Why I Stopped Writing Reviews

Hello to anyone still reading this in 2022!

I haven’t entirely given up on this blog, this curious little online portfolio of mine. But I realized something earlier this year, so I decided to finally put down into words something that longtime readers of mine might have noticed by now.

I’ve stopped writing reviews here on Mr. Rhapsodist.

Truth be told, I haven’t done a “proper” review in a few years, and this was well before the COVID-19 pandemic even started. It’s simply that I don’t engage in media the same way I used to do ten or so years ago. I don’t limit myself to the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and anime as deeply as I once did. And I certainly don’t draw as much inspiration anymore from the likes of online reviewers and content creators like Doug Walker, Lindsay Ellis, and Kyle Kallgren. A lot has simply changed for me in the last seven years of my life, and so writing pop culture reviews isn’t the exciting activity it used to be.

Seven years ago, my mother passed away from a lifetime of chronic health issues taking their toll. And when she did, it forced me to reevaluate a lot of things in life. I started going to therapy and unpacking years of anxiety, depression, and internalized guilt. I came out as bisexual, I explored my gender identity a little, I made new friends with a writers’ group in Burbank, and I briefly tried to monetize my reviews into a self-run editing service for fellow emerging writers. I got involved as a volunteer with a voting rights group for a few years, I served as a poll worker twice in 2018, and I met some amazing new friends online for a time. In 2021, I wrote a short story that won 5th place in the “Genre Short Story” category for the Writer’s Digest 90th Annual Writing Competition. This year, I wrote another short story that got an Honorable Mention in that same category with WD.

So, as you can see, I’ve experimented a lot. And in doing so, this poor blog’s fallen by the wayside, especially with reviews. One thing I’ve come to regret, in looking over my old reviews, is how caustic or mocking I was in a few of them, especially for the ones I wrote for self-published books for Dorrance Publishing. It’s no excuse, but I can see now how I was insecure as a writer trying to get published, and how I tried to tear down these indie authors to make myself look witty and wise by comparison. And I did not know things about myself then that I do now thanks to a lot of work done in therapy. It’s helped me grow as a writer and as a human being.

This isn’t goodbye on this blog. I’ll try to post things on here—reflections, analyses, announcements, and so on—but it won’t be the review blog it proclaimed itself to be back in the spring of 2010. But I felt like I couldn’t let this year pass without at least putting forward what had changed in my life and in my writing career.

It’s my hope that 2022, a year of tumultuous change for myself and many others, goes out like a lamb instead of a lion. It’s my hope that 2023 is a year of finding new rhythms and making further progress. To that end, I wish all my readers the very best in their own aspirations for the year to come.

Sawyer and Sharp is Now Available on Amazon

As you might have seen, during the height of the pandemic last year, I decided to post six short stories I wrote as part of a miniseries called Sawyer and Sharp. Their premise? Following six individuals through their run-ins with a deadly California political consulting firm, whose members make rivals disappear and have a literal taste for blood. I posted these stories on Mr. Rhapsodist because I wanted people to know what I was writing in my off-time, and I wanted to see how they’d be received.

But I decided that I needed to take more risks in 2021 (even as I’m trying to take fewer risks with COVID-19 still around). I want to get out there as an author, and I’ve had an Amazon KDP account since 2012, so why not use it? Why keep waiting on agent submissions and writing contest entries when I could put my work directly where readers can find me?

So, here we are. Sawyer and Sharp is now available for purchase through Amazon.

Naturally, that means they won’t be here on my blog anymore, except for the first story, “The Art of the Possible,” which I’m leaving as an introduction to the larger series.

Realizing Writer Academia in 2021

When 2021 started for me, I had an idea about figuring out my whole aesthetic as a person, as well as my style as an author. I’ll discuss the latter in an upcoming post, but for now, I wanted to delve into what aesthetic is all about, and what the heck Writer Academia means.

Based on the fan-made Aesthetics Wiki, there’s a whole plethora of fashion, activity, and music choices based on the kind of image you’re going for. You have your Cottagecore, your Dark Academia, your Lo-Fi, your Synthwave, and your Pastel Goths, to name a few. And while Dark Academia initially appealed to me, I wasn’t as deep into the look of it, nor was I completely sold on popular works like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. So, when I found this idea of Writer Academia, I felt right at home.

