01 Mar The Watchmaster
“The Watchmaster”Written by Micah Edwards Edited by Craig Groshek and N.M. Brown Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 15 minutes
Charles Walker Woods was a gentleman of means. In a city rapidly being subsumed by the dim fog of industry, he felt it was not just his right to stand out as a breath of fresh air—it was his duty. Were it not for people like him, who would the lower classes look up to? Who would they aspire to? Of course the life of a socialite was tiring from time to time, but Charles owed it to those below him to carry on.
Charles’s three best attributes, in his own opinion, were his intelligence, his perspicacity and his charm. The intelligence was obvious. One did not simply get into the best schools and clubs without an above-average wit and awareness. The perspicacity came into play in his shrewd business dealings. Charles had carefully managed all of the investments and properties left to him and had seen his income steadily rise over the years, while he himself had barely had to do anything at all.
His charm was evident in nearly all of his interactions with women, especially the serving class. He could make practically any remark and they would treat it as the cleverest bon mot they had ever heard. Intelligent as he was, Charles was able to see their admiration in its true form: attraction. Women were simply mad for him.
Unfortunately for the female population of London, Charles was an avowed bachelor. He knew that at some point he would doubtless have to settle down, but as he was yet only in his late twenties, he held out hope that that time would be far distant. Though he considered women a passingly fair diversion, he found far greater enjoyment in horse racing, sailing and cards.
Any man could bet on these things, of course. What Charles liked was knowing how they worked. He enjoyed speaking to the stablemasters about the care and upkeep of the horses, conversing about the merits of one jockey or another, and keeping up on the health and habits of the horses. This allowed him to make bets far more informed than those of the common man, weighting the gamble in his favor. Similarly, he was always aware of the crews in any regatta, and even the proclivities of his fellow players in cards.
In short, Charles liked to be a man who saw behind the curtain. Perhaps more importantly, he desired that those around him be aware of this. What good was it to have a talent if no one was impressed? What satisfaction could be gained by doing things subtly? Let others fade into the background. Charles preferred to be ostentatious.
It was this desire that brought Charles to Montford. Montford was not a place, but a person—or perhaps more of an experience. Charles first became aware of him at one of his dinner parties, when he noticed a cluster of guests gathered around someone other than himself. Curious to discover what this distraction might be, Charles inserted himself into the group to find at its center a most cunningly wrought watch.
“I have never once wound this,” declared the watch’s owner, a thin and tiresome man named Richard. “Not since purchasing it two months back. Yet, see now!”
The second and minute hand were in the final stages of aligning at the top of the hour. Exactly as they did so, the bells of the nearby church began to sound in the streets, tolling the hour. The watch was precise to an incredible degree.
Four or five seconds later, Charles’s grandfather clock began its own sonorous chime to mark the hour. Everyone in the group was too genteel to laugh at their host, but Charles felt the sharp sting of embarrassment. He had been shown up in his own home.
To hide his discomfiture, Charles seized the reins of the conversation.
“An amazing device. And you say you haven’t had to wind it? I can’t imagine what it cost.”
“Oh, too much, too much,” said Richard airily, closing the cover and tucking the watch back into the pocket of his vest. “But can one really put a price on fine craftsmanship?”
“Indeed. Where did you say you procured it?”
Charles knew that Richard would refuse to answer, of course. It would do him no good to own the second most impressive watch at a party, so he could hardly give Charles the chance to purchase one better. Charles’s actual hope was that Richard would excuse himself from the conversation to avoid answering, and that he would then be able to draw the name out from someone else who Richard had already told.
To his surprise, Richard answered the question directly.
“A man called Montford. He maintains a shop in the financial district. It’s most frightfully exclusive, of course.”
“I don’t suppose you could arrange an introduction?”
Again, Richard’s answer surprised him. “I’d be happy to, my dear host. Shall we say tomorrow at three?”
“If you’re certain he’ll be free.”
“I assure you,” and here Richard offered an expansive smile to those gathered around, “he can make time.”
