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.

What Buffy the Vampire Slayer can teach us about mental illness

“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”

I’ve been thinking of those words a lot lately. With the recent losses of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, a general sense of darkness in the world as we’ve come to know it, and my own ongoing struggles with depression and anxiety, struggles that ebb and flow from still and calm to crashing, crushing waves, those famous words uttered by Buffy Summers in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 episode “The Gift” are etched in that part of my gut where I most feel my own mental illness.

Courtesy of Syfy Wire.

‘The Candidate’: THR’s 1972 Review

Few films could be more neatly timed for the political convention season than Warner Bros.’ The Candidate, a Redford-Ritchie production starring Robert Redford as a liberal aspirant to the U.S. Senate, and with Michael Ritchie in the director’s chair. The two had teamed before, of course, on the successful Downhill Racer. Here, with notably more in terms of production values, story content, and sheer scope, the outlook is even more promising.

A little slice of 1972 pop culture courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter.

Read an Excerpt from Unsettled Spirits

Read a free excerpt of Unsettled Spirits! Interested? Then click here to get your copy of Unsettled Spirits today!

1.

Monday, July 10, 1972

 

Rumors are the lifeblood of society. They are the ties that bind.

Steve and Cheryl are getting married.

Awfully fast, isn’t it?

Well, you didn’t hear this from me, but …

If you ever meet someone who says they don’t gossip, they’re either lying or they’ve lived in a hole in the ground their whole lives. Who can resist the siren call of you’ll never guess what I heard?

Boyd and Pam are getting a divorce.

I heard he fell off the wagon again.

I heard she caught him stepping out on her.

Everyone talks, and if you think they don’t talk about you, then you’re wrong. Rumors don’t discriminate. Rumors don’t care about class or sex or color.

Hey, did you hear about Dave?

Yeah, saw him leaving his office with all his stuff in a box.

You know why he got fired, don’t you?

But you know what’s worse than everyone talking about you?

No one talking about you.

***

There’s no such thing as ghosts, Bobby told himself. They were just joking about the warehouse being haunted, something to scare the new guy. Still, as he counted off the rows until he came to the one he wanted, he couldn’t help but notice how deserted this part of the warehouse was. He caught himself glancing over his shoulder more than once.

He needed to find a part, a crankshaft that would fit a 1963 John Deere 1D10T. Everyone else was grabbing their stuff out of their lockers, getting ready to clock out and go home, but not the new guy. Apparently, this part had to go out via special delivery that evening to a customer in Greensboro, and being the low man on the totem pole, the job fell to Bobby.

But after about twenty minutes of wandering back and forth along the row, searching the giant shelves in vain, it occurred to him maybe they were playing another joke on him, sending him after a fake part. Come to think of it, Lloyd was looking awfully smug while Gerald, the floor supervisor, told Bobby what he needed to do. Up until then, he had never heard Gerald put more than two words together.

If he didn’t need the money so badly, he probably would have quit right then. Working the warehouse at the Brown Tractor & Farm Supply Co. wasn’t his first choice. It wasn’t even in the top ten, but given his spotty employment records of late—not his fault at all—they were they only ones who would hire him.

After another few minutes of scanning the shelves without any luck, he was ready to throw in the towel. He’d just have to go back and tell Gerald he couldn’t find the part for the 1D10T. If Lloyd was still there, he might wipe the stupid grin from his face, too. Bobby—who prided himself on being a good judge of character despite what happened at his last job—definitely didn’t like Lloyd. He talked too much. It didn’t matter if anyone else participated in the conversation, Lloyd would carry the whole damn thing himself. It didn’t help either that Lloyd smelled like a giant reefer most of the time. He didn’t even have the common decency to share.

As Bobby turned to walk back to the front of the warehouse, only the quiet whir of the air conditioning and his own footsteps on the concrete floor broke the silence. Strange, he thought, because he should have heard the other guys talking.

He never expected the child’s laughter.

Startled, he glanced around, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He shook his head and swore at himself under his breath. That was when the lights went out.

“Hey, y’all!” he called out. “Not funny anymore. Turn the lights back on.”

No one answered. Thanks to the long days of summer, the sun hadn’t yet set. Shafts of sunlight punched through windows high above. He could still make his way back, though plenty of deep shadows escaped the light’s reach.

The child’s laughter echoed through the warehouse again. Bobby spun around. Half disassembled tractors and machine parts loomed from the darkened corners of the building and sent his mind off in directions he’d rather it didn’t go. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a shadow move. He froze, one leg extended mid-stride, ready to run like hell if he had to. His heart pounded as he fought to control his breathing.

