An excerpt from the novel by Mark Coggins
Featuring August Riordan
Chapter One: Golden Fingers
The theme music for the quiz show Jeopardy! makes an unsettling ringtone. Although originally composed as a lullaby, its relentless, tick-tock, time-is-running-out associations can’t help but impinge upon your dreams if you’ve already nodded off.
Other things that can impinge are a hip flask full of Old Grand-Dad and memories of a turbulent flight from Palm Springs to San Francisco earlier in the day. Now, as I dozed on a couch in my old apartment on the corner of Post and Hyde, the inexorable march of tinny notes from my cellphone turned my vague dreams about flying into lucid nightmares about crashing.
The caller went to voice mail and redialed. I fumbled the phone out of my suit coat and held the glowing screen to my face. The blurry characters told me three things: I was still drunk. It was 2:23 in the morning. And someone with a 415 number I didn’t recognize was calling.
I swiped my finger over the touchscreen to answer. “Riordan,” I tried to say, but it came out like a sea lion clearing phlegm.
“Riordan?” repeated the caller.
“That’s what I said. Who is this?”
Kittredge. Lieutenant “Smiling Jack” Kittredge. That showboating asshole from SFPD Homicide was at least part of the reason I’d thrown in the towel on my PI business and left the city.
“Where’d you get this number?”
“It’s the same fucking number you had when you lived here.”
“Oh.” I sat up on the couch and brought a hand to my throbbing forehead. It came away greasy with sweat.
“I talked to your secretary,” said Kittredge.
“Whatever. I know why you’re back.”
“Don’t make this any harder than it already is, Riordan. You and I are never going be on each other’s Christmas card list, but I’m trying to do the right thing. You need to get over here.”
I drew in a ragged breath. “Where’s here?”
“A rub-and-tug place called Golden Fingers. It’s on Stockton, just before Bush.”
“You mean just before the tunnel under Bush. I remember it. But if you know why I’m back, you know that doesn’t make any sense. Duckworth wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like that.”
There was a long pause. “You’re going to regret saying that.”
“I’m sorry, Riordan. Yeah, he’s dead.”
I tottered to my feet and felt around in the dark for the floor lamp. I squeezed my eyes shut against the flood of light—and the spinning room—and stood braced against the arm of the sofa. My dinner auditioned for a return engagement, and more sweat popped from my forehead. More moisture welled at the corners of my eyes.
Chris Duckworth had been my best friend and sometime assistant. In the last case we’d worked together, I’d convinced him to participate in what could most charitably be characterized as vigilante justice. Together with a former cop, we had ambushed and killed a gang of psychopaths from Argentina. I had no doubt that they deserved it, just as I had no doubt that Chris’s guilt over his involvement destroyed our friendship. It was another reason I had left San Francisco. The main reason—if I was being honest with myself.
I thought my leaving would be the best thing for him. That it would allow him to move on. What I didn’t anticipate is that he would pick up where I left off, taking over my old business, my old office, and my old apartment. When Gretchen—my old secretary—called me in Palm Springs to tell me that Chris was missing, it had been more than five years since I’d seen him.
My wing tips lay on the floor by the sofa. I stepped into them, not trusting my equilibrium enough to bother with the laces. I cinched the knot of my tie closer to my throat—it still had inches to go—speared my overcoat from the sofa, and shrugged it on.
I tottered around the black granite megalith Chris used for a dining-room table, brushed past the Andy Warhol prints in the entryway, and lurched out the door. The building elevator was every bit as decrepit as I remembered, and the ride to the ground floor still felt like an extended toilet flush.
I pushed through the building’s door out onto Post Street. A thick mist hung in the air, making the walk up the hill toward the massage parlor feel like wading through applesauce. It was less than three-quarters of a mile, so calling a cab or an Uber would have taken more time than it was worth—especially since I didn’t know how the hell to summon an Uber. I made it to Stockton without seeing a car or a pedestrian, but when I turned left for the short block to where the street ran under Bush, an old guy with shiny hair, a shimmery track suit, and a towel around his neck materialized out of the mist doing an awkward racewalk. He elbowed past me without a word.
Up ahead, a pair of SFPD cruisers blocked the left lane of the tunnel, their red and blue emergency lights filling its mouth with an eerie luminescence. I was nearly beneath the towering Golden Fingers street sign before I noticed it. a touch of ecstasy, it promised. massage, sauna, whirlpool—incall or outcall. A smaller neon sign next to the entrance still glowed. open.
A bald patrol cop with a chest puffed out by body armor stood in the doorway. “The establishment is closed, sir,” he said.
My throat had gone froggy again. “I know,” I managed to croak. “Kittredge called me.”
He frowned. “You’re Riordan?”
“You look pretty green. I thought you were a drunk looking to sweat off a bender.” He paused. “No offense.”
“They’re in the back, past reception. It’s room number four.”
