Chapter 1: The Set-Up
Angie's cousin Tito is a hustler. The best shot at pool in all of Brooklyn, maybe even the five boroughs. It drives her ma mad with worry, her eyes cast towards the cross on the wall and the picture of the Virgin beside it. Keep him safe, she'd whisper, kissing her rosary when he'd slip out late at night.
On those nights, even Angie prays he'll stay safe. His father died in the war, his mother of the flu when they could scarce afford rent, let alone a doctor. Tito's the closest thing that Angie has to a brother.
When he starts hustlin' the wrong crowd, the crowd that Angie's other uncles - the ones that survived the war - run with, Angie starts to get worried. Her mother worries too, the rosary beads clutched in her hand at the front of the church. The priest won't see Angie any more, and the nuns give her dirty looks when she comes in to sit with her mother, hands folded in her lap as her mother kneels before the cross. She doesn't fit here. The good pious girl is gone to the big bands and flashing lights of Broadway.
She was gone long before that, though. Gone when she'd confessed to Father Bosco that something wasn't quite right about her. Her mother doesn't talk about that day when Angie was fifteen when she'd come home to find Tito sitting with her mother. He'd heard her confession, he said, and it wasn't right. She doesn't talk about how her mother went to the church and the the priest had recommended an institution, or how Angie had spent three months shut away there when her family could scarcely afford food and there was no work for her mother. They told her it was to fix her, but she'd never felt broken.
Silences fill the space between them, punctuated with stiff conversation in two languages. Angie refuses to coddle her mother, and only speaks English to her, her mother refuses to acknowledge that Angie is losing her heritage and is becoming more American.
Her uncles crack their knuckles and say things that cut her deeply. Tito is the only one who cares about her, but even he doesn't like it. She knows she could sent away again, if the wrong person found out, but she's better now. She doesn't think about it, and goes dancing with navy men at fleet week and lets them kiss her because that is what she's supposed to want. She channels her anger and her confusion into her acting, she wins bit parts and wants more than her crap job at the Automat, serving coffee to ghoulish men who can't respect a dame even if she's their own mother.
Tito's hunched over the counter one morning in June, a cup of coffee steaming before him, reading the race results when it happens. It's after the breakfast rush, in the lull of late-awaking wives and old folks who want to gather over nickel coffee and talk about the war or politics. Angie's humming to herself, reading over Tito's shoulder as she passes, noting the baseball score from yesterday.
"Didn't you say you went to the game?" She glanced down at Tito as his dark hair fell into his eyes. It was frizzing, the day was cool but humid, mist blowing in off the river sticking to everything and leaving Angie with lasting feeling of miserable dampness that even being indoors could not chase away. "How'd they do?"
He shook his head and folded the paper. "Didn't get there, had things to do."
"Things?" she questioned.
He looked up at her, brown eyes a warning. "Yeah, Ang, things."
"I was only askin'." Angie shakes her head and turns away. "She cute?"
Tito scowls. "Your ma know you been askin' fellas about girls?"
Angie wants to pour her pot of coffee over his head. The threat is there in his voice, and he'll make good on it, same as her uncles. He does care about Angie, more than anyone else, but he's every bit as bad as the rest of them. He rubs Angie's face in her wrongness and snidely points out her flaws while standing in front of her to protect her from her uncle's belt or her grandfather's admonishment.
A family secret, that's all she is, the dirty little secret.
"It ain’t about no girl, since you wanna know." Tito continues. "I was playin' Angie. Won three hundred bucks offa some suit with a mustache down at Lenny's." Lenny's Pool Hall was one of Tito's favorite places to play. It was close enough to the docks that it attracted all sorts, and was easy pickings for someone as good as Tito. “Got another game tonight. A real big fish.”
Angie shakes her head. "Don't get your thumbs broke."
He gets up and leaves a few minutes later, Angie wandering over, a smile that's too wide plastered onto her face. The bell rings as he saunters off, cap perched on his head and queue case tucked under his arm. Angie wants to hate him, watching him walk away like that, but he's family and family sticks together. She can't pick 'em, and they're certainly not going anywhere. She's got to grit her teeth, grin and bear it.
There’s one of those pregnant pauses that Angie always gets caught up in, her fingers preforming the same medial task over and over again. Today it’s folding paper napkins. She doesn’t even hear the bell ring at the door until the cook clears his throat loudly and Angie looks up. Her breath catches and she has to swallow down her blush. Her hands still, she forces on her best smile.
“English,” she whispers. It comes out a hoarse croak. Peggy Carter’s right eye is a livid black and blue, and she’s got a bandage around her hand that looks nasty and is still a bit stained with blood. She hasn’t been home the past few days, telephone conference in DC, she’d explained loading up her suitcase while Angie leaned against her open door and watched her movements with the lazy appreciation that a gal sometimes has for a friend. “What happened to you?”
Peggy slumps down into Tito’s vacated stool and Angie turns and collects the tea things without a word. She sets the milk and sugar that Peggy usually turns away down before her and gives her a look, the kind that Angie’s got to remember for auditions. The one that brooks no argument at all. “Thank you,” Peggy says weakly.
Tea softens her. It makes her seem less brittle, less like she’ll fall apart if Angie touches her. Peggy’s shoulders hunch forward and she holds the tea before her, two sugar cubes deposited in when she thought Angie wasn’t looking and far more milky than it usually is. Angie fists her hands in her apron so she doesn’t reach out and press her fingers to Peggy’s temple and smooth her hair into something less bedraggled looking. Anything to make her look less like she hasn’t lived through a war and a half, and that she’s still fighting.
“You gonna tell me what happened?”
“You know I can’t.” Peggy replies, her eyes shifting down, guilty.
“Won’t here or you ain’t gonna?”
“At home, Angie, please.”
Angie’s missed her.
“You want a sandwich?” Angie asks. She has to back away to keep herself from reaching out, pressing her hand onto Peggy’s clenched fist. “You look half starved.”
“That would be lovely,” Peggy’s voice is as brittle as she looks.
Angie busies herself with putting the order in, with refilling the coffee of those who are still lingering. She busies herself thinking about Tito’s visit and how she just knows if he goes down to Lenny’s that he’s going to get his thumbs broke and then her ma will be in a state for weeks over it. She turns as the farthest end of the counter and catches Peggy watching her, her face a stormy mask of bruised skin and half-described worry. She puts her best smile and saunters back over, her fingers brushing Peggy’s shoulder and pretending that she doesn’t feel Peggy flinch away from the contact.
Their living arrangements are such that they’re just sitting down to a dinner of fresh green beans and potatoes that Angie bought off the back of a farmer’s truck on her way home. The silence between them is pleasant and comfortable. Angie’s grateful that Peggy understands her need for silence sometimes.
The phone rings. Angie moves to get up, but Peggy just shakes her head. “It’s probably Howard,” she says. “I should--”
She takes the call in the sitting room that they don’t often use. The sofa in there is overstuffed and Angie is worried that if she sits on it wrong, it’ll get dirty. Mr. Stark seems nice enough, but she doesn’t want to ruin his furniture. She dully moves a bean around on the plate, making a point not to listen in to Peggy’s conversation. It would be so easy too; she could get up and pick up the telephone in here, cup her hand over the receiver and just listen.
Angie has to know that Peggy is alright.
“Angie!” Peggy calls. Angie starts, turns around to face the half-open door from the kitchen. “It’s for you.”
“Me?” Angie sets down her napkin and heads into the sitting room. Peggy’s eye, up close and all personal like, is even worse than it was at a distance. She smells like expensive perfume and her lipstick’s a bit smudged. She’s disheveled in the best possible way, the kind of way that Angie would very much like to make her, if the world wasn’t cruel and if Peggy wasn’t cut by the hurts of a thousand losses. “Did they say who it was?”
The receiver pressed to her chest, Peggy shakes her head. “It’s a man’s voice. He seemed a little alarmed that you didn’t answer.” She holds out the receiver and Angie takes it, trying to keep the curiosity from showing in her face.
“You should get a steak out for your eye, Peggy, seriously. It looks awful.” Angie smiles as sympathetically as she can, watching as Peggy slips from the room, shaking her head. The war never ended her for her, and it’s written clear as day across her face when Angie suggests such a luxury as a frozen block of meat to keep the swelling down. Peggy would never waste such a precious commodity. She sighs quietly and brings the phone to her ear. “This is Angie.”
The man on the other line is breathing heavily. It rattles in his chest, hollow and echoing. At first Angie thinks it’s the connection, but then she remembers that this is Howard Stark’s apartment, and he’s got the best everything. The connection would not be bad. “Ang?” Angie’s eyes flutter closed. It’s Tito. “Ang you gotta to come get me.” He’s speaking Italian, his breath fast and labored. It sounds wet, like it’s coming from underwater. “I think – I think—” Tito trails off, his breath shudders in this chest.
