She came at him from behind, taking the same path he had just a few minutes earlier. His food had arrived – a chicken parm – and he seemed to be totally absorbed in consuming it. But she knew Carston was better than she was at appearing to be something he was not.
She dropped into the seat across from him with no fanfare. His mouth was full of sandwich when he looked up.
She knew that he was a good actor. She assumed he would bury his true reaction and display the emotion he wished before she could catch sight of the first. Because he didn’t look surprised at all, she assumed she’d taken him completely unawares. If he had been expecting her, he would have acted like her sudden appearance had shocked him. But this, the steady gaze across the table, the unwidened eyes, the methodical chewing – this was him controlling his surprise. She was almost 80 percent sure.
She didn’t say anything. She just met his expressionless gaze while he finished masticating his bite of sandwich.
“I guess it would be too easy to just meet as planned,” he said.
“Too easy for your sniper, sure.” She said the words lightly, using the same volume he had. Anyone overhearing would think the words a joke. But the two other lunch groups were talking and laughing loudly; the people passing by on the sidewalk listened to earphones and telephones. No one cared what she was saying except Carston.
“That was never me, Juliana. You must know that.”
It was her turn to act unsurprised. It had been so long since anyone had addressed her by her real name, it sounded like a stranger’s. After the initial jolt, she felt a small wave of pleasure. It was good that her name sounded foreign to her. That meant she was doing it right.
His eyes flitted to her obvious wig – it was actually quite similar to her real hair, but now he would suspect she was hiding something very different. Then he forced his eyes back to hers. He waited for a response for another moment, but when she didn’t speak he continued, choosing his words carefully.
“The, er, parties who decided you should… retire have… fallen into disfavor. It was never a popular decision to begin with, and now those of us who were always in disagreement are no longer ruled by those parties.”
It could be true. It probably wasn’t.
He answered the skepticism in her eyes. “Have you had any… unpleasant disturbances in the past nine months?”
“And here I was thinking that I’d just gotten better at playing hide-and-seek than you.”
“It’s over, Julie. Might has been overcome by right.”
“I love happy endings.” Heavy sarcasm.
He winced, hurt by the sarcasm. Or pretending to be.
“Not so happy as all that,” he said slowly. “A happy ending would mean I wouldn’t have contacted you. You would have been left alone for the rest of your life. And it would have been a long one, as much as that was in our power.”
She nodded as if she agreed, as if she believed. In the old days, she’d always assumed Carston was exactly what he appeared to be. He had been the face of the good guys for a long time. It was almost fun now in a strange way, like a game, to try to decipher what each word actually meant.
Except then there was the tiny voice that asked, What if there is no game? What if this is true… if I could be free?
“You were the best, Juliana.”
“Dr. Barnaby was the best.”
“I know you don’t want to hear this, but he never had your talent.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“Not for the compliment,” she explained. “Thank you for not trying to tell me his death was an accident.” All of this still in the lighthearted tone.
“It was a poor choice motivated by paranoia and disloyalty. A person who will sell out his partner always sees the partner as plotting in exactly the same way. Dishonest people don’t believe honest people exist.”
She kept her face stony while he spoke.
Never, in three years of constant running, had she ever spilled a single secret that she’d been privy to. Never once had she given her pursuers any reason to think her a traitor. Even as they tried to kill her, she had remained faithful. And that hadn’t mattered to her department, not at all.
Not much did matter to them. She was distracted for a moment by the memory of how close she had been to what she was looking for, the place she might have reached by now on her most pressing avenue of research and creation if she hadn’t been interrupted. That project had not mattered to them, either, apparently.
“But the egg is on those disloyal faces now,” Carston continued. “Because we never found anyone as good as you. Hell, we never found anyone half as good as Barnaby. It amazes me how people can forget that true talent is a limited commodity.”
He waited, clearly hoping she would speak, hoping she would ask something, betray some sign of interest. She just stared at him politely, the way someone would look at the stranger ringing her up at a register.
He sighed and then leaned in, suddenly intent. “We have a problem. We need the kind of answers only you can give us. We don’t have anyone else who can do this job. And we can’t screw this one up.”
“You, not we,” she said simply.
“I know you better than that, Juliana. You care about the innocents.”
“I used to. You could say that part of me was murdered.”
Carston winced again.
“Juliana, I’m sorry. I’ve always been sorry. I tried to stop them. I was so relieved when you slipped through their fingers. Every time you slipped through their fingers.”