Did clown-colored mushrooms spark the gruesome murders? Will his memories of the murders save him or kill him?
At age eight, Dave Austin witnesses his brother’s savage murder in rural Norwich, New York, but amnesia suppresses the memory, and the killer escapes. Locals suspect an itinerant, a pedophile, or a disturbed friend maddened by psychedelic mushrooms. When Dave starts college, pressures at Princeton and alcohol elicit dreams, each one revealing a bit of memory. Then come visions as Dave senses the killer return. Images of teenagers killed where his brother died precipitate a crisis, and David returns to Norwich to find his dead brother’s friend, a disturbed witness who knows something. Dave’s appearance alarms his psychiatrist, the officers who hadn’t solved the case, and especially the killer, who knows he should not have let the young Dave escape. Now the killer must correct his mistake. When a crazy farmer invites Dave to learn the killer’s name in the Clown Forest at midnight, how can he resist? He may learn what he needs to identify the murderer—if he gets the truth, and survives.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Clown Forrest Murders by A. C. Brooks and R. R. Brooks, eight-year-old Dave Austin barely survives an attack by a murderer who kills both Dave’s older brother and a friend. But Dave doesn’t remember what happened that day, so the murderer goes free. As Dave grows up and goes to college, he has, first, dreams and, then, visions of the killer, and, while dreaming, watches him strike again. When Dave sees a newspaper headline and realizes that what he dreamed really happened, he decides to go back to his hometown to the place where his brother was killed, in hopes that his suppressed memories will surface and the killer can be caught. But the site is located near a patch of psychedelic mushrooms so how can Dave be sure that anything he remembers is actually real and not a delusion caused by the mushrooms?
Both a chilling psychological thriller and an intriguing mystery, the story will keep you turning pages from beginning to end.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Clown Forest Murders by A. C. Brooks and R. R. Brooks, is the story of Dave Austin, an eight-year-old boy who witnesses his older brother’s brutal murder and barely escapes himself. Traumatized, Dave suppresses all memories of that day, so he can’t describe the murdered, and he escapes. His parents soon relocate, taking Dave to another town, in hopes they can all put the past behind them. But the past won’t stay buried. When Dave grows up and goes to college, the killer strikes again, and when Dave sees the story in the newspaper, he realizes that the dream he had the night before was actually a vision of the murder taking place. Hoping to release his suppressed memories of his brother’s murder, Dave goes back to his old hometown, unwittingly making the killer realize that he should not have let young Dave escape—and he is determined that Dave won’t be so lucky this time.
The Clown Forest Murders is a combination mystery/thriller that is fast-paced, intense, and chilling. You won’t be able to put it down.
July 1983, South Plymouth, New York:
On a bright, sunny day, eight-year-old David Austin set out after lunch with his older brother Scott on a great outdoor adventure. They hiked up the hill beyond their ranch-style house, joined by a friend, Carter Shuman, who carried the reason for the outing, a brown paper bag filled with fireworks left over from Fourth-of-July festivities. The warm weather with afternoon highs projected in the eighties, above average for central New York, meant the boys wore shorts, tee shirts, and ball caps. David, a handsome kid with an eager, smiling face, already had a summer tan, thanks to the YMCA soccer league he’d joined at the end of the school year.
They’d reached the first clump of bushes in the unused sheep field, now owned by the Austins, when Carter stopped. “Do we have matches?”
“Crap!” Scott said. “David, you go back. Grab some and don’t be obvious about it.”
David wondered why he was old enough to sneak matches when he’d been ruled too young to handle fireworks. Didn’t seem fair, just because Scott and Carter were twelve, but the assignment made him feel important. He got back into the house without encountering Mom and found matches in their usual place on the mantle. Both small boxes of wooden ones and books were there lying loose—the jar that usually held them had crashed to the floor during a minor earthquake and had not been replaced. He grabbed three boxes, thought a moment, and added several matchbooks. He’d made it to the back door when his mother, Chella, materialized.
“Where are you off to?” she asked.
Sure that his mother had once been a cop, David fisted the loot and shrugged. “For a hike with Scott and Carter. They’re waiting.”
He darted out the back door and through the gate in the chain link fence, knowing he was watched. He dove behind the first big redberry bush where Scott and Carter crouched. David presented the matches, proof of his skill and worthiness to be included in the secret outing.
“Good job,” Scott said as he pocketed the keys to fire. He smiled and continued, “You really are grown up. I’m sorry I didn’t include you in the pool game at your birthday party right from the start. Brothers should back each other.” He hugged David and, positioning the Yankee cap over his brown crew cut at an angle, led the way up the hill.
