In The Pines chapter ten

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“Look, we’ve called, like, a hundred times. Answer your God damn phone, Bo.” Right then, I really could have used the old-school satisfaction of slamming the phone down into the receiver, but cells don’t work like that and no way was I throwing around pricey electronics. So instead, I let loose with a streak of swear words. Not quite as good, but close.

Beth entered the kitchen. “Did you hear from him yet?”

“No.” I checked my email on the off chance he’d elected to contact me that way. Nothing but newsletters I needed to make the time to unsubscribe from. “How’s your grandpa?”

“Tired and worried. Other than that, I think he’s okay.” She busied herself with cleaning up dishes, but the tension wasn’t hard to spot.

“I am so sorry that this has put you guys through so much. I had no idea it would get out of control.”

She slowed a fraction. “It’s not your fault he won’t retire.” She met my gaze briefly and I saw no reproach there. “But I guess he’s right. This isn’t really the kind of thing you retire from.”

“What do you mean?”

“Once a witch, always a witch. It’s not a job. It’s who we are. I figure you might know something about that, being a writer.”

I knew exactly what she was talking about. “Yeah.” My phone buzzed, derailing the swirl of thoughts about magic and words and creating something from nothing that had begun to gather. I  glanced at the number, relieved it was finally Bo.

“Dude, what the hell? It’s been almost two hours, why haven’t you called?”

“For God’s sake, go easy,” Beth whispered.

I made a face, chagrined. “Are you okay, Bo?”

A skitter of laughter filled my ear and scratched at my nerves. “To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure if I’m Bo.”

A wave of dread overcame me. I had to sit down. “What do you mean by that?” I turned the phone on speaker so Beth could hear both sides of the conversation.

“I guess you figured out I could hear him when I played.”

“Yeah.” Getting confirmation still spooked me, though.

There was a long pause. “I don’t have to play to hear him anymore.”

“What’s he telling you, Bo?”

No answer. I turned up the volume on my phone. It sounded like road noise coming from his end. “Where are you, Bo? We’ll come get you.”

“I need to do this for him,” he said.

“You don’t need to do anything for him. Just because he’s your ancestor doesn’t mean you owe him shit.”

“He needs this, and I’m the only one who can help him.”

“You need to help yourself, and your brother. Del had his chance. He lived, and he murdered a woman who was pregnant with his baby, and he paid the price for it. He has no right to ask anybody for anything.”

“I have to try.” He ended the call.

I swore, so frustrated I wanted to throw things. “What the hell would the ghost of a man who got off on hurting women need from his descendant?”

“I think we both know the answer to that,” Beth said.

I swore some more. “We need to find him before he hurts someone.”

“Do you have anything of his? I can try a locator spell.”

The folder of family secrets he’d given me was in my bag. I retrieved it. Beth placed the folder with Del’s photo on top on one side of the kitchen table, with an open road atlas on the other. She added a thin length of green jute to the atlas. Some candlelight and a few chants later, the jute began to stretch out. It followed the interstate headed east. The tiny hairs on my arms raised and the elvish tattoo heated the skin on my wrist. It may not have looked like much compared to some of the things I’d seen recently, but this was still a powerful bit of magic.

The thread moved over the page, crossing into Louisiana. “This is the way we came,” I said.

“Do you think he’s going home?”

I tapped the map, careful not to touch the jute. “That’s exactly what I think. I gotta get on the road, he’s got too much of a head start.”

Beth said, “Give me five minutes to pack a bag and tell Pawpaw.” She turned toward the hall.

I grabbed her arm. “You don’t have to do this. It’s not your mess to clean up.”

Her cinnamon eyes looked right into me. “It’s not your mess, either, but you’re in it anyway. Because you want to help, and so do I.” She left the kitchen without another word, leaving no room for argument.

