From the files of Joseph Thompson:
Agent Carter’s “Pilot” takes off!
The spools of the projector ran the first of two filmstrips I’d received from a dame with trouble in her eyes earlier that night. The first frames of footage featured the Cap at the helm of Red Skull’s Flying Fortress “The Valkyrie,” as he desperately struggled to keep it aloft while on the radio with Peggy Carter, the over-worked, under-appreciated female agent of the SSR and Cap’s wartime liaison, before leaping ahead to the here and now in 1946. Peggy’s still struck with grief from the loss of history’s greatest soldier on that fateful day, but keeping a stiff upper lip while putting in hours at the phone company and playing den-mother to her younger blonder roommate, Colleen.
She strolls into the office the next day and although the newsreels haven’t been given the full-color “Wizard of Oz” treatment yet, she’s dressed to the nines in what looks like a blue trench-coat and red fedora. She makes with the small talk with Rose, the main madam of the switchboard circuit and with the flip of one of those board’s switches I get a looksee at the phone company BEHIND the phone company, the secret Strategic Science Reserve New York headquarters. No sooner does she make her desk than a call comes through and everyone hustles in to the muster room.
Then I find myself watching a newsreel within a newsreel as millionaire genius playboy Howard Stark is accused of betraying the nation. I’d seen this reel earlier in the week while working on a bottle of Scudders in the back row of the Bijou and still couldn’t help but smile at Stark’s world-weary yet smug deflection of the Senate’s slings and barbs. Once the Stark reel had run down, the muster room broke into brainstorm mode trying to figure if he’d sold his own weapons and inventions to the enemy or not. Despite the general consensus that he’s guilty as sin, Peggy actually speaks up in his defense, which does Howard no good and Carter even less, earning her an unpleasant reputation for her troubles. A real creep of an agent named Krzeminski sends her one way below the belt and a one-legged fella (I think I heard his name was Sousa) who puts the word “gent” back into agent comes to her rescue.
When the room’s cleared, Carter gives Sousa the business for fighting her battles, but doesn’t seem completely ungrateful for the support, at least. Another agent, some Pretty-boy Floyd by the name of Thompson (no relation, of course) goes out of his way to hassle Peg, but walks away with a draw, at best.
She grabs a late dinner at the L&L automat and strikes up a confab with a waitress sporting a nameplate proclaiming her to be “Angie.” A real-life angel on Peggy’s shoulder, I suppose. Though I gotta admit, she’s a lot easier to look at then that Angel fella in the Marvel funny-books. After she drops some love for Cap (a sure fire way to win Peggy’s friendship, for sure), she gives Peg the same sob story every struggling starlet has ever shared and Carter spills her own struggles at the, uh . . . “phone company.” It’s not long before they find they’ve both got a common enemy, the kind of guys that’ve got their heads fulla meat and can’t keep their hands to themselves. I’ve never cared for the type, either. Who would?
Peg grabs some pie and when she gets back to her booth, she finds a note on a napkin, inviting her into the alley.
“Not suspicious at all,” I mumbled to myself.
Clearly never one to shy from a mystery though, Carter heads out back, only to be accosted by a tall, lean gent who lacks certain social graces despite the snooty Brit accent. Peg gives him a lesson in proper introductions while a car roars to life and nearly crashes into them. She gets a shot off and blows out a tire, sending it into the nearest pile of trash waiting for pick up. And who should emerge from the sedan? The scourge of Senate sub-committee hearings himself, Howard Stark.
En route to an isolated pier, Howard gives Peggy the rundown. After a little getaway in Monaco, Stark had returned home to discover his sub-basement vault cleaned out. Cleaned out of what, though? That’s what made my blood run cold. Stark’s known for cobbling together some pretty spiffy, and a lot of times DEADLY, contraptions. And here he is telling Agent Carter that the worst stuff he’s ever thought up is now out there and on the loose. Bad babies, he calls ‘em. No kiddin’. The Senate thinks Stark “robbed himself” and sold the stuff on the black market just for kicks (Lord knows, he doesn’t need any MORE money). Once at the pier, he hops a boat and heads out to hunt down the babies already overseas, right after entrusting his loyal butler, Edwin Jarvis to assist Carter on the home front.
The next morning, back at Ma Bell’s office, Peggy runs interference on Sousa’s manhunt for Stark. She drops a doozy about how Stark can’t stand boats or water and backs it up with a claim that he’d tried to kiss her on VE-day and she’d knocked him into the Thames river for his efforts. You know, they say the best liars mix liberal amounts of truth into their stories to give them credibility. Since it’s clear Stark’s got no problem with boating, my guess is the Thames story is right on the money. Poor sucker.
