Read chapters 6 and 7 of Kathy Wang's new novel Impostor Syndrome
In Kathy Wang's upcoming novel Impostor Syndrome, a Russian spy rises through the ranks of the tech industry, eventually landing the COO gig at Tangerine (a riff on Google), while one of her underlings discovers a security blip that hints at the nefarious connections at play. The book hits shelves May 25, but EW will be sharing the first seven chapters exclusively on our website over three installments. Below, read the final excerpt.
A secret which at times Leo found painful to admit even to himself: he liked California.
Oh, he knew all the bad things about the state—it was too left-wing; the state tax criminal; the men and women near depressive in their attire, marching about in their black fleece like a trail of polyester pill bugs. In his residency so far he had been both impressed and enraged by the place: yes, there was the good sushi, ripe apricots, beautiful people (at least in Los Angeles). But simultaneously it was so wasteful, of everything—talent, money, clean air, and coast—the natives ruined it with their quick talk and idle boasting and lack of follow-through, and when the sun began to drop and he could watch the stars come out in just a T-shirt in January, he thought both that he hated it here, and also that he loved it, and either way this was to be endured, because it was now his home.
He'd lived here a year already. Had kept count of his time, from the morning eighteen months earlier when he'd been called into the office of Colonel Ivan Litvin, chief of Directorate Eight.
"MINERVA will be transitioning to an active position," Ivan had said, rising heavily to greet Leo from behind his desk. A pudgy finger to the ceiling, as if to say: Orders from the top. MINERVA was Julia's cryptonym: only a few knew her actual identity, and her case files were kept in a closed office, firewalled physically and electronically from the rest of the bureau.
"When?" Leo asked, sounding surprised, though in reality he'd been expecting such news. The last few months there'd been an outsize amount of press on both Julia and Tangerine, the latter having surpassed Google to become the most visited site in North America. In celebration, Julia had given interview after interview in which she was both strident ("Why are there not more female CEOs?") and artificially modest ("Tangerine's accomplishments belong not just to me or Pierre, but to all employees").
"Soon. I know you've wanted to give her room—"
"To maximize her outcome," Leo interrupted. "For the bureau." "Yes, yes, for the bureau. I know you've always looked after our interests. But now that MINERVA is already so senior . . . what did they call her on that show, the wunderkind? And the director and the chief, they want some new goodies to wave. It's promotion time for some." Ivan sighed. He was a decade older than Leo, half a head shorter but heavier, with a cherub face and a vast collection of cashmere sweaters. Unlike other directorate heads, the majority of whom could be sorted in a Venn diagram between toady and sadist with broad overlap, Ivan was inherently good-natured. He floated through his days buttressed by the mere existence of his father, a former general who remained a mentor to the president. As a teenager, Ivan had spent his summers with his mother in Avignon, and his continuing admiration for France's food, culture, and clothing had earned him the nickname "the Frog."
"Do they know what they want?" Leo asked. "Is there a plan?" The SPB was no different from many organizations in that its edicts typically began with vague challenges and predictions of glory, only to sputter on the details, upon which the serfs who'd failed to execute were stomped and eliminated. So Leo was surprised when Ivan reached for a sheet from which he began to list the specific asks: server downloads, deep searches, potential alterations to the algorithm.
"The safety of MINERVA will need to be carefully managed," Ivan noted. "So we'd like to send a handler to California. Someone who's never been on a diplomatic posting, who won't show up on watch lists. While on the ground they can also develop new sources; we've lacked local manpower since they closed the San Francisco consulate."
"The focus should remain MINERVA," Leo said. "Any handler you send must ensure that she is protected."
"Of course." Ivan smiled at him. "So wouldn't it be best if that handler was you?"
On the beige business cards now in his wallet: Leonid (Leo) Guskov, President, Founder, and Chairman of Russo Import/Export Advisory. The title deliberately clunky, the sort favored by an Eastern European whose closet contained long black leather coats, still worn on occasion.
Most mornings Leo worked from a small office in a tower off of Lawrence Expressway. His building resembled a moderately priced chain hotel, with a round atrium and a waterfall spanning the bottom levels. There Leo met with various would-be entrepreneurs with dreams of importing alcohol, toys, or—as was increasingly common—claiming some new billion-dollar technology.
Though he was not in his office today.
Seated across from Leo on a stained hotel couch was Ned Daly, senior vice president of architecture at one of the world's largest semiconductor companies, a PhD from Illinois who specialized in circuit design. Ned was the first semiconductor engineer Leo had ever encountered in person, though Leo felt as if they'd met before; the man was one of those people whose physical appearance perfectly matched his job, like a fat pastry chef. Thin silver glasses, curly hair, his heaviness clustered around his middle, as if he wore a pool inflatable underneath his clothes. He'd been silent since Leo entered, and Leo guessed the man had read someplace that whoever spoke first in a negotiation was the loser.
You're going to need a lot better than some internet articles, Leo thought. You're going to need something nuclear, given what I have.
