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Agent Carter fic: Team Player (4/8)

December 10th, 2015 (11:57 am)
gloomy

feeling: gloomy

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



-o-

Restless, Peggy cleaned up the kitchen while Howard sat stooped over the file and ransom note again. By the time the front door opened, it was earlier than Peggy would have expected. Angie must have skipped her own errands in favor of Peggy’s request.

Even so, it felt like a lifetime had passed.

It was all she could do not to intercept Angie at the door.

Howard showed much less self control. “Anything?” he asked, not even venturing a single pleasantry or pick up line.

Angie, still in her coat, raised a skeptical eyebrow. “And here I thought you were supposed to be a gentleman.”

“Gentleman? Never,” Howard replied. “Sometimes I pretend to be one, though.”

“I’m not sure if I should be insulted or flattered,” Angie said.

“Both and neither,” Peggy supplied. “So?”

Angie relaxed moving past Howard and closer to Peggy. “So that is one out of the way post office box,” she said. “I had no idea that sort of thing even existed.”

“And I’ve gone through great pains to keep it that way,” Howard said. “Someday I’d like to do away with post offices altogether and create an electronic mail form.”

“Like the telegraph?” Angie asked.

“Only way more efficient,” Howard said. “But that’s not the point.”

“Was there anything there?” Peggy pressed.

At that, Angie reached into her purse, pulling out a letter. “I admit, it was tempting to open it,” she started, holding it out to Peggy.

Howard reached to intercept.

Angie tugged it away. “I didn’t get it for you,” she chided.

“It’s my mail,” Howard said.

“That I picked up for Peggy,” Angie said, undaunted.

Peggy smiled politely, taking the letter. She noticed the typeface on the front. Generic and untraceable, but the same as before. “Thank you,” she said. “I would hate to think I made you late for work, though.”

Angie stood there, expectant.

Peggy inclined her head. “Don’t you have to go to work?”

Angie drew her brows together. “You don’t want me to see what’s in it.”

Peggy sighed. “It’s probably best if we don’t involve you more than we already have.”

“Hey, I already know you’re looking for Mr. Fancypants,” Angie said. “Maybe I can help.”

“You already have,” Peggy said. “And honestly, the best way you can help us is to carry on as normal. We don’t want to tip anyone off to what we’re doing or even that Howard is here.”

Angie didn’t like it -- not when Peggy was asking her to leave when she was presumably about to go tackle something dangerous -- but she also couldn’t argue the point. Peggy was good at that, using logic to subvert the emotions of other people. She used it for the good of others, but that hardly made it palatable all the time.

And it was a lot to ask of Angie, considering all that she had already asked of her continually since the day they met. Peggy feared sometimes that she would use up all her good grace with Angie and find herself without a best friend.

Fortunately, however, Angie Martinelli was more than a waitress and more than an actress. She was quite possibly a saint.

Angie sighed, but the appearance of being put out was more for show than anything else. “Fine, but I expect the full story later, okay?”

“Of course,” Peggy said.

Angie gave Howard a pointed stare. “You be careful with her.”

Howard nodded in surprise. “Yes, ma’am.”

With that, Angie turned to leave. Peggy waited until she heard the front door close to let herself breathe again. Without being asked, she held the letter out to Howard. “He is your butler,” she said, shrugging a little. It wasn’t quite an apology, but Howard was not a stupid man.

He stepped closer. “And he’s both of our friends,” he said.

Peggy wasn’t a stupid woman; she knew contrition when she saw it. She didn’t hate Howard, and she probably never could, no matter what he did. She never wished him ill or wanted to see him hurt. But she did want him to understand, because sometimes for a man who had everything, he acted as though he had nothing to lose.

Sometimes he didn’t realize that the things in life that mattered most were the things that couldn’t be invented.

When he reached for the letter, Peggy drew it away. “I’m not sure you appreciate the risks people take for you.”

Howard gathered himself up, standing eye to eye with Peggy. “Sometimes I don’t think I want to.”

“Try,” Peggy said, holding out the letter to him again. “For the sake of everyone involved.”

Somewhat reticent, Howard took the letter, smiling faintly. “I’ll do my best.”

-o-

It was the best they could have hoped for.

Consequently, it was also the worst.

They stood stood side by side over the kitchen counter as Howard laid the letter out, placing it side by side with the pictures. The letter offered no new details, reiterating the full cash demand and the threat not to involve anyone else. In that, the letter was not overly helpful.

But the photos.

As a professional, Peggy knew the photos were a huge leap forward in the investigation. Not only did they provide a glimpse at the location -- and no matter how nondescript it was intended to be, there were clues -- but they also provided proof of life.

Proof of life was quintessential to a hostage negotiation. It was the only basis with which to move forward on any resolution. It was important to see that the hostage was, in fact, alive and relatively well.

The photos were unequivocal on this point. The kidnappers had taken some pains to provide photos with a newspaper in them, dated only the day before. Obviously, there was no guarantee that they hadn’t harmed the hostage after that time, but it was a clear indication that they wanted things to move ahead. Killing the hostage at this juncture would run counter to their established goals, which was why the letter was honestly the best possible news.

As a friend, however, Peggy could not feel so confident. Because while Jarvis was alive in the photos, he was far from well. Life, she had come to realize, was a rather low bar to set when it came to a friend.

There were four photos, each taken in the same room. The light was wan, coming from what Peggy perceived to be a naked bulb hanging in the middle of the room. The walls were old and made of cinderblocks with no visible adornments. There were a handful of rusted pipes and exposed cables, some old but a few still appearing functional. The cement floor was stained and cracked with an open drain offset somewhat.

