To celebrate this Friday’s release of The Clocksmith, I am putting up a short teaser.
“Pine Harbor!” the conductor shouted drearily, sounding as though he didn’t truly expect anyone to get off this far on the northern frontier. Peter Barrow stepped alone off the passenger car. Home at last, he thought wryly. Not that there was anything in particular to look forward to. A single, plaintive whistle echoed through the darkness of the train station, signaling the iron beast’s departure. Gradually, the rhythmic chugging of the engine’s wheels became less audible as it lurched its way toward the loop of tracks that would send it back southward. Judging by the way it built up speed, the engineer was impatient to move on to bigger, more important destinations. Peter stood on the loading platform, watching the train disappear behind a stand of evergreens, then, swinging his battered top hat onto his head, walked out of the station and into the familiar gloom.
The sun was not yet up, though the sky had turned the colorless hue that heralds sunrise in early spring. The tops of trees, just beginning to bud, could be seen as stark shadows against the sky, a testament to the light that would soon return to the world. At this hour, Pine Harbor lay silently, appearing for all the world deserted. Aside from an overly industrious mailman, not a soul was to be seen on the cobblestone streets. The windows of the various buildings in the center of town stared out like dark holes in the fabric of existence. Not that it was ever much busier in the waking hours, Peter thought. Pine Harbor was the northernmost town in the kingdom of Brigard. If one were to travel any further north, they would officially find themselves in the wilderness.
At a run-down section of town, Peter paused for a moment and slowly pulled a silver watch out of his jacket pocket. The cover was intricately carved with dozens of different images; soldiers on the battlefield, saints, stars. But none of this held Peter’s attention for long. By now, he had grown accustomed to the remarkable craftsmanship. What interested him was on the inside. Flipping open the cover, twelve streaks of gold shone dully back at him. The lid flipped closed, and Peter continued on his walk home.
Before he could take more than two steps, a figure shambled haphazardly out of the open door of a bar and collided with Peter, knocking them both to the ground. “Watch where you’re going,” the man said in a voice slurred with effects of alcohol.
“You’re new in town, aren’t you?” Peter asked as he stood up and wiped the dust from his knee-length overcoat, irritated at the drunk’s sudden appearance.
“I just came in. Why?” The man tried to get up, but collapsed back onto the hard stone. Judging by the look of his tattered clothes, he was telling the truth.
“You should be able to tell this, but I’m a Clocksmith. I don’t know if that means anything to you in your current state of mind, but to most people around here, it’s considered bad luck to cross my path.”
“Yeah? I’ve had my share of bad luck. I just left the military.”
Peter glared suspiciously at the man. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I’m drunk, as you said. Besides, if you’re a Clocksmith, you won’t report me.”
“Not for leaving the military.” Peter turned to leave the man lying in the road.
Reaching out a hand, the man called after him, “Hey, do you have a cigarette?”
“I don’t smoke,” Peter answered without turning or slowing his stride.
By the time Peter reached the dirt road leading to his house, the sun had just begun to rise above the tree line. Soon people would be awake and outside. Peter quickened his pace, hoping to reach the relative safety of his home before he was stopped by someone. While only one other person lived on that particular stretch of road, he knew that she would stop him given the chance. With any luck, the only other resident would still be asleep this early in the morning. Everything was going well at first. Soon, however, his luck ran out. As he turned a corner and the small mansion came into view, he was stopped by a young woman of about his own age, who came running down the road toward him as fast as her voluminous dress would allow. Her hair billowed loosely out behind her like a sheet of black silk; she hadn’t had time even to properly put it up for the day before greeting him.
“Trying to sneak past me again, Peter?” she asked breathlessly as she came to a stop a few paces away from the Clocksmith.
Peter silently cursed his luck. She must have been waiting outside for him. “And I almost succeeded. If you don’t mind, I want to go back home and catch up on my sleep.”
He began to walk past the woman, but she moved to block his way. “Not until you tell me why you left.”
“Rebecca-” Peter began, but was cut off.
“Come on, you can tell me,” Rebecca said. “I won’t tell anyone else if it’s a secret. Is it a secret?”
“Yes, it is a secret, and I do not intend on telling you or anyone else about it.”
“Please? I promise that I won’t breathe a word of it to anyone.”
Peter sighed. “You aren’t going to leave me alone about this, are you?” When Rebecca shook her head, he sighed again and said, “I needed to find something my father made. His notes said it was important, though never explained why.”
“Sounds like a mystery. Can I see it?”
“No,” Peter said, “I don’t want anyone to see it until I figure out what it does.”
“If you say so,” Rebecca said with a shrug. “I’m heating water up for tea. Would you care to have some with me?”
“I’ll get my own tea, thank you.”
“Are you still sore about having to sell your house to me?” she asked.
“That’s not it at all. I just want to enjoy some solitude, if you don’t mind. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way.” He walked past Rebecca, expecting her to stop him again. She didn’t, though; a fact Peter was infinitely grateful for.
Secretly, Peter did want to see his old house. He wanted to own his old house again, to be more precise. When his father had gone missing five years ago, so did the sizeable fortune he had accrued, leaving Peter, who had no real fortune of his own, with a monstrous pile of debt. In order to make ends meet, he had sold the mansion to Rebecca. Now Peter lived in a small, three-room house a quarter-mile down the road. As Peter walked by his old house, he stared longingly at it, thinking that perhaps having tea there one more time wouldn’t be too bad, even if he had to listen to Rebecca’s ramblings.
