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  Time Snatchers: Chapter One

May 4, 2060, 7:16 P.M.
The Great Hall of the People, Beijing, China

I can’t stop crying.

I’d like to say that it’s the sight of the leaders of the two most powerful nations in the world shaking hands that’s got my faucets going. But to be honest, which I’ll admit is not a quality that most people connect with thieves, it’s my allergies that are making me teary.

It’s always like this for me in the spring. Especially when I’m around daffodils. And there must be ten thousand or more of the nasty yellow things, all prim and pretty for the special state visit of the president of the United States, here to ink the Great Friendship treaty with the president of China. I’m no expert on world politics, but I think the only reason the U.S. and China are becoming best friends is so they can buy each other’s stuff at half price.

I move upwind of the flowers. You’d think that in a city square ten times the size of Yankee Stadium I could find a little elbow room. The only available spot is shoulder to shoulder with some Boy Scouts wearing gray uniforms with yellow neckerchiefs who are probably attending this historic event just to score merit badges. But who am I to talk? The reason for my visit to Beijing isn’t any more noble. In fact, if those shiny-booted soldiers flanking the leaders knew the truth about why I’m here, they’d lead me away in handcuffs.

From my new spot, I’ve got a great view of one of the ten jumbo screens set up in the square. But as far as seeing the actual, breathing leaders, they’re not much bigger than specks. It might seem silly to travel all this way only to be watching the two great men on TV, but I don’t really mind. After all, they’re not why I came.

I’m much more interested in the building behind them: the Great Hall of the People. Personally, I would have named it the Great Big Hall of the People. The place is massive. Each of those tall gray mar­ble pillars must weigh a ton. The odd thing is that it doesn’t fit in with any of the nearby buildings. The Great Hall is boxy and severe, while all the other buildings have sloping roofs and lots of curves. Don’t get me wrong. I like boxy and severe. Considering what I’ve come here to do, the flat roof is a definite bonus.

It’s drizzling, but no one in the huge crowd seems to mind. They’re all snapping pictures like crazy, and I don’t blame them. After all, it’s a truly historic occasion. The start of a golden era in U.S. and China relations isn’t something that happens every day.

The leaders are making their way down the front steps of the Great Hall shaking hands with each other’s second-in-command, third-in-command and fourth-in-command. I wonder what it must be like to be fourth-in-command of one of the strongest nations on earth. I suppose you have to be the patient sort. I mean, a lot of people ahead of you have to quit their jobs in order for you to rule the world.

I scan the crowd, looking for anyone who might cause trouble for me when it’s time to carry out the mission. You can never be too careful in my business. People generally don’t like to have their stuff stolen, so I like to do things under the radar. In this case, that means waiting a bit for the tourist count to go down and the honor guard with the cute but sharp bayonets at the ends of their rifles to go home for tea and dumplings.

Of course, I can’t wait forever. If I’ve learned anything about traveling through time, it’s that it’s tough on the body. After about fifty continuous minutes in the past, time fog sets in: you start feel­ing dizzy, your thoughts become jumbled, your motor functions start slowing down, and even putting one step in front of the other re­quires a huge effort. After three hours, your lungs shut down and you literally die from lack of oxygen. The longest I’ve been in the past at one stretch is fifty-seven minutes, and it’s a record I’m not keen on breaking. The only cure for time fog is to go back to the present, which for me means 2061, and stay there until it clears. That could take hours or, for a really bad case, a whole day.

That’s why Uncle has set a thirty-minute time limit on all mis­sions to the past. Trust me, it wasn’t out of the goodness of his heart; it was more because if we all started dropping dead from time fog, he wouldn’t have anyone left to steal for him.

So the rule is if a snatch isn’t completed within a half hour, it’s recorded as a failed mission. On your first failed mission, you only get hauled into Uncle’s office and given a lecture. But if it happens twice in the same month, things can get a lot nastier; how much nastier depends on Uncle’s mood at the time. And three strikes is the worst: that’ll earn you a stint in the Barrens, a desolate and unforgiv­ing wilderness where one month is the longest anyone has survived without going insane or dying.

