In the near future, America is crumbling, bankrupt, and teetering on the edge of chaos. Following the Great Bailout, the multinational Lee-Pi corporation is the only institution that can hold the country together, providing basic services, security, and order. Leonard Cheung is Lee-Pi’s most reliable field operative: a negotiator, assassin, and clean-up expert who does the behind-the-scenes dirty work to keep the corporation running.
When the city of Philadelphia is evacuated after a suspected terrorist attack, the corporation drops Cheung into the insanity to retrieve a priceless possession: a champion racehorse belonging to Mr. Lee himself. Cheung is the perfect man for the job, having grown up on the outskirts of the city. In this surreal homecoming, Cheung must track the majestic animal through the deserted streets of a dead city. But Cheung soon discovers that he is not alone. Freedom fighters, long opposed to Lee-Pi’s authority, are hunting the horse for their own reasons. And the collision between the resistance movement and the obedient company man will force Cheung to question everything he believes, who he has become, and what is worth fighting for.
When this is over, Cheung thought, I’m going to have dreams of a horse trotting through the streets of a dead city. A white horse, legs spattered with mud, ambling along a cracked sidewalk, inspecting the inside of an overturned station wagon. Staring with doll eyes at a dusty statue of a man holding up a shattered bronze fist. So out of place, this massive animal, and yet still calm and curious, poking around the silent debris as if expecting it to tell him where to go next. An image both obscene and beautiful. Until the animal looks at you, and you wake up.
* * *
The line of people leading to the checkpoint stretched along the barbed wire fence, all disjointed like a snake with a broken spine. The fence ran parallel with what had once been a busy street at the edge of the city, where a train terminal used to take people from the suburbs to downtown. That terminal now served as a roadblock, buzzing with soldiers and trucks, while the shops and theaters had become home to squatters, transients, and drug dealers. It made for an odd sight: on this side of the barrier, the storefronts were gutted, some boarded with plywood. On the other side—the forbidden side—the streets were clean, the businesses immaculate, but no one was around. People had no choice but to get used to the absurd, now that so much had changed.
Cheung, wearing digital army fatigues and carrying a matching backpack, seemed to be the only person in line by himself. Everyone else traveled in packs, bedraggled families and couples waiting forever, hauling more luggage and duffel bags than they could reasonably carry. They were refugees, although the media outlets referred to them as migrants. It was so desperate and stupid for them to be here, Cheung thought. For so many to still be here.
Perhaps to drive that point home, two teenage soldiers hammered yet another sign into the ground in full view of everyone:
Minimum safe distance:
Stay smart, stay calm, stay away, stay alive.
Radio announcers, news anchors, and social media feeds had been repeating this slogan ever since a terrorist detonated a dirty bomb right at City Hall while screaming anti-corporate obscenities in some foreign language. Even Wun, Cheung’s boss at the Lee-Pi Corporation, placed the slogan in Mandarin and English in his email signature, right under his fax number. Like the company’s name, the slogan had become a joke. (“Leap high? How high, boss?”) The PR firm that came up with the catchphrase tried to give the jingle a hint of solidarity, as if to say we’re with you to the “migrants” whose lives had been destroyed. But the slogan also carried with it a reminder of how bad things were, if not an outright threat of violence.
Cheung kept his sunglasses on. Along with his shaved head, the shades were meant to keep his ethnicity ambiguous. Very few of the locals believed that Lee-Pi was going to fix things, despite the deal the company had made with the state and federal governments. Faster than the police could silence them, the conspiracy theorists spread the rumor that Lee-Pi itself had planted the bomb. As a result, representatives of the corporation—especially those who were ethnically Chinese—were not welcome among the victims. Unless, of course, someone wanted to put in a résumé, or request a discount on a plane ticket or a hotel, or try to weasel a food card from them. Cheung had already endured enough conversations that switched from ass-kissing to accusations and back again. He was not interested this morning.
Three American soldiers approached, followed by an older man in an officer’s uniform who carried a clipboard. A major, Cheung could tell. Heads turned as the men passed, and a steady murmur began to purr. An old woman tried to move a blue cooler she set on the ground, but the soldiers simply stepped over it without even glancing at her. The major, a white man with a gaunt, wind-burned face, glanced at Cheung, then at his clipboard.
“Leonard Cheung,” the major said.
Cheung nodded. Normally, the army would have some lackey greet him whenever he was on Lee-Pi business. But this time, they went through the trouble of sending someone who actually made decisions.
