It was truly classic. The woman's face snapped shut as she looked from my credit card to my face. A moment before she had been roses and sunshine, as eager as any yankee storekeeper to take a tourist's money; now the blinds had come down and the "Closed" sign put up, at least as far as we were concerned. As I say, it was classic, and no more than I'd expected.
"My friends call me Jack," I said, and "Thanks for all your help, you've been too kind," just to spite her. I'm sure she felt she had been.
My wife Julie and I had arrived in Darby an hour or so before, hitting the grocery store only after buying a few needful items at the hardware store and leaving our golden retriever at the local dog kennels. We had carefully paid cash both places. It was mid-October, and we had come to Darby to fulfill the terms of my great-uncle's will. This was a terse document, stating little beyond the unusual constraints placed on his legatees; the lawyers had only been able to tell us just what the monetary extent of the legacy would be. Fortunately, my grandfather's will had been more informative, or only heaven knows what the results would have been. As it was, the situation was, in a word, classic.
The storekeeper wordlessly swiped our credit card, and bagged our groceries while waiting for the approval. I signed my name on the slip with a flourish, said, "Thank you again!", and then I carried the bags out to the car, where Julie was waiting. I watched the storefront in the rear-view mirror as I pulled away from the curb. Sure enough, I saw the blinds twitch: no doubt a pair of suspicious eyes would follow us all of the way down Main Street.
We arrived at the old homestead perhaps thirty minutes later. It was at the north end of town, at the end of long, rutted dirt road and surrounded by acres of dark fir trees. The road turned into a driveway of sorts, sparsely paved with gravel, and looped around a low stone curb with a windlass mounted above it. The house was unplumbed, I knew; the well was the only nearby source of water.
The house was a typical old pile for the area, a peaked roof on a cracker box, fronted by a long covered porch and square columns. Once it had been painted white, with green trim; now the paint was peeling in long, scabrous strips. I had no name for the color of the clapboards underneath, or for the state of the window sills. A great gray barn sprawled drunkenly some distance up the hill; pilings set in the earth and a variety of rubbish showed where a bridge or gangway had extended from the front of the barn to a large, door-shaped bay window on the second floor of the back of the house. Julie and I pondered it silently for a time, and then shrugged. Clearly we had a lot of work to do, and we got to it.
The mysterious stranger arrived the following evening. It was a warm night for mid-October in Massachusetts, but still cool, and so I had built a sizeable bonfire to keep us warm. There was no lack of fuel, after all. It had been a pleasant day. We'd worked hard, and then, as afternoon drew to a close, we'd grilled steaks on a hibachi and settled in to enjoy the evening.
Julie noticed him first. He was standing at the edge of the firelight, holding a lighted Coleman lantern. Although the reddish reflection of the fire on his wire-rimmed glasses hid his eyes, still I felt them drilling into me. I almost had to laugh. We held the pose for perhaps thirty seconds, him glaring and me fighting giggles, until finally I cracked open another bottle of Sam Adams, and held it up.
"Care to join us?"
At that the man stepped forward to where we were sitting in our camp chairs, and set the lantern down on the ground. There was an extra chair, and I waved him to it, but he didn't sit down. He didn't smile, and he didn't take the beer, either. He was wearing a rather moth-eaten black suit with a white shirt and a string tie. He looked old enough to be been in diapers with my granddad.
"OK," I said. "Suit yourself." I took a long pull at my own bottle.
"Your name is Jonathon Comelately." It was not a question.
"My friends call me Jack," I said. "This is my wife Julie."
"What do you want here in Darby?" Free from the glare, I saw I'd been right. The eyes were drilling. No question.
"Why, I've come to claim my inheritance, of course. My great-uncle passed away recently, and I'm his only living heir. Excuse me a moment." I stood up, putting my bottle next to the full one the stranger had refused, and picked up a can of lighter fluid. I poured about half of it over the remaining contents of the wheelbarrow, then drew out an object at random and cast it into the bonfire. The flames shot up briefly, in gorgeous reds and blues, and then settled again, unlike the stranger. I returned to my chair, waving again at the empty seat across from me. The stranger remained standing.
"You must leave Darby at once. Tonight."
"Oh, I don't think so," I said pleasantly. "The terms of my great-uncle's will were quite clear. We have to be in residence at least a week before the 31st, and stay through the middle of May in order to claim the inheritance."
"You fool!" shouted the man. "Have you no idea what the legacy of the Comelately's is?"
"About five or six million in stocks, bonds, and treasury certificates," I said. "Not to mention the land we're sitting on. The Comelatelies made quite a pile in the South Seas trade, I understand, and the money's not been idle since. Quite a tidy sum."
"Fool!" he said again, raising a finger to point at Great-Uncle Johnny's house. "How can you not feel the evil that is in this place! Have you not heard the infernal rats that course by night through the walls of that accursed mansion?"
I pointed my thumb over my shoulder at the tent-trailer we'd towed from California behind our Suburban.
"Been sleeping in the trailer. Can't sleep in the house, you know, not in its current condition. Doesn't look like it's been cleaned in years."
"And the water from that tainted well! You have quenched your thirst to your own destruction!"
I glanced at my bottle.
"I don't think old Sam gets his water from this well, do you, Hon?"
Julie shook her head, biting her lower lip. "And then, of course, we've got a couple of cases of bottled water in the Suburban," she said.
The stranger, far from being satisfied, seemed almost frantic. I held up a hand, requesting him to pause. When he did so, I got up and threw a few more things on the fire. One was an interestingly shaped statuette made of some tropical wood. It burned fiercely, with a bright yellow flame, and I heard a whipoorwill call from the woods behind me. I resumed my seat, and picked up my beer.