A giggle catches my attention, and I turn to see a young boy wearing a red T-shirt that says BEIJING 2060, with a picture of a panda bear on it. He runs past me into the outstretched arms of his father. I watch, spellbound, as the father catches the boy and lifts him up high in the air before bringing him gently down to earth. The boy’s mother is following him and, after he lands, they’re all laughing and hugging each other.

My heart skips a beat. I wonder what that boy is feeling right now. Safe and secure, I bet. It must be amazing. To know you are loved. To know you are part of a real family.
I don’t have any of that.

No mother. No father. No brothers or sisters. Given up for adop­tion at the ripe old age of three. Yup. That’s me. Caleb the orphan, time-traveling thief. And seeing as I’m thirteen now, that means I’ve been family-less for ten years . . . but who’s counting?

Sure, I’ve got a roof over my head and three square meals a day, thanks to Uncle. And there is some companionship, if you can call it that, with the other time thieves, who are all more or less my age. But it would be a real stretch to call us a family.

I can remember a time when things were different. Uncle acted like a real uncle and used to take me and the four others he adopted on field trips to the zoo to see the cloned snow leopards and the talking chimps that swore at you if you got too close. And there were other fun outings to museums, art galleries and concerts—not only in the U.S. but all over the world. Uncle liked to say that we were being “worldschooled,” not homeschooled. He even had a name for us—his five orphantastics.

But a few years ago, everything changed. Uncle became moody and unpredictable. One minute he could be charming, and the next minute, he’d be getting out a pocket knife and reaching for your fin­ger. My theory is that he’s always been crazy but just hid it better when we were young. Abbie, my longtime snatch partner and closest friend ever since we were small—correction, only friend since we were small—thinks he had some kind of nervous breakdown. What­ever the cause, it’s really stressful to be around him. So I try to keep my distance. Unfortunately that’s next to impossible, seeing as I live under his roof and he’s the type of boss who likes to keep close tabs on all of his “time snatchers,” as he calls us.

The crowd’s thinning. I’d better start looking busy or someone might wonder what I’m doing here. I take one last glance up at the roof of the Great Hall. There, fluttering in the breeze, is the thing I’ve traveled a year back in time and seven thousand miles west for: the first flag of the Great Friendship. To be honest, it’s nothing special: horizontal stripes of gold, red, blue and white—a combo of all of the colors in the Chinese and American flags. But I don’t care what it looks like. All I really care about is stealing it.

I head for the park across the street from the square. It’s sure tak­ing a long time for that sun to go down. I could jump ahead in time a few minutes and get on with things, but who knows when I’ll be in China again? I might as well try to relax and enjoy being here.

Going to the park is a bit chancy with my allergies, but it’s either that or follow the noisy crowd to a place where the Chinese emperors used to hang out called the Forbidden City.

Entering the park through a gate flanked by two towering stone lions, I’m rewarded with quiet—exactly what I need before a mission. I stop for a moment on a wooden footbridge overlooking a small, still pond sprinkled with orchids. Not far away is a big grassy area where some adults in track suits are moving their arms and legs into grace­ful poses. Everything is so peaceful. Abbie would definitely love this place. But at the last second she got called in to be the third agent on a mission to 1671 England to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London. So we’re in different centuries right now. It goes like that sometimes.

The light is finally fading. It’s time for me to do my thing. As I enter the square again, I become hyperaware of every little thing: the smell of those awful flowers, the laughter of a group of tourists. Even the feel of my footsteps on the concrete is magnified. Uncle says the Japanese have a word for this heightened sense of awareness: zanshin. But I just call it being sharp for the mission.

I hear a whirring sound and look up to see a helicopter. A big Russian job. It does a slow circle of the square and hovers for a mo­ment right above the Great Hall before flying away.

There are only two tourist buses left in front of the Great Hall. I make sure no one’s on board, take up a position between them and crouch down. It’s possible someone could see me, but it’s not likely. After all, I’m really not that interesting to look at. At least not until I go poof and vanish.

