Read Eye Collector, The Online
Authors: Sebastian Fitzek
‘Do we know each other?’ I asked hesitantly.
‘No.’ She paused for a moment. ‘That’s why I’m here.’
An unpleasant thought occurred to me: Was I dealing with a madwoman? The Wannsee Home wasn’t far away, nor was the Wald Clinic for psychosomatic disorders.
That’s all I need.
How on earth could I get rid of a mentally sick woman without drawing attention to myself?
They’re probably out looking for her already.
‘Look, I’ve no idea who you are, so please leave at...’
I broke off in mid sentence and instinctively took a step backwards.
Jesus, what was that?
‘Everything okay?’ she said.
No, it damn well wasn’t.
I’d just glimpsed some movement beside the sofa. Clearly, this mysterious woman hadn’t sneaked aboard my boat unaccompanied.
‘What the hell are you doing here?’ I demanded. The very thought of being confronted by a second intruder had set my pulse racing again.
‘What are you blathering about?’ she retorted, sounding as if she doubted my sanity. ‘
The absurdity of her statement took the edge off my fear. She herself was looking somewhat disconcerted.
Alexander Zorbach, the journalist?’
I nodded, but she repeated the question with a touch of irritation, presumably because she couldn’t see me nod in the gloom.
‘Yes, I am. But I didn’t call you.’
No one could have. No one knows about this place. No one except...
She sighed and brushed a strand of hair off her forehead.
‘So who gave me the directions to this arsehole of the world?’
No one except my mother, but she has spent years on a life-support machine.
I opened my mouth without knowing what I was going to say. The situation seemed so inexplicable. But before I could utter a word, the first of a whole raft of questions answered itself.
I suddenly realized who else had sneaked aboard with this woman. Or rather,
The beam of my torch wandered downwards and lit up something on the floor beside the sofa: a handle attached to a leather harness, itself attached to a dog.
A Labrador or a Golden
I wasn’t sure which, but I realized something else. Something that seemed impossible.
I went right up to the sofa and shone my torch straight in the woman’s eyes.
There could be no doubt. It all fitted: the hinged watch glass, the dog in the harness, her reference to having fallen over on the way here.
What’s going on here?
I’d hit on an answer, only to find it even more incomprehensible. How had this nameless woman had made her way to my houseboat?
I only knew that she would never blink however long I shone the torch in her clouded eyes.
The woman who had discovered my hideaway was blind.
The wind had freshened and waves were slapping the hull at irregular intervals. The snow had been falling silently when I had reached the houseboat. At the time there had been
no sign of an approaching storm, but now the planks beneath my feet were beginning to pitch and toss.
‘I’d better go,’ said my mysterious guest. I was lighting the old-fashioned paraffin lamp I always took care to fill and leave on the window sill before I left the boat.
‘No, not so fast.’
I deposited the lamp on the coffee table in front of the blind woman. Its flickering, sulphurous yellow light transformed the whole room into a chiaroscuro, a shadow play.
Closer inspection caused me to revise my original estimate of the stranger’s age. She was twenty-five at most, probably younger. I looked down at her boots, which were very dirty. Their
sides were adorned with coloured transfers of naked Japanese girls. This suited her, because her taut skin, high forehead and wide-set eyes lent her face a subtly Eurasian look. The most noticeable
feature of her appearance, however, was a multitude of dyed red dreadlocks.
My father would probably have described her as a punk. My mother, though doubtless less judgemental, would have been secretly worried that such a pretty girl might be ruining her hair by dyeing
‘I’ll be glad when you’ve gone,’ I said. ‘But first you must answer some questions.’
Who phoned you? Who told you how to get here? What did you think you’d gain by visiting me here?
‘Let’s start with your name.’
She felt in the black rucksack between her long legs. ‘My name is Alina Gregoriev, and I’ve had more than enough aggro for one day.’
Her breath was visible now. I hadn’t been aware until then how cold it was on board. I would have to get the wood stove going as soon as I was alone.
‘What do you want from me?’ I asked.
‘I’ll say it again for the record, Mister Reporter:
talked me into this wild-goose chase.’
She mimed a telephone with her hand and imitated an imaginary caller: ‘Take the bus to Nikolskoer Weg. Stay on that side of the road and walk to the next entrance on the right.’
This is impossible,
I thought as she continued to give an exact description of the route I myself had followed earlier.
‘After a while you’ll reach a turn-off. Keep going until you come to a fallen tree, blah blah blah...’
‘It wasn’t me,’ I said, struggling to retain my composure.
Who knows about this place except me?
Who would want to play a practical joke on me and a blind girl?
I hesitated, eyeing the figure on the sofa with renewed mistrust. ‘Surely you can
I’m not the person who called you.’
‘Well, because you’re—’
? she said with a wry smile. ‘I’d have expected an investigative journalist to be rather better informed.’ She shook her head, acting as
if she was disappointed. ‘It’s a stupid misconception that
blind people can hear better. Sure, we concentrate better because we’re not being distracted by visual
stimuli, and our other senses often compensate for our inability to see. But that doesn’t automatically make bats of us, and besides, every blind person is different.’
She grasped the handle on her dog’s harness and stood up.
‘For instance, I only have good spatial hearing. I can tell from the echo of my voice that there’d be room for a beer crate between my head and the ceiling. I also know I’d
bump into a wooden partition after taking four steps or so.’
You do sound a bit batty,
I thought, but I said nothing.
‘But my voice recognition is poor,’ she went on. ‘I have enough of a problem when someone greets me in the street by simply saying “Hi there” or “It’s
me.” It often takes me a while to identify people by their voices. That even applies to close friends and patients I’ve treated for years.’
‘Patients?’ I said, mystified, as I watched her pulling at the longish object in her hands, which turned out to be a telescopic cane.
