I pull out my pocket watch and check the time while they wait for me to reach a decision. The forest was gone outside of the narrow gold circle of the fire, only the faintest suggestion of the looming canopy around us, hemming us in. A branch snaps behind me, and some of them jump and turn towards the sound, their sleepy eyes suddenly alert and wide-awake.
I sigh for effect, as though doing this against my will. “All right then. One more before midnight, and then off to the tents. Get some sleep…if you can sleep after this story, of course. I’m sure some of you have heard this one before and will roll your eyes at me. In fact, I can practically guarantee you will. What you don’t know
is that this is the place where the story started. Urban myths have to start somewhere you know, just like everything else. And your first question is going to be: How do I know this is where it started?
(I hold up the pocket watch, letting it spin in the firelight and shoot splinters of light into their eyes)
This watch…they found it on my friend’s body. What was left of him, that is. It was the only thing he could grasp at as he…ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself, I think.
Let’s go back a step. That parking lot where I left the van. Anyone notice the gate and the padlock? We’re locked in right now…all night. If you want to leave this forest before dawn, you’re going to have to walk out.
It didn’t used to be there, that gate and padlock. The parking lot has a beautiful view of the lake when the moon is right and the sky is clear. Used to be a great spot for a midnight road trip with the…well, shall I say, the partner of your choice.
(There’s laughter from the circle around me, glances shared and held-hands squeezed. I look around at the darkness, coming closer now the fire is shrinking)
Yes, sir, it was a beautiful spot…until he came to the forest that night.
Just a young couple they were, not much older than most of you. They parked up and started to…get better acquainted with each other, if you know what I mean.
(There’s laughter again, more subdued this time. Some of them are starting to roll their eyes at me; they know where this is going. Or they think they do)
So…let’s call them Jack and Jill. Jill is starting to get acquainted with Jack, and Jack is letting her. The radio is playing in the car, some cool jazz they both like. Doesn’t matter, neither of them is listening, anyway, right?
But Jill goes a little too fast for Jack, and he sits back, suddenly a little timid. Jill is cool with it; she knows they’ll get there in the end and doesn’t press him. They sit there for a few minutes, listening to the radio, enjoying the night.
That’s when the newsflash breaks in. The Watchmaker has escaped.
(There’s a murmur from the far side of the fire of oh, God, not this hoary old story. If only my young friend over there knew what happened next)
They’d never had a prisoner like The Watchmaker at the Hellman Institute for the criminally insane. Fifteen people he’d murdered before they caught him.
(I point over the nearest ridge)
By the way, it’s only three miles that way if anyone fancies a late night stroll.
(There’s laughter at that)
Fifteen people…and those were the ones he didn’t eat. All of them impaled from the back with the boat hook he wore on his left hand. The Watchmaker. A pocket watch left at every scene. Fifteen of them. All hand made by a craftsman, all unique.
(I pull out my pocket watch again. This time every eye is riveted to it. I flick it open and snap it closed again like the teeth of a hungry man. No one is laughing now)
They finally caught him with victim number sixteen. Just sitting there, pocket watch in one hand, licking the blood from the hook where his other hand should be. When the cops caught him, he was smiling, just as happy as he could be.
For ten years he sat in the isolation ward at Hellman’s, never saying a word. I heard that nurses called him the cat. He’d sit there, licking the back of his hand or his arm for hours. And when he did move, he was utterly silent. He’d stare at the interns who brought him his food without blinking. And then he would pounce on the food and tear it apart with his teeth.
And this was the creature who was free in the woods that night. Suddenly, the trees seemed closer and Jack begged Jill to get the hell out of there. She didn’t hesitate; she gunned the car out of the parking lot and back to civilisation in record time.
(I sit back. There’s some eye rolling going on again. These punk kids think they know it all. If they only knew what I have coming for them)
It wasn’t until Jack got out of the car at home that he saw something glinting on the backseat. A pocket watch, of course,
(I pull it out and snap it shut again, making everyone jump)
much like this one.
But that’s not where the story ends, you know. The cops sent a unit out to check the parking lot that night, after Jack and Jill called it in. They never found all of the cops body. Just the one hand, clenching a pocket watch. This pocket watch.
I took it from his hand the next morning. That cop was my friend. They put up the gate and padlock not long after. It’s too dangerous to be in these woods after dark, they say.
The biggest manhunt in the state never found The Watchmaker. Some say he moved on. Some say he’s out here still. If he is, he might come here tonight, looking for his pocket watch.
(The circle shifts uneasily. There are groans at the old story, none of them daring to believe it for a minute)
So sleep well, my young
something is not
right. Something sharp against my spine, but no real sensation of pain. Not yet. Something is not right. There’s a curve of metal sticking out from my chest where something not right shouldn’t be, a
curve looking like a boat hook and covered in flickering firelight red
and then I start to screamchoke as my throat fills with blood and with my final fading sight I see a gnarled and filthy hand come around from behind me and as the kids scream and start to scatter, the hand plucks something from my failing failing grip, a disk that glints with dying embers of the fire.