The façade of the shuttered Galloway & Sons Department Store loomed over Armagh Avenue, preventing any moonlight from reaching the sidewalk. The normally raucous downtown bars were desolate, even though this time of night was usually good for business. The nearest streetlights seemed unable to effectively illuminate the dilapidated storefront, and this only served to unnerve Claire Ecker.
An autumnal breeze swept tattered leaves passed Claire’s feet and down the sidewalk. Wearing only a light jacket, Claire knew the wind should have brought a chill to her. However, as she looked up at the old department store’s massive turret clock, she felt small beads of sweat form on her lower back. The turret was shrouded in darkness at this late hour, but she could still discern the massive iron hands on the clock’s face.
Claire parked nearby, not far from where the railroad tracks run through Armagh Avenue. She was a frequent patron of Old Smoke Inn, and she hoped that her car wouldn’t attract any attention as long as she was parked within a block of that establishment.
“I should have taken a shot,” Claire muttered as she thought about how close she parked to the bar. She knew that some liquid courage would have done her well. She also knew that one shot could easily have become two, and that may have jeopardized her ability to accomplish the task at hand.
Clutching a pinion under her right arm and holding a flashlight in her left hand, she made one final glance over her shoulder to make sure she was not being observed. Without another hesitation, she slipped down a narrow alley that ran between the former department store and a branch of Appalachia National Bank. Claire put her shoulder into a warped service door and ducked into the department store.
She immediately clicked her flashlight to life. A white beam of light cut down a short corridor that connected to the main department on the first floor. Dust particles flowed in a continuous stream through the illuminated space.
Galloway & Sons closed before Claire Ecker was born. As a plaque at the front of the store proudly recalled, the Galloways were horographers in Ulster and came to New Belfast directly from its older namesake. Laboring as clockmakers once reaching America, their enterprise eventually expanded to include furniture and appliances.
The impressive store on Armagh Avenue was eventually constructed and, for a time, was the most fashionable shopping destination in the city. The signature turret clock that adorned the building was designed and fabricated by J.C. Galloway, the department store’s first and last proprietor. He guided the store for over forty years before the big box retailers finally drove him out of business.
Remaining first and foremost a clockmaker until the day he died, J.C. Galloway had once quipped that the iconic Galloway & Sons timepiece overlooking Armagh Avenue would continue to tick until the end of time. Claire Ecker and her friends had grown up in the shadow of that clock and local lore was awash in tales of its functionality.
There was no doubt that the enormous hands on the face of the clock periodically moved, although no one had maintained or serviced the turret clockwork in more than two decades. Some folks in town attributed the arbitrary movements to vandals, as mischief makers had frequently got inside and had their way with the old building. Some others said that wind managed to whip hard enough to blow around the rusted arms of the clock. A few argued that some other meteorological phenomenon was at work.
“The damn thing is still right twice a day,” Frank Ecker, Claire’s father, often joked.
Ecker Construction had recently won the bid to demolish the Galloway & Sons Department Store. The New Belfast city council had designs to use the location for a new parking garage. Frank Ecker planned to take a wrecking ball to the old brick storefront after Christmas.
“Old man Galloway always complained about there not being any parking downtown,” Frank Ecker once said. “He’s going to get his wish.”
Claire also knew that a handful of locals subscribed to the belief that Galloway & Sons was haunted, and that the ghost of J.C. Galloway did whatever necessary to keep his greatest work ticking.
Until a few weeks earlier, Claire didn’t have a strong opinion one way or another regarding the supernatural. Returning to New Belfast for the weekend before Halloween, she reconnected with a few high school friends and shared her father’s involvement with the fate of the old store. After a few drinks at Old Smoke Inn, a couple of guys, who had often jostled for Claire’s attention, convinced her to break into the store with them.
“Just to see the inside of the place,” one had said.
Wandering through the empty departments and interpreting graffiti on the peeling walls had quickly become boring. The suggestion was made to climb the stairs into the tower overlooking Armagh Avenue and have a look at the clock mechanism.
There wasn’t much to see. The wheels, pinions, and plates of the gear train appeared to be rusted in place. Cobwebs laced the entire mechanism. Claire was able to pull a pinion off its arbor with one strong motion. She was pleased to find this hadn’t resulted in a handful of grease. The pinion was bone dry.
“A souvenir,” she had remarked with a grin.
“Must be the wind after all,” one of the guys had said.
Returning to college the following day, she used the pinion as a bookend but discovered the gear repeatedly rolled off the bookcase and onto the floor. For the few weeks that the pinion was in her bedroom, no clock in the entire apartment kept accurate time. She also observed the pinion slowly turn when resting on a flat surface. She thought this anomaly may have been a trick of the eye, but a few of her friends concurred.
One of her roommates, an odd girl from up north, dabbled in the occult and offered some insight.
“I don’t know where you got that thing, but I would put it back.”
