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The Hustle

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Peggy doesn’t come home for three days.

Angie pretends that it’s for the best. That she’s unbothered by the absence because she is very angry at Peggy, but the emptiness of the apartment is enough to make Angie want to scream. She needs someone to talk to, someone to grieve with. Someone who isn’t full of silent judgment like her ma.

She goes out on the first night, back to Betty’s and rustles up another two hundred bucks to go into the ‘repay Tito’s debt’ coffee can she’s hidden under her bed. She calls in to work and passes on an audition for a part she’s been coveting. She spends the days sitting at Tito’s bedside, mumbling along with the prayers the priest recommends. The Latin burns her tongue and the priest gives her long looks and offers her confession when she leaves each night. Angie won’t take it. She can’t take it. She doesn’t want to go to hell a hypocrite pretending she can be fixed.

Doctor Fraum says that Tito’s condition isn’t getting any better. He’s being kept alive by machines alone, breathin’ and beatin’ his heart for him. It’s disgusting to look at his body and knowing that he got himself killed over a lousy game of pool. They couldn’t stop the bleeding on the inside. It’s only a matter of time until his body catches up with his already dead brain.

The hours tick by. One by one. Angie reads the Bible to Tito in Italian slowly, rounding the words when she can’t quite remember how to say them. She sits beside her mother and waits for Tito to die.

On the evening of the third day, her ma turns to her and asks over the quiet hum of the machines how much of Lorenzo’s money Tito had lost.

Angie looks at her feet for a long time. It figures that her mother would have found out about it, her mother finds out about everything. She has an ear for gossip and rumor. It’s how Angie wasn’t able to deny what Tito alleged when he said it. The rumors were already there. All it took was Tito swearin’ on the Virgin and Angie’s goose was well and truly cooked. “Three thousand.”

“God help us,” her ma crosses herself. “How are we going to get that kind of money? Jimmy Alverez said it was a lot, but I never dreamed…”

“Did someone threaten you, Ma?”

“No, Angela. I just know these men. They want and want and want. Friendship matters little to them. They’ll get every last dime back with interest.” She sighs. “And to think, Lorenzo is Tito’s best friend.”

It is easy then, to decide what she is going to do. Peggy is gone off doing something secretive and Angie cannot rely on her to help sell the hustle at Betty’s. She’ll have to go somewhere else, play a different role. She’s still eighteen hundred shy and has no time to get it.

Tito is running out of time and Angie isn’t about to let him go to the grave with his debts unpaid.

“Ma.” She reaches out and touches her ma’s arm and is grateful when she doesn’t flinch away. “Will you be alright here tonight? By yourself?”

Her ma gives her a searching look. “I can call the father back.” Her eyes narrow. “What are you planning?”

“I’m going to end this,” Angie says grimly. “And make sure no one comes after you or anyone else for the stupid money Tito lost.”

-

Angie has clothes hidden in the back of her closet that she’s sure even Peggy doesn’t know about. The apartment is silent, only the quiet hum of the A/C unit in Peggy’s window cuts though the ringing absence of sound in Angie’s ears. She’s digging in the back of her closet for shoes with heels that are too high to be practical, and a bold blue dress that is just a bit too short and shows too much in the chest. It feels uncomfortable, and she knows the boys at this place will get fresh with her. It’s part of the role, part of the game. She has to play the game to win it.

She borrows a scarf from Peggy’s topmost dresser drawer, carefully setting aside little boxes of bullets and a nasty-looking knife collection for her prize. Peggy’s said it’s alright, and Angie’s got to look the part. It’s only when she flips the scarf over and realizes the maker that she thinks twice about borrowing it. Angie wonders if she picked it up in Paris after the war, she knows they don’t come cheap.

“Why do you got somethin’ so nice, English? Stark tryin’ to buy your affection?” She’s talking to herself as she stares in the mirror and knots the scarf once, and then twice. Its bright red and white with a black floral pattern that offsets the dress and makes her eyes stand out. Angie leaves Peggy’s room and her knives and bullets as she’s found them, slipping out and putting Peggy’s little piece of paper back in the door. She collects her pool cue and earrings and it’s only after a moment’s hesitation that she dashes off a note explaining where she is and leaves it on the kitchen table.

Her mother always has impressed on Angie that leaving a note is better than the alternative, even if you’re mad at the person.

And Angie is hopping.

