Peggy wipes her brow with a rag and tosses it onto the small table in the corner. She watches Angie guzzle water from an enormous glass, all the while eying the clock in the corner as the second hands race toward the twelve. “Not too much now,” she reminds her.
“Oh, stuff it,” Angie mumbles, and Peggy flattens her lips into a very firm non-grin.
Soon as the second hand passes the twelve, she calls, “Time.”
“Double damn,” Angie says to herself, returning to the center of the room. The heavy bag looms large as Angie approaches it.
“Five minutes, then I'll get the mitts.”
“'Kay,” Angie nods. Peggy watches for a moment as Angie wails on the bag, punch after punch, then abandons her to her own devices and takes a turn on the speed bag. Angie's already done her time on this bag; she's improved over the eight weeks they've been training. It's been excellent for the both of them, although Angie is not nearly as enthusiastic about the workout by the last quarter, every time.
During her time with the SSR, Peggy hadn't been able to stay as fit as she liked working behind a desk, so when Angie asked if she could learn to fight even a little bit like Peggy did, she jumped at the opportunity. She supposed that evening at Ruby's had been more than just their first night out on the town together; it was the start of yet another exploration between them.
She's learned much about Angie during their sessions. One, she is agile, and flexible, and determined. Two, she unequivocally hates jumping rope. Three, she produces a remarkable
amount of sweat during her workouts. Four, she gains lean muscle faster than Peggy does; she'd noticed the shapes of her biceps and triceps changing after only two weeks. Angie is a born athlete, but she'd only played sports in the street as a child, and later channeled her abilities into dancing. Angie loves to dance, too, and she's good at it. Great at it, really. She's great at everything, far as Peggy is concerned. Except maybe jumping rope.
Peggy takes her turn with the speed bag, catching the rhythm after just a few swings, and getting lost in the repetitive music of the bag against her wraps. Over and over she breathes into it, only breaking concentration when she hears Angie cursing behind her. “Been five minutes yet, Pegs?” she asks.
Peggy glances over at the clock. “Almost. I'll get the mitts.”
She slides the thick pads onto her hands and watches Angie knocking at the bag. She holds her tongue when she wants to correct something; Angie is drained after a morning shift at the automat and now an afternoon session. Tomorrow she has an audition, and she’d wanted to train to keep her mind off it. Tonight's dinner with Howard and Jarvis at Zanzibar will help too. She loves the shows there, and Peggy has come to appreciate them as well. “Okay, time. Come on over.” Angie does. “Shake out your arms. How are you feeling?”
Angie grunts. “I'm beat.” She hops up and down, shaking her arms as instructed. “But this is my favorite part, so I'm ready.”
“I like this part too.” She holds up the mitts and decides, “Let's go right left for a bit.” Angie sets her mouth and starts punching quickly, far faster than she had only a month prior. A few seconds later, Peggy barks, “Cross,” and Angie switches to right and left crosses. “You're holding your breath. Breathe through it when you make contact,” Peggy explains, analyzing her technique. Angie corrects her breathing, and Peggy nods. “Okay, upper cuts, now.” Angie changes her punches as Peggy changes the position of the mitts, holding them down so Angie can make proper contact. “Okay, break.”
Angie steps back with a great gasp, and the color comes back to her cheeks in an instant. Ninety seconds of punching takes the wind out of anyone's sails. “You're doing beautifully, darling.”
“Yeah?” Angie asks, and there's a hint of pride in her voice.
“Yes,” Peggy assures her, watching the clock. She gives her thirty seconds of recovery. “Go again. Right left right,” she says, and Angie follows. “Left right left,” and so on, feeding her different combinations for over a minute. “Keep your eyes open,” she reminds her. “You close up on your hooks. You want to see your opponent take the punch.” Angie's nodding as she continues, and the little furrow across her brow deepens. “Break.”
Another minute passes. “Last one,” Peggy says, and she sees the little smile on Angie's lips. This is good, for both of them. “Give me all you've got, crosses, uppercuts, hooks. Repeat.” Now Angie's smile grows; she likes to go hard and fast at the end, and she does not disappoint. After almost a minute, Peggy can tell she's winded. “Left hook,” and Angie does as she's told. “Again. Again. Again.”
When Angie's form starts to go haywire, Peggy counts down in her own mind—three, two, one, and says, “Last one, hard as you can,” and Angie smashes her fist against the mitt so hard Peggy feels it through her whole body. She smacks the mitts together in celebration. “Fantastic. That was fantastic, darling.”
“Oh, goddamn,” Angie sighs, face tilted toward the ceiling. “Goddamn.” Her arms fall to her sides in surrender. “Don't know how you ever got so good, Pegs. This is damned hard.”
“You're a natural. You're far ahead of where I would have been after two months.”
“Sure, I am,” Angie replies in a disbelieving tone.
Peggy laughs. “Seriously. I was strong but I had no technique. I also telegraphed every move I made. It took me years to build my stamina up to be as good as yours was the day you stepped into this room.” None of this is a lie; Peggy had grown up with muscles and a few extra pounds that set her apart as slightly overweight compared to the most popular girls in her class. But she'd taken to field hockey, and one day she looked in the mirror and the ever present puppy fat had vanished. She'd kept her hourglass figure, but packed on muscle and sinew that she'd held onto all these years. “You could beat me in a race, darling. I've seen you on Howard's treadmill contraption over there. You must run six miles an hour on average.” Angie was as fleet footed as any woman or man Peggy had ever seen. If Peggy didn't worry constantly for her safety, she might even recruit her for the SSR.
Angie shrugs. “Don't know. He doesn't have any kinda measuring thing on it. You'd think a guy who could make us that crazy human hamster wheel mighta thought ahead.”
Grinning, Peggy says, “I'll ask him to work on that. I expect it won't take long.” She steps closer. “Now, let's cool you down. Turn round,” she says, her voice dropping.
Angie's eyes flash in anticipation. “Yes, ma'am.” She holds her arms out, palms flat and facing forward, as she always does to start their end of session. Peggy pulls her arms back like wings, watching the muscles of Angie's back and shoulders relax as her chest expands. There's a groan, and Angie's head falls back in pleasure. “I lied before. This is my favorite part.” The only sound in the room is that of their breathing as Peggy moves to different parts of her body to stretch them out; lower back, lats and shoulders, hamstrings and quadriceps, hips and groin, calves and feet. She keeps Angie's forearms and wrists and fingers for last, and their faces drift together as Peggy pulls on one thumb and hears a slight crack. “You're the best, love,” Angie murmurs, and Peggy's neck grows hot. “You make it all worthwhile.”
Peggy doesn't bother finishing Angie's right hand, and moves in for the kiss she's been waiting for this whole day.
They don't make it to the showers, or even a bedroom. The hallway outside the training room is as far as Angie goes before shoving her fingers down into Peggy's sweaty shorts, and as usual, it takes her nearly no effort at all to wring a perfect, powerful orgasm out of her as she leans against the wall. But she puts Angie on the floor, nearly knocking her down to shove up Angie’s short dance skirt. Her ensemble is probably designed to distract Peggy from working her too hard. Not that it does, of course, but it has its particular conveniences. She loves Angie like this, her scent strong and earthy, wet down her thighs with desire. When Peggy slips two fingers inside her and licks, Angie's pushing up against her mouth like she's nearly there already.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Angie chants, “harder, yeah, Peggy.” Peggy is as good at following instructions as Angie is, and a few moments later a hand yanks at her head and there's a delicious pulse beneath her kiss. Angie's cry of release is loud and long, ending in a series of amusingly sexy groans as she contracts with delight around Peggy's fingers. Gone are the days of Angie's silent orgasms; she's taken to making as much noise as possible. Perhaps because she knows how much Peggy loves it, or perhaps because she's discovered how well it enhances her own enjoyment of sex.
Either way, the sound makes Peggy happy, every single time.
They lie still, until Peggy realizes that Angie very may well fall asleep prone on the floor. “Let's shower, my darling. We both need one.”
There's a heavy sigh above her. “Share?” Angie asks, rousing herself.
“Mm,” Peggy agrees.
The car picks them up at half past six, and they’re both in their best evening wear. Angie’s dress is new, because she had nothing to suit a night out at Zanzibar. Her fanciest clothes are still for church, since before moving into Howard’s place she hadn’t had a lot of expendable income. Now she’s got a little extra dosh she can spend where she likes, all the while saving plenty for a rainy day. Peggy imagines this is the first time Angie’s ever had the opportunity to do so. Her family's house is nice but just barely large enough for their brood. Angie never complains about what it was like for her as a girl because at least she didn't have to share a room. Now over holidays the place is filled to the brim and overflowing with life, but shows its age and wear. Her father somehow managed to support his family on his salary as a butcher, but there were no exotic trips, no expensive furniture, no excesses or extravagances of any kind.
