Link fidgeted in the gloom before the counter, kicking up dust clouds from the floorboards with his filthy grime-stained sneakers.
“So wassa deal then Ruskie? We good?”
Kaspersky ignored the junky and adjusted the angle poise lamp to better inspect the haul, making the pile of jewellery shimmer in the darkness of the shop. It was mostly trash: Cheap plated bracelets, nasty dime store trinkets, synthetic gems set in low-grade metal.
But the watch, well that was something else. Link had evidently realised this too, his eyes greedily watching the old man weighing up the timepiece.
“Dat old tickers gotta be worth something, huh?
Kaspersky eyed Link with silent, sneering contempt. He fixed his jewellers eyepiece into his leathery old socket and leant over to study the watch. Link continued to pace the floor, twitching with sporadic dope spasms as if yanked by an invisible thread.
“Fake” Growled Kaspersky, gruffly. “Cheap rubbish like you always bring”.
“Da fuck it is!” Link’s dilated pupils had lit up with fire, his twitch amplifying with the agitation. “Dat’s prime merchandise right there and you know it, man”.
“Fifty for the lot. Take or leave”. The old Russian stared blankly at the addict, his eye magnified crazily by the eyepiece.
“Fiddy? Fiddy! Fuck you, you piece of shit! Two fifty down this instant or I walk”.
A condescending, reptilian smile crept across Kaspersky’s face. He picked up the watch in his papery fingers.
“Clone of 1920s wristwatch. Gold plate over steel, not even clockwork – battery power. Hallmark is crooked, straps are fake”. He manipulated the watch between his fingers with expert precision. “This is cheap knock-off watch that they push on tourists over in Korea Town. In short, my friend, fucking trash”.
Link began to pace again, more manic and uneasy than before, seemingly trying to dampen his heroin craving long enough to figure out whether the old man was bullshitting him or not.
“Aw, shit”. He mumbled to himself as he idly thumbed the track marks on his arm. “Fiddy? Goddamn shit”.
Kaspersky cracked a crooked smile.
“I tell you what my friend, I do you deal”. The pawnbroker’s eyes glinted malevolently. “You tell me where you got this trash watch, and maybe I go to seventy five?
“Bullshit I will!” spluttered Link. “If that is such a piece of Korea Town junk why in hell you interested in where I got it?”
“Relax Lincoln, my friend.” Kaspersky’s voice was oily and glib. “I got a cousin on the East side, runs a little stall at the airport. He could probably shift a few of these to the weekenders. That is all”.
Link broke into a smile, his cracked lips parting to reveal a graveyard of jumbled ivory tombstones, stained shit brown from years of junk and smokes.
“You want more merchandise, then I’m your man, brother! I can get you watches, I can get you phones, I can get you…”.
“No” replied Kaspersky tersely “Just the address or the deal is off”.
“Shit man, cool yourself”. Link began to twitch again, nervously. “Seventy five?”
Link considered this for a moment, fighting his dope twitch which was worsening by the minute, then he stepped forward, grabbed a tooth-splintered biro from the pot on the counter and began to scrawl an address on the back of a pawn ticket.
“Ratty lil’ junk store over by the docks. All sortsa shit in there. Run by some dopey old fuck, blind as a freaking bat. Didn’t even need to pull no rough stuff on him, just helped myself while my girl distracted him.”
He pushed the ticket under the slit of the wire grill.
Kaspersky examined the spidery text then nodded. He reached under the counter and grabbed a handful of greasy fives and tens. He counted them diligently and shoved them across the wooden surface.
As Link slid his hand under the grill to take the money Kaspersky, in a cobra-like display of speed that belied his sixty-eight years, grabbed the junkie’s fingers and bent them up and back against the brass letter-box slit in the wire.
“Ow! What the…?”
Kaspersky fixed him with a cold, cruel glare.
“You better not be messing old Arkady Kaspersky around, boy.” He applied more pressure and the junkie howled.“If I find that this address is an empty parking lot or a kiddies’ playground or a vacant warehouse, then I will find you, I will cut you and I will feed your spleen to Mrs Ivanovna”.
As if on cue Kaspersky’s mangy tabby leapt up onto the counter and hissed viciously at Link, teeth bared, lamplight glinting with amber fury in her one good eye. Kaspersky released his grip and Link jumped back, startled and smarting, money in hand.
“Fuck you, you old commie bastard”. He backed towards the door, seething. “One of these days I’ll come back packing heat and I’ll fucking perforate both you and your goddamned cat”.
Link spat into the dust then exited, slamming the door behind him with enough force to rattle the stacks of bric-a-brac on the sagging shelves.