They'd picked Ned up through one of Leo's local assets, a woman referred to as Trisha who regularly advertised herself on a popular escort site. Originally brought over as a programmer, Trisha had quickly discovered that she preferred going on dates and talking dirty to supply chain executives over troubleshooting production issues. By her third month at Google she'd begun moonlighting on CanBuyLove, until her poor attendance was noticed and she was placed on a "performance improvement plan." Now Trisha didn't work at all in tech, and Leo had no quarrel with this as she was furnishing far better intelligence than when she'd been a Grade 5 on AdWords. When she received Ned's initial request, Trisha had done a search, as she did on all her prospective clients—she noted his job title and company (LinkedIn being a wonderful tool for espionage) and messaged Leo. Was he interested? The next day, he replied: Yes. And so arrangements were made, between Trisha and Ned and Trisha and Leo. Trisha met Ned a few times alone—it was important to establish rapport, an independent relationship.
One hour earlier Leo had sat in the adjoining room of the Crowne Plaza Suites in Milpitas as Trisha and Ned began their latest assignation—the Crowne was where Ned always made his reservations, Trisha said, as it was near LinkTel's headquarters. Next to Leo was Alexey Kaverine, a low-level operative whom Leo often used as a second man on jobs. Alexey had chosen his American name himself—the ridiculous Chester—but was otherwise reliable. He was six foot four, with a blocky muscular physique and a refined face; he resembled an intellectual wrestler, the sort who might pen simple poetry in his free time. His primary employment was as a waiter at the Madera restaurant in the Rosewood Hotel off of Sand Hill, where he eavesdropped on venture capitalists. He had also discovered a secondary talent, not so dissimilar to Trisha's: at the end of the night, when there were still some cougars left alone at the bar, Chester was often welcome consolation. "The crumbs that ex-wives drop," he'd once commented, "when they are angry."
Each month, when Julia had data to pass, she sent a single icon to a FreeTalk account, which she knew only as HELPER; HELPER was managed and checked twice daily by Chester. Depending on the icon, of which there were twenty-four predetermined options, Chester would then make his way to the specified drop point, retrieving the USB drive and sending it on in the diplomatic pouch. Leo had repeatedly requested that Julia use a physical marker rather than electronic messaging to signal pickups, but she'd refused, citing her schedule: "I'm not going to Philz to be stared at by a bunch of nobodies to shove a pin on a bulletin board."
"What if the network is compromised?" he'd asked. Meaning FreeTalk.
"You forget," Julia had said, "that I own the network."
Because the air-conditioning was either broken or rigged at a high temperature, Leo had sent Chester out earlier for ice; now it sat on the table, heavily sweating, as Chester flicked pieces of it back into the white plastic bucket. "This place is disgusting," he said, no doubt recalling the service standards of the Rosewood. "The machine, I don't think it's ever been cleaned."
"At least your head is cool," Leo remarked. While Chester was disguised only by a cap pulled low over his face, Leo wore a combination of dentures, puffy cheeks (achieved with cotton balls), and a sand-colored wig—which, in spite of its cotton liner, still tickled the side of his head. All this, plus his hunched posture, was aligned with the passport photo of one Henk Van Tiel, a chubby Dutchman ostensibly working in London as a sports equipment distributor, whose documents Leo used when needing to travel discreetly abroad. He rarely directly involved himself in such operations anymore, the risk being too great, but Ned was considered a significant enough get that he'd wanted to manage the initial contact.
Chester fanned himself again. "Jesus," he said. "Shit."
Leo put a finger to his lips and pointed to the laptop playing the feed from next door. The video was high-definition: you could see even the birthmark on Trisha's cheek. She wasn't truly beautiful, or even particularly kempt—sometimes when they met, Leo wondered when she'd last bathed—yet she had a certain appeal, arising from the combination of her low voice and delicate waist, that made her seem both sweet and bawdy. She had already changed into the requested outfit, a navy pleated skirt and white shirt, her hair in a high ponytail. The skirt and shirt were not revealing but rather oversize, as if she'd inherited them from an older sibling.
"Oh gosh," Trisha was saying in an American accent. "Oh gosh . . . I really don't know . . ."
Ned walked to the bed, where he removed from his laptop bag a green chopping board. He set it down and then, carefully unzipping a small plastic pouch, laid the powder in neat lines.
"Snort it," he said.
"Mr. Daly, I can't, I'm only thirteen, I wouldn't know how . . ." "Do you want me to show you?"
"Now, Mr. Daly, they always tell us in school to say no to drugs . . ."
Ned stroked her hair. "I think we should stop the 'mister' stuff, don't you? Next week I'm going to be marrying your mother. But you understand"—breathing—"that soon I'll be calling in my special privileges . . . We're going to be one close, very"—heavy breathing— "very, very"—breathing—"happy family . . ."
"That's enough," Leo said.
Chester went in first, standard protocol—two meaty hands and a Slavic accent were miraculous for setting a mood. Leo was next: We have photos, we have videos, you have a family, etc. etc. etc. Half the time the subject started to cry. Occasionally you could tell they hadn't cried for a long time, and as they sobbed they would look to Leo: I am crying, there are tears, don't you see? Where is my kindness, my attention?
The other half didn't cry. Ned wasn't a crier.
"What would you like our relationship to look like?" Leo began. They were alone, Trisha and Chester having left through the connecting door. Trisha likely already on her way home to eat pancakes, as was her routine after client appointments.
