There isn’t anything intrinsically Southern about this song performed by Tyler Ward and Alyson Stoner. It’s a version of “The Hanging Tree” from the Hunger Games movies, but the mood of this song and video is so Southern Gothic, I use it as inspiration for the Dreadful Penny novellas.
We’re just a few days into 2019, and I have finally finished the first draft of Legend Trip, the latest Dreadful Penny novella. Well, sort of. For a number of reasons, I hand wrote a lot of this one, and I still have to type it in, but the story is done.
This one was challenging, and I’m going to have to do a lot of editing, but I have a pretty clear vision of where I want things to go, and I’m excited to get to it. Don’t worry, Legend Trip is going to answer a lot of the questions you’ve been asking about Penelope and her friends. And yes, I can read my own handwriting. Mostly.
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“Did you try Charles again?” Zed asked.
She shook her head. “Still not answering my calls.”
“Have you been out there lately?”
“Not in a few weeks. Do you think we need to have another talk with him? Together?”
Zed barked a laugh. “Because that went so well the last time.”
“But it did. We almost had him back.”
She sighed. She didn’t understand the hostility between Charles and Zed, and she just wished Zed would try to be more understanding of Charles’ … unique problems. “We still don’t know what happened to him while he was in Vietnam.”
“My guess? They used to call it being shell-shocked, but from what I hear, now they’re calling it post-traumatic stress disorder. Lots of soldiers coming back from over there have it. They’re so traumatized by the stuff they see, they can’t get over it.”
Penelope considered for a moment what Zed was saying. It made sense, but she didn’t buy it, not completely. “This is different, though. I can’t put my finger on it, but something just seems off about the way he’s been behaving since the incident with Roy Arnold.”
Roy Arnold instigated everything, in a way. By attacking the Brown family, the rogue magician brought out revelations about her own father’s past, culminating in the discovery of his notebook. Charles, unfortunately, had borne the brunt of Roy Arnold’s frustrations when she, Charles, and Zed thwarted his planned revenge on the Brown family for all the ways, real and imagined, they had slighted him.
Zed shrugged. “Maybe you’re right, but there’s no telling with Charles.”
“I just wish you and Charles could get along, put whatever happened behind you.”
“I have tried.”
“Have you tried hard enough?”
He clenched his jaw. “I’ve done everything I can. He has to meet me halfway.”
Zed was just being stubborn, but Penelope couldn’t say she didn’t share some of his frustration. “I want to help him. I just don’t know how.”
She took a pen and a pad of paper out of her purse. Then she sat down on the couch and started copying the words and symbols coiled around one point of the pentagram. She could only copy part of it at a time, or else she ran the risk of her father figuring out what she was doing.
She wrinkled her nose as she studied her notes. “This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I can’t tell if ‘blood and bones’ are ingredients or the outcome of a successful spell. I could really use Charles’ library.”
“What about your antique dealer friend?” Zed asked. “Dan is his name? Doesn’t he have antique books?”
Penelope shook her head. “What are the chances of him coming across a book that would help me with this? Besides, he doesn’t actually get that many books. Seems the old families of Greenville didn’t make reading a priority.”
Zed grinned. “Given what I know, that doesn’t surprise me. He’s friends with other antique dealers, though, right? Maybe he could put feelers out or something.”
“I guess it’s worth a shot.” Also, it would be nice to talk to Dan again. She closed the notebook and placed it back in its hiding place. “Thanks, Zed. Try to get some sleep.”
He gave her a salute as she left. “Will do.”
Zed shut the door behind Penelope and let out a deep breath. He considered trying to go back to bed but knew the quest for more sleep would be futile. Instead, he turned on the television and found the Saturday morning cartoons. As the Roadrunner outran Wile E. Coyote for the thousandth time, he went to the kitchen and poured himself a bowl of cereal. Breakfast in hand, he came back and threw himself into the recliner.
Just as Coyote ran off a cliff and plummeted to the earth below, the show was interrupted by a breaking news announcement, though Zed couldn’t imagine what was so important to interrupt the Coyote and the Roadrunner.