Photo by OVAN on Pexels.com

Writer Academia is basically what it sounds like. To quote the Wiki page itself:

It is centered around the idea that writing is for everyone, and the quality of work does not matter as long as you are passionate about it and having fun. It is the romanticization of writing and literature, in any and all forms.

It’s less about yearning for romance while in a library, or trying to turn being a teacher’s pet into a personality, and more about enjoying the art of reading and writing for its own sake. And its access to fanfiction culture, as seen on sites like AO3 and Wattpad, makes it that much more relatable. It’s an aesthetic where people can sit in coffee shops and libraries, armed with notebooks and laptops, intently staring or smiling casually, while their hands do all the work. The writing world is one of free expression and creature comforts, which are things I prize a lot in my daily life.

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

I think what Writer Academia offers is less of a “only true writers need apply” vibe and more of a “anyone who can write is welcome” view. Pull out a chair. Find a spot on the couch. Heck, lay on the floor if it’s comfy there. Brew up some coffee or tea, put on a lo-fi playlist, and let the Muse whisper into your ear as you scribble down a new idea for a character or a storyline you’d like to develop. It’s a refuge from the world, yet it can be done almost anywhere, from the office lounge to the corner cafe to the line at the supermarket (provided it’s long enough).

Photo by Haley Black on Pexels.com

In fanfiction circles, there’s a whole subgenre called Coffee Shop AU. Canon characters are moved to an alternate reality where they work or visit a modern-day coffee shop or cafe. And why not? There’s an ambience, a casual air, in coffee shops. Jazz music plays over the speakers, punctuating the low hum of a dozen conversations, the hiss of an espresso machine, the clink of glassware. Baristas are working, but there’s a welcome vibe about the place, as people settle in to do homework, read books, and catch up with friends. Naturally, this comfy indoor vibe goes hand-in-hand with a lot of Writer Academia (and with the little-known aesthetic called coffeecore).

Photo by Abby Chung on Pexels.com

There’s nothing like getting lost in a bookstore or a library. Thousands of titles, all neatly stacked together on their shelves, and you get to sit and read in a quiet, reflective space for a while. Whether it’s the local library after school or a Barnes & Noble store at the mall on a weekend, the pages still turn, and the world goes quiet and cozy for a while.

As you might guess, when 2021 started, I figured out this was part of my vibe, my aesthetic, too. It gives me a frame when I’m writing. I sit down, I pull up my story notes, I put on a chill playlist, and I have a cup of tea. The world fades out except for the screen and the fiction that needs to come to life.

So, all you readers, writers, and bloggers galore! What’s your vibe this year looking like? What aesthetic has been calling your name or taking shape thus far? Leave a thought in the comments below, and thanks for reading!

Original Fiction: The Devil She Knows

Image Credit: Shutterstock

“Ah-choo!” The force of her sneeze made Jen’s head twitch backward. She thrust a tissue over her mouth and turned away from her laptop. “God, I am so done with being sick!”

“But you mortals are so cute when you’re like this.” Purring from a chair beside the couch, Ariadel’s face lit up in amusement. “And did you know your voice goes up when you’re sneezing? Seriously, I could get so many hits on YouTube with this!”

“I’m not a kitten…” Jen wiped at her nose and threw the crumpled tissue onto the coffee table.

Ariadel winked. “Keep telling yourself that.”

They made for an odd pair, Jen reflected. She was five-foot-four, often described as mousy, with thin brown hair and giant hazel eyes. By comparison, her roommate had shed her mortal guise and sprawled across the armchair in all her demonic glory. Six feet of tall, voluptuous crimson skin, adorned with glossy black hair that cascaded around her shoulders, leathery bat’s wings that she kept folded up along her back, and the most piercing golden irises in her eyes. And, of course, Ariadel could hardly be a demon of lust and obsession if she weren’t completely naked.

“It’s not my fault,” she’d insisted once to Jen, after raiding her closet. “Your species is all hung up on nude bodies and sex. Meanwhile, your angels get nice gowns and haloes!”