‘I’m a physiotherapist.’
She felt for the feet of the coffee table with her cane. ‘I recognize people better by their bodies than their voices.’ She gave the handle a gentle tug. ‘Come on, TomTom,
I thought briefly, somewhat distracted by the quirky sense of humour that had prompted her to name her guide dog after a satnav system.
The dog reacted at once.
‘Hey, stop, not so fast,’ I said as she started to make her way past me. ‘I’m not letting you leave till you tell me why you came. This man who called you...’
...who pretends to be Alexander Zorbach and somehow knows the location of my hideaway...
‘...he may have lured you here, but that doesn’t explain why you let him talk you into it.’
Let alone in your condition,
‘What did you hope to gain by coming to see me?’
Alina came to a halt. Her tone was weary, as if she’d told me the same thing a hundred times.
‘I thought it my duty to come, so I didn’t have to blame myself later. At least I have left no stone unturned, and since I’m familiar with your articles, Herr Zorbach, I
honestly believed you’d phoned because you were interested in my evidence.’
Her face was in shadow, so I couldn’t read her expression. In any case, I wasn’t sure of the extent to which blind people’s faces register their emotions.
‘Yesterday I went to the police and told them all I know, but the idiots didn’t take me seriously. I had to make my statement to some fool who didn’t even have an office of his
‘What was it about?’
She sighed. ‘I’m a physio, as I already said. Most of my patients are regulars, but yesterday a stranger turned up at my practice without an appointment. He complained of severe pain
in the lumbar region.’
‘And?’ I said with mounting impatience.
‘So I started to give him a massage, but I didn’t get far. I had to break off the treatment.’
A wave made the whole houseboat shudder. I glanced at the window facing the lake, but total darkness prevailed outside.
‘For the same reason we’re talking together now. I suddenly realized who he was.’
‘Well, who was he?’ My stomach tensed even before I heard her reply.
‘The person you’ve written about so often in the last few weeks.’
She paused for a moment. The cold around me seemed to intensify.
‘I’m pretty sure the man I treated yesterday was the Eye Collector.’
Dry birchwood logs were crackling loudly in the stove. I’d quickly put a match to them after persuading Alina to stay.
‘Just another ten minutes’ were all she’d granted me. Then she would have to catch the bus back to the city centre, which only went once an hour. I still hadn’t decided
whether to offer to drive her home in the Volvo. I simply didn’t know what to make of her and the whole situation.
I closed the little stove’s soot-stained window. Together with the paraffin lamp, the flickering firelight was now generating the warm glow I had always enjoyed during my periodic retreats
To work. Or to sort out my thoughts...
But this time I failed to experience the snug sensation with which I usually sat down at the little desk beneath the window on the landward side. I was feeling even edgier than I did during the
minutes preceding copy deadline, when I still had to type my last few lines and was battling simultaneously with the clock and the nicotine withdrawal symptoms that regularly assailed me now that
Thea had banned smoking in the newsroom.
‘Coffee?’ I asked, going to the galley at the far end of the room. It was little more than a miniature worktop with a gas ring, two fitted cupboards and a sink.
‘Black,’ came the terse reply. Alina seemed far calmer than I, although just as many questions must have been whirling around in her head. After all, she was on her own in the wilds
with a total stranger.
And she was blind!
I lit the butane gas ring.
‘You say you recognized the Eye Collector?’ I said as I looked in the cupboards for some instant coffee. I tried to rid my voice of any derisive undertone, but it wasn’t easy.
‘Does that mean you aren’t completely blind?’
I had known, ever since my mother lost her sight after a stroke, that it was a widespread misapprehension that all blind people live in darkness. In Germany they are officially classified as
blind if they can detect less than two per cent of what a sighted person sees. Two per cent can mean a great deal to those affected, but I wasn’t sure how even this minimal residue of sight
had enabled Alina to
the Eye Collector.
Four women, three children – seven dead in only six months. And there wasn’t even a photofit picture of the serial murderer!
She shook her head.
‘What about silhouettes, shadows and so on?’ I asked.
‘No. No silhouettes, colours, flashes of light or anything like that. In my case everything has gone. That’s to say...’ She hesitated. ‘Everything except my sensitivity
to light and darkness. At least I’ve retained that.’
So she hadn’t been blind from birth.
The water in the kettle started to boil. I spooned some instant coffee into a mug.
‘Just now, when you shone a light in my eyes, I sensed it. It’s as though the light is filtered through a very thick curtain. I can’t make out anything behind it, but I can
sense a change.’
‘It’s a great help to me in everyday life. For instance, I can distinguish between times of day. That’s why I always ask for a window seat on a plane. Most flight attendants
can’t understand why – in fact one tried to transfer me, but I told him to get lost. There’s nothing lovelier than the intensity of light reflected by clouds, don’t you
I said yes, although I had to admit I hadn’t looked out of the window at all on my last flight. I’d spent the fifty minute journey to Munich preparing for an interview.
I carried the mug over to the coffee table and deposited it beside the ashtray, then sat down in an old leather armchair at right angles to the sofa.
‘So how did you recognize the Eye Collector?’
How, when all you can see is a shadow on the retina?
She smiled. ‘That’s the one-million euro question, isn’t it?’
I said nothing. After conducting hundreds of interviews I had developed an instinct that told me when to let someone run on and when an question was appropriate.
‘Well, let’s see how much longer you listen to me if I give you the answer right away. The policeman yesterday treated me like a lunatic. He wouldn’t even let me speak to the
detective in charge.’ She chewed her lower lip. ‘I can’t blame him, to be honest. I can hardly believe it myself.’
She sighed audibly and clasped her hands behind her head, staring up at the ceiling with sightless eyes.
‘It’s so unfair. Shit, I didn’t want this.’