Under any other circumstances, Saul might have found the drive enjoyable. The trees along the interstate had burst into brilliant autumn shades of red, orange, and gold, so bright in the mid-morning sun they almost made the eye hurt, in the most glorious way. His coffee was hot and had been prepared exactly the way he liked it, and each time he sipped it he could taste the kiss Mira had given him when she pressed the travel mug into his hand. The traffic moved smoothly at that time of the day, and Saul was relieved to note the mechanic had finally fixed the annoying sound his car's heater had been making for the past two weeks. He should have been happy to be getting away from Langley. Three whole days away from paperwork, away from the Director and his daily barrage of phone calls, away from the tasteless dreck that masqueraded as food in the OHB cafeteria... that was the stuff most of his colleagues dreamed of.
He glanced at the parking permit he had placed on the passenger seat in anticipation of tossing it on the dashboard later. Princeton University Career Services, Use Visitor Lot 21.Saul gritted his teeth. He would rather be buried under a mountain of paperwork for a month and a half, force-fed multiple helpings of creamed mystery meat and unidentified vegetables au gratin while the Director sang show tunes, than waste yet another three days recruiting at Princeton. This was the fourth year in a row he'd pulled this particular duty; if it went as badly as it had on his three previous trips, next year he would tell his boss to go fuck himself.
His contempt for the task was validated by the very first interview.
It actually started quite well. The student was in his thirties, a criminal justice undergrad who had taken fifteen years between high school graduation and matriculation. With his age came a maturity and self-confidence Saul rarely saw in these interviews. They had a lively discussion about the state of the American justice system which Saul thoroughly enjoyed, due not just to his own fascination for the subject but also the passion and eloquence the other man showed. The hour passed quickly, with Saul finding himself nodding in agreement and smiling with approval throughout, ticking off one box after another on his mental checklist for candidates impressive enough to pass on to the next level. Maybe this trip wasn't going to be so bad after all.
Then, at the very end of the interview, just as Saul was about to thank him and shake his hand in farewell, the student moved in such a way that his shirt collar pulled away from his collarbone just enough for Saul to spot the upper edge of what looked like a black spiderweb tattoo. His heart sank.
"Have you served time?" he asked abruptly.
The student grew rigid with surprise, and realizing where Saul's gaze was directed, he reached up to trace an index finger across the tattoo. His eyes flitted away from Saul's for the first time since he entered the room. "Thirteen years," he admitted with a sigh. "For dealing meth."
Saul was on his feet and holding the door open before the other man could say another word. No sense in wasting even one more second on this one. No way in hell he was going to get a security clearance with a drug bust on his record.
The second student was a skinny kid from Kentucky who wanted to talk about guns. Just guns. The guns he owned, the guns his daddy owned, the guns he and his daddy both wanted to own. He was keenly interested in what kinds of guns CIA agents carried in the field, asking twice if Saul were currently armed. By the time the interview was over, Saul had heard the word "gun" so often, it no longer held any meaning for him.
The third student never showed up at all. Saul spent the hour on a slow burn, flipping his way through a textbook about something called quantitative and computational biology, which seemed to be more like a foreign language than a branch of science. One foot jiggled non-stop under the table as he checked his watch at five minutes intervals, muttering curses under his breath. Goddammit, this was the most colossally stupid waste of time he had ever been involved with, and given he had once spent four days with a pair of binoculars trained on a door that didn't open even once, that was saying something.
The fourth student relieved Saul's agitation by arriving a few minutes early. He gripped Saul's hand firmly when he shook it and looked Saul straight in the eye as he introduced himself, both niceties overlooked far too often these days, as far as Saul was concerned. His body language was open and direct when he spoke, indicating he had nothing to hide. The only thing slightly off at first glance was a shirt that looked as though it had only a passing acquaintance with an iron, but that wasn't a problem for Saul; he often looked just that way himself, especially on these interminable road trips. Overall, he made a good first impression, much better than most of the kids Saul had interviewed over the years.
Saul invited him to sit, and then made a fatal mistake.
"So," he said, with an encouraging smile. "Why don't you tell me a little bit about yourself?"