The only furniture appeared to be a chair, nothing particularly special but clearly sturdy enough. And in the chair was Jarvis.

His legs were tied to it, and the captors had taken the time to tie his chest down as well, effectively keeping him upright. Although this could have been for show, there was every indication that this was a position that Jarvis was being kept in more often than not, just given the deep impressions against Jarvis’ clothes and the way his body was slumped.

And he was slumped. In several shots, his head was forward, hair tousled and loose, obscuring his face. His coat and vest had been removed along with his tie, and the white undershirt wouldn’t be salvageable, even with proper cleaning and pressing.

Even as unsettling as it was to see him unkempt and apparently unconscious, the photo that provided definitive proof of life was the most unsettling of all. The newspaper was on his lap with the front page visible, and his head was up, eyes squinting up into the flash of the camera. He looked confused; worse, he looked pained. His face was bruised badly around one eye, and there was a gash across his cheek and his lip was split. There was dried blood from his nose, and he appeared badly disoriented.

Of course, it was possible that they simply took the photo at the worst possible moment.

However, Peggy also had to work under the possibility that they took the photo at the best possible moment.

Peggy did what she could to stay calm and analytical about it. Next to her, she could tell Howard was having trouble keeping himself collected.

His entire posture had shifted, stiffening until he was ramrod straight, fingers clenched into a fist on the countertop. They had done their best to be productive but still keep things light -- it was easier that way, especially when humor was one of Howard’s most effective coping mechanisms.

There was no humor here, though. There was nothing to soften this, no way to somehow make the image of Jarvis bound and beaten with a price on his head more palatable. The pretext that had kept them up all night with banter were gone now, and the sober reality could no longer be easily placated.

This was another reason why it was best to bring in professionals, Peggy knew. When you cared this much about the victim, it clouded your judgment.

It became personal.

As hard as this was for her, Peggy knew it was her place to be the steady one now. She had to be the responsible one, not because Howard was cavalier, but because he would take this harder than she would.

“So,” she said finally, neatly gathering up the photos and putting them purposefully behind the letter. “This gives us a place to start.”

Howard inhaled sharply, letting out an audible breath. “How do you figure that?” he said, grinding the words out through his clenched jaw.

His anger was not directed at her, and she would not let herself be distracted. She put the letter and the photos back into the envelope. “Based on the photos, we should be able to start tracing several possible locations,” she said. “I can use the information you gave me last night and cross reference it with the files we have on Falsone at the SSR.”

Howard shook his head. “I told you, we’re not bringing them in--”

“I can easily pull the files in association with our current investigation of the front business,” she explained reasonably.

“And what am I supposed to do?” Howard asked. “Sit here and do nothing?”

“Sit here and wait,” Peggy said as calmly as she could. “You said it yourself, it’s best if you keep a low profile.”

Howard groaned. “I can’t do nothing, Peg.”

“You’ve enlisted the right kind of help,” she said. “That’s not nothing.”

“I’ve never been one to sit on my hands,” he said.

“But you’re always one who will do whatever is necessary, no matter how dangerous,” she said. “And now, no matter how mundane.”

He inhaled deeply, the protestations written all over his face.

“Besides,” she added, even more gently now. “You can spend your time writing down everything you know about Falsone. What you told me last night was good, but I know you, Howard. I know you can tell me about his organization, the weapons he makes, the deals he’s had go down. Anything and everything, I want it documented. When I get back, we can compare our notes and come up with a probable location and a plan.”

Working his jaw, he said nothing.

“I’m trusting you,” she said, eyeing him intently. “To stay here and not do anything stupid. If you come up with something you need to tell me right away, you know where to find me.”

“And you think I’ll just march into the SSR to tell you?” Howard asked petulantly.

“I think you’ll find a way, if you need to,” she said. “You’re Howard Stark, after all.”

He almost smiled, finally letting his gaze drop. “I just hate the idea of him still there, you know?”

“I know,” she said. “But he won’t be there much longer.”

“You better come up with something,” Howard said. “Or tonight, all bets are off. Understood?”

She rolled her eyes, gathering her bag. “Howard, if we don’t have a plan tonight, I’ll raid every warehouse myself until we find him and get him back.”

This time, he did smile, tired and rundown as he was. “I knew there was a reason I stuck with you.”

She huffed, starting toward the door. “To be honest,” she said. “I’m still wondering why I stick with you.”

-o-

She took just enough time to change her clothes and freshen her makeup before warning Howard one last time not to leave the house. If she had to be honest, leaving him there made her nervous. Howard wasn’t exactly great at following orders, and he wasn’t lying when he said that sitting idly wasn’t the way he normally approached things. There was a very real possibility that if he came up with an idea, he would leave the house without so much as a note to tell her where he was going or what he was doing.

It was also a possibility, though, that he might employ some common sense and listen to her. In the days since Jarvis’ disappearance, he hadn’t made much headway by himself, and despite his utter belief in his own genius, she knew that he appreciated her help. He could be brash, but he wasn’t outright foolish. If his incident last month had taught him anything, it was just a touch of humility -- at least around her.

No, at this point, she had to trust Howard.

To be safe, however, she tucked the letter, the photos and the file into her purse. Their absence wouldn’t necessarily stop Howard, but they certainly would give him pause. There was no need to tempt a desperate man, as it were.

More to the point, there was nothing more she could do at home. If they wanted to make headway on this case and attempt to get one step ahead of the kidnappers, she would need to utilize her resources at the SSR. She knew it, and though Howard didn’t want to admit it, he knew it, too.

The trick was to make it seem like just another day at the office.

Fortunately, Peggy had some practice with subterfuge.

