The following is an excerpt from “The Back Pew“, Clown Conspiracy Book 3…
No Audience Is No Fun
The Pastor left the arched door of his study ajar after leading the detectives in. Shirley closed it as Carter began his explanation. The last thing they needed was eavesdroppers.
“And… you believe the clown may do someone harm, here?” Pastor Henry asked after listening a few moments, his wrinkled fingers holding Carter’s CBI shield an inch from his saddened eyes.
“Yes, unfortunately,” Shirley answered. He looked into her brown eyes with calm, steady blue and her shoulders relaxed. “The fire, we didn’t expect.”
She took the seat on the other side of his desk. It had been years since Shirley had felt so comfortable in a religious leader’s presence. She twisted her fingers tight together. The Pastor kept his eyes on the space where she’d been, his focus far away as he scanned his memories of the clown.
“Why?” he asked her after several minutes, focusing on the present again.
“The CBI has been monitoring a chat room for a few weeks,” Carter answered. “It’s… descended from another chat room, one where people discuss crime. This one is private, and local, and… enthusiastic. It seems to be a group of people talking each other into things.”
Carter turned to Shirley. She cleared her throat and sat forward in her chair.
“Murders, mostly. This isn’t the first target.”
“Murders?” He looked back and forth from Carter to Shirley, begging their faces to make sense, to let him in on the joke. “Targets? Why target us? The children…”
He dropped into his chair and laid Carter’s shield on the desk.
“Like Detective Carter said, they’re trying to sort-of one-up each other. See who can be more creative, I guess. More ambitious.”
“Creative? At our dinner?” he attempted a skeptical smile. “But we’re raising money for refugees.”
“Well, we hope not,” Carter said. “I mean, hope he won’t get creative tonight.” He uncrossed his arms and leaned forward with a sad smile. “It may be that the fires ruined his plan. Or the hail. When was the last time you saw him?”
“At the dinner, by the buffet. He was dancing and…” the Pastor removed his glasses and pressed his fingers down the bridge of his nose, “and handing out glow-sticks to the children. Oh, what if he had…” He tucked his chin low and shook his head, swallowing hard and removing his glasses.
“You had the families check on each other, remember?” Carter said. “It doesn’t look like anyone but Mrs. Lawrence is missing. And that doesn’t mean he took her.”
The Pastor looked up and nodded, then returned his glasses to his nose.
“Did he speak to you?” Shirley asked.
“Speak? No, just, performed, I suppose.”
“Did you see what vehicle he arrived in?”
The Pastor closed his eyes for a few seconds. “No. No, I suppose he was dropped off, with the bounce house, in their van…” His eyes widened and he slapped the desk hard, then yanked open the files drawer and pulled out a folder marked “Receipts”.
“Ah ha, ah ha,” he licked his middle finger and pulled the pages up. “Here!” He handed a sheet of paper to Carter.
“What?” Carter asked, reading over it.
“He wasn’t ordered! The clown!” the Pastor stood with his hands spread on his desk. “We didn’t order him. Mrs. Lawrence gave me a brochure of the package she chose at the party store, I would have remembered a clown—they make me nervous. I thought perhaps they had sent him to show support, to make the fundraiser a success, or maybe because we’re frequent customers. I didn’t think it would do harm. We paid in advance for the bounce house and balloons.”
The door creaked open and a young woman stuck her head through.
“Miss Anderson, may we help you?” the Pastor stood straight and smiled.
“The Chief firefighter wants a word, Father,” she said, darting glances at the detectives.
Carter crossed the room and gestured to the woman to lead the way. She turned wide-eyed to the Pastor and he nodded. “Take Detective Carter to him.”
She blinked at Carter’s handsome face and blushed. “He’s outside…” her voice carried through the open door as they walked down the dark hallway together.
As soon as the young woman turned away the Pastor sat, deep wrinkles erasing the smile from his face.
The study was quiet, the hail had stopped. The privacy etched window cast snowy night’s ethereal glow over the Pastor, instead of angry orange, and Shirley supposed the fires must have been put out as well. The murmur of an impatient crowd was dissipating in time with the starting of car engines in the parking lot. The clock ticked, the broken second hand twitching but failing to rise.
Pastor Henry, with another puzzled frown and a shake of his head, rose from his chair and took a matchbox from the mantle above the small fireplace. He squatted and busied himself with arranging wood.
Shirley leaned her neck back to pop her spine on the short-backed chair. She closed her eyes. The soft grate of dry wood over smooth bricks, a strike of a match, a whiff of sulfur, and a welcome, rather than frightening, orange glow through her eyelids reminded her of the old wood stove in her grandma’s house. It lifted her spirits from completely exhausted to merely tired.
