In The Pines chapter eight

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According to the clock bolted to the motel room nightstand, I had eighteen minutes of stewing in my own anger before Bo knocked on the door. “If you came here to give me another reason to yell at you, just go back to your room and leave me alone.”

He held out a folder. “This is everything. No more hiding.”

I studied his face, seeing no artifice there. I really did believe he wanted to help his brother, so I took the folder. A name was written in careful script at the top. “Who is Del Mahaffey?”

“He was my great-grandfather. Can I come in?”

I opened the folder to find an old photo on top of various other papers. It was a black and white portrait of a handsome man with Bo’s bone structure and a hardness in his eyes that sent a shiver down my spine. A banjo rested on his leg and his hands were poised to play. I knew without asking this was the man whose spirit inhabited the banjo. That this man had murdered a woman.

I held the door open for Bo. “Start talking.”

He took a seat at the small table by the window. “Our granny, the one I told you about who taught us how to play? She was his daughter.”

I joined him at the table and took a notebook and pen from my bag. “Go on.”

Bo eyed the notebook warily but continued. “Del was mostly a bootlegger. He’d try once in a while to hold down a legitimate job, but it never stuck. He’d get bored or mad at somebody or just tired of being straight, and he’d go back to bootlegging. Had a bunch of brothers and cousins who made and sold moonshine, so he always had a place in that world to go back to when the straight world didn’t suit him anymore. He had a wife, too.”

My pen scratching across the paper was the only sound during his long pauses.

“Her name was Pauline. They had two kids, my granny Paula and her brother Jack. I know from my grandmother’s papers in that folder that Del was abusive. He was cruel sometimes, and he hit Pauline. He didn’t beat the kids but he beat their mother in front of them and he was mean to them, too. But not all the time. I guess that’s the tricky part, huh? The part that makes a person hope they’ll change.”

“Your grandmother wrote about her daddy?”

Bo nodded. “She wanted a record of sorts, of his life. The good and the bad. She told me people wanted her to pretend like he didn’t exist. Like he’d never been a part of her life. But he had. He was her daddy. She was young when he died but she remembered him. So did Jack.” He shot to his feet as if he couldn’t contain what was welling inside him. “That banjo’s not the only thing that Del Mahaffey’s been haunting since he hanged. He’s been haunting this family. Like whatever was in him that made him so dangerous is in our DNA, like our blue eyes and our height. There’s a lot of musicians in the family. But it’s like he passed down his rage, too.”

The room fell silent as I stopped taking notes and he marinated in his own private misery. I opened the folder and examined the photo of Del Mahaffey. He’d been a looker for sure, but the arrogant set of his jaw and the meanness in his eyes promised more trouble than any man was worth. “Who did he kill?”

“He always had women on the side. There was one, her name was Maggie, who thought Del would leave his wife for her. She was really young, naïve. And she got pregnant.” Bo stood against the wall with his hands bunched in his pockets. He leaned his head back and stared a hole in the ceiling while he spoke. “Del still wouldn’t leave his wife. So Maggie threatened to tell both her daddy and Pauline. Del wasn’t a man you could corner.”

“So he lashed out? Killed her?”

“Paula believed he really did love her mother. He just had no idea how to control himself.” Bo lowered his head and met my gaze. “That’s no excuse, I know. It was what it was. Anyway, yeah. He lured Maggie into the woods. He stabbed her and left her body in a shallow grave.”

“Jesus.” My stomach roiled at the matter-of-fact description of horrible violence.

“He’d been in plenty of fights before. As rough as bootlegging was, he may have even killed a man before that. But this was a girl, pregnant with his child. I think maybe it haunted him. He got to where he was drinking even more than usual, meaner than usual. My granny didn’t know exactly how it happened, but Del confessed to Pauline. And Pauline turned him into the police.”

That was a plot twist I hadn’t been expecting. “She turned in her own husband?”

“It was a way out of the constant beatings and mistreatment. A way to get her kids out. So she took it.”

