High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, 26 July 2017.
Leah Walker is seated in the reception area of the office of David Cairo, the leading venture capitalist in Atlanta. She’s been working as an independent contractor with firms around town, starting a few months after finishing up work on her second doctorate, which she earned from Georgia Tech, in Internet and Web Security. To drum up business, Leah hacked into the servers of several of Atlanta’s top companies, gathering facts which she used to compile dossiers on ways the companies could protect their Web assets. Her approach met with mixed reactions, with several companies threatening litigation, but a few, such as Bickering Plummet, were impressed, and put Leah under contract to help them sort out their online safety.
While working with Bickering Plummet, Leah learned of the site where the government announces requests for proposals to perform work for them, and began visiting it regularly. Between jobs, she found an announcement which caught her attention. The National Security Agency (NSA) is looking for a firm to develop methods for protecting the phone system in the event of a terrorist attack, and a special stipulation is that the contract must go to a minority-owned or woman-owned business. That same day, Leah logs onto the Georgia Secretary of State’s corporations website, and registers “L. J. Walker Security, LLC” and then sets out to secure financing. While she knows her father could supply her with funds, Leah doesn’t feel that’s the best way to make an impression, and instead schedules an appointment with Cairo.
In the mid-1990s, David Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro, like the Georgia city), an Atlanta native, like Leah, left his job as a Web designer at Bickering Plummet, and founded Cairo Enterprises, which he took public in 1997, during the high tech boom that was transforming the economy in Atlanta and elsewhere. Overnight, he had become a multi-billionaire, both exciting and confounding the business elite in the city. As the nineties drew to a close and the tech bubble burst, Cairo Enterprises initiated a merger with Bickering, which became one of the largest financial transactions of the new millennium, leaving Cairo even wealthier, and, by most accounts, much more eccentric. While he was awarded a seat on the board at Bickering, he relinquished it after only a few months, and began providing funds for innovative entrepreneurs, with a stated preference for brick and mortar operations with limited online presence.
Leah is somewhat wary of dealing with Cairo, who has a strained history with the Buckhead business community, in particular, her father, Paxton. On more than one occasion, while still CEO of his own firm, Cairo had been highly critical of Walker Development, Paxton’s company, barely concealing his contempt for its role in transforming Atlanta from what Cairo termed “a quaint Southern city” into “a monstrosity of glass and steel with no soul or charm”. Leah has heard such criticism about Walker Development throughout most of her life, particularly after becoming an adult, but Cairo made it personal, going so far as to compare Paxton, a multigenerational Georgian, and a proud graduate of both Tech and UGA, to General Sherman, whose forces torched Atlanta in 1864. In the late-90s, when Cairo was honored by the Buckhead Coalition, Paxton was very conspicuous in his absence. By courting Cairo’s support, Leah realizes she’ll most likely be severing all ties with her father.
Leah arrived at 12:55 for her 1:00 appointment, and it’s now 1:32. When she arrived, the receptionist, Tracey McIntosh, a woman in her early-fifties, who appears to be of mixed race, with a generous portion of Chinese or Korean as part of the mix, buzzed Cairo to let him know Leah was there, receiving acknowledgement and thanks from Cairo. About twenty minutes later, she buzzed him again, and this time, her entreaty was met with a terse, “Acknowledged.”
Not quite twenty minutes following the last announcement, the intercom buzzes, and Cairo’s voice comes through the speaker. “Tracey, I have this nagging feeling that I have an appointment scheduled.”
Tracey looks up at Leah, then punches the button. “L. J. Walker is still waiting to see you. Her appointment was for 1 p.m.”
“L. J. Walker?” Cairo replies with a note of surprise in his voice. “You don’t mean Leah Walker, do you? Dr. Leah Joanna Walker, Ph.D?”
“Yes, Mr. Cairo,” Tracey says.
“Why was I not informed of this?” Cairo says.
“I’ve notified you twice that she’s here,” Tracey says.
“This is outrageous,” Cairo says. Movement can be heard in his office, then his door flies open. He appears, then throws both hands over his mouth, wearing a look of consternation.