Fifteen minutes later, the kid was still prattling on about his childhood fascination with the CIA (nurtured by his father, a wannabe spook turned frustrated pharmaceutical marketing executive), the spy games he'd played his friends (his skills at which, he earnestly assured Saul, were unparalleled in his neighborhood), and his hero worship of Tom Clancy, Jack Ryan, and Harrison Ford (God help us all). Twenty minutes and three aborted attempts at getting the interview back on track later, Saul gave it up as a lost cause. The kid seemed to need two dozen words to say what most other people could say in five, and after forty minutes Saul slipped into smile-and-nod mode, mentally checking out while the kid blathered on about how participation in his high school drama club had been perfect training for working undercover.
Dentist appointment next week, Saul reminded himself, chuckling because the kid was chuckling but not hearing the witticism that had prompted it. A woman's voice filtered through the closed door from the hallway, loud enough for Saul to sense the excited tone but not quite enough for him to make out her exact words. Pity. Whatever she was saying had to be more interesting than listening to this poor kid's pathetic fantasies, made more pathetic by the fact that none of them had the slightest chance of coming true.
A year or so later, Saul glanced blearily at his watch and realized the interview had run over by ten minutes. He shook the kid's hand again and walked him toward the door, resisting the urge to hasten the process by giving him a good shove. The voice of the woman in the hallway grew very loud for a moment as Saul opened the door, then diminished again as he closed it on the gabby kid's final sentence.
His stomach rumbled. He sat back down at the table and waited a few minutes to make sure the coast was clear, then opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. The woman was still there, a pretty blonde dressed in a dark business suit with a cell phone glued to her ear. She turned to look at him as he emerged, but he took little notice of her as he strode away down the corridor.
Saul took his time using the men's room, then bought a cup of coffee and a stale turkey sandwich from a vending machine. He meandered slowly back toward the interview room, scanning the notices pinned up on bulletin boards along the hallway as he ate. When he rounded the corner he noted the woman with the cell phone was no longer in the corridor, but he could still hear her voice.
"I swear to God," he heard her say, and he realized she was now inside the interview room. "She told me herself this morning. I couldn't believe it either, but that's what she said." A pause. "Listen, you cannot tell her I told you this. She'll kill me if she finds out." Another pause. Saul was close enough to the door now that he could hear the faint hum of the voice on the other end of the line. "Right, okay. I will meet you as soon as I'm done here." She sighed irritably. "I don't know where the hell this guy is, we were supposed to start this damn thing twenty minutes ago."
Saul sipped at his coffee, reading over the Career Services calendar of events, waiting for her to finish her call. When he finally heard her snap the phone shut, he waited another five minutes before heading back into the room.
She was still on her feet, gazing out the window, curled fists planted on her hips. A manila file folder was on the table, a silver cell phone resting on top of it. She whirled when she heard his footsteps, her shoulder-length blonde hair fanning out around her head as she turned. "Hello," she said with a bright smile, marching across the room with one hand extended. She seemed to be crackling with energy, so much excitement radiating from every pore Saul was surprised he couldn't hear her buzzing. "I'm Carrie Mathison."
Saul waited until she was within reach to toss his empty coffee cup into the trash can. She stood with her hand out in handshake-ready mode, waiting for him to grasp it, smile fading a bit from eagerness to uncertainty as he made no move to do so. Finally he took hold of it, and her smile recovered as she squeezed his hand with bone-cracking strength.
"Jack Schweicker," he rumbled. Years ago, when he'd first started doing recruiting interviews, he used to give them his real name. That had stopped after one particularly ambitious candidate, a kid with fifteen facial piercings including one in the middle of his tongue, spent months calling and sending gifts to Saul's office to follow up on their disastrous interview. Ever since then, he had used a different name each time he visited a new campus.
"Nice to meet you," she said. "I've really been looking forward to this."
