Woman of God

Avis Collins is the minister at the Apostolic Awakening Fellowship, a conservative church in Duluth, Georgia. Known as Mother Avis by her church family, she promotes herself as a black conservative who’s opposed to gay marriage, extra-marital sex, race mixing, and government entitlements. She grew up in a mainstream Methodist congregation, but became a fundamentalist following the fallout within her family from the deaths of their parents. Her church promotes family values and economic empowerment, and, in practice, their philosophy is a curious mixture of feeding the homeless while criticizing them for a lack of initiative, promoting Jesus’s teachings, while encouraging church goers to become entrepreneurs, and welcoming members of all races, just so long as none of them try to intermarry. As of 2011, Avis boasts a following of over four hundred parishioners, and their services are a rousing mixture of amplified Gospel, warm, welcoming fellowship, and fiery rhetoric delivered by Mother Avis.

In the late-00s, Avis’s ministry came under scrutiny when it was discovered that a number of the white parishioners in her majority black congregation were active members of the Klan, drawn by her message of racial separatism. This set off a flurry of news reports locally, with people on all sides of the controversy giving interviews, black congregants who stated they would not share the pew with racists, contrasted with those who said that so long as they mind their manners, all are welcome, versus white members, who tried to minimize the situation, citing Mother Avis’s powerful preaching as the reason for their devotion. It all culminated in Mother Avis giving a well-received interview on Good Morning America, where she remained cheerful and positive, and stated the situation demonstrated, “The power of Christ to unite people of all backgrounds and philosophies.

Still, the church remains controversial, with the IRS constantly questioning their religious exemption, some believing them to be more of a religiously-oriented business rather than the classic definition of a church, given the many products they sell, from essential oils and scented candles, to prayer blankets, videos and recordings of the choir and fellowship band, and others suggesting racial motives for the microscopic level of scrutiny they’re constantly under. Mother Avis tries to remain above the fray, with one notable misstep, where she commented harshly on what she termed as “sodomites” in a news report about the PRIDE Festival in Atlanta, which drew protests from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Following these challenges, the church instituted a public relations fellowship, which clears all requests for statements, and carefully monitors any outgoing missives for content, as well as largely shielding Mother Avis from unscripted press appearances.

One of the church’s harshest critics is a blogger known as Lady Midnight, who not only publishes a weekly column, where she tackles religion, politics, and human rights, and often uses Apostolic Awakening as an example of religious excess, but she also frequently posts disparaging criticisms on the message board at the Apostolic Awakening website. She’s consistently the only negative poster to whom Avis will personally reply, and their sometimes voluminous exchanges often betray not only serious animosity, but also a great deal of familiarity between them. In one such exchange, Avis stated, “You should be grateful the Lord blessed you with the opportunity to be an inspiration to others, rather than the sullen, withdrawn shell of the woman you once were.” While most congregants are either spiritually uplifted or totally befuddled by Mother Avis’s attitude toward this irritant, a few of her closest confidants are aware that Lady Midnight also happens to be Avis’s younger sister, Annabelle, with whom Avis hasn’t spoken directly for more than a decade.

Paralyzed in an automobile accident in Cobb County in 1990, Annabelle turned away from religion during her recovery period, breaking the heart of her minister father, and, in Avis’s view, hastening the deaths of their mother, who suffered a stroke in 1998, and spent the remainder of her life in a vegetative state, and their father, who suffered a massive coronary in 2000. Following their father’s death, Annabelle supported their older brother Alfred’s decision to take their mother off life support, which Avis vehemently opposed. The youngest brother, Avery, a singer, rapper, and actor now based in Los Angeles, who calls himself EZ-AC, eventually sided with Alfred and Annabelle, causing Avis to drop her opposition, and sever all ties with her family. Within a year, she began her ministry in a small storefront in downtown Duluth, and began recruiting members by preaching on street corners.

House Band, Jack Standridge

As far as endings go, Jack Standridge had one of the best. He simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up the next morning. A Marine, who served in Korea, he came home to Decatur, Georgia, where he found a job with his father’s insurance agency, eventually taking over the business when his father retired. Along the way, he married Nancy Belmonte, a lively woman he met at Georgia State, and together, they had three children, two sons, Rex and Lawrence, and a daughter, Claire, who they lost at age eight to a congenital heart defect. Just before the kids started school, he and Nancy bought a nice home in Avondale Estates, now devoid of all but the two of them, though the day before the house had been filled with family, Rex, his wife and four kids, stopping in on their way from Florida to Chattanooga.

Nancy, always an early riser, discovers when she comes to rouse him for breakfast, that Jack is cold, not breathing, but wearing his customary smile. She mostly remains calm, allowing herself only a few sniffles as she goes into another room to summon the authorities, then begin the process of alerting the family. Grief will come later, when it’s official, when all the details have been ironed out. Then she will mourn.

By eleven that morning, Lawrence has arrived from Ansley Park, where he lives with his partner Elijah Parker, who’s in Washington until the end of the week, and Claire Belmonte is there. Claire came to their home at age sixteen, after running away from a nightmare situation in Middle Georgia. The Standridges welcomed her into their home and family, and Claire remained with them for nearly four years, taking Nancy’s family name as her own, completing her high school equivalency, and starting junior college as a sound technician. Though she moved into Atlanta just prior to her twentieth birthday, she remains close with the family, stopping in at least once a month, and her relationship with the Standridges has been more like that of an adopted daughter. By the time Lawrence, then Claire arrive, the medical examiner has come and gone, verifying what Nancy already knew, that Jack passed, quietly, in his sleep the night before, and transporting him to the coroner.

There’s already a small crowd there, mainly close neighbors alerted by the police cars and coroner’s van that something wasn’t right, and universally complimentary of the man now gone. Nancy alerted Rex, but insisted he and his family continue their brief vacation, and come by on their way back, when arrangements will be more formalized. Having finished most of her self-appointed duties, Nancy now finds herself seated on the couch, surrounded by Claire, and Barbara Stewart, her next-door neighbor, who have taken over the roles of chief comforters, Barbara constantly assuring Nancy that “Jack’s in a better place”, and Claire inquiring frequently if Nancy needs anything. From here, Nancy entertains a continuous stream of well-wishers as word of Jack’s passing filters throughout the enormous community of those who knew him. She finally relaxes, and settles into the role of grieving spouse, knowing fully well that she will need to make many difficult decisions in the days to come. The most difficult arrives a few days following the funeral, in the person of an agent representing Walker Development, inquiring about Nancy’s plans for her property, and promising a competitive offer on the home.