Our plan was to catch up with Bo before he crossed the Mississippi, and we figured with two drivers we had a decent shot despite his head start. A storm was the first thing to slow us down, rain so heavy that traffic on the interstate slowed to a crawl. The next thing was a flat tire. Good thing Beth had a spare in the trunk of her car and knew how to change it. By the time a logging truck spilled its contents across the highway just west of Vicksburg, we could both feel the dark magic stalking us.

We sat in traffic, Beth fuming silently as I went back and forth between the atlas and my phone. “The map’s not detailed enough to help us and my phone is acting crazy. The signal drops out every time I try to use it for directions.”

“At least my locator spells are still working.” Bo was definitely headed home. Thanks to her spells, we were sure of it. But whatever mojo Del Mahaffey had going was keeping us from catching up.

“We’ll take the next exit, find a gas station, and buy a state map. Figure out a new route. Three new routes. However many it takes.” We had no idea how far we were from the next exit, or how long it would take to get there in this mess.

Beth drummed the steering wheel. “You know what I’ve been wondering?”

“What do we do when we find Bo?”

“If Del’s ghost is powerful enough to influence all these accidents, why not just kill us?”

I’d thought about that, too, and hadn’t come up with an answer. “I don’t know. Maybe he wants Bo to kill us once we’re back on his home turf. That could be why he wanted Bo to go home. He prefers hunting on familiar ground, maybe?”

“Except that’s not Del. Right? He hit his wife and he killed a girlfriend. The women he abused were intimate partners, not just random women he met in bars or wherever.”

She was right. “He wasn’t a serial killer, so the idea of hunting grounds is wrong.” I looked through the folder for about the hundredth time. Paula Welch’s memoirs, handwritten in a careful, feminine script. Newspaper clippings. Copies of official documents like birth and death certificates, property deeds. Old sheet music and family photos. The picture of our ghost. I stared at his deep-set, dark eyes as if I could pull secrets right out of the old, heavy paper. “What do you want, Del Mahaffey?”

Beth said, “Why do you think they do it?”

I closed the folder. “What do you mean?”

“Men. Why do they hurt the women who love them? Or women they barely know, for that matter. The first time I cast a hex, I was thirteen. I had a thing with this boy in my class. Not like we were dating or anything. Just middle school flirting, you know? One day after school, we kissed. It was my first kiss. I thought after that, he was my boyfriend. Instead, I find out the next day that he’s told all his friends what an easy slut I am, and a bad kisser. You would think a slut would know what she was doing, right?” She shook her head. “Asshole. I was so mad and so hurt, I put a hex on him. He played so bad that he humiliated himself on the basketball court and got benched for the rest of the season.”

“I wish I’d known some witchcraft in middle school.”

Traffic inched forward. Beth took the car out of park and drove. “That’s my nicest asshole story. There was the linebacker who tried to roofie me at a homecoming party. I stayed away from jocks after that one. A guy who slapped me and left me in a parking lot when I wouldn’t put out after he took me to dinner. This one guy harassed me for months because I wouldn’t give him my number. I mean stalker stuff. A restraining order didn’t work so I had to hex him, too.”

“I waited tables with a woman who would come to work bruised and barely able to walk because of her husband,” I said. I hadn’t thought of her in years. The mental calculations of how many women I’d known who’d suffered abuse, harassment, and assault from men left me chilled to the bone. “I told a guy no once and he didn’t stop. I was too drunk to fight him off, so it happened. Part of me still thinks it was my fault, on the rare occasions I think about it.”

Beth took my hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. “You know that’s not true, right? You said no.”

Yeah, but I’d been drinking and flirting and making out with him all night. Wearing a short skirt and fuck-me heels. No way would a cop have taken me seriously if I’d tried to file a report. It felt like my fault, at least in part, and no amount of rational objectivity could change that deep down. So I kept to a two-drink limit now, sure, but the main reason I didn’t talk about it was because frankly, it just wasn’t that traumatizing. He didn’t hurt me. I left his place disappointed in both of us and embarrassed as hell, but not traumatized.

