"Welcome," she chirped at the reporters who had gathered around her, their clamp-on spikes biting into the clumps of asphalt and sodden earth. "I'm thrilled to see so many of you here on such a wonderful day in Kansas City."
She jabbed a forefinger at one of the only squares of sidewalk still intact in the urban core. "Kansas City's future begins right here," Barnes said. "I'm proud to announce that this week I will introduce an ordinance that should, once and for all, rid our city of Ultraboarders."
Just then, a zit-faced teen zipped by on a nuke-powered BareBack 360 Ultra, popping an "Ollie" on a crevasse and kicking up chunks of concrete. A cameraman, eager for an action shot to splice in with the mayor's talking head, scrambled for a good angle, lost his footing and fell screaming into a sewer system that hasn't been upgraded since 1886.
"Now more than ever, we must put a stop to these infrastructure terrorists," Barnes continued. "I have just finished negotiations with Senator Kit Bond to invest more than $300,000 in federal money on this very spot. This money will be used for streetscaping and flower beds, which will serve as a catalyst for economic renewal downtown. As I'm sure you're all aware -- "
"Isn't it a little late for that?" a reporter interrupted. "I mean, look where we're standing. This is the former site of the Power and Light Building, for crissakes! Shouldn't you have thought about this when Lenexa was using tax incentives to steal our landmark?"
Barnes' smile stiffened into a clench. "That's the kind of negativity that keeps Kansas City from progressing," she replied. "Too often we dwell on the past. The past has passed. We need to look forward. We need to acknowledge and be mindful in uplifting the wonderful things my administration is doing right now. Is everything perfect in our city? No. Are we making progress? Yes. And we will continue to make progress until Kansas City is the envy of Paris, London and Rome."
Barnes' choice of venues for the stump speech was an odd one. The loss of the Power and Light Building from the city's skyline had been one of the biggest failures of the mayor's six terms in office.
Common wisdom has it that Barnes' litany of debacles began in February 2008, when the Broadway, Heart of America and Paseo bridges crumbled into the Missouri River over a three-week span. In reality, the city's undoing had begun during the mayor's first term, when she repeatedly acquiesced to the various fiefdoms tugging for control of City Hall: the unions and infinite layers of middle managers who were ever hungry for raises; and the developers and lawyers who were insatiable in their thirst for contracts, tax breaks, an arena, and rows and rows of chrysanthemums downtown. Every time one of these power bases pushed for something, a Barnes-led council would hack a chunk out of the capital-improvement budget to appease it.
Her last real political victory came in 2006, when -- with the help of a telepathic, mind-control canvassing system devised by political consultant Pat Gray -- she persuaded voters to approve an amendment to Kansas City's charter that eliminated term limits. Since then, she's receded further and further from the public eye, limiting her rendezvous with the media to once a year. At her press conference last week, reporters were dying to bombard her with tough questions. She tried to hold them at bay by introducing Mike Sweeney, the former Royals All-Star.
"I am pleased to announce that, with the help of our many economic-development-incentive tools, Mr. Sweeney will be making a very important investment in our city," she said. "Mike, will you tell them a little bit about your exciting plans?"
"I'd be happy to, Kay," he said. "Last week, I purchased the old Kansas City Star facilities, which have been vacant since the paper moved to Wyandotte County. I plan to publish a new magazine called Temples. It'll be kind of a cross between Christian Living and Hustler ... "
The reporters were having none of it.
"Where was Mike Sweeney when David Glass sold the Royals to the American Legion Little League?" one blurted.
"Yeah," chimed another. "Why don't you have him set up shop at the Kauffman Stadium Flea Market?"
"What about the street-paving budget?" one columnist asked. "Is it true it's down to just $86.13?"
"How can you call 6,000 miles of cratered streets progress?" asked another. "They've got better roads in Afghanistan!"
"That's not true!" Barnes barked, before regaining her composure. "But I'm glad you brought that up. I am pleased to announce that, under my direction, City Hall has just completed a report showing that Kansas City's roads are actually in very good shape. The real problem, we realized, was our flawed method of assessing the condition of our streets. Of course, when you count every single pothole or metal plate, when you listen to every whiny citizen complaint, you're going to get an inaccurate version of reality. So, for this study, we ignored all of that. And now I think everyone would agree that our streets are among the best in the world."
