Every job comes with its own distinctive background noise. For stockbrokers, the clicking of ticker tape; for taxi drivers the honking of horns and occasional shouted epithet. For the longsuffering reporters at the Daily Howler, it was the wounded-bull bellowing of Editor-in-Chief Chester Phillips.
‘Who pissed in the old man’s coffee this mornin’?’ grumbled Bucky Barnes, throwing himself into his chair with enough force to blow a stack of papers off Dugan’s desk. The older man scowled at him and Bucky got up with a sigh, crouching to retrieve the errant documents.
‘The Shooting Star vigilante turned up again last night,’ Dugan said as Bucky passed him the papers with a muttered apology. ‘You heard the O’Shea gang shot some old fella last week, knockin’ over that bank in Brooklyn? Someone caught ‘em going for a jewellery store in the same area and left ‘em all knocked out and handcuffed on the steps of the local precinct. The Colonel’s roaring the roof off ‘cause we didn’t find out till a couple hours ago and the Marvel beat us to the headline.’
Bucky’s eyebrows raised. ‘Same callin’ card as the last couple times?’
‘White star with an intertwined C and A over the top,’ Dugan confirmed, leaning back and crossing his arms behind his head. ‘The fella’s been leaving us monogrammed calling cards for the better part of two years now, and still none of us know the first thing about him. Gotta tell you, Bucky Bear, it wounds my journalistic pride a little.’
‘Stop callin’ me that,’ the younger man grumbled.
‘Sorry, son, office rules,’ Dugan said, grinning. ‘Every reporter I like in this place gets a nickname. So long as you’re my cub, you’re Bucky Bear.’
‘Hodge doesn’t have a nickname,’ Bucky protested, gesturing at where the aforementioned sports reporter was snoozing with his feet up on his cluttered desk.
‘Like I said,’ Dugan said blandly. He shuffled through the papers in his hand and frowned. ‘Hey, Buck, I’m missing a page here-‘
‘Over here,’ called a voice a few desks down, and Bucky turned to see Steve Rogers leaning out from behind his drafting table, waving a sheet of paper at him.
‘Thanks, Cap,’ Dugan said. “How’s the cartoon comin’ along?’
‘Should be finished in time to run with Pinky’s piece on the Stark hearing,’ Steve said, folding the sheet into a paper aeroplane and expertly winging it over to land on Bucky’s lap. ‘Looks like an address. Hot date tonight?’
‘Interview with a Swiss banker who’s rumoured to’ve swiped millions from war victims’ accounts,’ Dugan said. ‘Figured I’d take the kid with me, he might learn something.’
Bucky bristled slightly. ‘I’m nineteen goddamn years old, Dum-Dum. I keep telling you, I ain’t a-’
The young reporter’s nascent protest was cut off by a crisp rap on the office door. Out of the corner of his eye, Bucky saw Hodge crack one eyelid as Peggy Rogers strode in, her red dress a bright splash of colour in the dusty newsroom.
‘So sorry to interrupt, gentlemen, but I’m afraid Steve forgot his lunch, as usual,’ she said with a smile, holding up a small metal box. ‘I hope you don’t mind me always intruding on you like this.’
‘Always a pleasure, Peggy, you brighten up this den of iniquity with your presence,’ said Dugan, gesturing expansively. ‘If anything, that big lunk of a husband of yours should be apologising for making a pretty lady like you trek all the way down here.’
Hodge snorted audibly, rolling his eyes. ‘Ain’t like she’s got anything better to do with her time,’ he muttered. ‘Only so many times you can clean house in a day.’
Peggy raised a delicate eyebrow.
‘Hell, Peg, if you want something to do we’d be happy to give you your own desk, you’re in here almost every day anyway,’ said Dugan with a grin. ‘You’d do better at it than some fellas I could name.’
‘Thank you, Mr. Dugan, but I find ways to keep myself occupied,’ Peggy said. She bestowed a warm smile upon him and picked her way daintily through the jumble of desks towards Steve, whose face lit up at the sight of her. He rose to greet her and knocked over his jar of pencils, sending them rolling every which way across the floor; he fumbled an apology as he scrambled to retrieve them and she laughed, clear and bright, and bent to help him. They chatted in low voices for a few minutes before Peggy raised herself onto her tiptoes to kiss her husband on the cheek (Steve blushing a bright crimson to match the lipstick mark) and made her way out, Hodge unsubtly ogling her as she left.
‘I don’t understand women,’ he grumbled as soon as Peggy had gone, not bothering to keep his voice low. ‘How does a knockout dame like that end up with a big goof like Rogers?’
