzo!" he yelled.
Tony ignored him.
Kolchak waved a hand in his general direction. Muttering to himself, he turned to head to the left. He glanced to the poor girl's body as he went.
"Sorry, honey," he said.
"Tony's exploits were uneventful, for the most part. Mel Barnes had decided to leave him alone in favor of bothering me. But the reason why he had made that choice would involve us both."
"Oh, that's the understatement of the year."
"Do you mind? I'm the one telling the story."
"I'd just as soon leave this part out of it. You're not really planning to write this up in your article, are you?"
"We'll see, Tony. We'll see. You have to admit, it's an important part."
The town was still and dark as Kolchak made his way through the alley, investigating each building as he came to it. All were empty, as far as he could tell. Even though people had been around moments earlier, now everything appeared abandoned.
By the time he reached the saloon he was not expecting anything different. He walked through the storage room at the back and into the kitchen without finding anything out of the ordinary. Well, aside from an old pot still sitting on the stove.
The main room was much the same. A table was lying on its side, an indication of a brawl. A couple of stained glasses were at the bar, one tipped over with a long-ago encrusted liquor spilling onto the counter. But as Kolchak advanced further into the room, he stopped short.
Mel Barnes was leaning on the bar with one arm, smirking at him.
"Well, hello," he greeted.
Kolchak's eyes flashed at his nonchalance. "Did you kill that girl in the alley?" he demanded.
Mel pushed himself away, walking purposely towards Kolchak. "Oh, would I do a mean thing like that?" he purred.
"I think you would," Kolchak said. "We heard you whistling right before she screamed. And then we found that newspaper about the Whistle Murders. Frank Scott, the man they hanged in Virginia City, looks a lot like you. He really was innocent, wasn't he? You let him take the rap for you!"
Mel shrugged. "Poor Frank," he said. "He was such a bad-tempered sort that it was easy for Virginia City to believe he was guilty of murder." He grinned. "What a lucky break for me."
"You make me sick," Kolchak snapped. "Why did you kill those women? What was the point? What did they ever do to you?"
Mel stepped nose-to-nose with Kolchak, far too close for comfort. "They didn't do anything to me," he said smoothly. "Except just exist. Oh, not that I don't like women, see. I like them a lot, a whole lot. They're good for kissin' and neckin' and . . . other things." He gave Kolchak a wicked smile.
"So they're your personal pets." Kolchak stepped away from him in revulsion. "And when you've had your fill, you kill them."
"Might as well get some other use out of them. They have such pretty throats." Mel reached out, running his hand down Kolchak's throat in emphasis. Kolchak snatched at his hand, but only caught air. Mel sneered. "Now I'm going to get another use out of you, too," he said.
"You're going to kill me too?" Kolchak was angry, but fear was creeping into his heart as well. How could he fight against something he could not even touch?
"Oh no," Mel said. "I'm not gonna kill you. I've got bigger plans for you."
Without warning he dove right at Kolchak, his hands outstretched. Kolchak yelped in panic, backing up and waving his arms in a desperate attempt to protect himself. He tripped over the fallen table, sprawling in unwanted defeat on the floor. Before he could even try to get up, Mel was coming at him again.
Pain erupted in every part of his body. Darkness spread over him, clouding his vision and choking his air supply. He could only manage a faint, whispered prayer as oblivion descended.
Tony had reached the edge of town without finding anything. Beyond him stretched the desert, lonely and cold and seemingly endless in the night. When he took a step forward, an invisible barrier, similar to what had greeted him at the cultural hall, crackled. They really were trapped here.
He stared, horror creeping through his soul. Barnes had not been kidding. He had hoped and prayed for that, but clearly to no avail. Whatever else he wanted to shove under the carpet and pretend was nonexistent, this was not one of those things.
With a resolute whirl he faced Main Street instead. According to his watch it was past the ten minutes. Kolchak was probably impatient, waiting for him.
As he walked back up the road he frowned. Kolchak was nowhere in sight. Maybe he was still searching. Or . . . could he have run into trouble? He had not wanted them to split up. Maybe he had had good reason for that. Even if there was not anything supernatural afoot, as he kept insisting, there was a murderer.
"Kolchak?" he called. His voice did not carry. In the silence it just stopped, as though it had hit a wall.
The eerie whistling froze him in his tracks. "Now what?" he muttered. Was Mel Barnes, or whoever had been whistling before, back for more? He looked around, his heart beating faster. The last thing he wanted to hear was another horrible scream as some poor girl met her end.
He stared as Kolchak strolled out from the old saloon. He looked just the same as ever, yet something was different. There was a feeling of unease that Tony had never felt around Kolchak before. And it was Kolchak doing the whistling.
Kolchak looked to him, tipping his straw hat back on his head. "Well, hello, Tony," he greeted. "So we meet again." The words were innocuous enough, but he spoke them with a smile that dripped danger.
"Kolchak, what's wrong with you?" Tony demanded. "We were talking only fifteen minutes ago!"
"So we were," Kolchak mused. He moseyed closer to Tony. "What's wrong, Vincenzo? Why so jumpy?" He clapped his hand on Tony's shoulder. Tony flinched.
"Kolchak, are you drunk?" Tony asked. "No, you could never get drunk this fast. And I'd hope you wouldn't decide to sample any food or liquor in this place! It's probably poisoned."
Kolchak laughed. "I'm perfectly sober. Relax, Tony. After all, we're old friends."
Without warning his expression twisted in cruel pleasure. He shoved Tony against the wall of the building, his hands curling around the other man's throat. He leaned in further as he tightened the pressure. "Very old friends," he hissed.
Tony stared at him, his eyes wide in shocked betrayal and disbelief. He grabbed Kolchak's wrists, struggling against his reporter's sudden, superhuman strength. His thoughts were running amuck in his panicked mind.
