The Immortal Game
(An excerpt from the novel)
by Mark Coggins
Thrilling Detective is really
pleased to present this excerpt
(actually, the first chapter) from a promising new novel,
featuring San Francisco private eye August
Let's start off the millennium
with a blast...
THE LEFT FRONT TIRE of my battered Ford Galaxy
jolted into a pothole, and the last of my factory original hubcaps
popped off and went rolling down the slope behind me. I slowed
the car to a stop and watched in the rear view mirror as the
hubcap hit the shoulder of the road and bounced into the brush
below. I had planned to use the hubcap with my silver tea service
as a crumpet tray, but I could see now that those plans were
appeared in the rear view mirror, so I eased off on the brake
and continued my journey up King's Mountain Road. I was driving
from my office in San Francisco to the Woodside residence of
a potential client, Edwin J. Bishop. Woodside is an exclusive,
semi-rural community nestled in the coastal hills of the San
Francisco Peninsula. All I knew about Bishop was that he had
founded and taken public three very successful computer game
companies, and he needed a discreet private detective with a
strong sense of professional ethics. It was his tough luck he
happened to pick me.
.......I zigged and
zagged along King's Mountain for another half mile until I came
to a narrow driveway guarded by a tall wrought iron gate. The
gate had the name Bishop written in iron script along the top
and stood between flagstone columns. I pulled into the drive
and got out to fiddle with the speaker gizmo on the right column.
I punched the call button a few times and eventually a high pitched
voice issued from the speaker:
I said. "August Riordan. I have an appointment to see Mr.
inside the gate column, and an electric motor kicked in. I watched
as the gate swung open and then got back into my car and entered
.......The drive wound
its way through a stand of aging oak and then abruptly the trees
ended and the road climbed lazily up a grassy knoll. At the crest
of the knoll stood the house, a tall, solid-looking structure
with flagstone walls, a peaked slate roof and plenty of latticework
windows. The windows on the second floor had wooden flower boxes
beneath them with a full crop of brilliant red tulips. Four stone
chimneys sprouted from the rooftop and two ornate weather vanes
in the shape of fighting cocks kept them company. A detached
garage big enough to hold the Hughes Spruce Goose stood on the
left. I parked next to the garage by a gleaming Jaguar convertible
and legged it up to the front porch.
.......There I found
a wide green door with the wrought iron silhouette of a bishop
chess piece tacked in the middle. The bell played somebody's
famous waltz when I pressed it, but we weren't on a first name
basis. Shuffling steps sounded inside, and the door was opened
by a lanky young man with frizzy brown hair and a long frizzy
beard. Gold wire rim glasses were balanced on his thin nose,
and he wore cutoff jeans and a tie-dyed shirt that looked like
the cross section of a sick man's colon. He was shod in heavy
leather sandals which only partially obscured feet that were
black with dirt. His toenails were long enough to slice bread.
I asked reluctantly.
I'm Bishop. You're the detective then?"
he said, and thrust the door open wide. "We need to take
quick action on this. Please come with
a sharp pirouette and marched out of sight. I stepped inside
and closed the door behind me. Five yards ahead, Bishop was making
good progress down a wide hallway that ran the length of the
house. Maroon tapestries hung at regular intervals on the interior
wall, and two knights in armor were placed in strategic locations
by the front windows. Even more impressive was the floor. It
was covered by slabs of highly polished grey marble with gold
metal inlaid along the edges. Linoleum was just a funny word
to this guy.
my stride and caught up with Bishop as he stopped by a door in
the hallway. He made a big show of holding it open for me and
I walked past him into a large room with dark mahogany paneling
and carpet so thick you needed hip waders to get around. In the
center of the room was a grand piano splattered with piles of
haphazardly stacked sheet music. Over the piano hung a massive
chandelier that was better at looking regal than giving off light.
The remainder of the room's furnishings were clustered in the
far corner: a long desk with various pieces of computer equipment
strewn across it, a high-backed chair to go with the desk, a
coffee table, a small chess table with chessmen set out across
the top, and a brown leather couch.
also two blondes in string bikinis lying on the floor playing
a game of Monopoly.
and Lisa," said Bishop behind me, "I'd like you to
meet Mr. Riordan."
.......The two women
stood up to face me. Both were tall with hair cropped closely
in the same ultra modern style.Their lips and nails were painted
dark crimson, and their microscopic swim suits revealed a lot
of well shaped and deeply tanned California girl flesh. The one
named Jodie had a more generous figure and smiled a brighter
smile. Lisa was a shade thinner and seemed more reserved. I shook
hands with both of them, feeling about as silly as you can feel
when you're introduced to near-naked women while wearing a business
up behind them and patted them each on the butt. "You'll
have to excuse us, girls," he said. "Mr. Riordan and
I need to talk over the theft of my software." The women
gathered up the Monopoly equipment and walked out of the room.