She simply hadn’t expected to use it again so soon.

-o-

The cab ride felt unduly long, and she felt rather conspicuous coming into the office. Although Peggy enjoyed the newfound camaraderie with her colleagues, she had to admit it made it a bit more difficult to conduct covert work when people actually paid attention to her. Before she even got settled at her desk, Sousa spun around in his chair, ready to talk.

“So I really think we got something here,” he said with no preamble.

“Oh?” she said, hoping to sound effortless, nonchalant and altogether collected all at once. It was probably a high aim for a single syllable, but Peggy had made do with less before.

“Yeah,” Daniel said with an enthusiastic nod of his head. “I’ve pulled the financials on the company and started tracking a few of its export lines, and they’ve covered their tracks, but not good enough.”

For Peggy, this was way beyond the company by now. Though she believed in executing justice, corporate fraud was fairly low on her list of concerns when Jarvis was currently being held for ransom.

Yet, Daniel had tracked the financials. He’d compiled export lines. That meant he knew where things were happening and who they were happening with. Even if Falsone had worked hard to keep his involvement tangential, Peggy would know what to look for even if it didn’t raise any red flags for Sousa. In short, his corporate case might have practical implications for her entire purpose in the office today.

“Really?” she said. “Would you like some help with that?”

Sousa looked surprised. “Aren’t you still on the Stark thing?”

She flitted her hand through the air. “That’s nothing.”

“You sure? Because Thompson wanted--”

“Wanted it checked out, I know,” Peggy said. “And I did. Check it out, that is. It’s all nice and checked.”

Daniel nodded, but he tilted his head a little. “So much for taking it easy last night.”

“I could say the same for you,” she countered.

“Yeah, but I didn’t blow you off for it,” he pointed out.

“Tell you what,” Peggy said with a shrug of her shoulders. “Let’s wrap up this case, and once we’ve got it all squared away, then we’ll do dinner, okay?”

“But that could take weeks--” Daniel said, brow creased.

“Then we really should get started,” Peggy said.

He rocked back in his chair, chuckling a little. “I’ve never been quite so motivated to get my work done.”

“Yes,” Peggy mused, glancing anxiously at the files on his desk. “We all have our motivations today.”

Some were just a bit more pressing than others.

-o-

Though Peggy had never doubted it, it still deserved some recognition: Daniel Sousa was a good agent. It was possible that he worked hard to compensate for what he might perceive as an inherent impediment, but Peggy suspected he had always been naturally exceptional in this manner. She did not consider herself a shallow person, but she found competence to be extremely attractive.

And extraordinarily useful.

Daniel had done more than the basic groundwork associated with this case; he had developed an entire profile of the company with a detailed history of each major player in the corporation and a timeline of all major sales and purchases. Impressive as it was, most of it was not overly pertinent to her actual needs, except this.

“Alan Vincent,” she said, pointing to the photograph in the file. It was different than the one she had in the original file, but there was no doubt of his identity. “What is your take on him?”

“He is interesting,” Daniel said, shifting the file around to bring a few different papers to the top.

“So you have something on him?” Peggy asked, almost a little hopeful. Howard didn’t know much more than the connection to Falsone, which was useful, but if Daniel had something more, they might be able to gain even more of an edge when trying to turn the tables.

“That’s the thing,” Daniel said. “There’s almost nothing on him.”

“Oh?” Peggy asked with as much deflecting innocence as she could muster.

Daniel nodded readily. “There’s literally nothing on this guy,” he said. “Prior to his time at the company, he doesn’t even have an employment history. I can’t even pull a driver’s license off this guy, much less an address or bank account.”

Peggy leaned closer to the file. “Really?”

“Have we cross checked his photo through any other databases?” she asked. “Maybe he’s using an alias.”

“If he is, it’s a good one,” Daniel said, shuffling the papers again. “And look at this. Their financial records are pretty stable up until about six months ago when everything went wild.”

Peggy nodded, looking over the information. “It looks like they expanded their production.”

“Not just expanded,” Daniel said, flipping to another sheet. “I mean, I was able to trace evidence of low level knockoffs for years, but in the last six months? They’ve started pulling new technology from everywhere.”

“All of which coincides with Alan Vincent,” Peggy concluded. “So he’s the money.”

“Or he’s tied to the money,” Daniel said. “Because think about it. How could a guy with no connections suddenly come out of nowhere? A life of crime doesn’t start late, and I haven’t gotten anyone who can identify him.”

“So he’s the front man,” she said.

“Makes for a convenient fall guy, if necessary,” Daniel agreed.

“Do we have a current address for him?” Peggy asked.

Daniel sighed, holding out another sheet of paper for her. “I checked, but it’s just a PO box that I can’t trace any further.”

Though Peggy had known most of this already, she was somewhat surprised to see how little more Sousa could add. It made sense that Falsone would take precautions, but the implication were curious. If Alan Vincent truly had no connections to anything, then he would have to be very close to Falsone’s inner circle. Howard had recognized him, but if no one else could, that meant Falsone hadn’t allowed his closest employees to venture out very far. In fact, it was altogether probable that Falsone had worked with Vincent for years, possibly as his first employer. Men in power knew how to engender a certain kind of loyalty, after all.

Then she saw the PO box, and her stomach flipped. “Are you sure this box is right?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Daniel said. “Vincent established himself there six months ago.”

Coincidence, possibly.

But not likely.

No, the odds of Vincent receiving his mail at the same location where Howard received his was no probable at all. If anything, it would suggest reasonably that they had seen Jarvis prior to the abduction and possibly even got to know his routines and personality. It suggested, more clearly than Peggy would have liked, that Falsone had been trying to track Howard for months.

