An excerpt from the latest
Riordan novel, Vulture
by Mark Coggins
"We see 3,000 business plans a year, and we
only make between eight and 20 investments... [A] lot of people
go away unhappy. There's a simple answer for those people: You
didn't measure up."
...... -Mark Achler,
founding principal, Kettle Venture Partners
......Ted Valmont stepped through
the door of his Woodside home at 7:05 pm. After carefully draping
his jacket over the study sofa, he went to the roll-top desk
in the corner and fell heavily into a leather-bound chair. He
pushed open the roll-top to reveal a PC and brought up a program
to download and read his e-mail.
......The program informed him
there were over 50 new messages. He sat with his chin in the
palm of his hand and watched as the title and sender of each
message appeared on the screen. He scrolled through them listlessly-not
selecting any to read-until he noticed an e-mail titled "Thank
you!" from email@example.com. Sitting up in his chair,
he clicked on the header. The body of the message read:
You're a darling! Thank you for the lovely flowers. They're
in a vase on the table across from me as I write this message.
I only recently got up on the Internet, and when I saw
the e-mail address on your card, I couldn't resist sending you
an electronic thank you. I hope you don't find it too impersonal;
it seemed an appropriate way to communicate with a Silicon Valley
Titan such as yourself.
.It just so happens that I'm
coming down to San Francisco tomorrow to do some shopping. I'm
staying overnight at the St. Francis, so I was wondering if you
would be free to join me for dinner, etc., etc. ;-)
.I do hope you can make it.
Please give me a ring at 707-555-1122 and let me know.
Ted Valmont highlighted the words "It just so happens"
in the text of the message and chuckled. He took a cordless phone
from its base and dialed the number from Gabrielle's message.
"Is this my Gabby?" he said into the receiver a moment
later. He chuckled again. "Yes, it's me It's nice to talk
with you tooWell, you're lucky. I have it on good authority that
tomorrow night's episode of America's Funniest Home Videos
is a repeat... No, of course not. I'd walk across Death Valley
in August to see you. You said you were staying at the St. Francis,
right?... Okay, how about I meet you downstairs at the Compass
Rose bar at 7 and we'll go across the street to Farallon... Yes
it's excel-lent... Don't worry, I've got connections. They feature
our wine, after all... Sure, wear something nice. I'll try to
keep pace... Great. Looking forward to it. See you then."
......Ted Valmont dropped the
connection and pressed a button on the phone to dial a pre-set
number. After a long wait, he said, "Jack? It's Ted. Sounds
like you're busy... Yes, much better than the alternative. How
would you feel about me calling in a favor? I've got a date tomorrow
night with a young lady who is destined to be the future Mrs.
Ted Valmont-" He laughed. "Didn't I tell you I believe
in polygamy? . . . Well, around 7:15 if you can swing it, and
I like a booth in the back... Yeah, right under one of those
plastic sea anemones or whatever it is you've got hanging from
the ceiling... Don't be so touchy. I didn't actually compare
it to Red Lobster this time... Okay, great. One last thing: can
you pull a bottle of the '95 Chardonnay and the '93 Cab for us?
Perfect. Thanks Jack-I owe you one. Bye."
...... Ted Valmont put down the
phone and snapped his fingers crisply in the air. "All right
then," he said to the computer screen. He got up from his
chair and walked to the exercise room at the back of the house.
There he shed his work clothes-taking special care not to wrinkle
his dress pants and tie as he laid them on the hanger-and padded
over to a doctor's scale along the near wall. Standing naked
on the scale, he moved the large coun-terweight to the 150-pound
mark and tapped the smaller one along the top rail until it reached
the 24-pound mark and equilibrium. He grunted and stood on tiptoes
while he stretched his arms above his head. Taut, well-defined
muscles rippled in his back and legs as he strained upward.
...... He stepped off the scale
and went back to the locker where he had undressed. He took swim
trunks, socks, leather shoes, two rolls of rough cotton wraps
and a pair of 10-ounce boxing gloves from the locker. He stepped
into the trunks, then sat down on a bench to lace up the shoes
and carefully wrap each hand. Finally he pulled on the gloves,
using his teeth to tug the second one into place, and punched
them together with a loud pop.
...... He worked on the speed
bag in the corner first-awkwardly, without a steady rhythm-then
switched to the heavy bag. There he showed better coordination,
slinging sets of jabs, hooks, and uppercuts with right and left
hand and mixing them in two and three punch combinations. He
ended the session with a terrific right hook that sent the bag
skittering along the wall where it added to an existing scuff
...... With shaking arms, he
wrenched off the gloves and yanked at the Velcro fasteners to
unwind the wraps on his hands. After toweling off thoroughly,
he pulled off his shoes and went out a door to the back yard.
He walked along a flagstone path to the fenced olympic-sized
swimming pool, dove smoothly into the water-and with a competence
that far surpassed his efforts at boxing-swam ten laps each of
butterfly, backstroke, breast-stroke and freestyle.