David was already happy to be with the twelve-year-olds in an activity that had to be kept hidden from parents. Now, with his brother’s words, he was thrilled. Ever since the start of second grade, he’d become an outdoor kid, mostly trailing his brother, regardless of the season. In the fall, he raked leaves, stacked firewood, and tried school soccer. In winter, the skiing he endured as a first-grader became fun. Spring meant playing in the icy creek, something else kept secret from parents, especially when Scott had to pull him from the cold water and sneak him into the house to dry off and warm up. Now in summer, he hiked or biked wherever the older boys went. Really part of the gang.
Carter had discovered the bag of sparklers and firecrackers in the closet he shared with his brother. A bit more searching had led him to the good stuff—snakes, rockets, and cherry bombs—that were hidden in the dresser. Neither hiding place showed much imagination, and, to Carter, both were the equivalent of laying gold on the bed with a take-what-you-want sign. Like a good brother, he accepted the invitation and confiscated the whole cache, probably figuring he’d get punched but sure his parents wouldn’t be told. The punching might not even happen, for Carter was strong and almost as tall as his fifteen-year-old brother. As he told David and Scott, his brother had likely already forgotten about the leftover fireworks.
Scott chose an isolated spot for the noisy event. A good distance up the hill above the Austin neighborhood stood the falling-down Sugar Shack, once used to boil maple syrup but now a wooden heap. It was a favorite campsite for teenagers, who’d marked the spot with a fire pit and empty beer bottles and cans. These things would be the perfect launch vehicles for lit firecrackers.
To get there, the boys climbed a path that traversed fields above the abandoned sheep pasture. The Sugar Shack site perched above a ledge that looked over a slope to a graveled tractor path. Beyond that lay a fenced-in field and then dark woods. To David, the stand of trees was mysterious, and he’d visited it only when he was with Scott. The slope above the shack was littered with gray boulders that reminded him of tombstones, and he thought of it as a cemetery.
Last fall, the three boys had wanted to explore the woods below. They climbed over the first fence and were heading toward the second when a great monster appeared: a bull came out of nowhere, snorting, and shaking its massive head. The boys screamed and flew back through the wire barrier, Scott tossing David over the fence before he saved himself from what seemed to be a charging beast. In fact, it was only a mildly interested bovine meandering toward them. David had bull nightmares for a week after that, and though he hadn’t seen the creature for a while—he’d checked more than once, even when snow was on the ground—there was no way he was going back over the fence.
David reached the Sugar Shack first and found John Redford waiting. A big, muscular, flat-faced kid near thirteen, John had been his brother’s friend for a year or so. He didn’t live in the neighborhood, but had attached himself like a hungry leech, one not easily shed. Even in the heat, he wore the usual oddball western clothes, all in black including a wide-brimmed black hat and kerchief that fluffed out around his neck and made his humungous head seem even bigger. David’s mother said that John reminded her of Hopalong Cassidy, whoever that was.
When Scott and Carter arrived, John pointed at David. “Why is the squirt here?”
Once David had overheard his mother say that John might become an actual bully if he had more wit and ambition. David wasn’t sure what that meant, but ever since, he’d pegged John as a bully. He fit the mold, having grown an inch or two in the past year and put on weight, which somehow gave him the power he needed to pick on a small target: David.
“I invited him,” Scott said.
“He’s got the matches,” Carter said, as he pulled the fireworks from the bag and laid them side-by-side on a flat rock. The boys watched as if they were eyeing the contents of a pirate’s treasure chest where red and blue wrappers took the place of rubies and sapphires. Scott added the matches and picked up a bottle. David chose a cherry bomb, intending to give it to his brother, but John grabbed it.
The big boy lit the fuse, dropped the bomb into a can, and tossed the projectile high over the ledge. When it exploded in air, he whooped and then bent forward as if he’d been shot. “Shit.”
“What happened?” David asked.
“I have to take a dump.”
“Unbelievable,” Scott said. “Take your smell far from here.”
“And we don’t want to watch you,” Carter added.
John maneuvered past the ledge and down a path toward the fence. A small bush might have served, but the chorus of juvenile ridicule from Scott and Carter drove him farther, over the fence and toward the trees. The mockers then came up with a dire litany of evils that might befall him. First were snakes, poison ivy, sumac, and oak. Then, as if gaining a head of steam, they imagined rabid foxes, a maddened black bear, and of course, the bull. As John scrambled to find privacy and relief, they’d yelled about a movement in the trees, hitting the big kid with the scariest of threats, that of the unknown. With a wave of his middle finger, John disappeared.