She tried to withdraw her hand, but Saul held it fast. "Good," he said, studying her face, leaning in a bit closer so he was violating her personal space. She managed to repress the instinctual impulse to step back, but he could tell by her stiffening posture she didn't like it a bit. It was an old interrogator's trick for dealing with certain types of subjects: shake them up, disorient them right from the start, try to get them to reveal their hand as quickly as possible. He was so through with this day. The sooner this one exposed whatever it was that made her an unsuitable candidate, the sooner he could get to the hotel and shake the day's dust from his shoes. Her hand was starting to grow moist in his, and he released it before she could yank it out of his grip. "Why?"
Her smile returned as though she realized her moment had finally come. "Well," she said, gesturing toward a chair, "sit down over there and I'll tell you."
Saul's last strand of patience snapped. Who the hell did this kid think she was? She was already moving toward the other chair herself, acting as though this were her show and Saul but an eager guest with no other desire in the world than to hear her life story.
"No," he said quietly. "I think we're done here."
She froze halfway into the process of lowering herself into the chair and looked up in surprise. "What?" she said, starting to straighten up.
"You heard me."
Her brow wrinkled and she huffed out an impatient breath. "Wha – Why?" she demanded, sounding exasperated.
Saul shook his head and allowed a ghost of a smile to cross his face. "You're not right for this job," he said, wondering where the hell this was coming from. He never did this. He always gave them their hour, no matter how inadequate he thought they might be on first impression. Despite having to deal with an almost endless stream of nitwits who could no more become CIA agents than breathe underwater, he had managed to find one or two gems amid the rubble over the years, people he'd never have known had it in them if he hadn't given them the chance. But now something irrational had taken hold of him, and though he recognized it for what it was, he made no effort to keep it in check.
"How can you say that?" she said, crossing her arms across her chest defensively. "I think I'm perfect for this job. I'm about to graduate summa cum laude with a major in Arabic languages, I've spent time in Beirut, I've –"
Saul waved her credentials aside. "Half a billion people speak some form of Arabic," he said, "and over a million people visit Beirut every year. Neither of those things make you unique. There's a hell of lot more involved in working for the agency, especially in the Middle East, and I don't think you've got what it takes."
Her cheeks were pinkening, but to her credit she didn't back down. "I don't know how you can say that," she said, tucking her hair aggressively behind one ear. "You haven't even known me for a full five minutes."
Saul leaned over the table, laying his palms flat on its surface, and looked directly into her angry eyes. "I'll tell you how I can say that," he whispered. "I heard you on the phone earlier. You're a loudmouth, you can't keep a secret, and you have zero patience. Out in the field, any one of those things could end up getting you killed. All three in combination could jeopardize national security and threaten the safety of every person living in this country."
Her eyes were suddenly bright with unshed tears, and he could see the muscles in her throat working as she swallowed hard several times in succession. Gathering her dignity around her, she tossed her head as though she didn't care and snatched up the folder and her phone. "Fine," she snapped in a clipped voice, bolting for the door. "Thanks for your time."
He could hear her retreating footsteps in the corridor, growing faster and faster with each step. By the time she reached the fire doors at the end of the hallway, she had broken into a run.
"How'd it go?" Mira asked.
"Same bullshit, different year," Saul grunted. "I talked to fifteen people, I'll pass along the names of four of them, and none will make it past the next step." The bartender slipped a small napkin in front of him and deposited a tall glass of Guinness Stout on top. Saul switched the cell phone to his other ear so he could dig his wallet out of his pocket. "Total waste of time, just as I expected."
"Poor baby," she cooed. "Maybe things will turn out better than you think."
"I doubt it." He took a sip of the Guinness, savoring the rich, dark taste. This, and the sound of Mira's voice, were exactly what he needed right now. He felt more relaxed than he had in days.
"Where are you now? The Nassau Inn?"
"As usual. It's the only thing I look forward to when I come up here."
"When are you coming home?" Mira asked, her voice dipping into the intimacy range.
Saul knew what the change in her tone implied, and it warmed him. "As soon as I can. It's rush hour out there right now, no sense in getting on the road just yet. I'm going to have dinner first. I should be on my way by about seven o'clock."
"Okay. I'll be waiting."
"Love you, too."
