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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Agent Carter fic: Team Player (5/8)

December 10th, 2015 (12:00 pm)
dorky

feeling: dorky

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE
PART SIX
PART SEVEN
PART EIGHT



-o-

No no dared to stop her, and all her suspicions -- including the fact that Howard put on airs to make a big exit that he never wanted to stick -- were proved irrevocably correct when his office door was unlocked.

Inside, he was standing at a table, blueprints and papers spread out in front of him. The work light was on, but he wasn’t moving. In fact, Peggy highly suspected he hadn’t moved since he got here.

“So,” she said, closing the door softly behind her.

He didn’t look back. “How did you find me?”

“It wasn’t hard, really,” Peggy said. “You said it yourself, you were out of places to hide when you came with me last night. So I figured you were probably done hiding. The only thing I don’t know is why.”

He sighed heavily, head still down. After a long moment, he lifted his hand, reaching to one of the papers in front of him. Wordlessly, he slid it across the surface in her direction.

Uncertain, Peggy stepped closer, reaching down for it.

“It came this morning to your house,” Howard said. “Addressed to you.”

The letter was the same as the rest, with a nondescript envelope and block typewriter font. It was also, noticeably unsealed. “And you opened it?” she ventured cautiously.

Howard shrugged, making no attempt to apologize.

Without another word, Peggy ran her finger under the flap and pulled the letter out. It was a short note, but before she could read it, she saw the pictures.

They had already received proof of life this morning. In all honesty, Peggy hadn’t been expecting anything more. But this--

This was more.

The photos were in the same location, but they were more graphic than before. Jarvis was thoroughly beaten now with bruised mottling his face. His shirt was stained with blood and torn, and in one photo, with the morning’s newspaper placed in the frame as reference, Jarvis’ head was held up by a meaty hand tangled in his tousled hair.

Then she looked at the note. There was no pretext, just a location and a time with a small post script.

Leave Miss Carter at home or they both die.

Peggy was trembling, but forcibly refused to let it show. “Well,” she said. “That’s not exactly what I expected.”

Howard huffed, turning to look at her finally. “They know everything,” he said. “They know that I’m working with you; they knew where I was at. I mean, I was careful. We were careful.”

“It could be nothing but a good wager on their part,” Peggy said softly. “Our relationship is not exactly a hidden fact.”

Howard shook his head. “No, they’re good,” he said. “Better than they should be. I know Falsone -- he’s never been this good before.”

“Clearly he’s been motivated to raise the stakes,” Peggy said softly.

“Problem is, I don’t know how to match him,” Howard said. “I mean, have you got anything?”

Peggy folded the note, putting it gently back on the table. “My only lead is apparently for nothing,” she said. “I got the address, but they already gave it to us.”

“So much for a preemptive strike,” Howard said, visibly slumping. He shook his head. “If we go in with the money, at this point, they’re probably going to kill Jarvis anyway.”

“We can’t be sure--”

Howard looked at her hard.

Peggy drew a breath but couldn’t continue. She had been working under a certain pretext, but now all of that had changed. This was more than a simple kidnapping; this was not a business rival. “This does change things,” she admitted. “Are you sure there’s not something we’re missing? Something you’re not telling me about Falsone?”

Howard ran a hand through his hair. “I have never had anything to do with the man,” he said. “I don’t -- I can’t--”

“Okay,” Peggy said. “Well, on the bright side, we know where for sure.”

“But we don’t have time to stage anything,” Howard said. “Even if we went to the SSR, there’s no way we could orchestrate and effective preemptive attack--”

“So,” Peggy started, the shadow of an idea taking form in her mind. “We don’t strike preemptively.”

Howard looked at her, incredulous. “What?” he said. “This is clearly a trap--”

“Clearly,” she agreed. “But it’s one we know we’re walking into. And if they’re so busy setting the trap, maybe they won’t notice that we’re springing one of their own.”

Howard worked his jaw. “It’s risky,” he said. “One wrong move, we’re both dead and so is Jarvis.”

“And what?” Peggy countered. “If we try nothing, Mr. Jarvis is probably dead anyway.”

In consternation, Howard drew his brows together. “I can’t ask you to do this.”

Peggy crossed her arms over her chest. “And no matter how much you ask me not to, I’m going to ignore you.”

Howard’s lips tweaked. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Honestly,” Peggy said with a matter of fact laugh. “I don’t know what you’d do either.”


-o-

The plan’s only brilliance was in its simplicity.

At least, that was how Peggy framed it.

Howard was more than somewhat dubious. “So you really think that if I go in there, ready to negotiate, that you’ll be able to find another way in?” he asked.

“They’re going to expect some antics, but you’re something of an egomaniac,” she pointed out. “I’m sure they’ll expect it to be centered around you.”

“They already know you’re involved, though,” he said.

“There are many ways into a secure building,” she said.

“And you think they haven’t thought of them all?” Howard asked.

“I find a woman’s perspective is often qualifiable distinctive in these situations,” she said.

He shook his head, running his finger anxiously over his lips. “It’s too risky.”

