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Authors: Sebastian Fitzek

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‘Hans made every effort to avoid falling asleep. He struggled with his weariness, but in the end he couldn’t keep his eyes open.’

‘He died?’ she asked dully. Every spark of joy had left her haggard face.

‘Yes, because by falling asleep he’d automatically forgotten to breathe. And that signed his death warrant.’

There was a click in my ear, but this time the unit commander kept his mouth shut. There was nothing to be heard but a distant hum of traffic. A flock of big, black birds soared over us, heading
east.

‘That’s not a nice fairy tale.’ Angélique edged forwards a little, clutching the baby tightly to her and rocking it with her entire body.

I put out my hand and came closer still.

‘No, it isn’t. And it isn’t really a fairy tale, either.’

‘What do you mean?’

I paused, waiting for some sign of life from the baby, but there was nothing to be heard. Just silence. My mouth had gone dry.

‘It’s true,’ I told her.

‘True?’

She shook her head – vigorously, as if she already guessed what was coming.

‘Angélique, please listen to me. The baby in your arms is suffering from Undine’s Curse, a disease named after the story I just told you.’

‘No!’

Yes.

The tragic thing was, I hadn’t told her a tactical lie. Undine’s Curse was a rare disorder of the central nervous system. Children suffering from it died of asphyxia unless they
deliberately concentrated on breathing. It was a grave, life-threatening illness. In Tim’s case (the baby’s real name) his respiratory activity when awake was sufficient to supply his
body with oxygen. He needed ventilating only when asleep.

‘But he’s
my
baby,’ Angélique protested in her lullaby voice.

Rock a bye baby...

‘See how peacefully he’s sleeping in my arms.’

Oh God, no.
She was right. The baby wasn’t making a sound.

... on the tree top...

‘Yes, he’s your baby, Angélique,’ I said urgently, taking another step towards her. ‘No one disputes that, but he mustn’t fall asleep, you hear? If he does,
he’ll die like Sir Hans in the fairy tale.’

‘No, no, no!’ She shook her head defiantly. ‘My baby hasn’t been naughty. He isn’t under a curse.’

‘Of course not, but he’s sick. Please give me your little boy so the doctors can make him well.’

I was now so close to her, I caught the rank, sweetish smell of her unwashed hair and the effluvium of mental and physical decay that clung to every thread of her cheap tracksuit.

She turned towards me, giving me my first good view of the baby. Of its tiny, slightly flushed,
sleeping
face. I stared at Angélique in alarm. And that was when I lost my head.

‘Jesus. No. Don’t!’ the unit commander’s voice yelled in my ear, but by then I was past listening to him. ‘Put it away!’

I’m citing his words and the ones that follow from the transcript sitting before me, written by the chairman of the board of inquiry.

At this remove, seven years after the day that wrecked my life, I’m no longer certain I really saw it.

It.

That
something
in her expression. A look of unadulterated, despairing self-knowledge. I was sure of it at the time, though.

Call it premonition. Intuition. Clairvoyance. Whatever it was, I sensed it with every fibre of my being. The moment Angélique turned towards me, she became aware of her mental disorder.
She recognized herself. Knew that she was sick. Knew that the baby wasn’t hers. Knew that, once I got hold of it, I would never give it back.

‘Don’t, man! Don’t do anything stupid!’

I’d had enough experience as an amateur boxer to know what to focus on in order to guess what an opponent would do next: the shoulders. And Angélique’s shoulders moved in a
direction that allowed only one interpretation, confirmed by the fact that she slowly opened her arms at the same time.

Three metres. Only another three fucking metres.

She was going to throw the baby off the bridge.

‘Drop your gun. I repeat: Drop it at once.’

That was why I ignored the voice in my ear and aimed straight at her forehead.

And squeezed the trigger.

Usually, that’s the moment when I wake up yelling. Then comes a fleeting, euphoric sense of relief that it was just a bad dream. It lasts only until I put out my hand and
feel that the other half of the bed is empty – until it occurs to me that this chain of events actually happened. It deprived me of my job, my family, and my ability to sleep through the
night without being woken by nightmares.

Since firing that shot I have lived in fear. A cold, clear, all-pervading kind of fear: the concentrate from which my dreams derive their sustenance.

