The ransom demand for Alexandra Melmoth’s safe return has thrown my view of this case into turmoil. Why the ritualistic knife wounds on the Phillips boy? Why leave his body in such a remote location? Why the finger? If it was to inspire fear in the family, surely sending them the digit directly would have been more effective. And considering their reputation, who would have attempted to scare them in the first place?
All of this was racing through my mind as I awoke from my disturbing dream to meet Sheriff Patton at Melmoth House. The formerly-tantalizing smells of the Opa Lodge’s Continental Breakfast filled me with dread this morning, and I rushed past the dining room, head down and gorge rising in my throat at the memory of the Horrible Noise. Instead, I stopped for a quick breakfast of coffee and a cheese biscuit at a convenience store called the Stop N Go.
The biscuits are apparently made fresh every morning by a little old woman named Edna, who dutifully rolls out the dough each day and wraps it around handfuls of cubed cheddar. Heart-stoppingly delicious. At least, they were for Edna’s husband Frank, who had two every morning before heading out to tend the fields. After he passed, Edna sold the farm and used the money to open the Stop N Go. Amazing the things people will tell you while you wait for fresh coffee to brew. That coffee wasn’t great, but the biscuits and the company were. I promised Edna that I’d be back for more, and she warned me that she had a strict three-biscuit rule.
“No more than three a week for anybody,” she said. “I won’t have another man’s death on my conscience.”
The Melmoths were not as pleasant to talk to. Sheriff Patton, rather wisely I think, introduced me as an agent of the FBI, and I provided the proper identification to back up his claim. No sense stirring up bad memories until it’s absolutely necessary.
We spoke initially to Andrew Robinson, a distant cousin who has handled the family’s business affairs since the death of Alexandra’s parents. The Sheriff tells me that they didn’t choose a closer relation for fear of inheritances becoming confused. Alexandra’s been groomed to take over the family’s affairs all her life, and much of that instruction has come from Robinson, who’s also served as a mentor and surrogate father.
There is little family resemblance, but his connection to the girl was drawn all over his face. This was a man who hadn’t slept for days, Chief. I would place his age at around 40. A handsome and well-preserved 40 under normal circumstances, I would assume. But today his blue eyes were rimmed with red and sunken into his skull, ringed all around by dark circles. The expensive cut of his blonde hair was marred by inattention. Not askew, exactly, but not paid its proper attention, either. The ransom note had almost come as a relief, he said. “Better than not knowing.”
Not at all what I was expecting.
That came when Alexandra’s grandparents entered the room. Charlotte Melmoth was precisely what I thought she’d be: thin and shrewd, with a predatory air. She moved sinuously despite her advanced age, and handled her husband’s wheelchair with ease. Oscar was also long and thin, but with a sallow, emaciated look and a wild beard. He breathed with the help of an oxygen tank, and attached to him somewhere under his purple robe was an IV drip. Whatever was being pumped into him looked milky and thick. I tried to catch a glimpse at the label, but under Charlotte’s all-encompassing gaze I decided not to stare.
I was surprised that she’d brought him, but the Sheriff tells me that they are never separated. That’s why Robinson was brought in to run the business: Charlotte had long-since dedicated her existence to Oscar’s, and Oscar was far too mad to even sit in on business. I later speculated that the IV may have included a sedative, and the Sheriff didn’t think it unlikely. Oscar’s outbursts are legendary amongst Pannawau housekeeping staff, but he said only one thing for the entirety of our meeting with them.
That meeting went briskly. Charlotte was all business. She obviously wanted her granddaughter back, but if she was worried for the girl’s safety, she didn’t show it. The ransom demand specified a time and place for the money to be dropped off in two days’ time, and she assured us that Robinson would be there to make the drop. We agreed to have men in place to apprehend the kidnappers as soon as Alexandra’s safety is assured. I’d like to request a Somnambulist team for that, sir. I’m sure Sheriff Patton’s deputies are quite capable, but with the potential occult forces at work I’d feel better using Agency men.
But as for that thing Oscar Melmoth said today… It happened when we were leaving. He lashed out and grabbed my arm as I passed by his chair, latching on like a vice. He pulled me toward him until our faces were only inches apart. His breath smelled dry, like old parchment, and his beard seemed to writhe at the edge of my vision. I couldn’t look directly at it, however, because I found that he’d locked my gaze with his eyes. They loomed huge and rheumy in my sight, the pupils contracted down to tiny dots in a sea of pale yellow, red veins mapping spider-continents at the periphery. After what seemed an eternity, he muttered to himself, almost absent-mindedly.
“Three a week. He won’t make it that long…”
– Agent X-23, signing off.