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Buy one of the following Mark Coggins books from amazon.com:

'Vulture Capital' (2002)

'The Immortal Game' (2000)

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Fear and Funding in Silicon Valley

Venture angel Ted Valmont wanted nothing more than to see NeuroStimix succeed--after all, he had a personal interest in the firm. Too bad he didn't plan for a disappearing CTO.

Fiction by Mark Coggins


Our forward-looking, sun-drenched megalopolis doesn't seem at first to lend itself to noir. Noir requires dark alleys, smoke-filled bars and hard-boiled gunslingers. None of these nostalgic devices exactly screams Silicon Valley, much less instant-messages it.

Bay Area writer Mark Coggins, however, manages to find the noir in technology's never-never land. 'Vulture Capital,' Coggins' second novel, introduces Ted Valmont, a venture capitalist with a heart, among other organs. Valmont treads the valley's upper-crust establishments, dining at Spago and tooling through the wine country. Pushing for funding for a medical device startup called NeuroStimix, he is astonished to find himself in the midst of a missing-persons mystery that morphs into a thriller with more twists and turns than Los Altos' back roads.

Peppered with local landmarks and tech in-jokes, Vulture Capital exposes the seamy underside of venture capital, populated by back-stabbing partners, corrupt CEOs and nasty funding boards. The all-too-real feel of the scenery can no doubt be attributed to Coggins' own experience working for a number of local firms, including VeriSign and Hewlett-Packard, before finding his true calling as a mystery writer. He now lives in San Francisco, where he is at work on his third novel.


THE GANGLY young man at the front of the room swallowed hard and tugged at the knot of his tie. His dark suit appeared new and well made, but the material gave out too soon in the sleeves, exposing bony wrists and an inelegant amount of white cuff. In a nervous gesture, he pushed on the nosepiece of his thick plastic glasses. They failed to oblige him by riding any further up the bridge of his nose. "Could you ... I mean, would you repeat the question?" he asked.

Ted Valmont looked up from the note pad he was doodling on and sat back in his chair. At 31, he was about the same age as the man at the front of the room, and nearly as tall. But unlike him, Ted Valmont's clothes fit him well: possibly too well. His black hair was combed straight back--with more than the proverbial dab of styling cream--and he had olive skin with regular features that were almost delicate.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I was just wondering--what is the advantage of using radar over infrared in this application?"

"Good. Yes. That is a good question," said the gangly young man. "I have a slide on that right here." Hunching anxiously over a laptop computer, he repeatedly depressed a key to advance the slides in his presentation. He stopped when one with the title "Radar vs. Infrared in Automatic Flush Valves" was projected on the screen behind him.

"As you can see," he said as he straightened up, "there are two clear-cut advantages of radar over infrared. First, infrared works only on a line-of-sight basis. That means the sensor must be placed in plain view near the washbasin or urinal that it's meant to control. In a public restroom, where vandalism is often a problem, this has distinct disadvantages. On the other hand, a radar sensor can be installed anywhere--even behind porcelain fixtures, tile or masonry. A vandal would literally need a sledge hammer to disable one."

The young man fumbled a laser-pointing device out of his breast pocket and aimed it at the second bullet on his slide. "In addition," he said breathlessly, "radar is capable of detecting a more subtle range of motion than infrared. As you may know, the 'holy grail' in the automatic flush valve industry is providing an automatic flush capability for toilets. Infrared is simply not up for the job. It has been used widely for urinals because the decision of when to flush is binary: you are either standing in front of the urinal or you're not. But when a person uses a toilet, there is no longer a binary ... I mean, there is a more complex--"

Tillman Cardinal, a genial-looking man whose curly, matted hair came to a blunt widow's peak like a spent Brillo pad, began to laugh. He reached over to Ted Valmont and poked him in the ribs. "What he means, Ted, is that when you lift up to wipe your ass you don't want the damn toilet flushing early. Be a waste of water."

Ted Valmont smiled and shook his head. Across the table, Mary Wong narrowed her eyes to glare at both men. She tapped a gold pencil on the table sharply and turned to face the presenter. "Go ahead, Roger," she said. "I think we've grasped your point."