This drew quite a laugh from the assembly. Charles kept a pleasant smile on his face as he seethed. To have been outdone at his own event, and by someone so milquetoast as Richard! Charles would have this Montford make him his own watch, one to put Richard’s to shame, and this would never happen again.
The next afternoon, Richard arrived at Charles’s house precisely at three o’clock. He did not have to flout his watch again; his obnoxious promptness did that for him. They made small talk for a few minutes while Charles’s servants brought the carriage around, for although it was not far to the financial district, no one of any real standing walked there. The sidewalks were full of secretaries and accountants.
Soon enough the two men disembarked before a small shop set in between a pair of larger buildings. Its windows were frosted glass, and the largest of them had the word “Montford” etched in a stylish gold script across its length. The door was black and said nothing at all. The shop managed to look richer than the rest of the financial district, while at the same time projecting an air of disaffection. Charles loved it at once.
It was a foggy spring day outside, so Charles was surprised to find it slightly cooler inside the shop when he stepped within. The shop was well-lit through the frosted windows and from artfully arranged lamps. The walls were adorned with clocks, though not with the desperate profusion seen in a normal watchmaker’s shop. These were carefully placed, looking more like pieces in an art gallery than anything else.
The air was alive with the tick of clockwork, but again unlike usual, every timepiece here advanced at the exact same moment. Tick—tick—tick, went the sound. The shop seemed to pulse with it. Charles’s breathing fell into sync with the motion, and he fancied even his heartbeat slowed to match it.
“Ah, Mister Griffiths. It is ever a pleasure.”
Charles had not seen the proprietor emerge. The man was simply there before them, appearing between the ticks of the clocks. He was slender, even spindly, with fingers that were long even for his lanky frame. His style of dress was spare and neat, and although his clothes were well-maintained Charles had the distinct impression that the gold-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose were the most expensive thing he wore.
“Montford, hello!” enthused Richard. “Let me introduce you to Charles.”
“Charles Walker Woods,” corrected Charles. “And you are the owner of Montford’s?”
“Montford, yes. I am Edmond Montford. I am the watchmaster here.” He bowed his head, a gesture that on him appeared slightly predatory.
Charles was above average height, but Montford overtopped him by almost a full head. The man extended one long hand to accept Charles’s offered handshake, and Charles swore that he could feel the branchlike fingers wrapping entirely around his own hand. It was an uncomfortably possessive feeling.
“Watchmaker, eh?” said Charles, reclaiming his hand. “What about the clocks?”
“I make those as well, but they are large and require little skill. Any hobbyist can assemble the gears of a clock. The test of a horologist is in the tiny precision fittings of a watch. I am the best even of those. Hence watchmaster, not watchmaker.”
Montford said it without pride or braggadocio. It was simply a fact he was stating. Charles was both impressed and somewhat intimidated.
“Yes, well, I’m certain the two of you would prefer to conduct your business without me, so I’ll be going,” said Richard.
“Take the carriage,” said Charles. “Send the driver back when you are d0ne.” It was a subtle point intended to emphasize his casual superiority over Richard, but the look that Montford gave him made it clear that the watchmaster understood every nuance perfectly.
Charles, unused to such direct scrutiny, was taken aback. Before he could regain his mental footing, though, Montford was moving away to open the door for Richard. The man scurried past, climbing into the waiting carriage without even a look back. The click of the shop door latching behind him was precisely in sync with the tick of the clocks.
“So you would like to obtain a watch,” Montford said. His eyes glittered strangely, probing Charles for secrets while giving little away.
“I have come for the best watch you will ever make,” Charles said. He expected some manner of reaction from Montford, perhaps amusement or surprise, but the watchmaster merely nodded as if this were the sentence he had expected.
“The Opus. A fitting piece for a man of your stature.”
“You know of me, then.”
“I know all of my clients. I could not create watches for them if I did not.”
“I am not yet your client, though.”
In response, Montford reached into the pocket of his plain black vest and withdrew the Opus. Charles leaned in, entranced by the detail in its design.