Ned didn't respond. From the articles he'd read, Leo knew Ned was a ballroom dancer, that he went to tango class every Saturday and often brought along his nine-year-old daughter. He was the sort of man women could easily imagine falling in love with them, writing letters, sending flowers. And then gracefully retreating back into friendship when they were inevitably rejected, eventually settling for someone homely.
Though this had not been his behavior with Trisha.
"I want to be clear," Ned said at last, pushing up his glasses. "I don't intend to have any kind of relationship with you."
"That is possible," Leo said mildly. A hesitation. "Yes?"
"At this stage, anything is possible."
Ned eyed him, almost sniffing the air, as if attempting to detect the shitty part of this hand. And of course there was one. "What do you want?"
"Why don't you tell me first what it is that you'd like. Please. Be thorough."
"Obviously it's simple. I would like the videos and photographs and whatever else you have of me destroyed. They could do great damage . . . they could ruin a lot of innocent lives."
"Okay," Leo said, and then directed toward Ned a look of such genuine fondness that out of reflex the man actually smiled back before catching himself. "I'm glad you say this. It means you have an understanding of what is important in this situation." Upon which Leo explained the situation. LinkTel had a product line named Tigertail, comprising microchips and motherboards; the line was hugely successful, shipped in everything from servers to refrigerators to planes. The chips and boards were difficult to infiltrate, nearly impossible to insert back doors into, unless you owned the supply chain. Which LinkTel did. The next generation of Tigertail was set to launch in two years; Ned would work, as he had been doing, to ensure its success. But going forward he would also report to the SPB.
"This isn't okay," Ned said, shaking his head. "This isn't fair." Ah, Leo thought. Fairness. That old song.
That afternoon, Leo drove to Julia's.
Today, as he entered her home (Atherton, surprisingly ornate given what he'd assumed were her personal aesthetics), he found her in an especially foul mood. Leo thought a sign that Julia had truly assimilated as an American was that she seemed to consider herself the first woman to ever become pregnant, complaining endlessly of the weight gain, the backaches, the cramps. Her public face was of course far different: she'd revealed her pregnancy in the manner of a rock star, wearing loose sweaters and coats for months, until the afternoon of Tangerine's developer conference, when she'd strolled onstage in a clingy black dress, hands cradling her bump. "I'm just thankful to be employed at Tangerine, which so values working mothers," she said, before making a little frown, presumably thinking of all the unvalued mothers at lesser companies.
Leo was surprised to find Charlie's parents also present. "A last-minute visit," Julia explained, with a slight grimace. The Lerners, who were from somewhere in Texas, were polite and assumed, like most Americans, that Leo was interested in the backstory of every Russian and Eastern European in their social circle. They were informing him of a Slovak translator they'd met on the plane—"Did you know they call it Central Europe"—when Julia yanked him away.
"Charlie's mother especially, I have dreams of strangling her," she said to him now. They were in her office, where they usually spoke. It was the most isolated room in the house, situated at the end of a hall and nearly impossible to approach without the floor creaking.
"What's wrong with Betsy?" Leo rather liked Charlie's mother, whom he'd identified at first meet as one of those older women conducting a synchronized assault against aging on multiple fronts. Her forehead was smooth plaster, her wardrobe tight and colorful, and this afternoon when she greeted him she'd already been wielding a cocktail, explaining that she was "no fun" without one.
"She talks too much. And when she sees me she is always trying to have, what do you call it, girl chat. It's been worse since the pregnancy. She says I'll be a different person once the baby comes. That I won't want to work, that I'll spend all day staring at the children, as she did."
"Obviously you won't."
"No, never." She exhaled. "But she'd like that. I know what she thinks. That each time I order takeout I'm insulting Charlie. As if I've never cooked or washed a dish in my life."
Interesting. Though from what Leo had observed, neither Julia nor her husband did much in the domestic sphere, their home instead maintained by a small army of cleaners, gardeners, chefs, and housekeepers. He knew Charlie had not been raised in such splendor; the Lerners hovered a fraction above middle class, the sort of Americans who saved for their anniversary cruise to Spain and upon their return loudly ordered the Rioja at restaurants.
"Be gentle with Betsy," he advised. "It can be difficult, this stage in a woman's life."
"Like I care."
"Does Charlie know you feel this way?"
Julia wriggled and pressed her hands against her stomach. "I tell him she annoys me. But he is a nonconfrontational person."
Which you'd have to be, Leo thought, to be successfully married to Julia. "How does Betsy think you can pay for all this without Tangerine?"
Julia snorted and threw her feet onto the ottoman. She was chewing gum—one of her newly acquired pregnancy habits, along with orange soda—and blew a bubble. Leo watched with fascination as the balloon grew larger and more sheer. The gum of his childhood was hard, nonpliable, as if it had come premixed with ice water; the chocolate crumbly and chalklike, white flakes marring its surface.
The bubble popped, and Julia began to chew again. "She thinks Charlie makes enough. He's a doctor, she says. It is Betsy's favorite topic, how Charlie is a doctor. How many junior cardiologists are living in this neighborhood, I want to ask. Chartering planes? But women like her have no idea of money."
"Really." Leo had a natural interest in this topic, given what so many of his targets wept: I'm in debt, I want a good life for my family, my wife has no idea.
Julia sagged in her chair. "She also talks about her dreams." "Americans love to discuss their dreams. They assume everyone is interested in them. You told me about your dream, remember? The one of strangling her."
