(Author’s note: This is part 5 of an ongoing series. For episodes 1 to 4, click here: http://thegoblinguy.com/category/serial-fiction/)
“Time check, Eli!”
Two minutes till midnight, high above the fog-filled streets of the city, four figures crouched on the rooftop. By the looks of it, they were engaged in the rather illicit enterprise of breaking and entering.
“Twenty seven seconds and falling, on my mark…” a stout young man with a mess of short brown hair whispered back. He was dressed in a short sleeve work shirt, long khaki slacks, and suspenders. His dull brown eyes never left the antique pocket watch held open on his palm. “…and mark.”
The first youth was taller, more muscular, and wearing all black. This matched his slicked back hair and his intense focused gaze. Satisfied with Eli’s answer, he turned his attention to a freckled redheaded girl at the window. “You ain’t got it open yet, Allie? Hurry up! A sparrow can pick a lock faster than this…”
“Shut up Ace, I’m working!”
Allie’s bright green eyes flashed with irritation at the interruption, like a cat in the shadows annoyed at suddenly being spotted. She wiped her sweaty hands on her pocket covered pants, and continued to jimmy at the window latch with a nail file. She almost had it, and reminding her of the time did little to help the situation. Twisting her body and lodging one battered boot into the corner of the casement for leverage, she leaned her shoulder against the glass and applied more pressure. Simply smashing in a pane was not an option, even though the fitted jacket she wore would keep the glass from cutting her. They could leave no trace of their involvement tonight.
A few feet away another teen-aged boy, this one long and lanky with a mop of dark curly hair, fiddled with a tintype camera. Garrett was wearing the nicest clothes of the group, with a pressed button up shirt, dark slacks, and a long grey overcoat. His fingertips were all stained an inky black. “You are going to have to get closer together… I don’t want to fall off this danged roof trying to get the shot.”
Ace, the boy in charge of the mission, sidled in between Eli and Allie and dragged a life-sized pumpkin headed poppet to its feet. In his free hand he held a pair of throwing knives.
“Five… four… three…” Instead of finishing the countdown, Eli simply raised his head and smiled for the camera. Ace adjusted the pumpkin man and nodded towards Garrett. Allie looked over and rolled her eyes. She almost never smiled, especially not while they were working.
The bright light of the flash shattered the darkness of the rooftop and reflected off the fog. For a few seconds, the troupe was completely blinded, but this gradually faded into glowing spots that floated around in their vision. Garrett lowered the camera and bent down to light a lumpy candle in a bowl by his feet while the other three jumped into action.
“Move!” Ace hissed, as Allie finally managed to pop the window latch and swung it open then ducked out of the way. Eli grabbed the poppet from his boss and tossed it off the side of the roof, down into the alley way four stories below. The pumpkin exploded with a satisfying splat and a squishy spray of pulp and seeds. With a flick of his wrist Ace sent his knives sailing, one after the other, through the window and into the dark of the bedroom beyond.
The candle wick caught and sputtered merrily along. Satisfied that it was working, Garrett removed the plate from the camera and set it to soak it in a jar of a foul smelling solution. “Two minutes, gentlemen,” he said. “Better make the best of them.”
Thomas Root sat upright in his bed, paralyzed with fright at the skittering sounds that darted across the bedroom towards him. He could not imagine what horrible thing might be stalking him, as he was not a terribly imaginative boy, but he knew for certain that he had made a dreadful mistake. He wanted to cry out for help, to shout for Miss Mary, but some primitive part of his brain knew that it was already too late.
A flash of light drew his attention to an upper window across the chamber and he watched in surprise as it swung suddenly inwards. Shadows passed in front of the opening and then two squishy wet snicks reverberated through the silence. The sounds, for which Thomas could imagine nothing more than a fork piercing a under-cooked sausage, were followed by an eerie keening howl and the noise of something scratching frantically at the floor.
Thomas fell backwards to his pillow, pulled the blanket swiftly over his head, and covered his ears. This did nothing, however, to muffle the loud thud from the direction of the window, and then a much softer one that came shortly after it.
“Ouch! Can’t you even wait for me to move?” Ace groaned from where he lay on the bedroom floor.
“Sorry, boss. I thought you said we were in a hurry here.” Allie snickered. Her words dripped with mock innocence and intentional taunting.
“Ewww… It wasn’t a clean kill, Ace. The skitter is still squirming.”
“One minute, forty five seconds…” Eli’s voice called down from above.
