The Tale of the Hat
Posted by New S. Poster on 24 May 2006
For years the world has wondered why Carmen Sandiego, formerly of the Acme Detective Agency, abandoned a brilliant career in law enforcement for a life of crime. Scholars and criminologists have devoted countless hours of research to this mystery, only to find the results terribly inconclusive. Former friends and colleagues have spent identical countless hours in painful introspection, asking themselves where they went wrong with the agency’s golden girl. The origin of this riddle would baffle both groups, and would perhaps even surprise the great lady herself. For in those moments when Carmen chose to examine her decision to become a thief, she was forced to admit it all began with a hat.
Detective Carmen Sandiego was by no means in the market for a career change as she walked by Rothschild & Sons Fine Hats For All Occasions one evening on her way home from work. She passed Rothschild & Sons every day en route from her apartment to Acme. The world will never know whether it was fate or curiosity that lead her gaze that night. Either way, her blue eyes were mesmerized by the sight of a stunning crimson fedora prominently displayed in the store window. Like a debutante who knows she is the belle of the ball, Rothschild’s newest creation completely captivated Carmen’s attention, and beckoned her in for a closer view. The thick red felt appeared to be at once both sturdy and soft, its deep hue contrasted by a canary-yellow ribbon around the brim. Carmen knew instantly that the hat in the window put her own trusty brown fedora in the shade. Suddenly, she felt shy about her appearance in a way she never had before.
This newfound self-consciousness was then met with an equally strong tide of guilt. There was nothing wrong with her hat, she told herself. Why, she’d had it for years and it had always served her well, hadn’t it? Suhara, her old partner and mentor, had given it to her the day they became partners. A nice solid brown fedora to match his own equally solid grey one. Carmen had always suspected Suhara had given her the hat because he recognized her own strange, intrinsic desire to keep herself obscured. No amount of nagging or teasing over the years had ever managed to convince the girl that she should stop hiding her pretty face from the world. In fact, if asked her whether she would rather be hatless or naked, Acme’s greatest detective would definitely have to think a second.
Carmen turned and caught her reflection in Rothschild’s window. Until now, she had always liked her and Suhara’s matching fedoras. It made them look like they belonged together, and gave her this cool, old-timey “here’s looking at you kid” kind of feeling. But Suhara had abandoned their partnership years ago, once she had surpassed what even he could teach her. He had gone to train young agents who needed his guidance, while she had been left to go solo. True, she still had the not-always-functioning prototype Chief to keep her company, but it wasn’t the same. Though she and Suhara had remained friends, the thought of the end of their partnership still left a bitter taste in her mouth, one of betrayal.
Carmen sighed and gazed back at the beautiful red hat again. It was a masterpiece of design, and she had always admired fine craftsmanship. It probably costs a fortune, she thought with disappointment. Still, she felt tempted to at least try it on. Just once wouldn’t hurt. Unfortunately, the windows were dark; old man Rothschild had closed shop hours ago. She made a mental note to stop in sometime soon.
The girl detective shrugged her shoulders and resumed her trek across San Francisco’s hilly streets toward her modest one-bedroom apartment. Despite things being slow at Acme, she felt tired. It had been nearly three months since she had captured Maelstrom. Lately, Carmen had caught herself wistfully longing for the days when he was still at large. The man was a psychopath, but he was a challenging psychopath nevertheless. If she didn’t get a new case soon, she didn’t know what she’d do with herself. Carmen sighed again. Boredom was exhausting. Time for her to go home, have a cold one, do some crossword puzzles in Cantonese, and call it a night.
Detective Sandiego’s prayers for action were soon answered, and within a few days time she found herself on a plane to Zurich to investigate a counterfeiting ring. In the excitement of a new case, she had no time whatsoever to worry over the state of her fashion accessories, and quickly forgot all about the red hat that had so entranced her. To everyone’s surprise except Carmen’s, in just two weeks Acme’s finest detective had cracked a case that had baffled the Swiss authorities for months. Child’s play, she thought to herself ruefully. How could they have missed the tell-tale traces of marzipan smudged all over the fake francs? It was so obvious.
Sooner than she would have liked, Carmen was headed back to the city by the bay. But before departing, she made a quick visit to one of Switzerland’s oldest and most respected banks. And decided to transfer the majority of her savings- which after frugal living and many cash rewards over the years, was not too shabby for a penniless orphan girl. So, now she could sign her checks as #0028307548. Why she felt the need to do this, she couldn’t exactly say. The banks were renowned for their security, it was good to keep her money someplace safe. And she lived an international lifestyle, so it was quite practical, too. At least, that was what she told herself.
She returned to San Francisco to receive many congratulations and pats on the back from her Acme colleagues for a job well done and a direct order from her boss to take what he called “some hard-earned downtime.” It was all she could do to keep from scowling as they ushered her out the door into the warm California sunshine. Didn’t they know by now that she hated downtime? Just what did they expect her to do? Go shopping? Suddenly an image of the red fedora from Rothschild’s window appeared unbidden in Carmen’s mind and she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her involuntary afternoon off. Shopping it was.
Rothschild’s was something of a relic of old San Francisco- it had been owned by the same family for nearly three generations. Somehow, either by reputation or sheer tenacity, the small shop had managed to survive in a world where hand-made hats had gone the way of the dodo. Though it had been nearly three weeks since Carmen had last seen the red hat, the object of her desire still resided in the shop window. Relieved, she went inside. Finding it empty save for numerous bowlers, boaters, and beanies, she impatiently tapped a bell under a sign marked “RING FOR SERVICE.” A voice from the back of the shop called out, “Oy, keep your shirt on!” along with assorted Yiddish curse words, and in moments she found herself face to face with the proprietor himself.
