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Authors: Sebastian Fitzek

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‘What?’

She didn’t answer.

‘What didn’t you want?’ I persisted after a while.

‘Ever since I was three – ever since the accident that robbed me of my sight – I’ve fought not to be treated like a disabled person.’

She heaved another sigh.

‘We were living in the States at the time. In California, where my father was employed on large-scale construction sites. He was a stiff-necked German civil engineer who had married an
even stiffer-necked American woman of Russian extraction. My parents refused to send me to a special school just because I couldn’t see any more. It took them six months to obtain permission
to send me to Hillwood Elementary with my sighted friends.’

She gave a low laugh. I threaded my fingers together to prevent myself from drumming impatiently on the arm of my chair. It was a while before I realized how nonsensical it was to fear that she
might notice my burning impatience.

‘I inherited a tendency to go hell-for-leather from them,’ she went on with a sweeping gesture that embraced the whole houseboat. It was presumably meant to imply that she would
scarcely be here if she didn’t keep plunging into reckless adventures.

‘I’m what psychologists call a blind extremist. I taught myself to ride a bicycle early on. I go walking with a dog and without a cane as often as I can, and last year I went skiing.
Hell, I keep falling flat on my face, just so people don’t treat me like a leper. And now this shit happens.’

She folded her hands on her lap and screwed up her eyelids.

‘This is nothing to do with me being blind, okay? Once upon a time I used to try to confide in people. My parents, my grandmother, my brother. But no one ever believed me. My friends
thought I was pulling their leg. My mother got very worried and sent me to a child psychologist. I lied to him – told him I’d invented the whole thing just to make myself look
important. Hell, it’s enough of a stigma being blind. I didn’t want people thinking I was crazy as well. I never mentioned it to another soul from then on.’

I prompted her despite myself. ‘Mentioned what?’

‘I’ve kept quiet about it for nearly twenty years, right? What’s more, I’d have kept my trap shut for all eternity if it hadn’t been for those poor
children.’

We were once more at a point where a question would have stemmed her flow of words rather than encouraged it.

‘I’ve got a gift.’

I held my breath and forced myself not to interrupt.

‘I know how screwy that sounds. I don’t believe in the occult myself, but it’s a fact
.’

What sort of gift?
I wondered.

‘I can see into the past’

‘You
what
?!’

So much for my self-control. Furious with myself for having opened my mouth, I thought I’d broken the spell and expected her to clam up, but she only gave a resigned smile.

‘These are the times when I’d really like to have my eyesight back, just to be able to see the expressions like the one that is doubtless on your face. I bet you’re looking at
me as if I were an extraterrestrial.’

‘I’m not,’ I lied, slowly shaking my head, and urged her to go on.

‘As a physio, I’ve specialized in shiatsu.’

Shiatsu?

I vaguely remembered Nicci’s thirty-fifth birthday present to me: a shiatsu session. I had looked forward to powerful hands massaging me with fragrant oils and creams and kneading the
tension out of my neck to the accompaniment of soft chill-out music. Instead, I’d been spreadeagled on the hard floor of an Asian joint practice. A bony old Chinese woman proceeded to contort
my extremities into such absurd positions and apply such extreme pressure to certain parts of my anatomy that my eyes watered. Her vigorous pressure-point massage involved the use not only of her
fingers but of her entire body, in other words, her knees, elbows and fists – even her chin. It had left me feeling stressed rather than relaxed, and I wound up convinced that I’d
narrowly escaped paraplegia.

‘It happens very rarely, and I still haven’t discovered who or what triggers it. The fact is, though, physical contact with some people enables me to see into their past.’

Aha...

This time I had my voice under control. It sounded entirely neutral when I said, ‘And it happened again yesterday?’

Alina nodded. ‘I was supposed to massage this man, but I had to stop. I’d barely touched him when I was transfixed by a sort of shaft of lightning. It was dazzlingly bright –
brighter than my few memories of images from the time before my accident.’

She cleared her throat.

‘Then the flash faded and I saw what he’d done to the child, who was already unconscious. And to the woman.’