“How did it play out?”

“She took the sheriff out to the grave. Del admitted it when they came to arrest him. His family got him a lawyer and the lawyer had him plead not guilty, but he was convicted and sentenced to hang. The Mahaffeys never forgave Pauline. She had a lot of problems with them down through the years. They still hate her descendants to this day and most of them don’t even know why.”

Bo returned to the table. He lifted the photo of his great-grandfather and studied it for a moment. I wondered what he was looking for. Whatever it was, I knew better than to think he might find it.

“He was a musician practically since the time he could walk. Played old instruments he found around the house or the homes of relatives. Made his own instruments out of cheap materials. For years he had a hand-me-down banjo. But that Supertone, he bought it for himself brand new. Carried it everywhere. Even on runs, with a car full of liquor, he’d have that banjo with him. He’d play house parties, in bars, anywhere. Granny wrote about it.” He put the photo back on the table and tapped the folder. “There’s a copy in here of what she wrote about him.”

“So the banjo was his. The violent impulses, his. Attacking a woman close to him…being related to Del by blood has made the connection between your brother and the banjo strong. That may be why trying to destroy the banjo didn’t work.”

“Justin’s not like this. He’s not violent. Not mean. He got the music and the height and the Mahaffey blue eyes, but he didn’t get the rage.”

“Knowing about Del and the blood connection will help. We tell all this to Beth and Howard, I’m sure they can figure something out. A way to break that connection. Exorcise the banjo itself.”

“Maybe. They might be able to scrub Del’s spirit out of that banjo, but there’s no getting his blood out of my veins.”

The last missing pieces of the puzzle that was Bo Welch fell into place. His less than pleasant demeanor, his control freak sensibilities, his drive to help his brother at all costs, even his lack of a girlfriend despite his good looks and successful business. He’d said Justin didn’t have the Mahaffey rage but made no similar claim about himself. Did it lurk inside of him, just under the surface? Was that the reason for Bo’s need for control, both of himself and his environment? The reason he avoided relationships? Del Mahaffey was haunting the wrong brother, and it was tearing Bo up inside.

Or maybe I was totally wrong. But I was convinced I was at least partly right. “You feel guilty, don’t you? That this happened to Justin and not you.”

“The first time I beat somebody up, I was twelve. The kid was two years older. Bigger than me, too. He’d been bullying Justin, so I put a stop to it. I beat that kid until he was bloody and crying on the ground. I don’t even remember most of it.”

“You protected your little brother from a bully. That doesn’t mean you’re like Del.”

Pain darkened his eyes. “I said that was my first fight. Not my only.”

“Have you ever hit a woman?”

“I came close once.”

“How close?”

“I punched a wall instead of her.”

It took nearly inhuman effort to not move my chair further from him, not pick up my phone, not get up and leave the room. “You are not Del.”

“He’s my great-grandfather. His blood’s in my blood. His rage is in me.” Bo tapped his chest, hard. “It was in my father. His uncle. Most of the Mahaffeys. It’s part of who we are.” His voice cracked on the last few words and he looked away.

“It doesn’t have to be. You made a choice once. You keep making that choice.”

“He tried.” I knew he meant Del. “Not so much with strangers, but with his wife and kids. And he failed. He beat his wife, in front of their kids.”

“That has nothing to do with who you are.”

“My dad used to scream at us. Break things, get drunk and get in fights. He never hit one of us, but he was a hard man to live with. He could be cruel. Even when he was in a sober phase and making a big deal out of going to A.A. and to church, he’d still be mean. He got into fights drunk and sober both, got arrested for it a few times.”

“You’re not him, either, Bo.”

“My grandma’s brother went to prison for almost killing a man. He never straightened his life out. My father never made anything of himself because his temper and his drinking wouldn’t let him hold down a job long enough. Over and over again, it’s there. The drinking and the violence and the shit lives and the kids afraid of their fathers and the wives afraid of their husbands.”

