Vsevolod's hands scrabbled for purchase on the side of the building, and, desperate, he hissed at her to help. He was weak. He, the great agent of the motherland, should have made the jump easily. Any girl in the Red Room could have, and he was supposed to be her superior. She had made it, and she had been shot—twice—while he was unharmed.
In the Red Room, any girl to miss such a simple thing would be left to suffer the consequences. Madame would never have allowed her to help a girl so stupid. They would have watched them fall to their deaths, and taken the warning.
She did not need the warning, and there was no one else but the fascists patrolling below to learn it, but neither did she need Vsevolod's incompetence hindering her actions.
Vsevolod's eyes were wide, frantic, his voice strangled, as he ordered her to help him. But he was not Madame, and so the girl … didn't.
He fell, and she did not stay to watch him hit the pavement. Even the fascists, incompetent as they were (and they were worse than Vsevolod) would hear it and come. But even with the guards on alert, she would have an easier time escaping without him. The entire mission would have been easier without him, and if she had not been forced to fix his mistakes, she would not now be injured and their cover would not now be blown.
She was disgusted, more than anything. If Vsevolod Petrovich Kuznetsov was the flower of Soviet manhood, the best the Motherland could offer, then the Motherland did not deserve to survive. It was a simple thing to escape the office building holding Nazi scientific research, and slip off through the city. She was half a mile away when the explosions and fire started, and she smiled at the result of her handiwork before continuing on her way. It hadn't been part of the plan, but once they had been discovered, they had needed to destroy any evidence of what they had been looking for and who they were.
She now understood Madame's reaction to the NKVD man who had come to requisition a girl from the Red Room. He had told them it was an honor to be selected, that the lucky girl would learn much from Comrade Kuznetsov, that she would see how true Soviet Men were destined to rule the world. Madame had not contradicted him, but neither had she agreed, and all the girls could read every fraction of a line on Madame's face. And Madame had been as close to laughing as she had ever seen her.
New Soviet Man indeed, the girl fumed. If anyone were to rule the world, it would be the New Soviet Women of the Red Room. Mother Russia would be better off without him. But she knew she would be punished for his death. Madame would not care he was dead, but the NKVD man would, and Madame would care that she had killed him without instructions. Daughters of the Red Room were to kill easily, quickly, and often, but—as with everything they did—only under orders.
The information had been transmitted over the radio before they had begun to make their way out, and anyway she would need a different way back to Russia, now that Vsevolod was dead. As she skulked through the city to find a place to hide until things were quieter, she pondered what to tell them. One lie after another was discarded, as was every omission or shaded truth. She could not lie to Madame. Madame knew her as intimately as she knew Madame. Madame would know, and it would only worsen her punishment. No, punishment was inevitable.
It wasn't that she was afraid of it; endurance of physical hardship was routine, ordinary. Pain in her life was more common than comfort. But it would be humiliating, to be known to have failed in this way; and the consequences would last a tediously long time. She could not regret Kuznetsov's death, but neither was she looking forward to what was to come. She would return to the Red Room, and she would be punished.
Unless she didn't return. This was such a novel idea that it almost distracted her. She retreated into an alley, behind a pile of pallets, and thought about it. Comrade Kuznetsov had reported her injuries over the radio. He was now dead. Certainly, the NKVD would believe that she would be even less competent than their great agent, and had also died.
Madame would not. Madame knew her capabilities. Madame would know she had survived, and hunt her down.
But possibly not, if there was a body. With the fire, there would be no way to positively identify that it wasn't her. And even if Madame suspected, she would not want to show weakness by admitting a child of the Red Room could escape.
She knew how to get bodies.
It was a simple matter to find an apartment with a girl her size in it. Even simpler to slip in, put a pillow over her face, and smother her in her sleep without ever waking the parents sleeping in the next room. She dressed the corpse in her own clothes, packing the corpses's belongings in a bag she found. With any luck, they would believe the dead girl had run away.
