All she did was take in a parcel for a neighbour.
Sebastian Fitzek is one of Europe’s most successful authors of psychological thrillers and I was thrilled to talk to him about his brand new book, The Package.
In the interview, Sebastian shares how the idea for the book grew out of the every-day occurrence of a package delivery to his quiet street in Berlin. Interestingly, Sebastian has also created several board games. We talk about how these games came to life and how he collaborated with others to make them a reality.
In the introduction I mention that I’m reading Cynthia Harrod-Eagle’s most recent Bill Slider police procedural, Cruel as the Grave. If you’ve been reading the blog for a while you know how much I love these books. ;-)
Today’s show is supported by my patrons at Patreon. Thank you! When you become a patron for as little as $1 a month you receive a short mystery story each and every month. And the rewards for those who love mystery stories go up from there! Learn more and become a part of my community of readers at www.Patreon.com/alexandraamor
This week’s mystery author
Sebastian Fitzek is one of Europe’s most successful authors of psychological thrillers. His books have sold 12 million copies, been translated into more than twenty-four languages and are the basis for international cinema and theatre adaptations. He was the first German author to be awarded the European Prize for Criminal Literature. He lives with his family in Berlin.
Learn more about Sebastian and all his books at SebastianFitzek.com
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Excerpt from The Package
Taking hold of her wheelie case, Emma hesitated before entering room 1904, for the simple reason that she could barely see a thing. The little illumination that did penetrate the darkness came from the countless lights of the city, nineteen floors beneath her. The Le Zen on Tauentzienstrasse was Berlin’s newest five-star chrome-and-glass palace, with over three hundred rooms. Taller and more luxurious than any other hotel in the capital. And – in Emma’s eyes, at least – decorated with relatively little taste.
That, at any rate, was her first impression once she’d found the main switch by the door and the overhead light clicked on.
The interior design looked as if a trainee had been instructed to exploit every possible Far Eastern cliché when selecting the furnishings.
In the hallway, which was separated from the neighbouring bedroom by a thin, sliding door covered in tissue paper, stood a Chinese wedding chest. A bamboo rug extended from the door to a low futon bed. The lamps beside the floor sofa looked like the colourful lanterns that the toddlers carried on St Martin’s Day in the parade organised by the Heerstrasse Estate kindergarten. Surprisingly stylish, on the other hand, was a huge black-and-white photograph of Ai Weiwei that stretched from floor to ceiling between the sofa and fitted wardrobe. Emma had recently visited an exhibition by this exceptional Chinese artist.
She looked away from the man with the tousled beard, hung her coat in the wardrobe and took her phone from her handbag.
She’d already tried calling him once, but Philipp hadn’t answered. He never did when on duty.
With a sigh she moved over to the floor-to-ceiling windows, slipped off her peep toes, without which she shrunk to the average height of a fourteen-year-old, and gazed down at the Kurfürstendamm. She stroked her belly, which still showed nothing, although it was a bit too early for that yet. But she was comforted by the idea that something was growing inside her, which was far more important than any seminar or professional recognition.
It had taken a while before the second line on the pregnancy test finally showed up, five weeks ago.
And this was also the reason why Emma wasn’t sleeping in her own bed tonight, but for the first time in her life staying the night at a hotel in her home city. Her little house in Teufelssee-Allee was currently like a building site because they’d started extending the loft to make a children’s room. Even though Philipp thought it might be a little overzealous to begin nest-building before the end of the first trimester of her pregnancy.
As he was working in another town again, Emma had accepted the overnight package that the German Association of Psychiatry offered all the guest speakers at the two-day conference – even those who lived in Berlin – as it allowed them to have a few drinks at the evening function in the hotel’s ballroom (which Emma was bunking off).
‘The lecture ended just as you predicted,’ she said in the message she left for Philipp. ‘They didn’t stone me, but that was only because they didn’t have any stones to hand.’
‘They didn’t take my hotel room away, though. The key card I got with my conference documents still worked.’
Emma concluded her message with a kiss, then hung up. She missed him terribly.
Better to be alone here in the hotel than alone at home amongst paint pots and torn-down walls, she thought, trying to put the best possible gloss on the situation.