...... Once more he toweled off.
He returned to the house with the towel wrapped around his waist
and went into the kitchen where he opened the ice box, pulled
out an ornate china plate covered in plastic wrap and slid it
into the microwave. When the oven chimed, he retrieved the plate,
gathered a napkin, silverware and a charged wine glass, and carried
them all back to his study.
...... Unwrapped, his dinner
proved to be chicken a l'orange and snap peas on a bed
of mashed potatoes. He ate it greedily while reading and replying
to e-mail. As the last of the sunlight faded from the study windows,
he responded to voice mail and began to wade through a stack
of business plans. At 12:30 he threw down in disgust a plan from
a company that sought to develop commercial pharmaceuticals from
plants in the South American rain forest. He switched off the
light and went to bed.
* * *
...... When he next entered the
study, Ted Valmont was showered, shaved and dressed in a smart,
three button olive green suit. He picked yesterday's jacket off
the sofa and rifled the pockets to transfer his wallet and silver
card holder. Doing this, he came upon the card for "August
Riordan, Private Investigator" that Duckworth had given
him at NeuroStimix. He stared down at the card, rubbing his fingers
over the ink and paper stock as if to gauge its quality. He walked
to the wastepaper basket near his desk and hovered. He shifted
his weight and tugged on his ear lobe. Then, making a face, he
reached abruptly for the phone and dialed the number on the card.
...... "Yes," he said
into the receiver. "I'd like to speak to him, please...
Oh, I see." He glanced down at his watch. "Would it
be possible to make an appointment then? . . . Sometime this
afternoon-near the end of the day... Yes, that would be ideal...
The Flood Building? Yes, I know where that is... Great. Thank
you. I'll see you at 5."
...... Nearly seven hours later-at
twenty before five-Ted Valmont pulled his Ferrari Spider into
the valet parking zone in front of the St. Francis hotel. When
the valet on duty inquired if he was staying the night, he smiled
and said, "Yes, that's the plan, anyway."
...... He got out of the car
and walked down Powell towards Market Street. He threaded through
the crowd of tourists at the cable car turn-around, turned left
on Market and walked past the line of street vendors and old
men playing chess. A short ways up the street, he came to the
cavernous entrance of the Flood Building and pushed through the
...... He paused at the building
directory, looking up at the names listed under R, and then caught
an ascending elevator to the 12th floor. Riordan's office was
in a suite he shared with an insurance agent. The agent-fat,
white-haired and quick with a phony smile of large capped teeth-was
engaged in an animated phone conversation when he walked in.
The agent covered the mouthpiece of the phone with a plump hand,
winked at Ted Valmont, and said, "Be right with you, chief."
...... Ted Valmont frowned and
would have said something, but a handsome young woman with cornflower
blue eyes, luxurious auburn hair and an unusually narrow waist
came up to him. She said, "Please ignore him, Mr. Valmont.
In spite of copious evidence to the contrary, he cheerfully assumes
that everyone who comes up here wants to buy insurance."
...... "Can't blame him
for trying, I suppose," said Ted Valmont.
...... "I certainly do,"
she said and smiled. "August is in the back office. He's
been expecting you."
...... The young woman led Ted
Valmont down a short corridor to an office with an old-fashioned
pebble-glass door. She knocked lightly on the door and pushed
it open. "Au-gust," she said to the occupant, "Mr.
Valmont is here to see you."
...... August Riordan got up
from his chair and walked around the desk to shake Ted Valmont's
hand. He was over six feet tall, but his heavy musculature made
him appear shorter-especially in contrast to Ted Valmont's willowy
stature. His forehead and jaw were square and his mouth was a
crooked line that seemed fixed in a sardonic grin. A crookeder
scar traced a route from the corner of his mouth to the edge
of his jaw. He had brown eyes and tousled brown hair that he
had not invested over $10 to have cut. His suit-with puckered
seams and lapels that would not lay flat-was poorly made and
its fit on his heavy frame was bad. His nose had been broken
at least once.
...... "Nice to meet you,
Mr. Valmont," he said in a low voice. "Chris told me
you might be getting in touch." He gestured at one of the
hard-looking metal chairs in front of the desk and resumed his
place in an old swivel chair that squeaked loudly as he sat down.
...... Ted Valmont slid into
his chair and glanced about the room. It was dusty, bare, and
with the exception of two black and white photos of jazz bassists,
devoid of decoration. "Pardon me for saying this Riordan,
but you're not the sort of friend I would expect Chris Duckworth
...... Riordan further loosened
the already loose knot of his tie. "Well, you would
be more his type."
...... Ted Valmont stiffened.
"That's not what I meant."
