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Lucky Stiff

                                                                                                              Chapter 1


            I looked across my desk at the little guy sitting in the only other chair in my office. He looked about as dangerous as a gerbil and half as fierce.

            He spent most of the time examining his hands, which he kept in his lap. “I can’t even keep pets, Mister Mandolin. This isn’t due to any clause in my rental contract, they either run away or die on me.”

            He called himself Hugo Dahl. From what I could gather, he was some sort of scientist or researcher. He worked at Stanford in an area I’m not going to try to re-pronounce. The term had a whole lot of syllables and most of them Latin, I think.

            He kept talking, all of it in the same quiet monotone, “I’ve got to have the worst luck in the world, the universe. Why do I keep betting on them, every time, they lose, every time!”

            He started to become excited so I held up a hand. My office isn’t big enough to pace in. “It’s all right, Mister Dahl, I’m here to help, if I can.”

            “Hugo, please.”

            “All right, Hugo. Who loses?”


            Some clients are like that. They head off onto tangents and need to be guided back to find whatever point they were aiming for. “You were talking about luck and betting,” I said, hinting broadly.

            He nodded and said, “Rather than being hyperbole, Mister Mandolin, I have never won a bet in my life. In fact, I have never won anything. Anything in the realm of chance as far as being favorable in the remotest has stayed far from me.

“I keep trying. I can’t help it. One year, a few seasons ago, I chose the NFL team that, the previous season had breezed into the playoffs and won the Super Bowl by a record number of touchdowns. After I placed my bets they became the first team ever to be shut out for the entire season. The team owner committed suicide on the fifty-yard line and the head coach, when last heard from, was managing a McDonald’s in Portland.”

I’d read about that. I seriously doubted Hugo was responsible. He didn’t look like he’d purposely jaywalk, much less put a whammy on a football team. I grunted, nodding for him to continue.

He did, “I decided to enter into a study of Heisenberg’s laws of probability. Some might consider it crackpot, but I began working on a theory concerning the existence of probability waves consisting of particles similar to Quarks. I was able to get ahold of a small projector and modified it to where I could fire a stream of what I called Heisendahl particles at a charged plate.”

I nodded and asked, “Did you?”

He answered my nod with one of his own, “Well, the math appeared to be correct so all I needed to do, in theory, was push the fire button on the gun.”

“What happened?” In spite of myself, I was becoming interested.

            He swallowed and said, in a slightly more engaged tone, “A stream of extremely over agitated electrons impacted the plate. They produced an ever-expanding rainbow such as one might see under a fountain on a clear summer’s day. I set up a control program on my laptop and through it, I could see that, even when the voltage was diminished to a level below that of a phone line the rainbow effect remained constant.”

            “What did that mean?” I asked.

Well,” he said, “according to Murphy’s corollaries there should be two polarities to the probability spectrum. If these were in fact probability waves…if Murphy was right in saying (1) that if anything could go wrong it would, and (2) that if anything could go right it would, then there could possibly be a way to force the condition. Sort of a lucky force field, I suppose. All I needed to do was test it.

            “Considering my track record in that area, I assumed even one winning roll of a pair of dice would tell me in a control test. I also weighted the dice to come up with craps when outside of the control field. If the field could affect probability so that it affected dice weighted in favor of my bad luck, I thought I would have something.”

            I nodded again. Even in the number of weird cases I’d been handed over the years, this fellow was out there. Fortunately, he didn’t seem prone to violence.

            Hugo continued, “The polarity control consisted of a simple toggle switch to the side of my laptop. Up selected one polarity and down selected the other. When I began, the switch was up. I tossed the loaded dice into the field and they bounced, coming up with a five and a two. I repeated that test four more times. Every time I threw either a seven or an eleven.

“For the final test, I had a pair of legal dice. With the polarity set to positive every throw was a winner, and when set to negative, a loser. I also checked with the loaded dice and received the same result.”

I leaned back in my chair and said, “Sounds like you’ve got something there.”

“That’s the problem, Mister Mandolin,” Hugo said, looking me in the eye for the first time, “I don’t. There was a break-in and the projector has been stolen.”

“Hmmm, that could be interesting,” I thought, “Where would a thief go with something like that? The casinos would be my first choice.” Then another thought hit me and I asked, “Can you describe this projector? How big is it? Breadbox, shoe box or refrigerator box?”

Hugo smiled sort of a nervous twitch on one side of his mouth. He said, “I work in micro-circuitry, Mister Mandolin. The breadboard was only for preliminary testing. My final prototype was designed to fit in my pocket.” He smiled again, “I don’t know if it was for ease of use or a way of rubbing it into my fate’s face, but the projector looks like an old silver dollar. Heads is the positive side and tails is negative. All you have to do is press either side with your thumb.”

I groaned, “A lucky coin.” “Nice.”

Hugo nodded, “Exactly.”

Another question came to mind, “You said something about a charged plate earlier. Does that mean your lucky coin only has so much area where it works?”

“Well, yes and no,” Hugo said, hedging his bet.

“Come again?”

He spread his hands, “I’m sorry, I’m not telling this very well. Losing my prototype has been very upsetting. When I was just beginning my experiments, I used the charged plate to test my hypothesis. After that, especially after perfecting the microcircuitry I discovered the field affected an area covering a sphere of exactly eight feet, no less, no more.”

