A Brief Period of Rejoicing.
London in springtime was a triumph of life over adversity. Certainly there were gaps in the streets where houses or shops once stood but among the ruins were patches of colour, buddleia, rosebay willowherb and of course London pride. Flowers as resilient as the Londoners themselves. News that British and American troops had joined up with their Red Army comrades to take Berlin had come through some days before and the atmosphere was full of hope that soon this would finally be all over.
The damage did not seem as great along the Strand, but Peggy Carter knew that they had had their share of the bombing. It was just that they went out of their way to cover it over, to give an illusion of business as usual. She stopped outside the Savoy, brushed a little dust from her uniform, then went inside.
It was said that anybody who was anybody lunched at the Savoy. Churchill brought his cabinet there, Charlie Chaplin had done an impromptu performance of the ball dance from The Great Dictator back in '41 and, since D-Day, many of the Allied commanders could be found amongst its patrons. Today it hosted a group of men who would never be household names and who would probably be thankful for that. They looked somewhat out of place in their mixture of uniforms, American, British, Free French, but if not dress uniforms they were, for once, clean of the soil of battle.
The big man with the handlebar moustache was the first to notice Peggy as she walked into the dining room. He leapt from his chair, sending it flying backwards and grabbed her in a hug that could crush the breath out of a man. Peggy gave back as good as she got. “And I've missed you too. Dum Dum. It must be all of three weeks since your last briefing.”
The remaining men rose more sedately and greeted Peggy in turn. She got hugs from Gabe and Jim while Jacques grabbed her by the shoulders and planted a kiss on each cheek. The remaining man, the one in British Battledress, reached out a hand for her to shake. She took it and pulled him into an embrace. “Come off it, Monty. There's no need to go all stiff upper lip with me.”
Greetings over, they returned to their table which had three empty seats.
“Nine?” Queried Peggy.
“Two of those are for the ones who can't be here.” Said Dum Dum sombrely.
“Steve and Bucky,” she thought. “And the third?”
“That would be for me.”
A young, blond woman wearing a black jacket over a short, pale blue dress tapped Peggy on the shoulder. Now it was her turn to jump from her seat.
“Jackie!” Grinning wildly, she grabbed the other woman and then, with an uncharacteristic lack of decorum, the two hugged and bounced on the spot for a moment while the Commandos sat drop jawed in amazement. Then they straightened their jackets and hugged again in a more dignified fashion.
“I haven't seen you since Cheltenham. Steve told me what happened to you and your father. I'm so sorry and proud at the same time.”
“I'm sorry for you too. If it wasn't for him and Jim I would be dead now. Steve was a good man, Peggy. Not really my sort, especially as he was always holding a candle for you, but a good man.”
“He was.” She changed the subject before she became too maudlin. “So are you really as fast as they say you are?”
“Faster than that. I tend to hold back to give the Nazis a chance!”
Laughing, the two women broke their embrace and Peggy turned to Falsworth. “Monty, you could have told me your sister was coming.”
“And ruin the surprise. It was worth it just to see the looks on these idiots' faces.”
The party being complete, they ordered their lunch which was excellent despite the rationing. A small dance band added to the ambience and all but Dugan took turns dancing with the girls. Dugan himself sat happily nursing a bottle of scotch and a large cigar that he claimed was the same brand as Winston smoked.
It was while Peggy was dancing with Gabe that they had their first excitement of the day. An American lieutenant, a little the worse for drink, pulled him away.
“Hey boy, why don't you get back to polishing boots and let the lady dance with a real man?”
As one the Commandos started to rise but Peggy waved them down. “So you want a dance?”
“Sure thing.” slurred the lieutenant.
“OK.” Peggy nodded to the band. “How about something a bit more lively.”
The band obligingly started playing Stompin' at the Savoy. Peggy grabbed the lieutenant by one hand and swung into him catching him with a body blow to the chest. Before he could make a grab for his clumsy partner she spun him back out and the edge of a table caught him across the kidneys. He was staggering as she pulled him back in which is why he probably caught her elbow in his solar plexus. As he started to fall Peggy obviously took it for a jive move and threw one of her legs over his head while spinning round on the other. Unfortunately she forgot to loosen her grip on his hand and there was an audible “pop” as his shoulder dislocated.
