How much does it cost to fix an election? August Riordan—private investigator, jazz bass player, smart ass with a foolish heart—is going to find out. He’s been hired by Leonora Lee, the all-powerful “Dragon Lady” of San Francisco’s Chinatown, to investigate the results of the city’s recent mayoral election. It seems the Dragon Lady’s candidate failed to even carry the Chinese precincts, and she’s convinced that someone must have rigged the outcome by hacking the city’s newly installed touch-screen voting machines.
A runoff between the two remaining candidates is days away, but it takes Riordan mere hours to find the Director of Elections dead in his office. A visit to the offices of Columbia Voting Systems—the suppliers of the city’s touch-screen machines—results in another corpse. A wide range of political interests share a stake in the election, so Riordan’s got plenty of suspects.
But when the Dragon Lady’s beautiful daughter is attacked after giving Riordan a goodnight kiss, it starts to get personal. Soon, Riordan is in a race not only against the runoff deadline, but against powerful political movers and shakers, Chinatown gang members, and crazed anarchists, with only his techno-savvy, cross-dressing friend Chris to help.
The cost of fixing an election runs to as many lives as it does dollars, and if Riordan isn’t careful, the price for un-fixing it may be more than he can afford…
Reviews and Recognitions
Selected by January Magazine as one of the best crime novels of the year.
Winner of the Next Generation Indie Book Award in the Mystery / Suspense category.
Selected by Sons of Spade for “Best Wisecracks”.
Selected by Cameron Hughes as a top three pick on Crime Fiction Dossier.
Staff pick at The Mystery Bookstore and Poisoned Pen.
“Runoff by Mark Coggins is a smart, funny, spooky … often touching, always entertaining romp through … San Francisco’s highways, byways, and alleys of corruption. (Hammett eat your hat and laugh.) It’s great fun and a must read.”
“[O]pens with one of the most original action sequences I’ve read … This creative set piece and the chase that follows through the streets of Chinatown–a pursuit both comedic and futile–sets Runoff apart from any other book that this reviewer has read in the last year, and further establishes author Coggins as a major contributor to the P.I. subgenre…
“Riordan and his creator … represent the new, 21st-century breed of writers and characters. ‘What’s happening with the private eye novel?’ is a perpetually popular question among the crime-fiction cognoscenti. Runoff is the answer. To borrow a description from the jazz magazine Downbeat, Coggins is Talent Deserving Wider Recognition.”
—Stephen Miller, January Magazine
“[E]vokes a curious timelessness … of classic noir detective fiction. Riordan could have been conjured up by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler… Through crisp, understated prose, [Coggins] perfectly captures the world-weary integrity of his protagonist. In addition to its seamless characterization and narrative, the novel maintains its dark suspense until the gripping conclusion unfolds … [A] noir gem.”
—Lynne Maxwell, Mystery Scene Magazine
“[H]arrowing … exposes the dark underbelly of American politics.”
“[D]eliciously quirky … panache to spare.”
“[R]ead this book … Mark Coggins has taken us back into the world of strong PI fiction.”
—Barb Radmore, Front Street Reviews
“The most surprising novel of the year.”
—Cameron Hughes, Crime Fiction Dossier
“It’s the San Francisco we know and love, writ large.”
—Betsey Culp, San Francisco Flier
“A wisecracking, hard-boiled private-eye yarn … Not only is the writing snappy in this fourth appearance of PI and jazz musician August Riordan but the story is as full of twists and turns as its setting, San Francisco’s Chinatown. While echoing Chandler and Hammett, Coggins advances the genre into the Internet era.”
“[V]ery entertaining, thought provoking, and a right good read. Riordan is a complex character in an interesting world.”
“[T]he easy, humorous style, details on computerized election fraud, and sharply observed Bay Area background make it all most enjoyable.”
—Jon L. Breen, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
“A plot that is at once classic-hardboiled and thoroughly modern, a tale of real estate moguls and political hopefuls in collusion to rig elections and reap the profits … A lessor writer might have made a muddy morass of such a mix and mired the readers in it, but with a deft and sound hand, Coggins structures an elegant bridge to span the chasm between the war years and today.”
—Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards, Behind the Black Mask
“Runoff is at once a biting, witty, very timely commentary on our flawed electoral system, and a fast-paced page turner you won’t be able to put down. Mark Coggins has written the must-read PI novel of the year.”
—Jason Starr, author of The Follower
“I love a good private eye story and Coggins delivers in spades.”