Peggy feels pleased to be able to allow such things for her beloved now. She wonders if Howard would fly them somewhere warm this winter. Surely he would agree, especially if it means he would be able to come along and try to weasel more details about their relationship out of both of them. He is intensely curious about their love affair but thus far has been very sweet to allow Peggy her privacy. He and Angie get along surprisingly well, since Angie can easily hold her own against his teasing and jokes. Peggy has less patience, so when she's done listening to him, he just focuses on Angie. Their banter has kept frequent dinners together amusing, particularly during their recent night out at Ruby's. Howard has yet to forgive her for that little stunt, yet he went home with a smile on his face after finding Angie to be a dance partner worth his time. They'd done the Lindy for hours, and Peggy had wished she'd carried Howard's camera pen with her, because the sight of the two of them in matching suits and ties, with Howard following his female lead, still makes her smile.
Their driver tonight is unknown to Peggy; Jarvis and Anna will be joining them for supper, and Peggy is pleased. She misses seeing him on a regular basis, and feels that funny pull in her chest at the thought of having a night out with those closest to her. Somehow she's managed to make a family in this city, and it feels only right to be settled here, continuing Steve's work while honoring his memory. It doesn't hurt so much anymore to think of him, though she allows herself to shed a few tears when she crosses the Brooklyn Bridge now and then.
“You're quiet, English,” Angie says, taking her hand surreptitiously. “Feel okay?”
“Better than,” Peggy assures her, squeezing her fingers.
Zanzibar is a mob scene, and Peggy and Angie have to dodge the masses to get to the door. The bouncer eyes Peggy up and down. “We're meeting Howard,” she tells him. When she notices a well dressed man in spats sidling up to Angie, she has to clamp down on her vicious jealous streak. It's something she's always known she's had, although it's not as bad as it used to be. She hasn't pulled a gun and shot at anyone over it lately, so she considers that progress.
The bouncer looks down at a list of something on a clipboard, and she rolls her eyes. “Okay then, go on in.” When the well-dressed man tries to follow them in, Peggy feels vindicated when the bouncer stops him. “Not you, buddy. Back in line.”
“Aw, come on, we were just gettin' to know each other--”
His voice fades away in the din of the crowd. Angie sidles up next to her, her perfume a sweet relief from the heaviness of the smoky air inside. “I can't take you anywhere, can I?” Peggy asks her. “Not that I blame him. You're the most stunning woman here. Or anywhere.”
“Sweet-talker. Trying to get lucky later? 'Cause I can tell ya, you've already got it in the bag,” she says, keeping her eyes on the crowd.
“Just being honest.” She looks over and Angie meets her eyes. “You are beautiful.”
Angie takes a deep breath, and shakes her head. “Geez, Peg. You're makin' it awfully hard not to kiss you, and I really don't feel like getting arrested tonight.”
“Save it, darling. I'll be waiting.”
Sometimes when she thinks about the fact that her love for Angie is not just frowned upon but actually illegal, she considers abandoning her position working for a government that values her so little. During the war she knew highly-ranked, successful homosexuals, both male and female, who did little to hide their proclivities. It seems odd that outside the structure of the army that there would be more risk rather than less. She wonders what Colonel Phillips would say if he knew about Angie. He'd probably not say a word, then a few weeks later take her aside to ask how she got such a wonderful girl, considering what a pain in the ass Peggy is.
“There they are. Oh damn, where's Anna?” Angie says, pulling her toward a table in the circle around the dance floor. Jarvis sits stiffly across from Howard, whose attention is elsewhere. Peggy follows his eyeline to a blonde on the arm of a man who appears to be the quintessential mob boss, although Peggy's never seen him before. But there's a subtle bulge at his left side, and there are matching bulges at the sides of all the men at that table. Figures Howard would have designs on the woman who is the least available in the entire place. Other than Peggy and Angie, naturally.
Jarvis spots them and appears relieved, standing right away. “Miss Carter, Miss Martinelli. I'm very happy you've finally arrived.”
“We're not late, are we?” Angie asks.
“No, not at all, but each moment with Mister Stark as he mentally undresses each woman here is an eternity. I can assure you, your presence will be a most welcome distraction.” He greets each of them and holds out Peggy's chair as Howard does the same for Angie.
“Hey, doll, so glad you made it,” Howard says, bussing Angie's cheek. “You look like a million bucks in that dress. Did Ross call you yet?” he asks. “I know there's a part for you in a show he’s got comin’ up, and I gave him all your details last week.”
“Yeah, thanks, pal. I’m going in tomorrow, but it’s no big deal if it falls through. Someday the right producer's gonna notice. Till then, I got plenty to keep me occupied. Peg's teaching me to box, did you know?”
“Figures,” Howard quips, punching Peggy gently in the arm. He asks Angie, “She show off her skills doing push ups for you yet?”
Without warning, Peggy flushes from the top of her head down through her chest, and prays Howard won't look in her direction. Her prayer goes unanswered, though, and his eyes grow comically large when he sees her. “What'd I say?”
“Nothing,” Peggy replies, stealing his glass of champagne and downing it in one.
Angie laughs though, and the sound is silk along Peggy's spine. Surely Angie remembers that afternoon she’d first performed her push-ups trick as well as Peggy does. That day they’d christened the training room with a bout of lovemaking so enthusiastic that Peggy hasn't yet recovered. Angie is usually the shyer one between the two of them, but that day Peggy was putty in Angie's hands. Not to mention her mouth.
“Oh, God, please don't let's talk about whatever you're thinking of,” Jarvis asks, and Peggy closes her eyes in embarrassment.
“That's our cue, Martinelli. Get on the dance floor and tell me everything,” Howard crows, grabbing Angie. She follows him with a gleeful grin, and Peggy puts her head into her hands.
“I hate them both,” Peggy says into her empty glass. She has a sinking suspicion that Howard knows much more about her love life than he needs to, but she can't very well tell Angie not to say anything to him. Peggy could ask, but she doesn't feel right making the request. It's not her business to tell Angie what to do. But right now, she wishes she could sink into the floor as she watches the two of them gab to each other with such eagerness on the dance floor. “I don't deserve this.”
“Nor do I,” Jarvis says. “I was meant to have a night out with my wife and friends, yet here I sit with no wife, and I must be subjected to lewd conversations and Howard trying to steal a gun moll out from under the nose of a mob boss, while said boss sits ten feet away. I expect I shall be murdered before the night is through, or perhaps I shall simply die of embarrassment.”
“I wondered about the blonde. Do you suppose they're really mafia?”
“Where is Anna? I hope she's not ill.”
“No, but her dear friend Nancy gave birth this morning, so Anna has offered her services. She's very good with children, you see,” he says proudly.
“I've no doubt.” Peggy tilts her head, curious. Should she ask the question? She certainly doesn't want to make Edwin more uncomfortable, but she is interested to know--
“We're trying,” he says, without prompting. “So far without success.”
“Ah.” She smiles at him, and he looks away. “Good things come to those who wait.”
He clears his throat. “If we're fortunate. There are other options, and we're considering those as well, if it comes down to it.”
“I'm glad to hear it. Any child would be lucky to have you both as parents,” Peggy says sincerely.
“You're too kind,” Jarvis replies, although he seems pleased by her words.
They watch Howard and Angie dance. Angie's smile sparkles under the lights, her eyes glowing with mirth and pleasure. Peggy can't help herself; she puts her chin in one hand and admires her without censoring herself. No one will be able to tell which one of them she's looking at, so why not?
“I hate to interrupt your reverie, Miss Carter, but there's something I'd like to discuss with you. Something of concern,” Jarvis says, and his tone is edged with something Peggy does not like.
She sits up, placing the drink she'd been nursing down on the table. “Sounds grave.”
“It may not be, but I—well, you know Mister Stark. He is foolishly arrogant at the best of times.”
“That I do know. Tell me how I can help.”
Jarvis sighs. “I don't know that you can. Mister Stark has already dismissed the issue, because he receives a number of threatening messages each month, but--”
“Threatening messages?” Peggy barks, and a few people at the next table glance at her reflexively. She smiles easily and laughs, holding an uncomfortable grin while asking, “What on earth does that mean?”
“I mean that Mister Stark has made many enemies through the years, certainly more enemies than friends. He writes them all off, but this one doesn't threaten him directly, but mentions harming a loved one in order to get to him.”
That puts her on alert. “Loved one. What was the wording exactly?”
“It says that someone will, and I quote, 'borrow the girl always on your arm, to show you we mean business,'” Jarvis says, as though he's memorized the message. “Unfortunately, the woman Mister Stark spends the most time with is, well, you. You share meals constantly, often in public, you work together, and you live in his home. I believe you may be in danger, Miss Carter.”
Peggy actually sighs in relief. “Well, that I can handle. I thought it was something serious.” She actually laughs. “Surely you know I can take care of myself, Mister Jarvis. I'll just be more vigilant than usual. What does this threat demand?”
“Financial remuneration, naturally, to the tune of two million dollars. Which of course Mister Stark does have in his bank accounts, but gathering such assets and distributing them as a ransom would be quite challenging for any institution in this day and age. We have cash on hand but nothing close to that amount.”
Peggy preens. “Two million. I suppose I'm worth at least that much.”
Jarvis pales. “Miss Carter, this is not a joke. Your life could be in danger.” His mouth twitches. “More danger than usual, rather.”