The gangly man reddened and cleared his throat. "Yes. The key take-away, of course, is that with radar it's possible to determine the right time to flush. You can avoid flushing too early, or, ah, not at all."

Ted Valmont glanced down at the silver 1920s tank watch on his wrist. As the presenter paged through his slide deck looking for manufacturing cost projections, Valmont gathered up his note pad, cell phone and Palm computer. "Roger, I'm afraid I need to leave for a board meeting at a portfolio company," he said, extending his hand. "Thanks for taking the time to come down here.

Roger shot his hand forward to grasp Ted Valmont's, dropping his laser pointer in the process. "Thank you very much," said Roger earnestly. "Basis Ventures is our first choice for venture funding. I really hope we can work something out."

Ted Valmont smiled, pumped Roger's hand and turned to go out the conference room door.

As he pulled it closed behind him, his smile dropped, and he chanted in a sardonic undertone, "Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name."

A sturdy, large-boned woman with wide shoulders and a tremendous bosom strode up to him from further down the corridor. "No sympathy for the devil, boss," she said matter-of-factly. "Leastwise, not around here."

Ted Valmont's smile reasserted itself. "You're right, Carrie. As Pogo says, 'We have met the enemy and he is us.' What's up?"

Carrie's voice dropped in volume and tone. "I don't know from Pogo, but your brother's on the line. He's been holding for a half an hour." Ted Valmont stared down at Carrie's size 11 flats. "You told him that I'm booked solid this morning?" he said softly.

"Yes, boss, I did. But he's had some bad news. He said--well, he said that Christy's left him."

Ted Valmont took a deep breath and stood motionless for an uncomfortable moment. "Put him on the line in the small conference room," he said at last. "I'll talk to him there."

Carrie acknowledged the request with a truncated nod and broke into a trot. "And I'll call NeuroStimix to tell them you'll be late," she said over her shoulder.

Ted Valmont stepped into a conference room next to the one he had exited and pulled the door shut. He went over to a gray, starfish-shaped phone and pressed the speaker button. "Tim," he said neutrally. "Are you there?"

"I'm never really all here, am I Ted?" said a voice like Ted Valmont's, but not like it: deeper, rougher and--just at this moment--much more slurred.

Ted Valmont took hold of the speaker-phone by two of its feet. "Have you been drinking, Tim?"

"You bet. That's one thing I do better than ever."

Mashing a knuckle into the center of his stomach, Ted Valmont said, "Carrie told me Christy left. Did you two fight?"

A wounded, snarling sound issued from the speaker. "No, we didn't. She just packed her fucking bags and snuck out in the middle of the night. No mess, no fuss: lose the crip in one easy step." He laughed contemptuously. "But that's not why I called. I called to find out where the fuck that device is. You said that NeuroStimix would be ready for clinical trials three months ago."

Ted Valmont leaned into the speakerphone. "I said as early as May and as late as September. This is research and development, not cake baking. It can't be pinned down to a precise schedule."

"Oh, yeah? Well I can tell you precisely how long it takes me to empty my bowels: an hour and a half.

"Please, Tim--"

"Don't 'please Tim' me. Now what the hell is going on at that place? When am I going to get out of this fucking wheelchair?"

"I'm going to a board meeting today, so I should get an update. But you know there's no guarantee you'll be selected for the trials."

"Tell them they have to take me. You put money in the company."

"We've been over this already. I'll do my best, but there's only so far I can push it. It's a conflict of interest for board members--"

"You sanctimonious bastard! Nobody makes the millions you have without breaking a few rules. Now you won't even round the corners to help your own brother." The connection dropped with a brittle snap. Ted Valmont reddened and propelled the speakerphone across the conference room table. He launched out the door and went down the bright hallway--passing several original Ansel Adams prints--and into a spacious reception area paneled with cherry and ash woods and illuminated by dramatic columns of light beaming down from triangular skylights nearly thirty feet above.