—Barbara Peters, Poisoned Pen Press
“[H]ad me laughing out loud.”
—P. J. Coldren, Reviewing the Evidence
“Classic noir, brought bang up to date. August Riordan is a hero with a heart. You’re with him every inch of the way as he stalks the mean streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, confronting crooked pols, anarchist squatters, psychopathic software engineers, and cleaver-wielding gangsters, with betrayal lurking around every corner. A wild ride.”
—Peter Tasker, author of Samurai Boogie and Buddha Kiss
“Great PI novels are as hard to come by as honest elections, but Mark Coggins’ Runoff comes through in spades—Sam Spades, that is.”
—Craig Johnson, author of Kindness Goes Unpunished and Death without Company
Read an Excerpt (click to expand)
Chapter 1 – The Midnight Ride of John Deere
I shouldn’t have been surprised when the backhoe materialized out of the Chinatown fog, ran onto the sidewalk and took out a column supporting the pagoda roof of the Bank of Canton. But I was.
Parked under a sagging fire escape on Wentworth Street—once known as “Salty Fish Alley” for its vats of fish and shrimp curing in salt—I was reading a back issue of Down Beat by penlight in the front seat of my Galaxie 500. It was close to two am and I had been there since midnight trying to get a lead on the thief who had been knocking off San Francisco ATMs over the last month. He’d been targeting free-standing machines in front of banks, and while it was obvious that heavy equipment entered the equation somewhere, no one had actually seen how it was being done.
My motivation was a $10,000 reward the Bay Area Bankers Association had offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspect. Given that I had made a total of twenty-five dollars from my private investigation business since the beginning of the crime spree—and that only because I’d answered the phone in my office when someone had called with a survey on fiber supplements—I figured there were worse ways to spend my time than trying to earn the reward. What I didn’t figure was getting lucky on the first night.
I dropped the magazine and fumbled open the door. I ran to the mouth of the alley and then across Washington Street to the front of the bank. The fog, the slickened pavement and the lights on the backhoe stabbing through the swirling vapor-like search beams gave the scene an eerie, landing-rover-on-a-distant-planet sort of appearance.
Big was a small word for the guy in the driver’s seat. Neck bolts aside, he looked like someone the villagers should be chasing with torches and pitch forks, but was dressed like it was just another day on the construction site, right down to his work boots and hard hat. He had bulldozed the ornamental column out of the way and was busy lowering the bucket of the front loader to the place where the ATM joined its concrete pedestal.
I had decided to pull the stakeout duty on a whim after playing some jazz bass at a nearby club, and it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t brought a gun or any other means of persuasion, apart from my irresistible personality. But that didn’t stop me from putting my beak into it. I came up to about five feet of him, shined the puny penlight up in his face and shouted, “What do you think you’re doing?”
Engine noise and focus on the task at hand kept him from hearing me or noticing the penlight. He drove the blade of the bucket into the ATM and gunned the motor to put the horsepower to work. I waved my hands and shouted again to no effect, and then finally hit on the idea of chucking the penlight at him. It bounced off his hard hat and flopped into the loader bucket. That got his attention. He snapped his gaze in my direction and I got my first clear look at his face. It was big and red, with a lopsided goatee of coarse red whiskers encircling his mouth like bad topiary. He wore glasses with cheap black rims that were patched at the bridge with adhesive tape.
He yanked his foot off the gas and twisted around in the seat to see me better. “What are you doing?” I repeated when the sound of the backhoe’s exhaust had subsided.
He frowned. “What’s it look like I’m doing?” His voice was deep and rumbly, like barrels going down a ramp. “Demolishing the building. A better question would be what are you doing? Please stay back so you’re not injured.”
His matter-of-fact response made me doubt myself for the slightest moment. I felt my jaw sag open as I pondered what to say. My glance strayed to the dashboard of the backhoe. There was no ignition key in the switch, and below the dash was a tangle of wires, several of which had been stripped. I gestured at the obvious hot-wire job. “Leave the keys in your other frock?”
He looked at the dash involuntarily and then brought his eyes up to meet mine. A grin spread slowly across his face. “You might have something there,” he said, “but don’t get frisky about it.”
He did something fancy with a hydraulic lever and tromped on the gas. The backhoe growled in response, and the loader bucket surged against the ATM with a wrenching, scraping sound.
