After her mother’s death, Evangeline and her father had moved to the United States from France, renting a narrow railroad apartment in Brooklyn. Some weekends they would take the train to Manhattan for the day, arriving early in the morning. Pushing through turnstiles, they followed the crowded tunnel walkways and emerged into the bright street aboveground. Once in the city, they never took taxis or the subway. Instead they walked. For blocks and blocks across the avenues they went, Evangeline’s eyes falling upon chewing gum wedged in the cracks of the sidewalk, briefcases and shopping bags and the endlessly shifting movement of people rushing to lunch dates, meetings, and appointments—the frantic existence so different from the quiet life she and her father shared.
They had come to America when Evangeline was seven years old. Unlike her father, who struggled to express himself in English, she learned their new language quickly, drinking in the sounds of English, acquiring an American accent with little difficulty. Her first-grade teacher had helped her with the dreaded th, a sound that congealed upon Evangeline’s tongue like a drop of oil, impeding her ability to communicate her thoughts. She repeated the words “this,” “the,” “that,” “them” over and over until she said them properly. Once this difficulty had disappeared, her pronunciation rang as clear and perfect as that of children born in America. When they were alone, she and her father spoke in Italian, her father’s native language, or French, her mother’s, as if they were still living in Europe. Soon, however, Evangeline began to crave English as one craves food or love. In public she returned her father’s melodic Italian words with new, flawlessly articulated English.
As a child, Evangeline had not realized that their trips to Manhattan, taken many times a month, were more than pleasurable excursions. Her father said nothing of their purpose, only promising to take her to the carousel in Central Park, or to their favorite diner, or to the Museum of Natural History, where she would marvel at the enormous whale suspended from the ceiling, catching her breath as she examined the exposed underbelly. Although these day trips were adventures to Evangeline, she realized as she got older that the real purpose for their journeys to the city revolved around meetings between her father and his contacts—an exchange of documents in Central Park, or a whispered conversation in a bar near Wall Street, or lunch with a table of foreign diplomats, all of them speaking in rapid, unintelligible languages as they poured wine and traded information. As a child, she had not understood her father’s work or his growing dependence upon it after her mother died. Evangeline simply believed that he brought her to Manhattan as a gift.
This illusion fractured one afternoon the year she was nine years old. The day was brilliantly sunny, with the first sharpness of winter woven into the wind. Instead of walking to an agreed-upon destination, as they normally did, they had walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, her father leading her silently past the thick metal cables. In the distance, sunlight slid over the skyscrapers of Manhattan. They walked for miles, finally stopping at Washington Square Park, where her father insisted they rest for a moment on a bench. Her father’s behavior struck Evangeline as extremely odd that afternoon. He was visibly edgy, and his hands shook as he lit a cigarette. She knew him well enough to understand that the slightest nervous reflex—the twitch of a finger or his trembling lips—revealed a well of hidden anxiety. Evangeline knew that something was wrong, and yet she said nothing.
Her father had been handsome as a young man. In pictures from Europe, his dark curly hair fell over one eye, and he wore impeccable, finely tailored clothing. But that afternoon, sitting there shaking on a bench in the park, he seemed to have become, all at once, old and tired. Taking a square of cloth from his trouser pocket, he dabbed sweat off his forehead. Still she remained silent. If she had spoken, it would have broken an implicit agreement between them, a silent communication that they had developed after her mother had died. That was their way—a tacit respect of their mutual loneliness. He would never tell her the truth about what worried him. He did not confide in her. Perhaps it was her father’s strange condition that made her pay particular attention to the details of that afternoon, or perhaps the magnitude of what happened that day had caused her to relive it time and time again, searing the events into her memory, because Evangeline could recall each moment, each and every word and gesture, even the smallest shift in her feelings, as if she were still there.
“Come,” her father said, tucking the pocket square into his jacket and standing suddenly, as if they were late for an appointment.
