Paula Welch wrote of her father with a clear, unflinching eye. There were good memories in her record, but mostly heartbreak and ruin. One passage in particular captured me:
Little could soothe his rages like music. His banjo, perhaps more so than us his children, was his pride and joy. He carried it like an extension of his physical body and it seemed an extension of his soul, as well. The music he played was a rare source of joy for him. It gave him solace. It gave him, a barely literate man, a way to express himself. My fondest memories of him involve him either playing or singing or those even rarer instances of him teaching Jack and me a song here and there. We feared him greatly, his temper, his violence toward our mother, but those moments gifted to us by music were a treasure and a window gazing upon what a different man he might have been.
I recall little of his arrest and trial, as we children were shielded from that awful tragedy as best Momma and her kin were able. Many years later, I did learn that upon the day of his hanging, Daddy did not request a last meal. Rather, he asked to play his banjo one final time, there in his cell where he awaited death. I have not been able to learn who granted his request, but I do know one of Daddy’s brothers came to our home to take the banjo to him. I wish I knew what Daddy played in those final moments. My Mahaffey relations have never willingly parted with anything concerning him to me, whether it be photographs or memories. If he was afraid in that last night, I hope music brought him some relief. I hope remorse and prayer for redemption eased his passage into the next world. Perhaps he did not deserve such, but he was still my Daddy and I do not like to think of him in Hell.
If the Mahaffey family didn’t willingly part with anything, how did she get the banjo? As I sat absorbing all I’d read, part of my brain spun a tale of daring burglary, a slip of a girl breaking into the home of some relative who hated her just so she could steal the one thing that anchored her few good memories of her father.
I closed the folder when Beth arrived on her lunch break. The diner where we’d agreed to meet was close to her grandfather’s music shop. After we ordered, I let myself indulge in a few questions. “What do you do at the shop?”
“Little bit of everything. Run the register, clean, put in orders. When he doesn’t need me out front, I work in the back. Repairs, that kind of thing.”
“Got a specialty?”
“Restoring antique stringed instruments. I’m working on a dulcimer right now.”
“How does the luthier magic factor into that?”
“It doesn’t. No magic in the shop. That’s a whole different client list.”
Our food arrived. Since she had to go back to the shop to let Howard take his lunch break, I let her eat. As soon as she slowed down, though, I pounced. “That language that you were speaking during the rite, what was that?”
Beth popped another fry in her mouth before answering. “Texas German. It’s an old dialect. Not many people speak it anymore. It comes from all the German immigrants who settled in Texas. A whole bunch of different regional dialects from Germany, plus a little English here and there. Our family’s originally from over there. We still have kin over in the German belt of the state, but sometime before Pawpaw was born, the magicians in the family were run off and wound up here. The others don’t practice. They may not even know that part of their family history anymore.”
Of course I knew about the German belt over in the Hill Country, but I’d never known they had their own language. I grew up near the state line with Louisiana, in a place far enough from Houston to be small town but close enough to the big city for trouble to beckon.
I pushed the folder across the table. “These are copies of documents that Bo shared with me. You’ll want to take a look.”
She wiped her hands on a paper napkin then leafed through the pages. “Can I take this with me?”
I nodded. “I don’t have much experience with hauntings, but I think this is about family as much as it is about anything else. Bo seems to think so, too.”
Beth closed the folder. “This just got a lot harder.”
“That’s what I figured.”
“Y’all come back over tonight. We’ll try a blood rite. See if that will do the trick.”
“It’s not like I need a pint from him. Not even a shot glass full.” The innocence of her smile was overshadowed by the look in her eyes. There was power there, and confidence. Mystery, and a little bit of darkness, too. Beth Klingemann looked like the girl next door, who just happened to be kind of terrifying.
The banjo hovered in the air. Music blasted from it, dark and nerve-wracking with strange shifts in tempo and an unearthly pitch. Del Mahaffey was just as mean and violent in death as he had been in life. Beth picked herself up off the floor, holding her arm where it had impacted against the wall. Howard struggled to keep the spell going. Even to my untrained eye, it appeared that while he had a lifetime’s worth of experience and knowledge, he lacked his granddaughter’s raw power. Sweat rolled down his face and I worried about his age and his heart.
“Stop the spell,” I yelled over the din. “This isn’t working, just stop!”
Beth grabbed a bottle of water and poured the contents over a bowl of smoking herbs. With a shout of Texas German, she doused the candles, sending the room into darkness. Howard fell silent. I searched the wall for the light switch. Bo found it first.
I blinked against the sudden brightness. Howard appeared drained but otherwise okay. The music petered out to a slow drone, but the banjo still hung in the air. Beth approached it. As soon as she touched the instrument, it hit her with a noticeable shock. She let out a yelp and backed away.
Howard said, “I’ve got some protective charms that might work.”
Bo stepped forward. “Let me try.” He reached for the banjo, moving closer to it. He held his hand inches from the neck, tension rolling off of him in palpable waves. He muttered something under his breath that I couldn’t hear, then he wrapped his hand around the instrument’s neck. The banjo settled into his grip without complaint, as if comfortable there. As if it recognized Bo as family.
Silence hung heavy and thick in the room. Beth began to clean up the mess, and Howard and I helped. I kept an eye on Bo as we worked. He held the banjo against his body, slightly leaning his ear toward the peghead. Was he thinking? Listening to some secret communication from his ancestor that only he could hear? Whichever it was, his increasingly reserved demeanor and his unwillingness to make eye contact with me since the awkward kiss was making me worry.
I found the banjo’s case and brought it to him. “Why don’t you put it away for the night, while we figure out what to try next.”
