After months of investigation on the Smithonian robbery case that was very conclusive and yet very unproductive, it was when Veronica stepped out for coffee that that she finally found the subject of her search. Somehow, she got the impression that she never would have seen Carmen Sandiego if the notorious thief hadn't wanted to see her first.
Funny, she looked a little like Kendall Casablancas.
Veronica glanced down at her coffeecup and the cast iron table beneath it. After getting her coffee she had taken a seat out in front of the cafe to soak up a few minutes of sunlight that she probably hadn't seen in a week. Foot traffic passed by continuously and she had a clear view of everyone, yet she hadn't seen Carmen approach before she pulled out the seat across from Veronica and sat down, her movement graceful yet not inviting any challenge.
"Looking for me?" Carmen said, her accent impossible to place. The left side of her red mouth curved upwards.
"I'm on a break, actually, so I won't be for another ten minutes," Veronica answered. She considered attempting to arrest Carmen right there and then, a thought that lasted about three quarters of a second before being deemed unfeasible. She shifted, letting her cell phone drop out of her pants pocket and into her hand.
"Then I have a whole nine and a half minutes to enjoy before leaving you to look the fool for any law enforcement you've invited." Veronica felt the phone removed from her grasp under the table, and Carmen looked at it with interest. "You didn't even manage to send the message yet? Oh, Veronica, I do hope I haven't overestimated you. I should hate to think we couldn't be equals."
"Of course we aren't equals," Veronica commented, and sipped her latte. It was almost too hot. "I haven't met someone who's my equal yet. Though there was that one time down in Tijuana with all the tequila and the five nuns... hoo boy, that was quite the spring break."
"I'm sure." Carmen reached across the table and took Veronica's coffee. After removing the lid, she drank deeply, not regarding its heat. "Irish cream? Well, at least it's one step away from vanilla." She set it back in front of Veronica, a clear red lip print on the paper cup.
Veronica's hand started moving towards her purse as Carmen had been talking and brazenly stealing her coffee. She felt around inside cautiously, responding, "You know me, I walk on the wild side. Or at least I assume you know me. Someone like you wouldn't have been stupid enough to sit down at my table without knowing quite a bit about me, too."
"Like that you always carry one of these?" Carmen held up her taser, which explained its missing comforting weight in her purse.
Veronica gave up with the purse and replaced the lid on her coffee. "I used to carry a ferocious dog as well. You should be grateful nothing bit back when you stuck your hand in my purse."
"Yes, Backup. Lives with your father these days. Goodness, it's been a long time since I've seen Keith. Does he ever ask about me?"
"Oh, yes, all the time. Mostly 'Are you doing anything with that file I gave you on that damn woman with the red hat?' of course."
"Keith always was so thoughtful." Carmen leaned forward, her elbows on the table and a hand under her chin. From beneath her red hat her shadowed dark eyes gazed out unwaveringly at Veronica. "And you, the young rising star at the Bureau. Private detective work wasn't enough, so you went national. All your cases have been moved off your desk as quickly as they went on it, except for one. Except for me. I'm flattered, Veronica."
"What can I tell you," Veronica said, pointedly taking a sip of her coffee that was really still hers, "I'm all sweetness and consideration on the inside. Veronica Mars, she's a marshmallow, they say."
"What they say, in the hallways and breakrooms and to their spouses at night when they go home, is that Veronica Mars is obsessed with the one case she can't solve, the only one that ever got away from her. And believe me, they're not saying it in awe. I think one man giggled. They're waiting to watch you fall, so that they can all compete for your place."
"First time in my life people have actually wanted to be me," Veronica mused. She mimed wiping away a tiny tear. "I never knew they cared so much!" Then she leaned forward, too. "Mind telling me how you know what's going on in the FBI's breakrooms?"
Carmen sat back and laughed. It wasn't an evil mwahahaha, not a throaty and sexually charged chuckle like Veronica might have expected from a woman wearing that shade of lipstick, not a cruel and demoralizing laugh. Just a laugh, the laugh of a girl who did something clever and was delighted at the reactions of anyone who saw how it worked. "I know a thing or two about disguise," Carmen said, with a wry grin. "Do you think anyone ever really looks past the hat?"
"Isn't that the Sherlock Holmes trick, with the outrageous fake noses?" And she looked past the hat, the coat, really examined Carmen, and she marveled. To the sketch artist in her head, Veronica relayed oval face, or maybe heart-shaped; cheekbones, but not especially high or defined; eyes some dark color, possibly brown or hazel or black or maybe just muddled; mouth not wide or narrow, lips not thin nor plump; nose straight but not large. She wasn't short or tall or curvy or bony or anything. Even with her training and natural talents for observation, Veronica felt herself already forgetting what Carmen looked like, though she was still looking at her. "It's a good trick," she said, and found herself grinning back, at the simplicity and functionality of it.
"I knew if anyone would appreciate it, you would. We're more alike than you'd like to think, Veronica. I know why my casefile is the one that lingers on your desk and why you stay at work looking at it long after everyone else leaves. You're not obsessed with your failure to catch me. You just know that you're the only one who could, and if you did, there wouldn't be any challenge to keep you there."
"While snooping in my desk, did you notice the pay stub and the medical insurance explanation of benefits? They're really pretty decent, actually. I have houseplants to support. There are a few more things than the challenge of your case to keep me at my job."
"That will hold you, for now," Carmen nodded. "You're young, and everything feels a bit less guaranteed then, doesn't it, because you have so long to live with your failures if you fall. But give it time. You'll still feel that itch for something more interesting, and the savings account won't look as hungry as it does now, and then I think you'll want to buy me another cup of coffee and have a little chat."
"That is still my cup of coffee."
"That is your cup of coffee, Carmen, you're welcome."
Carmen stood, picking up her coffee. "Find me, Veronica. You'll know how, when you decide you want to." She pocketed Veronica's taser, then felt her other coat pocket. "Oh, I believe I have your gun and handcuffs as well. Just in case you had any last-minute ideas of catching me now, which I really don't have time for today. Don't worry, they'll be returned to you. Eventually."
Veronica stood, as she had the odd feeling Carmen might try to patronizingly pat her on the head. "What, you aren't going to tase me to keep me from following?"
"Make a scene, let my minions rack up the overtime while I do all the work? I don't think so." She turned away to leave.
"You're wrong, Carmen," Veronica said quietly. "I know you know that my best friend was murdered. By a man so preoccupied with trying to satisfy the needs of his ginormous ego that he thought Lilly's life just didn't matter. Just because I need a challenge and maybe my job won't always be enough doesn't mean I'm going to start living in a world where people like her don't matter."
"You already do," Carmen replied, not turning around. "Those small investigations on pieces of paper that you solve and move off your desk as quickly as possible? Each one of those is a life that matters. But to you, they're just insufficiently interesting puzzles. You're closer than you think." She looked back over her shoulder at Veronica, and winked, and stepped into the crowd of passing pedestrians. Veronica jumped once, trying to catch a glimpse of the red hat, bobbing atop the sea of people. It was nowhere to be seen, and Veronica grabbed her phone and purse and ran, pushing past the lunch seekers.
Carmen was gone, vanished like some particularly garish ghost. Veronica had expected no less, and knew she had no chance of finding her now. She opened her purse, to find her phone and see what time it was and exactly how late she would be in getting back to the office.
At the bottom of her purse lay a tube of lipstick. Veronica never carried more than Chapstick with her, and rarely wore more than that. This case was gold, with the letters 'CS' scratched into the side, and Veronica took it out and opened it.
It was a flamboyant cherry red.