She raised her head, and I had the unreal sensation that she was looking through me.

‘Jesus, I saw him break her neck.’

68

‘You
saw
him?’

The stove was giving out a cosy warmth. To my bewilderment, I found myself wishing for a return of the biting cold that had greeted me when I first came aboard. I was too hot and my throat felt
sore. To make matters worse, the slight ache in my left temple heralded a migraine.

Alina nodded. ‘I wasn’t born blind, as I said. If I had been, I would have no conception of light, colour and shapes. There wouldn’t be any images in my dreams, either. They
would just be made up of sounds, smells and – of course – tactile sensations.’

I was surprised to note that I’d never given any thought to how the blind dream. I realized that people who had never seen anything must live in a world quite different from my own. If I
shut my eyes and listened to the wind and waves and the sound of branches lashing the outside of the houseboat, the darkness didn’t prevent me from having as vivid an idea of the wind, waves
and woods as I did of the old leather armchair in which I was sitting. My brain substituted memories for the images it could not perceive; memories of a reality which a person blind from birth
naturally lacked and could never acquire.

I turned away from Alina and focused my gaze on some snowflakes melting on the window pane. I wondered how one could describe snow to a blind man who had no conception of the word
‘white’.

‘But there used to be a time when I could see,’ she said, jolting me out of my reverie. ‘Mind you, it’s twenty years ago and my memories are fading. Memories of my
brother’s face or the view from our kitchen window when it was raining. I can hardly remember the look of rain or the puddles I liked to jump in.’

She paused briefly, feeling for the untouched mug of coffee on the table between us. It was a moment before she grasped the handle and conveyed the mug to her lips. She rested it against her
chin and went on talking without taking a sip.

‘The one image that’s ineradicably etched into my brain is that of my parents. Theirs are the only faces I’ll probably never forget, and for that I’m both grateful and
resentful.’

‘Resentful?’

‘In my dreams and visions,’ Alina replied with a faraway expression, ‘people all look the same and they all have my parents’ features. That’s a real drag, believe
me, because my dreams tend to be nightmares. The scenes I witness are so frightful, most normal people would need the services of a psychotherapist.’

She took a big sip of coffee at last and sighed faintly.

‘It’s bad enough to dream of a man putting a bag over a woman’s head and watching her suffocate with her eyes bulging from their sockets as she gasps for breath but only
inhales a mouthful of plastic...’ She swallowed hard. ‘What’s really bad is when the woman has your mother’s eyes and mouth. She pleads for mercy – desperately, but
the murderer will never remove the noose he’s tightened around her neck because he’s a pathological sadist. A sadist who looks exactly like the father who used to take me to
kindergarten in the mornings and tell me bedtime stories at night.’

I felt a lump in my throat and coughed. ‘But it wasn’t a dream that brought you here?’ I asked cautiously.

‘No.’ She replaced the mug on the table. ‘I don’t know what to call it. A vision, maybe. Or a flashback.’

A flashback?

‘How do you know the term?’

‘This may surprise you, Herr Zorbach, but I own a television set. I even turn it on, although there’s less and less point. I used to be able to follow a plot quite well from the
dialogue, but now all I hear for the first ten minutes is music and noises. I think movies are becoming more and more visual. Can that be so?’

Possibly. I’d never given any thought to that either.

‘That’s why I often invite John over. John is an old friend from the States who’s been living in Berlin for the past four years, like me. He’s gay, worse luck, so
there’s nothing doing in the bed line, but at least he can see. He always describes what’s happening, so I know from him that movies sometimes perform a backflip. The colours change and
everything goes slower, and sometimes you’re just shown a brief glimpse of the past. A flashback, in other words. Am I right?’

I grunted affirmatively.

‘I’ve had first-hand experience of flashbacks like that.’

I raised my eyebrows. ‘You take drugs?’

‘Not often.’ She pointed to her eyes. ‘Some blind people go to psychoanalysts, but most try to cope on their own. I usually take my mind off things with men, but once, when not
even that did the trick, I resorted to an old and proven psychedelic drug.’

