Crocodile Teeth

He came awake with a shock and opened his eyes to darkness. The pain gripped him like a giant hand squeezing his heart. He staggered to the bathroom for the aspirin he kept there, cursing himself for not buying something stronger. He was not used to pain but he could bear it, lessen it with drugs, keep the hope that medical treatment would send it away forever. What was worse was the fear rising in his mind, the sweating shame and panic threatening to force him apart from reason. He must cling at all costs to the rational, the explicable, the scientific. He swore to himself, one more night like this and he would see a doctor. He remembered something he had read about the power of suggestion; surely he, never a superstitious man, could not have succumbed to a badly told ghost story? A spasm of pain left no room for further indecision, this was all too real. He vomited up the bottle of red wine he had drunk before going to bed, turning the toilet bowl the colour of old blood.

The next morning he could hardly remember the pain. He had managed to get back to bed shortly before dawn and had slept deeply for a few hours. Now he felt refreshed and full of energy, as if he had dreamed last night's episode of sickness. He told himself it was indigestion, the wine confusing his mind to connect his discomfort with the ghost story his neighbour had told him. He resolved to avoid the old man in future, he was an unpleasant type; a weak or superstitious person might have been terrified out of their mind by that story, it really was quite nasty.

The neighbour, a Mr. Conan, had been hovering in his garden as if on purpose to speak to him as he turned in through his front gate. They had first spoken to each other about a week ago when he had first moved in, exchanging names and a few remarks about the weather. This time he seemed to want a longer conversation.

"Good evening, Mr. Woodrow, you are well, I hope?"

"Great, thanks, Mr. Conan, and please call me James."

"I'm Sylvester. Has anyone ever told you what happened to the last man who owned your house?"

"As far as I know, he moved up north, to Newcastle I think. His job changed, he was transferred to the Yorkshire branch, something like that."

"He asked to be transferred." Sylvester Conan lowered his voice and spoke in mysterious tones. "He wanted to get as far from here as possible"

The old man obviously wanted to tell him all about the previous owner, who James had never met. The house had been empty for some time when he had seen it through an estate agent, at the time he had been pleasantly surprised at how quickly his rather low offer had been accepted.

"The first owner of your house was killed in a dual. He was shot through the heart by his rival for the love of a beautiful young woman. Her father wanted her to marry one man, she wished to marry another. Of course in those days the wishes of fathers still counted for something. They fought and Henry Doherty was killed. The other man would have been arrested for murder, but the girl never revealed his name.

Since then the house has always been owned by single men and every one of them - except the last - has died of a heart attack! The last year he was here he complained of terrible pains in the chest but he had the sense to move out in time."

Silly old man, James thought, he's not going to scare me. "What did his doctor say about these chest pains?" he asked.

"He never went to the doctor as far as I know. He told me he didn't think a doctor could do him any good."

James hadn't thought any more about this story until the first night when he had woken up in the middle of the night with a sharp pain in his chest which had kept him awake for half the night. He had tried to convince himself it was indigestion though he did not really believe this. He had always been healthy and there was no history of heart trouble in his immediate family, anyway, at thirty-six he thought he was too young for this. As time went on the pains recurred, at first once or twice a month, then with increasing frequency. Now, almost a year after he had bought the house, he was waking up in agony in the early hours at least once a week. He considered seeing a doctor but always put it off. Usually patients are reluctant to tell their symptoms to the doctor because they are afraid to face what they fear is wrong with them. James was even more afraid that the doctor would find nothing wrong with him. He hoped, without really expecting it, that a doctor would find some rational explanation. Another problem was that since moving to North London he had neglected to register with a doctor; healthy and young as he was, it had not been high on his list of priorities. He had noticed a doctor's surgery on his way to the tube station, one day he would go in, he thought, on his way back from work, but he had put it off or forgotten until, now that he needed one, he was consciously avoiding visiting a doctor.

One morning as James was about to leave for work the pain struck again, gripping his chest with tormenting fingers. It was the first time he had felt it during the day; somehow this made it seem more real and less bearable, less a part of a nightmare from which he must sooner or later awaken. He rushed out of the house and as he stumbled past the gate he felt the iron hand begin to loosen its hold. Soon he was outside the doctor's surgery, advertised by a brass plaque by the door with the doctor's name and qualifications. "Dr. Cornelius Adams, PhD, DPhil, FRSC." Quickly, before he could talk himself out of it, James pushed the door open and went in.