In the studio apartment they shared—well, that Jen paid rent on and permitted Ariadel to stay—they couldn’t get too far from one another. Jen kept her bed on the opposite side of the couch, adjacent to the windows, the kitchen, and the bathroom. But the couch itself was Ariadel’s territory the rest of the time. Mostly she’d spent days lounging on the cushions, idly scrolling through social media and online news sites to learn everything she could about the modern age. Jen had regretted introducing her to the world of online porn. Coming home from the office to find a fully nude demon grunting and reaching between her legs, having watched porn for nine hours straight without pause, had been one of her life’s top ten biggest shocks.

“Seriously…” Aria had wheezed, panting on the couch after Jen stole her laptop back, “this is incredible! Whoever came up with this must be a real Prince of Darkness down below…!”

After fighting off a second sneeze, Jen groaned. She pulled the box of tissues into her lap and yanked out three at a time. As she blew her nose, she heard a shuffle beside her. Looking up, Jen saw Ariadel get out of the armchair and spin herself around.


It wasn’t long enough to blink her eyes. One second, Jen was staring at a tall red succubus, and the next, she was face-to-face with a human woman, red-haired with freckles and bright green eyes. And unlike the completely nude figure she’d grown used to seeing, this person wore actual clothes. A designer black jacket over a violet top and blue jeans, with real Jimmy Choos on her feet, which didn’t have talons or hooves for once.

“Uhh…” Jen fought against a slight tingle in her chest. Not desire, but something close. Admiration, she supposed. “That’s, um, a new look for you, isn’t it?”

“Hey, we’re in a pandemic, aren’t we?” Reaching into the pocket of her jacket, the demon removed a thin black face covering. She slipped both hoops over her ears, stretching it over her nose and along her chin. “It’s important to mask up.”

“And where are you planning on going?”

“Dunno. Out.” Aria drummed fingers—normal ones, without those black claws—along her thigh. “Maybe get some groceries? I don’t know if you need anything to help you sleep.”

Jen blinked. “I mean… I wouldn’t say no to some tea.”

“Green or black?”

“Green, please.”

“Atta girl.” Aria winked. “I’ll be back soon, don’t you worry.”

As she turned to leave, Jen felt something else bubbling up inside her chest. She breathed in and out quickly, struggling to get the box of tissues off her lap as she scrambled to her feet.

“Wait,” she called.

Aria stopped halfway to the door. She cast a smirk over her shoulder.

“I…” Jen swallowed. “Go to my wallet. You can borrow some money.”

“I don’t need it, but thanks.” Aria grinned. “I have ways of compensating mortal retailers.”

“I’m sure, but…” Jen shook her head. “I just don’t want you to get hurt out there.”

The demon scoffed. “Who’s gonna hurt me? Besides, COVID-19 can’t touch this—”

“I mean, I’d be sad if something happened,” Jen interrupted. After drawing back, she fiddled with the drawstring on her sweatpants. “I’d feel guilty, that’s all.”

Silence filled the air between them. Jen watched a few dozen expressions flicker across Aria’s eyes, and she almost regretted making her stop. It would have been easier, she decided, if she’d let the demon waltz out the door and pick up groceries like she promised. Kept her mouth shut instead of being stupid and vomiting all her tangled emotions onto the floor.

“Okay.” Ariadel nodded. She looked away for a moment, fiddling with the mask over her mouth. “Okay, I’ll be careful. Don’t worry your cute little head about it.”

“I’m serious, though. You can use my wallet—”

“Oh, I already did that.” Reaching into her pocket, the demon pulled out a wad of twenties, old and wrinkled. Jen recognized them from the bottom of her purse. “Got ’em while you were talking, hon. I’m just that good.

Jen chuckled and shook her head. “You’re something else, all right.”

“As are you, Ace.” Aria’s grin was obvious through the mask. “Sit your butt down on that couch. I’ll be back before you know it.”

In a flash, she disappeared through the door, and her footsteps rang on the stairwell outside. Jen could imagine all the heads that’d turn her way, even with a mask covering half of Aria’s face. She sank back onto the couch, grateful for the soft, thick cushions underneath her as she curled up under a blanket.

Sniffling, she picked up her laptop and returned to the video playlist she’d been watching. In between cooking shows and anime dramas, Jen had enough to ease into the afternoon. But she kept looking over at the empty armchair where a tall and lovely demon had been lounging, itching to get some action already.

