"Miss Roberts, hello, come in!" Sousa was seated at a conference room table with stacks of paper and files around him.
"You wanted to see me, sir?" Rose asked. It wasn't often she got called off a shift on the switchboard to work in the office—if they needed her in the office, usually they'd schedule her in there for the whole day in advance. Since the war—and especially since Chief Thompson took over—some of the switchboard girls didn't actually know they were a cover for a spy agency, and it was less conspicuous to work a regular shift elsewhere than to get called away in the middle of one.
"Yeah, I need someone to bounce ideas off of, and Agent Garcia got sick and had to go home early. Meanwhile my timeline just got pushed up, and I figured you were probably a better person to talk to about support staff and cover operations, anyway." He gestured at the chair across the table from him. "Please, take a seat."
With the war over, the agency was still feeling its way as it transitioned to civilian footing. They'd mostly focused on the East Coast and the European theater, but that left a lot of the country with no SSR coverage. In the process of fixing that, Sousa had been assigned to establish a head office in LA.
"I'll help any way I can," Rose said, "and I can certainly advise you what support staff you should see if you can get to come out with you, get things turned around out in LA, but I'm afraid I don't know enough about the city to give you any advice on cover ops."
"Does it matter?" Sousa asked.
Rose laughed. "Oh, of course it matters! A good cover op is a type of business that can have all kinds of people coming in and out at any time, day or night, and is also so common that nobody notices it. The telephone exchange that we have here is actually a pretty bad example—sure, every big building has an exchange, nobody looks twice at them, but there's no reason to have people coming in and out at odd hours. Which means the girls working the switchboard have to either be in the know, or too stupid to notice … which means they can't do their job well, because a switchboard is a complicated thing to work. And switchboards only blend into the background when they never have problems, which …."
"If you're picking girls who won't notice things, they probably don't have what it takes to run a switchboard," Sousa said. "And that, the other offices in the building notice. I thought all the girls running the switchboard knew the score?"
Rose shook her head. "No, because then they have to pay them as government employees. If they're just switchboard operators, that's all they have to pay them as. It's always a struggle—I'd prefer if they were all agents, and Chief Dooley always backed me up about it, but Thompson … has different priorities. During the war, we could just say 'loose lips sink ships' and people would stop wondering." Rose sighed. "These days … you have no idea how hard it is to keep it a functional cover op."
"I never thought about it that way," Sousa said with a frown.
No big surprise there, Rose thought; like most of the male agents, he never really paid any attention to the girls in the exchange. Sloppy. It would be by far the easiest way to keep tabs on the SSR: get a job at the switchboard and keep tabs on who went in and out when. Still, unlike most of his colleagues, Sousa did at least notice her on her days to work in the office.
"Want me to talk with Thompson, see if he'll consider switching cover ops as part of this reorganization?" Sousa asked.
"That would be good," Rose said. "If he'd like some suggestions, I've got a list. As for the new LA office, why don't you see if you can get a directory of all the businesses in LA—grouped by type, if they have it—see what they've got a lot of. Then pick one that would regularly see a lot of foot traffic at all hours."
"The yellow pages of a phone book would probably have what we need," Sousa said. "Though it'll be a much smaller operation, we may not have much foot traffic."
"A good cover op now will save problems later," Rose said. "Besides, New York has lots of skyscrapers and other big office buildings for a big operation like ours to get lost in. Does LA? What even is there, besides Hollywood and the shipyards?"
"I don't know," Sousa said. "Guess I'll find out." His smile went a little crooked.
"Guess you will." Rose didn't blame him for asking for the transfer, given the way things had turned out with him and Peggy. Maybe he'd find a nice California girl, that should cheer him up.
"I'll get an LA phone book sent here, figure out what I can use," Sousa said. "Now, on to the next bit, I think I've got a good list of staffing needs, look it over and see who you'd suggest for the administrative and cover ops bits that might be willing to transfer."