Scott dropped a lit firecracker into the beer bottle and heaved it over the ledge toward the trees. What sounded like “assholes” followed the explosion.
“Are we supposed to wait for him?” Carter asked.
“No one said anything about waiting.” Scott struck another match.
In the afternoon heat, David watched snakes uncoil in a slow burn and enjoyed the one rocket. Scott and Carter bickered over how to stuff bottles and cans with lit cherry bombs and firecrackers. Exploding bottles and cans flew over the ever-darkening gully and entertained them. Although his brother wouldn’t let him light anything, David was allowed to throw several projectiles after they were lit. It was like being an important member of the tribe.
John did not return.
“John is an idiot for missing all the fun,” Scott said when half the firecrackers had been used.
“Yup,” Carter agreed.
John had been gone for over an hour before David thought of him again. His brother and Carter seemed to have completely forgotten John.
Scott picked up the last three firecrackers and took a rubber band from his pocket. He wrapped it around the three to form a fat one. David handed him the quart-sized beer bottle with a broken neck. His brother lit the super firecracker, dropped it into the bottle, and heaved it high. The burning fuse lit the brown glass as it sailed over the shadowed ravine and plunged toward the tractor path. It exploded with a satisfying pop and reverberation that made David smile. The echo died and the boys, sweaty in their shorts and polo shirts, retreated to the fire pit.
“Where’s John?” Carter asked. “He should have come back long ago.”
“Like an hour ago. I bet he messed his pants and had to go home,” Scott said.
“Maybe he’s hurt,” David said.
The three sat on logs that formed a circle. Without the noise of firecrackers and the laughter of the pyromaniacs, the hillside was silent. Minutes passed and no one spoke until crows, sounding indignant, cawed from down the hill.
“Is that him?” David went to the rocky edge and eyed the forest as birds repeated their complaint. Nothing moved below the ledge all the way to the tree line. Beyond that it was dark. “Where do you think he went?”
Scott came close. “Who knows? Probably so embarrassed about messing his pants, and so pissed off at us for riding him, he headed home. It’s getting late, and he’s a big pussy.” Scott kicked a piece of half-burned wood.
David stared hard into the trees. When he caught movement—or thought he did—his mind filled in details, and it became a figure about John’s size. Then it was just shadows in spaces near low-hanging branches. But it did seem to move. “John, is that you?” he called and, when there was no answer, said in a quiet voice, “Should we make sure he’s all right?”
“He could have fallen down and twisted something, I suppose,” Carter said. “Maybe he yelled himself hoarse while we were blowing up shit.”
“Fine,” Scott said. “We’ll look for him.”
A Killing Field
The boys trekked down the hill from the ridge through waist-high summer grass toward the fence. David followed his brother across the graveled tractor path, feeling the late-day sun warm his back, even as the air wafting to his face from the glen below seemed cold. At the barbed wire barrier near the bush that John first tried to use for privacy, David smelled something unfamiliar. It wasn’t a dead animal—he knew what dead squirrels and rabbits and even deer smelled like—more an odor of decay and mold. He shivered.
Checking for the bull and seeing no horned creature, he slipped through the wire strands after Carter and Scott. No one spoke as they crossed the “bullpen” and approached the trees. They peered over the second fence into pines, undergrowth, and gloomy darkness.
David went around a small bush tangled with grapevine to see into another part of the woods. Three crows leapt into the air, screaming, and flapped up the hill under the gaze of a red-tailed hawk circling high above. He plucked a tuft of black cloth from the barbed wire, reminded that John always wore black.
David peered into the dimness of the trees, saw a snarl of low branches and briars that acted like a curtain. The sickly odor was strong here, and it drove him back.
Scott broke the silence the crows had left behind. “The asshole must have gone home.”
“Hope he didn’t miss all the fun just because we scared him,” Carter said.
Scott snorted. “Hard to believe a guy who’s bigger than most seniors could be scared of anything in those trees.” He raised his voice. “John, you in there?”
A tree creaked, nudged by a rogue wind gust that briefly ruffled high branches.
“Hey, Big Bad John!” Carter leaned over an old post, careful not to touch the rusty strand of barbed wire stapled to the top. “If you’re in there and you’re hurt, you’ve got to make some noise so we can get to you. Otherwise we’ll figure you took your fat ass home or got eaten by a bear.”
David listened, sure they should be able to hear a yell or a stick banging against a tree. He expected something, at least normal forest sounds, like a chirping bird or a fussy squirrel, but all was silent. Even the wind that lifted his hair should have shifted the branches. Nature’s quiet meant they should be able to hear a cry for help.
