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Lucky Stiff

A Leonard Dolman Story
by Steve Kaye


Steve Kaye may not sell many stories, but when he does, it's a good one. This little gem, originally published in the Fall 1990 issue of P.I. Magazine, never quite got the recognition it deserved. We're very pleased to reprint it, and even more pleased to announce you haven't seen the last of Leonard in these pages...

.......Leonard Dolman waited lunch every afternoon until after the mail arrived. Usually it came early, about 1 p.m. But some days –– two or three times each month -- it arrived very late, often after three.
On these days the natural noonday pause in his work came and went, so Dolman busied himself re-adding columns of figures, or studying entries on some corporate tree drawn in his hand, or simply checking for spelling errors in his own weekly reports.

.......Sometimes he would have black and white photographs to look over. Balding men, wide-eyed and flush, escorting expressive young women wearing inadequate wardrobe. He would meticulously draw red circles around the faces in these photographs with a flimsy compass. A child's toy, really, the point blunted by a rubber cap to keep from marring the pictures.

.......These were not Dolman's photographs. He did not take pictures such as these any more -- not for nearly fourteen years. But he helped out younger operatives when he could, especially when keeping his postal vigil.

.......Today, the mail carrier came and went in her usually brusque, mindless way at two-ten. The letter Dolman expected was in the pile scattered on the empty receptionist's desk –– a check for $2,500 and a neatly typed slip of a thank you note.

.......He took his bulky winter coat, the check, and some photographs he had been reviewing for Johnson, now discreetly covered in a folder, and squeezed out of his dingy white cubicle. Phyllis was in her office, too, working as usual through lunch.

......."They're not often so prompt, are they?" she said, taking the check and making a tight notation in her red ledgers.

.......Johnson's desk was near the front door. Dolman didn't want to leave the photographs -- this particularly revealing set would facilitate a client's upcoming divorce trial, might even make the trial unnecessary -- in full view of anyone passing into the office. He was about to ask Phyllis to hold the file until Johnson returned when Jack McKeon stepped out of his executive office.

.......McKeon, Dolman noticed immediately, was wearing his mischievous little-boy-bad smile. The kind of smile a five-year-old puts on when he's done the worst thing he can think of and is getting away with it. Only McKeon wasn't five any more and his smile had an edge to it.

.......McKeon's face lit up at the sight of Dolman, who could almost see the light bulb go on over his boss's head.

......."Come into the office, buddy. Got a case I want you to handle personally."

.......Dolman continued to work into his stubborn coat. "Sorry, Jack. I have three working already."

......."This one's important."

.......McKeon grasped the coat collar and held it for him. Dolman murmured a sheepish "Thank you" as his arm finally found the proper opening and slid in. But McKeon left his hand at the back of Dolman's neck, pushing gently for the two of them to discreetly step away from Phyllis's door.

......."This one," McKeon repeated, earnestly, "is very important."

......."What is it?"

......."A woman's husband is ... Oh, don't start shaking your head at me. Once in fourteen years I ask you to take a domestic ..."

......."Twice," Dolman corrected. "May, 1981."

.......McKeon sighed and removed his hand. He meant the gesture as a rebuke, an aggrieved removal of intimacy. Dolman, though, was grateful for the release.

......."What's your angle, Jack?"

.......The conspiracy entered McKeon's body again. "You should see this dame. My God, Leonard, I'll leave Betty. I swear I will."

.......Dolman sighed. "Your angle."

......."Tea and sympathy. That's all. Just tea and sympathy. Standing in line waiting for the inevitable."

......."Uh-huh. And what if he's not stepping out on her?"

......."I'll tell you, Len. Either he's crazy or she is. If I had something like that at home I'd never leave the house. But, you know ... some guys."

.......Dolman's shoulder twitched involuntarily, a reminder of fourteen years ago. In that case, a wife had been cheating on her husband, Dolman recalled, the numbing originality of it all flooding his memory. She had been seeing a car salesman. After being given the report the husband, a Swede, went crazy and randomly started shooting off his Mauser as he ranted for his wife to come out of a grocery store. Dolman's shoulder got in the way and he spent two weeks in the hospital. At the time the strangest thing to Dolman was his own confusion. His only thought, as he lay bleeding in the parking lot, was that he had never realized Swedes were so volatile.

