Bob squinted against the spotlight at a vaguely familiar face in the crowd and almost missed his cue to come in. Even after being back in the States for a year and a half, on stage for most of it, he couldn't quite keep his head in the game. A year slogging through Europe had taught him to always have his eyes open to his surroundings—Phil wouldn't have had to save him from that building if he'd been paying better attention—and now he couldn't always quite focus on the act the way he needed to.
"Hey, you got a little distracted in the intro to "Managua, Nicaragua,"" Phil said as they changed out of their costumes. "Anything in particular? Your nerves have been getting better, I thought."
"Aw, it was nothing," Bob said. "Thought I saw someone I recognized. Nothing much." Well, nothing much compared to that time in Chicago the horn entrance had startled him so badly he'd almost fallen in the middle of a dance. Phil had covered, turned it into a gag, and the audience never knew anything was wrong. There were a lot of reasons Bob and Phil had stayed together after the war, and if Phil saving Bob's life was the one Phil leaned on when he wanted something, it wasn't always the one Bob counted most important.
"And was it someone you recognized?" Phil asked, tucking in his shirt.
"Couldn't see well enough to tell," Bob said, fiddling with his collar. "That was the distracting bit."
"Well, take a look when we get out there, maybe you'll spot 'em again," Phil said. "Only wait until after we're done schmoozing Howard Stark."
"Sure," Bob said. The band had been buzzing during warm-ups that afternoon about the notorious Howard Stark's plans to be there, and Phil had gotten excited. "Say, why are you so excited to meet this Stark character, anyhow?"
"I'm just eager to meet a war hero," Phil said.
Bob laughed. "War hero? Try war profiteer. I'm sure he got paid far better for his work with the war effort than thee or me. Besides, we know lots of war heroes. You're a war hero."
"Me?" Phil frowned at him. "I was just a buck private, one little cog in the machine marching through France."
"Saved my life, even got a medal for it," Bob said as he grabbed his jacket and waited for Phil. "That's not nothing."
"Right," Phil said, looking a little nonplussed. He only seemed to think of himself as a hero when he wanted something and could use it. "But, I mean, there's a million guys just like me. Sure, I saved you—but that's no more than a lot of other people did. Stark made the weapons that helped us do it. And he's still serving, that whole intelligence undercover gig he did last month. I dunno, I just think he's a swell guy that I'd like to get to know, and if he came for our show, I might be able to say hello to him. Thank him for all he did."
"Uh-huh," Bob said. Call him suspicious, but one of the first things show business had taught him was that everybody had an angle, and two years of knowing Phil had proven that he was no exception. "And?"
"And?" Phil said. "I can't have a patriotic interest in a guy serving our country?"
"You can," Bob said. "But usually when you get this worked up about meeting a guy, he manages a hot new nightclub or has a radio show. And Stark, steel-clad patriot that he is, has no financial interest in any entertainment venue."
"That we know of," Phil said. "But a guy like that who likes to throw money around, people listen to him. Can't hurt anything to see if he might mention our names once or twice."
Bob laughed. "Okay, Phil, I get it."
"Well, come on, what are we waiting for?" Phil said as he grabbed his jacket, as if Bob hadn't been standing here waiting for the slowpoke for the last five minutes.
"Well, where is he?" Phil hissed as they stood in the doorway scanning tables.
"I don't see him," Bob said, craning his neck.
"Who, Stark?" One of the cigarette girls, Myra, was close enough to hear. "Didn't show." She sighed.
"Oh … darn," Phil said, visibly reigning in the salty language they'd both picked up in the Army. "Well, I guess we will try and spot your friend right away. I know him?"
"Her," Bob said. "And I don't know. She looked familiar, but I couldn't quite place her with the lights in my eyes."
"Oh, her," Phil said, grinning. "I see. No wonder you weren't too keen on schmoozing Mr. Stark."
Bob shot him a quelling glance, and went back to scanning the area of the room he thought she'd be in. Just as he was about to give up, a brunette in blue shifted in her chair and he could see her face. He shook his head. Well, wasn't that a kick in the head. Though he supposed he shouldn't be surprised to see her no matter where she turned up, given the line of work she'd been doing in the war, but it was a long way from the battlefields of Europe to one of the best tables at the Copacabana.