She’s sure that’s why Peggy has stayed away for so long. She’s off huntin’ mobsters and doesn’t have the God-given decency to be honest with Angie about it. Angie lets out a frustrated huff of air and turns away from the note on the table. It’s an address and a name, a place that Peggy probably already knows about if she really has been lookin’ into Lorenzo’s bosses. She’s gonna go there and get the money Tito owes right out from under his nose.

And she’ll look a million bucks doin’ it.

She catches her reflection in the hall mirror and pauses, her confidence faltering.

Okay, maybe the Hermès scarf is a bit much, but it makes her look like she’s got more than the thousand bucks in her purse to play with and heck if she’ll let them take her for a cent. Lorenzo didn’t break Tito’s thumbs or gut him with a pool cue, but Angie’s got this. She tugs at the scarf, fluffs her hair, and marches out the door.

-

Angie catches the train across the river and cuts through her old neighborhood to catcalls and long, searching looks from the few faces whose features she does recognize. They know why she doesn’t come back here anymore, why her mother refuses to talk about her. Everyone knows when Angie went away for three months and came back broken. They might not know exactly why she went, if she got into trouble or something else entirely, but that’s why Angie knows she has a future in acting. She’ll never let on what they did to her in that place. What her parents sanctioned and what the priest suggested when her mother went to him desperate for a solution to a problem that had none to be had.

She’s broken and she can’t be fixed. They should never have bothered trying. It’s just made her hate everything about herself that she cannot change. It’s in her very nature, in her very blood.

Yet she bleeds as red as anyone else.

The destination she has in mind has no name. Just a small door in a blank wall scrubbed free of advertisements. She tugs a cigarette from her purse and puts it to her lips. No use pretendin’ she’s quit now. She lights it and puffs once, twice, it masks the smell of too-expensive perfume on the borrowed scarf.

Peggy has annoyingly expensive taste for a gal who works at the phone company. Angie wonders if maybe in that mysterious past of her’s there’s money. Maybe a land title or something like that. She could be a royal an’ Angie would have no idea.

She flicks ash from the end of her cigarette and chuckles. She’s foolin’ herself if she thinks she’ll ever be able to have Peggy. That much was made abundantly clear when Peggy used her and Tito to get an inside look at Lorenzo’s game.

Christ, she’d outed Betty’s establishment to someone who probably worked for the CIA.

Or wherever. It sure as Hell wasn’t the phone company.

Angie sucks in more smoke, resolving not to think about it. She doesn’t want to think that Peggy would be so petty or so heartless, but she doesn’t know what she believes anymore. What they did there was technically illegal by the letter of the law. To be a homosexual is to be no better than a Red. No better than being an Italian before Mussolini bit it either, Angie thinks darkly.

Smoke gets in her eyes, clouds her mind and fills her with the haze of nicotine and sweet tobacco. Maybe forgetting is what she means. She has to get her head straight.

“Ya gonna sit out there all day, doll?” A guy is leaning out the door. He’s dirty, his tie is off center and his suit looks cheap and isn’t well ironed. He’s giving Angie a once over that makes his want clear.

Her stomach turns, anxiety rotting away to self-loathing, but she doesn’t look away. Instead, she forces on her most winning smile and bats her eyes at him. She exhales, and affects the Hollywood accent that she almost never puts on in public. “Depends on the company, mister.”

“You’re too classy a gal to be in an establishment like this alone.” He offers Angie his arm. “Come inside, I’ll get you a drink.” His hand falls to the curve of her rear and Angie bites the inside of her cheek to stop from flinching away. Lorenzo is in here somewhere, maybe. Either way, she’s going to take his money, and this guy’s fresh hands are just the beginning of a game that’ll probably last all night.

The bar is dark, lit by lamps draped with shades that pitch the light down and in a cool yellow glow. Men stand around smoking, a few are shooting pool at one of the pool tables along the back of the bar. Angie lets Handsy lead her to the bar and accepts the fruity sweet cocktail he buys for her. She rests her cue stick case on her knees and stares out at the crowd. There are no faces here that she recognizes.

“So what’s a gal like you doin’ a place like this?” Handsy asks. He’s pulled a comb from his pocket and his fixing his greasy hair. Angie wrinkles her nose. “Don’t get too many girls in here that aren’t workin’.”

Angie tilts her head to one side. “Oh, I assure you, I’m hardly that sort of a girl.” She tucks her cigarette to her lips. “I heard this was the place to come, if I wanted to try my hand at billiards.”

