“You’re in room six, Mr Sternhammer,” said Mrs Smedley, the landlady of the Hollybank Guest House, as she handed over the key to his room.
“Thank you,” said Wulf Sternhammer.
Mrs Smedley was stood at the reception desk, behind which an open door led to a small sitting room, decorated with fleur-de-lis wallpaper. A locked metal gate barred its entrance and on a rug in the middle of the room sat the biggest, ugliest, most ferocious dog Sternhammer had ever seen. It was staring straight at him and emitting a low growl.
“That’s a big scary dog,” he said. “What breed is it?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m not really sure.” Mrs Smedley replied. “He’s a big softy actually, but he does tend to keep the burglars away.”
“I’m sure he does.”
“I think I can detect a slight accent in your voice. Are you from Australia?” she asked
“Australia?” replied Sternhammer indignantly, “Australia. No I’m not from bloody Australia. I’m from bloody New Zealand. Can’t you tell by the way I don’t pronounce any my vowels properly?”
“I’m terribly sorry Mr Sternhammer,” said Mrs Smedley, “I’m just showing my geographical ignorance.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry for snapping at you; I’m just a bit tired. It was a long flight.”
“I can imagine. Is this your first time in Braintree?”
Wulf Sternhammer smiled at Mrs Smedley. “It is,” he replied.
“I’ve not been long here myself,” said the landlady. “Until my husband disappeared a few months ago I used to live in a beautiful cottage in the country. Fortunately he left me with enough money to sell the cottage and buy this place. It’s quite good really; I have enough money to live comfortably even if I don’t have any guests.”
“And do you have many guests?”
“Not really. In fact, you’re the first in about six months. It’s a bit out of the way for most tourists – not that we get many tourists in Braintree – most people want to leave as soon as they get here. It’s not exactly Bournemouth or Torquay is it?” she said, laughing to herself.
Mrs Irene Smedley was a voluptuous woman in her mid-forties, whose liberal use of scarlet lipstick on her full, pouting lips made her irresistible to those of the opposite sex who were into that kind of thing. She looked Sternhammer up and down and guessed, correctly, that he was in his mid-to-late sixties. He was quite handsome and physically fit for a man of his age and, judging by the clothes he was wearing, fairly wealthy. With his deep tan and healthy appearance he had the look of someone who had spent a considerable amount of time either on or by the sea.
Mrs Smedley was an expert at summing people up. She was also ruthlessly efficient and extremely capable of covering up her tracks, as her late husband had discovered in his final hours.
“While I remember, Mr Sternhammer,” said Mrs Smedley as Wulf was about to pick up his suitcase, “I have a letter that arrived for you today.”
She handed him a white A5 envelope which bore his name and the address of the Guest House in carefully written black italics.
“That’s funny,” he said, “no one knows my . . .” his voice trailed off.
“Yes?” enquired Mrs Smedley.
“Oh . . . err . . . nothing,” he said quickly and then stuffed the envelope into the inside pocket of his coat.
“Goodnight . . . Mrs . . . err . . .”
“Smedley; but all my guests call me Irene.”
“Oh, right. Goodnight Irene.”
“My friends call me Rene,” she said, winking at him, “but my lovers, well, they just call me over.”
If there was a word in the English language that described a sensation that was more uncomfortable than uncomfortable, then that was the sensation that Wulf Sternhammer felt at that moment. “Goodnight, Mrs Smedley,” he said as he climbed up the stairs in search of his room.
Once he was out of sight and out of earshot, Mrs Smedley picked up the telephone receiver and dialled a number. After a few moments she said “He’s here.”
In his room and with the door firmly locked, Sternhammer opened the envelope Mrs Smedley had handed to him. It contained a white embossed card with gold trim inviting him on an exclusive tour around the Frontiere factory in Braintree, followed by a private lunch with the operations manager, Mr John Smith. The card also stated that transport had already been arranged with a pick-up time of 8am outside the Hollybank Guest House.
He propped the card against the empty glass on the bedside cabinet, got undressed and went to sleep.
As he stepped out of the Guest House the next morning Peter Perkins was already waiting for him. On the way to the Frontiere factory they passed a number of huge billboards advertising different professional occupations and Sternhammer listened with interest as Peter talked about his pretentiousness issues.
“Have you ever thought about going into psychotherapy yourself?” he asked Peter when he eventually stopped talking about himself.
|Another of the billboards Peter and Sternhammer passed along the way|
Peter thought about this for a moment before saying, "I have argued in my mind and read of numerous experiments in support of the arguments for the continued existence of my psychotherapist, and every time I have found little evidence for the practical efficacy of her field of expertise.”
|Yet another billboard Peter and Sternhammer passed along the way|
“Which is exactly why you should think about becoming one; you would be able to channel all your pretentiousness issues onto your patients, thereby curing yourself, whilst at the same time deepening their anxieties resulting in them wanting to come back to see you time and time again.”
|The last billboard Peter and Sternhammer passed along the way|
“But my psychotherapist has qualifications in . . .” began Peter.
“Bullshit, bamboozlement and obfuscation,” Sternhammer interrupted.