He might as well say hello, he figured, and started across the room with Phil in his wake. Besides, she was there with another woman, instead of a date; maybe the four of them could have a few laughs.
"Why, Miss Carter, what a surprise," Bob said as he came around to the front of her table.
"Mister Wallace, it's a pleasure," she said, holding out a hand for him to shake. "You've certainly done well for yourself, since the war."
"And you look lovelier than ever," Bob replied gallantly. "May I introduce my partner, Phil Davis?"
"Always a pleasure to meet a friend of Bob's, particularly such a charming one," Phil said.
"And this is my friend Angela Martinelli," Miss Carter said, gesturing to her friend, a slender brunette.
"Miss Martinelli," Bob said without raising an eyebrow. Not many Italians had the cash or the strings to get the good seats at the Copacabana; he wondered if she had mob ties.
"Call me Angie," she said, with a working-class New York accent.
"You're welcome to join us, if you like," Miss Carter said, gesturing to the other two chairs.
"If we wouldn't be intruding," Bob said. "Surely, two lovely ladies like yourselves aren't here alone."
Angie laughed. "Naw, we are. Stark had something come up at the last minute and cancelled, so he gave his reservation to us."
"You know Howard Stark?" Phil asked.
"Peggy here works with him," Angie said. "She was part of the sting operation."
"Angie," Carter said, warningly. "That's classified, you know."
"It was in all the papers. How can it be classified?"
"My part of it wasn't in the papers."
"And I didn't give them any details."
Bob watched in fascination. "I take it your line of work hasn't changed since the end of the war, Miss Carter?"
"No, it hasn't, Mister Davis."
"Did you two know each other during the war?" Angie asked.
"Only very loosely," Carter said.
"She came through our camp a few times, and my unit met her out in the field, once," Bob said. "I never did figure out what group you were with, ma'am—she showed up in a US WAC uniform once, and civilian clothes another time, and a British nurse uniform another. Always hush-hush, though. You probably never saw her, Phil, she spent a lot of time in the headquarters tent and always kept a low profile."
Carter smiled. "Indeed. Loose lips sink ships, and all that."
"So, can you tell us where you work now?" Phil asked.
"I'm afraid not," Carter said with a shrug. "The war is over, but the espionage continues."
"Such as your thing with Howard Stark," Bob said.
"Yeah, that must have been really exciting," Phil said.
"You don't know the half of it," Angie said.
"Do you work with Miss Carter?" Bob asked.
"Or with Mister Stark?" Phil asked, probably trying to figure out if he could use her to get to Stark.
"Neither," Angie said. "I'm an actress. I just lived down the hall from Peggy and was there when the goon squad broke in looking for her. And got to try out my improv skills in real life to keep them occupied while she got away."
"You were marvelous," Carter said. "But that's as much as can be shared in public, I'm afraid." She smiled pointedly at her friend.
"And that was enough that Howard Stark gave you his reservation at the Copacabana on a Saturday night?" Phil said. "You can't leave us hanging like that. Goon squad? Here in New York?"
Bob kicked him under the table. "I'm sure you were quite glad when it was all over and things went back to normal. So you're an actress, Angie? What have you been in?"
"Not much, professionally," Angie said. "Some bit parts in off-Broadway shows, a few radio pieces, whatever work I can get. I love the classics—Ibsen's my favorite playwright—but I can do comedy, sing, hoof, whatever they need. You know how it is."
"Do we ever," Phil said. "I do a bit of everything, including writing and arranging some of our stuff. Before the war, I was clerking at a grocery store in the Bronx to pay the bills while I tried out for everything going—and missing most of it. Uncle Sam called, and I figured that was it, for a while at least. But there I was, slogging through France in the winter of 1944, when the call goes out that the great Bob Wallace, newly assigned to the 151st, wanted to put on a bit of a Christmas show for the boys and was there anyone who could help? Well, Mrs. Davis didn't raise any fools, and I volunteered then and there."
"Didn't hurt that your squad was on punishment duty cleaning out the latrines, just then," Bob put in.
