No Hard Feelings
Winnie doesn’t remember the last time she felt anything below her neck. Her spine is severed at the seventh vertebrae, but thanks to implants from a sabotaged biomedical start-up, she has regained mobility. She is a prototype: a living, breathing—walking—demonstration of revolutionary technology that never made it to market.
Her disability has become her armor. Because she doesn’t register fatigue, she has trained relentlessly. Her hand, arm, and leg strength are off the scales for a woman, and she has honed self-defense techniques to channel that strength. She’s a modern-day Amazon who feels no pain.
When the sociopath who torpedoed the start-up sends killers to harvest the implants from her body, Winnie must team up with broken-down private investigator August Riordan to save both their lives—and derail sinister plans for perverse military applications of the technology.
Reviews and Recognitions
Number one bestseller in hardcover at Borderlands Books for September, 2015.
Staff pick at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore.
Selected as a finalist for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year in the Thriller & Suspense category.
Highlighted in J. Kingston Pierce’s year end round-up for Kirkus Reviews.
“[I devoured] this one like an apple fritter at Bob’s Donuts… The exchanges between Winnie and Riordan are delicious and sarcastic. They bristle and jab at each other. And occasionally bite… Winnie and Riordan make for a bawdy, spunky pair… No Hard Feelings is the perfect title for a funny book with a rip-roaring plot… [that makes] winning points about what makes us human—or not.”
—Mark Stevens, Don’t Need a Diagram
“August Riordan returns in a fast-paced new novel that is equal parts hard-boiled and tech thriller… Mark Coggins’ No Hard Feelings is a blast to read. Fans of James W. Hall and Brendan DuBois will find a lot to like.”
—Ian Kern, Mysterious Bookshop
“Hits you like an avalanche and carries you along at a breakneck pace.”
—John Hegenberger, Have Fun
“Summer blockbuster… an engaging and fun read.”
—Jochem Vandersteen, Sons of Spade
“A bang-bang thrill ride. Winnie is a female Jack Reacher.”
—Seth Harwood, author of In Broad Daylight
Read an Excerpt (click to expand)
Chapter 1 – Winnie
When she got to San Francisco and found that August Riordan wasn’t there, she decided to kill herself. She took a cab from downtown to the Presidio and walked out on the Golden Gate Bridge. She went past the historical marker placed by the Native Sons of the Golden West, past the section of the walkway bordered by a chain-link fence, and onto the part where the only barrier between pedestrians and a two-hundred-fifty-foot drop was a chest-high railing.
At midspan she stopped to contemplate the lumpy ocean below. Although it was summer, the weather was miserable. Wind shrieked in her ears, and heavy mist coated her face. The oppressive rumble of the traffic behind her—punctuated by tires bumping over the steel joints in the roadway—was nearly as unpleasant. This was not the romantic, graceful end she had imagined.
But how long would she retain this final freedom, the freedom to take her own life? Today she was able to walk. Today she was able to move her arms and hands, to interact with the physical world nearly as well as an undamaged person—instead of the quadriplegic that she was. Being able to do that tomorrow or the next day was no longer certain.
The experimental technology that had restored her mobility was failing. The Winemaker, the man who stole the technology from her husband, murdered him, and sent mercenaries to kill or capture her, was closing in. And now, after months of struggle, she learned that August Riordan, her only living ally, had left San Francisco.
She put her hands on the railing, thinking about what it was going to be like when she hit the water. There almost certainly wouldn’t be any pain: after all, she had no feeling below her neck. With any luck, she would plunge straight into the water, drown or die from the impact, and be swept out to sea. It wouldn’t be so bad…
Suddenly, she laughed aloud. She probably would die in the Bay, but if she lived—as some few did—she might actually make things worse by severing her spine in a new place, rendering the technology useless. She would be paralyzed once more, the thing she feared the most. And there was more. Whether she lived or died, the Winemaker would very likely get possession of her body and harvest the last few secrets of the technology. She couldn’t let that happen.
