The complicated lacy bras on the second floor of De Bijenkorf, Rotterdam’s largest department store, lure my gaze—as they’re supposed to, I guess. Should I try one for a change? Must be six years since I tied myself up in something fancy. Took me ten minutes to figure out where the numerous black straps were supposed to go. Worst moment ever to use my mind-reading skills. Why did I want to know what I looked like through the eyes of my lover-to-be? He seemed to appreciate the outfit, but I noticed an uncanny resemblance to a netted ham.
I march past the frilly display. With a non-existing love life, there’s no point in lacing up and having wires puncture my skin. Besides, having just quit my fourth job in as many years since university is change enough for now. I grab my usual comfy sports bra and join the line at the cashier.
A lady with a bulging bag leaves, and the man in front of me steps forward. The cashier’s emotions spike, and her thoughts jump at me—What a creep. She holds up crimson red lacy panties between forefinger and thumb.
The man hunches in his black coat. His worries worm their way into my mind—Wish he could come earlier. Hate it when he makes me hold on to the merchandise for hours. The cashier wraps the lingerie in thin paper. He pictures the garment on a young girl. He’ll pay the raised price once he sees her in this.
What? What’s going on? And that girl, why does she seem familiar?
I concentrate on his mind. The girl’s face is distorted with fear, brown eyes crying, dark blonde hair disheveled.
I’ve seen that face before, recently. Closing my eyes, I review the past few days.
Yes! The Amber Alert Bert showed me this morning at work. A girl went missing on her way to school. In the photo, those sweet brown eyes smiled, but it’s the same girl alright. Does this man have her? As ‘merchandise’?
Someone taps my shoulder. “Miss? It’s your turn.” A woman behind me gestures to the now empty counter.
“Sorry, I… forgot something.” I step aside to let her pass and scout the floor. The man steps onto the escalator, clutching a small bag. His balding head descends out of view. I dump my unpaid underwear on a rack with white sports socks and run to the escalator.
As I step on, the man steps off below. I jump down the metal steps. A young mother frowns, but pulls her toddler aside to let me pass. The man scuttles through the perfume department towards an exit.
A girl in a navy-blue dress with a name tag steps out of her booth, a strip of white cardboard in her hand. “Would you like to try our newest fragrance?”
I shake my head, not even making eye contact, and suppress a fleeting feeling of guilt. She’s probably brushed off in worse ways.
I push through the revolving door he just disappeared through. Among the many pedestrians, several huddle in a dark coat. No, no, no, I can’t have lost him already! I scan the area. A balding head unlocks a rusty bike in a disarray of parked bicycles along the wall, a bag hanging on the left handle. He starts pedaling, swerves around a few shoppers and enters the bike path towards the crossing with the Coolsingel.
I take off, my backpack bumping into my spine. The traffic light changes to orange, and he speeds up. Red. I sprint across the busy street. A car pulls up and breaks hard, the bumper halting two inches from my knees. I feel the adrenaline surging through the driver, followed by anger. He honks and I hold up a hand in apology.
The man in the black coat zigzags through a group of teenagers and takes a left. After a few minutes, he rounds a corner to the right and crosses a canal. I pant and sweat trickles down my back. What was I thinking? I can’t keep this up for long.
The girl’s face swims before my eyes. Smiling in the picture, crying in the man’s memory. I grit my teeth and ignore my burning quads.
In a street with identical, brown-bricked townhouses, he slows down and dismounts. Wheezing, I drop my pace to a firm walk. He places the bike against a tree and locks it. He gazes around and focuses on me. Who’s that?
I walk to a bus stop across the street from him and lean against the sign. Still panting, I attempt to yawn, grab my phone, and make scrolling movements.
Just waiting for the bus. No one watching me. Buyer should be here in half an hour. He enters a house.
From his direction, an intense terror washes over me, knocking the new air from my lungs. The door! Who’s there? Mommy… I wanna go home… The little girl’s emotions are so strong, it’s as if she’s standing next to me. She collapses, her knees grazing a rough concrete floor, fright shaking her entire body. I bend over, hands on my knees, nursing pain that isn’t mine.
He has the Amber Alert girl. And she needs to be rescued within half an hour. I glance at the house. A door and two windows on the ground floor. Possible other entry points at the back, but to get there will take too much time and exposure to neighbours. Breaking a window draws too much attention, forcing a way in through the door has an equally low chance of success.
There’s just one way. I clench my fists. I’d promised to protect myself, to keep my nose out of everybody’s business. Never again do I want to sit across the table from a row of accusing, scrutinizing faces, and lose my job and reputation. I vowed to live like everyone else, like everyone who passes by criminals every day, in blissful ignorance.