“No more danger than I was at the hands of Leviathan, or Miss Underwood,” Peggy replies, still smarting at Dottie's escape and continued absence. She really should have swung harder with that baseball bat. “I will be rather more aware of myself then, just in case. And thank you, Mister Jarvis, for the warning.” She smirks. “I'd like to see them try. I have been working on my training lately. I'm quite prepared. And armed, as always.”
Jarvis turns to her. “Even now?” He peers at her figure-hugging dress, and her tiny handbag, just large enough for a lipstick and a set of keys.
“Of course.” Sweet Dreams 101 is one of two lipsticks she always carries, and her trusted PPK warms her thigh in its holster. She's got an extra magazine tucked in her brassiere; Angie sewed in a special new pocket for it just last month. “One never knows, Mister Jarvis. I do not let my guard down.”
He sits back in his chair. “I suppose that's all I can ask. I shall be your driver again for the time being. I've already informed Mister Stark. He's agreed.”
Peggy rolls her eyes. “I don't need a driver to take me the ten blocks to work. I won't stand for it.”
“I shall pick you up tomorrow morning at 7:45am. I understand you like to arrive at 8 sharp.”
“I shall not take no for an answer, Miss Carter. Your safety is paramount, to Mister Stark, to me, and above all, to Miss Martinelli. How would she react if she were to discover there were a threat to your safety and we did nothing about it?”
Peggy frowns. That's something she hasn't thought of. She wouldn't be angry. She would be enraged . And an enraged Angie is something she does not want to encounter. Not ever again. “Fine. But let's not discuss it with her now. I don't want to ruin the night. I'll--” Peggy takes a breath – “I'll mention it to her tomorrow, after her audition. I don't want her distracted by something inconsequential. Her classes have been paying off, and the fact that she's not constantly working hours at the automat has helped as well. She can focus on preparation, rather than making ends meet.” She looks back out on the dance floor and catches Angie watching her with a little frown between her brows. Peggy realizes she herself is frowning, and relaxes her expression into a loving smile. Angie smiles back, but she must know that their topic of conversation is serious. Damn . “This could be the break she's been waiting for.”
“Tomorrow. No later, Miss Carter. I will hold you to that.”
“Of course. I keep my word.”
Not long after, Angie and Howard return to their table, winded and starving. “Stark, you're footing the bill tonight, right?”
He barks out a laugh. “You got it angel. What's on the menu tonight?”
“Let's get some more of that bubbly. I can tell you already killed that first bottle all by your lonesome. Pegs and me are gonna catch up with you right quick. Aren't we, honey?” she asks, that little frown back between her brows.
“Of course, darling.” Peggy laughs and flicks her hair back behind her shoulder coquettishly, but it's too late. Angie will be interrogating her on the way home about their conversation. “Let's have lobster, shall we?”
“Surf n' turf all around, let's do it,” Howard says, waving an arm in the direction of a waiter. “Garcon, we're ready to order!”
That night, once they get ready for bed, Peggy welcomes Angie’s arms around her. They’re both very tired, and it’s nearly two, and Peggy has work very early. She will be fine with five hours’ sleep, but she will be completely silent getting ready in the morning so as not to disturb Angie. She must get plenty of rest, and Peggy will phone her at noon to wish her luck (or rather, to break a leg) before her audition. She has a very good feeling about this one; she was not lying to Jarvis when she said so.
She rests her head against Angie’s chest, and listens to her heart beat, soft and slow beneath her ear. “I love you, darling,” she whispers.
“Me too, English. Love you so much.” Arms tighten around her shoulders, and she feels the rise of a deep breath in Angie’s body. “You make life good,” she sighs, and in a moment she’s asleep, practically before her last word leaves her mouth.
Peggy strokes her arm gently for a few minutes, lulling herself to sleep as the sounds of the city grow quiet below.
In the morning before she leaves for work, she presses her lips to Angie’s forehead as she slumbers on. Her eyelashes are crescents against her cheek, and Peggy wants so much to crawl back under the covers and joins her. She wonders, briefly, how long this feeling of yearning will last. She’s known Angie for many months now, and the longer they’re together, the worse it seems to be.
In the blink of an eye, Peggy glances at her watch and it's half past 12. She curses. Normally she'd have stepped out into the street to ring Angie and wish her luck, but she doesn't want to waste another minute. The line rings endlessly, long enough for the operator to cut in and report that there is no answer. Peggy thanks her curtly and sends up a silent wish that Angie lands the job, and that somehow she knows she's thinking of her.
Hours go by and she's buried under paperwork, but at least she's not alone in handling it. The whole team has been working to uncover a mafia connection around the governor’s mansion and they're all in the hot seat. With Thompson as the figurehead running the SSR, Peggy glances around and wonders how long he'll last before he cracks under the pressure. She believes that he is not cut out to be a leader, and even though he knows Peggy's skills, he won't put her out front on missions in the field unless she pushes.
She's starting to think that Howard's idea of involving her in a separate organization might be better for her after all. At this rate she'll never get out from under Thompson, or his cronies, or the men in government who still have no idea of her value. Sousa is her only real friend here, but even that has its limits. His crush on her has faded into invisibility, but it still exists. If Peggy snapped her fingers, he'd pursue her again in a hot minute, and she doesn't want to encourage him. She keeps him at arm's length, mostly so he won't catch wind of her affection for Angie.
Her phone rings, startling her out of her reverie. “Carter here,” she says.
There's an intake of breath on the other end of the line. “Peg?” the voice says, and she frowns. It sounds like Howard, but not like him too.
Another breath, and the clearing of a throat. “So, uh, listen, Peg,” the voice says, and she interrupts.
“Yeah. Uh, I gotta tell ya something. It's um, it's some news about something.” She waits; whatever it is is serious. His voice shakes as he continues. “I got a letter today.”
Odd. He sounds extremely odd. “A letter.”
“Yeah.” The seconds move slowly between the next words. “It's a ransom note.”
“Ransom?” she replies, and she’s immediately brought back to her conversation with Edwin just the night before. “Is this about what Jarvis was talking about last night? I told Edwin that I was in no danger.” Her spine stiffens. “Oh good lord, has one of your lady friends gone missing? I'll do whatever you need, dear. Just tell me what's happening and I'll get to work.”
“Peg, turns out we were wrong about the dame in danger.” He starts to laugh, but to Peggy's ear it sounds more like a sob. Something inside her twists, and he says, “It's--it's Angie. They've got her.”
The floor drops out from under Peggy. She remembers, out of nowhere, the floating sensation that she experienced one morning in the Blitz, so early on in the war, when she walked out of a house where she'd been staying only to realize that it was the only one standing within a two hundred meter radius. This is like that, she thinks, and knows that Howard's speaking but she can't hear him, because there's an ocean raging in her ears. “Howard,” she says, “I can't understand you, there's something wrong with the line. Would you repeat that?” She sounds perfectly normal, which is good. No one is looking in her direction. Except—Daniel--he's staring at her.
“Somebody took Angie, Peg. They want two million bucks in three days. I'm gonna try to get it, I swear, but I don't know if the banks will be able to make it happen. If it was anybody else I'd try like hell to figure out who it was and go after their asses, but Jesus Christ, Peg, it’s Angie. I'd never let anybody harm a hair on her head, and not just 'cause she's your girl. I love her like my own family, Peg—oh Christ, I cocked up this one but good.”
“How do you know it's her?” Peggy's face is aflame; the pressure on her chest is so much that she's having trouble catching her breath. It's like jumping out of a plane, not knowing exactly how to inhale properly when the air is rushing into your lungs.
It takes Howard a few seconds to gather himself. “She must have been wearing the earrings I gave her a couple months back, something pretty to wear for auditions, you know?” He swallows. “They sent one, and, uh, they sent some of her hair.”
She stands so forcefully that her chair smashes against the wall. “What?”
“Her hair. Not that much, just some, I don't know. Inches. It's the right color.”
Someone puts a hand on Peggy's arm, and she is vibrating. Angie's beautiful hair, so soft, so golden as it catches the morning light in their bed. “That's not possible, Howard. Angie had an audition this morning. She went straight back to the house, I'm quite sure of it.” Except she's not sure at all, because she hasn't exchanged a single word with Angie all day. “She's certainly not been kidnapped.”
“Oh, hell,” Daniel says from next to her, and Peggy starts and jerks out of his grasp. She meets his eyes, and his expression softens. “It's okay, Carter.”
She feels hysteria closing in, drowning her, stealing all the life out of her body. She shakes her head. “This is not happening.”
“Peg,” Howard says from the other end of the line. “Peg, you want me to get the money, or should we try to find her ourselves? 'Cause if anybody can, it's us. Right?” When he laughs again, she decides that high pitched bark is something so terrifying she never wants to hear it again.
“Both, Howard. Both. You will squeeze every penny out of every bank in this city or I swear to god, I will burn them all to the ground, do you understand me? I'll set the whole city on fire--” her voice is growing louder, and Sousa is standing so close in front of her, shushing her.
He shakes her by the shoulders, hard, and when their eyes meet again, he says in a low, firm voice. “Pull yourself together, Carter. We've got a job to do. And there's no time to lose.”