Angie’s knuckles are white on the phone receiver.
“Where are you?”
“Where d’ya think?”
She closes her eyes and mentally calculates how long it will take to take a cab across the river and over to the harbor at this hour. The train isn’t safe this late. “Give me forty-five minutes.”
Tito’s breath shudders in Angie’s ear. It sounds wet, like he’s got a mouth full of water. Angie’s stomach turns sour. It’s blood. “Don’ call Ma.”
“She ain’t your ma,” Angie replies. She is breathless too, agitated. She hates Tito and yet she loves him all the same. He’s no better than any of the men in her family, but at least he doesn’t go out of his way to make her cry. “And she’ll be worried sick when she sees the end of whatever beatin’ you brought on yourself.”
Angie hangs up. Her fingers tighten into a fist, shaking, shaking. She whispers words that aren’t proper for a gal to know, especially one like her. Over and over again. Her nails bite at her palm. The pain is sharp, cutting. Her mother’s slaps when she found out, Tito’s gleeful face as she cried into her rosary at church the next day. He was the one who told her ma. She has to forget it daily, for the dreams of it keep her up long into the night.
The priest had told her to repent, but that the only place she was going was hell.
It doesn’t matter. Tito is family.
Peggy is in the doorway, the steak from the freezer is pressed to her eye. Angie has been saving for a night when they’re both home and Mr. Fancy and his lovely wife are able to come over for dinner. A double date, she joked with Mr. Fancy when he came by with the laundry earlier that week. He looked at her oddly then, and then smiled sadly. “That’s a hard road, Ms. Martinelli.”
He said it as if Angie wasn’t haunted by that fact every day of her life.
“I need to go,” Angie says.
Peggy lowers the steak, her mascara has run under it and it gives her a wild look. “What’s happened?”
“Nothing.” Angie shakes her head. “My cousin hustles pool sometimes, when he’s not running for whatever scumbag my uncles are working for at the moment. He bet the wrong guy, and they beat him up. I have to go get him.”
Peggy’s expression hardens from polite concern to determination. She looks like she could go off to war and come back with Hitler himself on his knees. Angie wishes she could have seen Peggy in uniform. “I’m coming with you.”
The tone allows for no argument.
“I lost three thousand dollars, Ang.” Tito is halfway to sobbing, tears running down his sweaty, grime-covered face. Angie is bending over him where he sits, slumped against the pay telephone outside the pool hall. His lip is split and bleeding, and he keeps squinting up at Peggy, who is standing a few paces away, silent and menacing, like she’s about to hit him. “Three thousand lousy dollars.”
Angie wants to slap him. Instead she sits back on her heels and stares at him, a little dumbfounded at that much money just gone. “Three thousand dollars? Tito, what were you thinking?”
His eyes are glazed, his head’s all rattled.
“He probably has a concussion,” Peggy says. She is eying the pool hall, her lip curling in disdain. In the dim light from the windows, her face is awash with shadows. She looks like a girl from the movies, cast in darkness and full of mystery. “We should take him to a hospital.”
Tito coughs and then starts to laugh. He winces. “The bird’s a Brit?” His breath hisses painfully from his clenched teeth. Blood starts to dribble from the corner of his mouth. They have to get him out of here. Angie dips her head to start to look for his injurie. His face seems mostly alright, a glancing blow at the most and a bloody cut on his forehead, but something else is wrong. “I gotta say, for a queer you got good taste.”
“She doesn’t go to my church,” Angie mutters in a low voice. “Shut up, Tito. She doesn’t—” She presses her handkerchief to the bloody wound on his forehead and helps him get unsteadily to his feet. Its then that she sees why his breath sounds so watery. The pool cue is embedded in his side, broken off and stuck in like Tito was made of butter not flesh and blood. Angie recoils, bile rising in her throat.
Peggy sweeps forward and catches Tito as he falls awkwardly forward. He grins rakishly at her, the blood loss pulling the delirium and politeness from his voice as he leans heavily on Peggy’s shoulder. “That’s some shiner… did she give it to you? Always had a temper, jus’ like her ol’ man.” He sways and Angie swallows down the vomit that surges into her mouth, her face as carefully neutral as she can make it. Peggy is inspecting the cue and shaking her head, not really listening to Tito. “Didja know my cousin’s—”
The strangest thing happens. Peggy’s hand slips and bumps the cue, and Tito lets out a sharp bark of pain. “We should get you to a hospital,” she says, and her face is a wash of contempt.
Angie’s heart hammers in her chest.
Tito was hustlin’ with someone else’s money. Angie can see the strangled panic in his eyes as he lays back and listens to the doctor lecture him about getting involved with the kind of men who’ll break his cue and jab him with it like he’s some sort of fancy restaurant entrée served up and freshly charbroiled. He’ll be in surgery for hours. He might not pull through. The doctors think that the only reason he hasn’t died yet is because the cue was keeping most of the blood in him.
They’re going to take him into surgery soon. She doesn’t have to wait, it’ll be hours and they’ll call. Angie is grateful, she hates hospitals. She hates what they remind her of, long days staring at pictures of men and knowing that she should like them but hating herself every moment that she could not even bring herself to look at them. Getting out of that place so quickly is probably the greatest achievement of her acting career.
She is just turning to leave, to call her ma and explain what’s happened even though she has no words for this foolishness, when Tito gets her attention. His hand shoots out, wrapping around her wrist tight enough to bruise. “Angie, Angie… You gotta get Lorenzo the money.”
Angie’s jaw tightens. In the doorway, she sees Peggy’s hand clench into a fist. “I don’t got it, Tito.”
“You gotta get it, Angie.” He’s pulling her back now, his breath wet and labored. “You gotta get it an’ tell ‘Zo tha’ I’m sorry. I didn’t know they were that good, I though’ -- I though’ I could play ‘em. You can. You’re better.”
He passes out. His fingers go slack on Angie’s wrist. Lorenzo. Angie feels the color start to drain from her cheeks.
“Who is Lorenzo?” Peggy asks.
Angie inhales. Exhales. Inhales again. “Bad news.” She shakes her head. “You should go home, English. Stay out of this.”
Peggy folds her arms over her chest. “I’m not going anywhere.”
She should have known better than to expect anything less from Peggy. She’s a fighter, after all. Angie knows this. The little details of her life that Angie has been able to wheedle out of her are enough to tell Angie that it has been full of loss and suffering up until now. Peggy is so much better than the awful men she works for, better than Howard Stark and his fancy butler. Better than this county could ever offer her. She’s more an American patriot than Angie has ever been.
“Who is Lorenzo?” Peggy asks again. She crosses into the room and stands right before Angie. She doesn’t touch her, doesn’t broach that barrier of personal space that Angie so wishes that she would. She lingers just on the outskirts, her fingers relaxed, but twitching, reaching forward. She wants to reach out, but is unsure.
That makes two of them.
“He’s a lieutenant for the Sicilians.” Angie sucks in a slow, steadying breath. She needs a cigarette even though she quit when her acting teacher told her it would ruin her teeth. Her nerves are frayed. “Nasty guy. Likes to loan people money they can’t ever pay off.”
“Is that what he did to your cousin?” Peggy asks.
Angie shakes her head. “No, Tito an’ him, well, they’re tight.” She hangs her head. “There’s a reason I don’t really talk to my family, Peggy. It isn’t because they… don’t.”
“Don’t respect who you are?” Peggy tries. Her expression is warm, open. Angie wonders if it’s because she was in the service. She probably knew loads of girls like Angie. They all ran there when the war started, it was safer than trying to stay home.
“Keep your voice down,” Angie hisses. She didn’t spend three months in that awful place to get sent back there again. She reaches forward and grabs Peggy’s hand, pulling her through the hospital room door and down the brightly lit hallway towards the stairs. Once they’re there and Angie is sure they’re alone, she shakes her head once. “Don’t talk about that. Please Pegs. Don’t.”
Peggy frowns. “It’s who you are, Angie.” She says it with such conviction that Angie almost wants to believe her sincerity. “I won’t let you go around hating yourself for it.”
“You’re a decade too late for that.” Christ, she needs a cigarette. Angie runs her fingers through her hair, glad that there are no pins and that the hour is late. She’s off tomorrow. Her day was supposed to be spent palling around with Peggy, as she’s on leave until next Thursday while the doctors evaluate her eye. Now though, now it’s all stupid Tito getting the bum’s rush out of a pool hall and three thousand missing dollars. It’s a problem she doesn’t know how to fix. “It has nothing to do with that. Tito likes to make me feel awful about it, tells my ma all sorts of things he shouldn’t, but he’s family.”