I wobbled by him into a dinky reception area painted red with gilded wainscoting. Gold bric-à-brac bulged from rosewood curio cabinets, and a Sputnik fixture overhead projected searing glints of light into my occipital lobe. I plunged through a beaded curtain to the left of the reception desk and walked down a corridor that was mirrored on one side and upholstered in red velvet on the other. A detective leaned against the door frame of the only room that was open, peering inside with a bored expression.
The squawk of a walkie-talkie burst from the room. “I just sent Riordan back.”
“Roger that,” said a voice that sounded like Kittredge’s.
The detective in the door frame turned to look down the corridor, and seeing me, stepped away. “Stand just outside, sir. Don’t contaminate the scene.”
I nodded and came up to the doorway. The room was just large enough to hold a narrow massage table with space around the sides to maneuver. A rosewood pedestal with a collection of massage oils stood at the back, a pair of big round mirrors reflected infinite views, and a paper lantern with a gold bulb dangled from the ceiling. Everything that could be painted was painted red. Kittredge was at the side of the massage table, his hands protected by latex gloves and his shoes covered in paper booties. The walkie-talkie I’d heard earlier hung from his belt. He looked as ill at ease as I’d ever seen him.
The source of his unease was on the table. Facedown in the headrest with a black flannel sheet draped over him from midcalf to upper back was my friend Chris. There were no obvious signs of violence, and from where I stood, it looked like he was sleeping.
I glanced up at Kittredge, but he avoided my eyes. “Again, Riordan, I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have dragged you down here, but I didn’t think you’d take my word for it.”
“Yeah. You’re probably right. What happened?”
Kittredge brought a hand up to loosen his tie, thrust his chin out, and pulled his lips back in a chimpanzee grimace, showing off the perfect white choppers that had earned him his nickname. “We got a call from the janitorial service that cleans this place.”
“What a job, huh?” said the detective behind me. “Imagine the amount of jizz that gets squirted out here.”
I turned back to look at him, and something in my face made him cough and turn away. “Right,” he mumbled.
“So the janitor found him?” I asked Kittredge.
“What time do they close?”
“What time does the janitor come to clean?”
“According to him, he got here around midnight and there was no one in the building when he arrived.”
“Did he find Chris right off?”
“No. He cleans the sauna and the whirlpool first because they’re the most work. He doesn’t wear a watch, so he doesn’t know exactly what time he found him, but he called the owner at about 1:30. Then she called us.”
“Any chance he’s involved?”
Kittredge made an elaborate shrug. “It’s possible. We’ll question him more to be certain, but I doubt it. He’s from El Salvador, probably illegal, and doesn’t speak much English. What would he want with Duckworth?”
“I don’t know.” I cleared my throat and asked the question I intended to ask from the get-go. “What killed him?”
Kittredge’s eyebrows crept up in surprise. “I guess you can’t see. A bullet to the back of the head. Base of the skull, execution style. Looks to be small caliber. It’s a small entrance wound, not much bleeding and no exit wound.”
“Any other marks or wounds on him?”
Kittredge reddened. Chris had been gay, and it was clear that Kittredge felt uncomfortable acknowledging that he had pulled off the sheet to examine the body. “Ah, no, nothing we could see. The medical examiner will do a full workup. In fact, the lab guys are coming, so you’re going to need to clear out.”
I looked down at my friend Chris. He had always been a slight man, but laid out cold under the light of the dim gold bulb, he looked smaller, almost childlike. I wanted to see his face—perhaps to get some insight into what he was thinking as he died or maybe feel less guilty about abandoning him here—but it was obscured by the padding around the headrest. I took a step forward to touch the back of his head. Kittredge flinched but did nothing to stop me.
“Goodbye, Chris,” I said.
I turned abruptly and headed back up the hallway. The other detective jumped out of my way, and I heard Kittredge growl behind me, “Just a minute, Riordan.”
I stopped, and he came up to me, some of the old toughness creeping back into his demeanor. “What do you know about this?”
“Just what you told me.”
“I mean about why he went missing.”
“Nothing more than you. Gretchen called to tell me that he hadn’t been to the office for several weeks and wasn’t living in his apartment. She was worried about him and wanted me to find him.”
“What was he working on?”
“I don’t know. She didn’t know.”
Kittredge pointed a gloved finger at me. “Homicide is police business. You find out anything about what he was working on or where he was, you bring it to me. No vigilante stuff, Riordan. I know you were involved in the massacre of those Argentines even if the DA couldn’t pin it on you. You try to avenge Duckworth’s murder, and I’ll wreck you.”
I took hold of his hand, intending to push it away from me, but I was in no condition to get physical. He shoved me backward into a tangled heap on the floor.
“You’re too late, Kittredge,” I said to the ceiling. “There’s nothing left to wreck.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Coggins’s work has been nominated for the Shamus and Barry crime fiction awards and selected for best-of-the-year lists compiled by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Detroit Free Press, and Amazon.com, among others. His novels Runoff and The Big Wake-Up won a Next Generation Indie Book Award and the Independent Publisher Book Award respectively, and his The Immortal Game has been optioned for a film.