The picture switched to a reporter standing in front of a motel somewhere. “We’re interrupting this program to report on a grisly murder overnight here in south Greenville county. Police are telling us that two people were stabbed to death in a room in the motel you see behind me on Highway 25 just north of Sandy Springs Road. They haven’t revealed any more details than that, although we do have the names of the victims. They are twenty-two-year-old Tammy Ryan, and forty-one-year-old Lloyd Baker. As soon as we have more information, we’ll be sure to let you know.”
The show switched back just in time for Coyote to be hit by a train coming out of a tunnel he had painted on the side of a mountain. Zed let the cereal on his spoon fall back into the bowl. Without a doubt, he knew who the killer was.
Yet another rogue magician who seemed to have it out for the Browns, Patrick Wheeler had bribed Lloyd Baker—who used to work at the Brown warehouse—to leave a side door unlocked. He was responsible for all the demonic activity in the warehouse, including the pentagram on the warehouse floor, the death of Bobby Parker, and the homicidal tractor.
And now he was apparently back for more.
Zed leapt out of the recliner and grabbed his phone to call Penelope, but she didn’t pick up. There was only one other person he could think to call.
Rather than go home after leaving Zed’s place, Penelope pointed her car toward the Greenville County Public Library. The small occult collection—not generally accessible to the public—wasn’t nearly the size of Charles’ library, but until he decided to be more agreeable, it would have to do. She was about halfway there when she noticed the car behind her.
The gold Ford sedan always remained a few car-lengths back, slowing down when she slowed down and turning when she turned. Could just be a coincidence, of course, but she knew better. She drove down Buncombe Street past the library, just to see if her follower would stay with her. He did.
She glanced at her wrist. The charm bracelet Charles had made for her hadn’t so much as twitched. The last time someone followed her, in the library itself, the bracelet turned warm to warn her about the dark magic directed her way. That in and of itself didn’t mean much. The same person might still be behind the wheel of the car. He could just be waiting for the right moment.
Penelope thought fast. She could double back and pull into the library parking lot, where there would hopefully be other people around, but the lot was small and cramped, and she ran the risk of being boxed in. She could instead go back to Zed’s. That might be safer, but even there she’d make herself a pretty easy target getting out of her car.
But before she could do either, her decision was made for her.
The Ford revved its engine and accelerated until mere inches separated the two cars. The glare off the tinted windshield kept Penelope from getting a clear look at the driver’s face. The Ford swerved from side to side as the driver honked the horn. Penelope hit the gas and shifted up, trying to put some space between the cars, but the driver of the Ford had other plans. With another burst of speed, the car rammed into her back bumper. She lost control of the wheel, and her Lincoln swerved up onto the sidewalk. She slammed on the brakes and screeched to a halt inches from a telephone pole. The Ford sped past her. She sat frozen in fear, expecting the driver to turn around, but the car receded into the distance.
Penelope waited for her heart to stop pounding before she eased the Lincoln back onto the street. The car didn’t seem too damaged. At least it moved. She’d have to take a look at the back bumper later. At the next intersection, she turned right. She didn’t have it in her to go to the library anymore, but she really didn’t want to go home. She needed to talk to someone, someone who didn’t have anything to do with ghosts or demons or dark magic.
Charles lay in bed, staring at the ceiling of the tiny room. The air was hot and sticky. The sounds of the city at night drifted in through the open window. He had to admit those sounds carried a certain melody, a song the city sang. He was sure if he stayed there long enough, he could learn to sing it, too.
But the bed wasn’t his bed, and the room wasn’t his room. He wasn’t even himself. In this dream world, this facsimile of New York City in 1919, he was Isaiah Jenkins. At least that’s what the letters he found from Isaiah’s sister in Charleston said. He even had some of Isaiah’s memories, nothing truly tangible, just flashes. People he’d never met. Places he’d never been. But at the same time all so familiar.
The face that appeared when he closed his eyes, though, belonged to Millie Priest. In Charles’ own time, she was a ghost who had taken up residence in his house. In 1919 she was a jazz singer with a voice like smoky glass. The last time he visited this dream version of New York, he’d heard her perform at The Boiler Room, a jazz club in Harlem. That same night, a group of white men burst in, destroying everything in the club and attacking the patrons with baseball bats and crowbars. One of them hit Charles on the back of his head while he was trying to protect Millie. That was the last he’d seen of the living version of her.