Somehow, she takes a full breath then, and she realizes she'd nearly fainted. The edges of the world are still a bit wobbly for a moment, but after a second breath, everything comes into focus. His eyes peer into hers; the dimples at the sides of his mouth stand out, as does the curve of his chin, the color of his amber eyes. “Right. Howard, where are you? We'll be there as quickly as possible.”
“At the lab. Somebody dropped off the package sometime in the last hour.”
“An hour. All right.” A thought occurs to her. “If someone's been watching you, they may still be. We'll have to be very careful. Can you disguise yourself?”
“'Course, Peg. I got some stuff here.”
“Disappear then, Disappear into a crowd, and come straight here. Speak to Rose at the switchboard, she'll let you in.”
“Yeah. Yeah, Peg, I got it. I'll be there in—“ he pauses briefly-- “less than 15. I'll bring everything. You'll be able to get an analyst on it all right away. Okay?”
“Yes. Come as quickly as possible, Howard. I'm--” her voice breaks, but she holds it together, like Daniel has insisted. “I'm counting on you to help get her back.”
“Anything, Peg. Gotta go.” He hangs up, and the click is loud in her ear.
She drops the phone into the cradle. “Oh, hell.”
“Angie?” Daniel asks. “That's the cute brunette I met at the Griffith.”
Peggy nods. “She's my housemate.”
His eyebrows lift. “You live together?”
She sees the thoughts flitting across his face; curiosity, interest, confusion. “Yes. After I was accused of treason neither of us was very welcome in Miss Fry's establishment any longer. We've since found another place.” She leaves out the rest of the details. “It just didn't occur to me that she sees Howard nearly as much as I do. Of course anyone would think they were seeing one another. The question is why didn't I see it? I could have stopped this whole thing before it started had I known, I could have protected her--”
He takes his life in his hands a second time and shakes her again, hard enough that she sees stars. “Listen to me. What's done is done, Carter. Put aside any guilt you've got going on and focus on the facts. Tell me what you know.”
“What I know,” she repeats, but Angie's face is all she can see. Is she in pain? Is she hurt, and terrified, or God forbid, worse? If anyone has put their hands on Angela Martinelli, Peggy will kill them, slowly. She's never seen Angie truly afraid for her life; how would she look, if she thought she was about to die? Would she be angry with Peggy for ever putting her in such danger? Because it's Peggy's fault, of course, her fault that—
“Carter!” Daniel shouts right in her face. “Stop it. Stay here. Talk. Now.”
Peggy glances around, and there are faces all around her. Thompson, Miller, Hahn, even Johnson, who never gives her the time of day. All of them are gazing at her with concern. She remembers she is not alone. She remembers her past, her training, her strength, even in the face of the greatest dangers the world has ever known. She survived a war. When she fights, she wins. She's experienced enough casualties in her life, and she won't lose another person she loves. Not ever. She is Peggy Carter, and she will lay down her life to rescue Angie, no matter what it takes.
“Right. Gentlemen, shall we adjourn to the conference room?”
Daniel's hard nod of agreement gives her strength, and she leads the way to a room that smells of stale coffee and cheap aftershave. As she takes a seat at the head of the table, she feels right at home.
The first time Angie wakes up, she's in a car. Her head smarts something fierce, and her hands are tied behind her back.
Two fellas are in the front seat of the four door sedan. Angie thinks it's a Packard Super 8 from a few years back. The window cranks are broken off, and so are the door handles.
They hit a bump, and her head smacks the side of the door. She leans over and throws up, and blessedly, it's lights out again.
The next time she wakes, she's in a chair, and her neck is killing her. She sits up slowly, since she's still foggy, but she can't see a thing. There's rough fabric pulled over her head. Her breath is hot and the thing covering her is damp with condensation. She's cold, and when she rubs her knees together, she can feel the weight of silk shifting against her skin. She's still got her stockings and slip on, at least, but her arms are bare.
She doesn't have the courage to speak. She has to go to the bathroom very badly, and she's hungry and sick and afraid, afraid, afraid .
She thinks of Peggy, and Ma and Pops, and Francis and Vinnie, in that order. She's in trouble, but she doesn't know what kind. Maybe spy trouble, 'cause of Pegs, or mob trouble, 'cause of Sal or Francis, but that's kind of a long shot. Probably Peg. Maybe Dottie's nabbed her, but she has a weird suspicion that if Dottie had kidnapped her, she wouldn't cover Angie's face. She'd be proud to be seen by Angie, but then again, Angie would probably be dead if Dottie wanted her to be that way. Peggy is damned good at protecting herself, but Dot has some crazy skills if she escaped Peg and left her bruised up and hurt as bad as she had. Angie had tended to Peggy's sore spots for at least a week after their last run in at Howard's airplane hangar. The bruise to her back was the worst thing Angie had seen in a long while.
So, not Dot. Maybe somebody Peggy has mentioned in the last couple of weeks? But far as Angie knew, Peg’s just working on run of the mill stuff. If things are real intense, Peg is gone a lot, stays out late nights, leaves early mornings, works all nighter weekends when she can. But not lately. Lately she is home by six, early enough to help out with dinner, and she sleeps well in Angie's arms.
Angie knows enough by Peggy's sleeping if things are bad, and she'd slept like the dead last night.
So who the hell kidnapped her?
She sits in the chair, shivering and sore and sick, concentrating on not peeing, until she can't anymore. When her bladder finally gives up the ghost, she cries silent, hot tears. The wood under her bottom is slick and hard, and her back aches like the devil. She imagines Peggy bursting in, tearing off the bag over her head and kissing her face, carrying her to safety. Carrying her home to their bed, where she holds her and tells her everything will be all right.
“Peg,” she whispers to herself, “Peg. Peg, Peg, Peg. I'm here. Come find me.”
Sometime later, she falls asleep.
When the bag gets yanked off, Angie's so startled, she lets out a little yelp. “Aw, Christ, she pissed herself,” a man says, disgusted.
Angie squints at him; there's sun in her eyes, hard and bright, coming in through a long window. “Pissed? Fucking hell, clean her up. I don't want this place stinkin' more than it already does,” says another man that she can't see. “Pissin' and pukin' and we're only in six hours--this dame better be worth it.”
She doesn't know her captors, but they're local by the accent. Brooklyn, for sure, maybe Bay Ridge? And Irish, by the look of this one, anyway, with dark hair and a pale, doughy face that would disappear in a crowd except for the sharp blue eyes peering down at her. He's got a cleft chin that reminds her of Father O'Brian, but that's where any sense of familiarity ends.
These men are not mob, and they're not international spies. They're not Dottie Underwood.
Angie feels less afraid of them now, but she needs to do a little reconnaissance.
She has to deal with the indignity of the clean up, during which she is grabbed and shoved into a corner, told not to turn around, not to say anything. This presents her with an opportunity to look out the window and she sees, to her surprise, water. There are big, beautiful houses, some attached and some free standing, and she knows right away that she's in Marine Park. She's been here with her family with her dad to get lobsters if he can't find them closer to home. Every holiday Ma says to get up early to get the Christmas eve dinner, but he never listens, so they come this way and usually get what they need. Except for the one year that the seven fishes was six; Pop probably won't ever forget that day, so now they always hunt every part of town to get the lobster no matter what.
She wonders if she'll get to spend Christmas with her family this year, or if these mugs are gonna knock her off. Her eyes sting with tears till she shakes them off and looks more closely at her surroundings without tipping her hand. The sun keeps her from seeing too much in the reflection of the window, but she peers around and doesn't see a phone. The place is a wreck; papers and file folders strewn across a long desk, a typewriter and trash can next to it filled with crumpled up paper, dirty clothes in a pile in the corner. She can't see much more than that without turning around, but Mr. Cleft Chin drags her back and sits her down in her wet slip. He points a finger in her face. “No more pissing your pants, honey, or you'll be in even more trouble than you already are.”
A smart ass reply is in her mouth but she bites it back, and cowers instead. “Okay, sir,” she says. You're the one in trouble, mister. You just wait. Peggy's words echo in her brain from their many training sessions. One of a woman's greatest strengths will be the element of surprise. If you're in danger, acquiesce until the moment is right. Then strike. A man will never believe that a female can take him down, until she does. “Sorry.”
He stares at her and nods. “Next time I'll take ya to the can.”
The second man comes into view; he's got dark red hair, almost auburn, and a mustache to match. He eyes her breasts in the slip. “Guess I know what he sees in this one,” the man says, and Angie tries not to make a face. Who is “he”?
“Who the hell cares, long as he pays up?” Mr. Chin replies. “And he'll pay. He's got enough money to buy the whole city, I'm sure he can spare the dosh to free his favorite dish, right, honey?”
She doesn't reply. If she acts as confused as she feels, she might dig herself an early grave.
“I said, right, honey?” Mr. Chin repeats. “Your boyfriend's gonna pay us a lotta money so we'll let you go, and if we're in a good mood, maybe we'll do it. Maybe.” He chuckles to himself. “If you're real nice, so just do what I tell ya and you'll be fine.”
“Sure, mister.” Boyfriend?