She stepped back. She had to reframe the decision. Killing herself meant doing it right: a gun to the brain or a razor to the wrist. None of this romantic soaring into the golden afterlife bullshit. And she would have to do it alone, in a place where her body would never be found. Not killing herself meant fighting through the episodes of intermittent paralysis and continuing her search for Riordan. And maybe, just maybe, stopping the Winemaker and avenging her dead husband.
She trudged back to the Presidio parking lot, where she found the taxi driver who had brought her here munching on a Chinese pork bun. He drove her down the Peninsula to the San Francisco Airport—and after two hours of staring at airplanes taxiing on the runway—she felt a renewed resolution to go forward.
Riordan, she had been told, had moved to Palm Springs. It was a long way to travel in her vulnerable state. If she flew, she risked losing her ability to move while surrounded by a plane full of people. That in itself wasn’t dangerous, but the hoopla of an onboard medical emergency would draw attention to her, especially if it was reported in the news. She knew from firsthand experience that the Winemaker’s people were watching for ER patients with sudden unexplained paralysis.
If she rented a car, she risked losing control of it on the freeway. While she knew that could mean death or serious injury, she decided it was better than being captured by the Winemaker’s thugs. She gave Hertz a credit card and a license with a fake name and in return received a Lincoln sedan, which she pointed south down Highway 101.
Inside her purse, which was lying beside her on the passenger seat, was an electronic device about the size and shape of a pack of cigarettes. Its inventor called it a neuromuscular transceiver. She called it a garage-door opener, not because it had anything to do with opening garage doors, but because she had found that it was the best way to explain its presence in her bag.
The transceiver’s real purpose was to capture and retransmit impulses from her brain through a set of surgically implanted neurostimulators on either side of the break in her spine. It served, in effect, as a kind of wireless jumper cable for her motor impulses. But it only worked in one direction. It enabled her brain to tell her muscles how to move, but it didn’t allow her body from the base of her neck down to tell her brain what she was sensing.
She was used to the one-way nature of the system. She’d been living with it for ten years, ever since she had been selected as a subject for an experimental system intended to aid spinal-cord-injury victims. What she was not used to was having it fail. The transceiver had failed abruptly twice in the last month, depriving her of movement, depriving her of control. The first time she had been jogging, with the transceiver strapped around her arm as if it were an MP3 player. It cut out on her in midstride and she collapsed like she’d been shot. That time, the transceiver resumed functioning almost as soon as she hit the ground. The next time she was not so fortunate.
She’d been in a hotel bed with the transceiver in her purse on the nightstand. She had reached for her cell phone and accidentally knocked the purse off the stand. The transceiver had shut off, and her outstretched arm overbalanced her, causing her to tumble from the bed.
She lay with her nose buried in the carpet, thirsty, nearly suffocated, the scratchy fibers of the carpet irritating her skin, until 1:08 p.m. the next day when a knock had sounded on the door and someone had mumbled, “Housekeeping,” from the other side. She had cried out for help, the door opened, and a stout Latina woman in a hotel uniform ran to her side.
“I fainted,” she had lied to the maid. “Would you help me roll over?”
The maid had dropped to the floor, shoveled the purse and its spilled contents out of the way, and grasped her by the shoulder to turn her face up. Then, just as abruptly as it had cut out, the “nerve tone” to her lower extremities had returned. She sprung to a sitting position.
“Thank you,” she had told the startled woman at her side. “I feel much better already.”
She decided that the transceiver had a loose connection since each breakdown and restoration had been accompanied by a jolt or a sudden movement of the device. She thought about taking the box apart to check, but she quickly rejected the idea. She lacked the manual dexterity for one thing, and she was terrified of making things worse. She settled for wrapping the device in a sheath of foam rubber to protect it against shocks. A more permanent fix would have to wait for Riordan. Everything now depended on finding him in Palm Springs.