...... Riordan nodded. "No,
what I think you meant was you were having second thoughts about
coming here. Don't let first impressions fool you. I don't make
boatloads of money, and I don't work off flashes of inspiration
like some kind of detective psychic, but I do my job and I do
it competently. I have plenty of references you can check if
you want-including people familiar with the Bishop case. Chris
said you knew of that."
...... Ted Valmont grunted. "Maybe
I'll do some checking later," he said. "But I want
you to get started now. Can you give this your full attention?"
...... "Virtually. You better
tell me more about what you want done, though. I've talked to
Chris of course, and I've read a little about Niebuhr's disappearance
in the papers, but I'd like to be sure you're hiring me to do
something I can deliver on."
...... Ted Valmont smiled grimly.
"What? You mean you won't work for a flat sum con-tingent
on his return?"
...... "Hardly. Tracing
missing persons isn't really a one-man job. If you hire me, you
hire me because you want to augment the efforts of the police
and improve the percentages."
...... Ted Valmont picked his
tie off his chest and turned it over. The short end had come
out of the retaining loop on the back. "I understand,"
he said, rethreading the tie through the loop. "As it happens,
I have some specific things I want you to look into. Things that
the police are unwilling to undertake."
...... "Oh yeah?" said
Riordan uncertainly. "What kind of things?"
...... "First, I want you
to interview the conference organizers and the staff at the hotel
...... "I'm sure the police
could be counted on to do that much."
...... "You haven't met
the individuals assigned to the case. The guy in Napa is a tobacco-chewing
red neck and the detective in Los Altos doesn't have the brains
God gave a swizzle stick."
...... Riordan pulled a warped
yellow legal pad from his desk and picked up a blunt, three-inch
length of pencil. "It's the Appellation Inn in Yountville,
right? Who organized the con-ference."
...... "The Porter Group
ran the conference. And, yes, it was held at the Appellation
...... Riordan noted this down
in a childish scrawl, his large hand almost completely obscuring
the short pencil. "Okay, what else?"
...... "I want you to get
hold of the attendee list of the conference-there were only about
fifty-and try to interview as many of them as possible. I want
to find out if any of them spent time with Niebuhr or heard him
mention what his plans were after the conference."
...... Riordan cleared his throat.
He rolled the pencil between his hands, a heavy class ring from
UCLA making a clicking noise as the pencil moved up and down.
...... "That's enough, isn't
...... Riordan smiled and his
mouth and the scar beside it became even more crooked. "Yes,
it's more than enough. And that's the problem. These things might
have been good to do right after Niebuhr's disappearance, but
you won't be getting the most bang for your buck if I tackle
them now. The attendees are widely scattered, and they may not
remem-ber any interactions they had with Niebuhr. And if they
do know something significant, the coverage in the papers and
TV will encourage them to come forward anyway."
...... Ted Valmont swung a leg
over his knee. He flicked at a speck of lint on his sock. "What
would you suggest, then?"
...... "I'd say let me talk
with the cops on the case, see where they are with things, and
then figure out where I could use my time most profitably."
...... Ted Valmont shook his
head. "No," he said flatly. "That's just a plan
to make a plan. I don't have time to screw around with this.
If you want the job, then it's got to be as I de-scribed. Talk
to the staff, and find conference attendees and interview them.
...... Riordan took a large folding
knife out of the desk drawer, opened it deliberately, and whittled
on the business end of the stubby pencil. The shavings settled
onto the desk blotter and floor but he made no attempt sweep
them up. "It's your dime, Mr. Valmont," he said without
looking up. "I make $500 a day plus expenses. On a job like
this, I'd need at least a $3,000 retainer."
...... Ted Valmont pulled a business
envelope from the breast pocket of his suit. He dropped it on
the desk. "That's a check for 5K drawn on the Basis Ventures'
account. My card's in there too. I'd like daily status reports."
...... Riordan reached across
the desk to retrieve the envelope and extracted Ted Valmont's
card. He examined it carefully and ran his thumb over the top
of it-much like Ted Valmont had done with his own card. "Okay.
You'll get daily reports-both written and verbal. I'll start
with the hotel staff and conference organizers since I'll need
them to get the list of the attendees anyway."
...... "Makes sense,"
said Ted Valmont and stood up. He put his hand out to Riordan
across the desk. "Thank you. I'm looking forward to good
results in short order. And sorry I got a little dictatorial
just now. I'm used to having things my own way."
...... Riordan stood up and took
Ted Valmont's hand. "That's okay," he said. "I'm
inured to tragedy."
...... With a distinctly unsettled
look on his face, Ted Valmont walked out of the office.
(c) 2002 by Mark Coggins.
Mark Coggins' first book, The Immortal
Game, was nominated for Shamus and Berry mystery book awards
and was selected for three "best of the year lists"
including those but together by the San Francisco Chronicle
and the Detriot Free Press. It was also chosen as a "Penzler's
Pick" for Amazon.com.
Mark lives in San Francisco with his wife Linda and their
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