It was quiet in the L&L Automat, a witching hour between one rush and the next when the world inside the diner seemed to hold its breath, and Angie was wiping down counters. The door chimed, and from the corner of her eye she saw a woman enter—tall, with a strong gait and a smart skirt suit. Angie’s heart stopped and swelled as she looked up, mouth gaping, a broken, hopeful syllable hanging at the back of her mouth.
The woman’s head whipped towards her and Angie strangled the word with a cough and a smile and cheery, ‘Be with you in just a moment!’
The woman went to a booth and Angie ducked below the counter to stow her rag. While she was down there she took a deep breath and covered her face with her hands.
She knew better—had to know better. Peggy was in California, and when she did come back, it wouldn’t be for her. Peggy had promised that nothing would have to change after what had happened, but like most of her promises they said more about what Peggy wanted than what was feasibly achievable. Things were already different, the way they grasped for conversation across the expanse of a breakfast table, the way Peggy stiffened whenever she unthinkingly put a hand to Angie’s shoulder. Angie had defaced at least three of Stark’s extravagant throw pillows since Peggy had left, picking out strands of silk, shredding them down to fibers, watching them blow away through the wide, empty apartment.
But there was nothing she could do to change any of that. Angie straightened her apron and her smile, took up her notepad, and made her way over to the woman in the booth.
‘Hi there, can I get–?’
Dottie Underwood smiled up at her. Angie’s breath was knocked from her chest and her knuckles went white on her notepad. Dottie had dyed her hair dark brown and bought new clothes, but her sharp smile and cold, pale eyes were unmistakable.
Angie cleared her throat and looked down at her pad.
‘C-can I get you anything today, ma’am?’
‘I think I’ll start with a coffee, please. Black. Oh, and a piece of pie. Apple, if you don’t mind.’
Sweet baby Jesus, she was doing the accent and everything.
Angie nodded, her smile frozen in place, and walked back to the counter. It felt like her heart was fluttering somewhere above her ribs. The outfit, the lipstick, the hair—it was all Peggy’s. And now she was in Peggy’s booth, placing Peggy’s order. Angie put the pie in oven to warm. Peggy had never told her everything about what had happened with Dottie, but she knew enough to understand that this was bad. This was very, very bad.
The coffee cup didn’t quite feel real in her hands as she carried it to the booth.
‘Here you are.’ Angie heard her own voice as though from a distance. ‘The pie’s just warming now.’
‘Thank you.’ Dottie looked up at her from beneath her lashes and delicately sipped her coffee. Her eyes fluttered closed as she set the cup back down, and she smiled. ‘Mm. This is wonderful, darling. Really.’
Angie stared at the familiar red print on the rim of the cup and nodded. It was only very slightly different to the print that had first caught Angie’s attention two years ago. But there was no way Dottie could know that. Surely. She sucked in a ragged breath.
‘I’ll be right back with your pie.’
Angie fled. There was a public telephone booth in the back beside the toilets and she threw herself inside of it, slamming the curtain closed and breathing hard. It took a moment for her to calm herself enough to remember the number Peggy had left her, but then she was burning through her quarters to dial long distance.
‘Jarvis residence, Ana Jarvis speaking.’
Angie shut her eyes. ‘Hi, it's Angie Martinelli. I need–’
‘Oh, Angie! It's so good to hear from–’
‘Is Peggy in? Sousa, Stark, anyone?’
Mrs Jarvis went quiet. ‘No, it's just me right now. Angie, are you alright?’
‘I’m fine.’ Angie leaned her forehead against the wall of the booth. ‘But Dottie Underwood just came into the automat, and she– she’s–’
‘Did she hurt you?’
‘No, no. She's just acting like Peggy. She–’ Angie’s throat clicked. ‘She’s dyed her hair, and she's putting on her accent and–’
‘She’s been doing that. It’s a… well, I don't know what it is but it isn't important right now. Angie, where is she?’
‘She's still here, waiting on some pie. I can't go out there again, can I? I should call the SSR, or the police, or–’
‘No. Listen to me. Angie, you have to pretend like everything is fine. Go along with her. If she'd been planning to hurt anyone, I think she would have done so already.’
‘Okay. Okay I can do that.’
‘I know you can. Peggy’s told me what a wonderful actress you are. This is just another role, that's all.’
‘Okay.’ Angie straightened her back.