But that’s the thing. There’s no blissful ignorance for me. My fingernails drive into my palms. This is about the devastation of a young girl’s life versus my oath to protect myself—that doesn’t even qualify as a choice.
I yank the old sim-card for emergencies out of my wallet and slide it into my work phone. While the phone boots up, I rehearse a short and precise message. I call the emergency number and tell them where to find the Amber Alert girl. The operator asks me how I know.
“Just hurry, she’ll be moved in half an hour!” I hang up and take the sim-card out.
How long would it take the police to get here? We’re close to the main police station and they’re on high alert for the girl. Five, ten minutes max. It might help to stall and distract the man. But how? I contemplate throwing a stone through his window, until a movement to the left of the man’s house alerts me to a neighbour watching me through her purple curtains. Breaking something won’t help.
I cross the street and grab an envelope sticking out from the mailbox of his neighbour to the right, take a deep breath, ring the man’s doorbell and search for his thoughts inside.
Can’t be him already? Better check. He unlocks the door and peers through a small gap.
Bile rises in my throat. “Hello sir, I work for the municipality. I’m checking in on your recent complaint.”
I look down at the envelope as if to check notes. “You complained a few weeks ago about the trash collection, right?”
He shakes his head and retreats.
I place a hand on the door and peek through the gap. In the dark hallway, I can make out a staircase and two doors. I shiver. “Excuse me, sir. I need to follow-up. Can I come in?”
The man shakes his head. “I’ll withdraw the complaint.”
“I would still need your signature for that, sir. Could you let me in?”
We stare at each other, both pressing our hands at opposite sides of the door.
Blaring sirens pierce the cold air. I release the pressure on my side of the door and the man hurls it shut.
I stuff the envelope back in the neighbour’s mailbox and watch screeching police cars speeding past me. Several neighbours now hold their curtains aside and peek out.
Police officers ring the bell twice and then force themselves in, leaving two cops outside to guard the door.
People emerge from their houses and form a small crowd on the street. Nobody pays attention when I join them.
I concentrate on the people inside the man’s house. The girl’s terrified thoughts stand out among the thoughts of three cops searching, focused, driven by adrenaline. I close my eyes to focus and find the kidnapper’s mind. His unease ebbs away until he almost sings his thoughts. I knew it! Such a clever idea. He pictures his ingenuous cover up of the entrance to his cellar.
My shoulders tense. I tune into the thoughts of the guarding cops. One scans the crowd, bored. The other rehearses answers for a job interview to become a detective. She’s ambitious, driven. More likely to act straight away.
Casual but loud, I remark to a woman next to me, “These houses have cellars, with a trapdoor in the closet under the stairs, right?”
The ambitious cop perks up and disappears into the house, thinking, A cellar!
I stay in her mind while she asks her superior for permission to check under the stairs. She opens the closet door, removes the vacuum cleaner, the carpet, and grabs the ring of the trapdoor.
The intense fear of the little girl merges with unbelief, when she sees a female police officer coming down the ladder.
With a long sigh, tension disperses from my body, leaving fatigue and trembling muscles behind. It’s over.
An intense thought penetrates through the curious minds of the crowd. That one’s acting strange. The male cop outside studies me. Got her on the body cam. Need to check her out. The guilty ones often hide amongst the sensation seekers.
I jerk my head up, right into his fixed stare. Then another cop emerges from the house, and his attention shifts.
My stomach sinks, and I slink away.
Did I just lead the police to discover a lot more than the little girl?
In half an hour, the tranquil streets of Rotterdam will fill with the continuous roar of car engines gearing up and down, drowning out most other sounds. But for now, I pedal in relative peace past trees where chirping birds announce a new day, under a sky transforming from a pitch black to a deep blue.
My legs complain, still tired from the chase three days ago. Physically, the metro is an easier, and certainly warmer, mode of transport. Psychologically, it’s exhausting. A metro is big enough to carry a fair number of people, and small enough to hear most of their thoughts. Or worse, feel them. Emotions are contagious. I don’t want to end up at the office being angry or sad for someone else.
From my loft in the city center, I bike past an unmatching mix of old houses, unique architecture like the cube houses, and bland apartment buildings. As if a kid built this city from different toy construction sets. Near the Erasmus University, the roads widen and the space between buildings increases. The tall office blocks east of the highway A16 loom closer for the last time. When I gave notice last Monday, Ted wasn’t amused and summoned me to hand everything over by today.
