The protagonist is relaxing at a hotel pool, where a bunch of American naval cadets on shore leave are splashing about with the local English girls. A little man in an immaculate white suit and Panama hat sits down beside him. Shortly after one of the American boys comes out, followed by a girl, and they take nearby seats. The boy pulls out a lighter and cigarettes. This catches the little man’s attention, and asks whether the lighter always lights first time, and is answered yes. He asks if the boy would like to bet on it; the boy accepts, and suggests playing for a shilling. But the little man has a higher stake in mind, and points to a green Cadillac in a nearby parking lot.
“You strike lighter successfully ten times running and Cadillac is yours. You like to have dis Cadillac, yes?”
“Sure, I’d like to have a Cadillac.” The boy was still grinning.
“All right. Fine. We make a bet and I put up my Cadillac.”
“And what do I put up?”
“The little man carefully removed the red band from his still unlighted cigar. “I never ask you, my friend, to bet something you cannot afford. You understand?”
“Then what do I bet?”
“I make it very easy for you, yes?”
“Okay. You make it easy.”
“Some small ting you can afford to give away, and if you did happen to lose it you would not feel too bad. Right?”
“Such as what?”
“Such as, perhaps, de little finger of your left hand.”
After this reveal the boy refuses, he asks for a different wager, he falls silent for a while. But to the protagonist it’s clear that the boy has faith in his lighter and, no matter the forfeit, he just can’t resist the easy prize. The little man proposes they go to his room to do the lighting, so there won’t be any breezes to contend with, and drafts the protagonist as a witness to ensure everything is legitimate. And as they walk to the little man’s room, and he leaves to find a kitchen knife, the protagonist realizes he’s too trapped in the situation to get out. The boy’s hand is tied down, knife raised above the finger, ready to slam down the moment the lighter fails to light.
The soul of this story is the rising tension. At first the conversation with the little man is merely odd, an absurdly valuable bet appearing out of the blue. As soon as he mentions the finger the suspense only increases, moment by excruciating moment. Even the end manages to pack a punch by revealing the little man’s past and a reason why he made the bet in the first place.
Now, there’s no trace of the supernatural in this story. Yet on rereading this I can’t help but compare it to folktale. There’s a current trend for revisiting the characters of fairy tales and relocating them to the modern day, often as fashionably dressed urbanites. With his immaculate white suit, I can see the story’s antagonist as a modern version of the Scissor Man, the demonic tailor from Struwwelpeter who snips off the thumbs of thumb-sucking boys. The figure’s cropped up in a number of places since (including a memorable cameo in Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather), and I wouldn’t be surprised if he strode into Bill Willingham’s Fables series, an avatar of gambling and bodily dismemberment rolled into one.
Man from the South by Roald Dahl
Word count: 4,700
First published: Collier’s magazine, Sept 4 1948
Where to find it: Tales of the Unexpected, collection, 1990, Vintage Books
Completely Unexpected Tales, collection, 1986, Penguin Books
Death Walks Tonight: Horrifying Stories, edited by Anthony Horrowitz, 1996, Puffin / Penguin Books
Collected Stories, collection, 2006, Alfred A. Knopf
Film versions: An episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 1960
An episode of Tales of the Unexpected, 1979
An episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 1985