Sousa lets slip that one of Howard’s formulas had been fenced through a local gangster named “Spider” Raymond and Peggy eases into the muster room to eavesdrop a little while serving the good old boys a fresh cuppa Joe. Thompson mentions Raymond’s weakness for blondes and money and it’s easy to see Peg’s wheels are already turning. She begs off sick for the rest of the day and the mouth-breathing male “agents” actually seemed relieved. What courageous defenders of liberty!
Later that night, at Spider’s nightclub, “La Martinique,” Raymond finishes the purchase of Howard’s formula for a chemical explosive called “nitramene” with some shifty-looking reject from the silent era. As tight-lips takes a powder, Carter makes the scene wearing a slinky satin gown and a blonde wig. She sidesteps an amorous encounter and after bluffing the guard posted at the stairs with a corn-fed Midwest accent and applying a little “Sweet Dreams” lipstick, heads straight to Raymond’s office where she finds herself warmly welcomed.
She cuts right to the chase and vamps her way past Raymond’s defenses and when he gets forward, Spider finds out just how sweet the dreaming can be. Once he’s knocked out cold, Agent Carter makes a quick search of Spider’s web and finds a fully fabricated nitramene grenade in his office safe.
Looking for advice on how to handle it, she uses Spider’s office phone to call Stark’s butler and gets the lowdown on Stark’s first bad baby. In a nutshell, glowing bright orange (as it appeared to) meant it was live and ready to pop. And what a pop! This little baseball of a blastcap would cause an implosion about the size of 5 football fields. End to end and just as wide, all the way through. Jeeves or Edgar or Monty or whatever his name is spills that as deadly as it is, the whole works could be shut down with a pinch of sodium hydrogen carbonate and acetate. Seemed a bit funny to me that a smart-ass butler wouldn’t know where he could lay his hands on some of that, but our gal Peggy doesn’t seem fazed in the least. That dame’s got a solid head on her shoulders. Not ol’ Jarvy, though (THAT was it, “Jar-vis,” gotta try and remember the V – I – S . . .). As soon as he hears his wife, it’s off the line, thank you, mum. Makes a fella wonder what kind of dame could wield that level of authority over a man.
Downstairs, the SSR’s finest, led by Thompson, crash Spider’s party as Carter gets physical with the stationary supplies on her way out of Raymond’s office. She sidesteps her male colleagues while a camera flashes as she tries to make the door without getting spotted. Meanwhile, it looks like it’s curtains for Spider-boy upstairs when the silent shifty seller returns and points the business end of his heater at him for losing the nitramene grenade.
Peggy dips, dives and twirls her way out of the party as the SSR fellas bust into the office to find one very dead Spider on the floor.
When she gets back to her apartment, Peggy finds her roomie Colleen in the bachelor pad’s only murphy bed with the sniffles. As I’d expected, Peg grabs bottles of baking soda and vinegar, along with a bottle of Scudders bourbon (which reminded me that my own bottle in the desk drawer was nearly empty . . . I’d have to run out and get another before I settled into the second reel later on) and then dashed to the loo.
Once inside, she mixed the soda and vinegar with liquid soap from the sink to disarm the ugly glowing little beastie she’d been hauling around in her purse. Then it was straight to business emptying the Scudders, the only way a reasonable person should after that kind of stress. Fully and completely. Something rustling outside the door gets Peg’s attention before she can finish, though and she steps out into the apartment proper to find Colleen shot dead on the bed and the gunman, the shifty silent guy who’d ventilated Spider, creeping up behind her. They tussle for a bit, Peg gives him a burn he won’t soon forget and then she sends him out the third story window to the alley below with a thump. Only thing is, he ain’t there when she looks down. At least he’s out of her hair for the moment, anyway. And with that, Peg sits down on the edge of the bed and has a good cry for poor, lost Colleen. Caught in the crossfire and never even knowing why.
