“No siree, Mister President, you do not get these from pettin’ kitty cats.”
James Kipper nodded, smiling doubtfully as the slab-shouldered workman flexed his biceps and kissed each one in turn. His Secret Service guys didn’t seem much bothered, and he’d long ago learned to pick up on their unspoken signals and body language. They paid much less attention to the salvage crew in front of him than to the ruined façades of the office blocks looking down on the massive, rusting pileup in Lower Manhattan. The hard work and unseasonal humidity of Lower Manhattan had left the workman drenched in sweat, and Kipper could feel the shirt sticking to his own back.
Having paid homage to his bowling-ball-sized muscles, the workman reached out one enormous, calloused paw to shake hands with the forty-forth president of the United States. Kipper’s grip was not as strong as it once had been and had certainly never been anywhere near as powerful as this gorilla’s, but a long career in engineering hadn’t left him with soft fingers or a limp handshake. He returned the man’s iron-fisted clench with a fairly creditable squeeze of his own.
“Whoa there, Mister President,” the salvage and clearance worker cried out jokingly. “I need these dainty pinkies for my second job. As a concert pianist, don’tcha know.”
The small crush of men and women gathered around Kipper grinned and chuckled. This guy was obviously the clown of the bunch.
“A concert penis, you say?” Kipper shot back. “What’s that, some sorta novelty act? With one of those really tiny pianos?”
The groan of his media handler, Karen Milliner, was lost in the sudden uproar of coarse, braying laughter as the S&C workers erupted at the exchange. That did put his security detail a little on edge, but the man-mountain with the kissable biceps was laughing the loudest of them all, pointing at the chief executive and crying out, “This fuggin’ guy. He cracks me up. Best fuggin’ president ever.”
Kipper half expected to be grabbed in a headlock for an affectionate noogie.
That would have set his detail right off.
But after a few moments the uproar receded.
Kipper’s gaze fell on a woman, who’d remained unusually reserved throughout. Doubtless one or two of his detail were watching her closely from behind their darkened sunglasses. He caught her eye and favored her with an indulgent grin by which he meant to convey a sense of amused pity. She obviously did not fit in with this gang of roughnecks. Her features were fine-boned, and she didn’t look like somebody used to long days of heavy manual labor. As he so often found when he traveled around to “meet the peeps”—his daughter’s term, not his—the peeps intrigued him. This nation of castaways and lost souls all had their stories. And you had to wonder what paths had brought biceps guy and this quiet woman to New York three years after the Wave had dissipated as mysteriously as it had arrived.
“Mister President,” Karen Milliner said, “we really need to get a move on—the schedule, you know.”
Jostled out of his momentary ponderings by the director of communications, his flak catcher in chief, he nodded and smiled apologetically to the workers.
“I’m sorry, guys. Just like you, I am a mere civil servant, and my boss here”—he jerked a thumb at Milliner—“says I gotta get back to work.”
The small crowd booed her but cheered him as he waved and began to walk away with his personal security detail shadowing every step. Cries of “Thank you, Mister President” and “Way to go, Kip” followed him down into the graveyard of corporate America.
The stillness of the ruins soon returned. Grit and debris crunched underfoot as the party picked its way through the wreckage of Wall Street. Only the sound of the pigeons, which had returned to the city in plague numbers, broke the silence. The ecosystem within the Wave-affected area seemed to be outstripping all scientific predictions in terms of recovery. Wood chips and piles of tree branches lined the streets. The buzzing roar of chain saws joined in with the heavy metal crash of machinery. Much of the cleanup work in places like Manhattan pertained just as much to brush clearance as to vehicle pileups or burned-out buildings. It wasn’t like the great charred wastelands left by the firestorms that had covered so much of North America. There was life here, of a sort. He could smell it in the fresh-cut timber of an island fast reverting to its original, heavily wooded state.