I laughed and told her I knew what she was implying, having written an article on the history of LSD some months before. Although the hallucinogen had been marketed for psychiatric purposes in
the middle of the previous century, it wasn’t until the 1970s that its dangers were recognized and further research was banned.

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ she said with a smile. ‘“No wonder the woman sees ghosts if she blows her mind.” But I’ve given up the hard stuff and I
haven’t even smoked a joint for weeks. All the same, I know what I’m talking about. Yesterday, when I was treating the Eye Collector, I had a flashback.’ She tapped her forehead.
‘I was inside him. Inside his head, and I saw what he did.’

I leant forward, debating what to do next. My instincts advised me to terminate the conversation at this point, but the little that Alina had said had aroused more than just my journalistic
curiosity.

I had often interviewed disturbed people in the course of my career as a reporter. Hardly surprising, since I specialized in unsolved crimes of violence. I had spoken with psychologically broken
victims, with demented sex offenders who insisted they were innocent and told me to listen to the voices in their heads. I had even interviewed a ten-year-old hospital patient who claimed to have
been a serial murderer in a previous existence. To his lawyer’s consternation, the boy actually seemed to demonstrate the veracity of his story by directing the police to the remains of
people who had been murdered exactly as he’d described. Nicci was disappointed when we discovered that no supernatural agency had been at work, and I felt sure that Alina’s fanciful
assertions could be logically accounted for.

Just as there had to be some explanation of how I’d heard voices on the police radio frequency, how my wallet had been found at the crime scene, and why someone purporting to be me had
lured this blind girl to my houseboat.

The most probable answer to the last question was that she was either lying or suffering from some form of mental illness.

Schizophrenia, for example?

‘When you treated the Eye Collector, Alina,’ I said, persisting with this most mysterious interview, ‘what exactly did you see?’

67

‘I had a bad feeling from the start. The man had got in touch anonymously via the contact form on my website. He called himself Tim.’

Tim?
My stomach muscles tensed as they always did when I heard that name.

My involuntary ‘Oh, no...’ was taken the wrong way.

‘Does it surprise you that blind people use the Internet?’ Alina smiled indulgently. ‘There are systems that read the pages aloud if they’re correctly programmed.
Besides, my computer has a display that converts text into Braille.’

‘Go on about your patient,’ I said.

About the Eye Collector.

‘He barely uttered a word when he turned up,’ said Alina. She took a new packet of cigarettes from her rucksack, which was once more at her feet. Her dog seemed to share my interest
in watching her deftly break the seal, shake a cigarette out of the packet, and light it.

‘He only whispered – said his vocal cords were inflamed and he wasn’t allowed to speak. But his major problem was his back. Apparently, he’d hurt it lifting
something.’

I had an involuntary mental picture of a man’s shadowy figure burdened with an inert body.

A wisp of tobacco smoke drifted past my nose, reminding me of the useless nicotine patch on my arm. At that moment I would only too willingly have exchanged it for a real cigarette.

‘I went to the bathroom to wash my hands. When I returned I stubbed my bare toe on a heavy urn with a pot plant in it.’

Alina took a hefty drag at her cigarette. Something about her body language puzzled me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

‘I was beside myself with pain,’ she went on. ‘Disoriented, too, because my sense of direction had never let me down before, not in my own place. I can find my way around
blind, so to speak.’ She smiled. ‘In retrospect, I wonder if he’d moved it as a test.’

If so, the killer must be totally paranoid,
I thought. No photofit picture of him existed and not a single witness had come forward. Why should the Eye Collector have played it safe with
a blind woman, of all people, when even a sighted person couldn’t identify him?

As if she’d heard me thinking aloud, Alina advanced another explanation.

‘Mind you, people who don’t know me too well can be careless. I’ve had to fire three cleaners because they didn’t follow my instructions to the letter. For heaven’s
sake don’t move anything, I tell them.’

She turned her head in my direction. It looked for one brief moment as if she was seeking eye contact.

BOOK: Eye Collector, The
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