Kaspersky smirked, unlatched the security screen and rounded the counter. He strode toward the door of the shop and peered through the filthy glass. Outside dusk had begun to fall and a dirty smog had descend on the city streets like a grimy comfort blanket. Through the brown haze he observed Link’s scrawny silhouette limping off down the street, watching with hawk-like intensity until the junky rounded the corner and disappeared.
Certain that he was now alone, he flipped the ‘open’ sign to ‘closed’, pulled the thick bolts across the door and the drew a heavy velvet curtain over the window. Then, barely able to stop his hands from trembling with anticipation, he returned to his seat beyond the counter to take a better look at the watch.
Needless to say it was not a Korea Town junker. Nor was it a fake. Indeed, the watch had no brand, no maker’s mark, no serial number. It was, however, exquisitely beautiful and luxuriantly heavy. As Kaspersky’s lithe fingers explored and manipulated the timepiece in the lamplight, its crystal face swept a searchlight of luminescence around the shop and its thick gold bezel shimmered like a halo.
Eyepiece now fixed back into the sallow hollow of his right eye, the pawnbroker inspected the watch with almost pornographic glee. Magnified in the glass his gaze played lustfully over the sensual, scalloped curves of the bezel, the slender golden hands, the twelve blood-red rubies which glimmered lasciviously against the cool, pale ivory of the watch face.
This was a bespoke, artisan piece, he felt certain of it: hand crafted, unique, exquisite. Kaspersky had occasionally traded on the underground antiques circuit and knew an item like this would be voraciously sought after by the wealthy connoisseurs of the black market: the mob bosses, the Triad lords, the corrupt ‘old money’ of the city’s gated communities that manipulated the politics of the proletariat.
How much would something like this fetch amongst those powerful trophy hunters? Fifty thousand? One hundred thousand? Maybe more. It would all depend on the guts of the watch, the ticking clockwork soul of the timepiece that whispered the passing hours in shifting cogs and springs.
Kaspersky reached into a low drawer and removed a squat metal box which he set on the countertop. He flipped open the lid, revealing an array of watchmaker’s tools and horological implements. He selected a thin blade-like tool and small clamp which he secured to the counter. Fixing the watch into the clamp, he delicately adjusted the pressure until it was rock solid then gripped the blade as if holding a fountain pen.
Gingerly he eased the blade into the narrow gap between the watch body and the thin gold disc of the case-back and began to pry the two apart. For several minutes the old man worked away with the tool, beads of perspiration gathering in the concentration creases of his brow. Finally there was a faint metallic pop and a crescent of darkness crept round the bright rim of the watch-back like an eclipse.
Holding his breath, the pawnbroker eased the backing plate out of its housing and set it aside. Inside, the watch was breathtaking: a delicate spider’s web of fine silver cogs and saw- toothed golden wheels all waltzing in perfect unison with dozens of scythe-like, sweeping levers.
And then Kaspersky realised something odd: there was no winding system. The smooth shoulders of the watch were unadorned with any kind of winding crown and the exquisite mechanism was entirely self-contained with no apparent communication with anything outside the watch.
But most strikingly and strangely of all, in the very centre of the watch, sat a circular ebony housing, highly lacquered and held in place by a trio of tiny golden screws. The various cogs and levers surrounding the box actually disappeared beneath the housing which was clearly designed to hide whatever ingenious mechanism powered the watch.
So what lay beneath the ebony case? A battery? Maybe some kind of kinetic self-winding device?
Intrigued, Kaspersky retrieved a small jeweller’s screwdriver from the tool box and began working loose the screws. They were deceptively long and thin and it took several anxious minutes to work them loose without damaging their delicate threads. At last he managed to remove the third and final screw and, using a pair of fine tweezers, gently lifted of the lid of the small, hardwood housing.
Kaspersky instantly dropped the tweezers which clattered noisily in the silence of the empty shop.“Holy Mother of God!”
There, in the centre of the housing, sat a tiny, fleshy heart, beating rhythmically and absurdly in time with the ticking motion of the watch.
Kaspersky watched it pulse with a mixture of fascination and horror, the tiny organ expanding and contracting as if alive, its muscle tissues glistening and its arteries pumping down into some unseen engine.
For several minutes he puzzled, dumbstruck, over the enigma before him. It must be some sort of automaton, surely, a clever piece of leatherwork by some master horologist with a twisted sense of humour?
Emboldened, Kaspersky picked up his tweezers and gently touched the metal tongs to the miniature heart. As the cold steel brushed the flesh, the heart gave a perceptible shiver and momentarily skipped a beat before recovering and resuming its steady pulse.
