PCs Present: Father Rienolf, Simon Bailey, Doris the Philologist, Ruby Khan
Events: The action picked up on a cold, rainy day shortly after Christmas. It had been about six months since the group’s last encounter with the Weird, and now they found themselves once again called together on the 13th floor of the St. Francis Hotel in the penthouse suite of Scott Drake.
Drake had redecorated since last they’d seen him. His suite, once lavishly decorated in the latest modernist styles, was now almost completely barren, the walls painted a stark hospital white. Furniture had been reduced to a functional stainless steel desk and simple wire-frame chairs. On Drake’s table sat a well-read copy of Homer’s The Iliad. The Vault of Doom sat quietly in a corner.
Drake explained that he’d brought the group together based on the good work they did saving Daphne Bell from the clutches of the Theologosophical Society. Drake had a friend, a banker who had helped the Drake family acquire their share in the St. Francis, who was having trouble with his ingenue daughter and needed discrete and private help. If the group was interested, a meeting with this Mr. Whitman could be arranged and further details furnished at that time. The group indicated that they were indeed interested, and were provided with an address in the Financial District.
Catching a trolley down Market St., they arrived at Whitman’s offices on Montgomery Street shortly after lunch. There they were met by Whitman’s officious functionary, Mr. Fairbanks, who informed them that the job paid $25 a day per person plus expenses. All expenses had to be carefully accounted for and backed up with appropriate receipts. In addition, there was a $300 bonus if the job was concluded in a week or less.
Agreeing to these terms, the group was taken inside a spacious office that offered a rainy view of the Bay. Standing at the picture window but looking at his pocket watch was an older man with a bristle moustache and pinkish complexion. This as Mr. Whitman, and he bypassed small-talk and pleasantries entirely, getting right down to business.
His youngest daughter, Clarisse, age 18, has been an increasing thorn in the family’s side, falling in with “the wrong sort”—and now she’s gone missing. His goal is to get her back before she gets into serious trouble. Mr. Whitman explained what he meant by the wrong sort: artists, writers, poets, and other non-productive leeches on society’s dark underbelly. He only had one lead: reports that Clarisse had been seen frequenting some of the “French restaurants” on Ellis Street. He also provided a picture.
The group wanted more info, so Mr. Whitman arranged a meeting with his wife at the family estate in Pacific Heights later that afternoon. By the time they arrived at the palatial estate on Greenwich Street, the rain had eased up and the group took in the magnificent view of the Presidio and the Golden Gate. The door bell was answered by a reedy, stooped butler, who took the group into a parlor. They waited for twenty minutes before the butler reappeared and led them to a richly-appointed drawing room. There they found Mrs. Whitman and the family’s other daughter, Louise, age 20. Mrs. Whitman was smoking a cigarette on the end of a long ivory holder and carried herself in an imperious and commanding manner that contrasted markedly with Louise, who was dressed in a frumpy dress and kept her eyes firmly fixed on the floor the whole meeting.
Fortunately, the group all made their Credit Rating rolls and, after tea and cookies, Mrs. Whitman opened up about what a troublesome child Clarisse was, “not like our obedient, thoughtful Louise.” She talked on and on about Clarisse’s nighttime escapades, sneaking out and sometimes not returning for days. She had been missing five days this last time before they began to worry something was seriously wrong.
As Mrs. Whitman was in flow, Ruby kept an eye on Louise. She sensed the young lady had much to say but dared not open up in front of Mother. During a lull in the conversation, it was suggested that Ruby and Doris go take a look at Clarisse’s room. “Louise can show us the way,” said Ruby. Mrs. Whitman was hesitant at first, wanting to go up and “tidy” Clarisse’s room first, but she was convinced of the importance of leaving the room untouched for fear of disturbing important evidence.
