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Helena takes a moment to catch her breath and take in her surroundings. This hallway is substantially different from the ones she saw below! It lacks the grandeur of the stately halls they passed, and projects a definite shabbiness. For one thing, there is no marble nor any dark wood to cover the floors and walls. Instead, Helena sees threadbare carpets over bare wooden planks. The walls are filled with bookshelves and coat hooks that bear an assortment of coats, hats and scarves in all colours. Woven baskets turned upside down serve as lampshades from the ceiling that is also a lot closer than the ones she has seen downstairs. It is a lot like entering a different world altogether.
Beside her, the old woman breathes deeply in and out, standing with her eyes closed and her hands held horizontally beside her at chest height. It takes a while before she opens her eyes again, but when she does they immediately pin themselves on Helena. She huffs and scurries off through a door. “Well come on then!” she says, a little more kindly than before. Emboldened by the tone of her voice, Helena follows her and steps in what appears to be a study. Or it could be a sitting room, it is hard to make out. The shabby theme is certainly continued although this space is clearly lived in with love. The whole room is filled with books and rolls of paper that look a lot like maps. A messy desk stands in the middle of the chaos, with piles of papers and books stacked on top of it beside an old desk lamp, a little vase with what looks like wildflowers, and an old-fashioned biscuit tin. What looks like a brand new apple laptop lies in the middle of it, closed. The desk chair has seen better days, as has the sofa that is also half hidden under a big plaid. A large bird cage stands in the corner with its door open, but Helena sees no resident. She walks to the window overlooking the canal and sees the spot where she stood yesterday, and let herself be washed away by Rogelio and Marta and their kindly crew. Suddenly a sound to her right makes a her jump. A large parrot is peering at her from the bookshelf at head height. “Hello,” Helena says softly. The animal bobs its head up and down, then begins to climb up the bookcase.
“You want tea?” a voice calls to Helena as she is taking in the room.
“Yes please!” Helena responds, and makes her way to the door in the back through which the woman has disappeared again. She finds her in a tiny kitchen, grabbing mugs out of the cabinets and preparing the tea pot. “Thank you.”
“You bet,” the woman replies, then sticks out her hand. “Julia.”
Helena shakes it. “Helena. Pleased to meet you, madam.”
“Don’t you madam me! I am just Julia and I may be older than you, there is no need to go around sticking titles like that on a poor innocent woman.” She winks at Helena, then pushes two mugs into her hands and picks up the pot. “Let’s go inside for a bit, shall we? But please walk quietly! I don’t want anyone downstairs to know you’re up here.” She urges Helena inside and she settles herself on the desk chair, directing Helena to the sofa.
Julia is a short stubby woman. Now that she has time and opportunity to look at her properly instead of in a dark stairwell surrounded by mysterious footsteps and spiders, Helena sees that she is not all that old after all, about seventy. She has short grey hair that sticks up in places, and wears glasses with a dark red frame. She is clothed in what Betty would probably refer to as ‘leprechaun wear’: dark green pants and a dark purple vest over a beige turtleneck. The whole affair looks very seventies.
She pulls a handkerchief from her pocket and wipes her nose. “Now would you mind telling me why in the world you would want to come into this building?” she asks, offering Helena a biscuit from the tin on the desk. “Take three. I am asking because I cannot for the life of me imagine why you would want anything to do with that lot.” She points at the floorboards.
“I didn’t really want to come in,” Helena says. “Yet,” she asks, truthfully. “I only wanted to know more about it, peep through the window or something if I could find something of interest.”
“You a thief?” asks Julia, seemingly completely unabashed by the possiblity.
“No! No, I didn’t come to steal anything. It’s just… I have taken an interest in this building” she finishes lamely.
“And why would that be?” Julia asks, her eyes glittering.
“Well…” Helena hesitates. What is she going tell this strange woman, living in what appears to be the attic of this mysterious building yet also strange keeping a distance from its other residents?
