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Every time I come this close to quitting. When the going gets tough. When I think I have run out of ideas – even though I never really do. When I think nobody will appreciate the effort I make anyway – even though I know that I am not doing it for anyone but myself. Every time I come this close to quitting, and too often do I choose to.
Not this time, Helena thinks as she makes herself comfortable on Betty’s couch. It is a wide and long affair that takes up much of the room in her little studio apartment just outside the city centre, and it seems to be made specifically for reclining purposes. Helena props up her pillow and draws the blanket up to her chin. As she lies staring at the ceiling and waiting for sleep to come, she goes through the events of the day in her mind. There has been much running around after people and things, she feels. Benny, Luc, Fred. Even the sandwich shop was an effort. And, she feels with a pang of guilt, almost every time something had happened to her. She didn’t do it herself, she did not bring anything about particularly, she only reacted to things that happened to her. And it annoys her and it is wearing her out and it needs to stop. She can feel that now, as she lies on the old but lovingly maintained couch of her best friend, surrounded by carefully curated items from days long gone; old but not forgotten and certainly still of use. Like us old girls, Helena muses just before she nods off, just like us except I would do better to maintain myself just a little more carefully.
She always wakes up well before the light of dawn at this time of year. It will be hours still before the city properly kicks into gear and begins its business. Now, it is still quiet and dark outside, or it would be if there wasn’t so much light in the city. Compared to the little village where she lives now, this is like living in a glittering disco ball sometimes. Still, she had a good night’s sleep during which apparently her brain has been working furiously because she woke up with a plan fully formed in her mind. Well, as fully as possible considering all the unknown aspects, but still it is a plan which is much more than she had when she caught the train yesterday to take her to Amsterdam.
She dresses quietly and makes coffee in Betty’s tiny kitchen. Her friend won’t wake up for a couple more hours. With coffee in hand she makes her way down, to the street where Betty’s bike is parked. Helena stands looking at it for a moment and then decides that whatever she will do, she will not park it anywhere close to wherever she is going because it will stand out like a bunch of roses on a dungheap. It is a good sturdy bike, naturally because it needs to carry Betty as well as Betty’s magnificent purse, but of course it is painted with bright colours. No doubt one of Betty’s artistic friends had offered their services and the effect, it has to be said, is stunning: large red and yellow flowers of all kinds adorn the frame, complemented by a range of actual plastic versions on the handle bars. Cute yet sophisticated and about as useful for a stealth operation as a siren.
Helena parks the fashionable bike a few blocks away and walks the rest of the way. The canals are still deserted. These are the few hours between revellers finally turning in, and the morning crew coming out to prepare the next day. A delivery truck of some kind is trundling along the canal on the other side, but the Herengracht is empty of all movement. A few ducks are drifting in the middle of the water with their heads tucked under their wings. The golden light of the streetlights glitters on the surface and makes the canal look like something from a fairytale.
The building with the crow is also deeply quiet. It feels like it is sleeping, and if there is anyone inside they will be sleeping too. No lights come from the downstairs or upstairs windows. A few bikes are parked at the doors of the neighbouring houses, but not the house with the crow.
First Helena examines the facade without fear of being caught. Maybe there will be cameras but she does not see any. Besides, she will not likely have another opportunity anyway. The brass plaque by the door does indeed show a sketch of a crow like the one on the pendant. She takes it out and holds it next to it for comparison but the likeness is definite. This is the house, there is a connection. There is a string of bells by the door, as is common with these large canal houses. There is no name by the bottom bell, presumable the apartment where she has spotted Fred. The second bell has a little plaque that says ‘A. Morales PhD’. Who lists their academic title with their name by the door? Helena wonders but files it for later. The third bell, which is probably the other lighted window she saw yesterday, has a sticker over the name. In faded ink and the twilight of morning, Helena can just make out ‘Emming’. She makes a note of this in her phone, then steps back to take in the rest of the doorframe. An old cast iron hook hangs over the door. It is likely that this was once used to hold a lantern or lamp but it is surprising to find; most Amsterdam houses don’t have such a thing over the door. But there will be of course – Helena cranes her neck to look straight up and find it immediately – a hauling hook hanging from the top of the facade. It will be fixed to the very truss of the roof, and can hold quite a bit of weight. And is, and always has been, used as means of hauling things into and out of the building. There is nothing else of interest to find on the facade of red bricks and large checkered windows.
But the house itself is not all she came for. Helena calmly makes her way further down the street, down the side alley and along the row of houses on the other side, only to turn back again to the Herengracht. As she makes this perfect little rectangle around the house, the city is starting to wake up. A cleaning car slowly makes its way down the street, hissing as it goes, and it is followed by the first cyclists on their way to the station. Somewhere down the street someone is opening the door of a little café and switches on the light. Helena stands watching it for a few moments, then makes her round of the block again.
“Rope? No I don’t have rope!” Betty just crawled out of bed and is looking at Helena exasperatedly. “I have thread and yarn, darling! I may have a bit of string for tying up a chicken but that is about it!”
“Okay okay, never mind, I was only wondering.”
“What on earth do you need rope for?” Betty wanders to the kitchen and puts on the kettle. “At this time of day, even!”
“Nothing. I have just learned that it is usually good to bring a bit of rope when you’re about to…”
Betty waits, hands in her side. “About to what?”
“Nothing! Just… never mind. Forget it.” Helena zips up her jacket and fishes the bike keys out of the pocket. “Thanks.” Then, as she is about to turn to the door: “But do you happen to have a screwdriver by any chance?”
The walk back is a lot slower but gives her time to plan her actions a little better than before. She doesn’t have rope, and the screwdriver Betty loaned her is not as good quality as she would like, but it is better than nothing. In addition, and Betty insisted on this, she has her friend’s sharp pocket knife in the pocket of her jacket. The pendant in its wool casing is safely in the other. She kept it under water again during the night, and hopes it won’t cause a fire while she is busy.
The little café that opened so early in the morning is doing a busy trade now that it is around half past seven in the morning. It is one of the few that is open and many people come in for take away, although there are also a fair few that take a few moments for themselves at the café before heading off into their busy day. They read on their phone or stare at newspapers. The proprietor is friendly when Helena comes in and orders a cappuccino, for here please, yes I will be sitting right there in the back, thank you very much. She pretends to read the paper until the coffee arrives, then sips it while she studies the other patrons. Knowing Fred and his usual schedule, it wouldn’t be all that strange if he were to wander in, but somehow take out coffee doesn’t quite seem to fit the man.
It gets busier in the café with people waiting by the end of the counter for their take out. Helena gets up, carefully folds the newspaper, and makes her way to the bathrooms in the back. She doesn’t need to pass through a kitchen this time. The bathroom sinks are directly set into the wall of a hallway that leads to a back door that, as Helena already suspected, leads, after a bit of force with an inadequate screwdriver, to the inner garden behind the café – and the canal houses.
She quickly steps out and closes the door gently. She immediately makes her way to the side of the building and steps into a large rhododendron that leans of the neighbours’ fence. Dodging spiders left and right, she manages the climb the fence, her ears straining to hear the opening of the door and the calling out for her. Did anyone notice that she slipped out the back door? She keeps still for a moment and takes the time to bring her heart rate and breathing down a few notches. She is – almost – in the backyard of the mysterious house!
tl;dr Helena cases the house and decides to approach it also from the back side, by way of the inner garden between the houses. It is a daring undertaking – what do you tell her?
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