Many of you have known me as a local politician or an attorney. Others may know me through my first book "Citizen Cohn: Memoir of Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn" which was published last year. After the shock of the 2016 election, I have spent the last year writing a novel. Although I have written many legal and political advocacy pieces over the years, fiction has proven to be my voice of choice in this new era of "fake news" and "alternative facts".
Welcome to “The Blue Sky Rebellion”, my debut novel to be published later this year, which is set in the near future with America wracked by climate change, economic inequality and terrorism. Out of a toxic political culture arises a billionaire con man who conspires with Russia to hijack the election and expand his power and family fortune. Sound familiar? Of course, but what happens next may surprise you.
A grass roots environmental and human rights movement arises in Northern California and spreads like wildfire to fight the nation’s slide into fascism and save the planet from the ravages of climate change. When the President’s puppet masters up the ante, the movement erupts into a full-fledged rebellion energized by the unlikeliest of heroes, an aimless young man named Nick Cline who journeys through the heart of America seeking his identity. But will he discover his destiny in time to help a reeling nation recommit to certain truths it once declared to be self-evident?
Please enjoy the opening chapters of this fast-paced novel inspired by political works such as “The Manchurian Candidate”, “The Man in the High Castle”, “Primary Colors” and the Norwegian Netflix series “Occupied". Let me know what you think about what I've written, and most important, if you'd like to read more.
“The Blue Sky Rebellion”
Chapter 1. Election Day
Nick Cline sat at his favorite table on the outdoor deck at Peet’s Coffee overlooking the corner of 20th and J Streets in Midtown Sacramento. A graceful row of sycamore trees lined both sides of the street, their leaves shining golden in the warm autumn sun. His phone buzzed, spoiling the serenity of his meditation. It was a text from his best friend Tom Miller. “My moms out of town so lets party at my house at 10. Hook up with kristin & lauren at Track 7 at 7. U in?”
The best parties were always at Tom’s place. His single mother wasn’t home half the time and it was centrally located on the west end of Oak Park, within shouting distance of the eight-lane freeway that bisected the old neighborhood. Tom’s friends were discreet enough and the freeway noise loud enough that the neighbors rarely complained.
Nick paused a moment before responding. He had promised his parents he’d join them for his father’s election night dinner, but that was before he had an opportunity for a hook up and party. If all went smoothly, he might not even have to cancel dinner with his folks. He could meet them just before eight, congratulate his Dad on his reelection, and still have time to meet up with Tom and the two Sacramento City College coeds they met the night before. Wishful thinking. He texted back, “Definitely but lets meet Kristin and Lauren at 8 instead. Gotta be somewhere first.”
“Got it”, replied Tom.
It wasn’t easy being the Mayor’s son. It was kind of cool meeting famous people and going to some of the marquee events in town like the NBA playoffs, but the pressure to live up to everyone’s expectations wore on him. His father would always tell him not to worry. “Just be yourself,” he’d say. If Nick performed poorly in a sporting event, his dad would say, “Son, I don’t care whether you win or lose. Just give it your best shot.”
Sometimes Nick would have to admit that he hadn’t given it his best shot. He’d get distracted by something or just lose focus. His father would shrug it off, but when Nick didn’t do well in school, his mother, a high school Spanish teacher, would weigh in big time. It didn’t help matters that he earned his worst grades in Spanish, his mother’s native language and the subject she taught in school. Some times, Nick just wanted to get away.
Election Day was a time of unlimited opportunity and unprecedented peril. The prospect of California’s popular young rising star, Senator Pamela Huang, becoming the first woman President of the United States hung in the balance. Everyone knew Senator Huang would win. Most young voters admired her leadership on environmental and economic justice issues. Older and educated voters appreciated her quiet, contemplative manner. Friend and foe alike viewed her as a genuine champion of the “little guy.”
But storm clouds loomed on the horizon in the form of her opponent, Ronald Stone, an egocentric billionaire with business ties to Russia. Though Chairman of the Board of Penron, the largest oil and gas conglomerate in the world, Stone presented himself as the populist champion of the workingman. Stone started out as a wildcatter, forming his own oil exploration company. Through a series of shrewd and timely mergers and acquisitions, he managed to put himself into position to land the big whale, Penron. Critics pointed out that he benefited from an aggressive guardian angel in the form of the Russian oil giant Gaznost. But white working class voters admired his rough and tumble style and how he elbowed his way to the top.