Depending upon one’s point of view, Walker Development is either a dynamic force for revitalization around Atlanta, or an unfeeling corporate behemoth, mercilessly dotting the landscape with gaudy, overpriced McMansions that only the super-wealthy can afford. As young people from the suburbs of the Atlanta Metro area have moved back into town, fueling gentrification in formerly minority neighborhoods, Walker, among others, has been there, encouraging them to demolish the older structures in favor of new, more upscale dwellings, which the developers will, of course, design and build. The previous residents, many of whom have lived in the neighborhoods their entire lives, suddenly find the costs of taxes and utilities becoming unbearable, and always, the developers are there, offering low-income residents just slightly more than the “book value” of the property, to encourage them to move on quickly. Once they’re gone, the modest homes are replaced with vastly more elaborate structures, which sometimes sell for a thirty to fifty times the cost to the developer, and which increase the stress on the crumbling infrastructure the city or county maintains. Along the way, old neighborhood names, kept alive by the elderly black residents, who learned them from their parents and grandparents, get resurrected, as the Fourth Ward becomes The Old Fourth Ward, and the areas south of the tracks from Chandler Park and Lake Claire become Kirkwood and East Atlanta Village. Once-quiet little neighborhoods find themselves overrun with coffee shops and corner bars, and choked with increasing traffic, as non-residents flock there, sometimes from as far away as Bartow or Henry County, to sample the local ambience.

The representative from Walker is a first contact, a young woman, who’s very deferential and self-effacing, complementing the home, and expressing sincere condolences for Nancy’s loss. She doesn’t stay long, and leaves a few brochures for Nancy to look at “when the timing is right”. Nancy knows, however, that once she’s on their radar, the contacts will increase, and become more insistent, phone calls, mailings, and visits, not just from Walker, but from any number of developers or real estate agents. She doesn’t relish the thought of having her family’s memories demolished, but without Jack, staying no longer seems desirable for her.

The Handmaiden

Peace statue, Atlantic Station, Atlanta, GA.

Leah Walker steps up to the door of Rosalind Duchard’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and rings the bell. She’s there to meet with Rosalind and her husband, Paul, about a request they made of her at a previous meeting. Leah is still undecided on what her answer will be, but Rosalind has promised to have a legal agreement drawn up to spell out everyone’s responsibilities and the legal consequences of everything.

She’s met at the door by Paul, a man in his fifties, somewhat overweight, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, and a madras shirt.

“Leah,” Paul says, with little enthusiasm. “You’re early. Rosalind isn’t back yet.” He makes no effort to invite her in.

“Can I come in anyway?” Leah says.

Paul considers it. “Oh. Yeah. Sure.”

He steps aside to allow her entry.

In the year since becoming Rosalind’s lab assistant, Leah has come to regard her as a mentor and friend, and Rosalind has successfully wrested from Leah’s aunt, Margaret, the title of “second most important” woman in Leah’s life. Around MIT, faculty, staff, and students recognize that talking to Leah is almost the same as having Rosalind’s ear, and some faculty members prefer Leah’s accessibility to wading through the sea of interpersonal issues they have to navigate to work with Rosalind. Leah and Rosalind spend most of the day together, and many evenings, depending on the time of year, or the grants Rosalind is managing. Their close working arrangement often draws the ire of Rosalind’s husband.

Leah has only had a few interactions with Paul Duchard, but they’ve been icy and uncomfortable. He always greets her with a stern look, and an over abundance of sighs and eye rolls. She’s found his reactions rarely change, regardless of how polite or friendly she tries to be around him. On the occasions they’ve been alone when she’s visiting, any interest she shows in getting to know him is met with monosyllabic responses, and it isn’t out of the ordinary for Paul to excuse himself whenever Leah and Rosalind are talking, even when they’re chatting and not discussing academic matters. Leah suspects Paul may have Asperger Syndrome, but whenever she’s broached the topic with Rosalind, she always dismisses Leah’s suspicions, telling Leah she just needs to get to know Paul better.

Paul leads Leah to the living room, where she sits on the couch. He takes a seat in an overstuffed chair that has a guitar leaning against it.

“You play guitar?” Leah asks.

“Yeah, picked it up when I was in high school,” he says. “Some of my colleagues in the Math department have a jazz band. We play at clubs around town.”

“Really? I never knew that,” Leah says.

“Well, there’s a lot you don’t know about me, Leah,” Paul says. He folds his hands in front of him and glances at the clock. “Rosie should be here anytime now.”

They sit in awkward silence for several minutes.

“Can I ask you something, Paul?” she says. “I mean, since we have a little time.”

“What is it?” Paul asks.

“What exactly have I done to piss you off?” Leah says.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Paul says without facing her.

“Like hell you don’t,” she says. “Almost from the moment I met you, all I’ve gotten is attitude. You’re short with me. You give me a hard time every time I call here for Rosie. I’d just like to know what’s behind it.”

Paul sighs. “There’s no big mystery, Leah. I don’t like you. No reason. You just rub me the wrong way.”

“Perfect,” she says. “Another one of those guys, eh?”

“Those guys?” Paul says. “What does that mean?”

“I’ve been dealing with guys like you my entire life,” Leah says. “You’ve got some kind of bug up your ass about strong women, or women in science, or whatever.”

“My feelings toward you have nothing to do with your being a woman in science,” Paul says. “Do you honestly think I could have married Rosalind Worthy if I’d had any reservations about that? If not for other factors, I’d probably be your champion.”

“What other factors might those be?” Leah says.

Paul stares at her, considering something. Finally, he says, “Your father is Paxton Walker isn’t he — the Walker behind Walker Development?”

“Yes, he is,” Leah says.

“I wasn’t sure at first,” Paul continues, “but after Rosie gave me a few more facts, I pretty well confirmed it.”

Leah shakes a finger at him. “You’re from Atlanta. Rosie never mentioned that.”

“She knows I went to Tech,” Paul says. “But she doesn’t know much about my early history. I’ve been a little mysterious about that, and she hasn’t really pressed me on it. It’s mutual. There’s quite a bit I don’t know about her past either.”

“Okay, spill it,” Leah says. “What’s your beef with my father?”

“You’re no doubt familiar with Dunkirk Estates?” Paul says.

“It was my father’s first major development deal. It made him a millionaire,” Leah says. “You lived in Dunkirk Estates?”

“No,” Paul replies. “My family and I lived in The Commons, which is what we called the neighborhood your father demolished in order to build Dunkirk Estates.”

“Wow, small world,” Leah says, mostly to herself.

“Yeah, too small, apparently,” he says. “We were sent packing, along with a community of over fifty families after Walker Development greased the palms of county commissioners to have them claim eminent domain on our homes.”

“So, call a lawyer,” she says. “If you had a valid claim to the property, you could have fought the county’s decision.”

“We couldn’t afford that,” he says. “Besides, the bulldozers were out there the following morning. We barely had time to finish packing.”

“What does any of this have to do with me?” Leah says. “I’m not my father. I was a child when he built that development.”

“No. But you benefited from it just the same, didn’t you?”

“For your information, my father and I had a parting of the ways before I started MIT,” Leah says. “He’s not paying for any of this.”

“What difference does it make if you’re being financed directly from him or through your trust fund?” Paul says. “You’ve still gotten all your advantages from his blood money. It’s what got you here.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” she says, “the mastery of coursework and long hours of studying were hardly a factor. Do you even know what my GPA was at Wellesley? That’s not a walk in the park, you know. Plus, I was jointly enrolled here for my last two years.”

“I’m not discounting your intelligence or drive,” he says, “but you’ve had opportunities handed to you most people cannot imagine.”

“You don’t seem to be doing so bad, yourself, Paul,” Leah says. “Whatever your upbringing, you seem to have overcome it.”

“Was there ever any question where you’d go to school?” Paul says. “Any doubt you’d be able to finance it?”

Leah looks away. “No. Not really.”