"That was the best part!" Phil said. "We all volunteered, to get out of it, but I was the only one with actual experience. We put on the show—it was a smash hit, not a dry eye in the place—and with a whiz-bang finish!"
"The Germans started shelling during the last number," Bob said.
"How perfectly thrilling," Carter said, with the air of someone who knew from experience it was anything but.
"Did you finish in the bomb shelter?" Angie asked. "I heard they did that in London during the Blitz." Unlike her friend, she was hanging on their every word. Well, she'd never seen shelling in person.
"Bomb shelters? What bomb shelters?" Phil said. "We were camped out in the ruins of an old French town. The locals who hadn't fled were hiding in most of the cellars. I dragged Bob under a flat-bed truck just in time to keep a building from falling on him—saved his life—almost bought the farm myself, but got away with just a bum arm." He gestured to the famous arm. "It still aches when the weather changes."
Bob wondered if he was going to roll up his sleeve to show Angie his scar. The two of them were looking awfully cosy. He shared an amused look with Miss Carter. Bob didn't quite know what to think of her, but he wasn't going to interrupt Phil's fun.
"How exciting!" Angie said, with all the enthusiasm of someone who didn't know that the other side of excitement was pain and terror.
"Bit too exciting for my tastes," Phil said. "Me, I'd rather act in a show about soldiers than be one."
"Man, I hear you," Angie said. "I betcha there was a lot more blood and mud than in the pictures."
"You don't know the half of it," Miss Carter said.
"Doesn't Miss Carter share her war stories?" Phil asked.
"Loose lips sink ships," Bob said. "Miss Carter's war stories aren't like ours."
"Indeed," she said. "And call me Peggy. This is supposed to be a night for frivolity."
"Like dancing?" Bob said. He'd had enough of the war, even heavily-edited stories in swank nightclubs. And the timing was perfect; the band had just finished up one number and was beginning another. "Peggy, would you do me the honor?"
"I'd be delighted, Bob." She took his assistance to stand, and they swept off to the dance floor.
"Phil and your friend are sure hitting it off," Bob said.
"Oh, yes," Peggy said. "Angie always makes the most out of life. She'll have all his interesting war stories out of him, while she's pumping him for contacts in the business."
"Oh, he won't mind," Bob said. "He's that type himself. Which is how a wartime Christmas show turned into a civilian partnership. Though we don't have many contacts in the more highbrow side of show business, if she's serious about the Ibsen."
"She'll take anything," Peggy said. "Anything that gets her out of waitressing."
"She any good?" Bob asked, knowing that being 'good' wasn't even half the battle, in the entertainment world.
"Very," said Peggy.
"Then I'm sure that attitude will see her through," Bob said. "How about yourself? What have you been up to? Spywork can't be taking all your time."
"Very nearly," Peggy said. "When there's a big case, at least."
"How often is there a big case?" Bob asked.
"As compared to the war, never," Peggy said. "As compared to handling the all the little details of transitioning to peacetime, surprisingly often."
"What kind of details?" Bob asked. "If you can tell me."
"Oh, all sorts," Peggy said. "During the war, we were mostly military—working with OSS here and Britain's military intelligence, as well. Now everyone's getting demobbed and turned into civilian agents. I've no idea what the name of our agency will even end up being, yet."
"It was a little simpler for Bob and I," Phil said. "All we had to do was decide whether to be Davis and Wallace or Wallace and Davis. And getting used to a lot higher quality of bands to play with, than we had for that Christmas show."
"I suppose quite a lot of people were eager to hire the old star come home from doing his patriotic duty," Peggy observed, with a wry twist to her mouth.
"Something like that," Bob said. "Truth be told, it happened so fast I think I'm still spinning from it. There's a big difference between listening for Jerries approaching your trench and listening for your cue to come in."
"I would imagine so," Peggy said. "My work is largely similar to what I was doing during the war, although being able to wear real stockings and a new dress while I do it—and come home to fresh food and a clean, warm bed every night—makes a great deal of difference that I hadn't quite expected. I always thought it would be easier than this, when I was dreaming about after the war."
"Sister," Bob said, thinking about his distraction on stage and the horns in Chicago and all the hundred little ways that his nerves hadn't quite figured out he was home safe, "you just said a mouthful."