She had fallen from a great height. In the torn flesh of one thigh a shard of bone stood at an angle and an arm was folded backward. One wing lay accordioned beneath her ribcage, the feathers messy with blood. The other curved across the sidewalk, immaculate, pinions trembling in the breeze.
George Zacharias stood beneath a guttering streetlamp, looking down at her. Blocking the light with his forearm, he looked back at the straining faces beyond the tape. Involuntarily he glanced up, past the stacked windows of apartment buildings and the minarets, to the slot of starless sky. He looked down again. Her skin, where it was not bloodied, was the color of tea, but the wings were pale gold.
“This isn’t someone’s idea of a joke, is it?”
Tomo stepped forward. “That’s what I thought, George. That’s what I said: someone’s crazy joke. But look for yourself.”
Zacharias knelt beside her head. Her hair lay in soaked rags and coils on the filthy concrete. He examined the unbroken wing. Near her shoulder blade the feathers were tiny, like fragments of soft glass, but then they flattened into a meshed pattern like chrysanthemum petals. Each feather had a little rim of darker color. He ran a finger along the feathers, lifted one, smoothed it back into place. He looked at her face. The upturned cheek was unblemished. He laid a finger on her cheekbone. It was warm. Moving his hand to her throat, he felt a shiver, as though a trapped insect struggled feebly. He stood and went back to Tomo. “She’s alive.”
“No she’s not.”
“She’s alive, Tomo.”
“I felt for—”
Tomo started forward.
Zacharias looked back at the prying faces. “Just trust me,” he said.
“Trust me. Get a sheet.”
Tomo trotted over to the van.
“Will she fit in that?” Zacharias asked when he returned.
“Sure. I mean, if they’re real wings they’ll fold, right?”
“Okay. See if you can back it up here. And move that crowd away.”
They slid a board under her and covered her with a sheet and lifted her into the back of the van. She was lighter than he’d anticipated. Even folded, the wings took up most of the interior. Zacharias got into the passenger seat.
“Okay,” he said.
He stared out the gritty windscreen. The streetlamps were stars in the murk.
“Who’s the best?
“Well, Barsoum’s the best.”
“Well . . .”
“Not Barsoum. Is Shahid still around?”
“Shahid’s eighty-five, George. He spends his time making dollhouses for the grandkids.”
“So his hands are good.”
“His hands are fine. Can’t say the same about the tick-tock.” Tomo knocked at his chest.
“His house is full of screaming kids. I’ve been there. It’s a zoo. We can’t—”
“We’ll take her to my place, then you fetch him.”
They twisted through the alleys of Rad al-Farag, Tomo beating the horn with his fist to clear dogs and urchins. It was after midnight, and most of the shops were closed or closing, but there were still crowds around the koshari joints and tobacconists. They pulled onto Ahmed Bedawi and headed east, under the train tracks, then north to Abbasiya. Here the streets were wider and the walls were crusted escarpments, the interior tableaux like insects in amber.
He kept looking back, smacked every time by her newness, her beauty. He thought she’d die on the way—the sheet was soaked with blood—but she was still breathing when they pulled her out and as they jostled up the stairs he heard a whispered moan. “Gently,” he said.
The green paint of the door was peeling to reveal an older layer of dirty rose. At eye level, a brass plaque read: George Zacharias Literary & Detective Agency. He plowed through the anteroom, kicking stacks of manuscripts aside to make way.
“In here.” They went through the sitting room, past his desk, buried under a midden of papers, to the bedroom. He pulled an armload of books off the mattress and slapped at the sheet.
“You know, a cleaner wouldn’t cost you that much,” Tomo said.
“They move things around.”
“That’s their job.”
They slid her off the board and pulled back the sheet and for a moment stood staring. The broken wing had brushed a red hieroglyph on the wall; the other curved to the floor. In the fitful light of the streetlamp she’d seemed uncanny, but somehow seeing her in this room where he slept, on his ochered mattress, beneath the etching of the Sphinx under a smoky sky, she was not possible. He shook his head abruptly. “Hurry,” he said.
Kneeling beside her, he half-lifted his hand, let it fall. Her wounds seemed terrible. He contented himself with brushing his knuckles across her wing. After a while he went to the gas burner and brewed a thimble of coffee in the copper kanaka. He opened the window and smoked a cigarette and sipped the sweet slurry. Through a slot between two buildings he could see a quilted awning, lights throbbing beneath it, and he heard a snatch of tambour and pipe: a wedding. A moth tottered by, wingbeats frail semaphores, and suddenly a bat swept down in pursuit—so close he glimpsed its crimped rat face—and veered away, trailing shrieks.
