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
Horrors! George wanted to kill the beast, not protect it. And £10,000 was twice what Grandfather was paying him.
A sickening thought hit him.
Had George killed the chupacabra, too? If so, he’d been paid by grandfather and the taxidermists. What a scheming, low-down lily-livered swine George Smith was. Travelling the world, seducing young women and killing off wondrous creatures, all on Graeme Baird’s coin.
Eddie wanted to punch George’s nose right there, but there’d be a ruckus and Eddie was likely to find himself shipped off, unable to do anything to help the family or their creature.
He had to warn Gabi. No, it was the middle of the night. He couldn’t go up to her room...
To hang with propriety, the creature was in danger!
Slipping out the door, he tiptoed up the ladder to the attic room, where Gabi slept. Eddie tapped gently on the door, and then opened it. Gabi was sitting in bed, holding her quilt to her shoulders, looking wary.
When Eddie entered, she sighed, letting her covers fall, revealing a white nightdress embroidered with edelweiss. “Oh, it’s you, not George.”
Was she relieved? Perhaps she didn’t like Smith as much as she appeared to.
“I’ve seen the tatzelwurm.” Eddie said frankly.
She grimaced. “I know. You want to hunt her, don’t you?”
A female tatzelwurm? Even better. If only he could find a pair. “No, I want to give her a new home. A place to live where we can keep her safe.”
Gabi’s face grew fierce. “She belongs here. On the Speer. This is her home.”
Eddie sighed. “That telegram that came for George? Someone has offered him £10,000 to kill your tatzelwurm, so they can stuff it and mount it.”
Gabi’s eyes flew wide and her hand shot to her mouth. “George will kill Tatzi? No!”
“Please,” pleaded Eddie, “let me bring her back to Scotland.”
“No!” Gabi whispered fiercely. “I will guard her with my life.”
“You may well have to,” Eddie muttered, shaking his head. “You like George, don’t you?” he blurted.
“Meine Gute! That arrogant swine?! Of course not.” She laughed. “I only showed him the moths to prevent you from telling him about Tatzi.”
“Did he, ah…” Eddie flicked the corner of the rug with his toe. “Did he kiss you?”
“He tried, but I wouldn’t let him.” Her face broke out in a triumphant smile, and Eddie sighed in relief.
It was all hands on deck at the chilbi. The locals swilled beer and ate sausages and thick slabs of bread spread with melted cheese. Eddie slaved over the hot flame, turning the huge cheese rounds and scraping the gooey smelly cheese onto bread slabs. After a lot of good-natured ribbing from the locals, he was assigned to the beer barrel instead, pouring endless glasses of ale.
A man brought out an accordion, playing folk tunes. During the choruses, the locals broke into yodelling that had Eddie grinning. During a lively number, he found his foot tapping.
“Franz!” A burly red-faced farmer bellowed, striding through the meadow towards the festivities.
“You’re late, Emil,” Franz replied. “Come and have a beer.”
“Found my prize calf with its belly ripped out!” Emil glared, the veins standing out in his forehead. “Belly ripped open and eaten.”
The accordion stopped. The laugher died. Everyone froze, staring at Franz and Emil.
Emil puffed out his cheeks. “Who’s going to pay for my prize stock?” His eyes lit on Gabi. “That fine daughter of yours might be enough to offset the cost of my calf. You don’t own much else of worth.”
Eddie’s fists balled.
Gabi paled. “I’m sure it was a wolf,” she said, eyes shooting meaningfully to George. “We lost two calves last month to wolves.”
“Wolf!” The farmer spat a stream of tobacco on the grass and lurched over to Gabi. “Then maybe I’ll have to do some hunting.” His eyes roved over her bodice.
Eddie wanted to punch him.
There was an awkward silence. A few men guffawed uneasily.
“Saw a wolf yesterday,” Eddie piped up in German. “Over there, on my walk along the ridge. A grey one.”
Gabi clutched the skirts of her tract—her traditional Swiss dress—knuckles white.
Franz came over. “Have a beer, Emil. It must have been a shock seeing your calf like that. Tomorrow we’ll help you hunt wolves.”
Emil’s eyes darted around the crowd. He slumped heavily on a chair. “Give me a beer, then. Later, we’ll hunt.” His eyes darted to Gabi and he leered.
Eddie poured him a beer, wishing he could throw it in his face. Then he was swept off his feet as more men called out for drinks. Eddie’s gut churned, not helped by the rich stench of melting cheese. Just imagining George or Emil with their paws on Gabi made his heart pound.
He pulled beer after beer, until it was dusk and the barrel was empty. He strode behind the barn to roll a fresh barrel out. What was that? Rolled in a bundle, tucked behind the barrel, was Gabi’s tracht.
