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Ronald Dahl, Master of Suspensefulness
The Tale of the Tramps
My name is Unimportant, Reginald Unimportant, and while my story is very nearly unbelievable, happen it did; aye, and happen it will again, if you turn back the pages when you've finished.

The year was ----, the result of a passing fancy of Parliament, and I was in a black trough of despair at my wits' end. Seeking salvation, I consulted my Uncle Herbert, who was also staying at Wits' End and indulging similarly in their black-trough-based relaxation and slimming programme, and, on his advice, sought the help of Doctor Bartholomus Quills; a man, my uncle intimated by tapping the side of his nose and sneezing into my lap, who could be trusted with the most devilish of problems, which mine certainly was. Accordingly, the next day saw me stepping into Dr Quills' study with Trepidation, the butler, who explained that the doctor would be with me shortly, before gliding out backwards like a silent phantom and tumbling noisily down the stairs.

" Shaped from the skull "
I looked about the room as I waited. Although it was a brisk March day outside, heavy, closed curtains and an open stone fireplace containing a muted, flickering gas-lamp gave the place more of the feeling of a November evening, somewhere around ten to ten-thirty. I could see little clearly except the chair to which the butler had gestured before leaving, but I could tell Dr Quills was a man who strove to understand - my rapid glance took in the unmistakeable shapes of a high bookcase filled with volumes of science and esoteric lore, a pre-Copernican model of the solar system with what appeared to be cocktail olives added at strategic points as if representing planets yet undiscovered, several packages of scientific reports, their margins angrily defaced with notes and stick figures, a functioning clockwork dog and a finely detailed globe of the earth shaped from the skull of a giant - idly I wondered why these things should be piled in the chair, and where I should sit, when a voice broke in on my thoughts.

"Brush away the papers, Unimportant, I pray; there is another chair beneath."

The voice was deep and sleek, but somehow haunting, like one of the finer liqueurs with a very small ghost in it. I looked up to behold the face of Dr Quills: sun-stained and cluttered, honestly square, with wild, wiry hair, four legs and two mouths in the back of his head.

"I see you admire my desk," he continued. "You are correct, it is indeed a Clabenhaum duBanderley; a graceless imitation, of course, the man's price was outrageous." I had not noticed the high-backed leather leanaback behind the desk: it now turned slowly to reveal the trim, powerful figure of Dr Quills, continued turning until the back of the chair was to me again, then span three times fast while Dr Quills said, "Wheeee!" Abruptly it stopped, facing me, and he brushed the wild, wiry hair off his desk and leaned forwards to peer at me as I clambered into the seat previously indicated. "You would not have to come to me lest you were in dire peril," he smiled through muttonchop whiskers he held coyly beneath his nose.

"The perillest."

"Very well." He threw the whiskers into the grate and took up a pen. "Begin your story from the start, by which I mean the start before you came to me, rather than repeating our introduction. Cigar?"

"Sorry, I brought none with me."

"A pity." He fixed his fingers into a steeple, then opened them to reveal the people. "Omit no detail, no matter how explicit. Do not worry if you notice my eyes close during the telling, or if you see me a drape a blanket about my shoulders and begin to mutter and snore - you have my fullest attentions."

I nodded, and steeled myself to recall terrible memories. "The affair began less than a fortnight ago. I was on my way to the theatre, as I usually do at least once every less than a fortnight, when I was stopped at the mouth of an alley by a tramp."

"One moment." Quills interrupted Impatiently, the cook, who was serving Dinner, the gardener, Shepherd's Pie, a type of encased stew. "Not here, please, I am busy." They slipped into a chest of drawers with Embarrassment, the page-boy. "Excuse my staff; as my rooms are on the third floor, we have no kitchen, and there was unfortunately a fire in the cupboard usually reserved for the purpose." He gestured to a burning cupboard in the corner of the room in corroboration of his statement, then waved me to continue.

" Of encourage- ment I forget "
I sought to control my fidgeting hands as I relived my ordeal. "I was stopped by a tramp. This was not an unusual occurrence, for I am well-known among the unfortunates of the town as a kindly soul with always a spare coin for those willing to pledge they will spend it wisely on nourishing gin. The tramp, whom I recognised as Disgraceful Embleford, gave me the latest news about his wife, who died a year ago, and his infant son, who, after a long struggle towards recovery from the fevers, died two years ago, and I pressed some change into his hand with a few words of encouragement; I forget which, something along the lines of, 'Not to worry, Disgraceful Embleford, soon you shall join them, ha-ha-ha!' He seemed greatly cheered by this, and I turned to leave. At this point my senses left me, and I came to some little while later - it could not have been more than a few minutes, as people were still walking towards the theatre - slumped in the alleyway beside Disgraceful Embleford's body. The poor wretch's brains had been dashed out with a weighted, extensible cane. My weighted, extensible cane."

