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The Purse Snatcher

Be careful what you ask for

By Alan GoldPublished 2 years ago 16 min read
Detail of The Spoonful of Milk, by Marc Chagall

Robert stood knock-kneed and stricken on a chair in his kitchen when Jolene came to see why the coffee was taking so long.

"What are you doing? Are you okay?" But she knew right away the spiders were playing him. She would talk him down, hug him like a child and everything would be fine again. Everyone had at least one quirk, and his was not a deal-breaker.


"How many boyfriends have you had?" asked Clara, a moon-faced co-worker whose stark make-up and garish clothes would have been intrusive at twenty paces. Clara's oozy friendliness and assumed access probed the wall of Jolene's comfort zone, always looking for a door knob. Clara lived in Jolene's apartment complex and once tried to carpool with her, a proposal Jolene dodged with the idea that she worked erratic hours.

"An average number." Jolene answered on the boyfriend question. She held her palms out flat and arched her eyebrows in a way that might let her escape, at least for now.

But when Jolene thought about it, her throw-away answer actually seemed pretty accurate.

She held a decent job in the PR department at MacroMusic, one of the world's largest entertainment brokers. Good pay, and she had pop stars on speed dial. "I've got the 'pop-arazzi' at my fingertips," was an ice-breaker she'd polished over her career. A lot of people would kill for a job like that, but after ten years at it, Jolene was not one of them. This is okay, she thought, keeping an eye out for opportunities.

That's kind of how her love life went, too.

An average number of average boyfriends. It was just what you did, all anyone could do, until you got things sorted out in your life.

She'd finally found someone in her Goldilocks zone. Robert was tall, but not too tall. He was handsome, but not in that ridiculous, movie-star way; his was a very personal handsomeness that might not have even worked on another man.

He had a great sense of humor, with brains to spare. He made good money as a digital merchandising exec at CyberKleptics Corporation. He listened, he loved dogs and cats, he knew how to dress and his apartment was tasteful, and always tidy.

He also nursed a debilitating -- and endearing -- case of arachnophobia. In fact, his fear spilled over to encompass the entire world of bugs. From what Jolene could gather, he'd had a traumatic experience as a child which involved stumbling into a thick web spun by a hand-sized demon that scrambled over his face.

"I just can't stand spiders," was the upshot, and that was good enough for Jolene, who had no great affection for them either. But an encounter could lay Robert out trembling in the fetal position. And, hey, she loved to be the antidote.

If Ms. God created Eve, and asked her to puzzle out a design for Adam, then Robert would have been the product.

They worked in adjoining towers, so on Tuesday they met for lunch at TacoStop where white-collar crowds ordered from touch-screen menus at their tables.

"Hey, Robert, you're going to love our chicken enchiladas today!" the screen said as they scooted up to the table. "And check out our queso!"

Jolene's eyebrows rose. "Did you make a reservation, or what?"

"Way better than that." Robert looked happy, which made Jolene happy. He rubbed his palms together, cupped his hands and blew into the hole between his thumbs. Then he flung his hands apart, as if releasing a magical rainbow bird.

"Way, way, way better. We're rolling out the next big thing, with TacoStop as a beta tester," he said. "Right now, the only bottleneck is in sales because they can't keep up with the demand. This is going to cut across all sectors."

"Slow down," Jolene said. "I don't get it." Robert was so cool that she didn't even mind admitting that.

"Sorry." He fiddled with a napkin and glanced at a Dos Equis poster on the wall. "So, your phone and your computer at home and your computer at the office and your TV and your smart refrigerator are all collecting information about you, right?"

"Well, duh." Now Jolene had to resist rolling her eyes.

"Great. So we've developed this software that recognizes your phone and then sorts through your digital profile and can target you with a personalized ad -- or a menu suggestion, or anything we want -- on any nearby display. We can even do billboards by blending the data from all the drivers approaching the digital sign.

"We're hitting our marks every time up to a hundred yards, so our code name for the project is 'William Tell'."

Jolene twisted her fork clock-wise in quarter-turns on the table for a moment or two. "So once a company signs up with you, they can hijack screens I go by to show me ads based on my browsing history?"

Robert straightened up. "Bingo! We need you in our marketing department. But, yeah, it's like when you search for a particular pair of Nikes on the internet, and then you get bombarded by Nike ads wherever you click for the next month. This is the next level of that."

"But these companies have to pay CyberKleptics big money to buy in?"

"Right. And right now we can't even keep up with the demand. And … I'm the second lead guy on the project. This is going to be huge for me."

Then he flipped the switch on his big, brown eyes and looked very serious. "For us."


When Robert came over that weekend, he plopped on her sofa while she fired up the coffee.

"How's the project coming?" she asked through the kitchen nook.

Silence. He was staring at her print of Chagall's The Spoonful of Milk. Or through it to the wall. Or through the wall to outer space.



"How's your project coming along?"