‘Maybe ‘cause she’s got eyes?’ Bucky suggested drily.
‘Just ‘cause he’s got a pretty face don’t mean nothin’,’ Hodge said, puffing up his chest. ‘She must be a real shrew if Rogers is the best she could do. A girl like that should be with a real man, not some pansy who dodged the draft cause’a his flat feet and went dancin’ around Europe with showgirls for four years while the rest of us were fighting for our country.’
‘Hodge, you spent most of the war in Supplies, don’t act like you were some kinda super-soldier,’ Dugan shot back as he got to his feet, clapping his ink-stained brown bowler onto his head. ‘C’mon, Bucky Bear, let’s go do some real work.’
Bucky grabbed his coat and hurried after the senior reporter, but paused by Steve’s desk on the way out. ‘Hey,’ he said in a low voice. ‘You doin’ okay there?’
Steve blinked as he looked up from his half-completed sketch, a monkey in a star-spangled costume standing to attention in front of the Senate. ‘Sure,’ he said, rubbing at a smudge of graphite on his cheek. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘Hodge was runnin’ his mouth about you and Peggy pretty loud,’ Bucky said uncomfortably. ‘It ain’t right of him, pickin’ on you like that for being a 4-Fer.’
‘What fellas like Hodge don’t understand is that love ain’t about ‘winning’ a dame,’ Steve said, bending his head as he carefully shaded in the star on the monkey’s chest. ‘Girls ain’t some trophy that you get for bein’ the best at manliness, or unruly pets who need to be kept under your thumb. Peg and I are partners – always have been, right from the start. Any man who thinks less of either of us cause’a that isn’t someone whose opinions I care too much about.’
‘BUCKY!’ Dugan shouted from the hallway, and the younger man startled. He nodded at Steve quickly and ran, putting the conversation out of his head for the moment.
The third thing Bucky noticed about Arnim Zola’s drawing room was its overpowering opulence. Gold leaf dripped from the ornate Rococo ceiling and wound along the base of the huge crystal chandelier, and simpering pastel cherubs lined the walls, flanking huge, ornately framed works of art. To Bucky, brought up mainly in the spare, utilitarian environment of Army bases, it felt a little like someone had turned an Easter egg inside out.
The second thing he noticed was the man himself, a short, stubby, unimpressive figure, his plain black suit stark against the ornate Louis Quinze chair on which he was perched.
The first thing was the huge black German Shepherd that rose from beside the chair as the two reporters approached, a low, rumbling growl rising in its throat.
‘Johann, platz!’ snapped Zola, and the big dog subsided, dark eyes still watchful. ‘You must excuse him, gentlemen, he gets…..snappish around new people.’ He smiled, not altogether pleasantly. ‘A man in my position develops many enemies.’
‘I’ll just bet,’ said Dugan drily. ‘So, Mr Zola-’
‘Doctor Zola, if you please, Mr Dugan,’ Zola corrected him pedantically.
‘Doctor Zola,’ Dugan repeated, tonelessly. ‘Impressive house you have here. Must’ve cost you a pretty penny.’
‘I have been fortunate in certain of my investments, yes,’ Zola said, inclining his head slightly.
‘Investments like the contents of your clients’ safety deposit boxes?’ Dugan’s voice cracked like a whip. ‘There’ve been rumours, Doctor Zola – people who say that you made your wealth off the backs of those who died in the camps, who claim to have recognised objects in your possession as heirlooms entrusted to your bank for safekeeping. Care to comment on the veracity of these statements?’
Zola’s eyebrows raised a little. ‘The direct approach, I see,’ he murmured. ‘How very American of you, Mr Dugan.’
The little banker sat meditatively for a minute, chin on his steepled hands, then rose and crossed the room to a small curtained alcove, the great black dog following at his heel.
‘You may have noticed I am a lover of art, gentlemen. This-‘ he pulled the heavy drape to one side ‘is the crown jewel of my collection.’
Bucky wasn’t much of a one for fine art, but even he caught his breath at the sight of the painting. It was a portrait of a young man in armour, dark hair lightly dusted with snow, reaching towards someone just off the edge of the canvas. The look of anguished yearning on his face was heartrendingly palpable.
‘Magnificent, isn’t it?’ Zola said blandly. ‘You are privileged - no one other than myself has seen this work for a great many years. I’m told it bears a startling resemblance to a portrait once in the possession of the Kurtzberg family. Sadly, that piece, along with its provenance papers, was lost during the war - such troubled times-’ he sighed exaggeratedly ‘-and shortly afterwards, this piece came into my possession.’