“Of course it’s risky,” Peggy said. “But no matter how well prepared they think they are, there is no chance that they are thoroughly prepared for my wits and your wiles.”

Chewing his lip, Howard considered that. “I do have a number of products designed to subdue people with minimal commotion,” he said.

“And I managed to orchestrate an entire operation to salvage your name right under the SSR’s nose,” she said. “Once I get inside, I’ll be able to sabotage their efforts from the inside out utilizing the element of surprise.”

“We won’t even know where Jarvis is before we get in there,” Howard said.

“The building is not overly large,” she said. “If they’re keeping him separate until the negotiations are done, I should be able to locate him.”

“And if he’s not?” Howard asked.

“That would seem to run counter to their current strategy,” she explained. “Whatever Falsone hopes to extract from you, it’s more that simple money. Until he’s confident that you’ve played his games, I would assume you won’t get a glimpse of Mr. Jarvis at all.”

“Assuming he’s still alive,” Howard muttered perversely.

To that, Peggy had no ready reassurance. She could be confident in all other parts of her plan, but that part -- well, she couldn’t say for sure. There was something ominous in Falsone’s plans, and if taking Jarvis was not about the money, they she could only think that it was for an emotional impact.

And a dead body would certainly punctuate the point.

Whatever that point was.

Peggy wasn’t naive, nor was she prone to false hopes. But she could still remember Steve going after Bucky, even against orders, even against odds. Because sometimes it was worthwhile to believe.

She let out a breath, smiling gently. “And we’ll assume that until we have evidence to the contrary,” she said. “This is a rescue operation, Howard. Remember that.”

He lifted his eyes, looking at her steadily. “And if you’re wrong?”

“No doubting, Howard,” she admonished. “It really doesn’t suit you.”

He managed a small laugh.

“Now,” she said, all business again. “I really need to stop back by the SSR to allay any suspicions.”

“I’ve got to head back to your place and see what we need,” Howard said.

“Wonderful,” Peggy said. “So we’ll rendezvous back there.”

Howard nodded in agreement.

Peggy hesitated. “You will meet me back there, won’t you?”

“Hey,” Howard protested. “I just said--”

She leveled him with a look. “Like you said this morning?”

His expression turned sheepish.

“I’m going to follow you in there one way or another,” she said. “If we work separately, we’ll both be in more danger -- and so will Mr. Jarvis.”

Howard sighed, nodding. “I know, I know.”

“So nothing stupid?” she asked pointedly.

“Well,” he said with a impish shrug. “Nothing more stupid than usual.”

She straightened primly. “Well, then,” she said. “I suppose I’ll have to take what I can get.”

-o-

Despite her acquiescence, Peggy had her doubts about Howard. He was, after all, in the habit of telling her lies when he deemed it convenient or necessary. He trusted her, in essence, to be honest and credulous because he himself was rarely capable of such feats.

That said, the thought of babysitting was more than she could handle. After all, this wasn’t about Howard and his perpetual inability to be honest. This was about rescuing someone they both cared about. Howard had a self-centered view of the world, but she knew that he was not about to risk Jarvis’ well being.

And the fact was that they had a better chance of doing this together.

Still, trusting him to wait for her at home was harder than she wanted it to be.

By the time she made it back to the SSR, it was late afternoon and she was more than a little restless. She reminded herself that while her presence at the SSR would keep suspicions at bay -- and she knew that Thompson still had many, despite Peggy’s ample assurances -- it might actually be helpful.

“Hey,” she said, wasting no time as she stopped by Sousa’s desk. “So what have you got from this morning?”

He looked up, almost pleasantly surprised by her interest. “A lot actually,” he said. “How about you?”

“Oh,” she replied with a dismissive wave her hand. “Not a lot, if I have to admit it.”

“Well, that doesn’t surprise me,” Daniel said, sitting forward in his chair. He shifted through his files, flipping one open. “The whole thing blew wide open while you were out.”

“Really?” she asked, trying not to sound as surprised as she was. Daniel’s case was solid -- she had known that from the beginning -- but it had also been static. Corporate espionage and trade secrets were an ongoing issue, and there had been nothing to indicate that Falsone was actively pursuing other interests alongside the kidnapping case.

“Yeah,” Sousa said, pointing to the page. “We started to pick up a bunch more chatter. Surveillance confirms it -- there’s a big deal going down.”

“Oh,” Peggy said, feeling even more at a loss. While the initial chatter had been indicative of the original kidnapping, the rest of the case had developed in secrecy. She hadn’t expected to hear anything more about it. “Where?”

“That first warehouse,” he said. “The one you checked out the other day. Looks like they’re selling off the entire inventory to a single buyer.”

Peggy blinked. The first warehouse. The decoy. While it had been an investigative boon, it held no further connections to Falsone or the kidnapping. It was possible, of course, that Falsone was actually moving Jarvis to a separate location -- or even that the butler was part of some other deal as a means to get back at Howard, but that seemed unlikely.

She couldn’t be certain, however.

“We’re working out the details of the raid now,” Sousa said, sounding increasingly enthusiastic. “You going to come?”


“Hm?” she asked, pulled from her thoughts.