Aria had tried to bed Jen when they first met, not out of genuine desire, but out of some supernatural urge built into Ariadel’s DNA—or whatever passed for it in demons. But Jen had to explain, with Aria’s clawed hands pinning her down to the floor, that she did not work that way. That, yes, she’d had sex before, but she hadn’t enjoyed it, and even kissing was a bit much at times. That, yes, some humans were simply asexual, or “ace,” and if they didn’t consent, you couldn’t push past that boundary, end of story. She’d relished the puzzled frown on Aria’s face when she let go of Jen, tucking in her wings apologetically and mulling over those words.

“But,” Aria had insisted, “I’m bound to you. The rites must be observed. So, if I can’t get my fill, I’ll have to seek out partners on my own time. Deal?”

Jen had agreed, and Ariadel had enjoyed herself—right up until the City of Los Angeles issued its first shelter-in-place order. The spread of a coronavirus through the West Coast had been a total surprise, growing from panic overseas into a genuine bout of retail space chaos in the US. And with all those nightclubs, bars, and hotels closed up, the succubus’s natural feeding grounds had dried up. Unable to pose as mortal and tempt people into bed, she’d resorted to staying at home with Jen, absorbing online porn and cans of soda as if there were no tomorrow.

Staring at her laptop, Jen pulled up the bookmarks on her browser, switching to Incognito Mode. Within minutes, she was logged onto one of the several dozen porn sites Ariadel had added to her bookmarks, under a folder marked with her own name.

Even with a cold, she found herself watching one of the videos Aria had saved. Two women, one considerably older than the other, were caught up in a slow burn courtship on the patio beside a pool. Seeing the taller, older brunette rub lotion onto the younger woman’s shoulders, breathing against the side of her neck, teasing her lips around her ear…

It didn’t do a thing for Jen. She watched the entire video, right through the two women racing upstairs to a bedroom with convenient stage lighting, yanking off each other’s clothes, and going down on each other for half an hour. But all that sweaty gasping and jiggling did nothing for her.

What she liked was the kiss.

It was short, barely a second long, but it meant everything to see the older brunette grab the young blonde’s face and give her a quick peck on the lips. There was affection in that moment that Jen wanted to see last forever. She didn’t care which woman was hotter, or even what other people meant by describing someone as “hot.” What she liked, squirming with the computer balanced on her lap, was the merest glimpse of a tender moment between two people.

She wanted that. To hear the front door open, and to see Ariadel return with groceries in hand. Even if she transformed back into her true form, Jen would still grab Aria by the wrist, pull her close—and cuddle with her until she fell asleep. To be enfolded by those arms, held under a loving golden-eyed gaze, would be the height of her devotion. Forget all the stuff she learned in Sister Teresa’s theology class or from her abuelita’s stories from Mexico.

Jen would dance with a devil who showed her enough care as Aria did.

Her pulse quickened when she heard the door unlock and begin to slide open. Looking up, and meeting those eyes shifting from green to gold across the apartment, Jen’s breath vanished in a soft squeal.

She blew her nose again, and the laugh it got from Aria was the happiest sound in the world.

Sawyer and Sharp: “The Art of the Possible”


Miles Atlas stared at the rising flames behind the collapsing edges of the warehouse roof, belching out orange supernovas before dissolving into a pillar of smoke. He clutched at the edges of the trauma blanket firefighters had thrown over him upon dragging him away from the building, hand outstretched for the artworks trapped inside. But they’d shouted for him to get away, to let it all go. Vaporized, one of the firefighters had insisted. He’d yanked Miles in time to avoid a backdraft near the rear exit.

In his pocket, his phone pinged with a thousand unread notifications. Every fresh mention on his Twitter watch list. His own name, plus Fidelia Marquez, F.M. Wins, Lawrence Cathcart, and California Senate Race.