"That was only for a few seconds. She'll go for an hour if you allow her. Her theories on symbolism, yammering on—" Her fist opened and closed, as if independently imagining Betsy's neck. "She speaks as if Charlie's the most wonderful person on earth. The greatest son, the best husband."
"She's his mother. You're the one who married him, remember?" Silence.
Ah, all this tireless conversation, and now he understood: the old familiar story and apparently it was no different in America than any other place. Two young people, who believe that since they are both intelligent, both beautiful, together they might form an even more exceptional union—only to get married and sink into the same tedium as everyone else. But no, Leo reminded himself, Julia and Charlie had been wed for less than a year; they should still be enjoying their choice.
Leo cast an uneasy eye at Julia's stomach. "It is," he ventured, "it is going well with Charlie, is it not?"
She glared. "Of course. It's nothing. Women's stuff."
Women's stuff. Which Leo didn't wish to hear anything about, but unfortunately he'd long learned that the problems of women usually became the problems of all. "Such as?"
Julia sighed. "I feel unattractive, for one." She absentmindedly picked at her dress. "I know, the miracle of life, growing a human, but my feet are turning into fat little boats while I'm at it. I can't sleep. And Charlie, he can't understand why I'm having such a hard time. Billions of women have given birth before, he keeps saying."
"I'm sure he cares."
Julia paused. "Yes. And anyway, all the suffering will be over once I give birth." She perked up at this thought. "I've told Charlie he has to do half the work when the baby arrives. Though truly it'll be more. I have two launches the week I'm due, and it's going to be war with the other executives swooping for crumbs. Do you understand what the women are like now, how vicious they are? If I were a man, for sure I'd have already been accused of harassment. The first time in my career I've been glad to have a vagina."
"And what does Charlie say? About his expected participation.
He has concerns?"
She regarded Leo with pity. "No. He's fine. It's his child, too. He is a modern man."
"Well, good for you." Julia was even more naive about men than he'd assumed, Leo thought, if she truly believed Charlie would do half. Likely Charlie even thought this, but really in such matters it was less about the man himself and more about his parents. Was his mother independent, did she control her retirement; when she made dinner, did his father clean up after? Even when a man thought himself a certain way, it was a different matter to circumvent a young lifetime of convenience. At the wedding, Charlie's father had given a toast: "May your wife bake as well as mine. May your wife shop less than mine." Betsy laughing the loudest.
Though Leo stayed quiet. It was never a good idea to let assets speak of their emotions too long. Then they would expect it always, and you would never have any peace.
In the evening, they gathered in the dining room. The Lerners were departing Friday—were combining their stay with a weekend in Napa, though Leo had not inquired too closely about their itinerary, not wishing to bear the conversational tax of being mistaken for an oenophile. At one point during the wedding he'd told Betsy and Paul he enjoyed steak, and Paul in particular had latched on to this: "How's the steak business going?" he chortled when they met again. "You all eating a lot of BEEF?" Julia had either decided to further this farce or forgotten it was made up altogether, and had arranged for a traditional prime rib dinner. The housekeeper, Magda, brought out salad, loaves of warm sourdough, Yorkshire pudding, Brussels sprouts. The chef rolled out the meat to carve tableside, recommending medium rare, and then rolled it back to the kitchen, like a spring-loaded toy.
"In my day it just wasn't done, having a cook," Betsy observed as she served herself salad. She wore large hoop earrings and a blouse with slits along the sleeves, the sort of garment that technically showed none of the important parts yet seemed all the more provocative for it.
"Jesús isn't our regular chef," Julia said pleasantly. "Usually it's Tyler, but he said Jesús was better with prime rib. They're with the same management concierge. Most families in our position use a chef."
"I've never heard of somebody with one." "Perhaps it's a regional thing."
"Oh, Houston is extremely metropolitan. Maybe a little too much, for my taste. All our friends have cleaners. And housekeepers. Do you know Colt Granville, the CEO of Oiler's Bank? His wife Doreen is in my book club. She roasts her own chickens."
Leo looked at Charlie. Even if he was a particularly insensitive sort, which Leo found most physicians were, he should still be attuned to major shifts in mood: already in choppy conversational waters, an iceberg now loomed ahead. But Charlie said nothing, only raised his beer and licked its foam.
Betsy was also imbibing. For dinner she had mixed a new cocktail, something with rum and lemon juice that had come out the color of amber. "I thought you enjoyed cooking," she said, stirring. "I read it in one of those interviews you like to do."
"I don't like to do those interviews. I'm asked to do them and I participate because it's my job."
"My goodness, you do so many things for that company." Betsy took a long sip. "As soon as you're off a plane, it seems like you're on another. I'm not sure I could manage it all."
"Yes," said Julia evenly. "It's not for everyone."
"Coming through," Paul said. He spooned a mass of Yorkshire pudding onto his plate, making appreciative noises while keeping his head low. Charlie had finally set down his beer and was observing his mother.
"Once you're on maternity leave, you might have some time to experiment in the kitchen," Betsy said as she extended a pearly-painted finger to snag a brown tear of gravy from Paul's plate before it fell. "I know that when Charlie was young, he just loved my lemon chicken. Wouldn't take anything else, was the pickiest eater, but that chicken kept him healthy. No special seasoning, either. He barely got sick when he was little. You'll see what I'm talking about once you have your own. Some kids get sick all the time. It isn't natural."