“You think Stark's got the note by now?” The redhead (Angie decides to call him Freckles) asks. Angie feels the shock explode through her. Howard Stark is supposed to be her boyfriend? These guys must be dumb as a box of rocks. Where the hell did they get that hare-brained idea?
“Yeah. He won't be callin' the cops, though. And if he does, I'll hear about it. My brother's on the job, and he's got a lot of friends. We'll hear about it if he blabs.” He fingers the stubble that's grown in across his chin. “You know, I been thinkin'. Mr. Bigtime promised us ten grand each, but I think that ain't enough. I think we're gonna get more outta this gig than he thinks we are. You know how much money he's asking for ransom?”
Freckles shakes his head.
Freckles and Angie both gape at him. “Two million bucks?”
“Yep,” Mr. Chin replies. “And if he gets anywhere near that, I want a helluva lot more than a lousy ten k. More like a couple hundred k. We're doing all the legwork, we deserve more.”
“Goddamned right we deserve more.” Freckles eyes travel along Angie's legs, and she hides a shudder. She'll put her knee through his gut before she lets him lay a hand on her. “You gonna call him at the thea--”
Mr. Chin shoves Freckles. “Shut yer trap, asshole.”
Angie stays very still. Theatre. He was going to say theatre. It's a clue to the brains behind this little farce.
“You didn't hear nothin', all right, sweetheart?” Mr. Chin tells her, and his face loses all softness. His eyes are like beautiful blue glass in the afternoon sunlight.
“What do you mean?” she replies, putting on her most airheaded voice. She's perfected it over the years; she's certainly played the bubbly, vacant best pal enough times in off-off-off Broadway shows.
Mr. Chin blinks at her. “'Kay. Right. Now shut up, and don't move. We got things to take care of.”
Before she loses her nerve, she makes a move. “Hey, mister, can I just ask if you could maybe put my hands in front of me?” She shifts in her seat, lifting her bust as he watches her breathe. “My arms are killin' me. I'll stay right here, like you asked.”
The two men look at each other, and Mr. Chin shrugs. “Whatever. She's a toothpick. I ain't worried.”
Freckles is the one she's more worried about, but he's distracted by her breasts, which is what she wants. “Stand up,” he says. He loosens the rough rope around her wrists, and when it comes off, Angie gasps in relief. Quickly she places her arms in front of her, and he ties her again. But it's not as tight, this time, and she wishes Peg was with her so she could prove that she's been listening all this time. She's been learning. And all those lessons are gonna help her get free.
The sun goes down as Angie sits in the room, alone. She doesn't move, because Mr. Chin and Freckles are only across the room, still in her eyeline. They're talking to each other in low voices, so Angie can't hear much, but after a while the telephone rings and Angie stiffens.
A phone. She needs to get to that phone.
“Yeah?” Mr. Chin barks.
There's a long pause.
Angie figures that's mostly true. Other than the splitting headache from whoever bashed her head, she's fine.
She has a thought; she can't remember getting her head bashed in, at all. She can't remember how these mugs even took her. What the hell happened today? But the continued phone call distracts her, and she listens in.
“Yeah, I got it. But listen, bud, we're gonna have to renegotiate our finder's fee.” There's a pause. “You made the terms of the old deal, and we're making the new terms, 'cause we got the thing Stark wants.” A longer pause. “That's your fuckin' problem, friend. We'll drive this dame off the pier before we'll take ten g's, get it? I want a hundred and fifty, and so does Nicky, here. You're takin' home two million bucks, we want our fair share.” Mr. Chin waits, and laughs. “Well, why don't we just let the bitch go and then you won't get a thing? She can call the cops and we'll tell her all about you and your big show and the fact that you promised her some measly part to--”
Angie bites down on the inside of her lower lip so hard she flinches. The day comes back to her in a flash.
Only that afternoon--how many hours ago now?-- she'd gone to her audition. Surprisingly, there had been only two other girls in the theatre. Alexander Ross, the producer Howard put her in touch with only last week, sat near the front of the house as she'd sung her song, and performed her favorite monologue from “The Importance of Being Earnest.” He'd said how perfect she'd be in the part of the best friend in his new show, which would be premiering once the money came in.
And when she was finished, she went behind the curtain and somebody covered her mouth with something that smelled like ether, and she'd kicked backwards in terror. That's when somebody knocked her on the noggin, and she went down and out.
Now she knows who's behind this. But why would Alexander Ross, a respected businessman in the theatre, need to scam two million bucks from Howard? He's done play after successful play, and there's no reason he wouldn't be able to secure the money to put on another show.
As her mind races, one thought silences all the rest: she knows too much. Alexander Ross is the reason she's been kidnapped. That fact alone means she's not gonna survive this little caper.
Whether either Freckles or Mr. Chin knows it yet, they're going to have to kill her, because they were stupid enough to let the cat out of the bag.
Her jaw hardens. She'll just have to kill them first.
“The money's coming in two days. We want our share, Mr. Bigtime. Keep that in mind as you wait around for the cash so you can pay off your 'investors' down in Little Italy.” Mr. Chin waits. “'You're up a shit creek, pal. You don't get that money you're as good as dead. What's done is done, and you'll go down like the Titanic if you don't do what we want. Your collateral's right here, and I bet she'll talk a mile a minute if she wants to. 'Specially if she's got in good with Stark.” Angie watches Mr. Chin's forehead crinkle. “Yeah, she's right here. You think I'm gonna keep her in another room where I can't watch her?” Angie's heart starts to race in fear as she watches Mr. Chin turn to her and stare at her, eyes unblinking. “Huh,” he says. “Never thought about that.” He turns away, and Angie hears him say, “Well not yet, anyway. Might need her to prove she's still breathing to Stark. Otherwise he may not pony up. Anybody can take an earring and some hair off a dead girl, right?”
For the first time, she really feels as though she might be coming to the end of the line, all because of money, and some asshole producer in trouble with the mob. She can't believe this is happening. The rest of the conversation goes on, but Angie can't focus any longer. She's got maybe two days to live.
Unless she can escape.
The thought comes to her: Peggy wouldn't wait to be killed. She'd make a plan, and execute it.
The thought of Peggy nearly breaks her heart. She'll be so devastated if Angie dies. She's only just moved on from Steve, and Angie knows that Peggy doesn't love halfway. She's an all or nothin' kind of gal, which is why they make such a great pair. They're both all in, which means it's gonna be Angie's job to take care of Peggy by not dying.
Save yourself, save the girl.
She can do that.
She gets the bag again for a while and sits in total darkness, till Freckles drags her to the toilet to do her business a second time. Apparently they’re not taking any more chances about her bathroom habits. They haven’t fed her or given her water so she slurps straight from the faucet as fast as she can. She also opens the medicine cabinet as she flushes the toilet, and spots a file--maybe she can use it to get her ropes off, if they leave her alone. She hears footsteps right outside the door, and curses under her breath. She can’t take the risk of being caught, at least not this time.
The bag goes back on and she’s seated in the hard chair again. The room is totally silent.
She takes a chance. “Where’s your friend?” she asks, hoping Mr. Chin is really as gone as she thinks he is.
“None o’ your goddamned business.”
Angie doesn’t reply, but her assumption has been confirmed. “Why’d you take off my clothes?”
Freckles snorts. “‘Cause you puked all over them in the car and made the place stink. I never knew a dame who made such a mess of everything.”
All manner of retorts burn in the back of her throat, but she resists barking back at him.
“You seem like a nice girl. Guess it’s too bad you got with that Stark guy. Money ain’t everything, didn’t your mama ever tell you that?”
She wants to laugh and cry at the same time. “It ain’t everything, but it sure don’t hurt.” Money’s the reason why she and Peg get to share the prettiest house she’s ever been in, big and gorgeous and fit for a queen. Without Stark’s money, who knows where she and Peg might have ended up, or if they’d even thought to get a place together? “I’m not with him because of the money, anyhow. If you knew anything about me, you’d know that. Doesn’t matter though. I’m sure you’re just doing your job, and you got your own reasons.” She waits, and takes her biggest risk yet. “You got family needs taking care of?”
There’s a long pause. “Shut your mouth, sweetheart.”
She winces, and mouths silently, “Damn, damn.” Deciding not to push it, she doesn’t ask anything else. Long minutes go by in the quiet, and she’s practically dozing when she hears him speak again.
“Folks are dead. I got two sisters, though. One’s up in Poughkeepsie, other one’s in the convent. After Ma died I guess she she got the call.”
Angie sighs and tries to calm herself after being startled awake. “I got an aunt with the Sisters of Mercy up in Clinton Hill.” She doesn’t really, but she’d known another girl in school who went there; she was Irish and had a mean, drunk father, so it was the easiest way for her to get up and out of the house.
“No shit, that’s where my sister is!” Freckles says. “She’s always helping out the poor and the sick.” Angie considers how good this sister must be, considering she has a brother who is a kidnapper and almost a murderer, if he isn’t already. “Guess she figured she’d try to redeem me from a distance. Fat lot o’ good it’s done.” Angie can tell by the way his voice is shifting that he’s moving around the house. “I owe a stack to my bookie. I got a problem with the horses, you know? This scam, if we get what’s coming to us, will put me in the clear and get me outta the game, for good. I gotta get out. I don’t wanna end up wearing cement shoes in the East River, you know what I mean?”