I killed a human being on that bridge.

Much as I try to convince myself that I saved another life by so doing, the equation doesn’t add up. What if I was wrong? What if Angélique never meant to harm the child? What if
she opened her arms in order to hand it over – opened them at the very instant my bullet pierced her skull so swiftly that her brain had no time to transmit an impulse to her arms and open
them still wider? So swiftly that I was able to catch the baby before it fell from her lifeless grasp?

In other words, what if I killed an innocent woman on that bridge?

If so, I would some day have to pay for my mistake. That much was certain.

I knew it. All I failed to realize was that the day would come so soon.

83

My son and I were paying another visit to the nicest place in Berlin for a child to die in, or so it was said.

‘Really? The helicopter?’ I said, jerking my chin at the open cardboard box I was carrying down the long corridor. ‘Have you thought about it carefully? After all, it’s a
Captain Jack chopper with power-boost.’

Julian nodded eagerly as he dragged the bulging Ikea carrier bag over the lino.

I’d offered to help him more than once, but he insisted on towing the heavy bag through the hospital unaided. Typical of the ‘I can manage by myself’ fantasies to which all
youngsters sooner or later succumb, usually between their ‘Don’t leave me alone’ and ‘Give me some space’ phases.

All I could do without injuring his pride was walk a bit slower.

‘I don’t need the chopper any more,’ Julian said firmly. He started coughing. It sounded at first as if he’d briefly choked on something, but the coughing grew
harsher.

‘You okay?’ I put the box down.

I had noticed his flushed cheeks when I picked him up at home, but he’d toted the heavy bag out into the garden all by himself, so I’d put his sweaty hands and damp curls down to
physical exertion.

‘Have you still got that cold?’ I asked anxiously.

‘I’m fine now, Dad.’ He fended off my hand when I tried to feel his forehead. Then he coughed some more, but it really didn’t sound too bad.

‘Did Mum take you to the doctor?’

This is a hospital. Maybe we ought to have you checked over while we’re here.

Julian shook his head.

‘No, just...’ He broke off, and I felt a surge of anger.

‘Just what?’

He turned away, looking sheepish, then took hold of the bag handles again.

‘One moment,’ I said. ‘Don’t tell me the two of you paid another visit to that guru?’

He nodded hesitantly, as if confessing to some misdemeanour, even though it wasn’t his fault. It was his mother who was straying down ever more esoteric paths. She would sooner have taken
our son to a Indian spiritual teacher than an ENT consultant.

A long time ago, when I was falling in love with Nicci, her eccentricities had amused me. I even found it entertaining when she tried to infer my future from the lines in my palm or disclosed
that she’d been a Greek slave girl in a previous existence. As the years went by, however, her harmless fads developed into the
idées fixes
that had undoubtedly contributed to
my separation from her, mentally at first, then physically. At least that’s what I like to tell myself; it absolves me of sole responsibility for the failure of our marriage.

‘What did that charla— I mean, what did the guru say?’ I asked, catching him up. It was an effort not to sound aggressive. Julian would have thought I was angry with
him,
and it really wasn’t his fault that his mother didn’t believe in traditional medicine or the theory of evolution.

‘He said my chakras aren’t properly charged with energy.’

‘Your chakras?’ The blood rose in my cheeks.

‘Of course,’
I harangued Nicci in my head,
‘his chakras – why didn’t I think of that myself? That’s probably also the reason why our son broke his
wrist two years ago while skateboarding.’
That time, she had asked the surgeon, in all seriousness, if hypnosis couldn’t be substituted for the anaesthetic.

‘You should drink something,’ I said to change the subject, indicating the soft-drinks machine. ‘What would you like?’

‘A Coca-Cola,’ he said promptly.

Okay, a Coca-Cola.

Nicci would tear a strip off me, that was for sure. My ‘still-wife’ (not yet ex-wife) shopped at eco-stores and organic supermarkets exclusively and on principle; her shopping list
would never have featured a fizzy drink laced with caffeine and chemicals.

Yes, but there isn’t any fennel tea here,
I thought, patting my jacket in search of my wallet and its little pocket for coins.