The doctor's receptionist was a short woman whose bony face was framed by wispy fair hair. James explained that he urgently needed to see a doctor but was not registered as a patient. He gave his address, implying that he'd been there for only a short time, and signed on as a patient of Dr. Adams.

"You're in luck," the receptionist said with a smile, "a patient has cancelled this morning . Doctor will see you in twenty minutes."

James took a seat and waited impatiently, nervously flicking through the pages of a magazine three months old. He phoned the office on his mobile, explaining that he was at the doctor's and would be in later.

A buzzer rang in the waiting room. James walked through the door marked "Dr. Adams" into a short corridor, very dark, at the other end of which was a door that had been left slightly open. The only light in the corridor came through this open door. James hesitantly walked down the corridor and entered the lit room. It was unlike any room in any doctor's surgery he had ever seen. No doctor sat behind the antique wooden desk, covered with piles of papers, that stood at one end of the large room. Near it was a chaise longue upholstered in dark green velvet and two large heavy armchairs. At the other end of the room was an old wooden laboratory workbench, with an array of what James took to be pharmacist's apparatus, and on shelves above which reached almost to the ceiling were bottles and jars in blue, green and brown glass. Bookcases fronted with glass lined the walls of the room, some, on closer inspection, containing the faded red and brown spines of old volumes of medical and chemical literature and others filled with yet more, larger, glass jars containing preserved biological specimens. James noticed worms, starfish, frogs, a cat, a monkey and what appeared to be a human foetus, curled up with its thumb in its mouth. Instead of pictures on the walls hung shallow glass cases displaying carefully mounted collections of moths and dragonflies. His eye drawn upwards, James stared in amazement at the flaking scales of the stuffed crocodile hanging by iron chains from the ceiling, its open jaws revealing a set of long sharp teeth. Everything in the room was covered by a fine haze of dust and the only things that gleamed in the light were the ivory daggers in the crocodile's mouth.

There was still no sign of the doctor. James wondered why the heavy curtains were closed in the morning. He sat down on one of the big armchairs, feeling more uneasy with each moment that passed. He heard a voice say his name. "Mr. Woodrow? Mr. Woodrow?" No one was in the room with him. He could see his own reflection, blurred by dust, in the glass panes of the bookcases. In the reflection the shape of the chair he was sitting in seemed to change. Filled with unreasoning terror that the armchair would dissolve beneath him, James rushed wildly out of the room.

As soon as he got outside, common sense made him stop. The curtains were open and he could see through the window a typical modern doctor's surgery. He turned back to the door with the brass plaque which read "Dr. Charles Adams". Hopelessly confused he decided to go home, he'd be no good at work anyway. Yes, he must be ill, he'd better go home and lie down.

Dr. Charles Adams and his receptionist were puzzled. The receptionist thought the new patient must be crazy, Dr. Adams was inclined to think he must be on drugs. "He just wandered around the room, didn't seem to know I was there, then he sat down in the chair and I thought he was about to say something when suddenly he just got up and ran out without a word! Hallucinogens, I wouldn't be surprised..."

"Do you think we should go to the police, Doctor?"

"Well, perhaps not. I can't be sure that it was drugs, after all. No, let's wait and see if he comes in here again." Dr. Adams remembered a few experiments with illegal substances when he was a young medical student. "It might be the only time he's taken drugs, I wouldn't want to get him into trouble and of course there's the issue of confidentiality. No, I shouldn't mention it to anyone."

The fog was thick and grey in the cobbled streets of Highgate where Henry Doherty walked, consulting from time to time a piece of paper in his hand. He jumped aside quickly as two black horses pulling a carriage broke suddenly through the haze in front of him. The streets were empty of people; there was no one he could ask for directions. He walked on, afraid that soon he would be hopelessly lost. Then he saw the shape of a man in a dark coat turn into the street ahead of him. He ran to catch up and as the man turned, expecting no doubt a desperate attempt at robbery, he called out "Excuse me, could you direct me, please, to the house of Dr. Cornelius Adams?" The stranger looked at him in surprise. "I will take you there, if you wish, I am going there myself. Are you, by any chance, Mr. Henry Doherty? I have been looking forward to meeting you. I am a cousin of Dr. Adams. My name is Sylvester Conan."