.......Since then domestics were out of bounds for him.

......."Damn it, Leonard. We can't coddle you forever. Everyone takes his turn, you know. You've missed quite a number of yours."

.......Dolman's stoic expression did not change.

......."Please, Len. Just go through the motions if that's all you can do."

.......With a forlorn nod Dolman pushed into McKeon's office. As always he was struck by the difference between this inner sanctum and the outer cubicles of the operatives. Paneling, oil paintings -- some originals, even one by Matisse -- thick drapes that, when drawn, gave the illusion of privacy. Everything was designed to dispel the fears that one's most intimate secrets were being recorded, repeated, and examined in detail. The pretended warmth here contrasted starkly with the cold efficiency of the outer offices, hiding the simple reality that no one really cared.

.......He set his hat and the photo file on McKeon's desk and introduced himself to the client. It was clear why McKeon had gone off the deep end, Dolman told himself. The woman was exceptionally beautiful. Tall, leggy, hair a cascade of yellow and red. Her clothes were well tailored but not overly expensive, discreet but not obviously so. She was not out to prove her good looks to the world.

.......Her legs were crossed when he came in. As she uncrossed them –– to rise and shake his hand –– an electric static shot through the air. Despite himself, McKeon sighed heavily.

......."Our best operative," McKeon offered.

......."I appreciate your stopping on your way out," she said, pointing to Dolman's hat. "I'm Lorna Sheffield."

.......Her story was simple, even common, she admitted. For months her husband had been distracted, working late, tired. They had only been married a year so she couldn't understand how in her words the magic had worn off so quickly. She felt certain he had found someone else.

......."Have you found any evidence?"

......."No smoking gun, Leonard, I've asked," McKeon said, a little too cheerfully.

......."Nothing like lipstick, if that's what you mean."

.......Dolman nodded. Yes. Like lipstick.

......."I love him so much, you see. But I have to know."

......."Could there be other reasons for his behavior. His job ... what is it he does, Mrs. Sheffield?"

.......McKeon answered. "An accountant, Leonard. His own firm."

.......Dolman moved to the window but did not pull back the drapes. The day was too bright, too revealing. It had no place in this room.

......."I realize you get people in here all the time who think they know something and don't. You've got to protect yourself, too, I suppose. And you're right, maybe there is another explanation for his behavior. I just have to know. That's all."

......."We've no objection to that, do we, Leonard?" McKeon said, coming up behind Dolman. "We would very much like to help out this lovely lady."

.......McKeon put a hand on Dolman's shoulder again, squeezed slightly. Dolman turned back and saw Mrs. Sheffield looking through Johnson's photographs. They were fairly graphic, no room for misinterpretation.

......."You see," Mrs. Sheffield said, shivering slightly, "it does happen."

.......Dolman asked for a photograph of her husband and was given a recent Polaroid. The man in the picture didn't look like much. Average kind of guy. Standard looks, medium height, slightly receding hairline, extending waistline. No different from a thousand other guys. A mirror image, in fact, of Dolman, or so he thought.

.......He stared at the photograph for a long time wanting to ask how this guy rated. How this guy got a wife like Lorna Sheffield. He knew that to ask, though, would start him down a long road in a car full of trouble. Sheffield had ended up with her, and the rest had missed out. Some guys win the lottery. Most don't. That was all.

.......McKeon gave a shrug when Dolman looked up. He had already seen the picture of Sheffield, had had his moment of incredulity. Now he wanted to see it in Dolman's eyes.

......."We'll take it from here, then, Lorna." McKeon helped the woman to her feet. "May I call you Lorna? Good. I'll report to you myself with anything we find."

.......At the door Lorna Sheffield took Dolman's hand and said, "I just don't want to lose my husband. I'll do whatever it takes to keep him."

