Outdoor lights cast a yellow glow on the front porch of the modest farmhouse and gave the structure an unearthly appearance in the dark Texas night. A man rocked languidly in the porch swing. He folded a newspaper and placed it beside him on the seat as Bo parked in the gravel. I hopped out and raised a hand in greeting. “Mr. Klingemann?”
“Oh, now.” He got to his feet and I realized he was older than I’d expected, though I wasn’t sure why I’d expected someone younger. Easily over seventy, he was tall and still had a healthy build and a crown of snow-white hair. “Our mutual acquaintance is paying me enough to let you call me Howard.” He gave me a small, wry smile and a hand to shake as I climbed the porch steps.
“Nice to meet you, Howard.” I shook his callused hand then indicated my companion. “This is Bo Welch, the brother of the man having trouble.”
The men shook hands. Howard pointed at the case in Bo’s left hand. “That the banjo?”
“Yes, sir.” Bo had turned a queasy shade of gray-green under the porch lights, or perhaps it was fear. “My brother’s in bad shape. Do you really think you can help him?”
“That depends. The first thing we need to figure out is if that banjo is the source of the trouble.” He opened the front door. “Let’s get started, shall we?”
Howard led us through the house at a pace just slow enough for me to make a few observations. The décor was a time warp, cozy and country and reminiscent of the home of my grandparents. Lots of old pictures on the walls, muted floral patterns on the furniture, antiques that would have made Grandma salivate.
A room in the back held the really good stuff. The walls were lined with shelves, the one nearest the door full of books. So many titles I recognized, by authors I’d looked up to for years and some I’d realized were more than a little sketchy. Biographies of musicians. Histories of genres and sub-genres. Big, heavy coffee table books full of photos of singers and players and instruments. I could have spent days, even weeks, going through Howard Klingemann’s library.
Then there was the vinyl. Oh my God, the vinyl. I ran my fingers over the narrow edges as I read the titles. “This is the most amazing collection of roots music I’ve ever seen.”
Howard pointed to a shelf made of cubbies. “There’s boxes of 78s in there. That’s where the real treasures are.”
I stared at the shelf in question. It was a double shelf, with cubbies on both sides, as tall as me and full of the specially made containers used by collectors to house the delicate, decades-old 78 RPM records. As I approached, my play button tattoo pulsed with heat and my inner spook meter went into the red. “Something’s in there.”
Howard gave me a curious look. “Lot of things in there, but that’s not what y’all are here about.”
I took the hint gracefully and looked at Bo. “Yes. Yeah, let’s do that thing.”
A young woman with wavy brown hair halfway down her back entered the room. She carried an armful of fat pillar candles and a leather-bound book under one arm. Howard helped her with the candles. “This is my granddaughter, Beth. She works with me.”
“I still have a lot to learn,” she said. “But I can definitely help with your banjo.”
Howard placed the candles on a card table at the far side of the room. I introduced myself and Bo to Beth. She took the book to the table then turned to Bo. “Can you put the banjo on the table, please? In the middle.”
Slowly, his unease showing, Bo did as asked. “How does this work?”
The Klingemanns exchanged meaningful looks, a whole silent conversation in their eyes. Beth answered. “That’s a little complicated to explain. Don’t worry, nothing we do will hurt the banjo.” She patted his arm awkwardly. Bo nodded in response, a look on his face like some men gave the mommas and grannies and sweet young ladies at church. Respect. Deference, the kind meant for the right kind of woman. It was a look I never got, being the wrong kind of woman.
I watched as Howard and Beth turned the card table into an altar. More candles, bowls of water, earth, feathers, and herbs. A bell and the place of honor for the book which I realized now was a grimoire. Beth had a sweetness of face and a graceful way of moving that made her attractive, but I doubted it would be enough to overcome Bo’s fear once he got a look at her power.
I kind of hoped I was underestimating him, but I had no plans to hold my breath.
“We’re ready,” Howard said.
Bo fidgeted, his hands moving through the air like restless birds. “So this will get rid of the man haunting the banjo, right? Like an exorcism?”
The way he worded his question bothered me. Considering the nature of Justin Welch’s actions, it made sense that the entity holding sway over the banjo was a man. A man who committed domestic violence at the very least, but more likely murder. Bo sounded really sure, though. Like, really sure-
Beth cut into my thoughts. “We need you guys to move back, please.”
Bo gave her a solicitous smile and my ensuing urge to barf made me briefly forget my suspicions. We stood by the wall and I whispered to him, “You know, she can probably magic your head right off your neck.”
The startled look of fear that flared on his face was deeply satisfying. Sometimes, I am a bad person.
With a flick of her hand, Beth lit every candle in the room at once. That put a quick end to all conversation. Howard stood at one end of the table while Beth took up position in front of the grimoire and the banjo. He picked up a thick bundle of sage, lit one end with the nearest candle, then gently blew out the flame to leave it smoldering. He walked the sage around the altar, stopping at every corner to wave it over the elemental symbols. Once he was back where he’d started, he passed the bundle over the instrument slowly. With a single look, he turned the rite over to his granddaughter.
Beth opened the grimoire. She studied the page for a moment, then placed her hands on the banjo. Silently, I slipped to Bo’s other side for a better vantage point. Sure enough, Beth’s fingers were on the strings. My body tensed and the tattoo on my wrist pulsed with a steady rhythm of warning and heat.
Beth’s voice filled the room. Whereas she’d sounded demure and girlish earlier, now she spoke with the power and authority of a witch – a woman – who knew exactly what the hell she was doing.
And she spoke in a language that sounded off to my ears. German, maybe, but not quite. A little English here and there. I made a mental note to ask later.
The witch plucked a string and my tattoo turned into a lick of flame. The song I’d heard before, momentarily lost in a nightmare vision brought on by the instrument, returned. Louder this time. Fuller. The bass notes resounded in my chest and the mad, scrambling melody ripped and tore at my nerves. I wrapped my other hand around my hurting wrist and tried to focus on the rite rather than the waking nightmare.
Beth’s chanting grew louder, the words slipping and sliding from her lips in a rush. She held the banjo down as if struggling to keep it in place. If whatever, whoever, was in there was fighting, I didn’t envy her. The room plunged into darkness, every candle abruptly snuffed out. Bo gasped next to me. He backed up further until the only thing keeping him in proximity to all this was the wall. If he could have melted right through it, I think he would have gladly done so. I took a step forward, and I couldn’t say if it was curiosity that drove me or the pull of the music the tattoo had tuned me in to. It was a devil’s dance, for sure, increasingly frantic as the song neared its deadly end.
Howard said something I couldn’t make out over the din in my head, but it was easy to guess when the overhead electric light came on. The card table flexed under the banjo, then rose several inches in the air. Beth never dropped so much as a syllable of her chant and she held on to the instrument with a superhuman determination. Sweat dripped from her face and her arms shook with the effort. The bowl of water fell from the table, crashing to the floor in pieces. The other ingredients soon followed, and the candles. The table rocked violently in the air. Beth maintained her grip on the banjo, somehow. A loud crack sounded and I knew immediately the entity had managed to break the table.
It collapsed in a heap. Beth had the banjo in her hands, gripping it by the neck. She wound down the chanting with a level of control I deeply envied. When the last word of German passed her lips, she released the banjo. It hovered in the air for a good ten seconds before dropping unceremoniously onto the debris of the busted table.
Nobody spoke. Bo’s breathing was the loudest sound in the room. He sounded like he was about to hyperventilate, and the noise wasn’t helping my nerves. I figured somebody had to be the first to talk, and a nice tension breaker wouldn’t hurt, either. So I said, “Anybody else need a drink?”