"Epivir. Ziagen. Retrovir." Osman went down the list shaking his head. "These are anti-AIDS medicines."
I nodded but I was barely listening. Yusuf brought the good ship Arawelo around a few points and Manhattan appeared out of the clearing fog. It looked like a cubist mountain range hovering over the water. Like a crumbling fortress. But then it had always looked like that. I expected to see some kind of obvious damage, some scar left by the Epidemic. There was nothing. Only the silence, the perfect quiet on the water told you something bad had happened here.
Osman laughed. "But Mama Halima doesn't have AIDS. You must be mistaken."
I'd figured that as we approached the city I owed it to Osman to explain why we'd crossed half the planet only to come to a haunted city. He and Yusuf - and of course the girl soldiers - were about to risk their lives. They deserved to know. "These are my orders. Read them however you want." Mama Halima was the only thing standing between Osman's family and a horde of the undead. If he wanted to think she was beyond the reach of the retrovirus I was ready to let him. I wished I could just ignore the facts myself - Sarah was living under the same condition as well. If the Warlady died there would be nothing to hold the Women's Republic of Somaliland together. Clan factions would tear it apart. How long could a country in the middle of a civil war resist the dead?
Yusuf brought us up alongside Battery Park, past the Staten Island Ferry docks. All the boats were gone now - most likely they'd been commandeered by refugees. We cruised by a hundred yards out from the docks and headed northeast, up into the East River, passing Governor's Island on our right. Brooklyn was a brown shadow to the east.
"This is madness, though. These drugs can be found anywhere. Let me take you somewhere else," Osman suggested, sounding infinitely reasonable.
"Can't." I sighed. "This has to be quick - get in, get the drugs, get out. I know this town - I grew up here, that's why they picked me for this job. Any place else I'd just get lost." Mama Halima's agents had seemed to think you could get AIDS drugs over the counter in any Duane Reade in New York. As far as I knew, though, there was only one place I could be guaranteed of finding everything on the list. The fifth floor of the UN Secretariat Building, in the Medical Offices. And the Secretariat was right on the water.
Yusuf poured on a little steam as we turned northward and entered the main channel of the East River. He steered right for the dark solid mass of the Brooklyn Bridge, still wrapped in mist. Osman rubbed at his clean-shaven face and looked like he was about to have a great idea any time now.
"I think I know," he said, finally. "I think I know it now."
I stared at him, expectantly.
"She wants the drugs to give them to other people. People who are infected with AIDS. She is a very generous woman, Mama Halima."
I just shrugged and moved to the bow of the trawler where some of the girls were clustered, pointing out the buildings we passed as if they were tourists looking for the Empire State and the Chrysler Building. I kept my eye on the shore, on the masses of pilings and docks that made up the South Street Seaport. They were abandoned, stripped clean of anything that might float. Here and there I could see people moving on the piers. Dead people, I knew, but in the mist I could pretend. Otherwise I would jump every time one of them moved.
This would all be over in a couple of hours, I told myself. Get in, get the drugs, get out. Then I could go back and see Sarah again. Start my life over somehow, I guess.
My abdomen kept hitching up, like I was sucking in my gut but I couldn't relax the muscles.
The girls started chattering excitedly and I followed their eyes as they leaned out over the bow. It was nothing, just a yellow buoy. Someone had painted something on it black, a crude design I knew I recognized... oh, yeah. The international symbol for biohazards. Osman came up behind me and grabbed my bicep. He saw it too and yelled back for Yusuf to ease up on the throttle.
"It's nothing," I told him. "Just a warning. We already know this place is dangerous."
He shook his head but didn't say anything. I supposed he knew more about maritime signage than I did. He pointed at a shadow out on the water and told Yusuf to stop the propellers altogether.
"It's nothing," I said again. Maybe I was susceptible to denial myself. The trawler rolled north, quiet now, so quiet we could hear the water slapping against the hull. The shadow on the water started to resolve itself. It formed a line across the estuary, a dark smudge edged with tiny white breakers. There was some kind of big building on a pier that stuck way out and beyond that the water just changed texture. We drew steadily closer on momentum alone until Osman had to order the engines thrown into reverse. We were getting too close if it was some kind of obstruction. The smudge took shape as we coasted, turning into piles, heaps of something dumped in the water, lots of little things dumped in heaps.
I couldn't see them very well. I didn't want to but Osman pushed a pair of binoculars at me and I took a look. The East River was clogged with human corpses. My mouth was dry but I forced myself to swallow and look again. On the forehead of each corpse (I checked a dozen or so to make sure) was a puckered red wound. Not a bullet wound. More like something you would make with an icepick.
They had known - the authorities in New York, they had know what was happening to their dead. They must have known and they tried to stop it or at least slow it down. You destroy the brain and the corpse stays down, that was the lesson we'd all learned at so much cost. In Somalia they burned the bodies afterward and buried the remains in pits but here, in a city of millions, there just wouldn't have been anywhere to put them. The authorities must have just dumped the bodies in the river hoping the current would wash them away but there had been too many dead for even the sea to accept.
Thousands of bodies. Tens of thousands and it hadn't been enough, the work couldn't be done fast enough maybe. It would have been dangerous nasty work and as often as not a body you went to dispose of would sit up and grab for your arm, your face and then you would be on the pile. Who had done it? The national guard? The firemen?
"Dekalb," Osman said softly. "Dekalb. We can't go through. There's no way through."
I stared north past the raft of corpses. It stretched as far as I could see, well past the Brooklyn Bridge. He was right. I couldn't quite see the UN from there but I was so close. It was right there. My chest started to heave, with sobbing tears maybe, or maybe I wanted to throw up, I couldn't tell. The drugs, my only chance to see Sarah again, were right there but they might as well be a million miles away.
Yusuf got the Arawelo turned around and headed back toward the bay while Osman and I tried to figure out what to do next.