The brown-haired girl enters my office and sits quietly, eyes darting around the room. My secretary looks at me over her head as she shows her in, face filled with curiosity.
"Thank you, Marisa. Please hold my calls for the next hour." She blinks, but nods in the affirmative before heading back to her desk, closing the door behind her.
"Hello, Miss Sandiego," I say to the girl in front of me. She offers me a superficial smile, wan and wary.
"Hello, Chief." Undeterred, I try to continue the conversation.
"So, you won a huge prize on a game show a couple of years ago, right? It's A Wise Child, if I remember correctly." She nods, a perfunctory motion; she's either extremely nervous, or bored out of her mind. I have a sneaking suspicion it's the latter, but I'm stumped. I cough a bit and motion to the simple, brass candy dish on my desk. She offers another smile, small and condescending.
"No thanks. I've got bad teeth." I suddenly feel like quite a jerk, so I simply stammer out something intelligent, like "oh", and sit there, staring at her. After about thirty seconds, she clears her throat and offers me a sympathetic look.
"Not used to children?" I shake my head, grateful for her understanding. She offers another small, condescending smile, and I realize that they're starting to drive me crazy. "Don't think of me as one. I may have the body of a girl, but I've got more brains and experience than some people three times my age. Have you traveled the world, Chief? Have you seen the one asymmetrical element in the Taj Mahal? Have you heard the Westminster Chimes play before Big Ben strikes midnight? I have. I've met Sherpas who have climbed Mt. Everest; I've stood on a ship at anchor over the final resting place of the RMS Titanic, praying for the dead. I am one of the smartest people on the planet, and that's not an overinflated ego talking, either. I've got some pretty significant papers to prove that." She stares up at me, brown eyes hard as stone and narrowed. I stare at her for a moment before shrugging, a faux-casual movement. Her damnable eyes catch the movementI watch them flickerbut she says nothing about it, and her expression doesn't change. There's a long, drawn-out silence, and finally I break it.
"All right, Carmen." My voice is a bit more weary than I feel over this tableaux with a little kid. Her gaze cuts through me, as if she knows that I'm playing her like a violin. I don't even grit my teeth as I give her a tired smile. "ACME needs your help. I gotta admit, I'm against consulting with someone so young, your reasoning aside. We need someone who can read people. I'm not sure you can do it." To my surprise, she rises to the bait.
"Try me," she says, challenge flashing in her dark eyes. "Give me a chance. What's so important that you called me in as soon as my plane landed? You gave me an escort off the tarmac, for God's sake. You wouldn't have done that just to goad me into playing stupid mind games with you while I'm jet-lagged and ravenous." Her anger and frustration are very real, cutting into me like a knife. Despite her earlier outburst, I'd still been thinking of her as a childone with no emotions beyond a cat's curiosity, at that. Smacked in the face with her palpable rage, I struggle not to react in kind. Closing my eyes, I take a few slow, deep breaths before speaking.
"Someone's stolen the Presidential seal out of the carpet in the Oval Office," I say simply, keeping emotion out of my voice. "All of my top agents are stumped. I'm flabbergasted. We need fresh perspective, and I'm hoping you'll give it to us." The flame of anger in her eyes subsides a bit, and she offers a single, curt nod.
"Let me see the case file."
As the plane touches down in Washington, Carmen yawns and stretches in the seat next to me. "Economy class is terrible," she mutters sleepily. I say nothing, just keep staring out the window at Reagan National's normal hustle and bustle. I wonder what the general public would think if they knew someone had managed to sneak into the White Houseinto the Oval Officeand steal an important part of our nation's heritage. They'd probably lose their heads. If the Presidential Seal was stolen so easily, what's to say that national secrets aren't safe? I chew my lower lip contemplatively as I consider how close the press is to cracking the story.
"Chief?" A young man in his mid-twenties, with mussed blond hair and green eyes, peeks at me from over the seat. Albert Cazar is one of my best agents, a young man who moved from Norway to join ACME at age 18. He's brilliant and he makes intuitive leaps lesser agents fear. Unfortunately, he's also painfully shy, and doesn't talk much. His obvious concern for me is touching; he's like a son to me.
