“Not in a million years,” said Salamandra firmly, fixing Doc Willoughby with a terrifying stare.
“Even if I thought that I could, there is no way that I would do what you ask.”
The Doc looked crestfallen. Knowing of her abilities, he had reached out, in some desperation, to Salamandra.
Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, had claimed to have been spirited back into the past, where he had lived for two months. Upon returning, and to his amazement, Rhys discovered that just a single night had elapsed since he had left. When the Doc heard of this, and was assured by Reverend Davies that Rhys was incapable of lying, he became obsessed with the idea. Such a course of action, he reasoned, if frequently repeated, would render a person virtually immortal, and Doc Willoughby had definite designs on being that person. It occurred to him that if anyone on the island could replicate this feat, then it would be one of the O’Stoat clan, a family long entrenched in occult practices. For once in his life the Doc’s instincts were spot on, for it had been the matriarch, Colleen O’Stoat, who had summoned the Night-Soil Man back to her own time.
“But why ever not?” the Doc protested. “What earthly difference would it make to you if I, or indeed anyone, was sent into the past?”
Salamandra regarded him with no small amount of contempt.
“Because,” she said, slowly and pointedly, as if addressing an erring child, “you have no business lurking around in a time which is not your own. Can you not see the damage you could cause with your every action? And you are supposed to be one of the more intelligent specimens of humanity on Hopeless – or so you keep telling everyone! It is indeed fortunate that Rhys Cranham did little else than shovel shit while he was there, or I dread to think what might have happened.”
The Doc winced. Salamandra was not one to mince her words.
“So that’s a definite ‘no’ then?” he asked, warily.
Salamandra did not reply, but gave him a look that would have turned wine to vinegar. She stormed off into the mist, towards the shore, her strips of cloth flapping and writhing as if possessed of a life of their own.
“That went well,” thought the Doc sourly.
He turned, intending to go back into town, when a tall, almost cadaverous, shape emerged from the mists.
“Ah, Willoughby. I thought it was you whom I heard speaking to my daughter.”
The Doc pulled up short and peered at the newcomer with incredulity.
“Durosimi? Really? I thought that you were dead.”
“No, no,” said the other, drily. “I’m sure that I would have noticed.”
Doc Willoughby had known Durosimi O’Stoat for a long time; he was not one to strike up a conversation without a good reason. The Doc wondered what it was that he wanted.
“I get the idea that your discussion with Salamandra turned out to be not quite as productive as you would have liked.”
“You could say that,” agreed the Doc.
“I could not help but overhear your conversation. It sounded… interesting.”
“I thought it was,” said the Doc, “but, like Reverend Davies, your Salamandra thought my plan to be unethical.”
“I don’t know where she gets these ideas from,” said Durosimi, a hint of sympathy in his voice. “Ethics, honestly! Nothing in this world would ever have been achieved if people had allowed ethics to get in the way.”
“So… are you saying that you might be in a position to help?” asked the Doc, hopefully.
“I would be happy to try, certainly, but it would not be without its dangers. You and I are both men of science, Willoughby, and as such, we appreciate the risks of experimentation.”
The Doc made no reply. He knew that this was no more than flattery. His own very basic grasp of medicine shared nothing with the dark arts that Durosmi practiced. However, if it meant that his goals were to be fulfilled, he would have signed away his soul – if, indeed he was in receipt of such a thing – there and then.
“Maybe we can talk about this in my home,” said Durosimi, placing a bony hand on the Doc’s shoulder and leading him towards a nearby building. If he noticed that his companion was crossing his fingers, he did not mention it.
The following morning saw the strangely charming, but totally incongruous, sight of Doc Willoughby walking purposely towards the Gydynap Hills, leading a small black goat on a tether.
Durosimi had assured the Doc, with some confidence, that it was not beyond his ability to send someone back in time… or at least, he could do this, in theory. The Doc was, understandably, more than a little reticent to volunteer himself for this experiment, and so it was agreed that a smallish, and fairly docile animal would be best suited to fulfil this pioneering role. The Doc left the goat to Durosimi’s tender mercies, and waited to hear if and when the experiment had been a success.
A week went by. Nothing. Half-way through the following week the Doc received a cryptic message indicating that the experiment had been successful. Stopping only to throw on his hat and jacket, he made his way to the across the island with unaccustomed speed.
“Congratulations!” exclaimed the Doc, enthusiastically shaking a cold and bony hand, “I knew you would do it. Where is the little fellow?”
Durosimi looked puzzled.
“What little fellow would that be?” he asked.
“Why, the goat of course.”
“Oh, him. He went but hasn’t come back. I don’t quite see how he can.”
“But… but…” stammered the Doc.
“I am sure that if it could speak, the goat would have wasted no time in asking one of my ancestors to get him back here post-haste, but he is a dumb animal, and dumb animals are by definition… dumb. Until I can send a human being it will be something of a one-way street. I have not yet perfected that part of the experiment, I’m afraid.”
“Then that’s that,” said the Doc, somewhat deflated. “No one is going to volunteer for anything as hazardous as this. We don’t even know if the goat survived.”
“Then maybe it’s not a volunteer that we need…” said Durosimi ominously.
The Doc tensed.
“I can’t say that I’m totally comfortable with press-ganging someone,” he said.
“As you will,” said Durosimi. “But be sure to let me know if you change your mind.”
He watched the Doc, a bitterly disappointed man, shuffling miserably down the cobbled footpath.
“You’ve gone soft in your old age, Willoughby… but thanks for the idea,” he muttered to himself. “I’m sorry you didn’t want to see it through.”
Then an idea struck him and a menacing leer spread across his face.
“Why,” he mused, “I think it’s high time that I wandered down to the Pallid Rock Orphanage, and let Reverend Davies know that I am in need of a young assistant.”