Despite a complete lack of political experience and a checkered personal and professional life, Stone managed to insult and bully his way through his party’s nominating process. Because of his negatives, Stone decided early in the general election campaign to try to knock Huang down to his level and drag her into a mud-wrestling match. For an oilman, he knew how to entertain, but for most Americans, the presidential contest had turned into a travesty and the end could not come soon enough.
The Mayor of Sacramento Alex Cline spent more time working on his friend Pamela Huang’s campaign than he did on his own reelection. Today he decided to leave City Hall early and head over to his campaign headquarters to make some last minute calls and help a few voters get to the polls before they closed. Even while stumping for Huang, he did double duty, walking precincts and campaigning just as hard for his own reelection as he did when he won his first City Council election a decade earlier. He had learned never to take a win for granted even when leading by 30 percent in the latest polls. Most folks considered Alex’s victory a fait accompli.
Alex walked out the main entrance to City Hall opening on to Sa’Cumn’e Plaza, gazing up at the two civic buildings on either side. The larger, modern City Hall wrapped around the older Beaux Arts-style City Hall as if to embrace it. Between the two structures loomed a massive bronze fountain shaped like an overflowing wicker basket. Alex paused to consider the inscription on its pedestal that read, “Sa’Cumn’e means ‘Big House’ in the Miwok Language, an early name for the Sacramento area.” He smiled, acknowledging his special responsibility to guide his beloved community through the next generation, as the Miwok tribal elders had done for millennia after migrating from Asia and building the first village here 8,500 years ago.
Alex walked out the northeast end of Sa’Cumn’e Plaza and crossed I Street to the City’s historic central plaza, surrounded on all sides by busy streets and landmark buildings. He saw dozens of people dining al fresco at the plaza cafe or milling about the burbling art deco fountain and the heroic statue of Cesar Chavez.
As usual, the locals gravitated towards the Mayor. An older woman walked up to him and said, “Thank you for saving ‘Pops in the Park’. Those concerts really help bring families together.” A man in a suit and tie approached him to say, “Thanks for bringing Major League Baseball to Sacramento. It’s about time.” Several more citizens approached and spoke softly in his ear, “I voted for you,” as if revealing top secret information. Alex thanked each one individually.
Sacramento had grown by leaps and bounds since Alex was a kid in the 1980’s, yet he still seemed to know everyone in town. Even as he approached 50, he still had a trim, athletic build, a JFK-like mop of thick brown hair, piercing green eyes and a playful charm that lent him sex appeal beyond his ordinary appearance. Ever since he was a kid everyone loved Alex and, except for a few chronic malcontents, City voters did too.
As Alex chatted with a few more of his admirers, one of the City’s chronic malcontents, a balding, overweight, white man wearing an “America Above All else” tee shirt walked briskly up to Alex, shoving an elderly man out of the way to get in the Mayor’s face.
“How do you live with yourself?”
Alex backed up a step, smelling the strong scent of whiskey on the gruff man’s breath. “I beg your pardon?”
The man leaned in. “You support that lying bitch Huang for President. I’d never vote for you in a million years.”
“Well, that’s the beautiful thing about a democracy. You don’t have to.”
“I hope you lose by a million votes tonight,” said the man with a self-satisfied grin.
Losing by a million votes would be quite a feat considering Sacramento had less than half a million voters. But Alex just bit his lower lip. “You’re entitled to your opinion, but that doesn’t give you the right to be rude.”
At that moment, a young man with spiked purple hair rode up on a skateboard to shake the Mayor’s hand. “Can I take a picture with you?”
Alex turned away thankfully from the disgruntled Stone supporter, nodded and smiled. “Of course.” After taking the selfie, the young man skated away shouting, “We love the new skateboard park in Natomas.” Alex shouted back, “Glad to hear it!”
After a few more minutes pressing the flesh, Alex excused himself, and walked over to the bike share stand on the corner. He tapped his watch to activate a solar-electric bike. He hopped on and sped down J Street towards his campaign headquarters five miles away. He cruised along the same route as the streetcar line, occasionally glancing up at Downtown’s high-rise skyline. He rode past Memorial Auditorium through Midtown and crossed under the Capital City Freeway before rolling through shady East Sacramento to his headquarters on the east end of the neighborhood near the Sacramento State campus.
Alex deactivated the bike in front of his campaign headquarters and walked in to raucous cheers. He waved at his campaign staff and volunteers, then sat down at a desk in back and began making calls.