"My project?" He glided slowly back to earth. "Oh, William Tell? It's great. We're already beefing up our sales support. And the tech guys are just about there on discrimination. It's looking really good."

"Discrimination?" Jolene cocked an eyebrow, but she wasn't afraid to ask. This was the guy!

"Oh, right! Discrimination. When you have more than one phone in range of a given screen, you need an algorithm to pick the one you want to play to. They're fine-tuning the filter based on shared interests, affluence, the Susceptibility Index -- that one measures how often a person has responded to targeted ads in the past -- a whole bunch of factors.

"I've never seen the nerds so excited about anything. They keep trying to jump the gun on the full release. We've got the best coders in the world, but they're a bunch of cowboys."

Two weeks later, he took her to Golden Knives, a steak house with an older clientele, because most people their age couldn't afford it.

"I've got an announcement," he said, after sampling the divine calamari.

"That we're going Dutch?" she laughed.

They shared giggles before he pulled himself together. "No way! I got a big bonus for the first phase of William Tell. And I think there might be a promotion in the pipeline."

They toasted their Chardonnay.

"And I couldn't have done it without you." He shook his head and zeroed in on her. "You always ask me the right questions, and that makes me see how to tighten the message. That flows through sales, tech, operations, the whole shebang.

"You know, I really could get you a job, if you wanted it. You're brilliant, you've got the eye. You'd sell yourself and I bet they'll give you a ton of money."

On the plus side: Money! Prestige! Appreciation! Working hand-in-glove with this guy she couldn't get out of her head.

On the downside: Working hand-in-glove with this guy she couldn't get out of her head.

Would that be a spoiler in their relationship? Jolene's serious side skidded into the foreground. Her instinct was always to weigh an issue carefully, and then stick a thumb on the scale. She knew waiters rolled their eyes while she got lost in a menu. She knew she wasn't supposed to take inventory if someone said, "how are you?"

"That sounds very attractive." She dabbed a napkin to her lips. "I'm going to think about it."

Think about it! No more phone tag and ego-stroking with pop stars. No more requests for backstage passes from people she barely knew. No more office politics, at least not the kind that had nagged at her for the last ten years.

But working was one thing. Life and love were something quite different. What if they collaborated on a project that went south? Would corporate turmoil tear them apart? And what if -- yes -- they decided to get married? Would nepotism policies get in the way? There was so much to consider.

Things got a little hectic over the next few months, with Robert working long hours, and Jolene disengaging from her own job, toying with what he'd said about her going to work for CyberKleptics. So the hours and days dragged by until their next rendezvous.

The morning sun peeked through the blinds on a Sunday when Robert had stayed over at her place. He was still conked out -- she'd exhausted him -- so she slipped out of bed and brought back coffee on a tray.

"Good morning, sunshine," she cooed in his ear.

He rubbed his eyes, making happy-yawn noises, and sat up while she slipped under the covers next to him.

"I've been thinking," he said as the caffeine began to work its magic.

"Did it hurt?"

"Be serious." He nudged his arm against hers. "I've been thinking maybe we should get engaged."

Jolene looked at him, her mouth slowly getting wider. "I don't think that's how it works, Romeo."

"What do you mean?" He took another quick sip of coffee.

"You don't get engaged to get engaged. You get engaged to get married."

He went blank for a moment, then shook his head. "Right. I guess I've been too wrapped up in beta testing lately."

"I could kill you for a proposal as mangled as that, and a jury of women would call it justifiable homicide," Jolene gave him the sternest look she could manage.

And they both broke out laughing.


The television in the break room at MacroMusic played a three-hour loop of in-house programming. Each day brought a new round of interviews and music videos from their stable of clients, interspersed with corporate pep talk and policy reminders. Like most employees, Jolene considered it white noise as she grabbed her coffee.

"Are you getting married?" Clara popped out of nowhere and leaned over her table. "'Fess up!"

"What are you talking about?" Jolene pushed backward, but her chair shuddered on the linoleum.

"Come on! Brides R Us?" Clara waved at the monitor in the corner where a commercial for a local wedding business was playing. Jolene had never noticed commercials for anything on MacroMusic's daily program. But then again, she hadn't paid any attention to it for years.

"I don't know what you're talking about," she protested.

"Come on! It sure as hell isn't making that pitch to me." Clara patted her sternum. "And you're the only other person in here."

So many times in Jolene's life, she'd been agonizing over menu choices or esoteric news events so much that she hadn't noticed that the next big thing had arrived, and the rest of the world already took it for granted.

She'd had an inside seat, but this was the first time she came to grips with what Robert's William Tell Project really meant. All it took was a few idle, whimsical clicks on her computer and the pitches started rolling in. But now, instead of nagging ads on her phone or desktop, the whole tableau was laid bare for public spectacle.

It brought a whole new meaning to the phrase, "Be careful what you ask for…"


A few weeks later, Robert called her at work and said he would be tied up in William Tell meetings all day Friday, and then they had some kind of goofy, corporate team-building retreat that ran through the weekend. So why didn't they head over to Flannagan's for a drink after work Thursday?

