Gene delicately turned the flame-scarred pages of the journal from Brockford’s house. Alton Damascus stood beside him, his brow wrinkled in thought as he saw the word “Portsmouth” repeating in the scrawl. Most interesting was the strange symbol drawn throughout the shoddy paragraphs, a triangular shape with an eye in the center. It was no mark of a typical vagabond, perhaps one of a madman, but it clearly held some significance in relevance to the author’s travels.
Maybe this journal could be a key piece in unmasking more of the seacoast’s lost lore? In a joint effort between the history and language departments, Miskatonic University had recently called for a dedicated few to embark on a special research assignment. The focus was developing a further understanding on the role local lore and superstition played in shaping the New England seaside communities. It was conceived as a landmark study that could very well overturn the notion that most of the colonial settlements adhered to strict European religious dogma. The project would be led by Alexander Biss, published author and associate professor at Miskatonic. Professor Biss, whom Gene, Eleanor, and Alton were already familiar with, insisted there was little time to waste in following this new lead, and recruited the small group to head to the railroad station.
January 14, 1920
Stepping off the train, the smell of the ocean carried Gene’s thoughts back to the Maine coastline he had visited just days before. He and Eleanor were still rattled from their harrowing experience on that isolated island, so he hoped being back out in the fresh air with populated new scenery would help put their minds at ease.
Professor Biss led the group to the hotel, where they left their luggage and planned a course of action. The public library would be the first stop, but produced only a limited opportunity to learn more about the city. After speaking with the librarian, the group decided to check out the Athenaeum, proud home of the Portsmouth Historical Society.
They would quickly discover the hallowed halls of the Athenaeum were welcome only to members of the society. Determined to make something of the visit, Biss inquired if any of his published material was kept in the library, and they were ushered into a lavish reading room. Alton listened intently to the gossip in the hallway while the professor examined a newspaper, the New Hampshire Gazette. Gene, looking to keep their options open for later, attempted to disable the locking mechanism on the room’s window.
It was only a few moments later the group was asked to leave. They decided what Alton had overheard, about an Athenaeum member recently caught up in a prostitution sting, was enough to warrant further investigation into the society. Back outside, they obtain lunch from a street cart before splitting up to explore the city.
Alton and Eleanor would return to the public library, seeing if they could dig up anything related to the Historical Society. It seemed somewhat strange there was next to nothing written in the collection of books, save a mere reference in an essay on a violent time in the city’s recent past. Alton read about the end of Portsmouth’s infamous red light district; a tale of working girls, murdered navy sailors, corrupt officials, and public outcry for reform in August of 1912. Interestingly enough, it seemed the Athenaeum funded their own investigation into the deaths of the sailors during that summer, but the book made no further mention of what, if anything came from it – though noted was the fact that the society would lose a major donor that year and its operating budget was severely impacted.
Alexander took a walk to the headquarters of The New Hampshire Gazette. There was only one man working in the smoky front office, who the professor would learn was the editor Arty Wilmont. There was something unusual in the way the man fiddled at his desk, but it was hard to tell what seemed off. Biss was seeking a chance to read anything the paper may have printed about the historical society’s Athenaeum, and was surprised to hear that in the past the editor thinks some of its members attempted to have certain stories suppressed. The professor tried to gain some rapport in an effort to access the newspaper’s archives, ultimately having to bribe the man before being allowed into the basement storage area. In the musty cellar he would dig through years of clippings looking for unpublished material. To his dismay, hours passed and he would only find one seemingly unrelated article that never made the front page, a half-written story about a supposedly haunted house that ruined the multiple immigrant families who moved in over the years.
Gene mingled in the Market Square hoping someone could point him in the direction of some social hot spots. It didn’t take long to learn many of the unsavory activities occurred at the waterfront, so Gene went to explore the harbor. Near the docks he came across a weathered building labeled “The Sal_on,” where a gruff looking “barber” denied him the chance to have a “haircut” in the back room. Admittedly he was looking more for information than a stiff drink, so recalling a mention of a certain Water Street, he headed back into the neighborhoods.
Although the signage advertised legitimate looking storefronts, Gene got a certain kind of vibe from this area, which was not so long ago a part of the red light district. He wandered into a very fancy parlor of what was now supposed to be a boarding home. The aging woman who descended the stairs regretted to inform him there were no vacancies available, but perhaps one of the girls wouldn’t mind letting him stay over a little while. He took an opportunity to “just ask a couple questions” with one of the young women. Here he confirmed that some members of the Portsmouth Historical Society took advantage of the services in this area, but he was unable to press for more information. Asking a little more about the surroundings, he did learn at one point the working girls could receive care at a small church that burned down 8 years ago. New girls would also be warned to stay away from one place in particular – the house of “old man Corbitt,” which apparently had a reputation for being haunted. Although the prostitute appreciated that Gene didn’t want to just have a cry like some of her other clientele, he was dismissed from the parlor.
The day was growing late, and the companions had agreed to meet back at the hotel for dinner. There they share with each other some of the interesting bits of information they learned about Portsmouth. They conclude there is much more to this city than meets the eye, and they are determined to get to the bottom of the Historical Society’s seemingly mysterious dealings.
With the cover of darkness approaching, Professor Biss rationalizes breaking into the New Hampshire Gazette office, in the name of studious research. Mostly though, he’s very curious about what the editor has stashed in his desk. He can’t help but be disappointed to find nothing more than empty bottles and flasks – appears the editor just has a drinking problem.
Having set the precedent, there was no reason to rule out a return to the Athenaeum after regular business hours. Careful to ensure they were not being watched, the group made their way to the side of the building. With some combined effort, they were actually able to force open the window Gene had tampered with during their earlier visit. Quietly they slipped inside the darkened halls, and began to pry into the depths of the society’s secrets…