Mrs. Ivanovna hissed defensively and scrambled for the safety of the parlour. Kaspersky vomited violently in his lap.
The bitter winter wind churned the smog as it funnelled in between the dockside warehouses. Arkady Kaspersky drew his great-coat closer and felt the ominous bulk of the watch shift in his pocket.
The old docks were deserted at this ungodly hour, the days long since-gone when vessels from all over the world would pull into this rusty nook of the Eastern Seaboard at all hours of the clock. Now all that were left were the skeletal remains of the cranes and the silos. The only inhabitant: the rats, the shadows and the ghosts.
Kaspersky turned his back to the wind and set off for the labyrinthine tangle of the sailors’ slum. Like the docks, the dank residential streets were mostly forgotten and abandoned. Occasionally the darkness was broken by the battery-powered light of a squatter’s lamp or the scarlet glow of a low-rent bordello, but mostly the grim tenement blocks sat empty, broken and forlorn.
For ten minutes or so the pawnbroker navigated the smoggy alleyways and thoroughfares of the maritime ghetto, surprising himself with how well he could recall their layout. Had it really been fifty years since he first encountered them? Half a century since the boy from St. Petersburg hastily stole away on the first US cargo vessel he could find that was sailing that night, leaving behind his family, his girl, and a whole viper’s nest of trouble?
The memory of his distant past made his heart shiver with remorse. This, in turn, prompted a fresh wave of nausea as he recalled the strange, trembling organ that was beating demonically within the watch in his coat pocket.
Fifty years; he had not seen the old, dark magic for fifty years. Until tonight.
Rounding the corner, he arrived on Magellan Street, the address that Link had hurriedly scrawled in his jerky addict’s handwriting. Halfway along the street was the shop. It was a squat, ugly- looking place, one story high, that looked distinctly out of place between the sickly huddled Brownstones which sat on either side. The sign above the shop was flaking and graffiti-strewn. Its fading legend boasting ‘Rialto’s Wonder Emporium: A world of treasures at low, low prices!’
Kaspersky retreated into the shadows and looked around him for any signs of unwanted company. There was none. His hand instinctively moved to the holster he had slung under his left armpit where he could feel the reassuring bulge of his antique Luger through the heavy wool of his coat.
He considered unsheathing the pistol and then instantly thought better of it: He was evidently expected here tonight. The macabre timepiece had been a calling card that he’d been grimly anticipating for a very long time and he had been vain and foolish to think that they had forgotten him. Bullets would be of no use to the old Russian tonight.
Turning up the collar of his coat against the chill, Kaspersky stepped out of the shadows and made his way across the empty street. A latticed security shutter had been pulled across the front of the shop and had been secured with a heavy duty padlock with a shackle as thick as his index finger.
He stared through the lattice at the display in the shop window. The hazy moonlight illuminated a bizarre menagerie of trinkets and toys artlessly arrange next to tatty souvenirs, outdated electronic gadgets, cheap costume jewellery and bulk-buy household goods. Behind the display, a chipboard screen had been erected across the window bay, finishing about a foot above Kaspersky’s eye-level and blocking his view of the shop beyond.
Abandoning any pretence of entering via the front entrance, the pawnbroker turned away from the window and ducked stealthily into the alleyway which ran along the side of the shop. About halfway down, he found the side door. It had been left a quarter of an inch ajar.
Kaspersky took a deep breath and reached for the door handle, his hands shaking so violently with fear and cold that he could barely will his fingers to grip it. He pulled it open and entered the building. The door, which had a sprung mechanism, rattled shut behind him with a rusty groan. And then Kaspersky’s world was silent and dark.
He stood there listening to the quiet for several seconds as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. Looking beyond the narrow entranceway he could make out the shop floor, barely illuminated by the thin wedge of moonlight that shone over the chipboard screen in the window.
Slowly he edged towards the light. On reaching the end of the short corridor, he braced himself against the wall, held his breath and then gingerly peered around the corner. The shop floor was small and narrow, maybe twenty feet by forty, and it was divided lengthways into three aisles by two low shelving units. At the back of the shop, about ten feet away from him, was the counter and beyond that a door which presumably led to the stockroom. The door was closed and, even in the dim light, Kaspersky could see that it was locked shut with another finger-thick padlock.
The light was so scant than he could barely make out anything beyond the abstract shapes of the store’s assorted wares, silhouetted against weak monochrome glow of the moonlight: mop heads, stuffed toys, gardening shears, Christmas decorations. In the darkness everything looked like a threat.
