The Big Cookie: Another dark tale of Internet noir

The night was as black as an overworked metaphor. I was returning from the office after a particularly difficult case—some poor mug in trouble with a loan shark had accidentally wiped out his Quicken file.

The name is Rowe. Mack Rowe. Private consultant.

She was waiting for me in the hallway, as expectant as a dialog box and as beautifully built as an iBook. “Mr. Rowe? May I come in.”

I opened the door for her. “Sure thing, toots.”

I sat down behind my desk, put my feet up, lit a cigarette, and set my hair on fire. “What can I do for you, babe?”

“That’s Miss Babe,” she said, correcting me. “But you can call me Toots.” She handed me her card. She was Toots Babe, Manicurist Extraordinaire. “Mr. Rowe, I’m in a desperate fix. I’ve been surfing the Web a lot lately, and now I’ve got a desperate feeling that someone is following me. Every site I go to, they know my name, they know my shopping habits, they know about those intimate love letters I’ve been posting on Usenet. It’s such a violation of my privacy! Can you stop it?”

I named my fee and she accepted it. Then she gave me a long and luxurious kiss before walking out the door. I sat at my desk for awhile, thinking about the case and wondering about the retching sounds coming from the hallway.

Ferreting Out Data

The next morning I paid a visit to an old adversary, Jimmy D. Weezill. Two years before I’d caught Jimmy red-handed collecting compromising data on just about everyone. Thanks to the evidence I gathered, he got five to ten at Microsoft with generous stock options. I figured he owed me a favor.

“Of course someone’s following Toots Babe. She’s a consumer, and if consumers aren’t watched, they stop consuming.”

“Who’s tailing her?” I asked.

“Probably a cookie.”

“Does she owe him money?”

“Not a bookie, a cookie. As in walnut or chocolate chip.”

Now I understood. She was being tailed by a dessert. I gave Jimmy a tip—I told him not to wait for Windows 2000—and went off in search of more information.

Next I visited an old friend turned Internet billionaire, Dorothy Kaum. Her company, DotKaum.com, is worth billions, and probably will be for at least another week.

“Dot, ever heard of a bird named Toots Babe? She’s being tailed all over the Net.”

Dot thought for a moment. “Let me look up her credit card number.”

Something felt as phony as a Microsoft press release. “How do you do that?”

“When someone buys something from my Web site,” she explained, “their personal information is stored in a decrypted database on our server. We then share this information with other e-commerce companies and they share their credit card numbers with us. This is a big convenience for Web shoppers—we can charge them without their ever having to visit our site. It’s all in our privacy policy, right under the part about breaking their legs.

“Do you have my credit card number?” I asked.

“You mean the card that was revoked three years ago?” I didn’t answer.

“Here we go,” she said triumphantly. “Everything you need to know about Toots Babe. That’s odd.”

“What’s odd?”

“She has the same IP address as Trudy Kockenlocker.”

Suddenly everything fell into place. I leapt out of my seat and everything fell on the floor. It was as clear as fresh spring water poured over a brand-new surge protector.

Confrontation at Dinner

That night I went to Toots’ house for a dinner date. She greeted me in a luminous, semi-transparent raincoat. “Darling! I’m so glad you could make it.”

“Enough of that, Toots. Or should I call you Trudy?”

She looked confused. “Whatever do you mean?”

“You tried to play me for a sap, didn’t you? In fact, you did worse than just trying to play me for a sap; you succeeded in playing me for a sap—just like all the others. You’re not Toots Babe, Manicurist Extraordinaire. You’re Trudy Kockenlocker, founder of nailsonyou.com, the evilest manicure Web site of them all. Every time some unsuspecting dope logged onto your Web site for a manicure, you noted every cuticle and torn nail in your database. Yes, you’ve been gathering information on the fingertips of every well-dressed swain and dame in the country.

“But you wanted more than that. You wanted people’s credit card numbers, shopping habits, and political party affiliations. And to find out how it’s done, you created Toots Babe and shopped the Web. Then you sent me out to do your dirty work for you.”

“Yes, Mack, you’re right,” she cried. “I’m a bad sector. I admit it. But there’s something else. I…” She paused and swallowed hard. “I love you.”

“Sorry, babe, but I’m not buying it. Most women gag three or four times before they say that.”

I walked out of her house and into the night. Before getting into my car, I paused to light a cigarette. I heard the distant sound of a modem making its connection. Someone, somewhere, was getting onto the Internet. I idly wondered who it was. “Oh well,” I said, “I’ll find out back at the office.”

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