What I see next makes me frown. The guys with the shiny boots and pointy rifles are still in position right outside the bronze en­trance doors of the Great Hall. Then I remember that a special dinner honoring the two presidents is taking place inside.

Well, I’ll just have to work around them. Besides I don’t intend to go in. Only up.

I yawn and rub my eyes. Anyone watching would think I’m just another tourist dead on his feet from a full day of sightseeing. I even look the part: Great Friendship T-shirt, blue jeans, sandals and a green knapsack that has seen better days. But when I rub my eyes, I’m really adjusting my ocular implant to night vision. The closest member of the honor guard is about twenty yards away. I switch to high zoom and can easily see the tiny spot on the left side of his chin that he missed shaving this morning.

Noise from above makes me look up. The helicopter is back. Ex­actly five minutes after making its last round. All right, that means I have a little less than five minutes to do the snatch.

It’s showtime.

I tap my right wrist a few times. The tapping activates the time travel implant just under my skin. It’ll just be a short hop. Twenty yards ahead, one hundred feet up and four seconds forward in time.

Closing my eyes, I feel the familiar rush of a timeleap: three parts dizzy, four parts excited and two parts weird sensation of not know­ing where I am.

I land, lying flat on my stomach on the roof. I can’t move. I’m still in time freeze mode: a state of total paralysis that happens after each leap through time. I’m not sure why it happens, but it has something to do with bodies adjusting to a new time/place. The good thing is that it doesn’t last long—two or three seconds, max. Of course, it’s all relative. Two or three seconds can go by awfully quickly when you land on a sandy beach in the summertime, but it can seem like for­ever when you turn up in the middle of a raging snowstorm wearing only your bathing suit.

The time freeze wears off but I stay still for a few seconds, listen­ing. Just some faint traffic sounds coming from beyond the square. Rising to a low crouch, I glance around and get my bearings. I’m just about in the middle of the roof. Staying low, I crab walk my way to­ward the front of the building.

There, between the U.S. flag and the Chinese flag, is the flag of the Great Friendship. I lie back down on my belly and slither for­ward. Got to be extra careful now; I’m close to the front edge of the building, which means that the guards are right below. If I so much as sneeze, one of them is bound to hear me and say something . . . and odds are, it won’t be “God bless you.” Plus, even though I’d be surprised if the ancient Kalashnikovs they’re carrying actually worked, it’s not a chance I’m willing to take.

One more slither, and I’m there.

I hold up my left index finger. It’s seven thirty-eight P.M. local time, according to the readout under my fingernail. Oops. I had no idea it was that late.

I extend my right hand, place my fingertips on the flag and close my eyes, falling now into a deep meditative state. My fingers probe and compare the properties of the flag in my hand with the those of the original Great Friendship flag that were uploaded to my brain along with the rest of the mission data. The next moment, the answer comes back, and I breathe a little sigh of relief: it’s the real thing, all right—not a fake.

You never really know what you’re snatching until you do a scan. After all, the world’s full of thieves—not all of them time travelers—and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that another thief could have gotten here ahead of me and switched the original for a cheap replica. The last thing I’d want to do is bring a replica back to Head­quarters. That’s a guaranteed failed mission.

No, the only thief I want switching the original for a cheap replica is me. Uncle’s big on keeping what we do real low-key, and the best way to do that is to make it look like no theft was ever committed.

Speaking of replicas, I pull one from my knapsack. Uncle’s as­sistant, Nassim, gave it to me for the mission. Personally, I think that it looks even better than the original, but no one’s paying me for my views on the subject. In fact, no one’s paying me for my snatches, either, unless you count the measly allowance Uncle gives out, which is hardly enough to buy afternoon snacks.
Money or no money, I have to admit that I love this part of my job. Nothing beats the rush of adrenaline right before a snatch. The more dangerous the mission, the greater the thrill. I’m not about to share this with Uncle, though. He’d probably find some way to take the fun out of it.