It was a little awkward carrying the corpse and the bag and the pillow, but doable. Once in a more secluded location, she used the pillow as a crude silencer and shot the corpse in the places she herself had been shot. A stop in a garage got her fuel to douse the corpse in, so that it would burn beyond recognition.
The most difficult part of the whole operation was evading the firemen to dump the corpse in the burning building, but she managed handily. She had learned her work well.
Then back to the garage where she had left her new possessions. There was a sink which she used to bathe, and tools which she used to remove the bullets. The pillowcase became bandages. Dressed in the dead girl's clothes, which were now hers, she walked out onto the street as dawn broke.
At the train station, a charming young girl introduced herself as Adette and bought a ticket to visit her sick grandmother in Bremen.
The hardest part of the journey was smuggling herself across the Atlantic. An adolescent girl travelling alone on a train to visit her grandmother was one thing. That same girl traveling alone across an ocean was more memorable. And Adette (now Vera) did not want to be remembered. At all.
It was a pity this opportunity hadn't waited a year or two, Vera thought as she hid in the hold of a tramp steamer. Her figure was just starting to mature, and if she'd had hips and breasts it would have been a simple matter to make herself up to look older, and then she could have travelled more comfortably. Still, there was something so exhilarating in making her own choices without Madame's iron-fisted control.
Vera (now Doris) liked America. It was big, it had a lot of people, and it was firmly isolationist. No one cared what was going on in Europe, and for that reason, the Red Room cared little about America. And there were so many people to watch, to copy, so many people to become. She'd been free of the Red Room and Madame for almost a year, now, and she'd been twenty different people, and she'd liked being each and every one of them.
She'd spent the whole time travelling, because an adolescent girl travelling alone was less conspicuous than an adolescent girl settling down somewhere. In about six months, she estimated, her figure would be developed enough that she could settle down if she wanted and get a job and a room in a boarding house and build a permanent identity.
If she wanted to. The kind of jobs they tended to hire young girls to do were awfully boring. And well beneath her qualifications. Really, it was a lot more fun to pick the pockets of unsuspecting fellow travelers and book her next ticket to wherever caught her fancy.
In any case, she had six months or so to decide. Longer; there was no rush, really.
The longer Doris (now Millie) was free, the more bored she got.
If she had realized that ahead of time, she might have reported in as she was supposed to. Yes, she could make her own choices and her own plans … but now that she did not have to worry about the Red Room, what choices and plans could she make that would be worthy of her skills? If she were no longer working for the glory of the Motherland and the advancement of the Red Room, what was she working for? She was a bullet with no target.
Her days in the Red Room had been hard, very hard. But they had also been full, filled with lessons and tests in everything from academics to combat to interrogation, both resisting it and doing it. She had spent hours perfecting her tradecraft as a spy, learning every possible way to blend in. Even when her training had been tedious or painful, there had always been a purpose to it a goal. The promise that one day, she would be the very best, and would have things to accomplish that no one else could ever do.
Well, she was the best. Certainly better than that fool of an NKVD man. And what was she accomplishing? Nothing beyond her own survival.
She picked a few pockets for money, and got a train ticket. She stayed on the train until she arrived at whatever city she had chosen. She watched the scenery, she watched the people, she played the part of a young girl travelling alone. Then she got off, spent a few days in whatever city she found herself in, kept up her training as best she could on her own, picked another few pockets, and got back on the train.
Survival and independence was all well and good, but she was a polished weapon. She was stagnating, she could feel it. Losing her edge.
Madame would sneer, to see her with no goal other than her own survival.
But what could she do that was worthy of her?
Travelling through Oklahoma had been a mistake, Millie (now Dottie) realized. With the Dust Bowl, farmer after farmer had gone under, and in a farming state that left not much but poverty. There wasn't much to steal to buy a ticket with, and it was harder to stow away on a train than a tramp freighter.
Still, the people were interesting. People always were, she had learned. Dottie liked watching them and wondering what it was like to be inside their silly little minds, with such narrow concerns and all the constraints of society just hemming you in.