Valmont pushed through tall, double glass doors, then paused to slip on a pair of minuscule oval sunglasses. He went down a sidewalk bounded by a carefully tended flower garden to a small parking area in front of the building. His car--a Ferrari F355 Spider--was parked in a space with his name. He disabled the alarm and door locks remotely and levered himself into the low seat of the roadster. The car started with a throaty rumble, and Ted Valmont belted up and flipped the lever to retract the convertible roof. He pulled onto Sand Hill Road and streaked up the quarter mile to Highway 280. Heading south on the freeway, he used the speech-recognition technology in the car's hands-free cell phone to check his voice mail.

"New messages," he said to the microphone.

An anxious male voice came onto the line. "Ted, this is Dan Willhite from Infrisco Software. It's been three weeks since we sent you our business plan--"

"Delete."

A no-nonsense female voice came next. "It's Sarah. Are you in this deal or not? I've got the green light from my partners. We'll put in six mil if you match it. That gets us each a board seat and 20 percent of the company. I--"

"Save."

On Shoreline Avenue in Mountain View, he fought lunch hour traffic across Central Expressway and Highway 101 and continued until he came to Charleston Road. Futuristic buildings from a variety of high-technology companies lined Charleston, including the imitation spaceport that comprised the corporate headquarters of Silicon Graphics. Passing the glitzier buildings, Ted Valmont pulled into the parking lot of a modest concrete tilt-up with a placard reading, "NeuroStimix Technologies." He glanced at his watch as he went up the walk to the lobby door. It was 1:10.

INSIDE THE ROOM, the sound of a heated conversation choked off and the faces of five people--three men and two women--turned to look at the intruder.

Ted Valmont met the discomfited gaze of the man at the head of the table. Middle-aged with a deep tan and a beak-like nose, his thinning hair had probably been both dyed and permed. He had a gold watch, a gold bracelet and a gold pinkie ring with a black onyx stone.

"Sorry I'm late," said Ted Valmont with the air of someone trying to smooth over an awkward moment. "I guess I just need a faster car."

The man at the head of the table snorted and stood up to shake hands. Ted Valmont gripped his hand firmly, kiddingly referred to him as "Chuck DeMarco, CEO Extraordinaire" and moved around the room to greet the others. Coming at the end to a young man with soft pink skin and a protruding forehead, he said, "I'm afraid we haven't met."

"Alan Farr," said the man, proffering a hand with long, curiously jointed fingers. "I'm a senior engineer in product development."

"Very good," said Ted Valmont. "I'm eager to hear how work on the stimulator is going."

Farr looked over at DeMarco, and then back at Ted Valmont.

"We thought we'd start with Alan's presentation," said DeMarco, "and then move to a discussion of the next round of funding."

"And here I thought you liked me for reasons other than money."

"Oh, we do, Ted, we do. But it's the whole Valmont package that we admire. It would be so hard to isolate one element from the others."

"Right," said Ted Valmont, leavening the word with irony. "What about Warren, then? Is he joining us?"

A flicker of annoyance crossed DeMarco's face. "No," he said. "I'm afraid Dr. Niebuhr couldn't be with us today. That's why we asked Alan to attend. He's prepared to give a full report on product development and answer any questions you might have."

Ted Valmont looked across the table to Farr, and watched as the engineer broke eye contact and stared down at his lap.

"I see," said Ted Valmont. "Is there any particular reason why Warren couldn't make it? This does seem like an important meeting."

DeMarco's voice took on an edge as he replied. "Warren's off at another of his conferences. Not the best timing--I agree--but CEO's and CTO's sometimes do not see the world in quite the same way. I guess this is one of those occasions. Now, shall we get started? We've got a lot of ground to cover."

"Sure," said Ted Valmont, lingering over the word. "Let's do it."

DeMarco motioned Farr to the other end of the table where a VCR with a multimedia projector stood ready. Farr bent down to fiddle with some switches and then stepped back and wiped his palms on the front of his shirt. He said: "What you're going to see now is a demonstration of recent work with laboratory animals. The animal on the tape--a rabbit in this case--had its spinal cord severed at the 12th vertebrae, resulting in loss of motor function in the hind legs and tail. The latest version of the stimulator was then implanted, which in this configuration consists of a receiver placed under the skin with wires leading to electrodes that stimulate selected nerve roots just below the break in the spine. Power and control signals are fed to the stimulator using radio frequency induction.

