His given name was Frank, but his boss, who had studied medieval literature at Princeton, called him Titivillus, Villy for short. Titivillus, he was told in absolute confidence the day of his recruitment, was the recording demon of scribes, popular in medieval Christian exempla, an infernal creature who lurked in monastery scriptoria and cathedral naves, stuffing the mangled words of priests in Mass, or the idle words of parishioners in services, or the deleted words of monks in copied manuscripts into a sack to be held against the offender at the Last Judgment. Frank was no cunning demon, but his office in the basement and his job in the company had earned him the title.
Years of sedentary work had expanded his waistline over his belt. His hair, once thick, had thinned and was combed across his wide head in an embarrassing attempt to recover the illusion of youthful pillatory excess. His glasses, a corrective for the damage the dim lighting had exacted over the years of his employment, were thick and purely functional with black, plastic rims. He was the first in and the last out, leading to the mythology that he never left the building, and he was rarely seen, calling into question his very existence. But once a year he made a public appearance at the office holiday party. He was thoroughly forgettable, though, invisible on the periphery of the crowd, quietly eating strawberries from a large silver serving bowl and sipping punch. No one knew him and no one cared to ask who he was. Just one more anonymous employee in a crowd of inebriated celebrants.
Other than this one occasion, he did not venture from his chthonic room, filled with computer parts cannibalized from obsolete machines, reams of thick manuals crammed into metal shelves, monitors, keyboards, floppies and disks, and in the center of the room, in front of an ergonomically designed chair, three huge monitors, sufficient to launch thermonuclear weapons from NORAD, if he so desired. But that was not his purpose. He was not interested in national security, only the security of his corporation. He was invisible, but not insignificant, and that was exactly the way his supervisors wanted to keep him. Their power, by and large, depended on the work he did. Consistent with his namesake, he scoured every hard drive in the company, every social media site of every employee, every instant message sent on a company machine, every deleted line of text, absolutely every word in the cyber world that intersected the interests of his employer. Like Titivillus, he looked for the damnable word. And he found them by the millions.
It was an enormous task to cull through thousands of emails and Facebook pages and virtual trashcans every day. That responsibility explained his pasty skin tone, his gravitational spread, and his bleary eyes. He was as much a machine as what he was paid to monitor, he a throbbing circuit of retina and optic nerve and visual cortex and the object of his attention only pixels and electrons and symbols of a different type of circuitry. What made him indispensible was that he knew what could serve as actionable data. What could be used against an employee, what word could be leverage, what sentence a source of pressure. What about privacy? Some would ask. What about the civil rights of the employees? Is it ethical to snoop and pry and sniff into every electronic inch of their online existence? Villy had long since dispensed with the philosophical objections. His job was simple. If any word or image touched a company computer, it belonged to him, not the employee of origin. If it was useful for his employer, even if deleted, even if it was found on a forum not directly related to the company, it was his. His Titivillian sack was enormous and it included information on everyone. Everyone. Conspiracies, affairs, criminal behavior, idleness, gossip, insults, insubordinations. He ruled it all. And in the Baconian universe he inhabited, knowledge was power. He was a self-contained, omniscient force.
And then one day Clarissa Ann Meadows was hired. Employee 018924. He was in the process of entering her information in the system when he saw the photo HR took for her file. He stopped breathing for a minute. He had never seen someone so magnificent. And her name. He could almost smell the fresh mountain air and the perfume of wildflowers. He felt something. Usually people were just constellations of data points to him, clusters of information that could be pushed or pulled like levers to drive the machinery of the corporation. But she was different. He didn’t know why. It was just a picture and some biographical information. Maybe she was a complete lunatic. But there was nothing unusual in her file. No psychiatric notes, no debt, single, no children. How could she not be married? He didn’t know but he was interested.
She started on a Monday. He made her a priority in his surveillance. After two weeks of following her digital trail, he couldn’t find anything objectionable. Usually there was something—family drama in emails, sketchy Internet sites visited, complaints about management, something—but with her there was nothing. She was perfect. He shone his virtual flashlight in every corner of her online life. A month, then another. Nothing. No email arguments with an ex-husband, no insistent calls from creditors, just messages to her sister, a purchase off a wedding registry. He dutifully filled her file, but it was slender, unlike others. There was nothing there. And the more he learned of her uneventful life, the more he felt uncomfortable tracking her. With every other employee it was not a problem; it was a job. With her it seemed creepy and voyeuristic. But that didn’t stop him. They paid him handsomely to gather words and he did it with her too. Only her words were not scandalous and they meant something to him other than a paycheck. He began to imagine they were directed to him. His obsession grew.
But there was a limit to what monitoring her could do to satisfy his interest. He wanted to meet her. Usually it was prohibited for him to interact directly with the other employees. He had to find a way around the policies that secluded him and actually have a conversation with the woman. After some thought, he had an idea.
“Pardon me, Ms. Meadows,” he said one bright morning as she pecked away on her computer in her cubicle. “My name is Frank and I’m from IT. We are changing software on some units and yours is one that requires an upgrade.”
“Oh,” she said, distracted. Then she turned to face him and her smile glowed like distilled joy. When she swept a lock of her hair, the color of sunshine, behind her delicate ear he almost melted in a puddle in the middle of the loop pile Berber carpet. “Of course. Do what you need to do.” She pushed back from her desk and stood, relinquishing her chair to him.