Emma went into the bathroom and, as she took of her suit, looked for the volume control for the speaker in the false ceiling, which transmitted the TV sound.
Which meant she had to go back into the living room and switch off the television. Here too it took a while for her to find the remote control in a bedside table drawer, which was why she was now fully up to speed about a plane crash in Ghana and a volcano explosion in Chile.
Emma heard the nasal voice of the newsreader begin a new item – ‘… the police have issued a warning about a serial killer, who…’ – and cut him off at the press of a button.
Back in the bathroom it was some time before she found the temperature setting.
As someone who felt the cold Emma loved hot water, even now in high summer, and it had been an unusually fresh and particularly windy June day at below twenty degrees. So she set the water to forty degrees – her pain threshold – and waited for the tingling sensation she always felt when the hot jet hit her skin.
Emma normally felt alive the moment she was enveloped by steam and the hot water massaged her body. Today the effect was weaker, partly because the dirt that had been hurled at her after the lecture couldn’t be washed away with water and hotel soap.
There had been furious reactions to her revelation that, even in the twenty-first century, people risked becoming the playthings of demigods in white abusing their power just because of sloppy misdiagnoses. The validity of her research findings had been questioned more than once. The publisher of the renowned specialist journal had even announced he would undertake meticulous review before he ‘might consider’ publishing an article about her work.
Sure, some colleagues had ventured their support after the event, but in the eyes of these few she’d still been able to read the unspoken reproach: ‘Why on earth did you put yourself in danger with this stupid experiment? And why are you risking your career and picking a fight with the bigwigs who run the clinics?’
Something Philipp would never ask. He understood why Emma had for years been fighting to improve the legal status of patients undergoing psychiatric treatment. Because of their mental illness they were usually viewed with more suspicion than patients who, for example, complained of faulty dental care.
And Philipp understood why she also took unusual, sometimes dangerous routes to get there. No doubt because they were so similar in this respect.
In his work, too, Philipp overstepped boundaries that no normal person would cross freely. In truth, the psychopaths and serial killers he hunted as chief investigator in the offender profiling department often left him with no other choice.
Some couples share a sense of humour, others have similar hobbies or the same political outlook. Emma and Philipp, on the other hand, laughed at completely different jokes, she couldn’t stand football and he didn’t share her love of musicals, and whereas in her youth she had demonstrated against nuclear power and the fur industry, he had been a member of the conservative youth association. What formed the bedrock of their relationship was empathy.
Intuition and experience allowed them to put themselves in other people’s souls and bring the secrets of their psyches to the light of day. While Emma did this to liberate the patients who visited her private practice on Savignyplatz from their psychological problems, Philipp used his extraordinary abilities to draw up behaviour and personality profiles. Thanks to his analyses, some of the most dangerous criminals Germany had ever known had been put behind bars.
Recently, however, Emma had been wishing that both of them would take a step backwards. She was continually nagged by the feeling that in their time off, which was fairly meagre anyway, Philipp was also finding it increasingly difficult to achieve the necessary distance from his work. And she was worried that they were well on the way to proving Nietzsche’s dictum about the abyss: if you gazed into it deeply and for long enough, it would start gazing into you.
Some time out, or a holiday at least. That would be enough.
The last trip they’d taken together was so long ago that the memories of it had already faded.
Emma lathered her hair with the hotel’s shampoo and could only hope that she wouldn’t look like a poodle the following morning. Her brown hair might be strong, but it reacted sensitively to the wrong products. It had taken numerous experiments and tears till she found out what made her hair shine and what turned her head into a ripped sofa cushion.
Emma rinsed her hair, pushed the shower curtain aside and was just wondering why such an expensive hotel hadn’t installed glass sliding doors when she was suddenly incapable of another lucid thought.
What she felt was fear.
The first thing that came into her mind when she saw the letters was run!
The letters on the bathroom mirror.
In neatly written letters, across the steam-covered glass, it read:
BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!
Streaks were all that remained of the condensation that had dissipated, leaving ugly edges on the silvered glass. Without thinking she wiped the patches away with a cloth, but immediately felt annoyed for not having breathed against the mirror to bring the message to life again.
Then she felt annoyed that she wasn’t sure of herself any longer.
‘What on earth is wrong with you, Emma?’ she whispered, her head pressed into a towel.