The man who greets Leah appears to be in his early-forties, but looks the farthest from a business professional as one can. His brown hair is shoulder length, and pushed back away from his face without the benefit of a comb. He’s not quite six feet tall, and appears to be carrying around at least twenty pounds of extra weight, and dressed in jeans and Reebok sneakers, with a buttoned down, striped, Arrow shirt, untucked, with the sleeves rolled up well above his elbows, and loose, wire-framed glasses, which he occasionally pushes up by applying equal pressure to each side. He looks like he hasn’t shaved in a few days.
Cairo fixes his gaze on Leah and lets out a low moan. “Dr. Walker, my deepest apologies for this appalling oversight.” He goes to her, bowing deferentially, “If only I had known you were waiting.” Cairo spins about and points at Tracey, and, in mock outrage, says, “Clean out your desk, Tracey. You’re done here.”
“Yes, Mr. Cairo,” she says blandly, and begins removing items from her drawers. Catching Leah’s eye, she twirls her finger beside her head, and mouths “Crazy”.
“Please, please, Dr. Walker,” he says, indicating his office. “Please join me in my office.”
He leads Leah into his office, closes the door, and indicates the chair in front of his desk. “Make yourself comfortable, Doctor.” As he moves behind his desk, he goes on, “Now, do you go by Dr. Walker or Dr. Doctor Walker?”
“Doctor’s fine,” Leah says with a bit of a sigh.
Cairo sits and folds his hands on the desk. “You understand, Doctor, that I’m taking quite a risk in meeting with you, given that litigation is still pending against you from a certain soft drink manufacturer in town.”
“We’re in a cooling down period,” she says. “Which is all I’m at liberty to say on the matter at this time.”
“The pause that mediates,” he says dramatically. “I must say, Doctor, your exploits have been very thrilling to see and hear about. You had the movers and shakers in this town quaking in their boots. Bickering’s IT chief was screaming for a security audit from top to bottom, and all you did was to play a few parlor tricks on them. It was a sight to behold.”
“In retrospect, I probably should have handled a few things differently,” she says.
“Bet Daddy Leroy didn’t take it well, did he?” he says.
“He was a little annoyed,” she says. “I did get called on the carpet by him after he had to field some calls. But, to his credit, he told them to hire me.”
“Speaking of dear old Dad, I must say, I was very surprised to see you’d scheduled an appointment with me,” Cairo says. “You’re not upset that I compared your father to Sherman?”
“No. Actually, I thought that was pretty funny,” she says, “and kind of justified.”
“Damn right it was. Everytime a charming piece of this city’s character was demolished and replaced with more glass and steel, there was usually a Walker Development sign out front,” Cairo says. “If it had been up to your father, we wouldn’t still have the Fox Theater.”
Leah shakes her head. “No. That wasn’t Dad.”
“It wasn’t?” Cairo says.
“No. Dad wanted to level the Georgian Terrace,” she says.
“Oh, right,” he says. “Alex Cooley shot that one down, I believe.”
They both sit and contemplate this a moment. Finally, Cairo says, “Oh well, enough pleasantries. Why are you here? Daddy Leroy couldn’t cough up enough funds for you?”
“I didn’t ask my father for money,” she says. “I don’t discuss my business plans with him.”
“He doesn’t know you’re here, does he?” Cairo asks. Leah shakes her head. Cairo claps his hands together and says, “He is going to go ballistic when he hears about this.”
Leah rolls her eyes. “Probably.”
“That, alone, is worth the price of admission,” he says. “How much do you want? I’ll cut you a check this minute.”
“Don’t you want to see my business plan first?” Leah says, lifting her briefcase into her lap.
“No need for such trivialities. I know you’ve done your homework.” He puts his feet up on his desk and says, “They don’t hand out Ph.Ds from Tech or MIT for participation. What would you say to five hundred thousand dollars?”
“I’d say it’s probably way more than I need,” Leah says.
Cairo waves dismissively. “Nonsense. It’s a drop in the bucket. You’ll need space, furniture — computers.”
“I was planning to work out of my home at first,” she says.
He shakes his head. “Bad move. You need to show you can walk the walk. People are investing in a concept as much as a person. They pay more for the illusion of competence.”
“Is that how you wowed them?” Leah says.