‘I'm going to–' There was movement on the other end of the line, then Mrs Jarvis gasped and let out a sharp hiss of breath. 'I-I'll get hold of the SSR offices, let them know what's happening. Keep her there, if you can, but don’t put yourself in any danger. Call me when she's gone, won't you?’
‘I will. Thank you, Mrs Jarvis.’
Angie put the receiver back down and took three deep, abdominal breaths. This was just like any other time she walked on stage. On the third breath she stood and swept past the curtain, shoulders back, chin high.
The pie was edging past done and the plate was too hot, but Angie's smile didn't falter as she placed it down before Dottie.
‘Is there anything else I can get for you, ma’am?’
Dottie blinked at the pie, the looked up at Angie. There was something close to forlorn in her expression. ‘I didn't mean to scare you.’
Angie felt her smile tic before she pulled it up again. ‘No, of course not.’
‘Well.’ Dottie stared back down at her pie and ran the rim of her hat between her fingers. She sighed and stood, pulled a ten dollar bill from her pocket and laid it down on the table. Then she walked up to Angie and paused, her gaze searching. Angie held her breath, too shocked to move, or speak, or look away from those cold gray eyes as they moved across her face.
Dottie stepped into Angie’s space and placed one hand lightly upon her shoulder. She leaned forward. Angie smelled her perfume, watched the pulse jump in Dottie’s neck. Dottie brushed their cheeks together and left a kiss hanging in the air beside her temple.
‘Until next time, Angie dear.’
Dottie moved past her and Angie swayed. She heard the door open and close behind her. She balanced her clenched fists upon the table and leaned forward, eyes shut, breathing deep. All she could smell was coffee, burnt pie, and the fading traces of Peggy Carter’s perfume.
Angie called Ana Jarvis again to tell her that Dottie had left, and that she hadn't been able to delay her at all. Mrs Jarvis tried to keep her on the line but Angie insisted she had to get back to work. She didn’t mention the perfume, or the parting words. It hardly seemed real, and it was too much to deal with while there were customers still to face.
Half an hour later business was picking up, Susan had come back from her break, and two men jogged into the diner. They took a moment to straighten their ties as they looked around and Angie sighed. She’d never seen them before, but she recognised the postures and the deliberate anonymity of their suits. The shorter, broader one spotted Angie bussing tables and nudged his companion. They made their way over.
‘Well fancy seeing you here, agents.’ Angie hoped the lilt in her voice passed for humour.
The tall one was younger, handsome, with dropping dark eyes and hair slicked back above his temples. He met her gaze and held it in a way that he probably meant to be disarming, that might have been on someone more open to such charms and less used to rooms full of matinee hopefuls. ‘Miss Martinelli. We heard you had an interesting guest this afternoon.’
Angie shrugged and picked up her tub of dishes. ‘For a hot minute. She barely finished her coffee before she bolted. Generous tipper, though.’
‘What did she want?’ asked Short.
Angie went behind the counter and set down the tub with a satisfying thud. ‘How the hell do you figure I’d know that? She's not exactly the chatty type.’
Slick put his hands on his hips. ‘Has she come here before?’
‘Not since she, you know,’ Angie waved her hand suggestively, 'tried to kill everyone in the city. Now do you need anything from me or can I get back to work?’
‘Actually,’ said Short, ‘we need your statement. When do you finish your shift?’
Angie sighed. ‘Half an hour.’
‘Alright. We’ll drive you to our office when you’re ready.’
‘You boys are just–’ Angie raised her hands and, inspiration failing her, clenched her fists and shook her head. ‘Go sit down at least. My feet are getting sore just looking at you.’
Short smiled and snagged a menu from the counter. ‘Sure thing.’
The two men retreated to a corner table with sandwiches and coffee. Angie wouldn’t have thought much of it a year ago, but now she realised the position gave them clear views of both the main doors and the service entrance—or, as clear as any view could be in the automat as the dinner rush approached.
Angie got off before the rush hit full stride, and when she had gathered her things, found the two men waiting for her outside the main doors. Short had his hands deep in his pockets, and Slick was leaning back against the wall. Angie pulled her purse higher on her shoulder.
‘Alright. I’m ready to see those credentials of yours.’
The men flashed their badges and shook her hand. ‘Wallace,’ said Short, ‘and this is Ramirez. We’re in charge of the New York office while Thompson’s off soaking up the California sun.’
‘Seriously?’ Angie shook her head. ‘Seems like everyone worth knowing is shipping out for the west coast these days.’
