Read Another Excerpt from Unsettled Spirits

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(Read Part 1 here.)

2.

Tuesday, July 11, 1972

 

Penelope pulled her black Lincoln into the parking lot of the Brown Tractor & Farm Supply Co. It was only ten o’clock in the morning, but the heat was already making the air above the asphalt parking lot wavy. She let the car idle for a moment before turning it off.

“Everything okay?” asked Zed from the passenger seat.

The building, a hodgepodge of brick, glass, and corrugated metal, loomed in front of them. Penelope thought back to the last time she’d been there, a few months earlier. It felt like years. “Does something seem … off to you?”

Zed squinted and peered through the windshield at the front of the building. “Now that you mention it, things seem a little quiet for a Tuesday.”

She nodded. “They do, don’t they?”

“Any idea why Bertram wants to talk to you? Think someone’s stealing from the till? Maybe someone trying to pass off counterfeit tractor parts? Do you think you could tell counterfeit tractor parts from real ones?”

Penelope rolled her eyes. “If it was anything like that, he wouldn’t have called me.”

Zed nodded. “You’re right. There’s probably some sort of federal agency that regulates tractors and ploughs and scythes and the like. I’m sure they have agents fighting twenty-four hours a day against the international cartels trafficking counterfeit tractor parts. Sounds like an idea for a TV show.”

Not for the first time, Penelope wondered about Zed’s mental state. “I just meant he’d hire a normal private investigator for something like that.”

Zed smirked. “Where is he going to find one of those?”

Penelope punched him in the arm. “There are a few around. Greenville’s not that small a place. After what happened back in May, though, I’m expecting Bertram wants to talk about something a little less … mundane.”

“So how are we playing this? I didn’t think you and Bertram were on the best of terms.”

She shrugged. “We’ve come to an understanding. And the way we’re ‘playing this’ is that you are letting me talk and keeping your mouth shut.”

Zed grinned. “I make no promises.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I mean it, Zed.”

The grin diminished. “I though you enjoyed my rapier wit.”

“Is that what that is?”

Zed clutched his heart. “I’m hurt, honestly.”

“You’re supposed to be my assistant, Zed.”

“I am. Part-time.”

“I can make that no-time if you want,” Penelope teased. “Look, I know I said Bertram and I had an understanding, but things are still a little touchy. Not everyone appreciates your clever banter like I do.” She opened her door. “Now come on and assist. Quietly.”

Bertram Brown was seated at his desk when Penelope and Zed walked into the main office. He pored over a ledger, pencil tucked behind his ear and an adding machine at the ready by his side. Without glancing up, he waved them over to the two chairs set up in front of his desk. Another minute passed while he scanned the columns and rows of the ledger, frowning and occasionally making marks with his pencil.

Wood paneling. Overstuffed filing cabinets. Dead potted plants. At least in here nothing had changed, except a different half-dressed woman perched on top of a tractor smiled out of the calendar hanging on the wall over Bertram’s head.

Penciling in one final mark, Bertram put the ledger down and raised his head. “Thanks for taking the time to come over, Penelope. I really appreciate it.”

Zed cleared his throat.

Bertram eyed him. “You too, Zed.”

Zed nodded. “Any time, Bertram.”

“How’s your mom doing?” Penelope asked.

Bertram shrugged. “Better. Most days, she’s able to convince herself everything that happened was a bad nightmare, but there are still some days when I find her sitting in the living room just staring out the window.”

In May of that year, a vengeful ex had used a cursed brooch to get back at Louise Brown for supposedly ruining his life. The ghost bound to the brooch assaulted her mind and her soul for days until Penelope, Zed, and their magically adept friend Charles were able to exorcise the malicious spirit. She’d be dealing with the scars from that experience for a long time to come, if not for the rest of her life. Not exactly what Bertram needed to hear at the moment, though.

“Hopefully there won’t be too many more days like that,” Penelope said. “At least he can’t hurt her anymore.”

They’d dealt with the vengeful ex, too, though it cost them all their own emotional trauma before it was over, along with some cuts and bruises and broken bones.

The corner of Bertram’s mouth twitched. The lines around his eyes were deeper than Penelope remembered. He’d also lost a few pounds. “Yeah, that’s the good thing, I guess.”

“What did you want to talk about, Bertram?”

Penelope’s question seemed to bring him back from wherever his thoughts had taken him. “We had an accident last night. New guy named Bobby Parker. He’s only been working here a week. They found him lying on the floor. Looks like he smacked his head pretty hard. We got him to the hospital, but we can’t figure out what happened.”

“What was he doing right before he got hurt?” Penelope asked.