“You in town for a show or somethin’ lady?” Angie gives Handsy a searching look. He flushes and clarifies, “Because someone is messin’ with ya. Nothin’ but drunks and thugs in a place like this.” He tilts his head back towards the pool table. “And hustlers if ya wanna get fleeced at pool.”

“Not even a friendly match?” Angie puts in just the right bit of disappointment into her voice. She better win an Oscar for this, or at least enough to get Tito’s walking corpse past St. Peter. “I love the game, but with work – you know how it is – I never get a chance to play.” She looks out over the bar. “Or if I do, it’s just guys lettin’” her accent slips and she winces, corrects with a cough. “Excuse me, letting me win.”

Handsy sips his drink and hums. “Imagine that’d be mighty tryin’.” His expression softens, makes him look halfway to human. The smile she graces him with comes easier this time. “Do you play?”

“I do.”

“Ya good?”

“Decent. Nothing to write home about.” Mostly because her mother would have a fit if she ever found out Angie played. She did when she found out Tito had started hustlin’, never did find out who taught him though. Funny how those things went, men takin’ credit where it wasn’t due. “Do you want to have a go?”

He glances at the table. A match is just finishing. “I don’ see why not. Come on, doll, I’ll show ya a good time.”

Somewhere, a little voice in Angie’s head is screaming that this is a bad idea. Angie ignores it and pulls a five dollar bill from her purse. She sets it down on the table and unzips her cue case. Handsy produces a five of his own and gets a shot from the bar, draining it and setting the empty glass down on top of the two fives. A little jolt of excitement shoots through Angie. This is it, this is what she’s been waiting for.

“You playin’ a lady there Josie?” One of the guys at the bar comes over to stand beside Handsy. He’s got a five o’clock shadow and Angie recognizes him from around the neighborhood. He’s one of Lorenzo’s boys. She keeps her expression neutral and lights another cigarette. “I’ll keep score.”

“Will you do the rack?” Angie keeps her tone mild. She’s playing an out of town dame who has money to blow and wants danger. Maybe she’s an actress, maybe she’s just someone’s wife wantin’ trouble. She probably should have borrowed a ring from someone. “So it’s fair?” She exhales smoke and watches as he nods and sets it up, politely leaving the 1 ball and the 5 ball in their traditional pockets and setting the striped 12 ball in at the apex of the rack. The cue ball is set before it.

“Ladies first.” Handsy steps aside. He tosses Angie the chalk. “If you can break without the penalty.”

Angie gives him a look that speaks volumes to how she feels about his comment. She rubs chalk onto the end of her cue stick and eyes the rack. She could sink a ball breaking, but that’s part of the charm of this game for her. Let him underestimate her from the first shot. Her goal is just to get ‘em on the rails. She leans over, calls her shot, and breaks. The 1, 7 and 10 balls all hit the rail; she steps back, watching as the cue rolls and hits the far rail before coming to a stop, bumping against the 12 ball. A smug little smile creeps across her face. “I think I can manage it.”

Handsy, who’s name is probably Josiah goin’ offa his nickname, gives her a conciliatory nod.

Around them, some of the other fellas whisper to themselves. One wonders in quiet Italian if Josie knows what he’s getting into. Angie bats her eyelashes at him, but doesn’t let on she understands.

“Seven ball, left center pocket,” Angie says, and starts her inning. She steps around to the far side of the table. “Fourteen ball, far right.” The striped 14 ball sinks as well and Angie feels a little swell of confidence as she crosses around to the far right corner of the table. “Fellas, you mind giving a girl some space?” The gathered crowd of men backs up some and Angie lets her cigarette hang loose from her lips. This shot is tricky. The cue ball has landed in a terrible spot and she’ll have to have a combo in order to sink the next one. Still, it’s a doable shot, if she gets the angle just right. “Nine ball, far left.”

The 9 ball is not in a place where it should end up in the far left pocket. Angie’s counting on a double hit in order to sink it. She almost hopes that it’ll miss, but she wonders if maybe showing she has some skill for the first inning is worth it to make Handsy bring his best game. She lines up her shot and hits the cue ball expertly. It ricochets off the 12 ball, which sends the 10 ball, a little further up the table, into the 9 ball on a slow trajectory towards the far left pocket.

It stops just short.