Dr Quills looked up from his crossword puzzle. "Why were you carrying it that night?"

"The performance was to be a new piece by Stravinsky, and I was tooled up in anticipation of the barney."

"Of course. Go on."

"Fortunately, no one had noticed what had happened, attention was on a minor anarchist bomb plot across the road, and I was able to slip away and back to my lodgings. I consulted my doctor, spinning a yarn about blacking out when whipping my footman, but his examination proved fruitless. I was, I am, in perfect health. The whole thing was a mystery. I tried to put it behind me - and five days later, it happened again."

Dr Quills paused in hammering at a jigsaw piece. "And this was when the woman entered the story - beautiful, mysterious, a secret pain behind her eyes?"

"No, there is no woman in this story."

"I see." Dr Quills flipped open his pocket-watch. "Oh, very well, carry on."

"The circumstances were almost identical, although this time I was among a party of friends attending an orgy in --------- Square."

"Damn these governmental whimsies."

"Yes. Again, a tramp beckoned to me from the darkness, this time Besmirched Wilkins, known about town for his eccentric habit of playing the fiddle and biting cats, and again my senses deserted me: I can remember only stumbling back to the group, my clothes torn as if from a struggle, loosely carrying my rim-fire revolver, all the rounds of which had been spent, and by the piercing smell of powder, in the last minute at most. I managed to turn aside any suspicion by explaining I had tripped over the kerb, but the next day, as I feared, the papers reported a horrible tramp-death by shooting in an alley off --------- Square, on page thirty-seven just below the latest prices for clinker."

" Drained them both and four "
Dr Quills passed a quick eye over my trembling frame, then poured two large brandies and drained them both. "And four days ago the same thing happened again. You stopped to give a few coins to a third tramp, Rubbishy Ian Pemblemacks, you blacked out, and you awoke beside his mutilated corpse, your lucky machete and his head in your pocket. Fearing the collapse of reason, you fled to a health spa in the country to ask advice of a relative, probably named Harold or Herbert."

"Astounding - you can tell all that with one glance?"

"No, I guessed. But compose yourself, Unimportant - I think I can help you. I know I can help you."

"Thank God - then - then I am not going mad?"

"We will come to that. You see, although you may not have realised it yourself, there was a common link between all three incidents. A link I, with my trained senses and heightened powers, can identify."

The room suddenly seemed much quieter. Chillier. Horripilation crept upon me.

"The tramp-killer is close by," murmured Dr Quills. I hunched forward to catch his words. "In fact - he is in this very room." Slowly - slowly - Dr Quills raised his arm - extended his hand - pointed his finger to something behind me, as he hissed his accusation. "There, Unimportant - there is the killer of tramps."

I could not help it. I must turn and know. Shifting my weight in the unstable chair, I rolled my head so I could see.

I was looking across the room into a large, ornately framed free-standing full-length mirror - looking at my own reflection, my own ghastly, pallid staring face, screaming endlessly into the visage of my own broken-minded terror.

" The faithful chimney- sweep "
"No," said Dr Quills, "behind the mirror." I looked again, and sure enough, behind the mirror, crouched on a shelf above the castors, was my brother Kenneth. Of course! In a flash I remembered now that at the scene of every murder was a large, ornately framed free-standing full-length mirror, and that it was a condition of keeping my recent inheritance from my brother that I must never murder more than four tramps. Dr Quills and I sprang forwards, and in a trice the villain was trussed, we'd shaken hands with the police, laughed at the antics of the faithful chimney-sweep and been given cups of hot, sweet tea by my old nurse, Homily, who delivered a homily.

"I can't thank you enough, Quills," I said, standing to take my leave. The doctor remained in his famous leather chair, exhausted by the affair, so I leaned forwards and shook him warmly by the nose. "You're quite the marvel of the age."

"Think nothing of it, my boy, nothing of it," replied Dr Quills as he jostled a cummerbund he strangely kept in a valise. "It was as much your doing as mine. By heavens, we worked well together." He then handed out rubber bulbs, which by a vigorous squeezing produced a passable fog through which the amazing doctor withdrew unknowably, leaving me to kick around until I could find the door. As I left, I could hear his voice, as if from a great distance. "Yes, Unimportant, we worked well together. And I have a feeling - a curious feeling - that we will do so again, and soon."

But he was wrong. Fewer than ten days later, I learned that Dr Quills, disguised as a nose-bag while shadowing a disreputable count involved in a disappearance of naval plans, had been accidentally consumed by a horse. I wept as loudly as any when I heard the news, for it was too late to stop my cheque.




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