This was more than a corporate move. What it was, though, Peggy couldn’t be sure.

She drew a breath, putting the paper back down. “We need an actual address,” she said. “Something far more concrete.”

“That would definitely help,” Daniel agreed.

“What about something on the business side of things,” Peggy suggested. “Have they added any new office addresses since he was hired?”

Daniel considered this with some interest. Leafing through the papers, he nodded. “Actually, yeah,” he said, laying one down. “Quite a few, in fact. They increased their financial statements by fifty percent, and they must have spent a good chunk of that on infrastructure. I found evidence of five warehouses alone, and that’s just what was legitimate.”

Peggy scanned the addresses. “And none of them seem to be tied to criminal activity?”

“No more than the warehouse we checked yesterday,” Daniel supplied. He studied her for a moment. “What exactly are you looking for?”

That was the question -- probably the only one worth asking at this juncture. Although a money trail might help seal a conviction, it wouldn’t necessarily be the fastest way to mount a rescue. No, if Peggy wanted to find Jarvis, she needed to a building that she could match against the proof of life photos they’d been given. That location would be their best way to secure any element of surprise.

It was tempting to tell Daniel the truth. She’d hated lying to him before, and although this wasn’t exactly the same thing, it certainly felt like it. More than that, she trusted Daniel -- more than anyone else at the SSR. She knew he would always do the right thing.

Which was why she couldn’t tell him this. Because the right thing, according to all standard operating procedure, would be to report the kidnapping to Jack and let the SSR take over the investigation. It might even give them more leverage in the search, and it would definitely provide the needed manpower to mount a takedown.

They would get Falsone, no doubt.

But they might also lose Jarvis in the process. The SSR was filled with men who were good at their jobs, but they weren’t perfect. And they were far too accustomed to collateral damage. Peggy had been in the war, she knew what acceptable losses were all about. But if the idea had never set well with her when it came to nameless boys, it certainly wouldn’t satisfy her when it was someone she counted as a friend in the crossfire.

Ultimately, she suspected that Howard was right. Falsone had set the stakes so high that it was invariably an all or nothing attempt. There was no doubt, then, that if Falsone walked away with nothing, Howard would, too.

She forced a smile. “Just trying to understand the business model is all,” Peggy said. “But you know, I think the best way to do this is the old fashioned way.”

Daniel made a face. “Again?”

“What?” Peggy teased. “You afraid I’ll beat you again?”

Daniel chuckled, shaking his head. “As fun as that sounds, I’ve actually got to run some financial contacts a bit more. I’m trying to track their records, both in and out. So we can see who Vincent is tied to and who else is involved. Numbers like this, Vincent has to have a connection to someone in the game.”

It was a bit painful not to tell Daniel just how right he was, though Peggy took comfort in knowing he would find out soon enough.

In an attempt to look nonchalant, Peggy shrugged. “Well, I can do it myself, then,” she said. “Let you focus on the work here.”

“You sure?” Daniel asked.

“You know me,” Peggy quipped. “Just trying to be a team player.”

He gave her a small, funny look -- a month was probably too soon to pretend that she’d never done anything to make her untrustworthy -- but Daniel still smiled. “We can reconvene -- maybe for dinner?”

To say he was suggestive would be presumptuous. To say he was hopeful would be an understatement.

Peggy gathered her things, getting to her feet. “Who knows,” she agreed. “Maybe for dinner.”

-o-

All conversation aside, dinner was the last thing on Peggy’s mind. Not that she didn’t enjoy Daniel’s company, but there were bigger things for her to tackle on a day like today. Her not-quite social interactions outside of work would have to be pushed back.

Again.

At least this time she had a very valid reason.

Even Daniel, when all the facts were on the table, would have to agree that a kidnapping had to take precedence over would-be romantic pursuits.

Of course, he didn’t have all the facts, and Peggy was too far into this thing to consider when he might possibly have those facts. Which meant it was easier -- and far more expedient -- to simply focus on the task at hand.

Namely, figure out something to get a step ahead of Falsone. She had the addresses related to the front corporation, which was a start, but the more she knew about Falsone, the better her chances would be. Besides, Howard’s portrait of Falsone had been informative but somewhat incomplete.

After what had happened last time she worked with Howard under the radar, she imagined having as many of the facts as possible would probably be in her best interest.

Being a woman in the SSR, she had to keep her own best interest at the forefront of everything. Heavens knew that no one else would, except possibly Jarvis, but seeing as he was the one missing, her task was even more pressing.

The key, of course, was nonchalance. She wasn’t doing anything illegal at the moment, but if people noticed that she was researching Falsone, than all this work in subterfuge would have been for naught, and she would lose control of a situation that could quickly devolve into death or bodily harm to someone she cared about a great deal.

However, just because she didn’t want anyone to know what she was looking up didn’t mean that she should act that way. If she had learned anything from her time as a so-called double agent, it was that people will see what they expect to see more often than not, a fact that readily worked in her favor.

She had also learned that Howard Stark was an impossible man that she hated to not hate, but that was a fact that seemed to be reinforced to her every time they crossed paths.

To the point, she had to pull Falsone’s file, and no one could know about it.

Not that she could simply walk in and steal a file. No, the SSR wasn’t incompetent as an organization. But there were certain loopholes that she could leverage, namely because no one would expect her to.

“Hello, Agent Weisman,” she said, smiling as brightly as she could. The file room was a restricted area, accessible only with authorization. This sounded fancy, but the simple paperwork was used as basic documentation. This way, if something went missing, it could presumably be traced, and if an agent came under scrutiny, there would be a paper trail to follow. “I’m afraid I need to make a request.”

