"And again, she slips through our fingers!"
Julia Argent doesn't look away from the photographs in front of her. She tilts her head slightly while analysing the craggy slope of a face, the curve of a wry smile, the blurb about life, love, and lost youth below it.
"Ms Argent! Do you hear me?"
"Yes, sir," she murmurs, still not turning to Devineaux. "But all of the photographs are accounted for."
"And yet there were three reported stolen this morning! Our crimson ghost must have lost her nerve when she heard we were on her trail. Doubled back, replaced them, disappeared into the festivities."
"I do not think the theft was Carmen Sandiego's doing," Julia replies, but she doesn't know why she bothers. They've had a million variations of this same conversation a million times. Interpol, ACME, it doesn't matter - Chase Devineaux will never see the truth unless it literally bites him.
Maybe not even then.
"There are paper remnants near the exhibit entrance," she reminds him. "The same type of origami throwing stars we encountered in Mumbai. Carmen Sandiego does not use such things."
"Ah," Devineaux grumbles, "and here this is again. You suspect Ms Sandiego of fighting off the paper-loving thief, losing, chasing them down, and returning the stolen goods? Inutile!"
It's pointless. Julia knows it's pointless. And yet - "Devineaux, I think it is high time you listen to logic. In all this time we have chased Carmen Sandiego through the world, she has never stolen something that wasn't returned within days."
"...Perhaps she is bad at her job?" It is said sheepishly, which Julia takes as a heartening development.
"So bad that we still have not caught her?"
Devineaux makes a dismissive noise and takes the mints from his pocket, aggressively chewing on two before grunting, "There is nothing to see here but boring photographs - I am returning to the hotel."
"Of course," Julia hums, quite pleased that the man is leaving her company so early. "Have a good evening, sir."
"And you, Ms Argent," he returns as he walks away.
He's an idiot, but Julia can't help an odd fondness for the man.
Perhaps he's growing on her.
Perhaps it's the coworker equivalent of Stockholm syndrome.
Either way, Julia leaves the Mats Staub collection of portraits and stories. Her heart flutters, anxious and excited, with each step she takes out of the vault room, out of the Centro Conde Duque.
Once the barrack-style museum is behind her, the young woman traces a path away from the hotel she should be retiring to. The sounds of laughter and excitement fill the crisp air. Julia skirts between a handful of revellers who are no doubt heading toward Puerta del Sol.
It's Nochevieja, after all.
Julia thinks about tracing their steps, following them, blending in. It'd be nice to spend New Year's Eve in a grand sort of way - she's never done that before. But her feet keep on their trek around the bustling centre of the festivities, ducking through small alleys, behind bars and night clubs.
She finds what she's looking for after a thirty-minute trek. Along the way, dozens of locals gifted her little things - glasses of cava, small fried dough balls, heady-smelling slices of meat. But the chapel at the end of her journey is empty, silent, and small - much smaller than Julia expected. It stands surrounded with bare trees and frosty hedges. Julia shivers a bit in her blazer, wishing she hadn't been too frazzled to remember her coat this morning.
But perhaps it isn't the cold. Perhaps it's the knowledge that Carmen Sandiego might be watching her. Waiting for her.
It's silly. This entire thing is silly. Julia shakes her head at herself, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose - more in annoyance than any need for adjustment. Of course Carmen Sandiego is watching - she's the one who slid the note under Julia's apartment door this morning.
Nochevija and Goya...match made in heaven?
The red letters were enough to give her away - as was the fact that no one else in Julia's small life enjoyed cat-and-mouse games.
Julia took to Google - naturally - and was fully prepared with a personal itinerary when she received the call from Chief.
"Agents intercepted chatter inferring that Carmen Sandiego will be in Madrid tonight - as will a new batch of photographs for a Centro Conde Duque exhibit. We assume that is where she will be. I already charted a plane, Agents Devineaux and Argent -- do not let me down again."
Julia smiles slightly, loitering outside of the closed grounds. The domed towers aren't so tall as to make her head spin when she looks up toward the bell tower, but she still feels insignificant. Small. Lonely amid the distant sound of revellers.
"Quaint, isn't it?"
