"A call for you, Miss Carter," Jarvis called up the stairs. Peggy placed her pencil neatly beside the practice cipher and hurried down, pulling her robe closed.
"Carter here," she said into the phone, expecting a work call.
"Peggy?" It was Angie's voice, crackly on the long-distance line.
Peggy smiled, even though Angie couldn't see her. "Angie! How delightful to hear from you! Is everything all right?"
"It sure is," she replied, bright and cheery. "I'm coming out to L.A.! Any chance you could meet me off the train?"
"Of course, darling!" Peggy scribbled down the time and date, and quickly finished the expensive call.
"I take it we are expecting another guest?"
Peggy wasn't surprised that he had remained nearby: there was a lot of overlap between "butler" and "spy", in her opinion. "Yes, Mr Jarvis, if you have no objections?"
"Of course not! Miss Martinelli has been an exemplary tenant in Mr Stark's New York apartment. Far easier on the furnishings than Mr Stark himself, to be entirely honest."
Peggy kissed Jarvis on the cheek in a burst of affection and went on up to bed. Angie had been writing about Los Angeles for months in her letters – some talent agent had said she had a face for pictures – and Peggy was delighted that Angie was finally making the leap.
The day of Angie's arrival was dry and dazzlingly hot, so Peggy wore her darkest sunglasses and pinned her a wide-brimmed hat in place for the drive to Union Station. Despite her precautions, living in Los Angeles had left her a good few shades more tanned than she'd ever been in her life, and she couldn't help but wonder what Angie would think of it. Peggy certainly didn't regret her move to Los Angeles, but it had meant the end of the tentative physical relationship between the two of them, and Peggy missed that dreadfully. Their letters were frequent, but obviously their true intimacy was not something that someone in Peggy's position could commit to paper, for fear of blackmail. Even if it happened to be someone who sympathetic found out, Peggy couldn't bear another official dissection of her love life, not after Steve. She was certain that the Jarvises knew, but they were entirely trustworthy.
Peggy shook off her melancholy. Angie would really be here, after all these months! She parked Howard's car in a vacant lot near the station where some enterprising youths were charging a nickel to keep an eye on vehicles – and, from the look of their array of random tools, making people who didn't pay up regret it – and strode off to meet Angie. Peggy had been on assignment at Union Station more than once, and made her way easily amongst the disparate crowd, from sailors getting off the bus fresh from leave, to farm workers coming into the city for the day, and young fresh things wide-eyed and thrilled to really be in Hollywood, though that was actually miles away. Despite all the people, the expansive Mission-style building was cool even in the midday heat, and Peggy waited with relief in the shade for Angie to emerge.
Minutes later, Angie dashed out of the terminal, looking for Peggy. A porter with her case was struggling to keep up.
"Angie!" Peggy called as she stood, and Angie fastened onto her position.
"English!" She sprinted through the drifting crowd with a nimbleness born of a carrying a million loaded plates past handsy customers, and threw herself into Peggy's arms. "It's so good to see you!"
Peggy felt herself relaxing at her very presence, but quickly went on alert again as she realised that Angie was carefully writing "S O S" on Peggy's arm, even that small movement carefully concealed by their embrace. Clasping her hand firmly around Angie's to let Angie know she understood, Peggy kissed her friend on the cheek.
"Darling, it's wonderful to actually have you here. Now, would you like to head straight to the house to freshen up, or maybe some refreshments first?" She didn't know what kind of trouble Angie was in, but it seemed like a good start to let her choose between a private space and a public one.
"Oh, some refreshments, definitely." Angie smoothed her rumpled skirt. "Three days in a train carriage has dried my throat out for good! Maybe we can put my case in your car then sit outside? I can't believe this weather!"
Not a sniper, then, but maybe someone listening in?
The porter helped them out to the car, where Angie dumped her purse in the trunk as well, to Peggy's surprise. She took Peggy's arm and they wandered down the block, Angie gently directing them. A Chinese restaurant was open for lunch, so they ducked inside.