Julia appears to guess the source of her hesitation. “I live here because they cannot legally kick me out” she says, “although they have certainly tried repeatedly to do so.” She chuckles. “I have had to become very good friends indeed with the local police as well as a few of the high price criminal lawyers – and their usual clientele might I add – to keep myself in this little nest up here. They don’t dare undertake anything to remove me, for now. And if anything were ever to happen to me, like accidentally slip off the stairs or find my tea laced with anything to upset my stomach or worse, they wouldn’t hear the end of it. Or they would, but very briefly and finally,” she grins evilly.
Helena swallows a mouthful of tea. “Wow,” she croaks.
“Let’s say that the gentlemen downstairs are hardly friends,” Julia continues, “so you might as well tell me about your interest in this building, and your reasons to try and approach it in the broad light of day! Whatever were you thinking?”
“I er…” Helena starts, “I thought there would be less chance of alarms in the garden during the daytime.” She shrugs, fully aware of how stupid it sounds now, even though it seemed such a bright idea when she thought of it.
Julia laughs. “Good thinking! Although who needs alarms when they can just see you through the windows as you make your way through the rhododendons?” She shakes her head. “You are pretty damn lucky I spied you first!”
“How did you spy me? I mean, from all the way up here?”
Julia laughs again. It sounds like a deep boom and Helena finds herself beaming along with it.
“I actually have a little spy!”
“You mean the parrot?” Helena grins incomprehensibly.
“Him? Gods no!” Julia shakes her head, “Not this time anyway. Richie saw you yesterday though, alerted me about it. He always does that when he sees something out of the ordinary,” she says and looks fondly at the bird that is now making its way down again near the door towards a pile of newspapers. “No I saw you with my actual ‘spy’.” She gestures towards the door in the back. Helena stands up hesitantly and makes her way to the kitchen. There behind the window attached to the sill is a little mirror, pointing downwards. Standing at the little kitchen counter, she can see all the way down to the steps leading to the garden door. She lets out a deep sigh. Who would have thought she’d be caught by a parrot first and a little spy later?
“I have one for the front too of course,” Julia says when Helena sits down on the sofa again, “although I never get visitors up here. As you can probably see.”
In the corner the parrot Richie starts tearing strips off the newspaper and dropping them to the floor. Julia doesn’t seem to notice, or care.
“Now would you mind telling me why you would want to take this kind of risk, in the middle of the day, in order to reach this building and take a look inside?”
Again, Helena hesitates. But then this woman has helped her enter the building undetected, and has taken her up to and into her own house. She seems kind, she probably knows more about the people in the rooms below including perhaps Fred, and let’s not forget that she is probably also the only one who can assure that she also gets a safe exit. She takes a deep breath.
“I was working in the park when I found this nest of kittens…”
Julia interrupts her now and then as she tells the whole story, including the silence in the fields, and the reactions of both Benny and Luc. Was there anything odd about the cat or the kittens, she wants to know. And were there crows in the field at all? How quickly did the stone heat up, and did anything else specific happen before or during those events? How did Benny know where the metal came from? And how did Luc open the pendant? When Helena tells her about the blue stone falling out, Julia nods, frowning. Before she can say anything, though, Helena prompts: “We didn’t touch it! Don’t worry!”
“Why would I worry?” asks Julia, pouring another mug of tea and offering some to Helena, who declines. Julia helps herself to another small pile of biscuits and leaves the tin open.
“Apparently that stone can kill people,” Helena explains, feeling a bit ridiculous, “Benny told us that everyone who ever touched it was dead within 24 hours.”
“And you believed him?” Julia raises a bushy eyebrow.
“He seemed so scared of the thing himself!” Helena says defensively, “It seemed very credible when he told me so I thought…”
“Better safe than sorry, huh?” Julia takes another biscuit.
“I guess.” Helena shrugs.
“Well, a little misplaced sensibility goes a long way, I say. Because that stone in there, young lady,” she adds, “doesn’t kill anything or anyone. It does plenty of other things! But it doesn’t kill – people do that for it.” She places her hands on her knees and stands up with a small grunt. “I guess you will want to know how I know, hm?” She nods. “Now let’s see, where is it?” She starts scanning the bookshelves until she lets out a small cry of triumph. “There it is!”
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