I'm just going to say it now, my name isn't Cassie. And I'm not from California.
But yes, this is me, standing on the streets of San Francisco, pretending I've lived in Menlo Park long enough to know where the locals go when they leave work.
Which I do know, by the way. I've done my research. Weeks’ worth of it, actually. I know enough to recognize that the bar I'm standing across from just so happens to be the same bar that a group of software engineers stop by after leaving their offices around 6:45 p.m. each night. Within that group is a man named Paul Wang. Not a software engineer, but a mathematician. And for tonight's purposes, my target.
I’ve been tailing him for weeks. Should I admit that? Probably not. Am I proud of it? Probably not. Is the mission worth the cost of flying my butt out here from Illinois and living out of a rented airbnb for two months? Again, probably not.
But someone had to do it.
A group of guys barrels down the sidewalk, their boisterous laughter hogging the air. They're young, probably in their mid-twenties. They pair washed-out denim jeans and worn-out sneakers with expensive leather laptop bags, bags which protect the code ruling most of our lives.
I spot Wang in the center of the group, grinning from ear to ear. For a moment, I’m shocked at how naive and innocent he looks. But then I remember his power-hungry, dictator-esque tendencies. Instead, I hope he enjoys his last few moments of happiness. Because he may never laugh again.
Nah, I'm just kidding. I'm not here to kill the kid.
I watch as the group enters the bar. Slowly, I cross the street behind them. I’m going in without backup, completely naked. Not literally, of course. I am wearing clothes. I don't know why I said that; I picked up the phrase from an old spy flick. And yes, watching every spy movie made within the last sixty years may or may not have been my only preparation for this mission. It's fine.
Anyways, right, I'm alone. And entering the building.
I spot Wang's group right away, standing at a high-top table in the back. I ignore them, heading straight to the bar.
"One brandy, please," I say, hoping my voice doesn't reveal my nerves. The bartender nods and reaches for a glass.
While I wait, I glance over at the group. They're still laughing. How am I going to do this?
"Ma'am." The bartender pushes my drink across the bar.
"Thanks," I say, turning back to him.
I throw a twenty on the counter and pick up the brandy, swirling it in contemplation, like I imagine Bond would. If my plan doesn’t work, at least I know I’ve nailed the aesthetic.
I stare at the group of engineers, somehow already on their second round of beers. I keep watching, and eventually Wang looks in my direction. I catch his eye and flash a smile. I then quickly look away. When I look back, he's still staring. Perfect.
I think back, way back, to my very first day of high school and the horrifying tumble I took in the cafeteria. Food everywhere, torn jeans, my face pressed against the tile - honestly, it was a mess. I’ve never gotten over that moment, and the imagery alone is enough to bring red to my cheeks.
But finally, the pain is useful. Nothing like a bit of embarrassment to make a man think you're blushing for him. I see Wang excuse himself from his friends and head toward me.
I glance down at my drink, pretending he isn't playing perfectly into my honey trap.
"Excuse me," he starts. I look up. "I just wanted to say, you're quite gorgeous."
Yes, Wang, I am. I'm also at least ten years older than you, so let's not get too excited.
"Nah, it's just the lighting," I say. Actually, it’s about a pound of foundation and some tactfully-applied eyeliner, but he cracks a grin anyways. Good, my humor amuses him. This'll be easy.
"I'm Paul,” he says. “What's your name?"
"It's Cassie," I say.
"Well, Cassie," he says, slinging his laptop bag onto the back of the bar stool and sitting down, "It's nice to meet you."
I'll save you from the boring part. Lots of fake laughter, lots of fake smiles. I blush on the appropriate cues, and feign sadness during his complaints about work. I stop myself from saying anything along the lines of, “Buddy, you’re making 60k more than everyone I know. Suck it up.”
If you ask me, I think my self-restraint deserves more credit.
I pretend to care about numbers and patterns and why tangent isn’t a smooth curve but it can be, you know, if you truncate it properly. I pretend to care about a lot of things. I bite my tongue. I laugh. I smile.
His friends leave and go home. He downs a lot of whiskey. And then a lot more. I’m still nursing my second glass, which, granted, I’m mainly doing to keep my head clear and my reflexes sharp, but part of me worries for his love life if this is how fast he drinks on an actual date.
After his fifth order, I excuse myself to the restroom. Wang, sliding out of his seat as it is, doesn’t even notice I grab his laptop bag on my way out.
I lock the stall door and pull a small tube of lipstick out of my purse. Earlier, I had scraped the product out of the container, replacing it with a small, terabyte flash drive. Shoutout Youtube tutorials.
I plug the transformed lipstick into his laptop, booting from the drive. Again, shoutout Youtube. I don’t know how people get away with posting videos on how to hack entire computer systems, and I’m not really sure it’s legal or ethical, but I’m not complaining. Thanks to a few hours scrolling through their content, I learned how to reformat the drive with a new system, convince a laptop that’s the desktop it wants to pull up instead, access all the data on the original drive, and copy it over to mine.
Basically, I’m a hacking wizard. And I’m doing magic in a tiny bathroom stall, getting my jeans eternally sticky from sitting on this alcohol-stained floor. You’re welcome.
I watch the loading bar inch across the screen. Soon, all of Wang’s work files will be ours. Wang, the reason an app which preaches ‘instant’ photos is no longer in chronological order. Wang, the reason engagement has tanked, followers have dropped and posts reach only 10 percent of your following. Wang, the reason behind the algorithm that has single-handedly ruined businesses and confused millions around the world.
For months, we've been desperate for answers. And I'm about to deliver them.
The transfer finishes. I shut down the laptop, zipping it back into the bag. He’ll never even know I touched it.
I find him half-asleep at the bar when I return, so I call an uber to take him home. I even place his laptop bag on his lap when I load him into the car. Because hey, I’m nice like that.
And, you know, the kid just gave us access to the entire Instagram algorithm. I turn the lipstick drive over in my hands, smiling to myself, already planning the announcement I’m going to make on my feed.
So cheers, to taking back our app. The rules of the game won't be changing anymore.