"You . . . you're not Kolchak," he gasped.
The hands squeezed just a bit more. "Oh?" Now the voice was far more audibly deadly. "What makes you think that?"
Tony dug his fingers deeper into the wrists. "He . . . wouldn't do this." Kolchak was a frustrating, aggravating pain, but while they often exchanged barbs there was never any malice behind it. Kolchak had no desire to harm anyone. Certainly he was not a killer. And what Tony saw in his eyes now was entirely foreign.
Kolchak leaned over, whispering in Tony's ear. "If I'm not Kolchak, then where is he?" he taunted.
Spots swirled in front of Tony's eyes. He clung to consciousness, desperate. If he passed out now he had no chances left.
"Kolchak . . ." he wheezed, barely able to speak. "Come back. Remember me! Please . . ." His voice was cut off as the pressure tightened too much to talk at all.
"You know, I don't usually kill men." Now Kolchak sounded almost amiable. A chill ran down Tony's spine. "I prefer women. I like their screams and their soft white throats. They kiss better, too."
Suddenly he threw Tony to the ground. Before Tony could even try to get up or gasp for breath Kolchak was straddling him, his hands again going around Tony's throat.
Tony fought to shove him off. He gripped Kolchak's shoulders, at the same time trying to knee him in the stomach. Kolchak . . . stop! Stop it! But his silent screams and his struggling availed him nothing.
His panic was building with every passing moment. Mel Barnes had taken over Kolchak's body. He did not want to believe it, he could not believe it, and yet it was the only conclusion he could even arrive at. The words were unmistakably Mel Barnes'. And the body was Kolchak's, unless he was hallucinating.
But he was not hallucinating this loss of oxygen. He could not hold out much longer.
The vise around his throat fell away just as he was sinking into senselessness. Somewhere through the fog over his mind a familiar voice, racked with horror and guilt, penetrated.
"God . . . oh God, what am I doing? Tony? What was I doing to you? Are you alright? Tony, answer me!"
Tony could do nothing of the sort. He choked and gasped, turning onto his side as Kolchak stumbled back. The welcome air rushed into his burning throat and lungs, sustaining his life.
At last he managed to turn bleary eyes towards Carl Kolchak, who was kneeling on the wooden walkway and visibly shaking as he stared. Tony recoiled. How could he trust that Kolchak was really in control again?
. . . How could he not? The look in those eyes right now was going to haunt Tony to no end, even though he would never admit it. This was the Kolchak Tony knew, but in another way he was not. He was devastated.
"Yes, Carl . . . I'm alright," Tony rasped.
Kolchak slammed his fist into the ground. "That . . . that psychopathic maniac possessed me!" he cried. "I almost killed you because of him!"
Tony shuddered. He looked away, staring into the desert night.
Kolchak held his hands in front of him, staring at them in horrified disbelief. Mel Barnes had confessed his crimes in the bar, bragging about them, and then had tried to use Kolchak's body to commit another murder. If Tony had died, Kolchak would not have found any consolation in the fact that another spirit had been in control of his body.
"He had us right where he wanted us!" he declared. "I walked precisely into his trap! Precisely!" He shook his head. "I never would've forgiven myself if I'd really . . ."
"You didn't, Kolchak!" Tony exclaimed. But then he winced. Yelling like that had been a bad idea.
"Kolchak, I can't explain what just happened," he tried again, speaking quieter this time. "When you came out of the saloon, I could see something was wrong. Even before you started choking me, you still weren't acting like yourself." He sat up straight, gingerly running his hand over his throat.
"I didn't even know what was happening," Kolchak said, bitterness dripping from his voice. "I blacked out when he jumped into my body. I started coming to when he was trying to strangle you. How could I have let something like this happen?"
"How could you have stopped it?" Tony retorted. "I'm not saying I believe this is what happened, but you haven't ever taken a crash course on preventing possession, have you?"
"No, that's one thing I haven't dealt with before," Kolchak said.
Tony watched him, not daring to relax. From Kolchak's agitation, he could not settle down either.
"I'm not sure of anything now!" Kolchak burst out. "For all I know, he's still in a position where he could try to take hold of me again!" He started to get up. "You'll be safer without me around."
Tony stared up at him, stunned. "Kolchak!" He tried to pull himself up, but the dizziness swirled around him. He fell back to the walkway.
Kolchak paused, looking down at him in concern. "Tony, are you sure you're alright?" he asked.
At first Tony did not respond. By the time he did, Kolchak had been about to ask again. "No," he rasped. "No, I'm not alright. And what do you think you're doing, trying to run off?" He clenched a fist. "This whole thing was my fault. I wanted us to split up, while you were against it. And us being separated is how Barnes got hold of you, isn't it?"
"Oh, I don't know, Tony," Kolchak said in world-weary disgust. "Maybe he would've jumped in whether we'd been together or not. The fact that we split up was probably just an added bonus for him." He regarded Tony in surprise, a realization dawning. "Wait a minute. You're not saying now that you believe he possessed me?"
"I'm not saying that," Tony grumbled. "But you didn't suddenly go psycho on me of your own free will. I know that much." He looked away. "When you first came out and started talking funny I wondered if you'd been drinking. Then I thought maybe it was all some big illusion of Barnes'."
"And when Barnes grabbed you through me, you never thought I was trying to kill you?" Kolchak said.
Tony glared. "Well, of course I wondered when he, you, whoever, first grabbed me," he said. "But just for a split-second. That's not the kind of person you are."
Kolchak averted his eyes. "I didn't know if I was going to stop him in time. As soon as I knew what he was doing I fought against him with everything I had. I don't think I've ever prayed so hard. . . ." His voice lowered and trailed off.