Julia's spine prickles when that voice hits her ear. She doesn't turn to look at the figure who silently slid beside her; she doesn't have to. That voice... "I thought it would be bigger," Julia confirms; she's surprised when she sounds nonchalant.
"Even so, I hear the frescoes are otherworldly."
"It's too bad we cannot see them." And then Julia glances over. Carmen's parka is crimson - of course it is, Julia thinks, biting her lower lip in amusement - and fitted, hitting her mid-thigh before giving way to tight black jeans and slender leather boots.
Carmen raises a sculpted brow at her; Julia could drown in that simper of hers, the way her lips tilt, the way her eyes light.
Goodness, she's gorgeous.
Carmen doesn't bother glancing around before hopping over the low wall between the street and the chapel. "You know, most people don't even know Goya is buried here," she says, reaching over to Julia, palms up, waiting.
"It's sad," Julia murmurs, furrowing her brows at the hands. "So many artists disappear into the dirt, unknown and unvisited."
"And yet Goya is here, on full display, and still even some locals have no idea," Carmen finishes for her. She tilts her head; her fingers wiggle, a gentle reminder. "If we're sneaking in, we should probably do it now while no one is looking."
"Sneaking in?" Julia repeats as if she hadn't realised this was Carmen's goal from the moment Carmen left the note in Poitiers. She takes a little breath, glances around to ensure no one is near enough to see, and then places her hands in Carmen's.
The thief helps Julia over the wall and keeps hold of her while she smoothes down her suit jacket, adjusting her collar. "Do you have a friend at the chapel, Ms Sandiego? Someone to let us in?"
"Not at the chapel, no," she grins, taking Julia's hand and pulling her along. They slide around the side of the building, across a small garden path, and then toward a nondescript door. Carmen pauses, pressing a hand to her ear and murmuring, "Did you work your magic, Player?" The person on the other end must confirm because Carmen's smile widens. "I owe you. Going silent."
The door opens even though there is no handle that Julia can see. "How many people do you have on your payroll?" Julia asks.
"No shop talk, Jules," Carmen chides. Her hand is warm when it finds Julia's. Julia tries not to shiver but fails. Luckily it probably seems like she's just cold - which she is, but the cold is secondary to Carmen's proximity.
The interior is dark and full of clerical things - desks and file folders, towering stacks of boxes. They carry on in the near-dark, and then through a door. It opens into the museum that was once a chapel.
Julia stops in her tracks, suddenly overcome with the open-aired chamber, with the eerie feeling of being watched by some power she can't begin to fathom.
"Be right back," Carmen murmurs - and then her hand is gone.
Julia makes a noise of protest. "Ms Sandiego-" but her voice falters. Was she going to protest the trespassing in which she is so blatantly engaging? Or was she about to tell the woman not to let her go?
Soft light comes from her left. And then another small flicker. And another. Candles, Julia belatedly realises. She looks around, the light slowly pushing back the gloom. The arches are pure white, blinding clouds of stone leading up to the domed ceiling.
When Carmen joins her, Julia meets her stormy eyes and opens her mouth. To say what, she doesn't know. Carmen merely smiles, a candle in one hand and a second pressing into Julia's. And then the thief makes quiet steps toward the middle of the chapel.
Goya's work is otherworldly. Standing here in the flesh, a candle held aloft, Julia can't help the overwhelming urge to cry. The ceiling fresco coils - St Anthony's ethereal glow lights everything, a beacon. She can't see each brushstroke, not this far away, but she can imagine them.
"It's..." Julia's words fail her. Here, in the near dark, alone, her voice the only audible thing, it's...
There are no words.
Carmen slowly makes a round of the room, analysing carvings and statuettes. She admires the frescoes and architecture, never touching anything. But, even from a distance, Julia can see her eyes holding it all.
"Do you do this often?" Julia finally asks when she's sure she won't cry from the strange weight of it all. Of the chapel. Goya. Carmen.
"No shop talk," she reminds her.
"It's hardly shop talk if you do it after hours."
Carmen chuckles, moving back to the altar of candles. "Do you want to light one?" she asks.
"I-I'm not...I don't practice."
"Neither do I," Carmen admits, "but I figure that, seeing as we broke in...might as well offer a little penance in the form of a sacrament."
