My first impression of Leighton Graham? The man didn’t like anyone but himself, and he may even have been on the fence about that.
Which made him perfect for his job. The board of directors of a publicly traded company called Recursion Talent had hired him as CEO to turn around an ailing company. That meant slash-and-burn layoffs and ruthless cost cutting, all of which was inflicted on workers he would never meet.
The cuts and the austerity program didn’t apply to the executive suite. Graham’s spacious office on the top floor of a building in Reston Town Center was furnished in cherrywood and black leather, with museum-lit modern paintings and sculptures, and huge west-facing windows through which he looked down on the world.
He was in his early fifties with short grey hair, neatly trimmed. Tailored suit, light blue with yellow tie, Italian leather designer shoes, six foot one or two, and obsessively fit. The kind of guy who’s in the gym at 5:00 a.m. and does the full weight circuit in exactly one hour, without a second wasted between sets.
Two hours earlier, his assistant, Nettie Hernandez, had asked me to come out to the office ASAP. I did. Made it in just over an hour from DC, and then spent forty-five minutes waiting on the couch in reception before Graham emerged from his office, looked me up and down with a scowl of disapproval and said, “This the guy?”
“This is Mr. Ferguson,” his assistant said. “The investigator.”
“Send him in.”
Then he turned and disappeared into his office.
I stood, slid my phone into my pocket, and entered the office to find Graham walking from a side table to his desk with a manila envelope in hand. He didn’t ask me to sit, just tossed the envelope on the desk and said nothing.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Your job. What’s your email, Mr. Ferguson?”
I told him. He leaned over his desk and typed it into his laptop and said, “I’m cc’ing you.” On what, he didn’t say.
He turned and stood at the window watching the big passenger jets descend across the snaking highway into Dulles Airport.
I opened the envelope and slid the contents into my right hand. A photo of a middle-aged man. Blond hair, pale blue eyes, grey suit, and red tie. It looked like a profile picture from a corporate website.
“Find him,” said Graham.
I read the fact sheet. Karl Larsson was the Chief Technology Officer of Recursion Talent, leading their Artificial Intelligence initiative. His home was twenty minutes from the office. He was married with two kids, both college age.
I had heard about this case on the morning news, though I had been only half-listening and hadn’t connected him to this company until now. He’d gone missing two days earlier. The cops were on it, but with no sign of foul play, they probably weren’t working it too hard. If the guy ran off with his mistress, the case would solve itself soon enough.
A credit card charge would show up in Bali or Rome or Chicago. The Fairfax County cops would contact local law enforcement to make sure it was Larsson who had actually made the charge. They’d find out where he was staying, maybe even dig up the identity of his lady friend, and tell his wife it was a private matter for her and her lawyers.
“Do you know where he was last seen?” I asked. “And when?”
“Why don’t you ask his wife?” Graham was abrupt and unpleasant.
“Do you want to find this guy?” I asked. “Because you’re not being very helpful.”
“What do you mean, do I want to find him? He’s my CTO. I’m trying to run a damn company here. I got his wife crying in my ear and his whole tech team worried and distracted. They’re not getting anything done. How much do you think that costs me each day? Find the guy, okay?”
Graham wasn’t the type to charm people into getting what he wanted. His attitude was clear. I was hired help. I would do what he said because he was going to pay me.
And he was right. It was August, always a slow season in DC, and we were hurting for cash. I wanted my team to get paid, even if the money had to come from someone like this. I’d dealt with clients like him before. I tuned them out, focused on the job.
“You know if this guy Larsson had any reason to flee?” I asked. “Did he have a girlfriend on the side? Debts? Enemies?”
“You’re the detective. You figure it out.” Graham made no effort to hide his condescension. His tone told me Larsson’s disappearance was an inconvenience, like a puddle of puke someone had left on the floor, and I was the janitor who was supposed to clean it up.
“You have a contract?” he asked. I pulled a folded contract from my jacket pocket, the standard terms we give every client, with a blank for the rates—retainer, my daily charge, and hourly rates for the rest of the team.
I leaned on his desk as I penned in the numbers, double what we normally charged. Then I quoted the rates aloud, half-hoping he would balk, so I could walk away from this one. Anyone who’s worked in a service industry learns soon enough that some clients aren’t worth the trouble. But then, where else was I going to find work when the whole city was on vacation?
“I’ll have my lawyer review that,” Graham said. “And we’ll be adding a clause.” He didn’t even look at the papers, just at me, sizing me up the way I used to size up opponents in the ring before a fight.
“You’re adding a clause to the contract?”
That look, that sizing up—I knew it well. When I practiced it myself, sometimes the question behind it was, How much trouble is this guy going to give me? Other times, I knew at a glance my opponent was weak, doubting, outclassed. The question then was quicker, crueler, more dismissive. How quickly can I get rid of this guy?
The question I saw in Graham was the latter.
“You are to report to me at the end of each day,” he said.
“I write a daily report,” I told him, “and we keep it on file in the office. I give clients updates on major milestones, like when we get a break, or when we can definitively rule out—”
“I said you will report to me daily, at six p.m., in this office.” He tapped his finger on the desk to emphasize the word this.
“That’s not how it works,” I said.
“That is how it works, Mr. Ferguson. It’ll be in the contract. I’m not interested in milestones. You will tell me every detail. Everywhere you’ve been, everyone you’ve spoken to, everything you’ve learned, every day. Now stop wasting time and do your job.”
It’s not easy for a person to get under my skin, but this guy was doing it. “Go ahead and put in your addendum,” I said. “Sign it and get it back to me in an hour. I’ll review it, and if I don’t like it, I’m out.”
I wasn’t going to put more than sixty minutes into this case without a contract. I’d have Claire review it when it came in—she understood legalese better than I did—and if she didn’t like it, we’d walk and let this guy find someone else.
I turned and left without a word.
Graham called after me, “I’ll see you at six,” his tone matter-of-fact, confident, an assertion of dominance.
As I rode the elevator down, my phone chimed. An email from Graham, addressed to all Recursion employees.
I’m sure by now you’ve heard the distressing news about our beloved CTO, Karl Larsson. Rest assured, Karl’s safety is my first concern, and I will not rest until he returns safely.
I wasn’t convinced of that. Graham didn’t seem too concerned.
I have retained the services of world-class investigators to help locate Karl…
Actually, he had retained the services of one investigator, and I wouldn’t call myself world-class, whatever that means. I just work hard.
It was interesting, though, to see how the CEO spun it. He understood what his audience wanted to hear, and he laid it on thick. Leighton Graham was a caring, stand-up guy who was on top of the situation.
I deleted the email without bothering to read the rest.
When I called Larsson’s wife on the way out of the garage, she answered on the first ring. I told her who I was, who hired me.
“Can I come by and ask you some questions?”
“Yes.” She sounded relieved. “Yes, please.” Edgy and tense and grateful that someone was coming to help.
Her gratitude was the antidote to Graham’s arrogance. This was why I was taking the job. Because there was always someone on the wrong end of a case like this, someone who’s been blindsided, whose life has been upended, who’s too distraught to know which way to turn.