I gave a sudden start at the unexpected sound of a young but world-weary voice behind me.

‘Well, if it isn’t the Zorbachs. What a nice surprise!’

I vaguely remembered the blonde nurse from our visit the year before. She had appeared from nowhere and was now standing in the hospital corridor with a brightly painted tea trolley.

‘Hello, Monika,’ said Julian, who had evidently recognized her too. She gave him a practised ‘young patients are my buddies’ smile. Then she caught sight of our
burdens.

‘Wow, what a lot of toys you’ve brought this year.’

I nodded – absently, because I still hadn’t found my wallet.

Please, no! All my IDs and credit cards. Even the key card without which I can’t get into the newsroom.

I remembered having it yesterday at the newsroom drinks dispenser. I could have sworn I’d put it back in my breast pocket, but now it was gone.

‘Yes, more and more every year,’ I muttered, annoyed with myself for sounding guilty. Although it may at first sight have seemed typical behaviour by the father in a broken marriage,
the fact was, I’d always enjoyed buying Julian presents. A hand-crafted wooden tractor would, of course, have been more educationally worthwhile than the fluorescent water pistol the nurse
was extracting from the Ikea bag. But ‘educational’ was an argument inflicted on me by my own parents, who had refused to see why I needed a Walkman or a BMX just because all my friends
listened to the former and rode around on the latter. Call me shallow, but having experienced it, I wanted to spare my son an outsider’s fate. That didn’t mean I bought him any old
rubbish just so he could ‘belong’. But I wasn’t going to send him empty-handed into the Darwinian fight for survival that raged daily in every school playground.

Meanwhile, Monika had unearthed a Spiderman doll. ‘I think it’s really admirable of you,’ she said, smiling at my son, ‘agreeing to part with all these lovely
things.’

‘No problem.’ Julian grinned back at her. ‘I like doing it.’

He was telling the truth. Although it had been my idea to clear out his room once a year before his birthday, when reinforcements would arrive, he’d adopted it at once.

‘We’ll make room and do some good!’ he said, repeating my own words, and promptly set to work.

That was how our ‘Sunshine Day’, as we called it, came into being. The day on which father and son set off for the children’s hospice, laden with discarded toys, and doled them
out to its little patients.

‘Tim’ll like that, I’m sure,’ the nurse said with a smile as she replaced the Spiderman doll with the other toys. Then she said goodbye and walked on. Looking after her,
I was dismayed to find that I’d only just managed to restrain my tears.

Julian looked at me. ‘Everything okay?’ he asked. He was used to his father becoming a crybaby as soon as he entered Sunshine Ward on the second floor. Julian had never cried there,
probably because death seemed so remote and unimaginable to him. To me, on the other hand, a ward devoted to gravely ill children was an almost unbearable environment. One might have assumed that a
man who had shot someone would be rather hard-boiled, especially as I’d had to earn a living as a crime reporter since my retirement from the force. I had now been working for the
city’s biggest and most bloodthirsty paper for four years, following a period of recovery and retraining. In fact I’d made something of a journalistic name for myself by reporting on
some of the most gruesome and violent crimes ever committed in Germany. But the more I wrote about some of the western world’s worst murders, the less prepared I was to accept death. Least of
all when it was the death of innocent children suffering from leukaemia or heart disease. Or Undine’s Curse.

‘The little boy whose life you saved was called Tim, wasn’t he?’

I nodded and gave up looking for my wallet. With luck it would be lying on the passenger seat of my Volvo, but I’d probably lost it somewhere.

‘Absolutely, but the one in here isn’t him. He’s got the same name, that’s all.’

The Tim whose kidnapper I’d shot used to send me a Christmas card every year. The kind of card parents compel you to write: inscribed in squiggly handwriting with words no child would ever
use. The kind you stick to the door of the fridge and ignore until it falls off of its own accord. Nevertheless, Tim’s cards were a sign of life that proved he was leading a semi-normal
existence at home with his parents in spite of his serious illness, not spending his final hours vegetating in a children’s hospice.

Julian gave me a wide-eyed look. ‘Mum says you’ve not been the same since that time on the bridge.’

That time on the bridge.

BOOK: Eye Collector, The
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