Every now and then she saw someone who had a glimmer of something more. A fire, a spark, something about them that wasn't controlled by the world around them. A purpose. And then Dottie would stay and watch, or maybe strike up a conversation. (Maybe if she talked with enough of them, she would find a purpose for herself.)
Dottie wasn't expecting to find such a person in Broxton, Oklahoma, but it was especially nice to find one who was a girl, like her. Agnes Cully was so controlled, so quiet, as she moved around the diner taking orders. But then you looked in her eyes, and there was fire in them. She was a few years older than Dottie, her figure developed and her looks good no matter that she didn't dress to accentuate them. And on her breaks she read big, thick books, math and engineering.
Dottie got herself a job washing dishes in the diner, telling the owner a sad story of too many mouths at home to feed and needing to make her own way in the world. It got her a menial job and a cot in the back room. And time to make friends with the intriguing Agnes.
Agnes, it turned out, didn't say much. Or, at least, not much that mattered. She said all the right social nothings, but it took a while for Dottie to worm her way inside her trust. In the time that took, Dottie learned a lot of things about Agnes from gossip.
She learned that Agnes' mother Wilma was "no better than she ought to be" and that Bud Schultz paid the Cully women's bills.
She learned that Bud Schultz was best friends with the county Sherriff and played poker with the town doctor every Friday night, but no female in town between the ages of ten and thirty wanted to be in the same room with him, if they could help it.
She learned that Agnes was considered strange, and the only girl in town who had made it all the way to her senior year in high school in the last three years—some even said she was trying to get into college.
She learned that half the town thought Agnes was turning tricks on the side, despite the way she avoided most men when she could and practically flinched when she couldn't.
But that was all on the outside, and it told Dottie nothing about Agnes' spark, about the person inside the shell.
Dottie had the money for a ticket, now, but she stayed. What made Agnes tick?
The books were Dottie's way in. She asked Agnes if she could borrow them before they were returned to the library.
"I doubt you'd like them," Agnes said coolly. "They're not novels."
"I don't read novels," Dottie said. "I like learning." It was true, although if she were going to study science she'd prefer anatomy. More practical use, in her line of work. Her former line of work, that was. She'd had too much instruction-via-fiction to find stories interesting for their own sake.
"All right," Agnes said doubtfully, still looking for a catch. How delightfully suspicious she was! "You can read it as long as it's back in the library by Friday—I can't afford the fines."
"Neither can I," Dottie said brightly. "Don't worry, I'll take really good care of it!"
And she did. And the book gave her a marvelous excuse to ask Agnes questions, to explain it all, and as it turned out, that was the key to Agnes' passion. Within a week the two were, in the words of the diner's owner, thick as thieves.
Dottie watched from the kitchen as Agnes tried (unsuccessfully) to avoid getting groped by Bud Schultz, saw the way every muscle tightened in resistance. And saw how the sleazebag walked out of the diner whistling, no tip.
"Why do you let him do that?" she asked, after both their shifts were over and they were sharing a cigarette out back.
"You think I have a choice?" Agnes said bitterly. "Mama would throw me out if I made him unhappy. She's always on me to be nicer to him, as if that will make him more generous."
Dottie snorted. "That's a foolish hope, if ever there was one," she said. "He ain't got a generous bone in his body." She took a last drag of the cigarette and handed it back to Agnes.
"She's worried about losing him," Agnes said. She took a puff, breathed the smoke out through her nose. "Thinks maybe she can get him to marry her, eventually."
"Your mama's not very bright, is she?" Dottie said. "But you know you don't have to stay. We could just hop on a train, go to a big city, get a job there, and you'd never have to see Bud Schultz again."
Agnes shook her head. "I can't. I have to finish the school year, have to get my diploma, so I can apply to college. If I can get them to take me, I'll be out of here, and not just to another situation that's as bad or worse. I'll have a chance to really do something. If I can just stick it out here another six months." She stared down at the dirt beneath them. "If I can just avoid his hands until then. Once I'm in college, everything will be different." She said that a lot.
"Don't you worry, Agnes," Dottie said. "He won't ever touch you again. I'll see to that." She smiled.