“Well in my case, there was quite a bit,” he says. “My family couldn’t afford to send me to school. My mother and father both worked outside the home just to scrape together enough to keep a roof over our heads. I’ve had to work my ass off most of my life for opportunities you routinely take for granted. You’re right. I’m doing very well now, and I earned every damn penny of it.”

“What’s that they say about the sins of the father?” Leah says.

“Look, I don’t hold you personally accountable for the things your father did,” Paul says.

“Could have fooled me,” she replies.

“You need to understand,” he goes on, “there were lives connected to every dollar your father made and you benefited directly from all of it.”

Leah stares at him a long moment, then shakes her head and chuckles. “Kind of ironic, isn’t it, the role I may end up playing for you and Rosie.”

“That’s Rosie’s idea, not mine,” Paul says. “I told her I couldn’t care less if our children were Jewish. I haven’t set foot inside Temple since the day I watched them bulldoze the only home I’d ever known.”

“Then why me?” Leah says. “There are at least five Jews on her Wall of Stars. Esther Gershon outshines me in pretty much all her academic accomplishments. She’s not married yet.”

“Rosie insisted,” he says. “She has this criteria in her head; math and science; Jewish; you don’t want children of your own. You seem to meet all her requirements. She calls you her star student, or something like that.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Leah says.

“How should I know?” Paul says. “Rosie says all sorts of crazy stuff. I tried to tell her the edict to marry proper Jewish women was from Ezra, post-exile. It’s not even mentioned in Genesis, but she’s obsessed.”

“Yeah, I wondered about that,” Leah says. “I seem to recall Leviticus has provisions for men carrying on their family line — surprise, surprise — but I don’t recall it being very explicit about women. Well, there’s Ruth.”

“Also Second Temple period,” Paul says.

“Yeah. Whatever,” Leah says, waving her hand dismissively. “Look, I’m not terribly enamored with the idea of future offspring sharing your DNA either, though, granted, they’ll definitely kick ass academically. This isn’t about us, though. It’s about Rosie.”

“Agreed,” Paul says.

“It’s not like we’ll be otherwise bound to one another,” Leah says. “If Rosie comes through with the agreement I requested, I’m prepared to wash my hands of the whole affair once the donation is done.”

“I could get behind that,” Paul says. “Plus, I have to agree. Given your academic credentials, any offspring should definitely have a strong math and science foundation. You’re a scientist; your father was an engineer. What did his father do?”

“He was a grocer,” Leah says. “Walker Groceries in Georgia and the Carolinas.”

“Multi-generational privilege, what do you know?” Paul says. “A typical southern tale.”

He picks up his guitar and starts improvising a Jazz riff. “Are you musical?”

Leah shakes her head, with a chuckle. “In high school, I tried trumpet, violin, and saxophone, and was pretty horrible on each one. If I get enough wine in me, I can usually do a mean Blues harmonica, but I doubt Dylan or the Stones will be calling anytime soon. As far as singing, I can usually hold my own in a chorus, as long as there are enough other voices to drown me out.”

“Yeah, I don’t have much of a voice either,” he says. He improvises several more bars on the guitar.

“You’re pretty good at that,” she says. A thought comes to her. “Say, maybe you can explain something to me. What is Rosie’s deal with May 23rd?”

“What do you mean?” Paul asks.

“When I asked her to be my thesis advisor, she didn’t want to take me on without knowing me better,” she replies. “So, I suggested she could hire me as her lab assistant.”

“Right.”

“She was showing me some stuff afterward,” she says, “how she does her grading, what not. The subject of my birthday came up — it was a couple of days away — and when Rosie learned I was born May 23, 1969, she sort of freaked out. Well, as much as Rosie freaks out.”

“What did she do?” Paul says.

“She walked away from me, thinking,” Leah says. “Then she stared at me a long time and confirmed I was born May 23, 1969. After that, she said, ‘Isn’t that something?’ Then she told me she’d reconsidered and agreed to be my advisor after all.”

“That’s odd,” he says. “But, like I say, I don’t know much about Rosie’s past. She’s never mentioned anything about that date. Her birthday is in March, and we were married in June.”

The front door opens and closes.

“Guess that’s Rosie,” Leah says. “Looks like there’s no turning back now.”

“It’s looking that way,” he says.

They face the door, to await Rosalind’s entrance.

Axe Man

Baseball sculpture, Medlock Park, Decatur, GA, 8 July 2017.

Ishmael Branch enters the hallway at Tucker High School where his home room is, and strides toward his locker. At fourteen, he’s already over six feet, taller than his uncle Brian at this point, though with his head and shoulders slumped, as usual, it’s not always easy to tell. Looking at him, one might imagine he’s a grunge rocker from Seattle in the early 90s, rather than a high school freshman in Tucker, Georgia in 2011, dressed in well-worn jeans, a flannel shirt tied at his waist, with a Neil Young T-shirt covering the remainder of his skinny frame. A backpack is slung over one shoulder, and he’s carrying an expensive Martin acoustic guitar in a hard case. His hair is styled in dreads and he’s wearing a thin mustache with a soul patch.

Halfway to his locker, he passes Midori Collins, leaning against her locker, intensely staring at her cell phone, texting. Without looking up or otherwise acknowledging Ishmael, she pushes away from the locker and falls into step with him as he passes. They continue, silent, down the hall. Midori is nearly a foot shorter than Ishmael, with black, frizzy hair and a deep olive complexion. Her facial features seem vaguely Japanese.

“Band practice after school?” Ishmael says.

“Hmm,” Midori says in an affirmative manner.

“If you’re up for vegetarian, Mom invited you over for dinner,” he goes on.

“Sounds good,” she says without looking up.

“Is that Jordan?” he says.

“Pics from the Cake show at Variety Playhouse,” she says.

They stop at his locker and he sets the guitar case down and swings his backpack off his shoulder and onto the ground.

“Got your English homework?” she says, still engrossed in her phone.

“Of course,” he says.

As he’s switching out the books in his bag, a group of guys, led by Jeff Chambers, a pitcher on the baseball team come around the corner. Seeing Ishmael, one of the guys says, “Hey, it’s the Axe Man.”

Since the case for the Martin is too large to fit in a locker, whenever Ishmael has it with him, he has to carry it around from class to class. This has prompted certain of his upper classmates to refer to him as “The Axe Man”, usually in a taunting manner.

“Hey Axe Man, you going to let me play your guitar?” Jeff says. The guys with him start to snicker.

“This guitar is worth more than that car you drive,” Ishmael says.

“Mommy buy it for you?” one of Jeff’s cohorts says.

“No,” Ishmael says. “A friend gave it to me for my birthday.”

Another of the guys plays an air guitar. “Look at me. I’m the Axe Man.”

Laughing , the group starts to move on. Ishmael calls after them. “Hey, Jeff, when are tryouts?”

“Why you asking about tryouts?” Jeff says. Holding up his right hand and fluttering his fingers. “You want to be like me, Axe Man?”

“So what? You throw a baseball,” Ishmael says. “I can throw a baseball.”

“Think so?” Jeff says. “Tryouts start Monday.”

Once the baseball players are gone, Midori says, “You’re really trying out for the baseball team?”