Bo only held the banjo tighter. “Magic’s not working. My blood didn’t work. What does he want?”
The idea of discussing the situation with Del Mahaffey himself hadn’t occurred to me. “Can we…I mean, is that possible? To ask him why he’s haunting his old banjo? What he wants, what it’s going to take to get him to leave?”
Beth said, “Yeah, I can do a séance.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Howard.
“Bo’s right, nothing else has worked. The strongest expulsion spell we’ve got just pissed him off.”
“This is dangerous.” Howard fixed his granddaughter with a look that made me want to clean my room and promise never to date until I was thirty. “You know why.”
Bo’s eyes were full of such desperate misery, I felt compelled to speak up when he didn’t. “I’ve never been to a séance, so could one of you explain why it’s so dangerous?”
“It’s dangerous because we would need Bo to play,” Howard said. “With his connection to this spirit, that could be inviting trouble.”
Bo said, “But could it work?”
Beth said nothing, but she sure looked like she wanted to. Howard said, “Maybe, but it’s a big risk.”
“If this is how we help my brother, it’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
“Mahaffey’s spirit is already drawn to you. This could make that connection stronger. Are you willing to risk that?”
“Yes,” Bo answered without hesitation.
The older man stared him down, took the measure of his commitment, and finally nodded. “Set things up, Beth, if you would. I need a moment.” Howard left the room, moving slowly.
Bo retreated to a corner with his haunted family heirloom. Beth came to stand next to me. “Pawpaw’s getting too old for this shit.”
I shared her concern, but I was more worried about Bo, and Howard being right. “I’ve got a weird feeling about this.”
She swatted at my elbow. “Come on. You light the candles and I’ll set up some chairs.”
We sat around the table as Bo played an old melody. Beth muttered an indecipherable mix of English and Texas German. The candle flames reacted to a breeze that didn’t exist. My internal spook meter blared a warning klaxon as the tattoo on my wrist flared with heat.
Beth said, “Are you with us, Del Mahaffey?”
Bo missed a note, then quit playing altogether.
“Del Mahaffey! You got something to say, let us know you’re here.”
It was a hell of a commanding tone to take with a man known for violence against women, but I figured that was why she spoke that way. It worked, too. He responded with a flurry of notes from his Supertone. Bo gaped as music poured from the instrument, his fingers nowhere near the strings. In a rush, he placed the banjo on the table.
“You’re hurting your great-grandson.” Beth used a softer tone now, a little more country in her voice. “You need to let him go, Mr. Del.”
Oh, that was good. I always admire a good hustle and that was a fine one. She poised her hands above the banjo, one at the neck, the other over the strings on the head. She breathed in and out, slowly, deliberately. Moved her fingers in an elegant approximation of plucking the strings.
Music emitted from the banjo. I knew right away it wasn’t Del Mahaffey. The tone was too gentle, nothing like the strident drone of Del’s anger. It whispered through the room, sweet as a summer breeze, tender as a consoling embrace. Knotted muscles relaxed and the fire on my wrist cooled. I glanced at the tattoo. It may have stopped hurting, but still glowed dark blue against my skin.
“Let him go, Mr. Del.” Beth’s eyes were closed, her features drawn in concentration. “Leave him be, and go find your peace.”
Sparks shot from the banjo, arcs of electric blue reaching for each of us. One hit my tattoo, the zap sending white hot pain up my arm and through my body. I leaped from my seat, sending the chair backward to the floor, barely staying on my feet. Howard wasn’t so lucky. The blow knocked him sideways to the ground. Beth hurried to his side. There was a brief clash of sound as her spell petered out and was overpowered by Del Mahaffey’s dark music.
Bo picked up the banjo and held it as magic and music poured from the strings. If the electricity hurt him, he gave no indication. If he was still frightened of Del, he hid it well. Something washed over his face that I couldn’t identify. He cocked his head as if listening once again to a voice only he could hear. Then he nodded, his lips moving silently.
A full on conversation between the two? That would either be the best thing that could happen right now, or the worst. “What’s he saying to you, Bo?”
He ignored me. I spared a glance at the Klingemanns. “You guys okay?”
Howard climbed to his feet, moving slow and stiff. “We’re okay, but this has to stop.” He looked at his granddaughter. “It’s time to admit this may be beyond us.”
“Del is way too dangerous to just give up,” she said.
Bo rested his hand on the banjo’s strings. His fingers stretched and flexed, like an animal testing the wind.
“You with us, Bo?” I didn’t like the slackness of his face, the blankness in his eyes. Was he still in control of himself?
“Justin can’t give him what he needs,” Bo said. He plucked the strings, a handful of notes spilling forth.
“Does that mean he’ll let your brother go?”
“Yes.” He raised his eyes to meet mine, and I swear to God, for a moment I was looking at the face of Del Mahaffey.
“What are you doing, Bo?” Panic hit me with a sudden force. None of us were likely to make much headway if this came down to a physical fight, or if we needed to restrain him.
“I have to give him what he needs. It’s the only way to help Justin.”
“No! You don’t have to do this.”
Bo answered with a power chord that would have earned appreciation from many a rock guitarist. The pyrotechnics it called forth were worthy of a high dollar stage show, too. Long blue-white arcs of magic shot out from the brackets around the head of the banjo. One made contact with my tattoo. Another hit my shoulder on the opposite side. I screamed, briefly overwhelmed by searing pain. Somewhere far away, or at least that’s how it felt, Beth and Howard chanted in Texas German. I wound up on my knees, fighting nausea, and then things were dark and fuzzy for a while.
By the time the pain receded enough for me to take stock, Bo was gone, and he’d taken the banjo with him.