* * *
"What a beautiful morning for watchmaking!" thought Hermux Tantamoq as he unlocked the door to his shop. There was something delicious in the air. He wrinkled his nose and sniffed. His whiskers twitched. He took a deep breath.
"Ripe apples," he said. "Now that's a nice smell!"
He sniffed again. Hermux was a mouse who appreciated a good meal. A nice, plump red apple might be just the thing for lunch. With a thick slice of cheddar cheese. And a crusty piece of bread. What a pleasant thought! He raised the shade and switched on the lights. He put a sign out on the front counter that said, I'm back in the workshop. Please ring the bell!
He took off his emerald green woolly coat with the bumblebee buttons and hung it on a hook. Then he rolled up his sleeves and went to work.
Hermux got Clenton Yooger's big pocket watch down from the work shelf. All it needed was a good cleaning. He fitted his magnifying loupe to his right eye and opened the heavy gold case. First he removed the winding stem. Then he inserted a tiny pair of tweezers to release the main spring, which, as everyone knows, is the very most ticklish part of watchmaking. That's when someone slapped him on the back.
"Tantamoq!" a shrill voice boomed in his ear.
Clenton Yooger's main spring sprang from his watch, skittered across the workbench, ricocheted off the tool rack, and disappeared onto the floor.
"Say! You're not Tantamoq!"
"I am too!" said Hermux.
"Tantamoq is older. He's my age!"
Hermux rubbed his eyes and studied his surprise visitor. It was an old chipmunk. He was bit taller than Hermux, as you might expect, but so skinny that he couldn't have weighed much more than a mouse. He was wearing a faded, rusty-colored corduroy jacket with patches on the elbows. And the shoulders. And the lapels. And the cuffs. Some of the patches even had patches.
Hermux thought chipmunks were a clownish lot in general. But this one looked particularly odd to him. There was even something sort of lopsided about his head. Hermux smiled to himself. Then he noticed that the old chipmunk was missing an ear. It was completely gone. Like someone had snipped it off with a pair of scissors. Hermux winced. "Owl" he thought. "That must have hurt!"
"I am Tantamoq!" Hermux told the old chipmunk. "Hermux Tantamoq." He extended his paw. "You must be looking for my father, Linnix. This was his shop. I took it over when he retired."
"Of course," said the old chipmunk. "Your father. He's the one I want to see! Where can I find him? I want to see him right away."
"I'm sorry, but that's not possible." Hermux stopped. "My father passed away several years ago."
"Linnix!" sighed the old chipmunk. "I didn't know. I'm so sorry." Suddenly he seemed confused and uncertain.
"Well, maybe I can help you," said Hermux.
"I doubt it!" said the old chipmunk, shaking his head violently. "I must be cursed! I need a watchmaker with a solid grasp of history. Not a beginner."
"I'm not a beginner, and I'm very interested in history," argued Hermux. "Just this summer I did a walking history tour of South Glemmon. I visited the very factory where the first twisty watchband was invented. Ask me anything about watches."
"I need somebody who understands mechanics. Who knows how to put pieces together and figure things out. Someone who's not afraid of complications."
"Well, that's me in a nutshell!" said Hermux. "I am certified to repair cuckoo clocks of all sorts. Even the great antiques from Grebbenland. And they are really complicated, I can tell you that for sure!"
"This involves more than clocks and watches, my boy! I need somebody with heart."
Hermux recalled the image of a bold young mouse standing before her gleaming silver airplane. It was Linka Perflinger, the renowned adventuress and aviatrix that he had met in the spring of that year. Hermux had nearly lost his life rescuing Ms. Perflinger from the clutches of a sinister plastic surgeon, Dr. Hiril Mennus. In the process he had lost his heart to the dashing Linka. But in the end she had chosen someone else.
"I have heart," he said ruefully.
"The point is that I need somebody just like your father."
"I'm a lot like my father," said Hermux. He glanced up at the photograph over his workbench. It was a smiling picture of Linnix Tantamoq at the National Convention of Watchmakers. He had just been named Watchmaker of the Year. Hermux drew himself up. "Like my father," he said proudly, "I'm not afraid of complicated problems. And I can solve them under pressure. Perhaps you heard about my involvement in the Perflinger case?"
"No. Why would I?"
