The Purloined E-mail

The Purloined E-mail, free story, free fiction, mystery, Margaret Atwood, Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter

A little while ago, the New York Times asked a group of writers to contribute their opinions on how new technologies have changed the way we write our stories. Margaret Atwood, in particular, proposed this exercise for writers:

Your practice test: Rewrite Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter,” using present-day communications technology. In the original, a “letter,” made of “paper,” written in “ink,” and bearing a “seal,” was disguised as an inferior letter and hidden in plain view. The letter needed to be invisible to searchers, but close at hand so it could be quickly produced when needed.

Go to it. I’m sure there are a hundred brilliant solutions to the puzzle of “The Purloined E-Mail.”

Okay, so I couldn’t help it, I got to thinking about a modern version of The Purloined Letter, or rather The Purloined E-mail. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it… so in the end, I did do my practice test, Margaret Atwood! *grins* And here it is… I had a lot of fun writing this so I hope you have fun reading this short story too! And if any other writers out there want to try their hand at a version of The Purloined Letter, be sure to let us know too so we can read your story!

The Purloined E-Mail

The morning was cloudy and overcast, which suited my mood perfectly as I contemplated the plate of French toast and the accompanying Bloody Mary my cousin Caitlin had just placed before me. The drink was a dark vivid colour, thanks to Caitlin’s heavy hand with the Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce, and it brought to mind certain dark deeds of the night before.

We both sat in companionable silence, nibbling toast and sipping our restoratives while the November sky rumbled gently outside and the refrigerator hummed softly in the background.

This peace, however, was interrupted by the sound of several sharp buzzes at the front door, each one louder and more impatient than its predecessor. Within minutes, a tornado in a vivid yellow blouse, black and white chequered palazzo pants and black stiletto heels had torn her way through the door and into Caitlin’s super modern kitchen, slamming an overflowing black Birkin down on the countertop with an explosive bang that made me wince and swear under my breath.

“I’m telling you,” the tornado – or perhaps the bumblebee, for that was what her colours called to mind – said, “we are in trouble if we don’t sort this mess out, Caitlin. And you’re the only one I can think of who can do it for us.”

Caitlin said, “Coffee? Tea? There’s Diet Coke in the fridge if you prefer.”

“Have some French toast,” I suggested as a lame attempt at hospitability, mainly because I was not feeling particularly hospitable and was feeling guilty because of it.

The tornado stared at me from under long navy-rimmed lashes. “I don’t eat carbs,” she said before turning back to Caitlin. “Caitlin, honey, I swear we will make this worth your while if you can solve this itty bitty little problem for us. I even have a blank cheque signed by Cynthia right here,” patting the Birkin, “made out to you if you can help us get – ah – a certain someone out of this shitfest of a mess she’s gotten herself into.”

“Tell me the problem and I’ll tell you if I can fix it,” Caitlin answered.

“Oh! Of course,” the tornado said. “Well, what happened is –” she stopped and glanced at me.

I was about to make my excuses and leave the room, but Caitlin stopped me.

“Jane, this is Elle Phillips,” she said. “Elle, this is my cousin, Jane, who’s visiting from Nebraska. And you don’t have to worry, Jane is perfectly discreet. Anything you say will not go beyond these four walls. I vouch for it myself.”

“Nebraska? Oh, well, if you say so,” Elle said doubtfully. “Nebraska, huh? She cast me another sidelong look. “Weird,” she muttered under her breath.

I bristled a little at that. I knew exactly who Elle Phillips was. She is of that slinky breed of PR mavens who are always getting written up in magazines and gossip columns. Her aunt is the formidable Cynthia Phillips, who founded the public relations company Phillips Tags, which has at least ten Fortune 500 companies in its clientele portfolio. Elle’s job, however, involves the more glamorous side of Phillips Tags, throwing parties for celebrities, getting brand names seen and heard in all the important places and handing out strategic freebies to Those Who Matter.

Elle is also the kind of woman who calls anything she doesn’t understand ‘weird’, which happens to be almost everything and everyone she meets in life. She’s one of the few aspects of New York that I haven’t missed since I moved to Omaha with my husband three years ago.