"Mom," Charlie said, "Julia's too busy to spend time cooking."
If Betsy had hurt feelings, she hid them well. "I just remember reading in so many of those articles how Julia loved cooking and baking . . . I swore I read it was one of her favorite hobbies."
"I don't actually like to cook," Julia cut in. Chef Jesús and Magda, perhaps sensing danger, had not reentered the room. "It's just one of the things I say, because otherwise I would be unpalatable to women, even though were a man to be asked if he cooked and cleaned it'd absolutely be considered an idiotic question, and since we're discussing this I might add that Charlie is an extremely unenthusiastic tidier, and I have often wondered what kind of household he grew up in, that he believes he can simply drop his boxers on the floor—"
"Excuse me." Leo stood. "I just recalled I had some family photos to show Julia."
The three original Lerners stared after them as they left: Charlie and Paul with the same flat confusion, Betsy with relieved pleasure, as if she'd just peeled loose a scab.
"What did I tell you about being careful?" Leo hissed once they were back inside the office.
Julia waddled through and closed the door. "Do you really have pictures of my mother?"
"No!" Was she losing her mind? He'd been told pregnancy messed with the female brain, but had always assumed it one of those made-up American concepts, like being "unable to manage stress" or "bad at test taking."
"Oh. So you are not in contact with her?"
"No!" Leo said again. He clamped his palms against his forehead. "I only wanted to remove you from the table. The talk was going in the entirely wrong direction." He crossed his arms and then, even though he preferred to stand, sat across from her on the sofa. "I wouldn't be pleased if my wife spoke to my mother like that."
"Oh? So you think your theoretical wife would be pleased if your mother came to her home and ate her food and guzzled her liquor and then interrogated her about her housekeeping?"
"You have to keep Charlie happy. A good marriage is important. Americans don't like it when women have relationship problems. Especially with a new baby." Leo recalled Julia's file, the history of Karl and Nina. Julia had likely never even seen any kind of functional marriage, he reminded himself.
Julia harrumphed. "Charlie has to keep me happy." Then, in response to his look: "Oh, I'm an excellent wife. And I told you, Charlie is on my side."
For now, Leo thought. You are newly wed and rich; you don't yet know what it is like to be together longer, to watch each other become heavier, angrier, tired. He'd always known Julia didn't understand men, but had hoped it wouldn't pose a major problem, as long as she held her position.
Her job. Her job, and all of its access, was key.
Leo removed from his pocket a sheet of lined paper. He'd been procrastinating, hoping for a better mood, but the opportunity hadn't come. "For you."
She made him wait before she reached. "What's this?"
"A list. If there's no mark next to the name, then all I need is a basic search. What you've already been doing—messages, sites visited, any unusual activity."
She scanned the paper. "Ned Daly? The LinkTel exec? Pierre tried to hire him once. And Dmitri Marin, I thought he was anti-Kremlin, that he'd gone all rogue."
Leo shifted uneasily. Julia would sometimes do this, ask him about the names, even though he never answered any of her queries. Dmitri—the former CFO of Gazprom, now known in the West as the "rogue oligarch," who posted tabloid-style videos detailing the Kremlin's corruptions—was in reality executing a long-range plan with the SPB, though Dmitri had wrangled himself a plum deal in the process. Two billion he'd been allowed to keep, from that great stew of privatization into which decades earlier he'd thrust his hands, and with these funds he'd now reinvented himself as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. The legend of a reformed oligarch, one who'd fled Russia and all its nefarious influences, had been enough for a good handful of established unicorns to not only accept Dmitri's money, but name him to their boards.
"We run searches for a variety of reasons. How have you been managing those, by the way?" he asked, changing the topic. "You never told me." Because she was always careful to reveal as little as possible—as if I don't know your game, Julia.
She studied him and exhaled, as if smoking an invisible cigarette. "I use an internal tool called God Mode. Pierre was supposed to have disabled it, but he never did. Kicked all the executives off, though, except me and him."
"Does Pierre know you're using it?"
"No. But either way my login is anonymous. The same as for my FreeTalk account. User 555." She looked again at the list. "Why's this one highlighted?"
He leaned forward. "For that one we'll need location data." He spoke casually, easily. As if it were only a small task, of passing concern.
"Jefferson Caine. Who's that?"
"How am I to know? I receive the list from above, same as you." "And this Jefferson, the SPB wants to know where he is?" "Yes." Then: "You may have to transmit his location real-time, using FreeTalk. Do you have access yet?"
"I should," she said, still studying the paper, but now one hand was on her stomach and he knew her attention was fading. "Soon. The second founder looks to be on his way out. I've been pushing to
finalize the data merge; after that's done, I can access location. I'm targeting for after I give birth."
"It can't be done before?" "No."
She looked amused at his persistence. "Because it's actually an incredible violation of user privacy. What Pierre and I make speeches about, promising the public and Congress we would never, ever do."
"Then how do you know you'll succeed in merging the data?" "I'll make the final argument right before I go to the hospital.
Americans, they have a thing for new mothers. I'll be untouchable then."
