NaNoWriMo 2020: Episode 15

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(Read a summary of the story up to now here. Or start at the beginning here.)

The rhododendron is massive and spans across the fences of four gardens together. It is difficult to make out which house is the right one from this side. Several of the back sides are plastered white and merge into each other, while others have built far into the garden, or retreat far back. Counting the houses is impossible from her current position so Helena starts to move cautiously along the fence, dodging as much as possible from bush to bush. She can imagine that any residents or workers in these buildings will not be too thrilled to see a stranger in the communal space behind the buildings. Considering the prices of these houses, Helena can’t blame them; they are sure to be owned by very wealthy people who like to stuff their houses with very expensive things.

As she steps cautiously over the third fence, keeping a careful eye on the houses on her left side, something stirs in the bushes in front of her. Helena keeps perfectly still. Is it a mouse, a rat? A sleek creature makes it way between the stalks of a dead plant towards her. The cat looks at her curiously and starts to rub her legs, purring loudly. Helena crouches down for a moment and scratches it between its ears. She wonders about the kittens, and if and how Marina has managed to keep them secret from Rick, who will be working or wrecking the gift shop next door. Or maybe he has already replaced himself there with one of the phone receptionists he also manages – it would be totally like him to do so. She tries to push the cat away in order to move further into the garden, but the animal refuses to do so. It continues to push against her legs and at one point even rears up to paw at her hand. It very clearly wants to be petted, and doesn’t take no for an answer. “For heaven’s sake! Shoo!” Helena hisses at him, and pushes him off. It takes only a fraction of a second for him to turn around and scratch her hand. “Ow!” She sucks at her skin where blood is already coming out. She frowns at the cat who is already sitting a few feet away and washing itself calmly as if nothing happened. “What was that for?” Cursing a little, Helena makes her way further down.

About half way she stops and peers at the building on the left. The problem with counting the houses from this side is that you can not be absolutely sure how many of the facades on one side correspond with distinguishable separate houses on the other. This house seems to have a family kitchen on the back with steps going down to the garden. The cat strikes against her legs again and then makes its way towards the garden, bouncing up the steps to a cat flap in the kitchen door. Helena sees a man with messy hair appear in front of the window and peer at the sky outside – she retreats quickly into the shadow before he looks down – and yawn. Then he looks down, probably to greet the cat that just came in. Now that Helena takes a more careful look at the garden she can see a number of toddler bikes and playthings by the back door. This is probably not the house she is looking for.

The house next to it seems to be an office. The light has not come on yet, and she sees no people move about. Office hours have obviously not started yet. Helena creeps stealthily to the windows of the souterrain and peers through them to the interior. The downstairs is comprised of some sort of storage where mountains of cardboard boxes are labeled with years: 1982-1986 etc. She cannot make out what the archive is for until she spots a logo on one of the boxes that she has seen on the facades the day before as well as this morning. Nope, not the right one. But it at least gives her an idea of where she is in relation to the crow building.

About five more buildings further down, constantly looking around and ducking through bushes, avoiding lines of sight from lighted windows mainly. A few times a light comes on as she approaches and she needs to keep perfectly still until it goes out again: alarm lights with movement sensors. She makes a wide berth around these gardens, estimating the direction from the sensor, which is usually situated over the back door. She hopes the people inside will blame the cats that roam the inner garden – apart from the early friend she made, she has spotted several others. Cat village in here. Once there is a tense moment as the light comes on and the the window above her also comes to life. She sees a shadow move in front of the window, peering out and talking to someone else in the room behind them. She hears ‘light’ and ‘intruder’ but then also ‘cat’ and she breathes again. The back door does not open, and nobody comes out.

At long last: the crow building. It doesn’t look quite as impressive from the back. It was built back a long way into the garden, leaving only a small bit of open space. There is nothing there that she can see, not even a shed. A high fence is built around it, one of the few in the inner garden, and Helena spends quite some time trying to find a way in without having to climb which would probably draw attention from the people inside. Daylight has fully grown now and most of the buildings around her are busy now with people moving in front of the windows, occasionally looking out and in one instant even someone stepping outside to put food out for the cats. Still, at this time of year the outside is hardly busy.

A loose plank in the fence, near the wall. What luck! She manages to prise it further open with her hands and the screwdriver, slowly to not make any noise. At this angle it would be extremely coincidental if anyone were to look in her direction but still, she takes regular pauses to listen for anything that indicates alarm. So far so good, and she slips into the fenced-in part of the garden that belongs with the crow building. It is entirely paved and there is nothing in it, not even a garden chair like most of the other gardens have to enjoy a little bit of evening sun in high summer. A large window looks over it, and a smaller one with a door leading to some steps down. The souterrain windows are boarded up, which is lucky. But how to peer inside the large windows, when they are so far up? The smaller one, that looks like a kitchen door, is probably her best bet, unless she wants to rip open the basement and she is not much looking forward to anything like that.