“Sharing blood doesn’t mean that you’re family.”
“Tito is my blood, Peggy. I can’t just turn my back on him.”
“Three thousand dollars is a lot of money, Angie.” Peggy exhales steadily. She looks down and Angie realizes that she hasn’t let go of Peggy’s hand. She doesn’t pull away now. Instead she tightens her fingers. “How are you going to get it?”
A smile tugs at the corners of Angie’s mouth. “Who do you think taught Tito to shoot pool?”
Peggy raises an eyebrow. “You’re having me on.”
“Not at all, English. I jus' ain't stupid. I know a place where I can get the cash and I won’t get gutted by my cue in the process of doing it.” She tilts her head to one side, a plan forming in her mind. She’s not going in there alone. She’s not that brave. With Peggy, though, she could do anything. “You mind puttin’ on a pretty dress for me?”
And Angie forgets herself and leans forward, pressing a kiss to Peggy’s cheek. Her skin is soft, and cheeks are flushed when Angie pulls away. Angie squeezes Peggy’s hand and Peggy squeezes back. “You’ll be aces.”
Chapter 2: The Hustle
Oh my goodness, the response to the first part of this is amazing. Please see, spawned third part. You guys are all lovely.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Angie knows places hidden in the depths of this city. Illegal places that could get you killed. She knows the seedy underbelly of the mafia, of the thugs and the fights down at Hell’s Kitchen that ain’t sanctioned by any gaming board. She knows all about that boxer who throws fights like it’s his job and the men who pay him good money to do it. She knows where the gamblin’ halls are tucked down into basements, and she knows the handful of places in town where she can gamble her way to three thousand flush where no one will think twice if she shows up with a girl on her arm.
Her plan isn’t to show up at any old gin joint and hope for the best. She lacks the proper plumbing for that, after all. Men don’t take her seriously in a full uniform at the automat, and she’s sure to get run out if she shows up with English. Maybe, if Peggy hadn’t been home when this all started it would be easier to play into that expectation. She’s done it before, got herself a reputation back home for it too. Tito’s right to say she’s better, even if she doesn’t play much anymore. It’s like riding a bicycle down by the beach, you never forget it.
She isn’t going back to Brooklyn.
Slick Betty – Elizabeth Markowitz in a professional light – has been on the periphery of Hoover’s watch lists for close to two decades now. They can’t actually arrest her, her father is too powerful and she isn’t technically doing anything wrong hosting parties for a certain sort of well-to-do ladies at her home, but everyone knows that it’s really just a front for a safe place for women of a certain predilection to gather and carry on the way society would find uncouth.
Angie’s known Betty for years now; they met on the recommendation of a long-lost love. She’d tried to be good for her mother, tried to date a nice navy man at Fleet Week, but it had fallen apart so quickly. She’d brought him round to dinner and even her Ma, who hated to even discuss Angie’s wrongness could see it was killing Angie to be around him. She sent him away with a slice of pie and sat next to Angie silently on the couch, her fingers twisting her rosary over and over again.
Good girls don’t go out to bars alone, her ma always said, but it was only at bars that Angie could fade into the shows and look at the girls and catch them looking back at her. She was cured, her illness stamped as ‘in remission’ and she hated putting on the airs. There were whispers of places that she could go back at that place. Places that wouldn’t get you tossed back into the asylum, the key thrown away. Angie memorized them all.
It took three weeks to work up the courage to walk on the same street as the one establishment that Catherine – her cell mate and the first girl she’d ever kissed – told her about. A black door cut into the red brick of a building, an advertisement for Coca-Cola painted beside it. It did not look like anything at all. But it held her doom and damnation in its chipping paint and nailed-shut mail slot.
Angie spent her weekend sitting in the diner across the street, watching women walk up to the door and go inside. “You thinkin’ ‘bout joinin’?” her waitress asked on the second day after Angie laid out a handful of coins for pie and coffee.
Angie played dumb. “Joinin’? Where?”
“The ladies’ club across the street. I see you lookin’.”
“I ain’t lookin’.”Angie shook her head. “Besides, are they gonna want an Italian from Brooklyn? Looks to be all rich dames in there.”
Her waitress pursed her lips and swept the coins Angie left on the table into her palm. “You’d be surprised, Brooklyn. It takes all sorts.” She swept away with a pointed look at the door across the street.
It was another week before Angie worked up the courage to go inside. It was a Friday night, and gals were clustered around the door, waiting to be let in. Angie stood off by herself, fingers in gloves and her coat too pressed. She felt uncomfortable in a dress that barely touched her knees, but no one was looking at her strangely. She was dressed for going out and for having a good time, but inside she felt like dying.
Beyond the door there was a small alcove: women lingered, shedding their winter wear and tucking gloves into the pockets of thick wool jackets. They talked amongst themselves, laughing, touching. Touching too much. Angie’s always remembered how her stomach lurched unpleasantly seeing that contact between two girls, their heads tucked tight together and their fingers grasping at each other’s waists as they walked by, laughing.
The girl at the coat check was black.
“First time here?” she asked. The glance she gave Angie made Angie lurch towards the door, but the woman’s hand shot out and grabbed her. “You look scared half t’death.”
“Been a while tryin’ to fix this.”
“There’s no fixin’ it, doll.” Her teeth were white against her lips, and Angie felt herself relax, a warm, friendly hand on her wrist. No one touched her at home anymore, and they used to be an affectionate family. “Don’t bother tryin’.”
“Do you come here often?”
“I work here, pays the bills. Not allowed inside,” she pointed to the sign above the door. Angie’s nose wrinkled. Even here. Even in this place that was supposed to be welcoming and safe.
“Don’t be. It just means I get my pick of upset gals who can’t stomach their friends actin’ like fools.” The woman shook her head. “I’m Ruby.” Her hand was proffered tentatively, as though Ruby was not sure that Angie would shake hands with a black woman. Angie supposed there was no reason for her to expect any less, and took it. Her fingers were gentle, soft, her nails clipped short and not painted. The lines of her palm were like the first little streams of rain across a dusty window at midsummer.
Her cheeks burned, but Angie didn’t let go. “Angela – Well, Angie.”
On her way out that night, Ruby passed Angie her coat and lingered, flipping the coat tag between skilled fingers. She was wearing trousers and suspenders, a charming smile at her lips.
“You got an address?”
Angie nodded, but shook her head when Ruby leaned forward, her hair frizzing a little in a perfectly coifed arc above her head in the low light of the coat check alcove and inquired as to its nature. “But it isn’t a place another girl can go.” She pursed her lips. “Ma don’t like it.”
“Mine’s back in Alabama. What she don’t know won’t hurt ‘er.” Ruby tilted her head to one side.
“Ain’t that the truth.” Angie answered.
“Mine’s in Harlem. If you’re ever up there.”
Angie takes the train to Harlem three times before she stops. Ruby lets her go gently, Angie never meant to stay beyond the first time, but she loves Ruby’s cousins and auntie. Her uncle works at a factory and is almost never around. She’s crying when she gets on the train at 125th Street for the last time, Ruby’s walked her to the station, her expression grim and black. Her daddy’s had a stroke, and her mamma needs help at home. She’s got to go back to a place where no one will ever accept her, where she can never, ever be herself.
“I’m so sorry,” Angie says.
“Don’t be.” Ruby shakes her head. “Not worth tryin’ to fight it.” She touches Angie’s elbow briefly, gently, before adding in a low voice. “There’s a woman at the bar. Her name is Betty, asked after you before. You should speak to her.”
And then Ruby is gone and Angie is curled into a ball on the train, crying and hating herself and her strangeness. Why couldn’t she just be normal?
She goes to the bar with the ache of Ruby in her heart. It’s then she meets Betty, true to Ruby’s word.
“You look like you’ve been through the war, darling,” Betty told Angie, clasping her hand and pulling her away from the bar and towards a dark corner. “A caged animal just waiting to be released,” she added as she dropped to her knees. “It comes off of you in waves.”
It was not the first time Angie had gotten what she wanted out of love, but it was the first time she started to feel comfortable enough with it to enjoy the emotions of it.
She and Betty didn’t last; Angie supposes that they were never meant to be more than a fling. She’s still beautiful, and it was a calm break up that ended in a close friendship for which Angie is forever grateful. Betty knew of her skill with a pool cue and ball, and she knew how to use that skill to her advantage.
“We need good hustlers in here every one in a while, prevents the girls from getting too full of themselves.” She was sitting in her small office, smoking a cigarette and holding the pack out to Angie. Angie shook her head, she’d quit months ago. “Would you mind helping a girl out, for old time’s sake?”
