Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Wildwyck County: The Case of the Wretched Writer, Part I

The following adventure was a play test for an investigation intended to introduce new players to the wonders and horrors of the Wildwyck County setting now being detailed in Fight On! magazine. Look for it in an upcoming issue. And for the record, the Wretched Writer is not me, despite what some might say.

As noted previously, I’m running Call of Cthulhu as the alternate game for my group, allowing me to take a break from straight fantasy and to better develop the setting I’m working on for Fight On! The last two Sundays saw four new investigators tackling a curious case in Wildwyck County, NY. What follows is a précis of that case.

The case began on the last day of September, 1920, when four men of diverse backgrounds were contacted by their mutual friend, Mr. Desmond Cook, a writer and bon vivant. The four men—Jonathon Fairchild, an English professor at Bishopsgate College; Wolfgang Heisenberg, a reconstruction aide (read “physical therapist”); Luis Johnson, a New York City book dealer; and James Stone, an art historian and sometimes fortune hunter—each received a telegram stating that Cook was on the verge of a great discovery, but that his life might be in danger. Having no one else to turn to, the telegram asked them to come to his home in Newgrave, NY, a small, historical city on the bank of the Hudson River. Although all four had previously lost contact with Cook following the deaths of his wife and child from the flu, they were not callous enough to turn their backs on a friend in need and departed for Newgrave the following morning.

The men arrived outside Cook’s rented home and became acquainted. After discovering their common reason for arriving, they knocked upon the door, eliciting no response from within. From the tone of the letter, this gave them concern and they quickly gained entry via a forced rear door and picked front one. Inside, the home showed signs of recent occupation and all evidence pointed to a single, bachelor resident. The fireplace held an inordinate amount of ash and charred wood as if a large blaze had been set in the near past and further examination of the home turned up other baffling and fearsome clues.

A bullet hole marred the wall near the cellar door and a search of the basement showed that a section of the earthen floor had been disturbed. The ground there was soft as if excavated and then filled in, but the group’s search turned up no buried bodies…which had been their initial concern. Ascending the steps, the group noticed an odd foot print on the lowest riser. To all eyes, it appears to be the mark of a cloven-hoofed animal, a large one at that. It was as if Cook had kept a billy goat under the house for unknown purposes.

Tossing the rest of the house uncover a fired revolver lying beneath the sofa and several clues amongst the drawers of Cook’s desk. A short journal indicated that he’d be engaged in certain research and experimentation, and that he was looking for something or someone in Newgrave. A particularly foreboding entry alluded to a “St. Carnivorous”—who or what that could be was open to much speculation. Furthermore, a note from a local book seller informed Mr. Cook that his purchase had arrived, while another letter from his landlady stated that the new locks he had requested had been installed. The apartment address given in that letter did not correspond to the house’s location, revealing that Cook had taken lodgings elsewhere in the city. A final clue was discovered when one of the investigators ran a pencil over the notepad they spotted on the desk. Someone had written a name on the pad and they were able to decipher the words “Na__h___el V_ck__s” impressed on the sheet below.

Climbing into Cook’s automobile (which stood parked at the curb, its keys in his desk) the foursome sped off to Aged Treasures, the book store mentioned in the note. Near the business district, they found the shop, a freestanding building with a green and gold sign declaring its name and purpose. The building’s interior was crammed with secondhand books and creaking shelves. The owner, a man who appeared more butcher than book seller, stood to great them.

Their initial attempts to clandestinely discover the title that Cook bought through the seller, Mr. Antoine Delacour, were unsuccessful as he prided himself on maintaining the anonymity of his clients. But when they produced the telegram Desmond had sent them and demonstrated that they already knew Cook had purchased a book through him, Delacour agreed to reveal the title of the book—provided they kept that fact to themselves. When they agreed, it was revealed that Cook had purchased a partial copy of the Comte d’Erlette’s Cultes Des Goules. Other than the title, Delacour could provide them with no other clue as to what Cook was involved in or where he was.

With nothing else to go on than the apartment address found on the other letter, the four piled back into Desmond’s Ford and headed towards the Dutch Hill section of town. A slight inconvenience occurred when they blew one of the car’s tires, but Luis was able to retain control of the automobile and guide it safely to the curb. A half-hour later, the men were back on the road.

At 16 Moss Stone Lane, they found a large Dutch Colonial home that had been partitioned into seven apartments. Cook’s rental occupied a section of the second floor and was accessed via exterior stairs in back of the building. The investigators climbed the staircase and once again entrance was achieved by picking the lock.