Angie laughs gently. “Yeah, I know what you mean. I really do.”
She can sense him watching her, and she drops her head forward, as if she is in tears. She sniffles for effect. It’s not too hard to actually turn on the waterworks, since she very well might end up in the East River herself.
“Listen, I’m sure there’s a way outta this for you. You’re real--I mean you’re real pretty, and Paulie’s not going to whack you just ‘cause this dumbfuck says so.”
Angie is surprised even at herself; this guy mustn’t be as bad as the other one if he caves so fast. Are all men so stupid as to believe a pretty girl who cries? “Sure, mister,” she says, and she cheers on herself at the little shake to her voice.
“Hey, come on, now. Don’t cry,” Freckles says, and he comes closer. He loosens the bag and removes it, and rears back when he sees her face. She must be bright red, cheeks wet with tears and mucus. “Aw, Jesus.” He goes to the bathroom, returning with tissues that he hands her. “Wipe your face. Aw, Jesus.” He turns away to run his hands through his hair, and Angie narrows her eyes.
Quickly she takes in the room; on the desk, there are a few things that might come in handy. Pint glasses, a huge beer stein that looks like it could do some damage, a typewriter. And the thing she really wants to get her hands on--a tableside lamp with a slim stand and narrow base that looks heavy. Just right to do maximum damage with minimum effort.
“Listen, just sit here. I gotta go make a call. Just--sit here.” Freckles vanishes, and grabs the phone. He drags the line away from the desk and goes out a back door, and she can’t see anything beyond that.
Should she make a run for it? She could definitely get out the door with her arms in front of her. Her heart starts to pound in anticipation, but before she even gets a chance to do more than stand up, the front door swings open and Mr. Chin, aka Paulie, is staring at her. He does not look pleased.
“What the fuck is this? Where’s Nick? That dumb little shit. Sit down, sister, or I’ll knock yer teeth out of your head.” Angie sits, and Paulie searches the room, sees the telephone line, and swings the back door open. She hears a ruckus, and the sound of smacking--Nick is apparently getting the what for. Paulie returns and drags Nick back inside and shoves him down into the sofa against the wall so hard he bangs his head. “Don’t leave her alone. You think she wants to stick around here just ‘cause you told her not to leave? Give me a break, you idiot! Don’t lose the merchandise, that’s the first thing I taught ya!”
“Sorry, Paulie, sorry. Nothin’ happened, she didn’t go anywhere!”
“You’re a lucky bastard, that’s all I can say. Now put that bag back over her head.”
Angie’s hope fades a bit. Nick approaches, and leans close to cover her head once more.
“Sorry, miss,” Nick whispers.
That makes her smile. She’s got a new friend. She can’t wait to brain him with that lamp, soon as she gets the chance.
Angie doesn’t exactly sleep during the night; she has dreams while somehow still aware that she’s in a chair, sitting up, and in danger of being murdered. She dreams of Peggy sitting across from her, speaking too softly for Angie to be able to hear, of her Ma and Pop telling her to come home soon, of Miss Fry complaining about the cleanliness of this establishment. She has no idea if Paulie and Nick sleep; she hears noise sporadically of footsteps, and maybe of bottles of beer being cracked open (she assumes they aren’t guzzling grape soda).
Her bottom is so sore from sitting in the same position it feels bruised. Her back aches, and her knees are freezing for some reason. She stretches them out when she can while still sitting down, lifting them and lowering them to ease the pain. She tries to move as little as possible while still getting some blood to flow to extremities that feel dead, rubbing her thighs together for some warmth.
When the bag is next yanked off her head, she jerks so hard in the chair that she careens out of it. With her arms tied, there's nothing to break her fall, and she goes down hard. Her side, arm and hip take most of the brunt. At least she manages to keep her head from making contact again; the last thing she needs is another bonk to the brain. No one offers her a hand, and when she looks up, she's not surprised that Paulie is the culprit. “Time to use the can, sweetheart.”
She does. Her legs are asleep and her back is screaming in pain, but she hobbles to the tiny toilet and uses it gratefully. Again she drinks from the faucet as much and as fast as possible, and takes the chance to stash the nail file in her brassiere, under the wire, straight across the top of her ribcage. She has no idea if she'll have the chance to use it. She pictures stabbing Paulie with it, right in the belly, then again and again, watching him scream and bleed in her mind's eye. Could she really do something so violent, so potentially deadly?
After a second, she nods her head. Yes, she can. She will.
Paulie opens the door as she's drying her hands, and drags her out into the room, stumbling. He shoves her back in the chair, but at least he doesn't cover her head again with the bag. There's a pile of beer bottles peeking out of the trash bin, so apparently he and Nick got well and truly tight last night. Too bad Angie didn't get a chance to have a couple. She could have used something to deaden her nerves.
Nick is nowhere to be seen, and Paulie never speaks to her. He sits at the desk and reads the morning paper with far more attention than your average Joe Schmoe. Probably he's looking for evidence that Howard looped in the cops, but he and Peggy are far too careful to let something like that happen. They also don't need the police to do their detecting for them.
After what seems like a few more hours, she watches Paulie get some clothes out of a cupboard by the desk, stepping out of sight but not out of the room to change. Not that it makes a difference. She can smell his flop sweat and hair grease every time he walks by, and it makes her want to gag. There are more clothes in that cupboard, and Angie thinks about maybe grabbing some trousers and a shirt if she can get away. She’ll bust out of here naked if she has to, but if she can get something to wear, then why not? A neighbor might be more apt to take a gal in from off the street in a man's shirt than if she wasn't wearing anything. You never know what will scare somebody into keeping their front door locked up tight. Besides that, she’d rather run in shoes than barefoot.
What she really wants is for Paulie to go away, and Nick to come back. He made the mistake yesterday of leaving her alone, and she bets he'll do it again if she talks to him right.
The phone rings, and Paulie picks up, glaring at her. “Yeah?”
Angie waits for him to say more. It takes time.
“I said 150. I won't take no less.”
Angie hears the tinny sound of someone shouting down the other line.
“Fine, that works. And ah, my friend's not gonna be a problem after tomorrow.” Paulie turns away from her, but she can still hear him. “I'll take care of the two of them. So I deserve the full amount. See how I'm doin' you this favor? You best tell your pals that I done you right, hear me?”
He drops the phone back on the cradle.
Looks like Nick's in as much trouble as she is.
“Listen sister,” Paulie says from across the room. “I'm only kiddin' about knockin' you and Nick off. I gotta act tough to get what's coming to me, but I don't hold any ill will.” His eyes are flat and cold as he delivers this little speech. “I want the money, that's it. I never signed up to kill nobody, and I don't want to go up the river neither. So you just sit there and look pretty while your boyfriend gets the money together, and everything's gonna be fine.”
Angie puts on a weak smile. “That's real good, mister. I'm sure glad to hear you say that.” Does she sound even a little bit sincere?
Paulie's shoulders drop a little, and he sits back in his chair. She takes that as a positive sign.
The sun is high by the time Nick comes back with a brown, greasy bag in tow, and Angie's head swims when she smells the food that's inside it. Her stomach clenches in one long, aching pang as she attempts to hold herself together.
Nick tosses a wrapped sandwich at Paulie, and takes another out and puts it on the corner of the messy desk. He removes a third sandwich from the bag, and he comes close to hand it over. She gapes at him. “Go 'head.”
Paulie stands from his chair, holding his own meal in his hands. “What the hell are you doing, kid?”
“She's gotta eat. I ain't no bad guy .”
Angie holds still, waiting for Paulie to explode, or tear it out of her hands, or punch one or both of them. He does none of those things. “Whatever.” He probably figures she'll be dead soon enough. One more sandwich won't matter.
She tears at the wax paper with her teeth, digging in with far too big a bite, but she can't help herself. It's delicious, and tastes like it came out of a real Italian deli that knows salami and mortadella. She slows down after she gets the first couple of bites in, and eats carefully so as not to lose a single crumb. Once she's finished, she needs water, but she doesn't ask. Not while Paulie's still here. If he goes, she'll ask Nick.
After a bit, her captors disappear again, but the second she begins to reach beneath her brassiere for the file to possibly cut through her ropes, Paulie appears, glancing toward her with suspicion. She acts like she doesn't notice, and scratches her ribs through her slip. After a moment she looks over and smiles at him. “Thanks for letting me have that sandwich, mister. I was real hungry.”
He grunts, and turns away. This time he pulls a can of Schlitz from the squat Frigidaire in the corner, and uses the can opener. But instead of vanishing back into the other room, he sits down at the desk to read through a bunch of papers. So much for her potential escape.
She watches him put away one can, then another, then he gets partway through a third when the phone rings. Nick emerges from the hidden room to pick up. “Hello?” he says. “Hold on.” He holds the receiver out to Paulie. “It's Roxanne. She wants to talk to you.”
“You and your big fuckin' mouth, kid,” Paulie says, glancing at Angie before taking the phone and disappearing behind that door to nowhere.
