Ties That Bind, Part 7: Back to School

college-building

At his direction Julia brought them to the American University campus, parking in a visitors’ lot and walking to a campus map posted at the entrance. “We’re looking for Asbury Hall,” Doran informed her.

“Okay…” She quickly found the name and its corresponding number designation in the directory, then scanned the street map above. “Here it is,” she said, pointing at a rectangle nestled among other rectangles and irregularly shaped boxes. “What’s there?”

“Science laboratories,” he replied curtly.

“Who are you looking for there?”

“A scientist,” he growled slowly through gritted teeth, then walked away in the direction of his target.

Sighing, Julia hurried after him. She should have expected not to get details from him if he didn’t offer them willingly. She would have to learn the hard way who Doran was here to recruit next. “How are we going to get in?”

“Buildings like this are always open during business hours.”

“And they’re just going to let us walk right in, no I.D., and you with your gun?”

He continued walking purposefully, staring straight ahead. “There won’t be any security at the building entrances, if that’s what you’re asking. These people are so high up in their ivory towers, they think no one will bother them aside from salespeople and animal rights protestors. We’ll have no problem getting in.”

They soon arrived at their destination, a large colonial-style red brick building ornamented with white plaster trim and window frames. To Julia it looked more like a college classroom building or dorm than a scientific research center, and she was briefly reminded of her abbreviated experience with a university education. She had very much enjoyed the atmosphere of college life. It was the coursework that had disagreed with her. Perhaps she should have tried harder, but it had seemed pointless to memorize the anatomy of a frog or the difference between micro- and macroeconomics when she would rather have been on stage or in an art studio, creating.

Doran didn’t give her the opportunity to stop and admire the architecture, walking straight up the steps leading to the building’s front doors. She followed him inside, surprised at how non-scientific the interior was. The main atrium, bearing no reception desk, was very open and filled with natural light from the large windows in the far wall. The wood paneling on the walls was of a light tone, adding to the pleasant warmth of the sunlit space. Rather than the clinical, sterile environment she had expected for a laboratory building, the atrium felt comfortable and inviting. Corkboards on the walls bore haphazardly posted notices about courses, seminars, and research opportunities. A few people sat on well-worn couches, chatting over coffee or quietly reading textbooks. And they looked young. To her they seemed fresh out of college, rather than middle-aged as she had pictured when she imagined scientists doing experiments.

Sadly, she noticed all of this in passing, as Doran had wasted no time appreciating the ambience. He walked briskly to a staircase to one side of the atrium, ascending to the second floor with Julia a few steps behind. At the landing for the second story she spotted a directory, but Doran ignored it, turning down one hallway, maintaining his quick pace, and occasionally glancing at room numbers. Julia snuck a few peeks into the laboratories as they passed by—a young girl nodding her head rhythmically to the music playing in her headphones as she mixed chemicals at her workspace; a group of coworkers talking and laughing around one of their desks; a chalkboard decorated festively with a congratulatory message for a recent Ph.D. graduate. It all seemed relaxed and casual, not stiffly professional as she had expected.

Doran ignored it all as he seemed to hunt for a specific room. He had given her no information about the person he was looking for, so she simply followed him, marveling at the strange pieces of equipment, banks of freezers, and tanks of compressed or supercooled gases lining the hallway. Perhaps, being in the military and carrying whatever type of gun he wielded, Doran was unimpressed by their surroundings. But to Julia it was all foreign and new, and if nothing else came of her time with him, at least she’d have some stories to tell her mother over the phone.

While peering into another laboratory, she bumped into something large and immediately took a couple steps back. Doran glared down at her silently; apparently he had found the room he was searching for. “Sorry,” she said meekly, but he had already turned away and stepped into what seemed to be a small office, its door opened inward.