Tony watched him in concern. He had rarely seen Kolchak look so helpless and haunted. He himself was still reeling from the attack. Kolchak was fine now, but he had admitted to not knowing where Mel Barnes was. What if he suddenly flipped out again?
"Don't dwell on it, Kolchak," Tony said, gruff and stern. "That won't help."
"I know that!" Kolchak retorted. "I'm just angry at myself. And worried. I wasn't expecting Barnes to attack like this at all. What else could go wrong, now and other times, because I'm not expecting something? How many people could end up hurt or dead? It would be my fault."
Tony was stunned. This was a side of Kolchak that he could not recall ever having seen to this extent, although he had caught a glimpse of it during the time the psychotic Yami Marik had been torturing them both.
"Kolchak, you don't carry the world on your shoulders!" he said. "You don't need to worry about this. Barnes probably isn't even going to bother with you again."
"If not him, then maybe someone else," Kolchak said. He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Tony. It's just that I never thought I'd actually become one of the menaces I've been chasing."
"You haven't!" Tony snapped. "You broke free, you're fine, and Barnes will leave you alone."
Kolchak was silent. "We can hope," he said at last. "And pray it's not in vain. But . . . thanks, Tony. For, you know, not thinking that I'm secretly the Night Strangler."
Tony looked away, feeling awkward. This whole experience had been so surreal and so strange that if it were not for the marks on his throat, and how uncomfortable it was to swallow, he would be inclined to say that none of it had happened at all. But it had happened, and to deny it to himself would just be furthering his fear of the truth.
". . . And what are we going to do about getting out of here?" he exclaimed. "We're supposed to outsmart Barnes somehow. How?"
"I've been wondering the same thing." Kolchak pushed his hat back. "Barnes mentioned something about a curse on the town. If we could learn more about that, maybe we'd be able to figure out how to break it."
"So now we have to go chasing fairytales?" Tony was absolutely not pleased.
"Do you have any other ideas?" Kolchak retorted.
Tony had to concede defeat.
"Let's try looking through the courthouse records." Kolchak stood and reached to help Tony up as well.
Tony accepted, shakily getting to his feet.
The courthouse turned out to be in the same building as the jail. Several file folders were scattered on the desk, while others were hanging out of the open drawers of the filing cabinet and stacked on top of it.
Kolchak blew out his breath in dismay. "Well . . . let's get to it," he said. Research had never been a favorite pastime of his, but he had become very accustomed to it ever since he had started discovering supernatural mysteries. He walked to the desk in determination and picked up a folder.
"Kolchak, what are we looking for?" Tony demanded. "I'm sure they don't have a folder marked Everything you wanted to know about the town curse but were afraid to ask!" He walked over to the filing cabinet, idly pulling out a folder that was almost ready to fall.
"No, but if they have anything, we'll know when we find it," Kolchak said, occupied. He set the file down and grabbed another. "Look for anything on Mel Barnes or the Whistle Murders, to start with."
Tony sighed but did not protest.
"The search went on for what seemed hours. We'd no sooner reach the end of one stack when another would pop up. I was starting to think that Barnes was always lengthening the number of folders just to keep tormenting us. It was a very effective campaign! It was only after a strange, cold breeze blew past that we uncovered something interesting."
"Hey, Kolchak. Look at this!"
Kolchak turned when Tony's voice broke the near-silence. "What is it?" he asked, keeping his finger in his current folder to mark the page. "And I hope it's more interesting than a list of the town's festivities in 1860!"
Tony held out the file he was currently searching. "It looks like they put stuff about the Whistle Murders in this Unsolved Cases folder," he said. "There's several reports in here about murders that sound like that guy's M.O."
"Oh really?" Kolchak set the Festivities folder aside and dug into the Unsolved Cases. He pulled out several pages, skimming over them with interest. "Barnes was taking a chance by staying here," he frowned. "He killed at least five women before it stopped. That was probably when he left."
"Then he probably crossed the border into Nevada and stayed there," Tony said.
Kolchak "mm-hmmed" in reply as he browsed through the last of the casefiles. When he looked up, he was visibly troubled.
"It says here that in every spot where one of these women was murdered, it felt cold and unsettling ever after. The townspeople got so they would do just about anything to avoid walking past, or on, one of those places."
Tony was unaffected. "So they had active imaginations," he said.
"I'm not so sure, Tony." Kolchak pointed to one of the reports. "One of the victims, Emma Wadkins, was killed in that alley where we found the girl's body. Don't you remember how chilly it felt in there?"
Tony stiffened but did not acknowledge the sensation aloud. "So now you're saying what? That Barnes killed again in the same location?" he exclaimed.
"Maybe," Kolchak said. "Or maybe we stepped into the past again and found the scene of poor Miss Wadkins' murder from the late 19th century, moments after it happened."
Tony threw his hands in the air. "It always has to be something crazy," he said. "It can't just be something vaguely weird or faintly unusual. It has to be utterly insane!"
Kolchak was barely listening. "Say, I wonder if this could have any connection with the town curse," he said. "That would explain better how Barnes ties into it, too. Maybe his victims are restless and walk through the town, keeping it alive because justice wasn't done all those years ago."
"They don't have better things to do with their time?" Tony cried.
"Restless spirits can be pretty persistent, Vincenzo," Kolchak said. "And now that Barnes is loose, maybe they're getting angrier and angrier."
"That still doesn't explain what we can do about it, even if it is true!" Tony said in frustration.
Kolchak sighed. "I know. It all comes back to getting rid of Barnes. And how do we do that?" He reached for another folder. "Let's keep going. Oh, and make sure you don't stack anything on this one." He tapped Unsolved Cases. "We want it ready and waiting for easy access."
Tony heaved a big sigh, but kept it in mind as they resumed the search.