"Phew, I think I'm a little overdressed." Angie fanned herself with her hat while a pretty Chinese girl seated them at a booth. The restaurant was near empty, but for a few Chinese men in suits enjoying a meal. Apparently they were no threat, as Angie leaned forward, her nose almost touching Peggy's, and talked rapidly. "I'm in big trouble, English, and I need your help, but if she finds out I spilled the beans, she'll do it. It'll be curtains for me."
"She?" Peggy asked, as a nasty suspicion leapt to mind.
"Dottie Underwood, or whatever her real name is. She's got some dirt on me, real dirt, and she wants me to spy on you. I'll never do it, but you've got to understand, if I don't do what she says, I'm finished."
"But Angie, what could she possibly have?"
Bells on the door jingled as it opened, and two white men strolled in. Angie changed tack immediately, her intense frown switching effortlessly to a cheery smile. "So after Mrs Young spent the entire Chicago to Kansas City leg showing me pictures of her dog, I changed seats and ended up next to another girl coming out to try her luck in pictures. She's staying with a cousin, I've got her number."
Peggy laughed lightly, and nodded in agreement. "Mr Stark seems to have got bored of pictures already, so I think you'll need all the connections you can get. It's supposed to be tough out there."
"Can't be tougher than Broadway! Or off-Broadway. Or off-off-Broadway," Angie replied with a dramatic sigh.
They ordered Chinese chicken salads and spent the rest of the meal catching up, in very broad terms, while Angie kept a close eye on the other customers of the restaurant. She didn't seem to know exactly it was she was trying to find, but Peggy could assess the other customers with a practiced eye, and certainly without gawking about as Angie was doing. She seemed genuinely terrified, and if she'd had a run-in with Dottie, Peggy couldn't blame her. Nobody in the restaurant seemed to be practicing any kind of surveillance, but that didn't mean that they were in the clear – if it was someone Dottie had recruited or trained, they might be very skilled!
Peggy tried tapping out Morse Code against Angie's foot, as Angie had against her arm earlier, but unfortunately it seemed that Angie knew little Morse code. Unlike Peggy, Angie had spent the war firmly on home turf. Angie made a wry face and shrugged, and they finished their lunch and retired to the ladies' room. In a stall, Peggy pulled an eyebrow pencil from her bag and scribbled on toilet paper:
What surveill. Dottie?
She passed it under the division to Angie.
She knows everything! More scribbling, then another piece of paper. Have to report on you or else.
Prob. bugs. Stay calm.
Someone else entered the ladies' room then, and Peggy stowed the eyebrow pencil, flushing the notes away. She doubted that Dottie's reach was as great as she'd led Angie to believe, but she didn't want to take chances, either. Working at the SSR through the war had taught her that nothing should be automatically ruled out.
Peggy kept up the light chatter all the way to Stark's mansion – Angie's bags were certainly bugged – and Angie started to relax a little, letting Peggy take charge of whatever terrible situation she was in.
"Welcome back, Miss Carter, and welcome, Miss Martinelli," Jarvis greeted them as they pulled into the drive.
"Oh, Jarvis, wonderful to see you!" Angie jumped out and hugged the startled man.
Peggy followed up with, "At least the traffic was quiet today."
Jarvis, and Ana, who had run out to greet Angie, flour still on her apron, both nodded at the code phrase but didn't break their conversation for a moment. Angie was swept inside in a flurry of attention and chatter, and Peggy sighed. She would to get to the bottom of this and clear that fearful expression from Angie's face.
Angie relaxed somewhat in the secure opulence of the house, even as she stayed well away from windows and jumped every time the telephone rang. Peggy and Jarvis swept the house for listening devices, which, as Peggy had suspected, were in Angie's baggage. They left those strategically intact, as Angie seemed more worried that Dottie would find out that she had confided in Peggy than anything else. Despite all Peggy's reassurances, Angie still refused to talk about things anywhere but down in the wine cellar.
"She's evil," Angie insisted.
"There's worse monsters, really."
"I don't think so." Angie had steadfastly refused to say what, exactly, Dottie held over her, except to reiterate that if Dottie found out that Angie had betrayed her she was a dead woman.
Angie's first report to Dottie was due in the form of a fake audition two days later, so Peggy primed her with a few titbits of information that she could have plausibly picked up from phone conversations about the Thompson investigation. She doubted that was Dottie's focus, but sending Angie empty-handed would be reckless. Strangely, Angie seemed quite relieved to be meeting with Dottie, rather than terrified.
