Five o’clock in the morning is not a good time for me. Honestly, before noon is not a good time for me. I answered my cell at the offending hour with tremendous annoyance and an impolite obscenity.
“Ooh, I do hope you kiss your boyfriend with that dirty mouth.”
The voice of the man I thought of as The Professor propelled me fully awake. Professor, as in professor emeritus of mystical music in all its many dark and light forms, at Hogwarts, occasionally at Oxford, and when I was lucky, in conversation with me. “Thank you, uh. Thank you for calling me back.” I scrambled for the notebook and pen I’d left on the nightstand.
“No problem at all, dear. Now, what’s this about a haunted banjo? Sounds fascinating.”
My pulse leaped. Decades of rumors about his magical practice swirled in my head. I couldn’t come right out and ask him, though. People who did that never enjoyed his presence again, and despite the salacious parts of his past that I knew to be true, I liked him. I told him what I knew so far. Saying it out loud made me realize just how little I actually knew, which in turn made me wonder what all Bo was keeping to himself. I said as much to the professor.
“If he won’t be honest with you, then you should take the instrument to be examined by a specialist in luthier magic.”
His words were a supercharged jolt of espresso straight to my nervous system. “What’s luthier magic? How do you know about it? How do I find someone who can do whatever this is?” Do you practice luthier magic yourself? I kept that last question to myself.
The professor laughed at my eagerness. “You mean to tell me those escapades you’ve been blogging about haven’t yet led you to a luthier magician?”
The jolt of energy turned into a cold shock. “You know about my blog?”
“I know a great many things, Nikki.” I could picture his teasing smile and the twinkle in his eyes. “Now, dear, listen up and take notes. I have a date for brunch with someone who rates the closest I get to punctual these days.”
“My pen is at the ready.”
“Luthier magic is, as you may have guessed, magic pertaining to stringed instruments. It involves casting spells, crafting magic into the very materials the instrument is made of, all sorts of things like that. What you’re going to want is someone who can also read the instrument.”
I took advantage of his pause to scribble as fast as I could. “What does that mean, read the instrument?”
“Do you know what psychometry is?”
“Uh, a form of ESP. Putting your hands on an object and being able to tell things about it.”
“Like perhaps the identity of a previous owner. Or an act so traumatic, it left a deep psychic imprint on the object that can be discerned even decades later, by someone with the right talents, of course.”
“So you’re telling me a luthier psychometrist could tell me who’s haunting this banjo?”
“As well as why, and perhaps even how to put an end to the haunting.”
Bingo, Yahtzee, dyn-o-mite. “Would you happen to know someone with that skill set?” A smile made of sunshine, puppies, and relief at being able to help the Welch brothers spread across my face.
The professor made me wait a beat too long, though. “I do, indeed.”
I could hear it in his voice, the quid pro quo, Clarice. He wanted something in return. Not that I blamed him, I just wasn’t sure if I was in a position to give him anything that would be worth information like this. I might have still been fairly new to the supernatural world, but I knew how insular it was. How dangerous it was for the wrong people to find out about it. I did my best to hold on to my smile and said, “What do you want, professor?”
Gleeful laughter filled my ear. “I do love it when you call me that. And yes, I do want something. The banjo.”
One of the old rumors about the professor was that he collected occult items. While this wasn’t enough to be considered confirmation, it did make the tips of my fingers itch. There was only one problem. “I don’t know how these guys would feel about giving it up, even if I can help them.”
“They don’t have to give anything up. I’m happy to pay, quite handsomely. Including a commission for you in your role as broker. Think you can swing that?”
“I can’t guarantee they’d want to sell, but I will definitely talk to them about it.”
“That’s good enough for me. I’ll text you the information after brunch. Go back to sleep for now, love.”
“I will. Enjoy your brunch. And thank you.”
“Oh, one more thing.”
“I don’t want to read about myself on your blog. That would make me very cross. You don’t want to do that, now, do you?”
The threat in his voice was unmistakable. “No, of course not. I protect my sources, and my friends.” The words came easily because they were true.
“Sleep well, dear.”
I rushed to make more notes, thoughts racing. Luthier magic, holy shit, that sounded amazing. I had to know more. Hopefully, soon I would.
“You want to do what?”
I explained my plan to Bo again, careful to gloss over certain particulars and leave others out completely. He continued to balk.
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Why not?” I could think of several reasons, but, you know.
“You’re not taking that banjo anywhere. As far as we know, it’s the only thing that can help my brother get back to himself. No way in hell am I letting a stranger take it anywhere.”
“I’m trying to help your brother. You know that.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know you. Not enough to take a chance like this.”
“I don’t think luthier magicians make house calls, especially from several states away.”
He glared at me. “That’s another thing. You really believe there’s such a thing as luthier magic?”