“Oh, no problem, Agent Carter,” Weisman returned, just as friendly. He had, on a whole, always been one of the more courteous employees. Probably because he was working at a menial job while other men got in on the real action. On the hierarchy at the SSR, he was fairly low on the totem pole, as it were, and Peggy had always found that sort of camaraderie was universal among good people. “You’ll just need to fill out the requisition--”

He handed her the form, and Peggy wasted no time to fill it out. Her name and number were simple enough, and she provided the case number from Sousa’s open investigation, which wouldn’t raise any red flags. But when it asked for the file, she hesitated.

And then she chuckled. “I had no idea how big this corporate espionage case would be,” she said. “Agent Sousa and I are going to have to thoroughly cross reference every business named in reference, just to be sure.”

Weisman raised his eyebrows. “Sounds like a lot of work.”

“I know!” Peggy said, scribbling down as many of the corporation names as she could think of. “I’ll probably be stuck reading paperwork the better part of the afternoon!”

“Welcome to my world,” Weisman joked.

“Indeed!” Peggy said, handing the sheet back to Weisman. “I hope I got them all.”

Weisman scanned the sheet, nodding. “If you think of something else, we can add it at the end.”

“That would be lovely, thank you,” she said.

“Just holler if you need something,” Weisman told her as she started back.

“Don’t worry!” she said cheerfully. “I will!”

That was a lie, of course. She wouldn’t ask for help -- not really.

Not that she expected she’d need help in the first place.

-o-

Her decision to pull every possible file in connection with Sousa’s case had been a calculated move. It was also a rather time-consuming one. Though the SSR had a coherent filing system, there were countless files to go through, making the task of tracking them all down rather cumbersome.

Pressing her lips together, she tried not to think of it as an entirely fruitless venture either. True, she didn’t need most of these files, but if she truly wanted to get access to Falsone’s file without tipping anyone else off, then this a necessary subterfuge.

It was also a somewhat inconvenient one. Still, with the time it took to gather the files, slipping Falsone’s in the middle was almost comically easy. If all went well, she would be able to return it with the rest of the files within a few days. No one would miss it, and all would be well.

Arms full, she chuffed happily on her way out. “Thank you, Agent Weisman,” she said. “Have a good day!”

“You, too, Agent Carter,” he replied with a small wave of his hand.

And that was that. She was in the clear; she was good to go. She would just stop by her desk on her way out and then--

She stopped short, almost running right into Thompson as she turned the corner back toward the office. Her files slipped, the top one nearly falling off, and her stomach clenched as Jack reached to catch it for her.

He glanced over it. “What’s this for?”

Peggy hurried adjusted her grip on the rest of the stack, offering her most disarming smile. “Just some files to help with Agent Sousa’s case,” she said. “I wanted to be thorough and vet other companies that have been affected by the copyright violations, see if something turns up.”

Jack nodded absently, flipping open the top page. “I thought Sousa had this one.”

“He does,” she said, a little too readily. “I’m just trying to help out. You know, be a team player.”

Thompson gave her a dubious look, eyes going to the files in her arms. “That’s quite a bit of reading you’re planning on.”

“Just being thorough,” she said. “We’re searching for any secondary locations or supplementary contacts. If we’re going to do this, we want to do it right.”

Thompson’s eyes narrowed. “And that’s it?”

Peggy waited for more, trying not to look too expectant. “Was there something else?”

Jack drew a breath, setting his jaw firmly.

Holding the files, Peggy felt her hands begin to sweat. Maybe he knew. If he knew, then this could go badly. Very, very badly.

“Stark,” Thompson finally said. “Did you make contact with Stark?”

“Oh,” she said, feeling flush at how obvious it should have been to her. “Yes, yes. I got him on the phone last night.”

It was a rushed lie, and one she hadn’t taken any time to think through. Confirming contact with Stark would be the only way to alleviate Thompson’s interest in the case, but providing any concrete details as to his whereabouts create a slight risk of compromise. However, given that Thompson’s interest was based only on rumors and hearsay, a phone conversation would probably be enough to satiate any concerns.

Hopefully.

Thompson almost looked surprised. “You did?”

“Yes,” she said. “As I expected, he’s been very busy with the upcoming technology expo.”

“Did he know anything?”

“About the rumors?” Peggy asked. “Only that there was no substance to them. He was propositioned by unnamed sources, but he showed absolutely no interest.”

The doubt deepened in Jack’s expression. “Can he tell us anything about who made the offer?”

That would be the next logical question. Even if Howard wasn’t involved, if he could provide any help, then the SSR would still want him on board. Howard wasn’t opposed to doing favors, but somehow Peggy knew this wasn’t the time.

“Honestly, I don’t think Howard makes his rejections in person,” she said. “I could go back, if you wanted, and talk with some of his employees--”

Jack sighed, shaking his head. “Probably a waste of time,” he said. “It sounds like you and Sousa have enough to go on anyway.”

“It is shaping up to be a pretty impressive case,” Peggy said.

Jack still looked disappointed somehow. “I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to this,” he said. “I mean, a rumor like that -- it’s awfully specific.”

“It can solidify the means and capabilities, at any rate,” Peggy said. “But there is no way Howard Stark would negotiate with the likes of people like this. Not over something like technology, anyway.”

It was all true, in a sense.

It was also missing a few critical details.

In some ways, telling Jack would be easier than telling Daniel. He wouldn’t have the same sense of betrayal, and he’d be pragmatic enough to understand her reasoning. However, he was also controlling enough to take over the investigation outright, and that pragmaticism that appealed to her would leave Jarvis utterly vulnerable. Jack would protect civilians, she knew, but he would be far less concerned over someone he considered to be Howard’s lackey.