The band stopped playing and the room went silent.
Peggy dropped her would be suitor and turned back to Gabe.
“Now Mr Jones,” she said as she positioned his arms around her, “where were we?”
Just before three o'clock the maître d' and two waiters came out with a large radio on a trolley. He tapped on a glass to still the conversation while the waiters plugged in and tuned the radio.
“Ladies and gentlemen. The BBC have announced that the Prime Minister will address the nation. The management has decided that this broadcast should be available to our patrons and have allowed me to bring in this radio for that purpose. With your permission we will listen to his words.”
Hotel and kitchen staff filed quietly into the room as everyone waited for the broadcast to begin.
“Yesterday morning at 2:41 a.m. at Headquarters, General Jodl, the representative of the German High Command, and Grand Admiral Doenitz, the designated head of the German State, signed the act of unconditional surrender of all German Land, sea, and air forces in Europe to the Allied Expeditionary Force, and simultaneously to the Soviet High Command. We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing.”
A great cheer erupted from the room. Hats were thrown and staff and guests alike started hugging and dancing. Gabe Jones borrowed a trumpet from one of the band and played the jazz reveille from Boogy Woogy Bugle Boy before giving it back and dancing with the rest. Even Dum Dum joined in the celebrations, dancing with one of the waitresses.
Slowly the euphoria in the room died and people started heading out to join the festivities in the streets. Peggy and her group adjourned to the bar to enjoy a few moments of calm, each lost in their own thoughts.
It was Gabe who broke the mood. “So what do we do next?”
“We march straight into Tokyo and sort out Lady Lotus and the Emperor so that my folks can come home from that damn camp!” replied Jim.
“That's given. But I meant today. We can't just sit in here all afternoon, not on the day the world changed for the better.”
“Well, Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square are likely to packed,” said Peggy, “the same goes for Westminster.”
“Everywhere's going to be packed,” said Monty. “We're in the middle of the biggest party the world has ever seen.”
“Then let's head for the biggest crowds of all.” said Jackie. “Buckingham Palace. The King is bound to be making appearances today.”
Dum Dum returned with a tray of drinks.
“Hey Dugan.” called Gabe. “You want to go and see the King?”
Drinks finished and the tab charged by Peggy to S.S.R. expenses, the little group left the hotel. The streets had been transformed in the hour or so since the broadcast, and the buildings now sported Union Jacks and red, white and blue bunting. Crowds were everywhere, civilian and service alike, enjoying the thrill of being alive. Here and there impromptu bands had formed and the people sang along or cleared enough space for two or three couples to dance. Where there were no bands, the people sang and danced regardless and shared bottles or cigarettes.
Dum Dum took point, carrying a crate of beer that they had brought from the hotel, and the other men moved to form a wedge shielding the two women and they set about heading for the Mall. Almost everyone was polite and good natured as they cut through the throng although Jim had to disentangle himself from a middle aged woman who was a little the worse for drink.
“Oh Mr. Wu,” she had said as she draped herself around him, “Are you going to do my smalls now?”
Jim, slightly horrified by the idea of how large her “smalls” would be put on his best Charlie Chan accent and said, “Velly solly. Must dash. Chop chop!” before decanting her into the arms of one of her companions and hurrying after the others.
Eventually they reached the Mall which was as packed as they had expected. Moving through Green Park was a little easier and they found themselves outside of Buckingham Palace next to where a young A.T.S. girl and her sister were shouting for the King.
“He'll be out soon.” said the younger girl. “Lilibet sent him a message that we were waiting. I'm Margaret by the way.”
“So am I. A Margaret, that is, but my friends call me Peggy.”
“Liz,” said the A.T.S. girl. “Only my little sister still calls me Lilibet.” She indicated Margaret who promptly stuck her tongue out at her.