“Why not?” Ishmael says. “Brian says I can pitch.”

“Why would you want to be on the team with those assholes?” she asks.

“To show them I can,” he says.

The following Monday, Ishmael arrives at the field for tryouts. An assistant coach has one list for the returning players, and a sign-in sheet for newcomers. Ishmael arrives with his own glove, but without the guitar.

Jeff Chambers is standing near the dugout as Ishmael heads over to the area designated for infielders. He calls out, “Hey Axe Man, where’s your axe?”

“Today, I deal in strikes,” Ishmael says.

Coach Lloyd Murdoch introduces himself to the new players. He’s a man in his early forties, trim and well-built, wearing a cap, a team T-shirt, with a warmup jacket over it, that’s unzipped, with the sleeves pulled up. He gives a short talk about his team philosophy, then tells the players to take positions on the field. He points to Ishmael. “What are you here to try out for, son?”

“I’m not your son,” Ishmael says, which elicits a look of surprise from the coach. “I’m here to pitch.”

“All right, then,” the coach says, amused. “I see you brought your own glove.” He points to the mound. “Take the mound.”

As Ishmael walks to the mound, the coach puts on an umpire mask and moves behind the plate. He indicates the catcher. “Jerry’s your catcher.” He signals to a large guy with a bat, who’s approaching the plate. “Ron here’s our best hitter. Let’s see if you can get a few past him.”

“No problem,” Ishmael says. He takes some signals from the catcher, then goes into his wind up, and releases the ball. The batter swings, but the only sound is the pop of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt, followed by the catcher howling as he rips off the glove and grabs his hand.

“Damn!” he screams. “Put some heat on that one.”

The coach takes off the mask and walks over and picks up the ball. He shakes his head. “Right down the middle, Ron. You couldn’t hit that?”

“Hit what?” Ron says.

Coach Murdoch picks up the mitt and places it on his hand. “Take five Jerry. Go ice that hand.” He tosses the ball back to Ishmael. “Let’s see you do that again.”

He crouches down, and nods to the batter, who returns to the plate. Ishmael winds up and delivers several more fast balls. The best Ron can manage is a foul tip and one line drive straight back to the pitcher, which Ishmael handles easily. This time, the coach says, as he throws the ball back, “You got speed, no doubt about it. How’s your finesse?”

This time, Ishmael’s pitch is slower, but wobbles erratically in the air and curves away from the batter.

The coach dives sideways to make the catch then stands with the ball in his glove. “Where’d you learn to throw a knuckleball?”

Ishmael shrugs. “My uncle took me to a clinic with Joe Neikro once.”

“Just once?” the coach says.

He has Ishmael throw a few more, including a slow curve, a change up, and a slider. Afterward, the coach asks, “Are you as serious about baseball as I hear you are about playing your guitar?”

“Yes, sir,” Ishmael says.

“Welcome to the team,” the coach says.

As Ishmael walks off the field, Jeff Chambers says, “Good arm, Axe Man. You’re going have to show me that knuckleball sometime.”

Ishmael nods with a smile. “Maybe, someday.”

Rain Maker

High Museum, Atlanta, GA, 26 July 2017

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.”

“Example?”

“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.”

“Excuse me?”

“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.”

Rebecca, Too: Oakhurst


After spending her afternoon with Alyssa and receiving her charge, so to speak, Leah heads out the next morning to visit Steven Asher in Oakhurst. She calls first to introduce herself and to make sure Steven is willing to talk to her. At the house, she notes that the home at 466 East Lake Drive, is not far from a house she owned in Kirkwood several years ago, before she moved to her condo in Midtown. The house is two stories with a full porch, and looks like it was built mid-century. The exterior could use a coat of paint, but otherwise, it’s well-maintained and in excellent shape. Leah estimates its value at well over $300K, no doubt considerably more than what Steven’s parents had paid for it. She steps up onto the porch and rings the bell.

“I appreciate you taking the time to see me, Steven,” she tells him, once she’s inside. “I imagine this is all pretty weird for you.”

“Weird?” he replies. “Anywhere from six to twelve times an hour I get a call from this woman who sounds nothing like my sister but with all her attitude and mannerisms. I had to turn the phone off.”

“I’m hoping, if we put our heads together, we can figure out why the Princess is acting like this,” Leah says.

“Princess?” Steven asks.

“It’s what I call Alyssa,” Leah says.

“Then you don’t think this is about Becky,” Steven says.

“Rebecca figures into it, somehow,” Leah says. “What has me stumped is why Alyssa chose to take on her personality. Obviously, they know one another, but how well is anyone’s guess.”

“I’ll tell you what I can about Becky,” he says, “but before Alyssa left that message for me, I’d never even heard her name.”

Leah wanders around and surveys the living room and surroundings. “I’ve been reading a lot of Rebecca’s work the past couple of days. I find I rarely agree with her opinions, but I like her prose style — very direct and in-your-face.”

“That’s Becky,” Steven says, sitting on the arm of the couch. “A publisher was interested in doing something with her blog, but she died before she’d compiled very much. I’ve thought about shopping her work around to a small publisher, or self-publishing — if I ever have time to work on it, that is.”

“Let’s hope you do,” Leah says. “Her feminist critique of the work of Bette Davis was a little lacking in details, but she definitely brought a fresh perspective.”

“Yeah, she really liked Bette Davis,” Steven says. “What would you like to know about my sister?”

Leah stops pacing near the couch and sits. “I need to know the real Rebecca. Maybe then I can sort out what she represents to the Princess. Everything I know comes from what I’ve read by or about her. How does Alyssa’s version compare?”

“She knows enough to convince me she spent quite a bit of time with Becky,” Steven says. “If I had to guess, though, she probably spent more time with her when Becky was younger. Becky changed a lot after she went away to college.”

“Funny you should mention that.” Leah hands him the photo of Alyssa and Rebecca in Florida. “Ever see this?”

Steven takes the photo, looks it over, and nods. “I remember the trip. Aunt Rachel — our guardian at the time — didn’t think Becky was old enough to go on her own.” He hands the photo back.

“Obviously Rebecca didn’t agree,” she says as she returns the photo to her pocket.

“Becky never got along with Rachel, even before she went to college,” Steven says. “After she left school, things just got worse.”

“Left school?” Leah says. “She didn’t graduate?”

“No, Becky dropped out her junior year,” he says. “She never said why.”

He relates a story to Leah. As he tells it, she visualizes the encounter. Leah imagines a much less idealized version of Rebecca than the one Alyssa has portrayed but still generally keeping with the image she’s formed from Alyssa’s depiction.

Rebecca backs into the room from the kitchen, very angry, yelling at someone.

“You fucking slut, don’t you dare tell me when I can come and go. You don’t control me, you bitch.”

Steven goes to her. “Becky, calm down.”

Rebecca pivots toward him.

“Stay out of this, Stevie. It’s between me and that fucking bitch in there.”

“She’s just trying to help. You staggered in at three a.m. last night and woke everyone up.”

“I am a fucking adult. I’ll do whatever I goddamn please.”

Rebecca storms out the front door.

“How tall was Rebecca?” Leah says.

“How tall?” he says.

“It helps me picture her,” she says. “In the photo, Alyssa’s leaning beside her, so it’s hard to gauge.”