Away from the raucous cheers of the salvage crew, Kipper fell deep into the well of his own thoughts. He took in the sight of a Mister Softee ice cream van that had speared into the front of the Citibank at the corner of Wall and Front streets. A couple of bicycles lay crushed under its wheels, and jagged shards of glass had ripped through the scorched, filthy rags that once had clothed the riders. He had to remind himself that they hadn’t died in the auto accident. They had simply Disappeared like every other soul in this empty city, like everyone across America four years ago.
“Traffic’s not too bad here,” he ventured to Jed Culver for want of something better to say. “Not like back on . . . what was that last cross street, where those guys were cleaning up?”
“Water Street, sir,” one of his Secret Service detail offered. He was a new guy. Kip didn’t know his name yet, but his accent was local. You had to wonder what that was doing to his head.
“Most of these cars were parked when the Wave hit,” Culver added. “Mostly pedestrians and bike riders through here, health nazis, that sort of thing. Water Street was busier.”
Culver’s soft Southern drawl, a Louisiana lilt with a touch of transatlantic polish, trailed off. The silence of the necropolis, a vast crypt for millions of the Disappeared, seemed to press the air out of him. Kip turned back to gaze down the shadowed canyon of the old financial district. The intersection of Water and Wall was a wrecking yard of yellow cabs, private cars, and one armored van that had been broadsided by a dump truck and knocked completely over. The impact had smashed open both rear doors, and a few buff-colored sacks of old money still lay unwanted on the ground. None of the salvagers bothered with the dead currency, which long since had been replaced by the less valuable New American Dollar. They had returned to attacking the tangle of metal with earthmoving equipment, sledgehammers, chains, and pure grunt.
It was the loudest noise in the city.
Kip shook his head and turned back.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s keep going.”
At the corner of the JP Morgan Building they encountered the weather-worn façade of the New York Stock Exchange. A large soiled and tattered American flag hung loosely from the Roman columns of the neoclassical structure, held in place by creeping vines as much as by nylon ropes. Kipper had never been to Wall Street, or New York City for that matter, and photographs of the Street always made it appear larger than life. Now, here, in the presence of what had been the most powerful engine of capitalism on the planet, it felt small and almost claustrophobic.
Down at the end of the street he could see a church of some sort, dwarfed by the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Kipper wasn’t a religious man, but the sight of the steeple deepened his melancholy, driving it toward the deeper blue depths. More than a few nut jobs had proclaimed their own end of days interpretations of the Wave. For his part, he still believed that there had to be a rational explanation.
But what that explanation was, nobody knew.
He indulged himself in a melancholy sigh.
The party was small for a presidential caravan: just Kipper, Jed Culver—Karen Milliner, and half a dozen security men in dark coveralls and heavy combat rigs. There was no getting rid of them. An army of looters was currently denuding the eastern seaboard of everything from sports cars and heavy equipment to computer game systems and jewelry. Kip often found himself contemplating the lot of Native Americans when whitey turned up. An entire continent was ripe for the taking, and nobody seemed to care that a small number of locals already had a claim on the place.
The irony, or tragedy he supposed, was that most of the Native American population had been wiped out by the Wave. He wasn’t sure how many remained. Next year’s census would, he hoped, shed some light on that. There simply hadn’t been time to organize a full survey of the population since the Wave. There was too much to do just keeping their heads above water. For one thing, the East Coast was overrun with raiders and pirates. Many were part of big criminal syndicates out of Europe and South America, some of them operating with tacit state backing—where states still existed to give that backing—and the balance was a swarm of smaller private operators mostly based in the Caribbean but sometimes hailing from as far away as Africa and Eastern Europe. From the briefings he’d had back home in Seattle, he knew you really didn’t want to tangle with those guys. Half of them were whacked off their heads on weird-ass cocktails of jungle drugs. They came for the luxury cars and high-end goods. They came for the salvage potential of so much copper, iron, and steel. They came for the jewels, gold, and art, leaving MOMA and a dozen other museums stripped bare, their treasures scattered to the four winds.
And some came specifically to kill any American they could get in their sights.
