Read The Child Online

Authors: Sebastian Fitzek

The Child

Copyright

The book is published by agreement with AVA International GmbH, Germany (
www.ava-international.de
)
SPHERE

First published in the English language in Great Britain in 2014 by Sphere
Originally published in German as
Das Kind
in 2008 by Droemer Knaur
Copyright © 2008 by Droemersche Verlagsanstalt Th. Knaur Nachf. GmbH & Co. KG, Munich, Germany
The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A CIP catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978-0-7515-5686-5

Little, Brown

An imprint of

Little, Brown Book Group

100 Victoria Embankment

London EC4Y 0DY

An Hachette UK Company

Contents

Copyright

Dedication

The Meeting

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

The Quest

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

The Realization

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

The Deal

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

The Truth

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

The Beginning

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Ten Days Later

Acknowledgements

For my parents and Viktor Larenz

The Meeting

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou

ordained strength because of thine enemies,

that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.

Psalms 8:2

1

When Robert Stern agreed to attend this unusual meeting a few hours earlier, he hadn’t known he was making a rendezvous with death. He’d been even less aware that death would barely come up to his chest, be wearing jeans and trainers, and enter his life with a smile on this derelict industrial estate.

‘No, she isn’t here yet, and I’m beginning to lose patience.’

Stern, staring through his car’s streaming windscreen at the broken windows of the old factory a hundred metres away, silently cursed his secretary. She had forgotten to cancel the date with his father, who was fuming on the other line.

‘Call Carina and ask her where the hell she’s got to!’

He punched a button on the leather-covered steering wheel. A crackle of static, then he heard his old man coughing over the loudspeaker. Seventy-nine and still a chain smoker. He had even lit up while waiting to be put through.

‘I’m sorry, Dad,’ said Stern. ‘I know we were having supper tonight, but we’ll have to make it Sunday instead. I’ve been called to a completely unexpected meeting.’

Please come – you must. I don’t know what to do
.

He had never heard Carina sound so anxious on the phone before. If she was play-acting, she deserved an Oscar.

‘Maybe I should pay you five hundred euros an hour like your clients,’ his father snarled. ‘Then I might get to see you sometime.’

Stern sighed. He looked in on his father regularly, but there was no point in mentioning that now. Nothing had ever taught him how to win an argument with his father, neither his scores of courtroom successes nor the lost battles of his wrecked marriage. As soon as he locked horns with the old man he felt like a child with a bad school report, not forty-five-year-old Robert Stern, senior partner of Langendorf, Stern & Dankwitz, Berlin’s leading defence lawyer.

‘To be honest, Dad,’ he said, trying to inject some levity into the conversation, ‘I haven’t the faintest idea where I am at present. If I didn’t know better, I’d say I was somewhere in Chechnya. My satnav had a hard time getting me here.’

He turned on the car’s headlights. They illuminated an expanse of unpaved forecourt piled high with steel girders, rusty cable drums and other industrial waste. Paints and varnishes had once been manufactured here, to judge by the stacks of empty metal drums. Seen against the dilapidated, brick-built factory building with the half-demolished chimney, they looked like props in a post-apocalyptic movie.

‘Let’s hope that gizmo of yours can find its way to my funeral when the time comes,’ the old man said between coughs. Stern wondered if this embitterment was hereditary. He’d had the makings of it himself for ten years or more.

Since Felix
.

Stern’s traumatic experiences in the neonatal ward had brought him closer to his father outwardly as well. He had aged before his time. The man who used to spend every spare minute on the basketball court, improving his shooting, could scarcely hit his office wastepaper basket with an empty Coke can.

Most people who met him were deceived by Stern’s tall, slim figure and broad shoulders. The truth was, his perfectly cut suits concealed a physique that had gone to seed, the dark smudges below his eyes were camouflaged by a naturally swarthy complexion, and skilful haircutting prevented the sparse patches above his temples from showing through. It took the better part of an hour to scrub the fatigue from his face each morning, and he left the bathroom feeling more and more of a sham. Like the sort of showy designer furniture the hidden defects of which don’t become apparent until they’re exposed to the merciless overhead lights in your living room.

There was a click on the line.

‘Sorry, I’ll be right back.’ Stern escaped any further paternal reproaches by taking his secretary’s return call.

