As he parked his car behind the business school, Luke was surprised to find himself in a state of arousal. The previous night he had had sex with Farrah dressed as Connie, and if he saw Connie this lunchtime he would have images in his mind of her writhing and panting beneath him. Farrah had played the role well, moving like the women in the videos Luke had shown her, even gentrifying her accent when she said his name and the other things he had instructed her to say.
He stepped out of his car, hiding his erection by zipping his anorak. A rare smile stretched his thin lips. Anyone passing might have supposed he was abuzz with the joys of the world or some good news. The smile soon faded when Luke set eyes on the main door of the school and he assumed surveillance mode. He was desperate to see Connie — not just to bolster the pleasure he had felt the night before, the residue of which was coursing through his body, but also to get close enough to smell her. Only one thing had taken away from the near-exquisite perfection of the previous night: Farrah as Connie still smelt like Farrah. It was something that Luke had overlooked, but as he stripped and kissed her, and as her hair dangled into his eyes when she straddled him, the smell of cigarettes and cheap teen perfume niggled at him. He had never seen Connie smoking and was certain the perfume she wore did not cost six euro in Michael Guineys. He wasn’t sure if brushing past Connie or walking in her wake would allow him to gain an impression of how she smelt, but he was determined to try.
Inside the atrium, he looked at his watch: almost a quarter past one. He wondered whether Connie might be having an early lunch, as she sometimes did mid-week, or whether she was still in her office. He decided to check the cafeteria. He skipped up the stairs and took a left, stopping at his usual spot behind a yucca tree close to the balustrade which overlooked the eating area. He scanned the dozen or so occupied tables below and the short self-service queue leading up to the cash register. Connie’s explosion of jet-black hair was not among those present.
Office, so, he thought.
By this stage, Luke had got to know the business school well. There were three ways to get to the second-floor corridor where Connie’s unit had their offices: climbing up the main stairs, taking a right and then another right; using the emergency staircase which served the north wing of the building; or taking the elevator. The elevator was a no-no. At the best of times, Luke avoided brightly lit and enclosed spaces. When he was stalking someone — “on duty”, as he called it — the last place he wanted to be was in a metal box with only one exit. (Luke did have a fantasy about following Connie into the elevator, but he had always seen her take the stairs.) The loneliness of the emergency staircase attracted Luke. In his dozen or so forays into the building, he had never encountered anyone on it. Noting that a security camera covered the ground-floor entrance to its stairwell, he only used it for two specific purposes: descending from Connie’s floor, and observing movements in and out of her office. The door that separated the stairwell from her corridor had a small window glazed with safety glass through which, if he stood bang up against the door and craned his neck, he could see her office. When he failed to spot her in the restaurant or when her office door was closed, his tactic was to wait in the stairwell, pretending to be on the phone, until he saw her dashing into or out of her office, or until he had to go back to the shop.
Stepping on to the second floor from the main staircase, Luke looked right and left before proceeding briskly to the corridor that led to the north wing. Classes were in session. Many of the lecture room doors were shut, allowing only the muffled boom of the lecturers’ voices out. Luke had the stuffy, tiled passageway to himself. He preferred it this way: on the couple of occasions when his visit had corresponded with class change-over time, he had felt swamped and intimidated by the students spilling out and loudly hurrying by. He felt he stood out more in the middle of a crowd of happily chatting students than as a single figure in an empty hallway. He could sense their eyes on him, their recognition that he didn’t belong on campus.
The paintings that lined the corridors often distracted Luke from the task at hand. A sign told him they were part of the National Self-Portrait Collection of Ireland. There were self-portraits of gnarled and bearded old men, wild men with mad looks in their eyes, angrily accusing him through beady, black pupils. There were resigned and disappointed-looking old women, lives of hardship and struggle ploughed into thick furrows of oil paint. There were middle-aged men and women, some garish, some playful, some with arch puzzlement drawn around the mouth and eye, but never pleasing to look at. It was not these nor the pretentious poses of confident and arrogant young men that interested him. The only portraits that caused him to linger and perhaps take a picture were those of young women.
Luke had never liked art before, but neither had he been exposed to much, beyond a couple of school visits to the Hunt Museum, where the paintings were of generals on rearing horses and consumptive beauties in Victorian ball gowns. He had never thought that art could be a turn-on. But there in the school were two portraits that ranked with anything he had in that folder on his laptop labelled Beauties. The women in these portraits may have been fully clothed and may not have been degrading themselves with fingers or dildos, but they made his lips and fingers and penis tingle every bit as much as his private photos.
One of the women was wearing a low-cut, red sequined dress. She sat on a couch which was a darker shade of red, legs crossed and hands splayed on its velvety fabric, pushing her upper body forward. She was blonde and possessed a severe, patrician beauty. The porcelain whiteness of her skin and the delicacy of her shoulder blades and cleavage made Luke desire to search out the artist, to watch her as he watched Connie, and to harbour similar fantasies of enjoying her body. He was happy, even somehow relieved, that unlike many of the artists watching him traverse the corridors, this woman was still young. The label gave her date of birth as 1985.