“Are you going to come?” Daniel asked again, with more keen interest than ever. “I know we can always benefit from your version of backup.”

It was a compliment in its truest form. Flattered as she was, Peggy couldn’t abide with a distraction.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out.”

“We’re going to go over the plan here in a few minutes,” Sousa said, gesturing to the conference room. “It wouldn’t be hard to bring you in--”

She shook her head. “It certainly sounds like you’ve got a handle on it.”

He stared at her, long and hard for a moment. “Seriously?”

Shrugging, she attempted to look effortless.

He laughed. “You, Peggy Carter, are saying no to work?”

At that, she blushed because he was right. It was decidedly out of character. Sheepishly, she tucked her hair behind her ear. “You’re the one always reminding me about keeping a proper balance.”

“Sure,” he said. “I just didn’t think you’d listen.”

“You’re more convincing than you think,” she said.

He smiled broadly, nodding a few times. “I’ll have to remember that,” he said. “Persistence pays off.”

“So you would like to believe,” she said coyly. “Really, though. Good luck.”

“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll tell you all about it in the morning.”

Making her way to her desk, she let out a breath. “Definitely something to look forward to.”


-o-

She did her best to look busy -- a skill she was surprisingly adept at -- until Thompson rallied Sousa and a few other agents to the conference room. He stopped, though, hesitating by her desk. “You coming, Carter?” he asked.

The assumption was, on the one hand, a compliment to their developed relationship. He would knowingly stand on her shoulders to further his own career partly because he could acknowledge now that she did indeed have something to offer. His respect wasn’t the sort of thing expressed in sentimental terms.

That was probably what she liked most about it, in all honesty.

But there was more to it than that. Because he trusted her to do a job, but he also trusted that she had the ability to subvert him, if she so desired. And given their last experiences with Howard, it was clear that he still harbored some doubts.

“Oh, no,” she said, as nonchalant as she could. “It looks like you have a full house in their already.”

That much was true. With a takedown in the works, Sousa’s small operation had attracted a lot of attention at the SSR. Thompson wasn’t holding anything back, if the dozen or so agents currently making their way into the conference room were any indication.

He shifted his weight to both feet, lifting his chin with his arms crossed over his chest. “Never known you to say no to a mission.”

“To be fair,” Peggy said. “Before the last month, I never had the chance to.”

It was a good answer, but Thompson was in no apparent mood to tolerate her wit. “You sure this has nothing to do with Stark?”

“I’ve seen the file Agent Sousa put together,” she said. “There’s not a single piece of evidence that further links Howard or any of his inventions to the operation as it stands.”

“I think we both know that not everything goes in the file,” he said.

She didn’t bother to look indignant. “Agent Thompson,” she said, as evenly as possible. “I understand your reasons for doubting me on this manner, and they are all, almost without exception, valid. But surely you can appreciate how my position has changed. Before, I had very little left to lose. Now, I fear I have a lot more that matters to me, and I have no intention of jeopardizing my career over something insignificant. I’m not needed in that conference room, but I have no doubt I will be needed on another case very soon. I don’t see you going to every desk, asking each agent if they intend to join a case where they are clearly not needed.”

It was honest; it was evasive; it was effective.

Thompson, while clearly without viable and reasonable recourse, did not look happy, but he did appear marginally mollified. “Just remember, Carter,” he said with a curt nod. “We really are on the same team.”

“How ironic,” she said. “I was about to remind you of the same thing.”

It was no surprise that Thompson did not appreciate the irony as he made his way to the conference room and purposefully closed the door behind him.

The mutual respect was rivalled only by their mutual distrust.

Someday something might come of that, Peggy knew.

She could only hope it wouldn’t be tonight.

-o-

Overly aware of her own presence, Peggy made a conscious effort to stay in her seat a good 20 minutes before readying herself to leave. It was a little early, perhaps, but she certainly wasn’t the first one to clock out. If Thompson saw her exit, he would have no reason to assume something was amiss.

At least, no additional reason.

She took her time about it, nonetheless, making some show of gathering her things and organizing her affairs. Taking several steps, she expertly let her papers slip with a few errant sheets rustling to the floor. Making a small sound of discontent, she retrieved them, using Sousa’s desk, which she was conveniently right next to, to reorganize herself. Occupied in this manner, it wasn’t hard to see the abandoned file still on Daniel’s desk. Of course, he had the final copy -- the one being disseminated to the full team in the conference room -- but the original notes were all Peggy needed to alleviate her own curiosity.

It was even more straightforward than Sousa had made it sound. The intelligence was crystal clear, with times, dates and names. It was all so obvious that Daniel had triple checked it with all the contacts he could find, and each one verified the deal as authentic.

There was definitely something happening at that first warehouse tonight.

Something that absolutely nothing to do with Howard Stark, Edwin Jarvis or even Falsone himself. No, there would only be one reason to create such a blatant target.

It was a distraction.

Indeed, with a target so well documented and thoroughly verified, the SSR would not be able to pass it up. No law enforcement agency could knowingly look the other way. Which meant that the majority of resources would be directed there.

