“Gin and tonic, please,” he said to the waiter.
“My, how tame we’ve become in our old age.”
He smiled and turned around. She stood before him, grinning and still looking very much like the 21 year-old girl that had crossed the threshold of the gray building on Fairfax Street so many years ago. But her youthful appearance was in looks only; the woman in front of him brimmed with confidence and strength, a far cry from the terrified, shy girl they met that first day. Back then, their superiors had been–inexplicably in the eyes of most–convinced that Tamara Knight was blessed with the same keen abilities as her deceased mother, the incomparable Pamela Knight, and had recruited Tamara at once for the school. They had been wrong. Mara Knight was a complete neophyte; hardly ready to begin a rigorous training program that would result in a career as one of the Queen’s stable of international espionage agents.
James stood and met her embrace, reminding himself to hold on just enough, not too long, not too close. Just enough. Of course, his resolve was interrupted by the kiss she placed on his cheek and, as a result, the dizzying aroma of roses and lilacs that she left behind on his skin. He was tempted to hold on to her one beat longer, long enough to communicate everything he had wanted to say since he laid eyes on her fifteen years ago.
After the embrace, James escorted her to the other side of the booth. Moments later, the waiter re-appeared and took her request for a whiskey, neat.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked her after the waiter departed.
Mara softly chuckled. “Does it seem like I came from somewhere?”
“Absolutely.” He paused to study her, forcing himself to conduct only a surface appraisal and not the kind of intense staring he formerly engaged in when they worked in the same building. “South America, perhaps?”
Her large brown eyes gleamed. “How did you know?”
James pointed toward the sparkling broach on the left shoulder of her olive green dress. It was a flower with dark pink petals and a yellow/cream center. “I’m venturing that it’s a rendering from the silk floss tree. Native to the tropical and subtropical forests of South America, I believe.”
“Spot on, as always. Two weeks in Argentina. Buenos Aires, specifically.”
Naturally, the details about her time in Buenos Aires would remain unspoken between them. They belonged to the same organization, yes, but the potentiality of traitors meant that there would be no detailed discussion about “work.”
“Lovely, isn’t it?” she said, lightly touching the broach. “It’s always nice to honor the culture of where you are.”
In the beginning, Mara Knight certainly wasn’t interested in honoring cultures. During a field assignment in Indonesia (they had been assigned together; her first, his umpteenth), James recalled that she had spent more time vomiting on the side of various roads than taking in the culture around them. “My nerves…my nerves are shot,” she kept muttering whenever the truck had to pull over for her. He laughed at the memory.
“Something funny?” she asked.
“You dry-heaving on the side of the road in Jakarta.”
She joined him in laughter, tears eventually twinkling in the corners of her eyes. “Those were the days, weren’t they?”
They had all underestimated her, believing that the terrified, unsure beginner would remain that way. In the end, her mother may not have gifted Mara Knight with those astute abilities she had been famous for, but perhaps she had given her daughter something greater, something she would come to find nearly six months into her training: a tenacious will to succeed. That will led to her surpassing them all, in the end.
“I miss us working together, James.”
His knee-jerk reaction, to blurt out that he missed her, just her, and not working together, was ignored. “I don’t think you miss London traffic and morning fog, though,” James replied instead, smiling.
“Those things don’t matter,” Mara replied. “I miss seeing you every day.”
Had she transitioned to reading minds?
Nevertheless, James kept the smile planted on his face and said nothing. What could even be said?
“I miss walking onto our floor and waving at you from the elevator,” she continued. “How long has it been: a year since we saw each other?”
One year, four months, two days, 15 minutes.
James merely nodded, sipping his drink to avoid speaking what he simply couldn’t say.
“I tried to call you, you know,” Mara then said quietly.
Don’t choke. “You tried to call me?” he questioned, holding tightly to his composure. “When?”
Mara sipped her drink. “Many times. Times when your voice was the only one I needed to hear.”