****

.......Dolman started the job that afternoon, unconvinced that he would find another woman in Alan Sheffield's life. Lorna Sheffield gave a man every reason to come home. In looks, at least. Maybe she was a rotten cook, he told himself and smiled. Or a terrible nag.

.......At six-thirty Alan Sheffield left his office. He walked out with a woman; both were bundled against the cold. He walked her to a car, held the door, tipped his hat. He said something the passing traffic obscured. It was short. Good night, most probably. The woman got into the car and drove out of the lot. Sheffield got into his car and drove off, too.

.......Dolman followed as Sheffield drove the eight and one-half miles home. Directly home. He got out and went into his house and shut off the porch light.

.......At nine-thirty Dolman, from home, called Alan Sheffield and tried to interest the man in aluminum siding. Sheffield was polite but said he preferred the natural brick of his home. He hung up.

.......The next morning Dolman followed Sheffield to the office, sat in his car until a patrolman told him to move. It was the day for street sweeping. Sheffield did not leave the office all day until he left to go home.

.......The following day –– a Thursday –– Alan Sheffield left his office at two o'clock. He carried a small leather sports bag as he hurried to his car. Dolman shook himself alert and followed, having a difficult time of it because Sheffield was uncharacteristically reckless in his driving.

.......Ten minutes later Sheffield parked his car and ran into a Your Fitness health club. Dolman got out of his car and casually walked along the long storefront window. Inside he could see Sheffield hurriedly check in at the reception counter and then disappear through a Plexiglas door.

.......An hour later Sheffield came out of the club, hair still damp. He moved leisurely now and drove sanely back to his office.

.......Alan Sheffield's big secret, thought Dolman: he works out.

......."Come on, Leonard, keep digging," McKeon urged over the phone that night. "It's only been a couple of days."

......."I've got a feeling about this guy."

.......McKeon snorted into the receiver. "Sure, he's a lucky stiff, all right. And either of us in his boots wouldn't mind being handcuffed to his bedpost. But we're not him, are we?"

.......Dolman took a long, slow breath.

......."No, we're not," McKeon said, answering his own question. "And he could be a very clever little fellow, Leonard."

......."If you say so."

......."I do. Now keep digging. There's gotta be dirt. There's always dirt."

.......On the following Tuesday, when Alan Sheffield left his office at quarter to two, athletic bag in hand, Dolman did not follow. Instead he rode the six floors up in an elevator to Sheffield's office.

......."I'm sorry, Mr. Sheffield isn't in right now," the secretary said. She was somewhat plain, very young with bobbed black hair and brown eyes. Not Sheffield's type, Dolman caught himself thinking.
"That is too bad. I understand he's an excellent accountant."

......."Perhaps you'd care to talk to Ms. Wallingford."

......."Oh?"

.......The girl picked up the phone and pushed a single button. "Ms. Wallingford, there's a gentleman here wanting to talk to Mr. Sheffield about our services. Yes. All right." Hanging up, the girl nodded toward a door to her left. "Ms. Wallingford has some time if you're still interested."

.......He thanked her and opened the door. Ms. Wallingford got up from behind a desk crowded with papers and file folders and held out a firm hand. She was a thoroughly competent-looking woman, very business-like but pleasant. After they had seated themselves she turned a glowing green computer screen aside to give him her full attention.

.......Dolman recognized her as the woman in the parking lot.

......."Actually I joined a conversation with some people at a party," Dolman said, in answer to her mildly suspicious question. "Mr. Sheffield's name was mentioned. Are you his partner?"

......."Yes. We've had this firm for nearly fifteen years. And, in addition to myself, we have three associates. What kind of service were you interested in?"

......."Personal." Dolman looked around the office and decided a lot of work went on here. There were file cabinets, a small table, two chairs, and a desk. No couch. "Fifteen years," he mused. "That's longer than most marriages."

.......Ms. Wallingford laughed. "Yes. Well, unlike a lot marriages, Alan and I respect one another."

.......Dolman feigned shock. "Oh, dear. I hope you're not talking from experience."

......."No. I've never been married. And Alan's honeymoon hasn't ended."

......."Just tied the knot, eh?"