Another shadow stirred, followed by more high-pitched giggles. A small voice in the back of his head told Bobby something wasn’t right, but his curiosity overcame his fear. He followed the shadow and the laughter, until he saw a little boy running between the shelves in a patch of failing sunlight.

“Hey,” he called out. “What are you doing back here?”

The boy didn’t pay attention. Instead, he climbed on one of the defunct tractors, all the while squealing and laughing.

“Hey, stop that.” Bobby stepped toward the tractor. “You’ll get hurt.”

The boy turned toward him. He couldn’t have been any older than three. He was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, with knee socks and a pair of black and white saddle oxfords. His dirty blond hair was cut into bangs across his forehead. Bobby took a step forward. Laughing, the boy hopped down and ran off again.

Bobby hurried after him. He caught sight of the boy in the next row and sprinted to the end to try to catch up with him. When he did, he found the boy climbing on top of another half-stripped tractor.

“Be careful, you could fall off,” Bobby yelled.

The boy looked up, apparently startled. He lost his footing and tumbled off the hood of the tractor, hitting the concrete floor. There was no crying, only silence. Bobby stood for a moment, stunned, before he remembered to breathe. He rushed over to see if the boy was okay, but the toddler wasn’t there. He scanned the floor all around the tractor. There was no sign of the boy anywhere.

Another sound echoed in Bobby’s ears, a low moan. At the edge of his vision, he glimpsed a different shadow moving beside a nearby shelf.

“Hey, little boy, are you there? Is that you?”

No answer, no laughter, just another low moan that sent chills up his spine. He eased his way toward the shelf. The boy couldn’t have crawled there without him seeing, even in the dim light. He wished he had a flashlight.

As he neared the shelf, he called out again. “Little boy, are you okay? Did you get hurt?”

The moaning grew into a full-blown shriek. Bobby stumbled backward and nearly lost his balance. When he turned toward the shelf again, something gazed back at him with glowing green eyes.

The shadow-thing flowed from the shelf like water and rematerialized in front of him. Bobby couldn’t run, couldn’t scream.

Vaguely human-shaped, the shadow-thing stood at least ten feet tall. The two glowing green dots where its eyes should have been bore into him. He squeezed his eyes shut, but it didn’t do any good. The thing ripped through his brain, through his soul.

An arm reached out and clamped down a massive clawed hand around his shoulder. Its grip was ice cold. The temperature in the room dropped. Bobby’s breath came out in white puffs. The shadow sucked the heat out of him as it pulled Bobby closer.

He struggled against the shadow-thing, but he might as well have been fighting gravity. He came inches from being engulfed when the thing mercifully stopped.

Seconds later, though, he wished he’d just been pulled inside.

It spoke. He couldn’t understand any of the words, but he knew what the thing said nonetheless. Its words were cruel and sharp and harsh. Cutting words. Tearing words. Biting words. It spoke of pain and despair and death.

The shadow released him, dissipating like smoke, leaving Bobby alone among the shelves. As soon as he could use his legs again, he ran. Unfortunately for him, what light remained was rapidly fading, and he didn’t see, of all things, a crankshaft lying in his path. He tripped over it and went sprawling, smacking his head on the cold, hard floor. He struggled to get back on his feet, but his head swam. He couldn’t push himself up. Blackness crept in from the edges of his vision, and he collapsed back to the floor.

His last thought before the darkness took him was of the little boy’s playful laughter.

Unsettled Spirits is out!

Unsettled Spirits

Unsettled Spirits is out! Get your copy now!

It’s summertime in the South, but the temperature isn’t all that’s rising.

Greenville, South Carolina, 1972

Demons and ghosts are prowling the sultry days and nights, searching for unsuspecting souls to ensnare. When a strange accident puts an employee of the Brown Tractor & Farm Supply Co. in the hospital, Bertram Brown calls on the private detective services of Penelope Drake, who finds herself drawn into the Brown family’s intrigues once again.

At her side as always are her friends Zed and Charles, but they each have their own monsters to slay, some figurative, others quite real.

This time, though, Penelope is determined to find out who is targeting the Brown family, because the answer to that question could shed light on secrets her own father has kept from her. To uncover the truth, she’ll have to go up against not only sinister supernatural forces, but also overeager ghost hunters, a crusading preacher, and even her father’s ghost.