The two of them came up with a plan: Angie would come around every one in a while, and show the two-bit butches and broads who was boss. She usually played with house money, but if she was ever short for rent between gigs or when tips were slow, Betty promised that Angie would always be able to play without restriction.
It is a promise that Angie’s never had to test before now. She chews her lip, thinking hard. To come with a friend will change the dynamic.
Dropping to her knees, Angie digs under her bed for her pool cue case and unearths it after a moment of panic where she can’t find it and wonders if she left it at the Griffith. Mrs. Fry would never let her come back to claim it if she had lost it.
She gets back up to find Peggy staring at her from the doorway, fastening an earing to her ear. “I have my own,” Angie explains. She feels a little sheepish. She sets it on the bed and straightens up. Her back aches already and it’s going to be a long night. Peggy’s smeared concealer over her eye and it looks like a million bucks in a fast car in a red dress that shows a little more than Angie would have expected her to be comfortable with in a strange environment. Angie swallows, her cheeks are burning. “You look… wow.”
Peggy glances down at herself and shrugs. Her lips are painted blood red. “I figured I should blend in, if we’re going to an establishment frequented by well-to-do women.”
“No one’s going to be able to take their eyes off you, English.” She can’t look at Peggy when she speaks, it cuts deep inside her and twists around in her stomach, settling, disquiet and churning around. Peggy knows and doesn’t seem to mind, and yet there’s a limit to anyone’s patience with such things. She should know better than to dare to hope, and this doesn’t change anything. She’s just going to Betty’s a few weeks early, and with a lot more dire consequences.
Secrets and lies, the ache in her knees from praying for hours, all of it comes down to this moment. This moment when Angie’s queer nature is going to save the life of the cousin who hated that aspect of her the most. This moment when the queerness that they prayed and paid the asylum more money than they had to make go away is going to save Tito’s life. Angie is never going to let them forget this.
“Betty is the real deal,” Angie continues. She rummages in her closet for an appropriate dress to compliment Peggy’s own. “Known her for years now. Since I was barely eighteen. She’s married to an actor, but it’s one of those convenience things. He protects her, she protects him.”
“I’m familiar with the concept.” Peggy has unzipped her pool cue case and is touching the wood with curious figures. “Might have even ended up in a relationship like that if I wasn’t careful.”
Angie’s hand freezes where it’s pushing away a dress in favor of the other, the pale blue she’s always loved so much.
“Your soldier?” Her voice is hoarse, a half swallowed reminder of the problem of Peggy Carter. The reason Angie should just let her go.
Angie turns to see Peggy staring at her strangely, her expression a mask of calm indifference. Another barrier between them that Angie has no idea how to break down. “After a fashion. I was not his first love, though he was mine.”
“A fella then?”
Peggy sighs. “They were both from Red Hook, grew up together.” She presses her lips together into a thin line. “I suppose that it doesn’t matter now.”
Angie wants to reach out and touch her. Peggy looks so strong and brave and utterly breakable. She sucks in a deep breath and tries to soften the blow of the memories for Peggy. It’s all she can do. “That’s not far from where I grew up.”
“Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to you, Angie.”
While it’s meant to be kind, the words cut into Angie’s chest and tear her heart in two.
Betty is a bombshell of dark curls and a sequined silver dress that has Angie remembering just how good dresses like that looked on the floor pooled around her ankles. She stands in the doorway, cigarette in a holder between two fingers and blows smoke on both of them. “You’re early,” she says. “By about two weeks.”
“Couldn’t stay away.”
“I’ve rules, Angela. I don’t take kindly to you disrespecting them without calling in advance.” Betty’s lip curls and she turns to Peggy. “And you’ve brought a friend. That’s a first. You finally forget your roots?”
Angie opens her mouth and the words don’t come, but Peggy’s hand is warm on the small of her back, slipping around to grip her waist. “It’s my fault,” she says. Her accent has Betty’s eyebrows shooting up her forehead. Angie knows that Peggy will have questions upon questions, but she’s folded herself into this role almost perfectly. It’s masterful. She should be the actress out of the two of them. If she weren’t too busy smashing in skulls and getting her eyes blacked for a living, that is. Angie hates that she never got a reason for that black eye out of Peggy. “I begged her to let us come. She’s been boasting you see, telling me all about how wonderful the parties are in New York. Places where a girl can be… well, free.” Angie can’t breathe, Peggy is pressed flush against her. She forces a smile onto her face and nods to Betty, feeling bolstered by the warmth of Peggy at her back.
“Just don’t take the girls for their houses like last time.” Betty steps away from the door and ushers them inside.
“It’s Tito,” she whispers in an undertone, as though she doesn’t want Peggy to overhear. Let Betty think what she wants. “Anyone givin’ you problems lately? I gotta get some money quickly. He gambled with Lorenzo’s money and lost.”
“I’m not some sort of bank for you to solve your problems, Angela. But it serves that awful boy right.” Betty shakes her head and takes their coats. She hangs them with deliberate slowness and finally sighs, acquiescing to the silent request for help. “Go and find Janice. She’s been an awful pill ever since her husband got caught skimming from that committee fund she got him a position on. She’s dying to blow through cash to get back at him.”
“Thanks,” Angie presses a kiss to Betty’s cheek. “You look a million bucks.”
Betty raises an eyebrow, glancing over at Peggy and saying a little too loudly. “Darling, I’m worth twice that.” She flounces from the hallway and Angie exhales quietly. Peggy is glancing around at Betty’s austere home, her lips pressed into a thoughtful line.
“She’s jealous.” Her tone is light. “Have you slept with her before?”
Angie can’t. She can’t. Peggy is different, Peggy is special. Peggy could be the one to bring Angie to her knees and Angie would let her over and over again. She swallows any pride she still has and deflects. She always deflects. “I was expecting more of a reaction outta you, English. Something beyond taking it very much in stride and helpin’ me out like this.” Angie glances down at her feet. It’s late now. She’s worried about Tito. She still hasn’t called her ma.
(She doesn’t want to call her ma.)
Peggy laughs and it’s musical. “What can I say, Angie? You told me a secret and I won’t betray your confidences just as you won’t betray mine. You asked for help and I’m giving it to you.”
“This is a little beyond what your typical gal pal will do.”
Shrugging, Peggy loops their arms together. “Perhaps for the night we shall be more than gal pals?” She fixes Angie with a stern look, but soon her face relaxes into the companionable English that Angie’s come to adore. “If that’s alright with you. I do love undercover work.”
This is a dream and I’m going to wake up soon.
Angie swallows hotly. Her skin feels like a rebellion, but it’s her heart that leans against Peggy and lays her heart bare for benediction. “Let me show you how it’s done.” They are so close together, closer than Angie’s ever been she thinks. Peggy smells good and she’s soft, gentle with her hands. She lets Angie pull her in tight. “Should we practice?” Angie feels out of her element, like she doesn’t fit within her own space. It’s a strange, pulling sort of feeling.
The muscles of Peggy’s throat contract, relax. She’s swallowing, nervously. “I’ll have to fix my lipstick.”
She’s halfway to saying that they shouldn’t bother, that they don’t have to pretend that hard to sell the part when Peggy’s fingers catch Angie’s cheeks gently, and her lips look soft and her breath feels Angie’s dreams and nightmares all at once. It’s all that Angie’s wanted for months now. It’s what she wanted when she saw Peggy lead away in handcuffs, when she saw her punch a guy and knock him out cold, when she saw her sitting with her back ramrod straight, crying into a piece of cherry pie on the Fourth of July.
The door bangs open and a girl in trousers and a tie, her hair cropped short and gelled back like Howard Stark’s, stumbles in. She stares at them, sucking on the cigarette between her teeth and grins every bit as lecherously as Howard Stark ever has at the pair of them. “Don’t stop on my account.”
Peggy takes a half step back, her expression twisting from something indefinable to the polite English indifference she’s seemed to master when she speaks to people who are below her. “I think we’re finished,” she replies. Her voice could shatter bone.
The gal shoves her hands into her pockets and spins around. “You seen a bird come through here? Pretty, curly hair like yours but all dark like the night?”
“Betty?” Angie points, frowning slightly. Betty’s never gone for butch. “Just through there.”
The woman is gone and they’re alone again. Peggy looks exhausted at this whole affair, and Angie can’t blame her. They’re both exhausted, getting Tito to the hospital was enough and neither of them had a chance to rest at all. “I don’t normally go about kissing girls.” Her voice is barely over a whisper.
