Letter to Lucien Farrow

SEMIOTICS I

Dear Mr. Farrow,

I’m sorry for not contacting you sooner. I mistakenly thought the museum had already informed you of what happened but they told me yesterday your contact info was outdated.

This is going to be an upsetting email to read, so please bear that in mind as you continue.

My name is Quinn Hallorann. I’m a curator and historian with the St. Petersburg Museum of American Cultural Folklore. I’m also a close personal friend of your son, Ben — maybe you remember me. You may have also met my wife, Briony Thompson. She sings with a few prominent orchestras, so you probably run in the same circles.

Ben and I were working together on research for an exhibit showcasing defunct American dynasties, with a focus on the Madigan family (if you haven’t heard of them, I’m not surprised. They were a relatively small family of Irish descent who made their fortune in whaling in the nineteenth century). The Madigans constructed a large estate in a remote region of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina. The estate is privately owned by the sole remaining Madigan heir and has long since fallen to ruin.

I reached out to Ben thinking we might be able to work together on research for the exhibit. My idea was that, with permission from the Madigan heir, he could sift through the estate for relevant primary sources and material pieces for our researchers down here in Florida. The State of North Carolina has been making noise for a while about acquiring the Madigan Estate for the development of a national park, so we had very limited time.

This was in late May. Jane Madigan, the estate’s owner, agreed to fund a motel for Ben for two weeks in White Oak (it’s a tiny little community way off the beaten track, but it’s the closest slice of civilization to the estate proper). Ben was very excited about the project, and for the first few days he was sending me regular updates. Things were going well.

I have not heard from him in three months.

Of course, the first thing I did when I was unable to get in contact with him was file a missing person’s report. His motel says he left his room empty five days after he arrived but never officially checked out. I don’t think the authorities have followed up — they think he just skipped town without telling me, because he took his car and all his belongings with him. It doesn’t matter that we’ve been living together off and on since he left college. In the eyes of the law, I’m just his friend, so I don’t have anywhere near the kind of sway a family member might have.

I am very, very worried about him. You probably know as well as I do that Ben likes to travel around a lot and that he tends to keep to himself, so this sort of disappearance isn’t totally unheard of for him, but up until we lost touch he was not acting like himself.

Let me give you a quick timeline so you can understand my alarm. He got sick only a couple of days after he got to White Oak with what he insisted was either food poisoning or a stomach virus, but because of the time crunch he decided to work through it. The next day, he emailed me saying he had left the estate early because “someone was poking around upstairs.” I feel so stupid about it now, but I dismissed it because I thought it was probably someone who worked for Jane Madigan — she needed to send someone out to unlock the doors and gates, after all. Now I’m not so sure.

The next morning, Ben got in touch with our supervisor, the head curator of my museum, Mark Zbreski. Mark tells me he encouraged Ben to continue his work, but that Ben never replied to his email. White Oak has limited internet access, so Mark assumed his email hadn’t gone through and didn’t pry any further. I don’t know if Ben was telling the truth about being too sick to leave his motel room, or if whatever he saw at the estate scared him so much he didn’t want to go back there alone.

The next time I heard from Ben was a couple of days later, via email. He had gone back to the estate and continued where he left off. He said he was feeling better and he asked me a lot of questions on an obscure White Oak family that didn’t have anything to do with the Madigans. Again, I dismissed him. I don’t want to make excuses for myself — I should have paid better attention. I feel horrible about it now.
That was the last time Ben emailed me — May 20th at about 8 PM. If you’re following the timeline, that’s the day before the motel says he abandoned his room. A few days passed before I could get in contact with him, and his behavior had been strange enough that I was starting to feel anxious.

The very last time I heard from him was just after lunch on May 26th. He called me from a payphone in White Oak. Said he’d lost his cell phone, but wouldn’t tell me how. He told me he had found something “promising” at the Madigan estate, but was cagey about the details. And he asked me for more time. Begged for it, practically.

It occurred to me that he might be sleeping at the actual estate, even though it was a ruin. I asked him, but he didn’t give me a straight answer. I feel like he was probably in real trouble — I could tell that something was very, very wrong. I can’t for the life of me guess what it was.

Ben ended the phone call. He hung up on me, actually. That’s when I started to panic. A week later I filed the missing person’s report. I haven’t heard anything since. I don’t know if he got lost in the woods, or if someone took him, or if something happened to him. I have my own suspicions, of course. I think someone might have been stalking him from the day he arrived, and that’s who he saw at the estate.

There’s one other thing. I did some digging and made some phone calls and I learned Ben was admitted to the hospital outside White Oak for minor injuries after a car crash. The date was May 20th, same as his last email. He never told me about it. They wouldn’t give me any more details, but I know this has to be important. Ben was in a car accident and he didn’t even mention it to me. I think he was hiding something big. I think he was scared.

I can’t go up to North Carolina to look for him. I have a young son and no one to leave him with.
Please, Mr. Farrow, please call me. I need your help. Ben needs us. I am not going to let him slip through the cracks.

Quinn Hallorann