‘Not everyone.’ Ramirez smiled and walked backwards towards the street. Angie crossed her arms and studied the sidewalk. While Ramirez was hailing a taxi, Wallace stayed about a foot behind her, slouched and scanning the passers-by with apparent disinterest. Angie began to speak, then caught her breath and shook her head. Wallace shot her a glance and Angie let her hands fall to her sides.
‘I would have thought baby-sitting one witness a bit below the acting heads of a regional office.’
‘Not where Underwood is concerned,' said Wallace. 'She’s deadly, a foreign operative, and beyond a few vague theories about child soldiers in Russia, we have no idea who she answers to.’
Ramirez stepped back as a cab pulled to the curb and opened the door for Angie. She slid inside as he gave the driver an address and Wallace sat down beside her. Ramirez slid in last and closed the door, adjusting the holster under his arm as they pulled out into traffic. Angie pretended not to notice and turned back to Wallace.
‘I thought there was more than "vague theories" to the whole child soldier thing.’
‘Yeah, well. I don't know how much Carter's told you, but an unaffiliated compound in the middle of the Belarusian wilderness and the unsubstantiated account of a twelve-year-old’s mean right hook isn’t exactly enough to take to the state department.’ Wallace turned to Ramirez. ‘You were there, though, weren’t you Ramirez?’
‘Sure, and I can tell you the place was creepy as hell. What I can’t tell you is what was going on there, or who was organising it.’ Ramirez leaned forward to face Angie. ‘Not everyone has so much faith in Carter’s theories, Martinelli.’
Angie held Ramirez’s gaze, then turned away and watched the city roll past.
It was faster to drive than take the subway, but Angie found it infinitely more frustrating. There was nothing she could do to contribute, no way for her to edge forward when traffic slowed to a crawl, nothing to distract her from the drumming of Wallace’s blunt fingers on his thigh. She shut her eyes and remembered the way Dottie had touched her shoulder, a mere suggestion of contact, and the feel of her cheek brushing against her own. Peggy’s perfume, and the shape of red lips against the rim of a coffee cup. Peggy’s perfume, and a cool night breeze, soft dark curls beneath her fingers.
Angie opened her eyes and gripped the door handle, her heart beating hard in her ears. The cab rolled to a stop.
Wallace patted her knee. ‘Here we are.’
Angie nodded, blinking and clearing her throat as she ducked from the taxi. They were standing in front of the New York Bell Company building, and Angie almost choked on a laugh. What did you know—Peggy really had worked at the phone company.
She followed the two men inside past a small security desk and into a room full of switch boards. Ramirez bent down and whispered something to the woman in the furthest seat and she nodded, slipping one hand beneath the counter. Then there was a door where there had only been wall before.
Angie hardly even had time to be excited by this turn of events before Short and Slick ushered her down a short corridor to a closet sized briefing room.
‘Alright, Miss Martinelli,’ said Ramirez, his voice pitched low and well into that standard issue Serious Government Agent register. He waited for her to take a seat and then started the tape recorder at the centre of the table. He asked if she wanted anything to drink and she declined; he asked her to state her name for the record, and she did. Finally he tapped the notepad before him with his pen and leaned forward. ‘We’ll try to keep this short. How long have you known the woman known as Dottie Underwood?’
‘Well,’ Angie settled her purse in her lap and crossed her hands on the table. ‘She moved into the Griffith hotel last April, maybe May. But she was barely there a full week before she vanished.’
‘And what was the nature of your relationship with her at that time?’
‘Nothing much. She lived next door. We had breakfast together sometimes.’
‘Did she take any special interest in you or any of the other residents at the Griffith?’
‘No, not unless you count her asking Gloria to sew a pickle pouch into her wallet.’
‘Could you please explain the nature of this pickle pouch?’
Angie hung her head and tried to remind herself that there was a point to all this. She had already had this conversation, or something much like it, with the “FBI” agents who had scoured the Griffith after Dottie’s initial disappearance. Apparently they were hoping that time and this new encounter might have shaken something loose.
It had not.
They spent a full two hours discussing the minutiae of Angie’s interactions with Dottie, Short and Slick pushing her to speculate over the significance of each one as she ransacked her memory for obscure details. What side of the parlour had they sat on the night they talked after dinner? Had Dottie taken a liking to any particular chair at the breakfast table? When they finally began asking questions about what had happened at the automat there was so little for Angie to tell it felt absurd to talk about it at all. Still, she told them everything she could think of and related Dottie’s few words as faithfully as she remembered them.