The other self-portrait showed a woman with an uncanny resemblance to Connie. She had thick, black wavy hair which reached to below her shoulders, pale skin rising to a blush on her cheeks, and a striking purple tinge to her brown eyes. It was a simpler portrait than the woman in the red dress — merely a head-to-toe representation of the woman against a bare white wall and standing on a grey concrete floor. She was dressed in a black body stocking, the only skin on show that of her hands, neck and face. The woman was slim, with small breasts and narrow hips, her body resembling that of Farrah rather than Connie. Yet each time he passed the picture or studied the photo of it on his phone, he could not help imagining Connie wearing a similar garment, her fuller figure stretching the light fabric until it became diaphanous.
Luke arrived at the top of the corridor and saw that Connie’s door was open.
OK, Luke, he said to himself. Steady as it goes.
He stood still and listened. There was no sound of footfalls behind him, and no stirrings behind any of the doors along the empty corridor up ahead.
He crept up the linoleum tiles as smoothly and soundlessly as someone accustomed to having to move about unheard. He passed the first door, the second, the third, the fourth, hugging the wall and holding his jacket to him to prevent any swishing that might betray him. Between the fourth door and Connie’s he came to a stop and pricked his ears. All he could hear was the voice of a man talking on the telephone in the office opposite him and the sound of a keyboard being tapped in Connie’s office. He took a deep breath and edged along the wall until all that was between his left shoulder and the jamb of her door was an inch of cream-painted breeze block.
Wolf-like, he lifted his head, drew a long breath through his nostrils and turned his mind to picking apart the scents that mingled in the air. He held the air in his nose, warming it, humidifying it, turning it over, his full attention on the data trickling from nose to waking mind, and exhaled with a flash of triumph on his features. He could smell her! Somewhere among the building’s dusty, plasticky fug and the stale, solvent smell coming from the heating system nestled a combination of light, fruity shampoo and conditioner, hair oil, perspiration and perfume. He sniffed again, a growing excitement reddening his face. There it was! He ignored the apple shampoo and the red-berry conditioner, put aside the piny, outdoorsy smell of detergent and fabric softener. As if it were plucking balloons of a specific colour from a riotous mix, his olfactory bulb snatched snippets of Connie’s perfume from the air escaping her office and presented a sheaf of aromas — some crystal clear, some mere impressions, some indefinable — to his consciousness. Her perfume was a clash of light and dark aromas, like a ninth chord — an arresting combination, a scent that demanded to be noticed.
Luke could not have put the smell of her perfume into words, but he knew he could walk into the cosmetics section of Debenhams and pick it out from the hundreds on offer. He smiled and took one last sniff. The next time Farrah came to visit he would make sure that as well as looking like Connie, she would smell like her too. Moving back down the corridor, he wondered if Farrah could be persuaded to forgo smoking in the hours leading up to the rendezvous.
Probably not, he thought. Or she might ask for another twenty. Is it worth another twenty?
He looked at his watch and saw he could squeeze another fifteen minutes out of his visit to campus. He went upstairs, hurried to the stairwell and slipped down to his usual spot, to press up against the little window of the fire door. Connie’s door was still open — she hadn’t budged. He watched and waited. Close to half past one he perceived movement by her door. Pulling her arms through a light navy suit jacket and arranging her handbag over her shoulder, she appeared on the corridor, locked the door and, without a glance back towards Luke’s hungry watching eyes, walked towards the atrium. When she reached the end of the corridor he began to follow.
Connie kept up a steady, brisk pace. Luke liked it that way. There was nothing worse than trying to keep pace with someone who dawdled. You found yourself walking past them to avoid arousing suspicion when they came to a sudden stop, and then going to all sorts of bother to double back unseen. If there was one thing he had learned about Connie, it was how decisive she always was. Everything she did had an air of surety and composure, be it the swift, unyielding manner in which she entered roundabouts to how she grocery shopped, plucking items off the shelves without checking either price or best-before date, sometimes mid-walk. There was no hesitation in movement, intention or speech. She was like a shining arrow tearing through time and space.
With her scent hanging undisturbed in the still air of the corridor for Luke to catch, images of Farrah as Connie rose once more to his inner eye. He thought of how he had roughly pulled down her Lycra leggings and stuck a hand underneath her thong. He saw his penis thrusting into vagina, mouth and anus, and the redness of her stung nipples after he had bitten and pinched them. He heard her cry out his name as he pulled her hair and took her from behind: “Luke. I want more, Luke. Give it to me.” He wondered how different sex with the real Connie would be. He couldn’t imagine her taking orders the way Farrah did, submitting to his every desire. But one never knew . . . Maybe Luke would make it so she had no option but to obey. He dreamed of catching her in her office late in the evening, locking the door behind him, tying her to her chair, and doing what he did to Farrah. Or pulling her into his car when she was out walking and driving to Cratloe Wood where there would be no need to muffle her screams with a gag. Or breaking into her house some weekend when she was on her own.
