Jack, Charlie and Joe were back in the prison cell. Joe, with a lot of eager prompting from Charlie, had just narrated to Jack what had taken place in the interrogation room.
"What I don't understand," he finished, "is why on earth these children want mechanics. Clock mechanics of all things? I didn't know such a thing existed. It's like some weird dream."
"Yeah," said Charlie, "and if they can make big bangs and flashes and make people disappear and reappear somewhere else, then how did they get the wrong people? How can they mistake pilots for clock workers? And why - "
"Shush," said Jack, "I can hear someone coming."
Listening, the three of them heard footsteps approaching their cell, echoing down the long passageway. It sounded like a group of people, talking loudly.
"So we were out on the beach jumping the waves, and we saw some children, four of them. We called to them, asked them to play with us, you know the drill."
"Fall for it every time," said another voice.
"Anyway," continued the first voice, "There was this one older girl who was wary. She made them run away into the forest."
"Ah well," said a girl's voice. "We'll catch them soon enough - we always do."
A girl and three boys passed their cell, illuminated briefly in the lamplight. The group stopped, and one of the boys pushed some inedible looking kelp and fishbones through the bars. The small group continued on.
Charlie's eyes were wide. "Did you hear what they were saying?" he said. Joe looked thoughtful.
"Seems to me that somehow this has a definite link to the Shell Bay mystery," he said. "Yes… the class had twenty or so, I'm guessing. There seem to be fifty to seventy kids here, just from the glimpse we've had. So maybe… I'm guessing here, but maybe these kids recruit other kids, capture them, lure them or something."
"To build up an army!" Charlie finished excitedly. "Great, Dad!"
But Joe was frowning. "But it doesn't make sense," he mused. "The Shell Bay children grew up long ago. If they'd only recently gone missing then we'd have the answer. Everything adds up except for the time gap. Ten years is a long time."
Even Charlie fell silent at this.
Jack piped up in a small voice. "And why do they want to recruit more? Why want an army?"
"And what is their thing with clock mechanics?" mused Charlie. They sat in silence, lost in their questions.
The day was hot, and the sky was a cornflower blue. The bus doors hissed open and a cascade of children tumbled out, who ran down the sandy dunes laughing and shouting with glee. A harried teacher bustled after them, telling them not to stray too far away or go near the water. At the end of the procession came a young woman leading a small golden haired girl by the hand.
Lily looked around at the beach; a great sweeping brush stroke of grey sand beneath a rugged cliff face. Even in the summer weather with bright sunlight, there was something lonely and haunting about this place. Lily hoped that governess Melody would stay with her, but at that moment the teacher hurried over and, after a brief conversation, governess Melody went off with the teacher to supervise the unruly children, who were already swimming fully clothed in the water. Lily shivered. She did not want to be alone. She wished her sister Mary was here.
For an hour or two Lily sat on the sand dunes, watching the children playing. Sometimes governess Melody would come over, but always she would be called back by the teacher. Lily saw the children go wandering along to a rocky shelf. One by one, they disappeared behind it. Lily shot a nervous glance behind at governess Melody, but she was sitting reading and had not noticed. The teacher was nowhere in sight. Lily followed her classmates.
The last child was just vanishing into a large, dark cave, set in a steep cliff face. Lily followed with a sense of foreboding. There was a cold, almost evil feel to this place, and she tried to fight back the urge to go running back to governess Melody again. She came to an abrupt halt when she found that the children were coming back out. She turned back with them. The children clustered in the cave entrance, while a tall girl, Clover, began to talk in a loud whisper.
"At the very end of the cave there's a big stone basin, and I saw something in the bottom.' She held out her cupped hands, in which rested a large, tarnished pocket watch. it was very battered and dented and looked as though it had been there for years. And yet the hand inside it (for it had only one) still ticked steadily, like a beating heart. "We should try opening it up and seeing how it works!" said Clover excitedly. "Let's try now…"
But before she got the chance, there came the sound of a loud voice. "Children! Children, where are you?"