The pawnbroker could feel his heart thundering in his chest. Pressed against the corridor wall he could also feel another movement, this time in his leg where the watch sat trapped between his thigh and the wall tiles. Evidently the other heart was pounding too.The sudden revulsion he felt at this realisation jolted Kaspersky from his paralysis, his fear replaced by steely anger. He stepped out boldly into the moonlight and strode the centre of the shop.
“I am here.” Kaspersky addressed the darkness. “I come because I know I have to come. Let us have no silliness or theatrics”.
He was answered only by the silence.
“Please, if we must do this, then let us get it over with quickly”. He scanned the darkness. “I am old, and tired and do not have the stomach for games any more”.
Could he have got this wrong? The watch was certainly a chilling echo from the past but had Link been an unintentional messenger or had it crossed his hands by pure, dumb luck?
Nothing but silence.
Kaspersky waited for a full minute, barely breathing and diligently scanning the nooks and crannies of the store for signs of company.
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, something moved. It was only a tiny motion, barely more than a flicker, but the old man was certain he had seen it. He concentrated on the darkness.
Then, at the opposite side of the shop he glimpsed the movement again. It was a small shape, about half the size of his fist, which had momentarily appeared above the wooden window screen before ducking out of sight behind a row of dusty porn magazines on the top shelf of the wall unit. Kasperky’s hand crept inside of his coat and locked around the cold metal butt of the Luger.
Suddenly, before he could even get the firearm all the way out of the holster, the tiny object re-emerged from a crack in the magazine stand and flew at lightning speed towards the old man. Kaspersky felt a hard, sharp point strike his forehead with enough force him send him reeling off balance and crashing into the unit behind him. As he hit the shelf he dropped the gun which skittered away across the hard tiled floor.
As he scrambled to his feet, he felt a trickle of blood crest his left eyebrow. He glanced around to see what had hit him and, as he turned towards the light, it came again, dropping from its perch on an overhead strip light and swooping fast and low into his face. This time he managed to get a hand up to shield himself, just in time to feel eight small needle points gouge a chunk of flesh from the back of his hand.
Screaming in pain he instinctively grabbed a mop handle from the stand at the end of the aisle and, gripping it like a quarterstaff, turned to face his assailant.
This time it didn’t even try to hide, choosing instead to perch calmly on the wall shelf and wait for its victim to acknowledge it. Kaspersky gazed up dumbfounded to see the form of a tiny brown sparrow, its talons thick with gore and its tawny breast smeared in blood like a sick imitation robin. The bird cocked his head and pondered the bloodied pawnbroker quizzically for a second before tensing and launching into another kamikaze run.
Seeing the bird dive from the shelf, Kaspersky’s agile reflexes once again belied his age as he spun the mop handle in his grip. In a fraction of a second the bird was upon him but by this time the wooden pole had completed a half rotation and the pawnbroker was able to bring the shaft down on the bird’s airborne spine with an audible, sickening crack.
The sparrow slammed down hard onto the tiles, bouncing and tumbling across the floor until it came to rest next to Kaspersy’s Luger. The old man stumbled along after it, pausing to make sure it was completely still before crouching next to the body.
The sparrow had come to rest in a narrow beam of moonlight that streamed from a crack in screen behind Kaspersky. In the illumination, he could see the broken body, bloodied and contorted into impossible angles. He could also see something golden glinting from under its wing.
Picking up the pistol, he probed the dead bird with the Luger’s narrow barrel. As he gently turned the body, the tiny creature’s wing flopped open to reveal its chest cavity which had split open on impact, seemingly along a neat surgical incision that had been recently sewn up. Inside, where its vital organs should have been, a jumble of clockwork cogs and springs spilled out onto the tiles.
Kaspersky reached inside his pocket and removed the watch. Even before he held it to his ear, he knew the heart within had ceased beating. He also knew without even looking up that, during the skirmish that had been set up so effectively to distract him, the store room door had opened and a new adversary had joined the party.
Gripping the pistol tightly in both hands, Kaspersky immediately spun round on his heel, emptying all eight rounds into the figure that stood observing him from the bottom of the aisle.
Kaspersky fell back onto the floor, still gripping the pistol in his hands. The figure never moved.
“Arkady, Arkady, Arkady.” The thick Middle Eastern accent oozed from the darkness in a pitying, mocking tone. “Have these years done so much to blunt your memory?”
As the figure stepped forward, eight points of light streamed from the bullet holes in the wooden screen directly behind where he had been standing. He was tall and broad but the darkness cloaked his features, making him impossible to distinguish save for his neat gold-rimmed spectacles which shone menacingly in the moonlight.