Laying the replica down, I feel around for the snaps holding the original to the pole. There are two of them. I try to unhook the snaps, but no go. I’ll have to cut the rope.

I pull my knife from my jeans pocket. This is the delicate part. Uncle’s clients are real picky types, and if I so much as nick the fabric, the customer will no doubt demand his money back. But that’s noth­ing compared to what Uncle will do to me if I mess up.

Angling the blade, I begin cutting. It’s going slower than I’d like, mostly on account of the rope being thick and my knife blade being dull. I should have sharpened it before I came. But you can’t think of everything. I take a deep breath and carry on.

Just then, I see something that makes me freeze in place. A shim­mering only five feet away. The shimmering is forming into the shape of a person. This isn’t good. The only things that shimmer like that are other time travelers. But Abbie is in the seventeenth century, and nobody else was invited to this little party. I go back to cutting the rope, hoping that my eyes are playing tricks on me.

No such luck. Three seconds later, I’m not alone on the roof any­more. I groan when I see who it is.


Like me, Frank is one of Uncle’s time snatchers. He was a street kid when Uncle found him four years ago, living mostly off of left­overs thrown out each night by the restaurants on the Lower East Side. I remember going on the rounds with him once not long after he started and being amazed at his skill in picking garbage cans that had the cheesiest manicotti or the leanest pastrami. But it’s been a while since I’ve hung out with Frank. Around the time that Uncle started acting weird, Frank changed too. He became obsessed with being the number one time snatcher and was, and still is, prepared to do anything to get there, including stealing from the one person who has more snatches than him—namely, yours truly.

I glance at my fingernail and frown. Only two minutes left to complete the snatch.

“Hello, Caleb,” says Frank in a booming voice.
I nearly jump. For a second, I’m positive his greeting is going to alert the guards below and send them scurrying up here. But then I realize he hasn’t spoken the words out loud—only over my mind­patch.

“Hello, Frank,” I reply, using the same frequency. “Let me guess. You just happened to be in the neighborhood and thought you’d drop by and say hi.”

“Something like that,” he says, sauntering toward me as if he doesn’t have a care in the world.

He might not be in a rush, but I most definitely am. I’m working away at the rope in a frenzy, silently cursing the amount of time it’s taking.

“Well, it was great seeing you. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m kind of busy here,” I say.

“I can help with that, Caleb,” says Frank. “You see, there was a little mix-up at Headquarters.

You’re supposed to be in London with Abbie and the others. This is my snatch.”

“You’re lying,” I say. There’s no way I’m falling for Frank’s story. He knows he’s three snatches behind me this month. He came to stall me until my thirty minutes are up, then claim the snatch for himself and tell Uncle that he had to do it because I failed. It’s not a bad plan, but I don’t think he’s thought it all the way through. Uncle might not view Frank’s hanging around my snatches waiting for me to fail as a good use of his time.

“Move away from the flag and hold your hands out to either side where I can see them,” he says.
“Sorry,” I say. “Go find your own flag.”

I’m through the rope now. My fingernail tells me I’ve got forty-five seconds to get out of here.

I reach for my wrist to initiate the return timeleap. But just as I do, Frank grabs my arm.

Instinctively, I unleash a kick to his shin, and he releases his grip.

We spin and face each other across the roof.

Ten seconds to complete the snatch.

I reach again for my wrist, but at the same moment, he lunges at me and I’m forced to block his punch. We square off again. Frank’s smiling now. He knows my time is running out.

A whirring sound catches my attention. The helicopter is on its way back.

He pulls a black-handled knife with a wicked-looking blade out from under his shirt. I recognize it immediately as the same one I always use for chopping onions back at Headquarters.

“You stole that from the kitchen!” I say in disbelief.

He smirks at me and says nothing.

I’m seething. But what choice do I really have? My own knife is puny compared to his. I might be able to disarm him, but we’re both black belts in karate, and at best I’m looking at a stalemate. Besides, he’s already won. My thirty minutes for completing the snatch ended about five seconds ago.