In spite of his remarkable self-control and coolly cerebral approach to his responsibilities, he could feel the back of his neck prickle and warmth rise on his cheeks.
“This shouldn’t take long,” he said, pulling up to her monitor. Suddenly decades of computer knowledge evaporated from his brain and even though this service visit was a ruse, he still felt uncomfortable. She watched as he poked keys like a child. A line of sweat formed on his upper lip. Why was he reacting like this? He spent his life on a keyboard. His mind thought in code. Now the introduction of this new element scrambled everything. He was used to being the watcher; now he was the watched. All he wanted to do was to talk to her, to interact with her as a human being, not a computer profile, to hear her hopes and dreams, to learn childhood memories, her favorite foods, books she loved.
Instead, all he did was finish his imaginary upload, smile awkwardly, then apologize for the inconvenience and thank her for her time. He scurried back to his basement office as quickly as his pudgy little legs could carry him. He locked the door and dropped in his chair, his sweat slick shirt sticking to his back. He spent the rest of the afternoon thinking of her. He had crossed a line; he knew that. Perhaps his foolhardy decision to venture out to the space beyond his monitors would draw the wrath of his superiors. But he waited and by the end of the day, he had received no angry email, no request for a conference.
His success emboldened him. There was no way five minutes in the presence of this goddess was going to satisfy him. He sent her a message, asked her to join him for dinner. There was a microscopically small chance that someone like her would say yes to someone like him, but he tried anyway. No response. A week went by. He sent another email. This time she sent a polite response.
“Thank you, Frank, for asking me to dinner. You seem like a nice man and I very much appreciate the work you did on my computer, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline your lovely offer. I hope you understand. Cordially, Clarissa.”
He was devastated. Of course he didn’t understand. There was no indication that she had a husband or even a serious boyfriend. Was he really that repulsive? He picked up the phone and began to punch in her number, then paused. Is this smart? He smiled. He was Teflon. He had more information about everyone in the company than anyone else. If he was interested in dating someone on his own time, he should be able to. He finished dialing.
“Clarissa?” he sputtered. “Frank from IT here.”
“Oh, um, how are you, Frank?”
“I got your message. I guess I am just calling to ask you to reconsider.”
“That’s very flattering, Frank, but I’m going to have to stand by my decision.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, Frank, but I have a pile of work here and I really need to get back to it. I hope you have a super day,” she said, and then clicked off before he could respond.
He sat staring at the buzzing receiver for a minute before he realized what had happened. He tried immediately to call her back. It went straight to voicemail. A half-hour later he tried again, with the same result. Maybe it was his overprotective mother, maybe the isolation of his adult life or the nature of his job, but he just didn’t have the social skills to recognize the difference between persistence and stalking. He waited a couple of days and called again. Voicemail. He found it hard to believe it was mere coincidence that of all the places for her to work, she had landed in his company. Call it fate or providence or whatever, he took it as a sign from some higher source. He wouldn’t let her drift away without trying one last thing. If that didn’t work, then he would resign himself to a life of perpetual solitude. He would confront her at her apartment. Risky, he knew, but he was desperate. He didn’t even consider the possibility of a restraining order.
He parked a block away. Waited. Waited some more. He knew she was home. Finally she walked out, her adorable cockapoo on a leash. He was straining against the tether and she was using both hands to pull him back. Then the leather snapped and her dog was free. He tore off down the sidewalk then cut sideways into the street, on a collision course with a florist’s van that was barreling to a delivery. Fueled by adrenaline, Frank threw open his car door, darted across the street, scooping up her pet before he was injured, tumbling with the animal cradled in his arms at the feet of Clarissa, who was at once surprised, grateful, and utterly relieved that her dog was safe.
“My God, Frank, where did you come from?” she asked as she nuzzled her dog’s snout and stroked his fur.
“Just out for a walk,” he said. “Good thing I came by when I did.”
“I don’t know what I would have done if I had lost Blizzard. Thank you, Frank. What can I do to repay you?”
He blushed like a schoolboy. “How about dinner?”
A split second of hesitation and then a confident, “Of course. You busy now? I know a great Italian place around the corner.”
“Lead the way, Ms. Meadows,” he said.
“Please, call me Clarissa.”
So over antipasto, wine, and heaping mounds of pasta, he found out her hopes and dreams (large family, house in the suburbs after a successful career on Broadway), her favorite food (Thai), and books she loved (Dr. Zhivago, anything by Jane Austen)—more in one conversation than from months of data mining. And she found out about him, about his absent father, his time in boarding school, his interest in computers, his love of fantasy and sci-fi novels, his secret fear of dying alone in his apartment and only being discovered when the rent came due. With her stunning smile and sweet disposition, she drew out all sorts of information from him, everything except for what he did. His role as company Titivillus was a sacred trust he would never disclose.
Hours later, when the waiter presented the check and told them the restaurant would close in a few minutes, he dug a credit card from his wallet and she daubed her magnificent lips with a linen napkin.
“So you do have a weak spot, Villy,” she purred.
Panic. Paralysis for a moment and then his gaze shot around the empty room.
“Who are you? And who told you to call me that?”
Her naïve smile became a vicious grin. “Let’s just say our boss got to me first. He wanted me to keep an eye on you, remind you of who’s really in charge. But from where I sit, I would say that’s me. Now, would you like to discuss the terms of your surrender? I have a couple of projects in mind…”