Mr Smith was waiting outside the factory doors as Peter slowed the car down and came to a halt. “I’ll give some serious thought to what you said, Mr Sternhammer,” said Peter as he stepped out of the vehicle and opened the door for Frontiere’s special guest.
“You do that son.”
Mr Smith shook Sternhammer’s hand and asked, “What was all that about?”
“Oh, nothing really,” replied Sternhammer, “I was just giving that young man a bit of advice.”
Mr Smith visibly flinched and clenched his teeth. “I hear that you’re good at that sort of thing.”
“And where did you hear that?”
“Just around. You know how it is.”
“I don’t actually. Why don’t you tell me how it is?”
Mr Smith thought quickly. “Ermm, you are Mr Wilf Sternhammer, are you not?”
“No, I’m afraid not. My name’s Wulf Sternhammer.”
“Oh, well there you are, then. The invitation was for Wilf Sternhammer. Mrs Smedley must have given you his invitation by mistake.”
“You know Mrs Smedley?”
“Let’s face it Wulf, you can hardly miss her – you don’t mind if I call you Wulf, do you?”
“Not at all. It’s all very odd though; someone with a name as unusual as mine staying in the same Guest House. That sort of thing can’t happen all that often.”
“It does in Braintree, Wilf.”
“Who is this Wilf Sternhammer anyway?”
“Oh he’s very well known in this area. He’s the . . . err . . . world famous cheese . . . sculptor.”
“Oh yes, I’m surprised you’ve never heard of him; he’s had exhibitions all over the world, even New Zealand. He’s not like your average everyday sculptor – oh no – he sculpts almost entirely in cheese, generally extra strong cheddar or Danish Blue.”
“That’s amazing. Would I be able to see any of his work?”
“His last exhibition was over three months ago and his art is, you must understand, more ephemeral that sculpting in bronze or marble as it tends to get eaten by mice or smell really bad after a few weeks.”
“So it all gets thrown away?”
“Oh no, he transports it by cargo ship to Egypt to feed the starving children in the streets. He’s very charitable.”
Mr Smith was amazed that he still had the ability to lie so convincingly about something that was only half true – there was a Wilf Sternhammer in Braintree and he was a sculptor, but he worked exclusively with butter.
“Tell you what, Wulf – Wilf will never get wind of this, so why don’t you be our guest of honour today?”
“I’d be glad to,” said Sternhammer.
“Good,” said Mr Smith leading his guest into the building. Follow me.”
A few hours later, Jim followed Miss Yip out of the Cheese-Sniffing room, after spending a pleasant morning exercising his olfactory senses.
“We should go for a spot of lunch,” she said as they walked briskly down the corridor. “I know Mr Smith has a guest for lunch in his office today, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind us popping in and saying hello.”
“Sounds good to me,” agreed Jim.
They chatted idly as they walked to Mr Smith’s office, but as they drew nearer Miss Yip said, “That’s funny.”
“He has the blinds pulled down. He never has the blinds pulled down. He shouldn’t pull the blinds down. I’ve specifically told him never to pull the blinds down.”
Jim was about to say something to Miss Yip about points being laboured when they heard a violent argument break out from within the office, followed by the sound of furniture crashing about.
They sprinted to the door and Jim tried to open it, but he found that it was firmly locked.
“Stand back,” said Miss Yip, and with one leaping twirl she kicked the door from off its hinges.
There was a broken chair lying on the floor as they entered the office and the paperwork that had been in the In-Tray on the ornate wooden desk was scattered about the floor. Mr Smith was over in the corner, holding a knife to the throat of Wulf Sterhammer.
“Mr Smith!” snapped Miss Yip. “What on earth do you think you are doing?”
Mr Smith turned his head around and looked at the woman who had saved him from the clutches of the Late Afternoon Goudaistc Church of the Seven Hard Cheeses.
“Don’t judge me, Emily,” he said with a trace of madness in his voice.
“I’m not,” she replied, “but you need to calm down and tell me exactly what’s going on.”
“I will,” he snarled, “right after I’ve killed Elroy Hubble.”
“Elroy Hubble? But why are you holding a knife to Wilf Sternhammer’s throat.”
“It’s Wulf,” said Sternhammer.
“It’s neither,” growled Mr Smith. “This is Elroy Hubble. This is the man whose ideas almost got me killed. This is the man whose crap science-fiction books inspired normal people in South Island to turn into raving nutcases!” He began to laugh like a maniac. “This is the man I need to silence! This is man whose death will be only thing that will give me any peace of mind! This is . . .”
“All right, all right,” interrupted Sternhammer, “I think they’ve got the point.”
All through this exchange Jim was stood motionless in the doorway with his mouth open. When he saw the man Mr Smith had pinned against the wall his face had turned white with shock. It took him several minutes for him to collect his thoughts, during which time he was utterly speechless, and when he did regain control of his vocal chords he was only able to say one word.
“Dad?” he said.
“Hello, son,” replied George Friteuse. “Long time no see.”
DON'T MISS Chapter 16: THE LONG SAD STORY OF GEORGE FRITEUSE AKA ELROY HUBBLE AKA WULF STERNHAMMER!
DON'T MISS Chapter 16: THE LONG SAD STORY OF GEORGE FRITEUSE AKA ELROY HUBBLE AKA WULF STERNHAMMER!