* * *
He’d fallen into the detective thing by accident. He’d had some trouble with the sink and someone at the coffee shop had recommended Tomo, so he called him up. Tomo worked for the police department in the day and did plumbing in the evening to support his mistress. Zacharias had learned about the mistress within the first five minutes of their acquaintance, as Tomo struggled with the pipes below the sink:
“I try to give her up. Once a month I give her up, like I quit smoking. She costs too much, always more this, more that. She needs some pork meat, she needs some special shoes, she needs some I don’t know. And she snores. And always shouting. So I give her up.” Tomo was shouting himself, as he banged on the spanner with a chunk of pipe. There was blue lint in the hairy furrow between his buttocks. He sat back, panting. “But her thighs, George—I can call you George?—her thighs. Unbelievable. I’m not joking with you, I can’t get my arms around them.” He demonstrated. “She lets me bite them.” He banged some more, then looked around. “So what’s with all the papers?”
Zacharias told him.
“Strange,” Tomo said. “I’m normally not a book guy, but just this morning I was checking a homicide—dead priest—and he had this book in his pocket.”
He tugged from his filthy trousers a palm-sized hardback. The front cover and most of the pages were charred away; those that remained were tacky with blood. Zacharias held it gingerly between finger and thumb.
“Look.” Tomo came up behind him and, reaching over his shoulder, pawed through the bloodstained pages, revealing two that were legible. Zacharias was surprised to see that it was hand-calligraphed. Tomo prodded at a page, leaving a heavy grease mark. “Can you read what it says?” he asked.
Zacharias angled the book away.
It was in the old tongue, and he had to summon the lessons from childhood. “The angel . . .” he read slowly. “The angel exits the whorl of wings, one voice spinning out from the . . . from the vortex, filament of light, and curling down, pressed into the shells of atmosphere, the leagues of blue, down, down, feeling now the particles of air like pebbles beneath his wings . . .” It appeared to be some sort of mystical text—one of the old gnostic fantasies, perhaps. He looked up. “How did the priest die?”
“You don’t even want to know,” Tomo said, going back to the sink. “Big, big mess.”
Zacharias had obsessed over the book for a week, but the information he turned up didn’t give Tomo any leads. Nevertheless, Tomo was impressed with his acumen, and they’d become friends. He visited Tomo’s house, met his five girls and gap-toothed, giggling wife, ate some macaroni au four swimming in clarified butter.
He’d met the mistress once, in a hotel lobby. Her slimy pink dress showed off her colossal mottled thighs. She sat beside Tomo and drank banana milkshakes and said not a word.
Tomo started calling him up when there was a literary element to a case: a murdered bookseller, an enigmatic note in a reticule. But Zacharias had a knack for making connections and soon Tomo started contacting him for other interesting cases and got him put on the department payroll as a consultant. Zacharias had the brass sign made and screwed it over the peeling green paint.
* * *
He’d smoked three cigarettes by the time Tomo got back with Dr. Shahid. Tomo had practically carried him up the stairs. Shahid had a little white frond of a beard and enormous black-rimmed glasses. His magnified eyelids were like the lips of wounds, within which the age-smoked irises swam. He listed onto a stack of manuscripts and sat there for a minute, chewing his breaths. At last he lifted a hand to Zacharias. It felt like a bundle of twigs.
“How are you, Dr. Shahid?” Zacharias asked.
The old man nodded.
“Can I get you something? Water? Tea?”
He shook his head. “Where’s.” He breathed. “Where’s the—”
“She’s in there. Now listen. You’ve seen everything. I’ve seen everything. We’ve been around. But you haven’t seen this. Okay? Just so you know. Just so you’re prepared.”
The old man extended hands to Tomo and Zacharias and they helped him up and walked him into the bedroom.
For five minutes the doctor peered and prodded at the wings, at the joints where they attached behind the shoulder blades. He tapped his fingers along her torso and limbs, skirting the wounds. He touched her face delicately, thumbed back an eyelid. Then he straightened with a gasp.
“You need a doctor or a vet for this one?”
“Will she fix up?”
He made a moue, spread his fingers. “I don’t know what’s going on inside. We can work on the outside, cast the bones. I don’t have much experience with wings.” He laughed soundlessly, as if he’d been kicked in the gut.
“What do you need?”
“Boil some water. All your pans and basins. Several sheets. I would like a table here for my bag.”
As he set the water to boil, Zacharias could hear Tomo on the phone in the other room. “Yah, like a fancy-dress party, got a bit rough. I guess she fell off the balcony. Maybe pushed—we’re investigating. People see what they want to see, Aziz. Well of course they’re real. Sewn on, painted gold. You want some, go to Ataba, they’ll do you a nice flamingo costume. Look pretty on you. No, just a party, okay? No, you can’t print that. Just a party. Okay, Aziz, come by the office sometime, yah?”
Once he started working, Shahid’s hands steadied. He scrubbed away dried blood, swabbed with alcohol. Only once, while he was cleaning the gash in the broken thigh, did he sit back and look around at Zacharias. “Her bones are hollow,” he said.
“Does that . . . ?”
“The break’s quite clean. I think I can plate it.”
He dealt with the thigh, drilling, screwing on the plate, sewing the wound closed, and stabilizing it between two boards. Then the arm, which was torn and swollen but did not appear to be broken. He sewed and sewed. Sometimes, still leaning to the body, he’d reach a hand back and say, “Some more cotton please, George” or “Would you hand me the scissors there? Thank you so much.” Finally he turned to the broken wing. He bound a rod along the outside of the shaft and wound strips of linen between the feathers, prying apart the quills and tugging the cloth through.