And not at the secondary location Howard had been given as the meet point for tonight.

Peggy couldn’t deny that it was possibly a coincidence, but there was too much at stake for this. No, this was a deliberate set up to ensure that all attention was away from the real deal tonight. Falsone was creating a distraction.

Which was a little brilliant, when it came to the kidnapping. It helped ensure that Howard showed up alone and that there would be little risk of inadvertent interference from other concerned parties.

But Falsone had infused massive amounts of capital into the company he was setting up. That was the part that Peggy couldn’t quite make sense of. This entire scheme had been set up as a business operation, and Falsone was set up to lose quite a bit from the production side. This would effectively end the partnership -- Falsone might lose more than he could even hope to make.

It was a bit like cutting of the nose to spite the face. It would work, but it wasn’t the most coherent decision.

Unless the business arrangement had never been the endgame.

But why would Falsone go through so much trouble just to kidnap a butler?

Uneasy, Peggy finished organizing her files and turned away.

There would be time for answers, she tried to remind herself.

Once Falsone was caught.

And once Jarvis was safe.

Then she would make Howard explain this to her once and for all.

-o-

Although they were still hours away from the meet time, Peggy found herself hurrying back home. Her anxieties were not misplaced, she decided. After all, one of her friends was being held against his will. Moreover, she had left Howard with explicit instructions to avoid doing something stupid.

This was Howard. For being such a brilliant man, he could be surprisingly daft from time to time. It was maybe the trade off for his intellect, and it solidified her belief that few people were capable of being excellent in everything.

In fact, the only person capable of such a feat was still listed as Missing in Action somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.

That wasn’t the point, though. The point was that Howard had little experience being at a disadvantage. It made him anxious and more prone to idiocy than normal.

Not that she didn’t understand it. This was Jarvis, after all, and Peggy knew that for as much as she cared about him, Howard presumably cared substantially more. In a life with so few friends, having one constant was undoubtedly essential to Howard.

Come to think of it, that was the way it worked for Peggy.

Which was all the more reason to get Jarvis back home safely -- for his sake, for Howard’s sake and presumably her own.

When she arrived at home, she made no pretense of secrecy. Her involvement with Howard was already documented, and if the letter addressed to her was any indication, they already suspected her to be aware of the situation. To that end, she had nothing to hide.

That did little to alleviate her fears, though. When she let herself in, she couldn’t bring herself to wait.

“Howard?” she called, closing the door promptly behind her. “Are you there?”

The house wasn’t a mansion, but it certainly wasn’t all readily accessible at first glance. Putting her purse by the door, she continued inside.

“Howard?”

The sitting room was empty; so was the dining room and the kitchen. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw the bathroom door open and empty, along with each of the bedrooms.

“Howard,” she said, trying to sound more annoyed than worried. “I swear, if you’re not--”

She stopped herself, coming around the corner to the living room in the back of the house. The lights were off, and the curtains were pulled. In the dimness, it wasn’t hard to see the papers and supplies scattered over the coffee table and couch. In the far chair, Howard was perched, bent forward with his elbows on his knees as he stared forward.

She’d been so intent on berating him that she was wholly unprepared to find him so apparently vulnerable.

“Howard?” she asked again, gently this time as she started farther in the room. “Is everything okay?”

“I got all the supplies we’ll need,” he reported, quiet but dutiful. “And probably a few we don’t.”

Peggy eyed the supplies again. A few of them looked familiar; some of them looked ominously new to her. “Okay,” she said, pausing at the far end of the coffee table.

He swallowed, letting out a heavy breath. “You should have what you need to get past any electronic security checkpoints,” he continued. “I’ve got things that will disable them with a push of a button. And that little one there--” He pointed to a triangular gadget with metal prongs. “That one will take out a man with a single touch. But it’ll only have enough charge for three hits, so you’ll have to use them sparingly.”

She nodded. “I’m sure I can make it work.”

“I’ve also got a few things for cutting through metal,” he said. “The laser is most effective, but you’ll want to be careful with it. Because it will cut through anything.

“Sounds messy,” she observed.

“Actually not,” he said, still not looking at her. “Cauterization is instant. If you cut off your foot, you wouldn’t even feel it until you took your next step.”

“Lovely,” she said.

He was quiet for a moment, eyes still turned out distantly. Uncertain, Peggy shifted her weight, debating if comfort or a rallying cry was in order. She was good at leading, but Howard Stark wasn’t a soldier. And while most of the time she would have no qualms telling him exactly what she thought, she found his disposition unsettling.

She was used to talking Howard down, to reminding him of his own fallibility. She was used to playing the common sense to his unfettered confidence.

This left her at something of a loss.

The only other time she’d seen him like this was when Steve had disappeared. When the weeks had become months and none of Howard’s resources could locate that plane. When one year went by, then two, and Howard had been faced with the real idea of failure. A problem he couldn’t fix.

It wasn’t coincidence, then. And it wasn’t luck. Taking Jarvis hadn’t been a matter of convenience or happenstance. It had been a calculated move to bring Howard Stark effectively to his knees.

Sighing, Peggy stepped closer, taking a seat in the chair across from him. “This is going to work,” she assured him.