The hostess appeared at his elbow as he slipped the phone back into his pocket, informing him his table was ready. She led him through the dining room to a table near the large, stone fireplace at the far end. A wooden plank ran along the top, inscribed with the words, "Rest Traveller, Rest, and Banish Thoughts of Care; Drink to Thy Friends and Recommend Them Here." Every time Saul saw it, it made him smile. Several large logs were ablaze in the hearth, a hint of wood smoke in the air. With a contented sigh, Saul had a bit more of the Guinness before picking up the menu the hostess had left behind. Looking the thing over was only a formality, really; he'd walked into the place knowing what he was going to order.
Saul's pleasant perusal of the menu came to a screeching halt as he looked up.
"Mind if I join you?" Carrie Mathison asked. Then, almost as an afterthought, she added, "Mr. Berenson?"
Years of training kept the surprise from showing on Saul's face, but he knew she could sense it when her smile sharpened into a smirk. He said nothing. She lingered for several long moments, her hand on the back of the chair opposite him, waiting for either an invitation or a dismissal, and when neither was forthcoming she pulled it from beneath the table and sat down.
"What do you want?" he said, keeping his voice and expression carefully neutral. By rights, he should have called the hostess over to have her removed the second she sat down, but the fact that she had managed to learn his name was intriguing. Very intriguing. And possibly problematic, if she were of a mind to cause trouble.
"I want a second chance."
"What makes you think you deserve one?"
"Because you were all wrong about me," she said, her tone underscored with a confidence which, in Saul's opinion, she had little right to claim.
It wasn't even worth a reply. Shaking his head, Saul returned his attention to the menu.
As expected, it only took a few moments to determine that yes, the things he'd been looking forward to with such eagerness were, in fact, still available. Nonetheless, he took the time to read the elaborate descriptions of each dish on the menu, spinning out the silence by letting himself imagine the creamy texture of the seafood bisque, the spicy bite of the Cajun chicken pasta, hoping she would eventually become so uncomfortable at being ignored she would decide to leave on her own. He flipped over first one page, then the next, reading every word, studying the prices. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Carrie sitting motionless in her chair, hands clasped in her lap. She never stirred, never spoke. She never even appeared to be close to doing so. She just sat there in silence, watching as he flipped back to the beginning and read the entire menu all over again.
Once he had finished his careful perusal of the night's offerings, he closed the menu and took his time over reading the long and colorful history of the restaurant on the back cover, sipping once or twice at his Guinness along the way. And still, Carrie didn't make a sound.
When he felt he had given the menu a thorough enough examination to pass a quiz on its contents, he put it down and glanced in Carrie's direction. She returned the look calmly, evenly, with no trace of impatience or unease evident in her features.
Changing tack, Saul leaned forward in his seat and allowed the glance to morph into a cold, hard stare, straight into her eyes, hoping she would finally get the message her presence was neither needed nor welcome. It was another of his tricks for throwing subjects off-balance and making them as uncomfortable as possible. But she didn't even have the sense to squirm in her seat or twist her hands nervously under the scrutiny. She continued to sit in serene silence, immune to his hostility, her expressionless face betraying nothing. Saul was practiced in the art of stillness; it was a skill that had served him well over the years, but it was also a skill that had taken him a long time to master. This kid seemed to be a natural.
He had no idea how long they sat there, staring at each other across the table as though the fate of the entire planet depended on them maintaining eye contact, but it was long enough for one of the logs in the fireplace to split and collapse in the grate with a whirl of crackling sparks. When, at long last, a waiter edged timidly up to the table, Saul finally cut his eyes away.
"Are you ready to order, sir?" the waiter asked, extracting a pad and pencil from the pocket of his apron.
"Yes," Saul began, but before he could say another word Carrie began to speak.
"Mr. Berenson will start with the onion soup," she said, her eyes now trained on the waiter's face. The waiter turned toward her in surprise, then began scribbling frantically when Saul made no attempt to cut her off. "Followed by the house salad with the cider vinaigrette. Dressing on the side. Then, the sautéed chicken breast with porcini and wild mushrooms, with a side of the roasted asparagus. Extra hollandaise. Are the strawberries fresh today?"