According to Jed, on any given day there could be up to eight or nine thousand freebooters in New York, and unlike the army or the militia, they were not hemmed in by rules and law. “You ever work here, Jed?” Kip asked.
“On the Street, you mean, Mister President? No. I did a stint in New York about eight years back. Worked in-house with Arthur Andersen. But never on the Street, no.”
The president craned his head upward, looking for the Marine Corps sniper teams that had slotted themselves into the buildings above his intended route. He couldn’t see them and had to suppress a shiver. There was just something wrong about this place. Vegetation had come back much more quickly than anyone had imagined, probably helped by the flooding and storms of the last few years, and the entire city reminded him of a weed-choked cemetery—a cemetery that was also a battleground.
It had taken one of the U.S. Army’s remaining brigade combat teams, augmented by militia units, to clear just the southern end of the island for his visit. And even that clearance was less than perfect, leaving porous gaps through which everyone and anyone could slip. It took an additional force of marines, special forces, and private contractors to secure a solid wedge from the World Trade Center down to Battery Park and across to the ferry terminal for his visit—and once secured, a battalion of Governor Schimmel’s Manhattan Militia irregulars threw up a cordon none could pass without lethal consequences.
Karen Milliner stepped up to his elbow and spoke quietly.
“The media are on site, Mister President. We’d best a get a move on.”
He wasn’t sure why she felt the need to keep her voice down. He had specifically said he wanted to make this part of his inspection alone, just himself and his chief of staff. Karen came along simply because of the media events that bracketed his stroll through the dead city.
Kip turned away from the NYSE only to pause and stare at the grand Doric columns of Federal Hall. Washington’s statue still stood on a plinth in front of the building, which had gotten through the last few years in much better shape than some of the larger, more modern buildings around it. A cleanup crew had swept away any debris and vegetation from the stone staircase, and the first president’s statue gleamed as though freshly scrubbed.
“Just gimme a minute,” he said.
Kipper crossed the street, prompting his security cordon to follow him, with Culver huffing and puffing to keep up. At the steps of the building he gazed into the upturned eyes of George Washington before reading the inscription at the base of the statue.
On this site in Federal Hall
April 30, 1789
Took the Oath as the First President
Of the United States
“Mister President?” Culver tugged at his arm.
Kipper frowned at his chief of staff. He’d labored manfully to get Culver to call him Kip or even Jimmy—ordered him to more than once, in fact—but the former attorney insisted on the formalities. Kip suspected he enjoyed them. Jed’s considerable bulk was constrained in a dark blue three-piece suit, which must have been a terrible inconvenience; the president wore jeans, tan Carhartt work boots, and a ballistic vest over an old L.L. Bean shirt. Even that modest outfit was uncomfortable in the heat and humidity. The damn weather, it was still all over the goddamn place.
“Just one more minute, Jed.”
Looking at the statue, Kipper wondered what truly had gone through Washington’s mind on that day. He was the leader of a newborn nation on the brink of a vast wilderness surrounded by both real and potential enemies. He had given up command of the army against the advice of many officers who’d argued against the move. Faith in the system he was helping to establish—that was the lesson Kipper took from Washington.
Reading presidential biographies was a self-imposed requirement for a job he felt poorly qualified to do, yet they never truly got to the heart of the men who were his predecessors. Of them all, Kipper really identified only with Truman, who felt as if the barn had fallen in on him when Roosevelt died.
At least he knew it was coming, Kipper thought ruefully. He marveled at the path he had traveled: from being an anonymous city engineer in Seattle to provisional president and ultimately elected to a full four-year term as president of the much reduced United States in January 2004, not long before the Wave finally lifted. A hell of a trip.
“Okay, I’ve probably seen enough,” he conceded. “Just thought it was important, you know, to have a look for myself.”
“That’s why people like you, sir.” Culver smiled. “You like to get your hands dirty. Come on, shall we get back to the convoy? This place gives me the creeps.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from After America by John Birmingham. Copyright © 2010 by John Birmingham. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.