Howard still didn’t look at her. “They’re going to suspect you’re coming,” he said flatly.

She knew better than to deny it. “It won’t matter.”

“But if they’re expecting you--”

“They can expect me,” Peggy said. “But they can’t expect me.

Finally, Howard lifted his eyes.

Peggy straightened her shoulders. “They can’t expect us, working together,” she said. “Even if they assess all the working parts, they could never possibly prepare for what we are capable of together. I’ve worked with some amazing people in my life, all of whom have taught me that an effective plan is more than the sum of its part.”

He studied her for a moment, drawing a breath. “You know what always surprised me most about the Captain America project?”

“What’s that?”

“That I could make someone strong and fast and damn near unbreakable,” he said. “But none of that was what actually made Captain America special. No, that was always Steve. I liked to think I invented him, but I just gave him power to be the best possible version of himself.”

Peggy smiled fondly. “Steve was special,” she said. “I knew that the day I met him -- nothing but a scrawny kid, picking fights in alleys.”

“And I miss that,” he said. “I take it for granted because it can’t be quantified or manipulated. I know Jarvis stays here because he thinks he owes me, because I got him out of an impossible situation and bought freedom for him and Anna. He thinks he saved my life, but sometimes I think it’s the other way around.”

“Howard,” she said. “Mr. Jarvis stays because he wants to. I can’t say I always understand it, but it’s a conscious choice, and it’s not all out of obligation.”

“I know,” he said, lips twisting into a nearly painful smile. “Which just makes it worse. Because there’s no formula for goodness. There’s no way to invent loyalty. You can’t manufacture your best friend.”

Her chest tightened, and she swallowed hard. “Well, Mr. Jarvis isn’t stupid,” she assured him. “And I’m sure you can make it up to him when we get him back.”

It was her most resounding assurance possibly, and Howard looked marginally affected by it. At the very least, he tried to rally himself, sitting up in the chair and sighing once more. “You make it sound so easy.”

“Please,” Peggy said. “I spent months retrieving your deadly and top secret items from some of the most notoriously criminals on the eastern seaboard. I think finding one butler shouldn’t be so hard.”

He allowed himself a smile, and neither one of them acknowledged her bluster for what it was. The dogged belief in success because the idea of failure was simply untenable.

“Come on,” she cajoled, sitting forward intently. “Show me your gadgets again. We should have just enough time before it’s time to leave.”

-o-

As haphazard as it had come together, Peggy actually felt pretty good about the plan. Granted, a lot of the details would only be determined by the actual events, but she was well equipped with enough tricks to help her handle any possible scenario. The key was to keep Howard visible at all times while Peggy was completely invisible. This way, Howard could stall while Peggy found Jarvis and secured a safe escape for all of them.

It was daunting perhaps -- there were countless factors they had to take into consideration, and Peggy knew that all of this was easier said than done -- but she had gone up against worse odds.

“Just remember,” she said, packing the last device carefully into her bag. “It is imperative that you are the center of attention at all times.”

Howard managed a smirk. “Fortunately, that’s one of my greatest skills.”

“I know,” Peggy mused. “Which is one reason I feel so confident about this. No matter what leverage Falsone actually has, he’ll be so preoccupied with your raging ego to use it properly.”

“I’m still worried they’ll bring him to the meet,” Howard said. “I don’t want this done with a gun to Jarvis’ head.”

Peggy refused to contemplate such a thing in the full scope of its severity. Instead, she shook her head. “That would make our escape easier, however,” she countered. “I’m worried about making sure you have ample time to get out unscathed.”

Howard waved his hand dismissively. “You don’t need to worry about that,” he said. “Your top priority has to be Jarvis.”

“Oh, and it is,” she said. “I imagine he’s having a dreadful time.”

“Him and the kidnappers,” Howard said. “Can you imagine the grief he’s giving them about etiquette?”

“I don’t suppose they’ve even had the decency to make sure he has tea every afternoon,” Peggy said.

Howard smiled a little. “He surprises you, though,” he said. “He’s tougher than he looks.”

“And far more obstinate,” she said. “No matter how many times I told him to stay in the car, he always managed to find his way into trouble.”

“And you never wanted to admit just how useful it was, did you?” Howard asked knowingly.

Peggy shrugged, smiling sheepishly. “I think what always surprised me most was how much he actually loved,” she said. “Yes, he complained when I took him away from his roast or Benny Goodman, but he loved it. Every second of it.”

Howard nodded. “He always had an overdeveloped sense of right and wrong,” he said. “He’s practical until push comes to shove, and he’ll do whatever he has to in the name of the greater good.”

“Which is how he ended up forging Anna’s papers,” Peggy said.

“He refused to let it go,” Howard said. “And even after he’d been caught, he was positively unrepentant. If he’d gone to jail, I don’t think he would have regretted it, because in his mind, it was the right thing to do.”

“Funny,” Peggy said, keeping her voice wry. “How a man like that comes to work for a man like you.”

Howard chuckled. “It does defy reason.”