“Sir, please step back!” Another firefighter in a yellow helmet tugged him further back across the street. Behind the protective cordon of fire engines, Miles let himself be pulled over to a parked ambulance, where an EMT examined his face and limbs before asking a flurry of questions. What’s today’s date, what’s your date of birth, do you know where you are, sir…

“It’s Election Day,” Miles insisted. He sniffled, wiping ash from his face with the back of his hand. “It’s the election, I think…”

One Hour Earlier

The crowd inside the Bonaventure Hotel was chanting so loud you could see the windows rattling. A thousand smartphones lifted into the air to catch a glimpse of Senator-elect Fidelia Marquez, age thirty-four, stepping out into the ballroom stage. Miles watched it all from the back of the crowd, half-hidden by a column of red, white, and blue balloons. He’d slung his leather coat over one shoulder, already baking inside the crowded room as the campaign’s triumph began in earnest.

Up at the podium, Fidelia pumped her fist in the air. Two thousand screaming followers copied her move exactly. Lights flashed, turning her eyeglasses pitch white and bouncing off the sheen of her slicked-back ponytail. She hadn’t gone for the iconic white pantsuit freshman Democrat look. Instead, the candidate came out in a blue blazer and khaki chinos. The guitar riffs of “Rockin’ in the Free World” blasted over the loudspeakers, competing for volume with Fidelia’s adoring fans as she began her speech.

“Thank you!” she hollered into the microphone, still fighting past the roar of hundreds of young women.

“We love you!” one African-American teen screamed near Miles. Her dreadlocks shook as she jumped up to grab the candidate’s attention.

He noticed the tattoo on her wrist when she moved. A small emblem, etched in blue, pink, and violet over a golden heart. In the middle, a pair of white letters that read F.M.

Blue and white balloons dropped from the ceiling as Fidelia spoke about the hard-fought campaign. “And Mr. Lawrence Cathcart made it a better race!” she added over a chorus of sudden boos and laughs. But Miles didn’t pay attention to her remarks. They were the same upbeat lines he’d heard on YouTube and MSNBC shows. “From the streets to the Senate… it’s your fight as much as mine… we are the working majority, taking on Big Money with bigger dreams and louder voices…”

What Miles saw was the campaign logo. His logo. There it was on giant posters and waving signs, on baseball caps and armbands and T-shirts. There it was tattooed on a black teen’s wrist.

What Miles saw—and what the Senator-elect didn’t see—was her gray-haired opponent peeking in through a side exit. Both men froze as their eyes met. A tired, heavy-jowled face meeting the young artist’s bewildered expression, their skin shaded pink, violet, and blue by the dazzling lasers cast from behind the stage.

As soon as Cathcart’s face disappeared behind the closing door, Miles pursued.

He followed the candidate’s silver head through a swarm of serious men in black suits. They ducked with surprising speed around corners and through corridors filled with reporters and campaign staff in T-shirts with Marquez’s grinning face on them. But no one bothered to look and see Fidelia’s rival being hastily escorted away. Miles drew more attention as he darted past lines of people and dove through rapidly closing doors toward the main entrance.

In the lobby, he came to a halt beside the fountain. Delicate arcs of water crisscrossed through the air over his head. Far ahead, through the gilded front doors, an exhausted Lawrence Cathcart was dragged out.

But the men around him weren’t bodyguards or staffers. They had a vicious air about them, attired in black Armanis with faces carved like granite. One of them hissed something into Cathcart’s ear, and the other man went pale. He squeezed his eyes shut. Offered no resistance to the men dragging him outside to an idling white Lexus. The last Miles saw of him was Cathcart being pushed into the backseat of the car.

Once all four Men in Black got in, the Lexus revved its engine and shot out of the loading zone with an eerie squeal of its tires.

In the lobby, Miles checked his phone and saw an incoming call. He felt the blood rush out of his face, same as it had for Cathcart.

There’d been a fire at his studio.

One Year Earlier

“I was never much of an artist,” the candidate told Miles, sitting on a wooden bench smeared with ancient paint drippings. Her hands fidgeted in her lap, brushing at chinos back and forth. “I like the, you know, concrete side of things.” Her face brightened. “Like the farm worker you did. That image always stuck with me…!”

Miles smiled and nodded. “Chavez in Memoriam. Yeah, I’m real proud of it. MoMA made my career the moment they bought it at auction.”

