This month’s topic is: Masquerade.
I had been running the outline for a new story in my head for the last several weeks, and this topic gave me the insight I was looking for to construct the opening scene. So without further ado, let’s get to it.
The Pocket Watch
My head jerked up from my work to catch the dancing shadows outside the doorway, the sharp reflections on the barred glass presaging his entry even before the bell above the door shook with a dead rattle. My shoulders scrunched with an involuntary shiver as a long arm pushed open the door, and at the sound of the bell, Mr. Feigl slid off his stool to greet the only customer who had come to his small shop today.
A tall shadow ominously filled the open doorway, caught as it was between the fading sunlight and the drab interior, but I suppressed the urge to flee out the back when I spied the watch chain dangling from his waistcoat, instead pulling my cap lower to hide my face. Besides, he was early, and my fourteenth birthday was still three days away, and he had no expectations at finding me apprenticed at the rundown Feigl’s Toy Works, no more so than I had in expecting him to walk through that door.
He did not give me a second glance as he strode to the counter after a quick look around assured him that he was alone in the shop. He was much better dressed than the last time I had seen him, but new clothes and a fresh haircut could not mask the aura of a cold-blooded killer. I also knew the steam pistol neatly holstered at his side was not his preferred weapon, but I kept my eyes off his boot tops that hid his sharp knives and tucked my chin against my chest, hoping to hide the ugly scar that ran along my lower jaw. Still ignoring me, he pulled the tarnished watch from his pocket and dropped it on the countertop with a thump.
“Juice it,” he demanded. “And be quick about it.”
“Sir, I can adjust and clean it, and have it in perfect working order if you care to return in an hour,” Mr. Feigl said respectfully.
I winced before Feigl had even finished.
“Juice it now!” the man yelled, stabbing his face across the counter, nearly bumping heads with Feigl. “You have five minutes!”
To his credit, Feigl did not even flinch. Years of persecution and abuse had taught him when to keep quiet and stoically bear a harmless injustice. This was a very simple demand, one that any tinker child could carry out without effort, and it would not cost him anything to quickly juice the watch and get this poser out of his shop.
“I will fetch my tools and begin straight away,” Feigl said, dropping any pretense of politeness.
He turned his back on the man and went to the small workbench behind the counter. His tools lay strewn about the table that was full of gears, springs and an assortment of metal parts of all sizes, and despite the cluttered appearance, he knew the count, size and description of ever item on the bench.
While Feigl selected his tools, I moved to the counter, keeping my head down, and stepped onto the wooden box kept there to allow me to reach across its wide top. The watch was grey, even black in spots, and it looked like nothing more than a lump of old silver. Without hesitating, I stretched out my hand and ran a finger across the tarnished surface, feeling for the fine engraving hidden under the layers of grime.
“WCE,” my mouth echoed silently with my fingers as they passed over the surface.
A loud smack lifted me off the box and I landed awkwardly, sliding across the floor and upending the stool that fell on top of me. I had just caught my cap before it had flown off, and I jammed it back on my head, tucking my long blond locks underneath it with haste. I blinked the stars away and held my breath, preparing to flee; I had expected him to snatch the watch away or grab my arm, not to have violently sent me sprawling across the floor.
“Keep your filthy hands off,” he hissed, his eyes darting to Feigl, his hand clenching into a tight fist to silence any protest.
When he didn’t jump to strike another blow or move to pull off my cap, I finally exhaled. Feigl had turned to the counter, tools in hand, but he was smart enough not to utter a word in rebuke.
Running my tongue on the inside of my cheek, I probed my teeth, thankful that the savage blow had not busted any of them out. My mouth was already filling with blood, and I swallowed; I would not give him the satisfaction of seeing how badly he had hurt me by spitting. I watched Feigl begin to deftly repair and juice the watch, repeating to myself the vow I had made two years ago to kill this poser when he returned to claim me as his whore after I came of age.