When the news came that Bud had been found dead in an accident with his hunting rifle, Agnes stared at Dottie with narrowed eyes. Dottie smiled back happily. Nobody suspected a thing, and she hadn't gotten to kill anyone in over a year. It would have been fun planning the whole thing out anyway, but even more so knowing she was protecting her friend.
"Did you do it?" Agnes hissed later when they were alone.
"Me?" Dottie said, widening her eyes in surprise. Agnes sure was smart, and it wasn't just book smarts, either. How fun! "How could I have done it? I'm just a girl, and he was a big strong man. Besides, you heard what everyone is saying—it was an accident."
Agnes grabbed her and shoved her up against a wall. Dottie could have escaped, of course, but Agnes would never hurt her, and besides, she wanted to see what would happen. This was the most fire she'd seen in Agnes yet. "Don't play the innocent with me, Dottie, I know you, and we both know a girl can do a lot of things people don't want to believe she can. Did you kill him?"
"Does it matter?" Dottie asked. "You don't ever have to worry about him again. You can't tell me you're sorry he's dead—I won't believe it."
"I'm not, but … but killing is wrong," Agnes said. Anyone else might have thought she meant it, but Dottie could feel the relief in her, the hope.
"You don't really believe that," Dottie said, smiling. "Not when it's a jerk like Bud. I bet there's only five women in the whole county who aren't breathing a sigh of relief right now." Agnes' grip loosened ever so slightly.
"If someone did kill him, it was a public service," Dottie said.
"Don't … don't kill for me again," Agnes said. But her eyes told a different story. There was gratitude there.
"You don't really mean that," Dottie said confidently. "Now. Finish your school, get your diploma, and then let's get out of here."
As it turned out, Agnes graduated top of her class, but the university wouldn't take her in the science program. Agnes was devastated.
"There, there," Dottie said, holding her and rubbing her back in a comforting technique she'd seen many mothers use on distraught children. She was quite pleased with herself for figuring it out—comfort not being a thing she had much personal experience with.
Agnes sobbed some more.
"There, there," Dottie said. "It's not the end of the world. It's not the end of your dreams. We'll go someplace else, and then you can get into a different school—a better one than the University of Oklahoma. Or you can get a job in a research lab—you're smart enough, even without the fancy piece of paper."
"But what if they don't take girls, either?" Agnes asked. "And it'd probably be more than we could afford." Even when Bud had been at his worst, Dottie had never heard Agnes sound that defeated. Like there was something broken inside her.
Agnes shouldn't have to feel that. Agnes should be able to show the world the fire that lit her. Agnes should be able to burn the world down, if she wanted. "You just leave that to me," Dottie said.
Agnes pulled back and stared her in the eye. "You planning to kill someone?" She was trying to sound disapproving. It wasn't very convincing to Dottie, who knew her better than her own mother did.
"Why, Agnes, I'm shocked," Dottie said. "I thought you were smarter than that. If I killed a dean or someone, they couldn't order you to be admitted from beyond the grave, now, could they?"
"No, I suppose not," Agnes said tiredly.
Torture was out, too, because in the long run, the years Agnes would be at school, it had too great a chance of coming out somehow. But it was truly a shame Dottie hadn't been able to find any blackmail material for the dean or president of the University of Oklahoma.
Still, there had to be a university out there with a first-rate science program that had an administrator Dottie could blackmail.
"Now, I know it's hard," Dottie said, "but here's what we're going to do. We're going to pack our things, and get on the train to wherever you want to go, and we'll get you into a school there. Okay?" It was lovely to have a goal, a purpose to accomplish. Dottie could feel parts of herself stretching and waiting that had lain dormant since her escape. Perhaps it didn't matter if she didn't have a purpose of her own; she never really had, had she? All she needed was someone else with a purpose she could help accomplish, who needed the things only Dottie could do.
"Okay," Agnes said.
A week later they were in Los Angeles, California, with jobs in a diner and a shared room in a boarding house. Agnes spent every spare minute studying, and so did Dottie—school administrations, not physics.