She must’ve gone up the alp to warn her Tatzi.
Eddie gazed up at the pasture. Hold on, who was following her?
George was racing up the trail to the top meadow.
With no time to lose, Eddie ran after George. By the time he got across the top meadow, George was already edging his way along the goat track around the alp. As he disappeared from view, Eddie spurted forward. He had to stop George from killing the creature. But how?
Clutching the mountain face with his hands, Eddie scrambled along the goat track. His feet dislodged stones and sent them skittering down the mountainside. He gulped and pressed on, sweat-clad hands slippery on the rock, stones digging into his palms.
There was a scream.
Gabi, no! What was—
He rounded the corner.
George was gripping Gabi’s hair, forcing her head backwards. With his other hand, he ripped her blouse free from her shoulder. “You bloody tease,” he bellowed. “I’ll have you.”
Eddie scrambled across the rocks.
Gabi spat in George’s face.
He backhanded her, making her head snap back. She groaned and stumbled. He dragged her up, pulling her body against his. “You’re ready now, aren’t you? Nothing like slapping some sense into a girl.”
So George’s charm was only a means to an end.
Eddie hefted a rock. “Freeze, George!” he bellowed.
George didn’t even turn. “Decided to grow some balls now, have you, boy? Well let me show you how you use them.” He fumbled with his trousers.
Eddie threw the rock.
A roar split the sky. A dark shape dived off the mountainside. George spun, shoving Gabi.
She fell backwards, landing near the fissure of churning snow melt, and rolled away from the edge.
“Duck, Eddie!” she cried.
Eddie hit the ground.
The tatzelwurm flew over him and straight at George, claws out. It belched a cloud of black gas over his face.
George screamed in agony. His skin blistered and rippled. One of his eyes slid down his cheek and his chin dripped molten flesh onto his shirt. He stumbled back. Arms windmilling, he teetered at the edge of the fissure, and then fell into the deep crevasse.
Eddie rushed over. There was a flash of George’s arm and then a churning mass of roaring white water.
Gabi crawled towards Eddie, the tatzelwurm’s tail around her arm and its head nestled against her neck. “He’s gone,” she said, voice flat. “Dead. The churn goes deep underground. No one will ever find him.”
God, George’s face. Eddie leaned over the edge and vomited his cheese and beer into the water below.
Shakily, Eddie got to his feet and held out a hand. “You all right?” he asked, keeping his voice soothing, his movements unhurried. Who knew if after killing a calf and George, the wurm would want him as a chaser?
Gabi’s Tatzi settled in her lap, hissing at Eddie. Gabi stroked her sleek scales, crooning. “It’s all right, Tatzi, alles esch guet.” Gradually the creature calmed and nestled against her belly.
Bellows came from the upper pasture.
Gabi stiffened. “Oh, no, they’re coming. It’s Emil on his dragon hunt. Quick, come with me. You’ll have to climb.” She scooped the tatzelwurm up and threw it into the air. Its wings unfurled and it flew up the rock.
Gabi held out the rope. “Quick! Place your hands and feet where I do.”
Eddie climbed behind her, not daring to look down. Barking his shins and scraping his hands on sharp rocks, he made his way to the top of the alp. The tatzelwurm landed on Gabi’s shoulder.
“Give me your hand,” Gabi said.
Eddie placed his hand in Gabi’s. Tatzi slithered down her arm, climbing up Eddie’s.
Why, the odd slithering motion tickled. Tatzi wrapped her tail around his bicep. Eddie froze, remembering how George’s face had melted. But the tatzelwurm only sniffed his face, then leapt back onto Gabi’s shoulder.
Eddie stared at it. Those gleaming dark scales, the huge cat-like eyes, and tufted ears…what a wondrous creature.
“Look,” Gabi pointed down though the dusk at a procession of torches making its way across the meadow and around the alp.
In the dark, a wolf howled, making the hairs on Eddie’s neck rise. “It was a wolf that killed that calf, wasn’t it?”
She nodded. “But they’ll never believe me. They’re out for Tatzi’s blood. If we’re quick, we’ll elude them. I know a short cut down.”
“Yes, right past Tatzi’s mate’s cave, so we can collect him too,” she said.
Two tatzelwurms?! Eddie grinned. It was more than he’d ever dared hope.
Gabi continued, “We’ll come out behind Emil’s hunting party and sneak back to the house for your things.” She smiled. “I’ve always wanted to go to Scotland.”
“Grand idea,” Eddie said.
He took Gabi by the hand and they ran along the ridge, towards the low end of the wedge-shaped Speer, the glorious tatzelwurm flying beside them.