"Why, it was in all the papers! Earlier this year. My picture was printed several times. Along with Ms. Perflinger and Tucka Mertslin and Ortolina Perriflot! You can't say you didn't hear something about it. Hiril Mennus? The Beauty Doc Murders? Where have you been?"
"I've been working! In the field! I don't have time to waste reading newspapers! And I couldn't get them if I did!"
"What do you do?" asked Hermux.
The old chipmunk jerked back suddenly and narrowed his eyes. His one ear cocked and alert.
"Why do you want to know?" he asked suspiciously.
"Well, it sounds like you've got a problem. An interesting one. And I'd like to hear about it. What can I do to help you?"
"You can start by helping me get this off," the old chipmunk grumbled. He pointed to the tattered knapsack on his back.
"Boy, this is heavy," said Hermux, wrestling it onto the workbench. "What's in it?" He started to unbuckle it.
"Hey!" snapped the old chipmunk. "Keep your hands off! I'll do that!" He pushed Hermux away.
Hermux watched his irritable visitor rummage about in his knapsack. Time had certainly not been kind to the old guy. He looked run-down and run over. From his patched jacket to his threadbare pants and his dusty, scuffed boots. His fur was thin and lifeless. His paws were nicked and scarred. And then there was the missing ear. How had that happened? He certainly didn't look like any friend of his father's that Hermux had ever met. And Hermux couldn't quite picture his father being good friends with a chipmunk to begin with.
The old chipmunk interrupted his thoughts.
"If you'll have some patience for an old man's cautious nature," he said, "I've got something very interesting to show you. It's a very puzzling object that I acquired recently. It raises several questions about history. Questions that would have interested an intelligent, imaginative watchmaker like your father. Maybe they will interest you."
A noisy clanging in the front of the shop interrupted him.
* * *
Someone was pounding the bell on the counter.
"Looks like you made the list, Hermux!"
It was Lista Blenwipple with the morning mail.
"And not everybody did. I can tell you that for a fact!" she continued with great satisfaction. She appeared in the door of the workshop. "Oh, here you are!" she said cheerily. She handed Hermux a handful of mail.
The new issue of Watchmaker's Monthly was right on top of the fall catalog from Orsik & Arrbale, the department store. On its cover an athletic young field mouse was shown leaping in midair from a towering stack of hay. He was wearing a very catchy outfit - pumpkin-colored shorts and a thick grass-green sweater covered with bright yellow exclamation points. There were bills and notices. And there was a letter from Nip Setchley. Hermux started to open it.
"Oh, that's not it, silly!" cautioned Lista. "It's not mixed in with the everyday mail. No, indeed!" She removed a pale gray envelope from a special inside compartment of her mailbag and held it up before him like some sort of trophy.
"There's those that were chosen. And those that weren't," she went on mysteriously. "I know some people who are in for a big disappointment-people who ought to know better than irritate me by putting on fancy airs-people who'll be sorry that their mail was unavoidably detained in transit."
Finally she handed Hermux the envelope. "It looks like you'll be going."
"Where?" asked Hermux.
"Don't be ridiculous!" Lista burbled. "To Mirrin's opening at the museum, of course! What has everybody in Pinchester been talking about since August? Honestly, Hermux, I wonder sometimes if you're entirely there...."
Hermux examined the envelope. It was addressed to him in a beautiful flowing script written in dark blue ink. He opened it carefully and withdrew the invitation.
Hermux was awfully proud of his elderly friend Mirrin. After three long and difficult years of blindness, she had regained her eyesight. That was barely six months ago. She had returned to her painting studio immediately, and since then she had created a remarkable series of paintings of the disturbing visions she had had during her blindness. It had been Hermux who had restored her sight. And that had come about as a result of his surprising adventure with Linka Perflinger, Dr. Mennus, and Hermux's neighbor, the irrepressible and ruthless cosmetics tycoon Tucka Mertslin. But that is another story.
"Of course, you being Mirrin's good friend, there wasn't much doubt that you'd get invited," Lista confided. "But you can never be completely sure. Take Lanayda Prink for example. She donates her entire collection of coffee mugs to the museum, including all the mugs from all her trips out West, and does she get invited? Something tells me she won't. And boy, will she be steamed! It shows that you can never be too polite to your postal worker."
"And now, Hermux, who is your interesting new friend?" she asked.
Hermux turned to make the introductions. But the old chipmunk was gone. He had sneaked out of the shop without making a sound.