The outer covering was carved in a forest of intertwining layers of gold. Faces and figures peered out between the branches, seeming to shift and hide as Montford tilted the watch back and forth in his palm. He pressed the button to release the cover, and it sprang open to reveal the same branches inside the lid, the intersections now dotted with tiny mirrors. Each one reflected back a miniature image of Charles’s eye, staring back at him with unblinking intensity as he regarded the watch.
The watch face itself was opal with the numbers picked out in careful black lines. In the iridescent swoops and curves of the semiprecious stone face, Charles caught hints of waves, of animals on the run, of beautiful women. The watch spoke of power and assurance, and like everything in the shop it ticked perfectly in time. It was art. It was perfection.
Montford snapped the watch shut, breaking Charles’s connection with his own reflected eyes. The faces hidden within the carved gold winked merrily as Montford held the watch up by its chain, allowing it to catch the light in the shop as it spun.
“The Opus is the greatest timepiece I will ever make. It represents the utmost limit of my skills in art, in crafting and in precision. There will never be another watch to equal it.”
Again, Montford’s words were merely asserting a self-evident truth. Even if the watch could not keep time at all, it was an astonishing work of art. Having heard the perfectly synced tick, Charles had no doubt that every gear inside had been crafted with the same care lavished on the outer trappings.
“And you will sell this?” Charles asked, feeling that there must be some trick.
“How much?” Charles was prepared to hear an astronomical number, and yet even so the price Montford named took him aback. He took a literal step back, retreating from the enormity of the sum. “I could buy fifty watches for that cost!”
“And yet not one of the fifty would approach the Opus,” Montford said with calm confidence. “You will never need another watch. In fact, I will insist that you not have one.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Opus comes with a condition: you must always have it with you. When you go out, it will be the watch you bring. When you entertain at your home, you will carry the Opus. I am willing to sell it, for it is made to be used, but I am not willing to let it languish in a drawer. You are a mercurial man, Mr. Woods, and the Opus must not be made to suffer for your whims. I will have your word as a gentleman on this.”
“In addition to your usurious price, I must advertise for you as well?”
“You can speak of me or not, as you choose. The Opus will speak for itself. Those who need to know more will find their way to Montford. They need only be given the opportunity. Will you agree to this condition?”
“It will take me several days to gather the money together. I do not simply have it sitting idle.”
Montford waved his hand dismissively, his long fingers moving like the tentacles of a sea creature. “I have no doubt in your ability to obtain the money. Will you promise to carry the Opus with you always?”
Charles stared at the watch in Montford’s hand as he nodded. “It is an easy promise to make. I could never grow tired of such a watch.”
“Let us hope that you do not,” said Montford. He delicately clipped the end of the watch chain to the buttonhole of Charles’s vest, then deposited the watch in his hand. “I will look forward to your payment within the week, shall we say?”
“Of course, of course.” Charles was vaguely irritated to have the experience of this watch cheapened by something as vulgar as money. He endured another enveloping handshake and hurried out to his waiting carriage, the watch gripped firmly in his hand.
The Opus’s art was even more compelling in the intermittent shadows of the carriage than it had been in Montford’s shop. The mirrored eyes inside the lid seemed to float in a small, contained pool of darkness, peering up like hungry fish. The opal face shone in greys and greens, hinting at secrets known only to storms and the sea. Charles studied it hungrily all throughout the ride home, scrutinizing its details and discovering new facets every time the light changed.
For the next month or more, Charles did indeed bring the Opus with him everywhere he went, and showed it off at every opportunity. Every time he removed it from his pocket, it was as pristine and impressive as it had been in the store, and those assembled were always gratifyingly awed by the exquisite detail displayed in the device.
The local society only had so many people, however. As the novelty of the Opus faded, Charles’s peers became less effusive in their praise. Even in Charles’s eyes, the allure of the watch faded. The hidden figures in the carefully carved branches lost the appearance of movement. The mirrors reflected skin imperfections. The opal face shone dully in uninspired pastels.