Bert’s already at his desk. “Good morning, Kathy.” He wrings his hands. “I heard you discouraged Ted from firing Mark?” Secretary says they yelled at each other.
I shrug. An HR manager shouldn’t talk behind her boss’s back. Besides, people apparently know anyway.
Bert grins. “You’re considered a hero. The general opinion is, Ted wants to get rid of the best manager in his team, just to fix his own insecurity.” He swallows. “I’m really sorry to see you go.”
I sigh. “Yeah. Me too.” For a year, I hadn’t abruptly left meetings because the man sitting next to me thought about hitting his wife. Nor did I call anyone a hypocrite because they were sucking up to a colleague they despised. But when Ted pictured me naked and fantasized about how he’d like me to obey, I’d blurted out my resignation. Someone else’s emotions became too hard to handle, and I’d taken a rash decision. Again.
Three hours later, I hug Bert in the lobby. I walk towards the exit and turn around one last time to wave. His shoulders sag with the work I just handed over. Both our smiles don’t reach our eyes. The sliding office doors click to a close behind me.
My backpack feels weightless without the company laptop, now on the desk of IT. I retrieve my bike from the rack at the back of the office building.
I steer south towards the Nieuwe Maas for a soothing dose of ever-flowing water. I reach the river, inhale the water’s wet dog smell and turn right towards the city center. Today, the surface of the river is smooth, but it conceals the powerful force underneath. A plastic bottle bobs up and down, going faster than I can keep up with.
I cross under the Van Brienenoord bridge and park my bike against one of the colossal pillars. The other side of the river is far away. This immense body of water separates the city into two unique halves. Several striking, robust bridges patch the city to a whole again, traffic crossing, mingling between north and south.
I look up. A massive amount of concrete spans the river, carrying a rumbling twelve lanes of traffic.
Will I ever find a bridge with two-way traffic between me and the world on the other side? Once I come closer to others, I’m hit with the cruelty of understanding them in a way no one will ever understand me. And I withdraw to my side of the river. Burning the bridges.
Why is she here? Almost missed her leaving work.
I glance around. The only person in sight is a man walking his dog. The thoughts don’t belong to him, his mind is on his home renovation. His style of thinking is different, anyway.
They say her mother worked for the Syndicate. Only with Bernard. No clue why we need to follow her daughter now.
Squinting, I scan a larger perimeter. The thoughts seem to come from several cars parked along the road a few hundred meters away. But it can’t be about me. My mother died, just before I turned four.
Her face swims before my eyes. Devoid of expression, its whiteness accentuated by trickles of dried blood, her beautiful eyes closed. A persistent second-hand image, handed down through my dad. I shiver and shrug deeper into my coat.
As usual, I try to push the awful vision away by replacing it with nicer memories, although those are few and vague. The safety of her warm hug. Her reassuring hand on my head. Fragments of a happy infancy. Bringing along their unwelcome companions, yearning and sorrow.
Did my mother work? I don’t even know that about her. What would she have said about me quitting a job again?
I walk to the edge, the cold water luring below me. What would it feel like to jump? Cold, no doubt, but at least the water would embrace me, carry me, engulf me.
The woman establishes her seniority without a doubt, standing firmly upright, positioned in front of her male colleague. She holds her badge to my face to confirm she is indeed Cecilia Yong, a detective with the Rotterdam police department.
Simultaneously with her authoritative, “Kathy van der Laan, may we come in?” she takes a step forward, confident to be granted access. Although her advantage in length is just a few centimeters, her personality towers over me and her stern eyes stare me down.
I step aside and close the door behind them. The cops must have finally figured me out. My stomach sinks. Shivering, I tune into their minds.
Cecilia walks around to assess my compact loft apartment. Functional, small living room. Clean kitchen. Clearly single. No visible sign of pets. No clutter, except memorial cube. Tea still steaming, next to laptop on dining table. Job search website open.
Her matter-of-fact staccato observations contrast her state of mind. I feel guardedness, a professional keen interest, and an overall suspicion towards me.
Arms crossed, I remain at the door. They’re in my personal space, where nobody enters uninvited. Or to be precise, where nobody enters at all.
I glimpse at the river, a silver ever-present force behind the building across the street, and straighten my shoulders. If they’re here to expose me, they can do so standing up, thirsty. No need to dust off my rusty host-playing skills.
Unperturbed, Cecilia gestures to the chair I obviously just sat in, seating herself on the opposite. Somehow, she blends in, as if she’s been here countless times before. After a brief hesitation, the male cop, although not invited by Cecilia, sits down next to her.