She meets Jarvy at the L&L to seek out assistance. He bolsters her confidence and then puts her in touch with one of Stark’s pals, a Russkie lab-geek by the name of Vanko. Anton Vanko. Never heard of him, myself. He gives the dud grenade casing the hairy eyeball, suggests it had been built by Stark’s chief competitor, Roxxon and tips Peg off on how to trace the chemicals used in the grenade through the Vita-radiation they give off. Same stuff they used to zap Cap and give ‘im the muscles he’d only dreamed of before that. Better than Charles Atlas, I hear. Peg’s thinking the same thing, I think, because while digging through the Project: Rebirth file she’d been given by Colonel Chester Phillips, Sousa crutches in to find her looking a little misty in the eyes. He shares his own story from the war, how he’d lost his footlocker when recovering from the wound that took his left leg and sets Peg at ease. Sometimes, it’s all about timing and delivery and then even the worst situation can be looked back on and laughed at . . . as long as you can survive it. Sousa stumps out and Carter finds what she’d been looking for: one of Professor Abraham Erskine’s very own Vita-ray detectors.
Shifty Guy, meanwhile, is holed up in a cheap hotel room having a conversation with a typewriter. The topic of this unusual means of discussion? Carter’s interference in the recovery of the nitramene and whether to eliminate her to expedite the results. Conclusion: Complete the mission at all costs.
Recovery? Say . . . I thought Howard Stark had invented the stuff. He’d put Carter on to the trail of his bad babies to begin with. So who else would want to recover it? Roxxon? Okay, maybe. They were the likeliest makers of the grenade casing. If they were trying to recover it, then who’d sold it to Spider Raymond to begin with? This mystery was starting to smell . . . and not like roses.
When Jarvis drops Peggy off at the Roxxon plant just outside of New York City, she notices right away that the security detail is heavier than an old wrecked oil refinery warrants. Looks like Roxxon’s our prime suspect after all.
Super-spy that she is, Carter makes easy work of getting over the electrified fence and slinking her way into the heart of the factory where two mooks in milk-man coats are pulling another grenade out of a shed-sized white doohickey that seems to be laying them like eggs. One of the mooks is a real card, the other stays stone-faced and silent as Shifty Guy. Suddenly, Carter’s cover is blown and whose fault is it? Why, the butler did it, of course. When Jarvy’s voice carries loud over the 2-way radio Peggy’s carrying, she ducks out of sight. As Chuckles goes to investigate, Long, Tall and Quiet grabs the grenade and heads for the door.
When Peg’s led Guy Smiley far enough out, she releases a flash-bomb, stunning him and then chases down the quiet one. She gets a few shots off, but then he swings open the back of the milk truck he’d been running towards and reveals that it’s filled to brimming with little golden glowing grenados.
He sticks a little whatsis to his scarred throat and tells Carter, in a voice that tells anyone listening that his trachea’s been removed, that he’s just an independent businessman. He tells her that the Shifty guy, whose voice box was also removed, is no friend of his and that if he’s anywhere nearby, they’re all dead anyway. Then he declares: “Leviathan is coming,” telling Carter she’s not going to like the future. Then he drops the grenade in his hand, activating it inches from the truck containing what look like dozens of them. And all ready to blow.
Peggy gives Jarvis a jingle and tells him to bring the car around and then it’s off to the races as he plows his way through a hail of bullets and then, as Carter jumps onto the sedan’s roof and climbing in, they put the pedal to the metal and just manage to beat the big blast before it’s bye-bye to Roxxon’s rubble strewn refinery care of Howard’s bad baby. Minus a back bumper and license plate, that is.
Back at SSR HQ, Agent Dooley is burning the candle at both ends when Thompson drops in and dishes on a witness who noticed the blonde at Spider’s nightclub just before he turned up dead. Thompson drops a camera on the desk and says he thinks the photo hound that belongs to it might have gotten a shot of her. At that moment, a call comes through about the Roxxon refinery explosion and they head out to snoop around.
At the L&L, Jarvis and Peg trade notes as he promises to check Stark’s files for more dirt on Leviathan. As he leaves, Peggy jots down the address of the dairy farm, Daisy Clover, that the truck loaded with nitramene grenades had come from and then does her waitress pal, Angie a favor by giving the handsy, mouthy shlub at the next table the bum’s rush, but not before he leaves a handsome tip.
Just outside in the Stark sedan, Jarvy’s on some kind of newfangled wireless telephone hooked up in the car (who’d ever heard of such a thing outside of “Dick Tracy?”) giving Stark step by step instructions to mix a martini, before suggesting enlisting Agent Carter for something she can’t know about.
“Not suspicious at all,” I repeated out loud, not concerned with who heard me or who wasn’t even there for that matter.
I unspooled the filmstrip from the projector and, remembering that I needed to grab a bottle of bourbon before heading back to the apartment for the night, I dropped the reel into my coat pocket next to the second one, planning to watch it at home later and headed out the door . . .
Stay tuned for the next exciting chapter!