Crime Excerpt: First There Was Silence by Leonie Haubrich (Germany)

If only she would be quiet! Her pullover was already quite damp from the excitement and the screaming, and her face was so dark red that it looked almost violet. His own shirt was wet and sticky at the shoulder from her saliva. He knew his way around children, with infants too. He actually knew what needed to be done. But today all his reassurance tactics had failed. Lotta had already drunk two bottles of warm milk mixed with valerian drops. She had been carried around, in silence, because lullabies had the opposite effect on her. Lotta cried without showing any signs of getting tired. His muscles were incredibly sore and weary. He longed to open a window, to let in the cool morning air, but that would have been too dangerous. A bath—he hadn’t tried that yet. He carried Lotta into the bathroom while rhythmically patting her back. He had had no idea it would be so strenuous. The steady sound of the running water made her alert. She fell silent in the middle of a scream, her mouth hanging open as if someone had pressed “Pause.” He looked at both their faces in the mirror. Their hair color was almost the same, the only difference the few gray hairs that had formed over his ears. With their sweaty hair and gray-blue eyes, they could have easily been mistaken for father and daughter. He turned off the water and undressed Lotta on the bathroom rug.

“And then later I’ll put fresh clothes on you. Do you prefer yellow or blue?” He tapped her nose with his finger.

“Mama.” Lotta looked at him with tear-filled eyes, and his throat tightened. He had to radiate self-confidence so she wouldn’t start to cry again. He needed to hold himself together.

“I’m your papa. Say it: Papa.”

“Mama.” This time she whispered so softly, it was barely audible. He raised her up and put her in the water. Maybe she didn’t really mean what she said, he consoled himself. It was just syllables without context like the usual Dada of other infants. He took her hand and guided the fingers in large circles, forming waves. Lotta allowed him to do it, without protest, but also without enthusiasm.

“Are you getting tired? That’s good. I’ll get you out of there and show you to your room. It’s been made up just for you. You’ll be hidden there, and no one will ever find you.”

When he pulled her out of the water, she howled. Her face went red again, and her hands pulled his hair. He suppressed a yell and opened her fists.

“It’s okay!” He put her back in the tub, but Lotta wouldn’t be quiet. He didn’t understand her. What did she want? All his experience was failing.

“Mama!” she said.

“I’m your papa, and soon you’ll have a new mama too.”

She screamed when he lifted her up and wrapped her in a towel, and she got even louder when he dressed her. What else did he expect when he put her in the water, took her out, put her in again, took her out? Wasn’t reliability the most important thing—so a child knew what to expect? He bit his tongue. How could he be so clumsy? He longed for silence to think over the situation. He took the box of tablets out of the medicine cabinet, although he wanted to use this option only as a last resort. He had already quartered the tablets the day before. When Lotta guessed what she was in for, she stopped screaming and pressed her lips shut.

“Here, yum,” he said, opened her mouth, and pushed the bit of sleeping pill far inside. Lotta swallowed. To be sure it went down, he gave her a drink of water, but she let most of it run down the side of her mouth. When she screamed again and choked, he put the cup on the edge of the sink. Slowly he carried her through the apartment until her crying subsided. Her arms and legs hung limply from her body; her head had sunk to his chest. To celebrate, he allowed himself two glasses of bubbly. Shortly thereafter he felt the warmth in his hands and feet, the feeling of well-being from exactly the right amount of alcohol that calmed him without getting him drunk. He wished most of all that he could lie down with Lotta, but that was too risky. He had no doubt she would sleep for a couple of hours without interruption. The pantry behind the kitchen was at a pleasant temperature due to the electric heater he’d put in there. He laid her in the crib. She didn’t move while he put her in the sleep sack. He wound the musical clock, left the room, closed the door, and pushed the shelves in front of it. Soon the police would appear. They wouldn’t find a thing.

Excerpt (Chapter 3) from First There Was Silence by Leonie Haubrich and translated by Ruth A. Gentes Krawczyk, published by Amazon Crossing in 2016.

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