The fewer details Jack knew for now, the better.

Nodding a few times, Jack finally just shrugged. “Just keep me in the loop, I guess,” he said. “I want an update by the end of the day -- and if anything else shows up about Stark--”

Peggy nodded back dutifully. “I’ll tell you everything you need to know,” she promised.

“I can’t imagine Stark would be stupid enough to make the same mistakes, anyway,” Thompson said. “Not so soon after the last fiasco. Right, Carter?”

She smiled, refusing to give Jack the satisfaction of seeing her squirm. He wasn’t just talking about Howard, after all, and they both knew it. Instead, she looked him in the eyes and nodded. “Of course, Agent Thompson.”

Because this wasn’t the same mistake, not in the least.

Peggy just wasn’t sure if this was a different mistake.

-o-

As much as Peggy appreciated her job now, it was more than a little bit of a relief to finally get out of the office. Playing the game was necessary in her line of work, even when the stakes were high.

The stakes, however, usually weren’t so personal.

Her job was never easy, but this was just so hard. To be sitting here, putting up an act when someone she cared about was missing. She had practice, at least, but with Steve, she’d never held out much hope. Even if they found Steve, there could be nothing but a proper burial.

Jarvis wasn’t dead.

She was doing this to prevent a burial from being necessary at all.

This was why she would put up with the pretenses. This.

Her patience, however, had its limits.

She had Sousa’s list of addresses, and though she had promised to look them over, there were simply too many. Even if she eliminated a few based on details from the photos, it would still take her all day.

There was no time for such things.

Fortunately, Peggy had a few other tricks up her sleeve. It wasn’t always about old fashioned police work. Sometimes it was just the right questions for the right people.

Feeling somewhat confident -- and necessarily sure -- she hailed a cab and clutched her bag tight. This was going to be a long day.

Or an all-too-short one.

-o-

In the back of a cab, she took a few moments to look over Falsone’s file. It was a bit audacious to look at a classified file in the back of a cab, but she hid it in a fashion magazine and knew no one would ever look twice.

Besides, she’d dallied long enough. Every second she sat around doing nothing was another second Jarvis was being held captive. Which was to say that every second was a second too long as far as she was concerned.

Unfortunately, answers were hard to find. Although there were plentiful details in Falsone’s file, the overall portrait was basically identical to the outline Howard had provided for her. The SSR had tracked his business dealings but deemed his business practices either too hard to follow or not important enough to pursue. This was largely because he did have a wide swath of legitimate business interests. In fact, Falsone had an impressive business resume, even if not one that warranted Howard’s respect.

As an inventor, Falsone was second rate, but when it came to making money, the man clearly knew what he was doing. He struck a good balance most of the time, picking projects that were profitable and pursuing means that were just barely legal.

All this made him a formidable presence but hardly a heavyweight in anything particular. It was obvious why Howard would have little interest in Falsone, who managed to earn his money from middling production tactics.

In fact, the profile was largely underwhelming. Which made it all the more perplexing. Falsone had questionable morals, but he wasn’t an outright criminal. His recent push into kidnapping and extortion was not only unprecedented for him, but it was plainly out of character. No, Falsone wasn’t a hardened criminal. He was a dogged businessman.

More than that, he was a family man. He was intensely loyal to longtime employees, and he coddled his children in every possible way. Clearly, Falsone was a man who didn’t like to be told no, but he hardly seemed like the type to resort to this.

She shifted the file, looking briefly at the proof of life photos once more. The ties to Falsone were too precise to be fabrications, but there was something about it that didn’t make sense. There was a missing piece to this puzzle, and with her current information, Peggy was at a loss to pinpoint exactly what it was.

“Hey, Lady,” the cab driver said. “We’re here.”

Peggy looked up, promptly closing the file and arranging the magazine on top. “Fantastic.”

“You want me to wait around?” the driver asked.

Peggy, pulled a few bills from her purse. “No, thank you,” she said. “I think I’ve got it from here.”

-o-

While no one else spared her a second look, the secretary recognized her immediately. She had the common sense, at least, to wait until her boss went back into his office before leaning forward a beckoning Peggy forward.

“Hey!” the secretary whispered, giving a not so subtle look around. “I didn’t expect to see you again!”

“Oh,” Peggy said, smiling effortless. She pulled a chair close to the desk. “A reporter’s job is never done.”

“So did the tip pay off?” the secretary asked eagerly.

“In spades,” Peggy assured her. “In fact, my editor was so pleased with the photographs that he wants to expand our collection.”

The girl’s eyes widened. “Really?”

“Really,” Peggy said emphatically. “Which is actually why I’m here.”

The girl blinked, a little dumbfounded. “I told you before, I ain’t never seen Howard Stark.”

“But that location from before was perfect,” Peggy said. “And I’ve been doing some checking--”

The girl leaned further inward, expectantly. “Yeah?”

“And it looks like Howard Stark is going to be negotiating a deal with one of your bosses,” Peggy said, letting her voice rest with emphasis.

“Yeah?” the girl said again, more excited than before.

“Yes!” Peggy said. “The problem is, I can’t find an address on this guy anywhere, which is seriously impeding my ability to get new shots.”


“Well, I can look it up,” the girl offered all to readily as she reached for her address book. “I’ve got the addresses of the entire company here.”

“Alan Vincent,” Peggy supplied. “I’ve been having a terrible time with him--”

The girl started flipping. “Oh, yeah, Mr. Vincent,” she said. “Weirdest thing with him. He’s never around.”

“Doesn’t that seem odd to you?” Peggy asked.