‘It must have been frightening,’ said Wallace, soft and low. ‘But don’t worry, Miss. We’ll get her. We always get our man.’
Angie stared at him and waited for the obvious to reveal itself. Wallace only smiled and she nodded, woodenly.
When they were finished the two agents guided Angie back out the way they had come and into another cab.
‘You fellas really don’t need to chaperone me all the way to my door.’ Angie shifted on the seat, trying and failing not to press up against their thighs.
‘Afraid we do,’ said Ramirez. ‘Until we know what Underwood’s after, we have to cover all our bases.’
The cab pulled up to Stark’s building and they followed her out of the cab, into the elevator, and down the hall. Angie could feel her hands begin to tremble as they approached the door and turned on her heel as soon as she reached the threshold.
‘Well, this is me. I’ve gotta say, you sure know how to show a girl just a swell afternoon.’
Wallace chuckled, but as Angie reached to unlock the door she found it already open. It swung forward at a slight push and Angie hurtled backwards, arms out towards the two agents.
‘Don't worry,’ said Ramirez, hand on her shoulder as he pushed past into the apartment. ‘We’ve had our men going over your place, to make sure you weren’t in store for any more surprises.’
‘That is,’ Angie clenched her jaw, ‘very comforting, I'm sure.’
Wallace entered next and whistled as he looked around the foyer. ‘These are some swank digs.’
‘I’m house-sitting for a friend.’ Angie set down her purse on the side table and stared at her hands. She could hear footsteps moving throughout the apartment, too many to count or to place. She shook her head and looked over her shoulder. ‘Can I get you fellas anything to drink while you’re here?’
Wallace craned his head around the corner from the parlour. ‘Got any lemonade?’
‘We’re good, thanks.’ Ramirez shot Wallace a glare, then looked back at her. ‘We should be about done here, and then we’ll get out of your hair.’
Angie nodded. She stood to one side of the foyer as Ramirez and Wallace found the other agents and conferred over their findings. The three agents who had searched the apartment filed past Angie with the barest nods of acknowledgment, and then Wallace and Ramirez began to give their own assurances and farewells. Wallace paused on the threshold and and Angie was about to smack her forehead against the door jamb when he dug into the inside pocket of his coat and pulled out a card.
‘Call me right away if you see her again, or if you have any reason to think someone might be following you.’ He met Angie’s eyes and held them. ‘We’ll get her, Miss Martinelli. I promise.’
Angie took the card and raised it in thanks, but kept her thoughts about promises from SSR agents locked behind her teeth as she closed the door behind them.
She rested her head against the wood for a moment, then turned and slid down against the wall until her legs were stretched out against the cool hardwood floor and her dress was bunched up at her thighs. She could hear music playing from the apartment downstairs the slow drip of a faucet echoing in one of the bathrooms.
Angie kicked off her shoes and stared at her socked toes. She wondered if anyone would notice if she just… stayed. If she sat here until someone thought to open the door and move her. How long would that take?
Angie shook her head and pulled herself to her feet. That was a terrible train of thought that she had no desire to follow.
She busied herself for the rest of the evening, singing along to the radio as she made grilled cheese for dinner, then running lines for her morning audition for Finian's Rainbow in the master bathroom’s gargantuan mirror. The one thing she could say about Howard Stark after a year of living in his apartment—aside from his inclination for silk throw pillows—was that the man knew how to pick his lighting. Angie looked like a million dollars as she paced back and forth on the tiled floors, trying out different gestures and postures and memorising the feel of certain expressions on her face.
Angie had a sudden flash of Dottie when she had first recognised her in the diner, the way she had mimicked the turn of Peggy’s brow and the wry twist of her lips, and stilled. If nothing else, it was an impressive piece of acting.
Angie wondered if she could change her own face so entirely.
She tried, manipulating muscle groups, adjusting her micro expressions. She thought she still looked too much like herself either way. Maybe it was a mental trick. She closed her eyes and imagined what it took to slip into another person’s face, to want that. What it would feel like to just… step out of herself, and not look back.
When she opened her eyes she was met by a stranger, eyes blank and staring, mouth lax, empty. The stranger only lasted for an instant before it was her own reflection again, contorted into her own expressions of discomfort and horror.
Angie turned away, arms wrapped tight around her stomach.
It was impossible to get back into character after that, so she went to the guest room where she slept and curled up on the bed with the radio at a low murmur. Telephones and radios, one of each in almost every room. Even for a millionaire it seemed a bit excessive.