Steven nods. “Top of her head didn’t quite come up to my shoulder.”

“You’re six feet?”

“Six, two,” he says.

Leah rewinds the scene. Rebecca returns from the front door and assumes her stance just before confronting Steven. She’s now shorter than she was initially.

“Small, medium, or large frame?” Leah says.

“Large,” he says. “Definitely.”

“Stocky?” she says.

He nods.

Leah adds twenty pounds to her image of Rebecca.

“On a scale of one to ten,” Leah says, “one being Meryl Streep and ten being Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch, how annoying was her voice?”

Steven considers it, then nods. “Seven. And, she was always trying to imitate Bette Davis’ inflections.”

Leah nods. “Got it.”

Rebecca pivots toward Steven. In a voice reminiscent of Bette Davis from All About Eve, she says, “Stay out of this, Stevie. It’s between me and that fucking bitch in there.”

“She’s just trying to help. You staggered in at three a.m. last night and woke everyone up.”

“I am a fucking adult. I’ll do whatever I goddamn please.”

Rebecca storms out the front door.

“That’s better,” Leah says. “Please continue.”

“Her feud with Rachel got so bad Rachel locked her out of the house,” he says.

Leah hears Rebecca’s voice coming from outside the door. Rebecca pounds angrily on the door, and rings the bell over and over. She sounds drunk.

“Open this god-damned door, you bitch! Stevie, please, let me in. Don’t let her do this.”

Steven moves toward the door. A woman’s voice is heard. “Steven.” He stops and addresses someone else.

“I’m not letting her in.” To the door, he says, “Sorry, Becky.”

“I know Rebecca became your legal guardian,” Leah says. “Was your aunt doing a bad job?”

“No. Rachel and I get along great,” Steven says. “We always have. That didn’t stop Becky from kicking Rachel out of the house, once she became my guardian.”

“I called your aunt as you suggested,” Leah says. “She gave me her schedule and told me to drop by some evening. I’m thinking of doing so tonight. What does she do for a living?”

“She’s a nurse who specializes in terminal patients,” Steve tells her.

“High stress work,” Leah says. “She ever bring any of that home?”

Steven shakes his head. “I’ve never known her to be anything but patient and tolerant. She needed it with Becky.”

“Whatever Rebecca thought about your aunt,” Leah says, “she’s not on Alyssa’s radar. I haven’t heard Rachel’s name once from the Princess — not even when she talks about being your guardian.” Leah looks around at the house. “This is a nice place. I can see you’ve done some work recently.”

“My parents bought it before I was born,” he says. “Back in the 80s when it was really cheap. I’m trying to convince my girlfriend to move in.”

“Full basement?” she asks, to which he nods.

“Partially finished with a separate entrance,” he replies. “I’d like to rent it out if I can get it in shape and find something to do with the the pool table that’s down there now.”

“Awful lot of room for one or two people,” Leah says, more to herself than Steven. “I bet a young, upwardly mobile family would pay a fortune for a place like this. I’ve been known to flip a few houses in my time, if you’re interested.”

“No thanks,” he says. “I plan to have an upwardly mobile family myself one day.”

“Then let’s talk sisters,” she says, sliding to the edge of the couch. “On the day before her accident, Alyssa spent an extraordinary amount of time reading up on Rebecca. She appears to have read everything Rebecca wrote, and just about everything written about her, warts and all.”

Steven slips from the arm down onto the couch, at the opposite end from Leah. He crosses his legs and leans on one hand. “You found all this on her computer?”

“I’m an Internet security consultant,” she says. This gives her a thought. “Hey. Want to cover your tracks on the Web? I can show you how to be invisible.” Leah hands Steven her business card. “I teach an extension course at Georgia Perimeter from time to time. I’ll get you a discount if you want to sit in on a session.” He examines the card, nods, and puts in his pocket.

Leah leans forward and focuses ahead of her, like she’s picturing something. “Let’s break this down. Assume Alyssa learned about Rebecca’s death a day or so before her accident. She spends hours reading up on Rebecca, then tries to contact you just minutes before she’s in a car accident herself. And the first thing she does when she wakes up—”

Steven picks up the thought. “Is contact me — just like Becky would have.”

“So, what was life like with Rebecca in charge?” Leah asks.

“More like I was in charge,” he says. “Becky wasn’t very responsible.”

Steven relates some stories. During one, Leah imagines the phone ringing, which Steven answers. She hears Rebecca’s voice.

“Hey, Goonie, where’s the pizza that was in the fridge?” she says.

“You mean the pizza that was in the refrigerator for three weeks?” Steven replies. “I threw it out.”

Rebecca comes out of the kitchen, still talking on the phone as though Steven isn’t there. “Why’d you throw it out? I was going to eat that.”

Steven starts to answer on the phone, then stops himself, hangs up and speaks to Rebecca. She continues to hold the phone to her ear, though she’s addressing Steven directly.

“Becky, there was stuff growing on it,” he tells her.

“So?” she says. “Just zap it in the god-damned microwave. That kills just about anything.”

“I can’t believe you ever lived on your own” he says. “Did your roommates in New York take care of you?”

“What am I supposed to have for dinner now?” she says.

“Why don’t you use one of the numbers on the refrigerator?” he says indicating the kitchen. “There are at least five pizza places.”

“My fucking credit card’s not working again.”

“What’s wrong with your card?” Steven says.

“I don’t know. It just keeps getting declined,” she says.

“You paid them, right?” he says. “You’re supposed to do that every month, you know.”

“Oops!” she says, covering her mouth.

He sighs. “Order something. I’ll pay for it.”

Rebecca gives him thumbs up. “Yes! Yea, Stevie!”

“If Alyssa spent any time with my sister, she’d have seen how obsessive Becky was about staying in touch,” Steven says. “Half the time she was calling me. The other half, it was Claire.”

“Yes. Clarabella,” Leah says. “The only person from Rebecca’s past other than you or your father that Alyssa has mentioned by name.”

Steven lowers his head. “On the day she died, when Becky suddenly went silent, I was sure something bad had happened.”

“Tim said you identified her body,” Leah says.

He nods. “Rachel offered to take care of all that, but I insisted. I just wanted to see, to know for sure.”

Leah pats his shoulder. “It’s tough being the responsible one.” She takes out a slip of paper and hands it to him. “That reminds me. Do you recognize the top number? I know the bottom one is yours.”

“Becky’s cell phone,” he says.

“Interesting,” Leah says. “Alyssa called the cell number and when I looked it up, I found both numbers linked and flagged in my contacts log from 2005.”

“Flagged?” Steven asks. “What do you mean?”

“I had a land line I used for private calls,” Leah says. “I only give out the number to family and close associates, and I screen my calls. Rebecca must have called me from one or both of those numbers, or she made an unsolicited call from one, and I called back on the other.”

“Why would she have called you?” Steven wonders.

Leah shakes her head. “No idea. The call was in mid-2005, and I was on my first big project for NSA back then. All my files are archived, but I rang up the number and reached a guy from Moscow named Sergei.”

“Sergei?”

“Nice guy,” Leah says. “Sells shoes at Lenox. Promised me a sweet deal on some suede boots next time I’m in the area. When he found out I speak Russian, he talked my ear off. Tried to set me up with his brother-in-law. “

Steven finds this amusing. “Okay.”