Zola let the drape fall, and re-took his seat.
‘As far as the world is concerned, that painting is gone, and as similar as this portrait may look, without the provenance, no one can prove it.’ His eyes gleamed behind his wire-rimmed glasses. ‘They could, of course, attempt to file a claim and have the piece professionally evaluated, but I fear that if they did the painting might mysteriously disappear, never to be seen again. And now, gentlemen, I believe it is time for you to leave.’
‘Like hell we-,’ Bucky began, and Johann snarled suddenly, lunging forwards to snap at Bucky’s ankles. He swore and scrambled back, nearly falling onto his backside.
‘You will leave now,’ Zola repeated, and they did.
‘That slimy, smarmy, son of a bitch,’ Bucky snarled, slamming his hand down on the desk.
‘Hey now, careful with that language,’ Dugan said. ‘I know some very nice dogs who’d be offended by that.’
‘He all but flat out told us that paintin’ was looted property!’ Bucky shouted, waving a finger under Dugan’s nose. He knew people were staring at him, ranting like a lunatic in the middle of the newsroom, but right then he didn’t care. ‘He smirked at us, that greasy four-eyed bastard, and he basically told us to do our worst, cause he knows there’s nothin’ we can do about it!’
‘We can do something about it, Buck,’ Dugan said, and his voice had a rare, serious note in it. ‘Our job. We write this story, and we let the city know what we know.’
‘Phillips’ll never run it,’ Bucky said flatly. ‘It’d open us up to a libel suit. He’d kill it before it got to press.’
‘Then the story gets killed,’ Dugan says with a shrug. ‘But at least then there’ll be a record of this. And maybe one day you or I, or even someone else, can build on what we started and use it to do what we couldn’t do this time - take that bastard down.’
Bucky took a deep breath, calming himself ‘All right,’ he agreed. ‘All right.’
They did end up writing a piece on Zola, but not the one they were planning on.
Bucky came into work the next morning, grimly determined, and opened the door on a flurry of unexpected activity.
‘I don’t care if Phillips says he doesn’t have front page space for this, he’s going to have to make some,’ Dugan barked. He rifled through the mass of papers on his desk. ‘I can’t find my damn notes from the Zola interview. Where the hell are they?’
‘Dum-Dum, what the hell,’ Bucky said, bewildered. Dugan glanced briefly at him and launched into a rapid-fire explanation.
‘Someone broke into Zola’s house late last night,’ he said. ‘Took the Winter Soldier portrait, all the documents from his safe – none of the cash - and left. Just a few hours ago, a crate turned up on the doorstep of the Kurtzbergs’ home on the Lower East Side, with the portrait and provenance papers inside. There was a white star card on top.’
‘You’re kiddin’,’ Bucky said, staring. ‘Zola’s house was like a goddamned fortress under all that gold frou-frou, not to mention that huge damn dog of his. How’d the Shooting Star manage that?’
‘Hell if I know, but this makes for a much better article than the one we were going to write,’ grinned Dugan. ‘Make yourself useful and go talk to the family, would ya?’
Bucky hurriedly gathered up his things, poised to dash off, then paused. Something niggled at him.
‘How’d the Star know?’ Bucky asked.
‘Hm?’ grunted Dugan, only half his attention on the younger man as he scribbled furiously in his notebook.
‘Well, we only found out about that paintin’ yesterday,’ Bucky said slowly, trying to piece his train of thought together. ‘Zola said himself he hadn’t shown it to anyone else since he got it. And we didn’t even talk about it ‘til we got back here. So how’d the Shooting Star know where to find it, let alone who it rightly belonged to?’
‘Just ‘cause we only found out about it yesterday doesn’t mean no one else knew,’ Dugan said reasonably, scribbling out his last paragraph and starting on a fresh page. ‘Zola could’ve been lying. Someone might’ve let it slip - a cleaner, or a guard, or whoever helped him install it. There’s any number of ways word could’ve gotten out.’
‘I guess that’s so,’ said Bucky doubtfully.
‘Besides, what’re you saying, it was someone here at the paper? Kid, the hours we work, if anyone’s got the time and energy to go running ‘round New York chasing scumbags afterwards I’d be very impressed.’
‘Mornin’ fellas,’ Steve called as he came through the door, yawning widely.
‘Morning, Cap,’ said Morita the copy editor, passing Steve a mug of the tar-black newsroom coffee. ‘Here, this’ll give you a wake-up kick in the pants.’ He squinted at the blond. ‘Hey, you’re gimping a bit this morning. Turn your ankle in a pothole? I told you Third Avenue was a wreck right now.’