The first four hundred miles or so of the drive passed without event. She endured the boring passage down Highway 5 to Los Angeles, fought LA traffic to Highway 10, and approached the western edge of the Sonoran Desert where Palm Springs lay. Near a dusty little town by the name of Banning, she stopped at a Sinclair station to fill the thirsty Lincoln’s tank for what seemed like the twentieth time. She was pumping gas, watching the late afternoon sun sink behind the station’s big green dinosaur sign, when a 1969 Chevy Chevelle rumbled up.
Its rear tires were jacked up and its dual exhaust pipes were crimped in the shape of the Chevy logo. The driver’s and passenger’s doors opened simultaneously and two men in cowboy boots and jeans tumbled out. The driver was taller and wore a bandanna—a do-rag—with an American flag pattern. The passenger was fatter and dumber looking—if that was possible—and wore a T-shirt with the message THERE WILL BE NO QUITTERS UNTIL WE KILL ALL THE CRITTERS across the front.
Both men checked her out in an obvious way. The fatter one elbowed the other and made a comment in an undertone. The only word she caught over the whine of a passing semi was “tits.” She impulsively raised her left hand with her middle finger extended. She didn’t want to call attention to herself unnecessarily, but she knew the Winemaker would never employ a pair of bottom-feeders like these. And she was long past the point where she was going to put up with shit from anyone in their pay grade.
The men laughed. “It ain’t polite to eavesdrop,” said the driver. “Shrake’s observation about your fun bags was for my private consumption.”
The Lincoln was a good five gallons from the fill line, but she figured she had enough gas to make it to Palm Springs. She clicked off the pump, shoved the nozzle back into its holster, and screwed on the gas cap. “Mouth off to me again,” she said, after she pulled open the door to the Lincoln, “and you’ll have the toe of my boot for your private consumption.”
The retort caught the men flatfooted. She was behind the wheel of the Lincoln with the door partway closed by the time they answered. “Don’t go away mad,” yelled the fat one. “You haven’t heard what I was going to say about your ass…”
She drove through lengthening shadows until she came to a sign for an upcoming rest stop. It reminded her that she had left the service station without going to the bathroom. Since she was unable to feel the pressure of a full bladder or bowels, she compensated by making frequent trips to the toilet. She pulled into the rest stop and parked directly in front of the women’s restroom. There were no other cars in the lot.
She ran in and quickly did her business. She returned to the Lincoln and angled across the lot, heading for the exit. It was then that she hit a seam in the pavement that had been obscured by shadows. The car jolted across the gap, and she made the mistake of hitting the brakes. The Lincoln lurched to a stop, and her purse spilled forward on the passenger seat. Until that point, she had always belted it in after a stop, but in her hurry she’d been careless.
The transceiver shut down, and she slumped against the door, pulling the wheel to the right as her hands fell away. Her foot slid off the brake, releasing the car to proscribe a lazy arc back toward the rest-stop buildings. There was another lurch when the front wheel hit the curb. Without a foot on the throttle, the car wasn’t going fast enough to propel it onto the sidewalk, so the Lincoln remained wedged there, idling as if she were waiting for someone.
She lay with her cheek pressed against the sticky glass of the window, willing herself not to panic. This wasn’t as bad as the time in the hotel room, she told herself. Someone would come along soon and help. She would think of an excuse to get him or her to rummage through her purse—perhaps by asking for pills to help with her “condition”—and in the process the transceiver would get jostled and kick in.
She was right about the first part: a car pulled up beside her in less than ten minutes. Unfortunately, it was the Chevy Chevelle from the gas station.
Tweedledee and Tweedledumber slithered out of the muscle car, grinning with big yellow teeth. “Lookie here, Shrake,” she heard the one with the do-rag say through the glass. “It’s her. Our girlfriend from the filling station.”
The pair walked over to the Lincoln and bent down to stare at her face mashed against the driver’s window. “Huh,” said Shrake. “Is she sleeping?”