“Said he used to get calls all the time for Rebecca Asher but only one in the past few weeks,” Leah says.

“Alyssa,” Steven says. “She must have tried to call before she did the research on the Internet. Becky’s information is pretty easy to find.”

“Yes, it is, and the things Alyssa looked up online contained a lot of background about Rebecca,” Leah says. “Stories, reviews, her blog.”

“The sort of information she wouldn’t need if she knew her well,” Steven says.

“Exactly,” Leah says, pointing at Steven. “I have Alyssa’s diary from high school and other than the time they spent in Florida, I can’t find any evidence they interacted at all back then.”

“Whatever means Alyssa came by the information,” Steven says. “she definitely knows a lot about Becky.”

Leah rises. “Yes. Tim told me about your initial meeting.” She goes to the credenza and picks up the photo of Rebecca. “What about Clarabella? From the way the Princess talks about her, it sounds like Rebecca’s relationship with Claire was rather stormy.”

“That’s one thing I’m confused about,” Steven says. “Alyssa seems to believe Claire and Becky were dating.”

“They weren’t?”

“Not at all,” Steven says. “Knowing the types of women my sister typically associated with, I was surprised she and Claire were even as close friends as they were.”

Leah puts down the photo of Rebecca and leans against the credenza. “Really? To hear Alyssa describe her, Claire was the love of Rebecca’s life.”

“Maybe Becky thought so, but Claire certainly didn’t,” Steven says. “Claire doesn’t even identify as a lesbian. She’s always claimed to be celibate. As far as them being friends, I usually got along with Claire about as well as she got along with Becky. Probably better, in fact. It’s why we’ve stayed in touch. They did spend a lot of time together — and Becky had her pet name for her, ‘Clarabella’, which was unusual — but by the time she died, they were majorly on the outs with one another.”

“Do you know why?”

“Take your pick,” Steven says. “Claire hated most of Becky’s friends. They were always making fun of her when she wasn’t around, which was usually if Becky had others over. I think they were intimidated by her and lashed out behind her back. If Becky and Claire had been involved, Becky would have given her a lot of reasons to feel insecure.”

“Like what?”

“Look, I love my sister,” Steven says, “but emotionally, she was a train wreck. She couldn’t sustain a relationship beyond a few times in bed with someone. She usually got bored with the other person after a few days. She was always making videos of herself with other women.” He raises a finger. “Speaking of which, do your computing skills include data recovery?”

Leah shrugs. “It’s not my specialty but I’ve done it before when I contracted for NSA. Plus, I know people. Why do you ask?”

“Hang on.” Steven goes into another room and returns with a small box which he hands to Leah. “That’s the hard drive from Becky’s laptop. The computer was destroyed in the accident but I managed to salvage the drive. No idea what kind of shape it’s in but if you can access it, there might be something you can use. I’ve wanted to see what was on it, but didn’t want Becky’s private affairs showing up on YouTube.”

“Not to worry,” she says. “I’ll be the soul of discretion.”

Leah recalls something. ‘Did Rebecca have a special talent, other than writing?”

“Like what?”

“During a moment of lucidity, Alyssa said Rebecca has something Alyssa doesn’t — her super power,” Leah says. “Did she have an ability someone like Alyssa might envy?”

“I can’t think of many people who envied Becky,” Steven says. “Most who knew her well just steered clear of her.”

Leah turns back to the photos, and picks up the one of Owen. “This must be Owen the pilot.” She looks at Steven. “I see the resemblance. Are you in contact with him now?”

“Yeah, he showed up at Becky’s funeral,” Steven says. “One of the few times I saw my aunt almost lose it. Since then, we’ve managed to rebuild our relationship. He drops in whenever he’s in town and I visit him on the West Coast when I can.”

Leah stares at the photo. “Who does he fly for?”

“Delta,” Steven says. “He was with Northwest and went to Delta when they merged.”

Leah nods. “My roommate from college works for Delta. I’ve tried, but couldn’t get much out of the Princess about your Dad. When she mentions him, she tends to focus on the loss — a countenance more in sorrow than in anger.”

“Becky was much angrier than sad,” Steven says.

Leah puts the photo back and turns to Steven. “There are a lot of inconsistencies in how Alyssa has chosen to recreate Rebecca, aside from how she depicts Rebecca’s relationship with Claire. She doesn’t recognize your father. She doesn’t talk about your aunt. It’s like she’s hiding behind her image of Rebecca rather than being her — very confusing.”

The doorbell rings. Steven heads to the window that looks out onto the porch.

“That’s not your father, is it?” Leah asks.

“No, he has his own key,” Steven says.

Steven glances out the window. “What’s she doing here?”

“Who is it?” Leah asks.

“Claire.”

“That’s convenient,” Leah says.

Steven opens the door, for Claire. The first thing Leah notes is that Claire is very tall, taller than Steven, though that appears to be due to the platform boots she’s wearing, which over-emphasize her height. Her hair is a buzz cut on the left side but well below her shoulders on the right, and braided into a pigtail. She’s wearing a leather biker’s jacket, despite the temperature outside, and white, shorty jeans with fishnet stockings underneath. Under her jacket is a black sweat shirt with its sleeves and collar ripped off, and a V cut at the neck. She’s wearing aviator shades, but removes them when Steven opens the door and drops them into the inside pocket of her jacket. Leah notes that Claire appears very intimidating and unapproachable, but Leah imagines it’s a front. Claire greets Steven with a pleasant smile. She hasn’t yet noticed Leah.

“Claire. This is a surprise,” Steven says as she gives him a quick hug.

“You surprised me with your call so I thought I’d return the favor,” she says.

Claire enters the living room but pauses when she sees Leah, and puts up a cool front. “I didn’t realize you had company. Hello.”

Steven indicates Leah. “Ah yes. CC Belmonte, this is—”

“LJ Walker,” Leah says as she moves toward Claire, right hand extended.

They shake hands. Claire asks, “How do you know Steven?”

Steven starts to speak, but Leah cuts him off, “Oh, I’m an old friend of the family.”

Steven looks at Leah and shakes his head, but doesn’t contradict her description.

“Really? Did you know Becky?” Claire asks.

“In a manner of speaking,” Leah says, somewhat mysteriously.

“What does that mean?” Claire says, looking between Leah and Steven.

Steven steps between them. “What can I do for you, Claire?”

She gives Leah a quick, second glance, then says, “I wanted to see if you’ve given any thought to next Friday?”

He nods. “Yes. I’m free and can attend your graduation show.”

“Great,” Claire says. “Rachel said she’s free. It should be a lot of fun.”

“Graduation show?” Leah says. “Acting? Singing?”

“I’m talking an improv class at The Comedy Factory,” Claire explains. “I run the sound board for them, so they give me comps all the time.”

“The Comedy Factory,” Leah says, “in Midtown? Dan Barton performs there, doesn’t he?”

Claire relaxes a bit. “Yes. He’s my instructor.”

“He’s excellent,” Leah says. “Haven’t checked in with him for a while. I need to look him up.”

Claire acknowledges this and turns again to Steven. “I also wanted to see if you’ve heard anything more from that crazy lady who called pretending to be Rebecca.”