For a moment, I consider leaping twenty minutes back in time and doing the snatch over, so that I’m long gone before Frank even shows up on the roof. But apart from having to deal with time fog, I doubt it will work anyway. Frank’s not stupid. If l go back to try to outwit him, he’ll counter by leaping even further.

And how did he get the data for my mission anyway? That’s se­cret information and the only people who know are myself, Uncle and Nassim. I doubt Uncle or Nassim would have told Frank, if for no other reason than they would want him busy completing his own snatches, not poaching mine. No, something doesn’t smell right.

Sighing, I pick up the replica flag and am about to hand it to him when he stops me.

“Nice try, Caleb but I’ll take the other one.”

“If you insist,” I say. “But you’d be making the wrong decision. I already had the copy up on the flagpole when you landed. I was only pretending to cut it down to make you think it was the original.” I’m lying of course, but I figure it’s for a good cause: if Frank’s going to succeed in spoiling my day, then at least I want him to work for it.

Frank smiles, steps even closer and says, “All right. In that case, I’ll take both.”

Hmmm. I wasn’t counting on that. Well, at least he’ll have the embarrassment of trying to figure out which one is the original when he gets back to Headquarters.

I fork them over and watch glumly as he stuffs them under his shirt. The sound of the helicopter is nearing. I calculate the odds of making a quick getaway. Not very good. Frank is holding the blade inches from my chest. If he sees me go for my wrist, he could easily slash me before I make it halfway there.

He looks up at me and smiles one of his big jerk smiles. “You think you’re better than me, don’t you, Caleb?”
I’m tempted to agree with him. After all, it’s the first sensible thing he’s said since he arrived. But instead I say, “If you think poach­ing my snatches will get you in Uncle’s good books, you’re wrong.”

“To be honest, I don’t know why Uncle doesn’t get rid of you,” Frank continues. “You’re more of a dreamer than a time snatcher. I don’t get distracted with dreams. That’s the difference between you and me. Dreamers dream. But snatchers snatch.”

“That’s a brilliant observation, Frank,” I say, “coming from some­one who has only fourteen snatches this month to my seventeen.”

Frank glares at me for a moment, but the next instant, his fea­tures soften into his usual smug expression.

“Don’t be late for supper tonight,” he says. “I’m cooking Peking duck. My girl’s favorite.”

It takes all of my concentration to keep my expression neutral, but inside I’m fuming. I know he means Abbie, and the way he said that, it sounded as if he wanted me to think there was something going on between them.

Just then there’s a deafening noise. The helicopter blades are slic­ing the night air right overhead. A powerful search beam shoots out, sweeping the roof only feet away from where Frank and I are standing.

Frank glances up, but at the same time he’s tapping away at his wrist. No point holding back now. I tap furiously at my own wrist. As soon as Frank has both hands free, he waves them in the air like crazy, and screams at the top of his lungs. It sounds like he’s shout­ing “stop thief,” but then again it might be “roast beef”—it’s impos­sible to tell with all the racket of the helicopter. Anyway, I can’t very well ask him because the next moment he disappears.

Which is what I should be doing. But for some reason I’m not. I’m still here.

Just then, I’m caught in the search beam.

Bú yaò dòng—do not move!” says a voice over a loudspeaker. Nice of him to translate for me, but I could have managed it on my own. I’ve got an implant that instantaneously translates all words I hear into English.

I try tapping again at my wrist. Pounding footsteps and shouts are getting closer.

I look up to see three guards running toward me. One of them has his gun drawn.

Nowhere to run—I’m already backed up to the edge of the roof.

I step behind the U.S. flag and hold it up in front of me, as a kind of shield.

They wouldn’t shoot the U.S. flag on the first day of the Great Friendship, would they?

I close my eyes tight and brace myself.

The guards are only feet away now. The one in the lead reaches for me.

But all he grabs is air


Excerpted from Time Snatchers by Richard Ungar. Copyright © 2011 by Richard Ungar. Excerpted by permission of G.P. Putnam & Sons. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
ISBN: 9780399254857



        Cover artwork used with permission.
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