She approached the doorway too but remained standing behind Doran in the hallway. The man seated at the desk was perhaps in his late forties or early fifties, with wavy, graying black hair, and he looked up at his visitors from some papers he was making notes on. His scrutinizing, almost judgmental stare was accentuated by the lines of a perpetual scowl across his forehead and around his mouth. Julia thought that perhaps he had been handsome when he was younger and happier.

“Sandeep Desai,” Doran rumbled. It was a statement, not a question.

The man’s piercing gaze lingered on Doran for a moment before flicking briefly to Julia. Then he quickly returned his attention to the papers on his desk. “Leave your info in the bin,” he said dismissively, otherwise ignoring them.

Julia turned her head slightly, noticing a plastic bin affixed to the outside of the door. A sign on it read: “Salespeople—leave brochures here.” And below, another sign: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Frowning, she glanced at Doran, but her associate paid no attention to her.

“We’re not selling anything,” Doran growled.

Sandeep scribbled a note in red pen on the piece of paper before him. “Then why are you bothering me?”

“I want to talk to you about your ‘smart mice’,” Doran replied.

Julia had to stifle a laugh brought on by Doran’s words, successfully passing it off as clearing her throat. Doran glared at her over his shoulder. Meanwhile, Sandeep sighed and continued reading. “I don’t do interviews, especially about that. That work’s been stopped. Dead end.”

“Your research for the military suggests otherwise.”

This brought a hostile glare from the scientist. He measured Doran closely, as if trying to gauge just how much this man could know about him. After a moment’s consideration, he dropped his gaze back to his desk. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about,” he said, “and I’d appreciate it if you stopped wasting my time.”

“Of course,” Doran replied patronizingly. “You know nothing about the data falsification that got you removed from your previous position by your former employer’s ethics committee. Or about the generous offer that the U.S. military provided in order to allow you to continue your original line of research.”

“Enough!” Sandeep hissed, his tone harsh but his voice subdued. “I don’t know how you became aware of my situation, but I enjoy a little ignorance around here concerning my old job. So kindly stop broadcasting that information to the whole floor!” Doran glanced in Julia’s general direction, then nodded toward the door. Understanding immediately, she closed it and then resumed her timid vigil over the meeting. “So what is it you want?” the scientist continued disdainfully once the conversation had become private. “Money for your silence? You here to blackmail me?”

“No,” Doran replied, shaking his head. “I am aware of the fact that the claims of fraud made against you many years ago were, themselves, fraudulent.”

Sandeep’s expression did not change. “And just how would you know that? What are you, some kind of private investigator? A cop?”

“No. Military, if you must know. I’ve also discovered that the work you’re doing—your real research—is being applied to a much larger project. An illegal one, one that will threaten the safety and humanity of everyone on this planet.”

Julia expected the man’s demeanor to become even more severe in response to Doran’s words, perhaps even slightly fearful. Instead, he laughed suddenly, startling her. “Conspiracy theorists!” he cackled. “Fantastic! Get the hell out of my office.”

And with that he returned his attention to the papers on his desk. Julia was filled with indignation; she wanted very much to come to Doran’s defense, even if he didn’t need or want her support. But she knew about as much of Doran’s ultimate goal as Sandeep did, so had nothing to contribute to the discussion. And as she thought more about it, she realized the scientist was right—Doran did sound like a crackpot determined to open people’s eyes to the crimes of the establishment.

Deciding to remain quiet, she watched with shock as Doran reached into his overcoat. She could not believe he would draw a weapon on this man. It had been one thing to threaten Marcus with a firearm—though she hadn’t agreed with it then either, at least they had been in a private residence. And Marcus was a crook anyway. Now, though, they were in a university, an institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and truth, and despite the aforementioned fraud, whether real or fabricated, Sandeep was a scientist, not a criminal. Julia opened her mouth to protest Doran’s action—

—and promptly shut it again when he withdrew not a gun, but a folded collection of papers. Without a word he tossed it carelessly onto Sandeep’s desk, obscuring whatever the scientist had been reading. Sandeep’s stare snapped up at Doran. “What the hell is this?”