"By replicating motor signals sent by the brain in normal rabbits, we were able to re-create a considerable range of motion in the paralyzed animal." Farr gave a limp smile. "The tape shows this to good effect." Farr lowered the lights in the conference room and then pressed the play button on the VCR. The image projected on the screen was starkly lit. It showed a gray rabbit lying on its side on a padded board. Held firmly in place by leather restraints, the fur on its back was shaved and a long scar was visible along the crest of its spine. Although the rabbit blinked and twitched its ears, its front legs were held motionless by the restraints and its hind legs appeared to have no life.

The room was suddenly very quiet. Ted Valmont leaned back in his chair and rubbed the pit of his stomach with a pained expression on his face.

Farr cleared his throat. "Now we'll see the results of a series of remote commands transmitted to the stimulator receiver from a master console. As the captions on the screen will indicate, the rabbit will be sent commands to perform the following movements in sequence: tail wag, left leg kick, right leg kick, and finally, simultaneous left and right leg kick."

Ted Valmont frowned in the dark. He watched as a caption flashed in a corner of the screen: "Tail Wag." The rabbit obliged by moving its tail to and fro with unnatural slowness--like the pendulum on a tired metronome. The caption for the left leg movement appeared, and the rabbit kicked the appointed leg in a spasmodic jerk. As a pair of hands appeared in the frame and began to unstrap the rabbit, Farr brought up the conference room lights and pushed the stop button on the VCR.

He looked down at the table, avoiding eye contact. "As you can see, the tape shows the tremendous progress we've made in replicating movements," he said dully. "But not so obvious are the other important advances that have been made with the technology. The size of the receiver, for example, has been considerably reduced, as well as the amount of power it draws."

Ted Valmont shifted in his chair. "Excuse me," he said. "I don't know about the receiver size and its power consumption--I'll take your word for that. But I do know about the rest of it. Warren Niebuhr had paralyzed animals standing on their own power with limited mobility nearly 18 months ago. This seems like definite a step backwards."

The pink color drained from Farr's face. The long fingers of one hand waved frantically like the legs of a crushed spider.

"Yes," he stammered. "Well, we--we've had to make some trade-offs in order to get the size of the receiver down. We knew we'd never have a commercially viable product unless it could easily be implanted under the skin. And with Warren not here--"

"Please, Alan," put in Ted Valmont. "I'm sorry if it feels like I'm giving you the third degree. But Warren going off to a one-week conference could not have had that significant an impact on the project."

Farr looked across the length of the table to Chuck DeMarco, who pursed his lips. No one said anything for a long moment. The third man in the room--short, dumpy with gold wire-rimmed reading glasses--finally broke the silence. "For the love of Jesus," he said in a loud voice. "You're going to have to tell the
man what's going on, Chuck. He's a God damned board member."

He looked over to Ted Valmont. "The fact of the matter is Warren Niebuhr is missing."

Ted Valmont's face darkened. "Missing?" he spat. "Exactly how much of this Kool-Aid were you going to let me drink, Chuck? Why wasn't I told immediately?"

The dumpy man began to respond, but Ted Valmont cut him off. "Thanks for falling on the hand grenade, Ernie, but this is something I need to hear from Chuck."

DeMarco cocked his head to one side and made a close study of his pinkie ring, twirling it around on his finger. "It's no big thing," he said languidly. "As I said, Niebuhr went to a biotech symposium in Napa. He was supposed to come back at the end of last week." DeMarco's eyes were cold but entreating as he shifted his gaze to Ted Valmont. "You know the man, Ted. You went to school with him. He's an irresponsible flake. This is not the first time he's gone off like this, and I'm sure it won't be the last. But that's almost beside the point. Quite frankly, Niebuhr hasn't been pulling his weight. All the progress that's been made in the last six months has been due to Alan and the other engineers. Bottom line: we don't need Warren--or as far as I'm concerned--want him any more."

Ernie grimaced as DeMarco said this last bit. The two women exchanged worried glances.