The dawn mosque calls were tapering away when he sat back at last, turned his head this way and that, vertebrae snapping alarmingly, and creaked to his feet.
“Well,” he said, “that’s about all I can do. I don’t want to touch the face, but I think there’s probably trauma in there. We’ll just leave it and see what happens. Then the ribs—at least three breaks . . .” He shook his head and shrugged. “Let me know if she wakes up.”
“Will she make it?”
Shahid looked down at her. “Fifty-fifty,” he said. “The internal damage—we just can’t know. But—this is an odd thing to say, but the wing might have cushioned her fall somewhat. If she’d just fallen straight, with no drag and nothing beneath her . . .”
“All right. Can’t say how much we appreciate this.”
“Oh, it’s . . . It’s been an experience. Wouldn’t have missed it. Still not sure if I’m dreaming.”
“Not a word, okay?”
The old man held a tremulous finger to his lips.
“Tomo will see you home.”
* * *
He slept all morning and woke with a gold blot in his mind. For a moment he lay hugging a pillow to his chest, trying to connect the brightness with something, then sat up abruptly, pressing his temples. “No way,” he said. He clambered free of the sofa and clutched the doorframe of the bedroom and stood there looking in at the winged girl. She lay in a trapezoid of light from the high window. Even with her leg and arm and wing in rude splints and bristling, ointment-smeared centipedes of stitchery across her skin she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Now that the blood was cleaned away, he could see the massive contusions on her side, across her right breast. Her left eye was swollen shut. He touched her throat. She was still warm, and her heartbeat seemed steadier, if light, as if he were telling a fairy rosary.
The phone rang while he was in the shower and he slopped across the tiles and picked it up.
“George.” It was Tomo.
“She’s still alive.”
“Okay. Okay. I’m thinking . . .”
“Why don’t we have breakfast?”
“Half an hour.”
By the time Zacharias got to the Abbas, Tomo had almost finished a waterpipe. Outside the window, a pomegranate-juice vendor was clashing his saucers and hollering. Tomo called the waiter over and looked at Zacharias. “The whole thing?”
Tomo circled a finger at the table and the waiter nodded and walked off. Zacharias called him back. “Coffee,” he said. “Lots of sugar.”
“So?” Tomo asked.
“So she seems okay. I mean, all banged up, everything’s broken, but Shahid sewed her back together and splinted and I don’t know what all and she’s still breathing.”
“Okay. Okay. So now what?”
“You tell me.”
“I mean, we’re in—this is new territory here. Winged girls falling from the sky. Where’s the home for winged girls, George? Do we put her in the zoo? The circus? Donate her to the Faculty of Medicine?”
“That’s just the thing. The minute word gets out it’s a madhouse. International madhouse.” He raised his hands and fluttered them.
“There’s money here, George, you know that.”
“Sure. But do you want to go there? Immediately all your leads are screwed. And who’s going to trust you after that?”
“You might be right.”
“And another thing.”
“There’s more money if you can get to the bottom of it. You know what I’m saying? A winged girl—a circus freak—you have all the hotshots digging for the details. They get the scoop. But you have the girl and the scoop.”
“I hear you, I hear you.”
“You know, you give them the whole story—this is where, blah blah . . .”
“I hear you.”
The food came: eggs, beans, tahina, potatoes, baba ghanoug, beet salad, aubergine salad, tomato-feta salad. Tomo dusted it all with red pepper. Zacharias downed his coffee in two sticky gulps and they ate for a while. Tomo dipped a scrap of bread in egg yolk and let it drip. “So where do you start?” he said.
“We have to think about that.”
“She’s . . . Well, what are you thinking? Some sort of experiment, I guess. Genetic you know. Genetic . . .”
“Manipulation? I don’t think so. Maybe, but I don’t think so.”
“What—you think there are just flocks of winged people flying around and we never noticed them?”
“She’s too perfect.”
“What do you mean?”
“Her bones are hollow.”
“Shahid said. Her bones are hollow, like a bird’s.”
“So she’s the real thing, you’re saying.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying it, but . . . yeah, that’s what I’m saying.”
“Well. Okay. Now what?”
“Look, what would you call her—I mean, if you’d seen a picture or heard about her.”
“Well. Angel. But.” Tomo laughed as if he was trying to clear his throat.
“I think that’s where you have to start, then. From the obvious. And who would you go to, to find out about angels?”
“I got you.”
“You know anyone?”
“I’m not a religion guy. I’ll ask my wife.”
* * *
When he got back to the apartment she had more color in her cheeks and he thought she was getting better, but when he touched her shoulder she was hot. He called Shahid.
“Yes,” the old man said. “That’s to be expected. In a way it’s a good sign: her systems are functioning. But you’ll have to bring it down. Do you have a pen?” He gave the names of drugs. “Inject them straight into the buttocks. Outside top quadrant. Then keep her cool. Cool wet cloths, changed often.”
