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?”
“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.”
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.