The rest of the chain follows below:
Chapter 2: Into the Night
I dug my nails into the seam along the cracked floorboard, carefully lifting the two pieces so my other hand could slide underneath and flip them over quietly. The dim light of a single candle did little to illuminate the shallow hole, but I reached under the filthy boards, feeling for the two canvas bags that contained two years of nighttime labor. If Feigl missed the stolen parts, he never said, and I unbuttoned the bags, counting twelve bundles wrapped in oily rags. I redid the buttons, hoping these would be enough, and slid the split floorboard back into place. The candle flickered as I was about to leave, and I froze, knowing the shadows in the corner would not hide me. I did not need to turn around to know that Feigl stood in the doorway, blocking my exit into the dank alley behind his shop.
“I see you have packed your tools,” he said.
My eyebrows shot up. I felt the hard edge of the flat toolbox through my small pack digging into my back, confirming that the missing set of tools no longer sat on the workbench. Of course, these were not my tools, but any thief who let guilt stay their hand instead of doing what was required to survive was a thief begging to be caught; however, a momentary pang of remorse colored my cheeks, although I quickly willed this hateful feeling away. It was much easier to view Feigl as a pitiful man who did nothing to confront the injustice that had become his life. I slowly stood and turned to face the dim shadow of the old man standing in the doorway.
“Is there room in one of those bags for this?” he asked, extending another bundle wrapped in an oily rag.
With a scowl to hide my further discomfort, I retrieved the two bags from the floor and crossed the room; a thief did not expect parting gifts, especially when caught in the act. I took the bundle, which was heavier than it looked, and stooped to stuff it into a bag.
“Open it,” he instructed.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I felt trapped, but fighting the urge to run out the back door to escape his generosity, I did as he asked. I unrolled the rag, flipping over the last corner of the dirty canvas. Discomfort fled, and curiosity followed by awe focused my attention on the gift. A mechanical glove gleamed in the dim candle light, and I immediately knew that this treasure was worth more than the contents of the entire shop. Thankfully, before I felt obligated to thank him, Feigl spoke.
“I was once young, like you, and I too was consumed with the unquenchable thirst for vengeance,” he said. “And I had my justice. Gaining it, however, will not guarantee that you do not end like this,” he said with a wide gesture to the room. “Do not let injustice blind you to trust. If you do, you may be standing in the darkness someday with nothing left but a single gift to bestow upon the next generation.”
Ignoring Feigl’s attempt to rationalize what his life had become with perceived wisdom, I rewrapped the glove and stuffed it into a bag as the candle flickered on the verge of burning out. Trust would not bring my father back; words were the last refuge of the old too afraid to die fighting. Grabbing the bags, I slipped past him and left the shop through the back door.
My eyes quickly adjusted to the blackness of a starless sky as I crossed the narrow alley, the squalor of the Lower West Side always more of an affront to my nose at night than during the day. I dropped the bags over a low fence before scrambling over the top, skirting the garbage strew about. I angled toward the river, hopping fences as needed, until I reached the refuse heap piled along the flats beside the riverbank. The stench had finally driven the vagrants from the shanties as the flats filled with garbage to control the annual flooding, and I stopped, glad to be alone amidst the filth; no one would follow me here.
This was the blackest time of night, a thief’s time, my time, when exhaustion silenced everything, and I dropped against the rotting remains of a dank wall to await the sunrise. I would steal across the river on the ferry, mingling with the laborers returning to their miserable sunup to sundown servitude in the belching factories and riverside warehouses.
The black stillness dulled my senses as I settled in to wait, and I stiffened when the low growl of a dog lifted the hairs on the back of my neck. White teeth appeared in the darkness a few yards to my left, and the silhouette of a mangy hound circled menacingly; apparently, I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the hours before dawn, a time free of kicks and harsh invectives.
“Watch; guard,” I whispered to the mutt.
His head dipped, eyes glowing in response. His lips uncurled, covering his teeth, and he finished his half circle before lying at my feet, head alert and watchful. I pulled the glove from the bag and setting it on my lap, I waited for the sun to rise.
Posted in: Blog ChainPublished: October 6, 2010