Doctor Jack Late slumped on his drawing room couch, and nursed the last dram of his third fifth of London Dry gin directly from the bottle, while lamenting his latest failure. His throat burned and his nostrils were imbued with juniper when he quaffed the final nip and threw the empty flask into his fireplace. Shards from the glass container skittered across the hearth where two other bottles were already shattered.
He hadn’t properly bathed in over a week, and his jet black locks drooped onto his shoulders, matted and tangled like a heap of filthy rags. He scratched his salt and pepper beard in contemplation, staring at a fresh fourth fifth of fluid beckoning to him from the mantle. Declining the spirits’ invitation, he rolled onto his side and hugged a throw pillow to his face, not only to keep from seeing through the doorway to his disorderly laboratory, but also to mask the smell of his deceased cat, Bandit, that had lain dead for four days among the tools and apparatus of his ultimate disappointment.
Clutching the cushion, almost in an attempt to smother himself, he considered how it had come to this. It had taken the better half of his life to finish his academic studies, nearly twice that of the average student. In fact, he’d nearly failed to graduate at all due to submitting his thesis three weeks late; late like his namesake, as always. However, the school’s dean had been lenient, knowing Jack’s propensity to be tardy, but also knowing his brilliance, he gave him the benefit of the doubt, but when Jack was offered a lucrative position on the university’s research team, he gave it up to follow his own crazy science-fiction delusions.
Jack cut ties with the university and spent nearly all of his remaining inheritance acquiring or fabricating the equipment he was certain could send a man through time, but every one of his experiments in time travel had resulted in travesty. He’d faced nothing but ridicule for his theories by his fellow physicists, even when he’d acknowledged that travelling backward was impossible, but forward was well within the realm of quantum mechanics. If only the dean could see him now: an aging, bankrupt and drunken tinkerer, who’d killed the only friend he had in the world, his pet cat.
Suddenly, his doorbell rang, and with great effort he pulled himself upright. By the time he wobbled to the front door, the mail carrier was already driving away in his silent all-electric British mail service truck. Jack’s timeworn, yellow, Cottage-style chalet that doubled as his lab was on one of the last remaining routes to receive mail delivered to a postbox mounted on the home. Through the mail slot, a fistful of adverts and bills had tumbled onto the entryway floor.
Picking up the pile, he glanced at the envelopes, many of which were emblazoned with: demand, or lien, or final notice, before tossing them unopened into the rubbish bin he kept just inside the drawing room. Jack peeked through a peephole on the thick oaken door to see if there were any parcels. “That’s strange; I wonder why he rang the bell if there’s no delivery?” he pondered aloud.
To be sure, he opened the door a crack to get a better view of the stoop. There was no package, but a pure white, snowshoe feline with a black tail, black ears, black paws, and black patches over each eye let out a yowl, scampered through the opening, and between the doctor’s legs.
Jack clutched his chest and leaned against the door. “Bandit? No…it can’t be,” he sputtered.
He peered into the drawing room, and saw that the cat had curled up on the corner of the couch in his pet’s favorite spot. Carefully, he approached and knelt down next to his visitor, putting his face directly in front of the animal’s own masked muzzle. To his surprise, the mouser didn’t hesitate, but bopped Jack several times with his whiskered nose, which the doctor knew was a sign of ownership.
“Is this real? Impossible,” he denied as he glanced into his lab at the identical dead cat lying on a low examination table. An idea percolated to the surface of his mind and Jack sprung up and frantically searched for something in the drawers of an antique wooden desk. Finding what he sought, a little tin box, he opened the middle drawer and pulled out a sheet of blank paper. Returning to the sofa, he again approached the animal, but this time when the creature presented his nose to Jack, the doctor quickly dabbed it with an ink pad, and immediately made an impression of it on the paper.
The cat rubbed his snout with his black-gloved paws at the offense, but Jack was already in the lab making a second print off the dead cat’s cold nose. Returning to the drawing room, Jack sat down next to his guest and carefully inspected his imprints with a wide magnifying glass. He knew that every cat’s nose pad was unique…as individual as a set of human finger prints, and these two creatures were, in all regards, completely identical! “Bandit! It is you! My God!” Jack exclaimed hugging his friend as the feline returned the gesture with a low purr.
