The day was bright, so Fanaka had to press his face against the front window of Wintergreen's stationary shop to see inside. Nothing had changed from the last time he looked, except perhaps that the film of dust that covered the shelves had grown deeper. He shook his head. Fanaka had never been a particular friend of Karl Wintergreen, but his mind troubled him whenever he thought about the man's disappearance. And now Alfred said he'd seen Karl around…
It meant something. Fanaka was a scientist, and discrepancies and anomalies were to him like a pea beneath a mattress was to a princess. He grimaced at the empty shop and carried on his way to his destination – Stars in Their Eyes Optics next door.
The proprietor, Mildred Po, was with a customer, so Fanaka passed the time examining a reflecting telescope by the door. The fellow finished his business, turned for the door and saw Fanaka standing there. He hesitated for a second. Fanaka smiled politely, the man gave a brittle smile in return and hurried out, clutching his purchase a little tightly to his body.
Fanaka shrugged. "Odd people in your timeline, Mildred."
"The world is as it is," Mildred shrugged. "Like it or not. What can I do for you, Fanaka?"
Mildred was a short woman in her middle fifties. Her shop was a gleaming white room full of telescopes and microscopes, but she dressed in black velvet clothes and heavy eye makeup, that made her look as if she ran an occult bookstore.
"Are you busy? I have something slightly unusual that I am studying and I wondered if I might make use of your best microscope."
There was one other person in the shop, a young woman of perhaps eighteen who sat on a stool, playing with her phone. Mildred shouted at the woman in Cantonese. The young woman shrugged and did not look up.
"Follow me," Mildred said, leading Fanaka into the back room. The store area was bigger than the showroom itself, though it wasn't overfull of telescopes. It was a cool, concrete-walled room lit by buzzing fly-specked fluorescent tubes. One wall was lined with telescope boxes and a small optical workbench. The rest of the area was a large workshop, in the middle of which was a conical shape under a tarpaulin.
"Use that microscope," Mildred said, pointing to a large device on a shelf above the optical bench. "It's the most powerful."
Fanaka took the microscope down, placed the watch on the scanner and played with the controls. It had been over a week and the watch's strange owner had still not been back to collect her gleaming treasure.
"I've been working on those calculations you made," Mildred said, as Fanaka adjusted the lenses.
"Somewhat, yes. But imprecise."
"There are too many variables involved. Precision is unnec…"
"Precision is more important than ever, Fanaka," Mildred said with a wave of the finger. "That's what you never understand. It is in rough seas that the hand on the tiller must be firmest."
Fanaka rolled his eyes. "If you say so," he said. "I'm just glad I could help with your... Oh! Goodness me! Would you look at that?"
Mildred adjusted her hair bun and looked into the eyepiece. "My word. That is extraordinary. I've never seen metal milled so smooth. It's almost…"
She stopped mid-sentence and picked up the watch. "How old is this?" she said. "It's gold, so it's soft. It can't possibly have remained this smooth through any significant use. Yet it doesn't look new. How old is it?"
Fanaka gently took the watch from Mildred and returned it to the velvet bag he'd been keeping it in. "I'm not quite sure. I'm still trying to identify the maker's mark here. The style of the watch inside and out suggests early-nineteenth century. French manufacture."
"In my experience, reproductions tend to have modern clockwork or an electronic mechanism. This is authentic inside and out."
Mildred hunched her shoulders and half closed one eye. "'Well, I tell ya dat's a conundrum,'" she said.
Fanaka stared at her blankly.
"But my Columbo impression is wasted on you, isn't it?" she said.
"I'm sure it's quite good," Fanaka sighed. "This watch… I tell you, it's baffling. I just don't know what I'm going to tell my boss."
"That's quite a good Colombo impression yourself."
"Whatever… The watch just feels wrong. That's no help, is it? We're scientists, we don't rely on feelings."
"Feelings are electrochemical impulses in the brain," Mildred said. "That means that they are part of the observable universe and we should observe predictable patterns in them in case they are of use in our studies. Or in other words," she said quickly before Fanaka could object, "have you felt anything like this before?"
Fanaka furrowed his brow. Had he? Yes. Yes, when he was handling…
"The glass skull!" he said. "It feels just like that. Only the skull was an intrusion into our universe of a polydimensional object of unfathomable…"
Fanaka looked down at the velvet bag that he held in his hand. The skull had created pocket dimensions and powered superweapons. Misused, the thing had almost cracked open the universe. If this watch was remotely similar… But no, that made no sense. Why would someone simply give such a powerful artefact to a humble watch shop? The skull had been discovered accidentally, but the planting of the watch had to be deliberate.
Perhaps he should ask Axel?
No! No. The mere thought of talking to Axel after everything that had happened… Just thinking about Axel made his head hurt. No, there had to be another way to find out what was going on.
Fanaka noticed that Mildred was looking at him with concern, and realised that he'd been staring into space for the past few minutes.
"How's your husband?" he said, desperate to change the subject.
"I'll know when I finish building that," Mildred said, gesturing at the tarpaulin.
"Ah, yes, yes, of course," Fanaka said. "I'll see myself out."