The reporters looked at one another. One asked, "If the streets are in good shape, why do we need those just to get around?" He pointed to a Plunder that had been modified for public transportation, with a long bus body riding high on two fat, toothy tank treads.
"That's progress!" Barnes declared. "And I intend to show you more progress."
She turned to her top bodyguard, a 7-foot-9-inch Hercules she'd recruited on an "international trade trip" to the Fiji Islands. "Hector," she said, "load these reporters into the Plunder! We're going to the General Motors Counter-Terrorism Assault Vehicle Plant!"
The reporters groaned. Every scribe had followed Barnes through at least three tours of the massive CTAV factory.
"We're not going anywhere until you answer our questions!" one reporter brayed.
Hector scowled at him before leaping across the rubble and body-slamming the ink-stained wretch. Hector dusted off his silk print shirt and glanced down at his Rolex, paid for with thousands of hours of overtime. "Goddamnit!" he said. "It's scratched!"
He pointed a finger at the remaining reporters. "Any of you truthmongers want to try your luck?"
None did. Heads lowered, they trudged across the debris and piled into the Plunder, taking their places in the vehicle's rows of bus seats. Barnes' bodyguards followed, carrying the mayor on her leather chair and positioning her at the front, facing the reporters. She rose and spoke into the Plunder's PA system, shaking off her anger to assume the role of smiling tour guide. "Now, as I'm sure you're all aware," she began, "economic development is vital to our city's vitality. That's why the CTAV is so important. It represents the single biggest economic investment in Kansas City history."
The Plunder lurched forward, bobbing across the crags and valleys of 14th Street. One reporter gazed out the window at the bronze hockey goal and basketball hoop that anchored the ends of the parking lot at 14th and Grand. After calling a surprise press conference in 2011, at which she boldly blew up Kemper Arena in a spectacular display of pyrotechnics that killed three bystanders, Barnes erected the monuments using some precious capital-improvement funds. It was a show of faith that the city's dream of building a top-notch downtown arena would soon come true.
The Plunder turned south on the Bruce R. Watkins Expressway. The only vehicles on the road were a few other Plunders filled with CTAV laborers on their way to work, and a couple of dozen lawyer-driven Humvees, their tires fitted with 8-inch titanium spikes that kicked up plumes of asphalt dust.
As the Plunder crested the long hill south of 18th Street, the CTAV came into view. The two-story gray structure stretched from 30th and Holmes to 42nd and Hardesty, with a few smokestacks spewing black smoke and a water tower bearing a portrait of Barnes and President John Ashcroft cheerily shaking hands.
The Plunder pulled to a stop in front of the factory's main entrance, and the reporters, the mayor and her protectors piled out and filed through the facility's front door. They proceeded through the front offices, where a few dozen white executives in suits walked the halls, smiling and carrying mugs of steaming coffee, and onto the production floor, where more than 200,000 black and Latino workers in bright-orange jumpsuits wrestled with sheets of iron and various forms of heavy machinery.
Barnes stopped the group in front of a Plunder that was nearing completion. It was far larger than the one in which the reporters had arrived. The bus models had been made especially for Kansas City -- it was General Motors' way of ensuring that workers would make it to their shifts. The factory's main product line was a combination tank and military outpost, complete with barracks and a jet runway. It had been commissioned by the Department of Defense to assist in the United States' ongoing effort to smoke Osama Bin Laden out of a cave in Central Asia, though it has been used by President Ashcroft to increase America's military presence in all corners of the globe and to shore up homeland security.
"Now, as I'm sure you're all aware," the mayor said, "these fine workers make up more than 80 percent of the city's workforce. Just think of where Kansas City would be without this factory. You think the roads are bad now? Without the tax base that the CTAV provides -- trust me, you don't want to go there."
The reporters had a hard time arguing with that. The taxes levied against CTAV workers had prevented Kansas City from filing for bankruptcy -- which once seemed inevitable because the city's revenues sank after the three bridges crumbled. That catastrophe had been a boon for the Northland. The sudden isolation from Jackson County allowed those Northlanders who hadn't perished in the collapses to secede from Kansas City. With a new, svelte government, the Northland made infrastructure improvements that its residents had craved for decades.