If I'm behaving myself, it's OK, she wrote.
Please tell me why you're so scared.
Angie pulled away from Peggy's concerned touch and shook her head, near tears, so Peggy didn't push any further.
Jarvis dropped Angie off at the supposed audition downtown, as Angie had never needed to learn to drive, and Peggy watched from a nearby rooftop, with binoculars. It was another hot day, and the rooftop was uncomfortably warm, but Peggy positioned herself in what shade she could. She'd sworn to Angie that she wouldn't interfere in the meeting, or try to listen in, but she hadn't promised not to watch the area. Another car pulled up as soon as Jarvis was out of sight, and Dottie Underwood alighted from the vehicle, looking as relaxed as if she were strolling around her own home rather than forcing a young woman to commit treason. She wore a cool, crisp summer dress with a wide skirt that could be concealing anything, and carried a small purse that would nonetheless easily fit a pistol.
A tall man with a prominent jaw was in the driver's seat: Peggy recognised him from Dottie's bank heist crew. A career thug by the name of Gil Arnold, he'd escaped from a prison transport vehicle months ago. California was probably a pleasant change for him, considering the length of his record in New York. Good to know that Dottie was working independently, then, not supported by the might of the Soviet espionage network. Peggy watched Dottie enter the office building where Angie waited, and kept her focus on Arnold. He was soon sweating and tugging at his collar in the heat of the car on a 100 degree day, and eventually got out of the car to cross the street to a grocery store for a cold drink. He was cautious enough to keep an eye on the car so Peggy crossed off thoughts of investigating its interior.
An idea struck her as Arnold stayed across the street drinking his soft drink and taking shelter under the store's awning. Not far from the office building was a parking lot very like the one she'd used near Union Station, manned by a gaggle of idle youths with a suspicious number of heavy tools to hand. They'd tentatively sidled towards Arnold's car as he crossed the street, but had realised the man hadn't gone far, and had backed off again. Good choice, Peggy thought. She wouldn't want to take on Arnold, either: he had two counts of manslaughter on his record, and he held himself like a man who wouldn't care about another.
Peggy climbed down from the roof via the ladder she'd placed earlier, and briskly walked the entire length of the next block in order to come around to the vacant lot without crossing Arnold's field of vision, or being seen from the building that contained Dottie and Angie. Nobody else was on foot in the middle of such a hot day, so although she was worried about standing out, nobody bothered her, either.
"Hey." Peggy, best Californian accent in place, stayed behind the fence at the edge of the lot but held out a ten dollar note. That quickly attracted the youths' attention, but as soon as they reached for it, she pulled it away.
"What you want, doll?"
Peggy managed to restrain herself from rolling her eyes and put on a bright smile instead. "Would you like to earn five dollars?"
"Steal that maroon car and make sure it's destroyed. Burn it, send it over a cliff, strip it for parts. I don't care."
The affected boredom on their faces fell away, except for the leader, who was obviously made of sterner stuff.
"Don't know if you noticed, but that's a ten-spot you're holding."
"I noticed. The other five dollars is if you go through the car and give anything you find to me. Except for cash. If there's cash, you can keep it." She held out the money again, and the leader cautiously took it. He checked it was a real note in the way of someone who'd seen a few fakes, then pocketed it.
"You're crazy, but your money's good. Why don't you do it?"
Peggy let her smile broaden into a grin that showed too many teeth. "He's my no-good husband and he loves that car. If they report a woman stealing it, he'll know it was me. But this way he'll never suspect. I'll be waiting at the rear of the grocery store. Be careful, he's dangerous. But he's not going to the cops, I guarantee."
The youth grinned, suddenly looking much younger, and Peggy felt a qualm – what if Arnold shot them? The money had changed hands, though, and the plan was in motion.
"Yeah, you're crazy, all right. Come on, guys."