Leaves crunched under Evangeline’s patent-leather Mary Janes—her father insisted that she dress in the fashion he felt appropriate for a young girl, which left her with a wardrobe of starched cotton pinafores, pressed skirts, tailored blazers, and expensive shoes shipped to them from Italy, clothes that separated her from her classmates, who wore jeans and T-shirts and the latest brand of tennis shoes. They walked into a dingy neighborhood with bright-colored signs advertising cappuccino, gelato, vino. Evangeline recognized the neighborhood at once—they had come to Little Italy often in the past. She knew the area well.
They stopped before a café with metal tables strewn upon the sidewalk. Taking her hand, her father led her into a crowded room where a warm gust of sweet-smelling steam fell upon them. The walls were filled with black-and-white pictures of Italy, the frames gilded and ornate. At the bar, men drank espresso, newspapers spread before them, hats pulled low over their eyes. A glass case filled with desserts drew Evangeline’s attention—she stood before it, hungry, wishing her father would allow her to choose from the frosted cakes arrayed like bouquets under soft lights. Before she had a chance to speak, a man stepped from behind the bar, wiped his hands upon a red apron, and shook her father’s hands as if they were old friends.
“Luca,” he said, smiling warmly.
“Vladimir,” her father said, returning the man’s smile, and Evangeline knew that they must indeed have been old friends—her father rarely displayed affection in public.
“Come, have something to eat,” Vladimir said in heavily accented English. He pulled out a chair for her father.
“Nothing for me.” Her father gestured to Evangeline as she sat. “But I believe my daughter has her eye on i dolci.”
To Evangeline’s delight, Vladimir opened the glass case and allowed her to choose whatever she wished. She took a petite pink frosted cake with delicate blue marzipan flowers scattered over its surface. Holding the plate as if it might break in her hands, she walked to a high metal table and sat, her Mary Janes folded against the legs of a metal parlor chair, the thick planks of the wooden floor shining below. Vladimir brought her a glass of water and set it near her cake, asking her to be a good girl and wait there while he spoke to her father. Vladimir struck her as ancient—his hair was pure white and his skin heavily lined—but there was something playful in his manner, as if they shared a joke. He winked at Evangeline, and she understood that the two men had business to attend to.
Happy to comply, Evangeline worked a spoon into the heart of the cake and found it filled with a thick, buttery cream that tasted ever so slightly of chestnuts. Her father was fastidious about their diet—they did not spend money on such extravagant confections—and so Evangeline grew up without a taste for rich food. The cake was a rare treat, and she endeavored to eat very slowly, to make it last as long as possible. As she ate, her attention distilled to a single act of pure enjoyment. The warm café, the noise of the patrons, the sunlight burnishing the floor bronze—all of this receded from her perception. Surely she would not have noticed her father’s conversation either, if it had not been for the intensity with which he spoke to Vladimir. They sat a few tables away, near the window, close enough that she could hear. Over the years her memory of her father’s voice and his tone during his meeting with Vladimir would become etched upon her mind. Although she had striven to forget the exchange, Evangeline realized as Sister Carla and Sister Constance quietly swept in for four o’clock adoration, it had become her most vivid memory of her father, one she returned to again and again.
“I have no choice but to see them,” her father said, lighting a cigarette as he spoke. “It has been nearly three years since we lost Angela.” Hearing him speak her mother’s name was such a rarity that it stopped Evangeline cold.
“They have no right to keep the truth from you,” Vladimir said.
At this her father inhaled deeply from the cigarette and said, “It is my right to understand what happened, especially after the assistance I gave during Angela’s research, the midnight interruptions when she was in her lab. The stress it caused during her pregnancy. I was there in the beginning. I supported her decisions. I also made sacrifices. As has Evangeline.”
“Of course,” Vladimir said. He called over a waiter and ordered coffee. “You have the right to know everything. All I ask you to consider is whether this information is worth the risk you take to obtain it. Think of what might happen. You are safe here. You have a new life. They have forgotten about you.”
Evangeline studied her cake, hoping her father would not notice the intense interest his conversation had aroused. They simply did not speak of her mother’s life and death. But when Evangeline leaned forward, eager to hear more, she set the table off balance. The glass of water fell to the floor, chunks of ice skittering upon the parquet. Startled, the men stared at Evangeline. She tried to mask her shame by wiping the water from the table with a napkin and going back to her cake, as if nothing at all had happened. With a look of reproach, her father shifted in his chair and resumed the conversation, oblivious that his attempts at secrecy only made Evangeline more intent to hear him.