"I don't suppose," I said, conversationally, "that you could tell me the name of a good general contractor? We've got a fair amount of work for the right fellow. He's got to be competent, mind; I don't want you to give me somebody's name just because he's your cousin."
The stranger glowered at me, hands on hips. "You'll not find anyone in Darby willing to work on that house, nor for twenty miles around. Have you no idea of the unholy rites your great-uncle pursued here? They must not be allowed to begin again! Now won't you take your wife and go, before it is too late?"
"This house?" I looked at him, eyebrows high in mock-surprise. "Why would we want to rebuild this old dump? This is a nice place to camp, I suppose, but it's far too far from town. Cost a fortune to run utilities out here. 'Course, we expect to have a fortune, soon, but it seems like a silly way to spend it. And then this dirt road must be miserable in the snow. No, we want to build a nice place on that hill down near the main road, where it doesn't take an hour to go fetch a quart of milk and we've got neighbors we can wave at once in a while."
The stranger started in again on unholy rites and the evil contained in those four walls and the great wickedness of my Great-Uncle Johnny. It was clear he wouldn't be content until he'd said his say, so I let him ramble on while I finished my Sam Adams. I got up to feed the fire a couple of times, and then the wheelbarrow was almost empty. "Just about done here," I said to Julie. "How many loads does that make it?"
"Six today," she answered me, holding her notepad so that it caught the light of the fire. "That's everything from the first floor. I'd guess we've got another ten or so to go from the cellar, and we haven't even begun on the attic yet. I saw some moldy old trunks up there."
"Looks like we'll be needing some more lighter fluid," I said. I glanced over at the stranger, who had ground to a halt, and was looking at me funny. Well, that's to say he'd been giving me the fisheye all evening, but now he simply looked perplexed.
"What are you doing?" he said at last.
"Burning tomes of cosmic evil," I said, as I cast the last one onto the blaze. It was probably just another copy of the dreaded Necronomicon; from the way the fire blazed up in an orange spike when the binding caught, I judged it to be the Latin translation of Olaus Wormius, as printed in Paris in 1783, one of the few copies to escape the Revolution. Alhazred's original, the Al Azif, was much more interesting to watch: a bright purple flame, with silver sparks and the occasional unnamed hue. I hoped to find one or two more of those in the cellar. "Also, we've burned a number of odd figurines of creatures which must not be named, and a few other doodads we aren't sure about. It doesn't do to trifle with the forces of darkness, you know. Julie, here, would never stand for it." She smiled.
The stranger seemed to sag as he watched the parchment-like pages go up in smoke. He put out a hand and leaned heavily on the back of the empty camp chair, and slowly seated himself. I handed him the Sam Adams I'd opened for him, and he took it without a word.
"We're a bit busy, as you see," I said. "Got to get the whole house cleared before the end of the week, when the demolition team comes in from Boston. They are going to tear down the house and barn, and then dynamite the foundations. The rest of the hill, too--this whole hillside is just a maze of tunnels and passageways, apparently, terribly unstable. I know earthquakes are extremely rare out here, not like in California, but I'd to have the hill collapse while some tourist was investigating that ring of standing stones up at the top of the hill. I just can't see leaving something like that to chance, can you?" The stranger wiped his brow with a handkerchief, then shook his head, slowly. "No, it's an attractive nuisance, taken all-in-all, and I'd just rather deal with the whole thing right now." The stranger drank some beer, but said nothing. He was still looking at me funny.
"Well, it's been nice meeting you, Mr., uh..." I trailed off.
"Dunwich," the man said after a moment. "George Dunwich."
"It's been nice meeting you, Mr. Dunwich. We're going to turn in now, got a busy day tomorrow shoveling through piles of occult paraphernalia and mopping up the odd pool of nameless ichor, but I hope you'll come visit us again, soon, and have another beer with us. I've enjoyed talking with you."
Dunwich rose, picked up his lantern and turned to go. His shoulders were slumped, but his step seemed a little lighter than it had when he arrived.
"Oh, and Mr. Dunwich?" He turned back to me. "Can you tell the minister down at the Congregational Church--Pastor Arnold, isn't that what I saw on the sign? Yes, Pastor Arnold--that we'll be in church on Sunday? Thank you so much." I smiled at him. "You know, Mr. Dunwich, I think we're really going to like it here in Darby. I know small towns like this aren't always so welcoming of strangers, but although my grandfather left for California when my great-grandfather died, he always told us what a special place Darby was, and how my family had lived here for generations. I don't feel like a stranger at all. My great-uncle was no prize, and I guess my great-grandfather wasn't either, but that's all been and gone. I don't expect that there'll be any more troubles of that sort. "No, Mr. Dunwich, you can tell everyone in town that I'm no Johnny Comelately."
The dancing firelight made it hard to read his expression, but I do believe he smiled before he strode off down the dirt road, lantern held high. We managed to hold in our giggles until he was well out of hearing.
"Silly," said Julie, eventually. "OK, you got to say it. Happy?"
"Oh, yes." I stared at the fire for few moments. "Do you suppose we should have told him about the Thing on the patio?"
"Nah, it'd just make him worry needlessly. It won't be bothering us again, after all."
As Julie finished speaking, I cocked an ear; from the north came a sound as of large, membranous wings, and the sound was getting louder.
"We've got another visitor coming...got the flying insect spray handy?"
"No worries," said Julie.