But you didn’t kiss me, Angie wants to protest. You juked like a boxer and faked me out. Instead, Angie smiles. It isn’t rejection of her queer nature. Her voice shakes when she speaks. “I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to start, English.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Angie.” Peggy’s smile, the little mysterious one that she gets sometimes when she knows far more than she’s letting on, is bright and cheerful.
Angie stares at her for a moment, before offering Peggy her arm. “For the record, I did sleep with Betty.”
“I knew it! Women’s intuition never lies about such things.”
There is a long bar along the far wall of Betty’s establishment. Angie has always been a little hesitant to call it a bar or a club, as it doesn’t quite match the feel of the place. It’s more a safe haven that has music and drinks and dancing. There’s a billiard room off the back wall, and a smoking alcove that opens onto a balcony with a spectacular view of the river. It’s a warm night, and the doors are flung open to catch the breeze.
Peggy takes everything in stride, looking around curiously and smiling with affected shyness when some of the girls up at the bar start to give her very obvious once overs.
“Told ya,” Angie whispers. “No one’s gonna be able to look away with you in that dress.” She wraps her arm around Peggy’s shoulders and glares at the girls at the bar. It’s smarter if they think she’s taken. It’ll keep the wolves at bay.
“I hadn’t thought they’d be so obvious about it.”
“This is the one place they can be obvious, English. Why would they hide?” She leads them towards the bar, and asks the bartender for two of whatever’s in the well. Betty’s always be been famous for her house cocktails and the terrible punch they pack. The well is a safer bet, if she’s got to play. Playing drunk has always been a talent of Angie’s. She’s had years of practice, watching her father and uncles.
Peggy says noting, and takes the booze when Angie hands it to her. She’s looking around the room for Janice, but it’s easier just to lean in too close to Peggy and whisper all the dirty secrets she knows about the women here. She does it for a moment, Peggy following her lead effortlessly, it sells them as friends and it makes sure that everyone knows Peggy isn’t to be messed with.
“You should find the woman Mrs. Markowitz recommended.” Peggy stirs her drink, pulling the cherry from it and popping it between her lips thoughtfully. Angie’s mouth goes dry, watching the red fruit disappear behind red lips. Her mind short-circuits, sparks flying everywhere. She can’t think she can’t—
She tips her drink back and drains it. Asks for another, dumps her cherry into Peggy’s cup without looking at those laughing brown eyes.
Angie is gonna throttle her when they get out of this.
“I should,” Angie says through a haze of booze and want. “Are you gonna be okay here?”
Peggy glances around. “I doubt that any of the women would put up much of a fight.” Not like some we both know. The thought unsaid between them.
“I don’t know, English, some of ‘em can be mighty feisty.” Angie smirks. Peggy leans forward and, after the briefest instant of hesitation, kisses her cheek. Angie just about manages not to turn the color of a tomato as she shuffles backwards awkwardly, her feet are suddenly fascinating.
“I can take ‘em.”
It’s then Angie looks up, her eyes are bright and her cheeks warm with a blush she wants Peggy to see. Let her see what this is going to cost both of them. “Sure English.”
Janice Oliver Tisdale is in a foul mood. Angie had thought that Betty might be exaggerating, but she’s sitting in a dark corner, smoking cigarettes and tugging at her tie. She catches sight of Angie approaching, cue under her arm, and her lips twist into a sneer. “Hey ki-ki, why don’t you let your girl have some fun?”
She moves over and offers Angie a place on the wall beside her. Peggy’s watching them from the bar; her eyes narrowed and face half-hidden behind her drink. Janice holds out a cigarette and Angie takes it, leans forward for a light and blows smoke in Janice’s face. Her lips curl, her tone dips. Angie is older now, she’s gotten used to the language she has to speak in order to blend in these places if she wants to find acceptance.
“Gosh, I don’t know. Maybe she doesn’t want to mess around with you, Janice.” Angie exhales smoke like a dragon. “Maybe she’s taken.”
Their relationship has always been somewhat antagonistic. They’ve known each other almost as long as Angie’s known Betty. Janice doesn’t like Angie because Angie doesn’t mind playing butch but certainly doesn’t dress or act the part, and Angie doesn’t like Janice because she doesn’t think a girl who likes girls should be forced to behave like a man in order to do it. They all suffer from the rigidity of society, after all. It’s a miserable existence. They argue about it, but in the end, they know they’re in the same boat. It’s a companionable sort of animosity.
“Betty told me about Arthur.” Angie takes a drag and feels her fraying nerves start to calm. Cigarettes were always her choice for stress, even if they’re murder on her voice and her teeth. “Heard you were in the market to lose some money.”
Janice holds her cigarettes between her lips and blows a perfect ring of smoke. Her eyebrow is raised, her hair pinned back and feminine despite her appearance. In another life, Angie might have offered. Not now though. “What? You gonna rob me, Angie?” Janice throws back her head and laughs. “Over my dead body.”
Angie tilts her head to one side and affects a cockiness she doesn’t often put on. She’s played this role before for girls, for men who wanted something from her she could never give. She gestures with her chin towards the Billiard Room. “Betty’s got a pool table.”
Janice could never resist a good bet. A smirk tugs at the corner of Angie’s lips. Got her.
“Tell your bird to come keep score then.”
The trick with a good hustle is losing. Angie cleaned out the stash of money she keeps under her bed and tucked it into Peggy’s purse along with the .22 that she’s so used to seeing there now that it’s almost second nature to simply move it aside and go about her business. She knows she’ll need money to start her hustle, and then she can just gamble with the money she’s won. This is all her savings, a crumpled mess of twenties and fifties. It’s her money to buy a ticket to California and try and make it big in Hollywood.
She isn’t cocky like Tito is, going in and immediately giving away her skill. There are whispers, Angie’s not a stranger around this pool hall, but she also doesn’t come ‘round enough to make for anything beyond a rumored reputation. It’s what she’s banking on. Janice is in the market to blow some cash anyhow, but there is still the curl of anxiety in her stomach as she accepts the roll of bills from Peggy and peels off a twenty to start. She has to play this right, or else Janice will catch her game before she’s made up Tito’s missing three thousand dollars.
Angie leans against her cue and watches as Janice works her way around the table, sinking shot after shot. She hums quietly under her breath, a show tune from a small role she’d had a few months back, filling in for a sick friend just off Broadway. Peggy is standing next to her, her arms folded over her chest and looking disinterested. There’s a pull of worry at her lips and around her eyes. She thinks this is a bad idea, watching Janice play. That’s okay. She hasn’t seen Angie go yet.
When Janice misses a shot, a hush falls over the assembled crowd. The few who have an inkling after Angie’s skills mutter disapprovingly, warning Janice off before Angie takes her house and car too. Peggy’s fingers catch Angie’s hand just as she’s about to step forward to take her place beside the table.
Angie knows that part of this is selling the relationship. She’s never brought a friend to this sort of an establishment before. Her fingers feel sweaty as she smiles sweetly at Peggy before tilting her head and leaning in for a chaste, sweet kiss. She stops just short of actually kissing her, her lips moving against Peggy’s. “Trust me. I’m better.”
“I know.” Peggy kisses her all chaste and sweet-like, and Angie feels her knees go weak. Peggy wasn’t supposed to actually kiss her – and she knows it by the way her smile has faded to worry as she pulls away. No horror. No disgust. Just concern. It’s a nice change from all the other girls Angie’s kissed who didn’t like girls back. “And I do, Angie.”
Angie saunters up to the table, smiles at Janice, and proceeds to miss her first shot. “Tough luck, Brooklyn,” Janice says, sinking the ten and then the eleven.
Her mind is on Peggy’s lips, soft feel of them and how Peggy’s lipstick is now on her, blood red and draining any resistance that Peggy’s got left. Peggy isn’t supposed to be willing to play along to this extent. She’s not supposed to want to kiss Angie at all. Peggy doesn’t like girls; she isn’t broken, even if she once loved a broken man.
She loses for real in the next round, too flustered to concentrate properly. While they reset for the next game, she lurks on a bench in the shadows next to Peggy. She glowers at the table and Peggy’s fingers curling up around her own. Janice lays a fifty on the table. “Fifty bucks,” she says. “Winner takes all.”
This is how it starts.
This time when Peggy presses the money into Angie’s hand, there’s too much contact. Peggy’s eyes are alight with something that Angie’s never seen before. She’s intrigued, curious, she wants to see what Peggy will do. Not to mention they’re surrounded by lesbians anyway, so Angie leans back in, full of a bravado brought on by the thrill of the gamble. “Kiss for luck?”