Ted Valmont drew in a deep breath. "You don't need the founder, principal stock holder and chief technical officer," he said with low urgency. "You don't need the man that convinced me--against my initial judgment--to let you move from VP of Sales to President when Edwards had his heart attack. There's a lot you don't need, I guess."

DeMarco clamped his mouth shut. Bunches of muscles played along the side of his jaw.

Ernie held his hands up in a placating gesture. "Time out. Let's not let this get out of hand." He glanced at Farr and the two women. "Maybe it would be better if we talked this over in a closed session."

Ted Valmont rubbed his face, looked at DeMarco and Ernie. "Sure," he said in a cooler voice. "That's probably best." He turned to Farr. "Thanks for the update, Alan. I'll be interested to hear more about your work on the stimulator receiver at a later date."

Farr smiled weakly and hurried to pick up his things. The women followed his example and the three of them filed out in a silent procession, closing the door softly behind them.

DeMarco jabbed a manicured index finger in Ted Valmont's direction. "Don't you ever talk about me that way in front of my employees again."

"That's exactly what the Tsar said before the Bolsheviks shot him."

DeMarco drew back as if he had been slapped. He looked down at the floor and patted the back of his carefully coifed hair.

"What else do we know about this?" said Ted Valmont. "Have we spoken with Laura? Contacted the police?"

"We called Laura on Monday when Warren didn't come into work," said Ernie. "She didn't want to go to the police and we didn't press her. We all thought having them involved would only prove embarrassing to Warren and the company when he returned."

"Not to mention spooking the investors."

Ernie took off his reading glasses and laid them on the table. He looked over at DeMarco, who had stopped patting his hair, apparently re-engaged in the conversation. "Yes," he said, "we were worried about that too."

"You were right to worry. With Warren out of the equation, I'll never get approval from my partners for another round of funding." DeMarco opened his mouth to speak. "Don't even bother," said Ted Valmont quickly. "You do need Niebuhr and you need him working on the stimulator. That demo I just saw was pathetic. As far as I can tell, you're further from commercializing the technology today than you were when the company was founded. And that's after burning through $12 million in financing."

"You're painting way too bleak a picture," said DeMarco. "We've made good progress with the technology. We're on track. We just need you to follow through on your original commitment."

"Oh yeah? Let's ask our CFO here about last quarter. How did the final numbers shake out, Ernie? Close to the preliminary estimates you gave me?"

Ernie massaged the red spot on his nose where his eyeglasses rested. "Yes," he said reluctantly. "I'm afraid so. We had sales of $1.2 million on an expense base of 3.5."

"And that revenue number is down from last quarter--as well as being down from the same quarter last year. Correct?"

"Correct. We had a competitive advantage with most all of the products we spun off the stimulator research--like the specialized electrodes--but our competitors are catching up and that's put us under price pressure. We just can't hold the margins any longer."

"And how about cash?"

"We've got 600K in the bank, and I can probably borrow another 500 on the receivables line, but that will only take us part way through August."

DeMarco slapped his palm on the table. "All right, Valmont. You've got us by the short hairs. Now what would you like us to do? Pull Niebuhr out of a hat? Because if you haven't figured it out by now, we don't have a fucking clue where he is."

Ted Valmont looked at DeMarco and shook his head. "Was Management for Dummies too advanced for you? It's time to involve the police--well past time. Setting aside the impact on NeuroStimix, have you bothered to consider Warren's personal welfare? He could be sick, injured or worse."

"But Ted, we can't go to the police without Laura," Ernie said soberly, "and she's not having it. She's not crying wolf again."

Ted Valmont put his hand over his mouth and pressed his fingers into the skin of his face. When he took his hand away the imprint burned red on his cheeks. "All right, I'll try to talk some sense into her. He turned to the dumpy CFO. "In the meantime, I want you to search Warren's office, go through his voice mail -- whatever it takes to get a lead on him."

"Yes sir," Ernie said glumly.