Leaving behind the two youngest to watch the parking lot, despite their complaints, the boys scattered and executed a militarily precise pincer movement on Arnold's car. A lanky boy yanked out the stick that propped up the grocery store's awning, and the cloth collapsed over Arnold's head. It only held him for a moment, but by then the boys had the car started and were tearing off down the street, whooping as they went. Arnold sprinted after them, and Peggy saw his hand go into his jacket. She held her breath for a moment but the car screeched two-wheeled around the corner and out of the line of fine. Arnold ran like a man possessed, but he was never going to catch up.
Peggy sauntered to the grocery store, feeling ridiculously pleased with herself. Nobody hurt, Dottie inconvenienced in a way that wouldn't lead to Peggy or Angie and, if she was lucky, something useful from the car. She could hear Arnold bellowing from across the road, and, after a few minutes, he went into the office building.
She waited a good half-hour before one of the youths showed up. He shoved a large leather bag at Peggy.
"Here. This what you wanted? We got stuff from under the seat and from the glove compartment."
"Thank you so much," Peggy smiled. "You've really made my day."
"Nah, we made good money off of the parts. You want anything else stolen, Lonnie says let us know."
Peggy took herself off to the department store rendezvous point, where, despite her confidence in her plan, she was still deeply relieved to see Angie show up intact.
"How did the audition go?" she asked, linking her arm with Angie's.
Angie flashed back something almost reaching the radiance of her usual grin. "I think they liked me!"
At Stark's mansion, safely hidden in the wine cellar for the sake of Angie's concerns, Peggy unpacked the leather bag. It contained several small boxes – lockpicks, assorted electronics, ammunition for a very small pistol – assorted maps of LA, binoculars, a lipstick with a very familiar sweet scent, and some Dottie-sized coveralls with a headscarf. All very sensible spycraft. The item that stood out was a flat round case that contained a film reel. It was considerably smaller than the film reels that she had seen Howard working on – shot on a portable camera, then, not a professional movie camera. This was a developed print, not the original negatives, so Peggy pulled out the start of the roll and held it up to the light. It was focused on a bed in a tidy one-room apartment – New York, maybe, not Los Angeles – and then Angie appeared in the fifth frame, smiling, her favourite red dress half off her shoulders and a woman's hand on her waist. The woman was out of frame, but the long hand looked very like Dottie's.
Peggy abruptly returned the film to the reel and put it in the canister. Oh, Angie. What had Dottie done to her? Steeling herself for a conversation she very much didn't want to have, Peggy went upstairs to find Angie.
Angie had changed out of her "audition" dress and was in the kitchen helping Ana make some kind of little jam-filled pastries that smelled delicious, even before they were cooked.
"Those look wonderful," Peggy said, spilling a little flour on the bench.
"It's harder to get the poppy seeds here in LA, but I've got plenty of apricot and raspberry, at least," Ana replied, keeping up the cheerful conversation of people who knew they could be bugged.
I found a movie reel, Peggy wrote in the flour with a finger, out of Ana's line of sight, and Angie went as white as the flour. She clutched at Ana's arm for a moment, then straightened up, took off her apron and trudged off towards the wine cellar with the air of a prisoner about to be shot.
Ana cast a concerned look after her, but Peggy dusted her message away with a tea towel. "I'm sure they'll be delicious, Ana. Maybe we should have some nice strong tea ready as well? Sweet, I think."
"What a good idea," Ana replied, instantly taking on caretaker mode.
Angie was sitting on a barrel that Howard had assured them was worth more than his already expensive car, staring into space.
"I guess it was all over once Dottie made that movie. I should have said 'no' and hang the consequences, but I was too weak, Peggy, I couldn't do it."
Peggy put a tentative hand on Angie's back, but Angie shrugged her off.
"Angie, you can't blame yourself for Dottie."
"You're going to watch the movie, aren't you? I mean, you have to, really, to try to stop Dottie." Tears were gathering in the corners of Angie's eyes, but they didn't fall.
"Would you rather someone else watched it?"
Angie stared at Peggy in horror. "No! God, no. I mean, you might hate me, but at least you won't laugh at me. And you won't want anything from me, after."
"Howard has a projector upstairs. Do you want to stay with me while I watch it?"
"Okay. Then at least I can explain."
Peggy packed the film reel into its case. "Do you think this is the only copy?"
"She told me she'd made more."
