Ties That Bind, Part 6: Brains vs. Brawn

“Start at the beginning. Who contacted you about the government project? What did they want you to do?”

“I got brought in for selling credit card system hacks,” Marcus replied coolly. “Small potatoes stuff. They didn’t have anything on me that would stick. But while they were questioning me, an army guy walks in, says he’s taking over the investigation. Cops get pissy, but what can they do against a big shot army officer?”

Doran opened his mouth to speak, glanced at Julia, and approached the table in front of Marcus. Placing a pen on top of a scrap of paper, Doran slid them across the table toward the smaller man. “I want a name,” he said threateningly, his eye boring into Marcus’.

Marcus stared right back, resting his hand conspicuously on the bit of paper before deliberately pushing it away again. “I’m bad with names,” he said slowly, his speech exaggerated. “Besides, even if I remembered, you think someone like that is gonna tell someone like me his real name?”

A moment of silence was broken by a tired exhalation from Doran. “Keep going.”

Marcus grinned smugly at this small victory. “Well, Army says I’m in a ton of trouble. Not with the cops, they didn’t have shit. He tells me the damn C.I.A.’s been watching me for years. Got all kinds of stuff on me.”

Julia cleared her throat. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said to Doran, then turned to Marcus. “But years? You’re not even thirty, are you?”

“Twenty-eight,” he replied, offering her another self-satisfied grin. “You don’t know many hackers, do you? We start young. Anyway, he says C.I.A., I call bullshit. He drops a folder on the table full of reports on everything I’ve done since fucking high school. So, fine, he’s not bluffing. I ask why they hadn’t picked me up already if they knew all about me. He says he wants to offer me a job.” He paused, snorting in disgust. “More like blackmail. I do work for them, I get paid, pardoned, and pimped out. I pass, I’m doin’ two dimes in federal. And not the good dimes.”

“So you took the job,” Julia concluded.

“Fuck yeah, I took the job! Army had a check right there, more money than I’d ever seen all at once. On top of that, all new computers, and a clean record? I’d have to be brain-dead not to accept.”

“What did you do for them?” Doran asked flatly, inspecting his gun.

Marcus shifted in his seat on the couch, leaning forward and resting his forearms on his knees. “They had some big hush-hush military project. A ton of data storage, electronic communications, stuff like that. They knew what I could do breaking into systems. They wanted me to design one that was hack-proof.”

“Wait a minute,” Julia said, not bothering to excuse herself this time. “The best funded military and spy agency in the world came to you for a computer security system?”

“Do you read the news?” Marcus spat back indignantly. “They get hacked all the time. Granted, most slicers don’t get very far in, but they still find and exploit weaknesses in the systems. Those government assclowns don’t know what they’re doing.”

Still skeptical, Julia cocked an eyebrow at Doran, wondering if he would buy this sleaze’s story. “How long ago was this?” he asked calmly. Apparently, he did buy it.

Marcus let out a sharp breath. “Almost a year ago now, I guess.”

“And you completed this project for them?”

He nodded. “Took over six months,” he replied. “Like I said, lost a lot of regular customers. But the feds sent people by at least once a week the whole time. Wanted to see continuous progress. Had to stay on top of it, couldn’t code anything else. I’m still trying to build my reputation back up. Couldn’t prowl my usual watering holes either. Lonely six months, man.”

Doran seemed not to be paying attention to him, instead flicking the safety of his weapon on and off. “Are they still visiting?”

“Sure are, nosy bastards. When I gave ‘em the finished code, they put their own team on it, to try to crack it themselves, check its integrity. They haven’t been able to yet, but they find things every now and then that could use a little tightening up.”

“Mistakes?” Julia asked.

Marcus shot her a disapproving smirk. “Please. I don’t make mistakes. I know how things work in their world. The second they decide I’m not useful anymore, I’m gone. It’ll be like I never existed. So I made sure they’d need me a little longer. They find ‘accidental’ vulnerabilities, I fix ‘em up. The system they wanted was so huge, I had plenty of places to introduce little quirks.”

“How long do you think you can keep that up?” Doran asked with no hint of judgment or sarcasm in his voice.

“Long enough,” Marcus replied defiantly. “I save up some more money, hop a plane, leave the country for good. Go somewhere with no extradition laws.” He paused, inspecting a fingernail on one of his hands. “I hear Russia’s nice this time of year,” he added wryly.

“Sounds like you have it all figured out,” Doran commented, still examining his gun.

Something in the older man’s tone rubbed Marcus the wrong way. “Yeah, I do,” he replied defiantly. “What’s it to you, anyway? What’s your interest in all of this?”

“Simple enough, really,” Doran said. “I want you to take down the system you built for them.”

Marcus stared blankly at him for a second, then let out a brief fit of laughter. “And why would I want to do that?”

