I didn’t have much more than determination in my arsenal, but it was a start. From a motel room, I made calls to Evanna and my witch friends, then did some research online while I waited for them to get back to me. Bo had given himself the task of searching his brother’s apartment for any information about the banjo.
There wasn’t actually much for me to research online. Looking for how to expel a vengeful spirit from a home or object was just as likely to land you on a TV show fan page as something potentially useful. There was no way to know what might be helpful and what might be junk. Not without personal experience. So my “research” mostly consisted of listening to Nick Cave albums while I waited for my calls to be returned.
My sources were less than helpful. I mean, they basically told me what I’d already figured out on my own – that based on what had already transpired, destroying the banjo was probably a non-starter. I was hoping for other ideas and they had none. That left me with one more source to try, and I wasn’t sure if he would even return my call. If I could even consider him a source. He was notoriously cagey about his involvement in…that spooky stuff, as he would jokingly refer to the decades-old rumors of him dabbling in magic. The old gent liked me, though, so it was worth a shot. I left a message with his assistant and crossed my fingers.
A few hours later I met Bo back at his house, thanks more to my phone’s GPS than his crappy directions. And I was glad to have brought my own cup of coffee since he once again didn’t offer me so much as a seat when he let me in the door, much less coffee.
“You first. What did you find out?” That was his idea of a greeting.
I sipped my coffee before answering. “Okay, then. I have a list of ingredients and the framework of a ritual to destroy the banjo.”
“A ritual?” He raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “Whatever. Let’s do it.”
“Well, see, here’s the thing.” I took a seat at the dining table. The banjo had been returned to its case, but I was still careful not to touch even that. “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Salting and burning is kind of a cliché, but it should have worked. Instead, all it did was make the spirit or whatever is inhabiting the banjo really pissed off, and it used your brother to lash out. The herbs and roots and stuff, that’s just a more complicated method. It may not make a difference.”
“So you’re saying it might not destroy the banjo? And it might cause Justin to have another violent episode?”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“So how the hell are we supposed to help him?”
How to explain I was waiting for a phone call from a guy whose records he’d probably grown up on? A guy who, if the rumors were true, was into some seriously heavy witchcraft? And I didn’t even know if he could, or would, help. “I’m waiting to hear from another contact.” Lame and vague, but it was the best I could do.
“Some help you are.”
Something clicked inside me. It wasn’t anger or even annoyance. More like a reminder that I didn’t need to put up with this shit. He needed a reminder, too. I stood and pushed the chair to the table, letting it drag across the floor and make a terrible noise. “I took vacation days to come here. Paid for my own flight, and my own motel room. Rental car, too. I don’t know you or your brother, but I’m here, at considerable expense, to try to help. You want to keep being an asshole, you can figure this out on your own. I’m gonna go get some sleep and catch a tour of the Biltmore tomorrow.” I picked up my bag and headed for the door.
As I stepped outside, I wondered if I could really abandon Justin Welch just because his brother was a jackass. I might have deliberately dropped the rental car keys, and I definitely took my time with buckling the seat belt. Bo made his choice and stayed in the house, so I left.
The motel had cable but the TV was old so the picture was lousy. I watched anyway, tired and distracted. I thought I was hearing noise from a neighboring room when I shook myself awake and turned off the TV. Somebody was knocking at the door. I checked the peephole.
Bo swayed as I flung the door open. “You can’t leave,” he slurred.
“You’re drunk.” I peered around him to the parking spots in front of this row of rooms. “Please tell me you didn’t drive here.”
“I was at a bar down the road.” He shoved past me, dropping into the nearest chair. “I walked from there.”
I let out a sigh as I closed the door, grateful I was in yoga pants and a tank instead of anything more revealing. “You need to call a buddy to come get you. You’re not staying here.”
He rested his head on the back of the chair. Somehow he managed to look more pitiful than drunk. “I am really sorry I was so shitty to you. Like, really, really sorry.”
“Okay. Now call someone to pick you up.”
“I’m the oldest. It’s my job to take care of Justin. I can do that when it comes to normal stuff. Talk to him about girls and school and whatever. But this? This is not normal.”
“I know.” I went to his side and held out my hand. “Give me your phone.”
He was so drunk, he did as told without so much as a glare. “I don’t know how to help him with this.”
“So who do you call in the middle of the night to drive your drunk ass home? You’ve got to have at least one buddy who would do that for you.”
“When he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, he came to me and we talked about it. I even helped him pay for school. When he needed advice about girls, I’d give him great advice.”
I kept my snark about Bo’s lousy game to myself. “How about one of your employees? Would one of them come get you?”
“I don’t know how to help him with something like this. I don’t even believe in shit like this.”
I gave up and tapped the screen of his phone. “You have no battery? What the hell, dude?”
He shrugged. “I forgot to charge it.”
“All that’s going on in your life right now, and you forgot to charge your phone? Who does that?” I checked my own phone. It was up to a full charge so I unplugged it and hooked up his phone. “I don’t suppose you remember anybody’s phone number, do you?”
Chagrin wiped some of the drunken lout from his face. “My brother’s.”
“Could you make me some coffee?”
“No, but I will drive you home.”