Once he's gone, he mumbles, “Guess I'm not cut out for this kidnapping thing, huh.”
“Mister, can I use the powder room?” Her heart pounds now, because if she gets a chance to make a move, she'll take it. But the chance doesn’t come. Nick brings her to the toilet, and she drinks water and pees as usual, but she can't quite bring herself to attack with Paulie only a few yards away. There has to be a better opportunity. Behind closed doors she manages to get her hands a little looser in the ropes, and she thinks that if she twists her hands the right way, she'll be able to get free.
She takes her seat again, and Nick says nothing, but he's paler than before, and looks worried.
He should be.
Paulie emerges from the back door and drops the phone on the desk. “I'm goin' out. Don't leave her alone, dummy. Not even to take a shit. You bring her to the can with you if you have to.”
“Sure, Paulie. I got it,” Nick replies with an uneasy grin.
There are no goodbyes. Paulie walks out and slams the door, and then they're in the room together, a thick silence surrounding them.
Angie waits about five minutes before saying, “He's gonna kill you, you know. Right after he offs me.”
Nick isn't expecting that. He's leaning back in a chair, reading a comic of some kind, and his feet slam on the floor. “Shut your trap.”
“He told somebody that today, on the phone. He wants your cut of the money for himself. Why take half when he can have it all?”
“I said shut up,” Nick replies, but from the look on his face, Angie knows she’s hit a nerve.
“Your sisters are gonna be short one more member of the family if you don't get yourself outta this mess. But you already know that, don't you? You can tell by the way he's acting, by all the slip ups he's making. He's not gonna take any chances, and you're gonna pay for it.”
“You don't know Paulie,” Nick says, angry, but afraid, too. “You don't know what we been through.”
Angie watches, and wonders. “What, were you in the war or something?” she asks.
She hits a bullseye, judging by the way his face changes. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“You got that right, except for me losing three cousins and watching most of the guys I knew in high school come back missing a part of themselves. They’re all different, on account of what they saw over there.” She doesn't elaborate, and instead waits for Nick to offer up some detail that could help her.
“You don't know shit,” he says, standing up and throwing his comic down on the floor, stepping on it as he crosses the room to pace. It feels like divine providence when she realizes it’s a Captain America book, and she steels herself to go for the jugular.
“All I know is what he told whoever called here earlier. You're going in the river, just like me. You got as much time left on this good earth as I do, and I can tell ya I'm not ready to go, mister,” she says, and this time, there's no acting going on. Her voice trembles, and tears come to her eyes. “I got so much living to do, and a whole family that won't get over me being gone. Not after both my brothers came home from France last year, all safe and sound. Losing me to a couple of goons because of Howard Stark? It's gonna kill my ma, my pop, my Nana, my whole family.”
“Goddamn it,” Nick says, rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands. “Stop it.”
“Please,” she begs. “Believe me. You're in trouble. That guy's not gonna do you any favors--”
“I said shut up!” Nick says, and he turns and disappears behind that closed door to the room she hasn't seen.
Holy shit , Angie thinks, I did it . She doesn't waste a minute. She makes a beeline for the desk and picks up the lamp she's been eying all day, yanking the electrical cord out of the wall. Her blood is racing, her heart is pumping, and she is scared out of her mind, but she's going to do this and it is going to work . There's a chair near the door, and she stands on it, her breath coming so hard she can feel her entire body shaking. Holding the lamp like a Louisville Slugger, she winds up and waits. She wonders if it will be a minute or an hour before he--
Bam, the door opens. When her captor steps through it, Angie’s body reacts before her mind even has a chance to catch up. She smashes the thing right into his face, and he goes down with a cry. “What the hell?” he manages to say before Angie hops down and lifts the lamp over her head and brings it down onto the back of his skull so hard the base of the lamp cracks. He slumps onto the floor, and that's it.
In a moment she has her hands free, and she darts to the cupboard, pulling out a pair of trousers, plus a belt to cinch them up. The shirt is only a little too big. She allows herself the time to get two buttons done up before she notices a pair of shoes sitting on a shelf, but they definitely won't fit. That said, she notices that Nick’s Florsheims look just her size. She's just tying them up when she hears the one thing that could end her bid for freedom.
It’s the sound of a key in the lock.
She has exactly three seconds to grab the coveted oversized beer stein and make her way to the door. With surprise on her side, she manages to catch Paulie off guard enough to get a good swat in. Even though the stein shatters on contact, her swing’s not hard enough to knock him out. He sways back into the doorway, but his face is a mask of rage when he realizes just who is trying to take him down.
“You bitch! You fucking bitch!” he screams, and puts his hand into his jacket. She can't let that happen. She kicks out and up with her left leg, between his thighs. When she hits her target, he groans in despair, eyes nearly bulging, and doubles over. She grabs the back of his head by the hair and yanks him down as her knee comes up, listening for the sharp crunch of bone as his nose breaks. She does it again before pulling him up and reaching into his jacket. But there's no gun there—he was bluffing. He's still conscious, and a hand curls around her arm like a vise before she whirls toward his temple with her elbow. His ear is soft as she smashes into it; fighting never felt like this with Peggy. She hauls back, finding her balance as her beloved instructor taught her, and uses her whole body to launch her fist toward his face. She hits him so hard he actually flies back against the wall. “Jesus,” he breathes, and she gives him a solid, final left hook before he goes down.
She's out the door in a flash, body and soul vibrating with adrenaline. She runs down the few steps to the outer door, throws it open, flies down the stoop, and then she's on the street, and she wants to scream out in joy that she's done it, she's made herself free, but she can't celebrate yet, not while he's still alive and maybe coming after her. She has to run, and run fast, get away as fast as she can, but then she hears the funniest, strangest thing she's heard all day--
“Stop! Federal Agent!”
She pays no attention. She runs, and runs faster, until it feels like the wind is carrying her home. She’s just caught her stride when she hears the only thing that could stop her in her tracks, words delivered by the person she loves more than any other:
Peggy gasps when someone leaps down the steps of the house they’ve tracked Angie’s kidnapper to. This suspect is not Paulie O’Herlihy, but he’s running fast. Thompson, whom Peggy brought in reluctantly after realizing the SSR would be her greatest asset in retrieving Angie, shouts for the man to freeze. But he doesn’t, and instead he sprints down the sidewalk. It’s as if his feet barely touch the ground, as if he is as light as air, flying down the sidewalk as his shirttails wave in the wind…
Two of their fastest men are hot on his heels, until Peggy recognizes that beautiful gait as the one belonging to the woman who holds her heart. Her compatriots are nearly upon the “suspect” when Peggy shouts into the waning sunlight, “Angie!”
The running man skids to a stop, turns around, and is summarily tackled by Johnson and Purdue. Peggy can barely get her legs moving toward the pile of limbs collapsed on the sidewalk, so intense is her relief. In seconds, she arrives, and Angie seems to be in one piece, the hat gone to reveal her wilted curls. Her eyes are fire bright, and she’s panting as hard as a thoroughbred who has just conquered the Belmont. Their gazes connect, and Angie’s mouth splits in a grin so joyous Peggy can’t help but fall to her knees at her side. Purdue and Johnson immediately realize their error, and Thompson shouts for their return. There are footsteps behind her, and Howard drops to Angie’s side as well, helping her sit up.
“Kid, are you hurt? Those guys really took you down hard--”
“I'm okay,” she pants, “I think I am, anyhow.”
Peggy takes her hand, and Angie clasps it back for a moment before they collapse into a hug so strong that it's painful. “Darling, darling,” Peggy croons in her ear, whisper soft, and she's shaking in relief and happiness. Angie shivers, perhaps from shock? They'll have to get her into an ambulance, make sure her injuries are treated immediately. Her eyes have been blackened for at least 24 hours, the skin beneath them bright violet and a sickening green at the corners. “You're alive.”
“You saved me, Peg,” Angie replies. “Everything you taught me kept me breathing.”
“We need to get you to hospital, now, but more importantly, where are the two men who were holding you hostage?” Peggy asks gently. She hopes that Angie can recover from the trauma of her captivity, which reminds her, how on earth did she get away in the first place?
Angie laughs. She laughs with gusto, staring at the sky as she takes a deep breath. “I beat the hell outta both of them, just now. I took my time, learned all I could, and struck while the iron was hot. They didn't have a chance.”
Peggy sits back on her heels, feeling the pride of Angie's accomplishment swell up in her chest. “You escaped on your own,” she sighs, realizing just how much her student has learned in the last months.
“Yeah. The first two days, I guess it was two days? Those were pretty rotten, but the last fifteen minutes were amazing. Paulie, the tough guy who was the brains of the operation, he went out for a second, and I made Nick kinda crazy. He went into another room, I got myself free, and smashed him in the head with a lamp. I got some clothes on, 'cause I didn't want to be running down the street in my unmentionables, then Paulie comes back, and I just, you know, took him out.”
“Took him out,” Howard repeats. “That guy's twice your size, Ang, what the hell has Peg been teaching you?”
“The usual. Mostly how to kick a man in the jewels so hard he throws up,” she replies, her mouth curving in a smug grin. Howard grimaces, but nods solemnly.