Julia, though never religious, finds this explanation more than fitting. She joins Carmen, placing her candle in a groove - the other woman offers Julia the taper she used to light the wicks. Swallowing down a feeling of unsettled reverence, Julia puts the light to the tip of another, watching it catch and flare.
She lets out a soft breath; the flames flicker. There's something delicate about it - something beautiful. She feels lighter...not in the presence of divinity, but close. Carmen lets her stand, lets her reflect, without a word. The thief is a welcome, comforting warmth at Julia's elbow.
"This is..." Julia again can't find the word she wants, so she settles on, "as close to a higher power as I have ever felt."
"Beauty has a way of doing that," Carmen replies. Her voice is low, reverent, and it makes Julia fully turn her gaze on the other woman.
"Why did you ask me here?"
Carmen shrugs, her trademark grin returning. "I thought you could use a nice night out."
"This has been...quite nice."
"The night isn't over yet, Jules," Carmen gently scolds, offering her hand again. "Ready for location two?"
"Does it involve trespassing?"
"Believe it or not, no. But, be honest...would you say no if it did?"
God, that smile does terrible things to Julia's insides. "I am an ACME agent, Ms Sandiego."
"Yes," Carmen acknowledges, "and yet you still haven't cuffed me."
Julia takes a breath, and then she uses that breath to blow out the candles. Before the smell of spent smoke can choke her, she takes Carmen's hand and lets the woman lead her out.
"Nearly midnight," Carmen murmurs, checking a watch on her left wrist. "Luckily we're not going far."
Julia knows better than to ask for a location - Carmen enjoys her secrets. Julia, stupidly, enjoys them, too.
They hop the low wall after a couple passes by, drunk and in love. They cross the little street and duck into an unmarked, cramped doorway. It's a small eatery - one that is very obviously closed.
"I thought you said no more trespassing?"
Carmen winks and knocks on the door, calling, "Ramos?"
A man comes to the door in no time at all, beaming. "Carmen! Finalmente!"
"Lo siento mucho. Dile a Blanca que lamento la interrupción."
"No es nada. Disfruta Nochevieja!" He smiles at Julia, refuses the money Carmen offers him, and lets them inside.
Carmen, seemingly knowing where to go, leads Julia through the restaurant, into the kitchen, and then around the back toward a slender set of stairs. They climb until they reach the roof access - Carmen presses through and the cold night hits Julia like a personal assault.
The air is colder up here, the wind whipping through with more force than Julia is prepared for. She shivers as she follows Carmen to a small but laden-down bistro table. "Perhaps inside might be better?"
Carmen turns to her; the thief's face falls, but more in concern than hurt. "You must be freezing - doesn't ACME give you a coat or something?" Even as she says it, she undoes her parka and places it around Julia's shoulders as if it's nothing.
"You'll freeze," Julia weakly argues, all the while burying her face into the woollen neck of the too-large coat. It's warm and smells like Carmen - something sweet and spicy, a faint undercurrent of sweat that only makes it more intimate.
"I run hot," Carmen explains with a little shrug. She doesn't seem affected by the cold even though her fitted turtleneck can't offer much in the way of protection. "Is it warm enough? We can still move inside if you'd rather."
"No! No," Julia repeats, less insistent this time. "It's...perfect."
Carmen's smile takes on that sneaky quality, the one that says she's overly pleased and overly amused. "C'mon; it's almost midnight."
They sit at the table. A bottle of cava waits along with two glasses and two bowls of something. Upon closer inspection, Julia realises they're grapes. "Ah!" Julia exclaims, surprised and delighted. "I've never tried this tradition before. You eat the grapes at midnight, yes?"
"One for each stroke of the clock," Carmen replies, pouring cava. "It's more difficult than it sounds."
"It sounds quite difficult," Julia admits, taking the offered glass and dutifully sipping. The white wine is excellent, sparkling across her tongue and making her eyes close in pleasure. "Are there rules? To this tradition, I mean."
Carmen laughs, the sound rich and ringing just for her. "Don't choke?"