The apartment was small: an open living area, kitchenette, bath, and bedroom completed its layout. The space was almost completely unfurnished. A folding camp table stood in the living room and a cot and blanket was all that occupied the bedroom. A few canned goods lined the single shelf of the kitchenette. It was obvious that Desmond spent little time here.

In one corner of the living room was a spade and pick axe, and there were several dirty footprints on the aging floorboards. A search of the bathroom revealed blood stains around the drains of both sink and bathtub. Most compelling, however, were the three large, hand-drawn maps on the camp table. Each depicted one of the three cemeteries in Newgrave: Newgrave Rural, Our Lady of Souls, and Old Dutch. The maps were all done on butcher’s paper and were written in Cook’s tell-tale handwriting. Each bore short notes such as “No evidence,” “sealed mausoleums,” or “watchman’s route.” On the map of Old Dutch, one mausoleum was circled with an excited scrawl. It was obvious that Desmond was looking for something in one or more of Newgrave’s cemeteries, but what?

Gathering the maps, the four made to depart when James’ ears noticed a distinct difference in some of the floorboards in the room. Further investigations uncovered a cavity beneath one of the loose boards. Secreted inside it were a blood-stained butcher’s knife and cleaver, and a holographic book written in French. Two of the investigators spoke some French, and they were able to identify the book as being the partial copy of Cultes des Goules!

Although this was a major breakthrough for the investigators, they swiftly discovered that the cramped handwriting and archaic French proved to be more than a match for their translation skills. One of the four remembered that Newgrave was home to Vander Veer University, a well-respect institution of higher learning that boasted many fine academics in the “hard science” fields. They climbed back into the Ford and headed off to the university in hopes of finding a French professor or at least an English-French dictionary in the university library.

They had mixed results at the university. Asking around the Modern Languages department revealed that the university’s French professor, Pierre Britton, had neither classes or office hours that day and the secretary was loathe to reveal his home address or phone number to anyone not taking his course. The party headed to the library and was nearly stymied once again when they tried to borrow the library’s French dictionary from the Reference department. Only Jonathon Fairchild’s academic credentials at Bishopsgate College allowed them to walk out with book, and even then only after he signed a paper promising to return it in a week (He didn’t and I need to remember to charge him for a replacement copy). The foursome tried to dig up some more historical background regarding Old Dutch Cemetery, but they were informed that Town Hall or the local library might have more information than the university’s stacks.

The party decided that they should split up at this point. Luis would remain at Cook’s home to try and skim the partial Cultes des Goules for more information as to what they were up against. The other three would gather some supplies, visit the local library, and scope out the Old Dutch graveyard, and then return to the house to compare notes. After stopping at a local hardware store for shovels, ropes, electric torches, supplies to board up the doors and windows of Cook’s home, and a half-cord of wood to keep a large fire burning in the hearth, they dropped Luis off at the house, fortified it, and drove off to the library.

Hitting the historical records available at the library uncovered the fact that Old Dutch was the oldest cemetery in Newgrave. As its name suggested, it dated back to the original Dutch settlers. One legend spoke of witches’ sabbats being held in the cemetery during the 17th century and it was noted that the Old Dutch church was not located next to the boneyard, but three blocks over, indicating that the original structure had either been moved or destroyed at sometime in the past. Both the church and cemetery would be their next stop.

Driving past the cemetery, they dropped Wolfgang off to poke around while James and Jonathon visited the Old Dutch Church. Wolfgang discovered that the caretaker lived in a small cottage on the northeast corner of the graveyard and although initially easy-going, he became uncomfortable when asked about the oldest section of the cemetery. He cut the interview short soon after the topic was broached.

Over at the church, James and Jonathon weren’t having much luck. They got past Matilda, the hard-of-hearing cleaning woman, to speak with Reverend Caspar Mortensen, but when James started asking about their friend Desmond who “might be lurking around the church or cemetery, but don’t worry he’s not crazy or dangerous or anything; he just might be trying to dig up the dead for some reason” the poor Reverend gently but forcefully steered them towards the exit.

The trio reconvened and decided that, since dark was now falling, it would be the perfect time to examine the old section of the cemetery, the place where the caretaker didn’t want to go. They parked the car for a speedy getaway and headed towards the farthest portion of the graveyard. There, the lawn was unmowed, the bushes in badly need of pruning, and the stones themselves showed signs of neglect. Reading Desmond’s map by electric torch, they navigated their way to the circled mausoleum and discovered the name “Vickers” inscribed upon its lintel. This must be the place.

Jonathon and Wolfgang approached the crypt while James shone his light upon the façade of the structure. As Jonathon surveyed the door to the mausoleum, Wolfgang peered around its corner. And that when the walls of normality came crumbling down.