"Unfortunately, we didn't find anything else of remote interest. The town had no file on Mel Barnes, which was a surprise considering that newspaper Tony had caught outside. I had thought the town had probably kept up-to-date on the case. But there was another possibility that would explain it. And, like a clap of thunder, it came to me."
"Tony!" Kolchak exclaimed.
It was so sudden that Tony nearly dropped the folder he was about to set aside. "For crying out loud, what is it?" he burst out.
"Maybe whatever happened to the town happened before Barnes was caught!" Kolchak declared. "That would explain all the more why the dead girls might want justice. With Barnes hanging around, maybe they don't know he was ever stopped! They'd only know that Frank Scott was hanged and the murders kept happening after that."
Tony raised his hands in defeat. "I don't even know what to say to this anymore, Kolchak," he said. "I just don't."
"Because you can't deny it's possible!" Kolchak said, stabbing the air.
"No! Because it sounds absolutely nuts!" Tony shot back. "If I had any sense at all, I'd have you committed to an institution as soon as we get out of this mess! And me too, for listening to you!"
Kolchak was unfazed. "Tony, listening to me is the most sensible thing you could do," he said. "Come on; we're going to go have a look at every one of the places where Barnes killed a girl!" He grabbed up the Unsolved Cases folder, heading for the door.
Tony stormed after him in frustration. "How do I get myself into these messes?" he said to nothing in particular. "I could have had a perfectly normal, uneventful life raising tulips. But no, I had to listen when my father wanted me to go into journalism! And look where it's got me! Following my off-kilter reporter through a ghost town, checking out cold spots!"
Kolchak offered no reply.
"You have to admit, you're seeing more action now than if you were raising tulips."
"I never wanted to see action! Not like this!"
"This isn't really how I wanted to do it either.
"So Tony and I went around town studying the scenes of the crimes. Nothing really momentous or worth telling in detail happened at any of them, except for one thing. Each location, just like the alley, felt like the North Pole. Tony refused to accept the obvious explanation, but he also didn't outright say it wasn't true. Of course, under the circumstances, how could he?"
"Don't put thoughts in my head, Kolchak."
"Oh, I wouldn't say I did that, Tony."
Kolchak stopped at the site of the fifth and last known killing, on the corner of a residential street. He stared at the side of an old house. Unless he was seeing things, splashes of red were still visible near the ground. Quickly he snapped a picture.
"This is the final one," he announced, "and it's cold too. Tony, I wonder if Barnes wouldn't have any control over the town if the curse was lifted."
Tony deliberately stayed outside the frosty area. "Well, I long ago gave up my common sense, Kolchak. If I hadn't, I wouldn't be standing here watching you take pictures of 19th century blood on a 19th century house!" He ran a hand into his hair. "Suppose, just suppose, Barnes' victims did make the curse. Do you really think Barnes would have any control over things?"
"It does sound far-fetched, doesn't it," Kolchak mused.
"Kolchak, right now I don't know." Tony started to pace. "It started to sound far-fetched when the people at that dance didn't notice us at all and you said they were ghosts. It sounded even more far-fetched when you said Mel Barnes is a ghost. And let's not forget that he supposedly jumped into your body to choke me through you. The thought that he could somehow trump the collective wills of five of his victims doesn't surprise me one bit, not in my current frame of mind."
Kolchak stepped back from the wall. "Tony, what if they're fighting over the town?" he suggested.
Tony's blank expression said it all, but he said more anyway. "What?"
"Think about this, Tony," Kolchak said. "Maybe it's an active battle of wills. When the girls are in control, we see the people. When Barnes takes over, they disappear." He took a picture of the cold area as a whole. "If we could somehow get one of the girls to talk with us, maybe we could convince her that Barnes is dead now too. Maybe she'd even tell us how to break the curse. With it gone, Barnes might not have any power here and we'd be free to go too!"
Tony blew out his breath in exasperation. "Kolchak, just do whatever you think will get us out of here," he said. "I don't care how insane it sounds or what I'll probably think of it when this is over."
Kolchak nodded, enthusiastic now. "The girl who was killed here, Eliza Madison, might be watching us this very moment," he said. "It's possible that she and the others can see us, like Barnes can." Raising his voice he called, "Eliza! We're not on Barnes' side. We need to talk with you."
For a long moment there was no reply to his cry. But then a harsh gust swept across the area, chilling both him and Tony and nearly knocking them off their feet.
Tony fought to shield himself. "What the . . . !" he cried. In desperation and panic he fought to move back from the affected area, but his feet would not budge.
"Eliza!" Kolchak yelled. "It's the truth; we're not your enemies!"
The wind swirled around the center of the spot, forming the outline of a woman. Even though she was translucent, her curly red hair was visible as it cascaded around her shoulders and down her back. Her frozen eyes focused first on Kolchak, then on Tony. She tensed, her face twisting in outrage and anger.
"You're lying," she hissed. Raising her right arm, she pointed at Tony. "He's a murderer!"
Tony stared, horrified. "No!" he exclaimed. "I'm not Mel Barnes. I'm Anthony Vincenzo! I've never killed anybody!"
"That's right," Kolchak nodded. "Tony's a surprisingly gentle soul, in spite of his dreadful temper. If there's one thing he isn't, it's a killer. Except of most of my stories, of course."
"Kolchak!" Tony gaped at him. "This isn't the time for jokes. This . . . she's serious!"
"So am I," Kolchak retorted.
Eliza looked back and forth between them, clearly still suspicious.
Kolchak stepped closer to Tony. "Oh, come on, Eliza," he said, trying to hide his nervousness. "You don't really think Tony here is actually Mel Barnes, do you? He doesn't have that psychotic gleam in his eyes. And anyway . . ." He patted Tony's stomach. "He's not quite as trim as Barnes is."
Eliza frowned, considering this. At last she nodded, stepping back. "What do you want?" she asked.
