In a small corner of Prospect Park, in the borough of Brooklyn, New York, a thief lay hidden in the trees. This thief wasn't searching for an unattended purse, cell phone, or camera. This thief was looking for a child.
In the dusk of that early-autumn day, the child thief peered out from the shadows and falling leaves to watch the children play. The children scaled the giant green turtle, slid down the bright yellow slide, laughed, yelled, teased, and chased one another round and round. But the child thief wasn't interested in these happy faces. He wasn't looking to steal just any child. He was particular. He was looking for the sad face, the loner . . . a lost child. And the older the better, preferably a child of thirteen or fourteen, for older children were stronger, had better stamina, tended to stay alive longer.
The thief knew Mother Luck had smiled on him with the girl. She'd been a good catch, too bad about her father. He smiled, remembering the funny face the man had made as the knife slipped into his chest. But where was Mother Luck now? He'd been hunting for two days. Nothing. He'd come close with a boy last night, but close wasn't good enough. Grimacing, the thief reminded himself that he had to take it slow, had to make friends with them first, gain their trust, because you couldn't steal a child without their trust.
Maybe Mother Luck would be with him tonight. The child thief had found city parks to be good hunting grounds. Strays and runaways often camped among the bushes and used the public restrooms to wash, and they were always looking for friends.
As the sun slid slowly behind the cityscape, the shadows crept in—and so did the thief, biding his time, waiting for the falling darkness to sort the children out.
Nick darted into the warehouse entryway, pressed himself flat against the steel door, his breath coming hard and fast. He leaned his cheek against the cold metal and squeezed his eyes shut. "Fuck," he said. "I'm screwed. So screwed."At fourteen, Nick was slender and a bit small for his age. Dark, choppy bangs spilled across his narrow face, emphasizing his pallid complexion. He needed a haircut, but of late his hair was the last thing on his mind.
Nick dropped his pack to the ground, pushed his bangs from his eyes, and carefully rolled up one sleeve of his black denim jacket. He glanced at the burns running along the inside of his forearm and winced. The angry red marks crisscrossing his flesh crudely formed the letter N.
He tried to put the nightmare out of his mind, but it came back to him in heated flashes: the men pinning him to the floor—the floor of his own kitchen. The sour, rancid taste of the dish sponge being crammed into his mouth. Marko, big, thick-necked Marko, with his beastly grin, smirking while he heated the coat hanger against the burner. The wire smoking then turning red then . . . the pain . . . red-hot searing pain. God, the smell, but worse, the sound, he'd never forget the sound of his own flesh sizzling. Trying to scream, only to gag and choke on that gritty, soggy sponge while they laughed. Marko right in his face, Marko with his long, straggly chin hairs and bulging, bloodshot eyes. "Wanna know what the N stands for?" he'd spat. "Huh, do you fuckhole? It's for Narc. You ever say anything to anybody again and I'm gonna burn the whole fucking word into your tongue. You got that you little prick?"
Nick opened his eyes. "Need to keep moving." He snatched up his pack and unzipped the top. Inside the pack were some chips, bread, a jar of peanut butter, a pocket knife, two cans of soda, a blue rabbit's foot on a leather cord, and about thirty thousand dollars' worth of methamphetamines.
He dug through the hundreds of small clear plastic bags until he found the blue rabbit's foot. The rabbit's foot had been a gift from his dad, the only thing Nick had left of him now. He kissed it, then slipped it around his neck. He needed all the luck he could come by today.
He leaned out from the entryway, glancing quickly up and down the busy avenue, keeping an eye out for a beat-up green van. He'd hoped for some congestion to slow the traffic down, help him make it to the subway alive, but currently the traffic chugged steadily along. The day waned and soon the van would be just one more pair of gleaming headlights in the night.
Nick slung the pack over his shoulder and ducked out onto the sidewalk, weaving his way between the thin trail of pedestrians as he jogged rapidly up the block. There was a bite to the wind and -people had their collars up and their eyes down. Nick pulled up his own collar, skirted around a cluster of elderly men and women lined up in front of an Italian restaurant, and tried to lose himself among the thin stream of returning commuters.
You fucked up Nicky boy, he thought. Fucked up big. Yet part of him was glad, would do about anything to see the faces of those sons-of-bitches when they found their stash gone. It would be a long time before Marko was back in business.
A horn blew behind him. Nick jumped and spun—heart in his throat. But there was no green van, just someone double-parked. He caught sight of the trees and felt a flood of relief. Prospect Park was just a block away. He'd be hard to spot in the trees. He could cut across the park and come out at the subway station. Nick took off in a run.The Child Thief
Excerpted from The Child Thief by Brom
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