Antonio trudged through the sewers of New York City. He knew his specialty was tunnels and the underground, but this was ridiculous (not to mention disgusting). He couldn’t complain, though. At least Carmen said the mission ended quickly, unlike V.I.L.E. His former employers had a tendency to keep him in less desirable tunnels for hours on end. The entire reason he was even there was to patrol for other operatives that preferred to loot from below, much like himself before Jean-Paul and he became deserters and joined Carmen’s gang a few months ago.
That didn’t mean they were immediately trusted. The redheads did not particularly accept them easily at first, mostly the girl. Zack seemed fine, and Antonio liked him, both mostly being getaway drivers and slightly airheaded. The Canadian boy reacted as cynically, but that wasn’t surprising. Player was smart for his age, whatever that was.
“Is everyone in place?” Carmen’s voice asked through the com link.
“Yeah,” he said into his com link.
“You have it easy , Toni.” Zack said, “I’m bored.”
Antonio scoffed. “Would you rather bask in the glory that is the sewers of New York City, amigo ?” he said only half-teasingly. Zack said nothing else.
“In position, Carmen,” his boyfriend Jean-Paul murmured.
“Me too,” agreed Ivy.
“Okay,” Carmen said in a mischievous voice that reminded him that she was Black Sheep once, “let’s steal ourselves a Starry Night .”
Turning his communicator off, Antonio shone his helmet light around the dark tunnels. It reeked of sewage (as New York sewers do), and he knew that even without V.I.L.E. operatives, he wasn’t alone. A skittering noise stopped him in his tracks. A rat nearly the size of a small kitten scurried in front of him. Antonio bit back a scream. Rats are rodents too , he reminded himself, they’re just like moles.
The next sound wasn’t a rat. A terrified yelp escaped Antonio’s mouth almost involuntarily. A gentle, off-putting lullaby emitted from around the tunnel, just to his right. As unsettling as it was, Antonio had his orders. Investigating it was. Gingerly, he turned the corner to face...a music box. A beautiful thing, a delicately carved figure of a paper crane spun to the soothing sound of the music. The base was olive green and had cream colored horses painted on. Antonio hated it. The music couldn’t have begun by itself. Someone was here.
Suddenly, a human voice joined in the melody. It was obviously female, and in Antonio’s opinion, somewhat childish. Paper Star . The humming came closer, and Antonio spun around, panicked. Then it stopped.
“Hello, Antonio,” said the woman in front of the music box. She smiled, her head tilted to one side so the black side of her buns faced him.
Antonio remembered he was wearing his sewage worker attire. He could pretend to be brainwashed, as V.I.L.E. often did to traitors like him. “ Señorita , I’m afraid you are not allowed in the sewers during the day. Or at all for that matter,” he said, hoping he sounded convincing.
Apparently not. Paper Star rolled her eyes and stepped forward with predatory relish. “Cut the act, mole,” she hissed. Antonio cringed. Of course, V.I.L.E. had put Carmen Sandiego on high-profile risks after she deserted. Why wouldn’t they do the same for Jean-Paul and him?
“ Fine ,” he growled, “why are you here?”
Paper Star giggled with false innocence. “Me? I’m here to distract you from my girlfriend sneaking up behind you.”
Antonio felt gloves that felt more like claws cover his mouth with a cloth, and the world warped to coldness and silence.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This is a good sign , the scarlet-clad woman thought. No reports from Antonio meant that at least no one was down there. Antonio knew how underground operatives worked, and as much as many people judged him for being softer, there was no denying he had been more dangerous than people gave him credit for during his agent days, and now, Antonio was of great value to her, both as a friend and fellow perpetrator. She felt bad, of course; raw sewage, she imagined, was likely as repulsive to Antonio as it was to most everyone. Still, it had to be done.
“Carmen,” rang the voice of Jean-Paul, “have you heard from Antonio?”
“Relax, I’m sure it’s quiet down there. Besides, he can handle himself,” she replied, looking into her phone.
Jean-Paul glanced down, smiling fondly. “ Oui , I know.” Without another word, he swung down from the Empire State Building’s antenna and hung up.
Carmen shifted her mind to the widely known art she would be stealing, or rather, stealing back. Somehow, V.I.L.E. managed to obtain rights to “borrow” the renowned Starry Night from New York’s Museum of Modern Art for one night only at an exclusive soireé venue. Supposedly, it was for a charity ball in support of disabled children to “reach for the stars,” emphasizing van Gogh’s own health and his work regardless of tribulations. If Carmen hadn’t known any better, she would have supported this endeavor completely. She sighed.
Truth indeed enlightened the mind, but often it didn’t bring happiness to the heart for Carmen Sandiego.