By Eileen Mueller
“Here we are, lad. The Schutzengarten, the best hotel in Ebnat-Kappel.” George Smith put his bags down and smoothed his freshly-starched tunic, then strode up the steps to the hotel.
Eddie tried to fix the crumpled fabric of his safari tunic, but his never looked quite as good as George’s. Had that comely maiden in the bar in Watwill laundered George’s tunic free of charge? Eddie sighed. George had such a way with the ladies.
Schutzengarten was a typical Swiss establishment, neat and tidy with cheery red geraniums in its window boxes. Actually, they looked more like pelargoniums, probably pelargonium hortorum. Shouldering George’s bags as well as his own, Eddie trudged up the stairs to the entrance. It was only fair that George had more luggage, he told himself for the umpteenth time, after all, he was the expedition leader.
George was at the front counter laughing with the hotelier. He clapped Eddie on the shoulder, upsetting the luggage. “There you go, boy. Easy with those bags, just help the man with them, there’s a good chap.”
Eddie followed the hotelier’s son up the carpeted staircase. It was worth some donkey work to be part of the world’s biggest scientific discovery. He might be a fine scientist with an excellent reputation at Baird’s menagerie, but it was George who knew how hunt—and how to prime a taproom so their tricky questions would get answers.
They’d journeyed across half of Switzerland tracking rumours of the tatzelwurm. Between giggles and fluttering lashes, George’s girl in Watwill had assured him the villagers here in Ebnat-Kappel knew the whereabouts of the Swiss Alpine dragon.
By the time Eddie came down to the taproom, George was already sharing a table with the locals, and winking at the barmaid to bring them another round. Eddie slipped into a seat as unobtrusively as he could.
A wizened Swiss farmer, complete with barn perfume, scowled at Eddie, sizing him up.
Eddie smiled, trying not to wrinkle his nose. Smile to put them at ease, his grandfather, Graeme Baird, always said. Too big a smile will make them suspicious. The farmer turned back to his beer, listening to George Smith’s tales of hunting a chupacabra in South America.
A shame the chupacabra had died en-route to Scotland. At least George had disposed of its body. Decent of him, really.
The singsong cadence of Swiss-German rose and fell around them. During the First World War, Eddie and Grandfather had ventured across the Continent to save some rare species. He’d picked up a bit of German, which he’d later consolidated during his studies at the University of Edinburgh. Despite the Swiss dialect, he could understand quite a lot.
George stretched his arm across the back of his chair, accidentally bumping a brunette in her twenties. “My apologies, m’dear!” George smiled, flashing his teeth.
She blushed, glancing at the bicep straining George’s sleeve.
Eddie sighed. He’d never had that effect on young ladies. If only he had half George’s charm.
After their evening meal, even more villagers crowded into the bar. Obviously, rumours of George’s hunting exploits had spread. For the price of a few rounds of beer, he was winning the locals’ trust.
At the end of yet another cryptid hunting story, when George had everyone’s attention, he shot a few mild questions into the crowd. “I hear Switzerland has its own share of rare, almost-legendary creatures. Any tales to share?”
Silence. Eyes shifted. Faces shuttered. The brunette busied herself, looking in her purse.
“No. No creatures like that, here,” The wizened farmer ventured. “And I’d know, I’ve lived long enough.” He stood, making his way past the bar towards the back door.
Something was afoot.
Eddie discreetly followed, going into the Gents. As he dallied in the WC, the back door to the hotel clunked shut. Feet crunched in gravel then the old farmer’s voice rose through the open window.
“Get word to the Speer,” the wizened farmer said. “Those British are hunting the wurm.”
The Speer rose above them, the alp’s snow-striped granite towering above flower-speckled alpine meadows. Cowbells donged, their tones drifting down on the spring breeze as cows wandered in alpine pastures. From this angle, the Speer was an unusual alp, not a soaring triangular peak, but a giant wedge-shaped slab with an almost vertical drop on one side.
It had taken a few days to find a villager willing to transport them and their belongings up the alp. Luckily, Eddie had stumbled upon an old battered poster, advertising a summer home-stay on the Speer. Faced with that and George’s gold coin, a young man had grudgingly agreed to bring them up to the alp in his cart. George rode up front.
