I’d been in Innsmouth two weeks, and I disliked it. It smelled fishy. It was a claustrophobic little town: marshland to the east, cliffs to the west, and in the centre, a harbour that held a few rotting boats, and wasn’t even scenic at sunset. The yuppies had come to Innsmouth in the Eighties anyway, bought their picturesque fisherman’s cottages overlooking the harbour. They had been gone for some years now, and the cottages by the bay were crumbling, abandoned. The inhabitants of Innsmouth lived here and there in and around the town, and in the trailer parks that ringed it, filled with dank mobile homes that were never going anywhere.
A cold, salty wind came up off the bay. The gulls were screaming miserably. I felt shitty. My office would be freezing, too.
I really needed a drink. Work could wait.
The bar was cramped, and dark. At a small table in the corner, two old men stared blankly down at a dusty chessboard. The bartender leaned heavily on the bar, book in hand. I took a seat at the bar.
“Hey, how about a Jack Daniels, straight up?”
“Sure thing... you’re new in town?”
“Does it show?”
He smiled, passed me the drink. The glass was filthy, with a greasy thumbprint on the side. I shrugged and knocked back the drink anyway. I could barely taste it.
“Hair of the dog?” he asked, smiling coolly.
“In a manner of speaking.”
“There is a belief,” he said, stroking his beard, “that the Lykanthropoi can be returned to their natural forms by thanking them, while they’re in wolf form, or by calling them by their given names.”
“Yeah? Well, thanks.”
He poured another shot for me, unasked. He looked a little like Peter Lorre, but then, most of the folk in Innsmouth look a little like Peter Lorre, including my landlady.
I could hear the roar of the sea.
I sank the Jack Daniels, this time felt it burning down into my stomach, the way it should.
“It’s what they say,” he offered. “I never said I believed it.”
“What do you believe?”
“Burn the girdle.”
He leaned closer to me. “The lykanthropoi have girdles of human skin given to them at their first transformation by their masters in Hell. Burn the girdle.”
A chess player wheezed from the corner: “If you drink rainwater out of a wargwolf’s pawprint, that’ll make a wolf of you when the moon is full. The only cure is to hunt down the wolf that made the print in the first place, and cut off its head with a knife forged of virgin silver.”
His chess partner, bald and wrinkled, shook his head and croaked a single, sad sound. Then he slid his queen across the board, and croaked again.
I paid for the drinks and left a dollar tip on the bar. The barman was reading his book once more, and ignored it.
Outside the bar, big wet kissy flakes of snow had begun to fall, setting in my hair and eyelashes. I hate snow, I hate New England, I hate Innsmouth... it’s no place to be alone.... Still, business has kept me on the move for more moons than I like to think about.
Business... and other things.
Beside the door to my building someone had painted in an angry, red rash of letters: “JUST DIE”. Like it’s easy. The door swung easily shut behind me as I mounted the stairs to my office. On the landing, I stared at the placard on my door -“Lawrence Talbot, Adjuster”- as I fished in my coat pocket for my keys. I unlocked the door to my office, and went in.
I inspected my office, while adjectives like “seedy” and “rancid” chased “squalid” and “rank” through my head. It was fairly unprepossessing: a desk, an office chair, a lumpy armchair in the corner, an empty filing cabinet... a window. Across the street, there was a liquor store, and a palmist was operating on the second floor. From where I stood before the window, the smell of old cooking grease permeated from the boarded-up fried chicken joint below. I imagined a multitude of black cockroaches swarming over every surface in the darkness beneath me.
That’s the shape of the world that you’re thinking of there.
It was spoken with a deep, dark voice that I felt roil in the pit of my stomach.
We look about in puzzlement at our world, with a sense of unease and disquiet. We think of ourselves as scholars in arcane liturgies, single men trapped in worlds beyond our devising. The truth is far simpler: there are things in the darkness beneath us that wish us harm.
The fat man in the armchair took a slow, deep breath that rattled in the back of his throat.
“You read my mind?”
Perhaps. The end of the world is a strange concept. The world is always ending, and the end is always being averted, by love or foolishness or just plain old dumb luck. Ah, well. It’s too late now: the Gods have chosen their vessels. When the moon rises--
A thin trickle of drool came from one corner of his mouth; trickled down in a thread of silver to his stained collar. Something scuttled down into the shadows of his coat.
“Yeah? What happens when the moon rises?”
The man in the armchair stirred, opened two little eyes, red and swollen, and blinked them in waking. I dreamed I had many mouths. Every mouth was opening and closing independently. Some mouths were talking, some whispering, some eating. Some waiting in silence.
He looked around; wiped the spittle from the corner of his mouth and sat back in the chair, blinking uncertainly. Who are you?
“I’m the guy that rents this office.”
His voice was oddly small for such a huge man. He looked me up and down blearily. Silver bullets. Old-fashioned remedy.
“Yeah, that’s so obvious... must be why I didn’t think of it. Gee, I could just kick myself. I really could.”
You’re making fun of an old man.
“No, not really. I’m sorry. Now, out of here. Some of us have work to do.”
The man shambled out, into the corridor.
I sat down in the swivel chair at the desk by the window and discovered, after some minutes, through trial and error, that if I swiveled the chair to the left, it fell off its base.
So I sat very still, and waited for the dusty black telephone on my desk to ring, while the light slowly leaked away from the winter sky.
The first ring woke me. A man’s voice: Had I ever thought about aluminum-siding?
I slammed the receiver back into its cracked cradle, and glanced toward the vacant chair nestled in the shadowy corner of the room. There was no heating in the office. I wondered how long the fat man had been asleep in the armchair.
Moments later, the phone woke me from another fitful doze. A crying woman implored me to help her find her five-year old daughter, missing since last night, stolen from her bed. The family dog had vanished too. “I don’t do missing children,” I barked. “Too many bad memories.”
I put down the telephone, feeling sick again. It was getting dark now, and for the first time since I had been in Innsmouth, the neon sign across the street flicked on. Madame Ezekial, palmist to the stars, was open for business.
Armageddon is averted by small actions. That’s the way it was. That’s the way it always has to be.
I was pushing myself away from my desk when the phone rang and shook at my fingertips. It was the aluminum-siding man again. “You know, transformation from man to animal and back being, by definition, impossible, we need to look for other solutions. Depersonalization, obviously, and likewise some form of projection. Brain damage? Perhaps. Pseudo-neurotic schizophrenia? Laughably so. Some cases have been treated with intravenous Thioridazine Hydrochloride--“
“That’s what I like, a man with a sense of humor. I’m sure we can do business.”
“I told you already. I don’t need any aluminum-siding!”
“Oh, our business is more remarkable than that, and of far greater importance. You’re new in town, Mister Talbot. It would be a pity if we found ourselves at, shall we say, ‘loggerheads’?”
“You can say whatever you like, pal. In my book, you’re just another adjustment waiting to be made.”
“We’re ending the world, Mister Talbot. The Deep Ones shall rise out of their ocean graves and eat the moon like a ripe plum.”
“Well, then I won’t have to worry about full moons anymore, will I?”
“Don’t try and cross us--“ The phone went dead in my hand then; I waited for the dial tone, and growled softly as I put the receiver down.
Outside my window, the snow was still falling. I glanced across the street at Madame Ezekial’s spastically-buzzing neon sign; grunted as I shoved my chair back and rose to my feet. I checked my watch, and nodded to myself: that was enough for one day.
I didn’t bother to lock my office door.