He pushed himself out of the chair. I backed away from him, not because he scared me in the slightest, but because he was a six-foot muscular guy currently swaying in his own drunken breeze and I didn’t want to come between him and the floor if things went south. “Please. Make me some coffee. Give me a chance to clear my head so we can talk.”
I made him wait a full thirty seconds for an answer while I contemplated what a pushover I was. “I was really looking forward to going to the Biltmore tomorrow.”
“You’re a nice person, Nikki. Way nicer than me. I know you want to help my little brother.”
It was the first time he’d addressed me by name. To be honest, until that moment I wasn’t sure he knew my name. “Yeah, I am, and yeah, I do.” I grabbed the carafe and carried it to the sink to fill it with water. “Motel coffee is an abomination, therefore it is what you deserve for being a jerk to me.”
Bo winced. “Harsh.”
“Sit down before you fall down.”
Carefully, he returned to the chair. “How is any of this shit even real? A ghost in a banjo, of all things. How does it get any power over a person? I don’t understand any of this.”
“I think its power over Justin comes from him playing the instrument so much. That’s all I can figure. That, and the ghost or whatever is somehow twisting what Justin feels for his girlfriend. The way you talk about him, he’s not the abusive type, right?”
“No, never.” Bo leaned his elbows on his knees and stared at the floor. “You really think playing the banjo is what did it?”
“I don’t know for sure. It makes sense that it would take more of a connection than just owning the thing.” Actually I was pretty freaking sure, what with the vision my weird magic tattoo gave me after I plucked the banjo’s strings. But Bo didn’t need to know about that.
“Have you seen anything like this before?”
I thought of a little coffee shop I knew, that used to be a jazz joint back in the day. “I’ve been to a place that’s not exactly haunted. More like, it has echoes of the past there. I haven’t seen anything quite like this, though.”
“Did it scare you? Those echoes.” He poured his own coffee, and this time he was a little steadier when he walked.
“No,” I said. “I liked it.”
“What, are you like, some kind of goth chick or something?”
“When your brother came to you for advice about girls, are you sure he took that advice?”
For the first time, a hint of a smile graced his features. “I know he didn’t take my advice. No other way to explain how he kept a woman for longer than a month.” He returned to the chair, holding the cardboard cup like it held liquid gold. “That contact you said you were waiting to hear from, did they ever get back to you?”
“Not yet.” I didn’t even know where my contact was, much less if he’d bother to get back to me. He had an estate in rural England but he still traveled a great deal. He could have been anywhere.
“So what do we do, just wait?”
“I want to find out as much about the banjo as we can. Everything from make and model to any previous owners we can find out about. You never said if you were able to find anything like that at Justin’s. Were you?”
He sipped his terrible coffee, his gaze on the far wall. “A few things. It’s a 1927 Supertone. Those were originally sold in Sears catalogs.”
My inner music history nerd jumped for joy at a reference I knew and loved so well. “Damn right, the Sears and Roebuck catalog. That was a huge mail order business back then. Such a boon for people in rural communities, too. People who didn’t have as much money to spend. You could order things through that catalog that you might not be able to get in a little local store. You could buy cheap stuff.” Really warming to my subject now, I paced as I shared minutiae he probably had zero interest in. “Before guitars, blues belonged to black women who lived in cities and sang a more sophisticated music, much closer to what we think of as jazz than what we think of as blues. But then popular blues changed when black men started buying guitars. You could get them cheap from the Sears catalog. Country blues and the archetype of the lone, journeyman guitar slinger came about in large part because of the Sears catalog.”
Bo’s eyebrows had come together to form a slightly fuzzy caterpillar and his mouth was doing this weird downturned thing that made me regret letting my inner nerd off the leash in front of him. He said, “I didn’t know real people talked like that.”
“Like what?” I tried not to sound defensive but realized immediately that my effort had probably failed.
“Like you’re reading a book out loud.”
“I am a writer, you know.”
“Funny, I thought you were a girl.”
My estimation of his game dropped even further. I spread my arms wide and said, “I contain multitudes.”
“I just hope you contain the answer to fixing my brother.”
“Do you know anything about previous owners of the banjo?”
“Dead and long gone. Only one I care about is Justin.”
Something about his odd turn of phrase and the flatness of his tone scratched at my nerves. I decided to leave it alone for now. “Look, I’m tired. I want to help, but if you don’t have anything for me to work with right now, you need to go home so I can go to sleep.”
“Yeah, my phone’s probably got enough charge by now for me to make a call.”
I unplugged his phone and brought it to him. “I really do need as much information about the banjo as you can find.” I wasn’t a hundred percent positive he was keeping something about the instrument under wraps. Definitely edging toward the sixty percent mark, though.
He took his phone as he stood. “I’ll see what I can do.” He made his way to the door.
“Are you going to be okay? Not gonna pass out in a ditch, are you?”
“I’ll be fine. The coffee helped. Knowing that you’re going to help…that helps, too.”
That was a heavy load he dropped on my shoulders right then, and I couldn’t decide how I felt about it. I really did want to help, but I knew so little. It would easy for me to screw this up, and then what? This pair of brothers would be damaged for the rest of their lives.
Writing about rock and roll on a deadline was easy compared to this. Real responsibility, with lives on the line, might prove too much for me.
So much for an easy night’s sleep.