By Stellan Thorne
17 January 2011
The witness was beautiful, in a way that was almost hard to look at. His face was abstract and fashionable, all eyes and angles, with a luminous innocence too perfect to be entirely sincere.
Detective Greyling wondered idly how that face would look with a fat lip. Like a magazine cover, probably, a model fresh off a photo shoot. Saturday night fight fashion. A little trickle of blood down one corner of his mouth, like smudged lipstick.
"Cigarette?" Greyling asked.
He leaned over the table to offer a light—sparks off a grinding wheel, cheap plastic sticky in his hands.
"I don't usually smoke."
Not cigarettes, at least, Greyling thought. He lit up his own; the two cherries pointed away from each other like strabismic eyes, glowing in the gloom.
"I guess I'm a still a bit shaky." The witness smiled, quick and charming, the kind of smile that knows it is currency. The exchange rate was low here, in Greyling's territory—he hated charm, hated its tawdry uses—but he nodded.
"We just need your statement," he said. The tape recorder was spinning slowly.
"I've told the officer at the front desk everything already." Just a little schoolboy wheedling in his tone, a little note of oh-do-I-have-to?
Greyling smiled. It was not charming. "This is for the official record. Please." He gestured at the tape recorder.
The witness cleared his throat, with an actor's skill, and began. "I was robbed by an angel last night."
Nobody had wanted the case. "He's high or he's a liar," the desk sergeant had said. "Angels don't rob people." On the first two points Greyling agreed; he wasn't sure on the last. In the end, he'd ended up with the case. Better that than hear some rookie piss and moan when it landed in their lap.
He went around the neighborhood with a rough sketch, and saw faces shutter with suspicion. They had seen the suspect, he was sure of that—but they kept their silence.
He thought of returning later, when he was off duty. Sidle up sideways to his questions, in dive bars and on street corners. He thought better of it almost instantly. He'd never been good even at that half-undercover kind of work—that had been Mayer's thing, Mayer with his blankly handsome looks. Greyling's face, once seen, was hard to forget. In any case, he seemed to always wear an invisible uniform; he spoke and smelled like a cop.
He ducked into a corner store. The pack of cigarettes tucked in his inside pocket was empty already; this was looking like a two-pack day. He laid his money down on the counter; the clerk held it up to the light before giving him his smokes.
He took out the sketch and brandished it at the clerk. "You wouldn't happen to have seen—"
"No habla ing-less," he said, in a flat Midwestern accent, and grinned.
With slow clarity Greyling saw himself grabbing the clerk by his collar, dragging him across the counter, breaking his nose. There was no joy in the fantasy; it was like a worn film reel, looping methodically inside his head. He turned away, crumpling the sketch in his hand.
Then he saw it through the window: a flash of nacreous white. A winged figure. It was standing not fifteen yards away, on the other side of the street. Watching him.
He was out the door in a moment. "Hey!" He started towards it, taking swift strides. "Hey, stop right there!"
It froze for a moment, wings outstretched. They looked terribly fragile, a delicate latticework of feathers. Then it ran, and Greyling took off after. It ducked under a fire escape, tucking its wings in close. A few steps away, beyond the building, Greyling could see the blue of empty sky.
With lungs like bellows, the great engine of his heart clanking, Greyling ran. A few more feet and they'd be out from the fire escape—those wings would pump once, twice, and his suspect would be gone. He lunged, all the world contracting. He hadn't moved this fast in years.
He landed hard but upright, and the angel was beneath him. He kneeled down on the curving joint of a wing. Great muscles strained up underneath him. That fine fragility was a con. One hand came down on the angel's head—its hair was duckling-soft—and tangled hard, jerking upward. "You're not going anywhere." His breathing was labored, paunch and nicotine conspiring. "You have the right—"
A massive wing-heave nearly lifted him—nearly sent him sprawling. For a moment he rode the angel like a broncobuster. His heart was wild with pain, chest burning. Then, victory: it sagged beneath him, breathing slowly.
He cuffed together long lovely wrists, then bent back one wing at a painful angle. The angel cried out with a voice like a tuning fork. "Try to use these," Greyling said, "and you'll get a bullet through them; that's a promise. You're under arrest."
The angel was locked in the back of Greyling's car, and he had just got off the radio—he wished, for the first time in months, for a partner, any partner, even a whining rookie. Just someone else to make the calls while he was trying to catch his breath.
He looked in the rear-view mirror at the suspect. The angel was grey and white; a layer of city grime had settled lightly on its essential cleanness. The wings, massive in the backseat, quivered like wind-caught sheets.
"I am a messenger of the most holy," the angel said. There was no arrogance in its voice, just a calm surety.
Greyling lit a cigarette. He couldn't think of driving just yet. "You're a thief."
Wings shrugged, like a cat raising its hackles. The angel's eyes were colorless in the mirror, like water or wind. "I don't understand."
"The man you robbed—you don't remember that?"
They looked alike, a little, Greyling thought, the angel and the victim. That same invincible prettiness, so hard to sully. "You threatened him, took his guitar and his wallet."
"Yes. I was protecting him."
Greyling snorted. "Oh yeah? From what, playing bad music?"
The angel was silent.
"So, what, are you his guardian angel or something?"
A low anger rose, like an ulcer. It figures; the charming boy got an angel all his own. To protect him. His fingers tightened on the steering wheel. "Well, he turned you in. So I'm taking you in."