The lad pulled the reins, and the horses stopped in front of a quaint alpine hut with a wooden-shingled roof that had seen better days. The aged walls were angled inward, the house narrower at the bottom than at the roof to prevent snow building up against the sides of the building in winter.
Eddie hopped out of the tray, flicking stray bits of hay off his tunic and trousers. By Darwin’s hat, it was warm up here!
“My word, she’s a pretty young thing,” George muttered, preening his moustache.
Eddie glanced up to see a young woman exiting the alpine hut with her parents. Flaxen wisps escaped her braid. Her lake-blue eyes fixed on George. Of course.
Not that George should be looking at her—why, she was younger than Eddie, about eighteen.
“Come on, boy, grab our bags!” George strode forward and introduced himself.
“Gruezi wohl. Welcome to our home.” Back stiff, the girl gave a rusty curtsy and gestured to her parents. “I am Gabi. My parents are Franz and Vreni.”
Her parents nodded, faces wary.
“This is my colleague, Eddie. We’re here to do some hiking so Eddie can recover from a recent illness. It would be lovely if you could show us around the alp.” George flicked his hand up toward the Speer, then bowed.
The girl blushed as pink as the geraniums in her mother’s window box.
Suddenly Eddie wished he hadn’t agreed to play the part of a convalescent. He very much wanted to be in full health around this shy girl.
The mother, Vreni, raised an eyebrow at the huge nets that Eddie was pulling from the cart.
“Ah,” muttered George, “we thought we might catch a few butterflies while we’re here.”
Eddie hadn’t slept well. His dreams had been plagued with George scooping up all the eligible women in Scotland and taking off on a hunting trip to search for cryptids without him. Even worse, in his nightmare, George had gone public with his findings and revealed grandfather’s secret cryptid menagerie, telling everyone about the rare and wonderful creatures Graeme Baird was protecting.
Eddie shuddered. Thank goodness George Smith was trustworthy.
Oh well, he was awake now. Mother nature was up, too—there was the pink tinge of dawn against the shabby print curtains, and the dull clang of cowbells outside.
Eddie rose and pulled on his trousers, stockings and boots. Nothing like an early morning walk. Perhaps he’d find a tatzelwurm trail—whatever that looked like. By all accounts, the animal was a snake-cat hybrid, with only two front legs. Apparently it slithered along the ground. Did it really breathe poisonous gas? Was its blood really acidic? And could it fly? If he could capture one, they’d find out. Eddie’s heart beat faster at the prospect of such an amazing creature.
If he could find one.
He picked up his rucksack with his field equipment and slipped out the bedroom door, stepping on the sides of the stairs so they didn’t creak and wake anyone.
The air was brisk, so Eddie cracked on at a good pace, heading past the barn and over a rise through the upper pasture. He kept an eye out for unusual trails, but the only things he found, apart from a fox’s paw prints, were the dull impressions of cow hooves. Braunveih, typical Swiss cows, were a hardy breed but hardy worth taking to a menagerie for rare creatures! No, he needed to find that wurm.
Eddie hiked on, mopping his brow with his spotted kerchief. Soon, the alp’s drop off towered above him. There was no way up on this side, but there was a goat track leading around the alp.
He clung to the rocky face as he edged along the narrow trail. Thank the devil he wasn’t carrying George’s net or trap.
The other side of the alp was worse, plunging to the valley far below. A deep river of snow melt gushed through an impassable fissure, heading deep underground. Eddie was about to turn back when he spotted a man higher up. By Jove, that was a steep climb. The man was scaling the sheer face, holding onto a rope which was intermittently anchored to the rock.
He watched transfixed. If that man fell and plunged to his death…
As the man moved, a long blonde plait tumbled off his shoulder.
Eddie inhaled sharply. It was the girl, Gabi. He hadn’t recognised her in climbing breeches. What was she doing up there on the alp alone?
He gasped again as she let go of the rope and inched along the mountainside. He had to calm down. She’d grown up here.
Something flew out of a crevice in the mountain face—something with a dark sinuous snakelike body.