Allie rolled off of Ace’s back, darted across the floor, and brought her boot down hard on the skittering horror’s head. At least she hoped it was the head. She had never gotten a good look at these things in the daylight and had only a vague impression of their spider like appearance. It was much bigger than any spider she had ever seen though, that much was for sure.
The panicked scrapping stopped with her stomp, as did the horrible keening wail, and Ace strode over to retrieve his knives from the vermin’s carapace. The nightmare that had so recently been salivating over its next meal began to dissolve away into nothing more than a greasy green smoke. Thomas risked sneaking a peek from under his covers and only then realized that something even more terrifying than skittering creatures and arguing burglars had happened in the house.
All of the clocks had stopped ticking.
Other than his own breathing, which now sounded like thunder in his ears, the rest of the house was absolutely silent. Thomas waited desperately for the next tick to fall, but it did not come. He bit back a scream as the silence pounded away at his mind. Sweat beaded on his brow and the whole world started to spin. He wondered if he was already dead. Was this what death felt like? An oblivion of painful silence.
The blanket, beneath which hid the shivering Thomas Root, was suddenly yanked away and above him stood the burglars, Allie and Ace. Allie reached out and grabbed the boy’s hand and pulled him from the bed, while Ace tossed the blanket back down and smoothed it into place.
“Easy now,” the girl whispered. Then she held a pocket-watch up to his ear. “This’ll help.”
Tick… tick… tick…
At the familiar reassuring pattern, Thomas released the breath he had been unwittingly holding in and took a fresh one full of relief. The panic faded from his eyes and he managed to look around and try to make sense of the confusion. A rope ladder uncoiled at the window and hit the hardwood floor with a soft thunk.
“One minute!” Eli whispered down urgently from above.
Tick… tick… tick…
“You can hold on to that, Tommy,” Allie said. “But we gotta go.”
“Now!” Ace hissed and pushed them towards the ladder. “Climb! And be quick about it.”
Thomas had no clue what was going on but he did as he was told, climbing up the rope ladder one rung at a time with Allie nudging him upwards from behind. He paused at the top and looked back at his sleeping room mates, none of them the wiser to what had just happened here. He started to ask a question, but a pair of hands suddenly grabbed him and pulled him through the window. Allie slid through afterwards with Ace hot on her heels. Eli dropped the boy to the cold rough roof and returned his eyes to his watch.
“Fifteen seconds…” he muttered.
“Jesus kid!” Ace swore. “Be quick about it doesn’t mean to stop and gawk. Stand up!” Ace jerked the boy to his feet and turned to face the camera. Allie finished pulling the rope ladder up, tossed it to the roof beside her, shut the window, and turned around as well. Eli slid closer to the trio and smiled.
Pulling the tintype from his jar of solution, Garrett held it up for the others to see. They quickly made adjustments to their posture and expressions, all except for Thomas who just stood there in complete bewilderment.
“Five… Four… Three…” Eli whispered.
“We’re good!” Ace nodded. Allie rolled her eyes.
Garrett blew out the candle and the rooftop company plunged into darkness once more.
Tick… tick… tick…
“Sound off,” Ace whispered to his crew. “Clearly, I’m still here.”
“Present,” Eli chuckled.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Allie muttered.
“Indeed.” Garrett said as he began to pack up his equipment. “All four of us account for, plus one new comer well rescued. Good job gentlemen.”
Eli finally put away his pocket watch and set to work coiling up the rope. Allie double checked the window to be certain that it was latched and locked. Ace took the picture from Garrett and began scratching the image away with rough chip of stone. Thomas just stood there, his eyes closed and the borrowed pocket-watch held up to his ear. Even though the rescuers were still working, cleaning up their mess so to speak, there was a much easier air about them now that the job was done.
“Did you see that shot!” Ace beamed. “Boom. Boom. Right in the spine. One dead skitter.”
“Well sure,” Allie chimed in. “He was dead once I crushed his little skitter head!”
“You all sure do like cutting it close,” Eli scolded with a hint of jest. “You just had to stop and make the bed, huh?”
“Of course he did. Leave no trace. No clues that we were here. Nothing that the good doctor can follow.” Garrett snapped the lid closed on his case, all of his supplies now packed safely back inside, and nodded to the others.
They headed for the fire escape, one after the other, their footsteps making hardly a sound. From down below, the steady ticking of clocks could be heard through the house once more. The orphans slept soundly in their beds, completely clueless to the disturbance that had taken place among them.
Ace pause at the edge of the roof and looked back at Thomas. “Well, ain’t you coming?” he asked. “We didn’t just shave two years off our lives for nothing, you know.”
