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Authors: Sebastian Fitzek

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‘I didn’t want to show any discomfort, so I gritted my teeth and carried on,’ she said. ‘Maybe I’d already sensed that there was something not quite kosher about
the man and subconsciously wanted to get rid of him as soon as possible.’

She sighed and her eyelids resumed their restless fluttering. ‘I begin my shiatsu treatment by kneeling behind the patient, who sits cross-legged in front of me on a futon. From that
position I stimulate a meridian with my elbow, working downwards from the neck to the shoulders.’

I grunted reminiscently. I could still remember the procedure from painful personal experience.

‘This form of massage is intended to dissolve neural blocks and enable vital energy to flow freely. A lot of people still laugh at the technique, although not many used to believe in
acupuncture, and now it’s available on medical insurance.’

So is root canal treatment, but I don’t volunteer for it.

‘Anyway, what normally happens next is that the patient is told to lie down on his back and the massage proper begins.’

‘But it didn’t come to that?’

‘No, because I suddenly sensed something that has haunted me at irregular intervals throughout my life. Except that this time it was very much worse.’

‘Go on.’

‘I reckon someone who emerges into daylight after years in darkness must feel as I did. I exerted pressure on his shoulder, and all at once my eyes were seared by stroboscopic flashes
– by an alternation of light and darkness. It was so dazzling at first, I saw less than I heard.’

‘Which was what?’

‘A woman’s voice.’

‘Could it have been your mother’s?’

‘No, I don’t think so, although I wasn’t really trying to identify the voices. I was far too horrified by the sensations that suddenly flooded over me.’

‘What did the woman say?’

Alina deposited her cigarette in the ashtray and picked up the coffee mug instead. ‘It was very odd. I think she was talking to her husband on the phone. I heard an electronic beep like
the one my own phone makes when I turn the loudspeaker on. The woman laughed and said “Sorry to call you, but I’m very worried. I was playing hide-and-seek with our son, and the crazy
thing is, I can’t find him anywhere.”’

‘She laughed?’ I asked, puzzled.

‘Yes, but not in a happy way. It sounded nervous and forced, the way someone laughs when they’re really close to tears.’

‘How did her husband react?’

‘He was absolutely panic-stricken. All he said was, “Oh my God, how could I have been so blind? It’s too late.”’

‘It’s too late?’

Alina nodded. ‘And then he started shouting. “Don’t go down into the cellar whatever you do,” he yelled in a frantic, trembling voice. “You hear me? Don’t go
down into the cellar!”’ She sipped her coffee. ‘That was when the flashes of light subsided and I was able to make out the first, vague outlines of my surroundings. The best way
to describe what I saw is that it was like looking at an overexposed photo.’

I was wondering how she’d hit on such an analogy when she answered the question unasked.

‘I once heard a medium describe his visions like that in a TV documentary, and somehow I grasped what he meant.’

A birchwood log exploded behind the stove’s glass window. Alina fell silent for quite a while, running her fingers nervously through her hair.

‘The man on the phone shouted “Don’t go down into the cellar.”?’ I prompted her.

‘That’s what he said.’

‘What happened then?’

‘Then the woman turned towards me and I found myself looking into my mother’s eyes.’

‘She turned towards you?’ I repeated, feeling bewildered.

‘Yes, it always happens like that. I don’t know why, but when I’m in physical contact with certain people – people who are highly charged with energy – I seem to
enter
them. It’s as if I’m exploring some dark secret in their soul.’

She had moved her head a little while speaking and appeared to be looking out of the window facing the lake. I followed her blank gaze into the darkness.

‘So you saw your vision through the eyes of the...?’ I hesitated, momentarily unable to believe I’d meant to ask such a crazy question.

She took advantage of the pause to complete my sentence. ‘Yes,’ she said, turning to face me again. ‘
I
was the Eye Collector. All that happened after that, I saw through
his
eyes.’

At that moment a sizeable wave struck the houseboat’s hull. The spoon in her coffee mug rattled and the paraffin lamp flickered in a sudden draught. A gust of wind had found its way
through cracks in the window surround.