Understandable, he quickly reasoned. It was the two of them as partners for a long time. Nine years, to be exact. (Also recruited at 21, James Caraway had quickly risen in their ranks and was a mission lead by the time Mara came to them. The top brass had decided to place the two of them together, feeling that the closeness in their ages–James was four years Mara’s senior–would lend itself to her training. They had shared everything: from missions to near-death experiences to those tiny, quiet moments in between, when just being side by side provided a sense of comfort and safety that didn’t require explanation or discussion. And then, three years ago, their superiors promoted Mara to a special counterintelligence team that didn’t include James.)
“I wish I had known,” was his only reply. Perhaps those unlisted numbers were her. Perhaps, deep, deep down, he had known it was her calling and allowed the calls to go unanswered. It didn’t matter, in the end. She missed him as a friend and a colleague, nothing more.
Mara then peered out of the window, gazing at the rain-soaked evening. James took that opportunity to carefully study her this time, not a surface appraisal like before. He took in every nuance of her, carving a new image of her to replace the one he had placed in his mind when they last saw another. Her dark brown skin, far more luminous than a year ago; the full head of curls, longer and fuller; even her shade of lipstick, deep red and warm. That way, when he closed his eyes from this day forward, he would see her in the present, as she was now. It made things a bit more real.
“James,” she said, turning back to face him, “you, my friend, are a terrible, terrible actor. How you’ve been able to excel this long in espionage is beyond me.”
Taken aback, he shook his head. “I’m not quite sure what–“
She reached across the table and grasped his hands. “Did you know it was me calling all those times? Did see you those numbers and wonder if it was me?”
“Why did you ignore my calls, James? Why don’t you reply to my emails? Why did you arrange this dinner through Michael?”
Michael Hanson was her handler. James ran into Hanson one morning at the office and had suggested the dinner, hastily speaking before he could take it all back. Of course, he had used the cover that it was high time that Mara and her former partner/trainer reunite.
Mara squeezed his hands, still leaning over, her brown eyes boring into his. “What have you been afraid to tell me? Why have you been afraid to say? Do you think I’ve never noticed you looking at me? Just like you were a few seconds ago? Do you think I’ve been blind all this time?”
Briefly, James noted that this interrogation technique, wearying the subject with rapid-fire, incessant questions, was something he had taught her to do.
“What are you afraid of, James? What are you imprisoned by? What keeps you from doing what you want?”
“Please, Mara. Stop.” How could a moment be so fraught with both desire and a wish for silence? How could he be so puzzled by her abrupt turn of behavior and equally aware of why she was behaving this way?
She shook her head. “I won’t stop, James. I won’t. I’ve stood by for fifteen years, waiting for you to say something, to speak the obvious, and I won’t stop now. I won’t stop until–“
James laughed despite himself. “You’ve stood by for fifteen years? Oh, Mara. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She grinned. “That’s the first loosely combative thing you’ve ever said to me, James. Thank you.”
Freshly taken aback, he felt beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He wanted to wipe them, but he didn’t want to remove his hands from hers.
“I can resume my questioning if you don’t say something,” Mara warned, her eyes twinkling.
“Are you playing with me, Mara?” James asked. “What is this?”
Mara stood up and walked around to his side of the booth. She slid in next to him, as close as she physically could. “This is us releasing each other from the prisons we built 15 years ago, James. You’ve been worried for so long about telling me how you felt–that’s the prison you built. I’ve been waiting for so long for you to confirm what I felt the moment we met each other–the prison I built.” She put her hands on his shoulders. “No more prison for me, James. I’ve wanted you for fifteen years. Your turn. Tell me how you feel. Open the bars. Come out of the prison.”
James inhaled her words and roses and lilacs and swore he would pass out. Was all of this truly happening?
“You only remember me getting sick in Jakarta,” she said softly, leaning in even closer. “I remember watching you fall asleep every night in Jakarta. I couldn’t sleep. I would stay up and watch you sleep every evening until the morning. Fifteen nights, just watching you sleep, feeling strange and confused and just…”
He had been holding his breath for fifteen years. Apparently, they both had.
Mara smiled at him. She knew it, then, that he was letting go.
James reached over and gently caressed her cheek. “How did you…how did you know all of this?” he asked her.
She placed her hand over his. “I’m a super spy. I know everything.”