One evening, Charles was hosting a soiree at his house. It was a small affair, barely even worthy of the appellation of “party.” He did not intentionally choose not to wear the Opus. It was just that, in getting dressed, it did not occur to him to put it on. The event was in his own house. He knew that everyone who would be attending had already seen it. There would be no one to impress with it. And so while the party went on downstairs, the Opus languished on Charles’s dressing table.
That night, Charles woke from sleep in a darkened room. He could not tell what had roused him, but when he attempted to sit up to investigate, he discovered that he could not move a muscle. Even his eyes remained fixed firmly on the ceiling, unwilling to shift to show him more of the room. He could not even close his eyelids again. He strained his ears, listening for some sound that might tell him what was going on, but all he heard was the tick of the Opus. Strangely, it seemed to be moving around the room.
Suddenly, there was the sound of a curtain being pulled back, allowing the moonlight to stream in. The room brightened considerably, but this only afforded Charles a better view of the ceiling above him. He still could not move at all.
“Mr. Woods,” came Montford’s voice from somewhere in the direction of the windows. “I find myself in regrettable circumstances. For I sold my watch, my Opus, to a gentleman, a man of breeding and honor. I would not have left it in the care of anyone lesser, no matter how much money he might have. And yet.”
There was no sound of footsteps as Montford came into view. He simply seemed to advance closer with every tick of the watch. The Opus dangled from his pale hand.
“And yet, Mr. Woods, I have been made aware that you have broken your promise to me. You attested that you would carry the Opus with you always. Yet I found it abandoned here, unworn.”
Montford fluttered his fingers like a tattered flag, brushing away an imagined objection from the paralyzed man before him. “I understand that I have roused you from sleep, and that you assumed I meant ‘always’ in a more metaphorical sense. Indeed, I have been more than lenient with this behavior up to this point, and was willing to allow it to continue.
“This, I see, was a mistake. For tonight, my Opus lay disregarded in your bedroom, discarded among rejected baubles and garments. It measured out the seconds for no one at all. It wasted my talent. And I will not have that.
“I am a reasonable man, Mr. Woods. I understand that anyone can make a mistake. I, too, made a mistake by failing to discuss the repercussions of what would happen if you failed to uphold your bargain. It simply had not occurred to me that your word would not be good. This was unfair to you, and I apologize.”
Montford set the watch down on Charles’s chest. Charles could feel the tick reverberating against his ribs, forcing his heart into its unchanging rhythm. He wanted to panic, wanted to pant and shout and scream, but the Opus kept his heartbeat regular and his breathing steady. His body was not his to command.
“Let me be perfectly clear, Mr. Woods. If you are ever without the Opus again—ever, at all—I will remove your heart from your body. I will do it with all of the delicacy and skill at my command, slicing along every nerve I pass to open its shrieking insides to the cold night air. I will spread your ribs like cracking open a lobster. I will cut the thing that sustains you from your chest, unmooring it without severing the vital connections.
“You will watch as I bathe it in poisons. You will feel them spread throughout your body with every helpless beat. You will die slowly over hours in incredible, silent agony, unable to move, unable even to shut your eyes against the sight of your tormented, naked heart, the thing that sustained your life, now forced to deliver your death.
“Through it all, you will feel the beat of my Opus, for I will sew that into your chest so that you will never be parted from it again.”
Charles strained against his invisible bonds. He tried desperately to say something, to move, to do anything at all, but to no avail. He could only watch in horror as Montford produced a silver scalpel.
“For tonight, Mr. Woods, I have come to offer you assistance in avoiding this fate. This will be two-fold. It will serve as a small taste of what will come should you ever betray me again, and it will make it significantly easier for you to keep the Opus on your person.”
Montford raised Charles’s unresisting left hand and set to work. The scalpel sliced into the base of his fourth finger, the blade pressing through straight to the bone. The pain was like nothing he had ever felt, and it only intensified as Montford rotated it cleanly around, folding the other fingers out of the way to complete the incision.
