The deadbolt slid back into the door easily enough, but while holding the knob, Julia glanced back at Doran. “It sticks sometimes,” she informed him, then promptly threw her weight into the door. It didn’t budge. A small sigh escaped her lips. “All the time.” A second full-body shove barely nudged the door out of its frame.
“May I?” Doran growled, then stepped forward, grasped and turned the doorknob, and pushed. The door swung open suddenly, eliciting a startled yowl from the cat inside.
“Thanks,” Julia muttered, leading Doran into her apartment.
She tossed her keys on the bookshelf just inside the door and flicked the nearest light switch. A dim bulb in a generic stick lamp struggled to brighten the cramped, messy living room. Doran surveyed the motley collection of second- (and possibly third-) hand furniture amassed in the tiny space as Julia dropped her bag on a random chair and switched on the other lamps scattered around the room. Remarkably, it seemed that no number of light sources could adequately brighten the place, in spite of its restricted size. Julia removed her jacket and hung it in an open closet, then noticed Doran still standing just inside the doorway, his eye scanning the room. “Have a seat,” she said. “Can I take your coat?”
“No,” he barked immediately, then belatedly added, “Thank you.” He crossed the tiny living room in a few steps and lowered himself into a sunken green couch that appeared to have less of a chance than her car of supporting his bulk. Julia disappeared through an open doorway into her kitchen, flicking that light on as well. “You live here?” Doran asked her as she rummaged in the kitchen cabinets, then happened to glance to his right. A large brown and black mottled cat was perched on an end table next to him, glaring at him indignantly.
“Yep, me and Snowflake,” Julia replied. “Do you want anything to drink?”
He continued to eye the cat suspiciously. “No, thank you.”
“With all the coffee you drank, it probably wouldn’t help you anyway.” She emerged from the kitchen with a glass of clear liquid poured over ice. “Technically it’s morning for me, given my graveyard shift. But granddad said it’s never too early for gin.” Setting the glass down on the table next to Snowflake, she collapsed in a worn armchair near the couch on which Doran sat. “So, let’s hear this story of yours and why you think I’m so indispensable to you.”
Doran shifted his weight, eliciting new groans and creaks from the couch’s frame. “I… discovered something about the military recently… highly illegal activities that many other world powers would be very interested in. I’ve come to put a stop to them… permanently.”
“What is it, some sort of new weapon technology? The next atomic bomb, so to speak?”
“In a way, yes.”
“Oh,” she replied simply, as if they were discussing the weather. “Well, if that’s all, then I guess I’ll just shake my mop at them until they stop.”
Doran groaned. “Julia—“
“Come on, you have to realize how ridiculous you sound. How can I possibly do anything remotely useful to you?”
“I need you to trust that I know what I’m talking about—“
“Trust you?” she exclaimed with an exaggerated laugh. “I have no reason to believe a word of anything you’ve told me since we met. I can’t even believe I brought you into my home—“
“I knew your father.”
Those words got her to stop. She glared suspiciously at Doran; he returned her gaze steadily. “What do you mean?” she said, frowning.
Doran reached inside his coat, digging through some unseen pocket before withdrawing his hand again and holding it out to her. She took the objects he offered her—two small metal rectangles hung from a silver chain. The name stamped on both tags was unmistakable; her eyes fixated on it as Doran spoke. “I was with your father when he died. Major Thomas Fitzsimmons. He gave me those to return to you when I found you. And told me to tell you he loves you, and was very sorry for missing your performance of ‘Fame’ when you were in high school.”
His words unexpectedly transported her back to her senior year, and all the joy and pain accompanying the memories. Her elation of landing a lead role in the drama department’s spring musical; the arguments with her father about her grades and her career plans; the final disappointment of his absence in the audience on the night of her big performance. She had foolishly held out hope that he would be there next to her mother, despite the ridicule and criticism he had slung at her about her involvement in “such a colossal waste of time.” She should have known better.
They’d had it out again the next day. She’d ended that argument by shouting at him before storming out of the house. “I think you’d rather I fail miserably at something you consider worthwhile than see me succeed at something you don’t approve of!” They were the last words she’d said to him. He didn’t attend her graduation ceremony either, because a couple days after her school play he left for another overseas deployment. And never came home. Now she held his dog tags gingerly in her hand, with a strange man telling her that her father had been thinking of her.
She blinked, feeling a drop of moisture roll down her cheek. “Thank you for returning these,” she said, hastily wiping her face. “But I still don’t see what this has to do with me helping you… do whatever it is you plan to do.”
