Authors: Sebastian Fitzek
A brief call to my wrathful editor proved equally unenlightening.
‘Where the devil are you?’ were Thea’s opening words. She sounded even more caustic than usual.
‘Tell Stoya I’ll look in on him when I’m back in Berlin.’ Before she replied I heard her slam the door between her glassed-in sanctum and the open-plan newsroom, the
better to be able to yell at me.
‘Get your arse back here at once, my friend. This isn’t just about you. The paper’s reputation is at stake. You know what people will think if there’s even a sniff of a
suspicion that some connection exists between our star reporter and the Eye Collector?’
No wonder his stories are always so well researched. He manufactures the facts himself.
Of course I knew. That was why it was so important for me not to venture into the lion’s den unprepared. I knew from personal experience what would happen once the police closed in on a
suspect, especially an ex-detective whose propensity for violence was on record. Despite my attempts at anonymity, I was now a high-profile suspect, because the media, first and foremost the paper
that subsequently employed me, had acclaimed me as a hero following the incident on the bridge. I’d found the attention as intolerable as the many hours of questioning to which I’d been
subjected by the board of inquiry and the district attorney. And now it was making my life even more problematic.
I parked the car beside a notice board that designated the area a nature reserve and got out.
Pure chance was responsible for my mother’s discovery of the track leading eastwards from the notice board. Having originally intended to go for a walk to Nikolskoë Church, she had
felt nauseous whilst driving and pulled up in a hurry. As she recovered from her migraine, she took a closer look at her surroundings. That was when she spotted the abandoned track through the
woods. Barely wider than a small car and not marked on any map, its mouth was blocked by a big fallen tree trunk.
There are many beautiful places near water in Berlin – places where you can forget you’re in a city with millions of inhabitants. The only trouble is, such spots are never secluded.
The lovelier the lakeshore, the more popular it is with trippers. That day, when my mother followed the track to a tiny, almost untouched stretch of shoreline, she knew she had discovered a rarity,
a hidden oasis in the midst of a metropolis. Upon finding the spot, her headache abruptly subsided, and it may have been this that convinced her to keep the hideaway to herself and tell no one but
me about it. At the time, we still didn’t know that it wasn’t migraines she suffered from, but polycythaemia, an incurable disease that thickens the blood and occludes the
The first time she took me there I found that the tree trunk could be rolled aside with little difficulty. Far more obstructive were the luxuriant bramble bushes, encroaching on either side of
the track, whose thorns needed treating with respect.
Now I found myself here again many years later. I got out of the car, leaving the headlights on, to see if I could make out anything in the gathering dusk. Myriads of snowflakes were whirling in
the dull yellow beams, lending the scene a touch of magic. I surveyed my surroundings carefully.
There was no living creature in sight apart from a wild boar rooting around in the undergrowth some twenty metres away. Even the city’s omnipresent hum of traffic had faded as suddenly as
if someone had simply killed the soundtrack.
Okay, get going.
I threw my weight against the wet tree trunk, which detached itself from the ground with a sucking sound, enabling me to roll it aside with ease.
Having satisfied myself that I was still unobserved, I got back into the Volvo and drove it at a walking pace a little way into the woods. Thorns scratched the paintwork like fingernails on a
blackboard and clods of dislodged snow fell from a tree, landing on my windscreen. I turned on the wipers. After a few metres I got out to cover my tracks. I rolled the tree trunk back into
position and restored the look of the bushes my car had bent aside. I felt sure the secret entrance would escape notice, especially as no one had any reason to look around at this spot because the
notice board indicated that the scenic walks, restaurant, church and graveyard were another good kilometre further on. Anyone who stopped here would do so purely by chance, as my mother had.
Back in the car once more, I drove on slowly. After rounding a tight bend in the track I pulled up, got out, and removed my licence plates with a Swiss Army knife. This made my battered Volvo
look like a wreck abandoned in the wilds by some irresponsible violator of the environment. A forester would doubtless notify the authorities, but they were unlikely to turn out in this lousy
weather. Besides, I didn’t intend to spend the whole winter here. All I needed was a few days’ peace and quiet.