Once out of earshot, as Louise led Ruby and Doris upstairs, she opened up about Clarisse. She revealed her jealousy of her sister’s adventures. She also offered that she was pretty sure her sister was seeing an artist named Johnny. Upstairs in Clarisse’s room, Ruby and Doris uncovered quite a bit. Of particular note was the bag Doris found hidden under Clarisse’s mattress: it contained several ounces of Patna opium. Ruby, using the old “rub a pencil on the pad of paper” trick, uncovered the impression of a love letter written to this “Johnny” fellow. The letter contained a reference to Johnny’s art receiving a recent drubbing in the press. It also contained a dark reference to “unsavory hobos” menacing her as she tried to catch a cab outside his residence.
The group re-convened and interviewed the butler, Phelps. He revealed that he’d always been particularly fond of Clarisse, as she was the only one in the family who treated him as a real human being. He overlooked her nightly escapades, but didn’t have any further information to offer on “Johnny” or where Clarisse went. He did, however, hand the group a desk key and told them to look in the desk in Mr. Whitman’s study.
In the drawer, they found a letter from Scott Drake informing Whitman that he had a group of associates in mind to help with Clarisse’s disappearance. They also found a pistol, a box of bullets, and an envelope. In the envelope, they found a letter addressed to Mr. Whitman along with several pictures of Clarisse posing nude in what was obviously a rundown hotel room. The letter was a blackmail attempt to the tune of $10,000 in exchange for copies and negatives of the photos…or else they’d be going to the press instead.
The next day the group set to work. Father Rienolf called the school Clarisse was enrolled at (a Catholic girls’ academy), getting an earful from the head nun about the trouble Clarisse had caused at school and her slipping grades. The other group members hit up various newspaper archives, uncovering articles about a certain Jonathan Colbert, who had an exhibition scheduled to premiere at the Palace of Fine Arts…and a subsequent article from a week later reporting Colbert’s art being taken down due to widespread public shock and outrage over his subject matter.
These articles provided two new leads: Colbert’s mentor from art school, and the fact he’d shown at a gallery in North Beach. A visit to the Palace of Fine Arts turned up the fact that the gallery in question was the Russian Gallery on Francisco Street. Meanwhile, a visit to the campus of the California School of Fine Arts brought an interview with Professor Nicolas Robinson, Colbert’s mentor. Robinson explained that Colbert had been painting mostly landscapes—and that is the subject matter Robinson thought Colbert would be exhibiting—but had lately turned to painting nudes of the prostitutes of Ellis Street. On the professor’s advice, the investigators also visited the malt shop across the street, where a bit of canvassing turned up one of Colbert’s former flames. It transpired that young Johnny had a reputation as a ladies’ man and went through girlfriends like others went through tissue paper.
This particular former flame, Jane, like Professor Robinson never wanted to see Colbert again. She did report that the last time she saw him, a couple months ago, he seemed drastically different—bitter and perhaps not well physically. He also talked about a growing interest in painting subjects based on American Indian culture.
At the Russian Gallery, Simon and Ruby met the elderly Russian owner, a wizened old woman named Irina, who explained Colbert’s exhibition there had also been taken down due to public outrage. She took the duo back to look at Colbert’s paintings, which were indeed nudes of prostitutes. Simon cut a check for several of the paintings and Irina showed them one final painting of Colbert’s. She explained that particular piece came down before the rest as it made visitors ill when they looked at it.
The painting was of an extremely elderly Indian wearing a bear skin over his head. The painting did indeed have an unsettling quality, like the old man’s eyes were following the viewer as they moved around the room. The background of the painting appeared to be sickly-hued spheres of various sizes. Ruby’s anthropological studies revealed the subject to be a member of the Rumsen tribe’s Grizzly Bear shamans, an outcast sect that was finally suppressed by the Spanish in the 18th century.
That evening, as the rain picked up again, the group hit up the “French restaurants” on Ellis Street. A uniquely San Francisco phenomenon, these were indeed restaurants offering French cuisine on the ground floor. Back alley entrances offered direct and discreet access to the second floors, which contained brothels. Waitresses at these establishments often served double duty on the first and second floors.