.......Ms. Wallingford smiled warmly. "Mr. ... Gravesly, was it?" Dolman nodded. "We're always interested in new clients but we are a bit over extended just now. Could you give me an idea of what kind of work you'll be needing?"

.......He talked for a while, using one of his standard cover stories. Convincing, not too extravagant –– something to match his somewhat bland appearance.

.......As Ms. Wallingford walked him out Dolman saw the door to Sheffield's office was open. The room was even smaller than Ms. Wallingford's, and more crowded with papers. He made his good-byes, promising to set an appointment for later in the week.

.......At the health club the receptionist gave him a quizzical, slightly bemused look. She was young and wore a two-tone leotard under a skirt and vest and long woolly socks. She took his hat and directed him to the men's health counselor.

......."Can't tell you how smart this decision is, Mr. Neff. A man your age needs to keep fit."

.......The men's health counselor, a young and vacuous collection of muscles, guided Dolman past the sauna rooms to the whirlpools. He prattled on about the benefits of their program and the low cost –– when amortized over the length of his commitment. Of course one couldn't put a price on one's health. "Can you?" Dolman agreed it couldn't be done.

......."You've spoken to your doctor about this, haven't you?" the counselor asked with some concern. There were several middle-aged men in the place, Dolman noticed, all of them overweight, red, and sweating.

......."Oh, yes. He's recommended this for years. But I suppose it takes tragedy to waken us to the facts of life."

.......Dolman had told the counselor that a friend's massive coronary and subsequent death had prompted this sudden interest in fitness.

.......After the whirlpools came the exercise rooms –– the only areas, the counselor informed, that were co-ed. Dolman looked for Alan Sheffield as he pretended to examine the equipment. A girl on a treadmill caught his eye as she jogged heavily in place. She wore glistening black bicycling pants and a cut-off t-shirt that barely covered her considerable chest. She saw him and smiled, straightening her shoulders to amplify the effect her running had on her anatomy. Dolman heard her giggle sweetly as he turned away.

.......He finally saw Alan Sheffield in the far corner of the room exercising heavily. He was sweating over leaded pulleys, heaving an impressive weight. Dolman thought back to when he last exercised with any regularity but could not remember a time.

......."He's really putting his all in," Dolman said off-handedly.

......."Mr. Sheffield? Yes, sir. A regular. Type of membership I'd recommend for you. Twice a week minimum, but with plenty of expert supervision."

.......Dolman agreed that would be advisable.

......."Training for the Olympics, is he?"

......."Oh, no. Got himself a very attractive wife. Showed me her picture. I guess he wants to make sure he can keep up with her."

.......Before leaving the health club Dolman took a membership application and said he would double check with his doctor before starting any type of regimen.

****

......."Come in, Mr. Dolman."

.......Lorna Sheffield held open the door of her home invitingly, a strange aroma preceding her. Her hair was tied back in a severe ponytail and she wore a long bib apron over a flounce-trimmed green frock. In one hand she held a large wooden kitchen spoon stained with brown sauce which dripped slowly.

.......Dolman handed over his hat and coat, holding onto a file he had brought with him. Mrs. Sheffield tried to keep her eyes from the folder but repeatedly looked over her shoulder at it, as if the thing were alive and might attack her.

......."Come into the kitchen, if you would, Mr. Dolman."

.......The house was impressive, well furnished and tastefully decorated. A woman's touch was obvious, but not overpowering. Alan Sheffield had had a hand in designing his home, too.

.......The kitchen appeared new and clean. Pots hung over a chopping block island in the center of the room. The stove was one of those electric ones that had no burners, only a smoked glass top. There was a mess on the stove right now; pots, pans, plates all strewn about and dirty.

.......Mrs. Sheffield stepped up to the conflagration and shrugged with some embarrassment.

......."Afraid I'm not such a good cook. I'm trying something new." She stirred for a minute the lumpy contents of a pan then said, "I don't think this is working."

.......She dropped her spoon. Both hands fell to the counter as if to brace herself. Dolman helped her over to a stool then found some glasses and a bottle of bourbon. As he poured drinks he wondered why he was doing it, then decided he needed it more than she did.

