Clockwork

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It was unusual, on a Thursday night, for Maurice to be up past ten o'clock. He stayed up sometimes on a Friday or a Saturday night, but seldom on a Thursday. His work days began early and Maurice held strong beliefs about a good night's sleep. Tonight, however, he couldn't settle, his mind plodding in labored circles around the list of things missing from Mad Tom Farm. He could hear Natalie moving quietly on the other side of the wall as he peered through his magnifier at the tiny rods and gears of the disemboweled watch on his tray. Samson snored lightly at his feet. Dozens of clocks ticked around the room.

Fixing clocks and watches quieted Maurice. His thick fingers were surprisingly deft with the small, interlocking pieces. As they fitted together, one by one, in perfect synchronicity to produce that steady, satisfying tick-tick-tick, the scramble of the day settled around him and his great bulk came to rest. But not tonight.

The thought of things being purloined from under his very nose was upsetting to Maurice. It wasn't about the missing objects themselves – with the exception of the sheep and perhaps the brass clock, nothing of much value had been taken or harmed. No, it was the sense of violation that accompanied the thefts, that was what rankled. It felt, to Maurice, like more than simple trespass; it was an assault, it made him feel soiled. To think of someone creeping about within the bounds of his private space was an invasion, like pale, hidden skin unexpectedly exposed.

Samson shifted in his sleep, then opened his eyes, stretched his long body and sauntered to the door. He sat and stared with intention at the knob. Maurice removed the magnifier and rubbed his eyes. He couldn't make the watch work, not tonight. He opened the door for Samson and followed the little dog out into the keen night air, taking in the clear sky, the bright stars, the bleating of the sheep – he froze. Sheep didn't bleat at night unless they were disturbed. Kate had been putting them in the paddock at night to keep them safe. Was someone in the barn?

He grabbed his flashlight from the shelf by the door and snapped for Samson who followed at a trot. Rounding the corner he could see the sheep; they were huddled at the gate and calling out, but no sign of intrusion was immediately apparent. He opened the gate and shoved his way through the woolly press of animals, dipping out a handful of grain and scattering it to quiet them. The two that had been shorn, protected now in their borrowed sweaters, hung back slightly from the rest. Maurice scooped another bit of grain and they ate it from his hand. The contented sound of crunching filled the yard. He could hear Lady Gertrude shifting in her stall. Maurice was wary; the stillness seemed untrustworthy.

All at once, Samson charged across the paddock and wiggled under the gate making a beeline for the upper door. A small light flickered through a chink in the boards above Maurice's head. He slipped into the feed room and up the inside stairs, illuminating cobwebs in his flashlight beam. The barn, dark and cold, breathed around him as his fingers traveled along the rough boards of the wall searching for the ancient porcelain light switch. He found it and clicked it on. The vast cavern of the upper barn unfurled itself in the sudden flood of light. It was empty. He listened, every pore alert for the slightest shift or sound. Nothing. It was empty. Two pale feathers drifted lazily in the dusty air over the loft. Pigeons. He'd been meaning to take care of that. The loft was full of pigeon nests and the birds made a mess of the hay.

Maurice had been certain he'd seen a light, and now he was certain no one was there. He knew every last cranny of this barn – there hadn't been time for someone to hide. So. That was that. Nothing but shadows and pigeon feathers. He supposed he could search more thoroughly but he didn't think it would do any good. He wasn't up to chasing Mad Tom around the barn.

The outside door bumped lightly against its latch; Maurice clicked off the light and opened it. Three pairs of glittering, liquid eyes confronted him on the darkened landing. He startled and stepped back. The three dark figures didn't move. He inched back into the barn, flashlight at the ready in case of attack. Samson whimpered anxiously. Samson? Maurice stopped. His eyes flicked into focus. There on the doorstep sat Crunchy, Daisy and Samson lined up by size, three hairy sentinels in his hour of need. Samson's pointy tail quivered tentatively.

"Good dog," said Maurice, "Three good dogs."

He thumped each fuzzy head fondly.

"Home Samson," he said, "no one there."

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