She makes her way silently along the wall, staying out of sight of the big window in case anyone happened to be peering out. As she reaches the steps she takes a few deep breaths. Here she needs to take a big risk and leave the relative safety of the wall to reach the bottom step and creep up to look inside. Her hand trembles and she clutches the ball of wool in her pocket for reassurance. This is ridiculous and she doesn’t even know why she is taking these risks, but she knows that she can not go back now. Only forward.

A few more glances at the big window above her but nothing moves, nothing that she can see. Then, quickly but silently, she moves to the bottom step. Nothing happens and she begins to climb quickly. The steps creak a little, forcing her to slow down and find the most solid and silent steps. It takes concentration to be this silent yet quick and to keep her head down as much as possible, if she is not going to appear in the kitchen window like a rising mushroom. She is almost at the top, staring at the wooden landing ahead of her, when the door opens. “Are you fucking insane? Who the hell are you?” a voice hisses at her, and: “Don’t just stand there, get the fuck inside! Now!” A elderly woman is looking down at her, her face strained and her white hair standing on end. She is bowed down, and looking left and right into the garden as well as glancing back now and then. “Well?” she says, “What are you waiting for?” She steps back into the hallway and snaps, still silently, “Close the damn door!”

Helena has no choice but to follow the old woman. The door does lead to a tiny kitchen space but they immediately move into a long hallway made almost entirely of marble. It seems to run the entire length of the building to the front door on Herengracht. There are no decorations in the hallway except for a few pictures of – Helena recognises with a start – crows! She almost stands still to examine them but the woman pulls her elbow and continues down the hall until they come to a small door opposite the kitchen door. They enter: a small flight of stairs is encased in the walls and they disappear into the dark interior. A flashlight flips on and Helena is looking at the eerily lighted face of the old woman, standing very close by with her finger pressed to her lips. They stand there very silently for a while until, suddenly, there is a number of thumps. Somebody is walking right over their heads! By the sound of it, they are coming down the main stairs. That means that Helena and the woman are on the service stairs! With her eyes wide open and heart pouding, Helena listens to the descending steps all the way to the ground, where they walk a little way over the marble floor and then comes the sound of an opening door. They keep still until… yes! The door closes again. The woman beckons to follow her up the stairs again, and they climb, slowly and steadily for what seems like an eternity. The woman before her may be older but she is fit enough to climb without losing her breath, something that is not a given for Helena. She can’t blame her 47-year old body anymore then, just her laziness. 

When they finally reach the first floor, the old woman signals her to stay quiet and they listen carefully. There is movement on this floor too! Footsteps going down the hallway and a door opening and closing. Then, after a while, the unmistakable sound of a shower. The woman’s eyes light up and she smiles grimly. Then, again signalling Helena to stay quiet, she steps out and begins to walk quickly down the upstairs hallway. Helena closes the door behind her and follows her guide. This hallway is almost entirely made of dark wood, although the wall to their left is largely covered with a rather dramatic wallpaper: large tree branches with all types of birds adorn the walls. The birds, all in shades of dark brown, seem to follow her with their eyes and on the brink of crying alarm. A long carpet is on the floor, muffling their steps although now and again the wooden floor creaks a little under their feet. Brass chandeliers hang from the ceiling. 

The old woman runs her hand over the wallpaper on the left of her and for a moment Helena wonders if she is okay, if she needs support. But then the woman stands still, raises her finger and eyebrows at Helena and triumphantly pulls on a little hook sticking out of the wall. Another small door, almost hidden by the wallpaper, gives them access to another flight of servants’ stairs. Further up they go. These stairs are narrower than the last and Helena stumbles a few times in the darkness as her guide shines her flashlight ahead of her, and not on the stairs where Helena needs to place her feet. Each time Helena stumbles, they stand still for what seems full five minutes to listen but they don’t hear anything out of the ordinary. A few times Helena expects someone downstairs to pull open the secret door and yell at them to come down. Once even she expects a pair of hands to come out of the darkness to pull her down again. But nothing happens and they reach the second floor safely, stepping into a very different hallway altogether!

tl;dr Helena is about to peer secretly into the back door of the mysterious building when the door suddenly opens and she is beckoned inside by an elderly woman who tells her to stay very quiet and leads her up two flights of servants’ stairs to the second floor.

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