Dr. Cornelius Adams sat in his study, in the old wing-backed chair, admiring the stuffed crocodile with gleaming teeth that hung suspended by chains from the ceiling. Only the day before his assistant had drilled the holes in the old oak beams and attached the iron chains to the stout bolts. He imagined his ancestor Carolus Adams, the seventeenth century alchemist notorious for transmuting lead into a silvery powder, would have appreciated this addition to his workshop. Indeed, some of the jars of powders and potions on the shelves above the wooden bench were labelled in the handwriting of this ancestral mage, although the biological specimens were his own more recent additions. He opened a drawer of the old writing desk and took out an embossed leather case, which he opened. Lying within on a worn black velvet cloth were two pistols, ornate and antique. Had his famous ancestor used them to fight off hordes of greedy thieves, driven by desperate poverty and rumours of manufactured gold to break into his workshop? Or had the wanton affairs of a reformation rake forced him to duel to protect his lady's honour? How long since had these beautiful but deadly weapons struck a man down? He did not imagine they would ever be fired again. He would show them to Sylvester and to Mr. Doherty, he had asked them both to come this evening and soon they would be here. They would be interested, no doubt, in the duelling pistols and it would break the ice, start the conversation flowing on neutral ground before they got on to the awkward question of the disputed inheritance. The Irish estates! Nothing but trouble, almost not lucrative enough to be worth the expense and effort that went into their management. Doherty was the man most likely to make his home in Ireland, if he thought it worth his while. Sylvester Conan was a man he had known for many years, but unlikely, he thought, to invest the time and effort in the Irish properties that would make them a successful venture. Tonight he would find out what kind of man this Doherty might be.

James Woodrow could not completely avoid the street where Dr. Adams had his surgery, but made sure he kept to the other side of the road. Convinced that his problems were all in his own head, he told no one about the pains in his chest. Familiarity made them seem less severe and shocking. To help himself get a good night's sleep, he got into the habit of going for long walks on Hampstead Heath, coming home hungry and tired. He also avoided his neighbour Sylvester Conan as much as he could. At times he thought that he should try to make some new friends around his new home, maybe even find a girlfriend, but it all seemed like too much effort. It was as if at the back of his mind he had the feeling he would not be staying in that place for very long.

One evening he returned from a long walk on the Heath even more weary than usual. It was almost dark; the street lamps were starting to come on, glowing fiery orange through a wet haze of mist. As he walked up to his front door the lights seemed to dim and everything in front of his eyes flashed from black to white to black, backwards and forwards, so that he felt giddy and had to lean his hands and his head against the door for support. For a long moment he closed his eyes. When he opened his eyes he saw in front of him the brass plaque with the name engraved on it, "Dr. Cornelius Adams". This could not be happening; he knew this was his home. He pushed the door and it opened. He must have turned his key in the lock, acting by instinct, not knowing what he was doing but wanting to get inside to safety as soon as possible. He went inside and stared in astonishment at the girl who stood in the hallway in front of him. She looked as shocked to see him as he was to see her. She was young, with long dark brown hair tied loosely at her back, wearing a long skirt and white blouse with long sleeves. The hallway itself seemed different, larger, with dark wallpaper and old wooden furniture.

"I'm sorry, I was expecting someone else, are you here to see my father?" the girl asked timidly. She seemed about seventeen or eighteen years old.

"Is this Dr. Adams' house?" James heard himself ask. He had walked down his street and up to his own front door, but this hallway was somewhere he had never seen before. It was certainly different from the bright newly painted reception area where he had waited to see the doctor weeks ago.

"Yes, it is, if you tell me your name I'll let him know you're here."

"I'm James Woodrow; I'm one of his patients."

"If you will please wait in the study, Mr. Woodrow, I'll tell him you're here."

She was used to people calling to see her father at all hours and the young man did look very ill, she was afraid he was about to collapse as she showed him into the study.

As soon as the door opened James realised that he had been in the room before. It was the strange room at the doctor's with the specimens in jars, the display cases of insects and the stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling. Again the curtains were closed as if night had already fallen. The only light came from one dim lamp with a fluted glass shade mounted on the wall. When his eyes got used to the gloom James saw with a shock that hidden in the shadow of the great antique desk crouched a man. He was removing something from one of the desk's deep drawers. Seeing that he was observed the man stood up; in his hands he held a pair of pistols. James was not usually a brave man but he could not believe any of this was really happening. He certainly didn't think he could really get hurt. He'd had enough of being afraid of this stranger's room, this absurd doctor's surgery that followed him around. He jumped onto the desk and kicked a pistol out of the man's hand. The stranger let off a shot with his other hand which just missed his head and hit one of the chains holding up the crocodile. As James jumped down from the desk, the huge reptile fell from above him, suspended by one chain, descending in an arc towards him. He felt the sharp teeth scrape at his arm as he was knocked to the floor. The other man lost no time in grabbing the gun he had dropped and heading out of the door.