“Well, perhaps not as much as you’d like everyone to believe,” Peggy said. She paused, licking her lips before continuing. “This is going to work, though. We’re going to get him back.”

“I know, I know,” Howard said, drawing a deep breath and letting it out.

“Anyway,” Peggy said. “We should probably start off now.”

“Yeah,” Howard said, and then he hesitated. “Look, Peg, before we do this--”

She paused, watching him for a moment.

“If something happens,” he said. “If something goes wrong--”

“It won’t,” Peggy interjected.

“But if it does,” he said, somewhat more insistently. “Just promise me you’ll get him out.”

Peggy shook her head. “We’re all getting out.”

“I know,” he said. “But if you have to make the choice, me or him--”

She straightened, crossing her arms firmly over her chest. “Howard,” she said. “Don’t be self-sacrificial. It really doesn’t suit you.”

His expression turned beseeching. “Peggy, please, I’m serious--”

“And so am I!”

“It’s my fault that Jarvis is in this mess,” Howard said. “I need to know you’ll take care of him, no matter what.”

She wanted to tell him he was being stupid; she wanted to remind him how good they both were. But there was something different in this request. Something quiet, something desperate. Something she didn’t see often in Howard.

Something she knew better than to ignore. Because Howard was brash and cocky and egotistical. But deep down, when it counted, he was a good man. That was why she’d helped him in the first place. That was why he had Jarvis’ loyalty.

That was why she’d honor this request. “Fine,” she relented. “Mr. Jarvis first.”

He looked visibly relieved.

“But,” Peggy added forcefully. “I fully intend on getting us all out alive.”

This time, his smile reached his eyes. “That’s my girl.”

-o-

Planning was one thing.

Action was another.

Peggy had had no need for secrecy during most of her investigation, but she was readily aware that her position had changed. She had wanted any potential spies to see her come home because it was imperative for them to believe that she was wholly occupied in her residence. The note had specifically told Howard to exclude her from his plans, so any indication that she was out and about would potentially damage Howard’s position -- not to mention Jarvis’ situation.

Moreover, Peggy’s entire part in the plot hinged on the element of surprise. If someone saw her in her trek, the entire plan would be null and void, which was an outcome that she found unacceptable.

All that resolution didn’t make it any easier, however.

Although dusk was advancing, there was still ample light outside, giving her little darkness to aid her passage. Worse still, she couldn’t be completely certain where any surveillance was established. She had seen a suspicious vehicle down the street on her way home, but even if that was one of Falsone’s cronies, there was no way of knowing if they were still there or if there were more men scattered throughout the area.

There was always risk involved. She didn’t mind taking them, but she hated to think of her own risks negatively affecting the people she cared about. One wrong move, and she could get Howard and Jarvis killed.

That type of fear could be paralyzing.

It wasn’t in Peggy’s nature, though.

She was a woman of action.

And now was absolutely no different.

With her gear from Howard already packed, she spent the rest of her time in her room. After going through her closet, she found her most unlikely outfit, which was a pale pink sundress that she hadn’t worn since before the war. It wasn’t perfectly seasonal, but it was simple, forgettable and completely different from her normal attire.

After getting dressed, she considered her hair. A different hairdo would probably work, but a different color would certainly make a statement. Lucky for her, she already had the wig. It was true that going blonde might attract more attention, but she found that men were often so distracted by a single feature to see the nuances in any given woman. It still defied the odds that Sousa had managed to identify her in that surveillance photo, and she was putting her bet on the fact that most men were not as good at their jobs as he was.

To finish her ensemble, she ducked into Angie’s room. She picked carefully through the clothes that were still strewn about -- apparently without a chaperone, Angie could be somewhat of a slob -- and then finally opened the closet to find just the right thing. Brushing by the options, she lingered over one of the coats.

It wasn’t so much a coat as it was a shawl made of soft purple fabric with long decorative tassels. It was well worn and clearly loved, with a few catches in the latch work from obvious use. The look wasn’t quite casual, but it also wasn’t an upscale choice. Curious, Peggy pulled it from the closet, wrapping it experimentally around her shoulders. It was warm and comfortable, and Peggy couldn’t help but smile at Angie’s scent still on it.

It was perfect.

Not because of any of that.

It was perfect because it was something Peggy had never owned and probably would never wear. Donning it now, it made her look like an entirely different person.

Which was the point, she had decided.

The best way to hide wasn’t sneaking around. The best way to hide was to stay in plain sight the entire time. She wasn’t looking to disappear; she was looking to blend in.

This way, it wasn’t that no one would see her coming. It was that no one would suspect her of anything at all. Ignorance was a powerful tool, and Peggy knew how to wield it against men in all the best ways.

Adjusting her shawl, she glanced in the mirror to secure her wig before choosing a generous hat from Angie’s collection. Shouldering the bag, she straightened herself and smiled primly.

It was showtime.

-o-

Well dressed to throw off the scent, Peggy knew the only tricky part of her escape was getting out the front door. Rather, not getting out the front door. Even her best planned disguise would be easy to see through if they saw her coming from the house. Fortunately, Peggy was used to circumventing closed doors. In fact, she would probably say it was one of her greatest strengths.