I shared my thoughts with Beth. “Do you think it’s wrong that I don’t feel like a victim? I never thought of myself that way. I drink less around guys, especially guys I don’t know well, but I’m not scared of men and I certainly didn’t stop having sex. I know some women would call it rape but to me, it was just this dumb careless thing that happened in the past and doesn’t much matter now. I hadn’t even thought about it in years, until this conversation.”

“You’re the only one who can decide what it was to you,” she said. “I just don’t like the thought of any woman thinking something like that was her fault.”

“I hear you. I just think there’s a huge difference between what happened to me that one time, and what was happening every night to that woman I used to wait tables with. Her husband was so brutal with her, there were days when she couldn’t walk right.”

“Shit like that makes me wish every woman knew how to throw a good hex.”

That place where I kept all my secrets felt raw and betrayed by my inexplicable oversharing. I was used to prying confidences and mysteries out of other people, not offering up my own. I turned on the car stereo and moved the dial until I found a song that hit the right note. Traffic opened up enough to reveal an exit coming up and I breathed a sigh of relief. At least we’d get out of this mess soon.

It didn’t take long for darker thoughts to return. “As far as we know, Del Mahaffey didn’t target random women,” I said. “He hurt women he was close to.”

“Does Bo have a girlfriend?”

“No, but his brother does, and she’s already been on the receiving end of Del’s fury.” I reached for my phone. “I know her name from Justin’s profile. I’ll message her. Hopefully, she’ll take me seriously.”

“How much are you going to tell her?”

Ugh, that was a tough one. “I don’t know. Just to stay away from Bo, I guess.”

Jenna got back to me with a promise to avoid Bo. She had good news, too. Bo hadn’t contacted her and Justin had come out of whatever personality altering state he’d been in. His doctors wouldn’t give him access to his phone yet, but through Jenna he relayed a message to me: please help my brother. She didn’t say anything specific but I got the impression that Jenna knew about the haunted banjo.

Bo wasn’t home. The mailbox attached to his house was stuffed with flyers and envelopes. It looked like he hadn’t been back to his tidy little house at all, but I was sure he had returned to the area. For whatever reason, Del Mahaffey had wanted to come home.

Beth sat on the porch stoop. “What now?”

I grabbed my messenger bag and joined her. “Locator spell. Dangerous confrontation. Some food would be good.”

“He could have some other woman by now.” She rubbed her face then held out her hand. “Give me the photo of Del. I’ll see what I can get.”

I let her work and took out a notebook. Not the one I used for Turntable notes, the new one I used for my spooky blog notes. Writing in it helped me think, and I needed that help now.

So Bo was keeping his distance from Jenna. Did that mean he was fighting Del’s influence? Or did it mean Mahaffey had something else in mind? Someone else in mind? Maybe I needed to be looking at female descendants, but of which woman, Del’s wife or lover? Perhaps his wife, because he held a grudge even in death. After all, Pauline turned him over to the law for killing his side piece. That got him executed, which was surely a pretty good reason for an evil spirit to want revenge. But who would be the target of his delayed vengeance?

Beth caught my attention. “He’s out in the middle of nowhere.” She indicated the county map bought at a gas station. “As far as I can tell, he’s not moving around, either.”

I looked at the map, then flipped through the notes I’d made about Paula Welch’s memoirs. “This is not far from where Del buried his girlfriend Maggie.”

“Let’s go.”

I shoved my stuff back in my bag. “Just let me dig my stun gun out of my luggage before we get anywhere near Bo again.”

“A stun gun? If you’d rather have a real gun, you can borrow one of mine.” Beth rose and headed for her car.

One of her guns? Well, I may have moved away, but she was still a Texan.

 

<- Chapter Nine

Chapter Eleven ->

In The Pines chapter nine

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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.”

“That sounds…gross.”

“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.

 

<- Chapter Eight

Chapter Ten ->