After that burst of energy James felt he hardly had the strength to stand up. When he did get up and look around him he found he was back in his own home. It would be easy to believe he had imagined the whole weird experience, blaming the extreme exhaustion that had overtaken him. As he reached for a glass of Scotch he noticed a large red scratch on his wrist. Could it be the mark of the crocodile's teeth?

Estelle Adams wished that Henry Doherty did not have to cut short his visit to her father. He was a very pleasant companion, much more so than cousin Sylvester who thought only of money and property. She had to admit that Sylvester had been very helpful to his rival for the inheritance of the Irish estates, finding him a house to rent, in fact the one next to Sylvester's own. She had done what she could by finding a reliable woman to be his housekeeper; he had settled in and claimed to be very comfortable. Henry still found time to visit her father almost every evening. It often happened that her father was busy attending to the needs of patients, and then she had his company all to herself. She no longer resented the time her father spent away from home and could not help feeling almost pleased when he was called out in the evening. She only wished that Henry would not walk alone across Hampstead Heath after dark, she had heard it was a terrible place for robbers. Next time he came she would warn him that the Heath was a dangerous place.

James was on his way home from work one evening when he saw his neighbour Sylvester Conan walking down the street in front of him, obviously on his way home. He hung back, not wishing to walk with the old man, he didn't feel like conversation at that moment. If he delayed catching up until they had got to their front doors he could get away with a quick "Good evening". The old man walked very slowly and he was getting impatient when suddenly the old man stepped out into the road. Just then a car came round the corner, going quite fast. James ran to the old man and grabbed his arm, pulling him back onto the pavement. With an annoyed toot on the horn the car rolled on. It was all over in an instant.

"You've saved my life!" the old man exclaimed. "Mr. Woodrow, James, I am really very grateful to you".

"Oh, I'm sure you'd do the same for me" said James, slightly embarrassed that Sylvester was making such a fuss.

"Yes." Sylvester Conan's voice was deep and serious. "Yes, James, I will do what I can."

Later that evening, when it was almost dark, Sylvester Conan came out of his house carrying something wrapped in a plastic bag. He went straight to Hampstead Heath and walked quickly to a pond which was some way from the more popular walks. Looking nervously round to make sure that he was unobserved, he threw his parcel into the pond, where it soon sank to the bottom. "That's done, and I feel better for it," he muttered to himself, "should have been done years ago."

Estelle was becoming more anxious by the minute; Henry was perhaps not the most punctual of men, but he had never been as late as this before. It was so late that even her father noticed that it was time for supper and emerged from his study, saying "If Henry does not come soon, my dear, we shall have to eat without him." "Just a few minutes more, please Father," Estelle pleaded, but before her father could reply they were interrupted by a loud banging at the door. "He need not knock quite so loudly, " Dr. Adams complained as he went to open it, "we are expecting him." However when the door opened it was not Henry but Sylvester Conan who stumbled into the hallway. His usual neat and conventional appearance was in disarray and he spoke wildly, without a trace of his habitual calm and careful manner. "Uncle Cornelius! It's Doherty, he needs your help - he is shot! I hope - not killed! It was a dual with a dreadful ruffian - he shot Henry! Henry missed him, I think, he ran away. The coward, he didn't wait to see if Henry was alive or dead!"

Estelle had turned white, she clutched her father's arm. "Papa! We must go to him at once! Oh, Sylvester, where is he?"

"They fought on the Heath, by the small pond. Hurry!"

Dr. Adams put on his coat and picked up the bag of medical supplies that he kept ready in the hallway. Estelle reached for her coat but was stopped at once by her father. "No, my dear, I know you are anxious about Henry but a young girl should not be out on the Heath at this time of night. It may be that he is not too badly hurt, I may yet bring him back with me for a late supper!" Estelle had said nothing to her father but he had noticed her growing fondness for young Doherty. Hoping she would be comforted by his words, he followed Sylvester Conan out into the night.

It was all Estelle could do to stop herself running out of the door after them. She could not think of anything but Henry, lying hurt in the dark waiting for help. Every few minutes she went to the front window and looked out, impatient for her father's return, desperately hoping to see him bringing Henry with him. But when he finally returned with Sylvester, one look at his face told her he had no good news.

"Oh, my child, I wish I didn't have to be the one to tell you this. I'm so sorry, my darling. Henry's dead. Shot through the heart."

