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Enter Riordan...
An excerpt from the latest August Riordan novel, Vulture Capital

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 gmaitland@grapevine.net. Sitting up in his chair, he clicked on the header. The body of the message read:

Ted,

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.

.-Your Gabby

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 mark.

...... 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 lobby doors.

...... 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 to have."

...... 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 in Yountville."

...... "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 Inn."

...... 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 it?"

...... "That's enough, isn't it?"

...... 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. Period."

...... 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.

......Copyright (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 cat Taki.

 

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

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