‘What happened then?’ I asked when the gust had subsided.

Alina now spoke faster, as if eager to get something off her chest.

‘I saw I was standing behind a wooden door. It wasn’t quite shut, and I’d been peering through the crack into the room where the woman was phoning.’

‘What did she do then?’

‘What her husband had told her not to.’

Don’t go down into the cellar.

‘“You’re scaring me, darling,” she said, and took a step towards the door I was standing behind. Then a nightmarish thing happened.’

Alina’s eyes were shut, but I could see them rolling around beneath her eyelids. TomTom raised his head and pricked his ears as if infected by his owner’s inner turmoil.

‘I leapt out from behind the door and wound a length of flex around her neck. She went rigid with fright.’ Her voice had gone husky. She sniffed before whispering softly, ‘And
then I broke her neck.’

Involuntarily, I held my breath. Alina, too, sounded breathless.

‘There was a sound like an eggshell being crushed. She died instantly.’

66

‘What did you do with the body?’ I asked, kneading my temples. My headache was still bearable, but I would have to take something soon or it would pass the critical
point and put me out of action for hours.

‘I hauled her outside by the flex. It all happened so quickly, somebody seemed to have pressed a fast-forward button in my head. But that’s typical of my waking dreams.’

‘Where did you take her?’ I asked impatiently.

‘I towed her across the living room to a terrace door and from there into the garden. It was very much colder out there. Snow crunched beneath my feet. I left her lying near the garden
fence, a little way from a small shed.’

‘Just like that?’

‘No, not just like that.’ Alina drained her coffee. ‘First, I put something in her hand.’

‘What?’

‘A stopwatch.’

Of course.

My patience had been tried for long enough – I couldn’t restrain myself any longer. Everything she’d told me so far could have been gleaned from reports in today’s
newspapers. Even some of my own earlier articles would have been sufficient. It was no secret that the murdered woman had phoned her husband shortly before her death. This had emerged from a check
on her line and had been splashed on the morning news, providing grist to the headline-writer’s mill: ‘A LAST FAREWELL?’ Although no details of the conversation had been
published, Alina could have figured it out. The stopwatch story had also long since stopped being a secret. The forensics officer who examined the first victim had been afraid he’d triggered
the timer on a bomb by moving her. It turned out that the stopwatch had been rigged so that activated at a moment when the Eye Collector assumed his victim would be discovered – not a very
accurate method for someone to adopt who had hitherto left no clues apart from a few clothing fibres. The lethal countdown had not started until four hours after the discovery of the second corpse,
and the stopwatch had been ticking in the dead woman’s hand for forty minutes after the police had mounted guard over the third of the crime scenes.

‘Let me guess,’ I said, making no attempt to disguise my sarcasm. ‘The countdown had been set at forty-five hours precisely!’

To my surprise. Alina shook her head vigorously. ‘No.’

‘No?’

I stared at her cigarette, which was smouldering away in the ashtray.

The Eye Collector’s deadline is common knowledge.

It was in all the newspapers. I’d been the first to write about it six weeks ago, after Stoya tipped me off.

Alina clicked her tongue and TomTom looked up. ‘I know what you’re thinking, but you’re mistaken. The papers, the radio, the Internet – they all got it wrong. The
deadline was forty-five hours seven minutes.’

She put her empty coffee mug down and got up off the sofa. ‘Forty-five hours and seven minutes precisely. And now, it’s time I was going.’

65

(10 HOURS 47 MINUTES TO THE DEADLINE)

‘Where the devil are you?’ Stoya barked in my ear. I had absolutely no intention of revealing my whereabouts until I’d grasped what kind of game I was
involved in.

I was calling him from the deck of my houseboat for privacy’s sake, having talked Alina into another mug of coffee by promising to drive her home. It was so dark outside, I couldn’t
even see the surface of the lake beneath me.

‘I can’t tell you that,’ I began, but Stoya cut me short.

‘Well,
I
can.
I
know exactly where you are, my friend: up to your neck in doodoo. What’s more, you’ll be in it over your head if you don’t come down to
headquarters right away. It’s time you answered a couple of questions.’

