May 10, 2023

The Bronze Devil (excerpt)

Chapter 1

The Grinding of Gears

The moon shone bright and clear on that winter night. A solitary police officer stood watch outside the police box adjacent the bridge abutment near Ginza Avenue. It was the dead of night, past one o’clock in the morning.

During the daylight hours, buses and cars and electric trams crowded this major thoroughfare. Now it was as deserted as a fallow field in the countryside. Aside from the glittering moonlight dancing off the two pairs of steel rails, there were no other signs of life. The entirety of Tokyo at that moment seemed as lonely as a graveyard.

The policeman stood beneath the red light that adorned the police box, attentively scanning his surroundings. With each breath, his mouth puffed out a cloud of white fog from beneath a dark moustache, his exhalations freezing in the cold.

What appeared to be a drunkard walked down the tracks between the shining steel rails, a big man wearing a blue suit and a blue felt hat. Despite the brisk weather, he wasn’t wearing an overcoat.

“Hoh,” the officer muttered. “This chap must have tied on one too many.”

There was something odd about the man’s gait. The officer’s assumption about the man being drunk was altogether reasonable. But on closer examination, inebriation could not explain his manner of locomotion. The man didn’t sway from left to right but walked like a man wearing artificial legs. And not the kind of artificial legs commonly associated with amputees.

More like machine-powered legs.

Shadowed by the brim of his hat, the man’s swarthy face showed no distinct features. He stared straight ahead, as if staggering along in a somnolent daze.

But, no, that wasn’t the strangest thing about him. What resembled glowing tufts of silver hung from his hands, swinging back and forth as he walked along, sparkling like jewelry in the moonlight. Not only his hands—the silver items dangled from the pockets of the man’s blue suit, such that his whole body glimmered with light.

Still standing some distance away, the police officer couldn’t make out what the objects were. Maybe strips of silver paper or strings of glass beads. In any case, he didn’t have any reason to arrest the chap and let him pass by. But as the man drew closer, the officer was in for a shocking realization.

The glowing objects were pocket watches, dozens of watches swinging on their chains from his hands and pockets.

Who was this man strolling past the police box in the middle of the night with nary a care in the world, bundles of watches hanging off his body? Was he a fool? Was he mad? Or possessed of a condition more frightening than mere madness?

The officer was later struck by a curious thought. “Those were indeed bundles of watches. And I’m pretty sure I could hear the whirring of gears. Yet even a whole bunch of watches couldn’t produce a loud sound like that.”

The only reasonable explanation was that the humming sound came from the watches. If so, the ticking of the second hands should have been overwhelming. Except the police officer was sure the unsettling sound he heard was closer to that of a big man grinding his teeth.

Chapter 2

The Iron Finger

Earlier that evening, an alarming incident took place at Hakuhodo, a famous watch store on Ginza Avenue.

The store closed its doors at ten o’clock. After the owner shuttered the show window, he and his employees called it a day. They all lived on the premises. Because the proprietor of Hakuhodo was only temporarily leasing the space, it didn’t have steel security shutters but ordinary wooden rain shutters.

Around midnight, a loud racket erupted from the show window. The teenage employee who slept in the store jumped to his feet and pointed a small flashlight—the only thing in reach—in the direction of the noise. Too startled to shout, he stood there like a stone, staring at a long blue appendage rummaging inside the show window.

At first, he thought it was a big blue caterpillar. It was in fact a person’s arm. The arm of a person wearing a blue suit swept every one of the prized pocket watches from the glass shelves.

The arm had first broken through the shutters and then punched a big hole in the thick glass of the show window. The noise he heard came from the shattering of wood and glass.

“Thief!” The cry spontaneously welled up in his throat.

“Thief!” An older employee, who’d awakened a short while before, joined in. Emboldened by the boy’s shouts, he bellowed in a loud enough voice to make sure the miscreant heard him too. “A thief is breaking in!”

A big commotion erupted. Starting with the owner, the rest of the employees jumped out of bed and raised a ruckus. One of them had enough sense to phone the police. Another darted out the back exit and alerted the neighbors. The bravest among them grabbed a baseball bat and rolled back the shutters covering the front door. He leapt out onto the sidewalk, several of his colleagues trailing close behind.

The moonlight was almost as bright as day. But the street was empty, not a sign of the thief in sight.

To be sure, in all the confusion, it took a few minutes to clear the front door. Still, no matter how fast he ran, the thief couldn’t have covered over a hundred yards in that time. Thinking he might be hiding in an alleyway, the employees searched the nearby nooks and crannies and found nothing.

“What did you say? C’mon, quit mumbling and spit it out.” Standing in front of the shattered show window, one of the store employees took the teenager to task.

The boy said, his eyes wide as saucers, “I’m telling you, its fingers were made out of metal, just like this robot I saw at a science exhibition!”

“Idiot. You must be sleepwalking. Robots don’t go around stealing watches. And if they did, no robot is nimble enough to do something like that!”

“That’s definitely what I saw. Its fingers had hinges for joints and it clenched its fists exactly like the robot at that exhibition.”

“Yeah. Now that you mention it, that’s what I saw too.” The second employee who’d raised the alarm spoke reassuringly to the youngster. “At first, I thought he was wearing a leather glove. But it’s like you said. The fingers had hinges.”

Next to them stood the owner of Hakuhodo and five others from the neighborhood. Overhearing the conversation, their faces paled and they exchanged concerned glances.

The owner collected his wits about and him and turned to his employees. “We’ve phoned the police but the local police box should be notified as well. Save the gossip for later. One of you hurry along and see that the authorities are notified.”

With that, two of his employees ran off to the police box, none being brave enough to venture off alone. As they hurried along, one of them said, “This is weird. Where could a thief hide so quickly? He vanished like a ghost.”

The other replied, “You know, I don’t think that was a human being. That’s the feeling I got. Maybe it was just an arm. That iron arm punched through the show window, with no body attached. Then it took off like a shot. We’re never going to find it.”

“Hey, hey. Stop it with the scary stories. You’re giving me the creeps. You read too many of those horror novels. Your imagination is getting the better of you. We’re right in the middle of the Ginza shopping district, for crying out loud!”

“Yeah, but the Ginza at midnight is a pretty desolate place. Almost like a desert. That blue caterpillar of an arm could be crawling around right under our feet.”

“Enough already.”

They changed the subject to a more humorous topic. Swapping jokes while they gasped for breath, they arrived at the police box next to the bridge. The officer stood there, his breath turning to fog in the night air, the same officer who had watched the strange man in the blue suit pass by a short time before.

As the store employees spilled out the particulars of the crime, one particular detail caught the officer’s attention. He asked, “You said he stole pocket watches? A large number of them?”

“That’s right. He cleaned out the whole show window and ran away.”

“Hmm. You also mentioned that he was wearing a blue suit.”

The police officer gazed down the moonlit avenue, as if staring into space. There, way off in the distance, he could just make out the strange man in the blue suit walking with his awkward gait. That’s when the officer recalled the sound of grinding gears.

“Yeah, he was an odd one. Better give him a closer look. Wait here.” He ducked into the police box and woke up his partner. After a few words of explanation, he hurried out and said to the store employees, “You two come along. You’ll need to identify him.”

Puffing white breath, they took off at a run, their shoes pattering along the slumbering avenue. Three black shadows danced across the asphalt as they chased after their quarry.

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