NaNoWriMo 2008:

Twilight Players by Shinosu

Prologue

Looking into the mirror, I adjusted my dark green bonnet once more. Allowing myself one more outwardly nervous gesture, I sighed and smoothed away some perceived wrinkles in my skirt one last time. As I met my own gaze in the mirror again, the bells from the cathedral began to toll, announcing the half hour. I waited for the sound to die away, then squared my shoulders, donned a neutral, if slightly bored facial expression and turned to exit the public bathroom.

The isolated quiet of the bathroom that had allowed me to put my thoughts in some semblance of order was rudely disturbed by the hustle and bustle of the station's main hall that met me outside the door. Letting my gaze sweep over the crowd once in a perfunctory gesture, I stepped away from the door and joined the stream of people toward the exit of Amsterdam Central Station. Effortlessly, I matched the speed of the crowd; not too fast, but not too slow. Either would have attracted attention. It had taken me a while to curb my emotions and perfect this skill, but by then it had become a habit.

Stepping through the massive doors, down the stairs to the main square outside the station, I again swept my eyes across the wide-open space. Satisfied with my surroundings, I entered the square and walked to the public notice board that had been erected there some time ago. Pretending to read the new announcements posted on it while in truth I wasn't able to take in a single thing it said, I counted down the time as I had been instructed. Reaching the desired number, I hiked up my shoulder bag and turned in the direction of the Damrak, one of the busiest streets no matter the time. Again I matched the speed of the other pedestrians, making sure to keep my facial expression friendly but neutral and my head held high. I had long since learned that the best solution was to distract myself with completely unrelated, mundane things. Luckily, I knew by heart the way I was to go, and thus had no problem operating on automation. I thought about my kid-brother's birthday that I had to slip away from to be here. I hoped he hadn't yet missed me, and would allow me to slip seamlessly back in the bustle of things in a little while.

This distraction was easy to keep up while I was still in the busy, crowded part of the city. But inevitably, my destination made me veer away from the lively main quarter, and into the much quieter residential area. It wasn't long before I could discern another set of footsteps beside my own, coming from behind me. Without the natural flow of the crowd to guide me, it was much harder to keep an even pace, let alone resist the temptation to look behind me.

It being late November, twilight was approaching rapidly around this time. Women and children were either working or playing indoors, and men had not yet returned from their jobs. The neighbourhood was always peculiarly deserted around this time, which would have normally made me a little uncomfortable if I hadn't had other things to be uncomfortable about right then.

Finally, in full twilight, I reached my destination. Instead of entering the street to approach the house by the front door, I passed it by and ducked into the back alley that bordered the house's back garden. All the gardens on that street had a high wall marking the back end of it, with a wooden door in it to give access to the alley. On the ground slightly in front of the back door I needed was a small, grayish pebble. Without hesitation I nudged it with my foot to make it disappear beneath the door to the other side, all without skipping a beat in my walking.

About forty steps later, just before I would reach the end of the alley and would have to turn either left or right, I heard a soft knock on wood, followed by the muffled snick of the latch on the door being slid open. A second later, without a word, the latch was slid back in place. Once more resisting the powerful urge to look back, I swiftly pulled off my bonnet while turning the corner and stuffed it in my shoulder bag. For some reason this street seemed to always be much brighter than the alley I had just come from, matching the sudden lightness of my heart and mind. Resisting the urge to smile giddily, I made my way home. Hopefully, they hadn't yet cut and eaten the cake; it had looked very appetizing that morning.