“Well, sure,” the girl said. “But all the bosses, they’ve each got something weird.”

“I suppose,” Peggy said, although the insinuation was not a pleasant one.

“Here, here,” the girl said, pointing at an open page. “It’s a PO box--”

Peggy shook her head. “That’s no good,” she said. “It’s untraceable.”

“Oh,” the girl said, scratching her head thoughtfully. Then she sat up straighter, eye bright as she snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it!”

“Yes?” Peggy asked, trying not to sound too anxious.

The girl looked around, a little more nervously than before. “Look, I’m not really supposed to tell you this stuff--”

“It’s all strictly off the record,” Peggy promised. “There will be no mention of the company at all--”

The girl bit her lip before opening her desk. “All the mail we get for Mr. Vincent, it goes to that PO box,” she said, picking up a piece of paper and pulling it out. “And no one at the office sees him here, but whenever we have to schedule him in for a meeting, they all get redirected.”

Peggy tilted her head.

The girl put a paper down -- a memo from the looks of it. “Here,” she said. “Normally I don’t pay much attention to this sort of thing, but the meetings with Mr. Vincent, they’re all here.”

Looking closer, Peggy tried to map the address, realizing quickly she recognized it from the list of new acquisitions that Sousa had laid out before.

“I can only figure it’s his private office space or something,” the girl said. “And I can’t promise you anything -- they haven’t met there in more than a month -- but that’s the best I’ve got for Mr. Vincent.”

Peggy picked up the memo, starting to smile again. “May I have this?”

“Sure,” the girl said. “If you think it will help.”

“Oh, I’m sure it will,” Peggy said, getting to her feet.

“Oh, and hey!” the girl said.

Peggy paused.

“Do you think you can get me an advanced copy?” she asked.

“Copy?” Peggy asked.

“Of the magazine!” the girl said.

“Oh!” Peggy said, trying her best not to fumble. There was no magazine, but she couldn’t very well say that. She also couldn’t very well promise this girl nothing after being so helpful. Although, willing to sell out her company for a man wasn’t the most honorable sorts of thing. Still, Peggy suspected the company was to blame for an uninvigorating work environment for such an enterprising young woman. “If this pans out, I can get you much more than that.”

“Really?” the girl enthused.

“Really,” Peggy promised, because if this panned out, Peggy would give this girl anything she could. And, more importantly, she suspected Howard would, too.

Everybody would win.

The girl barely contained a squeal. “Ohhh! I can’t wait!”

“I hope you won’t have to,” Peggy said, because as far as Peggy was concerned, they had all waited long enough in this case.

-o-

Although Peggy had no way to be sure, everything about the location made total sense. Not only had it been acquired by the company after hiring Mr. Vincent, but the man had direct ties there. From the overview of the addresses that Sousa had put together, the building seemed to match the general appearance of the proof of life photos. Better still, the secretary had said the space wasn’t used in the last month. This fit the timeline of the kidnapping.

Of course, it wasn’t a guarantee, but it was a decent place to start. It was quite possibly the break they’d been looking for in this case, and Peggy wanted to think it got them one step closer to bringing Jarvis home for good.

Feeling decidedly upbeat, Peggy checked her watch. It was growing close to the noon hour, and while she certainly had gone longer without meals, she could use a little time to collect her thoughts before checking out the address.

It didn’t hurt that she wanted to see Angie, and she had no doubt that Angie would appreciate some kind of update regarding her whereabouts and progress.

It was Jarvis who had told her to build up a support system, and technically Peggy still owed Angie a rather large debt for her help. All things considered, she could spare time for a quick bite to eat. In many ways, she couldn’t afford not to take care of herself.

Adjusting her hat, Peggy tucked the memo in with the rest of her files and started down the street.

-o-

At the diner, Peggy took her usual booth, perusing the menu out of nothing more than habit. She was skimming the options absently when Angie came up, pen in hand.

“Hey!” Angie exclaimed, pulling out her notepad. “I didn’t expect to see you in!”

“Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting to be in,” Peggy said, keeping her menu open for appearance’s sake. “But I had a quite productive morning.”

Angie nodded in approval. “So you got a lead?”

“I’ll check it out this afternoon,” Peggy said. She paused, glancing back toward the kitchen. “Is Marvin cooking today?”

“No, Joe’s here,” Angie said.

Peggy wrinkled her nose. “I couldn’t stomach a burned chicken sandwich,” she said. “Maybe the salad?”

“Soup’s not bad,” Angie said.

“Fantastic,” Peggy declared, folding her menu and putting it down.

Angie collected it with a grin. “This is great!” she said. “You’re making progress; Howard’s making progress. I’m sure Mr. Fancypants will be back in no time.”

Peggy stopped, shaking her head. “Wait, what?”


“Fancypants,” Angie repeated. “I thought--”

“No, about Howard,” Peggy said.

“Oh, yeah,” Angie said. “He was in here about an hour ago, said he had something he needed to check out.”

That wasn’t part of the plan at all. In fact, it ran entirely counter to the plan that Peggy had so meticulously lined up this morning. She wasn’t necessarily surprised, but it was hard to say what bothered her more: her fear for the safety of her idiot friends or her indignation at being so rashly ignored. “Did he say what?” Peggy demanded.

Angie shrugged. “I didn’t ask.”

Peggy let out a huff. “Did he tell you anything else?”

“I don’t know,” Angie said, at a loss now. “Like what?”

“Anything,” Peggy said again. “Angie, it’s very important that I know everything--”

Angie was clearly flustered by this, her good humor all but gone. She shook her head. “He just said he needed to go out,” she explained. “He told me to tell you that he’d check in with you later.”