I stowed the licence plates in the boot, took out my emergency bag, and set off along the path. It grew steadily narrower, zigzagging gently downhill, and I had to be careful not to lose my
footing. My boots kept slipping on the icy tree roots that made the final stretch resemble a flight of steps. Fortunately, I had remembered to bring a torch, so I was able to see protruding stones
and avoid wet fir branches before they lashed me in the face. The path seemed longer than it had on my last visit, but that was probably because of the heavy bag on my shoulder. When I finally
stopped and looked at my watch, It was only 6.42 p.m. Getting down to the lake had taken me only a few minutes.
Here it is.
Whenever I reached the lakeshore, I realized how much mental ballast I was toting around.
The place where I had managed to put the tragedy far enough behind me to lead the relatively normal life I led today. Even in heavy snow and two degrees below freezing, I immediately felt
Nicci would probably have attributed my sudden sense of well-being to magical forces or pagan energy fields, but my own explanation was far more prosaic. Here in this secluded bay, nothing bad
had ever happened to me. On the contrary, this was where I had spent some of the happiest times of my life, alone with myself and accountable to no one.
That was why I came here whenever I felt that life was escaping from my grasp. The first time I realised I could use the lake as a bolthole, during my time with the police, I bought an old
houseboat and berthed it here.
The beam of my torch picked out the small, box-shaped wooden tub a few metres away. It lay in a narrow inlet densely overgrown with willows whose trailing branches formed a kind of natural port
invisible from the open water.
‘Back again,’ I said, putting my things down. It was an old, established ritual initiated by my mother. She had always uttered those words in the days when she was still fit enough
to come with me.
Though only a murmured greeting, it seemed to reverberate across the water. The lake would soon freeze over, making it even more improbable that anyone would stray near here.
Here to this place I share with no one. My refuge, whose location is known to no one, not even my family.
It was, of course, absurdly puerile for a grown man to consider a secret refuge romantic. As a child I had constructed ‘caves’ beneath my bunk bed, using pillows and blankets, and
imagined myself to be the only person in the world. I had dreamed of remote islands, of tree-houses high in the branches of mighty oaks. This secluded bay probably reminded me of all the hideaways
that had existed only in my boyhood imagination. If I was absolutely honest, my secretiveness about this place had taken on a life of its own.
For a long time I found it plain embarrassing to admit to friends that I would sooner spend the weekend in the wilds, alone with my thoughts, than join them amidst the chanting ranks at football
matches in the Olympic Stadium. Later on I simply found it reassuring to have a secret place in which no one would come looking for me if I took a day off work. The first time I felt a burning
desire to share my secret was when I met Nicci. I was still in the initial phase of being in love, that period when you miss your partner even though you’re sleeping next to them. I promised
her a romantic excursion on which I would take her to ‘my bay’ blindfolded. The houseboat would be torchlit the first time she set eyes on it.
But the plan came to nothing. My Volkswagen Beetle gave up the ghost halfway there and conked out in the middle of an intersection. Just like that, for absolutely no reason, as the call-out
mechanic later confirmed with a shrug. He couldn’t find anything wrong, and the old bus, which had never let me down before, sprang to life as soon as he turned the ignition key. Call me an
idiot, call me superstitious, but maybe I wasn’t as immune to Nicci’s zany ideas as I always claimed. In any event, I interpreted it as an omen.
It wasn’t to be. I wasn’t meant to bring anyone here.
I drew in a deep breath of cold air and played the beam of my torch over the mottled timber superstructure.
It was ages since I’d done any maintenance on the boat, and I was afraid it would take me a while to get the generator going. If it didn’t, I could cope. I could make do with candles
and the butane cooker. Warmth wasn’t a concern as the old wood-burning stove in the houseboat’s saloon was reliable. And the chemical toilet required no power.