"Next time we're left on our own, we'll try opening it," said Clover, as the children trooped back onto the stretch of beach again.
Lily spent the rest of the day building sandcastles, and contemplating the clock. She felt an odd sense of foreboding, like an oncoming storm. She was glad when her governess told her to get in the car.
On the trip home, governess Melody seemed oddly subdued, almost worried. "Is anything the matter?" Lily asked.
Governess Melody sighed. "Oh, it's not important. Just that stupid teacher, leaving the kids unsupervised. I suppose I should have stayed, but… well, too late now."
It was later in the evening that the policeman came around and broke the awful news. Lily did not remember much after that. Everything was strange, out of focus. She stopped sleeping, because every time she let her eyes sink closed the image of that cold grey beach appeared as though imprinted on the inside of her eyelids. This sleeplessness slowly led her to insanity, but in amongst the slow decay of madness one conscious thought always resurfaced. It was her fault. The children must have stopped the clock, and they had all been killed or worse, all because she hadn't been brave enough to tell anyone.
It was this conviction which had steadied her shaking hand enough to slip the pill of poison between her lips ten years later. After all these sleepless nights, maybe it was time for a rest…
Charlie swallowed nervously, and looked back at the glassy, glittering eyes of the children surrounding him and his father. They were back in the interrogation room, though this time it was a girl interrogating them. She wore a tattered beach dress and had a cloak made from a beach towel draped over her shoulders. In the dim lamplight shadows pooled in her hollow cheeks and eye sockets, making her face look horribly like a skull as she paced before them. Something about her chilled Charlie and made him move instinctively closer to his father.
"My name," said the girl softly, "is Clover." Her words rasped unpleasantly in the back of her throat. "It is time for know why you are here." Her pacing slowed and she paused before them. "You are mechanics, yes?"
Joe cleared his throat nervously. "Well not really, you see…"
Clover held up a pale, slender hand and Joe instantly fell silent. "You can do small machinery?"
"No, well you see…"
Clover turned around and picked something up from a slab of stone. "We need you to mend this magic clock."
"A… wait, a what?"
"A magic clock," Clover repeated quite calmly, as if it were some everyday object. "Haven't you wondered why we never age past the age of twelve?" In her hand, Joe and Charlie could see that she was holding an object which glittered faintly in the lamplight. The clock's glass face had a web of cracks traced across it, and the second hand was dented beyond repair.
"Now," said Clover, "The adult must not touch the clock. The child can work on it, and the adult can direct."
"Direct to do what?"
Clover gently placed the clock on the table again as though it was woven from gossamer. "We're tired of being forever the same age and in hiding," she said softly. "We want you to fix the clock."
There was a silence. Charlie could sense that his father was about to say something, but he was bursting with questions.
"But why do you want it fixed?" he said in disbelief. "If you never get it fixed then you'll live forever."
The children surrounding them glanced at one another; clearly there had been some arguing on this point.
Clover, however, gave a smile. "That's what we thought at the start of this whole thing,' she said. "But we've been the same age for ten years, and we're getting a bit sick of it."
"Ten years," said Charlie slowly. "So you are the Shell Bay children."
A cold breath of wind swept through the room, making the hairs on the end of Charlie's neck stand up. It took him a moment to realise that it was the children laughing. "Of course we're the Shell Bay children,' said Clover. "We've been kidnapping children from the beach and adding them to our ranks ever since we arrived here. We -"
"Look," Joe interrupted angrily. "This whole thing is nonsense! Besides the idea of this whole magic clock, not to mention the kidnapping thing, you really expect us to be able to fix this clock of yours? We're pilots, not clockmakers or whatever you seem to think we are. The whole thing's stupid. Let us go!"
Clover looked behind her at the other children. "It seems," she said softly, "that the clock picked the wrong people. Very well, we shall see. We shall try again, and in the meanwhile you two are sentenced," she paused maliciously, "to death. Drag them to the cells!"
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