As if on cue King George and Queen Elisabeth appeared on the balcony accompanied by Winston Churchill himself. Anything they might have said was lost as an almighty cheer rose up from the crowd. It was then that Peggy realised that a lot of the people near them were not cheering. She tapped Dum Dum on the shoulder who nodded to show that he too had realised that not all was well. They were encircled by dull-eyed, silent figures.
“If anything happens it's vitally important that we protect those girls.” She whispered to him.
“Whatever you say Peggy. Care to tell me why?”
Before she could explain, one of the men from the crowd made a grab for Liz. Jackie moved faster. Much, much faster. In a blur, she grabbed the two sisters and pulled them into the centre of the Howlers, leaving a trail of little flames hovering above the ground in her wake.
Then the mob fell upon them and they were fighting for their lives.
The press of the crowd made it difficult for the Howlers to defend themselves and their charges. For a start, they had to rely on their fists. Why would they have been armed in a London on the verge of peace? Then there was something about fighting the zombie like horde that made them instinctively hold back. The men and Peggy were just about holding their own but Jackie was having problems as the fighting style she had developed on her missions with the Invaders relied more upon her using her speed than on accuracy.
“They're not themselves.” yelled Peggy as she tackled a middle-aged shopkeeper. “Try not to hurt then too badly.”
“That's easy for you to say.” said Gabe as he punched a sailor in the face and dodged a woman wielding a broken bottle.
“Essayez de dire leur.” agreed Jacques kicking the legs out from his opponent. Two more pushed forward to take her place. “Sacré bleu!” he exclaimed as he realised that his new assailants included a young child.
“It's like they're possessed.” said Jim as he took down a man with a blow to the stomach. Too late he realised that he had left himself open to an attack from a woman in her pearly queen finery. A khaki clad arm reached from behind him and punched her square on the chin. “Thanks miss,” Jim called to Liz who was staring at her own fist in disbelief.
It was, however, becoming obvious that for each one they dropped, two more were joining the outer circle from the surrounding crowd and that soon they would be overcome by sheer numbers.
“We need to stop who or whatever's controlling them.” said Peggy.
“Baron Blood!” replied Jackie. “It has to be. I've seen him hypnotise people before but never this many.”
The Howlers scanned the surroundings between trading blows. Then as Gabe was knocked back he spotted something. “In the sky!” he shouted as he returned the punch.
High above the crowd, where he could easily be mistaken for a child's kite, floated a man dressed in a ridiculous bat costume.
“I see him,” said Liz pointing toward the Nazi vampire. “But how can you stop him from down here?”
“I could reach him,” said Jackie, “but I'd need a bit of a run up.”
“Then let's give the lady some room boys,” cried Dugan as he spread his massive arms and pushed back against the mob.
With Peggy and the sisters protecting their backs the Commandos managed to clear about eight foot of space which Jackie said should be enough.
“Take this,” said Monty handing his cousin the dagger that he habitually wore on his belt, “for luck.”
She saw the crest on the hilt and nodded in gratitude. She drew back against Peggy to give herself as much room as possible and started to run. On her second step flames started to form around her feet. The third pushed her away from the ground and by the fifth, as much running on air as flying, she cleared the heads of the Howlers leaving a delicate footprint on the top of Dugan's derby.
John Falsworth, Baron Blood, was so lost in concentration controlling the minds of the mob that he failed to notice the approach of his niece. She crashed into him at full speed and rammed the dagger between his ribs. She missed his heart but smoke started pouring from the wound and he threw back his head screaming in pain. She went to stab him again but he grabbed her wrist and bared his fangs, making a lunge for her throat. As they struggled his cowl came loose revealing a metal helmet with pulsing lights underneath. Instinctively she grabbed for it and, when it wouldn't come free pulled with all her vampire enhanced strength. Blood screamed again as she tore it from his head taking hair skin and fragments of bone with it. She hurled it away in disgust. Clutching his bleeding head, Blood kicked away from her, turned to mist, and was gone.
On the ground the mob stood dazed and confused or fell from exhaustion or their injuries, as their minds fought to regain control of their bodies. Dum Dum pulled a punch that might otherwise have broken the nose of the young man he had been fighting, and let him drop to the ground. In the distance someone was letting of fireworks which distracted the crowd from the sight of a blood spattered young woman flying back to earth.