"Well, mostly we'd like to get out of here," Kolchak said. "But if in the process we can get rid of your town's curse, free your soul and those of Barnes's other victims, and rout Barnes out on his ear, that would be great too."
"There's not any rest for us as long as Mel Barnes can roam free," Eliza said.
"That's what I figured," Kolchak said. "However, tell me, what do you know of Barnes' current state of being?"
Tony regarded him in disbelief. "Kolchak, what are you doing?" he demanded.
Kolchak waved a hand at him. "Relax, Tony." He looked at Eliza, expectant.
The young woman frowned. "I don't know what you mean," she said. "He's going on as he has always done, leaving a trail of suffering and murder in his wake."
"Yes, I know," Kolchak nodded, stabbing the air with a finger, "but is he still mortal?"
Eliza stepped back, her eyes darting back and forth between Kolchak and Tony. Her lips were pulled in a suspicious frown.
"I am here to tell you, Miss Madison, that Mel Barnes died many years ago," Kolchak announced. "We are in the year 2011."
Eliza shook her head. "No." The ground began to shake. Tony stumbled, crashing into the equally stumbling Kolchak. A dark aura flamed around Eliza as her eyes glowed bright blue. "This is one of his tricks! Mel Barnes is alive and well. He was never found guilty of his crimes!"
Kolchak grabbed onto his hat, fighting for balance. "How do you think he's able to do his 'tricks'?" he retorted. "He never had any psychic powers, did he?"
An unearthly shriek tore from Eliza's lips. The aura expanded into a force field, its power striking both Kolchak and Tony back several yards to the ground. A chill breeze swept over both of the men. They clutched at each other, terrified.
"Now look what you've done!" Tony yelled. "Kolchak, how has this helped at all?"
"She's the same as you, Tony," Kolchak called back over Eliza's tortured wails. "She's in denial!"
Tony stiffened. If he planned to reply, he never had the chance. Another wind spread over the area from the opposite direction, pushing back the first.
Kolchak and Tony looked up with a start. The blonde girl from the alley was standing in front of Eliza Madison, holding up her hands in protest.
"The red-haired man has a point," she said. "Mel Barnes never had any psychic powers. And yet now he's on par with us. He can take the control of the town away from us whenever he feels like it! Could he really be doing this if he's still alive?"
Eliza looked to the other girl, her eyes still a piercing ice blue. Even as she opened her mouth to answer, three other figures appeared alongside her. One slightly older than the rest, her black hair gathered up and tucked in, stepped forward.
"They're dressed strangely," she noted. "We should let them speak."
With the furious gust gone, Kolchak and Tony slowly started to get up. Kolchak stood tall, facing the woman who had just taken charge.
"Is what you say true?" she asked. "Is the year actually 2011?"
Kolchak nodded. "Y-yes, ma'am," he said. "We were trying to find a hotel and we ended up here. Our car . . . err, horseless carriage, is right outside the town limits. Barnes trapped us and said we had to outsmart him to get out."
She frowned, considering his words. "Do you know if he was ever found guilty before his death?"
"I don't know," Kolchak admitted. "But if you'll let us go, we'll go on to our hotel and do all that we can to find out. We could even come back and let you know."
"It's a trick!" Eliza snapped. "These men can't find out anything. And look how closely the one resembles Barnes. Maybe he's a distant relative!"
Tony glared. "I know all about my ancestors," he said. "There's no creep like Barnes in my family's past!"
"And even if there were, it wouldn't mean Tony's the same kind of nut as Barnes," Kolchak interjected.
The brunette woman nodded at last. "Of course that's true," she said. "We don't want any harm to come to the innocent, only the guilty."
Growing bolder, Kolchak took several steps forward. "Your very determination to seek justice for Barnes might be what's binding him here!" he exclaimed.
Eliza shrieked. "Listen to him!" she cried. "He's saying lies on lies!"
Tony was gawking at Kolchak in disbelief. "You'd better have something to back you up on this!" he said. "None of them look happy now!"
He was right. Even the spokesperson had become stern and cold. "Explain yourself," she ordered.
"I'd be glad to," Kolchak said. "All five of you were killed by Barnes. Your spirits have stayed here because of what you suffered at his hands, unable to find peace until Barnes is no longer free to torment people. However, you have believed that he's alive. Your town has continued to exist through the decades just as it did in your day and has become isolated and rarely visited, so you've had no reason to become acquainted with the truth.
"When a person lingers on Earth after death, it's usually because something is binding them here. Mel Barnes's reason could just be that he's not done hurting people. What I'm wondering, however, is whether he was always here, in this town." Kolchak gestured at the far distance. "He got around pretty well when he was alive. Maybe that hasn't changed. He could've been wandering all over the United States. Maybe it's just that when he showed up here, your combined energy in desiring justice was powerful enough that he couldn't leave. That could be why the few stray visitors get trapped too—you're hoping they'll do something to stop him."
The brunette folded her arms, her head bobbing in a thoughtful nod. "I'm willing to accept that this could be possible," she said. "But what do you expect us to do? If we are binding Barnes here, we cannot allow him to leave."
"Does that include us too?" Kolchak said. "If you let us out, maybe we could even bring back a priest and he could perform some kind of cleansing ceremony on the town. He could rout Barnes out and maybe stick him in an afterlife more . . . fitting for his kind."
"If we release you, Barnes could escape as well," the woman said. "For him to be locked somewhere else, it has to be done from in here. And it has to be done by a mortal."
Tony threw up his hands in disgusted defeat. "That's just great!" he said in frustration. "Kolchak, what can we possibly do from in here? We haven't been able to do a single solitary thing so far!"
"Don't I know it," Kolchak grumbled. "And these girls are no help."
"That was when the lightbulb went on in my head."
