The Child Thief [NOOK Book]

Overview



In the tradition of City of Thieves and Child 44, a troubled First World War veteran races across the frozen steppe of 1930s Ukraine to save a child from a shadowy killer with unthinkable plans

Luka is a war veteran who now wants only to have a quiet life with his family. His village has, so far, remained hidden from the advancing Soviet brutality. But everything changes the day the stranger arrives, pulling a sled bearing a terrible cargo. ...
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The Child Thief

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Overview



In the tradition of City of Thieves and Child 44, a troubled First World War veteran races across the frozen steppe of 1930s Ukraine to save a child from a shadowy killer with unthinkable plans

Luka is a war veteran who now wants only to have a quiet life with his family. His village has, so far, remained hidden from the advancing Soviet brutality. But everything changes the day the stranger arrives, pulling a sled bearing a terrible cargo. When the villagers’ fear turns deadly, they think they have saved themselves. But their anger has cursed them: in the chaos, a little girl has vanished. Luka is the only man with the skills to find out who could have stolen a child in these frozen lands—and besides, the missing girl is best friend to Luka’s daughter. He swears he will find her. Together with his sons, Luka sets out in pursuit across lands ravaged by war and gripped by treachery. Soon they realize that the man they are tracking is no ordinary criminal, but a skillful hunter with the child as the bait in his twisted game. It will take all of Luka’s strength to battle the harshest of conditions, and all of his wit to stay a step ahead of Soviet authorities. And though his toughest enemy is the man he tracks, his strongest bond is a promise to his family back home.
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Editorial Reviews

The Guardian
“He writes like the very best American thriller writers. Cancel all other engagements for the day.”
Val McDermid
“Steve Mosby has become one of a handful of writers who make me excited about crime fiction.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781453298848
  • Publisher: Pegasus Books
  • Publication date: 6/4/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 132,387
  • File size: 566 KB

Meet the Author



Dan Smith’s debut novel, Dry Season, was shortlisted for a Brit Writers’ Award and the Authors’ Club Prize for Best First Novel. He lives in Newcastle with his family. Find out more about Smith and his novels at dansmithbooks.com.
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Read an Excerpt

THE CHILD THIEF


By DAN SMITH

Pegasus Books LLC

Copyright © 2013 Dan Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-9884-8


CHAPTER 1

The distant figure was little more than a dark smudge on the steppe. The land was flat and white and cold; a vast sea of nothing with just that single blemish on the landscape, drawing the eye. During the war, an imperfection on the horizon would have halted a company in its tracks. Boots would have ceased their struggle, and the chatter of rifle slings would have fallen silent. Fear and curiosity would be felt in equal measure.

And in that silence, would be the long wait to see what might come of the lonely fault in the otherwise faultless beauty of the steppe. A single stain that could multiply into an army, bringing with it only violence and ferocity and death.

But the war was over, and red had crushed all colours that stood in its path, yet the blurred stain in the distance still brought fear and curiosity. It shouldn't have been there.

Staring against the wind, bitter tears welled and clouded my sight. I wiped them away and squinted against the few flakes that had started to fall. I contemplated the figure, watched it shift and blur, then I moved to the edge of the tall grass, wading through snow as deep as my calves, dropping to one knee and resting my elbow on my thigh. I blinked hard, touching a cheek to the cold stock of my rifle, and brought one eye close to the scope.

Magnified as it was, the dark spot was still just a stain on the brilliance of the drift, but I could see it moving towards us as the wind blew across the surface of yesterday's fall, whipping the soft snow into a powder that floated in a swirling mist.


'You see something?' Viktor said.

My sons moved behind me, but I kept my eye to the scope.

'What is that?' Petro asked, coming alongside. 'Some kind of animal?' His face was almost hidden, his hat pulled low, and only his eyes were visible above the scarf that covered his mouth and nose. Petro was just a few moments younger than his brother. Two boys, seventeen years old and almost men; born together, raised together but as different as the seasons. Summer and winter. One coarse and hardened, with an outlook that saw no subtlety. The other younger, more complex, more in tune with who he was.

'Could be.' Breath clouded around my face as I spoke, misting the scope lens. I wiped the glass with a finger of my glove.

'Let me see.' Viktor slung his own rifle over his back because it was without a scope and useless at this distance. He squatted beside me, his thick coat moving against mine.

I nodded, letting him take the rifle, and Viktor remained silent as he watched the magnified shape.

'What's it look like to you?' I said. 'An animal?'

'Hard to tell. The wind's picked up again; it looks like there's a storm coming.' He took a breath and steadied the rifle as the icy wind gathered strength, making him shiver despite his thick clothes. 'No, wait. I think it's ... yes, it's a man. I'm sure of it.' He took his eye from the scope and stared out into the oncoming blizzard. 'Someone's coming,' he said.

