I had no idea what to tell her in response. I was always the kind to avoid any conflict. Even when it was necessary to strike back I tended to prefer the way of surrender, something that other boys at my high school took advantage of, often to my utter embarrassment. So when I was pressed for an answer in such a direct and unconditional manner I was completely and utterly lost. She was looking at me with a mixture of curiosity and contempt, obviously expecting me to say something in my defence, even an apparent lie.
“I am sorry, I…” I’ve finally forced myself to speak, when I was unexpectedly saved by a colleague of mine, who entered the office, ending our uneasy tête-à-tête with Nicole.
“Hey, David, how are you doing this fine morning?” Raymond, my desk neighbour to the right came in earlier than normal. I have to admit I’ve never been this happy to see that idiot. Raymond was about my age, but already balding and about 40 kilograms overweight. He would always annoy me with his unfunny anecdotes and boring stories about his family vacations and other life events I could not care less about.
“Hello, Raymond,’’ I responded and pretended that I had just finished talking with Nicole. “And thank you, Nicole, for cleaning under the desk for me, sorry for interrupting you earlier.”
She looked at me, that predator smile on her pretty face again, and leaned very close to my ear, whispering: “Consider yourself lucky for now, boy. But we are not over yet. Meet me in the lobby after my shift is over at noon. And don’t you dare not show up. Unless you want everyone to know, that is. ”
“Yes, Monsieur, you are very welcome,’’ she said loudly enough for Raymond to hear her and moved back. Thankfully my stout neighbour was busy unpacking his briefcase and paid Nicole no attention whatsoever. She walked over to her cart and continued with her duties as if nothing had happened. Ten minutes later she moved around the corner and was no longer in my line of sight.
I spent the next few hours unable to concentrate on anything. Dealing with this situation was the last thing I needed right now, especially given yesterday’s events. Raymond’s constant chattering was not making it any easier. What could she want from me? Would an apology do? What if I told her that it was not what she thought it was? It was just for my collection of pictures of cleaners. I was not planning to post it anywhere online for others to see. So her security was not at risk in any way if that’s what she was concerned about.
No, my real motive was too hard to explain. If I could not even properly explain it to my wife, Danielle, how could I tell a total stranger? Oddly enough, it seemed a lot easier than confessing to a family member or a close friend. People on the same flight or on a long-distance train would often open up about things they’d better keep to themselves - precisely because they know they’d never again meet the person they spoke to. But would Nicole understand me? My tired brain was working in overdrive, trying to come up with a solution where there was absolutely none. Not going there for our showdown was out of the question. I knew pretty well that she could cause me a lot of problems. People have been fired and their careers ruined for a lot less than that. I just could not risk it.
Finally, the time was up. Of course, I could not do a lot of work when waiting for the inevitable, I just made a couple of quick calls that could not be postponed. I took the elevator downstairs and entered the spacious lobby of our office tower. Luckily, there were quite a lot of people walking around the area and our little meeting would most likely not attract any attention. I looked around. There was no sign of Nicole. What if she changed her mind, I thought to myself. Or got distracted by something and forgot about our little misunderstanding. After all, I did not do anything criminal, did I?
My hopes were shattered when I saw her approaching, even as I did not immediately recognise her. Nicole was out of her simple cleaner’s uniform and was dressed in a rather flattering pair of ultra tight jeans that accentuated her wide hips and shapely calves to full advantage. She'd let her hair down and refreshed her makeup, going quite heavy on fire engine red lipstick and black mascara. On her feet, she wore what looked like platform sneakers - totally impractical for her job, of course, but now when she was off duty she was her true self, dressing as she pleased. All in all she looked like one would expect an unsophisticated young city girl to look - lacking in style, but bold and openly flaunting her sexuality.
She walked over to me, rocking her hips in an exaggerated manner, and stopped very close, forcing me to make a step back. Her perfume was incredibly strong, as if she’d used a full bottle in one go. Clearly understatement was not her strongest feature. She smiled at me - if I could really call that frown a smile that is - and said sarcastically: “Where did we leave our conversation? Oh yeah. I need some explanation, baby. Why were you taking those photos? I did notice you were making photos of me at the Auchan a few weeks ago, but thought I may have been mistaken. Apparently, I was right all along. You know, I could cause you a lot of trouble, don’t you?”
“It is not what you think,” I mumbled. Her facial expression left me with little doubt that she would let me off the hook easily.
“What matters is what company management would think, not what I think,’’ she said. Of course, she was right and she knew it. My explanation was a weak one. Furthermore, to really explain what I did, and why, would mean embarrassing myself even more.