“Well, for one thing, I’m guessing the officer that met you during your interrogation failed to mention that your security system is being used to protect blatantly illegal activities they’ve engaged in. Knowledge of which would be an enormous national security risk. But I have a feeling you don’t really care about any of that as long a you’re being well compensated for your time and effort.”

“Damn right,” Marcus interjected.

“I could also inform you that even if you do manage to leave the country undetected, international diplomacy rules and regulations will not protect you. I guarantee the C.I.A. will not simply let you go. You may enjoy a few months, even a year perhaps, believing you’ve successfully evaded an organization that plots world leader assassinations over their morning coffee. But that’s probably not an immediate enough threat for you to do anything to jeopardize your current ‘comfortable’ existence.”

To this Marcus said nothing, simply stared hard at Doran, who even now did not bother to turn his eye to the hacker.

“So instead I’ll offer you this. If you agree to work with me, you will not only contribute to averting a new world war, but you’ll be able to destroy any and all knowledge of your involvement in their crimes. You can go back to doing what you enjoy—ripping off credit card companies and holders for meager profit and entertaining young female overnight guests.”

“And if I refuse?”

Now Doran turned to him, speaking calmly and matter-of-factly. “I’ll ask my friend to step outside—because I suspect she’s more than a bit squeamish—and then I’ll blow your head off.”

Julia watched Marcus closely to gauge his reaction to the death threat. A brief flash of panic swept across his face, one so subtle that she wondered if Doran even noticed. Not surprisingly, Marcus quickly regained his barely perturbed composure, leaning back again and resting his arms across the back of the couch. “Not much of a choice, old man,” he said nonchalantly.

Doran’s jaw set, but he did not otherwise outwardly react to Marcus’ slight against him. “On the contrary,” he growled, “it’s the biggest choice of your existence. You live, or you die, right now.”

A small smile spread across Marcus’ lips. “All right, I’m intrigued,” he replied, as if Doran had suggested they see a movie together for a men’s night out. “What’s the plan?”

“For now, the plan is for you to start thinking about how to disable that security system,” Doran replied, then reached into a coat pocket and approached Marcus. “In two days, meet me at this address. Ten P.M. Pack a bag; you won’t be coming home for a while.”

He dropped what looked like a business card on the table and turned to leave, motioning for Julia to follow him. “Hey, what’s your part in all this?” Marcus said to her before she stepped through the doorway into the hall.

She turned to answer him, only to realize she had no idea what the answer was. “She’s a partner,” Doran said for her, “like you will be, if you show up. And my advice? Don’t run. I’ll find you, and you won’t get a second chance.”

With that he turned and headed back toward the elevator bank. Julia cast one last glance at Marcus, who swallowed hard as he stared back at her. Then she turned and followed Doran. Her “partner” said nothing as he led her down the dingy hallway, even after she heard Marcus’ door close. “Was all of that necessary?” she asked as they stepped into an empty elevator car.

“Very,” Doran replied curtly, pushing the button for the ground floor.

Julia opened her mouth to ask another question just as the doors screeched closed. She waited impatiently until they shut. “Do you believe him?”

“His version matches the records,” he rumbled, staring straight ahead. “I’m surprised he was as forthcoming with me as he was without bodily harm.”

“Wait, you knew all of that already?” she exclaimed.

“Yes.”

She was almost speechless. Almost. “Then… then why did you shoot his computer and torture him like that?”

His eye glared down at her. “You know nothing of torture,” he growled. “That wasn’t torture.”

As questionable as Marcus’ character had seemed, she had still felt a certain measure of sympathy for him as Doran had made himself at home in the apartment they just left. But something in the old soldier’s tone kept her from arguing the point. “Well, if you knew all of that already, what was the point of roughing him up?”

Doran let out a small puff of frustration. “To determine how trustworthy he could ultimately be. If I’m going to have that weasel on my team, I don’t want to have to be watching him every second of the day. Thankfully, he seems capable of some level of honesty, if not humility.”

“Sure, when you’ve got a gun in his face.”

“I also wanted him to know that I’m capable of effectively threatening him. And don’t think I was bluffing. If he steps out of line, he will face consequences.”

Julia eyed him warily as the doors of the elevator car groaned open. “I don’t doubt it,” she replied.

They exited the building and crossed the street in silence, settling back into Julia’s car. It occurred to her then that she was a chauffer for an armed man. That realization should have brought with it a fear for her life, but even after the aggression she had just witnessed in Marcus’ apartment, she felt oddly safe in this relative stranger’s company. In their limited interactions thus far he had not threatened her, and his use of the words “friend” and “partner” were not lost on her either. Finally, he had shown some amount of compassion when revealing his knowledge of her father’s death. Still, she would be careful not to take that for granted.

“Where to now?” she asked as she started the engine.

Doran squinted against the glare of the mid-morning sun. “School.”