Angie began to doze to a soft jazz number around nine, so she washed up and got ready for bed. She was folding away her work dress when she felt something stiff in one of the pockets and pulled out the ten dollar bill.
Angie blinked at it, then put it down on her vanity next to Wallace's card. She would have to give it to the SSR. She doubted it would be of any use, but you never knew, what with all that science could do these days. She put her uniform in the hamper, laid out her audition clothes for the next morning, and went to sleep.
Shrieking bells jolted Angie back to consciousness and she dove sideways, crashing onto the floor as her feet and legs tangled in the bed sheets. She whined and held her smarting shoulder as she reoriented herself, disentangled her lower half, and hobbled over to the phone on the nightstand.
‘Hello?’ She bit back a yawn. ‘Carter residence, Angela Martinelli speaking.’
‘Angie? Angie, are you alright?’
‘English.’ Angie sighed and sank back onto the bed. ‘Hi. Yeah, no I’m fine except that I thought the building was burning down for a moment there. I don’t know why on earth Howard’s phones are all so loud.’
‘Oh thank God. I just heard what happened.’
‘What?’ Angie blinked at her clock. It was pushing one in the morning. That made it ten o’clock on the west coast. ‘What happened– oh, you mean with Dottie.’
‘What on earth did she want with you?’
‘Hell if I know Peg. For all I know she was just taking a trip down Carter’s Memory Lane, visiting the old haunts. Apparently she’s pretending to be you now. She was doing the accent and everything.’
Angie heard Peggy sigh over the line. ‘Yes it’s… disturbing. But you’re safe? She didn’t threaten you?’
‘No, not at all.’ Angie bit at the corner of her thumb nail, then shook her hand out and began turning the edge of a sheet over between her fingers. ‘I think she apologised. Or tried to, maybe.’
‘When I brought her pie, after I’d called Mrs Jarvis. She said she hadn’t meant to scare me.’
‘I’m so sorry Angie. I feel horrible that you’ve been dragged into this.’
‘Oh, don’t sweat it. I doubt she’ll be back again, and even if she is it might not be about you at all. Maybe the Kremlin has a dastardly scheme to poach acting talent out from under the nose of Broadway.’
Peggy snorted. ‘Well, I’m glad it hasn’t dampened your spirits.’
‘You know me Peg. Always looking up.’
There was a long, heavy pause, and then Peggy seemed to hold her breath.
‘Do you want me to come back to New York?’
Angie’s heart contracted in her chest, and she was glad Peggy couldn’t see the dampness that sprang to her eyes. ‘No,’ she whispered, bringing up her knees and resting her head against them so that her whole body was curled around the receiver. ‘I mean, of course I miss you and I always want you to come back, but you have work to finish out there. I can’t ask you to leave that behind just because I’m a little spooked by an old roommate who’s copied a few of your outfits. You should be where you’re needed.’
‘Alright. You’ll let me know, though? If you need me.’
‘Yeah, Peg. I’ve got your number memorised and everything.’
‘Alright.’ Peggy cleared her throat. ‘You have that audition tomorrow, don’t you? Have you picked out what you'll wear?’
‘Yeah.’ Angie leaned back into her pillows and wiped her cheeks. ‘I’m thinking the green dress, you know, the wrap around.’
‘The one that shows off your legs? They won’t be able to take their eyes off of you.’
Angie blushed. ‘We’ll see. I’d better get to sleep though, it’s pretty late.’
‘Of course, I—holy cow, Angie! I’m so sorry, I didn’t even stop to think of the time difference. I must have woken you, and–’
‘Don’t worry about it, English. Really. It’s always good to hear your voice.’
There was a pause, and Peggy made a sound of ambivalent discomfort. Angie wished she could swallow back her words. She banged her head against her knees for good measure.
‘Just, call me if anything happens, alright? I’ll blackmail Howard into flying me over. I’m not going to let Dottie lay a finger on you, I promise.’
Angie grit her teeth and her eyes began to smart, more sharply this time.
‘Okay, Peg. Sleep well.’
She hung up and buried herself in Stark’s ridiculous silk bed, breathing brokenly through her fingers as she let the storm of fear and longing and hurt roll through her. Her chest ached with sobs and she let them come, let them spill out of her, too exhausted for restraint. When it was done she lay there, raw and aching and tear-stained, and stared up at the empty ceiling.
Someone really needed to tell SSR agents not to make so many goddamned promises. Especially not to those still foolish enough to believe them.