A catcall goes up from the crowd, and then another. In the distance, Angie catches sight of Betty shaking her head. Her vision becomes clouded with rich dark brown hair and warm fingers cupping her cheeks. Peggy kisses like she does everything else, thoroughly and with an intensity that frightens Angie. Peggy’s lips are warm and sweet like the cherry she ate earlier. She’s smiling into the kiss, her teeth nipping at Angie’s lower lip and she’s got this twinkle in her eye that says she’s having fun as she pulls away.
Angie’s glad. Her cheeks are burning and her lips are smeared with another gal’s lipstick as she leans forward to break and start the first real game of the night.
She doesn’t miss a shot.
Ace Shot Angie and Dashing Dame Peggy will return in part three of The Hustle, "The Sting" (cue that damn piano).
art by the excellent Maryne (toodrunktofindaurl on tumblr) from here. I cannot thank her enough for drawing these.
Janice won’t let Angie take her for three thousand dollars. Angie should have known better than to hope it would be so easy as all that. Her mind is racing as she accepts the drink some pretty bird shoves into her hand. Her eyes slide from the smiling face of the girl over to where Peggy stands on the outskirts of the gathered crowd. Peggy’s lips are pursed, her expression a mixture of annoyance and worry.
The girl leans up and whispers that she’s staying at some hotel Angie barely recognizes with an address on the Lower West Side into Angie’s ear. Her cheeks are burning, but she shakes her head in the negative and steps aside. “Sorry, doll,” she says. “Already got a friend.” She won’t call Peggy more than that. Even if this is a game, it isn’t right to be puttin’ her into that role in such company.
Face falling, the girl glances at Peggy and her eyebrows shoot up. “You could do better, Brooklyn.”
“Don’t want to,” Angie replies shortly. She’s tryin’ to figure out how to inch away before Peggy’s hands, now clenched into fists, wrap around this girl’s neck. Or at least, in Angie’s mind that’s how it goes. She knows better than to want it in real life.
Janice saves her. She claps Angie on the shoulder and pulls her away from the interloper, holding her close and smelling of expensive cigars and whiskey. “Good match, Ang, good match.” There’s a victorious gleam in her eyes despite having lost so much money. This is the revenge Janice wanted, a big hit to her husband’s bankroll. Angie’s stomach twists into knots, looking down at the money. It is not enough to keep Tito safe.
Angie is startin’ to think no amount of money is gonna keep Tito safe.
She tilts the glass back and drains the liquid quickly.
The crowd is already starting to disperse. They’re heading back to the bar and their tables and dancing. Soon it’s just Angie and Peggy, Janice loping off with the girl who gave Angie a drink, laughing and chewing on a cigar that belches blue smoke over the room at large. Angie wrinkles her nose. Betty has rules about smoking for a reason. That cigar smells foul.
Something warm brushes against Angie’s fingers, and she looks down to see Peggy’s hand just sitting there all pretty with red painted nails. Angie stares down at the crumpled mess of bills on the pool table and feels empty. This isn’t like before, when it was just a few bucks or nickel trick shots with Tito when they were young. This is more money than she’s ever held at one time, all going to a mobster and a conman who probably wouldn’t even miss what Tito’d lost.
“You’re staring at it.” Peggy starts to gather it up. She folds the bills and tucks them one by one into her bra, not her purse, when no one’s looking their way. Angie smiles. Peggy’s smart. The streets aren’t exactly safe for a woman this late at night, but no one’s gonna make a grab for the goods over a purse. A purse is far more accessible. “I thought that this is what you wanted, save your cousin and not dirty your hands too much.”
Angie unscrews her cue and slides the two pieces back into its case. Her fingers play out over the zipper and she sighs. “I should feel different, ya know? I just walked off more than thousand bucks richer, so why do I feel sick to my stomach?”
“It isn’t enough.” Peggy looks away. “You don’t have enough to be sure this will go away. I could call Howard an—”
“No.” Angie says forcefully. She zips up her case. She doesn’t want any more of Howard Stark’s charity. The strings that come attached cost more than she will ever be able to repay. “I’ll figure it out, alright? Don’t go getting involved in this.”
“I’m here aren’t I?” Her tone is hot, almost resentful. Acid wells up in Angie’s stomach. Stupid, stupid. She’s gotta do better if she’s going to get Peggy to just leave it be. “I’m already involved.”
“Suppose so,” Angie answers. She doesn’t agree with the sentiment. This ain’t Peggy’s fight. She can go off and bash heads with Howard Stark and Mr. Fancy all she wants, but this is Angie’s family. She’s not gonna let Peggy just swoop in and make it all better with Howard Stark’s money. She has to do this herself. She has to be the one to make this right. “Do y’wanna go home? Betty can get us a cab. We won’t be able to do any more tonight.”
Peggy fixes Angie with a piecing look, the kind that makes Angie feel naked while fully clothed. She leans in then, her lips brushing against Angie’s cheek. “We’ve an audience,” she whispers. It feels like a flimsy excuse, but Angie is too taken aback to react. She turns her head slightly and Peggy’s kissing her as though she’s trying to forget the conversation they just had. Angie is drowning, Peggy’s lips are firm, her fingernails bite into Angie’s hip. It’s so possessive and proprietary that Angie wants to run and hide. She’s never felt this way before.
She isn’t sure she ever wants to stop.
When they return home, Peggy disappears into her bedroom and Angie sits in the kitchen in the dark. The apartment is sweltering. Angie’s hair sticks to the back of her neck. Sweat bleeds through her party dress and only exacerbates the clammy, clawing feeling of her stomach. She has a headache from the lack of water and Betty’s hooch and her mind will not quiet.
The clock in the hallway chimes three-thirty and Angie rises slowly. She crosses to the telephone and picks up the receiver for a moment before setting it back down again. It can wait until morning. She doesn’t think she’ll sleep anyway, not with the memory of Peggy’s lips pressed against her own still so fresh.
A rustle behind her makes her turn. Peggy’s face is scrubbed free of make-up; the bruising around her eye is dark and angry. There is a tightness to her features that betrays little of what she is thinking. “It’s too late to call the hospital.” Her voice is rough with exhaustion as she gets down a glass and fills it at the tap.
“I just—” Angie finds with Peggy so close beside her, her eye so violently purple, that she can’t think of anything else. It bruising chases even the memories of those daring kisses from her mind. She sighs runs a hand through her hair. Her curls are limp and lifeless. She must look a fright. Peggy passes her a glass and steps aside so Angie can fill it at the tap. “Are you ever gonna tell me how you got that shiner?”
Peggy’s lips quirk upwards, as if caught on a memory. “I’m afraid there isn’t much of a story to tell there. I wanted something and a certain individual did not want to give it to me.” There’s a weight to the glance she gives Angie that sends Angie’s stomach flipping again, this time with annoyance.
Angie’s lips press into a thin line. The lie is transparent, but it’s one that she won’t argue with. Instead she leans over, shoulder bumping against Peggy’s. The tension of the day seems to fade away, as it always does, in moments like this. Angie can forget herself and her problems and focus on someone else for a while. “That’s bull.”
“I can’t tell you, Angie.” Peggy, at least, has the decency to look guilty about it.
This is an old argument. “Who am I gonna tell?”
She sighs and pushes away, her fingers wrapping around Angie’s wrist and tugging her towards their bedrooms. They’re standing before Peggy’s door so quickly that Peggy’s fingers barely have time to grow warm and sweaty on Angie’s wrist. “It isn’t who you’ll tell, but who could find out that you know.”
“I can take care of myself.” Angie insists stubbornly.
“I’m sure you can,” Peggy’s fingers don’t let go as she pushes her bedroom door open and pulls Angie into the cool oasis of their lone air conditioned room. Angie’s never been bothered by the heat, growing up in Brooklyn has made her somewhat immune, but Peggy is from a milder climate and New York in the summer can be unbearable. The Stark A/C unit in the window is something that they both agreed was a shared luxury, especially because installing it had required Mr. Stark to come over and rewire half the apartment.
Peggy bites her lip and seems to come to a decision. “It’s too hot. You should stay in here tonight.”
This is a sin.
Angie has slept with gals before, but this moment of hesitation, this moment of having to force herself to forget all those awful pictures and helpless feelings of confusion that plagued her youth in order to simply allow herself to be happy will never leave her. She remembers that hospital and how the doctors treated her as though she were broken, how they said it over and over again until it came true. She is broken, because this is the only thing she wants.
So Angie does what she always does, and deflects with the wit of a kid grown up in a place where being a smart-aleck was sure to get your ears boxed. “Gosh English, ain’t that awful forward?”