‘Something like that,’ Steve said amiably, limping his way over to his desk. As he sat, the hem of his trousers rose slightly, showing the edge of a bloodstained bandage for a moment before he pulled them down.
Bucky stared at Steve, and a sneaking tendril of suspicion stirred inside his brain.
For anyone else, even finding highly classified wartime documents would’ve been a nightmarish tangle of bureaucratic red tape, but Bucky had been an Army brat for most of his young life and he prided himself on still having all the wrong kinds of acquaintances. Three days, a heavy dollop of cajoling and a dash of blackmail later, he had the records of every Allied wartime action for the dates and places where Steve Rogers, alias Captain America, had been touring with the USO.
It didn’t take long for Bucky to find a pattern. For a show ostensibly planned to boost troop morale, the Star Spangled Dancers had performed a whole lot of smaller encampments, often travelling well away from the major cities. Not that strange in itself except that invariably, a few days after they’d performed, a nearby Nazi base would go up in flames.
The after-action reports, written by a Senior Agent M Carter, frequently mentioned a ‘Captain R-‘ as one of the other leading members of the strike team.
Bucky gazed down at two photos. One was of Steve, in full Captain America regalia, his matinee-idol grin as dazzlingly white as the star blazoned in the centre of his chest. The other was of the vigilante’s calling card, the intertwined navy letters embossed over an identical star.
It could be nothing. A five pointed star was hardly a defining symbol, for cripes’ sakes, there were fifty of them on the flag alone. The initials, too, could stand for any number of things.
All the same – there were a helluva lot of coincidences piling up here, and Bucky, with a true reporter’s instinct, didn’t like coincidences.
Bucky agonised over whether or not to voice his suspicions for a good long time.
It all made sense – up to a point. The Shooting Star was a hell of a fighter, that much was clear, but he didn’t just brawl his way through his opponents head on - there was a carefully planned, methodical feel to all of his raids that hinted at training in military tactics. Then, too, if the Star was one of the Howler staff, he’d be ideally placed to overhear the best leads on criminal activity.
But Steve, for all his mild-mannered, placid demeanour, was still a big, muscular guy, not built for stealth or reconnaissance. How could he loiter around a dance club alone for hours, waiting for the right moment to bust the mafioso who owned it, and not set off alarm bells with any of the bouncers? How could he have gotten close enough to Spider Raymond, the notorious fence, to knock the man out and rifle his safe without any of Raymond’s army of watchful, well-armed bodyguards gunning him down?
More than that, when did he have the time? Bucky might have never been on the frontline himself, but he knew how much planning and legwork went into an op. As an editorial cartoonist, Steve worked slightly more regular hours than the reporters’ erratic schedule, but he was still in the office for the better part of the day, and then he went home to his wife. Even if he was sneaking out to do good in the middle of the night, the man had to sleep sometime.
It didn’t help any that all the crooks busted by the Star clammed up the minute his name was mentioned, refusing flatly to so much as describe him. Another mystery.
Dugan didn’t notice his protégé’s subdued manner, too busy crowing about Zola’s arrest, and so it wasn’t until nearly two weeks later that matters came to a head.
‘Hey, y’all, listen to this,’ Jones called, waving a sheaf of papers, and the other reporters dutifully gathered around. ‘Shooting Star struck again last night. Rounded up a gang of smugglers in a warehouse down by the docks.’
‘Drugs or stolen goods?’ asked Falsworth.
‘Weapons,’ said Jones, flicking through his notes. ‘Funny thing, though…the cops turned up and found the whole gang unconscious and tied up, like usual, but the front and back doors were both bolted and locked from the inside.’
‘Side door, maybe?’ Morita suggested.
Gabe shook his head. ‘I’ve been down by those docks before,’ he said. ‘Those warehouses are solid brick, no side doors, no windows large enough to fit through. Only other way in or out is the air vents.’ He shrugged. ‘Guess he must be a pretty small fella. ’
‘But-‘ Bucky began, then stopped. Well, there was the end of that theory, then. Steve, three-foot-across-the shoulders Steve, could never have squeezed through a tiny vent, even without a bum leg.
The door opened again and Peggy entered, with a nod to the cluster of reporters. The newsroom was somewhat more crowded than usual that day, forcing her to squeeze past Hodge, who, with the Dutch courage born of the flask he’d been swigging from all afternoon, grinned and reached out, his hand swiping firmly across her rear. A dead silence fell over the room.