The major asked for identification, which Cheung provided before the question was completed. One of the soldiers ran it through a handheld scanner, examined the data, nodded, and handed it back. The major asked Cheung to follow him. As they bypassed the rest of the line, Cheung could hear the groaning and complaining from the people nearby. Cheung did not let it get to him. These people were in a queue to nowhere. They would all be turned away, regardless of how well they organized their paperwork. No one was getting back into the city now that Lee-Pi was in charge. Why couldn’t they just accept that and go somewhere else?
“Fuckin’ chinks,” some old white man said.
“Fucking chinks,” Cheung repeated, smiling.
“Don’t mind these people,” the major said a few steps later. Then, after thinking for a moment, he said, “Your English is pretty good. Last Leap High we had could only say yes and no.”
“My English should be good,” Cheung said. “I grew up here.”
“You mean in America?”
“I mean here.”
Cheung noticed two of the soldiers exchanging a glance.
“In Philly?” the major asked.
“What part of here are you not getting? I mean in this neighborhood. Upper Darby. 69th Street. My mother’s family owned a restaurant right by the old Tower Theater. Here. Get it?”
“Well, you don’t have to get all—”
“Major, do me a favor.”
“Stop talking,” Cheung said. “If you pulled me out of line, you know that my presence here is more important that yours.”
The major was experienced enough to pretend that Cheung’s response did not bother him. He waved a hand dismissively. If his soldiers were impressed with his nonchalance, or disappointed with his willingness to keep quiet, they showed neither. Thus Cheung enjoyed a quiet walk to the checkpoint. There, a FEMA trailer sat in front of a seemingly endless coil of razor wire. Officers stationed at foldout tables listened solemnly to the gripes of each refugee. A man pleaded in Spanish to go to 47th and Market—a mere twenty blocks away. One soldier translated the sob story, while the other tilted his head and nodded, showing concern but saying nothing. The major interrupted, prompting everyone to awkwardly salute him. Even the civilian feigned a salute before letting his hand drop to his side.
“Another Leap High,” the major said, handing over the clipboard. The lieutenant glanced at the paperwork.
“We’ll have to process this—”
“Just put him through,” the major said. The lieutenant turned to his subordinates and twirled his fingers. They opened the flimsy gate and pulled away the razor wire, the metal releasing an awful screeching noise on the asphalt. The civilian yelled something in Spanish. Cheung could not understand it, but he figured that he was asking why the gate could open for one man but not all these others.
The way was now clear. The tracks for the elevated train led directly into the dead city, a horizontal ladder into the desiccated past. Cheung took one step. Then another.
“Good luck finding your horse,” the major said, snickering.
Cheung let it go; it was a sigh of defeat. The major was probably the kind of person who, ages ago, would have made fun of Cheung for wearing the same shirt three days in a row, or for bringing a strange-smelling lunch when everyone else ate sandwiches and chips. Here, Cheung gave the orders, having earned the privilege by clawing his way forward into the light. Wun had pulled him out of the darkness, had given him a chance when Cheung could have been dead or rotting in a cell for the things he had done. Here, Cheung was a harbinger of the new order—imperfect as it may have been—while this tired old major would be left behind. Cheung was civilization. He was the rule of law. So what if these soldiers knew why he was here? So what if they knew he was simply running errands for Lee-Pi? That bit of gossip would be the only victory these men would enjoy for the foreseeable future, dealing with all of these refugees. In the meantime, Cheung had a job to do.
* * *
Sitting in Wun’s office, Cheung thought: I’m going to die chasing after a goddamn horse. Everything he had trained for, everything he had learned, would lead him to a silly, pointless death.
He had learned to squelch thoughts such as these during his meetings with Wun. But the old man could always notice even the slightest hint of hesitation. This was Wun’s turf: an enormous office in what had been City Hall in New York, now the Lee-Pi headquarters in the States ever since the Bailout. A small man with glasses that took up almost his entire face, Wun should have felt self-conscious seated behind a massive desk with the Seal of the President of the United States on the front, a gift from the woman herself. But these trophies gave Wun strength. Now that he led the Lee-Pi expansion into the West—the tip of the spear, he called himself—it seemed perfectly natural for him to show off. He had earned what the Americans had handed over.
“You do not seem enthusiastic,” Wun said after describing the mission.