As Wolfie turned the corner, his light fell upon a leonine creature with a face that seemed to be a ghastly hybrid of human and Doberman Pincher. The creature crouched in the shadows, spittle and gore dripping from its jaws. As Wolfgang backpedaled away, James’ light revealed another such creature perched atop the mausoleum, staring down at the exposed back of the blissfully unaware Jonathon. James screamed, alerting the English professor and the trio made a mad dash back to the car as the creatures shied away from their torches’ light. As they ran through the old section of the cemetery, their bouncing torch beams fell upon at least two more of the creatures! They reached the car unharmed, threw themselves into it and raced back to Cook’s home.

Once reunited, the four brought themselves up to speed. James was very shaken by his encounter with the monsters and gripped his gun as well as his soup spoon as he nervously ate dinner. Jonathon was unconvinced that what he barely glimpsed in the torch-light was a “monster.” A local freak or “dog boy” from the carnival was a more likely explanation. Wolfgang, with a medical background, disagreed.

Luis, although not present at the cemetery, has his own sense of normalness challenged by the contents of the book he skimmed through. The book alleged that in days long past, witch cults called up the denizens of mouldering cemeteries to cavort with them. These creatures, these ghouls, were the caretakers of much occult lore, for when they ate the flesh of the dead they consumed their memories as well. Having dined on more than one self-proclaimed wizard, the ghouls would share their knowledge with the witches and warlocks in return for gruesome favors. Was this why Desmond was searching for a specific cemetery? To bargain with these “ghouls” for occult knowledge?

The four decided to return to the cemetery fully prepared in daylight to investigate the mausoleum. A nervous night passed without incident and the investigators headed off to the cemetery after consuming what could be their last meal.

Upon arrival, they discovered the caretaker mowing the lawn near the entrance and a generous bribe made him more willing to talk about the old section of the cemetery. He revealed that he too had heard stories of witches gathering there on dark nights in the 17th century and that his predecessor had told him tales of people coming to Old Dutch—foreigners mostly—who came in but were never seen leaving. Lastly, the caretaker admitted to seeing unusual footprints around the oldest part of the cemetery: footprints like a “big ol’ billy goat, like Old Scratch h’self might make!” He claimed that it’d take an explosion or an earthquake to leave his cottage and go into the grounds he was paid to care for after dark. He hinted that he’d pay no mind to the investigators so long as they didn’t drag him into their mess or get him fired. The four thanked him and headed deeper into the cemetery.

Arriving at the mausoleum, they noticed several hoof-mark tracks leading into and out of the crypt’s doorway. James discovered one set that paused within arm’s reach of his own from the previous night and shuddered at the thought of one of the ghouls standing right behind him. Entering the crypt, they found it to hold an empty bier and several interment niches with stone slabs. One was marked “Nathaniel Vickers” and a quick inspection determined that it could be moved. Wasting no time, Jonathon swung his pick axe at the slab and busted it into pieces.

Behind it was a niche large enough to contain a casket, but it was empty. A fetid, moist odor of loam and clay and rot blew out of the space and the four could see a hole at the back of the niche leading down into the earth. The cavity was small, but passable, and after a brief discussion, Luis volunteered to go into the niche and see what lay beyond it. With a rope tied around his waist and torch in hand, he shimmied into the niche and down the hole.

Beneath the mausoleum was a 5’ wide tunnel that led down on a 15° angle. Bits of wood and grey roots protruded from the damp burrow and Luis’ light determined that it ran thirty feet before meeting up with a smaller tunnel and then turning out of sight. The smell of moist death was thick here and Luis spent little time in the shaft. Tugging on the rope, he half-crawled and was half-yanked from the niche. The quartet exited the mausoleum to stand in the open air and sunlight and debated their next step.

They really, really didn’t want to go down into that tunnel and they argued as to whether they owed it to Desmond to do so. Some of the evidence they uncovered was somewhat damning to their old friend (blood stains, hidden knives, ancient tomes, evidence of grave robbing) and their brush with the unnatural was more than enough to dissuade them from getting themselves deeper in the circumstance surrounding Cook’s disappearance. In the end, a compromise was reached: Luis would try to decipher and comprehend the entire contents of the book they had found and see if it contained any more information that might shine more light on what was going on and what they faced. Jonathan and Wolfgang would do more research on Newgrave, the cemetery, and the old church to see if they were overlooking something. James would seek the help of an alienist for the next few weeks to help him deal with what he glimpsed in that night-shrouded cemetery. The four agreed to speak again in three weeks and decide where to go once they had more information. Parking Desmond’s car at the train station, they headed to their separate homes and left Cook to his own devices…for now.

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