“Well, anyway,” Elle said, briskly dismissing me as nothing more than a piece of the furniture, “here’s the thing, Cait.”

I listened in. Of course I did. Who wouldn’t want to be privy to something completely confidential and juicy? And juicy, it certainly was.

One of Phillips Tags’ clients was Palette, a hip new technology company that had just produced a set of groundbreaking smart devices that were currently dominating the smart technology market.

One of Palette’s top executives was a woman named Jessica Murray, who also happened to be one of Cynthia’s best friends as well as Elle’s godmother. It seemed that some months back, Jessica had begun dating the employee of a rival company. She knew, of course, not to allow him access to any information on Palette’s then top-secret developments or to even speak about it to him. If we were to go on to what Elle was hinting at, the idea of playing with fire was probably one of the things which attracted Jessica to this ill-advised relationship.

However, shortly after this and while Palette’s devices were still in mid-production, a particularly hostile fight took place between Jessica and Paul Gibbons, a fellow Palette executive whom Jessica has a longstanding rivalry with. The chairman of Palette sided with Paul in that particular instance and Jessica was so incensed, she seriously considered slipping Palette’s top secret R&D results to her boyfriend, on the condition that she be given a top job at his company too. The boyfriend, naturally, was pretty excited about this.

Not too excited, however, to keep him from getting caught in bed with another woman by Jessica. Needless to say, all negotiations fell apart as quickly as the relationship did. In the meantime, Palette’s chairman, wishing to appease Jessica after her fight with Paul Gibbons, gave her some unexpected higher duties and a promotion just ahead of the release of their highly anticipated new smart devices. Jessica was happy once more, Paul was slightly pissed off but made nice for now, and everything seemed to have returned to normal – or as normal as things could be for a company on the brink of its biggest production release.

Or so it seemed until a few weeks after the much-hailed and immensely successful product release, when Jessica was called out of her office on a minor emergency. When she returned, she found Paul standing by her desk, apparently having dropped by to discuss some details about another upcoming project. After Paul left, Jessica returned to her computer and found that she had inadvertently left her personal e-mail open when she’d been called away – and that somehow it was now open to a chain of correspondence between her and her former boyfriend detailing their failed negotiations to steal Palette’s top secret technology, correspondence she had unhappily and very unwisely neglected to delete. And that somehow a copy of those very messages had now been forwarded on to Paul’s e-mail.

“And it’s so not fair, Caitlin,” Elle said, rolling her eyes dramatically. “Sure, Jessica was mad, and yeah, she did consider selling Palette out, but when push comes to shove, she would never have really done it. I know her and she loves Palette, her whole life is practically Palette, it’s almost weird. She was just mad at the time. And now she stands to lose everything she’s worked for. And Daniel is making some awful demands on her. He just wants to make her miserable right now, but ultimately he wants her job. He wants her to resign from Palette and leave New York, like, forever.” Elle shuddered at this prospect. “And she is not willing to do that.”

Caitlin said, “I assume you’ve already tried all possible ways of destroying Daniel’s copy of the e-mails?”

“We’ve tried everything,” Elle said. “We got an expert hacker to hack into his office computer, his home computer, his laptops, his iPhone. But the e-mails aren’t there anymore. Cynthia even hired a couple of professionals to search his apartment and his office for hard copies or flash devices or anything that could possibly hold those e-mails. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. And the thing is, he could have a million copies of those-emails hidden God knows where, ready for release anytime, anywhere. That’s how far this has gone.”

“Hmm,” Caitlin said, tapping her chin.

Elle spread her hands. “Can’t you do something, Caitlin?”

“I think so.” Caitlin held out her hand.

Elle stared at her.

“The cheque, please.”

Elle shook her head. “Cynthia says you get the cheque only after you’ve solved the problem.”

Caitlin raised one eyebrow. “And you’re saying you don’t think I can solve this problem?”

Elle looked slightly taken aback. “Well…”

Caitlin wiggled her fingers.