“But he’s supposed to be laying low!” Peggy hissed, a flush rising on her cheeks.

“He said it was fine--”

“But it’s not fine,” Peggy said, sharper than she intended.

“Sheesh, English,” Angie said. “I had no idea.”

Peggy’s shoulders slumped. “No, it’s not your fault.”

“If I had known--”

“But you didn’t,” Peggy said, softly now. She tried to smile for Angie’s sake. “And knowing Howard, he could have just wanted to get some air. He doesn’t do so well at being cooped up.”

“He did seem anxious,” Angie said. “Didn’t order anything but a coffee.”

“And are you sure he didn’t tell you where he was going?” Peggy asked.

“Not a peep,” Angie said apologetically.

Peggy chewed her lip for a moment. The morning had been going so well, or as well as she could have hoped, given the current circumstances. She had been developing a controlled response, something to protect Jarvis as much as herself and Howard.

Control was important; control was the difference between life and death.

And she was rapidly losing it, thanks to Howard.

That man was nothing but trouble for her. Her life would be easier without him in it.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t how friendship worked.

“Angie,” Peggy said, her mind made up. “Could you get me a salad to go?”

Angie’s brow creased. “You should eat--”

“And I will,” Peggy promised. “But if Howard’s on the move, I need to stay close behind.”

“But you don’t know where he is,” Angie said.

“Howard may be a technical genius,” Peggy said. “But he’s still just as much a man as the next guy. It shouldn’t be hard to figure out.”

Angie hesitated.

“It’s fine,” Peggy said.

“Yeah, that’s what he said,” Angie replied.

“But you know you can trust me,” Peggy said.

Angie was looking increasingly vexed now. “I can trust you to get the job done, but I can’t always trust you to take care of yourself now, can I?”

“Angie--”

Angie shook her head, suddenly resolved. “One salad, to go,” she said, stuffing her pad into her apron. She held up a finger, pointing it sternly at Peggy. “And you check in with me tonight.”

“Of course,” Peggy agreed readily. It was still remarkable to her, really. The way that Angie could cope with so much and handle it with such unparalleled aplomb. She would be a good spy, not that Peggy would ever tell her that for fear of putting the notion into her head. It was bad enough that she’d lost Steve, nearly lost Howard and could still lose Jarvis. Angie needed to be safe, her one sure constant when everything else was continually uncertain.

Angie was remarkable, but not without her limits. Half-scowling in consternation, Angie wagged the finger once more. “And be careful!”

“For you, Angie,” Peggy vowed, the tight smile pulling almost painfully at the edge of her lips. “Always.”

-o-

She made good time back to the house, although she was admittedly starving by the time she got there. The house seemed perfectly in order with Howard’s coffee cup still half-full on the kitchen counter. The files she’d left were still there as well, with several pages of annotations in Howard’s customary scrawl nearby on the coffee table. The notes ended part way through with no obvious indication of why Howard had stopped.

Curious, she did a quick sweep of the house, finding no indication that anything was amiss. In fact, beyond those two rooms, there was no evidence of Howard being there at all. It was possible that something in his notes had prompted him to pursue another lead. She also couldn’t deny the possibility that he’d been withholding something from her all along and had merely seen her absence as the needed opportunity to continue his investigation alone.

That was more than plausible; it was perfectly Howard. He was the one who had asked for her absolute trust and then lied to her about the most important details. She would not forget how he’d lied to her about Steve’s blood. She’d forgiven him and held no ill will against him, but that didn’t make her ignorant to the fact that Howard would readily be able to deceive her again.

All that considered, it was still surprising. Howard had been genuinely surprised to see her, and especially relieved for her help. Perhaps he had only needed her insider knowledge from the SSR for a short period of time, or maybe the stakes were higher than he’d let on. It was possible that he was trying to protect her, or that he actually believed that Jarvis would be safer if he continued on his quest alone.

These factors were all understandable, but they were also flawed. Because Peggy didn’t need to be protected, and if Howard did this alone, he would be far too vulnerable. He needed backup, a support system, help. This was the kind of thing no one could afford to do alone, and Peggy had learned that from experience.

Though Jarvis had told her as much.

That was perhaps the irony of this entire situation. Jarvis had always provided her unflagging support, even when she tried to resist it. He had been unduly loyal to Howard for years, even at great personal discomfort. He had willingly been their support system at times when Howard and Peggy had not deserved it.

And now it was their turn.

Which meant, Howard wouldn’t do this alone. Not for his sake, not for Jarvis’ sake.

That was a strong conviction.

Unfortunately, it was badly impeded by the fact that Howard had disappeared with nothing more than a hearsay goodbye. No one could fault her for walking away.

That wasn’t really Peggy’s style, though.

Not when people she cared about were in danger.

Howard didn’t want to be found, but Peggy wasn’t about to let that stop her.

And, now that she thought about it, she had a pretty good idea where to start looking.

-o-

At Howard’s main lab in downtown New York City, they recognized her immediately, and she endured numerous pleasantries from various receptionists and assistants. When the man from yesterday finally came out to apologize, Peggy smiled politely.

“You are a fantastic assistant, and no doubt an apt professional,” she said. “But you are also a bad liar. I know for a fact that Mr. Stark is here, and I know for a fact that he will accept a visit from me. So, if you will, show me back to his private office, or I’m afraid I’ll have to do it myself.”

Flabbergasted, the assistant fumbled. “But -- I--”

“Very well, then,” Peggy said, promptly moving past him. “Thank you for your time.”

“But--”

She waved a hand back. “Don’t bother calling security,” she said, pushing her way through the doors back into the main lab space. “I’m sure it wouldn’t do any good.”