An hour later, Alex’s wife Ana Castillo steered an autonomous, electric share car into a reserved parking space in front and entered the noisy campaign office. The moment Ana entered the room, the noise level dropped ten decibels. Alex understood why people stared at her, especially men. Her father’s Mexican lineage blended with her mother's Filipino ancestry to give her exotically beautiful facial features and a silky smooth mocha skin tone that complemented her dark, flowing hair and large brown eyes, not to mention her shapely legs sculpted by years of soccer and cycling. Alex couldn’t help feeling a bit jealous, as if he wanted to keep her beauty all to himself.
Alex’s campaign manager Josh turned his head to see what the commotion was all about. He nodded at Ana, then resumed marking up charts on the wall with precinct-voter data while dozens of enthusiastic high school students and campaign volunteers made get-out-the-vote calls.
A local television reporter asked Alex for a quick on-air interview. Alex talked about his goals for the next four years to make Sacramento “the most livable city in America”. When Alex finished, Josh motioned for the crowd to quiet down and gather round to hear Alex say a few words.
Alex stood and faced his staff and volunteers from the front of the room. “I want to thank all of you for your hard work on this campaign. I couldn’t have done any of this without you. I especially want to thank my better half, Ana Castillo.” The two joined hands, waving their free hands to the crowd.
“I couldn’t be Mayor without Ana.” The crowd stood and continued to cheer as he introduced his campaign staff.
“As I often say, there’s no other place I’d rather be than right here right now in Sacramento.” Alex paused for effect and added, “The most livable city in America.” Another pause and a big smile. “It’s good to be Mayor.” More cheers.
Alex cupped his hands almost in prayer. “I’m sorry to say that I can’t stay for the victory party tonight.” A few audible groans pierced the silence. “But I hope you will forgive me. I am going down to San Francisco to support my good friend and THE NEXT PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, California’s own Pamela Huang.” The crowd stood and cheered again. To his delight, his supporters started chanting “four more years” as the beautiful couple waved and left the headquarters.
Nick frittered away the rest of the afternoon. He returned home to smoke some weed, then took a nap. When he awoke, it was already seven forty five. He realized he wouldn’t have time to see his parents and still meet Tom by eight. So he jumped out of bed, got dressed and drove his beat up sky blue Fiat 500 electric directly to Track 7’s brewery near Sac City College.
Nick parked his car and walked into the taproom through the open roll-up metal door. The place was hopping with dozens of twenty somethings drinking beer by the pint and snacking on sandwiches and wraps from a food truck parked out front. He spotted Tom sitting at a picnic table with Kristin, Lauren and a pitcher of beer. Wearing jeans and a Grateful Dead skeleton tee shirt, Tom spread his long skinny legs under the table. He took a hit from the joint he was smoking and passed it to Kristin. She was almost as tall as Tom, with long blonde hair and an angular face and body. Lauren sat across the table from Tom and Kristin. She was much shorter and curvier, with long black hair and a dark tan. Both wore short skirts despite the slight chill in the evening air. Neither Nick nor Tom complained.
Nick sat down next to Lauren as Tom lifted a pint of the pub’s signature Panic IPA in salute to Nick. “It’s about time, dude. First round’s on me.”
The foursome proceeded to finish the pitcher and a round of whiskey shooters. Nick got up to order another round when the sound of verbal combat broke through the crowd noise. Two large young men wearing matching red baseball caps with an “America Above All Else” logo and well-worn football lettermen jackets were shoving and yelling at a smaller third man who was wearing blue jeans, a black tee shirt and a sky blue “Huang for President” cap. The third man was lean and muscular but no match for the two-man tag team.
“We don’t need your kind in here rag head. Go back to where you belong!” one of the beefy men said to the thin man, knocking the beer mug out of his hands. The thin man stumbled back, shell shocked as the mug shattered on the floor, shards of glass sliding on a river of spilled beer. A young woman sitting next to the thin man leaned from her chair to avoid the scuffle and flying debris. She tapped his shoulder. “Mahmoud, let’s get of here. We don’t need any trouble.”
But Mahmoud wasn’t ready to give in so easily. He righted himself and swung at the bigger of the two lettermen, connecting with a left to the jaw. But the punch didn’t faze the big man. He punched Mahmoud in the gut, while his buddy sneaked up behind and pinned Mahmoud’s arms back. The big man pummeled Mahmoud with one punch after another, connecting with devastating blows to his face and stomach. Blood streamed from a cut above Mahmoud’s eye and nose. He hunched over in agony, but the larger man kept punching until Mahmoud dropped to the floor.