She hadn’t imagined the message. It was just a silly prank. No reason to feel so nervous.
Emma switched off the light in the bathroom without another glance at the mirror. She hung the kimono in the wardrobe and swapped it for some pyjamas. But she couldn’t resist the paranoid impulse to check the wardrobe for secret hiding places (there weren’t any). And as she was up, she could also take a peek behind the bed, inspect the curtains and try the locks again. All the while watched by Ai Weiwei, whose eyes had been photographed in such a way that they held Emma in his gaze wherever she moved to in the room.
She knew that all of this was displacement activity, but she felt better for having given in to her irrational stress symptoms.
When she finally crawled under the freshly starched bedclothes after her ‘patrol’, Emma felt tired and heavy. She tried one last time to contact Philipp and left a message on his voicemail that said, ‘Dream of me when you’ve listened to this.’ Emma set the alarm and closed her eyes.
As so often when she was overtired yet completely overwrought, flittering lights and shadows filled the darkness she wanted to sink into.
As she drifted off to sleep Emma asked herself, Why did you say that? in a woolly memory of her lecture. Why did you say that you were the patient being tortured in the video? That had never been her intention, she just acted out of impulse because Stauder-Martens, the narcissistic old goat from Cologne, had pestered her.
Do you have more evidence than this fake patient’s statement?
Yes she did. Now it was out. Unnecessary shock tactics.
Emma rolled onto her side and tried to banish the images of the horde of men listening in the conference centre. She felt a pricking in her ear because she’d forgotten to remove her pearl studs.
Why do you always do things like that? she asked herself and, as so often in the transition between being awake and dreaming, she wondered why she was asking this question and what she actually meant by ‘always’, and while she was stuck in this analytical loop it suddenly happened.
She fell asleep.
Not even for two minutes.
Until the noise woke her up.
In the darkness.
Very close, right beside her bed.
Emma turned over to the other side, opened her eyes and saw the light on her mobile. She’d placed it on the floor because the charging lead didn’t reach from the plug up to the bedside table. Grabbing the phone from the carpet was quite tricky.
‘Darling?’ she said, in the hope that Philipp was calling back from some office phone.
‘Frau Dr Stein?’
She’d never heard this man’s voice before. Irritation mingled with the disappointment at the fact she wasn’t speaking to Philipp. Who the hell was calling her this late at night?
‘I hope it’s important,’ she yawned.
‘I’m very sorry to disturb you. This is Herr Eigenhardt from reception at Le Zen hotel.’
On my mobile?
‘We just wanted to see if you’d still be checking in this evening.’
Emma groped in vain for the switch to turn on the bedside light.
‘What do you mean check in? I’m already asleep.’
Or at least trying to.
‘So it’s fine if we give the room away?’
Can’t he hear me properly?
‘No, listen. I already checked in. Room 1904.’
‘Oh, please accept my sincere apologies, but…’
The receptionist sounded bemused.
‘But what?’ Emma asked.
‘But we don’t have a room with that number.’
Emma sat up in bed and stared at the tiny blinking light on the smoke alarm attached to the ceiling.
‘Are you having me on?’
‘We don’t have a single four in the hotel. It’s an unlucky number in the Far East and so…’
Emma didn’t hear the rest of the sentence as her mobile was no longer in her hand.
Instead she heard something that wasn’t possible. Right by her ear.
A man clearing his throat.
And while her own throat constricted with fear, she felt the pressure on her mouth.
She tasted fabric.
Emma was stabbed by something, then she felt a cooling liquid flow into the crook of her arm through the puncture.
The man cleared his throat again and when she was certain she was freezing internally she sensed the blades.
Invisible in the darkness, but unmistakeably close to her face because they were vibrating.
An electric carving knife, a saw or an electric corkscrew.
Ready to stab, slash or puncture her.
She heard the sound of a zip being unfastened.
‘I’m pregnant!’ she wanted to cry, but Emma’s tongue and lips failed her.
Immobilised, she was unable to scream, kick or thrash about.
Only wait and find out where she’d first feel pain.
And pray that this horror would soon be over.
Which it wasn’t.
Excerpted from The Package, by Sebastian Fitzek. Head of Zeus, 2021. Reprinted with permission.