“Who would do something like that?” Leah says, sounding very shocked.

Steven looks from Leah back to Claire. “It’s kind of complicated.”

“Don’t tell me that,” Claire says, walking away from him. “I hate complications.”

While Claire’s occupied with Steven, Leah takes out her phone and snaps a picture of her. Claire stares angrily at Leah.

“Did you just take my picture?” she says.

“Yeah,” Leah says.

“Well delete it,” Claire says. “I didn’t give you permission for that.”

Leah puts the phone in her pocket. “I don’t need permission to take your picture, just to publish it, which I’m not intending to do.”

“Then why did you take it?” Claire demands.

“For personal reference,” Leah says.

“What does that even mean?” Claire says.

Leah thinks quickly. “It’s just a quirk I have. I like to document the little moments in my life. I meet so many people, it’s hard to keep track of them all. What’s the problem?”

Claire looks away from Leah. “It’s not polite to take someone’s photo without asking, for whatever reason you do it.”

Leah takes out the phone and pulls up the photo. “Sorry, but I think your appearance is very unconventional and it caught my interest. See?” Leah holds up her phone to show Claire the picture but Claire won’t look at it. Leah approaches Claire with the phone. “Take a look. It’s a good shot.”

Claire finally looks at the photo. She’s pleasantly surprised. “Oh. Well that’s not so bad. Are you a photographer?”

Leah puts away her phone. “Occasionally. I mainly take photos and video of properties I’m listing. Free advice, if you’re planning on being on stage, you better get used to having your photo taken. You have a really distinctive look.”

Claire gives her a genuine smile. “Thank you for saying so.”

Steven steps toward Claire, saying, “So, Claire, have you heard from anyone?”

She shakes her head. “I haven’t spoken to anyone, but yesterday, I had nine or ten calls from a number I didn’t recognize. My curiosity got the better of me last night, so I called back and got the voice mail for some security firm.”

“Security firm?” Leah takes out a different phone. Steven takes note of this.

“How many phones do you have?” Steven asks her.

“One for home, one for business,” Leah says. “Oh, and a Blackberry. I still contract for the government sometimes.” Leah calls up a number. “So, that’s why I couldn’t find my phone yesterday.” She chuckles. “I underestimated you Princess.”

“Excuse me?” Claire says.

Leah glances at Claire. “Did you call that number around eleven?”

“Something like that,” Claire said. “Why?”

Leah hits redial and fixes her eyes on Claire, as her phone starts to ring. Claire takes it out, looks at it, then stares at Leah with a slightly panicked look. “Why do you have my number?”

Leah considers it and shakes her head. “You’ve got it posted on Facebook, haven’t you?”

“Well,” Claire says then pauses. “Yes.”

Leah throws up her hands. “You might as well just rent a damn billboard. When are you people going to learn?”

Steven interjects, “Wait a minute. Becky wasn’t on Facebook. It wasn’t even around back then.”

“No,” Leah says. “But Alyssa is.”

Claire looks totally confused. She goes to Steven. “Steven, what is going on here and who is this woman?”

Steven looks between her and Leah. “Like I said, it’s complicated.”

“Well simplify it!” Claire says.

Leah moves toward them. “Oh, what the hell. Let’s flip all the cards and I’ll tell you the crazy lady who called here is my baby sister, Alyssa.”

“Your sister?” Claire says.

“Yep,” Leah replies. “She was in a car crash and woke up thinking she’s Rebecca.”

“Then you lied about being an old family friend,” Claire says, glancing at Steven when she says it.

“I may have stretched the truth a little.” Leah indicates Steven. “We’re friendly.”

“You be quiet,” Claire says to Leah, then, swats Steven’s arm. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“What was I supposed to say?” he says. “It’s not the sort of situation that can be summed up in fifty words or less.”

“Is she telling the truth?” Claire says.

“I’m afraid so,” Steven says. “The crazy lady didn’t just phone. She sort of stopped by as well.”

“Kind of left out that detail, eh, Steven?” Claire says, circling him.

He turns to keep her in his field of vision. “It was after we talked. She was the one who was beating the door down. Remember?”

Leah approaches Claire. “How would you like to meet her, Claire?”

Claire stops and stares at Leah. “Her being—”

“The crazy lady who thinks she’s Rebecca,” Leah says as though it should be obvious.

Claire closes her eyes, takes in a deep breath, then lets it out slowly, then faces Leah. “Let me see if I understand this. I’ve known you for less than five minutes during which time you’ve lied to me about who you are, and, apparently, you’ve been stalking me.”

“That was not me,” Leah says, “that was the Princess.”

“Princess?” Claire yells. “What Princess?”

“It’s what I call my sister,” Leah says. “She’s not really a princess.”

Claire becomes more unnerved. “No, she’s obviously a very disturbed woman who thinks she’s a dead friend of mine — and you’re asking me to meet her?” She turns to Steven. “Are you sure Ashton Kutcher isn’t hiding somewhere in the house with a camera crew, because I feel like I’m being Punk’d right now.”

“I apologize, Claire,” Steven says. “We’re trying to sort this whole thing out and getting the two of you together was mentioned as a possible option. I am not asking you to do it.”

Claire considers this, then focuses on Steven. “She really thinks she’s Becky?”

“It’s what she says,” Steven says.

Claire puts her hand on his chest. “You believed her?”

Steven touches her hand. “She called me Goonie. Yes. She’s very convincing.”

“We thought getting you together might shock her back into reality,” Leah says.

Claire pivots and puts her hands on her hips. “It would certainly shock the hell out of me.” She turns again toward Steven. “How could you possibly think that would be a good idea?”

He throws up his hands to try to calm her. “Like I say, I’m not asking you to do it.”

“Well I’m glad because I don’t need any more complications in my life. The original Becky was complicated enough.” Clare shakes her head, then starts toward the door. “I need to get out of here.”

Leah realizes she’s pushed Claire too far. She tries to think of a carrot she can use as she goes to intercept her. “No, don’t leave, Claire. I admit I can be a little assertive.”

“Assertive?” Claire says, trying to get past Leah. “I guess that’s one word for it.”

Something Claire said comes back to Leah. “You say you’re taking improv classes with Dan, right?

“That’s right,” Claire says, pausing.

“Does he ever talk about his days in Boston?” Leah says.

“Boston?” Claire considers this. “Yeah, as a matter of fact, he has talked about it. What does that have to do with anything?”

“I knew him then. We were a team for a few months on the road,” Leah says quickly. “We called ourselves The Backwoods Impresarios. It was just after I got out of Wellesley in the early 90s.”

Claire puts her index finger up to her lips and thinks this over. She shakes her finger at Leah. “Yeah, he’s talked about that in class.” A thought hits her. “Were you Leander? As in Dander and Leander?”

“Yes!” Leah says. “Those are the names we performed under. My forte was group think. Dan was better at characters.”

Claire laughs slightly. “He speaks very fondly of you, actually.”

“He should,” Leah says. “We were practically joined at the hip before he moved to Chicago to work for Second City. You cannot sleep in a car with someone on the road for six months without establishing a strong bond — or strangling one another.”

“I’d imagine,” Claire says. “Why didn’t you go with him to Chicago?”