I was just about to pick up my things when my state of mind changed abruptly. My sense of peace and contentment vanished in an instant. I approached the houseboat tensely, nervously. My
nervousness gave way to a fear that became more intense with every step I took. At first I thought the fear irrational because I couldn’t identify its source. But then I saw it.
A glimmer of light.
My reason for suddenly wanting to turn and run.
Away from my hiding place. From this place known to no one.
No one but the person inside the houseboat, who had just lit a cigarette.
For the first article I wrote as a crime reporter, I interviewed an elderly couple whose flat had been burgled. The worst thing about it, they told me, was not the theft of
articles of value – not even the loss of irreplaceable things like family photographs, holiday souvenirs and diaries. What really horrified them was the revulsion they would feel whenever
they entered their own home from now on.
‘By rummaging in our drawers, by laying hands on our underwear – just by breathing the air within our own four walls – those swine violated our privacy.’
The seventy-two-year-old husband did the talking while his wife held his hand and kept nodding in confirmation of every word he uttered.
‘We weren’t robbed, we were raped.’
At the time I’d thought their reaction grossly exaggerated. Now, as I tried to set foot on the foredeck without a sound, I understood what the old folk had been trying to convey.
Whoever was waiting for me in the houseboat’s dark interior had destroyed the sense of security that had always greeted me there.
I unfolded the longest blade in my Swiss Army knife and tiptoed down the steps to the main deck. If the worst came to the worst my torch would provide an additional means of defence.
The stout planks creaked as I set foot on the last step leading to the deckhouse I’d once spent several weeks converting into my living room.
If the burglar was still inside the main cabin, I had cut off his only escape route – unless, of course, he jumped into the lake through one of the big lattice windows. There was nowhere
My houseboat was no bigger than a spacious garage. In addition to a little galley and an even smaller toilet, it was divided into two adjoining compartments. I was standing outside the larger of
the two, which one had to cross in order to reach the bedroom in the bow. The front door, which I had never kept locked over the years, had a transom window set into it at head height. Cautiously,
I peered through it.
Discounting the red dot hovering like a glow-worm in the left-hand corner, the room was in complete darkness. The houseboat was so darkened by the trees and bushes growing around its natural
hiding place, I could scarcely see the door handle.
Holding my breath and listening to the thud of my heartbeat, I braced myself for a physical confrontation. When I felt sufficiently ready I flung the door open, burst into the living quarters,
and shouted ‘Hands up!’ at the top of my voice.
Simultaneously, I turned on my torch and shone it on the sofa immediately beneath the window on the lake side.
I’d been prepared for anything: a tramp who had made himself at home in the cold weather; even for Stoya, who had somehow managed to locate my hideaway before I could reach it.
But not this.
‘Good God, are you crazy or something?’
A young woman I’d never seen before had made herself at home on the sofa in total darkness.
‘First I nearly break my neck getting here, and now you scare me half to death.’
I raised my right arm and shone the torch straight at her face. To my surprise she neither blinked nor shaded her eyes with her hand. The stranger, whom I guessed to be in her late twenties,
continued to sit there, gazing stolidly in my direction.
‘Who the hell are you?’ I demanded. I could have followed that up with two more questions:
What are you doing here? How did you find this place?
Her low, rather husky voice went with the cigarette and a fairly masculine posture. She was sitting there with her legs crossed, left ankle on right knee.
‘You tell me it’s a matter or life or death, and then you keep me waiting for a good hour...’
She tapped the big watch on her wrist. For some reason the glass was hinged open and her fingers were resting on the exposed hands.
‘... and now you appear to be drunk.’
Utterly bewildered, I removed the beam of my torch from her face and played it over the rest of her.
She was wearing tight jeans, slashed at the knees, and black paratrooper’s boots. Instead of a winter jacket she had put on several multicoloured sweaters over each other. As far as I
could tell in the dim light, her clothing might have been unusual but it wasn’t dishevelled.