Angie lets out a quiet groan and steps back. She’s earned a handful of points, but missing is good, even if the shot lacked just a little bit of power to push the ball into the pocket. It would have made a pretty shot too. “Damn,” she whispers.

Around her, the fellas are tittering, impressed with her shot. One of them slaps her on the back like she’s just another guy. “That’s an ace shot there doll, sorry it didn’t go in.”

“Yeah,” Angie agrees, forgetting to affect a neutral accent. She sucks on her cigarette and waits as Handsy eyes the field and selects his shot. Angie accepts a drink from a stranger and watches as he proceeds to pocket all but the eight ball. He must be superstitious.

Handsy wins her five dollars. And then another twenty. Soon she’s a hundred bucks in the hole and he pushes it all towards her. “Sink ‘em all, doll, and I’ll match it.”

“Show me,” Angie says.

He pulls a crispy one hundred dollar bill ticked with Lorenzo’s mark from his pocket and snaps it once before setting it down beside the small pile of Angie’s money and calling for another shot of bourbon.

The guy who racked initially racks again and Angie rubs more chalk on her cue stick. Her heart is hammering in her chest. She’s angry, so terribly angry, at Peggy for lying to her, at Lorenzo for puttin’ Tito in this position. At the goons who beat up Tito and essentially murdered him. All over this lousy game.

A hush has fallen over the gathered crowd. She glances around to see that a tall man with dark hair and movie-star quality cheekbones has taken up residence leaning against the bar. He has a scar on his upper lip from and a cruel smile drifting across his lips. He raises his hand and gives a little wave. His jacket falls aside to reveal a gun tucked into his belt.

“Your break, doll.”

“Thanks, Josie.” Angie is in a haze. She turns her attention to the rack and breaks calling the 10 ball to go into the middle right pocket as she does so. Josie’s eyes go wide as it falls, and Angie calls her next shot, and her next. One after the other, until all the balls are in. The guy racks again. Angie tells Josie to double his money and she’ll beat ‘im again.

Lorenzo is staring at her like she’s a ghost.

Angie sinks another fourteen and glares at him. She’s five hundred bucks flush now. She’s feelin’ like she could take on the world.

“Double it.” She says when a guy presses another drink into her hands.

The voice that purrs in her ear is low and its timbre is all wrong, tight and lacing with fear and anxiety in her chest. Lorenzo’s hand rests on her hip and he holds up a lit match for her. “I’m afraid I can’t let him do that, Angela.” His voice feels like murder.

“Can’t or won’t?” she asks. She leans forward and accepts the light. He waves the match out. The cigarette does little calm Angie’s nerves.

“You’re hustlin’ in my bar.” He points out. “And you’re takin’ Josie here for a ride with my money.”

Angie shrugs, plays it cool. “Runs in the family.” Her heart hammers away in her chest. Lorenzo’s hand is entirely too close to several places where no respectable gentleman should ever be. Perhaps doubly so because she wouldn’t put it past scum like Lorenzo to try touching her just to say he had.

He glares at her. His eyes, even in the low light of the bar, are dangerous and blue. He’d be handsome if he wasn’t so evil. “Tito did that,” he mused. “Gambled with my money. Had to teach ‘im a lesson. Show ‘im that he couldn’t do that with other people’s money.” The heat of his hand cuts though Angie’s dress. It feels like a brand, dirty fingernails and ill-intent digging into her skin and leaving marks that she’ll never be able to shrug off. “How is it that his little cousin is a better shot than ‘im?”

It confirms a theory that Angie’s had though. She was ready to absolve Lorenzo of any involvement in the incident that had gotten Tito into a state of waking death, but now she knows better. Lorenzo had done it, and Angie is going to make sure that he gets everything he deserves and then some.

Angie turns and smiles sweetly at him. She hates him with all her might. “Who do ya think taught ‘im, Lorenzo?”

His lip curls. Angie blows smoke in his face.

Lorenzo is pulling her back and away from the table. Angie doesn’t let go of her cue stick, she’s probably going to need to run. She wiggles her toes to make sure her shoes are strapped on tightly enough to move and move quickly if she has to. “He’s told me other things about you.” Lorenzo’s voice is cold in her ear now. Cold like the threat that’s there and is suddenly very real. Angie didn’t think this through. “About you being broken. About you never wantin’ no man.” He steps away from her, turning around and Angie moves to hoof it out of there only to find herself face to face with a wall of large and angry bar patrons. Handsy cracks his knuckles.

