Vamp is a hot new Valentino mystery by Loren D. Estleman, the master of the hard-boiled detective novel and recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award.
Renowned film detective Valentino is on a quest to help restore The Comet, an extinct drive-in movie theater, and his trail leads him to Leo Kalishnikov, who requests a favor first—rid him of a blackmailer from his shady past, and he’ll gladly hand over the money that The Comet needs.
With only an uncashed check for a clue, Valentino embarks on a treacherous path to save not only The Comet but the last remaining print of the 1917 film Cleopatra, which has been lost for over a century. The film is somewhere in Los Angeles, and Valentino is willing to risk it all to find it. He must navigate the shady underbelly of Hollywood once more, in a dangerous adventure that threatens not only his career—but his life.
Vamp will be available on November 7th, 2023. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
One foot over the threshold of her condominium, Harriet Johansen leaned back to confirm the number on the door.
“I thought I got off the elevator on four by mistake,” she said. “My neighbor there scrubs biochemical labs for a living.
Valentino grinned. “I just tidied up a little.”
She looked around. The hours she spent working with the LAPD forensics team hadn’t trained her in housekeeping. She was a minimalist by necessity, furnishing her home in Spartan fashion: There wasn’t a knickknack or a throw rug or a decorative pillow in the place. You could sweep it out with a leafblower. Nevertheless, stale air, gray film, and garments shed in a hurry had managed to breed and multiply like rabbits—or more accurately, dust bunnies. Unavoidable neglect was the cause, and the arrival of a roommate with more time on his hands the cure. The flat smelled of Febreze and Lemon Pledge and shone as bright as new chrome.
She looked down at her feet. “I own a carpet shampooer?”
“I rented it. I churned up enough popcorn kernels to stock the concession stand in the Oracle for a year.”
“If I knew I was going to live with Howard Hughes, I’d have told you to check into a Motel Six.”
He took off his apron and used it to wipe his hands. “You’re not pleased.”
“I don’t mind so much that you’re Felix Unger as the suggestion that I’m Oscar Madison. I put in more hours at work on a regular basis than you did even when you were up to your neck in asbestos and horsehair plaster in your theater. When there’s a gang uprising in East L.A., I only stop by to change clothes before I go back to opening up cadavers.”
“I know that. Since you won’t let me help out with the mortgage, making myself useful is the next best thing. I didn’t reorganize the kitchen,” he added quickly. “I know how important it is to you to know your way around.”
“I couldn’t care less if the potato masher’s where the sieve should be. Little Caesar feeds me most of the time.” She shrugged out of her jacket, made a move to toss it on the sofa, then stopped and folded it over her arm. “Just tell me you didn’t change anything in the bathroom.”
“I was afraid to touch the jars and bottles. I don’t know what half that stuff is for.”
“No, and you never will, if we ever decide to cohabit permanently. I prefer to be a woman of mystery.”
Their living arrangement was temporary. The Oracle, the old motion-picture palace Valentino had been restoring through the last three presidential administrations, was undergoing yet more construction to build a proper bathroom onto the projection booth he used as a living quarters. Previously, he’d freshened up in one of the customers’ rest rooms; but technological advances had allowed him to replace the ancient gravity-operated water heater in the utility room next door to the booth with a state-of-the-art unit in the basement and install facilities on the floor where he slept.
It had turned out to be a not-so-mini-reunion with the civic and construction migraines that had accompanied the original project. That situation had been exacerbated by a megalomaniac theater designer, a crooked building inspector, and a series of murders to solve—on amateur detective Valentino’s part, not professional Harriet’s.
He stepped forward, holding out a hand. She gave him the jacket with her police ID clipped to it. He opened the closet, hung it up, and shut the door before she could see how he’d rearranged everything by color and season. “Does a steady diet of pizza mean you’d rather pass on lasagna?”
She sniffed the air. “That doesn’t smell like Stouffer’s.”
“Sue me. My grandmother was half Italian.”
“My great-grandmother was Cherokee; you know, the tribe where when the woman got fed up, she piled all her husband’s belongings outside the lodge and that was the end of the relationship. Let that be a lesson to you.” She smiled and went up on tiptoe to kiss him. “I’m starving.”
“Good. I made enough for a regiment. I should explain my grandmother ran a restaurant. She couldn’t cook for any group fewer than a hundred.” He pulled her chair out from the cloth-covered dining table and held it for her.
They’d finished the salad and he was dishing up the entrée when a tinny orchestra started playing “Saturday Night at the Movies.” Valentino said, “That’s mine.”
“No kidding.” Harriet’s ring tone was the elevator song that had come with her phone.
He got out his and looked at the screen. “Dinky Schwartz. I haven’t heard from him since my sophomore year.”
“I’m sure there’s a cute story behind how he got the nickname.”
“It’s on his birth certificate.” He excused himself and answered.
Still famished, she tuned out the “How-are-you-and-what-have-you-been-up-to” portion of the conversation and dove into her lasagna, washing it down with a California rosé. She glanced up during the hemming-and-hawing on Valentino’s end. Finally he said, “Dinky, I don’t know. I can’t promise anything. I’ll get back to you.”
He punched out, frowning at the object in his hand as if it were a jury summons. “You’re in danger of reestablishing your relationship with Little Caesar,” he said, looking up.
“Worse. Dinky’s bought a movie theater and he wants me to help restore it.”
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