“No, you idiot,” said Do-Rag. “Her eyes are open.”
“Then let’s see if she wants to come out and play.” Shrake popped the door. She spilled out against his legs, forcing him to catch her by the shoulders.
“Leave me alone,” she bleated, sounding impotent even to herself.
“What’s wrong with her?” said Shrake. “Why isn’t she moving?”
“Maybe she’s playing possum,” said Do-Rag. “Let’s find out.” He squatted beside her and put a grease-stained hand on each breast, kneading them like so much dough. When she did nothing but curse him, he laughed. “Must be an epileptic.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means she’s having a spaz attack. She’s lost control of her body.” A beat went by. “Let’s take her behind the men’s room.”
“Yeah, I think.”
She stared at a gold-capped incisor in Do-Rag’s fetid smile. “Don’t,” she said. “I’m a cop.”
Shrake laughed. “A cop? Nice try, bitch.”
“Look in my purse. You’ll find a shiny gold badge. I’m a lieutenant with the LAPD.”
Do-Rag glanced up at Shrake, the slightest bit of doubt on his face. He straightened and ambled over to the passenger door, yanking it open. He snatched the purse from the seat and began rummaging through it. When he didn’t immediately find a badge, he upended the bag and shook out all the contents. “I knew it,” he said, after sorting through the detritus. “You’re bluffing. Shrake, pull her out of there.”
Nerve tone to her extremities had returned as soon as the transceiver had hit the seat, but she waited to make her move until Shrake pulled her limp body from the car and was hauling her toward the men’s room. She twisted out of his grasp and stepped back to deliver a kick to his midsection. He bent over the blow with a surprised grunt. She kneed him in the face then came forward to cradle his head in her stomach. She yanked his jaw up while twisting the back of his head over. Snap was too clean a word for the grinding, popping sound his neck made as it broke. She let his body drop to the asphalt with a rubbery thump, not giving a passing thought to the irony of the manner in which she had dispatched him.
Do-Rag rushed her, taking her down with a chest-high tackle. He didn’t realize it, but it was the worst mistake he could have made. The transceiver system slowed her reactions, so she was not as effective in a stand-up fight where there was a need to parry or dodge blows. Wrestling was another matter. Since she never felt fatigue in her muscles, she trained relentlessly with weights and cardio exercises, often as much as six hours a day. Her hand, arm, and leg strength were off the scales for a woman, and she had practiced self-defense techniques to channel that strength in the most effective manner.
Do-Rag got on top of her and locked his hands around her throat, squeezing while he called her a “psycho skank.” She watched him with clinical dispassion then reached up to take the index finger of his right hand, bending it as if it were a pipe cleaner. He howled in pain, his grip on her neck slackening. She rose to head butt him and then slapped both of his ears with her open palms. She scrambled out from beneath him and took hold of the knot at the base of his do-rag. She slammed his forehead into the edge of the curb. After the first impact, he slumped to the asphalt. After the second, his legs convulsed, and his hands twitched open and closed. After the third, he voided his bowels and lay still.
She stood to survey the wreckage. She would have shuddered if she were able to. The Winemaker had done this to her, the Winemaker and the horse-riding accident that had severed her spine when she was fourteen. The accident had stolen her adolescence, her puberty, the chance to have any sort of a real relationship with a man.
Being selected as the guinea pig for the neurostimulator technology offered salvation. It held out the promise of a normal life; it led to an unhoped-for marriage with charismatic Ted Valmont, the venture capitalist who had founded the company to commercialize the technology. But the Winemaker had snatched it all away. He had ambushed and killed Ted, and sent her on the run. Her grief and rage at Ted’s murder—and her subsequent struggle to avoid capture—had ground the humanity out of her.
She stepped over Do-Rag to the Lincoln, dropping into the seat to put the shifter in reverse before she pulled the door closed. She backed away from the buildings and sped out onto the highway, not sparing a glance at the rearview mirror.