"All right." Leo knew he couldn't push further. "You've been doing good work," he added. "Like with the source code for Tangerine Mail." Which Julia had passed days earlier. He'd anticipated a bigger fuss, but in the end she'd delivered without complaint.
"You are welcome," she said lightly. Years earlier, whenever Leo had issued Julia a compliment, she would redden and stammer, which he'd informed her was unacceptable. To succeed was to have confidence: it was the underpinning of all achievement, both fraudulent and earned. Yet the ease with which she now took his praise brought forth a wave of melancholy.
"Are you taking a long leave?" Leo eyed Julia's feet, which she'd tossed up next to him on the couch. They were indeed bloated and pained-looking, and the toes were bright red.
"Likely not. I'll have to find a way to keep track of Pierre while not returning too early. I've been told working mothers are paying close attention to the length of my maternity leave." She smiled silkily. "Do you care?"
"No, as long as you are not replaced while you're away." "Don't worry about my job. Worry about yours."
Your job is my job, Leo thought. But he didn't continue. He wanted to leave; suddenly he found himself disliking her, for no specific reason.
By the next morning the feeling had mostly subsided. Still, he took a day trip by himself to Half Moon Bay as a distraction. The roads curving and twisting, the expanse of the Pacific just on the other side; no barriers between the road and the cliff 's drop to the water, and it amazed him that in a society as litigious as America's, such dangerous beauty could still exist.
The following week he received notice that Julia had gone into labor. It's a girl, Charlie shouted over the phone. Leo made all the right noises, said all the necessary words, but they felt muffled in his head, as if he were speaking into a tin can. After they hung up, as he sat in his office in Santa Clara, he was struck with the urge to cry—it just seemed so sad, a new soul coming into this dirty world.
Giving birth was terrible. Terrible, really, wasn't enough to describe it. A better term might be crushing, for despite what Julia claimed in interviews she had barely prepared for birth, had not gone to any of the breathing courses, and it wasn't the sort of thing about which stories were swapped at Sun Valley (at least in her sessions), so she'd been unprepared for the pain that engulfed her. Twenty hours of excruciating labor because she had wanted to do it naturally, did not want chemicals sullying her precious baby, the useless doula waving essential oils, massaging her back with a gnat's strength—upon which Julia had shoved the mantra-chanting Autumn to the side and screamed for the epidural. The anesthesiologist finally arriving after a seeming eternity, some humorless Nigerian, and at that moment he held all the power, and Julia none, because she was willing to do whatever he asked, give up everything she possessed, to have what he held.
And then he'd given it.
Oh, she'd thought. And understood for the first time the necessity of pain, if only to appreciate the bliss that came from its absence.
After, there were difficulties. They'd had to do an episiotomy at the last minute, which meant she couldn't sit for a week. She found herself urinating randomly, the wetness appearing like a surprise rain shower, and then she'd go change her underwear, all while crying to herself that perhaps this would never end, that one day her "recovery" would continue its rocky descent into full incontinence. She sobbed for hours. For the first time she found herself despising nearly everything about Charlie—his attempts to comfort her with medical factoids, his slow waking, his immediate suggestion of a second nanny, to go with the regular nanny and the newly added night nurse, so that they might never be without coverage. Why not, he argued. Why not, when they were both important people and possessed the resources? And by resources she knew he meant: hers.
He was used to the money now, she knew—the boy who raked leaves to buy a Schwinn, whose garage now contained three vehicles each retailing into the six figures. Who took boys' trips to Aspen, was planning a family reunion at Kruger Park, Lufthansa First Class for his parents. In the morning, Julia watched as he left for work, one hand grasping a steel thermos filled with coffee. He wore green scrubs and a shawl-collar cardigan, which she found even more attractive than a suit, for the same reason firefighters look better in uniform. Julia knew that when Charlie arrived, the nurses would chide: Are you sleeping, you need to rest, is that adorable baby keeping you up? He would stretch, joke, wash his hands; there was a time when just watching him complete such tasks brought her pleasure.
Yesterday, Charlie had entered the bathroom while she was in the shower. She'd already finished with her hair and had been standing with her eyes closed under the water, letting the heat beat her shoulders, her body loose in that way she only allowed when truly alone, her stomach hanging over its own waist, as if she wore a belt of extra flesh. When Julia heard the door she turned to face the wall, but she was too slow, and she knew he'd seen. After a second, he said: "You're always beautiful."
But it wasn't convincing.
Julia rose from her chair in the nursery and went to the crib. Picked up Emily, who had been awake but quiet, staring at the shadows. Brought her to the rocker, cradling the soft body against her own.
There was the head and the scent; each time she thought of Emily her breasts would ache and milk would fall, like water from a broken faucet. There might have been a time when Nina had held her in such a way—and when Julia imagined this, she both hated and better understood her own mother. How in the end it might have been necessary for Nina to draw a border around herself. To say, I can only love you so much. As Nina had so little as it was.
From atop the dresser, Julia's phone began to ring. She shut her eyes, willing the device to stop. Two weeks earlier, the night of the dinner with Charlie's parents, Julia had waited until the rest of the house was asleep and gone to her office. Opened her notebook, removing from the inner flap Leo's sheet of names. And searched for Jefferson Caine. She'd been surprised to find in Jefferson's email none of the utility bills or alumni newsletters she usually parsed. His credit cards were paid online, and the required address listed a PO box in South Dakota. His history seemed to have begun as abruptly as hers, and from his search queries and pirated documentaries, she knew he was Russian.