So that day and the next he sat beside her, reading and changing the cloths every half hour. He laid the cloths in strips across her body and her fever dried them. Once he bent close to her cheek and inhaled. She had no scent at all, or perhaps the faintest whiff of something hot and dry—parched grass at noon, sun on sand. She did not lose her strangeness: each time he entered the room, he was shocked by her beauty—the splendor of the wing that trailed on the floor, her tea-colored skin.
Tomo rang to say he’d gotten the name of a priest. “They told me this guy’s the best. He’s the guy who does—you know, where they get the demons out.”
“Yeah. When they need demon removal, they go to this guy. So I figured—demons, angels, all pretty much the same ship.”
“What’s his name?”
* * *
Following Tomo’s directions, he took a taxi into the shopping district east of Qasr al-Aini. He got out at an intersection he’d been through a hundred times and looked around, expecting to see a weathervane cross against the sky, but there were only apartment buildings. He walked through an arcade, turned into a slot between two hair salons, and found himself in a tangle of alleys. The cramped interiors spilled onto the streets, so he walked past families eating breakfast and children working on private projects with tin cans and string and bottle caps. He passed goats and chickens and a crazy man smoking and turning in circles in a nook of sunlight. Cats crawled over steaming knolls of garbage.
He found the street and walked up and down it twice. Then he came back and stood in the middle of the street, glowering at the facade of number 377, which abutted directly onto 381. He was about to grab one of the passing kids when a little bald man emerged from a coffee shop. He had on an enormous overcoat with the collar turned up, making him seem even smaller. His head was speckled and shiny as a brown egg. Standing in front of Zacharias, he slowly unbuttoned the sleeve of his coat, then the sleeve of his shirt. Thinking he was another nutter, Zacharias was about to brush past, but the man nudged up the cloth on his wrist, revealing, at the confluence of veins, a faded blue cross.
Like a child, the man took his hand and led him through a doorway and up some steps. On the second floor he opened a door and they went through into a central stairwell open to the sky. Zacharias followed him down perforated iron stairs. The base was a stinking midden of fish bones and rotten oranges and sodden cardboard. A couple of crows ceased pecking and watched their descent. Picking his way through the garbage, the bald man led Zacharias to a low, arched doorway and prodded it open. He stood aside, nodding and smiling. Zacharias thought he might be deaf.
Ducking through the arch, he found himself in an interior so dark and vast he couldn’t reconcile it with the crowded neighborhood he’d just come through. It didn’t seem possible that those crammed facades could harbor this silent space. A single tray of candles illuminated an icon of a skewered dragon. High on the walls were smudges of somber color—burgundy, moss green, dark gold—that he realized after a moment were panels of stained glass, so clotted with dust and cobwebs he couldn’t decipher the images. The place reeked of cat piss and incense, a scent from his childhood that summoned incomprehensible chanting, black-robed men doling smoke from censers, his mother swaying beside him in a tasseled shawl. Turning, he saw that the little man was gone, though the door stood ajar.
“Hello?” he called cautiously. His voice evaporated in the gloom. He walked over to the tray of candles and stood before the icon. Now he could see that his namesake saint on horseback reared above the dragon, the face occluded by decades of candle smoke. The dragon’s teeth remained bright, however, and the fire emerging from its mouth rippled like satin behind the tottering candle flames. After a minute he took a candle from the shelf beside the tray and lit it and stuck it in the sand.
Almost immediately, from behind the curtain of the sacristy, came the sound of footsteps, and a second later the curtain was thrust aside and a figure in black stood framed against the light.
“Come,” said the priest. “You will remove your shoes.”
Slipping off his shoes, Zacharias followed him behind the curtain, past the altar, and into a small room with benches on all sides.
“Sit,” said the priest.
“I’m here to—”
The priest rummaged in a cupboard and brought out some old communion bread wrapped in paper. He broke off a section and handed it to Zacharias, then poured him some tea from a metal thermos. He sat on the opposite bench and Zacharias got a look at his face. He was the color of bread dough and his skin seemed to have been clawed downward, leaving great scabs beneath his eyes and gashes in his cheeks. But, though his face was that of an old man, his beard was a glinting black swarm. Some nervous ailment caused his head to bobble, as if he were in qualified agreement even before Zacharias began to speak.
“So?” The priest leaned toward him.
He was suddenly afraid. He wasn’t sure what he was afraid of, but knew he could not tell this pale, indeterminately aged priest the story. Not the truth. He sipped the tea. It was barely warm, very sweet.
“My name is George Zacharias. I’m here to learn about angels,” he said.
“I . . . I work with writers. I’m a literary agent. There was a story about angels. I’m just following up, making sure the facts are straight, so to speak.”
“You are a believer?”
He wasn’t prepared for this. His heart started pounding. “I—”
“I went to church when I was a child. Not since then, I’m afraid. I haven’t . . . It’s not something I think about, really. I mean, I believed when I was a child, I suppose. Does it last? Or do you have to start over?”