'Who?' Petro asked. 'You think it might be activists? Red Army?' It was the threat hanging over Vyriv: that one day the activists would come with soldiers to our village and take everything we had.

'There's just one person,' Viktor said.

'Give me that.' I took back the rifle and scoped the figure once more.

It was closer now. Not just a dark stain, but a person; the movement was clear. A shambling gait, head down, shoulders hunched, bent at the waist. A solitary figure without an army to follow it, but I eased back the rifle bolt and reassured myself that a cartridge was pushed home.

'Petro, I want you to go back,' I said. 'Warn your mother first. Then tell the others.'

'What about you?'

'We're going to wait here. See who's coming.'

Petro didn't want to go, but he knew argument was useless, so he went without another word, raising his knees high as he lifted his feet from the snow.

I watched him until he was gone, disappeared below the lip of the hill, then I turned to watch the figure once again.

'Take this.' I handed my rifle to Viktor, knowing the rare scoped weapon would be more effective to cover me from a distance. 'I'll use yours. Watch from the trees.' I nodded in the direction of the forest which grew along the steppe to the right. A line of leafless trunks, dark and barren against the grey sky. Their crooked fingers were heavy with icicles which glinted in the rare days of sunshine but now hung in shadow. The uppermost branches of the trees at the periphery were filled with the black spots of clumped twigs and forest detritus the crows had used to build their nests.

Viktor didn't take the rifle. He looked across at the trees, then back at me, indecision in his expression.

'You'll be safe,' I told him. 'Stay at the edge of the forest, that's all.'

'I'm not afraid. I just don't want to leave you alone.'

'I won't be alone. You'll be watching me with this.' I put the rifle into my son's hand. 'Do as I ask, Viktor. I need you to watch for me.'

Viktor sighed and nodded before he turned away and struck out for the edge of the trees.

When Viktor was gone, I adjusted my scarf and took up my son's rifle. To the right, crows shifted in the trees, snapping their bleak cries into the afternoon as Viktor approached, but it was cold and they were as embittered by it as we were. Once they had voiced their displeasure, they became quiet, and the only sound was the wind against the wool covering my ears.

Out on the steppe, the figure approached.

CHAPTER 2

The progress of the figure was sluggish. His legs dragged through the snow, barely lifting, and his head hung like a beast of burden. His body was bent almost double, his arms hanging limp at his sides. He was like a walking corpse, kept alive by nothing more than the determination to push on.

Swathed in thick clothes and with his face covered, he wore a stout rope around his waist, running out behind him to a sled covered with a tarpaulin thick with ice and snow. When I called out for him to stop, the man kept coming, stopping only when his head was just a few inches from the barrel of my gun. He spoke one word before dropping to his knees. He said, 'Please.'

I followed the man's movement, keeping the weapon pointed at his head, but the stranger remained as he was, as if in prayer, with his head bowed and his shoulders slumped.

When he finally looked up at me through the narrow gap in his coverings, I could see there was almost no life in his eyes.

I lowered the rifle a fraction and the man spoke again. 'Thank God,' he said, and fell face first into the snow at my feet.

I waited for a moment, then released my finger from the trigger and prodded the man's back with the rifle barrel. There was give in his clothing, as if the man beneath was thinner than he appeared to be. I shoved him again, but he didn't move, so I raised a hand to Viktor, hoping he could still see me despite the fall of snow in the air.

I turned the man onto his back and worked my fingers through his clothing to find the skin of his neck so I could feel for a pulse.


'Is he dead?' Viktor asked when he arrived at my side.

I shook my head. 'Not yet. Check the sled.'

Viktor went to the sled while I put my hands under the man's armpits and prepared to drag him.

'Anything?' My voice was almost lost to the wind when I called out. I looked back to see Viktor standing with a corner of the tarpaulin in his fingers, lifted so he could look beneath.

Viktor spoke without turning in my direction, his shrouded face angled down towards what was concealed beneath the waterproof covering. His voice was muffled. 'I think you should see this.'

I released my grip on the stranger and went over, stopping as soon as I saw the children lying on the sled. Immediately I looked away, lifting my eyes to the barren trees. But I didn't see the black branches. Instead I saw the image of the children fixed in my mind, as if they had been burned into my thoughts. It had been a long time since I had seen anything like it, and it probed at my darkest memories like the tip of a hot needle.

I took a deep breath and hardened myself, prepared myself to look once more. And when I was ready, I turned back to them.

The boy's hair was as black as the winter night that moved through the trees, and his head was turned so that, were he alive, he would have been looking to the right side of the sled. But this boy saw nothing because his eyes were dry and dead and stared at only whatever comes after death.