Rose thought about volunteering for a second. The sun and warmth would be nice, and the beach. But she liked New York. It was such an exciting city—all sorts of plays and museums and concerts to go to, plus a thriving nightlife. LA probably had a great nightlife, too, what with Hollywood and such, but probably not as much culture, and anyway, her parents were getting older and she should probably stay closer to home in case they needed her. And she had friends here.
She bent her head over Agent Sousa's list. "Even with this few scientists, they'll need their own dedicated secretary," she said. "Someone capable of keeping them on track. Maybe Delilah Jones?"
It was a miserable evening to walk home from the subway station. It wasn't quite as cold as it had been a month ago, but spring was slow coming that year, and besides, she'd stayed late at the SSR gym to get a little practice in. The combat skills they'd taught her deteriorated if they weren't used, but she preferred to practice in the evening when most of the field agents were gone and the ones that were left generally wanted to finish their own work and get home, not take time to sneer at the fat lady.
So she was sweaty, because there was no women's locker room, (the other reason to practice after work), and the wind was so cold, and a cab took a corner too quick and splashed her nice new coat with muddy water—she yelled some things at the cab her mother would be ashamed to hear, but then, her mother had never lived in New York. She bet this sort of thing never happened in LA, or at least if it did, the water wasn't quite so cold.
All she wanted was to shower, get into some dry clothes, and curl up with a good book and the radio. But now she'd have to clean the coat, too, if she didn't want it to stain. She almost didn’t bother to collect her mail; it wasn't as if it wouldn't still be there the next day. But it was about time for the latest Redbook Magazine to arrive, and then she'd have that as a treat after cleaning her coat.
But the magazine wasn't in her mailbox after all. A letter from her sister Myrtle was. Rose sighed. She loved to hear all the news from home, of course, especially about her nieces and nephews, but a letter from Myrtle was always as much of a chore as a pleasure to get through.
Later that evening, Rose settled on her couch with a glass of sherry. The upholstery was getting a little threadbare, she noticed; she'd need to think about getting it re-covered. Or maybe she should get a new one? Now that the war was over, there were a lot more choices—and cheaper ones, too. But if she were spending the money to get a new one, she'd want something bigger. She didn't have near enough seating when she had a party. But would it fit?
Time to stop stalling. She set the glass down on the coffee table, and opened Myrtle's letter. Her penmanship was, as always, appalling. Their teachers had despaired of Myrtle's handwriting, in school, and she'd always shrugged and said she was going to be a housewife, so what did it matter, anyway? But it did add to the frustration of her letters.
Rose read the letter, focusing on family news and skimming through the community news of a rural Pennsylvania township. She'd left for the city a quarter-century ago, and only came back for short visits at Christmas, usually; she didn't even recognize most of the names. (Well. Not the first names, anyway; most of the families hadn't changed.) But Myrtle couldn't (or wouldn't) understand that she didn't really care about hometown gossip anymore, and hinting as such only brought more of it, 'to refresh her memory.'
She almost missed the crucial information buried in the last paragraph. Squinting, she stared at it to make sure she was reading it right. "… of course I apologize for the short notice, but I could hardly pass up the opportunity, and anyway I won't be a bother at all. I know you won't begrudge your dear sister house-room for a few days, and anyway, it's not like I would be interrupting anything. I'll spend my days sight-seeing, while you work, and then perhaps at night we can go to see a few shows, or something—I've got some money saved up, I can treat us both. I'll be arriving at Penn Station about seven on Sunday night—I hope you're there to meet me, because it would be much easier to manage my bags on the subway with two, but if you're not, I suppose I could just take a taxi or something. It would be ever so much more convenient, dear Rose, if you would join the 20th Century and get a telephone. Why a woman who works at a switchboard doesn't have one, I'll never understand …"
As it happened, Rose did have a phone. But she'd discovered years ago that if her family knew the number, she would get called on to come home and take care of their parents each and every time one of them had so much as a sniffle. Because, of course, she was the only unmarried daughter, and so it was her duty, never mind that she lived two states away and had a life of her own there. With no phone (that they knew of), by the time she got a letter about it and called home, the crisis (such as it was) was usually over, and if not, they'd figured out how to handle it already without requiring her to drop everything and leave New York.