"Oh, it was worth it coming out here even if I never get into college!" Agnes said with glee one day, flopping on her bed and holding a book up in triumph. "The public library has so many more books!"
"Wonderful," said Dottie indulgently. "I'm so glad you're happy. Which school do you think you'd want to go to?" Dottie soaked in Agnes' enthusiasm, it was so exhilarating to be around.
"Oh, probably UCLA," Agnes said. "I know it's mostly a teacher's college, but they do have a science department that's not bad, and because it's a teacher's college, they have a lot of women on campus. USC would be a second choice; they're more expensive, and their physical science program focuses mainly on turning out engineers, and I want to do theoretical research. But they take women, too, even in the science classes!"
"Which one has that man you were excited about? Millikan? You've read his textbook twice already."
"Oh, he's the chairman of the Executive Council at the California Institute of Technology," Agnes said. "If I really could go anywhere, that would be it. They've got Millikan and a whole lot of other big names in physics. Millikan's got a Nobel, did you know that?"
"Does he?" Dottie said. She knew, of course, because Agnes had told her, but she liked seeing Agnes this way.
"Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful to study with him?" Agnes said. "But CalTech doesn't take women, and they're awfully expensive."
"But if you could, you'd go there?" Dottie persisted. UCLA and USC would be easier to get Dottie into, because they took women, but if pressure was needed they were larger schools—more people to get to. CalTech would definitely need the pressure, but it was smaller and younger and so there were fewer people making the decision.
"Absolutely," Agnes said. She sat up and stared at Dottie. "Dottie, what are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking that everyone has pressure points," Dottie said. "And anything's possible, if you're willing to do what it takes."
"If it gets me into CalTech, I'll do anything," Agnes said.
"So will I," Dottie said. She smiled.
Agnes looked at her, and Dottie could see her thinking it over, what it meant. Agnes still wasn't used to killing, wanted to do things the way society said was right, though Dottie had never figured out why. Thank goodness she seemed to be getting over it. They both knew that if society had its way she'd still be back in Oklahoma trying to stay out of Bud's sweaty hands or working at some diner or other, wasting her time and her brain. Or married to some farmer who wanted a cook and a maid he didn't have to pay.
"I don't know what I'd do without you, Dottie," Agnes said.
The head of the maggia in LA was a guy named Joe Manfredi. Everyone knew that; he'd taken down his rivals in a bloody gang war a few years earlier. Getting his location was a little harder, but it did Dottie good to flex her training for once.
"So what's a pretty young thing like you want to be a hit man for?" Manfredi asked. She'd bluffed her way past his guards fairly easily—thank God she'd finally developed a usable figure—and seated herself at his table at the restaurant where he held court.
"I'm pretty good at killing," Dottie said. "And I figure, if you've got a talent, you should use it. And why do something for free when you can get paid for it? Beats waiting tables."
He laughed. "That it does, babe, that it does. I like you. Okay." He snapped his fingers, and one of his goons pulled out a notebook and a pen and handed it to him. Manfredi wrote down a name and an address in it. "If he ends up dead in the next week, I'll pay you $350. $400, if it looks like an accident."
"Accidents take more time," Dottie said. "$600 for an untraceable accident."
"$400 if it looks like an accident at first, and another hundred if it gets ruled an accident and there aren't any more questions by a month from now," he countered.
"Make it a hundred and fifty, and you've got a deal," Dottie said.
"All right," Manfredi said. "A hundred and fifty. What's your name, kid?"
"Dolores Miller," Dottie said. It wasn't a name she'd ever used before, which meant it was a name that couldn't trace back to Agnes. "I'll be back for my money in a week."
It was an easy accident to arrange. The target had his own fruit trees, which he pruned himself, and it was a simple matter to weaken the ladder so it collapsed under him. And his pruning knife just happened to lodge itself in his gut as he fell—what a shame. It wasn't quite as satisfying as killing Bud had been, but she wondered why contract killer hadn't occurred to her as a career choice. Well, it wasn't like she'd been old enough to get hired to do it until now.