Thanksgiving break presented the first opportunity Claire had to return home without alarming her family. With her parents busy preparing for the holiday, Claire drove into New Belfast under the pretenses of meeting friends. Unfortunately, none of her friends were available for this second visit to Galloway & Sons.
After entering the service door and moving through the first floor, Claire noticed that old signage indicated this level had once been the home furnishings, jewelry, and seasonal departments.
Black Friday, one of the greatest shopping events of the year, was just two days away. Claire became jittery at the thought of a youthful and energetic J.C. Galloway on the morning after Thanksgiving. She envisioned him visiting with the store’s Santa Claus, hurrying to move merchandise around the first floor departments, and jovially greeting customers.
She passed the elevator and wondered when the metal doors to the lift had last opened. She knew the doorway to the stairwell was nearby.
There was no need for this experience to be any more eerie, but, as Claire searched with her flashlight for the door to the stairs, she thought she felt a presence behind her. She turned quickly but found only empty space. As her flashlight glided over the storefront windows, she imagined an older and bitter J.C. Galloway with fewer customers once the shopping mall and outlets opened outside of town.
Locating the stairs, Claire trudged up several flights. She passed dated signage for clothing and cosmetics. She paused briefly when she reached the top floor. She had the feeling of being followed, but she knew that sensation was just her nerves getting the best of her.
She crossed the top floor, kicking a few beer cans and fast food wrappers out of her way, and passed through a doorway to another stairwell that led up into the turret. These stairs were somewhat more ramshackle, as customers were never intended to see this part of the building. She paused at the base of the steps and flashed her light upward. The turret seemed especially dark and quiet, even if the entire building possessed those same qualities.
She took each step with trepidation. Her strides repeatedly released a chorus of creaks and groans from the wooden staircase. She anticipated footfalls on the steps behind her, and, even if the sound would only exist in her mind, the thought of anyone following her into the turret made her want to scream and run out of the store. The staircase was very narrow and she knew the landing at the top offered little space. There would be no place to hide.
The hulking clock mechanism was mounted to the wall at the top of the final flight. Not so much as a spider had tampered with the gears since Claire last stood before this testament to J.C. Galloway’s craftsmanship.
Realizing this entire ordeal was nearly over and feeling a certain magnanimity at the thought of soon kicking back an Irish Car Bomb at Old Smoke Inn, Claire pressed the pinion back onto the appropriate arbor.
The pinion clicked into place. Claire could practically feel the Guinness, whiskey, and cream bubbling over her tongue.
She was suddenly pushed forward, and this was not the product of an anxious imagination. She tried to turn, but the force on her back only drove her forward and pressed her against the clockwork. Her mind processed the thought of J.C. Galloway’s cold, dead hands pushing her into the mechanism.
She screamed, but the abrupt clamor of the clockwork roaring to life drowned out her cry. When the pressure on her back suddenly dissipated, Claire fully intended to run for her life. However, her flight was interrupted by a crushing pain in her right hand. She looked down to see that her right index and middle fingers were caught between a massive wheel and her souvenir pinion.
As the gears turned, the bones in the fingers were crushed. After a few seconds, her entire hand was ensnared in the clockwork. She cried out in pain and tried to rip her hand away, but this only allowed the teeth of the gears to tear the cloth of her jacket and the flesh of her wrist and forearm.
With her left hand, she angled the flashlight toward the mechanism. She probed the gears of the clockwork for some means to free herself. The flashlight was suddenly knocked from her hand and tumbled down the stairs, chaotically projecting light around the turret.
The resonance of the flashlight striking the wooden steps was overshadowed by a sharp crackle. This was the sound of the bones in her arm splintering as the clockwork consumed her. Blood dripped from the arbors, and she felt her entire body being pulled upward.
As her right arm was contorted into the mechanism, she felt her clavicle snap. At this point, she was feeling faint from the blood loss and shock – and she was grateful for that, too. Her eyes rolled back and she lost consciousness just as the teeth of the gear train started to graze her forehead.
Thanksgiving was a desperate day at the Ecker house, as Frank Ecker and his wife grew more troubled with each minute that passed without Claire returning home. Frank Ecker scoured the entire downtown area after locating his daughter’s car on Armagh Avenue. No one at Old Smoke Inn remembered seeing Claire the night before Thanksgiving.
After a few days, the police sought out Claire’s roommates. The girls were quick to tell the story about the pinion, even though the entire idea of a possessed gear sounded silly. A couple of guys from New Belfast admitted to going with Claire into the Galloway & Sons Department Store a few weeks before her disappearance but hadn’t seen her since that night.
The police suggested a correlation between the disappearance of Claire Ecker, the testimony of her roommates and friends, and the contract for the demolition of the department store, which obviously could not be fulfilled as long as the case was open. As the authorities tried to piece the situation together, a close eye was kept on Frank Ecker and Claire’s friends from town.
Despite the pure foolishness of the pinion story, the police had searched the Galloway & Sons Department Store from top to bottom. A few of the officers were amazed that the old turret clock really was working after all these years. The gear train even appeared freshly oiled with an unusual red lubricant.