Vladimir sighed heavily and said, “If you must know, they are holding them in the warehouse.” He spoke so quietly that Evangeline could just barely hear his voice. “I got a call last night. They have three of them, one female and two males.”
“They were captured in the Pyrenees,” Vladimir said. “They arrived here late last night. I was going to go myself, but, to be honest, I cannot bring myself to do it any longer. We are growing old, Luca.”
A waiter stopped at their table and placed two cups of espresso before them.
Her father sipped his espresso. “They are still alive, yes?”
“Very much so,” Vladimir said, shaking his head. “I hear they are horrifying creatures—very pure. I don’t understand how they managed to trans- port them to New York. In the old days, it would have taken a ship and full crew to get them here so quickly. If they are of the pure stock that they claim, it would be nearly impossible to contain them. I didn’t think it possible.”
“Angela would have known more about the details of their physical capabilities than I,” her father said, folding his hands before him and staring out the plate-glass window as if Evangeline’s mother might appear into the sun-filled pane before him. “It was the focus of her studies. But I believe there is a growing consensus that the Famous Ones have been growing weaker, even the purest of them. Perhaps they are so weak they can be captured with more ease.”
Vladimir bent closer to her father, his eyes wide. “Do you mean to say that they are dying out?”
“Not exactly dying out,” her father said. “But there has been speculation that their vitality is in serious decline. Their strength is diminishing.”
“But how is that possible?” Vladimir asked, astonished.
“Angela used to say that one day their blood would be mixed too thoroughly with human blood. She believed that they would become too like us, too human to maintain their unique physical properties. I believe that it is something along the lines of negative evolution—they have married inferior specimens, human beings, far too often.” Her father put out his cigarette in a plastic ashtray and took another sip of his espresso. “They can retain the traits of angels only so long, and only if they do not interbreed. The time will come when their humanity will overtake them and all of their children will be born with characteristics that can only be described as inferior—shorter life spans, susceptibility to disease, a tendency toward morality. Their last hope will be to infuse themselves with pure angelic traits, and this, as we know, is beyond their abilities. They have been plagued by human traits. Angela used to speculate that the Nephilim are beginning to feel emotion as humans do. Compassion, love, kindness—everything that we define ourselves by may be emerging in them. In fact,” her father concluded, “they consider this a great weakness.”
Vladimir leaned back in his chair and folded his hands upon his chest, as if thinking this over. “Their demise is not impossible,” he said at last. “And yet how can we say what is and is not possible? Their very existence defies the intellect. But we have seen them, you and I. We have lost much to them, my friend.” Vladimir met her father’s eye.
Her father said, “Angela believed that the Nephilistic immune system reacted negatively to human-made chemicals and pollutants. She believed that these unnatural elements worked to break down the cellular structures inherited from the Watchers, creating a form of deadly cancer. Another theory she had was that the change in their diet over the past two hundred years has altered their body chemistry, thus affecting reproduction. Angela had studied a number of the creatures with degenerative diseases that severely shortened their life span, but she did not come to any definitive conclusion. Nobody knows for certain what is causing it, but whatever the cause, the creatures are surely desperate to stop it.”
“You know very well what will stop it,” Vladimir said, his voice soft.
“Exactly,” her father said. “To that end, Angela even began testing many of your theories, Vladimir, to determine whether your musicological speculations had a biological significance as well. I’ve suspected that she was on the brink of something monumental and that this is why she was killed.”
Vladimir fingered his demitasse. “Celestial musicology is no weapon. Its uses as such are wishful thinking at best, not to mention inordinately dangerous to pursue. Angela of all people should have known this.”
“They may be inordinately dangerous,” her father said, “but think of what would happen if they found a cure for the degeneration. If we are able to prevent it, they will lose their angelic properties and become closer to human beings. They will suffer sickness, and they will die.”