“Your father knew what I’m trying to accomplish. He was helping me, but… he ran out of time. Before he died he told me to find you, that you could take his place, so to speak.”
“Take his place?” Julia echoed, sniffling. “What was it he was doing to help you? And for that matter, what is it exactly that you’re trying to do?”
“That will come in time,” Doran replied, though she didn’t find this latest response reassuring or informative. “Right now, I’m keeping things on a need-to-know basis.”
“Sure, of course,” she said, wincing at her own insincerity. “Listen, this has been a… very strange night, and I think maybe we both need sleep. Give me some time to think about this, and I’ll let you know in the morning whether I’ll help you… somehow.”
“I suppose I would welcome some real sleep. After all, tomorrow will be a very busy day for us. There’s a lot of preparation and planning to do.”
She decided to pretend to ignore his implication that her assistance had already been offered. “Right, well, let me see if I can find a pillow and a blanket for you…” She retreated to the hallway leading to her bedroom, rummaging through her tiny linen closet for minimal bedding to offer the stranger she was apparently letting sleep on her couch. “Frankly I don’t see how you’ll be able to sleep at all, considering all the coffee you just drank…” She returned to the living room, finding Doran reclined in his sitting position, already unconscious. Snowflake, still guarding his end table, cocked his head at Julia in indignant confusion. “Never mind,” she sighed, dropping a pillow and folded blanket on the armchair where she had sat. With a sharp flick of her wrist, she signaled silently for Snowflake to follow her to the bedroom.
She didn’t sleep much, between the excitement of the previous couple of hours, the fact that a somewhat frightening army officer was in the next room, and having been asleep just a few hours earlier. When she did manage to drift off, she dreamt of her father, and the elation she had felt as a little girl when he would return home from a tour of duty. At one point she awoke and was convinced that the entire experience of meeting Doran had been a bad dream of its own. But the metal identification tags tucked in her closed fist proved her wrong, and she quietly cried herself back to sleep.
The sun was up when she finally rose from her bed. Wrapping a robe around herself, she emerged from her bedroom to find the living room couch unoccupied. The bedding she had left for her guest was untouched. Everything was untouched; the latch and chain were still in place on the front door, and the window seemed undisturbed. Nothing appeared to be missing, aside from Doran. She stood motionless at the mouth of the hallway, staring at the couch and wondering how he could have gotten out. But a ceramic clink from the kitchen rendered her musings moot. Sure enough, the enormous man had squeezed himself into the narrow space between the wall and the row of appliances. She found him filling two mugs with the pot from her coffeemaker. Only upon seeing him did she finally register the smell of freshly brewed grounds.
He afforded her the barest of glances. “Good morning,” he grumbled, holding out a mug to her.
She stepped forward hesitantly, just close enough to him to accept the cup. “Thank you,” she said quietly, taking a sip. “Can’t get enough of this stuff, can you?”
He ignored the question. “Have you thought about our discussion from last night?” he asked without looking at her, then took a long drink from his own mug.
She actually had, in between the tossing and turning, the bittersweet dreams, and the crying. Her initial thoughts on the matter were that she was crazy to even consider helping Doran, even if he and the Major had worked together. Julia and her father had rarely been on good terms, and she certainly didn’t owe Doran anything just for being with him at the end. But the dog tags nestled in her fist reminded her of the Major’s last message for her, passed through Doran. Her father was telling her to trust this man, to listen to and help Doran as he had tried to do. Though the Major would never know whether she had honored the request, she felt as though she owed it to herself to do something he would have been proud of.
One last question needed to be answered before she could give Doran a response. “Did my father die because of what you and he were doing?”
He paused in lifting his cup to his mouth again. Julia noticed his jaw set and the lines around his eye deepen as he stared hard at the cabinets in front of him. “Yes,” he said grimly, still avoiding her gaze.
She nodded, feeling as though she had already known the answer. “All right, then,” she said, taking a deep breath, “I’ll help you finish what you and he started.”
Now he turned to face her. “This isn’t something to be taken lightly,” he growled. “Where we’ll be going, what we’ll be doing… you haven’t experienced anything like it before. You may not agree with it all.”
“I understand,” she replied, blinking stoically at him. She did not understand. But that was par for the course regarding her conversations with him.
His head dipped slightly in curt acknowledgement of her answer. “Then pack a bag and be ready to leave in twenty minutes.”
She very nearly spit coffee on him in surprise. “Wait, what?”
“We have a lot of work to do,” he informed her impatiently, then drained his cup. “And several other people to find.”
“What do you mean, several other people?”
His one eye glared critically at her. “You didn’t think you were the only person I’m looking for help from, did you?”