I turned to stare at their backsides and was caught in the act
by Jodie. She giggled a bit and flashed me a smile that you could
take to bed with you.
for me to sit down on the couch and settled himself in the high-backed
chair behind the desk. He looked me over slowly without saying
anything, and then tilted up his chin and began stroking the
underside of his beard with the back of his hand. I stood about
a half minute of the performance, then said, "Nice friends
you got there."
and Lisa are my paid companions, of course," said Bishop.
"I don't have the time or disposition to interface with
women in the traditional manner. I find this arrangement satisfies
my needs with the greatest expediency."
I said, "I've been to a few Tijuana hookers myself."
his glasses off slowly and laid them carefully on the desktop.
"If you were a physician, you would not get high marks for
your bedside manner."
I guess it's a good thing you're not hiring me to remove your
Mr. Riordan. In point of fact, I haven't hired you to do anything.
I think now I'm inclined to find out a little more about you
before I do."
contacted me through his lawyer, Mark Richie, so I said, "I
assumed Richie gave you the dope on my background."
a certain extent. In any case, I'd like to hear about it again
and I'd also like to ask a few
.......I shifted a
bit in my chair. I'd been through this sort of thing before with
clients and it usually had less to do with my qualifications
than with the client's reluctance to spill the beans about the
assignment. "All right," I said. "Why don't we
start with the bare essentials and then you can dig in where
been in the biz now for fifteen years, working mostly down south
and here in the Bay Area. Before that I covered the metro beat
for the L. A. Times, and before that I attended UCLA. I've handled
most kinds of jobs people hire investigators for, and I've typically
given good service for the dollar. I've got a reference list
made up of former clients and law enforcement officers that you
can check out, but maybe Richie already covered that angle for
you. Anyway, that's the top line."
why you moved from journalism to private investigations."
no great mystery. I come from a long line of drunken Irish cops--on
my mother's side anyway. My mom's dad, for instance, was chief
of police in Santa Monica. When I made the switch to PI work
it was just a matter of joining the family business."
it then your father was not in the 'family business?'"
talk about my father," I said bluntly. "And I'm not
interviewing for camp counselor here. Do you think maybe we could
stick to relevant questions, or even better, get to the part
where you tell me what the hell it is you want done?"
.......Any hope I
had of bulldozing the slight man in front of me was short lived.
He bulldozed about as well as Egyptian pyramids. "I will
not be rushed, Mr. Riordan," he said, and treated me to
another in the series of great beard stroking performances. Then:
"My lawyer recommended you as someone who has had experience
investigating so-called 'high-tech' crimes. Is that correct?"
worked on a number of cases which involved the theft of computer
chips, if that's what you mean. I wouldn't classify myself as
an expert, though."
from other sources that you retired from private investigations
for a time after a run-in with the police in Phoenix, Arizona.
It's my understanding that you only recently returned to the
correct as far as it goes. I was held for questioning in connection
with an incident that occurred during an insurance investigation
I was handling. But no charges were ever brought against me."
was the exact nature of this incident?"
.......I grinned at
him. "I think you know very well what the nature of the
incident was. If you want me to say it to your face, I'll oblige
you: I shot and killed three people with a Colt Army .45."
was why you quit?"
quit because I ran out of bullets."
"I have a right to know something of the background of the
men I hire. You are correct in assuming I already knew some of
the details surrounding the incident. I wanted to hear your version
of the story and assure myself that your decision to return to
private investigations was the correct one. I wanted to be sure
you still had the resolve for the job."
Mr. Bishop, is something I've got in spades."
a strained, wheezing noise like a cat choking on a fur ball.
I wasn't entirely sure what to make of it, but I guessed he was
laughing. "Yes, I believe you do," he said after the
fur had subsided. "Very well, I'll take a chance on you.
As I'm sure you're aware, I develop software for computers. I'm
quite good at it, and I've made a lot of money as a result. My
chief interest is computer games--computer chess being my specialty."
the tie-in with the chess piece on your front door?"
that's right. Having Bishop for my surname makes the tie-in complete."
He laughed again, then stopped abruptly. "Listen to me now.
I've spent eleven months of my life cooped up in this room writing
the best chess program that's ever been developed for a small
computer. It's faster, more intelligent and simpler to play than
anything else on the market. I invited Stephen Flamberg- a local
GM--to play against an early version of the program and the best
he could manage was a draw in two of the three games he played.
The third game ended in his defeat."
want to flaunt my ignorance," I said. "But apart from
a large American car company, what's a GM?"
across Bishop's face. "A GM, or grandmaster, is a tournament
chess player of the very highest caliber. To be classified as
a GM, a player must achieve a grading level 2601 in two or more
tournaments in which at least 24 games in all are played."
bowls of cereal does your average GM have to eat before he gets
the 2601 box tops?"
humorous Mr. Riordan. The important point here is that no chess
program written for personal computers has been sophisticated
enough to routinely play a qualified grandmaster to a draw. Mine
is the first in history." He paused for effect. "And
now it has been stolen."
my brow to show my deep concern. "I take it you want me
to try and recover the program?"
that's the general idea, but there's more to it than simply recovering
in his chair and stared down at his lap. "I have good reason
to believe that one of my female companions stole the program."