"We understand that the revenue this plant generates is important to the city," one reporter said. "But doesn't it seem unfair to place such a high burden on the working class? I mean, we aren't taxing General Motors, are we? In fact, I've heard that, under the agreement you worked out with President Ashcroft, GM is allowed to retain 5 percent of its workers' gross pay to pad its own bottom line. Is that true?"
"Well, as I'm sure you're all aware, the exact details of the deal cannot be disclosed to the public," Barnes replied. "And that's important because we don't want to harm any competitive advantage GM might have. More important is that you understand Kansas City itself is in competition. We have to offer businesses aggressive incentives to invest in our community, or else we'll lose them to other growing metropolises, like Iola, Kansas.
"Consider the Power and Light Building," she continued. "I know a lot of you believe Lenexa's acquiring of that blighted property was a failure of my administration. But it only goes to show the lengths to which other communities will go to gain a competitive advantage. I still maintain, as I have all along, that the building's removal was a win for Kansas City. Downtown needed more green space. With that oasis in the heart of our urban core, and with the $300,000 Senator Bond has so generously provided to us, we will continue our bold progress into the future -- "
"Wait a minute," a reporter interrupted. "When Lenexa was working to steal the building away, you vowed that you would never let it go."
"It just got refined over time," Barnes said placidly, "and I'm comfortable with that. That always happens."
Barnes led the reporters back out to the Plunder. Her plan was to escort them around the city, to show off various smaller economic-development initiatives she had spearheaded with the help of tax-increment financing, which allows developers to pay for their developments with the future tax money that would be generated by those developments. But upon exiting the factory, she was accosted by a haggard legion of neighborhood activists.
"Mayor Barnes!" a man with a white handlebar mustache shouted. "Why won't you agree to a debate with our candidate?"
"Well!" Barnes exclaimed, clearly startled. "How did you find out about this campaign event? This tour is for the press, not the public."
"Never mind how we found out. We want you to stop ducking our candidate and our issues."
"I haven't ducked anything. As I'm sure you're all aware, I've agreed to numerous debates."
"Telepathic debates don't count," the man said. "We want you to meet our candidate face to face. And we want you to do it right now!"
Just then, the mass of activists parted, revealing their choice for mayor: Kay Bovarnes, a Fiberglas cow with a gold perm and a giant corsage blooming on its lapel.
Ever since Barnes' win over Stanford Glazer earned her a second term in office, the mayor had faced increasingly weak competition -- first, reviled activist Chay Clastain, then reviled panhandler Jerry Mazer. But this new candidate, an inanimate piece of sappy public art, had garnered unprecedented grassroots support. Both Bovarnes and a third candidate, an oversized teddy bear by the name of Emanuel Cleabear, had garnered a majority of votes in the primary election, though Barnes, with her expensive mind-control campaign, managed to emerge as the top vote getter. Even as Barnes crowed that her campaign was "right on track," her well-paid advisors were privately alarmed by the tight election.
Now Bovarnes and her supporters were in Barnes' face, demanding answers. Barnes' bodyguards rolled up their sleeves and made a move toward the crowd, but the mayor waved them off. "Fine," she said, "you want a debate? I'll give you a debate. Why don't we start with your candidate? I think the public deserves to know what happened on the night of April 15, 2009, when she was detained by police. Was she, in fact, breast-feeding in public?"
Bovarnes' supporters erupted in outrage.
"You know that charge was dismissed!" one yelled.
"They're teats!" proclaimed another. "Cows don't have breasts! They have teats! And it's perfectly legal to milk them!"
"Not in Kansas City," Barnes chuckled. "Thanks to my leadership, Kansas City is no longer a lawless cowtown. Listen, I'm perfectly willing to let this whole thing slide. But the public deserves to know the truth. If your candidate is innocent, she should put this matter to rest by allowing the police to release the arrest report."
"What about your sordid past?" one of the activists demanded. "Is it true that your sex workshops were actually aversion therapy?"
"I'm not going to dignify that question with a response," Barnes said. "As I'm sure you're all aware, the '70s were very different times."
The reporters scribbled furiously in their notepads, soaking up every juicy detail in what had, until then, been an extremely boring campaign season.