As he drifted off to sleep, he wondered if he’d run into her again.
Charles woke up on the floor where he had fallen. Very slowly he sat up. His head pounded, and his shoulder hurt where he had hit the hard wood. He was back in the front room of his own home, an old farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere, far from the city, where he generally preferred to be. The book he had been holding when he went out lay open next to him, pages down. He scooped it up and tried to smooth out the bent paper. A section of the spine disintegrated in his hand, and he swore under his breath. He pushed himself to his feet and spent a few wobbly moments regaining his balance.
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Saturday, July 29, 1972
The Devil is the Father of Lies.
Not just the big ones, the ones that destroy lives—secret affairs, hidden addictions, past indiscretions. He’s the father of the little white lies, too, the ones you tell because you think you’re sparing someone’s feelings. How many unintended consequences do you think those little lies have? What’s the price? How long before the lies get bigger? How long before the trust erodes?
The Devil’s greatest handiwork, though, might be the lies you tell yourself, the ones you use to justify the things you do.
You’re not a bad person.
You deserve to be happy.
It’s not your fault.
But what if you are a bad person? What if you don’t deserve to be happy? What if it is your fault?
Lloyd opened his eyes, suddenly awake. Maybe the air conditioner kicked on. Or he needed to take a piss. He lay still in the bed for a few seconds, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness, and also trying to figure out where he was. The last thing he remembered clearly was walking up to the bar at the White Horse Saloon and ordering a beer for himself and another for … someone else. As the events of the evening came back to him a piece at a time, he grinned.
Lloyd rolled over. No one occupied the other side of the bed, but the pillow was still warm. He propped himself up on his elbows and glanced around the room. Someone was standing at the foot of the bed.
“Tammy? Tammy, that you?” He patted the mattress. “Come back over here with me.”
He thought her name was Tammy anyway. When he’d met her, his attention was focused on the lacy little red halter top and the pair of denim hot pants she was wearing. They just begged for him to try to get them off her. A few hours and a whole lot of drinks later, the two of them staggered through the door of the motel room and those hot pants came off.
But now she wasn’t answering him.
“Tammy,” he purred, “come back to bed. I’m up for a second round if you are.”
The figure at the foot of the bed still didn’t move.
Lloyd shook his head and let out a chuckle. “Oh, come on, now. You can’t say I didn’t show you a good time.”
Finally, the figure shifted, and even in the dim light, Lloyd could tell it wasn’t Tammy. Too tall. Too broad-shouldered. As his heart pounded, Lloyd fought through the alcohol-induced fog in his head, trying to figure out what to do.
“You’re not Tammy. Who … who are you?”
Still no response.
Lloyd reached across the bed and switched on the lamp on the nightstand. He immediately wished he hadn’t. A man stood by the bed dressed all in black. Despite the summer heat, he wore a coat with a hood that hid his face. Behind him, Tammy, her head lolled to one side, lay across a chair. A giant red gash cut across her throat. Blood trickled from the wound down her naked body and pooled on the floor.
The black figure lifted a knife. “Sure, Lloyd, I’m up for a second round.”
The man’s gravelly voice compelled Lloyd to reduce his screams to quiet whimpers. The man pulled back the hood to reveal his face. Lloyd’s eyes grew wide with recognition.
The man laughed. “Come on now, show me a good time.”
He leaned over and turned off the lamp.
As soon as Penelope knocked on the door to Zed’s apartment, she knew she should have called first. From inside came the sound of footsteps, then stumbling and cursing and a loud bang followed by more cursing before Zed, at last, groggily opened the door.
When he saw her, he raised an eyebrow. “Penelope? To what do I owe the pleasure this morning?”
“I need to talk with you.” She surveyed his old sweatpants and tee shirt, his messy hair, his slumped shoulders, and heavy eyelids. “Sorry to bother you so early.”
“Don’t worry about it. What time is it anyway?” He leaned on the door, apparently for support.
“It was about eight o’clock when I left the house.”
He shrugged. “Well, I guess two hours of sleep is better than none.”
Of course. How could she be such an idiot? “You were deejaying last night, weren’t you?”