"Lightbulb? That was one of the craziest ideas you've ever come up with!"
"Oh, come on, Tony. It was brilliant!"
Kolchak's eyes widened. "Tony!" he gasped.
Tony jumped a mile. "Now what?" he growled, exasperated.
"You once said you thought of entering the priesthood," Kolchak said. "How far did you carry that idea?"
Tony gaped. "What?" Then it began to sink in. He shook his head, taking several steps back. "Ohhh no. Carl, I am not going to try to perform some kind of ritual on that thing!"
"Why not?" Kolchak shot back. "If you're capable of it, you're probably our only hope!"
"Kolchak, I am not an ordained priest! I never was!" Tony's voice was rising. "I'm no more of a priest than you are. Which, incidentally, is a very frightening thought."
"But do you know the rituals?" Kolchak yelled over him.
"I don't know all of them!" Tony countered. "I just studied some of the material when I was entertaining the idea!"
"If you know a cleansing ritual, that's good enough!" Kolchak said. "Something has to be done while we're in here. And unfortunately, since there are no ordained priests trapped with us, and since I don't know what has to be done, you have to be the one to do it!"
"I probably don't even remember most of what I read!" Tony protested.
Kolchak was not to be deterred. "Well, try, Tony! For all of our sakes!" He glanced at the women, who were all watching in silence. "I'm fresh out of ideas!"
Tony groaned. "How do I let myself get talked into things like this?" he beseeched the Heavens. "How?" He looked back to Kolchak. "You know, I could bring down the wrath of God for performing this ritual when I'm not a priest!"
Kolchak patted Tony on the shoulder. "Oh, I'm sure God will understand, given the circumstances," he said. "He'll forgive you."
Tony gave up. ". . . I only know how to cleanse a house or a room, not a town!" he said. "To start with, you're supposed to put something like holy water or olive oil in the four corners."
"So we put it in the four corners of the town! It's the same principle." Kolchak steered Tony around to face the women.
"And I suppose you just happen to be carrying holy water around with you," Tony retorted.
"Well . . . no," Kolchak said. "Maybe I should think about it for the future."
"Where are we going to find any holy water, Kolchak?" Tony exclaimed. "If there's any in town, it'd be evaporated by now!"
"There's no harm in looking," Kolchak said. "Come on, Tony! Maybe we'll get a miracle." He glanced to the women. "Don't worry, ladies. One way or another, we'll get this problem licked."
They watched, unconvinced. "If you can't banish Barnes, then you will both be trapped here with him," the brunette informed him.
"We remember, believe me," Kolchak said as he shepherded Tony away.
The town church was small, but still stood proud. It was apart from the other buildings and had been built on a slight incline. Tony regarded it with trepidation as they approached.
"I don't know about this, Carl," he said. "I really think we're getting in over our heads. And even if we find some fantastically-preserved holy water, do you think Barnes will let us put it around the town?"
"He'll probably think we'll fail too," Kolchak said. "And we might . . . but let's not think about that." He went up the steps and pulled open one of the heavy doors. "After you, Father," he deadpanned.
"Kolchak, that's not funny!" Tony snarled. He brushed past Kolchak and towards the interior of the old, darkened chapel. Before he could get inside, however, he stopped cold. Kolchak looked to him in confusion. But when he followed his editor's gaze, it all made sense.
Mel Barnes was leaning against a signpost just outside of the church grounds, grinning wickedly at them.
"So, you think you've found a way to beat me, huh?" he sneered. "Preacher man?"
"I am not any kind of holy man!" Tony burst out. "And I don't want it to get strung around that I'm impersonating a priest!"
Kolchak tried to regard Mel with casual steadiness, but his stomach was turning itself in knots. Here he was, face to face again with the man who had possessed him and tried to choke Tony to death. And despite all of his sarcasm and feigned nonchalance, he could not be casual about that.
"Why don't you come over closer, Barnes?" he said. "Or can't you?"
"You know I can't," Mel replied. "But as soon as you come away from there—and you will—I'm gonna getcha." He leered at Kolchak. "Maybe I'll just hop aboard your body again and get a free trip somewhere."
"Not a chance," Kolchak shot back.
"You're scared I'll do it, aren't you?" Mel smirked.
"Of course not!" Kolchak retorted. "Anyway, I'll see to it that you can't."
"Good luck," Mel said, touching the brim of his hat. "You're gonna need it."
Tony glowered at him. "Why don't you just shut up, Barnes?"
Mel's eyes widened in mock surprise. "Oooh, big words from the fake preacher man," he taunted.
Tony regarded him in disgust. "We don't have to stay out here and listen to this. Come on, Carl." He turned, again heading for the door of the church.
Kolchak thoroughly concurred.
It was a relief to step into the sanctuary of the chapel and leave Mel Barnes outside in the cursed town. Kolchak tried to hold the door ajar for their return, but it refused to cooperate. As they advanced deeper, it creaked shut.
Tony cringed when it closed, leaving them in the dark. ". . . This isn't even a Catholic church," he said. Not wanting to discuss the subject of Mel Barnes's reappearance, he was deliberately avoiding it.
And Kolchak was just fine with that. "There's other denominations that use holy water," he shrugged.
"Yeah, but not always for the same reasons," Tony retorted. "This is a Methodist church. They use it pretty much just for baptisms. It might not work for what we need it for." He followed the beam of Kolchak's flashlight up to the front of the chapel and climbed the stairs onto the stand.
Kolchak was right behind him. "So if they have any, where would they keep it?" he wondered.
Tony sighed. "Oh, probably in a cupboard or closet somewhere, and I don't see one!" He moved over near the back of the room. If there was a compartment, it was so dark that it was difficult to see it. He felt across the wall and ran over a long, perfectly straight crack. "Hey, wait a minute, maybe I've got it," he announced.