Accompanying him on the sled was a girl. Her hair was long, frozen hard against her face and neck so her features were less visible. She was lying on her back, staring wide-eyed through the stiff strands of tangled hair. Her small, undernourished body was naked and pale, and I estimated she was no more than ten or eleven years old, just a few years older than my own daughter. There was a long and wide laceration from the top of her thigh to just above the knee. From one side to the other. The whole of the front of her thigh had been removed so the white of the bone was visible.

I had seen many wounds, but few like this. Wars did notfashion violence in this way. I was accustomed to the ragged shredding of explosions and the punctured flesh left by bullets, but these cuts were clean. Precise. And whenever I had seen injuries like these, they had been made with much darker intent than that of soldiers fighting soldiers.

'Papa?' Viktor's voice cut into my thoughts. 'What happened to them?'

I glanced at my son and shook my head.

'So what do we do?'

I went back to the man lying in the snow and crouched beside him, staring down into his face, wondering who he was and why he had come here. 'This man is dying,' I said. 'He needs our help. We should get him back.'

'You mean take him back to the village? Is that safe? He might—'

'If we leave him here he'll die. Do you want that?'

'And what about them?' Viktor inclined his head towards the children. 'What do we do with them?'

'We take them with us.'


Together, we pulled the man aboard the sled, mindful of the terrible cargo hidden beneath the tarpaulin. I hitched the reins around my waist and leaned my weight forward as we began the trek home. Soon my legs were burning with fatigue. I wasn't getting younger, and my muscles were weakened by age and circumstance. I had lived just less than half a century and my bones and muscles were feeling the strain of the wear I'd forced on them.

Once we peaked the summit of the low hill, we could see Vyriv nestling in the shallow valley below, and as we began to descend, we saw smoke trailing and could already feel the warmth and the light the homes held within.

We moved into the village of only twenty or so buildings, many of which were now unoccupied. Some people had left because they couldn't cope with the hardship, thinking life would be better in the cities, and some had moved on to Karkhiv or Kiev, others hoping to enter Russia. And there were those who had gone west, looking for Poland, going back to the place where I had fought not fifteen years ago when General Brusilov led the Russian army into disaster in Galicia. But now the country was being closed off. There was no way out.

Last year the government introduced collectivisation, and defined the kulak. The use of labour, ownership, the sale of surplus goods – these were all signs of a kulak. Any man who could afford to feed himself and his family was to give his property over to the state, and when people resisted in numbers, Stalin declared war on us and his great machine swept across the country, liquidating, collectivising and appropriating. Homes and possessions and people all now belonged to the state, leaving only three fates for the kulak – death, deportation or the labour camp.

It was as if we were simply waiting for execution or the march to the trains. We lived in constant fear of the soldiers' arrival; of being forced into wagons and taken north to Siberia, south to Kazakhstan, packed so tight our feet wouldn't touch the wooden floor. And already there were signs of hunger like there had been before the famine of 1921.

For those of us who still lived in Vyriv, there was nothing left but a slim hope of survival; a small chance to avoid starvation if we kept our heads bowed and remained there, unnoticed in the valley for as long as possible.

'What do you think?' asked Viktor as we walked. 'Where's he from? I mean, there's nobody close. Uroz is the closest and that's more than a day's walk in this weather. And what do you think happened to them ?' He looked over at the shape of the tarpaulin. A range of hills in miniature, hiding something unspeakable beneath. 'You think some kind of animal did that?'

'Some kind.' I kept my head down, staring at the ground beneath my feet.

'Wolves?'

'No.'

Viktor sighed, his broad shoulders rising high as he drew air into his lungs. 'You think a person did it, don't you? I'm old enough to know the truth.'

I lifted my head and stared at my son, and Viktor stared back as my equal. Viktor was wilful and determined, like me. He had inherited my obstinacy and, as he grew older, he was learning to apply it. 'Yes, I think the wounds are man-made.'

'It looks ... well, it looks like an animal.'

'That was no animal. The cuts are too clean.'

'No. I mean it looks like when you butcher an animal. When you take off the meat.'

'I've seen something like this before.' I swallowed hard. 'There are people,' I said. 'Desperate people who'll do anything to survive. Hungry people. There were times – during the wars and the famine – when people would eat whatever they could. And there are bad people too, Viktor; people who've forgotten what it is to be human.'

Viktor shook his head and ran a hand across his mouth. 'You think that man did that so he could ...?'

'I don't know. Him, someone else, I don't know.'

'But they're children. Is it safe to take him with us? What do you—'

'I don't know,' I cut him short. 'Wait until he can tell us himself.'