I nodded, wondering what the results of thumbing the wrong side of the coin would be, then I asked, “What does that mean? It only works in that area? Like that story about the football team, it wouldn’t have helped?”

He seemed to be thinking for a bit and then he said, “No…no, I think it would have. I wanted them to win, and if I was in the field they would have. Yes, I’m sure of it.”

“How about anyone else in that field?” I asked, “Would it affect them as well, and is there a tradeoff?”

He looked puzzled again, “I don’t understand the question.”

I shook my head, “Maybe I’ve watched too much science fiction, but it seems to me if you’re forcing good luck to go your way, then doesn’t it follow that someone else has to pay for it? You win and they lose?”

He hummed to himself for a bit and then nodded, “Yes, I suppose the question of balance would come into play…”

I shuffled a couple of the papers on my desk. I was only in the office to pick up the mail and was ready to head back home when the little fellow showed up. For some reason what he was telling me scared me just shy of the point of wetting my pants.

For those of you snickering at my attitude right now, let me introduce myself. My name is Tony Mandolin and I’m a Private Investigator, not a private eye. I don’t do snoop work such as peeking through bedroom windows to catch assorted types of infidelity, not even for serious money. Some of us still have a little bit of pride left. At least I’m not personal injury hack.

Anyway, a few years back I discovered that nearly every fairy tale had a certain level of truth to it, like about past your eyebrow level. Pixies, vampires, goblins, werewolves, gods, goddesses, elves and faeries, all real, all true and most of them scary as hell. Toss in a former alcoholic wizard and we have the whole chef’s salad of weird that my life has become.

Ever since then the word has gotten around, and if you’ve got yourself into a pickle, and if it’s the sort that if you told the authorities about, your next sleepover would be in in a padded room, well that’s where I come in. I deal with the weird stuff.

Yeah, I said weird stuff. There was this vampire whose taste ran to redheads, a witch poisoning the diners in high-end restaurants, an evil-not-so-evil faerie queen, and that alcoholic wizard I mentioned, plus a pregnant werewolf. And, that just a sampler. What Hugo was talking about added a completely new level of weird to the possibilities.

Well, turning down jobs that didn’t insult my integrity never paid the bills. I shook my head and asked the next question, “There’s the matter of my retainer, Mister Dahl.”

“Oh, yes,” he said, fumbling in his jacket. He pulled out a checkbook, “What was the amount again?”

“I haven’t mentioned it yet,” I said, leaning back in my chair. “My usual rate is $200 a day in addition to expenses. Those expenses include state and federal taxes. And I can’t guarantee I’ll find anything,” I smiled, “Sorry about that, but all you’re paying for is the effort.”

“Oh, no matter, no matter,” Hugo babbled, “Is the first week in advance all right?”

I didn’t tell him that a nice round thousand dollars retainer was very welcome news. Nodding, I said, “That will do.”

Hugo left the check on my desk and took one of my cards, along with my promise to keep him informed on how the case progressed.

After the door closed, I picked up one of the papers from my desk. It was a bill, and so were the others, coming to a total of about $650.00. I glanced at the check and breathed out a sigh. It wasn’t all that long ago a bundle like that would have been considered small change. The last case though hadn’t turned out all that well. My client wasn’t pleased that most of his family died, even though it wasn’t my fault or doing, and he didn’t pay. Of course, that could have been because of his castle being torn down about him by an enraged giant snake. I wasn’t going to judge.

I put the check and the bills into my pocket and stood up to grab my coat and hat. The phone rang just as I was reaching for the doorknob. Whoever ran the circumstances surrounding my life, they had far too much of a sense of the idiotically dramatic.

I picked up the receiver and said, “Mandolin.”

“What are you doing there? Why aren’t you at home?”

I recognized the voice. It belonged to Patrick Monahan, my friend and a Captain for the San Francisco Police department. Pat tended to be rather short and gruff when the city leaders had a bee in their bonnet.

“Hi Pat,” I answered, “I’m just doing a mail run. What’s up?”

He grunted, “Why haven’t you let that flea trap’s lease lapse? If anything the neighborhood is worse than it was when you first moved in.”

He was right there. When I took out the lease on my office the elevator actually worked and most of the businesses in the building were, for the most part, legitimate. Now, outside of the attorney down the hall, the average office housed businesses devoted to selling, or at the very least renting assorted forms of affection. I’d been toying with the notion for a while, but it was my office, damn it. Working from home all the time seemed like giving up.

I answered, “I know, I know. Sentimental, I guess. Why the call? You got a case for me?” I figured I might as well do some sales work while I’m at it. Pat sometimes sent cases my way, especially if they had an ingredient the police called Mandolin Madness in it.

He paused and I knew it was going to be one of those MM cases. “Well, we’ve got something down in the morgue I want you to see…”

I sighed, the city won’t release the count, but a huge number of bodies go through the San Francisco morgue every year. So far, in my career as an investigator, the number of times I’ve been asked to go down there and check something out comes out to a nice round three. One of those times was without Pat’s knowledge, but every time I got the call, meant I was in for a case loaded with things nightmares are made of.

“When do you want me?” I asked.

“Take your time,” Pat said, “You don’t have to be downtown until 8 am tomorrow morning. You’re going to love meeting patient zero.” He hung up.

                                                                                                      ♦          ♦          ♦

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