Angie turns back around. Lorenzo has pulled a gun from his waistband and is pointing it at Angie. “I think I could fix that, given enough time.”

Something catches Angie’s eye then. A flash of dark hair and the stark white of a starched, military issue shirt. She swallows down the fear of what he’s threatening, the fear of a repeat of that place again, and shrugs. Her ticket outta here has arrived, even if she wasn’t expectin’ a rescue. “You ain’t near man enough to flip me, ‘Zo.”

“Is that so?” He takes one step forward. Angie’s fingers tighten on the cue stick. “How’s ‘bout we find out.”

A finger, nail painted an enticing and sinful shade of red, taps Lorenzo on the shoulder. He blinks oafishly for a moment before turning around. There is a sickening crack as Peggy’s fist connects with his face. She doesn’t so much as flinch as blood from his nose splatters her pristine white shirt.

Angie swallows, she’s in uniform. Or half uniform. She recognizes the standard-issue skirt and sensible shoes from news reels during the war, the shirt at least is familiar, but she can’t remember if any of her friends in the WAAC wore ties. Her mind is hazy with panic, and she catches herself wondering if it’s only Brits who let their ladies wear ties. She won’t lie and say she doesn’t like it, even if she’s sick to her stomach just looking at Peggy.

“You’re three days late, English.” Angie says as Lorenzo stumbles away from Peggy. He’s clutching his nose, blood is streaming down it. In the other hand he’s waving the gun he’s still clutching around wildly. Angie takes a step back, and a guy grabs at her shoulder. She shifts, toe twisting in her shoe, and swings her cue stick like she’s playing stickball with the neighborhood boys. It cracks, loudly, on his head. He lets out a yelp and lunges for Angie. She ducks; cursing her shoes, and twists her body out of his way.

Hands are all over her. Lorenzo’s guys are reaching for her, grabbing at her dress and skin. It rips, their nails cut through her skin. She looks at the blood on her arms and hits harder with the cue stick. There seems to be no end to the stream of men wishing her ill.

Glancing over her shoulder, she sees Peggy grab the gun out of Lorenzo’s hands and divest it of its clip and chambered bullet. She tosses it aside and has to duck to avoid a guy with a baseball bat swinging at her. It almost figures, Peggy would show up and this perfectly civil hustle would devolve into a brawl.

And a brawl it is. Angie’s ducking around guys swinging punches and it soon becomes obvious that Peggy’s brought the cavalry with her. There are enough guys in suits that she can’t tell who’s on which side and she honestly just wants to get out before someone hits her too. The shouts are almost deafening, and there, in the middle, lookin’ just like Captain America, is Peggy Carter, punching the lights out of some goon and elbowing another in the process. It’s a thing of beauty to watch.

A hand closes around Angie’s shoulder and she turns to see Lorenzo, blood streaming out of his nose, squinting at her. “Did you call the feds, Martinelli?” His voice is low, hissing and rattling. In his throat. He’s got a knife but it’s loose in his fingers. “Or is this ju’s ‘bout Tito?”

“Tito don’t deserve what you did to him,” Angie replies. She’s inching away from him, stepping over a guy knocked out and wearing a badge at his belt. “But I didn’t call these goons.”

“No, you were jus’ here t’rob me.” He sounds like a child.

“I was here to pay off Tito’s debt.” Angie pulls the wad of money from her purse and shoves it at him. “I don’t want it anyway. “

He looks down at the wad of bills and then back to Angie. He takes an unsteady step forward, and then another. Angie backs up until the wall stops her. The sounds of the brawl are everywhere, and he’s looking at her like she’s Judas. “You’re the one. You put the idea in Tito’s head. You always put the ideas in ‘is fool head.” He stumbles, takes another step, and crumples to the floor.

Angie lets out a slow, shuttering breath. Peggy is holding a cue stick and is looking awfully pleased with herself. “Hello, Angie.” She says. Her voice is breathless, full of exhilaration at the violence that surrounds them. Angie doesn’t think she’s ever heard Peggy sound so alive. “Are you alright?”

Alright? Angie is about as far from alright as a gal can get before she hits hysterics. She gropes blindly for Peggy, pulling her deeper into the alcove that Lorenzo’d backed her in. A telephone booth is beside them, it’s panes rattling every time a body falls to the floor.