What were you doing at the crime scene?

Why did we find your wallet there?

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I promise I’ll drop in before long, but first I’d like some info from you.’

Stoya gave an incredulous laugh. ‘Christ, man! Scholle suggested putting the squeeze on you at our last meeting. You’re lucky we know each other so well or I’d have marched
into the public prosecutor’s office by now. If you’re trying to pull some kind of newshound’s stunt on me, forget it.’

I shivered. I’d lost all sense of time and had no idea how long I’d been talking to the mysterious girl. The temperature outside had definitely taken a dive since my arrival. The
skin of my face felt taut, almost sunburnt, and it hurt even to breathe.

‘Take it easy,’ I said. ‘Just tell me whether a blind girl named Alina Gregoriev turned up at headquarters yesterday, claiming to know something about the Eye
Collector.’

‘A blind girl?’ Stoya said after a moment. The wind had dropped a little, so I was able to hear him better. ‘Goddammit, Alex, ever since you hacks turned the Eye Collector into
a cult figure like Hannibal Lecter, I’ve had all the nutters in Berlin knocking on my door. The tales they tell are worth a euro a word, if that. Only last night we had a visit from a social
worker who claimed his late wife had opened the front door to him when he came home from work.’

A snow-laden gust of wind blew straight into my face. ‘So did this girl come to the station?’ I asked hesitantly.

‘Could have.’

I wiped the melting snowflakes off my forehead. ‘Okay, then tell me one more thing...’

‘That makes two questions.’

‘The ultimatum.’

‘What about it?’ he said impatiently.

‘Is it possible you held out on me?’

All I could hear for a moment were the wind-lashed trees and the sound of waves lapping against the hull. Then Stoya said grimly, ‘What are you getting at?’

My stomach muscles tensed as they had yesterday, when I heard the 107 on the radio. It was standard police procedure to withhold or doctor relevant information about a crime so as to expose
false confessions and sort out copycats.

But that shouldn’t be the case here, because if the blind girl was right on this point, it would mean that...

‘Seven minutes,’ I said. The hand that was holding the phone to my ear began to tremble. ‘The deadline was set at forty-five hours seven minutes.’

And if the children’s father doesn’t discover where they’re hidden by then, they die.

Stoya realized he’d given himself away when he took too long to reply, so he didn’t bother to lie to me. ‘How did you know that?’ he asked bluntly.

I shut my eyes.

It can’t be true. Dear God, tell me it isn’t true.

‘Now listen carefully.’ My former colleague’s voice seemed to come from far away. ‘First you appear like magic at the crime scene, then we find your wallet there, and now
you’re in possession of a piece of information not even known to my closest associates.’

I didn’t make it up. She told me. Alina, the blind witness who can see into the past.

Stoya’s final words made me shiver harder than ever. ‘The moment you said that, you became our chief suspect. I suppose you realize that?’

64

(10 HOURS 44 MINUTES TO THE DEADLINE)

ALEXANDER ZORBACH

I was almost surprised to find Alina still there when I finished my conversation with Stoya and went back inside, although it would have been impossible for her to sneak past
me unnoticed and go ashore.

Out into the cold, stormy darkness.

But her disappearance would have been only one more link in the chain of inexplicable things that had happened to me in the last few hours.

How did she know about the extra seven minutes?

Alina was still seated on the sofa, patting her dog, when I re-entered the warm, stuffy living area. TomTom was clearly enjoying himself. He’d stretched out on his side with all four legs
extended to give his mistress easier access to his chest and tummy.

‘Can we go?’ she asked without looking up. I realized that it was little things which sighted people find so off-putting about talking with the blind.

We say almost more with our bodies than our mouths. Looks, gestures, movements – even a faint twitch of the lips – can express a kaleidoscope of emotions that are sometimes
emphasized but often contradicted by what we say. This applies above all to posture. Under normal circumstances it is considered impolite not to look someone in the eye when speaking to them, and
although I knew Alina was blind I felt slighted when she only presented her profile. Then it struck me that she was, logically enough, turning one ear in my direction.

BOOK: Eye Collector, The
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