Kaspersky tried to scramble backwards but in his haste he put his palm on the bloodied clockwork bird and slipped. He fell back to the floor, breathing hard and trembling violently as the last of the cordite gun smoke dissipated in the air.
“I…I…I…” He began to stutter, tears mingling with the blood that pooled beneath his eye.
“Hush.” The Phoenician sighed softly, moonlight glinting on the wicked inch-long scalpel blade that had appeared in his right hand.
“We need to talk about St. Petersburg”.
Rain lashed down, blurring the gaudy neon tangle of Little Tokyo into an electric artist’s palate and soaking Link to the skin as he leaned in to the window of the darkened limousine.
“Dat’s gotta be worth a stack, man, I know a genuine antique when I got one.”
Inside Tanaka Tokuhichi pored over the dull, rusted sushi knife.
“Why did you bring me this?”Tanaka’s accent was pure, cut glass Oxford English with the barest hint of Japanese around the vowels: the product of his expensive education.
“Word on the street is that you know a man who’s got a thing for fancy bladewear” snuffled Link, wiping the raindrops from his nose and spasming jerkily with his junky twitch. “I figured this looked kinda old and expensive so I guessed you might be up for a parley”.
Tanaka eyed the blade with expert precision. “It a fair piece, not particularly rare and certainly not in the best condition, but mildly interesting” Tanaka continued to toy with the knife. “I think my employer will take it off your hands”.
“Dat’s what I like to hear” beamed link “Now about the payment…”
“One thousand dollars cash for an immediate exchange”. Tanaka’s tone was brisk and humourless.
“Shit boy! You fellahs really know how to talk my language!” Link chuckled, rubbing his hands with glee. “One thousand dollars!”
“Conditional, of course” Tanaka continued coolly “On you telling me how you came across it”.“Sure man, ain’t no biggie” Link shrugged. “Coupla homies I know fenced a bunch of shit that was stolen from a law firm downtown. Computer stuff, mostly. One of the break-in crew found that knife on a display stand on some old fart’s wall and wanted to keep it as a souvenir. I liked the look of it so I made him an offer”.
“And the name of this law firm?”
“Monroe and Daniels” replied link “In that spiky glass skyscraper they just built over by the park.
Satisfied, Tanaka nodded. He picked up a small briefcase that from the floor of the limo, popped the latches, opened the lid and took out a banded wedge of crisp twenty dollar bills. He handed this to Link.
The junky could barely contain his excitement as he counted the cash, almost dropping the stack on the wet street when a wayward twitch nearly cost him his grip.
“A pleasure doing business with you, my man” grinned Link with his toothy tombstone smile.
Tanaka nodded curtly and thumbed the button for the electric window. The smoked glass rose like a tide, cutting the Yakuza off from view. The limousine pulled away, leaving neon ripples in the puddled streets of Little Tokyo.
Link watched the limo disappear and slowly let the idiotic grin fall away from his face. He stuffed the money into the back pocket of his low-slung jeans, pulled his sodden hood down over his face and disappeared into the rabbit warren of alleys that criss-crossed the Japanese quarter.
Eventually, after several minutes of navigating narrow thoroughfares full of noodle bars and laundries, karaoke joints and electronics emporiums, he arrived at a small, unremarkable tea shop. He entered, ordered a green tea, and sat down in the booth opposite his employer.
“Did he bite?” His employer’s voice was soft and full of Middle Eastern mystery.
“Yup. Offered me a cool one thousand for it, no questions”.
“Then he obviously knew what it was”.
“Seems that way.” Link sipped his tea. “The arrogant fucker obviously never figured that I knew it was worth a thousand times that”.
“For Boss Kyoto, his great-grandfather’s knife is beyond value” corrected his mentor polishing his gold rimmed glasses. “You have done well Link, once again”.
Link raised his cup in salute of his employer’s praise. He sipped it and immediately twitched, spilling tea down his sleeve.
“Still having trouble with the spasms, Link?”
Link nodded, obviously fighting another twitch which was trying to jerk its way to the surface.
“Here, let me feel.” The Phoenician stretched out a hand and put it on Link’s chest. He closed his eyes and listened. “Unzip your jacket”.
Link lowered the zipper on his coat. His torso was bare beneath. The Phoenician replaced his hand and listened again. “Sounds tight. I think you’ve been over-wound”
The Phoenician sighed. “Nothing I can’t fix.”He smiled at his companion and let his fingers linger momentarily on the huge, ridged scar that bisected Link’s chest.
A creepy crime thriller written for Halloween.