“Dude, your brother was possessed by a spirit from a haunted banjo. I think luthier magic is definitely within the realm of the possible.”
Bo finally stopped moving. Since my arrival, he’d been meticulously cleaning and sorting the tools in his garage. I’d never seen so many wrenches and sockets and whatever all that stuff was. Every item had its place, neatly labeled. The car tools looked like they’d never seen a speck of grease and the lawn care stuff showed no hint of grass or dirt.
“Do you really think he’s possessed?”
I thought about it before answering. “Maybe briefly. If not outright possessed, then certainly influenced. My contact says this luthier magician can find a way to cleanse the banjo. Which would mean your brother would be himself again. I know that won’t erase the arrest or automatically get him out of that hospital, but he’ll be able to get his life back. It might take time, but it’ll happen. If we don’t get more help, expert help, I don’t know if he’ll be able to beat this on his own.”
He stood at his worktable with his back to me, hands resting on the surface. “You really think this will help him?”
“If he were my brother, I would be on my way in a heartbeat.”
“Okay, then.” He turned to face me. “We’ll go.”
That we hung in the air like a mosquito at a picnic. “Uh.”
“He’s my brother, and I’m not turning that banjo over to you. So I’m going with you.”
“Are you sure?” I gestured at the truck parked behind us, with his landscaping company logo painted on the side. “You’ve got a business to run.”
“A successful business, too, which means I have employees. Guys I trust. I can leave for a few days.” The vertical line between his eyebrows told the tale of the pained control freak, struggling with letting go of one thing in order to deal with another. I suspected Justin was probably the only thing that could tear Bo away from his business.
I didn’t want to travel with him, much less have him hovering while I acted like a kid at Christmas over meeting a luthier magician, but here we were. “Okay, how do you want to do this? One of us make the airline reservations and the other pay that person back?”
A short bark of a laugh erupted from him. “No way are we taking that banjo on an airplane. We’re driving to Texas.”
Normally I am totally down for road trips, but with this guy? Oh, God, what if he was a talk radio guy? I suppressed a shudder. “I can’t afford to keep the rental car that long.”
“So turn it in. We’ll go in my other car.”
“Look, my contact has vouched for me with these people, so I know they’ll see me. I don’t know if they’ll be willing to do anything if an unannounced person shows up. This world, the supernatural world, people are private, and a little paranoid.”
“This contact of yours, the guy who wants to buy the banjo, he’s going to want it verified that there’s something freaky about the thing, right?”
“So tell him the only way a stranger is getting face time with that banjo is if I’m there. If he really wants it, he’ll make sure I’m welcome.”
“It’s eight hundred miles! In a car with a stranger. That you don’t particularly like.”
He pulled his phone out of his back pocket and started typing. “You said outside Nacogdoches, right? How do you spell that?”
“I don’t.” He couldn’t be serious about this. “I’m not going to steal the banjo. I’ll bring it back to you, I swear.”
“It’s actually nine hundred miles. We can take Interstate 20 West most of the way.” He raised his phone with one hand. “This says the trip should take a little under fourteen hours.”
“Oh, God. Really?”
“The sooner we get there, the sooner we can help my brother. I need to make some arrangements. I’ll meet you at your motel in two hours. Be ready to check out. We’ll return your rental car, then head out.”
I gaped, not sure how to go about telling him to go to hell and take his bossy attitude with him. “We’re not driving straight through. We’d get there in the wee hours of the morning. I don’t want to piss off anybody with magician on their business card, especially in the dark.”
“Then we’ll stop along the way. I don’t mind that, as long as we leave today. We’re not waiting until tomorrow.”
“Do people always do what you tell them to do?”
“Yes.” He tucked his phone back into his pocket then strode toward me. “So go pack and be ready when I get there.”
“I can’t believe I’m putting up with this to help somebody I’ve never even met.”
He waggled a finger at me. “That right there is why I do actually like you a little bit.”
I narrowed my eyes in suspicion, waiting for the other shoe to drop. A snarky comment, a compliment that was half insult, or just an outright insult. But Bo surprised me. He took my hand in his. “Thank you for this. Everything you’re doing to help my brother…I can’t tell you how much it means to me.”
I nodded, uncomfortable but unwilling to pull my hand away. That would have been rude. Right? His hand dwarfed mine, and the warmth of his skin seeped into my flesh. “You’re welcome.”
“See you in two hours.”
I was halfway back to my motel when I realized something. Bo’s fingers were callused like a guitar player’s. Or a banjo player’s. He’d never answered my question about whether he’d ever played his brother’s haunted banjo. But then, he worked with his hands in his landscaping business. The calluses I’d felt could just as easily have come from that. Nothing to worry about.