“Alright?” Angie’s voice is shaking. “You lied to me, Peggy. You lied an- an-and you let me think that you wanted to help. When all along you had this agenda that got ya that awful shiner for your troubles and now you’re here savin’ me an—and--” Angie sags against the wall. “I don’ like you very much right now, English.”

She doesn’t say that it isn’t about Peggy lying to her. She’s honestly used to that. There are elements of Peggy’s life that Angie knows she can never share. But this is worse, the biting, bitter taste of what could have been at Betty’s. When it had seemed so easy for Peggy to reach into her heart and rip it in two. When Peggy had done it over and over, possessive and deliberate. Enough to end any hope Angie ever had of moving on from her.

Peggy’s fingers trail up her arms, checking for injuries beyond the scrapes and bruises that Angie can already feel forming. It isn’t painful, more like a reminder of all that Angie’s going to regret in the morning. Peggy cups Angie’s cheeks, forcing Angie to look up at her. “Darling,” she whispers. “I meant you no deception. I merely wanted you safe, and this was the only way I knew to get you away from Lorenzo.”

“Fat lot of good it did me.” Angie shudders, thinking of Lorenzo’s hands on her and the innuendo in what he’d said.

“Yes,” Peggy murmurs. She leans in then, pressing a gentle kiss to Angie’s lips. It’s enough to shock Angie, to make her pull back and stare openly at Peggy.

Behind them, the sounds of the brawl are lessening, and the polished voices of college educated men calling to each other starts to fill Angie’s ears. She glares at Peggy. “No.” Her tone is forceful. “You don’t get to do that to me, Peggy. Not again. You don’t get to use what’s wrong with me to your mmmmf—” Peggy kisses her again, this time forcefully, her teeth biting into Angie’s lower lip and her hands pushing Angie against the wall, flat against her shoulders. Her tongue is in Angie’s mouth, and Angie really is drowning now. This is the sort of kiss you read about banned novels, not the sort your roommate lays on ya to say she’s sorry.

Never say that there’s something wrong with you.” Peggy’s whisper is forceful, her teeth nipping at Angie’s swollen lips. “Never.

Angie nods weakly.

They lapse into silence, the quiet of the alcove dissolving into the chaos of the brawl around them. Peggy rests her forehead against Angie’s and exhales, her breath sweet and gentle on Angie’s sweaty skin.

“I need to deal with this.”

Angie nods again. Peggy kisses her lips chastely this time, sweet and innocent.

“I’ll see you tonight?”

“I’ll be at the hospital.”

“Oh...” Peggy’s expression goes from fiercely determined to sad almost instantly. Angie’s stomach drops to somewhere around her ankles. “Angie, I—”

Angie starts. Had Tito gone and died while she was gamblin’ for his soul? “What happened?” She rubs at Peggy’s lipstick where it’s smeared across her mouth. She has to think about anything else.

Peggy’s lips are pressed into a thin line. “He passed at seven o’clock tonight. Your mother called just as I got home. It was only after that I saw your note.” She reaches out, touches Angie’s shoulder with hesitant fingers. Gone is the forcefulness of earlier. “Angie, I am so sorry.”

“I have to go.”

She does not run out of the bar, but it’s a close thing.

-

Tito’s dead and gone and Angie’s mother is sobbing into her shoulder. Angie mumbles the Lord’s Prayer because she doesn’t know what else to say, her fingers dig into her ma’s dress and somewhere a clock strikes two o’clock in the morning.

Two police officers stand beside Tito’s body, speaking in low, deferential tones to Peggy about their investigation. Angie would never have called the cops, but Peggy had simply showed up with them and had explained in near-perfect Italian to Angie’s ma that they would make sure that Lorenzo never was released from jail again.

The loss is biting, acrid and painful on her tongue. She’ll never tell Tito she loves to hate him again. She’ll never have him spill another of her secrets. Her ma will never look from one of them to the other at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and whisper that they are her favorite children in the whole world, even if they’re both broken in their own ways.

“Ma,” Angie whispers as the police officers file out. Peggy is standing by the door, hesitating in the most casual way possible. Angie follows the line of thought to this inevitable conclusion that feels like a beginning and decides it isn’t worth it to keep lyin’. One of them has to tell the truth and Peggy can’t. National Security or whatever. “I want you to meet someone.”

