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?”
“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.
SAWYER AND SHARP. ONE VOICE. ONE VISION.
Somewhere in the city, Miles heard sirens wailing and car horns blaring.
He pulled out his phone and tried to call Nicole Tran.
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!