“Read it,” Doran replied flatly.

Grudgingly, Sandeep unfolded the papers and glanced at the top one; it was immediately evident to Julia that Doran had finally gotten the man’s attention. Sandeep stared at the first page for a moment, then flipped through the rest of the thin stack. From her vantage point Julia couldn’t tell what the contents of the papers were; she could make out columns of text interspersed with blocks of images. Perhaps scientific data? Sandeep seemed very interested, whatever it was. After studying them briefly, he held them up, gesturing with them to Doran. “Where did you get this?” he demanded harshly.

“Irrelevant,” the soldier replied curtly. “The work you’ve done—that you’ve continued even after your wrongful termination—is being used for dangerously criminal applications that risk national, and even international, security. I want your assistance in putting a stop to it.”

Sandeep maintained his glare. “And what do I get out of it?” he said drily.

“The assurance that your work will no longer be abused and perverted. The knowledge that you contributed to ending it all and protecting world peace. I will also get you the opportunity to seek retribution against the people who instigated the end of your original employment.”

One of Sandeep’s eyebrows arched skeptically. “You know who did this to me?” he asked grimly, waving the thin stack of papers for emphasis.

Instead of answering him, Doran withdrew a small business card, the same as he had given to Marcus, from a pocket on his coat and handed it to the scientist. “Meet me at this address in two days. Ten P.M. We’ll get started then.”

“Started with what?” Sandeep exclaimed, but Doran had already turned away and opened the office door to leave.

“Don’t disappoint me,” the older man remarked as he exited the office and proceeded down the hall.

Julia glanced sheepishly at Sandeep, then hurried out of the office as well. “It was, um… nice to meet you,” she said awkwardly from the doorway before following after Doran. She caught up with him as he turned toward the staircase they had ascended earlier. “What was in those papers you gave him?” she asked.

“Incentive.”

She knew by now that was all the response she was going to get from Doran. She decided to change the subject. “I thought you were going to pull a gun on him too,” she said in disbelief. “But you didn’t threaten him like you did to Marcus.”

“Marcus is a snake,” Doran snapped back as they descended the stairs. “Sandeep is a man of science, ineffectually trying to overcome a great injustice weighing him down. He doesn’t deserve to be threatened.”

His words took Julia aback. Apparently she had not learned everything there was to know about this man in the twelve or so hours she had known him. “How is someone like him going to help you? I could understand recruiting Marcus to disable the security system he developed, but a scientist?”

They reached the ground floor just as a class was letting out. Dozens of undergraduate students streamed out of a lecture hall and crisscrossed the atrium in every direction, impeding Doran and Julia’s progress toward the main doors of the building. Doran let out a frustrated sigh. “Guns,” he said to Julia.

Even before his reply, he had received quite a few strange glances from students. Julia decided to be patient and wait until they had passed through the doors and left the building before asking him for clarification. “What do you mean, guns?” she asked incredulously as they reached the sidewalk in front of Asbury hall.

“Eventually our actions will lead to direct confrontation. When that time comes, everyone will need to be prepared, able to defend themselves.”

“Direct confrontation? With who?” Julia demanded, preventing Doran from continuing. “Are you expecting me to shoot people?”

“I told you earlier you might not agree with everything we’ll need to do to finish your father’s work. You agreed and came with me anyway. If you want to go up against security officers, law enforcement, and the military of one of the most powerful countries in the world without knowing how to protect yourself, that’s your choice. But I recommend against it.”

She had no immediate response for him. She had agreed to come with him, but it would have been nice to know about his expectations of her. They didn’t speak again until they had returned to her car in the visitors’ parking lot. “So, you’re going to teach Sandeep the scientist how to fire a gun?” she said as she opened her door.

He waited to answer her until she had unlocked his door and he had climbed into the passenger seat. “He’s had military training. Prior to going to graduate school. He’ll likely be training the others we collect. I’ll be teaching you.”

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