East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

#StoryADayMay, day 4: Clockwork

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As promised, every week I will post here on the blog one of the stories written for the #StoryADayMay challenge. I will also post the prompt, so that you can see where I come from. And in all fairness, I’ll add a Ko-Fi button at the end, in case you feel like buying me a coffee to keep me going.
Your call.

And today we start with the prompt provided by author Joe R. Lansdale:

It was easy to repair the clock in the tower after the headless corpse was removed from the gears. Before that, it was thought to be a problem due to the age of the machinery, but except for the decapitated body, its mechanics were functioning perfectly.

And now, my short story… this was written in one hour flat, and I did not edit it save for cleaning up typos.


There were seventy-two steps to the clock, eight narrow ramps of nine uneven stone steps each. Bruno da Pistone, that had had the tower built in 1099, could only count on his fingers, and had lost one in Outremer fighting the Saracens or, depending on the sources you decided to trust, in a brawl over a woman in Aigues-Mortes. The Romanic stump of Bruno’s tower had been supplemented with three more stories of red brick in 1454, when the clock and the chimes had been installed, and topped with a crenellated terrace that overlooked the surrounding hills and the perpetually misty course of the Belbo.
The keys on the key-ring jangled as the red-headed council secretary opened the small door to the staircase, revealing a closet-like space, the dusty stone floor littered with lipstick-stained cigarette butts in the uncertain light of a single light-bulb.
“It’s up here,” she said. She tucked a strand of red hair behind her ear. He looked up from the floor, and she held his gaze, as if challenging him to say something. He made a face, shouldered his black tool-bag and ducked into the door.
“I’m living this open,” she said to his back.
“Yeah, thanks.”
“Will it take long?” she called, as he climbed up the steps.
“Can’t say, miss.”
She grunted. She was dying for a smoke.
The staircase was so narrow and steep, the man found himself almost crawling on all fours. The place smelled stale, and musty, and there was an overabundance of cobwebs. No wonder the clock had stopped.
They had called him that morning, somebody or other from the city council. Would he give a look at the clock? The hands were frozen at five-fifteen.
He had explained he was not a clock-maker, he was more a bicycle repairman, and he was loath to put his hands on such an old mechanism, but the guy on the other side had reassured him. Yes, if he insisted, the mayor could sign a release of responsibilities. As soon as he was back. In the meantime, would he just go and take a look, maybe prepare a quotation? And the clock was not that old anyway. It had been replaced in 1948, when the top stories had been rebuilt, after the Nazis had hit the tower with a mortar shell in ‘44.
And nobody had looked at it ever since, he said to himself, looking at the grime on his hands. He parted a large cobweb that blocked the passage like a curtain, and started up again. The loopholes had been fitted with frosted glass, probably back in ‘48. They were so dirty the staircase was bathed in a murky twilight. Not feeling like twisting an ankle, he rummaged in his bag and pulled out a flashlight. Dust motes sparkled in the cone of light. Something scuttled away in the dark. Rats. Wonderful.
Two more flights up, and the stone steps were replaced by wooden ones, and the rough Romanic stone wall faded into Renaissance brick, or its 1948 substitute. Where stone ended and wood began was a small landing, three feet by three, and a narrow, low door, like a cupboard’s, closed with a simple iron bolt.
He placed his bag on the floor, and opened the door.
It swung out, forcing him to push the bag out of the way with his foot, and stand against the wall. Inside, a tangle of gears and the sweet smell of iron and oil. He slipped in, sideways, and pulled the bag along by its strap.
Inside, there was room enough to stand, and a narrow gangway ran around the mechanism.
He stopped, and stared. He cursed under his breath.
“Oh, shucks.”
It was not too hard to see what was wrong with the old clock. There was a body, stuck between the gears. A man’s body. Stuck in the gears of the cock. A headless man’s body.
In the gears.
“Oh, shucks.”
He swung his flashlight around. There was very little blood. The body was limp, caught between the main wheel and a smaller cogwheel. The cogs pinched its waist. The arms hung down, an inch of white handcuffs and gold cuff-links sparkling. It was wearing a blue blazer and an expensive-looking chronograph, the sort of watch you’d expect an astronaut to wear during a moonwalk. In the absolute silence of the small room, he could hear it ticking.
Blood had soaked the ascot cravat tied around the stump of the neck.
There was a big seal ring on the body’s left hand pinky.
A pigeon cooed somewhere, breaking the spell.
He staggered back, pushing through the narrow door. He stumbled on the frame of the passage, lost his balance and sat down heavily on the rat-dropping-scattered floor of the landing outside. His bag fell down the staircase. Wrenches and screw drivers rattled down the steps.
“You all right up there?” the woman downstairs called.
He tried to answer, but he had lost his voice.
His cell-phone chimed. He took it out. Pushed the answer button.
“Are you all right?” the secretary asked. “I heard some noise. Are you fine?”
He nodded. He licked his lips. “Ye—yes—” he said.
“OK, fine.” She hung up.
He looked at the cell-phone. Called her back.
Irritated. “What?”
“I think—” He took a deep breath. “You better call the cops,” he said.


The newspapers had a field day. Local journos, more used to covering truffle auctions and barrel races, went wild with their first real proper certified murder. Because it was pretty obvious it had been no accident, no suicide, one of them felt the need to write in full on his newspaper.
Rumours ran rampant for days. The council secretary and the school alderwoman were known to retreat almost daily in the tower for a smoke and a quick grope. Everybody knew that, and if they had not known before, now they learned about it, and for the rumour mill, if not for the police, the two women were and remained the prime suspects. In the long run it was too much, and they left the town under a cloud. They moved to somewhere in the south of France, where they married and opened a cafe.
The guy that had found the body was questioned and questioned again, and kept repeating something about the rats and the cobwebs but nobody cared, not really. He went back to his bicycle repair shop, but soon he had to shut down his activity because of the curious coming in to ask him about the headless body in the clock tower. It was not the sort of popularity he sought. All he wanted, he explained, was to forget about the whole business. Despite being allergic to hazelnuts, he went to work as a production line technician for the company that made Nutella.
And in the end the investigation went nowhere. The dead man carried no documents, and he was never identified, so after a few rounds of questioning, and much CSI-shenanigans, the justice in charge of the case chucked in the sponge, and the case was closed.
Removing the body was a chore.
Nobody ever found the head.

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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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