"Listen," one of the activists said, "the real issue is charisma and backbone. And our candidate has both. The 2001 Cow Parade was one of the most exciting and energizing events in Kansas City's history. Our city hasn't felt that kind of buzz in twenty years."
"And you wanna talk about backbone?" another activist asked, rapping his knuckles against Bovarnes' Fiberglas hide. "That's what I call a hard spine. She's not going to back down to the fat cats who manipulate City Hall to line their own pockets with our tax money."
"All right, that's enough," Hector said, grabbing the mayor and pushing his way through the shouting crowd toward the Plunder. He waved the reporters onto the bus, and the Plunder motored forward, off for a tour of the city's thriving southwest corridor.
The Plunder rumbled off through the east side, passing block after block of vacant lots, each buried under mountains of Johnson County trash. In 2012, Barnes had inked a deal allowing the southwest suburban communities, which now stretch to within ten miles of Emporia, Kansas, to haul their refuse into the urban core for an annual fee.
The megavehicle pulled to a stop near the northern end of Ward Parkway. The tree-lined street was covered with a smooth layer of fresh asphalt.
"We'll have to get out here," Barnes said. "The Plunder will tear this new road apart."
The group boarded a trolley, which had been paid for with revenues from the Johnson County trash arrangement. As the trolley moved along the lush boulevard, Barnes gestured out the window toward the pristine lawns and stately mansions. "Now this is progress," she said. "As I'm sure you're all aware, this vital section of our city's rich neighborhood tapestry was poised to secede from the city, much like our selfish neighbors to the north. But I wasn't going to let that happen. I put together a tax-incentive package that allowed us to keep this community within our larger community."
Again, the reporters were dumbfounded by the mayor's gall. The Ward Parkway TIF had been the most controversial in Kansas City history. The area's improvements -- millions of dollars' worth of landscaping and mansion-remodeling projects -- were being funded by taxes levied against the gardeners and maids who tended the properties. This stirred ire among most Kansas Citians, particularly those living on the predominantly black east side, which had won just two TIF projects -- one that had razed several square miles of neighborhoods to make way for the CTAV, and another that had allowed Osco to force out all the area's competing drugstores and subsequently jack up prices.
"How can you brag about this?" a reporter demanded. "It's like the opposite of Robin Hood! Look at that guy." He pointed to an emaciated gardener in tattered overalls caked with months' worth of dirt, who was bent over, pulling weeds under the pounding sun. "You think he likes paying 80 percent taxes just so a lawyer with a handful of city contracts can have a garden full of rare mums?"
"Now that's where you're wrong," Barnes said. "A healthy and thriving city needs diversity, and that includes members of our culturally and financially advantaged communities. Without people like us, or rather them, Kansas City will not earn its rightful place alongside London, Paris and Rome."
A columnist for The Kansas City Star shook his head and scribbled in his notebook "VOTE FOR THE COW!"
Barnes led reporters back to the Plunder, which ferried them to the iron gate of the Country Club Plaza. The reporters craned their necks, taking in the full expanse of the 14-foot, razor-wire-topped fence surrounding the city's commercial district. Ever since Barnes sold all the streets running through the Plaza to Highwoods Properties, the shopping area had been closed to the general public.
"Now," Barnes said, clasping her hands together, "I have a special treat for all of you. In spite of my misgivings about the negative work you do, I'd like to invite you to be my guests for lunch at At Your Serviss."
It would have been a rare treat indeed to dine in the eatery owned and operated by Barnes' longtime friend, City Hall consultant Joe Serviss. But the reporters had tuned out the mayor. They'd been distracted by the news coming across the wireless phone systems implanted between their ears and jaws.
"What's happening?" the mayor asked.
"News alert," a reporter replied. "A terrorist attack. Here, I'll put it on speaker." She stuck a pinky up her nose and opened her mouth, emitting the voice of the Cybervision Network News anchor, the lovely and well-preserved Anne Peterson. " ... have destroyed several dozen blocks in downtown Los Angeles and have apparently taken over the corporate headquarters of Clear Channel. There is no word yet as to who these terrorists are. But we will keep you posted as developments arise."
The reporter closed her mouth.
"Oh my," the mayor said. "Hector, tell the Plunder driver to turn on the radio. Maybe we can find out what's going on."