Howard actually had about a dozen projectors upstairs, so it took Peggy a few minutes to find the right one. Angie sat on the arm of an overstuffed sofa and swung her legs. "You know, I've been dreading this for so long, and at least it will be over. You'll take down Dottie Underwood, and I'll get out of your life, and that will be the end of that."
"Angie, I don't think –"
"Tell me what you don't think after you've seen it, okay?"
Peggy threaded the film into the projector and locked the door behind them. She didn't really want to consider why Howard's private cinema had a sofa and a lockable door, but that was true of so many things in the mansion. She turned the lights off, and the projector started with a rattle.
The movie started with the bed of the small apartment, and Angie staggered into view. She was obviously drunk, her cheeks red and her smile wide, and Dottie was there with her, a hand possessive on Angie's waist. Dottie's hair was dark and curled and she had disguised herself well – she looked plumper in the face, her nose a different shape. It wouldn't fool someone trained, but a tipsy, unsuspecting, Angie? Well.
"No, Betty, your place is really nice! It's cosy!" Angie tumbled back onto the bed, wriggling out of her dress and tugging at the strap of her brassiere.
It wasn't until "Betty" finished unbuttoning her dress to show a plain white slip and spoke that Peggy fully realised what Dottie had done.
"Cosy is one way to put it." She had Peggy's accent down to a T, and, now that Peggy had noticed that, she saw that Dottie was imitating Peggy's body language, too.
Angie on the sofa had covered her face in humiliation as Angie on film pulled Dottie down for a kiss. Peggy reached out and took Angie's hand, startling her, but this time she didn't pull away.
On the screen, Dottie had pulled Angie's brassiere down to her waist and was licking at one of her nipples, while Angie moaned and tried to pull her closer. Dottie kept space between them – allowing the camera to focus on Angie – but of course Angie didn't know that.
"Get down here," she growled and pulled Dottie down by her long hair. Dottie obeyed for a moment or two, then sat up a little and, of all things, turned and winked at the camera.
"I've got a better idea," she said, and shimmied out of her slip. Underneath she was naked.
"You're beautiful." Angie smiled up at her, clearly in frame, and Dottie straddled Angie's chest and lowered herself down to Angie's mouth.
Angie grabbed Dottie's skinny hips, her fingers firm, and happily explored her body, nuzzling into Dottie's beauty spot and licking her out with enthusiasm. Dottie kept arching up and away, crying out, but every time she glanced at the camera, and her movement let Angie's face be seen, Dottie's liquids covering her mouth and chin. Angie wouldn't let her get away so easily and she pulled Dottie down to finish the job.
Peggy couldn't tell if Dottie's orgasm was real or fake – who knew, with Dottie, whether the situation itself was thrilling enough to excited her? – and Angie laughed as Dottie collapsed along Angie's body, her legs either side of Angie's head.
"Said I'd show you a good time," Angie laughed, her eyes bright, and the film ran out with a loud rattle.
"You don't have to be nice about it," Angie told Peggy, though she hadn't let go of her hand. "Please don't be polite about it."
Peggy bit her lip, then leaned over and kissed Angie on the mouth. Angie kissed back, desperately, for a moment, then pulled away. "Angie, this isn't your fault. It's Dottie's fault, and mine. Dottie used you terribly, to get to me. Look at her staring into the camera, that...that bitch." Peggy's free hand had clenched into a fist. "You are a beautiful soul, and I will never forgive her for taking your trust and hurting you like that."
Angie kissed Peggy once, carefully, at the corner of her mouth. "You don't hate me? You're not disgusted?"
"I would never hate you. And all my disgust is for Dottie."
Although her laugh was brittle and uncertain, at least Angie laughed. It was a sound Peggy had been missing terribly.
"That's better," Peggy told her, "That's my Angie." Angie promptly collapsed into tears, and Peggy couldn't blame her. "Come on, let's go and get that cup of tea. Best thing for shock." She folded Angie into her arms and let her cry. Peggy was never going to let her be hurt again.