In any case, the money bought her a lot of information on the members of the Executive Council at CalTech. Some of them were squeaky clean, as far as she could see … but not all of them were. Infidelities, homosexual affairs, dirty finances, stealing the work of other scientists. One, she found with glee, was in hock to Manfredi with quite substantial gambling debts.
"You sure do good work," Manfredi said after her third kill for him. He admired the pictures. This one had been something of a test—he'd wanted it messy, and he'd wanted documentation. He probably thought she'd be too delicate for the job. In Dottie's experience, women were a lot less squeamish than men were. And she had no problem with the mess, except that she'd been careless enough to get blood on her coat, and it had taken ages to get it out. Madame would have been so disappointed. Might even have killed her for it.
"Thank you, Joe," Dottie said, glancing around his office. It was the first time she'd seen it; he didn't want to look at the pictures over a meal. It wouldn't have bothered Dottie's appetite one bit, but men were more squeamish.
"I got another one for you," he said. "This one's gonna be a bit trickier."
Dottie nodded along as he explained. Still not much, compared to what the Red Room had trained her for, but beyond any of Manfredi's hired thugs. But when he got to the subject of payment, she shook her head. "I don't want money for this one, Joe," she said. "I want a favor."
"What kind of favor?" Manfredi asked, sitting back in his chair.
"An easy one," Dottie said. "I've got a friend. She's really good at physics. Brilliant. You wouldn’t believe her mind. She wants to go to CalTech, because it's the best. Just like she's the best. But they don't take women."
"And you've done your homework and you know all about Merle Hutchinson's bad luck with the ponies," Joe said, nodding. "And you want me to take part of my debt out in trade, getting your girl in."
"That's about the size of it," Dottie said.
"You know he's not the guy who's gonna make the final decision on this," Joe said. "I mean, you're going to have to get to others on the board, you know."
"I can do that, no problem," Dottie said. People were so easy to manipulate, if you held something over them. And the ones Dottie couldn't blackmail, she could seduce or threaten as needed. Her job as Joe Manfredi's favorite killer would be more than enough help.
"I bet you can," Joe said. He thought for a few seconds. "I want to meet her."
"Pardon me?" Dottie said.
"I want to meet her. Your girl." Joe shrugged. "I'm putting my neck out that she's as good as you say she is, I want to meet her beforehand."
"All right," Dottie said. "I'll arrange it."
"And why would the head of the LA maggia care about whether or not I get into CalTech?" Agnes asked, skeptical.
"He owes me," Dottie said. "Or he will soon, anyway."
"In other words, you're killing people for him," Agnes said, making a face. "Anybody important?"
Dottie considered. "Nobody you'd care about."
Agnes sighed, staring out the window at the brick wall of the building next to their boarding house. "And he has the board of CalTech in his pocket?" she said distantly.
"One of them," Dottie said. "I can handle enough of the rest to get you in. Then you just have to be your normal, brilliant self and prove us right."
"I'd rather get in because I'm good enough," Agnes said. "I should be able to get in on the strength of my own brain—I'm at least as smart as any man on campus."
"Probably smarter," Dottie agreed. "But if they're too stupid to see brains just because they come attached to a woman, I've got no problem with twisting their arms to make them see."
Agnes considered this. "Neither do I."
They met Joe for dinner and drinks at his restaurant. He asked Agnes about her history, and why she wanted to go to CalTech, and he listened to what she said, and not dismissively, either. He didn't try to hit on her, and he kept his hands to himself.
Agnes blossomed under the attention, and chatted away about the state of physics and the experiments they were doing at CalTech. Dottie understood most of it, because Agnes was good at simplifying it to teach it, but Joe asked enough questions to prove he was actually listening.
Dottie smiled. More people should pay attention to Agnes.
"What's so funny?" Joe asked her.
"I was just thinking," she said. "The world would be a better place if there were more real gentlemen like you, Joe."
"Hear, hear!" Agnes said, raising her wine glass.
Joe laughed. He probably thought she was joking, Dottie reflected, but she wasn't. What did she care how many people he had killed, or how many rackets he ran? But it was awfully nice not to get dismissed or discounted just because she was female.