"Yes, Al?" I give him a tired smile. I've barely slept since the robbery happened, and I've been keeping a close eye on Carmen since she landed in San Francisco. Something about her is incredibly off-putting, and I don't trust her. We need her, but... I don't know. Something just isn't right here.
"Just making sure you know we landed." He watches me with worry deep in his eyes.
"Oh. Yeah, just tired." I stand and step into the aisle to stretch. Carmen's already halfway to the exit, so I grab my bag and follow her. I'm silently glad, for the millionth time, that she's got a taste for bold colors. It makes her easier to keep track of.
She steps into the terminal a step ahead of me, and glances around quickly. She then turns to me. "Are we going to the hotel first?"
"No, we're going straight to work." She nods, seemingly pleased by the information, and takes a notebook out of her backpack before handing it to Al. The Scandinavian looks surprised and more than a little irritated by this, and turns to me.
"Al is coming with us, Carmen," I tell her firmly. "He's not a valet, despite your best intentions." She heaves a sigh.
"I don't want more people there than necessary." I take a deep breath and count to five before responding, but even doing that doesn't prevent the irritation from creeping into my voice.
"I decide who's necessary and who isn't, Carmen." She snorts and begins walking out of the airport, leaving Al with her scarlet bookbag, and me utterly infuriated. I catch up to her with a few long strides and lead her out into the bright sunlight. I know, if I look behind me, she's smirking at my back. I refuse to turn.
There are a row of black sedans with governmental license plates on them waiting outside. I step to the closest and open the door, waiting for the girl, but she skips past me and goes to the first car in the convoy. She gets in, and I sigh resignedly, following her and sitting next to her. Al gets into the car I abandoned, and I catch a glimpse of the relief in his face.
The lucky bastard.
Carmen remains blessedly silent as we head to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and I watch the urban scenery roll by my window. I must have dozed off, because we're at the White House quicker than I expected.
Carmen opens the door before the chauffeur can get to it, and bounds toward the door. I grab her by the shoulder as I get out of the car.
"Didn't realize you were so excited about seeing the White House, Carmen," I say drily, letting go of her. She turns to glare, somehow looking down her nose despite being half my height.
"It's not the White House that's exciting. I've seen it before. It's the thrill of the chase. Jeez, Chief, I thought you of all people would understand that." She sniffs a little and heads to the door again, walking in an exaggeratedly sedate fashion. Al's car pulls up behind ours, and he gets out, heading over to me.
"How's the princess?" he asks me quietly, watching her. I groan in response, and he gives me a sympathetic smile. I nod and follow the girl, Al at my heels.
A Secret Service agent is just inside. He leads us quickly to the Oval Office and lets us in. The Office is deserted; the C&O Desk dominates the room. There is an obvious empty space on the rug in front of the Desk, where the Seal used to be. The Secret Service agent crosses his arms and stands in front of the door we entered. Three others stand in front of the other available exits. Apparently, they're taking no chances, and I can't really say I blame them.
Carmen walks to the empty spot in the carpet and begins inspecting it closely, pausing to take notes as she does. She then walks the room's perimeter, and surprisingly, the agents step out of her waythey don't take their eyes off of her slight form, but they move for her without her having to ask. If it were anyone else, I'd find it impressive; with the girl, it just irritates me. I've definitely had too much of her these past few days.
She completes her circuit of the room, and I catch a glimpse of her notebook. A well-drawn map is on the page, not to scale, of course, but with enough recognizable detail that she's probably going to have to hand it over before she leaves. She notes the position of the medallion in the plaster of the ceiling, looks at it for a moment, marks it on the map, and then continues.
She returns to where the Seal used to be and kneels. She lifts a carpet square out of the patch and nods thoughtfully. She removes them all and carefully places themin orderbeside the hole, then inspects the hardwood floor underneath. I bite my tongue to keep from sarcastically asking if she wants a microscopebut it's really, really tempting.