Valmont stood up abruptly and looked down at DeMarco. "I'm going. But there's one last thing: if you ever try to con me about the performance of this company again, I'll make sure that the only work you can get in Silicon Valley is herding shopping carts in the parking lot of Fry's Electronics. You got me?"

DeMarco blinked dumbly. He nodded his head yes. Falling into the driver's side of the Ferrari a few minutes later, Ted Valmont lunged for the glove box. He pulled out a bottle of liquid antacid, flung off the cap and gulped down half the contents.

THE UNDERCARRIAGE of Ted Valmont's Ferrari Spider cleared the curb by the thinnest of margins as he wheeled the car into the driveway of a two-story, brown-shingled farmhouse near downtown Palo Alto.

Ted Valmont spilled out of the roadster and went swiftly up the driveway to the front porch. A smooth concrete ramp with painted metal rails came up to meet the older, fissured concrete of the porch. Ted Valmont yanked open the screen door and twisted the old-style ringer, producing a sound like an anemic bicycle bell.

The door was opened almost immediately by a ruddy, middle-aged man wearing a loose-knit black sweater and a pair of chinos. He held himself calmly erect in the manner of an ex-military man and his eyes betrayed no hint of recognition as he took in Ted Valmont standing anxiously at the doorway.

"Hello Archie," said the younger man. "I came as soon as I could shake myself loose. How's he doing?"

Archie stepped to one side. "As well as can be expected," he said without enthusiasm, and waved Ted Valmont into the house.

Issuing from a doorway just down the hall, a raspy voice commanded, "Home. W-W-W-Dot-NE-W-M-O-B-I-L-I-T-Y-Dot-C-O-M. Enter."

Ted Valmont entered the sparsely furnished room. Inside was a pale, gaunt, spindle-limbed version of himself, strapped into a heavy electric wheelchair. The gray-green eyes, though red-rimmed, shone with much of the same intensity, but the once handsome features were etched and wizened by hardship. And, in contrast with the sartorial obsessions of the original, this second Valmont wore a Stanford baseball cap, a Stanford sweat suit and had leather splints buckled to both wrists. He sat in front of a desk with a personal computer, using a pointing stick to page through a web site. When he tired of this, he leaned down to a microphone and rasped, "Back."

"Hey, Tim," Valmont said tentatively. "Good to see my speech recognition software getting a workout."

Tim swiveled his head around, then not so much grasped as hooked the joystick of his wheelchair with a claw-like hand. The electric motor made a whirring noise and the rubber tires backed smoothly away from the desk. Tim thrust his chin out in a brusque greeting to his brother. "The Microsoft version is a hell of a lot better than Valediction ever was," he said. "The only thing they haven't replicated is your packaging. Theirs is boring."

"Sure. That's the secret of my success. Form over function."

A horrible smile distorted Tim's features. "And I've got neither form nor function, do I?" He twitched the wheelchair closer. "Did you come to see how I was dealing with my latest disappointment?"

"Yes, Tim, I did."

"Well, Ted," he rasped caustically, "I hardly noticed it. It was like the tiniest prick of a pin on my big numb, lifeless toe. I can't let it bother me." He drew in a ragged breath. "I also can't clean my fingernails, can't floss my teeth, can't get the sleep out of my eyes, can't blow my nose, can't spit further than my shoulder, can't work a bank machine, can't fit under tables, can't drive, can't masturbate. Can't even tick this fucking list off on my fingers."

Tim glared stony-faced at Ted Valmont for a long moment and then his lower lip began to tremble. Water squeezed from the corners of his red-rimmed eyes. "This can't go on, Ted," he sniffed fiercely. "Has there been any progress at NeuroStimix? What happened at your meeting?"

Muscles knotted in Ted Valmont's shoulders. He closed his eyes and breathed shallowly through his mouth. "It's going well," he said in a self-possessed tone that lied even more than his words. "They've reduced the size of the receiver considerably."

"Then it won't be long now?"

Ted Valmont looked down at his brother and smoothed aside the hair on his forehead. He squeezed his shoulder.

"No, Tim," he said gently. "It won't be long now."


Vulture Capital by Mark Coggins, Poltroon Press, 295 pages, $26 cloth


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From the October 16-22, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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