"Um..." the waiter said, but Carrie plunged ahead without waiting for him to find his tongue.
"If they're fresh, he'll have the vanilla ice cream with warm strawberry compote for dessert. If not, the tiramisu will be fine." She finished this astonishing recitation with the slightest hint of a smile, returning her gaze to Saul.
Saul had to bite the inside of his lip to keep his mouth from dropping open as the waiter picked up the now superfluous menu and scurried away. Somehow, she had predicted his order almost to perfection, neglecting only to mention to hold the croutons on the salad. His brain clicked into emergency mode for a moment, thoughts careening from one possibility about how she could have obtained the information to another like bumper cars at warp speed before he managed to rein them in. This isn't a terrorist attack in the making, he reminded himself as her smile grew wider with each second he failed to respond. It's just dinner.
"Impressive," he managed at last.
She nodded her acknowledgement of the compliment. "I've also ordered a bottle of the Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio for you to take home," she said, retrieving a small piece of paper from her pocket. She slid it across the table and stood up. Her name, phone number, and email address were written on it in bold, block letters. "I hope you'll re-think your initial assessment of me while you're enjoying it. Your dinner's on me."
"That's not – "
"It's my pleasure." She pushed the chair back beneath the table. "Believe me. Bon appétit."
He wanted to let her leave without either of them saying another word, but in the split second before she turned away his curiosity got the better of him. "How did you know what I was going to order?" he said. "How did you know I was even going to be here in the first place?"
Carrie leaned over the table, laying her palms flat on its surface, and looked directly into his bemused eyes. "I'll never tell," she whispered with a mischievous grin.
She was halfway to the door when she stopped, looked around, and made a beeline for the waiter when she saw him by the bar. She said a few words to him and he nodded, heading back into the kitchen. With a final wave at Saul, Carrie sauntered out of the restaurant.
When the salad came, there were no croutons on it. Saul slipped the piece of paper with her contact information into his pocket.
With a heavy sigh of relief, Saul closed the door behind him and let his overnight bag drop to the floor. "I'm home."
"Be right there," Mira called.
Saul hung up his coat and cap and pulled the bottle of wine from his bag. "I'll come to you," he said. There was a lingering scent of fried onions and garlic in the air that made his nose twitch with appreciation. Whatever she'd made herself for dinner, he hoped there were leftovers available to take for lunch the next day.
She was at the sink rinsing a skillet in water hot enough to make a cloud of steam billow around her head. He put the bottle down on the counter behind her and placed his hands on her hips, pressing a gentle kiss to the side of her neck. "Hey," he whispered into her hair.
"Hey," she echoed, turning off the water and placing the clean skillet into the dish rack. She turned in his arms and gave him a proper kiss with lips curved into a welcoming smile. "Glad you're back."
"Me, too," he said. "I brought you something."
He turned and pointed to the bottle of wine. "Your favorite, I believe?"
She stared at the bottle for a moment and then looked at Saul with a strange expression on her face he couldn't quite interpret. "You got this for me?"
"I thought we could enjoy it over dinner tomorrow night."
The crinkle that signaled confusion appeared above her brow. "You got this," she said, gesturing toward the bottle. "For me."
Saul could feel his own face starting to crinkle. This was not quite the reaction he'd been hoping for. "Yes."
She made a sound halfway between a scoff and a chuckle. "You're sure it was you?" she said, crossing her arms over her chest. A glint of playfully malicious glee lit her eyes.
She had obviously sussed out the fib for what it was, that much Saul knew, though for the life of him, he couldn't figure out how. "Who else could it be?" he asked.
"Oh, I don't know," she said, her voice a breezy lilt. "Someone else."
Suspicion dawned. "Someone else, like who?"
"Someone else like, say... Carrie Mathison?"
Saul could not have been more astounded if Mira had suddenly announced she was Jesus Christ, returned to Earth as a woman this time and ready to kick some ass. "How the fuck do you know about Carrie Mathison?" he demanded, not bothering to hide his incredulity.
Mira started to laugh. "She was here yesterday," she said, sliding open a drawer to grab a clean dishtowel.
"What? What the hell are you talking about?"