Rose read back up the letter to see what "opportunity" was bringing Myrtle to New York. And there it was; the younger boys were going on some sort of trip with a friend, leaving only the girls and the older boys at home; Myrtle's husband Tom could manage the older boys, and her daughter Sally could do the cooking and cleaning while Betty took care of the youngest girl, June, and that meant that Myrtle could get away for a while. Rose didn't blame her for wanting to, it wasn't like she got vacation time from looking after everybody, but did she have to come here?
She sighed. Of course Myrtle was coming here. Where else exciting could she afford to go? Rose was her only friend or relative outside Adams County, PA, and thus the only person she could stay with to cut down on cost. She looked at the clock. They were all early risers on the farm, which meant early to bed; it was too late to call. She'd do it in the morning, and arrange to meet her sister at the station.
Myrtle arrived on Sunday as scheduled, and Rose escorted her to the apartment and then took her out for dinner. On Monday, Myrtle went off to shop and sightsee while Rose went to work. At lunchtime, Rose left work a little early to get to her usual automat before Myrtle was supposed to meet her there. She got her usual and sat down at a table with Debbie.
"Hi, Rose, how's it going?" Debbie said. Ever since the whole Leviathan thing, Rose had been cultivating Debbie, who was an executive secretary at Roxxon, in the hopes that the next time Roxxon was connected to something shady, the SSR would know about it ahead of time.
"Not bad, Debbie," Rose said, spreading the pat of butter around the baked potato.
"Not bad? Rose, you're always so cheerful!" Debbie took a swig of her Coke. "What's up, hon?"
"My sister is visiting from Pennsylvania on short notice," Rose said. "I love her, but …"
Debbie glanced past Rose and coughed—she would have made a good agent. Rose turned to see Myrtle making a beeline for their table, tray in hand.
"Oh, Rose, you were absolutely right about that shop," she gushed as she joined them. "Do you see my new hat? Tom will fuss, but honestly it wasn't that expensive, and it's so much more stylish than anything you find in Gettysburg or Littlestown—or even Hanover, when I can get Tom to take me."
"It's quite a hat," Debbie said, straight-faced.
"The color suits you," Rose said, which was true, although it didn't quite go with the dress her sister was wearing. The style was something you'd be more likely to see on a young girl than a matron of fifty, but if it made Myrtle happy, who was Rose to judge?
"Thank you," Myrtle said. "Oh, where are my manners, I'm Myrtle Lutz, Rose's sister." She held out her hand for Debbie to shake.
"She was just telling me," Debbie said. "I'm Debbie Bower, and Rose and I have been meeting for lunch for ages now."
"Oh, good, I always worry about Rose, you know how it is, a spinster all alone in the big city—I'm so glad she's got a friend," Myrtle said as she dug in to her meatloaf.
Debbie—also a spinster living alone in the big city—shot Rose a sympathetic look.
"Oh, it is so nice to eat a meal I didn't have to cook," Myrtle said. "Of course, it isn't a patch on my meatloaf, but it isn't bad—I've won awards for my meatloaf, you know," she confided in Debbie.
"It's one of the best things about New York, not having to cook," Debbie said.
"Oh, once in a while it's nice, but I wouldn't care to let someone else do the cooking all the time—though maybe it's for the best for you, Rose," Myrtle said.
"It really is," Rose said. "I don't know why I have such trouble with cooking most things, but it's a relief not having to worry about it."
"I've never understood how someone can do Grandma Bertha's pie crust perfectly, but mess up a perfectly ordinary pot roast," Myrtle said. "Pies are so tricky, and yours—well, if you came home, you could get ribbons at the county fair with them." She turned to Debbie. "But she flubs family dinners." Myrtle took another bite. "Still, I suppose if you'd been cooking regularly all these years you'd have gotten better at it."
"Probably," Rose said.
"You know, Joe Oldenburg is looking to get married again," Myrtle said. "He's got a good income with that store of his, and he always liked you when we were kids together. Not to mention, June Oldenburg was a saintly woman, God rest her soul, but her cooking was worse than yours, and she couldn't bake a pie to save her life. You'd be a step up for him. Maybe you should come home for the weekend, we'll have him over to Sunday dinner, and see if anything sparks?"
