THE SHOPLIFTER • by Jez Patterson

There were many reasons why the woman might have taken the things, and if anyone knew, it was Mary Jenkins. Mary sat close to the one-way glass and observed the thief with a practised, professional eye.

She’d been a store detective for over twenty-years, and in that time she’d seen it all. Mothers who got their toddlers to grab things off shelves and then sit on them in the pushchairs. Men who risked castration by shoving all manner of objects down their trousers. Teenagers who believed they maintained the picture of cool despite their jackets suddenly growing bizarre new angles and lumps.

And far too many women of this one’s age and type for it to be a surprise seeing her sat there.

Early fifties. Long married — the gold of her wedding ring was dull, part of its engraving worn away. Neatly attired — she could easily afford the goods she’d stolen. But even if poverty were the cause, she hardly needed five different-sized, men’s plaid shirts.

Kleptomania was, of course, always an explanation. Those that took with an uncontrolled urge, as addicted as an alcoholic to the next bottle, a smoker to the next cigarette. The things they took had no need of logic. She’d once caught an old man whose pockets, when turned out, had had a single shoe from a rack of children’s slippers, eight pairs of earrings, and a novelty soap. Mary and the other store detectives even played a game with such types, imagining what possible activities they were planning to get up to using the combined items they’d taken.

This one, though, looked bemused by, rather than resigned to, her capture.

Maybe it was just boredom then that had made her do it. With the passing years, the days got tiresome, the entertainment the world offered equally routine. It sometimes got like every joke was merely a variation on one you’d heard before, every experience tinged with a drab sense of déjà vu. Maybe the onset of senility eventually worked as a cure for this — turning you into a human goldfish, so that your reduced memory span meant you could forget each day’s occurrences and thereby experience familiar happenings with a fresh sense of wonder each morning.

This particular shoplifter was a working woman, not a housewife sat at home day after day. She was more likely to resent the demands of her job, rather than be bored by the routine of life outside it.

Then it might have been a cry for attention. She was married, so was it a case of the husband neglecting her? Or the kids had recently moved away and never called, never remembered the woman that had brought them up?

Mary knew of a neighbour who’d filled her family with dread every time they left her alone for more than a few days. Rather than resort to some vague but awful threat of killing herself, the woman instead contrived to have small but significant accidents around the house (usually involving electrical items, or whilst apparently in the act of home repair). The ruse had worked, and the woman was now never alone for more than forty-eight hours before one of her kids came round to check she was alright. They had even drawn up a rota.

Mary cocked her head, considering this. No. The shoplifter was too calm for all this to be a simple demand to be noticed. The attention seekers always produced tears, and there were none. Yet.

Maybe not a cry for help, but a vengeful act to embarrass those same people?

She’d read magazine stories of women who’d done such things. There was one featured in last week’s tabloids who’d emailed a nude shot of herself to everyone in her husband’s workplace after he’d taken a mistress. She knew, personally, of a woman who’d placed her own obituary in the local newspaper to shame a family she felt took her for granted.

So, what’s your excuse? Mary thought at the woman sat there, the five incriminating shirts stacked up beside her. Why did you do it? There always has to be a reason, damn it. Otherwise… otherwise, perhaps some of the others I’ve caught I got wrong too.

The shoplifter sat impassively staring into the mirror. Mary frowned. This one had her stumped. She’d figure it out eventually — had to — and so just kept up her patient observation, waiting for the shoplifter to crack and give herself away.


“You’re sure she can’t see us?” the manager asked.

“No, sir. It’s one-way glass — her side is just a mirror.”

“Why does she just keep staring like that? Spooking me out. How long’s she been with us again, Sophia?”

“Twenty-three years,” the security officer told him and sighed. “An exemplary record up until today. Our best store detective. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Mary Jenkins,” the manager read from a file, and shivered as the woman the other side of the glass continued to stare at her own reflection. “Why on earth did she do it?”

“I expect she’s asking herself the same question.”

Jez Patterson is a British teacher and writer, currently based in Madrid. Links to other things with his name at the end can be found at

This story is sponsored by
Clarion West — Apply now and prepare for your professional writing career with Paul Park, Kij Johnson, Ian McDonald, Hiromi Goto, Charlie Jane Anders, and John Crowley, June 22 – August 1 in Seattle.

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