He dropped into the chair, leaned his elbows on his knees and rubbed his face. “Justin beat the odds. I’ve had to work to stay sober, to keep out of fights. I haven’t dated anybody longer than a few weeks since that time I almost hit a woman. I keep my life as orderly as possible and I keep to myself as much as I can.”

“That sounds lonely.”

He answered with a caustic laugh. “It sucks. But it’s okay, because Justin beat the odds. Until I found that banjo in Granny’s things and gave it to him.”

“Oh, God.” That was even worse than just feeling like it should have been him – he actually gave the haunted banjo to Justin. No wonder Bo was so messed up.

“Our daddy didn’t want us to play. He knew all about his grandfather. When he was on a sober streak, he lumped music in with drinking and partying and fighting. It was all of a piece to him, a bad piece. He was furious with me about that talent show. We had a screaming match and I thought, this is it, he’s finally going to hit me. I was ready to hit him back. He wound up telling me about Del. I knew there were people who didn’t like our family but I didn’t realize how far it went back, or why. I knew people talked about my dad’s temper.” He went quiet, his face softening as he got lost in private thoughts.

I got him a cup of ice water and set it on the table. He would talk again when he was ready.

“I remember telling him, Justin’s not like that. He said, no, he’s not. And he looked at me. God, the way he looked at me.” Some of the scared boy he must have been leaked through at the edges. “He knew I was the one to worry about.”

“Is that why you gave up music?”

“That was the first thing I gave up. Eventually I had to quit drinking, too. Learn to keep my temper in check. Stay out of serious relationships.”

I shook my head. “Why would you punish yourself for something done by a man who died long before you were even born? His sins are not yours to atone for.”

He sat up so fast I had to step back to keep us from colliding. “Have you been listening to me at all? It’s not just Del. So many men in my family are like him. I don’t want to be like that. I never want a woman to be scared of me again.” His face crumpled as the walls of his self-control broke down. “I can’t be like that. I can’t.” His breath hitched. He leaned over and buried his face in his hands, his body shaking.

I couldn’t just watch somebody cry without offering comfort. I gave his shoulder an awkward pat. Bo was so used to holding himself aloof from others, he probably wouldn’t think anything of it if I backed away and left him alone with his pain. But that wasn’t me. I stepped closer, wrapped my arms around his shoulders and let my head rest lightly on the top of his. “You shouldn’t make yourself pay for the mistakes of others, even if they are family,” I said quietly. “That’s not how it works. People pay for their own sins.”

He clasped my arm and gently squeezed. “That’s not true and you know it.”

“I know. Other people trying to punish you, that’s not something you can help. You shouldn’t punish yourself.”

“I’m tired of living like this,” he admitted. “It doesn’t even feel like living most of the time.”

“Then stop, and start living.”

He put a hand on my hip and maneuvered me to stand in front of him, between his knees. “You really think it’s that easy?”

I laughed. “No. Especially not with a haunted banjo in the mix. But I do think the Klingemanns can help with that part.”

“Do you think you could help? With the other part?”

A mild warning flashed in the back of my brain. Bo pulled me into a kiss, his lips insistent. I froze, not sure how to respond. He took that for something it wasn’t and deepened the kiss, his arms snaking around my back.

I put my hands on his shoulders and pushed his body from mine while I pulled my mouth from his. “I’m sorry, but this isn’t, uh.” As vulnerable as he was, I really didn’t want to have the whole I’m just not that into you talk unless I had to.

Disappointment darkened his features and a door in his eyes that had cracked open swung abruptly shut. “Yeah. No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have.”

“No, it’s okay. I’m not mad or anything. I just…you know.” I didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t hurt his already fragile feelings, so I dropped it. “I think I’d like to turn in for the night.”

Bo nodded. He rushed from the room without saying much else.