Estelle could not help the tears that flowed down her face. She thought she could never stop crying. Her father took her in his arms and hugged her as he had not done since she was a small girl. He spoke to Sylvester. "This man, this murderer, can you describe him? We must go to the police."

"I hardly saw him. It was getting dark when he came up to Doherty and challenged him. He was just leaving his house, I think he was on his way here, they argued and in the end he agreed to fight. He asked me to go with him to the Heath, the murderer had a friend with him. Both men had dark hair and wore black coats, I think the killer had a moustache. On the way he told me he had been expecting this and he had got a pair of pistols. This is one of the pistols, I picked it up before I came to get help. I was afraid they might try to attack me."

Dr. Adams gasped with shock at the sight of the pistol. "But that's one of my grandfather's duelling pistols! Don't you remember, I showed it to the two of you the first evening that Henry came to this house! I would never have believed Henry would take it from my desk! And without even asking my permission. Did he tell you nothing about who this man is, and why he wanted to fight?"

"I got the impression that he was jealous of Henry as a suitor of your daughter. Does his description sound like anyone who had a previous attachment to Estelle?"

"There's no-one!" Estelle said fiercely, "no-one who has any right to fight over me. I've never given any man the least bit of encouragement."

"I'm sure you didn't mean to, Estelle," Sylvester said in a reasonable voice, "but there may be someone who thinks he has a claim, perhaps someone to whom you were just normally polite and pleasant. You are a very charming girl, you know."

"Try to remember, my dear," Dr. Adams said kindly, "it may help the police to catch the man."

"No! I'm sure there isn't anyone. No-one at all." Estelle could stand it no longer. She tore herself from her father's arms and rushed from the room to be alone with her grief.

James Woodrow had not felt any pain in his chest for weeks. Sometimes he still woke up in the middle of the night but the expected agony did not come and soon he went back to sleep. He started to enjoy his long walks over the Heath even more as the weather improved. One day he decided to take a different path from his usual one and found it led to a small pond. A small group of teenagers was hanging around, one of them was poking in the reeds around the pond with a long stick. Suddenly he called the others over, excited because he had found something interesting in the pond. They fished it out of the pond, gathering round so that James could not see what it was. The one who saw it first grabbed it and tried to run away from the others. They chased him and had almost caught up with him when he threw it into a clump of thorny bushes. They tried to get it out without being scratched on the thorns but soon gave up. "I bet it wasn't a real one anyway," said one, "let's go to McDonalds." This reminded James that he was hungry, he would walk just a little further and then head back home. He headed down a gloomy path between some trees. Suddenly there was a loud noise - a gunshot, James thought - and he felt a sharp pain in his chest. It was agony; he could hardly walk. He clutched at his chest and his hand came away stained red with blood.

At his surgery, Dr. Charles Adams was telling his receptionist about the strange events of the previous day. A patient had called him out for a home visit and he had arrived there only to find the patient dead. "Obviously a heart attack," he said, "very sudden, very unexpected in the case of such a young man. It was the man who came here a few months ago and behaved so strangely, left suddenly without speaking to me — James Woodrow."

Sylvester Conan stood in his garden, looking across at the house next door. He grieved for the death of young James who had saved him from being run down and regretted that he had been unable to prevent his tragic end. He remembered the death, so many years ago, of his grandfather, his namesake, from whom he had inherited the house. He had loved his grandfather and had been the only one of the family to visit him as he lay dying. He remembered the story the old man had told him, needing to confess to someone the truth about what had happened so many years ago. He had listened, not quite believing, to the tale of old Dr. Cornelius Adams and his decision to leave the land in Ireland, even at that time worth a great deal of money, to one of two young men. His grandfather had hated the stranger in London, his rival Henry Doherty, but to retain the favour of the doctor had pretended a friendship that he could not feel. He had even informed Henry when the house next door to his had become vacant, putting up with more of the other man's company than he wanted. When Estelle Adams seemed to welcome Henry's visits to the doctor's home, he had become afraid that she would influence her father's decision. If they became engaged to marry, how could a father leave such a valuable inheritance away from his daughter's future husband? The old man asked his grandson to open a drawer of his bedside table. In there he found, wrapped in a cloth, an antique gun. This he had stolen from his uncle's desk, with its counterpart. This weapon, kept hidden for so many years, had been used to kill a man, but not with honour, not in a battle or a dual. On his deathbed, Sylvester Conan had confessed to the violent murder on Hampstead Heath of Henry Doherty.