Mahmoud’s girlfriend reached out to help him up. One of the football players pinched the woman on her butt as she escorted Mahmoud away from the patio. She knocked his hand away, then hurried off frowning. The two lettermen laughed and high-fived each other. They looked around as if daring anyone to challenge them, but no one said anything.
Tom looked at Nick and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
Nick said, “Since when is Sacramento a safe haven for racist bullies? We need to do something.”
Tom said, “Like what? Get our ass kicked? We need to go to my house for the party. We don’t have time for trouble here.”
Kristin said, “Tom’s right. Those guys look like big trouble.”
Nick shrugged. They paid the bill with a phone app, and then got up to leave.
As they walked out, Nick looked back at the thugs. The larger one glared at him. Nick shook his head and kept walking to the parking lot with the others. He texted his parents while opening the Fiat passenger door for Lauren. Tom rode over in Kristin’s car for the five-minute drive to his house.
Over the next few hours, thirty of their friends jammed into the small bungalow to do all the things that young people like to do when left to their own devices. Nick tried to drown out the memory of the violent scene he had just witnessed with a mix of beer, Jagermeisters and pot. About three in the morning, the party died down. Tom moved to pair up with Kristen and Nick with Lauren for a little late night romance, but they were all so stoned and drunk, they drifted off to sleep instead.
Chapter 2. Victory Parties
Alex and Ana hopped into the e-car and zoomed quietly down Folsom Boulevard from the campaign headquarters to Midtown. They dropped the car at the valet desk in front of the venerable Zocalo Restaurant at the corner of 18th and Capitol, two blocks east of the majestic Palm tree-lined Capitol Park. Ana tipped the valet and they entered the restaurant.
A large crowd had already gathered. Since its founding in the late 20th Century, Zocalo still served the best Mexican food in town and, true to its Aztec origin meaning “the central plaza”, it was “the” place to be on election night. Dozens of people were sitting outdoors at the sidewalk tables enjoying the beautiful autumn evening. Even more were inside, crowded around the bar or seated at tables drinking margaritas and cervezas, eating the best chicken mole poblano this side of Mexico, or just soaking in the scene.
Ana and Alex waved to a few people, and then headed to the banquet room where the VIP dinner was already in progress. Before the VIP dinner was over and the public victory party started, Alex and Ana would be long gone, on their way to San Francisco.
Steaming platters of mole, pozole, enchiladas, quesadillas, tacos, tamales, burritos and chile rellenos were set on the buffet tables ready to be to devoured by the eager guests. Dozens of Alex’s friends and supporters sat at three long tables. The room included some of the top business, government, environmental, civil rights and union leaders in Sacramento, along with the usual smattering of attorneys, lobbyists, party loyalists and neighborhood activists.
Alex’s mother and father greeted them first, followed by Ana’s parents. They took turns hugging and kissing. Ana’s mother Maria held Alex’s hands and said, “Buena suerte”. Then they sat down at the head of the center table.
Alex and Ana already knew their daughter Angela would not be joining them for dinner. A senior at McClatchy High School, Angela had soccer practice and a rehearsal for a school play. But they expected to see their son Nick. Alex shrugged off Nick’s absence, turning to smile and greet his friends around the room, but Ana was preoccupied with trying to track him down.
Two of Alex’s long-time friends, Dr. Stephanie Carroll, a climatologist at the University of California, Davis, and Tina Reston, a successful land use attorney and major power broker in state politics, sat across from each other at one end of the table. Stephanie said, “I can't believe we’ve wasted so much time with a useless debate over whether climate change was really happening, even as the effects keep accelerating.”
Tina nodded. “That idiot Stone is still in denial, even with his Florida home 20 feet under water.”
Stephanie sipped her glass of Bogle Chardonnay. “The time for debate should have been over years ago. But no, we had to wait until half the country was destroyed.”
BB Russell entered the room balancing a plate of tacos and enchiladas in one hand and a pint of amber ale in the other. “Thankfully the worst of it’s been in those places where they wallow in anti-science propaganda. Serves them right.” The crisis manager at the California Department of Emergency Services, BB hailed from Rocky Top, Tennessee. He tried to lick his fingers and talk at the same time. “I cain’t believe they wouldn’t hedge their bets. Heck, maybe take some minimal steps to reduce oil use or adapt to rising temps and water?” BB said “oil” like he was gargling it.