Elle hesitated, then sighed and began to rummage through her bag. “Cynthia would kill me if she knew what I was doing,” she muttered as she placed the slip into Caitlin’s waiting hand. “Remember, honey, this isn’t just a blank cheque I’m putting into your hands. This is my life. And Jessica’s.”

“Don’t worry,” Caitlin said, unperturbed. “Have you ever known me to fail?”

“What are you going to do?” Elle asked anxiously, still holding onto the cheque. “How are you going to fix this?”

Caitlin smiled and smoothly pulled the note away from Elle. “By conducting a little spring cleaning, of course.”

“A little what?”

“Spring cleaning. In the stables. Namely, the Augean stables.”

Elle stared at her. “The – what? Is that the new stables that hot Greek polo player, Christos Stephanopoulos, just bought in England?”

“Not at all,” Caitlin said. “It’s a stable in a mythical Greek legend. The Labours of Hercules.”

Elle’s brow furrowed as she continued to stare at Caitlin. At last, she said the only thing she could have said. “Weird.”

“So how are you going to solve this problem?” I asked after Elle had departed in a clash of black, white and yellow.

Caitlin smiled as she stood up and tucked the cheque into her pocket. “Exactly as I told Elle. I’m going to sweep the Augean stables out.”

I have to admit, I was about as clueless as Elle was as to what my cousin was talking about, but I decided to leave it all up to her. In the meantime, I almost forgot about the case as I went on with the rest of my vacation in New York, visiting friends and looking up favourite old spots. It wasn’t til the end of my trip that all hell just about broke loose in the city.

It seemed a group of anonymous hackers had gotten into some of the most private e-mails of some very significant folk in New York – politicians, entrepreneurs and celebrities – and were publishing their most private details for all to see. They included the most indiscreet messages, from extramarital affairs to libellous insults of important third parties to highly volatile business dealings. All of America – indeed, all of the world – was agog.

This went on for a few days before fresh revelations came to light. It was all lies! None of the e-mails published were true. Yes, the e-mail addresses were all bona fide addresses. But their contents were fake, a ruse to stir up lies and trouble. In essence, to create smoke where there was no fire.

And amid the many false scandals that had been fanning the flameless smoke was one pertaining to a set of e-mails between a certain Jessica Murray of Palette, Inc. and one Adair Nelson from Palette’s rival company. Not true, of course, everyone said. Not Jessica. Everyone knows of her loyalty to Palette. Sure, she and Adair had had a brief fling, but, honestly, anyone who knew Jessica knew she would never risk her career in that way. Not, as Elle Phillips said loudly for all to hear, for such a weird guy like Adair. Palette issued statements declaring they were firmly standing by their employee, poor Jessica, an innocent victim of vicious gossipmongers and unholy liars.

“This was all your doing, wasn’t it?” I said to Caitlin the night I was due to leave New York. “You started this entire hacking business. You spread the rumours. And then you sneaked Jessica’s e-mails in with all the others so it looked like it was a fake as well. If Paul ever tried to produce the e-mails, he would be accused of making use of the hacking scandal to try and destroy Jessica’s good reputation.”

“That’s right,” Caitlin said, smiling. “His proof is now completely useless. Those e-mails have lost their power – in the eyes of the world, they’re nothing but a pack of lies.”

“Just out of curiosity,” I said, “how much did you pay yourself out of that blank cheque Elle gave you?”

“Well, let’s see,” Caitlin said, beginning to count off her fingers. “Naturally, I took out enough to pay Gordon Matheson and his crew of hackers – they charge an arm and a leg, but they’re well worth it. Then I added the small sum of $50,000 as my own personal fee. And finally, there was the sum of about $150 for which I used to purchase a set of books to be gift-wrapped and delivered to Elle Phillips.”

“Books?” I said doubtfully. “Does Elle even read? What books did you give her?”

Caitlin dimpled. “A few classics. The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe. Agatha Christie’s crime collection, The Labors of Hercules. And, finally, a set of Greek myths featuring the story of Atreus and Thyeste.”

I hesitated. “Those books are going to be totally wasted on her,” I said at last.

“Yes,” Caitlin said, “but one can only try to educate. I owe that much to Elle after she gave me this gift of the Purloined E-mail.”

The End


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