As evening crept over the banks of the Thames, the clockmaker Hubert Thomas continued to toil away at his latest repair. Hunched at his work desk, his thick fingers tinkered with a watch below him with the deftness of the finest of surgeons. Though many of his customers wondered why he spent such a vast engineering talent on an antiquated trade, few doubted his skill. In truth, his father had been a clockmaker, his grandfather studied watches, and so on for many generations. As Hubert was not preoccupied with financial glory, he saw the work as his duty to continue an honorable family trade.
The London shop underwent many changes and moves over the years, starting as a booming corner space only to be slowly whittled down by technology to become barely more than a closet nestled in a dusty back alley. Still, Hubert persevered, managing gears and springs despite civilization’s rush towards digital technology. Those that shared his passion for the classic timepieces knew him as the finest of his time, and he enjoyed a small but loyal base of colleagues.
The aged master was not expecting company as closing time approached. Hubert toiled unerringly on the ancient Rolex, his brown eyes exaggerated behind thick spectacles. Little distracted him most evenings, the only sounds coming from the rhythmic ticking on his walls and the slight clicks as he popped and set minuscule pieces of metal back into place. He relished the intricacies of such an ancient model, losing himself in the brilliance of its construction, the certain magic held within its complex mechanisms.
So absorbed was he that he only noticed the two men at his counter when he picked up the restored Oyster to wind it. Hubert jumped at their appearance, clutching his tweed vest.
“Sorry! I didn’t hear the door open. Was actually just about to close up shop,” Hubert wheezed, squinting from staring too long through a magnifying glass.
The men were dressed sharply in matching gray suits. The older of the two stood lean and tall, with stark white hair and a pointed goatee. His companion, a dashing young man with slicked brown hair, glanced around the shop with a judgmental sneer.
The white-haired gentleman smiled and adjusted the round glasses on his nose. “We arrived just in time then. Word has it you are the best person to talk to about acquiring antique timepieces.”
“Well, I hesitate to go that far,” said Hubert. “I just do my best with what I love.”
“I am Richard Deacon and this charming boy is my nephew James,” continued the older gentleman with a nod. “We have been looking for quite some time for a clock that we believe might be in your delightful little store.”
Hubert ran his hands over his broom-like whiskers, eyeing the one named James with skepticism. “You aren’t one of those Steampunk fans, are you?”
Hubert had implemented a policy regarding younger customers after a teen had entered his shop with gears from a very rare and priceless Swiss clock bolted to cheap sunglasses as a sort of fashion statement. The aging shop owner did not keep up-to-date on the latest fashion trends, but he knew he did not care for “Steampunk” one bit.
“Nothing of the sort, sir,” said James with a calming raise of his hand. “My father and I are collectors, as well. His birthday is coming up. We wanted to surprise him with a particular piece he has been after for quite some time.”
Hubert beamed as he changed his tone. “Well, that I can do! What did you have in mind?”
“A German wall piece. Late 1800’s. Not exceptionally large, but has beautiful inlays along the sides featuring mountains. Gold numbers, if I remember correctly.”
Hubert held back a cough, instead removing his glasses and polishing them with a nearby cloth. That his hands were shaking despite an otherwise calm demeanor was not lost on his guests.
“Sounds vaguely familiar. Not too often I get customers looking to buy that kind of piece. You’ll have to give me a second to check my books,” lied the shopkeeper.
Hubert knew precisely where he kept the clock. He also knew that such pieces required an artful dance of negotiation that was as much pretense and flourish as it was substance.
From behind his counter, he procured a large, well-organized planner and placed it on his workbench with a large thunk. The book nearly dwarfed the stout clockmaker. With devout hands, he opened the cover with reverence.
The taller customer released an impatient grunt, but Hubert pretended he had not heard it. He leafed through the pages of notes, numbers, and spreadsheets worn brown by time and use. He flipped to a section of clock names and values, making sure to keep the registrar within full view of his customers. Though Hubert knew every entry by heart, the intimidating book of records weeded out the serious buyers from hobbyists, its pages filled with records that only the upper echelon of enthusiasts could afford. With a quick glance from the corner of his eye, Hubert could see the two strangers fidgeting, though they did not appear ready to leave. In his experience, such eager buyers often paid handsomely.
Searching through the list, Hubert’s finger landed on an entry with an over-long number beside it. “It seems I do have something similar to what you are looking for.”
“Wonderful!” Richard exclaimed with wide eyes. “We would be grateful to see it and confirm it is the piece we’re looking for.”
Satisfied that he had the upper-hand in bargaining, Hubert calmly closed his book and fiddled with a large keychain on his desk. “It’s not often I get people looking to buy this kind of piece these days. You say you and your father collect?”
“Our family is full of hobbyists. My father has a knack for acquiring particularly unique and exquisite items of all kinds,” said James. He raised his hand up to stifle a yawn.
“Then it’s good to have a fellow admirer of good craftsmanship in my store! It’s a good change of pace from simple repairs. Follow me, please.”
Hubert shuffled out from behind his counter, keys jingling as he searched the ring for the correct one. James and Richard could not help but raise bemused eyebrows, as the shop was far too small to follow anyone anywhere. Their expressions widened when Hubert opened a thin door tucked secretly away between two grandfather clocks beside them. They turned sideways to enter, their imaginations flaring at what lie beyond.