Bucky’s gaze flicked to Steve, only to see him still sitting at his drafting table. He’d placed his pen down and was watching steadily, but he made no move to get up, and Bucky could’ve almost sworn he saw a faint, wry smile playing around the corners of the man’s mouth.
Then Hodge let out a howl of pain, and Bucky’s head whipped around to see the burly man flat on the floor, his arm twisted up and behind his back by Peggy, one blue pump pressed firmly between his shoulderblades.
‘I’m so sorry, does this belong to you?’ she asked sweetly, her grip on Hodge’s hand tightening. ‘I thought it was a stray. You should be more careful of your appendages, Mr Hodge – I wouldn’t want to see you get terribly hurt by someone who took an accidental gesture the wrong way.’
Hodge whimpered. Peggy let go, dusted her hands fastidiously on her skirt, and continued her stroll towards Steve’s corner, making sure to tread heavily on Hodge as she did so.
‘Remind me never to cross Peggy,’ Bucky breathed, wide eyed. ‘Where’d she pick up a move like that?’
‘Steve ain’t the only one in that family who knows his way round a warzone,’ Dugan said, chuckling. ‘Peggy and Steve met out in Europe, when he was touring – she had some kind of job with an Army science division, I heard. Guess she picked up a couple of tricks from the soldiers. That was back when she was still Peggy Carter, o’course - once she got married, they made her quit.’
‘Carter?’ said Bucky sharply, his voice cracking.
‘Yeah, that used to be her name,’ Dugan said, looking at Bucky oddly. Bucky stared, his brain whirring furiously as he processed this new information.
Peggy Carter, who came in every day and talked to Steve. Who’d worked in Europe during the war, at the same times that Steve had. Who could fight well enough to lay an ex-soldier twice her size on the floor in seconds.
Peggy could take down all the tough guys she wanted, knowing none of them would breathe a word for fear of ruining their hard-earned street cred. Peggy was small and agile enough to sneak into a smugglers’ stronghold unnoticed. Peggy had the military training, time and intelligence to plan the Shooting Star’s missions.
Margaret Carter. Senior Agent M. Carter. Agent Carter.
Bucky stared down at his photo of the white star with the interlocked A and C.
‘Peg and I have always been partners, right from the start,’ Steve’s voice said in his head.
‘Something eating you, Bucky Bear?’ Dugan asked, and Bucky’s head snapped up quickly.
‘Nope,’ he said, shoving the photo into his desk drawer and slamming it shut. ‘Nothin’ at all.’
Peggy was halfway through disassembling and cleaning her pistol when she heard the click of the front door opening. She stilled for a moment, listening, then turned back to her task.
‘You never pull weapons on me when I come home anymore,’ Steve called from the foyer as he hung up his hat and coat. ‘All the spark’s gone outta our marriage.’
‘I can recognise your step by now, you ridiculous man,’ she said, smiling as he stepped into the dining room. He glanced briefly at the documents spread across the table – a carefully annotated map of New York, three editions of the Howler with front page articles circled in red, and a dossier with a photo of an unsmiling, bushy-browed man in a bow tie stapled to the front.
‘Pretty easy to do at the moment,’ Steve said, wrapping his arms around her shoulders from behind and kissing the top of her head. ‘I think Bucky’s on to us, by the way.’
‘I thought surely we’d thrown him off the scent with that latest escapade,’ Peggy said, her hands moving smoothly and rapidly through the familiar motions.
‘So did I, but that little incident with Hodge put him right back on. He’s more perceptive than we thought.’ Steve said. ‘Which is sayin’ something, seeing as I already thought he was a pretty sharp kid.’
‘Do you think we should recruit him?’ Peggy mused. ‘Not necessarily with the more….active part of the job, but he’s bright and nosy and seems very passionate about injustice - he might be willing to assist with gathering information, perhaps. I’m getting a little tired of having to cart your lunch to the Howler offices every day just so you can pass me whatever intel you’ve overheard.’
‘Taking a sidekick now, are we, Peg?’ Steve said, grinning. ‘Should I be worried you’re trying to replace me with a younger model?’
‘Never,’ she said firmly, slotting the last piece back into place with a decisive click. ‘You’re not getting off that easily, Captain Rogers – as soon as that leg of yours has healed up, I expect you right back by my side. It’s a special kind of dance, this sort of work - it needs the right partner. And I already have mine.’
‘You and me, till the end of the line?’ Steve said, smiling into her hair.
‘Precisely,’ Peggy said, and turned to catch his mouth in a kiss.