“Dan wrangled an invitation for me but I wasn’t who they wanted,” Leah says. “I’d been deferring my admission to MIT and decided I’d have a better future with them. Plus, I once had a nasty run-in with Del Close at a workshop in San Francisco and did not want to risk a repeat of that.”

Claire takes in all that Leah has said. “Wow. Leander. I’d love to pick your brain sometime. Dan says I’ve got the character basics down, but miss a lot of offers.”

“Why don’t I buy you lunch?” Leah offers. “I still remember a few exercises that can help your concentration.” She smiles. “It would also give me the perfect opportunity to tell you all about the Princess.”

Steven comes over to them. “I don’t remember Claire agreeing on that.”

“No, no, Steven, that’s okay,” Claire says. Turning back to Leah, she concludes, “We can talk but I’m not making any promises.”

Leah extends her hand. “Deal.”

They shake on it.

Rebecca, Too: Snapshot McCall


Nurse Lana Turner moves down the hall of the emergency ward at Grady Hospital in Atlanta where she’s worked for more than twelve years. In that time, she’s seen the job move from patient charts on clipboards hung on the foots of beds to sophisticated, hand-held devices that automatically update the central database, showing up in the patient care system where doctors can chart the course of treatment on a given patient and make recommendations on restorative procedures. Despite the technological advances, the one aspect that remains the same is the human element. Patients and their loved ones still want a friendly face and a reassuring voice to help them through a medical emergency, and Lana always strives to be just that.

She pauses outside the room of Alyssa Ruth Caine, a young woman in her late-twenties, brought in late-Wednesday with head trauma following a car accident in Peachtree Corners. The reports say she lost control of her car trying to avoid another accident and crashed into a wall. Her seat belt and airbag saved her life, but the impact shook up her brain, causing swelling. Lana feels for Alyssa, who has recently lost her father per Alyssa’s husband, Tim. Whenever she’s there alone with Alyssa, said to be a schoolteacher with a sweet and loving disposition, Lana always gives her extra words of encouragement.

Earlier, Alyssa’s sister, Leah, was here, a difficult woman, who initially struck Lana as the typical, pushy, well-to-do white woman, thinking everyone’s supposed to stop and take notice when she speaks. Average in height, with a medium build, and reddish-brown hair, she has piercing, steel-blue eyes which she often focuses on someone for a long moment before uttering, “Perfect!” — her favorite phrase, Lana has concluded — often with more than a hint of sarcasm. From the start, she’s insisted everyone on staff call her Doctor Walker, even though she’s not a medical doctor. Lana is certain that’s liable to cause some confusion in the hospital, but honors the request. Most of the staff prefers dealing with Tim, who’s been a sweetheart the entire time. Doctor Walker asks too many questions, though they are relevant to her sister’s treatment.

The night before, while Lana was looking in on Alyssa, Leah, who was sitting with her sister, explained that she’s a facts and figures type of person and needs information to allow her to wrap her head around what’s happening. While not apologetic, Leah did sound a bit friendlier and less insistent than normal. Nurse Turner has concluded Leah does care for Alyssa, albeit in her own way, and Lana admires that. Among the nurses, opinions about Leah are mixed — Angelique, the nurse from the Ivory Coast, who studied in Haiti, enjoys Leah’s company, as Leah always converses with her in French when she’s on duty.

Nurse Turner makes a quick notation on her pad to close out the previous patient, switches to Alyssa’s record, then enters the room. Tim is seated at Alyssa’s side, holding her hand. He’s medium-toned, with a trim, athletic build, and a few days’ growth of beard, in his early-thirties. His facial features put Lana in mind of Nigerians she met on her trip to Africa a few years ago, particularly those of the Yoruba tribe, but, perhaps with some European and Native American mixed in. He’s originally from the West Coast and decided to stay in Atlanta after finishing school at Mercer. From talking to him, Lana has learned that he and Alyssa met through an outdoors group that sponsors hiking and camping trips for busy singles with a love of nature. One thing is for sure, he is totally devoted to his wife and rarely leaves her side. Lana asked him about Leah, but he assured her, “Don’t read too much into her act. That’s how she is with everyone.”

Lana examines Alyssa. While she’s never seen Alyssa on her feet, Lana can see she’s well above average in height and slender in build. Tim has mentioned she’s a distance runner, who also enjoys cycling and swimming. Fortunately, the accident did not necessitate cutting her hair, which is long and very blonde.

Tim stirs. “Morning, Lana. How’s she looking?”

“Morning, Tim,” she replies. “Not much has changed. Dr. Leonard says she could come out of it any time. I take it Alyssa’s sister went home.”

“Yeah, Leah headed home to get some rest,” he says. Tim rises and stretches. “Is the cafeteria open?”

“Yes, open and serving breakfast until 10:30,” Lana says.

“Great. I’m going to get some coffee. Maybe a bite to eat.” He rubs his chin. “I could probably use a shave, too.”

Tim exits.

Nurse Turner concludes her examination of Alyssa, then steps away from the bed and makes notations on her electronic device. Suddenly, Alyssa groans. Lana turns to see Alyssa’s eyelids fluttering, and her head moves back and forth on the pillow. She groans again, then raises her right hand to her head. She opens her eyes.

“Oh — my — god. What happened? Where am I?” Alyssa says.

Lana puts away the electronic device and hurries to the bedside and begins examining Alyssa again.

“Ms. Caine,” she says, “can you hear me? Alyssa?”

“Of course, I can hear you,” Alyssa says in a very agitated voice. She puts her hands up to shoo Lana away. “I’m right here. Who’s Alyssa?”

“You are,” Lana says. “How are you feeling?”

“Like JFK in the Zapruder film,” Alyssa says.

“That’s to be expected — I suppose — after what you’ve been through.”

The first notion to come to Lana is that this does not sound like the Alyssa Tim has described. She almost sounds like her sister who Tim says she’s nothing like.

Nurse Turner raises the bed and as she does, Alyssa glances at Lana’s name badge. She chuckles.

“Lana Turner?” she says. “Is that the name you were born with?”

 “It sure is.”

“Your parents had a sense of humor,” Alyssa says.

Lana finds this amusing. “Actually, I was named after my aunt. Her parents had the sense of humor.

Alyssa looks again at the name tag. She looks confused. “Wait, does that say Grady? Why’d they bring me back to Atlanta?”

“It was the closest available trauma center to where the accident occurred,” Lana says. “You were just a few miles away and in pretty bad shape.”

“I’d hardly call Braselton a few miles away.” Alyssa places her hand to her head again. “Oh, my head! Listen, is my brother Steven here?”

Lana gives Alyssa a curious look. “I don’t know your brother. Your husband Tim is here. He just went to the cafeteria.”

“Husband?” Alyssa says. “Hello! Not married, Lana!”

Nurse Turner steps away from the bed. “I’m going to get the doctor.”

“Oh yeah? Who’s he? Clark Gable?”

Nurse Turner shakes her head, then exits.

Once in the hallway, she sees Tim exit the men’s room and head for the elevator. She hurries toward him and calls out, “Tim? Tim!”

He turns.

“Alyssa’s awake,” she says. “I’m going to get Dr. Leonard.”

“Thank god,” Tim says as he jogs toward the room.