She doesn’t care that her ma freezes in her hands, or that Tito’s body is still cooling on the bed beside them. She doesn’t care that this is the worst possible time for this. It’s something that she has to do; she has to set up a future, even if there is none. Tito will be okay, his soul is off to Saint Peter’s on by the skin of Angie’s teeth. They’ll take him – the body – away once the medical examiner is finished lookin’ at him, but he won’t be in until later. Peggy’s asked him to stay away until they’ve had a chance to say goodbye.

“This is Margaret Carter,” Angie explains. She gestures for Peggy to come closer. “She’s from England and she’s my roommate.” Angie says the words like they mean something. She won’t say almost lover. She isn’t sure that’s what the kiss at the bar meant. She doesn’t want to assume and get her heart broke.

Her ma has tears in her eyes but she clasps Peggy’s hand when it’s offered. “It is lovely to meet you, officially, Margaret.” She speaks in Italian, but everyone understands it well enough that it isn’t an issue. Angie has never been so grateful for the war in all of her life. Without it, they’d be having a hopeless game of telephone with Angie serving as interpreter. “Are you taking good care of my Angela?”

Peggy lets out a quiet chuckle. “I think you have that backwards, Mrs. Martinelli. Angie is the one who takes care of me.” She runs a tired hand through her hair. Her tie is loose at her neck, the pin tucked away in a pocket. “I’m the one who works too much, after all.”

“You are with the government, yes?”

“The telephone company,” Peggy insists. That particular lie is really starting to grate Angie’s grill. She bites back a protest that the goose is cooked; they’ve both seen her bossin’ around men twice her age who are high-ranking in the NYPD. “But I do other things.”

Angie meets Peggy’s eyes over her ma’s head. The understatement makes them both smile just a little bit. “I am very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Martinelli.” Peggy presses on, as though the shared glance between them had never happened. “I’m sorry I did not put together all the pieces fast enough to keep him from getting into trouble in the first place. All the money coming in and out of that pool hall should have been a warning sign, but I was too busy looking elsewhere. I am so sorry.”

“That boy is—” her ma falters and buries her face in Angie’s shoulder. Angie holds her and rubs comforting circles on her back. Tito was forever gettin’ into trouble, it isn’t new to catch her ma admitting that an end like this was all either of them had envisioned for Tito since they were kids. He had a nose for danger and poor decisions.

And they had gotten him killed.

“I’ll leave you two now, but Mrs. Martinelli. I will be there for Angie, should she need a shoulder to lean on.” It isn’t until her ma leans forward and clasps Peggy’s hands with both of her own and whispers a quiet grazie that Angie realizes that this is the most tacit approval she is ever going to get from her ma of one of her friends, even if she isn’t sure that’s what Peggy is or even wants to be.

Her heart aches for Tito, but it soars for the quiet understanding that exists in the room long-departed of his ghost.

Angie holds her ma close and watches Peggy’s retreating back and military-stiff posture as she walks down the hospital hallway and out of sight.

-

Three weeks later –

The milkshake is a lot colder than she expected, and she has to press her tongue to the roof of her mouth, one hand covering her wince as she leans back. “Ugh,” she groans.

“Too cold?” Peggy asks mildly, using a spoon like a proper lady. Angie certainly does not wish she was the spoon disappearing between Peggy’s red lips. No, not at all.

Angie glares at the offending milkshake. “Very much too cold.”

She and Peggy are out celebrating. The part that she passed up auditioning for, a supporting role on an off-Broadway show, has somehow ended up in Angie’s lap anyway. Someone had heard from someone who knew a guy who might have been at the bar during Angie’s run at pool. The script calls for skill at cue sports, so she’s practically a shoo in, even if she had no idea how anyone was going to see a pool table on stage.

That question was answered when she saw the script and met the director. It wasn’t a stage script after all; they’d pulled it to do a movie instead after the director had read it and made a few calls. A movie! Angie was going to be in a movie!

Someone could knock her over with a feather.

Or that she will meet her demise at the hands of a very cold milkshake in a soda parlor in midtown.

Either way, it will be a good, honorable death.

She’s just gone to pick up the script and Peggy left work early (a miracle) to come with her. It feels terrifyingly domestic and oddly far more like the girlish fantasies that Angie indulged in when she was far younger than any sort of an acceptable reality. People like her don’t get happy endings, or even chances at trying for them.

Under the counter, Peggy’s hand rests warm on Angie’s thigh.

This is all she’s ever wanted.