“Must have gone home,” Carter said. “Probably in front of the TV right now, stuffing down chips and hoping the washing machine cleans his crappy shorts before his mom comes home.”
Scott laughed and pointed to the fence line. “Let’s stay on this side along the trees. No use fighting our way through that tangle.”
Or through the dark, David thought.
The boys followed the forest edge to the fence that separated the bull field from where sheep used to graze. They crossed the barrier into waist-high grass and walked the fence line down a slope along the edge of the trees. At every other fence post, they paused to shout into the woods. No answer.
“I don’t think he’s in there,” Scott said.
“Screw him. I’m going home,” Carter said.
David thought that was a great idea and scooted ahead away from the woods. Downhill another fence loomed, and he would have to cross it, but then the trip would be easy. He was thirty yards ahead when the sounds came.
A thump and a sharp yelp stopped him. He turned to see his brother and Carter higher on the hill. Carter was on his knees, one hand grasping the back of his head. The boy was moaning as Scott bent over him.
David climbed toward Scott who seemed to be looking up the hill. There a black figure stood with its back to the sun, the face dark and hidden by a brimmed hat. The shadowed face showed a slash of white. Was it a smile? There was something wrong with the smile. Whoever it was wore a ripped and hanging shirt. He thought it was John, but then the figure looming above them seemed too big. As David watched, a thick arm tossed a rock up and down. Up and down.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Scott yelled. He took a step toward the figure, placing himself in front of David, who’d closed the distance between them.
The arm snapped forward and flung the stone. Scott dodged, but the rock clapped against his cheek hard enough to snap his head back. David saw a spray of blood.
As if it were a game, the attacker picked up another weapon, one of the long flat jagged pieces of slate David played with, pretending they were knives. Whatever or whoever it was advanced toward them.
His face ashen and bloody, Scott turned to David. He pointed a red-stained finger at his brother and screamed, “Run!”
But David stood with frozen legs and a frozen mind, sucking air in spastic, shallow pants, never taking his eyes from the big black figure. He heard thumping footfalls and saw the raised arm, the dagger-shaped stone, the smile. Maybe eyes. The head seemed immense, surrounded by a black halo, and the chin seemed long. The beast ignored Carter and came toward the dazed Scott. The stone slab descended, and Scott raised his hand. The rock crashed into his forehead, and Scott crumpled forward, a crimson veil over his face. He didn’t move.
The thought exploded in David’s brain. Scott was dead.
Carter struggled to his feet, his face smeared with blood and his eyes wide. He had always been the biggest, the strongest, and the bravest. Now David saw tears as Carter began to scramble toward him.
“Run, run, run,” he hissed.
The killer struck Carter, smashing a rock on his head. The boy twitched and fell.
Instinct told David to flee, but a deeper instinct drew him toward his brother. He had to help. Scott couldn’t be dead.
The creature, its claw-like fingers extended, whirled and lunged. Hard nails sank into David’s shoulder. The boy screamed and ripped at the hanging flap of the monster’s shirt. His fist punched into the beast’s crotch, and the thing roared. Its grip relaxed, and David fell back clutching a piece of cloth.
He rolled, came to his feet, and ran toward the trees, diving and sliding under barbed wire. He stumbled past trunks and branches down the slope into a depression where, panting and straining, he slipped on a smear of wetness. He fell, scattering liver-brown and blood-red button mushrooms and just missing a slab of rock. Warm air touched his face and, reaching out as if the caress would erase a bad dream, he relaxed his balled fists.
The snap of wood brought him to his feet. He dared not look. He tore off, flailing his way over the sunken rocky ground. Branches crashed against him, scraping his arms and cheeks, but he felt nothing. He burst from the woods and dove under a fence into tall grass. He couldn’t hear steps behind him but ran faster. Tears blurred everything, and his breath came in gasps. He ran by instinct alone, found his house, and tumbled into the back yard. Hysterical, exhausted, and in shock, he lay on the ground and sobbed.
© 2017 by A. C. Brooks & R. R. Brooks
“A thrilling read, full of smart wonders as prehistoric spores menace a rural New York population—or is there something more, something demonic?” ~ Jerome Mandel, P.E.N.-UNESCO International Short Story Competition winner, author of Nothing Gold Can Stay and Covet the Oven
“Set in upstate New York, The Clown Forest Murders is a novel that would make Washington Irving proud.” ~ Tom Hooker, award winning fiction author and poet
Frank B. Robinson II:
“These authors weave a satisfying mystery that keeps you guessing and will not disappoint.” ~ Frank B. Robinson II, author of Thirty Days Hath September