CHAPTER 3

The heart of the village was a circular area now covered with snow that had drifted into the shallow valley on a bitter wind. And in the centre an oak stood old and hard and dark, unclothed for the winter. I had no idea what this village elder had witnessed through the years of war and revolution, but I knew this small collection of houses, close to nowhere, had seen little of the bloodshed. The fighting on the eastern front had been far enough from here, and the revolution had happened in another world. The civil war had ridden past Vyriv, not noticing the tiny village crouched in the dip of the land. I had passed it myself without realising; marching down to the Crimea, the Black Army advancing to defeat another that called itself White. Even the famine of ten years ago had barely managed to rake its fingers across this small village. It was as if God turned the heads of men who passed it, so they looked away to the horizon. But the clouds were darkening now, and our great leader had dispatched his eyes and his ears to scour the land, and perhaps even God wouldn't be able to blind those eyes.

For now the oak stood silent, refusing to give up its secrets, and as I passed it a thin memory of the summer came to me. A bayan accordion and a violin playing together, music drifting in the warm air. The women in their best dresses, singing to the breeze.

Close to the centre of the village, my home stood with open wooden gates hinged to a broken fence erected to define ownership in a past that allowed it. In more recent times it had become something to fall into disrepair or else it might denote the presence of a kulak.


As we made our way through the gate, dragging the sled, we saw shutters opening and cracks appearing in doorways as curious eyes looked out into the oncoming night.

We went to the front of the house and I unhitched myself and banged hard on the front door. 'It's us.'

Bolts were drawn back, and the door opened.

Natalia's cheeks were red and her dark eyes were worried. 'What's going on? Are you all right? Where's Viktor?' Petro was standing behind her, holding a knife. My daughter Lara was by the table, her cousin Dariya beside her. Both girls looked excited and afraid at the same time.

'Everything's fine,' I said, pulling down my scarf. 'There's a man, though; he needs our help.'

'A man?'


(Continues...)

Excerpted from THE CHILD THIEF by DAN SMITH. Copyright © 2013 Dan Smith. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 19 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 4, 2013

    Absolutely, a can't put it down book. Terrific account of early

    Absolutely, a can't put it down book. Terrific account of early 1930's Ukraine, but the story of a missing child and the search for her is riveting. The moral choices that are made in a tumultuous time period makes this a remarkable read.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2013

    Excellent read!

    This is one of the best books I've read in recent years, and I read a lot! The descriptions of the political turmoil in the Russia/Ukraine regions in the 1930s; the strength and resilience of the people in tiny obscure villages; and the brutal winter conditions in which they live put you right there in the action. And there's plenty of action, suspense,heroic acts, heart-breaking sadness, and a very shocking twist that completely took me by surprise. The main character, Luka, wears many boots: husband, father, respected man in the village, professional soldier, and a very loyal uncle to his kidnapped niece. He reminds me of the movie hero, Rambo, in that he is a "one man army" at times, and survives unbelievably brutal conditions throughout the story. I didn't want this incredible story to end! I have a new found respect for the people in this region, and will remember this story often when I'm outside walking on my frozen lake in northern Wisconsin this winter. I highly recommend this book!

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2013

    Excellent. Shades of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

    Excellent. Shades of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2013

    Anon

    Dan Smith has found a way to take you into the mind of an honest man who has balanced pragmatism with emotion; Luka is believable because of his insistent humanity as he faces survival against all odds. A truly rewarding read.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2013

    Sorry agian were was i oh yes stuipd posting problem

    I was uh yes if you love a good storie about a child than you would like this book i sertenly did it was amazing !!!!!! How absurd though!!?

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 26, 2013

    Great Book

    This book was on the under $5.00 list and I was so surprised that it turned out to be so good. I really enjoyed it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 24, 2013

    Highly Recommended

    This book is one you will not be able to put down. It is very well written. I stayed up late at night reading because I wanted to know what would happen next. You will not be disappointed at any time during this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 15, 2013

    Interesting reading

    I liked this tale and the twists and turns of the plot.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2013

    The Child Thief

    Excellent book start to finish. Hard to put down

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2013

    Wonderful Book

    A very unique plot and well written.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2013

    Great Read

    Excellent read, couldn't put it down. Highly, highly recommend! Just when I thought these people couldn't endure more, they did. Well rounded, likeable characters, plot moved along at a great pace. Buy it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2013

    Amazing

    Had a great ending. I couldn't put my nook down!

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    Posted May 10, 2014

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    Posted December 11, 2013

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    Posted July 26, 2014

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    Posted October 14, 2013

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    Posted December 2, 2013

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    Posted November 1, 2013

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    Posted November 7, 2013

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