In The Pines chapter seven

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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?”

“Motherfucker.”

“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.”

“Bullshit.”

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.

 

<- Chapter Six

Chapter Eight ->

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In The Pines chapter six

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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?”

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Chapter Seven ->