 

<- Chapter Seven

Chapter Nine ->

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In The Pines chapter seven

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The kitchen was cozy and normal. I stared at a calendar with a picture of a red barn while Beth made coffee. Howard and Bo had stayed in the other room to clean up the debris. Beth brought two cups to the small breakfast nook and sat opposite me. I thanked her and said, “How are you feeling?”

She rubbed her shoulders. “A little sore. That was harder than I expected.”

“So, what exactly did you do?”

She got up and returned with milk and sugar, pushing both toward me. Beth Klingemann, badass luthier witch, took her coffee black and hot. “I looked inside the banjo.”

I added more sugar than usual to my coffee, unnerved and distracted. “How does that work?”

“The spell I used allowed me to take a look at the banjo’s psychic imprint. Sort of like a magical x-ray.”

“And you’re trained to understand what you’re looking at? Is that where the luthier magic part comes in? Kind of like there’s different specialties of medicine?”

Beth nodded. “Yeah. I mean, Pawpaw always said it was like there’s different genres of music. The medicine thing works, too.”

I recalled what I’d been told and read about psychometry. “Does everything have a psychic imprint?”

“Oh, yeah. Definitely. You can call it energy, too. Whatever you want to call it, everything has it. Reading something is a two-part trick. The first part is just being able to see it. Visualize it, intuit it. There’s different ways. The way your own magic works determines how you experience it.”

“How do you experience it?”

“It’s visual for me.” She pulled a hairband from her jeans pocket and put her hair up. It made her look even younger. “Black and white images, mostly. Sometimes like an old home movie. Sometimes like old still pictures. Sometimes a real mess.”

“Is the second part of the trick being able to understand what you’re experiencing?”

She nodded. “It’s also the hardest. Having a visual makes it a little easier, but it can still be a mess.”

“I’m guessing that banjo was a mess.”

“Shit. That banjo is a piece of work.” She took a long drink of coffee then stood. “I’m starving. You want anything?”

“No, thanks, but you go ahead.”

Beth strode to the counter and returned with a covered dish. “Homemade cinnamon rolls,” she said as she slid back into the seat. “Pawpaw’s girlfriend made them.” She opened the dish and the sweet, rich scent was too much for me.

“Okay, maybe just one.”

We ate in silence. Neither of us spoke until we’d both eaten two of the sticky, delicious treats. “Your pawpaw’s girlfriend is an amazing cook.”

“She’s awesome, I love her to death.” Beth retrieved napkins for us. It was easy to see the food had revived her. She moved quicker, with a lighter step and renewed energy. I felt a lot better myself. “She infuses a lot of positive energy and healing magic into her food. She knew I was doing this tonight, that’s why she made these and brought them over.”

“She’s a witch, too?”

“Her practice is a lot more low key than ours, but yes. Neither one of us could be with someone who didn’t know. You practice like this, there’s no hiding it.” Her face darkened and her brows came together. “Bo Welch is hiding something from you. And I think I might know what it is.”

The vague suspicions I’d been harboring came to the fore. “What did you see in that banjo, Beth?”

“A man. He was chasing a woman through the woods. He caught her, and he killed her. Dumped her body in a shallow grave. There was blood all over his hands. I could see his bloody hands on the banjo. Playing it. It was his banjo first.”

That was about what I’d expected, but it still chilled me to hear it. “Did you see enough that we might be able to trace him? Would that help with exorcising the thing?”

“An exorcism won’t be as simple as I thought, especially if I’m right.”

I threw up my hands. “Just go ahead and drop the anvil on my head.”

“I think Bo Welch and his brother are related to the banjo’s original owner. The killer I saw, that’s still haunting it. I think they’re related, and that’s why the link is so strong.”

“Shit, shit, shit.” Now it was my turn for some unladylike swearing. Usually that helped relieve stress and tension, but not this time. This time, I just wanted to keep swearing. “God damn it.”

“Left that part out, didn’t he?”

“Motherfucker.”

“I hear ya, girl.” She picked up another cinnamon roll.

“Just how strong of a link are we talking about?”