Hector escaped into the Plunder's cab. Soon, the passenger area reverberated with the dense thump of hip-hop beats.
I'm a product of Barnes-onomics, robotic/They sayin' I live in this chronic/ Third-rate town, ironic ...
Hector twisted the knob frantically, but the same song was playing on every station.
I'm about to make it famous/So you can take that T-I-F/And you can shove it up your anus.
Hector turned down the volume and emerged from the cab. "I don't know what's going on," he said.
"What was that music?" Barnes asked.
"Tech N9ne," said the Pitch reporter.
"A gun?" she asked.
"No, the rapper. He's never had a hit, but he's Kansas City's biggest star."
"Oh yes, Tuck Nine," she said. "What can I say about Tuck Nine?"
Hector whispered in her ear.
"I'm certainly pleased to see one of our own representing the 816 on the national stage. It's just this kind of creative synergy that the city needs to earn its place with London, Rome and Paris. Hector, please crank the jams."
The Plunder boomed with rat-a-tat rhymes. Barnes bobbed her head and shook her hips.
I ain't never understood how the world-class cities work/But I always understood why the lawyers twirk/For a Barnes, not a Giuliani/Livin' large with other people's money.
Upon hearing her name, Barnes abruptly halted her awkward jig. "Hector!" she hollered. "Turn it off! This sounds like more negativity. Try KCUR."
Hector spun the dial, landing again on the Tech N9ne song, which was reaching its climactic end:
Kansas City, baby, we 'bout to bring it down in oh-two-three!
"Hector, I said KCU -- " she began, before hearing the soothing voice of Walt Bodine.
"Well," the venerable talk-show host cooed over the airwaves, "that was, uh, Tech, uh, Craig, what is it?"
"N9ne, Walt," said retired restaurateur Craig Glazer.
"Oh yes, N9ne," Bodine said. "Tech N9ne, with his new, uh, hit, 'On Da Map.' Usually, on this show, we talk about, uh, uh, uh ... Craig, what do we talk about?"
"Restaurants, Walt," Glazer replied.
"Oh yes," Bodine said. "Restaurants. But not today. Craig, tell me again why we're not talking about, uh ... "
"Restaurants? We're not talking about restaurants, Walt, because of the terrorists."
"You know, I can remember when there were no terrorists. Kansas City was the pride of America back then. I used to go over to that nice little place on that, uh, that one street over there, and have a, uh ... "
"Bowl of soup? Yes, Walt, that was very good soup."
"So tell me, Craig," Bodine continued after a long pause, "what do these, uh, terrorists have to do with us talking about, uh ... "
"Walt, I already told you. Christ, the terrorists have taken over Clear Channel, which owns every radio station in the nation, including this one."
"I see," Bodine said. "In that case, let's give that, uh, song, another listen, shall we?"
On da map/Second biggest St. Paddy's Day parade/On da map/Second busiest railroad hub/On da map/Fuck second best, yo/Kansas City is da bomb/And this muthafucka's 'bout to blow!
Hector turned off the radio. Barnes stared through the reporters, the gears of her mind grinding away.
"What are you going to do, Mayor?" one of the reporters asked.
"Well," she said, snapping to attention, "we mustn't rush into hasty decisions. It appears as though these unfortunate incidents are hitting closer to home than we might have hoped. So I am pleased to announce that I am forming a committee to study this issue. Would any of you be willing to serve on this committee?"
The reporters exchanged glances. "Um, we're honored that you would ask," one said, "but we can't really get involved with the stories we cover."
Hector stepped forward and flexed his arms, making his pecs pop up and down. "This isn't optional," he said.
The reporters nodded. "Good," Barnes said. "Now, first of all, we need more information. Does anyone have any ideas?"
"I can fire up my portable Cybervision system," one said. "Maybe CNN is covering the terrorist attack."
"Wonderful idea," Barnes said.
The reporter fiddled with some wires, flipped a switch, and the Plunder's passenger area transformed into a God's-eye view of Los Angeles. A half-dozen hovercrafts with gold hubcaps and tinted windows zoomed past the Hollywood sign and showered the city with red laser beams, erasing several blocks of buildings. They circled around a skyscraper built in the shape of an old-fashioned microphone. Several unidentified black males emerged from the crafts, flying through the air with personal jet-propulsion packs. They broke windows and entered the building.