It was, however, somewhat inconvenient, especially in high heels and a sundress.

“Are you sure about this?” Howard asked skeptically as she primed herself near the window in the small guest bathroom on the main floor.

Peggy jimmied it open, wiping the sill free of dust. “This is hardly the most dangerous part of the operation,” she reminded him.

Hands stuffed in his pockets, Howard rocked back on his heels. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just not very lady like.”

She pinned him with a withering stare, refusing to humor his childishness. Instead, she lifted one leg, putting it over the ledge before ducking her head.

“Though, it is a view I could probably get used to,” he quipped.

Peggy sighed, easing her other leg out. “You could only wish.”

“You’re right,” he said with a smirk. “I could.”

Pinching her lips together, she glared at him. “Good to see you’re back to your normal, charming self.”

“Just trying to break the tension,” Howard assured her.

“If you need it, this time I’ll let it slide,” she said. “But promise me you won’t do anything stupid.”

Howard raised his eyebrows.

“Or, stupider,” she amended.

“As long as you remember your end of the bargain,” Howard returned.

“Only you could attempt being self-sacrificial and lewd all at the same time,” she muttered.

“What can I say,” he mused. “I’m a man of many talents.”

“Yes, well, be careful out there,” she said.

He nodded, offering her a salute as she eased herself out the window. “You, too.”

-o-

The window was the smallest one in the house, which made it awkward and inconvenient and very well hidden. Peggy could only surmise that it had originally been intended for ventilation, which was why there was a window opening into the small alleyway along the property line. Therefore, while it was quite unladylike for an exit, it was ideal for stealth, which was exactly what Peggy needed at that given moment.

Once outside, she took a quick moment to situate herself, nodding briefly to Howard as he closed the window behind her. She smoothed her dress and adjusted her hat before pulling her large bag a bit more securely over her shoulder.

Although her adrenaline was surging, she forcibly reminded herself that urgency could not be her imperative. Walking carefully, she darted across the alleyway, keeping close to the line of buildings. There was no sign of movement at either end, and although there was some traffic on the street, there was no visible indication that anyone was paying attention. Any surveillance would probably be positioned to see the end of the alleyway, which meant she was relatively safe.

For now.

She managed by several more residential buildings, but snaked around a trash bin next to the bakery on the corner. She sidled along more carefully now, aware of her proximity to the street, and tried the door.

Just her luck, it was locked.

It was a good thing that she didn’t rely on luck, then.

Quickly, she pulled out her lockpick, making quick work of the contraption before easing her way inside. As relieved as she was to be off the street, she was keenly aware that she was now inside someone’s private property.

Immediately, she heard voices -- a dim throng from the main area. This seemed to be a storage area. There was a bathroom and upstairs access, and she stepped carefully toward the kitchen before hesitating.

That room was bright and well maintained -- and occupied by a man studiously baking. Peggy considered her options -- she could a ploy and suggest she was lost or somehow interested -- either of which could work, but they would take time and effort.

Time she didn’t want to expend and effort she felt to be extraneous. She was about to make a move when she finally got lucky.

The door to the main store opened, calling the baker forward. Peggy pulled back as far as she could, holding her breath while she listened to the baker mutter his way out the door.

It was a dangerous window of opportunity, but she took it. She walked smoothly across the floor, making a mental note of what she remembered from the bakery. She’d been there more than once -- many times in fact. Angie was right; she was a horrible cook. If she wanted fresh baked bread, this was the only place to come.

It was quaint and busy with a long counter and ample display case. The cash register was at the far end, away from the pass through. Through the door, she could hear movement -- clinking glass. They were probably arranging the display case, not too close.

Truth be told, it wasn’t ideal, but it was as good as it would get. She would have quick access to the main floor and with the men on the opposite side of the work area, she could quickly make her way across the distance and hopefully secure her stealthy passage.

She took a breath and held it.

Then she moved.

Once in motion, she didn’t slow down; didn’t think twice. She didn’t even hesitate to see where they were. Either this would work.

Or it wouldn’t.

She would know in about five seconds.

Heart pounding, she opened the door, slipping through it. She moved quickly, crossing the distance in no more than three steps before finding herself thankfully on the other side of the counter.

And in a line of people.

None of whom seemed to have noticed her at all.

“Oh, pardon me, miss,” the man behind said, apparently just noticing she was there. “Didn’t see you there.”

Peggy smiled, reaching for the nearest thing on the counter. “It’s no problem,” she assured him. “Just picking up a loaf for a quiet night at home.”

He smiled, sure and friendly. “It’s a good night for that, I think,” he said.

Peggy inclined her head, trying not to look as relieved as she felt. “I certainly hope so.”

-o-

For all her stealth so far, Peggy left the bakery with her head up and a smile on her face. Adjusting her bag, she spared a moment to look back down the street. The suspicious car was still there, and the light was still on over her front door.

Everything was exactly how it was supposed to be, totally in order at her home.

Satisfied, she tucked the bread under her arm and strode boldly down the street.

Because now she had a butler to save.

