It was about five in the afternoon when I finished my trek up from the bus stop to the somewhat rickety but large building that was on the hill looking over the bay like a nurturing but stern mother. I could see a couple young girls being herded in by a thin woman in her sixties from where they had been playing on a swing set out back that had seen better days. The old lady noticed me, and eyed me suspiciously as I jogged up to the front porch. I flashed my identification, but to her credit she asked to see it again before answering my questions.
Apparently satisfied, she handed it back to me. "Alright, Detective," she began, her tone all business. "Can't say as I've ever heard of this ACME Agency of yours, but I suppose there's a lot goin' on in the city proper that I don't hear much about. Would ya like to come in? I was just about to serve the girls some chili and cornbread, and there should be some left over. We can look at the records and you can ask your questions then."
I was surprised, to say the least. "Ma'am? I mean, I appreciate it, but you don't even know what I'm here for."
She looked over her shoulder as she led me inside. "I can't pretend I'm perfect, but I've tried to live my life right, and I only go in to the city when it's necessary. This place is my home, and these girls are both my friends and my family. I can't think of a reason why any agency would be lookin' to me for anything I've done, and I'm not elsewhere enough to be lookin' to me for somethin' I haven't done." We walked into the kitchen where the mouthwatering smell of fresh chili and cornbread waited, and I hoped the sudden growl my stomach gave off wasn't too noticeable as she continued to talk. "But this house has been home to a lot of girls."
As if on cue, nine young girls came down the stairs in what I can only call a quiet stampede. They were giggling and whispering to each other, but they all stopped cold when they saw me. Most looked confused, some looked at me with fear.
"Don't worry girls," said the lady, her tone suddenly so full of warmth and caring that I almost wished I'd been her kid growing up. "This is a nice man working with the police, and he's asked me to help him figure some things out for him. You all know how good I am at solving puzzles, after all. Like when you keep losing Mr. Bear, right, Esther?" She tickled a girl who couldn't have been more than five and was holding on to a teddy bear by the paw. The girl giggled, and the other girls smiled, and just like that their worries were gone. "Now then, lets get us all some chili and cornbread, hmm?"
As she filled up their bowls she turned back to me to continue our conversation quietly, her tone once more cool and businesslike. "This isn't just a school, as I'm sure you've gathered. We're an orphanage and a shelter as well. I've been here for forty years, and I've heard more tales of woe than I care count. I do my best to teach these girls good and proper ways, to read and write and cook and clean. Manners and math, and the Good Book." She sighed, pausing a moment before collecting herself and pouring chili for us. "But a lot of these girls have had rough lives even before they can remember, and some will likely fall from the path of righteousness later, and I honestly can't say it's their fault. It's the lives they were born into. So, what's a detective doing coming to the Golden Gate Girls' School? To look up information on one of my lambs that has gone astray."
Before I could confirm that her reasoning was flawless, or in fact before I could pick my mental jaw off the floor, she had turned away and placed her bowl as well as mine at the large dining room table where all the other girls were seated. Hurriedly I joined them, and barely managed to catch myself from sitting before the rest. They were all still standing, and suddenly I found my hands grasped by little Esther's and the caretaker beside me. For the second time that day I found myself sending off a little prayer, this time not of my own volition. Inside I chuckled that maybe this case was turning me, a guy who hadn't been to a church in over a decade, into a religious man. The lady said that she and I would actually be eating in the study so that she could help me with my problem, and made them all promise to be good and respectful. As we left she shut the door to the dining room and paused. After a moment, the sound of laughter could be heard quietly through the door, and I caught her smiling.
"I tell them to be good while I'm gone, but I think I'd almost be more worried if they actually were. Alright Detective, let's hear your questions."
"Well first, ma'am, I'm afraid I didn't catch your name."
She blinked at me and then chuckled, managing to erase twenty years from her face with that simple gesture. "Oh my, here I am teachin' manners and I've forgotten my own. I'm Mrs. Margaret Weston, and I helped found and run the Golden Gate Girls' School, though when I started I was just an assistant."
It's not often I get to enjoy talking to someone in my line of work, but her smile was contagious and I found myself forgetting the stress that had been piling on me since starting this case. "Well, Mrs. Weston, unfortunately your excellent reasoning earlier was correct. I have reason to believe that one of the girls formerly here is involved in a case I'm looking into. Do you recall a girl named Carmen Sandiego?"
We had sat in what Mrs. Weston referred to as the study, which was a room with a fireplace, a few old padded chairs, a small table, and a good number of bookcases. I'm glad we did, because I think if we'd still been walking she may have spilled her food everywhere. She had gone as white as a sheet for a moment, and her hand was shaking like a leaf as she gently placed her spoon back into her bowl.
"I do, Detective Finder. I pray every night before I fall asleep for all the girls that have come to this place, past and present, but I pray for her especially. She was one of the brightest girls I ever took in, read every book I could get her, and she had the fire in her. The world was at her feet. The trouble was, she knew it too."
(to be continued, maybe later today)