Kolchak hurried over, instantly attentive. "Great work, Tony!" he praised. Balancing the flashlight, he tried to help Tony pry open the stubborn panel.
At first it refused to budge. But then at last it groaned and gave way, pulling free from the wall with a burst of dust. Both men stumbled back. Tony waved the cloud away, sneezing in the process.
"Gesundheit," Kolchak remarked.
Tony muttered, pushing the door open farther to inspect what lay beyond. Several shelves were built into the wall, each one holding assorted items and objects needed by the church.
Kolchak reached for a yellowed altar cloth. "This doesn't seem to have held up so well," he said.
"And I'm sure that's the case with everything, Kolchak," Tony said. He took down a small box and unlatched the lid.
Kolchak peered over his shoulder. "White candles," he mused. He lifted one up from the velvet lining for further inspection.
"We'll need those," Tony told him. Balancing the box under one arm, he removed a vial and held it in front of the flashlight's beam.
"That wouldn't happen to be holy water, would it?" Kolchak asked.
Tony shook his head in disbelief. "That's exactly what it is," he said. "And look." He moved it from side to side. A liquid visibly changed position as he did.
"It's still half-full!" Kolchak exclaimed. "Oh Tony, we're in business!"
Tony replaced it in the box and reached for the candle to return it as well. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it," he said. "I still don't believe it."
"What else do we need?" Kolchak was eager now.
"A Benedictine Cross is a good thing to have," Tony said. "That's already taken care of; my sister gave me a Medal-Cross of Saint Benedict years ago. I have it with me."
"Is that it?" Kolchak wondered.
Tony sighed. "You're really supposed to have frankincense and myrrh to burn on charcoal in the four corners after you use the holy water," he said. "But if there's none of that around I guess what we've got is going to have to do."
Kolchak nodded. "Then come on," he said. "We're going to bag ourselves a ghost."
"Barnes wasn't around when we left the church, contrary to what he had promised. It was unsettling; where was he? This was probably exactly what he wanted, to drive us crazy with worry wondering where he was going to appear next. But we had to deal with it. After all, we had a job to do.
"With nothing else to put some of the holy water in, we had to travel together to spread it around. Not that either of us felt that splitting up was a good idea after what had happened the last time. It took a while to find the four corners of the town, but when we did there was no mistaking them—there was an invisible wall beyond that point, holding us in place.
"When the last corner was treated, Vincenzo found something else to be frustrated about. Apparently we were missing another of the key ingredients for this recipe."
Tony ran a hand over his face, exasperated. "We need olive oil," he reported. "Not just that, but blessed olive oil. We're not going to be able to find that around here. There wasn't any in the church. Even if there had been, it would have been completely rancid!"
"Would that matter?" Kolchak asked. "I mean, we're not going to eat something with it, are we?"
"It probably wouldn't work if it was rancid," Tony grumbled. "In fact, maybe the water won't work either."
"It has to work!" Kolchak cried. "It's our only chance!" He paused, tilting his head as he gave Tony a curious look. "So what's the olive oil for?"
"It's to anoint your forehead," Tony sighed.
"Can you use some of the holy water?" Kolchak glanced to the bottle. "There's still some left."
"Oh, I don't know. We're probably doing everything wrong anyway." Tony tipped the vial, pouring some of the last remnants of the sacred liquid onto his fingers. He touched them to his forehead.
"Should I light the candles now?"
Tony barely looked Kolchak's way. "Yeah, sure, go ahead." He fumbled with his tie and the top buttons on his shirt. When they were loosened, he reached and pulled out the medallion that had been around his neck. Taking it off, he held it out in front of him.
A violent gust nearly blew it out of his hand. He gripped it tighter, whirling in shock. "What the . . . ? Are those girls messing with us again?"
"It's probably Barnes!" Kolchak yelled. His clothes flapped wildly. "There's too much wind. I can't light a match!"
Tony clenched his teeth. "I knew this was too easy!" he fumed. "Barnes is never going to let us do this!"
"And why is that? Because he knows it'll work!" Kolchak shot back. "Don't give up now, Tony! We have to take this all the way."
"Tell me how and I'll do it! I'm fresh out of ideas!" Tony stumbled, shielding his eyes as the dust flew up at him.
"Pray! Recite the incantation on the medallion! Anything!" Kolchak grabbed his hat, pushing it down on his head.
"I'm here," a voice hissed in Kolchak's mind. "I'm coming to getcha." Horrifying laughter echoed around him, seemingly carried by the wind and yet heard by him alone. Unseen fingers, cold as ice, brushed against his shoulder and started to pass through the skin.
Kolchak stiffened, the panic returning in full-force. Mel Barnes was trying to possess him again, just as he had promised he would do. And no matter what, Kolchak had to make sure it could not happen. He would not let this devil have his way. He jerked aside, his heart racing full-force.
Could he stop this? Could he and Tony stop anything? Or would Mel Barnes win after all?
Suddenly the wind was gone. They looked, stunned. The five women had appeared in front of them, their arms outstretched.
"We'll try to hold him back long enough for you to do what you have to do," the brunette said. "But we can't promise it will work."
"You're giving us a chance," Kolchak said. "That's all we need!" He struck a match, lighting one of the candles. He handed it to Tony, then lit another for himself.
Tony took a deep breath, fighting to quell his jumping nerves. His hands refused to hold steady. "You know, when I was a kid I was stupid enough to think that doing something like this would be cool!" he said.
"Oh yeah? And what do you think now?" Kolchak returned.
"What do you think I think? I'm terrified!" Tony burst out.
"Courage, Tony. Courage." Kolchak swallowed hard. "And while you're at it, give some to me too."
