“Are you sure you have the right address?” Julia asked skeptically as she followed Doran from her car to the apartment building across the street.
“Yes,” Doran replied curtly without hesitation.
She scanned the building’s façade a second time, one eyebrow arched even higher than before. Every window she could see was barred, except for the few that were boarded up. More than one bullet hole decorated the lower two floors. Nearby sirens and angry-sounding dog barks added to the building’s charm. All in all, the neighborhood was worse than the one in which she lived. “I don’t know. Doesn’t seem like the kind of place a computer whiz would call home.”
“Hacker,” Doran corrected her. “Spends his time writing programs to electronically scam people out of small amounts of money here and there. Not enough to attract real attention, but plenty to pay rent for a shithole like this, and for hardware upgrades. Probably even sells his programs to other hackers and lowlifes for extra profit.”
She turned to look up at him. “A nerd-criminal?”
Doran grunted. “Something like that.”
“Wonder if he got picked on by all the other thugs.”
Doran’s reply was to silently approach the main door of the building. Julia had no desire to go inside, but she also didn’t want to be left outside alone, even if it was in broad daylight. So, reluctantly, she hurried after Doran, staying close to him as he retrieved a small object from a pocket of his overcoat and slipped it into the space between the door and its frame. “You’re kidding me,” Julia remarked drily. “You’re really going to pick the lock with a credit card? Shouldn’t military personnel have more high-tech tools?”
He didn’t respond. Instead he simply held the slim card-like object in place for a second until a small flash of light erupted from it. Almost simultaneously the door’s electronic keypad beeped, flashed green, and unlatched the lock. He quickly opened the door an inch to keep it from relocking, then removed his device from the doorjamb and held it toward Julia for her to inspect. She glanced at it without taking it from him, noticing strange intercrossing lines of a metallic appearance on its credit card-sized surface. To her they resembled electronic circuitry.
“Lock-buster,” he informed her. “Temporarily overloads low-tech systems like this one.”
“Ah,” she replied flatly, trying to sound like she understood what he told her.
Doran threw the door open wide and purposefully strode into the run-down lobby, little more than a widening of the hallway that seemed to span the width of the building. Julia quickly snuck through the doorway behind Doran, noticing the two elevators in the opposite wall, and peered down the hallway in both directions. There was not much to see, just regularly spaced doors set into walls that bore graffiti over dirty, peeling paint. She had thought her own apartment building was pretty run down and lower-class, but at least it had character. This place was a dump.
A quiet bell chimed, turning Julia’s attention forward again. One of the elevators opened, the doors protesting loudly the entire time they were in motion, and Doran stepped into it. Reluctantly she followed, warily eyeing the dull metal walls of the box. Doran pushed the button marked “5” and the doors ground closed again. As the car slowly climbed the four floors, rattling and whining the whole way, Julia wondered fearfully if it would give up and plummet to the bottom of the shaft again before reaching its destination. She turned to Doran. “Is this safe? Maybe we should have found a staircase.”
He didn’t respond, didn’t even acknowledge her question by eyeing her reproachfully. He simply exited the car when it finally screeched to a stop and tiredly slid its doors back. Julia wasted no time following him now, expecting the car to suddenly drop away once its final passengers had left. She watched it over her shoulder as Doran led her down one arm of the hallway, bumping into him before she could notice that he’d stopped in front of a particular door. “Sorry, sorry,” she offered immediately, backing away and sheepishly glancing up at him.
Glowering down at her with his one fierce eye, he raised a massive fist toward the door and pounded three times. Julia didn’t hear an immediate response, and was surprised that Doran was patient enough not to knock again right away. After a few moments there came a shuffling from within, followed by something light but solid clattering loudly on bare floor. Finally, the apartment’s occupant fumbled through several locks on the other side of the door, and it opened a couple of inches, restricted by the chain still fastened across the gap. A short man, only about Julia’s height, peered out at Doran from within. “Yeah?” he spat, clearly eager to close the door again and not appropriately impressed or intimidated by his visitor’s size and stature.
Doran glared down at him in disgust. “Marcus Espinoza?” he rumbled.
“Who wants to know?” the man countered, hi voice laced with practiced toughness.
“I’m here about the job.” The words seeped through Doran’s gritted teeth. Perhaps not obvious to Marcus, Julia knew that the larger man was already losing his patience very quickly.
Marcus rolled his bloodshot eyes and shook his head slowly, giving no indication he would open his door further. “Look, I told the last guy to tell Jimmy it takes time to do this right. You wanna get caught slicing into ATM systems with shitty hacks, fine, that’s your problem. You come to me to get the job done, I’m gonna take my time with the code, make sure it’s bug-free and undetectable—“
Doran cut him off by slamming his hand against the door and making Marcus jump despite himself. “Not that job.”