Breaking Jack’s reverie, the thought occurred to him that perhaps all the creatures of his experiments hadn’t died, but been duplicated in time and space! That would mean that the shells of the numerous mice, guinea pigs, and even Bandit, were just a byproduct of the transportation, and his experiments had worked!
For several hours, Jack wildly reconfigured his time machine for a final test. Finding himself sober, he realized he was famished, so he fixed himself a large, last meal and shared it with Bandit before returning to his obsession. Around midnight he was ready to engage the systems, and he retrieved the collar from the dead cat and placed it around Bandit’s neck. “There you go my little outlaw. I’ve put out several days’ worth of food for you…I promise I’ll return as soon as possible.”
He set down his pet and sat down on a bench in an aluminum box that looked more like an outhouse than a miracle transportation device. Closing the door, he wirelessly engaged the contraption using his mobile phone. Power surged in the house, and the lights flickered and dimmed. Seconds later, Doctor Jack Late’s dead body crumpled against the sealed portal.
A week and a half had passed before Jack Late stumbled, half-naked up his front stoop. He wore stolen pants, work boots, and carried a rusty shovel. His first order of business was to dispose of both his cat’s remains and his own corpse, and although he had readied himself for the grizzly tasks he was wholly unprepared to find police tape wrapping the entryway.
Prying the newly added padlock from the front door with his shovel, he pushed his way into his ancestral home and kicked through a pile of bills and notices to find his body. However, when he entered his lab it wasn’t there! Most of his equipment was also missing, and so was his dead cat. “Bandit!” he shouted. “Where are you?”
There were no tiny footsteps on the wood floors, so he quickly investigated each room of the house, but there was no sign of his pet. Grabbing a fresh set of clothes from his bedroom closet, he deftly dressed in a clean pair of slacks and a white dress shirt as he descended the main staircase. When he reached the first floor, he sat on the bottom steps to slip on a new set of socks and a comfortable pair of loafers. Standing upright, he straightened his tousled, greasy hair in the hallway mirror and donned a matching dinner jacket.
He smiled at his reflection because most importantly, his calculations were correct! He’d travelled forward in time about a week, but he’d found himself naked on the streets of Glasgow and it had taken him several days to make his way back to Salisbury; not having a passport or identification made the crossing between Scotland and England particularly difficult.
“What now?” he wondered aloud. One of the many correspondences strewn in the foyer caught his eye; it was from the Treasury Solicitor. He opened the notice and read it silently to himself.
To the family of Doctor Jack Late, or current resident:
Since the late good doctor had no known friends or relatives, a representative from the Treasury will be available at his funeral to accept claims on his property in Salisbury. However, his research and laboratory equipment has been confiscated by the British Royal Air Force. The funeral will be held in a private wing of the Salisbury Cathedral at 4 pm on…
He dropped the letter and ran to the front door; the sun was getting low in the sky as he quickly counted on his fingers. “That’s today! Bloody hell! I’ve got to tell them I’m alive!”
Candlelight flickered in the nearly empty transept as the vicar finished his brief ceremony and closed the coffin on Jack Late’s body. Abruptly, Jack rushed in shouting, “Wait! I’m alive! That’s not Jack Late…it’s but a soulless shell!” The vicar nearly collapsed in fright, and a government agent in the front row leapt up to steady the holy man and helped him to recline in the empty pew.
Once the priest was breathing normally, the agent turned to address Jack. “After the RAF impounded your laboratory equipment, one of the scientists we consulted led us to believe that you might soon return, and lo and behold…here you are.”
Jack was confused, “What scientist? Who are you?”
“My name is unimportant. I’m the Treasury Solicitor,” he answered matter-of-factly. “As for the scientist, he’s sitting across the aisle.”
A low chuckle started and turned to an outright guffaw as Jack spun around to see his former dean. The old man cuddled Bandit in his arms, and with an expansive smile on his face he observed, “Unpunctual as always Doctor…Late…late for your own funeral!”