He shared a glance with Nicole Tran, the other bespectacled woman in the warehouse studio. She hadn’t once put away her phone, constantly pacing over creaking floorboards as she checked the latest reactions on Instagram and typed up a storm of messages to other staffers. If she found the sight of half-finished oil portraits and monochrome urban photographs appealing, she didn’t show it, save for a slight nod in Miles’s direction.

“I mean, I figure that’s a look we can try out?” Fidelia gestured to a line of sketches on the wall beside her. Half-finished men and women on dry canvases. “Like, Larry Cathcart’s whole Army photo with a German shepherd. It’s appealing to his base, but I feel it’s very…”

“Fascist?” Miles offered.

“A little harsh, but yeah.”

“Yeah, but look at his campaign art. You can tell he cribbed from Shepard Fairey’s Obama poster.” Miles shrugged. “Every candidate wants to look like that now, and they’re only adding to the noise. But I think we can do better. For example, this.”

He drew her attention to the canvas resting on his desk, where he’d started with a golden heart before adding the white block letters F and M. Add behind those letters the three tones of the bisexual pride flag—blue, pink, violet—and the finished product was some postmodern LGBTQ superhero emblem. Something Marvel or DC Comics would’ve drafted up for a Pride Month special issue of a B-list character.

Fidelia could only tilt her head to the side. “Huh. So… not the farm worker?”

“Miss Marquez—”

“Fidelia, please.”

“Okay.” Miles rubbed his hands together, stepping back as the floorboards creaked under his shoes. “It’s flashy, I know. It’s not the quiet dignified look you wanted. But, all due respect, that’s not you, Fidelia. You’re openly bi. You’re a Parks and Rec director who beautified your corner of LA. And your every appearance gets thousands of comments on Reddit and 4chan, both good and bad. So, yeah, it’s a flashy look, but it’s a combative look. You own yourself with this image, and you give voters and supporters a brand they can rally around, too.”

“I’m not looking to make Cathcart my Thanos or Darth Vader. This is about public service.”

“Well, these days, aren’t public servants basically superheroes?”

Fidelia didn’t respond. She stared down at the logo, tapping her chin.

“It’s the Superman look,” Miles continued. “Everyone sees that giant S, and they know who it stands for. They know what he stands for. They see F.M., and they think hope. They see blue, violet, gold, and they think change. It’s all in the branding.” Miles grinned. “All Cathcart’s got is a German shepherd and a few bland commercials. He’s unimaginative, both as a candidate and as a Senator.”

When she looked up, Fidelia’s eyes had narrowed. Miles found himself stepping back. He noticed, too, the way her fingers had twisted around each other again.

“That’s not all he’s got.” The candidate’s voice went low. “Sawyer and Sharp. You must’ve heard of them, right?”

Miles shrugged. “Scary PR guys. They’re, like, Karl Rove on steroids.”

“Oh, if only.” Fidelia adjusted her glasses on the bridge of her nose. “They’re the guys who rounded up all the LAPD protests last summer. They flooded the airwaves with ads that killed Andrea Cole Bancroft’s SCOTUS nomination. And they did it all from a tiny air-conditioned office in San Clemente.” Her hand shivered as she adjusted her glasses again. “They make Nixon’s dirty tricks look like… Queensbury rules.”

A slight cough from Nicole Tran brought Miles’s focus back on her. He noted the embarrassed look she sent Fidelia’s way, and the blush that accompanied it. Fidelia nodded back, stepping closer to be right beside her campaign advisor. The way their hands almost touched, as if feeding each other strength, sent a chill down Miles’s spine.

He flashed back to an ex-girlfriend on a cold night on Hermosa Beach, on a Prom Night ended in tears. Offering his hand the moment headlights pulled up alongside the sidewalk.

“Yeah,” he said, “I suppose they’ll take aim at you however they can.”

Turning to his finished canvas, he stood quietly and nodded to himself.

“Okay. I’ve got other pieces, but I’m telling you, I feel a victory behind this one…”


The firefighters left him sitting on the sidewalk under a trauma blanket, shivering despite the hot winds blowing out from the wreckage across the street. Miles could only stare at fading embers and a column of smoke slowly morphing from black to gray. Thousands of hours embedded in those bricks and floorboards, vaporized in mere minutes. He couldn’t make himself believe it. He could only grip tighter at the edge of the wool blanket near his chest and try to stop shaking.