“You have to start over. So. Angels. What do you want to know?”
“Well. Everything. Anything. What they look like.”
The priest nodded. “Yes.” He stood and, to Zacharias’s surprise, pulled up the cushions of the bench he had been sitting on, then the seat of the bench itself, revealing a storage chamber. He began taking out objects: a hammer, old books, the stiff skin of some small black-haired animal, a verdigrised censer, boxes of candles. Finally, from a second armload of books, he drew forth a volume the size of his torso. Setting it upright on the floor, he used the black hide to smack it free of dust. He brought the book over to Zacharias and opened it across their laps. The pages were enormous rustling things and the priest dug through great quantities of them with both hands, heaving them across to Zacharias’s side. When he found what he was looking for, he turned the book sideways, supporting the far flap with a palm. It was a two-page etching of angels and their hierarchies. The top of the triangle was blank, and wavy gold lines radiated downward from it. Beneath that were ranked beings.
The etching was hand tinted, the wings of the angels gilded. Alongside some of their mouths were scrolls and ribbons with words in the archaic tongue. The angels were dressed in robes of white or purple or many colors. Some resembled strange beasts, with myriad eyes and wings. Some were tall and stern. They had long, dark eyes and clear skin and their wings tangled and overlapped on the page. Some held orbs or eyes or flames. One carried his own head in cupped hands, and the blood ran through his fingers. Beside some stood lions or bulls, also winged. Toward the bottom of the page were beings like the one who lay broken in his apartment.
How many images of angels had he seen in his life? They occupied a certain drawer in his mind, he realized. And what else lay in that drawer? But now, as he looked at the gilded illustrations, the living, battered body of the girl on his mattress was in his mind, the live gold wings. The texture of her feathers lingered on his fingertips.
Abuna Aghoghrial delineated the hierarchies, drawing a shaking mauve fingernail down the rows of wings. “Seraphim, cherubim, aeons, aishim, elohim, archangels, angels. And within those are further subdivisions.”
“Are they here?” Zacharias asked. “Can they come here, I mean? To where we are?”
Aghoghrial passed a palm across the lower ranks. “The angels can enter this sphere,” he said. “They are watching, even as we speak.” He moved his hand up the page. “There are seven archangels who can descend to Earth. Their names are Uriel, Azrael, Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Seraqael, and Israfel. Israfel, who will sound the trumpet on the Day of Reckoning. They come rarely, and only in great need. They can manifest as fire or as storm.”
One angel had black wings, and a thin black box tethered him to the edge of the page. Zacharias pointed.
“Ah yes,” said the priest. “Lucifer, of course. The greatest, and the fallen.”
“Was he the only one to fall?”
“Many have fallen.”
“Why? Why do angels fall, Abuna?”
“The sins of angels are not like our sins.”
“What are they like?”
“They are not like our sins,” he repeated, and Zacharias felt he couldn’t ask again.
After a moment he asked, “Do they exist, the angels?”
“Have you seen them?’
The priest’s head bobbled on its stalk. He shut the book.
“Have you seen the angels, Abuna?”
“Yes and no,” he said. “Yes. And no.”
“What do you mean?”
The priest folded his hands in an attitude of prayer and held them out before the lightbulb. “What do you see, there, on the wall?” he asked.
Zacharias looked. “A—something with horns? An owl, or . . .”
“Shadow, sure, yeah.”
“Looking at the wall, do you see the lightbulb?”
“But you know it exists.”
“You can know its shape, its height, its power.”
“You’re . . . You’ve seen the shadows, is that what you’re trying to say?”
“Yes. I have seen the shadows.”
“Tell me about the shadows, then.”
“We cannot talk about them. They are listening.”
“Even here. We are in the world. To talk of them is to summon them.”
Zacharias leaned back. “Now, I was told that you do exorcism.”
The priest nodded.
“What does that involve?”
“Invoking the name of God.”
“It is not a simple thing, to invoke the name of God. To you it sounds simple. But it is not simple. There is great power.” His fingers locked, stilling the tremble. “The powers struggle. Sometimes you become the channel for the powers. You stand between the worlds, and the powers move through you.”
“Between the worlds. So . . . I don’t know if I can articulate . . . there’s a . . . another side, another world?”
“How do you get there?”
“But can you get there from here? I mean, and come back again?”
“There are doors. Not many, and they are hidden. But there are doors.”
“So is it possible for someone, for a man, to move to the other side?”
The priest jerked his head toward Zacharias. “You say that, you say it lightly, but you do not know the dangers you speak of.”
“But it’s possible?”
“It is possible.”
“Have you gone to the other side, Abuna?”
The priest glanced back toward the sanctuary. “No,” he said. “I have not crossed that threshold, nor do I ever wish to. But I have seen the door. The door to the dark.”
* * *
When he got back to the apartment she was awake. Her eyes were the gold of her wings, the irises rimmed with a narrow line of darker color. He sank to his knees beside the bed. She watched him, her slight breasts rising and falling.