Once Thomas and his liberators were clear of Miss Mary’s orphanage, they were not nearly as circumspect in their behaviors. With their mission accomplished, they fell to laughing, teasing, hooting, rough housing, and hollering in triumphal challenge.
“Just let those skitters try and take us now!” Ace bellowed as they loped along, jumping chimney stacks and sliding down drain pipes.
“We’re on top of the world!” Allie cheered as they traveled through their fog shrouded rooftop kingdom.
“Literally,” Garrett added with the slightest of laugh.
“No… more… oatmeal!” Thomas crowed, giddy with this new found freedom. He still stuck to the rhythm of his past however. Old habits are terribly hard to break.
“What’s wrong with oatmeal?” Eli asked softly.
At last the riotous motley of youths reached their destination and swung down into the bell-tower of an old church building near the waterfront. The church was one large room with a choir loft that wrapped halfway around above the pulpit. There were cots and sleeping bags here and there on the balcony along with small crates displaying personal items, such as a favorite book, an old doll, or a well loved baseball glove. Each was separated at least half a dozen feet from the next, in an attempt to provide some personal space and create a sort of private zone of sanctuary. Four younger children of varying ages were sleeping in their own spots and beside each of them lay a ticking pocket watch. Thomas recognized all of them as former missing orphans of Miss Mary’s house.
In the middle of the nave, instead of pews and parishioners, was a huge cauldron of bubbling liquid. It rested atop a large iron fire box heaped with burning logs and filled the entire chapel with the sweet scent of beeswax and woodsmoke. A withered old woman stood over the wax and slowly lowered and raised bits of twisted rough string. The strings sizzled momentarily as they were dipped into the pot, and came back up again with a lumpy coat of orange wax. Over and over she did this, the wax building up on each end of the string to make two candles at a time as her gnarled fingers held the blank space between. Once the candle pair was big enough, she hung it up on a rack to dry and continued with a new length of string.
“The Wax Witch” Ace whispered to the petrified Thomas as he stopped on the balcony and stood transfixed by the sight below him. “She is harmless really, except it’s her magic that lets us do what we did tonight. Risk our necks to save those marked for death.”
“But you don’t have to join us,” Eli interjected. “That isn’t why we rescued you. You don’t owe us anything at all.”
“Except my watch back,” Allie muttered. “Once we get you one of your own, of course!” she quickly added, noticing the look of panic that spread through Thomas’s eyes. Allie remembered what it was like to be fresh from the orphanage, and how hard it was to feel safe without Miss Mary’s ticking clocks. She could do without her own ticking reminder for a while.
“Why… Why did you rescue me?” Thomas asked, still unable to peel his eyes from the cauldron of wax and the creepy figure that worked there.
“We saw Dr. Fade visit the house today,” Garrett explained. “That usually means someone is going to snap. We don’t always manage to save them in time, but tonight we got lucky.”
“It wasn’t luck,” Ace corrected. “We are just that good.”
“But who are you?” Thomas asked, finally looking around at the others in the room. “Where did you all come from.”
“Same place as you,” Eli snorted. “We are the Watch Children. The ones that got away.”
“And we are gonna stick it to old Dr. Fade,” Allie added. The fierce determination of her words was reflected by the anger in her eyes. “Even though we gotta die to do it.”
“The doctor? But how do you stop him?” Thomas asked, growing ever more curious,
“Haven’t you figured it out yet?” Ace shook his head and pulled out his pocket watch. “It’s like this, kid. We trade years off the end of our lives for a few minutes of ignoring the now. Ain’t nobody else out there can pull the tricks we do. We go where we want, when we want.”
“Thanks to the wax witch,” Eli interjected.
“It is not just the witch,” Garrett noted. “It is also our skills and tools that make us successful. And our hair and our blood”
“So you are magic burglars, but you only steal kids in trouble?” Thomas asked, still uncertain as to just what was going on.
“We don’t steal anybody,” Allie whispered. “We save lives.”
“We stop time!” Ace declared proudly.
Tick… Tick… …
In the corner of the choir loft, the watch beside a sleeping little girl wound down and ticked its last tock. None of the others heard it stop, they were too busy explaining things to their newest recruit. But something in the darkness of the city had heard it. Something horrible lifted its head to listen and then skittered across the rooftops towards the church. It had a long ways to go, for certain, but it was patient and it was hungry. And after so many months of waiting, it was back on the hunt again.
Copyright 2015 by Robert A. Turk – All Rights Reserved
Continued in Episode 6!