“I just don’t believe it is happening on that level,” Vladimir said, shaking his head. “It’s wishful thinking.”
“Perhaps,” her father said.
“And even if it were happening,” Vladimir said. “What would it mean for us? Or for your daughter? Why would you jeopardize the happiness you have for the sake of uncertainties?”
“Equality,” her father said. “We would be free of their treacherous hold on our civilization. We would have control of our destiny for the first time in modern history.”
“A wonderful dream,” Vladimir said, wistful. “But a fantasy. We cannot control our destiny.” “Perhaps it’s God’s plan to weaken them slowly,” her father said, ignoring his friend.
“Perhaps he chose to exterminate them over time rather than wipe them out suddenly, in one clean sweep.”
“I tired of God’s plans years ago,” Vladimir said, weary. “And so, Luca, did you.”
“You will not come back to us, then?”
Vladimir looked at her father for a moment, as if measuring his words. “Tell me the truth—are my musicological theories what Angela was working with when they took her?”
Evangeline started, unsure if she’d heard Vladimir correctly. Angela had been gone for years, and still Evangeline did not know the precise details of her mother’s death. She shifted in her chair to get a better look at her father’s face. To her surprise, his eyes had filled with tears.
“She was working on a genetic theory of Nephilistic diminishment. Angela’s mother, whom I blame for all of this as much as I blame anyone, sponsored the bulk of the work, found funding, and encouraged Angela to take over the project. I suppose Gabriella thought it the safest niche in the organization—why else would she hide her away in classrooms and libraries if she didn’t think it prudent? Angela assisted in developing models in laboratories—under her mother’s observation, of course.”
“You blame Gabriella for the abduction?” Vladimir said.
“Who can say who is to blame? She was at risk everywhere. Her mother certainly did not protect her from them. But each day I live with the uncertainty. Is Gabriella to blame? Am I? Could I have protected her? Was it a mistake to allow her to pursue her work? That, my old friend, is why I must see the creatures now. If anyone can understand this sickness, this horrid addiction to learning the truth, it is you.”
Suddenly a waiter came to Evangeline’s table, blocking her view of her father. She had been so involved in listening to him that she’d completely forgotten her cake. It lay half eaten, the cream seeping from the center. The waiter cleared the table, wiping up the remainder of the spilled water and, with a cruel efficiency, taking away the cake. By the time Evangeline turned her gaze back to her father’s table, Vladimir had lit a cigarette. Her father’s seat was empty.
Noticing her distress, Vladimir waved her to come to his side. Evangeline jumped from her chair, searching for her father.
“Luca has asked me to watch you while he is gone,” Vladimir said, smiling kindly. “You may not remember, but I met you once when you were a very little girl, when your mother brought you to our quarters in Montparnasse.
I used to know your mother quite well in Paris. We worked together, briefly, and were dear friends. Before I spent my days making cakes, I was a scholar, if you can believe it. Wait a moment, and I will show you a picture I have of Angela.”
As Vladimir disappeared into the back room of the café, Evangeline hurried to the door and ran outside. Two blocks away, through crowds of people, she caught sight of her father’s jacket. Without a thought of Vladimir, or of what her father would say if she caught him, she rushed into the crowd, running past shops, convenience stores, parked cars, vegetable stands. At the corner she stepped into the street, nearly tripping over a curb. Her father was ahead; she could see him plainly in the crowd.
He turned a corner and walked south. For many blocks Evangeline followed, passing through Chinatown and into ever more industrial buildings, pushing onward, her toes pinching in her tight leather shoes.
Her father stopped at the end of a dingy, trash-strewn street. Evangeline watched him pound upon the doorway of a great corrugated-steel ware- house. Preoccupied with whatever business was at hand, he didn’t notice her walking toward him. She was almost close enough to call out to him when a door swung open. He stepped inside the warehouse. It happened so quickly, with such finality, that for an instant Evangeline stopped in her tracks.