If you ever try to stop a guy in a backhoe with your bare hands, you’ll soon find it’s a little like trying to stop a tank with the same implements. I couldn’t think of anything else to do but rush the driver’s cage and try to pull him off the seat. I managed to get my foot on the stepwell and my hand on the roll cage bar when he reared back and planted a work boot square in the middle of my chest. I went sailing out into the street, where I landed in a pothole full of cold, muddy water and conked my head on a conveniently placed manhole cover.
I spent most of the next few moments groaning, rubbing my head and trying to squirm out of the water, but I discerned a brittle crunching noise over the sound of the backhoe’s diesel, followed by a loud clang. Then I heard the backhoe moving away, the pitch of the motor falling and rising as the guy with the red goatee worked the transmission through the close-ratio gears.
I staggered to my feet in time to see him turn the corner down Wentworth Street. The source of the clanging noise was readily apparent: the Bank of Canton’s flossy automatic teller machine now rode in the backhoe’s loader bucket. I stumbled after him, pulling my cell phone out of my jacket pocket as I ran. By the time I got to the mouth of the alley, the backhoe was already at the end of the block, where Wentworth dead-ended into Jackson. He turned left and disappeared from view.
I tried to punch in 911 on the phone while running, but the backlight on the display kept going off before I could locate the next digit. I finally gave it up as a bad job and pulled up by the door of a brush painting studio, which was at least partially lit by a dim yellow bulb in the Chinese lantern over the entrance. A giant panda gave me a bored look through the window while I called the 911 operator and told her about the theft. She did her best to be sympathetic and helpful, but I couldn’t make her understand that I wasn’t talking about an ATM mugging. “I realize you’re upset,” she said finally. “We’ll get a patrol car to the scene as soon as possible. Just be sure to stay by the teller machine until they arrive.”
“I’m trying my damndest,” I snarled into the phone. “But it keeps moving on me.”
I flipped the cell phone shut and broke into a sprint, crunching over a broken liquor bottle as I rounded the corner at Jackson. The guy with the goatee was nowhere in sight. I keep pounding pavement up Jackson, crossed the intersection with Grant—swiveling my head to check it as I went—and then turned back to see a huddled bundle lying square in my path. I couldn’t stop, but I managed to put enough oomph in my next stride to leap over the obstacle. I landed heavily on the other side, clutching a rainspout to stop myself from reeling back.
“Watch it, boyfriend,” croaked a voice behind me. “Gene Kelly you’re not.”
A homeless woman with a complexion like dried apple core levered herself out of a half-zipped sleeping bag to stare at me. I’d seen mummies that looked healthier.
“Sorry. Did you see a backhoe go by here a minute ago?”
She slumped back onto the ground. “Try Ross Alley. I think he turned up there.”
I nodded my thanks and hurried up Jackson again to the next intersection with Ross. Some African cultures believe that evil travels in a straight line, but mischief—if that was the right way to refer to the guy with the goatee—could evidently negotiate some circuitous routes. Originally home to gambling houses and brothels in the wild Barbary Coast days, Ross Alley is a very narrow throughway that has retained enough of its character to be featured in movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. As I entered, I could see several places where the backhoe had scraped the walls getting by—and I could also see the machine itself at the end of the block.
Goatee was at the controls, raising the loader up to the level of a dump truck parked perpendicular to the alley. As I crept closer, I saw that there was another man sitting behind the wheel of the truck. There wasn’t any doubt where the ATM was going if I didn’t succeed in stopping them, but my problem was compounded: I still had no gun, and there were now two guys with heavy equipment to deal with.
I cast about the alley for something to use as a weapon. The choices were limited: flattened cardboard boxes outside the door of a fortune cookie factory; a rickety-looking bicycle chained to a gas meter; and five or six little cairns of bricks or cobblestones piled up in front of other businesses. The bricks were the obvious choice. I wondered why they were there until I remembered the recent renovation of Chinatown’s Commercial Street. Commercial had been one of the last streets in San Francisco to retain its brick paving, but when it came time to replace sewer lines below the street, city officials decided they were too weak to stay and replaced them with concrete. Many Chinese residents had salvaged the old bricks and placed them in and around their businesses because they were believed to promote good feng shui.
I made a silent apology to the owner of a one-chair barbershop as I scooped up a dozen fist-sized stones in front of his establishment and piled them into a makeshift carryall fashioned out of my jacket. I crept down the remaining stretch of alley and slipped out behind the backhoe and around the dump truck to stand about ten yards from the driver’s partially open window. He had turned in his seat to watch as Goatee raised the loader bucket to the level of the dump bed, and had no idea I was there. Until I threw the first brick.