“How do you suggest we go about it?” she looked at me and continued almost without a pause as she was clearly uninterested in what I could suggest. She already had a plan in her pretty head. “I think 1000 Euros is a very, very modest sum to forget about this problem, don’t you think so, David?”
I gulped. She was blackmailing me after all. What if she went to the management and complained? It would be her word against mine. I could delete all the photos. Would that be enough? Or could they somehow get them from the provider? I was never that technologically savvy so I had no idea.
Should I risk it? With my mortgage payments and now without Danielle’s income to supplement my own, a thousand Euros was a lot of money. But what was the other option? If the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn taught the world anything, it is that maids have a way of destroying men’s careers, even when there is absolutely no proof of any wrongdoing. Could I risk that in my current state? It looked like she'd got me.
“That is too much,’’ I managed to say, gathering all my mental strength. “500 Euros.”
“You know you have a very weak hand, boy,’’ she said, giving me that sexy predator smile. “But I admire your courage. Ok. 900 Euros. That’s my final offer.’’
That was still too much. I still had the trump card that I had not played: being completely honest about it. Yes, it was embarrassing, but at least she would know I was not a stalker nor a pervert wanting to rape her or something like that. I had no idea what she was thinking.
“Listen, Nicole,’’ I said and looked around, making sure that no one could overhear my confession. “I know it looks bad and I apologise for taking those pictures. I’ve had a very rough day. My wife left me last night so I am not my best. But you see, it’s this interest of mine. I’ve always been interested in cleaners, their world, how they work, how they look, how they move and how they talk. I know it sounds ridiculous and hard to believe, but please listen. It is not about you as a person. It was never my plan to hurt you or to compromise your security. You see, it’s not about my desire to be with a cleaner, it’s about being one. It’s my dream of a simpler, less stressful life. Does that make sense to you?”
“What, you want to be a cleaner or something?” she responded, her sneer replaced by something approximating genuine interest.
“Well, it’s not as simple as that. But yes, I find the idea… very stimulating. Not sure you can understand. But rest assured I never wanted to hurt you in any way,” I said quietly, expecting Nicole’s final verdict.
She looked me over again, her smile now back. She had that look of a cat playing with a mouse - she knew she could strike any moment and there was nothing I could do to defend myself.
“Listen, David. I really want to believe you, but this is the most idiotic excuse I have ever heard. Seriously, you expect me to believe that? I’ve been online, I know of people like you, taking pictures of girls and then selling them to perverts across the world,’’ she said. “Now, my last offer is 900 Euros. I don’t have time for further negotiations.”
“Fine. I don’t have that much cash on me, though,’’ I said, sounding completely defeated. I'd just confessed to her my biggest secret, something I could not find the courage to tell my wife about during our years together, and still she did not find it believable. And I told her about Danielle leaving me, as if this was justifying my behaviour somehow. How stupid. I just wanted it to be over as soon as possible.
“Not a problem. There is a cash machine in the next building. We can go there now,” she responded in a business-like manner.
We walked silently to the ATM, I drew out 900 Euros and gave her the money, feeling terrible - not because I needed that cash myself but because I had been foolish enough to tell Nicole my secret. What if she tells someone else now? How could I be so gullible?
“Thank you, David. See you soon,’’ she said matter-of-factly as she put the money into her red shiny plastic handbag and went about her business, leaving me to contemplate my fate.
I returned to my desk. Work was piling up, there were calls to be made and a couple of daily reports to be updated, but all I could think of was my conversation with Nicole. The way she looked at me, when I told her about my fantasy. That peculiar mixture of genuine interest and utter incomprehension. Still, I managed to complete most of my duties almost on autopilot and, when the office clock hit 5 pm sharp I was out the door to head back to my empty house.
There were still no messages from Danielle. I was thinking of calling her myself, but then decided to wait another day or so. I was not in the best mood for this inevitable conversation.
With Danielle not at home, the dinner was on me and I settled on a simple ham and cheese sandwich, one of the few things I could actually “cook” myself. I was just about to sit down with my food and a book, when I heard the doorbell ring. I looked into the door viewer and was shocked beyond belief: it was Nicole!!! How on earth did she find out where I lived? And what did she want from me?
“Come on, David, open up. I know you are there alone,’’ she said in her pushy tone of voice and rang the bell again. “Or do you want me to shout through the door why I came?”
I had no choice; the last thing I wanted was for her to make a scene in my quiet neighbourhood. I opened the door and let her in.
“How… how did you find me?” I asked.
“It’s very easy. I am friends with a girl in HR. She has everyone’s addresses in a folder. It’s not like it’s top secret, you know,’’ she responded in a confidential tone. “Anyway, I have a proposition for you. I’ve been thinking about what you told me about your interest in cleaners. In becoming one. I think I could help you. What would you say to that?”