-o-

It wasn’t a short trip, even though a sense of urgency kept Peggy’s pace up. By the time she arrived, she was earlier than she intended. That was better than the alternative, though, and it did give her a chance to fully get her bearings before the action really started.

The building was nothing special, positioned in a row of other buildings that looked like nothing special. That was intentional, Peggy was certain, and at first glance, there appeared to be nothing to draw attention to the space at all.

Peggy gave it more than a first glance, however. Keeping her distance, she rounded the building as best she could, taking stock of the various entry points and how well they were secured. Although there were numerous doors and ground-floor windows, most of them at been effectively sealed off. In fact, most of the windows were barred, leaving only one main floor entrance that was active.

This door was in the front, and it was clearly intended to be the main entrance. No doubt, that was where Howard would enter, and Peggy could only imagine the the entire operation was designed around that simple assumption.

Given that notion, it wasn’t hard to make a mental sketch of the interior. The building was not overly large with a boxy frame that stood only two stories high. While there was a portion of the building that appeared to have a second interior level, she could assume from the position of the windows that a great deal of the building was intended for wide-open use.

This area, she concluded, would be most likely the location for Howard’s interaction. Falsone would probably have it well guarded and secured. Other traps and failsafes were possible, if not likely. It would be a space entirely designed for Falsone’s game and to keep Howard at a disadvantage.

While it would be possible in a space that size to have Jarvis secure and still out of the way, Peggy was still betting on him being held in a secondary location inside the building. This was something of a guess, although Peggy had learned that her instincts tended to be fairly accurate in these situations. It just made the most sense for whatever game Falsone was playing.

To point, this was a game. As much as she wanted to perceive it as a high stakes business transaction, Falsone had made this strangely personal. Inviting Howard here was probably not just about the money; it was about making a point. Undoubtedly, Falsone would want to see how much Howard would take before demanding to see his man.

With that in mind, Peggy figured that Jarvis was being held as far away from the main room as possible. Moreover, it would need to be in an area with little opportunity for escape. Not that Jarvis was likely to be a flight risk, but no one enacted a kidnapping of this magnitude without some simple measures in place.

Which mean that Jarvis was most likely being kept on the second level. There was one fire escape at the back of the building, which led Peggy to believe Jarvis was probably being held in the front. Chewing her lip, she scanned the darkened windows, trying to decide if any of them could match the photographs.

It was something to think about, Jarvis being up in one of them, right at that very moment. Bound and waiting -- for what, though. How much did he even know? What had they told him? Jarvis was naive in some regards, but he wasn’t stupid. He no doubt understood his own peril, even if they had plied him with platitude.

Anyway, platitudes would be ineffective, she imagined, after the beatings he had sustained.

Did he know Howard was coming? Did he believe rescue was imminent? Was he worried about Howard risking himself on some foolish ploy? Did he think about what would happen to Anna if this went terribly wrong?

Was he even conscious at all?

Or worse.

Peggy refused to think it.

She forced herself to swallow, and remanded her focus to where it needed to be. This was a rescue operation, and she would accept no other directive until the situation proved otherwise.

There wasn’t time for it, anyway. Later, she assured herself, later there would be time for doubts and second-guessing. Later there would be time to ask the difficult questions about why this happened, about how this happened, about why things like this will always happen. Later, she would have time to feel her emotions and to understand her own fears. Later there would be time to figure out all the pieces of her life and how they fit together once and for all.

Later.

But not now.

Now was the time for action.

Which meant it was Peggy’s time to shine.

-o-

Howard arrived right on time. It was a bit unlike him. Punctuality was not a virtue he necessarily regarded highly, if only because he expected most of the world to conform to his schedule. A fact that had, most annoyingly, been proven right more often than not.

Therefore, the fact that he was on time was something to consider. It signified that Howard was ready to play by the rules, even when they were stacked clearly against him.

It was so out of character, in fact, that it nearly gave Peggy misgivings about the entire operation. Did she think she could find Jarvis? Without a doubt. Did she have confidence in her ability to overpower Falsone’s men without raising an alarm? Based on her history, she assumed it was a good bet.

But she was suddenly stricken with the possibility that Howard’s request had been more than sentimental back at the house. That when Howard had asked her to get Jarvis out, it hadn’t been a last resort.

Rather, it had been part of his plan.

Howard was fond of Jarvis, she knew that. And he clearly felt responsible for what had happened to him, that was obvious. For the first time, however, Peggy was forced to reckon with the idea that Howard didn’t have any tricks up his sleeve. That he had come into this situation willing and ready to not come back out.

It was a thought that was hard to reconcile. She had always known that Howard had bought Jarvis his freedom once. But was it possible that he would buy it again, this time with his own life if necessary?

Worse still, Howard didn’t hesitate. He didn’t look nervous or vulnerable any more. He didn’t look for Peggy; he didn’t look back.

He walked to the front door and knocked, shoulders squared and head held high.

For an instant, she wanted to stop him, but it was far too late for that.

The front door opened and Howard was invited in at gunpoint. Just that fast, Howard disappeared inside, the doors being pulled shut tight behind him.

Howard was doing his part.

Now, it was Peggy’s turn.