......."I'm going to need this?" she asked, taking the glass.

.......He slid the report across the chopping block to her. "If you plan on celebrating with me."

.......She looked up sharply.

......."I've followed your husband for the last three weeks. The only secret he has from you is the fact that he's working out at a health club. That's probably why he's tired."

.......Lorna Sheffield paled then slammed her glass against the counter.

......."Damn it, I hired you to find out the truth!"

.......Dolman sat very quietly, afraid to move.

......."I'm not some child, you know. I can take the truth. I have a right to know." She had gotten up from her stool and gone back to the stove. The meal she was preparing had not improved so she tore off her apron and threw it into the sink.

.......She came back to him, very close, almost pleading.

......."I just want to know." Her breathing was very heavy, very warm. "I can fight for him. I do have a few weapons at my disposal." She stood back a bit as if to give him an unmistakable view of her arsenal.

......."Yes, ma'am."

.......She seemed confused all of a sudden, looking at him strangely. Dolman had the thought that she was waiting for him to say something else; something he hadn't finished saying.

.......Then it came to him, the reason for her anger, for her confusion. Maybe, he thought, that's all she wanted. A little implied dialog and a few sidelong glances at her estimable figure. Maybe that was all she wanted out of this.

.......Perhaps she didn't really think the little fellow was stepping out on her. Maybe, like so many other fellows, he had just been caught up in the tide of doing and got pulled under, figuring the rest of life would somehow take care of itself.

.......So, he asked himself, Lorna Sheffield felt what: Neglected? Unloved? Undesirable? Dolman wanted to tell her how foolish her thoughts were but knew she heard that kind of talk all the time.

......."Have you ever been in love, Mr. Dolman."

.......He looked up at her amazed at the sudden strange calm in her voice.

......."Come on. You can tell me. I'm a woman."

.......Dolman swallowed what was left in his glass.

......."Once," he said, not fully taking her meaning. "A long time ago."

......."Was it very long ago?"

......."In my mind. Yes."

......."Was she beautiful?"

.......He smiled unconsciously.

......."And did she love you?"

......."For a time. At least that's what she said."

.......Lorna Sheffield poured some more bourbon into his glass. He did not look at the glass but took it in hand and brought it to his lips.

......."We had been together for a year," he offered slowly. "A glorious year of warmth and confusion." Another swallow. The glass settled back onto the butcher block, empty. "She came to me one morning, wrapped up for the snow and a bag in her hand. Our year was up, she said. She'd only planned a year and it was over. No other explanation. No one else, so she said. Just finished."

.......Somehow, his glass had been refilled again with the innocent-looking clear amber liquid. Dolman stared at it for a long time before he stood.

......."I'm sorry my report ... displeased you, Mrs. Sheffield. But I am certain your husband is not having an affair of any kind. Good night."

.......In the hallway he found his hat and coat but did not bother to put them on as he left.

****

.......At one-fifteen Leonard Dolman's phone rang again. He picked it up on the tenth ring.

......."Where the hell have you been?" McKeon screamed on the other end. "I've been glued to my desk here all night waiting for you to get home!"

.......Dolman removed his hat and coat, accidentally turning the sleeves of it inside out. "Jack, I am in no mood."

......."What's the status on the Sheffield case?" McKeon's breathing came heavily over the phone. He began to wheeze some.

......."I gave her the final report this afternoon."

......."You didn't say anything untoward to her, did you, Leonard?" There was a phony nonchalance to McKeon's voice that Dolman ignored. "Nothing other than what was on the report?"

.......Dolman kicked off his shoes and settled onto his bed. It had been a very long evening; he had worn many miles off his ill-fitting shoes.

......."No, Jack. Only what was on the report."

......."I thought we were going to see her together when the time was right."

......."She didn't need consoling, Jack. Alan Sheffield was faithful after all."

......."Still, Leonard, we agreed."

.......McKeon's wheezing had become more pronounced. Dolman sat up, moving his feet to the floor.

.......He asked, "What's going on?"