“Idiots. Every single one,” he says. “All they wanted was to be on the Web. Never mind they had no idea what it was or why they had to be there. In reality, I didn’t know any more than they did, but they thought I did, and that’s what brought in the big bucks.”
Leah chuckles. “World Wide Web — the greatest cyber swindle of all time.”
“Exactly,” Cairo says. “Paying us tens of thousands of dollars to ‘establish their web presence’ when all they had to do was hire a few high school kids with some HTML coding under their belts.”
“I still can’t believe you got away with it,” she says.
“I can’t believe we got away with it,” he replies. “Nowadays, everyone’s too embarrassed to call anyone on it.”
He removes his feet from the desk and swivels around, then leans on the desk. “Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? You’re here because you want to compete for the NSA contract but you don’t want it to look like Daddy’s buying it for you as a graduation present.”
“I’m not sure I’d put it like that,” she replies, “but yes, I do want that contract.”
“How much of your soul are you willing to sell for it?” Cairo says.
“Did you really just ask me that question?” Leah says. He shrugs. “Is that what it comes down to?”
“As Bobby Zimmerman says, you gotta serve somebody,” he says. “This is where we get down to the brass tacks and find out what L. J. is really made of.”
“What exactly does that mean?” she says.
“Everyone’s salivating over that NSA contract,” he says. “Marty Devore at Bickering would sell his first born for a crack at it, but rules are rules. The government says it has to go to a minority or woman-owned business. Am I right?” She nods. “So, everyone’s waiting to see who’s got the guts to go after it. The government doesn’t care about guts, though. They care about procedure. They want to see who’ll give them the most bang for their buck.”
“I assume you can tell me how to do that,” Leah says. “What do you want from me in return?”
“Aside from ten percent of your revenue for the next five years, I want you to lose the know-it-all attitude,” he says. “You need my expertise more than you need my money. You think you can get by on daring and learn as you go like you’ve always done. Well this is the big time, sweetie. Daddy Leroy can probably tell you a thing or two about how the world works, but nothing you learned at Wellesley, MIT, or Tech has prepared you for this. Win this contract and you cannot imagine the power you’ll wield. Every tech firm in the country will be lining up to lick your boots.”
Leah sits back. “I’m listening.”
“Good,” he says. “The government is nothing but rules and regs. You play by their rules, they’ll give you the keys to the kingdom. Fail, and you’ll most likely get filed away in their discard pile, never to be heard from again. What are the specs of the RFP?”
“It says they’re looking to thwart cyber-terrorism, in particular, they want to protect the phone system,” Leah says.
Cairo nods and sorts through some business cards. He takes one out and hands it to Leah. “Here’s an individual you’d find very useful in such an endeavor.”
She takes the card and looks over it. “Roscoe Delahunt? I know that name.”
“You probably encountered Scoey at Bickering,” Cairo says. “He sometimes manages their product support team when they don’t piss him off. We go all the way back to Cairo Enterprises. When you meet him, you’ll think I’ve played a massive practical joke on you, but he has much to teach, Grasshopper.”
“He knows more about hacker culture and phreaking than anyone I’ve ever encountered,” Cairo says. “His online address book alone is enough to get him investigated by every cyber terrorism squad on the planet.”
“Perfect,” Leah says.
Cairo pushes the intercom button. “Tracey, what are you doing right now?”
Tracey’s voice comes back, with a sarcastic edge, “I’m cleaning out my desk as you insisted.”
“Well stop that and come in here,” he says.
A moment later, Tracey enters and presents herself to David, who addresses Leah. “Avert your eyes, Dr. Walker, for you are in the presence of true greatness. Tracey helped Bickering Plummet win twenty-two government contracts, totaling over five trillion dollars.”
“You don’t say,” Leah says, impressed.
“They didn’t appreciate the asset they had, so I lured her away with a four-day work week and triple the salary just because I could. To this day, Marty Devore still won’t return my calls.” He motions toward Leah. “Tracey, as you probably recall, this is L. J. Walker.” Tracey nods to Leah. “She’s hell bent on winning the NSA contract. I want you to teach her everything she’ll need to know to get it.”