William Tell was finally going live on Monday, and he wanted to give her an update. He'd had a showdown with his "cowboy coders" whose itchy trigger fingers almost let William Tell out in the world before its scheduled time.

Jolene and Robert both worked later than their colleagues, so it wasn't too unusual for Jolene to catch a solo elevator on her way down to meet him after work. The twelve-inch screen over the panel of floor buttons played an ad for a local bakery's wedding cakes. She sighed, more out of exasperation than anything.

Normally, they would meet in the plaza between their two office buildings, but just as Jolene stepped out from the revolving door, a dark shape came from her left, ripped the purse from her shoulder and spun her to the ground. It went down so fast all she could do was lift her head to see someone on roller skates dive into a car at the corner just before it sped away.

People crowded around her.

"Oh my God!"

"Are you okay?"

Robert broke through the huddle, pulled her up and hugged her, both of them out of breath.

A security guard entered the fray, followed soon by a policewoman and her backup. The cops' methodical interviews of Jolene and the witnesses overlaid some kind of order on the chaos.

Flannagan's was out of the question now, and Jolene's car key was in the purse, so Robert drove her home. She turned down his offer to stay with her.

"I'm sorry, I'm just too distracted," she said. "I've got to call about getting a new key, my driver's license, credit cards, debit card -- what else did I have in my purse?

"Oh shit!" It hit her. "My phone! I can't even call to straighten things out."

"You can use mine," Robert caught her hand, which was waving wildly, and placed his phone in it. "Like I said, I'm tied up tomorrow and we're on retreat with no phones allowed through the weekend. You can give it back Monday."

Jolene broke out the wine and fumbled through paper files to report the theft of the credit and debit cards.

She had to get to work in the morning, so she topped up the wine, bit down on a strip of leather, and sent Clara an email about hitching a ride with her.


"Poor dear," Clara couldn't stop shaking her big head on the drive to work. "What's happened to the world?"

They got in the elevator along with an anonymous guy in a gray suit that they'd both seen from time to time on the last, vertical leg of their daily commute. They were on nodding terms, and that was about it.

As the elevator rose, the display screen switched over to a commercial featuring a slightly clad woman hawking special rainbow packs of ribbed condoms. Clara planted an elbow in Jolene's side and rolled her eyes toward the guy on her left. The guy was giving them the side-eye right back. He got off two floors before their stop, with something that may have been a nod, or maybe a head-clearing shake.

For lunch, she thought she would grab something at TacoStop's take-away counter, but she couldn't get past the jumbo screen in the lobby of her office building that was playing a commercial for an escort service featuring a woman in a low-cut dress and high heels squeezing into a limo. "Hey, Robert," the caption read, "Who you gonna call?" followed by an 800 number.

She craned her neck like a kid in the front row of the movie theatre, trying to take in a picture that was too big, too distorted to make any sense out of it. Shame burned her face, but as she looked around the lobby, nobody else seemed to be taking notice. She guessed none of them were named Robert. But neither was she.

Too upset to be hungry now, she went back up to the break room for a cup of coffee. She would try a decaf with cream, something warm and calming. But the monitor there was shilling for a progressive dating app. "Your date, your deal," the app promised.

Jolene couldn't cope with Clara anymore, so she called Uber to get home after work. She checked her wine inventory, and felt like she didn't need to start rationing just yet.

She booted up her computer to Google about CyberKleptics, but her browser opened to a website that promised to make her a "T-Man" and whatever that might be, the graphics looked too disgusting to go any further.

The elephant in the room was Robert's phone. She opened its web browser and scrolled through the history. That's when everything clicked into place. Mr. Right seemed to share Mr. Wrong's tastes in websites. When she'd seen as much as she could stand, she threw the phone on the sofa, topped up her wine and hatched a plan.

Clearly, dark things lurked behind this guy's appealing façade. So she would show him parts of his personality that he was hiding from himself. Her code name was "Project Id-side Out."

Using Robert's phone over the weekend, she discovered dozens of websites devoted to spiders and bugs. Who would have thought that you could buy them for pets? You could order them to feed your pets that liked to eat them. You could order them for research. You could order them from these weird Goth sites, no questions asked. Every creepy-crawly you could imagine could be purchased online.

Each site she visited with Robert's phone dropped another data point on his web profile. On Sunday she took his phone for a walk through the mall. Everywhere she turned, there were gigantic black widows, fiddlebacks, wolf spiders and daddy long legs dancing across high-definition screens.

By Monday, she'd gotten replacements for her car key and phone. She powered up Robert's phone one more time to visit the top Goth site and order a deluxe Spider Colony Starter Kit, to be delivered to Robert's office on Wednesday.

Then she dropped his phone off at the front desk of CyberKleptics with a note that said, "Thanks. Have a nice day."

And she wondered when she would be able to say again that she'd had an average number of average boyfriends.

Short Story

About the Creator

Alan Gold

Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.

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