Michelle Dupont, Chief of Staff to California Governor Teddy Yoder, chimed in “You can thank the Governor the effects are less severe in California.”
Stephanie replied: “Yeah and everywhere else they take climate change seriously.”
“Well, you have to admit Yoder did more than talk the talk. He walked the walk. Long before it was fashionable, he made sure we did the right things.” Michelle ticked off her left thumb and fingers one by one: “conservation, renewables, electric cars, high speed rail, smart grid.”
Alex’s Chief of Staff, stood up and raised her glass for a toast. “We should all take pride in our fair city, the green capital of the Golden State. Here’s to our current and future Mayor.” The friendly tables erupted in huzzahs all around.
Alex smiled and rose like King Arthur at his round table. “Could you all quit congratulating yourselves for living in the best place on earth long enough so I can hear what’s going on with the election?” The tables shook with laughter as Alex’s friends and supporters turned their attention to the holographic display that took up one end of the room. Life-size, three-dimensional images of the CNN studio panel discussed the early returns as if they sat right in front of the Mayor’s tables.
When the first vote counts came in from the East and Midwest, things looked very good for Senator Huang. All the major networks declared her the winner in states with 269 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win compared to 178 for Stone. They projected her to win all the deep blue states along the West and East Coasts, as well as Colorado, New Mexico and the key battleground states of Michigan and Pennsylvania. She even won a surprising come from behind victory in West Virginia, where her party had led a successful transition from coal to clean energy.
However, six states remained too close to call. Huang led narrowly in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio, but trailed in Arizona and North Carolina. For some unknown reason the networks reported no results at all from Florida, even though the polls had long since closed there.
Alex quickly calculated the bottom line. If Huang were to take any of the five remaining states, she would win. Stone on the other hand would have to draw to an inside straight, winning all six of the closely contested states still outstanding. Even then he would only tie her at best. All in all, it looked like a very good night for Senator Huang and her fellow partisans.
When the first results for Sacramento came in, the local media immediately declared Alex the winner of the Mayor’s race with 75 percent of the vote. Alex and Ana got up from the table and completed a round of toasts and hugs and kisses with everyone around the room. Before Alex could find the exit, several local reporters hit him up for quick sound bites. Ana had to practically push him out the door.
As they walked outside, Ana showed Alex the text from Nick: “Sorry I couldn’t make dinner. Tell Dad congrats!” Alex sneered. “Typical Nick. He doesn’t bother to explain where he is or why he didn’t come.”
Alex and Ana drove to Sacramento Valley Station and parked the car in a convenient e-car space. They walked under the Steve Cohn Passageway from the historic depot to the platform to board the high speed Capitol Corridor train for the 60-minute ride to San Francisco.
Alex and Ana flashed their mobile phone tickets to the conductor and took their seats. The train departed the station right on time, but the usually reliable WiFi network was down. Since they couldn’t follow the election results during the train ride, they went to the café car to relax. Alex ordered two flutes of Korbel Brut Rosé. Ana loved this sparkling wine from the nearby Russian River because it was delicious and locally sourced. The bartender in the starched white shirt and black vest said, “You got it. Just have a seat and I’ll bring it right over.”
Ana and Alex sat next to a floor-to-ceiling window in one of the newly redesigned California café cars. They sipped their wine and watched the Vic Fazio National Wildlife Refuge and bird sanctuary flash by at 125 mph. The train smoothly decelerated on the approach to downtown Davis, home of the U.S. Bicycle Hall of Fame. A few dozen UC Davis students boarded the train, many of them wearing “Aggie Pride” tees and sweat shirts or blue and gold UCD caps with bucking bronco logos.
The train accelerated again to traverse the Suisun wetland marshes. The passengers hardly noticed as the train’s speed climbed to 200 mph. Ana put her glass down, wrinkled her forehead and curled her lips. She turned to look Alex in the eyes: ‘I’m worried about Nick.”
“What else is new?”
“We’ve got to do something.”
“We’ve tried everything. He just keeps acting out. It’s getting worse.”
“I feel like we haven’t done enough. The boy needs his father and you haven’t spent enough time with him.”
“Look Ana, he’s not a boy any more. Next year, he’ll turn 21 for Christ’s sake. He’s got to bear some responsibility at a certain point.”
“You need to spend more time with him.”
“Look Ana, this isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation. I’m doing my best, but there aren’t enough hours in the day.”
Ana shot him a disapproving look, the one he had seen so many times before. The look that said family needs to come first, above work and politics.