"All right, I like your girl," Joe said to Dottie at last. "I'm assuming you've got a plan, 'cause you got a plan for everything."
A few days later, Dottie and Agnes sat just outside Joe's office while he talked with Merle Hutchinson about how he could pay off his debt. The vent was open so they could hear everything.
"Read this, see what you think," Joe said. Agnes had written her latest work up in the proper format. She couldn't test it without a lab, but the math all worked. And now they'd see what Merle Hutchinson thought about it.
"This is brilliant work," he said after a while. "How'd you get ahold of it?"
"What, you think just because I'm Italian that all my people are stupid?" Joe asked. "You think you got a monopoly on smarts in your fancy Institute?"
"No—no! That wasn't what I meant," Hutchinson said. "I mean, why didn't they just submit this to a journal or something? Or send it in to us like normal?"
"The person who wrote that wants to go to CalTech," Joe said. "They want it real bad."
"Well, based on this, he's well qualified," Hutchinson said. "We're always looking for brilliant minds. Graduate or undergrad?"
"Undergrad," Joe said.
"Well, have him send in his application, and I'll certainly see he gets in," Hutchinson said. "With a mind like this, I'd do that regardless."
"It's a little bit more complicated than that," Joe said. "You wanna meet the person that wrote that?"
"Of course," Hutchinson said.
Dottie squeezed Agnes' hand. Agnes stood up, squared her shoulders, and went in.
"I wrote that paper," she said. "I'm good enough for CalTech—you just said so. And I want in."
"Is this some kind of a joke?" Hutchinson said. "We don't admit women! They're just not up to the kind of work we do!"
"I'm up to it," Agnes said.
"It's not possible!"
"Make it possible," Agnes said.
"Miss Cully, here, she's the best girl of my best killer," Joe said. "So on the one hand, I've got my best hitter coming to me and saying, 'Joe, my girl's real smart. She wants to go to CalTech, and she's smart enough to do it, too.' And it's the truth—she is that smart, you said so yourself. On the other hand, I've got you. A guy with too much bad luck to win at the ponies and too stupid to know when to quit. A guy who is consistently late with his payments, and still can't lay off the ponies. I'm being very generous, here. I could call in your debts all at once. I could charge more interest than I am doing currently."
"But your interest is—"
"I am giving you the opportunity to pay down a chunk of your debt to me, Merle, a very substantial chunk. Or we can continue on with our arrangement as it is, and I tell my best hitter—my very best hitter, mind you—that you are the reason Miss Cully here isn't going to CalTech. Do you see where I'm coming from, Merle?"
"Yes," Hutchinson said with a defeated sound in his voice.
Dottie smiled to hear it. She wished she could be in there watching, but Hutchinson would be more intimidated if he didn't know that Joe Manfredi's best hitter was a woman. Besides, the more anonymous she could be, the less chance there was of anyone being able to put together the details and make trouble about it later.
"But I'm not the only one making that decision. I can recommend it, but I can't guarantee it."
"You leave the rest of it to us," Agnes said. "We'll take care of it. As long as you do your part."
"Okay, okay," Hutchinson said. "How much are you taking off my debt for this?"
Agnes slipped out while the two men finished up the final details and gave Dottie a big hug. "Thank you so much, Dottie," she said. "This is like a dream come true!"
"You're welcome!" Dottie said. She didn't know what that was like, never having had any dreams of her own, but it was almost as good to be able to bask, second hand, in Agnes' dreams.
Three years later, Agnes graduated valedictorian of her class at CalTech. She needed no help to get her graduate degree at the school of her choice, and a plum research position after that. She went on to win the Nobel Prize for physics. She never had to worry about male scientists taking credit for her work; those who tried simply disappeared.
Dottie continued on as a hitman for Joe Manfredi and other maggia bosses for years. The Red Room never realized she was still alive. To keep it that way, she avoided all contact with government agents of any nation. Although Dottie dabbled in the intersection of politics and organized crime, she never met Peggy Carter.
Dottie and Agnes were best friends for the rest of their lives.