"She came by yesterday morning," Mira said, turning her back to him again to dry the skillet.
"How did she – " Saul began, but Mira cut him off before he could blurt out the rest of the question.
"She said she's friends with some cop up there in Princeton. He ran your license plate and got your name and our address, and she drove down here yesterday to meet me."
Saul's stomach clenched. It had been bad enough when the kid with the pierced tongue had been sending fruit baskets and calling twice a week, but at least that was confined to Saul's office. Carrie had access to his home. "You didn't let her in here, did you?"
Mira shook her head. "No, of course not. She didn't even come to the house. She called, we talked for a while, and I agreed to meet her for lunch at that Thai place on Wisconsin Avenue. Very nice woman. We spent the whole afternoon together."
She gave the skillet a few more vigorous swipes with the towel, turning it this way and that in the light to check for damp spots, obviously enjoying herself at his expense. She was as eager tell him the rest of the story as he was eager to hear it, he knew her well enough to know that, but she was apparently also determined to punish him a bit for his lie about the wine. The two of them stood together in silence as she continued to ply the dishtowel until finally, the skillet – now among the driest pieces of cookware in the entire District of Columbia – was tucked into its place in the drawer.
"So, what did she want?" Saul asked quietly.
"Well, first of all, she told me you blew her off for her initial interview." Mira shook an admonitory finger in his face, and he brushed it gently aside. "She said it had all been her fault, she'd made a bad first impression, she wanted to make it up to you by buying you dinner, and did I have any idea where she might be able to find you. So I told her you always have dinner at the Nassau Inn on the last night when you're up there. Then, we just... talked."
"You talked. About what?"
Mira shrugged. "I don't know. About everything. Politics, the news, the cost of living in DC, music, theater – "
"And wine, yeah. We did some shopping, too. After lunch. It was all very innocent." She seemed to decide he had been punished enough and sidled up next to him, draping her arms around his waist. Her body was warm and soft against his, and when he looked down into her dark, beautiful eyes, his reservations about Carrie began to slip away. Mira had always been a pretty good judge of character. "Then this morning, she called again," Mira continued." She had a copy of the menu from the restaurant and asked me a bunch of questions about what you like and don't like. It was kind of fun, actually." Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "I felt like Mata Hari or something."
Saul snickered. "You do know what happened to Mara Hari, right?"
"She's really a very nice person," Mira said again, ignoring the gibe. "I liked her. I think you should reconsider."
"Oh, you do, do you."
She nodded, kissing him lightly on the tip of his nose. "Are you mad at me?"
He pulled her in close enough for her to rest her head on his chest. "No."
"Are you mad at Carrie?"
He exhaled slowly, eyes fluttering shut as he rubbed one cheek against the silk of her hair. "Yes," he said. "I am. And the worst part is, I'm pretty sure it's only the first of many, many times I will be angry with her."
Mira pulled back and looked up into his face. "What does that mean?" she said. "Are you going to give her another chance?"
Saul nodded. "I have a feeling I'm going to end up regretting this, but yeah. In fact, I'm going to do more than that. I'm going to bring her in personally and push a recommendation as far up the chain of command as I have to so she doesn't get away." The kid might be one gigantic pain in the ass, but she was also smart as a whip and could think fast on her feet. If she could come up with a scheme like this on her own, fresh out of college and green as a dollar bill, Saul could only imagine what she could do with a little training and experience.
Mira hugged him hard, then took him by the hand and led him toward the steps with a provocative smile. Saul allowed himself to be pulled along without protest, making a mental note to call Carrie Mathison in the morning. First, he would ream her for invading his privacy and bothering his wife, even if Mira had been too taken with her to view it that way. Second, he would tell her if she ever did anything like that again, he would make sure she never worked for any branch of the United States government, let alone for the CIA.
And then, he would invite her down to Langley. There were some important people she needed to meet.
With one last glance at the bottle of wine he now realized was a thank you gift for his wife, Saul snapped off the kitchen lights and followed Mira up the stairs to their bedroom. A little voice inside his head told him this had been either the best or the worst trip to Princeton he would ever have. Only time would tell which one.