“Been there. Good move, kid,” he says.
Angie leans forward to hug him, and nudges him in the chin with her fist. “This is because of you, and your big money, you know,” she tells Howard. “Your nice pal Alexander Ross hired these two goons to kidnap me for a cut of the ransom, you know. He was too much of a scaredy cat to kidnap me himself. That part in the show he told you about? I wouldn't have been around to play it, 'cause I'd have been six feet under, but the show would have gone on as soon as he paid off his mob connections in Little Italy.”
“He won't be putting on any more shows, indefinitely,” Peggy assures her. “We took him in this morning, after a little detective work, and ah, a few minutes alone in a room with him. He was very eager to provide details of your location after we chatted. ” Peggy is only a little ashamed of putting her fist into Alexander Ross's gut so hard that he probably felt it in his kidneys, but the tactic worked. It wasn't particularly ethical, but she's done worse for less reward, many times. “Howard put it together once we realized when you were taken. He feels very guilty about this, don't you, Howard?” she asks.
“'Course. I owe ya, Ang. Thought I was doing you a favor, getting you a hook up on the stage. Figures I'd pick the wrong guy,” he laments, appearing truly sorry. He is, if his behavior of late is any indication. He hasn't slept since Angie went missing, hasn't had a drink, hasn't even looked at a woman other than Peggy. “There's lots of other producers out there. We could hit the clubs and I know I could find you--”
“Not for a while, Howard,” Angie says. “I think I did enough acting the last two days to hold me over for a while, if ya don't mind.”
“You got it,” Howard replies, rubbing her arm softly. “I'd never forgive myself if you didn't come back to Peg here,” he tells her. “Couldn't go through that again, losing somebody so good,” he mumbles, almost to himself.
Angie looks frankly amazed. She's never seen herself as someone equal to Steve, but Peggy knows she is and always has been. “Yeah?” she asks.
“Yeah. You're the best pal a guy could have, along with Peg here. Even if I managed to get you kidnapped and beaten up and almost knocked off.”
She chuckles, and Peggy joins her, an arm around her shoulders. “How injured are you, darling?” she asks.
“I was unconscious for a while the day they took me. One of them gave me a good knock on the head. Don't know why they had to punch me, though. I didn't have a chance to fight back the first time.” She puts a hand to the back of her skull. “I can feel the knot right here. Otherwise I think I'm all right. I'll probably be real tired soon. I didn't sleep much, but I ate a sandwich a couple hours ago. That Nick guy, he wasn't as bad as Paulie, he fed me and made sure I could go to the bathroom and get water. And he was going in the river right after me, that's what Paulie said. He didn't believe it, though. Dumb guy, if ya ask me.” She has a sudden thought. “My folks don't know I was missing, do they? Please tell me they don't know--”
“They don't know,” Peggy replies quickly. “We kept it from the press, for the most part, and we'll try to keep your name out of it when the news gets out. I know your mother would throw a fit.”
“Yeah, and the first person she'd blame is me, for making friends with a guy like Howard Stark. No offense,” she adds.
“None taken,” Howard replies.
“Anyhow, the more she don't know, the better. I'll skip my visit home on Saturday. I'm great with cover up but she'd be able to tell in a heartbeat. No doubt in my mind.”
Peggy glances around at the sound of the ambulance siren approaching, and realizes that people have started to emerge from their houses and into the street, gawking at the house at the end of the block, and at the little trio sitting on the sidewalk. “Let’s get you up and out of here,” Peggy says, helping her stand. She fights the urge to throw her arm around Angie, shielding her from prying eyes and potential danger. “I nearly went mad without you,” she murmurs into her ear.
“Missed you too, hon,” Angie says. “I really meant it when I said you kept me alive.”
“You kept yourself alive,” Peggy tells her, with conviction. “You’re the strongest person I know.”
“With you I’m strong,” Angie replies. She flinches when the ambulance drives right up next to them, siren still blaring. Chaos surrounds them as Angie is loaded into the bus, medics firing question after question about her injuries. She wants so desperately to go with them, but Thompson is waving her back to the house, and Daniel hovers next to him.
“I’ll go with her,” Howard says. “If they let her go I’ll take her to your place. I’ll let Jarvis know as soon as I can.” He kisses her cheek and gets into the back of the ambulance. Angie is smiling tenderly at her when Howard takes her hand. “Go. Knock those guys into the ground, will ya?” he asks.
“Angie’s done that for me, thank you very much,” she says lightly before the doors close, hoping her tone masks her lingering anxiety. Her heart is finally settling back into her chest after so many hours of agony. Shutting her eyes, she takes a single breath to center herself. A few moments later, a second ambulance beats her to the walkway in front of the rundown house, medics running up to the door with two stretchers. She follows them inside, watching them as they work on the two men who were going to commit murder for money.
Both men are still unconscious. One’s nose is broken, and she suspects his jaw is as well. The other has left a bloody mess from a head wound on the floor, courtesy of the heavy lamp lying cracked in the corner.
Daniel steps in to stand beside her. “Has Angie been training at the Carter School of Hard Knocks?”
She grins proudly. “She has indeed.”
Angie doesn’t have to wait for a doctor once she gets to the hospital. She assumes that’s because Howard Stark is holding her hand, and every single person around them recognizes him right off the bat. She rolls her eyes and wonders why money moves mountains in this country. Without Howard she’d have probably been stuck in the waiting room for a few hours, but not today.
She should be grateful. She is, really. But the adrenaline has worn off, and her stomach is upset, and her knuckles are a little sore. Usually she’s wearing gloves and wraps when she punches things. It’s a lot different when you smash your hand into a hard skull more than once. She’ll have to ask Peg how she keeps from breaking her bones every time she beats up bad guys.
After she gets examined, the cops show up, and she has to tell her story. Then she tells it again, this time to Daniel Sousa, who she knows works with Peggy. He’s nice, but Angie remembers that he’s got eyes for her girl, so she’s cool and distant as she explains everything. She leaves out the weeks of training that allowed her to free herself, but he seems to recognize Peggy’s role in her escape regardless. His eyes are also very kind, and against her will, she warms up to him by the end of their very long conversation. When they’re through, he tells her, “Peg wanted to be here, but she’s with the two suspects. She isn’t letting them out of her sight till they’re behind bars.”
That makes Angie smile, and she looks down, trying to keep herself from being too obvious.
“She just about went crazy when Stark called today,” Daniel says, his voice calm and soothing. “If you hadn’t taken those guys out, I think she might have killed them with her bare hands.”
Angie shrugs, brushing him off. “That’s what friends do, right?” she asks.
His smile is wistful. “Yeah.” He blinks, watching her closely, but kindly. “I hope I have a friend like Peg one day.”
She meets his eyes. “I hope so too,” she replies. She doesn’t continue the rest of her thought: Sorry, buddy, but God broke the mold when he made Peggy Carter .
Eventually she gets released, and Howard calls Jarvis for a ride and they bring her back to the apartment. It’s been hours since her rescue, and she’s starting to miss Peggy, plus she’s hungry and tired. Howard and Jarvis flank her as they go inside, and everything hurts. She can’t wait to go to sleep in her own bed, in her own clothes, but Jarvis insists on making her dinner, and she can’t very well turn him down. Instead she gets changed into fresh clothes after a quick wash up in the bathroom, saving a bath till she’s blessedly alone.
Jarvis makes a mean three-bean soup, and he grills a nice cheese sandwich too. She wolfs everything down in the kitchen while the two men stare at her, probably expecting her to collapse or something. Finally she gets so annoyed at their constant attention that she throws them both out.
“I don’t need a stinking babysitter, much less two. Just lock the door on your way out and let me get some sleep!” she crows, making sure to add a smile at the end of her tirade. She hugs them both, wincing a little as Howard squeezes her too tightly around the middle. “I swear, Stark, I’ll be fine. I’d say you owe me, but I already stay in this fine establishment of yours, free of charge, so I guess we’re even.”
“No way, Martinelli. If you ended up dead, Peggy mighta killed me, so you did the both of us a favor by making it out all right.” He touches her chin once with his knuckles, very, very gently. “And you did me a favor too, ‘cause you’re my pal.”
Angie swallows as tears spring to her eyes. Jarvis turns away, straightening his tie. She pretends not to notice when he sniffles.
“You’re my pal too, Stark. Scoot. I’ll see you guys later, promise.”
Ten minutes later, she is submerged in the tub, gingerly holding two fingers of very fine whiskey in a crystal tumbler. The room is scented with lavender, illuminated by a couple of candles she set on the sink.
Once the glass is drained, she lets herself cry.
She feels like a wrung-out dishrag once she decides to get out of the water, but at least she’s clean and calmer than before. She slips on her comfiest pajamas and pours herself a little more whiskey. In the bedroom, she puts her favorite Nat King Cole record on, and just as she’s about to slide beneath the sheets, she hears the front door open and close.
“Darling?” Peggy calls out. “I’m home.”
Angie smiles. “In the bedroom,” she calls out. Peggy is in her arms within moments, and Angie sinks into her embrace. “Mm,” she sighs in pleasure, and comfort, and relief. “I’m home, too.”