Joe Oldenburg was also a decade older than Rose, and even as a kid he'd been the most boring person in town. "That's a kind thought, but I've already got plans for the weekend," Rose said.
"Oh, well, maybe in a few weeks—but if you wait too long, someone else may snap him up. Corky Locken has been making sheeps-eyes at him and finding excuses to stop by his shop when he's behind the counter. You're not getting any younger, you know, and at your age chances to get married are few and far between, I hope you won't waste them."
"Myrtle, since you're only in town for a few days, what all are you planning on doing? You don't want to miss anything," Debbie said.
Rose mouthed a thank you at her behind Myrtle's back.
Back at the SSR, Rose settled in to her switchboard. This part of her job was actually the most interesting part; she and the other five full agents handled the SSR calls while the three non-agent girls handled the rest of the businesses in the building. They were coordinating agents, taking reports, and making sure information got to the right spot while making it look they weren't doing anything but normal switchboard operations.
(Really. It had been so much easier when everyone knew what they really did, but Thompson just didn't care about what went on outside his own purview.)
But while coordinating agents and collating information wasn't as exciting as being a field agent would be, Rose was good at it and it was important work.
And, thankfully, it was absorbing enough to keep her mind off Myrtle's visit. Rose knew from long experience that when Myrtle had something on her mind, she didn't just drop it. The invitation to come home and set her cap at Boring Joe O would only be the opening salvo.
Thankfully, Rose had gotten them theater tickets for that evening, which would be a distraction.
Not much of one, as it turned out.
"Well," said Myrtle on the way out of the theater, "I'm sure it was culture, and Lord knows we don't have anything like that back down in Mount Joy Township, and all … and I know it was patriotic, but I just can't help but think The Mystery of Theodosia Burr wasn't a very good play."
"No, it wasn't!" Rose said, shaking her head. The actors had done what they could with what they had, but that wasn't saying much. The wind was particularly cold this evening; she pulled her scarf tighter, head down against the wind, as they began the trek to the nearest subway station.
"You'd expect better from a play on Broadway," Myrtle said.
"Well, I wanted tickets for The Heiress, but they were sold out," Rose said. "I suppose I should have been suspicious when it was so easy to get such good tickets at the last minute." She should have worn her winter gloves—they were warmer. But the real problem was the wind blowing up her skirt, chilling her legs.
"If only the Herrs had decided to take my boys on their trip in advance, we'd have had time to plan things out and could have made sure to get tickets for good shows," Myrtle said. "It is so nice of you to put me up like this, and I do enjoy coming up here to visit. But I worry about you, all alone in the big city."
"That's very kind, Myrtle, but you really don't have to," Rose said. "I'm happy here. I have a good life."
"When you first came, I thought at least you'd find a good husband to take care of you. You must be so lonely. I'd give up all these visits to have you home safe with us. Then we could see each other more often—wouldn't that be nice?"
The next day at lunch, Debbie eyed her sidelong. "So, will your sister be joining us again today?"
"No, thank goodness," Rose said. "She's got a tour or something."
"Ah," Debbie said. "And … how long will she be in New York?"
"I'm pleased to say she'll be heading back down to the farm tomorrow." Rose stabbed her chicken, sawing meat off the bone with great gusto.
"She's very …"
"Well-meaning, at least," Rose said.
"Oh, sure," Debbie said. "None of that nasty edge they can get sometimes. Not snooty about being married. Still."
"She genuinely loves me, and wants me to be happy and healthy and taken care of. I just wish she trusted me to know what makes me happy, instead of just assuming that it must be the same things she wants." Rose picked up some peas with her fork, dipped it in the mashed potatoes and gravy, and ate them.
"I don't know which is worse, your sister or mine," Debbie said, chewing on her own ham and cheese sandwich. "She does get snooty about it, like life is a competition that she's won because she's got five kids and a house and a husband who brings home a lot of money but is never there. On the other hand, when she's being nasty I don't have to feel guilty about ignoring her."