He started the car. It took several tries, fingers fumbling with the key. Wings blocked the window and the mirror; he stuck his head out the window and carefully maneuvered onto the streets.
"Jason Greyling," the angel said, "will you not let me go?"
He grimaced. "That's 'Detective Greyling' to you. And I strongly advise you use your right to remain silent."
"I have done what is right."
Again that calm surety—the tone of the innocent or the insane. Greyling supposed the angel fell somewhere in between.
"Will you not let me go?"
"Shut up," he said.
He was still shaking, he noticed. His heart would not calm. He sucked at the cigarette dangling hands-free between his lips; the ash fell in his lap.
He missed Mayer with sudden fierceness. He would have handled this better, his old partner. Mayer was never shaken, not by anything—Greyling only had the armor of his cynicism, imperfect protection against miraculous things.
A feather brushed his neck, so lightly. The tip of a wing slid in between the crosshatched metal partitioning backseat from front. He flinched away, at first, then pounded the cage—it left diamond-shaped imprints on his hand.
"Your heart is known in Heaven," the angel said. "And all that you are."
Blackmail, Greyling thought vaguely. His hand ached; his lungs ached. Maybe he should consider retiring.
The traffic was impenetrable before them, loud with horns and smoke. Again there came the soft brush of a feather, against his cheek this time. He swallowed, Adam's apple shifting painfully in his throat. Charm. "You'll want to stop that," he said, voice level, "or you'll end up stuffing a pillow."
The angel dropped its wing. In the mirror, eyes shone like light on waves.
The angel made bail—Greyling never found out how—and vanished. The paperwork was useless: there was no name, no address, only an elegant sigil the angel had consented to scrawl as its signature, before being processed as a John Doe and put in an empty cell. Marching past the holding tank, Greyling had heard the howls and hoots of the day's catch, seen fingers reaching out grubby-greedy for frail-looking wings.
The victim called them a few days later. Greyling never spoke to him, but there was a message left on his desk: the stolen things had been returned, anonymous. The case was closed, no need to look further, except he was still finding feathers on the backseat of his car a week later.
And other places. They drifted into his path. Once into his coffee: a small tuft floating on its oily black surface. He fished it out and looked skyward, where there was nothing but clouds and wires.
He lulled himself to sleep at home with windows cracked, just enough to let the sounds in, and when he woke he found feathers clinging to the windowsills. Pigeons, he told himself. He took one between his fingers, turning it. The shaft was pearly white; the barbs shimmered like silver. Pigeons. Like hell.
He didn't catch the angel watching him until after a week of night shifts. Coming home in the light, that's what did it—hard to miss that stretch of wings, perched like a gargoyle on a cornice across the street. It looked fresh from the sky, sun-washed and brilliant.
Greyling shut the curtains with a hard tug. If he, if it came here, landed on his narrow balcony, he'd have every right to shoot it. He still had his old .38 revolver, kept it oiled and loaded.
There was a rustling—wings scraping his windowsill. No time to get his old .38. His new service revolver would have to do. Wings mounted over his fireplace. What happens to men that kill angels?
Instead of shooting, he opened the curtains, opened the window. The angel came in.
"You've been following me," Greyling said.
"Will you take me into custody?"
It almost sounded like a joke; Greyling smiled. "Why are you here?"
The angel reached for him, long perfect fingers outstretched. Greyling sidestepped the possibility of touch.
"What the hell do I have, that you could want?"
The angel shook long downy hair. "I have to show you. Please."
"Show me what?"
"There is something gone wrong. Jason Greyling, will you not let me show you?"
Every word sounded like a prayer from that mouth, sweet as a bell. If he had to be charmed, at least it took this creature. He stepped forward, mouth gone dry.
"You have to see."
The angel's wings were massive around him, and silver-edged, wavering between their form and their function. Here, where he could touch them, they were as strong as a swan's wing; they could break limbs. Where angels lived, they were as strong as the laws of physics.
Between those wings the world shook, and he saw: The whole of his life, like a sphere in his hand. Where it began, and where it ended. How on a perfect summer day, with laughter and the scent of frying onions in the air, he thought It will never be better than this, how he went to the roof with his old .38 cradled in his hands and took a last long look at the sky, waiting for wings.
He stepped out of the white parabola. "And you don't come."
The angel's perfect mouth turned down, a sculpture of despair. "You were never further away from me."
Greyling laughed. "It's your fault, isn't it? That's why you're here. How did it end without you? Sixty, seventy, with my liver shot? Huh? Or in a cheap home. And that would have been better?"
"You have to live."
"For how long?"
"For your lifetime."
Angels' wingtips sliced through time; their colorless eyes saw the whole of things. A stolen guitar, a feather in a cup of coffee: what consequences things had. And even angels made mistakes. He had become a ragged edge, a loose thread; he smiled. He wasn't being fair, not at all. But then, what was?
"Then you'll have to keep watching me."
He took a desk job; it was that, or get used to a new partner. He could have, he supposed, but didn't want to. Didn't want to settle for second best. So he made a home behind his big metal slab, stamping paperwork. It didn't matter. He was too tired for ambition.
A week after the angel left—two wingbeats, and into the air, from the railing of his balcony—he went to visit Mayer's grave. He liked it: simple, another tombstone in a neat row under the shade of an ash tree. He didn't stay long; he went home, went on with his life.
Some days he finds feathers floating around him, like a memory of snow, and smiles.
Maybe one day, when it's summer and the sky is blue-gorgeous and shaky with heat, he'll go up to the roof. And he'll wait for wings.