She stewed and slept and then called Leo the next morning. "What you're asking isn't possible," she said.
Silence. She knew he was thinking, calculating.
"It was my understanding," Leo said, his voice thin with static, "that user location would be possible after you gave birth."
"I was speaking purely of the technology." She scratched at the paper with her nail. "It's reckless, what you want. You're asking for real-time data. I'd have to be on the platform, tracking this man's position. It could be traced back to me."
"Then make sure it isn't," he said, calm as always. "It is your product, isn't it?"
There arose a frustration not dissimilar to when she presented to Wall Street—the immense pressure to deliver short-term gains, balanced with long-term survival. "The company is forty thousand employees, and I'm not the CEO. There are limits to what is safe."
"It's not even a phone call," Leo said reassuringly. "You just have to send a few messages with his location."
She'd known what Leo wanted when he first asked for access to FreeTalk, Julia realized. Had understood in her heart what the end point would be. "I haven't done anything like this." She was surprised to find her voice shaking. "Before, all I gave you was information, things that were already true." Which was how she'd justified matters. If the CEO of Airbus didn't want to be blackmailed, then he shouldn't have claimed to have a PhD; if a three-star general didn't want to relax certain purchasing standards, then maybe he shouldn't have paid for his girlfriend's abortion. "I haven't done this before. Actively helped target someone, an innocent person."
"How do you know he is innocent?"
And then she knew that he'd won, because they both understood she would not want to answer as to whether she herself was innocent.
The phone continued to ring, one of those attempts where the caller is determined to reach voicemail before hanging up. The ringtone was "Another Day in Paradise" by Phil Collins. Leo's favorite. It was his fifth attempt today—she was supposed to have transmitted Jefferson's location in the morning.
On the wall, the clock read ten p.m.
It was more a negotiation than outright defiance, Julia consoled herself. She'd told Leo she didn't want to do the Jefferson ask, so now it was his job to return with something else. And hadn't she earned the right to some flexibility? She wondered how many assets Leo handled, if there were others of her caliber, though she doubted it. She was like a prime Thoroughbred: the jockey raced the horse, but there was no question as to whose value was greater. Right?
To calm herself, she paced the hall until Emily fell asleep. Julia stood for a while, enjoying the soft weight in her arms, and then swaddled Emily and set her in her crib.
Back in their bedroom Charlie was already on his side of the bed, in the dead sleep she was enraged by his ability to enter at will. After Emily there'd been times she thought she hated him, a new and frightening feeling she justified as hormones—the quick temper that had arisen just yesterday, when he said it was her idea to have the baby and disrupt their lives, to try before they were even married. It was technically true: she'd been thirty-seven, and who knew she'd get pregnant on their first attempt? But it was also because she'd wanted to join herself to him, permanently, and now that Charlie was asleep her anger receded and she found herself recalling all the things about him she loved. His willingness to converse with strangers, his extreme fondness for cats. How he always made a big deal about her birthday, insisting on a cake and candles, even though she said she didn't care. It was normal to feel out of sorts after having a baby, wasn't it? Even for those in the best of marriages, and she had worked hard for this marriage, as she had worked hard for this life . . .
She swept his hair from his face. She could see he was wearing his favorite pajamas, an old marled gray T-shirt with a Duke logo on the back. Julia liked to hear about Charlie's college years: the basketball games watched from the bar, the girls he'd dated (and how they were dumped). The summer he'd spent in Italy before junior year. All of this, his very Americanness, brought her a wide feeling of security. That she was safe, that here in this house she was untouchable and could do as she wanted.
With the certainty of this thought Julia sank into bed. She wrapped herself in her blanket and quickly dropped off to sleep.
The next morning, Julia woke up refreshed.
The feeling of satiation, of being almost fully rested (with one nursing interruption), was unusual. Julia knew she'd overslept because she so rarely did, despite the eight hours of "self-care" she claimed to achieve each night in various lifestyle publications. In reality she rarely slept more than four or five hours—how else did people think she got everything done? Fucking magic? And truly, it was incredible how young people these days seemed to think exceptional results could be had between their hours of sifting through Tangerine videos, leaving at four for drinks—though to be fair, most could never achieve greatness even if they worked every minute. It was simply the sad kind of truth Americans seemed so ill equipped to handle: how unspecial most of them were.
Charlie emerged from the bathroom. He glanced at her, still under the duvet, in amusement. "Sleepyhead."
She stretched. "Slept late."
"You never do that." He bent and powdered his feet. She watched the powder spilling onto the floor, determined to ignore it. You will not be ordinary; you will not nag and bitch.
Charlie stood and pulled on a clean pair of shorts. "I'm going for a run, and then over to meet Connors." Tim Connors was an old college friend of Charlie's who lived three miles away. "We'll get some lunch and he can give me a ride back. You want anything?"
"No, I'm fine." Then, even though she knew she shouldn't: "Have you played with Emily today?"
He paused in his dressing. "You know she's two weeks old, right? We can't exactly shoot hoops."
"I meant reading to her, talking, the books say singing . . ."
