Going to California

Life by the Valley — 5

Doug didn’t vanish immediately, though. As the vice-president in charge of our security consultants, who were the people who made us our money, his calendar stayed full until he simply stopped showing up.

One of the last times I saw him in a work-related context, he’d just flown to New York City and back — putting in a full day with a client before flying back that afternoon, returning for the Bay Area’s evening. I’d offered to pick him up at the airport. He looked wrecked, of course, if well dressed, this still being Doug. He sighed, pulling at his collar and his already loosened tie.

“God,” he said. “I’m never doing that again if I can help it — though I could get used to flying business class.”

“Really? Business class?” That was a distant if absurdly wasteful dream for me. I’d flown a lot, and I’d always been fine with cattle-car tickets. The higher class seats seemed like outrageous luxuries. I’d rather buy a new computer.

“I told them that the only way I’d make the trip was if they sent me business class,” Doug said.

“Was it worth it?”

Doug looked at me over the rims of his glasses as if reconsidering my level of intelligence. Apparently it was worth it.

“We’re opening a new office out there,” Doug said. “It’s a good space. There’s a woman out there named Linda Kay who’s stepping up to manage the consultants out there. They’re hiring like crazy.” As VP of Consulting, Doug needed to be in on all that.

I don’t remember what else we talked about on the way home, though I do remember it being the first time I dropped him off at his place, driving away from his shiny suburban duplex to my modest 1980s-era ground-floor apartment.

It wasn’t long after when Doug broke things off with his girlfriend for good, moving out and slipping into a bit of a depression. I only heard about it after the fact, really. All I knew at the time was that he wasn’t showing up in the office or answering his phone. Work kept me busy and I spent most of my free time with Jim, the both of us hoping Doug was okay and presuming he’d surface when he felt better.

Doug’s disappearance only sped up the process of getting to know my co-workers. I loved the office itself, with its tight central cluster of high-walled cubicles, perfectly Silicon Valley conference rooms along the two outward-facing walls. I spent months in those rooms, listening to people far wiser than I was argue about Internet security. I took it all in, staring out the wide, top-floor window over the late-afternoon commute traffic through the thin gray limbs of an increasingly leafless tree. The office itself was great, but it was the people and their energy that got me out of bed every morning, grinning like an idiot in the shower with what luck I’d had.

There were basically three types of people lurking around our quiet, dimly lit office.

First you had corporate people — like Mary, who ran our little store, and her administrative assistant, who’d followed her out from Texas through at least two previous jobs. Then there was an accountant, and an HR person, and a salesman who seemed to spend all his time pacing slowly up and down the cube aisles, muttering quietly into a headset microphone he perpetually pinched to one corner of his mouth. The final wood-trimmed office on the far inside corner of the building belonged to Taher Elgamal, the actual boss of the operation and one of the two founders of our consultancy, before being bought out by the detectives.

Taher was genuine royalty in Silicon Valley, having been Chief Technology Officer at Netscape as they’d made their titanic heave to take over the Web browser market for the explosively growing Internet. He’s credited with inventing SSL, the basic encryption scheme used to protect passwords and credit card numbers and anything else you wouldn’t want prying eyes to see as they moved from your device at home to some server somewhere. Few people understood it, but it basically made commerce possible on the Internet. Maybe it was more like a story we told ourselves to help us believe we were safe, but it was one of the most successful stories to come out of that early growth era.

What Taher was actually planning for us wouldn’t be clear for a few months, but it didn’t seem like he was there to retire. True, he was rarely in the office, though his presence and its calmly solid energy suffused the place, seemed to inform our approach to nearly everything. I guess that made him a good leader.

I once caught the eye of a client, an older woman in what looked like a Chanel suit, white-knuckling a tiny leather clutch as she waited outside Mary’s heavy wooden door, just outside my cubicle. Older women always liked talking to me, and she was no different.

“I haven’t seen you before,” she said, glancing across the cube tops behind me. “So many new people, though, more new faces every day.”

“May I help you?” I asked.

She wrinkled her nose. “I’m waiting for Taher. Always waiting for people.” Her eyes grew wide in an instant, looking for all the world like a worshipful little girl. “He’s a great man, you know. Egyptian.”

“Mmm-hmm,” I said.

“Egyptian,” she said again, “in the real way.” She lowered her voice. “Descended from the pharaohs. He could be a king if he wanted to.”

“What makes you think he isn’t?” I said, trying to find a way to joke my way out of the situation.

“He isn’t,” she said. “But he can be.”

Mary opened her door, all smiles. Behind her, Taher leaned against her desk. He was not smiling.

“Excuse us,” Mary said to me, and I turned on my heel, making for the break room.

The second kind of people in our office were the Engineers. There were three groups of us: the scanner team, where I spent most of my time, the Packet Storm team, a couple of newly hired hacker kids from Chicago who had nearly recussitated the attack-tool and vulnerability archives we’d just purchased, and a small group of mostly older guys who were working on some kind of network monitor.

I could identify that last group of people only by process of elimination. They were engineers and they weren’t on either of the other two teams. I knew precisely who was working on the scanner and who was assigned to Packet Storm because Phil, my boss, and Brad, the Packet Storm lead, were openly at war with each other, which meant you had to be super careful what you said with people from the other team around. Anything, however jokingly, could be turned around and used by one side or the other in Mary’s weekly staff meeting as a way to score points. It was an ugly reality, and in a few months it would make our office politics very dark.

Then there was the third group.

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