Pushing the heavy door open, she stepped into a dusty corridor. She climbed a set of aluminum stairs, balancing her weight carefully, lightly, so that the soles of her shoes would not alert her father—or whoever else was in the depths of the warehouse—to her presence. At the top of the stairs, she crouched down, resting her chin upon her knees, hoping that no one would discover her. In the past years, all his efforts had been to keep Evangeline at a distance from his work. Her father would be furious if he knew she had followed him there.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the sunless, airless space, but when they did, she saw that the warehouse was vast and empty, except for a group of men standing below three suspended cages, each one as big as a car. The cages were hung with steel chains from steel girders. Inside, trapped like birds in cubes of iron mesh, were three creatures, each to a cage. One of them appeared to be nearly insane with rage—it clutched the bars and screamed obscenities at its captors standing below. The other two were list- less, lying limp and sullen, as if drugged or beaten into submission.
Studying them more closely, Evangeline saw that the creatures were completely naked, although the texture of their skin, a luminescent membrane of clarified gold, made them seem encased in pure light. One of the creatures was female—she had long hair, small breasts, and a tapering waist. The other two were male. Gaunt and hairless, with flat chests, they were taller than the female and at least two feet taller than the size of a grown man. The bars of the cage were smeared in a glittering, honeylike fluid that dripped slowly down the metal and onto the floor.
Evangeline’s father stood with the men, his arms crossed. The group appeared to be doing some kind of scientific experiment. One man held a clipboard, another had a camera. There was a large lit board with three sets of chest X-rays clipped to it—the lungs and rib cage stood out in ghostly white against a faded gray background. A nearby table held medical equipment—syringes and bandages and numerous tools Evangeline could not name.
The female creature began to pace in her cage, still screaming at her cap- tors, tearing at her flowing blond hair. Her gestures were executed with such strength that the bearing chain creaked and groaned above the cage, as if it might break. Then, with a violent movement, the female creature turned her body. Evangeline blinked, unable to believe her eyes. At the center of her long, lithe back grew a pair of sweeping, articulated wings. Evangeline covered her mouth with her hands, afraid that she might call out in surprise. The creature flexed her muscles, and the wings opened, spreading the entire length of the cage. White and sweeping, the wings shone with mellowed luminosity. As the cage swayed under the angel’s weight, tracing a slow parabola through the stagnant air, Evangeline felt her sense sharpen. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears; her breath quickened. The creatures were lovely and horrifying at once. They were beautiful, iridescent monsters.
Evangeline watched the female pace the length of her cage with wings unfurled, as if the men below her were little more than mice she might swoop down upon and devour.
“Release me,” the creature growled, her voice grinding, guttural, anguished. The tips of her wings slid through the interstices of the cage, sharp and pointed. Evangeline’s father turned to the man with the clipboard.
“What will you do with them?” he asked, as if referring to a net filled with rare butterflies.
“We won’t know where to send the remains until we’ve had the final test results.”
“Most likely we’ll send them back to our labs in Arizona for dissection, documentation, and preservation. They certainly are beauties.”
“Have you made any determinations about their strength? Do you see any signs of diminishment?” Evangeline’s father asked. Evangeline could detect a strain of hope in his questions, and although she could not be certain, she felt that this had something to do with her mother. “Something in their fluid tests?” “If you’re asking whether they have the strength of their ancestors,” the man said, “the answer is no. They’re the strongest of their kind that I’ve seen in years, and yet their vulnerability to our stimuli is pronounced.”
“Wonderful news,” Evangeline’s father said, stepping closer to the cages. Addressing the creatures, his voice became commanding, as if speaking to animals. “Devils,” he said.
This drove one of the male creatures from his lethargy. He wrapped his white fingers around the bars of the cage and pulled himself to full height. “Angel and devil,” he said. “One is but a shade of the other.”
“There will come a day,” Evangeline’s father said, “when you will disappear from the earth. One day we will be rid of your presence.”
Before Evangeline could hide, her father turned and walked quickly toward the stairs. Although she had been careful to obscure herself at the top of the stairwell, she had not planned her exit. She had no choice but to scamper down the stairs, through the door, and out into the brilliantly sunny afternoon. Blinded by the light, she ran and ran.