The Masterful Timepiece
by Bryon L. Havranek
Table of Contents|
chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Chapter I: A Casual Dinner Among Friends
“If a day starts at dawn, with the rising of the sun, then why do all of the clocks begin their days at midnight, hours before the sun peeks over the horizon?” Browning — the corn factor, a trader in grains — tittered drunkenly, setting on edge the other well-dressed men gathered about the lush table. The mutton-chopped dumpling of a man took a deep drink from the glass of cognac he held in a dimpled hand, his third in a row so far. He was showing no sign of cessation any time soon.
From his haggard face and rumpled clothes, it was apparent that the genteel drunk was going though some sort of personal crisis, but since he had thus far refused to discuss the details, the others didn’t pry, deeming that Browning had made one costly speculation too many and left it at that.
“Now what sort of question is that, my dear fellow?” asked Mr. Avery, the heavily-bearded stockbroker. He fished out his gold cigar case and produced a fragrant cigar. “I would have thought that the answer was quite obvious.” He clipped the end of his cigar and proceeded to puff it alight from the candle that sat next to his silverware.
Browning slouched in his padded chair and settled his empty glass before him. “Obvious is it, Avery? Oh, I suppose it has something to do with international time or some such, but I might just as well be wrong.” He gazed blearily at the other three men, all of them counted among the richest businessmen in England. He sighed, regretting that he himself belonged to such an exclusive company. “Ah well. Anymore I find the concept of time rather horrid and the instruments used to track its passage are particularly abominable.”
Avery’s bushy eyebrows shot up in surprise. “What?! Without time, how on earth could we conduct modern business? Just because you have obviously fallen afoul of a time-related misadventure, don’t go damning a perfectly good financial tool!”
Browning shuddered, looking most unwell. He reached out to the decanter and filled his glass once more. “Uncanny, what you just said concerning time-related misadventures. I salute your keen perception.” He tossed back the drink, some of the amber liquid running down his chin to stain his starched white collar.
Mr. Avery growled in disgust and turned away from the table to consult the grandfather clock standing guard near the door. He then looked around the table, noting that of the six places that were set, only four chairs currently held occupants. The clock drummed out the quarter-hour, causing the bearish man to frown deeply. “Where the deuce are they? I’ve got tickets to the Queen’s Theatre tonight, and I cannot afford to miss the performance. If they do not show up by the time I finish my cigar, I shall leave and damned be this month’s meeting!”
Just then, the door to the private dining room opened and in breezed a tall, somberly-dressed scarecrow, who smiled sheepishly as he moved to the fireplace to warm his hands. “My apologies, gentlemen, for the lateness of my arrival. I have just come from the Exchange, where I scored the winning bid on a consignment of Yankee cotton.” Sufficiently warmed, the new arrival moved over to the table and took his customary place, his face sporting a predatory grin. “I’m in a mood to celebrate, gentlemen. Who will join me in a glass of imported champagne?”
“Ah yes, I recall seeing you in the thick of things as I was leaving,” replied Avery, taking a long drag on his cigar. “Congratulations, Timms, old man.” The other three men offered their own words of praise, with varying degrees of sincerity, but almost at once all eyes were drawn to the remaining chair, which stood apart like an empty throne awaiting its king.
Timms was quick to note the singular absence. “Dash it all, what could be keeping old Coswald, eh? I need his endorsement on the bill of sale before tomorrow morning.” At those words, Browning let out a choking sound, alarming in its intensity.
Timms glanced over at the portly fellow, a look of concern on his face. “Are you all right, Browning? You look to have just aged a decade since I entered the room!” For the corn factor had suddenly gone from the flush color of inebriation to the stark white of bed-linens within seconds. Browning’s lips trembled as he lifted his glass to his mouth, his trembling hand spilling most of what remained of the expensive cognac all over the chalk-white tablecloth.
“What the devil is the matter, Browning?” rumbled Avery, glad that he was seated in a private room at Price’s and thus would not be seen in public with such an uncouth fellow. After all, there were certain associations that he needed to be kept secret, not the least of which was his membership in a private cabal of the richest businessmen in London. If the Crown ever found out about their exclusive little club and its stranglehold on commerce, they would be lucky to reach Newgate prison in one piece.
Browning’s hand steadied a little after he finished his drink, some color returning to his plump face. “Alas, Coswald won’t be joining us tonight, or any other night for that matter.” He reached over to the partly depleted decanter and refilled his glass, a haunted look causing his eyes to dance about beneath his plucked brows.
His words caused the other men at the table to utter incredulous cries of shock and surprise, bringing them from their chairs as though the upholstery had just caught flame.
“What on earth are you talking about?” gasped Timms. “What do you mean, that Coswald won’t be joining us ever again?”
Browning took a drink and waited for his associates to settle down before he continued. “Our chairman is dead, passed just this morning, as a matter of fact.” He stared down at his empty plate, his eyes near to tears. “Please, do not press me further about it.”
Avery scowled as he dumped the ash from his cigar. “I’m afraid that won’t do, Browning, won’t do at all. You are, or should I say, were the man’s closest business associate. If Coswald is truly dead, that places the continued existence of our club in jeopardy.” He leaned over and grasped the distraught man’s shoulder, giving it a good squeeze. “Have another drink and tell us more. Did you have a chance to go through his papers and remove anything incriminating?”
The corn factor looked far from happy, but he complied and drained his glass. “As his executor I was able to gain access to his effects at once and made sure to abscond with everything that might tie him to our society; none shall be the wiser there.
“As for the events leading up to his untimely demise, I shall now speak. But I do not relish what I am about to relate to you gentlemen, for it is a dreadful business which holds terrible portents for us all.”
He paused while the clock intoned the half-hour. Then he nodded. “Strangely enough, the entire case happens to revolve around the unearthly passage of time, as Avery hit upon just a bit ago. In these enlightened times, we think that we have such a better grasp on how time flows, that because of all of our timepieces we know so much more about such matters than our ancestors did.
“However, we are fools to think that we know much of anything regarding such a nebulous subject. For I have learned that certain forces exist that can manipulate the motion of matter through space as easily as a human child plays with modeling clay, and that should we meddle with these ancient powers we face a most ghastly fate.”
He paused to refill his glass. “Gentlemen, what I am about to relate to you concerns nothing less than the supernatural manipulation of time itself!”
Copyright © 2017 by Bryon L. Havranek