"I know," Rose said. "I love Myrtle. And she's trying the best she can! She genuinely wants to help. I can't just cut her out of my life. I love her."
"Just, you love her more when she's all the way down on the southern border of PA and you're up here in the big city with a telephone number she doesn't know," Debbie said.
Rose drank some coffee. "Exactly. But as long as I'm up here and she's down there, she's going to keep inviting herself up to visit at least once a year. And trying to set me up with all the single men in Adams County."
"Maybe you need to live further away from her," Debbie suggested. "Ever worked as a secretary? Roxxon's got some offices out in California, I could get you a job there. Nice and warm, great beaches … I was out there once, before the war; it's really pretty."
"Maybe," Rose said. She didn't want to leave the SSR, and she didn't think they'd go for permanently planting her in Roxxon without some indication of current wrong-doing on the part of the company. But warm weather and distance from Myrtle (and their sister-in-law Agnes, who was even worse) sounded awfully attractive. There was always Sousa's new division….
"My, you'd never know it was spring, this last week—feels like it's still February!" Myrtle said, shivering in her coat as they walked to the subway station. Her train was an early-morning one, so it wouldn't take that much time out of Rose's day to help her take her bags down Penn Station for the train back to Mount Joy. "You know, Adams County is a lot further south—we don't get quite as cold, for as long."
"I don't think it's that big a difference," Rose said. "You're more east of us than south. You got a lot more snow than we did, this winter."
"But it's some difference!" Myrtle insisted. "And at least we got clean snow, not that nasty dirty slush you always complain about."
"Everything's closer together here, so I don't have to travel as far in it," Rose pointed out.
"But if you slip on some ice and break your leg, who would take care of you?" Myrtle asked. "If you really don't like Joe Oldenburg, we can find someone else who'd suit you. It would be so nice to have you home. Mom and Dad aren't getting any younger, you know."
"I know, but you and Agnes do such a good job of caring for them, better than I could," Rose said. "And anyway, I'm thinking of moving out to the West Coast—I have a job offer in Los Angeles." She loved Myrtle, really she did. But the more she talked, the more attractive LA sounded. And Rose really did prefer sunshine and warmth, anyway.
"LA!" Myrtle was appalled. "It's so far away!"
"But it is warmer," Rose pointed out. "Sun, palm trees, beaches you can go to all year round.… And I have a friend who's moving out there. I wouldn't be alone." It was sort of stretching things to call Sousa a friend—he was really more of a colleague—but Rose was good at making friends. It hadn't taken her long to find a good group of women when she'd first moved to New York, and she was sure it wouldn't take her long out in LA.
Besides, it would reassure Myrtle that she wouldn't be alone. Myrtle had never had to make new friends; she'd lived in the same township all her life. Myrtle had never done anything new or unexpected. She would probably be terrified at the prospect of moving to a different part of Pennsylvania, much less all the way across country. But the idea of it excited Rose.
Did she really want to spend the next few years working under Chief Thompson, until he made it to whatever bigger-and-brighter position he had his eye on next? While he ignored her work, vital though it was, and slowly chipped away at the resources she needed to make it all hang together? Sousa would be a much better boss.
Sun, sand, palm trees—she shifted her sister's suitcase to the other hand so she could warm that hand in her pocket—warmth, and a better boss. It was sounding nicer all the time, she thought, listening to her sister chatter away with all the reasons she couldn't possibly move out to California and should, instead, move back to Pennsylvania.
After her sister was safely waiting at Penn Station with a cup of coffee and a bag of peanuts, Rose headed back in to the SSR office, and marched straight in to the conference room where Sousa still had all the planning paperwork for the new office laid out.
"Agent Sousa," she said as he looked up at her.
"Miss Roberts," Sousa said.
"If I apply for a transfer with you, will I get to design and run the way the cover op works?" Rose asked.
"It's all yours," Sousa said. "I trust you to do it right."
And she trusted him to do his part right, as well, she thought, and give her the resources she needed to do a good job.
"California, here I come," she said.