Ana’s family immigrated to San Diego from Cuernavaca, Mexico, when she was three. Her parents still owned a small import business in Ocean Beach, where she grew up. But they remained a very close, tight-knit family. Ana had starred as a scholar-athlete at University High School before landing a full ride to the University of San Diego and leading the Toreros women’s soccer team to a national title and All-America honors. She had been a sure bet to make the US women’s Olympic and World Cup soccer teams until suffering a devastating knee injury that ended her playing career. With her soccer playing days behind her, she had gone on a Junior Year Abroad program in Seville, Spain, where she met Alex.
It was love at first sight. They spent more and more time together after college, first at Lake Tahoe where Ana worked while Alex was on a Fulbright Scholarship in France, then in Sacramento while Alex attended UC Davis Law School. After Nick and Angela were born, Ana got her dream job teaching Spanish at McClatchy High School. Her schedule meshed well with their children’s school schedule.
Instead of spending each day enjoying their time together like they used to, they spent too much time worrying or arguing about their kids. Well, at least one of them. A model student and self-starter, Angela pretty much took care of herself. Nick on the other hand required constant supervision.
Alex and Ana felt the tug of the silent but powerful force of the train’s motor as they climbed the graceful new rail bridge across the Carquinez Straits connecting the Sacramento River to San Francisco Bay. The train slowed down to stop in downtown Martinez, the county seat of Contra Costa County. Martinez was known for exactly four things. One, it was the final home of 19th Century naturalist John Muir. Two, it was the birthplace of baseball icon Joe DiMaggio, the “Yankee Clipper” who still held the all-time record of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games. Three, the “Martini” cocktail was first concocted there. And four, it had the best bocce ball courts this side of Italy. Alex would add a fifth thing, Martinez was the birthplace and home of his mother Caroline Tavares, a retired high school French and Spanish teacher and the oldest of eight children whose French Canadian and Portuguese great grandparents immigrated to California in the last century.
After several people climbed aboard, the train sped through the oak-studded hills of Franklin Canyon to the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay, then paused in west Oakland before dipping under the Bay through a tunnel to downtown San Francisco.
Ana and Alex got off at the Transbay Terminal, the busiest intermodal station west of New York and the connecting hub for virtually all of the intercity, commuter and regional rail, bus, streetcar and shuttle systems in the Bay Area, including rail connections to the international airports in San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland and San Jose. They walked a few blocks down Market Street where they entered the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. When it was designed and built by neofuturist architect John Portman in 1973, the Hyatt was the crown jewel in the City’s major redevelopment project called Embarcadero Center. Located across from the historic Ferry Building in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, the L-shaped parcel featured five massive, concrete high rises built at the foot of Market Street, surrounded by several parks and outdoor plazas. The Hyatt was initially considered an engineering marvel with its towering atrium opening up to the 20th floor like a vertical indoor plaza. Every room on every floor opened to a balcony with a view down to the lobby.
The Hyatt’s inward focus made sense when it was built next to the elevated Embarcadero Freeway. But when the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 forced the closure of the massive freeway structure, an opportunity magically opened for unobstructed bay views. As beautiful new residential and office towers sprung to life all along the Embarcadero, it seemed just a matter of time before the Redevelopment-era hotel would be replaced by a sleek new glass tower that took full advantage of the 360-degree views. Yet here it was decades later and the big old concrete bunker still remained. Of course, it was a great location for a party event, even more so after the Hyatt signed a labor peace deal with the San Francisco Labor Council.
When Alex and Ana arrived at the Huang Victory Party on the lower level of the hotel, Huang supporters were milling around the room anxiously, despite the positive early returns. They had good reason to worry. Although Huang had maintained a sizable lead over Stone in all of the tracking polls throughout the summer and fall, a concerted disinformation campaign by Wikileaks and Russia still threatened to derail her candidacy.
Then out of nowhere just 10 days before the election, FBI Director James Miller wrote a letter to Congress announcing that an FBI investigation had been opened into whether Senator Huang, her family or associates had violated any federal laws or regulations in their dealings with business and government officials in the People’s Republic of China. The investigation appeared to be based solely on unfounded accusations and sketchy information culled from illegal computer hacks into Senator Huang’s family emails and published by Wikileaks. Although there was no official confirmation, the hacks were widely believed to be done by Russian government spies and trolls.