She handed the dagger back to Monty. “Silver blade, family crest. Thanks.”
“Father gave it to me when I joined up. Just in case.”
Peggy turned to the two girls. “It's over, Your Highnesses. You're safe now.”
“You know who we are?”
“We're with the S.S.R, Ma'am, Allied Intelligence. I've had to study files on all possible Axis targets, you and your sister included.”
“And Daddy sent you to watch over us I suppose?”
“No Ma'am. It was just good luck that we were here when Blood attacked.
“So this ends our little adventure and we have to be good little girls and go back to the palace?”
“Well, you will have to at some point. Although that would mean a heap of paperwork and I really would rather not have to do that tonight of all nights.”
“So we can stay out with you?” Asked Margaret. “I mean, there's no way we could get in any trouble with you around.”
“Your companions do look like they would make excellent chaperones. Although I'm not sure Daddy would approve.”
“I do hope that's not because of...” Gabe asked hesitantly.
“Oh dear Lord no,” replied Liz, “but most of you are Americans and everyday one hears stories of young women being lured away by handsome GIs”
“And nylon stockings.” added Margaret.
Peggy laughed. “Then may I present to you, representing the U.S.Army and without a pair of nylons between them, Sergeant Timothy Dugan.”
Dum Dum stood forward, hurriedly took off his hat and gave an awkward bow. “Princess.”
“Privates Gabriel Jones and James Morita.”
Both men stood to attention and saluted.
“Monsieur Jacques Dernier of the Free French.”
Jacques hugged both of the girls but managed to refrain from actually kissing either of them.
“Lord Montgomery Falsworth, of the Guards.”
“And last but not least, Miss Jacqueline Falsworth also known as the Super Soldier, Spitfire.”
“An honour, Ma'am,” said Jackie curtsying. “Say Peggy. If we're going out on the town tonight, I really should run home and get changed. I'll be about half an hour.”
“Does she live near here then?” Asked Liz as they watched the trail of faux-flames disappear through the crowds.
In fact it took Jackie twenty-seven minutes to get back, now dressed in a military cut outfit of her trademark yellow and red. During this time they had arranged medical treatment for any of the crowd injured in the fight and Peggy had commandeered a police box to contact the S.S.R.'s London Headquarters. It was agreed that they should stay as a group and head into town, with the proviso that they return to the palace by midnight.
It was nearly one in the morning when they finally got back. The city was mostly sleeping, although here and there pockets of revellers were still celebrating, albeit in a more sedate fashion than earlier in the day.
Colonel Phillips was waiting for them and, after a brief introduction to Their Majesties and farewells to the Princesses, took them to a suite of rooms that had been set aside for them.
“You all did good today. Got the job done with the minimum of disturbance. It's a shame you couldn't have kept hold of that helmet. I'm sure Stark would have loved a look at it.”
“Baron Blood's gone to ground to lick his wounds. In reality we've no idea if he's still in Britain, let alone London. He could have re-materialised anywhere. Word's been sent out to the police and military to keep an eye open for unexplained cases of anaemia or bloodless corpses but there's not much we can do if he wants to stay hidden.”
He poured them all drinks from a crystal decanter and raised his glass to the assembled group.
“Men, I'm proud of the way you handled yourselves today. It can be hard remaining a good soldier once the bullets stop. I know, I've seen it before back in '18. Ladies also.” He gave a little bow to Peggy and Jackie. “Now all of you get some rest. Peggy, you're back with me in the morning pushing paper, and we need to have a word with Herr Zola. That helmet Blood had sounds like his handiwork.
“Miss Falsworth, we need to update our files on Blood so we can be ready if he puts in an appearance again. Then I believe they want the Invaders to help out with the relief work on Europe.”
A note of sadness entered his voice as he addressed the Howlers.
“I'm sorry boys but furlough's over. There will be a truck here at oh eight hundred to take you back to Abel Company. You're to ship out to the Pacific on Friday.”
The “brief period of rejoicing” was over. They all still had work to do.