Mrs. Weston leaned back, her food forgotten. Her eyes took on that look of someone who's not looking at a where, but a when. I kept my trap shut rather than press her. Whatever she was about to say, she was digging it out of somewhere deep.
"Carmen showed up at our door alone, clothed in dirty and torn rags. I remember thinkin' even then there was something special about the girl. It was like she shined with an inner light, that no amount of dirt would ever cover up. She looked about four, but we never could tell for sure, Ms. Lake and me."
"Ms. Lake?" I had to cut in. "She was the head of the school then?"
"Oh yes. Antonia Lake. My husband left me a widow when I was young, and rather than try to find someone good enough to replace him in my heart, I took up with Ms. Lake and her quest to help the orphan girls of San Francisco, seein' as how I almost felt like an orphan myself. We'd been around for a few years, but Carmen...I had never known a child like her."
"You said you didn't know how old she was?"
"Nope. Don't even know what her actual name was. We called her Carmen because Antonia had seen that opera not long before, and thought that she could look the part when she was older. Carmen chose her own last name of Sandiego when she was looking over a map of California, learnin' geography, and who were we to argue."
"Did she acquire a middle name?"
"Isabella. Heh, got that from Queen Isabella of Spain in a history book. I swear, that girl had the most voracious appetite for knowledge that I have ever witnessed. She tore through our book selection as soon as we taught her her letters."
I scribbled down her middle name in my notebook. It seemed unimportant, but I've seen cases get broken by smaller details.
"Detective, may I ask what crime she's been connected with?"
I frowned. Sure, it was unlikely that telling the old dame would cause any hubbub, but the trick to catching crooks is to make sure you find all their cards before you play all of yours. Still, in cards or in an investigation, there were times you had to go with your gut and press your luck. "We think she was the brains behind the Egyptian amulet heist at the museum. You heard about it, ma'am?"
She sighed, wearily. "I may not go into the city much, young man, but I still get the paper, even here. Well, at least it wasn't a killing, and something like that would fit her sensibilities more."
"Oh?" I asked, leading her.
"Yes. Like I said, she loved knowledge. Books. History especially. She was always comin' up to me or Ms. Lake and tellin' us about some great fact she'd just learned in a book. She'd get real insistent about it too, if we were too busy to pay proper attention. It was like she was tryin' to make sure we learned just as much as she was. Now I think history is all well an' good, but sometimes the present is just more important, don't you think, Detective?"
"Yes, ma'am," I replied. "So she had an intense love of history. Was there anything else about her habits you remember?" I asked, trying to get her mind back on track.
"Oh yes. She's the reason I'm so good at solving puzzles now. Once she was a little older, somewhere around eleven by our reckonin', she got her hands on some of that Sherlock Holmes that that British man wrote. Then she found Ms. Lake's collected works of Edgar Allen Poe. For a while she was absolutely obsessed with anything to do with solving mysteries and deciphering codes and clues. She loved playin' games with me and Antonia, so we'd hide things and leave clues where they were, or come up with riddles for her to solve. Still, bright child that she was, it wasn't long before they weren't challenging enough for her. So we reversed the roles, and seein' her face light up while we were stumped on one of her codes was a joy. There were even a few times that she completely fooled us, near the end."
"The end?" I prompted, scratching a few more notes down on my pad.
"Yes. It was a little after her, well, we called it her fourteenth birthday. One day she didn't come down for breakfast, and when I went up to check on her, I found that most of her things were gone and she'd left a note. It thanked us for sheltering her, but she couldn't rely on us any more. She had a plan, and she was going to enact it. She'd also make sure to pay us back some day."
"That was all that she left for you? And no contact since?" I asked, and I couldn't keep the suspicion out of my voice.
The dame noticed, and her eyes narrowed. "That was all, Detective. And no, I haven't heard from her since. I loved that child like I love all these girls, but no matter how much I loved her, and yes, admired her spirit, those who break the law must be punished, and I would not harbor her. Now, I've given you plenty of information, so if you're done insinuating that I would help a fugitive..."
I held up my hands, and at that moment I felt like that woman was holding me at gunpoint with her words. "My apologies, Mrs. Weston. I just need to cover all the angles. I'm about as certain as I can be that Carmen Sandiego is behind this theft, and my full focus is on finding that amulet, rather than conversational correctness."
She glared a bit more, and I tried not to show that I felt like a schoolboy about to get his fingers rapped by a yardstick, which truth be told was an experience I had had all too often growing up. Then her gaze softened, and her face showed just how tired her soul must be. "Of course, Detective. I'm sorry, I'm still coming to terms with the truth. You can take her file, it's in the office, filed under 'S', but I don't think it'll show you much more than what I've told you. Now, not to be unkind, but I'd like to finish my meal in peace."
"Of course, Mrs. Weston," I replied, scooping the last of my chili into my mouth. "Thank you very much for your hospitality. You really have been a great help." I didn't know if that was true, but I at least had a little bit more to go on with who this Carmen broad was. As I left to go to the office, I looked back. Mrs. Weston was staring into the cold fireplace, and hadn't touched her spoon. Closing the door gently, I left the old woman to her memories, got the marked file, and left. It was a little before six, and a light drizzle had started to fall. I tucked the file under my arm, turned my overcoat up against the rain, and started the downhill walk to the bus station. Day Two was rapidly drawing to a close, and I had no leads on the amulet besides how it was maybe stolen, but at least I knew more about who might have had it done.
That was better than nothing.
(To be continued...)