Tried, and failed.

He didn’t turn around when a pair of shuffling footsteps approached. With a quick sniff, Miles noted a change in the air around him. Less ash and smoke, more decaying roses and some horrible chemical reek burning through his nostrils.

Formaldehyde. That was the smell. Like standing in a pile of dead fish.

“Quite a night,” a voice rasped behind him.

Miles nodded. “Yeah. Quite a night. How’d your vote turn out?”

The stranger didn’t respond.

“I got what I wanted,” Miles continued. An easy grin came to his face. “You want to spend your time tearing her down? Go for it.” He chuckled, even though his throat was sore from all the soot he’d inhaled. “You want to tear me down? Be my guest. I got nothing else to lose.”

“That’s not how this game works,” the stranger hissed.

“Sure it is.”

“You misunderstand, Mr. Atlas. There will be no next time. You served your purpose, just as her opponent served his.”

Miles hesitated. He kept his gaze on the smoldering warehouse. “That what you told Cathcart?”

The stranger laughed—the sound of fingernails scratching bare skin. “Forget him. Everyone soon will. We have far more interest in what the Senator-elect will offer us.

When Miles didn’t respond—when he couldn’t, past the tears in his eyes and wheezing past the gunk in his mouth—the stranger put a business card into his palm. Slowly, Miles lifted his gaze from the embossed black-on-white card to the hand offering it. A pale, stiff hand inside a black coat sleeve. His eyes trailed further up to meet the gaze of a stony, ashen-faced man with thinning hair. A Man in Black, carved in granite and dressed by Armani.

Only the eyes were wrong. Those soft blue eyes had looked at him across a ballroom floor.

“We expect to see you,” said the man who had once been Lawrence Cathcart in a parched voice. “Tuesday morning, nine-thirty. Good evening, Mr. Atlas.”

He turned to leave, melting into the shadows behind the ambulance and fire trucks without another word. Without the shuffling of footsteps. Only the rotten odor of dead roses and fish, cologne and formaldehyde, lingered.

Miles wanted to rip the card in half, crush it beneath his heel. But he read it anyway.


Somewhere in the city, Miles heard sirens wailing and car horns blaring.

He pulled out his phone and tried to call Nicole Tran.

No answer.

He texted her, Urgent. S.S. wants you and F.M.

Still no response.

Throwing the trauma blanket off his shoulders, Miles grabbed onto a nearby fire hydrant for support and shook as he got to his feet. He pocketed the business card, even as he imagined black oily tendrils seeping into his clothes and through his skin, pumping corruption into his veins with every step he took. Miles fought for air and coughed. He ignored a paramedic’s attempt to hold him back, and he stumbled forward into the windy night.

As he crossed the next intersection, Miles thumbed at the Lyft app on his phone. The Westin Bonaventure Hotel was only seven minutes away by rideshare—or half an hour on foot on South Flower Street. Either way, he swallowed lungful of cool, smoke-free air as he hoofed it north toward the glittering cityscape. His mind was filled with blue and white balloons dropping from the ceiling, superhero logos on caps and T-shirts, and the living shadow that was four men in black suits dragging their prey to a gruesome fate.

He had to stop and catch his breath at the corner of Flower and Olympic, and Miles saw police cars race by, red and blue lights flashing.

All racing toward the Bonaventure.

Miles stood on the corner, holding onto the pole of a street light for dear life, breathing hard.

He didn’t blink when his Lyft driver finally arrived in a charcoal gray Honda Civic. Hopping into the backseat, Miles bent forward and rubbed the smoke and tears from his eyes. He felt stupidly grateful for the warm seat cushions and the lo-fi melody playing out of the driver’s phone. Some jazzy hip-hop tune paying homage to the late Nujabes, or perhaps Ariel Pink. The driver was an Asian twentysomething who offered him water bottles and gluten-free snacks, his sedan cruising through Tuesday night traffic.

Miles didn’t answer any of his attempts at small talk. He stared ahead at the distant glassy shape of the Bonaventure Hotel, imagining the cheers within, seeing his F.M. logo adorning its walls, and praying like hell he’d make it in time.

Interested to see where this story goes? Read more about it in the complete miniseries Sawyer and Sharp, now available for purchase on Amazon!