Two o’clock was missing.
Danny thought it had to be a joke. He stared at the clock tower before consulting the silver timepiece in his hand, but it only mirrored what he saw above: both clocks read 3:06 in the afternoon, when not fifteen minutes before they had read 1:51. The hands had jumped an entire hour like it was of no consequence.
Because it no longer existed.
He looked back at the clock face and swore. Not a joke.
The tall, thin man at his side wrung his hands together, glancing between Danny and the tower. He cleared his throat with a sound like an engine stalling.
“Can it be fixed?”
Danny wrenched his eyes away from the clock. The mayor of Enfield was sweating, but then again, so was Danny. The back of his neck felt damp and unpleasant, making him shudder when a gust of cold wind hit.
At least, he told himself it was the wind.
“Er, yes,” Danny said, trying not to make it sound like a question. “Yes, it can be fixed.”
The set of the mayor’s shoulders relaxed, but not by much. “Then, please, by all means.” The mayor gestured to the tower as if Danny had forgotten where it was.
Colton Tower rose forty-five meters from the ground, a pillar of limestone and plated cast iron with a brick base and pointed spire. The iron gleamed bronze in the weak sunshine, illuminating the sentinel-like tower that stood above the shingled roofs of Enfield. The clock face shone yellow, its numbers and hands black against the opal glass. That made it even easier to see the empty space between one and three o’clock.
The clock ticked on despite the malfunction, but Danny felt the lost hour as he would a missing finger on his hand. That wrongness, sharp and shocking, bore down on his body until he could barely breathe. Just to make sure he still could, he took a breath through his nose. It made his heart pound even harder.
He snapped his timepiece closed with a loud click. This was his first assignment since the accident, and they had given him the most difficult one they had.
I bloody asked for it, he thought ruefully. He’d just had to make a scene and say he was ready, that he was finally healed. The other mechanics were probably having a good laugh right about now. Well, let them laugh. He’d wipe the smiles off their faces. Somehow.
“Do you need assistance?” the mayor asked when Danny continued to hesitate. He was still wringing his hands, and Danny really couldn’t blame him. A missing hour was alarming on its own, but now police were combing through the town in search of the missing numeral, considering everyone and anyone guilty.
Danny tried to smile reassuringly, but all he achieved was a grimace. “No, thank you. I’m sure the apprentice is waiting for me inside.”
Turning back to his automobile, which sat dusty and exhausted in the street between the village green and the tower, he swore under his breath. He could feel himself sweating in other places now, ranging from the mildly uncomfortable to the downright disconcerting. Danny furtively bent his head to get a whiff of one underarm and felt his nostrils tighten in offense.
The small, quaint homes and shops along the street were empty at the moment, giving the street a vacant, eerie atmosphere. In startling contrast, a large crowd had formed before the abused clock tower. The people had come not only to stare ineffectively at the clock, but also for a peek at the young clock mechanic. He worried they would be able to smell the fear on him.
A few constables kept their eyes on the murmuring crowd while the children gawked at their blue uniforms. This was probably the most excitement Enfield had seen in some years, and he had become the main attraction.
He wondered if they knew the extent of the danger they were in. The threat of an absent hour wasn’t as simple as missing appointments or rushing through afternoon tea. If one hour was off, if one hour was subtracted every day, Enfield would be out of alignment with the rest of the world. There was no telling what would happen to the town if that continued. No telling what would happen to the people who lived here.
Enter Danny, the clock mechanic. The healer of time. Enfield’s supposed savior.
Danny clenched his hands into fists and told himself to calm down. He had, after all, asked for a difficult assignment. But he hadn’t expected one like this, not after what happened to the last tower he had set foot in.
The message was clear enough. If he was going to prove that he was ready for The Assignment, he had to tackle Enfield’s tower first. He had to restore their two o’clock or make a fool of himself trying.
Nodding to himself in newfound determination, Danny dragged a heavy, rectangular package from the car’s back seat and hoisted it onto his shoulder. He still wore his driving gloves, the finger pads brown with dirt, and his goggles hung bug-speckled on his chest. Another gust of wind that smelled of oncoming rain ruffled his dark, unruly hair. Because that was what he needed: a sheet of freezing rain while he worked.
The mayor told the others to stand back and give Danny space as he approached the side tower door. Once inside, he looked up the stairs and frowned.
“How’m I going to do this?” he muttered. He had studied any number of clock-related catastrophes during training, but the theory on paper and the reality of the situation couldn’t compare.
Only one way to find out. He climbed the stairs towards the belfry, each step giving birth to small clouds of dust. It smelled of moths and age, the scent of a childhood willingly forgotten. He counted fifty stairs until he reached the four bells. They would chime again at the next hour, having already mistakenly announced the hour of three.
Farther up he reached the churning clockwork, the wheels and gears that turned the face. Below his feet swung the pendulum that swayed diligently side to side, beating every two seconds. He planned to keep going, to ignore this room altogether, but it was like ignoring a large mole on a small nose; it screamed to be looked at.
As Danny watched the clockwork turn, his throat and stomach tightened. His breaths came too fast and his vision darkened at the edges. But he refused to give in to panic. He tried to push it ruthlessly down, down, down until he could convince himself that it didn’t exist. He was Danny Hart, and he was a clock mechanic.
A clock mechanic who was now afraid of clocks.
It won’t be like last time, he told himself firmly, touching the scar on his chin. It can’t.
Whirs and clanks and ticks echoed throughout the tower, a sound both familiar and new. The sounds vibrated through the floorboards, traveled through the soles of his boots, up his legs, to his heart. Strangely, that calmed him. Each tower sounded different to him, like a voice. The sound of this tower was curious, bright, unassuming. Danny listened to it while he gathered his courage, until his arms screamed a reminder that the package they carried was rather heavy.