"I'm afraid I don't know his name," said Hermux. "A nervous, odd fellow. He says he knew my father. But he didn't say how. I never found out what he wanted. I don't even know where he's from."
Hermux ran the tip of his paw thoughtfully over the workbench where the old chipmunk had set his knapsack.
"Although from the looks of this sand, I would say that until recently he's been out West. Probably in the desert."
* * *
"I don't care how famous she is!" the mayor shouted into the telephone. "I don't care if she was blind! I don't care if she was first mouse on earth! I will not have obscene art at the Pinchester Museum. It won't happen! And that's that! I'll take the place apart brick by brick and sell it for scrap. Tell that to the board of directors!" He slammed the receiver down with a bang.
Hooster Pinkwiggin was not a wood rat to be trifled with. He had a vicious temper, especially during election years, and a tendency to snap first and ask questions later. Several of his assistants had the scars to prove it. One by one they scooted back as he glared at them in a fury.
"Paintings of cats!" he screamed. Unable to reach a single assistant, he grabbed a pencil off his desk and bit it in two with a sharp snap. That seemed to calm him for a moment. But not a long one.
"Is the woman completely mad? Does she want to frighten everyone to death with her nonsense? Is she some sort of sick publicity hound? Pinchester is a civilized city! We don't speak about cats in public. We don't read about them in books. We're certainly not going to show paintings of them in the museum!"
"Mmmmh ... Mayor Pinkwiggin?" interrupted an earnest-looking squirrel with an unusually bushy tail.
"There seems to be one more problem with Miss Stentrill's portraits of cats."
"Apparently they're nude-"
"Nude?" exploded the mayor. "Nude?! How can cats be nude when no one has ever seen one to begin with? How can they be nude when they never even existed! What kind of wacko nut is this Stentrill woman?"
His lips curled up in an ugly snarl. The assistants took bigger steps farther back. The Mayor grabbed the telephone cord with his front teeth. The powerful muscles in his jaws flexed. Then he remembered the nasty shock he'd gotten the last time he'd bitten through a lamp cord.
"I won't stand for it!" he screamed. The telephone went flying.
"I will not be made a fool of!" he bellowed.
"They'll be sorry they tangled with me!" he roared.
"This is war!" he screeched. He legs went stiff with rage. He began to turn himself around and around in his swivel chair. Faster and faster.
"Close the museum immediately!" he thundered as he came around the first time. His feet sent the desk lamp flying.
"Lock it!" he cried, spinning by. The photos of his wife and his children and his rowboat fell over with a crash.
"Bar the door!" he snarled. Coffee cups spilled their coffee.
"Chain it!" he blared. Sugar cubes rolled from the sugar bowl like dice.
"Nail it shut!" he croaked as he slowed to a stop. "Arrest everybody inside!" A tower of carefully typed reports leaned and swayed back and forth, back and forth.
"Mayor Pinkwiggin, I'm afraid that's going to be more difficult than you think," explained the squirrel, who eyed the teetering stack of reports hopefully. He had been up half the night working on those reports, and getting the pages in the right order had been harder than you'd think.
"You're new here, aren't you?" asked the mayor, sitting up in his chair to get a better look at the squirrel.
"Yes, sir! I am!" said the squirrel.
"And your name?"
"Birbir, your honor," he said proudly. "Birbir Nifftin."
"Well, Birbir," said the mayor, leaning forward over his desk. "Why don't you explain to me exactly what the big difficulty is."
"Well, sir," Birbir began. The other assistants took shelter behind whatever furniture they could find. Birbir himself was trying to back toward the door but discovered that the long fur on his tail was somehow twisted up in the mayor's chair. "The problem is the museum. You see, the city doesn't own the Pinchester Museum. The museum owns it. It's actually private property. We can't tell them what to do."
And that was really too much for the mayor, especially during an election year. He launched himself at Birbir with his teeth flashing and nipped him right on the arm.
"Ouch!" squeaked Birbir. "That hurt!"
Birbir's tail whipped spastically, and the mayor's chair un-spun like a wild top. It threw the mayor against his desk, scooted across the floor, knocked over the water cooler, and bounced out the window. It landed with a loud crash on the mayor's new car three floors below.
"We'll see who owns the Pinchester Museum!" panted the
Excerpted from The Sands of Time by Michael Hoeye Copyright © 2001 by Michael Hoeye. Excerpted by permission.
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