Marcus looked Doran over through squinting eyes. “Oh Christ, you’re here about the project for the feds? Listen, I did the job, I took the pathetic amount of money they offered, I lost clients because I had no time to work on anything else—what more do you bastards want from me—“
Doran assaulted the door again, a single blow slamming down on the surface with enough force to snap the chain on the other side. The door swung wildly inward, sending Marcus reeling backward. Doran didn’t give the smaller man a chance to trip over anything behind him. In a blur of motion the bear was inside the apartment, physically forcing Marcus against the far wall and pinning him there with a forearm across the top of his chest, just below his neck.
A female voice interrupted the commotion. “Marcus, what the hell is going on—“
From her vantage point in the hallway, Julia spotted a girl emerging from another room inside Marcus’ apartment. Not entirely unattractive, she stood just inside the living room in her underwear, her ears and nose bearing too many piercings, her dyed-black hair badly highlighted, and her eyes marred by smeared cheap makeup. Doran’s eye darted to her, and he shouted, “Get out!”
The girl screamed in response, bolting for the door and snatching a purse from a sunken, dirty couch on the way. “No, no, no, baby, don’t leave!” Marcus called to her. “It’s all a misunderstanding, I swear! Just gimme ten minutes—“
Marcus’ guest paid no attention to his beseeching as she tore out of the apartment. Passing Julia without so much as a glance, she hurried half-naked down the hall toward the flickering “Stairs” sign at the far end. Marcus groaned emphatically. “Thanks a lot, man,” he berated Doran, as if in a position to criticize. “You just scared off the best lay I had in months—“
Doran impatiently slammed an open hand against the wall directly beside Marcus’ head. The smaller man finally stopped talking, wincing at the sudden loud noise. Personally, Julia was amazed he had spoken as much as he had while trapped between the wall and Doran’s forearm. She would have been scared speechless if this had been how Doran introduced himself to her. People had different coping mechanisms, she guessed.
“Shut the door,” Doran growled at her over his shoulder. Without hesitation, she entered the apartment and closed the door behind her. Despite the possibility that this meeting could grow more violent, Julia curiously felt safer in Doran’s company than standing in the dim, dirty hallway alone. Once she had fastened a few of the locks, Doran returned his attention to Marcus. “Start talking!”
Marcus blinked. “About what? I don’t know who you are or who you’re with. You a cop? A fed? A moneyman?”
“I’m not with anyone,” Doran spat back. “I’m your worst nightmare if you don’t start telling me about the ‘project for the feds’.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said coolly, despite having introduced the topic himself seconds earlier.
In another flurry of motion, Doran produced a gun from inside his overcoat and jammed the barrel under Marcus’ chin. The sight of the weapon, to her knowledge technologically ahead of anything currently available, gave Julia cause to consider leaving the apartment again. Marcus simply let out a bark of nervous laughter. “Come on, you think this is the first time I’ve had a gun in my face—“
Still glaring at Marcus, Doran suddenly swung the gun behind him and squeezed the trigger. The silenced weapon spat a projectile into an expensive-looking computer monitor fixed to an adjacent wall, shattering the screen and burrowing into the plaster beyond. Marcus had no backtalk for this development, despite destruction of his property.
“Having you working with me will make my job easier,” Doran rumbled threateningly, “but I don’t need you. Now are you going to talk?”
Julia caught Doran’s choice of the word “with” rather than “for.” Judging from his expression of curiosity, Marcus had too. Still, he continued feigning indignation at being inconvenienced. “Christ, all right,” he relented in exasperation. When Doran didn’t immediately release his hold on the smaller man, Marcus glared accusingly at his attacker. “Can I fucking sit down?”
They stared each other down for a moment longer, until Doran grudgingly let Marcus go. Slowly, keeping an incredulous eye on Doran, Marcus made his way to his couch, making a show of throwing himself onto the faded cushions and propping his feet on the low table in front of him. His resentful gaze lingering on Doran for a bit longer, he finally acknowledged his other visitor. “I’m sorry, where are my manners?” he asked sarcastically. “I didn’t get your name. I’m Marcus.”
Julia hesitantly glanced at Doran, who was slowly pacing the room, gun still in hand. He simply looked away in disgust. “Julia,” she replied meekly.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Marcus replied with mock obsequiousness. Then he glanced back at Doran. “Nightmare, right?”
“Good,” Doran growled, “you remembered.”
“Hard to forget the guy who destroyed your three-thousand-dollar monitor,” he sighed casually, stretching his arms across the back of the couch. “What is it, exactly, you want to know?”