Jodie or Lisa?"
girl's name is Terri McCulloch. She was employed in the same
capacity as the other two girls until recently. We had a disagreement
about her duties and I was forced to dismiss her." Bishop
looked up from his lap. "I believe she stole the program
at the time of her departure to get back at me."
you noticed the program was missing immediately after she left?"
I put the finishing touches on the program a month ago and then
set it aside with the intention of seeking a publisher for the
game after a short respite. Terri left my employ the following
week, and it didn't even occur to me to check if the program
was missing at the time. The first indication I received that
the program had been stolen was at a computer trade show I attended
last Friday. I was walking around the exhibition stalls and I
encountered a computer vendor who was demonstrating a chess program
exactly like mine. It was mine in
sure of that?"
Absolutely. They hadn't even bothered to make the cosmetic changes
necessary to camouflage the software's origin."
idea is that Terri McCulloch stole the program when she was fired
and then sold or gave it to the guy at the computer show, who
then exhibited the game as his own?"
strain too hard to keep the skepticism out of your voice Mr.
Riordan. That's exactly the way it must have happened."
ask the exhibitor how he got hold of the game?"
yes, of course. He claimed that his company had developed it
in-house. But I am well acquainted with the staff at Mephisto
Software, and none of their developers are talented enough to
produce a chess program of this caliber. That is a moot point
in any case: as I told you, I'm quite sure the program was mine."
.......If I had a
beard and was inclined to stroke it, I would have started up
right about then. Instead, I rubbed the back of my neck and plowed
you checked to see if your program was missing when you returned
home from the trade show?"
.......Bishop smiled ruefully. "I did indeed. All my copies of the program--including the master--were missing. In fact, they had all been erased from the computer disks where they were stored. That is a key point, too, Mr. Riordan. As you may know, it is relatively easy to make copies of computer software. To steal the program, Terri needed only to copy it off the master disk. She did that, but in addition, she methodically searched out and destroyed every last trace of it from my computer files."
you no way to prove that you developed the program originally?"
you be so sure that Terri McCulloch is the one who took the program?"
his lips and shook his head wearily like I was a slow learner.
"It's obvious. No other valuables were taken and there were
no signs of a burglary. That means someone with unrestricted
access to the house must have taken it. Jodie and Lisa lack any
in-depth knowledge of computers, so they are eliminated. The
same reasoning applies to my housekeeper. Terri, on the other
hand, has a good understanding of computers. I know because I
taught her myself. She also had the motive of revenge from her
you were pretty vague on that before. Why did you fire her? Had
she developed a chronic headache?"
catch on immediately, but when he did he reddened and tugged
hard on the end of his beard. "That is a personal matter
between Terri and myself. I will not tell you anything further
about it. If you should speak with Terri in the course of your
investigation--and it seems likely you will--I absolutely forbid
you to discuss the topic with her."
.......I could tell
by the subtle vibrations in the room that this wasn't a popular
topic with Bishop. "Okay," I said, trying to sound
properly chastened. "Assuming Terri McCulloch did steal
the software, exactly what do you want done?"
priority is the return of my chess program. My second is to secure
its return without involving myself or Terri with the authorities.
That is my primary purpose in hiring you. If I wasn't still concerned
with Terri's welfare, I would have simply phoned the police and
reported the chess game missing."
.......I didn't bother
to remind him that he no longer had any proof that he'd actually
developed the program. "All right. I'll need addresses for
Terri McCulloch and the software firm that exhibited your program
at the trade show. Mephisto, you called them?"
Mephisto is correct." Bishop opened a drawer in the desk
and pulled out a long white envelope which he passed over to
me. "You'll find both addresses inside, plus a photograph
of Terri and a check for $2500. I hope that amount is enough
to get you started."
.......I tucked the
envelope into my breast pocket. "Yes, that should get me
started and keep me going for a good while. One last question.
Have you spoken with Ms. McCulloch or the Mephisto people since
you discovered the game at the trade show?"
was too upset about the whole thing to deal with it rationally.
I'm leaving the matter in your hands."
.......I should have
said something like, "I'm sure you won't regret it,"
but neither Bishop nor I was ready to swallow a line like that
so late in the conversation. Bishop didn't offer to see me out.
I stood up and shook hands with him over the desk and walked
out of the room, down the long hallway to the front door and
out onto the porch. I was sort of hoping to find Jodie and Lisa
playing volleyball on the front lawn in their bikinis, but evidently
they were still occupied by the Monopoly game.
I climbed into my car and started down the winding highway towards
the Peninsula town of Redwood City. When I passed the point on
the road where I had lost my hubcap, I craned my neck out of
the car and scanned the underbrush. Nothing doing: I could definitely
kiss the crumpets good-bye.
Copyright (c) 1999, Mark Coggins