She looks up after about ten minutes, and looks for me. When she catches my eyeit's not hard, considering I've been staring at her for 45 minutesshe offers one of those condescending smiles.
"I've solved your mystery," she announces, looking from me, to Al, to the Secret Service agents. I try to look unimpressed, but apparently it shows in my eyes, because Carmen's smirk widens. Al looks somewhat impressed by her, and a little scared of me; I'm known for shouting a lot. I think my restraint these past few days have surprised everyone at the office, including me. The Secret Service agents look blankly at her.
She stands and heads toward the northwest door, the one that leads to the main corridor of the West Wing. She stands in front of the agent, who blinks and moves out of the way. Carmen turns and stands with her back to the door. She walks forward. Everyone in the room watches her silently; they all understand tracing steps. She then returns to her spot in front of the door and inspects the doorway.
"Whoever did this came in to do some decorating." She points to a scuff mark in the paint of the door frame. "They were carrying something awkwardlikely the valances over the windowsand ruined the paint here. The carpet squares were hidden in their toolboxes." She waits briefly for comment before realizing that she won't get any this early, and forges on. "They were left unobserved, because all of the documents and important items were locked in a safe elsewhere in the White House. These men and women had been vetted before being allowed in, but they overlooked an important detailunion associations. There's a new union in town, Teamsters 1527 (Building Material and Construction Trade Division). It may sound legitimate, but look closer. It's a front for a new thieves' guild, bent on stealing the most monumental symbols ever."
"How do you know all this, Carmen?" I ask, eying her suspiciously. She gives me a pitying look.
"I read. I pay attention. And I've made friends all over the world. I hear stuff." She shrugs and continues, while I mull over her non-answer.
"As three of them hang the new valances, the other two begin carefully cutting the carpet into squares. This is meticulous work, but they use rulers and sharp utility knives to cut precise squares two feet on a side. They quickly pull up the Seal and roll it up before laying the replacement carpet. The Seal is put in the toolboxes, and they finish what they were contracted to do before leaving. They 'accidentally' leave a drop cloth over the stolen Seal's original position. This isn't lifted until several people have been in and out of the room."
"That's... plausible," I admit gruffly. "But how do you know it was the decorators?"
"Easy. They left nicks in the carpet padding from their X-Acto knives, and there aren't any work-boot scuffs near where the ladders were laid. They would have laid drop cloths right under the ladder, but they would have had to move around while they were holding the ladder, and work-boots are notoriously dirty; there would have been more footprints. The carpet is also cut expertly, something interior decorators would know how to do."
I frown and begin to speak before one of the Secret Service agents speak up. "That actually makes sense, sir."
"What's your name?" I ask sharply, and she blinks.
"Anderson, sir. May I continue?" I nod reluctantly, and she goes on, face impassive.
"The decorators took about 15 minutes longer than they'd estimated. When asked why, they said they had some faulty hardware. We took this at face value. The drop cloth was left in place because the President was out of town, dealing with some issues in Panama. It was sheer laziness on our part. We just thought they forgot the drop cloth, and by the time we thought to remove it, other workmen and women had been in and out of the office, doing other design work."
"So why do you believe that Carmen is correct?"
"Because the valance-hangers are the only ones with this Teamsters union credentials, and we did not check them, like she said. No one has ever dared use the Teamsters name without permission before. It will be an interesting fallout." Carmen smirks off to the left, and I frown deeply.
"All right, but how do we find them?"
"I already have," the girl chimes in. I manage not to groan or roll my eyes, but I grit my teeth as I look at her arrogant smile.
"Do tell." My voice is flat, but she keeps going, ignoring my obvious displeasure.
"Easy. I have contacts in the black market. I purchased it last night. It should be returned to Dulles later today. I will get a call at the hotel when the plane touches down."
Al watches her with wide eyes. "You... are very good," I admit to her, gruffly. "I suppose I have no choice. Welcome to ACME, Carmen." She beams up at me, smugness and pride in her face.
I've got a lot to deal with.