"That is a good rule." Julia finishes her wine; Carmen pours more. Julia takes her time on the second glass, shyly watching Carmen's wistful face as it gazes across the rooftops and toward Puerta del Sol. "I always wanted to go to Time Square for the new year," Julia says suddenly, unsure why. "I hear it's the best place to spend it."
"I've heard the same...but Madrid isn't so bad."
"Not at all!" Julia says quickly, worried she's offended the woman who's done so much for her tonight.
"Next best, then," Carmen grins. "Maybe we can squeeze in New York next year."
Next year. Julia swallows and drinks her wine to give herself something else to focus on. She needs to say something. Anything. Anything that doesn't make her sound like a lovesick puppy. "Why did you invite me here?" Julia tries.
Carmen doesn't move her head, but her eyes flick toward her. "I've never spent New Year's Eve quietly. There's always been some kind of gathering or party or caper. I thought this might be nice - just some wine and grapes on a rooftop."
"That does not answer why you invited me."
"I thought it was obvious," Carmen shrugs, finishing her glass of wine and pouring more, topping Julia's glass. "I wanted to spend some time together."
"You -- but I am chasing you."
"I like being chased. It makes things more interesting." Carmen rechecks her watch, straightening up and pushing one of the small bowls toward Julia. "Almost time."
Julia swallows, feeling their night slipping away. "Why are you running from us? From ACME? I know you aren't part of VILE. - you've all but yelled the fact."
"And yet your boss still sends you out with the intent to capture me." Carmen turns in her chair, fully facing Julia. Julia expects a change of topic, but Carmen flashes a grin that shows her teeth. "I'm chasing people, too. They, however, don't like being chased. They like me taking their ill-gotten gains even less."
"VILE?" Julia presses.
Carmen reaches out with her free hand, the one not holding the wine glass. Julia takes it without thought, gripping her fingers. "Please, just tell me," Julia rushes out. "I can help you. ACME can help you."
"I don't trust your chief, Jules, and she doesn't trust me. Nor does your partner - who I see got reinstated, by the way. How'd he manage that?"
Julia opens her mouth, but Carmen's phone chimes. "Ah," Carmen chuckles, the sound slightly sad. "Time's almost out." She takes her hand back and prepares her bowl of grapes.
Julia can't let it end like this. She knows Carmen will disappear soon after midnight, that she'll spirit away like a spectre. She knows this might be her last chance.
The first toll of midnight strikes - bells through the city ding and clang. People in the square nearby let out cheers. There's a roar that might be the revellers in Puerta del Sol.
Julia rushes to fit the grapes in her mouth, hurrying, trying to maintain pace and not choke. She gags a little, but she manages to swallow the mass of chewed pulp in her mouth as the final bell tolls.
Carmen, on the other hand, is already finished. She, unlike Julia, took a more direct approach by tilting the bowl back and guzzling them.
"How?!" Julia exclaims, wiping juice from her lips while Carmen giggles - giggles.
"I'm pretty good with my mouth," she explains as if it's nothing, as if Julia doesn't flush the second her words come out, as if she didn't just put very uncomfortable thoughts in the woman's head.
Not for the first time, of course, but.
"I suppose we should say bonne soirée," Carmen murmurs with an apologetic smile.
"Or we could stay awhile." Oh, that was bold. Where did that even come from?
Carmen looks surprised by it, too - and then remorseful. "I, unfortunately, have some business to attend to. And your partner might get suspicious if you come in too late."
"Not anymore." Carmen stands and then reaches out. Julia takes her hand and follows - down the steps, through the shop, and onto the street. Julia begins to shrug out of Carmen's parka, but the caramel-skinned goddess covers her hands, stalling her. "Keep it. It's getting colder."
Julia wants nothing more. "Devineaux would notice it. There's only one woman we know who wears red, after all."
Carmen half-heartedly smiles. "Keep it hidden and safe for me, then. Next time I'll have a blue one for you."
Next time... "Blue?"
"Just a hunch, but I think blue might be your colour...though red suits you."
And then Carmen leans in, pressing her lips to Julia's icy cheek. "A bientôt."
She's walking away before Julia can comprehend what's happening. Carmen slips out of view; Julia wants to follow, but she knows that she'd just find an empty laneway.
Julia huddles into the coat and calls a cab, trying to calm her frantic heart.