Eddie restrained himself from crying out in shock. The tatzelwurm! He pulled out his binoculars.
The creature landed on the ledge and slithered along to Gabi. It nuzzled its head, rather like a cat’s, against her calves, then slid back to its cave, using its front paws to pull itself along. She followed it inside.
Darwin’s bones! She’d tamed it. What an extraordinary bond. Such a bizarre creature—but no more bizarre than the dodo or the New Zealand taniwha at the menagerie. Eddie’s mind spun with the scientific ramifications of his discovery.
He’d better get back before Gabi noticed him.
Edging away from the treacherous fissure of icy water, Eddie scrambled back around the alp, and then raced across the pastures. He had to tell George where the creature’s lair was. He’d need his help to catch it.
Eddie arrived, panting, back at the hut, but there was no chance to talk to George alone. Gabi’s mother, Vreni, hustled him into breakfast, asking in broken English, “Where was you go?” as she served him up ham, cheese and freshly-baked bread with a strong cup of coffee.
He waved a hand eastwards away from the Speer, and muttered, “Just a little stroll,” as he gulped his coffee. Gah, not as good as a British cuppa tea, but it helped ease his nerves.
“Good for the boy to have walk,” said George as Gabi arrived. “He’s interested in butterflies, you know. Should take the net with you next time, chap.” He thumped Eddie on the back, nearly making him spit coffee.
Sitting, Gabi shot Eddie a keen look.
Had she seen him on the Speer? He gave her a polite smile.
Vreni bustled around the table, babbling in Swiss-German to Gabi, who translated. “There is a chilbi here tomorrow, an alp fest. Would you mind to help us prepare?” She quirked an eyebrow at Eddie. “Of course, if you need to rest…?”
“I can manage,” said Eddie, adding in a cough for good measure.
A horse and cart arrived soon after, then another and another.
Soon, Eddie’s muscles ached from lifting beer barrels, and manhandling rounds of cheese so heavy that he and George had to lift them together. They unloaded a bunch of folding wooden chairs and spent the afternoon setting up chairs and trestle tables in the meadow. The whole time, Eddie kept trying to get George on his own, but George was hanging around Gabi—who gazed up at George through her long blonde lashes.
She was acting like a besotted cat—hardly the adventurous girl he’d seen climbing the Speer and snuggling a dangerous tatzelwurm!
As dusk was falling, they were setting up the last trestle when a horse galloped up the trail and into the meadow.
A man in a grey uniform and cap swung down off the horse calling, “Is there anywhere, here, a Mister George Smith?” He waved an envelope. “I have urgent telegram.”
“That’s me,” George replied, taking the envelope and ripping it open. His brow furrowed as he read it. “Can you take a reply?” he barked.
Eddie peered over George’s shoulder.
Excellent proposition STOP 100 percent agreed. STOP George Smith
George sent the messenger on his way with a silver coin of large denomination. “Make sure it goes tonight,” he called.
“Yes, Sir.” The messenger headed back down the alp.
“You’re looking very smug,” Eddie said.
“It’s wonderful when business goes well.”
“So you heard from grandfather? What did he want? Perhaps we need to talk inside.” Eddie gestured at the hut, away from prying ears.
“Ah, George,” said Gabi, “A special moth often comes to the top pasture at night. Would you like to see it?”
“I can come too,” Eddie said.
“George patted him on the shoulder. “Sorry, old boy, you know the doctor says the night air isn’t good for your chest.”
Eddie stood gaping, hands in fists as they strolled away.
Hours later, George stumbled up to the bedroom, dropped his clothes on the floor and stretched out on the bed. Soon he was snoring, but Eddie couldn’t sleep.
Why the telegram? Had there been a change in plans? Had his grandfather, Graeme Baird, decided against them catching the tatzelwurm? Surely not, when they were so close. He had to know what was going on.
Eddie crept out of bed and rummaged in George’s trouser pockets to find out what grandfather wanted. He smoothed the crinkled paper, and lit the lamp so he could read.
George Smith STOP We are interested in the Swiss tatzelwurm STOP Will pay £10,000 for the carcass STOP Deliver to London immediately STOP Please confirm plans STOP Newton & Sons Taxidermists