Clarisse’s photo was shown around, but didn’t draw any leads. Discouraged, the group was making its way up the filthy, rain-slicked Ellis Street when their attention was drawn by a commotion in an alley. Turning on his electric torch, Father Rienolf saw a group of hobos armed with pipes and boards savagely beating something on the ground. They did not respond to the light or to the priest’s shouts. Several shots fired over the gang’s heads from the Father’s pistol finally broke them up. As they scuttled off into the darkness, everyone noted their vacant, expressionless eyes, their hollow mouths that seemed like pits of darkness, and the fact their skin seemed cast into permanent shadow even while under the direct beam of the flashlight.
What they left in their wake was a stray dog, limping and whimpering on broken legs, intestines hanging from a ruptured abdomen. Rienolf put the poor wretch out of its misery before the group fled the scene, police sirens wailing in the distance.
Repeated visits to Ellis Street on subsequent nights finally brought the group to a joint called La Petit Prince. There they made the acquaintance of a Pinkerton by the name of Mack Hornsby, who was on the trail of another missing ingenue conquest of Colbert’s, Bridget Reece, daughter of a wealthy Bay Area property owner. The group’s presence also brought the attention of the establishment’s owner, Parker Biggs. (That’s right: Mr. Biggs. Sheesh.)
Simon decided to take the heat off the group by asking Mr. Biggs to show him upstairs to partake of the restaurant’s other services. On their way up, Simon noted two men leaving a room at the far end of the second-floor hall. Before heading into his private room, Simon asked Biggs about the two men. Biggs explained the two men rented the room Simon had seen them exiting. As Biggs talked, Simon noticed Biggs’s left hand bore the same shadowy cast the hobos in the alley had been covered with.
Inside his private quarters, Simon spent his allotted half-hour questioning “Stella” about comings and goings at La Petit Prince. She told Simon that the two men who rented the room were known as Johnny and Andy. She also said they often took women up there with them, and dimly remembered Clarisse being among their company up until maybe a week ago.
Returning from his assignation upstairs, Simon was able to convince Mr. Biggs to allow the group to check out the rented room on the pretext of wishing to rent one themselves. Entering the room, they found an attractive, nude woman unconscious on a bed. It was Bridget, Mr. Hornsby’s case, and, after bringing her around, he quickly ushered her away after draping his coat over her. The group recognized the bed as the same one Clarisse had posed on in the blackmail photos. Ruby spotted a crumpled scrap of paper bearing three addresses. Two had been crossed off; the third was an address a couple blocks down on Geary.
The group hustled over there in the pouring rain, finding a low-rent apartment building. The scrap of paper also bore an apartment number for a unit on the fifth floor. The group hoofed it up the stairs (the lift was perpetually out of order) and arrived at the door in time to overhear a blazing row coming from within. Two men were arguing vociferously about “the money” and issues of trust.
The group broke down the door. One of the men tried to make for the window but Rienolf shot him in the shoulder. The other man, a remarkably handsome young man obviously gone recently to seed, simply put his hands up. This was Jonathan Colbert, their quarry. The apartment was a complete wreck, strewn with garbage and dirty dishes. A rotting rat carcass behind the broken-down couch gave the room the sickly-sweet odor of death. In the room’s Franklin stove, Ruby found remnants of a book that had been set alight. There was enough unburned paper to make out the title: The Rumsen Grizzly Bear Shamans.
In Colbert’s room, the group found sketches; mostly nudes, but several pieces were similar to the finished painting of the shaman at the Russian Gallery, all bearing titles like “My Nightmare I” and “My Nightmare II”. There was also a sketch of thousands of spheres and circles entitled “Yog Sothoth”. There was also a note Clarisse had sent to Jonathan about a week prior. In it, she described finally being accosted by a group of hobos and having to fight them off; they had left a “dark stain” on her arm that she was going to go home and wash off.
The group then set to interrogating Colbert and his associate. Colbert readily admitted that he hadn’t seen Clarisse in a week or so, but couldn’t be bothered. She had been in a bad way the last time he’d seen her and he’d lost interest in her anyway. As he talked, several group members noted Colbert’s irises, which seemed almost totally black.