‘Let me guess: she cancelled the appointment?’ That would be typical of her. Carina Freitag was a reliable and efficient nurse, professionally speaking, but the structuring of her personal commitments was as chaotic, erratic and uncoordinated as her love life. Although their relationship had broken up after only a few weeks three years ago, they still phoned each other regularly and even met for an occasional coffee. Both forms of contact tended to end in a row.

‘No, afraid I couldn’t get through to her.’

‘OK, thanks.’ Stern flinched as the autumn gale spattered the windscreen with a sudden flurry of rain. He started the car and turned on the wipers, his eye briefly caught by a russet-coloured maple leaf stuck to the glass beyond their reach. Then, looking back over his shoulder, he slowly reversed the car, its tyres crunching on the loose chippings.

‘If Carina calls, tell her I couldn’t wait any—’ Stern broke off just as he faced the front and was about to engage first gear. Whatever was racing straight towards him, emergency lights flashing, it certainly wasn’t Carina’s decrepit little car. The ambulance was making its way along the approach road as fast as the potholes permitted.

For one brief moment Stern genuinely thought the driver meant to ram him. Then the ambulance veered off and came to a stop beside his car.

He switched back to the other line after telling his secretary goodbye. ‘Dad? I’ll have to sign off, the person I’m meeting has just arrived,’ he said, but his father had already hung up. A gust of wind blew the Mercedes saloon’s heavy door as he opened it and got out.

What the hell is she doing with an ambulance?

Carina opened the driver’s door and jumped out, landing in a puddle, but she seemed heedless of the muddy splashes on her white nurse’s uniform. Her long, russet hair was gathered into a severe ponytail. She looked so good that Stern was tempted to take her in his arms, but something in her expression deterred him.

‘I’m in big trouble,’ she said, producing a packet of cigarettes. ‘I think I’ve really messed up this time.’

‘Why all the drama?’ Stern asked. ‘Why not meet at my office instead of on this … this bomb site?’

No longer in the comfort of his car, he could feel the unpleasant chill of the freshening October wind. He hunched his shoulders and shivered.

‘Let’s not waste any time, Robert. I only borrowed this bus – I have to return it as soon as possible.’

‘All right, but if you’ve messed up, can’t we discuss it in more civilized surroundings?’

‘No, no, no.’ Carina shook her head and made a dismissive gesture. ‘You don’t understand – this isn’t about me.’

She strode briskly around the ambulance, opened the rear door and pointed inside.

‘Your client is lying down here.’

Stern gave her a searching, sidelong look. To a man of his experience, the sight of a bank robber with gunshot wounds, or a victim of gang warfare or some other shady character in urgent and, above all, anonymous need of his help would have been nothing new. What puzzled him was where Carina came into the equation.

When she said no more he climbed aboard. His attention was immediately drawn to the figure lying motionless on the stretcher.

‘What is this?’ He swung round and looked back at Carina, who had remained standing outside the vehicle and was lighting a cigarette – something she seldom did, and only when extremely nervous. ‘You’ve brought a boy out here. Why?’

‘He’ll tell you himself.’

‘The little shrimp doesn’t look as if …’
he’s capable of talking
, Stern was going to say, because the pale-faced youngster appeared almost lifeless. When he turned round again, however, the boy had sat up with his legs dangling over the side of the stretcher.

‘I’m not a little shrimp,’ he protested. ‘I’m ten! My birthday was two days ago.’

Beneath his cord jacket the boy wore a black T-shirt with a death’s-head transfer. To Stern his brand-new patchwork jeans looked far too big for him, but what did he know? Maybe it was fashionable for kids that age to turn up their trouser legs and draw on their sneakers with a felt-tip pen.

‘Are you a lawyer?’ the boy asked rather hoarsely. He seemed to have trouble speaking, as if he hadn’t drunk anything for a long time.

‘Yes, I am. A defence lawyer, to be precise.’

‘Good.’ The boy’s smile revealed two rows of surprisingly white and regular teeth. His long lashes and rosebud mouth would have been enough to melt any granny’s heart without the addition of a gap-toothed grin.

‘That’s fine,’ he said. He got off the stretcher, briefly turning his back on Stern as he did so. His curly light-brown hair was shoulder length and freshly washed. Seen from behind, he could have passed for a girl. Beneath the hair Stern noticed a plaster the size of a credit card on the back of his neck.

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