Cheung agreed, and admitted that, as head of the special services division, he felt that it made little sense to devote resources to such a frivolous project. But Wun cut him off: this was bigger than a mere horse, the old man explained. Lee-Pi was depending on one of its brightest stars—a Chinese American, no less—to shine in the midst of a crisis. Wun began to talk about the corporation as a family, as an extension of all that was good, as the only chisel to hammer away at the disorder and poverty and despair that had been building on this continent (Wun’s actual words). Cheung would have walked out on anyone else, but this was the right-hand man of Mr. Lee himself, made even more important now that Lee rarely appeared in public anymore. Wun was also the man who first recognized Cheung’s talents as an administrator who could get things done, regardless of his status as an American citizen. If anything, Wun realized, Cheung’s hybridity, his refusal to fall into a convenient category, made him the perfect handyman. Wun had seen this potential on the first day they had met, that awful day when Cheung became a man, but ceased being a human.
“It is the same old story,” Wun said. “We are pacifying the Yahoos again. It is why we were brought here, why it is up to us to salvage all this wreckage. We cannot say it out loud, but everything we do is in opposition to their self-destructive ways. Everything—even this.”
While Wun prattled on, as if speaking to a new recruit in the Boy Scouts, Cheung ran through the assignment in his head: the bomb had detonated, shattering the glass windows on the first six floors of the old Comcast-Han building. It was a spectacle at first, but chaos erupted once the news reported a radiation bloom at ground zero. Because of the paltry local police presence and incompetent government response, entire neighborhoods seemed determined to trample one another. The highways leading out of the city were so clogged with vehicles that people eventually got out and walked, leaving thousands of cars choking the lanes. It was better to simply leave the city on foot than wait in traffic while the radiation sliced apart their DNA. Meanwhile, looters dressed in Tyvek suits or wearing useless breathing filters emptied stores from the Schuylkill to the Delaware, from Temple University to the sports complex in South Philly. A person could not walk ten feet without crunching broken glass or tripping on an overturned police barrier. And now these people wanted to get back in, just as Lee-Pi announced the cleanup as a goodwill gesture to the Americans. Every Yahoo at the checkpoint had a story to tell: I left a pet. My grandmother needs her pills. My birth certificate is in my attic. The truth was that they had nowhere else to go and were willing to roll the dice in favor of believing that the radiation wasn’t that bad, or that it was all a Leap High conspiracy to clear out the slums.
And then, in the midst of all of this, Mr. Lee’s stable in the western suburbs—one of twelve properties he owned in the States—was burglarized. Under normal circumstances, such a feat would have been difficult, but so many undesirables were streaming out of the city that not even the National Guard could maintain order. Mr. Lee’s stable had two horses, the brothers Osiris and Set. The roving band of refugees hacked Osiris to death and barbecued him. There was an enormous party in the abandoned neighborhood until a militia of extremely angry vigilantes dispersed the crowd with shotgun blasts. (“Suburban white people with guns,” Wun said. “Very dangerous.”) Osiris was nothing but a hunk of charred meat by then, but Set escaped, apparently by bonking one of his would-be murderers in the forehead with his hoof. Like Wun’s presidential desk, this horse was regarded as a sacred symbol of conquest, a living manifestation of the positive change that had taken place here. Mr. Lee was supposedly very frugal, despite being one of the most powerful men in the world. But he was also superstitious and sentimental, and he often became fixated on seemingly insignificant things. If Mr. Lee wanted this horse returned, he must have had a good reason, and the entire company had a stake in the outcome.
Cheung had to laugh when Wun handed him a dossier that included a photo of the horse, giving this meeting a noir movie feel. The animal was last seen near 30th Street Station, meaning that it had crossed the Schuylkill and roamed among the cavernous skyscrapers, or grazed in Fairmount Park with the other wildlife. Helicopters were forbidden over the blast site and would have made too much of a scene anyway. If Cheung succeeded in tranquilizing the horse, he was to summon an extraction team that would enter the city and remove it. In typical fashion, Wun did not go into detail about how this would be done, or who would be doing it. He simply gave Cheung a number to call. Cheung was under orders to spend no more than seventy-two hours in the city. Any longer, and the radiation could have a permanent effect.
“But you and Lisa aren’t having kids anyway,” Wun said, repeating something Cheung had regretted telling him at some company function.
Wun gave him the rest of the details regarding departure times, equipment, payment, bonuses. There was a time, Cheung thought, when he wanted to be friends with Wun. They had been through a lot together and still relied on one another. But no one this high up in the company had real friends. It was all past and present between them, no future.
“Enjoy your return home,” Wun said, wrapping up the briefing. The abruptness of it reminded Cheung that he was not one of Wun’s tribe. He would always be a mascot.
Cheung collected the paperwork, bowed to Wun, and headed for the door.
Excerpted from Leap High Yahoo © Robert Repino, 2015