"She's just a baby," he repeated, enunciating each word, as if communicating to someone of low mental capacity. "She's not thinking about anything except that she's hungry or tired."
"Okay," Julia said brightly. "Have fun."
She went down for a bowl of oatmeal and then returned to her bed to monitor emails. By late afternoon Julia was hungry again, and in the kitchen happened upon Luna, who was reading to Emily from an illustrated book of constellations. Julia had hired Luna after interviewing two dozen other candidates—she held a degree in early childhood education and spoke both Spanish and German. After finishing her salad, Julia went to her office, where she stubbed her toe against a stack of boxes. Given her fondness for online shopping, Julia had always received packages, but after Emily their numbers had multiplied, to where the opening and disposal of cardboard was now a daily chore. Magda was supposed to tend to the boxes, but she was off and Julia had not wanted a stranger from the agency. Irritated, she retrieved a cutter from her desk. Within minutes she'd unearthed two boxes of baby toys, a Jacadi cardigan set, an Hermès baby blanket, and from their French sales director, Thierry Catroux, an enormous wheel of cheese. She paused after each to log the item and gifter into a spreadsheet; she would write thank-you notes while nursing.
Finally, Julia reached the last package. It was the size of a shoebox, with a handwritten label, no postage. Slightly breathless, she cut the tape. Inside there were delicate folds of yellow tissue, which she tore away.
She lifted them to the light. A set of soft woolen baby slippers, the color of flax. A thin leather sole, little bobbles of wool circling the ankle.
Julia went cold. She'd told Leo about the slippers, once. Back in Moscow, before she'd ever seen an airport or set foot on a plane, as she described for him her years at the institute. In their sessions, Julia sometimes had the feeling that Leo thought he already knew everything about her; that's when she would reach, search for a surprise detail. The casual manner in which Sophia had unpacked the slippers; how much Julia had wanted them, before they disappeared. "You'll have the opportunity for much more than that." Leo had laughed as they sat in the training room. "In America, you can purchase a thousand slippers."
"Those are adorable," Luna cooed from the doorway, Emily in her arms. Julia scrambled, shoved her hands between her knees to stop their shaking. As she reached for the box to reexamine its label, Emily made a gurgling sound and Julia looked up to see a fat foot kick toward the shoes. Surely it was an involuntary spasm; Charlie said it wouldn't be until the second month that deliberate movements were made.
But Luna was already rapt with praise: "Good baby! She knows what she likes!" And, before Julia could stop her, she had snatched the slippers and shelved them on Emily's feet.
"These from a friend?" Luna asked, her fingers stroking the wool. "A good friend?" Which Julia took to mean they were obviously personal, in contrast to the stack of caviar and Tiffany boxes in the corner.
"Yes," Julia said.
"You can tell, when something is made with this." Luna tapped a hand against her heart. Julia watched her retreat with Emily, the oversize shoes dangling on her daughter's feet.
After Luna left, Julia crept into the nursery. Emily was sleeping in her swaddle, and Luna had changed her into pajamas and removed the booties, placing them atop the dresser. Pinching the shoes between her fingers, Julia wrapped them in one of the many blankets that lay in a folded pile, ironed and smelling of lavender; the lump was hot and seemed to shift in her arms, as if it were alive. She walked into her office and dumped the bundle into the back of her filing cabinet, after which she immediately felt better. The cabinet was cheap and plastic and out of sight in a closet; there were six vertical drawers, each containing folders with labels like Property Tax and Medical.
She dropped into her chair with a groan. Charlie had gone back out to the bike shop, so Julia felt free to indulge in a favorite habit of peeling the dead skin from her heels. She flicked the pieces into a corner; she used to feel bad about this, but now assumed all women were dirtier when no one was watching.
Dig, pull, flick. Dig, pull, roll, roll, flick. The slippers were a message, that much Julia understood. That she could not be this Julia now, this Julia after, and leave behind the Julia before. To the SPB they were one and the same, and if she needed reminding, well, here was her reminder.
But when had Leo come? She thought of his calls, how any time yesterday he could have just brought the package and knocked on her door. But no, he'd wanted her to be surprised—to know he could reach her, though just in this instance, he'd chosen not to.
Julia checked the baby monitor, squinting at Emily's form until she could confirm the rise and fall of her chest. The new night nurse had arrived, a woman named Claire whose employment had also been managed solely by Julia, who was paid an incredible sum to sit by the crib and wash bottles. Though Julia would pay any amount, any price, to ensure Emily's safety.
The house was quiet, and the office seemed smaller, eerie and devoid of air. Julia opened a window and then reached into her desk for her notebook. She removed the sheet from Leo, pressing flat the paper. With her other hand, she opened her laptop and navigated to God Mode. And entered the name Jefferson Caine.
A green dot appeared: Jefferson's location. Incredible that on a tool designed years earlier, they'd thought to put in location tracking. This was the power of Tangerine, Julia thought. All those brilliant minds, working as a hive, obeying the commands from above. And her, seated at the top like a queen.
Julia watched the dot as it moved. A favorite tag line of Tangerine's marketing was that it was a company by and for humans—the company was connecting people, they said. They were changing lives.
Before her on the screen, a light. A person, a life. Julia sighed.
From IMPOSTOR SYNDROME by Kathy Wang, published by Custom House. Copyright © 2021 by Kathy Wang. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
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