......."What did you tell her this afternoon?" McKeon asked sharply.

......."If you're at your damned desk you can read the report for yourself. I left you a copy."

......."I see it. I see it. What does it say?"

......."Oh for Christ's sake, Jack. It's in English."

......."I can't read it right now, all right. Just tell me what it says."

......."Fine. It says Alan Sheffield's a good boy. Works hard. Goes to the gym, trying to build up a little for her. Guess he feels a bit inadequate. No other women."

......."That's all?"

......."Yes! Now, damn it ..."

......."She confronted him tonight," McKeon said.

......."Confronted ...?"

......."Jesus, Leonard! They could take away our license."

......."You're not going to lose your license. Now tell me what happened?"

......."There was a shooting."

......."Oh, my God."

......."There's going to be questions, Leonard. You're sure about the report?"

......."Yes. When did it happen?"

.......Over the phone Dolman could hear a scuffing sound and then the click of a desk lamp. McKeon had been sitting in the dark. "A couple of hours ago. I got a call from ..."

......."The police will still be there, then. I'll call you later, Jack."

****

.......A uniformed police officer let Dolman through the cordon around the Sheffield home and pointed at the front door. There could be found Detective Sergeant Feder, the man heading the investigation.

.......On the front lawn Dolman saw a body covered in a sheet made glaringly white under harsh portable lamps. A handgun lay several feet away. The police photographer had finished his work, as had the medical examiner. They were all waiting for a body bag to arrive from the coroner's office.

.......Detective Sergeant Feder invited Dolman in and nodded with understanding as he outlined his involvement.

......."Got a copy of this report?"

......."Not with me. I gave one to Mrs. Sheffield earlier. It's probably around here somewhere."

......."We found some burned papers and ashes in the fireplace. I'll wager that's your report."

.......The coroner had arrived and was supervising the removal of the body from the front lawn.

......."I don't take domestics any more, Sergeant. I don't like them."

......."Why this one, then?"

......."Favor to my boss." Dolman stepped away from the window, not wanting to see the corpse. "I've seen guys get upset when their wives investigate them, but never this."

......."Thank God you're here, Mr. Dolman."

.......Mrs. Sheffield came out from the kitchen, her wrists in handcuffs. Two policewomen held her by the arms as she tried to pull away.

.......Dolman turned sharply to look out at the front lawn but already the body of Alan Sheffield had been zipped up inside a black bag and loaded into an ambulance.

......."Tell them what a philandering bastard my husband was," Lorna Sheffield pleaded.

.......Dolman went up to her. She was so desperate, her body straining for ... something.

......."Tell them."

......."Mrs. Sheffield, your husband loved you. He wasn't cheating on you." He shuddered uncontrollably, not from anger or fear but from a deep bone chill.

.......She nodded at him then, vigorously, as if everything she believed had just been proven. "You see! I told you! Every woman he met! Can you blame me?!"

.......Dolman grabbed her shoulders and shook her violently. "He loved you! Everything he did was for you!"

.......Lorna Sheffield cried, nodding weakly. "I know ... I know," she sobbed. "How can a man be so cruel? How?"

.......The policewomen led her out the door and to a waiting car. He watched her go, wanting very much to have that drink she had poured for him earlier.

.......On the way to his car he remembered what Jack McKeon had said to him two weeks ago. He had said to keep digging because there was always dirt. Jack had been right, he told himself. There had been dirt. Only Jack had it under the wrong fingernails.

Originally published in P.I. Magazine, Fall 1990
© 1990, 2001 by Steve Kaye.



Steve Kaye has been telling stories in one form or another for close to 40 years. He just hasn't sold very many of them. Among his few professional credits, he was - very briefly - series writer for the comic book Sable and had a short short published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

He is an eclectic reader, enjoying not only mysteries but also westerns, adventure pulps (modern and classic), and science fiction. Favorites among authors are John LeCarre, Rex Stout, H.A. DeRosso, Connie Willis, and Kay Hooper.

He also operates the sporadically updated ShadowPDF web site which presents classic Shadow stories in PDF format with the original pulp graphics and covers.

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."And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."