“Can you speak?” His voice sounded strange.
Her lips moved, then slackened.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Her lips broke open slowly. Leaning forward he heard, on her exhalation: “Sophia.”
He nodded. “Sophia. We—I—we found you . . . you had fallen. Your bones, your wing . . . A doctor came. He . . .” Zacharias stretched a hand to the splinted thigh, but didn’t touch her. She watched him. “Can I get you something?” he asked. “Are you thirsty?”
She nodded, a fractional movement of her head. He fetched a glass of water. Kneeling beside her, he slipped a hand within the matted, dusky tangle of her hair and lifted her head slightly. Once again he was struck by how light she was. He held the glass to her mouth and tipped the water to her lips. After a minute she swallowed. Water ran into the hollow at the base of her throat, pooling like a jewel. She swallowed again, then turned aside, and he laid her head on the pillow. She closed her eyes.
She woke later in the afternoon and drank some more. He’d made some broth, and spooned a little into her mouth.
She shifted her shoulders, gasping. “Lift me,” she said. In those two words, he heard the exoticism in her voice. He craved it.
He arranged the pillows against the headboard and carefully, one hand under her knees and the other cradling her head, slid her up the bed so she was propped half-sitting. A filament of blood slid from the stitches on her side.
“Water,” she said, panting, and he brought the glass. This time she could hold it and drink. Then she lay looking at him. Her blinks were like a hand before a candle.
“Well,” he said. “I’m George. George Zacharias, literary and detective agent.” He was aware that he sounded ridiculous, but he couldn’t just sit there with her watching him. “Part-time consultant for the police department, you know.” He nodded. “So, we’ll help you to get—to find your people. Get back to where you came from. Whatever you need. We can move you if the doc gives the nod, but you’re welcome to stay here, of course. Humble abode.” He grinned feebly and waggled a hand at the stained walls and overloaded bookshelves.
She said nothing.
“So, Sophia. Could you . . . We need some sort of contact. Telephone number, address. Even just a name. Someone who might know you. I’m sure your people are looking for you.”
She shook her head.
“They’re not looking? Or you can’t remember the number?”
“Let me stay,” she said. Her voice, even parched and whispered, had colors in it.
“By all means, by all means, stay as long as you like.” He felt he was beginning to gabble. “But—pardon me, and you actually don’t need to answer this now—but, you know, I haven’t seen a winged girl before. You’re the first winged person I’ve seen. Except in books, of course.”
She gave her little peck of a nod.
“So, where did you come from? Who are you?”
“I came from the other side,” she whispered.
He nodded. “The other side. Sure. The other side. And how did you end up here? On this side, I suppose.” He wanted to hear her voice.
“I came . . . I was . . .” And suddenly a tear spilled from each gold eye. Her mouth worked.
He patted the air with both hands. “It’s okay,” he said. “There’ll be plenty of time for stories. You just rest. Would you like something? Tea, coffee? Something to eat? Something to read?”
She shook her head.
“All right. I might make myself some coffee.” He needed to clear his brain—talking to the angel was like communing with fire.
He went into the next room and lit the burner and spooned the dust coffee into the kanaka, dumped in some sugar from a paper bag, and added water. He waited till it frothed up in the copper mouth, added more water, a little more, let it froth three times, and took it off. He poured his demitasse full and opened the window and leaned out. Placing the cup on the outside sill, he lit a cigarette and smoked while the grounds settled. The sky was the color of grimy newsprint and the walls looked as though they’d been pawed by giant soiled hands. Trams tottered into the station, spewing sparks, releasing their burdens of schoolchildren, and grinding on. Across the way he could see old ladies on balconies, drinking tea or leaning across the railings and gossiping or lowering baskets on long ropes to reel in pomegranates, newspapers, carnations. On the sidewalk across the street the coffee shop bore an evanescent roof of waterpipe smoke. Bubbles winked in the bowls as the men inhaled.
He watched a couple of trams disgorge their passengers. Tilting his head, he drained his coffee cup and put it back on the sill. A sinuous black car with tinted windows pulled up beside the coffee shop and two men got out of the rear doors. The bald head of one rested within his collar like a brown egg in an eggcup. The other passenger was taller and wore an old-fashioned black hat. A tram stopped and disgorged a flock of blue-uniformed schoolchildren, who swarmed up the steps and milled around the men as the tram lumbered off. Then the men were alone on the sidewalk, turning slowly around. The bald man nodded toward the coffee shop and they walked over to it. The tall man lit a cigarette and as he blew out the match looked back for a second. Zacharias glimpsed his face for the first time: a pale oval tapering to a sharp black beard. Even from this height there was something uncanny about him. The men at the coffee shop leaned toward the strangers and the tall man asked them something. One of the smokers gestured across the street with the nozzle of his waterpipe, aiming at Zacharias’s building. Zacharias sensed the men were going to look up, and suddenly knew he didn’t want to be seen. He ducked behind the windowsill. Slowly, he inched his line of vision to the edge of the window, where there was a gap between curtain and frame. They were making their way back across the tracks.