“I like that smell,” the Pastor sighed. Shirley sat up. He was kneeling to the side of the fireplace, watching the flames whip over the frizzed juniper bark. He felt her eyes and turned to her with a small smile. “Matches. I much prefer it to the chemical smell of burning bounce house.”
“PVC,” Shirley smiled back. “Carcinogen.”
Pastor Henry nodded and shrugged his shoulders.
“Why us?” he asked the fire in a choked voice. “Why her?”
The whisper of men’s voices echoed down the hallway. Shirley and the Pastor stood. She studied Carter’s sober face, grown pale as it often did with unwelcome knowledge, and unbuttoned her leather coat to place a hand on the comforting weapon holstered beneath her arm.
The Chief, equally sober, invited the Pastor to sit, then shut the door without a sound.
* * *
Mary Therese wasn’t in the burning pavilion. She wasn’t anywhere on the gravel walk or fallen in the shrubs on either side of it. She hadn’t taken shelter beneath an overhang. She wasn’t answering her daughter’s hoarser and hoarser yells, though the beating of the hail hadn’t given her much hope in that regard anyway.
Sylvia stopped fighting the tears as she stumbled across the parking lot for the third time, pushing hail off of windshields to see if her desperate mother had found a car unlocked. Her hands were frozen, every car was empty, and the wind chilled the tears on her cheeks.
She stopped at the far end of the parking lot to lean against a truck and catch her breath, lifting the too-large helmet off her sweating hair. The hail was smaller now but had been replaced with a sleet that made Sylvia’s gratefulness for the helmet outweigh her embarrassment over snatching it. She’d return it soon, with apologies.
Her legs trembled with the effort of running in unsuitable shoes and the impact of a dozen or more rebounding hailstones. She considered lowering the tailgate of the truck to find a less icy seat when she noticed the shed. It was made of weathered, horizontal boards and nestled between naked aspen trees iced with white, like a Christmas snowglobe.
She stepped over the curb at the edge of the parking lot and slid on the tumbling hailstones down a small incline. The shed stood twenty feet away, an eight-foot lean-to braced by a farmer’s fence. She stumbled toward it, loosening her joints to bear the unavoidable twisting of her ankles. Her eyes fixed on the gray and brown beaten wood and she begged God, reminded him he had another few seconds to put her mother in that shed, a few more seconds to make it all okay.
An aggressive gust of wind blew stinging hail and water sideways toward Sylvia’s face, and she fell back hard. Large hailstones dug into her butt and thighs. She threw her hands in front of her face to stop the cutting of her cheeks and whimpered, “Stop.”
A booming thud broke the constant drumming of the hail, which ceased falling as if it had been scolded by the echoing sound. Sylvia made a slit between her hands and looked at the snowglobe scene. The side shed door had been thrown open—it rebounded against the fence, shuddering.
Sylvia lowered her shaking hands. The side entrance wasn’t visible and she told herself it was just the wind, swallowing a lump of hope in her throat. Seconds passed, and a head with ragged gray hair poked out, whisps jerking in the wind.
“Mother!” Sylvia called in relief and started to rise. The head turned toward her and she screamed so loud her throat burned. She fell back again, the helmet tumbling off as she landed. The grinning face turned towards her own was not her mother’s. Sylvia kicked her legs and feet to force her body back up the hill but the sleet-sheened hail gave no traction.
It was an ugly face, impossibly swamp green and gray, cheeks sagging down from the eyes like melted fat. The teeth painted just beneath its steaming nostrils reached down to the bottom of its chin and out to nearly touch its wig-covered ears.
Sylvia’s mind refused the spectacle and settled on the wind toppling a Halloween decoration, then the red-rimmed eyes blinked and she screamed again. It laughed, a high-pitched, stabbing sound carried on the rumble of thunder and wind, terrifyingly loud as though its steaming mouth was right beside her.
She sobbed and grabbed at the hill behind her, finding only slippery hail. The frozen skin on her fingers bled but she didn’t notice—anything to drag herself away from the shed.
She sobbed again and the clown raised a red finger to his lips with a shhhhh. It lowered its dripping gloved hand, leaving a dark trail on its gray teeth-drawn lips. It raised the other red hand to its brow and exaggerated looking back and forth. All clear, it gave her a double thumbs up, then ran like hell. Hysterical laughter echoed through the quiet air, disappearing into the trees on the other side of the road.
By the time Sylvia forced herself back on her feet the night was empty of laughter and light snowflakes were falling. The pines swayed, throwing drips sideways at her as she crossed to the open door of the shed. Her teeth were clenched, and not from cold.
The shed was black inside and reeked of gasoline. She turned her back on it to stare into the black tunnels beneath the forest’s bows, swirling snow filling the clown’s red tracks.
Limping, she faded into the trees after him.