Tracey looks at Leah. “Gladly. Provided you understand, I don’t work on Fridays.”
“Not a problem,” Leah says. Tracey sits on the couch near Leah. To Cairo, Leah says, “You sure you can spare her?”
“My days of begging coins from Uncle Sam are far behind me,” he says.
“Perfect,” Leah says. “What else?”
“What else do you need?” Cairo says. “Scoey can help you realize the scope of the work involved and Tracey can help you wrap it all up in a pretty little package for Uncle Sam.”
“Won’t I need staff?” Leah says. “Programmers, database people.”
“No, no, no,” he says. “Personnel brings baggage and baggage equals costs. Costs are very, very bad if you’re competing for contracts.”
“Very bad,” Tracey echoes.
“You’ll need a partner,” Cairo says. “Someone with a vested interest but who can’t compete on their own.”
“Bickering Plummet,” Leah says.
“Ding, ding, ding, ding,” he says. “They have the warm bodies and are just itching for an in. All you need is the plan. Of course, you’ll probably need a receptionist. You don’t want people walking right into your office. Otherwise, outsource all the costs. Makes accounting a breeze.” He turns to Tracey. “Who’s their contracts person these days?”
“Barbara Millican,” Tracey says.
“Excellent,” Cairo says. To Leah, “Do you know Barb?”
“Heard the name,” Leah says.
“No worries,” Cairo says. “You’ll get on swimmingly. Tracey, if you’ll be so kind as to set things in motion.” He holds up his hand for her to wait, and says to Leah, “You’ve filed with the state, correct?”
“L. J. Walker Security, LLC,” Leah says.
“Great,” Cairo says. “Tracey, work your magic.”
“On it now,” she says as she rises, then turns to Leah. “Nice to be working with you.” She exits.
Once she’s gone, Leah says, “Now, about that half a million.”
“What the hell?” Cairo says. “Make it a million. I can afford it.”
“That’s an awful lot of money,” Leah says.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I bet Daddy Leroy drops more than that on his dry cleaning,” Cairo says.
“You seem to have a skewed view of how much he’s actually worth,” Leah says. “Granted, we weren’t hurting for money.”
“No, I bet you weren’t,” Cairo says. “When I got my piddling job with Bickering Plummet in ’94, I started out making about two thousand dollars more than my father was making after twenty years with the city of East Point, and when I was growing up, he was the sole wage earner in our family. How my parents raised three kids on that, I’ll never know.” He turns to face the window behind him. “Tell me something. How old were you when your father made his first million?”
Leah leans forward. “Seven. Dad took me, Mom and my aunt to Disney World to celebrate. He spent the whole trip meeting with investors while we explored the park.”
“You know he’s going to be very cross with you over taking money from me,” he says.
“I doubt our relationship could get much worse,” she says.
“My father was from down South,” Cairo says. “We didn’t get along all that well either.”
“If memory serves, he died before you went out on your own, right?” Leah asks.
“You’ve been checking up on me,” he replies. “No. Dad never saw any of this. He died thinking I’d never amount to anything more than just another corporate drone. Has he really been gone for nine years?”
Cairo swings back around toward her. “Marry me, Leah Walker.”
“Come on, together you and I could conquer this city,” he says.
“Haven’t you already conquered it?” she says with a laugh.
“Yeah. You’re right. Never mind,” he says.
Tracey returns. “I just got off the phone with Barb.” To Leah, she says, “You’re meeting with her next Tuesday to make your pitch.”
Leah rises. “I’d better get to it, then. How hard is it to get in touch with Delahunt?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he could meet with you now,” Cairo says. “What part of town are in?”
“Kirkwood,” Leah says.
“How convenient, he’s in East Atlanta,” David says. “You and Tracey can work out a schedule. Let me also recommend you get yourself an office right away. Always looks better on the business cards.” He looks out the window and points uptown. “I’ve heard Colony Square’s reasonable these days.”
“Wow. So much to do,” Leah says.
“Better get to it, then,” he says.
“I’ll walk out with you,” Tracey says. “We can figure out a schedule.”
They start for the door. Cairo calls after them, “Doctor Walker.” Leah turns. “Kick their ass.”
Leah nods. “Will do.”