Then there were the hundreds of social media ads attacking Huang with all manner of false and spurious claims. These fake news campaigns appeared too ridiculous to be believed by serious voters, yet they continued to pop up in the social media pages of targeted voters in all of the tightly contested precincts of each battleground state.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Pamela graduated from Stanford with a degree in civil engineering, before finishing at the top of her class at Yale Law School. As a young Deputy District Attorney with much less experience than her competitors, she won a surprising San Francisco DA’s race, whereupon the media quickly anointed her a rising political star. She rose quickly from there to win a close election for California Attorney General and an easy victory for U.S. Senate, before coasting to her party’s Presidential nomination. People were drawn to her youthful beauty and powerful intellect.
Her father Huang Qi-Min, known in America as Simon Huang, was born in a small village outside Guangzhou in China’s Guangdong province, formerly known as “Canton”. He immigrated to the U.S. before Pamela was born, earning a degree in mechanical engineering as a scholarship student at UC Berkeley where he met and married his wife Mary, an exchange student from South Africa. Simon Huang started a successful engineering firm that designed battery storage systems making it possible for intermittent renewables like solar and wind energy to become reliable base-load resources for the interconnected electric grids in California and throughout the world. Huang’s battery storage system was one of several renewable energy technologies featured during a business trip to China by a delegation of California legislators and civic leaders led by Pamela and Alex 10 years before.
Until this recent controversy, no one had ever suggested anything improper about Huang’s company or the Huang family’s ties to China. The FBI Director's public announcement of an ongoing investigation was suspicious, particularly the timing of its release so close to a contested election.
Although most voters considered the FBI announcement and the Wikileaks release transparent political ploys to help Stone, Huang supporters worried that a gullible public could be swayed by such shiny new objects just days before the election. Despite the unfounded allegations dropping at the eleventh hour, Huang’s hopes were buoyed by her continuous double-digit lead over Stone in the latest polls.
Alex and Ana broke through a mob of supporters to hug Pamela and wish her well. Alex kissed Pamela on the cheek and said “I always knew you had it in you!” Ana shook her hand and said “Congratulations!”
Ana managed to smile and be gracious whenever she was around Pamela, which wasn’t very often given the awkwardness between the two women. Ana couldn’t help thinking of the time that Alex and Pamela had a brief but torrid affair during their trip together in China. By the time Alex and Pamela returned from China, they both knew the affair was over. They tried to hide it, but Ana could tell by the way Pamela avoided eye contact with her. Pamela was single at the time, but Alex and Ana had two young kids at home. Alex admitted the affair only after Ana confronted him. After a brief but painful separation, Alex and Ana reunited and tried to keep the past behind them. Meanwhile, Pamela seemingly had no problem letting go, marrying Rachit Nehru, a Silicon Valley billionaire, a year later. Whatever personal animosities Ana harbored about Pamela, she strongly supported her as a Presidential candidate and was thrilled to see a woman finally on the brink of being President.
Most of the partygoers milled about the large ballroom looking up at the holographic images displaying the network telecasts. When the networks called Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin for Stone, an all too familiar queasiness spread like Legionnaires disease among the partisan crowd. Could this be a repeat of election nightmares past? Where were the results from Florida?
In the congressional races, Republicans were headed toward a clear majority in the House, while Democrats looked to maintain a slim lead in the Senate.
Just before midnight Pacific time, the networks trumpeted the news from Florida. To everyone’s relief at the Huang party, she had taken a commanding 100,000-vote lead over Stone, with 98 percent of the vote counted. Within minutes, all of the networks declared Huang the winner. No matter what happened in the remaining states that were not yet final, the Florida win would give Huang at least 300 electoral votes. In addition, she was blowing Stone away in the national popular vote, leading by a whopping 11 percent margin. If this lead held, it would project to 15 million more votes for Huang, the largest margin of victory since Ronald Reagan’s in 1984. Nevertheless, the ever cautious Huang held off declaring victory in her late night speech, even as her jubilant supporters filed out of the large hall with big smiles on their faces, relieved to have survived such a close call.
Ana and Alex took a Lyft to their hotel room at the Marine Memorial Club near Union Square. They set no alarm so they could sleep in late.
Chapter 3. The Party’s Over
Nick stretched his arms and yawned. “Whoa dude. Helluva night!” He looked up from the living room floor over at his buddy Tom lying on the sagging couch that took up a good third of the living room of the bungalow Tom shared with his mother. Tom grunted and got up to make some coffee at the counter dividing the kitchen from the living room. Nick couldn’t remember who slept with whom after all the beer and shots they drank and the killer weed they smoked.