Old man Rothschild was a wiry fellow, eighty if he was a day, and so small he barely came up to Carmen’s shoulder. He looked her up and down, and said, “What can I do for you, missy?”
“That hat in the window, is it for sale?”
Rothschild smiled proudly and said, “Oy, that one. A real beauty. Some of my best work. I made it special order for a wealthy woman up on Nob Hill. And then she decides she doesn’t like it- pfff!” He spit with disgust. “So, I am left with a custom made hat with no owner!”
In an uncharacteristically nervous moment, Carmen stuttered. “Could I…I mean, may I, try it on?”
“A lovely gal like you, it would be my pleasure.” The old man bowed and went to fetch the hat.
Rothschild motioned her to sit in a carved armchair in front of an old-fashioned vanity. With growing anticipation, Carmen removed her brown fedora and set it aside. “Close your eyes,” he told her, amusement in his voice, and she unconsciously obeyed. The ancient hatter deftly sat the hat upon her head, fussed with it until the angles were just right, and then said, “Okay, missy, you can have a look.”
Time stood still as Carmen opened her deep blue eyes and took in her new look. She noticed at once that Rothschild had fixed it perfectly- the brim fell at just the angle she liked. The crimson color flashed brightly against her dark hair. Below the brim, her skin glowed luminously and her lips appeared fuller and redder than ever before, though she wore no makeup.
In the mirror there was a strange, powerful woman staring back where a familiar girlish face had always been. The red hat made her feel bold, mysterious….sexy? She shivered. That couldn’t be right.
Rothschild coughed slightly, interrupting her reverie. “It looks like a dream on you, m’dear. Will you be taking it?”
Carmen hesitated. Half of her was screaming to buy the damn thing, while the other half…. She was both attracted to and frightened by the feelings the hat brought out in her. She gulped. “How much?”
“For you?” The hatmaker eyed her quizzically. “A hundred and twenty dollars.”
Carmen bit her lip and turned to gaze at her reflection again. She looked so glamorous, but it seemed extravagant to spend that much money on a hat. “You know, that’s fifty percent off the original price I quoted to Mrs. Beekman Winstanley,” Rothschild gently prompted, “ It’s one of a kind….not another like it in the world...”
“I’ll take it,” Carmen said decisively and handed over her credit card in one of the most impulsive, unrestrained moments of her life. At least, so far.
Old man Rothschild smiled, “You won’t regret it. And at this price, it’s practically a steal!” He eyed her weather-beaten brown fedora. “Erm..you want to wear it out?”
“No!” Carmen shouted rather quickly and snatched up her old hat, such a wallflower compared to its flashier cousin. “What I mean to say is…please box it up for me.”
Rothschild rolled his eyes. Young girls could be so touchy about their appearance.
Carmen practically skipped all the way home from Rothschild’s, delighted by the weight of the fancy hatbox under her arm. She felt better than she had in months and was beginning to realize what people meant when they spoke of “retail therapy.” She took the stairs two at a time, and flew through her apartment into her bedroom. She just had to try that hat on again. But oddly enough, still felt too shy to wear it in public.
She sat the pretty maroon and gold striped bandbox down on her bed and lifted out her newest purchase with the gentle touch she usually reserved for priceless artifacts. Finally in the privacy of her own home, Carmen felt free enough to caress the brim and the crown with her hands, its fabric as red and soft as the petals of a rose. It was lovely indeed. She longed to try it on again, but maybe this time with an outfit that matched?
Carmen threw open her closet door to reveal a wardrobe mostly composed of twelve different shades of khaki. She grimaced guiltily and remembered her old fedora. She liked brown, it covered the dirt and blood stains that were inevitable in her line of work. But it would not suit her new hat. What else? A blue dress she wore to last year’s Agency ball, a black one she saved for funerals. They wouldn’t do either.
She glanced at the crimson fedora again for inspiration. Something red would really be the perfect thing. She dug further into her closet only to discover that the sole item matching that description was her red and white Stanford sweatshirt. Carmen sat down on her bed, full of dejection and disappointment. She had a beautiful, expensive red hat and not a thing to wear it with. So this is what they meant by buyer’s remorse.
Oh what the hell. She plopped the hat down on her head again and stared into her full length mirror. Carmen was not vain about her appearance, and typically looked with disdain upon girls who were. But for the first time in her life, she found herself drowning in her own reflection. The hat…it brought out something in her she couldn’t name. There was a glint in her eye that hinted at brilliance, but also at hardness. She found her lips involuntarily curling up into an unfamiliar sexy smirk. The hat made her feel…powerful. It was intoxicating. She could get used to this.
And suddenly she heard Maelstrom’s cruel words echoing through her memory’s haze. What he had said about her…her nature…was it true?
“No!” Carmen screamed to herself, snatching the fedora off her head in an effort to put her personal demons back where they belonged. Quickly, before she had the chance to change her mind, Carmen imprisoned the hat in its pretty box and shoved it in the back of her closet. It was clear that the red hat had no place in her wardrobe, or in her life. It was not the right time. Yet.
In the weeks and months that followed, there were fewer and fewer cases to distract Detective Sandiego from her growing restlessness and unease. More and more often when she looked in the mirror, the visage of the mystery woman appeared instead of that of the girlish detective. And, when it finally was the right time for Carmen to leave, the Detective of the Year awards and various honors were left behind.
She took the hat.
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