That night, with an exhausted Angie tucked into bed, Peggy returned to the private cinema to examine the film again, this time with a cool head. While a blue film was the perfect way to blackmail an aspiring actress, Dottie must have known that Peggy would eventually see it – why else the wink at the camera? That meant that she'd left a message for Peggy, something that she alone would see. She watched closely, managing with some effort to keep her eyes on Dottie rather than Angie, and on the third watch-through realised that Dottie was tapping her long, skinny foot on the side of the bed. Peggy noted down the Morse code but watched with some satisfaction as Dottie eventually failed to keep control of her foot as Angie worked her magic.
"That's my girl," Peggy said, with a smirk.
The letters made no sense, but Peggy hadn't expected a straightforward message: it was a cipher of some kind. She went upstairs to where Angie was asleep in Peggy's bed, but Angie was so soundly and peacefully asleep that she couldn't summon the strength to wake her. Instead, Peggy changed into her nightgown and slipped under the covers beside her.
It was easy enough to break the cipher with Angie's help: the key was the date the film had been made, and only Dottie, Angie and whoever had been operating the camera would know that.
"You're not going to do anything dumb, are you?" Angie asked with concern.
Peggy loaded her pistol. "Oh no. For the first time in a while, I'm going to do something smart."
The ciphered message was a private address on a hill with a view of Howard's mansion, which Peggy chose to interpret as a veiled threat: Dottie was always watching. Angie had certainly thought so. Since Peggy had an invitation, she decided that a frontal approach was the best, and simply drove up the gravel driveway at high speed and braked in a shower of stones right in front of the house. Gil Arnold and a younger man came running out of the house, guns at the ready, but relaxed when they saw it was Peggy driving the convertible.
"She's waiting for you, Carter."
"Oh, good," Peggy replied, alighting from the car, and calmly shot each of them in the leg. The younger guy dropped his gun to clutch at his bleeding leg, screaming, but Arnold was tough enough to get a shot off as he fell. Peggy ducked behind the car door and the bullet hit the fuselage, ricocheting off to plough into the gravel. She leapt up and charged Arnold, but he had slumped to the ground and she kicked the gun from his wavering hand before he managed to aim again.
"That's enough of that," she told them. "Put pressure on the wounds – both hands – and you might just survive. Start running or shooting, and you're dead men."
Arnold gave her a filthy look, but Peggy was sure she could count on his survival instinct, so she took her petrol can from the car, then stepped around the spreading puddle of blood and in the front door.
Dottie was waiting poised on the staircase. "Hello, my darling." She'd dropped her corn-fed Iowa accent again, and replaced it with Peggy's, just as she had in the film.
"Hello, Dottie. You wanted to see me?" Peggy stashed the can by the door, out of the way of bullets.
"Well, not until Angie had turned you inside-out for me, but you got to her faster than I had planned." She descended two steps but stayed on the stairs, maintaining her advantage.
Peggy raised her pistol cautiously: Dottie was highly skilled at avoiding fire, and she didn't want to give herself away by shooting too soon. Then again, Peggy rated Dottie's hand-to-hand skills highly, and engaging with her at close range would also be difficult.
Dottie made the decision for her, throwing the cardigan that had been loosely draped over her shoulders. Automatically, Peggy tracked it with both eyes and weapon, and Dottie took the opportunity to sprint down the stairs and duck under Peggy's extended arm. She chopped her hand into Peggy's elbow, forcing her to release the gun, which skittered across the floor and under a hallstand.
Peggy tried to back up, but Dottie had a grip on her upper arm now, and threw her to the ground. Peggy managed to pull Dottie down with her. They rolled across the floor trading punches until Peggy managed to grab Dottie's hair and slam her head into the wall.
Dragging herself free of Peggy's grip, Dottie kicked Peggy hard in the ribs and tried to stamp on her head, but Peggy twisted out of the way and into a crouch. Dottie standing over her gave her a sudden recollection of the movie, Dottie posed over Angie, and Peggy propelled herself upwards with an incoherent growl to headbutt Dottie in the stomach, grabbing her around the hips and pushing them both towards the stairs.
Dottie laughed as she stumbled free. "Your friend sure liked having her face down there."
Snorting a breath out her nostrils, Peggy fought for calm as Dottie wriggled free. She needed to have her wits about her to have a chance at beating Dottie, and Dottie knew that.
"Do you know why I brought that can of fuel?" Peggy asked, trying Dottie's own distraction technique.