He went into the bedroom. She looked at him.
“Two men,” he said. “One with a hat.” He sketched it over his head. “I don’t know how, but they found where I live and they’re coming.”
She nodded. “Move me,” she said.
“I don’t think—”
“Okay. Okay. Here, tuck the sheet . . .”
He pulled the sheet across her and drew it over her broken wing. She gasped.
“Sorry. I’m sorry,” he said.
“Can you . . . ?” He touched her good wing and she dragged it slowly toward her body. He pressed it against her and tucked the sheet around it.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m going to have to lift.”
“Yes,” she whispered.
She cried out as he lifted her, and he froze. She was so light, like bearing a palm branch.
“Quickly,” she said.
“Okay, we’ll just—” He carried her through to the other room, went onto the landing, and pulled the door shut. For half a minute he stood there, trying to decide where to take her. He couldn’t go down. There was the roof, but surely they’d try that when they found the apartment empty. He had to move. He started up the stairs. Her good wing had fallen free of the sheet and it trailed against the banister.
Two floors up he kicked at a door. After a moment a boy opened it. He brushed past him and set the angel down on the nearest sofa, then shut the door gingerly. There was blood on the sheet and her face was pale. He turned to the boy. “Is anyone else here?” The boy couldn’t take his eyes off the angel. Zacharias tapped his shoulder, and the boy, still looking at her, shook his head. “Where’s your mother?” Zacharias asked. The boy pointed to the door he’d just come through. “All right. Look, we’re going to have to use your house for a minute, okay? This girl’s . . . She had an accident.”
“Is she an angel?” the boy asked.
“No, of course not. Now, is there a bedroom—where’s your bedroom?”
Zacharias carried the angel into the boy’s bedroom. The bed was too small, so he laid her on the floor. He looked at her. Her feathers were dusty and Dr. Shahid’s splint had shifted and a wound on her arm had opened. “Sorry,” he said. She shook her head slightly, and her eyes strayed. He turned. The boy was standing in the doorway looking at her. “She’s an angel,” he said.
“Stay here,” Zacharias ordered. “I need to use your telephone.” He went into the living room and called Tomo. “No time,” he said as soon as Tomo picked up. “Listen. Someone’s coming to get her. I don’t know who. She’s afraid of them. I’ve moved her but I need a way out of the building.” He hung up before Tomo could say a word, and went back into the boy’s bedroom. Zacharias crouched and gripped the boy’s shoulder. He had jam on his lips and smelled of strawberries. “Hashem, right?” Zacharias said.
“Haroun, yeah. Listen, Haroun. She’s hurt. She has to stay here for a little while.”
“How did she get hurt?”
“She fell. Do you want to help her?”
The boy nodded.
“All right. Then I need you to do something. I need you to keep her a secret. Can you keep secrets?”
The boy nodded. He licked at the jam on his upper lip.
“Now look.” Zacharias took out his wallet. He found a coin and handed it to the boy. “Keep this,” he said. “When you feel like telling someone, take it out and look at it.”
“Is it a magic coin?”
Zacharias nodded solemnly and closed the boy’s fingers over it. “Keep it safe,” he said.
There was shouting from the hall outside.
“Who’s that?” Zacharias whispered.
“If she asks, say no one came in, okay? Keep her out of here if you can.”
Zacharias pushed him gently from the room and shut the door. He knelt by the keyhole. The woman’s voice grew suddenly stronger. “You want to come in and search my place, no problem. I got winged people all over the house, under the beds, in the closets. What is it with this day? First my brother cuts off his fingers, chops them straight off, right here, and he needs them for his work. He has seven kids. They say he can’t use his hand for a month. A month! And now you crazies asking whether we seen any winged people about. What’s next? Tell me that, mister. What’s next today?” The door slammed. “Have you been in the jam, you demon!” Zacharias heard a slap. “That’s all I need! All I need! In your room!”
Zacharias stood aside, heart whacking, but just the boy stumbled through. Haroun grinned at him. His cheek was red.
Zacharias sat back against the wall and pulled the boy down beside him. “What will she do?” he whispered.
“Make some tea and go to bed.”
Taped to the wall opposite was a pencil drawing of a man with a cat’s spindle eyes and canines denting his lower lip. He stood on a toppled pillar, brandishing a severed arm. His other fist clutched a scimitar. The only color was the red of the blood dripping from the arm and the edge of the blade.
Zacharias pointed to the drawing and Haroun nodded eagerly. He pulled an exercise book from beneath the bed and leafed past heavily corrected math problems to pages of hybrid monsters clashing in sprays of ink. Zacharias nodded. He was listening to the tinkle of metal on glass. A door shut. He turned to Haroun. “She’s in her room,” he said. “Now, I’m just going to peek out the door.” He tiptoed into the living room and put his eye to the judas hole in the front door. Nothing. He pressed the buzzer beside the door to call Adel and opened the door a crack. When he heard the slap of Adel’s sandals he stepped out onto the landing. Adel stopped. Zacharias put a hand across his mouth. He could feel Adel’s fat lips working beneath his palm.