The first one came in low, pounding the door with an incredible thud. The driver jumped like he had sat on an electric juicer and twisted back to look out the window. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t admit to getting the slightest bit of satisfaction from the crazed expression on his face. Not that I took time to savor it. I had the second brick airborne before he caught sight of me, and fortunately for him, it bounced off the truck’s side mirror. The third one was right on target, flying through the open part of the window and landing somewhere inside.
He’d ducked in time to avoid the missile, and stayed down as the fourth one I threw put a spiderweb crack in the window’s safety glass and clattered down the side of the truck to the ground. I had a fifth in hand when he popped up, put the truck in gear and barrelled down Washington Street into the deepening fog, leaving Goatee with the backhoe’s loader bucket high in the air and no place to put the ATM.
I doubt if Goatee had even been aware of the bombardment up until that point—I made damn sure he was now. I heaved the brick in my hand toward him, trying to thread my way under the loader and between the roll cage posts to nail him in the driver’s seat. My throw sailed high, hitting the bottom of the loader. The brick exploded into shrapnel-like fragments. One must have nicked him because I heard him curse loudly, then yell even louder, “You fucker!”
While I reached for another brick, he punched the gas and pulled the backhoe around to head in the opposite direction down Washington. My next heave missed entirely, shattering on the pavement behind the back wheels. I trotted after him with my jacket-load of bricks, but he was going too fast for me to keep up and throw at the same time. When he reached the intersection with Grant, he hung a sharp right. With the front loader raised high like pincers and the back shovel and boom curled up like a tail, the backhoe in profile resembled an attacking scorpion. It also appeared unstable. The back wheels came off the ground during the turn, overbalanced by the weight of the ATM. It lunged out of view behind a building and then I heard a hammering crash, a shrieking, skidding noise and the sound of glass breaking.
I dropped the bricks and hustled the remaining fifty yards or so up to Grant. On the left side of the street, the backhoe had jumped the sidewalk and toppled into the plate glass window of a fancy art gallery. An alarm was ringing in the back of the building, bits of glass were scattered over the sidewalk like wedding rice and the ATM had rolled out of the loader bucket and come to rest beside a gigantic stone Buddha in the center of the store. I ran up to the backhoe to see if Goatee had been injured, but there wasn’t a trace of him in the driver’s cage. I found his hard hat in the middle of the road, picked it up and then did a slow 360-degree revolution like Dumbo at the Ice Capades. Nada. He had given me the slip.
I was looking up to see if he had somehow flown away when I heard the wail of an approaching siren. The patrol car was on me in less than a minute, skidding to a stop on a diagonal across from the art gallery. I had already locked my hands together on top of my head, but the cops came out of the car with guns drawn, barking at me to lie down on the road. The one on the passenger side was a husky, corn-fed kid with a buzz cut who I didn’t recognize. The driver was a fellow Irishman who I knew slightly from a bar on Clement called the Plough and Stars. I’d played a gig there one night and he’d come up to introduce himself after the show. “McQuaid,” I shouted as I dropped to my knees. “It’s me—Riordan. I’m the one who called this in.”
He rose from his crouch behind the driver’s door. He was a small man with a slender torso and the body armor he wore made it seem like he was puffing out his chest. “I wondered if it was that Riordan.” He turned to his partner. “It’s okay, Jerry, I know him.”
I stood and met them as they holstered their guns and walked to the front of the gallery. They looked over at the ATM and then they looked down at the wreckage.
McQuaid turned to me. “Freelancing for the reward?”
“Where’s the perp?”
“Hell if I know.”
I glanced over to Jerry, who was staring down at the backhoe, completely entranced. “John Deere,” he said almost dreamily. “Now that’s a tractor. My grandfather swore by John Deeres on the farm. Said they used to call them Pumping Johnnies when he was growing up because of the funny pumping sound their engines made.”
I gave the kid what was probably a goggle-eyed look. “This one sounded pretty normal to me—not that I was paying much attention.”
McQuaid smiled at his partner and explained, “Jerry’s from Oklahoma. But what you might want to pay attention to is the owner of this building.”
“Yeah. The bank may be very happy you saved their ATM, but I don’t think Leonora Lee will be pleased to find it in her front parlor, so to speak.”
“You don’t mean—”
Jerry laughed. “Oh yes he does. I’m from Oklahoma and even I know who Leonora Lee is.” He ran his hand lovingly over the shovel of the overturned backhoe.
“The Dragon Lady of Chinatown.”