Before Charles’s unbelieving eyes, Montford plucked the severed finger cleanly from his hand, leaving a bloody, spurting stump. He allowed Charles’s arm to fall back to the bed, landing on his chest next to the Opus. Charles could feel the hot blood soaking into his night clothes, pumping out to the Opus’s tick.
Montford, his scalpel now gleaming red, continued his bloody work. He sliced the lowest joint from the severed finger and placed the top two joints upon a hollow golden cylinder of similar size. This cylinder had a chain attached, the end of which swung free as Montford worked with tiny tools to attach the remnants of Charles’s finger to the top of the tube.
Once it was affixed to his satisfaction, he picked up the discarded finger joint and made a series of cuts along its length. He pulled forth several thin strands and began to carefully work them inside of the golden cylinder. When that was done, he lifted Charles’s damaged hand once more and placed the cylinder onto the stump. It was a perfect fit.
Montford began to repeat the process that Charles had seen him perform with the top half of the finger, his tiny tools pricking and poking as he melded the golden cylinder to Charles’s flesh. Every pinprick was agony. It felt as if molten gold were being poured across the nerves of his left hand. He could feel the shooting sensations all the way to the tops of his fingers, even the one that Montford had cut off. The pain went on and on, and Charles was forced to watch every second of it.
Finally, Montford placed Charles’s hand back on the bed. He picked up the loose end of the chain and crimped it into place on the Opus’s bow. He gave the chain a slight tug. Charles felt it as if the man had pulled directly on one of his fingers.
“There, Mr. Woods. My gift to you. You will now find it much harder to forget the Opus.”
Montford picked up the mutilated lump of flesh that had been the bottom joint of Charles’s finger. He turned it over in his hands, heedless of the blood.
“I will leave this with you, in case the morning leaves you with doubts as to what I can do.”
He stood to leave, then bent back over Charles. His disturbingly long fingers reached out and gently closed Charles’s eyes.
“Good night, Mr. Woods. I hope we do not have to meet again.”
Charles did not recall falling back asleep, but he awoke in the morning with a start and a yell. For just an instant, he had the crushing relief of believing it had all been a dream, before he felt the steady tick of the Opus in his left hand. His blood-soaked night clothes confirmed the truth even before he opened his palm to see the golden joint with the chain fastened to it, tying him eternally to the Opus.
Bafflingly, Charles’s fourth finger still worked. It bent and unbent at his command, the top joints seemingly unbothered by the metal interruption severing them from the hand. He wondered briefly if perhaps he had imagined some of the process, and that Montford had merely placed a cuff around his finger—but then he saw the bloody chunk of meat sitting on his bedside table, knucklebone protruding from either end, and he knew that his horrific recollection was accurate in every detail. Worse, he could feel sensation in the watch chain, and even in the Opus itself. They were connected.
Charles’s peers all exclaimed over the cunning finger cuff, of course, proclaiming him innovative, fashionable and smart. They asked who had crafted it for him, but he dodged their questions with weak claims that he had forgotten the name of the goldsmith. They assumed that he was hiding the truth from them so that they could not have a statement piece such as his, which was more or less correct although not for the reasons they thought.
Even the ones that Charles most loathed, he would not wish Montford upon. He woke up many nights in a pale sweat, heart racing as he jerked awake from a nightmare in which Montford flayed away his skin to reveal clockwork beneath, gears grinding through flesh in a symphony of agony.
His heart never raced for long, though. The Opus always reasserted control, bringing him back down to an unwavering, unending sixty beats per minute.
Charles hated the Opus, its mocking figures on the front, its hundred-eyed mirrored gaze, its iridescent face painted in heartache and oily blood. He hated the control it had over him. He gritted his teeth every time someone complimented him on it at a party. He wished he could cut it from his finger and throw it into the river, to sink and be lost forever.
He knew though that if he did, he would wake that night to find Montford looming over him like a rapacious vulture, his unnatural fingers reaching out to deliver the death he had promised.
And so he lived on, one tick at a time.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableMicah Edwards Edited by Craig Groshek and N.M. Brown Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A