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The Trophy Room

by Cleveland W. Gibson

Peter Cosford stopped me dead, his face showed anger. Murder too, I guessed. He had only overheard me talking about him to a fellow doctor.

“Incurably insane, me? Never, Doctor Harper! Clever? Oh, yes, yes. Clever enough to kill my best friend and get away with it.

“Guilty? Ha! Let me tell you about the murder. A mystery? Sure. I’d say so. Perhaps even in the best locked-room syndrome, but judge for yourself.

“Witnesses saw me enter the room and lock the door. Right. But nobody saw me leave.

“True. Oh, Lordy, so true. I also emptied my rifle, but what happened to the bullets? Missing? Ha! Ha! The shots disappeared. Never landed anywhere inside the room. That’s what gun experts said. I know differently.

“Three people said they heard screams, yet it wasn’t me screaming my head off. The room remained full of smoke and smelt of burning flesh. But forensic experts confirmed nothing had been burnt.”

“Intrigued? Give me five minutes. Let me prove I am both normal and innocent.”

Peter Cosford stopped for a moment. I caught him looking at my tall athletic figure. The man was an inmate at the Chinnereth Mental Institution, where I worked as a psychiatrist. I knew him to be highly intelligent, but more than a little strange. I guess there’s the problem.

I noticed his ordinary looks, his hair shot with grey, yet nothing in his manner suggested madness. His blue eyes, however, appeared a little wild today. Then a curious twitch on his right cheek caught my attention.

My interviews of Peter Cosford involved countless hours in the past. In the end I concluded that although he might act normal, something in his psyche made his behaviour unstable. I knew he might pose a real threat to society. Now he offered to disclose all the facts about his case. His motives behind that action intrigued me.

The Chinnereth Institution in Swindon remained famous around the world because of its notorious inmates. In a cell behind me lodged the patient who had poisoned his family, and across the corridor only a vicious child-killer. I guess I am allowed to say, with tongue in cheek, that I certainly kept good company.

* * *

Peter rolled back the sleeves of his shirt. I noticed the tattoo of St. George on one arm, the dragon on the other. England’s patron saint held his sword in the famous St. George parry.

The tattoo-picture on his arm allowed Peter Cosford to watch the mystical dragon spread its wings in glorious colours. I knew at once they represented something special to him; dragons often guarded treasures, even those locked in the subconscious mind.

“It all began in my army days in India,” Peter explained, “when I received orders to pick up my friend James Walton. Seems he was good at undercover work, often going native. I knew of his involvement in breaking up drug rings and strange illegal secret societies. His recruitment had come about, because of his talents, through a U.N. section based in India.

“It was Colonel Digby Carruthers who ordered me to find James immediately, although it meant blowing his cover.

“I arrived at the village Mijar but couldn’t find James. It meant us stopping overnight. Then in the early hours of the morning I heard a terrific scream from the hut James had shared with his Indian helper, Ali Hakki. Of course, I was first out with my revolver.

“Inside the hut I saw a large crocodile. It had ripped off Ali’s arm and was crunching up his head. Blood dripped from its massive jaws as it stood there looking at me. I felt scared, but I still shot it, watching in amazement as it rolled over and died without a struggle.

“The next morning, I coaxed the info I needed for a report out of the headman. Apparently, the same croc had attacked people on a nearby riverbank only days ago. James had disappeared at about the same time. I immediately instigated a search, but drew a blank. I never found James.”

“Tell me about this crocodile? I’m interested.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “Big, it was a magnificent beast, with great jaws designed for killing. I never ever saw its like before. So on an impulse I had it stuffed, then sent back to my family home in the Cotswolds.

“I placed it in my trophy room along with the mounted animal heads, Drakki drums, Zulu spears and shields from Upper Volta. Now the crocodile took pride of place in the Trophy Room.

“Years later, after I returned to civilian life in Faringdon, a cardboard box arrived from James’s married sister, Sarah. In her letter she explained she intended to move to Canada and wondered if I’d like her brother’s old papers and notes.

“I found them intriguing to read. His brilliance shone through in different ways; languages, science, music and art. His pen and ink sketches impressed me enough to take a couple to a tattooist to let him copy them onto my arms.

“In amongst his effects, I read detailed notes on how he’d paid a fakir for a particular secret. This secret governed the power to change him from a man into an animal, a skill he hoped to use in his undercover work.

“I stayed gripped by the myth or legend that those written instructions might be true. I’d never ever come across anything as new or scary as this Black Magic stuff.

“Mind you, I remained puzzled by what might follow next until I saw those white bottles sat in the box. I cast my mind back to sultry days in India... to the time when James vanished and the crocodile appeared.

“I taxed my brain trying to solve the problem. Then, in using lateral thinking, I saw in an instant James and the croc had to be one. What else?

“Hell! What a chilling thought! Might I be right? Oh, Lordy! Had Ali forgotten his part of the deal because the enormous croc terrified him? Maybe. I’m guessing. And a croc able to walk three miles from the river to kill him? A homicidal croc? I don’t know but I’m still haunted by that strange look in its eye when I shot it.

“Why? And why didn’t it attack me? My face? Did it recognize me? Dear Mother of God, the endless questions demanded answers.”

* * *

Peter Cosford paused. He stared past me as if looking for a hidden danger. I turned in my seat but saw nothing to threaten him. Yet still his whole body trembled with fear. And there were drops of sweat on his forehead. Had he seen a ghost?

“I think what you say is interesting enough. But what a tale when it comes to storytelling!