Peggy’s lips aren’t painted red and her eye is shiny with cold cream and livid with bruises. They’re already yellowing. Angie’s impressed at how fast Peggy always seems to recover from injury. She still smirks like the woman in red and leans in, eyes dancing with sin and something undefinable – desire? Or maybe amusement? They look the same to Angie. “Just to sleep, Angie. I shan’t force you to become unscrupulous in such a trying time.”
Sometimes Angie forgets that Peggy can give it as good as Angie can, she’s just sneakier about it. “I’ll show you scruples,” she mutters and heads into her bedroom to collect her nightgown.
They fall asleep laughing and somehow it feels like the future could be alright.
Angie never dreams.
To dream means to have hope, and if there’s one thing Angie’s learned in this world, is that hope will get you locked up for months a time. Hope is what gets you killed. Hope is what forces you to put on your best smile every day and to fake it with lousy customers and best friends who cannot ever bring themselves to tell you the truth. To hope is to wonder if there could ever be a future on a handful of shared kisses while playing pretend.
To dream is to believe that things could be better.
Angie never dreams.
Peggy is still half asleep when Angie watches her stumble from the bed, sleepily knot her nightgown at mid-thigh and fall forward into – Angie sits up to get a better look – pushups. She is doing pushups at seven-thirty in the morning after they got in at close to three. She flops back onto the pillows, one hand flung over her eyes. “It’s too early for that, English.” When Peggy grunts in response, Angie rolls over. The line of her arms is enough to make Angie’s mouth go dry. Her cheeks start to burn, and her stomach flip-flops, heart thudding at her throat. It chokes away any rational thought with its pulsating beat. All Angie sees is the muscles in Peggy’s arms as she works up and down steadily, counting under her breath.
This is hell. She’s gone to hell for her sins and this is God’s way of paying her back.
The warmth that blossoms at Angie’s chest travels down her fluttering stomach and starts to warm her in the one place it should not. She sits up again. No, this cannot happen. Not like this.
“Tea – Forty-seven – if you don’t mind.”
Angie practically runs from the room.
She’s breathless in the kitchen and filling the kettle when the phone rings. “I got it!” she calls, but a feeling of dread has settled into the pit of her stomach. This will be the hospital, calling about Tito. She answers reluctantly, all previous distraction vanishing as the woman on the other end of the line states that she has a call from the surgeon who operated on Tito.
The line is full of static as the switchboard operator connects Angie to the doctor. She stares straight ahead, her knuckles white on the phone. “Ms. Martinelli,” he says without a greeting. “This is Doctor Sam Fraum. I was wondering if I might speak to your husband.”
“Don’t got one,” Angie replies, eyes half-closing in annoyance at the convention.
“Is your father home?”
“I don’t live with him, doctor. What’s with all the hush-hush? Is Tito alright?”
The doctor pauses. Angie’s blood runs cold. She hears the exhalation of breath through the phone and gropes blindly for a chair. She sinks down into it just as the kettle starts to whistle. She doesn’t hear it, she doesn’t hear anything.
“Your cousin is in a coma. There was too much bleeding. We need you to call a priest and any family he has.”
The ringing in Angie’s ears won’t stop.
Doctor Fraum explains what’s happened in a mouthful of technical mumbo-jumbo that Angie can scarcely process. She has to call her mother; she has to go to the hospital. She has to get a priest. The ringing in her ears is enough to make her want to vomit.
Peggy pulls the kettle from the stove. Her eyes are wide and she’s asking Angie what’s wrong and who called. Her nightgown is still knotted at her thigh. She’s not wearing a robe.
It’s then, looking at Peggy, still sweaty from her morning exercise, that Angie does start to vomit. She runs to the sink and feels the revulsion for all that she has done to their friendship pour out of her, tasting like Betty’s mixed drinks and the green beans from dinner last night. She can’t think beyond the churning, knotted feeling in her stomach and the heaving that comes afterwards. Tears mix with drool and she spits into the sink, her chest rising and falling in time with her racing heartbeat.
“I’m sorry,” she croaks. She spits again and runs the tap, splashing water onto her face and watching as the yellow of her stomach’s bile swirls away into nothingness. “I’m so sorry.” Water runs down Angie’s face and she turns to see Peggy’s face a blank mask of emotionlessly affected sympathy. Her eyes are alert and sharp, there is no pity there.
The phone rings again.
Peggy reaches out, her fingers brushing against Angie’s damp cheek, before she snatches her hand back and crosses to the phone. “Carter.” There’s a pause. Angie bends and rinses out her mouth. “Yes, I’ll fetch her for you.” Peggy turns, her expression still unreadable, and holds out the phone. “It’s your mother.”
She sounds hoarse and weak as she answers, hearing her mother’s voice does little to make her feel better. “Who was that girl?” her mother asks in quick Italian.
Angie is too tired and too sick to her stomach to respond in English just to spite her mother. “My roommate,” she answers, the words are all muddled in her head. She doesn’t mind it, it’s easier than English when she’s upset. “You met her before, at the Griffin. She lived down the hall.”
“You know how I feel about you spending time in the company of- of—” Her mother can’t even say it.
“Ma,” Angie starts, and the tears are coming anew. All the hatred that her mother feels for who she is and all the self-loathing Angie can never quite move past has come to the forefront. Tito is hurt, Tito could die. Tito is probably going to die. All Angie can think about how is how her mother refused to look at her and sent her away to be cured for something so inherent to her nature that she doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to get better. The lies she’s told feel heavy now, and then there’s Peggy, standing there with her arms at her sides not fully comprehending any of what is happening. “Ma I need you to call the father and come to the hospital - Presbyterian.” She bites her lip and sniffs quietly. “It’s Tito…”
Her ma bites back a curse. It still gets halfway out before she chokes it down again and tears start to run down Angie’s cheeks. “What happened?”
“He was at Lenny’s an’ got beat up.” Angie wipes angrily at her eyes, wishing she could stop crying and feeling sorry for herself when Tito was the one whose life was on the line. She listens and gives her mother all she knows and promises to meet her there in an hour before she hangs up. “I have to go the hospital.”
“I got that much,” Peggy replies. Angie never knew she spoke Italian, but she was all over Europe during the war. She must have picked it up somewhere. Although Angie is pretty sure the whole ‘I was a combat nurse’ shtick that Peggy tells everyone is bunk, she definitely saw a great deal of the continent. “I’ll come with you.”
“Don’t you have work?”
Peggy shakes her head. “I’m on light duty for now. They think this,” she gestures to her eye, “Came with a concussion.”
“Did it?” Angie asks, eyes narrowing.
“Of course not. There isn’t a man this side of the Atlantic who could hit me that hard.” Peggy reaches out and Angie steps away. “Are you going to tell me what’s happened to make you sick?”
And Angie has to bite back all the fool retorts she knows. “Just got bad news is all.”
The hospital is quiet; they’ve caught the front end of visiting hours before the crush of well-wishers arrives. Angie’s mother is in the waiting room when they walk in an hour later, the young, fresh-faced Doctor Fraum is sitting beside her. He is wearing a white coat and a very serious expression, a cigarette held between his lips. Angie catches her mother’s eye and sees the worried, tearful expression on her face fall away to one of disgust as her eyes slide from Angie to where Peggy, dressed for work and carrying a briefcase, walks beside her. She knows what her mother will say as soon as Peggy and Doctor Fraum are out of earshot.
“Are you Angela?” the doctor asks.
Angie nods and raises her hand weakly in greeting. “Hey Ma.”
“Angela.” Her mother replies.
Doctor Fraum gets to his feet and gestures towards the hallway. “Your friend will have to stay here, Ms. Martinelli.”
“Quite alright, doctor,” Peggy starts to make her way towards the phone booth at the far end of the waiting room. “I have a few calls to make anyway.”
“Just this way then.” Doctor Fraum leads them down the hallway towards the room they put Tito in the night before. Angie’s grateful that he’s got a private place to recover, but he hangs a left at the last second and stops before a nondescript door. He holds the door open for them and nods to the pair of them. “This is my office, let me go collect his chart and we can discuss options.” Inside is sparsely decorated. A hat and coat are hanging on the back of the door. Angie swallows and sinks nervously into a chair.
“Who is that girl?”
“I told you, Ma, my roommate.”
“You can’t live with girls.”
Angie sticks her chin up definitely. “I can live with whomever I choose.”
“It’s a sin.”
“So’s eatin’ shellfish but don’t let me stop you.”
The look her mother gives her in response makes Angie want to curl up into a small ball and never speak again. She’ll defend Peggy until the ends of the earth, because Peggy ain’t like the other girls Angie’s been friends with. She ain’t Betty or Ruby. She’s different, proper and good and meant for somethin’ bigger than this town. That much is obvious just lookin’ at her. “You’re broken, Angela. You’re broken and I can’t fix you.” Her ma’s words cut like a knife.