The group forced Colbert and his associate to lead them to the place he’d last seen Clarisse. This turned out to be a vacant lot strewn with the wreckage of a demolished house. The group began searching the shadowed nooks and crannies of the ruins. It didn’t take long to find Clarisse, looking half-starved and haggard, her clothes torn and her skin in shadow. As Father Rienolf approached her offering a kind hand, she began to scream at the top of her lungs. Within seconds, dozens of hobos began to emerge from the ruins, from side alleys, even from the sewars. They converged on the group and the screaming Clarisse. Colbert hit the dirt, but his assistant made a run for it. He disappeared under an assault of fists and boards.
Rienolf quickly distributed every weapon and explosive he kept on his person, which was a considerable amount. As the hobos converged, the group opened fire. Gunshots and explosions tore the rainy night, and the group made a bum’s rush (no pun intended) through the weakest point in the mob. They made it out, all their clothes torn and rustled from being grabbed at by the screaming horde. They all bore dark marks where the bums had grabbed them.
The group took Colbert to the home of his father, Professor Harold Colbert, a specialist in medieval symbolism at Jesuit College. The elder Colbert was quite distressed by his son’s condition but seemed strangely unsurprised by the group’s story. He scribed a strange, curvilinear pentagram on Jonathan’s hand and said a few words under his breath. There was a snapping sound and the smell of ozone and the pentagram seemed to glow icy blue for a half-second. The Professor explained that Jonathan was a carrier for a disease known colloquially as the Black Madness and that he would now no longer be a threat to those around him.
Professor Colbert explained that there had been several outbreaks of the Black Madness in the Tenderloin since the late 1880s at least. Those afflicted with the disease had always died of malnutrition and dehydration as they sank into a catatonic stupor.
The group, clearly infected with the Madness themselves, began to panic. They kidnapped Professor Colbert and brought him and his son back to Ruby’s townhouse. They were convinced Professor Colbert knew how to cure them, and threatened him with infection if he wouldn’t help them. They ended up infecting him anyway. They put in a call to Scott Drake and told him what was happening. Drake recalled hearing a story from a friend in the Royal Air Service who had lived in Melbourne, Australia for a time and had personally witnessed an outbreak of the Black Madness there as well.
The group spent the next day trying to decide what to do. They were slowly losing their grip on reality, finding their vision increasingly blurred, their hearing increasingly dampened. They returned to the ruins where they’d found Clarisse but found no evidence of habitation. They even went down into the sewars, but apart from finding some filthy bedding they found no hobos or sign of Clarisse.
By the time they returned home, Doris was almost completely blind and deaf. She’d also been driven insane by what was happening, and spent all her time collecting soap from around Ruby’s house so she could “wash the dirt off”—the shadows now covered nearly her entire body. Ruby and Simon, meanwhile, calmly made out their wills, arranging for the disbursement of their estates and Simon’s business concerns. Father Rienolf, for his part, had paid a visit to Drake’s penthouse and retrieved the Brass Head.
Back at Ruby’s, he poured burning blood over the head and the head’s eyelids flipped open, revealing human eyes within. The articulated mouth spoke, offering to answer any question the petitioner might have. Rienolf asked the Head what could be done to cure the Black Madness. The Head replied that those infected “must cross over.” When this proved to be an unsatisfactory answer, the head offered to teach Rienolf an incantation that could be used to defeat Yog-Sothoth. Rienolf readily agreed.
A half-hour later he had learned the spell and he intoned it. As he finished, the head cracked open along its riveted seams and a strange creature that looked like a cat-sized mass of mucous crawled out using its numerous slimy tentacles. As Rienolf looked on in horrified fascination, the thing’s tentacles lashed out and wrapped themselves around Rienolf’s throat. Simon pulled a gun and fired at the thing, but the bullet literally bounced off, embedding itself in the parlor wainscoting. Before the horrified eyes of his compatriots, Father Rienolf was strangled to death by the Thing from the Head. As the life died in Rienolf’s eyes, the Thing scurried away, disappearing through an open window.
Simon and Professor Colbert both ran out the front door in a panic as Ruby sat down at her couch, calmly awaiting what fate had in store for her…