The Plunder filled with Anne Peterson. "We still do not know the exact identity of the terrorists," Peterson said, "but Pentagon sources tell CNN that they may be connected to the al-Qaida network."
Peterson raised a hand to her ear. "Wait a minute," she said. "We have now made contact with the terrorists. We're patching them through now."
Barnes and the reporters gazed upon the face of a black male in his midtwenties with diamond-studded teeth and bright-green dreadlocks. "Yo, America," he said. "We the Rogue Dog Villains, dog, representin' the KCMO. I just want to say right now, fuck the muthafuckin' industry! My nigga Tech N9ne be bustin' mad rhymes since '86, y'all, and he ain't got no respect from no radio hoes. So, yo, we takin' over this muthafucka! If the radio wankstas won't give us the spins, we'll take them for ourselves. From now on, American radio gonna be Tech N9ne 24/7!"
"Excuse me, Mr. Villain," Peterson butted in, "this isn't your average hip-hop terrorist attack. It's very sophisticated. Are others involved? Are you connected to al-Qaida?"
"Yeah, we down with the AQ crew," he replied. "Now that Ashcroft be in power, they all legit and shit. We didn't do no video for this album. Tech's managers decided to use the video dollas to send us Rogue Dog Villains to training camp in Afghanistan. They figured that was the only way we was gonna get the spins we deserve. We had us a good time, too. That place be jumpin' with American cats who is straight-up pissed with the way things is goin' back in the U.S."
"Excuse me, Mr. Villain," Peterson said, touching her ear, "President Ashcroft is about to give a press conference. We take you now to Washington, D.C."
Ashcroft glared out from behind a podium covered with microphones. Behind him stood two female statues wearing long gingham dresses. "My fellow Americans," Ashcroft said. "We now know who is responsible for these cowardly attacks. Aaron Yates, also known as Tech N9ne, is the mastermind. And let me reassure the American people, we will subdue this evildoer by sundown. We have credible intelligence that Aaron Yates is now hiding somewhere in the Kansas City area. At this moment, the full force of the United States military is descending on that city. And let me say to you, Mr. Yates, if you're watching, you may have succeeded in putting your hometown on the map, but -- "
"Hector, turn it off!" Barnes wailed. Hector bolted up and yanked the wires out of the portable Cybervision system.
"OK," Barnes continued in a panicked voice, "I think our work here is done. Will one of you please write up a report to submit to City Council for approval? I need to now enact the city's terrorism contingency plan. Hector, call in the guards."
Hector dialed his implanted cell phone, and within minutes the mayor's Plunder was surrounded by more Plunders and helicopters hovering low, dispensing thousands of firefighters.
"What's going on?" one of the reporters asked.
"Well," the mayor replied, "in the city's most recent contract negotiations with Local 42, the firefighters agreed to provide me with extra bodyguards in the event of a terrorist attack. In exchange, I offered an 80 percent raise and unlimited overtime. So, as you can see, it's time for this little press conference to end."
The burly firefighters stormed the Plunder and began throwing reporters into the cratered street. A few of them fought over the privilege of tossing out Star columnist Yael Abouhalkah and wound up tearing him into four pieces.
The battalion of Plunders and helicopters moved north, splashing through the Missouri River and stopping outside a little-known cave near Subtropolis. Surrounded by her closest bodyguards, Barnes descended into the farthest reaches of the cavern, where they found a black man, his red-dyed spiky hair growing pink with old age. He looked up at her. "Yo," he said. "Ain't you the bitch that destroyed my hometown?"
"Who are you?" she asked.
"You'll know soon enough."
He lit a blunt, took a deep toke and offered it to her. "Here, you gonna need some of this," he said. "Ashcroft's 'bout to go Homeland Security on yo' ass."
"I don't understand," the mayor frowned.
She reached out for the joint and stared at it curiously while America watched Ashcroft's army move into Kansas City and encircle a small hole in the ground, which they pummeled with round after round of nerve gas.
A few miles away, in a midtown studio, Walt Bodine flipped on an old R&B song.
I'm gonna be standing on the corner/ On the corner of Twelfth Street and Vine/ With my Kansas City baby/And a bottle of Kansas City wine....