“Listen,” he whispered. “Two men came in, yes?”
Adel watched him with sad, scared eyes.
“What did they tell you?” He released Adel’s lips and wiped the saliva on his trousers. Adel shook his head.
“They gave you money, didn’t they?”
Adel just looked at him, but his lips trembled.
“Are they gone?”
Adel said nothing.
“Look, you fat fool—if they kill me, that’s half your income gone, can you understand that?”
But great muddy tears were tracing the creases of Adel’s cheeks. Zacharias patted the pockets of his soiled blue robe and felt the square wad of folded cash. “All right, stay here. If you go back down I swear I’ll rip your mustache out and you won’t get another piaster out of me for the rest of your life.”
He crept back down to his apartment and stood outside the door for a minute, listening. He went in. There was no sign that anyone had been there. He looked into the bedroom. Nothing. He was about to turn back when he saw a pale rectangle on the bed, about where her heart had been. He peered at it, then picked it up by the corners. It was a business card, printed on heavy cream stock. In the center, in black letterpress, was the name lucien yaldabaoth. Below that a telephone number. The other side was blank. He put the card in his pocket. Then he heard the sirens.
He moved to the window. A whole fleet of ambulances, police cars, and fire engines came caterwauling down the tram tracks. The first car slewed onto the sidewalk and knocked over a nut vendor’s cart. Tomo clawed out, shouting. He kicked at the vendor.
“Jesus,” said Zacharias. The fleet had blocked the whole street, and every window was filled with faces and the passengers from a stopped tram had spilled out to see the fun. Tomo with both arms was fanning a battalion of uniformed men into the building. “Speed, speed, speed!” he yelled. Zacharias sat on the bed and chafed his temples with his knuckles. The boots on the stairs made a racket like toppling furniture. Then they clopped to a halt and he heard breathing. There was a delicate tap at the door. He got up wearily and opened it. Tomo slipped in and closed the door.
“What the fuck,” Zacharias told him. “What are you thinking, you motherfucker?”
“The only way, George,” Tomo panted. “Where is she?”
“Two floors up.” He pointed at the ceiling.
“Okay. You get her to the roof.”
“What are you going to do?”
Tomo giggled. “We’re going to bundle one of these guys up and drag him out of here. You just wait up there.”
“No, listen, I need help getting her out. There’s a witch in the bedroom, left-hand door as you go in. Take two guys, keep her in there.”
He followed Tomo and the two cops up. They passed Adel, who was sitting on a step, still blubbering. Zacharias shooed him down the stairs. Tomo kicked open the door and went in shouting and waving his pistol around. There was a spate of screaming from the bedroom, then silence. Zacharias went into the boy’s room. Haroun was standing with his back against the far wall. “You’re a hero,” Zacharias told him. “I’m proud of you. Not a word, all right?” Haroun gave a single wide-eyed nod. Zacharias picked up the angel and hurried out of the apartment and up the stairs.
The roof was cluttered with rusting bicycles and three-legged chairs and smashed waterpipes. In one corner was a disused dovecote, slathered with bird shit. He flipped over an ancient mattress with his foot and kicked it into the shade of the dovecote and laid her down.
“Just a few minutes,” he said. She still watched him, but her eyes bore a bright film. He thought she might be in shock. “A couple minutes, that’s all,” he assured her. Stealing to the parapet, he peered cautiously into the street, just in time to see a body completely swaddled in bloody sheets being slid into an ambulance. The vehicles swarmed off and for a few minutes housewives chirruped to each other over balconies and then the street churned seamlessly into its slow noisy pour. He kept watching, looking for a figure that stood at an angle to the crowds or a curtain nudged aside, but nothing caught his gaze. A shuffle, and he swung round. A fat, veiled woman puffed out of the stairwell. Haroun’s mother, Zacharias thought, and braced for shrieking, but she ripped off her headscarf. Zacharias began to laugh.
“Here’s the plan,” Tomo panted. He hiked up the dress and plucked a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and offered one to Zacharias.
Zacharias lit them. “Tell me,” he said.
“I got a couple workmen downstairs, taking your furniture out. We’re going to stick her in a wardrobe.”
Zacharias couldn’t stop laughing. He guessed he was overtired. He sucked on his cigarette, but choked on the smoke and coughed, bent over. Then he straightened. “All right,” he said, still laughing.
The workmen had already padded the wardrobe with blankets. Zacharias lowered her in. Her eyelids fluttered and she didn’t respond when he said her name. He closed the doors. They moved out half his furniture, taking the wardrobe last.
The truck was a huge wooden-sided thing for moving livestock. Tomo drove. Zacharias sat beside him and the workmen rode in back, reclining on his sofa and smoking, like royalty on a barge.
“You don’t think this is a bit of overkill?”
“Overkill? Plan B was setting the building on fire.”
Zacharias started laughing again.
“Where are you taking us?”
“You’ll like this.”