“Truthfully? The other guys were playing a trick on him, told him it was an emergency and he needed to go get a part for a John Deere One-D-Ten-T right away.”

Zed frowned. “What’s the joke there?”

Bertram rolled his eyes. He grabbed a scrap piece of paper and scrawled on it with his pencil. Then he held up the piece of paper for Penelope and Zed to see.

1D10T.

IDIOT.

“Get it now?”

Penelope crinkled her nose. “Kind of a cruel joke, don’t you think?”

Bertram waved away her concern. “It’s just guys ribbing each other. It’s harmless.”

“Except this time, it wasn’t,” Zed added.

Bertram glared. “Like I said, we don’t know how he got hurt.”

“Do you think someone attacked him?”

Bertram pressed his hands together in front of his face. He wore a leather bracelet on his right wrist. Penelope had seen one exactly like it, on the wrist of his father, Ephraim. She assumed bracelet was charmed to ward off dark magic, one of the precautions the family had taken since the incident.

He took a deep breath. “I think something attacked him.”

Penelope had an inkling of why the warehouse didn’t seem to be as busy as it should have been. “What makes you think that?”

“When Bobby came to, he started babbling nonsense, talking so fast all his words ran together. He was flailing his arms around, screaming and yelling about divine retribution, fire and blood raining from the sky, judgement for everyone. Then he started speaking in fucking Latin. They had to sedate him.”

“You sure he’s not Catholic?” Zed asked.

Bertram barked a laugh. “Bobby Parker has more of a chance of knowing an alien from Mars than a member of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Trust me on that.”

Penelope’s sense of dread was growing. “What is it you want us to do?”

“Help me figure out what’s going on.” Bertram jabbed a finger in the direction of the warehouse. “I can’t even get half my guys to show up for work now.”

He let his shoulders slump and leaned back in his chair, covering his face with his hands again.

Penelope had known Bertram pretty much her whole life. She’d seen him stressed before, but never so haggard. “Where’s your dad, Bertram?”

He sat up again, picked up his pencil, and twirled it between his fingers absentmindedly. “He’s … taken a step back from the business. He started handing things over to me after what happened to Mom. He said he needed to take some time for himself.”

“So, you’re running the day-to-day by yourself?”

“Pretty much. I was already running most of it before, to be honest.”

Penelope wondered if taking over the family business was what Bertram wanted to do, or if anyone had even asked him. “Anything else we need to know about?”

Bertram stood. “Yeah, but this is something you have to see for yourself.”

He ushered them through a door in the back of the office. On the other side, fluorescent lights illuminated row after row of shelves laden with tractor parts and other pieces of farm machinery.

Bertram led them into the heart of the warehouse. The looming shelves made for strange shadows. Penelope began to imagine the warehouse as a sort of tractor mausoleum, holding the deceased remains of the departed farm machinery, at peace in eternal slumber. She blamed Zed for inspiring that ridiculous train of thought. She glanced over at him, but he had the best poker face of anyone she knew—when he wanted to anyway. She couldn’t get any sort of read on his opinion of the situation.

Finally, Bertram came to a halt. When he stepped aside, Penelope and Zed exchanged looks. This time she knew without a doubt what her assistant was thinking.

Someone had drawn a pentagram inscribed in a circle on the floor. Symbols and words clustered where the lines intersected. In the center lay what looked like a splatter of blood. Zed raised his Polaroid camera and snapped a few pictures.

“This,” Bertram said, “is the real reason I called you.”

***

“Does Bertram know you’re here?”

Ephraim Brown didn’t look up as he slowly peeled the label off his bottle of beer. He had offered one to Penelope, but she opted instead for a bourbon and Coke. They sat together at the kitchen table in his Crescent Avenue house. Ephraim had aged in the last two months. He seemed smaller, lesser. The charmed bracelet even hung looser on his wrist.

“Not exactly,” she answered.

“I won’t tell, then.”

“It’s not a secret, really. I can handle Bertram. I just didn’t want to deal with the argument that would’ve resulted if I told him I was coming to see you.”

Ephraim chuckled. “He is pretty hard-headed, isn’t he?”

“You said it, not me.”

Ephraim was there alone. Louise had gone out with a few of her girlfriends. The house, overshadowed by the giant maple trees outside, was dark and quiet. Penelope had played countless games of hide-and-seek among those trees with Bertram and the other neighborhood kids during her summer vacations, run through sprinklers, swum in the kidney-shaped pool in the back yard. Growing up, she’d always been a little bit jealous of Bertram, his house, and his complete family, but on that day, all the big empty rooms struck her as oppressive and lonely.

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