Unlike the dim shop outside, the hidden room had all the care and management of Versailles. Along the polished burgundy walls and positioned on tables rested glass boxes, each containing table clocks, cuckoos, and watches of equally stunning age and value. Every display was lit by a warm light built into the case, letting the contents glint with gold and silver trimmings.
“My, my. Isn’t this a surprise,” said Richard, his mouth agape. “How immaculate. I’d wager this room is worth more than the rest of your store combined.”
“It’s a dignified collection,” replied Hubert with a hint of pride. “My little vault reserved for customers that need a little more than simple decoration. Ah, ah careful not to touch!”
James paused as he bent down to admire one of the pocketwatches to his side. Only at Hubert’s warning did he notice the small electronic lock pad and security sticker lodged onto the side of the glass.
He straightened with a reassuring chuckle, “Sorry, sir. Simply admiring.”
“Quite all right. Wouldn’t want us to be locked in here until the authorities arrive. Now, I believe what you were looking for is over here.” Hubert pointed toward a distant stand.
Halfway back in the room, on a crafted oaken table embossed with swirls, a table clock beckoned to them. Hubert stroked his mustache as he pressed a long sequence of numbers onto the keypad. The glass popped as it unlatched from the table.
The clock had always been a special one to Hubert. He obtained it from a late colleague, who in turn had obtained it from a souk in Casablanca tucked among replicas and souvenirs. Though it commanded a fair price due to the fine outer craftsmanship of gold and Brazilian rosewood, the clock had long since stopped working on the inside. Hubert was tasked with its repair, but his friend passed shortly after and thus the shopkeeper found himself with a unique table piece.
The inner workings were like nothing he had seen before. Hubert spent months tracking down all of the parts needed to completely restore it to working condition. He found himself in love with the piece as he labored on it, guessing there were no more than a scant few similar pieces like it left in the world. He could never find a name or print identifying the craftsman, but it was truly the work of a master. The signifying element of the clock, beautifully rendered mountains inked with gold into the wood itself, reminded Hubert of the markings on a Stradivarius violin he had seen in a museum as a child. He had debated for some time on whether to even sell it, but an economic downturn forced the ultimate decision to include it within the premium gallery.
“Well, gentlemen, is this along the lines of what you were looking for?” he asked with a tinge of sadness.
Adjusting his spectacles, Richard bent down to inspect the clock, spending a great deal of time observing the mountain drawings. Hubert noticed the refined mens’ faces plastered with unnerving grins despite being wholly involved with the clock before them.
“Hand me the glass, James,” grunted the elder of the two.
The young man, without the slightest hesitation at the command, procured from within his smoky blazer a bronzed magnifying glass with a series of knobs and buttons along the handle. Pale blue light danced along its length in swirled patterns. The instrument looked very out of place among the centuries-old time pieces.
“Now if you could, um, please be reminded…” stuttered Hubert as he sensed something awry with his buyers. His words made no impression on either of the two. He shifted on his legs, glancing at the nearest active alarm.
Richard studied the mountain range up close for a moment more before leaning back. Raising the magnifier, he pressed the top button and the glass lit up with the same glow as the handle, casting the onlookers with its sickly light. The shopkeeper could not get a clear look, but he briefly saw letters through the glass that were not visible on the clock itself.
“A-R-E-S,” spelled Richard. James nodded silently but made no other suggestion as to what the letters meant.
Hubert stood flabbergasted, his eyes wide with wonder. “Incredible!” he shouted. “Is that UV? Blacklight? I would have never imagined an antique to have such a thing on it!”
Richard stood, turned the magnifying glass off, and handed it back to James where it disappeared once more into the folds of his suit.
Richard cleared his throat. “Normally, they don’t. This is a special item we’ve been searching for.”
“That is quite fantastic,” said Hubert, pushing past the tall man’s legs to run his hands over the mountaintops, “and a cause for celebration! I would love to hear more about what you know of it. After we talk price, of course.”
“Mr… Hubert, correct? Do you have any children?” asked Richard passively.
The clockmaker furrowed his brows at the strange question. “N… no. Never was much of a charmer with the ladies, I’m afraid.”
Hubert’s lifeless body hit the ground before he even had the chance to see the gun drawn. James waited for the barrel to cool before replacing it to the inner holdings of his jacket. The two men stared down at the deceased shopkeeper, now with an extra orifice to his head.
“Artists like him are in short supply nowadays,” said Richard as he patted his forehead with a fresh handkerchief.
“Too true. Shame he didn’t have time to pass down his knowledge,” replied James with a shake of the head.
“In today’s world, you must be quick, or you will miss your chance among the furor. New ideas travel at the press of a button to wear away the ancient, forgotten trades.”
The two stood for a silent moment, watching as the hardwood floor became ever more crimson with blood. James glanced up at the precious clock, nodding towards it with a look towards Richard.
Richard strode towards the room’s exit. “We’re done with it. Go ahead and burn it.”
When the papers reported the arson, many in the community commented on how much of a craftsman poor Hubert had been but rumor had it a new electronics store would be going up in his place.