“Strong enough that the banjo can’t be destroyed. Which is a shame because salting and burning it would be my first choice.”

I felt somewhat vindicated, hearing that, but the feeling was fleeting. “What’s your second choice?”

“I haven’t come up with one yet. I’ll hit the books first thing in the morning, I promise.” She lofted a bite of cinnamon roll in the air. “The food’s helped but I need some sleep after fighting with that bastard.”

That concerned me. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Other than worn out, I’m fine. He can’t leave the confines of the banjo if that’s what you’re afraid of. He’s not that kind of spirit. He can’t move around on his own, he can only inhabit the object that soaked up so much of his psychic energy.”

“So there are different kinds of spirits?” She nodded, her mouth full of pastry. I said, “Well, at least we don’t have to worry about him coming at us with a ghost knife or something.”

“Nope. We just have to worry about him influencing someone living to come after us with a real knife.”

Oh, great. At least Justin Welch remained in custody three states away. But-

“Bo’s been playing. I could hear him through the motel room walls. Could that help forge a connection? Let the banjo influence him the way it did his brother?”

The horror in Beth’s eyes gave me the answer before she even had a chance to speak. “You need to tell him to stop playing. Especially if I’m right and the haunting spirit is a relative of his.”

“You ladies didn’t drink all the coffee, did you?” Howard entered the kitchen, Bo right behind him. “It’s getting late, but I believe I could use a cup.”

“I’ll get you one, Pawpaw.” Beth rose, stopping to kiss her grandfather’s cheek before moving on to the coffee pot. She ignored Bo but gave me a significant look.

“Thank you, hon.” Howard took her vacated seat.

“I’m so sorry about all the damage,” I said.

He waved a hand in dismissal. “It happens. That’s why we started using card tables and cheap bowls from the Dollar Store. Keeps the good stuff intact.” He gave me a reassuring smile. “Besides, our mutual friend, the one you like to call the professor, he’s paying plenty for this, so don’t worry about it.”

“How do you even know him?” East Texas was a long way away from the English countryside.

“I met him back in my roadie days.”

I laughed. “No kidding!”

Beth said, “Hey, I could slip some whiskey into your coffee, Pawpaw, and you tell us stories about those days.”

He grinned but shook his head. “I’m afraid not tonight. Got an early morning tomorrow.”

It was just as well. I had plans for an unpleasant conversation with Bo as soon as we left. “I’d love to hear your stories sometime, but we’ve kept y’all busy long enough tonight.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Beth said. “Give me some time with the books, and you’ll be hearing from me.”

“Thank you.” I glanced at Bo. His eyes had a shell-shocked glaze and I wasn’t sure he was paying much attention. “We’ll head out now,” I said, mostly to him.

“Right.” He snapped out of his fugue enough to say a polite thank you and good night to the Klingemanns.

He stowed the banjo case carefully in the back seat of his car. I gave him time to get back on the highway before I said anything. “Lucy, you got some splainin’ to do.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Bullshit.”

He refused to say another word. The way he was gripping the steering wheel, as if his life depended on holding on to something solid, made me decide to let it rest while he was driving. As soon as we were parked in the motel lot, though, I let him have it.

“You might be tempted to offer up some bullshit excuse about how this wasn’t lying, it was withholding information. Don’t. Just fucking don’t. Your brother’s sanity and freedom are on the line. You asked for my help. I went out on a limb and got help for you and your brother through other contacts. And you left out the fact that this haunted banjo is a God damn family heirloom.”

“What do you want me to say?” He wouldn’t look at me, instead stared at the dashboard and the dark.

“I want you to understand that was a bullshit move on your part. And I want you to stop keeping things from me. By the time Beth calls me tomorrow, you better be prepared to tell us everything you know about that banjo and its original owner. If you want to keep endangering your brother by hiding things from the people who could help you, then you need to take your ass back to North Carolina and I’ll go back to work. It’s your decision.”

I got out of the car and slammed the door shut.

 

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