As Nick stood to help, he noticed that the door to the bedroom was wide open. Kristen and Lauren, the two coeds they had hooked up with the night before, were sleeping on the queen-size bed. Kristen lay flat on her back, legs spread, and no covers to hide her private parts. Nick could see she was a natural blonde. She was snoring loud enough to wake the dead, but apparently not loud enough to rouse Lauren lying beside her, partly covered by a sheet, her bare bottom exposed as her left leg draped over the top of the blonde’s thigh. Nick stepped gingerly over a bottle of beer, an ashtray and some clothes on the floor to close the door. He loved to party as much as the next guy, but he respected their privacy.
Nick picked up his phone to scroll through his Instagram page. “Holy shit! I can’t believe it. Stone beat Huang.”
“No way!” Tom mumbled, munching on a waffle.
Kristen woke with a start. She scrambled around for her panties, slipped on a tee shirt and bounded into the living room, hands on her hips. “Are you serious? How is that possible?”
Nick looked down at his phone. “I guess they disqualified a bunch of votes that turned Florida. Huang’s already conceded.”
Lauren wiped the sleepies from her eyes, sat up and covered herself with the sheets. “Bummer. My mom is really going to be pissed.”
Nick said, “Your mom? How about my dad?” He glanced at his watch. “Oh shit! It’s already eight fifteen. I gotta get home to take my sister to school.”
Nick gathered his things and hopped into his Fiat. He whipped in and out of the busy lanes to avoid the slow moving cars. He timed the lights just right, arriving home in record time, five minutes flat.
As Nick pulled into the driveway, Angela stepped out the front door and yelled, “Where the hell have you been? I’m going to be late.” Nick grunted through the open driver-side window. “Don’t worry, Angie. I’ll get you there on time. Hop in.”
Angela opened the passenger door, threw her backpack on the floor and plopped in the front passenger seat, all in one motion. Nick spun the car in reverse and peeled out, leaving rubber marks on the asphalt and a screeching sound in his wake.
Through the open sunroof, Angela could see the canopies of the towering London Plane trees stretching out from both sides of their street to touch in the middle like shimmering hands folded in prayer.
Nick dropped Angela off in front of McClatchy, the stately old high school named after the pioneer publishing family. He darted off for his morning class at Sac City College. By the time he found a parking space, he hoped he hadn’t missed all of the class.
Nick had a lot going for him — intelligence, athletic ability, sense of humor, loyal friends and sensitivity uncommon to young men of his age. His coaches and teachers at Christian Brothers High School used to rave about his work ethic, his confidence, and his charismatic leadership. He had been an “A” student, the captain of the varsity tennis team for three years, and a starting midfielder on their championship soccer team. Had high school football not been eliminated due to safety concerns when he was a freshman, he might also have led CB to another league championship.
But at the start of his senior year, two of his best friends died in a car accident while driving down Interstate-5 early in the morning after summiting Mount Shasta. The CHP surmised that both boys had fallen asleep and their car drifted into the median. By the time the driver awoke, it was too late. To make matters worse, three other classmates died that year, one by suicide.
All of Nick’s friends and classmates took these tragic deaths hard, but Nick especially so. The bike belonging to one of the boys still stood parked in Nick’s garage from when the boys had a sleepover the week before the crash. Nick wouldn’t talk to anyone about the accident. Not even to Tom or his sister Angela, let alone his parents or teachers. Nick would go through the motions — going to school, playing sports, hanging out with friends. But something had changed. He got caught a few times playing hooky from school and spent way too much time smoking weed with some of his slacker friends. His grades slipped and he started talking about enlisting in the Navy or traveling to Mexico rather than going to college.
Somehow, he managed to graduate from high school. But instead of enrolling in college, he spent his first year out of high school traveling through Mexico visiting his mother’s side of the family in Cuernavaca and hanging out on the beach.
Nick’s year in Mexico may not have advanced his college career, but it certainly improved his Spanish and surfing skills. After he returned to Sacramento, he pleased his parents by enrolling in fall classes at Sac City College. Tom was now a sophomore at Sac City, while Nick started as a first year student.
After his first few months at Sac City, Nick was taking his classes just seriously enough to pass. If he kept up that minimum level of performance through the following May, then he might have enough credits to transfer to a four-year college as a sophomore, or spend two years at community college and transfer as a junior. Nick was in no hurry either way. He specialized in doing the minimum amount needed to get by.