When he reached the stairs, Luke hung back. Connie entered the cafeteria and he watched from behind his yucca tree. She met a couple of girlfriends Luke had come to recognise, then she set off for the sandwich counter. She looked quite the businesswoman. Between the suit jacket and peach blouse, the scarf she wore like a cravat, the ironed denims and black, sensible high heels, she was the embodiment of the female executive. It wasn’t as much of a turn-on as when she wore her walking gear, but Luke did harbour fantasies about being seen with her in public while she sported this look. The toerags who mocked his stutter in the shop would be laughing on the other side of their faces if he went for a walk around the neighbourhood arm in arm with Business Connie, as he called her, and he surely would rise in his brother’s estimation if they met in town for a coffee with her in tow. He snapped a photo of her stooping down over her handbag to pay at the cash register, legs bent at the knees and her bottom sticking out beneath the hem of her jacket. It became one of his favourite images of her.
Outside the school, as he hurried towards the car park, Luke was surprised to hear his name being called. He turned around to be met by a smiling Senán, who was with a strikingly beautiful, if somewhat cross-looking, woman in her mid-thirties.
Luke’s first thought was to retrieve the excuse he had prepared for such an occasion, and his second one was of wonderment that Senán seemed to be permanently in the company of stunningly attractive women.
“Whatcha doing here, Luke? I thought the night out with the sociology department would have scared you off the place forever!”
Luke looked shyly beyond the pair and then down at the ground.
“I’m-I’m-I’m thu-thu-thinking of du-du-doing a cert or du-du-diploma in mu-mu-management. I’m just-just checking out my options. I du-du-du-don’t know.”
“That’s great. Fair play,” said Senán brightly. “If you need a hand, I can put you in touch with a few people.”
Luke nodded his thanks and then Senán remembered his manners.
“Oh, Máire. This is Luke Geoghegan, my other boss. The manager of the shop, Francie’s. Luke, this is Máire Ní Mhainnín, my thesis director.”
Luke and Scary Mary shook hands, with Luke casting his eyes downwards and reddening slightly in the wake of a mild form of The Stare.
“We’ll have to get together, Luke,” said Scary Mary in her sweetest voice. “To compare notes about our Senán, here. I’m sure you have some tricks up your sleeve for getting the best out of him.”
Luke laughed and mumbled something about Senán being a great worker.
“You see, that’s the kind of thing I don’t want to hear,” said Scary Mary. She paused and glanced playfully from Senán to Luke. “I want him to expend as little energy outside of here as possible so that he can devote all his attention to the project we have together.”
When he had listened to Senán telling stories about Scary Mary, the picture he had had of her bore no resemblance to the woman standing before him. Luke had imagined a figure similar to the handful of younger women teachers who had passed through his secondary school on the way to better things. Most were plain, dowdy and countrified (although some were vaguely attractive — Luke had even had a thing for a German teacher called Miss Crowley, who had become one of the first objects of his stalking). But there was nothing schoolmarmish about Scary Mary.
He felt she simultaneously exuded both a sense of availability — or looseness — and an air of predatory sexuality. Everything from her hair to her facial expression to her clothes said “sex on a stick” to him. She wore a shaped winter coat, black with subtle floral details in a matt off-silver, which clung to her bust, hips and bottom and stopped mid-thigh, allowing a fair glimpse of long, slender legs clad in dark grey tights. Her skin-tight, stiletto-heeled boots, which reached to just below the knee, accentuated the sensual curves of her calves, and bordered on the types of boots worn by the PVC-and leather-clad women in his BDSM videos. Her chestnut hair was highly styled, a layered, asymmetric cut, and swept forward to below the jawline. She wore subtle day make-up that drew attention to her bottle-blue eyes, which were lined with kohl and shadowed with a colour to match her tights. Luke could not look into those hot, confrontational eyes, sure she would see the desire in his own. Instead he flicked his gaze from her cranberry lips to her arrow-straight eyebrows, to the flash of neck he could see above the collar of her coat. If the young woman he had been observing represented sweet, squeaky-clean, upper-middle-class normalcy, Scary Mary represented something altogether darker — a pillar of the academic world with a barely concealed interest in cold, angry sex, and possible fetish elements thrown in.
“He-he-he gu-gu-gets a lot of tu-tu-tu-time in the shop to thu-thu-think about his pu-pu-pu-project. While he’s-he’s pu-pu-packing shelves and-and-and all.”
“That’s true,” added Senán. “It’s solitary work. You get a lot of time to think about things.”
“Hmm,” said Scary Mary sceptically. “I’d prefer if he was doing his thinking at his desk in the Foundation. But anyway. We’ve to go, Luke. We’ve a meeting with a statistician. Nice to meet you. C’mon, Senán.”
With that she began marching forward, heels clicking on the tarmac. Senán winked at Luke, told him he’d see him later on in Francie’s and skipped to catch up. Luke walked in the opposite direction, then turned and watched until Senán and his supervisor disappeared into the business school.
So that’s Scary Mary.