“This morning, technically, but yes.” He stifled a yawn.
Three nights a week, Zed worked as the night deejay at a local station. Penelope often wondered how he’d landed that gig, but Zed always played coy whenever someone asked him that question.
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I can come back later.”
Zed waved her inside. “No, that’s okay. I’m already awake. Wasn’t doing much today anyway. So, what do you need to talk about?”
Penelope stepped into the apartment. Zed had once told her he found all his furniture and artwork at flea markets and yard sales. She had no reason to disbelieve him. In the living area, a brown leather couch and an orange recliner lined one wall. Above the couch hung an oil painting of a desert landscape he’d bought because he “liked the colors.”
On the opposite wall, a television rested inside a dark wood console next to a bright green bookcase. Old movie posters for Dracula with Bela Lugosi and The Wolfman with Lon Chaney Jr. hung in frames on the wall over the television. In the corner sat a thriving giant potted fern. Penelope had never managed to keep a houseplant alive.
“I’d offer you coffee or something,” Zed continued, “but I don’t really have anything.”
“That’s okay. I’ll make it quick.”
Penelope went to the bookcase and reached behind the row of books on the second shelf. As with many parts of Zed’s life, she’d learned not to try to make sense of the hodgepodge of philosophy books, histories, and pulp paperbacks. She retrieved a yellowed notebook hidden there. She’d found the old journal in her grandmother’s attic. Her father’s journal. The entries in it dated back to his college years, but they weren’t the typical thoughts of a college student, and the drawings in the margins weren’t just random doodles. The notebook was full of magic. Penelope had asked Zed if she could keep it at his apartment because she didn’t want her father finding it at her place.
Her father’s ghost generally respected Penelope’s privacy. He preferred to stay in the office of the detective agency that had once been his, rather than in the upstairs apartment where she lived alone now. But he could go anywhere in the old converted house, and in the past, he had found things even she didn’t know were there.
She didn’t like keeping things from him, and she knew she couldn’t put off confronting her father about the notebook forever, but she didn’t want him to find it, not until she was ready. Every scenario she ran through her head just ended in a fight. They’d never fought, even when her father was alive. Only once had they ever come close—the time she told him she wanted to be a police detective, just like him.
He told her no.
She was crushed. She thought he’d be happy, proud of his little girl for wanting to follow in his footsteps, for wanting to help people.
She’d never get the chance to help people, he said, because she’d never be anything but a meter maid. There was no way they’d ever let a woman be a detective. She responded that she’d be the first. He crossed his arms and told her that she was being naïve. At that point, she left the room before any words escaped her mouth she couldn’t stuff back in.
Of course, he was right. He wasn’t trying to be mean. He knew she’d be the Chief of Police someday if anyone ever gave her half a chance, but he also knew the world didn’t work that way. Out of a total of one hundred fifty, the Greenville Police Department had exactly five female police officers, all meter maids. The most any of them got to do was pat down a woman who happened to be arrested.
She never bothered applying for the job.
The discussion about her father’s college journal, though, was going to be even more difficult than that, which is why Penelope found herself at Zed’s apartment early on a Saturday morning.
“Any closer to figuring out how a pentagram your dad drew in a notebook thirty-five years ago made it onto the floor of the warehouse at the Brown Tractor & Farm Supply Co.?” Zed asked.
He tactfully avoided the part about the same pentagram being associated with the death of a warehouse worker named Bobby Parker, a demon-possessed tractor, and ultimately, the explosion that destroyed the warehouse.
“Not exactly.” Penelope opened the notebook to the sketch of the pentagram. An intricate array of symbols and words wove around the five points of the star. “I think maybe I made a mistake translating some of this. My high school Latin is a little rusty. I guess we’re lucky it’s a real language, though, not like these other symbols here.”
Zed stiffened. “That’s Enochian. It’s a real language.”
“I meant one spoken by people.”
“It’s spoken by people. A few anyway.”
She shot him a sideways glance. “Where?”
“Other planes,” he said. “Beyond the Veil.”
“How do you know that?”
“Charles told me.”
She returned her attention to the notebook. “Well, until you can find me an Enochian-to-English dictionary, I’ll be sticking to what I remember of Mrs. Farr’s conjugation drills.”