Peter swung open his front door and cringed at the awful noise it made. It creaked terribly, and the hinges needed to be oiled. He hung his coat and hat on a wooden post and sat down on the worn-out chair by the small woodstove he used for cooking. There wouldn’t be time for a decent breakfast, Peter thought glumly. He quickly heated a pot of water for tea and tossed a piece of bread on a grill for toast and made his way into his workshop.
In the flickering bronze light of Peter’s work lamp, the watch’s surface seemed to waver slightly, as though it were only a mirage. After a moment, Peter picked it back up and flipped open the lid. The clock’s face was marked by simple gold lines in the place of numbers. No other markings gave away the watch’s meaning, or even suggested that it had been finished. It didn’t seem finished to Peter at all; the hands didn’t move and there was no way to invoke it. There didn’t even seem to be a Virtue assigned. He held it up to his ear, listening, as he had countless times since finding it, for the sound of gears moving, but there was nothing, as always. Sighing in quiet frustration, he placed the watch back on the work table and regarded his problem in silence.
“Hey Peter! Are you home?” A voice called from outside, cracking the contemplative atmosphere as easily as a hammer blow to an egg. Peter furrowed his brow and walked over to the front door, deliberately taking his time.
“What do you want, Rebecca?” Peter asked as he cracked open the front door to peer out at his unwanted visitor.
“I thought I would bring you a welcome-home gift.” Rebecca held up a copper tea kettle, its contents sloshing faintly from the motion.
“I already told you I have tea.”
Rebecca pushed open the door and strode into Peter’s house, ignoring his protests. “But you don’t have the good tea, I’ll bet. This is premium Brigardine Blend, grown by the Winfield Tea Company. It’s the very best tea money can buy. I’m sure you’ll be able to see why once you’ve tasted some.” Rebecca continued to chat happily as she replaced Peter’s kettle with her own.
“Rebecca,” Peter said, “I was working before you invited yourself in.”
“Really? That’s interesting. What were you working on?”
“It’s really none of your business.”
“Is it that secret project you told me about?”
“Yes, it is. Now would you please leave so I may get back to my work?”
Rebecca shook her head. “I want to see it first. I brought you some of my special tea, so it’s the least you can do to repay me.”
“I have no intention of drinking your tea. I’m sure even you would agree that I shouldn’t have to repay you for something I never took.”
Rebecca sat in Peter’s only chair and crossed her arms. “I won’t leave until you show me it.”
Realizing that he wouldn’t be able to win this battle, Peter said, “Fine. But don’t go talking about it to anyone else.” He led Rebecca into his workshop and gestured curtly at the pocket watch still sitting on the table. “That’s it,” he said, “just a watch. Nothing you would be at all interested in.”
“What’s this one do?” Rebecca asked. She reached out to pick it up, but Peter stopped her.
“Don’t touch it. I can’t figure out how to invoke it. As far as I know, it doesn’t do anything at all. The back won’t open, so I can’t even see what kind of movement it uses.”
“Couldn’t you just cut it open?”
Peter shook his head. “If I did that, I’d damage the gears. I have to get it to work some other way, if it even works at all.”
“And you’re sure your father made this?”
“Are you implying that I don’t know my own father’s craftsmanship?”
“Not at all. I’m just asking if it’s possible someone else who studied under him might have built it.”
“Impossible. I was my father’s only apprentice. He didn’t believe in teaching more than one person at a time, and he disappeared before he could bother to find a new one. Besides, I’ve found his notes on this watch. They make it very clear that he thought of it as his greatest achievement. But none of the notes say how he constructed it.”
“Maybe someone took the instructions,” Rebecca suggested.
Peter picked up the watch and stared at it thoughtfully. “Maybe. But that just raises more questions than it answers. Why would they want his notes? The most obvious answer to that is to build a watch like this for themselves. But why not just take this one and saves themselves the effort? It certainly wouldn’t have been hard for someone to take it before I did. Also, my father had the habit of writing all his notes in a book. If someone did take the section explaining how to construct the watch, I would have noticed the tear marks.”
Rebecca sat down and looked at the tools hanging on Peter’s wall. “You certainly have a lot of tools. Doesn’t one of them tell you how to make the watch work?”
“They’re for building clocks, not reverse-engineering them. And I don’t know why you’re sitting. I didn’t invite you in.”
“You wouldn’t want a lady like me to get sore feet, would you? That would be ungentlemanly.”
“I am not worried about being a gentleman at the moment. What I am worried about is getting this watch to work, and I cannot do that with you looking over my shoulder.”
Rebecca stood. “I’ll leave then. I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.”
“How very kind of you,” Peter said, rolling his eyes.
As she passed the wood stove, she stopped and said, “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay and finish making the tea? I’m sure you’ll like it if you just try it.”
“I will be fine without it. I have tea of my own, as I have already told you several times today.”
“Suit yourself,” Rebecca said as she picked her kettle up off the stovetop and left. Before the door closed, she stuck her head back in and said, “You’re welcome to visit any time you change your mind about the tea, Peter.”
Peter stood by the only window that faced the road and watched his neighbor until she had passed beyond the frame. Muttering to himself, he walked back to his workshop and sat at the table. He wanted to get back to work, but found he couldn’t concentrate. Rebecca had broken his focus, it seemed. He got back up and made himself a cup of tea, using his own kettle and tea leaves. It was lukewarm and weak, but he didn’t care.
Sometimes he truly regretted having sold his house to that woman.