Doctor Fraum pushes the door open and saves Angie from saying anything she’ll regret later, when their Italian tempers have calmed. This is an old argument, it’s tired and twisted up inside both of them so tightly that it will never be let go. There is a reason Angie doesn’t live at home and that she rarely goes home these days either. She sees Tito at work, and in a way, he’s all she really needs to see of her family to remind her why she keeps her distance.
Her eyes follow Doctor Fraum as he sits down behind the desk, flipping through a folder until he finds the desired page. “There were complications with the surgery. Your daughter brought him in at about eleven last night and the surgery lasted until six this morning, ma’am. I understand that you are his legal guardian.”
Angie’s ma’s English is broken and her cheeks color beneath the thick cloud of powder she wears to cover her age. She came to this country years ago, but her learning has never been so good. Angie wishes that she’d try harder, that she’d accept the fact that she’s an American now. That her homeland betrayed the world and sided with Hitler. “Yes. Yes. My husband’s brother’s son. He died.” She doesn’t say that it wasn’t in the war, but rather in a gunfight in ’27 over some moonshine run up from West Virginia. There’s a little honor in that lie, at least.
Doctor Fraum glances at Angie, but Angie’s mother leans forward, making sure he’s got his eyes on her. “I understand,” she explains. “Speaking? Not so much.”
He nods, this cannot be an uncommon situation for him. “Alright. Ms. Martinelli, if you’d like to go look in on your cousin, you’re welcome to.”
Angie knows a dismissal when she hears one. She gets to her feet and ducks out of the room and back up the hall to see if Peggy’s still busy. She’s not, reading something in a file covering another file with the tell-tale ‘eyes only’ stamp that Peggy thinks Angie doesn’t know about. “I got kicked out.”
Peggy looks up. “Why?”
“I’m not his guardian. Ma is.” Angie gestures towards the hallway. “Come on, you were a field nurse during the war right? Come explain the prognosis to me.”
If Peggy feels the need to correct Angie calling out her lie, she keeps it to herself.
There is a man in Tito’s room. He’s standing at the good of the bed, arms folded over his chest with his back to the door. His posture is defiant and defensive. Angie catches sight of him just Peggy’s arm shoots out and pulls her back from the door. She smells of sweat and coffee, her hair brushes against Angie as she grips Angie’s wrist for a moment and shakes her head. She puts herself between Angie and the door and glances over her shoulder, a finger to her lips before she pulls the door open as silently as she can.
The guy is talking. “I know you’re fakin’ Tito.” His accent is thick, Red Hook, easy. He’s from the neighborhood. Probably works for Lorenzo. Angie’s breath catches in her throat and Peggy is surging forward, her hand grabbing at guy’s neck and jacket collar. She yanks him around. Her hand shoots forward quicker than Angie can process and she’s pulled his gun from the shoulder holster he’s wearing and pointed it at him. Angie pulls the door closed, heart hammering in her chest. Privacy seems like it should be in order. “The hell are you?” He is unshaven, his eyes sunken and teeth yellow. He’s chewing on a toothpick and his jacket is torn and splattered with a dark substance that could be blood or mud or booze.
There are moments when Angie is terrified of Peggy. When she sees the gleam of wildness that comes into Peggy’s eyes when she’s committing acts of violence, Angie is pulled in two directions. She wants to quell that savage nature within Peggy or turn tail and run. She can never decide which is the better option. Peggy does not share all of her secrets, nor does Angie want her to feel as though she must, but Angie does wonder where it comes from. She wonders if it’s all the pent-up rage and loss from the war, or if it’s something else, something deeper; a beast within Peggy that is just begging to be released. She is so intense, her entire body a livewire caught up in the power she holds so carefully within every controlled movement she makes.
Peggy stares at him, her expression that same maddeningly neutral one that drives Angie up the wall trying to decipher. “You work for Lorenzo.”
“So what?” The guy spits out his toothpick. “You ain’t Tito’s family.”
“I am.” Angie speaks up. Her voice doesn’t shake. Peggy’s hand clenches into a fist. She doesn’t want Angie to be here, and she’s too busy being terrifyin’ to tell her to run.
He gives her a look of such contempt that Angie knows Tito hasn’t kept his big mouth shut about Angie like he promised. The humiliation makes the bile she’s kept at bay since this morning in the kitchen rise into the back of Angie’s throat once more. “I know who you are.”
“Then you’ll know that threatenin’ a guy when he’s in a coma ain’t exactly kosher.” Angie tilts her head. She won’t let Peggy’s little grunt of displeasure get to her. Peggy would kill this loser, and Angie doesn’t want him dead. “He ain’t fakin’. They spent half the night tryin’ to stitch him up and had to put him in a coma to slow the blood.”
“’Zo don’t care. Tito had his money, now it’s gone.”
They share a glance then, and Peggy’s eyes narrow. She pulls the bullets from the gun and pops the final one from the chamber. It falls to the floor with a metallic clatter. She never looks away from the guy as she does this, her hands taking apart his gun effortlessly, the pieces falling to the floor. The muscles on his neck work as he swallows down a scream. He stares hard at the pair of them and Angie sees his eyes go wide as a smirk drifts across Peggy’s face. She flips the pistol over in a smooth toss and catch motion that Angie’s certain she’s practiced and clocks him a good one on the side of the head. He slumps forward and Angie stares down at him. “Coulda at least had ‘im call Lorenzo and tell ‘im he’d get the money.”
“This was infinitely more satisfying.” Peggy’s digging in her purse and pulling out handcuffs. “Although I must confess my motivations for doing that were entirely self-serving. I need to speak to him in a more… official setting.”
“You’re gonna go haul him off to whatever warehouse you’re workin’ outta now?” Angie raises an eyebrow. “All because of me?”
Peggy gives Angie a look, her lips pressed into at thin line. She shouldn’t be talking about this, the look says. She doesn’t want to talk about it.
Angie gives the room a very exaggerated once-over. “Don’t think either of these fellas are talkin’.” She doesn’t look at Tito’s bandaged form. She can’t.
“It isn’t because of you, Angie.” Peggy sighs and bends to pick up the fallen bullet from the gun. She gathers up a few other pieces and looks down at the floor before she glances back at Angie. Her palm presses against her knee and she gets back to her feet wearily. “Your cousin’s run-in with Lorenzo is unfortunate, but the group I work for is after Lorenzo’s boss.”
Angie’s lips part and she stares at Peggy. That’s where the shiner came from. That’s why she was so keen to help out when she’s never so much as asked about Angie’s family before now. The betrayal stings like a slap to the face. “So what, you jus’ went along with this because you wanted to see if he’d send some goon to finish the job on Tito?” Angie takes a step away from Peggy, not quite able to keep the betrayal from her face. “So you could take the goon and beat ‘im up somewhere private?”
She turns and meets Angie’s eyes then, big beautiful brown eyes pleading for understanding that Angie can’t find it in herself to give. “Angie, no, you must know that I—”
Pulling the door open, Angie glares. “Take your goon and your gun and go, Peggy. Leave me and my family outta this.” She doesn’t look at Peggy as she hauls the guy to his feet and muscles him, still woozy from the whack she gave him with his gun.
“I’ll be home at six.” Peggy offers it up like an apology.
Angie grits her teeth. Not accepted. “I’ll be out.”
Exceptionally Pissed Off Angie and Probably Should Work on Her People Skills Peggy will be back in the thrilling conclusion of The Hustle, The Pay-Off.
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?”
“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.
And here we've reached the end of this wonderful story.
Art is by Maryne, found here because she's a totally excellent lady who drew some really amazing pictures for this story. You should go reblog the post. :)
- Oh yes that hole for a sequel is wide open, yes I did notice that.
- The pool game that Angie is playing is called 14-1 or Straight Pool. It was made famous by the movie The Hustler starring Paul Newman, but it was one of the most commonly played cue sports of the 1940s and 1950s.
- I started this story wanting to have a frank discussion of homosexuality in the 1940s and how absolutely devastating it could be for people to get carted off to mental institutions to be cured, oftentimes though horrible means like corrective rape and the like. I didn't want to write about that, but rather what came after an experience like that. Which is how we have beautiful, wonderful Angie and this mental war going on within her. She is too pure for this world, and she's seen the absolute worst of it.
- A big part of me wanted to stick to the abject realism of this incredibly ridiculous story and end with a big ole 'no homo' from Peggy, but at the end of the day, I wanted to write something cute and fluffy and not that realistic. Also actual bisexual Peggy Carter is my favorite so fuck it we're going FULL HOMO.
Thank you so much, everyone, for your kind words of encouragement with this story. I'll be back.