“I guess you don’t believe... in God? But I’m a believer in Christ. Now surely what you’ve said didn’t happen. But please carry on with your story.” I made notes, settling back in the chair to sip tea as I listened.

Peter Cosford sighed. Then he continued his tale. “A strong force drove me along, making me climb the stairs to the door leading to my trophy room. I entered filled with apprehension. I looked around, not knowing what to expect.

“The familiar crocodile stared at me from a table. By its side lay a small white bottle. Scared? Petrified? That’s how I felt. You see I knew the bottle lay still in the cardboard box downstairs.

“When I saw the bottle, I accepted it as part of my destiny. I picked it up, pouring a few drops over the croc. But at first, nothing happened. Then the sound. It started miles away. Yet quickly it filled the room.

“From a gentle whispering, like dry leaves blown in a light breeze, the sound developed into a harrowing sound-blast of daemons. In seconds, as the sound reached a crescendo, James appeared lying on the table in front of me.

“He looked awful; his body kept bleeding, he’d lost fingers, and his face was covered in bruises. Around his head hung a wreath of stinking weeds. Leeches clung to his body, drinking his blood.

“But worst of all I saw on his skin long cuts. The cuts made by special knives used by the taxidermist in changing his body, in the croc state, into my trophy. Because of the blood, pus and open wounds I started to feel sick.

“Before I tried to escape, his arm shot out. I felt his hand tighten on mine with a grip of steel as he dragged his face closer forcing me to look into his bloodshot eyes.

“He croaked: ‘Burn me, Peter. Let me rest! It’s the only way’.”

“Good God! What did you feel when he made that request?”

“Well, I didn’t feel scared any more; only deep sorrow for a friend I’d lost. I had to help him.

“I snatched up my hunting rifle, but though I shot him at point-blank range, the bullets failed to kill him. He didn’t belong to this world any more.

“Before he could grab me again, I rushed off to grab a box of fire-lighters. I struck a match and soon had a fire going. As the flames licked his body he screamed again and again, the smoke filling the room. About two minutes later James became only a pile of grey ash.

“A new worry emerged as I heard the bugle of police sirens and cars in the stable-yard below. Boots already came thudding up the stairs as I secured the door.

“As I turned I felt shock waves throughout my body. You see I saw a white bottle on the table right next to the ashes. I gulped. I tried to think fast.

“In the next second I snatched up the bottle to sprinkle the contents over the ashes. It remained the only option left open to me. I saw again the stuffed croc as it returned with such a menacing look too. Now nothing had changed.

“When the Thames Valley Police broke down the door they found the room empty. Empty.

“The next thing I knew was waking up in hospital only eighty miles away. Apparently I’d collapsed in the street. But still on came the handcuffs, the police taking me away to prison.

“You must know the trial made the mass media. But as nobody believed a word of my story, I ended up here in this loony bin. Okay, okay. I killed, but the police couldn’t pin it on me. They explained everything by saying I was mad. Now, Doctor Leo Harper, do you believe me?”

“Well, it is interesting,” I replied, “but tell me how you hope to support your claim? What proof have you to show your story is true?”

“Easy. This is my proof. It’s all I need. Keep it and give it a try. Don’t worry, the bottle will work. When you see the strange reaction for yourself you’ll know I am normal.” He passed me a small white bottle.

Peter started scratching the tattoo of the dragon on his arm. He waited for me to reply, but I only looked at the dragon. So mystical, with fascinating colours simply out of this world.

“Well, I enjoyed the yarn. There is certainly plenty to think about. Thanks again.” I left the Institution clutching the bottle. For a strange reason the tattoo of the dragon stayed in my waking thoughts.

* * *

Days later, I remembered the white bottle, and tried it out on our ginger cat. As I did something huge and leathery exploded in front of me. It knocked me down on my knees and I felt a hot rush of wind.

My hair was scorched and my hands blistered. I remained dazed for several seconds, and then I saw the dragon as I shot to my feet; already a black dot in the sky with flames and smoke trailing behind it. I’d never seen a creature like it before except, I guess, on Peter’s arm as a tattoo. Instinctively I sensed evil and prayers tripped off my lips... I hoped it wasn’t too late.

My suspicions turned into real fears when the local radio station told of a fierce flame-spouting dragon swooping on crowds in Swindon’s shopping Parade. There followed reports of the dragon eating sheep in nearby Wroughton. The worst incident happened when the dragon burst through the plastic dome of the Oasis Leisure Centre at North Star to snatch a swimmer.

The army sent in the SAS, equipped to fight a mini-war, but still the dragon eluded them. The television coverage brought pictures of the dragon growing in strength and size each day.

Naturally I felt guilty because I had unleashed such a fiendish monster on the world. I knew for every dragon there must be a champion like St. George who could slay it. But such a hero is hard to find, and I needed someone like him to save England.

As more people died, my conscience dictated I confess all to the police. As a doctor I might explain how the incident had happened... until the irony struck me. They... the police... they would never believe me, in the same way as I hadn’t believed Peter Cosford. I guess I had to keep my mouth shut even as the death toll mounted.

I watched the television screen, filled with remorse so intense that I wanted to confess all. It was only by a supreme effort I remained silent in the hope the memory of this might fade away one day.

Pity that I told my wife, though, ’cause she blabbed out everything to the police.

So now Her Majesty takes care of me for the rest of my life, as I, Doctor Leo Harper, wait to talk with Peter Cosford when he visits me about dragons. And little white bottles.

Copyright © 2010 by Cleveland W. Gibson

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