Dottie pursed her lips, perfectly poised despite the trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth. "You know, I really don't."
"Because I'm about to burn down this house and whatever you've got stashed in it."
Dottie giggled. "It isn't even my house, Pegs."
"The owners are on a lovely business trip to the Yemen right now, aren't they, leaving it free for you. On a business trip building up their petroleum holdings as war profiteers. So believe me when I say that I will have absolutely no compunction using petroleum to burn down their ill-gotten gains, and melting any celluloid you happen to have hidden here." Peggy kicked over the petrol can and let its contents spill across the floor.
Dottie, startled, showed an actual expression for the first time, but she quickly covered it. "Not all the copies are here. I may have limited resources right now, but I'm not a fool."
Peggy took a matchbook from her skirt pocket. Just as Dottie had used a cardigan to draw Peggy's eye earlier, she used the lit match to hold Dottie's gaze, even though it was Peggy standing in the spilled fuel.
"Wait – " Dottie gasped as the match burned down, and that was the break Peggy had been waiting for. Feinting that she threw the burning match, she lunged at Dottie and caught her in the midsection, driving her backwards up the stairs with her superior weight, Dottie's long limbs flying out like a doll's. Dottie struggled, but Peggy was on top when they landed, and she beat Dottie's entire upper body against the ground long after she groaned and went limp. Only then did Peggy let the burned out match fall from her blackened fingers.
Peggy sighed, but didn't take her eyes off Dottie, swiftly tying her up with the thin nylon cord Ana Jarvis had stitched into Peggy's waistband. Dottie would get out of those knots eventually, but it would be too late for her.
"Wake up," Peggy said, gripping Dottie's chin in her hand, her anger still burning hot and even.
Dottie stopped feigning unconsciousness and opened a bloodshot eye. "You're getting better at bluffing, Peggy."
"Listen to me. You hurt a dear friend of mind, someone who has nothing to do with our world. You're going back to jail now, but I understand how valuable you are. The SSR will inevitably need you in the future and, when we do, I'll be there to watch over you. I'll ask the questions and you'll be very, very co-operative in your answers."
"That doesn't sound so bad." The smirk was starting to return.
"But if I hear the slightest rumour about Angie, one little snigger or hint or joke, any idea that your little film has got out, I promise that I will do what I should have done a long time ago."
Dottie stared up at Peggy, her eyes glazed, and the tip of her tongue flicked out of her mouth to lick at her own blood, enticing. "You're going to kill me?"
"Oh no, Dottie, much worse. I'm going to ignore you."
Peggy clambered to her feet, holding her aching ribs, and used the telephone in the hall to call Rose at the office. She kept a close eye on Dottie, but moved not a step closer to her, despite her cursing and threats.
Sousa and the SSR team safely removed Dottie and her henchmen to high security cells while Peggy and Rose searched the house top to bottom, finding no less than three tins of film. Rose was kind enough to hand them over to Peggy without question, and without mentioning it to anyone.
"Would you really have burned down the house?" Rose asked, watching Agent Samberly clean up the spilled fuel with some new foam he had designed.
"The owners really are war profiteers. I wouldn't have regretted it."
That was enough of an answer for Rose. Their search turned up cash and weapons – including a few of Howard Stark's special numbers – to give Sousa plenty to report. Several hours later, in the long dusk of summer, Peggy drove herself the short distance to Howard's mansion.
Angie and the Jarvises hurried out as soon as they heard her car in the drive and Peggy grinned at the sight of them all waiting for her, lit golden by the last of the sun.
"You're okay!" Angie didn't even wait for Peggy to get out of the car before she leaned into the convertible and threw her arms around Peggy's neck.
"Ouch, ouch, be careful!" Peggy gasped, starting to feel the bruises from her fight, but she climbed out with Angie still hanging on so she could return her embrace, then, daring, kissed her smiling mouth.
Angie gasped, then kissed Peggy back.
"Well, how lovely!" Ana sounded truly delighted, but her voice was faint to Peggy's compared to Angie's breath against her cheek.
"Everything's okay, Angie, let's not be parted again."
"Not a chance, English. Wherever you are, that's where I'll be."