Tony shook his head in disbelief. But instead of replying he clutched tighter at the medallion. He had come this far. He had to go through with it. Now he just had to pray that he would remember the Latin incantation.
The women were clearly having difficulty restraining the wind. It was furiously tearing at everything in its path. Shutters flew off of windows. The trees bent forward, threatening to snap. In the distance, frightened horses whinnied. As Tony finally began the exorcism, the gale's intensity increased tenfold. The mysterious, ghostly hand, half into Kolchak's shoulder, fell away.
Kolchak looked around, his eyes wide in growing fear and panic. The town was being torn apart on all sides. If this did not work, there would not be any way out of this. They would die. He gripped his candle, offering a desperate, silent prayer.
The last thing he remembered was that at the same moment Tony finished, the women's barrier failed. Wind and pieces of buildings exploded directly at them. A Hellish scream rent the night.
The desert air was cold this late.
Kolchak stirred, slowly opening his eyes. He was sprawled half on his stomach, half on his right side, on the unfriendly ground. Still dazed, he rose up on his hands.
"Where am I?" he mumbled. The space seemed to go on forever.
He glanced back over his shoulder. If he was supposed to be seeing the town, he wasn't. But he also wasn't seeing the remnants of demolished buildings. There was simply nothing. Off in the distance, his rented car stood where he and Tony had left it.
Tony. . . .
Kolchak looked around, worry abruptly gripping his heart. Where was Tony? Mel Barnes couldn't have finished him off . . . could he? Had Kolchak sent him right to his death?
"Tony?" he called. His voice was harsh and raspy. Apparently it had still not fully awakened.
The sight of the limp body sent him scrambling over the cracked and sparse ground and then crashing to his knees. "Tony! Tony, come on! Wake up!" he pleaded, shaking his editor's shoulder. Tony was on his back, the medallion still clutched in his hand. As Kolchak frantically jostled him, he finally flinched.
"Stop that," he growled.
Now Kolchak grinned, at peace. "I'm just making sure you're still among the living, Vincenzo. There's too many ghosts around here already."
Tony mumbled something unintelligible, turning his head to the side. "What happened?"
"Something must have worked," Kolchak told him. "We're out of the town. I think. At least, it's not here anymore."
"What?" Tony flew upright faster than he should have been allowed to fly. His jaw dropped as he stared at their surroundings. "This . . . this isn't possible," he gasped. "I was trying to cleanse the town of an evil spirit. I wasn't trying to destroy the town altogether!"
"It's a ghost town, Tony. Maybe it is still here, just on its plane." Kolchak moved to help Tony stand. "And now, we're fully back on our plane and the veil has dropped, so we can't see it."
Tony shook his head. "The buildings can't be ghosts," he objected. "They should be here! There's not any trace of them at all!"
"Maybe they were covered up by that dust storm," Kolchak suggested. "I wouldn't worry too much about it."
Tony stumbled, his hands trembling as he slipped the medallion back over his head. Ahead of them, a tumbleweed bounced lazily over the desert floor.
"The only sign of something moving and it's dead," Tony moaned. "Let's get out of here!"
"I fully concur, Tony," Kolchak solemnly said. "Fully. Come on."
"And that is the story," Kolchak said into the tape recorder. "Or what we know of it, anyway. What happened to the town? Mel Barnes' victims? Mel Barnes himself? We may never be sure of the answers.
"When we get back to civilization, I intend to find out if Barnes ever was proven guilty of the Whistle Murders, to satisfy my own curiosity if nothing else. For poor Frank Scott's sake, I hope he hasn't gone down in history as the serial killer instead of Barnes.
"I also hope I won't discover that on dark, lonely nights, I can hear Barnes's voice in my mind and realize he never actually left me. I thought I knew the meaning of terror before. Now I've discovered an entirely new level—that of having my body used against my will for evil. I doubt I'll ever take moving under my own power for granted again."
Tony regarded him in displeasure from the passenger seat. "Carl, you're not really going to publish this thing," he said. "If word gets out about my involvement in this mess, there could be a full-scale investigation. I could get fired. Maybe even excommunicated!"
Kolchak looked to him. "Oh Tony, I can't believe they'd do that to you," he said. "You were wonderful in there. Under the circumstances, they should understand."
"Understand what? That we were stranded in the town because of an invisible force field and I had to perform an exorcism that's really only supposed to be done by an ordained priest? And now the town is just gone? What's to understand? Carl, it can't be understood. It's outrageous!"
Kolchak was only half-listening. "Tony?" he said, staring through the windshield. "I'm not sure the town is gone after all."
"What are you talking about, Kolchak? Of course it's gone. We . . ." Tony trailed off. Just ahead of them, the buildings had all returned. People walked up and down the streets, talking and laughing. The color drained from Tony's face.
Kolchak leaned forward, snapping several pictures before relaxing. "They look happy," he said, routing in his pocket for his keys. "How about we just leave them and go?"
"Do you even have to ask?" Tony retorted. He pulled his seatbelt over and clicked it into place.
A bit of a grin sneaked loose. "No, I guess I don't," Kolchak said.
As he started the engine and began to back up, a brunette woman standing at the edge of town caught his eye. He turned to look. She gave him a slight nod of acknowledgment. The other four of Mel Barnes's victims were on either side. They smiled and waved before they and their leader shimmered and vanished.
Kolchak stared at the place where they had been. Then, snapping out of it, he looking to Tony. "Did you see that?" he demanded.
Tony was gripping the armrests, his knuckles white. His eyes were wide, focused on the same spot where Kolchak had been looking.
Kolchak shook his head. "You saw it," he said. He patted Tony on the shoulder before resuming the drive away from Dead Man's Gulch.
Tony came to life, passing a hand over his eyes. "I need a drink," he groaned. "Something strong."
Kolchak jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "The chocolate milk is in the cooler," he deadpanned.