The Desolate Highway Cafe

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SESSION 1, part 1

Arkham, Massachusetts

Friday, August 26, 1927

The Desolate Highway Cafe, with its low ceilings and dark, sticky walls of heavily varnished wood, was filled with the usual Friday night clientele – immigrants, students, scions of the idle rich, poets and poseurs, seekers of the exotic, foreign or unusual.  Rumors abounded of easy access to illicit narcotics and liquor, sexual depravities and the many benefits of friends in low places.  Some came once to escape the dullness of conservative Arkham and, easily sated, never returned; others took up residence as regulars, clustered in high-backed leather chairs around too-small tables, partially obscured by cigarette smoke in the inadequate lighting.

Among the regulars was Stewart Portman, a wealthy bachelor in his early forties and owner of Arkham’s largest collection of rare manuscripts.  He never experienced much difficulty impressing Miskatonic coeds half his age, girls like Connie DeCaprio, a naive freshman student of history from some tiny, blue-collar town in Connecticut, far from the usual demographic of Misktaonic.  The older man was embellishing a tale of travels in foreign lands, of drinking brandy with the upper crusts  of the European intelligentsia and being privy to forbidden works that spoke of matters too esoteric and incomprehensible for the masses.  Gifts of cheap costume jewelry and kitschy African carvings almost always sealed the deal.

Jonathan Drake, a rich lay-about and degenerate, son of a disgraced but once prominent astronomer, sat at his appointed table.  “Jonny” was in the circle of Asenath Waite Derby – small and dark but with the protruding eyes so characteristic of her home town of Innsmouth – a troupe of bohemians apparently attempting to effect the final victory of style over substance.  Dropouts, drug addicts, erstwhile artists and trust fund babies spoke in a pretentious concocted language designed at once to conceal their vapidity and impress those same young coeds whose sole intent was to follow someone or something in their quest for intellectual credibility and worldliness.

The immigrants, primarily European, kept to themselves, monopolizing the cafe’s only chess set and associating only with others from their particular region or city, and the transients appeared for a night or two intent on making a score; of what, nobody asked.

Tonight, however, four of the customers who spoke in low whispers did not fall into any of these categories.

(character names are linked to their .pdf character sheets)

Dr. Kenneth Lokar, Professor of History at Harvard, was in town to attend a presentation chaired by Miskatonic University Egyptologist Dr. Ronald Galloway.  The topic was an expedition planned for 1928 to the deserts west of Cairo in search of the fabled Valley of the Winds, long believed to be the resting place of heretical high priest Nophru-Ka.  The trip would be a welcome respite from the stuffiness of staid Cambridge.

Raymond Learson, archeologist and hunter of antiquities, also attended the presentation.  Noted for his unorthodox methods and lax adherence to academic, scientific and (in more cases than he would readily admit) social norms, Learson heard of the presentation through the archeological fraternity and invited himself to attend.  The infamous German archeologist, Dr. Wilhelm Fuchs, was rumored to be trying to raise funds for a competing expedition to Egypt, and Raymond wanted, in his words, to “hop on the first train out of the station.”

Jack Storn was a reporter on the city beat for the Arkham Advertiser.  The cafe was right next door and Jack was always on the lookout for unusual leads.  Jack had a keen eye for stories where the evidence just didn’t add up and it was all his editor could do to redact the unsourced accusations and bizarre connections with which Jack was inclined to spice up his reports.

Jenny Barnes was a wealthy heiress and unrepentant flapper in a part of the world where the excesses of the Roaring Twenties had never taken firm root.  She frequented the Desolate Highway to sate her appetite for the unusual and dangerous, at least until 9:30 when the cafe closed and she danced away the hours until midnight at the adjacent Commercial House.

The four fellow-travelers shared dubious stories of preternatural, occult or simply bizarre incidents and phenomena until closing time approached.  Individuals and small groups filtered out into the night, including Jonny Drake, who, much to the confusion and chagrin of his fawning companion, loudly boasted of being late for a tryst with his lady love before stumbling out the back door.

It was the last anyone would ever see of Jonathan Drake alive.


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