Qinghai Province, western China. The recent past.

1:37 a.m.

Prisoner 5995 was where he should not be, and his fear was congealing in his mouth.

Any second now.

The thought flickered across his mind, sent adrenalin thrumming through his gut.

He stood in darkness. Around the corner of the barrack block an arc light saturated the camp with silvery light, turned the razor wire to coils of iridescence against the night sky.

Any second now. Any bitching second.

He flattened his bulk against the wall, the brick cool against his hands. He willed himself into shadow, willed himself to stillness. His breathing came fast. In his nostrils the cool, desert, night air, flecked with kerosene and dust. In his mouth, fear, a rancid, viscous paste.

Any second now.

And there he was, lumbering along the dusty path between the barrack blocks, his grey uniform shapeless, his brown leather belt sagging with the weight of the dangling baton, peaked cap high on the back of the head, eyes down, a walkie-talkie in one hand, a cigarette in the other. The 1:30 patrol.

From the shadows, Prisoner 5995 watched the man shamble down the path. We call them leizi, these slow-witted, venal imbeciles who guard us. Leizi. Thunders. For their rumbling and coughing and incessant shouting. 5995 pulled back deeper into darkness. He caught a whiff of cigarette smoke and felt the craving like a kick to the throat.

The thunder had almost reached the block behind which Prisoner 5995 was concealed. 5995 could hear the thunder’s boots scuffing the gravelly dust. The thunder should now, by all that was right and holy, walk past the block and turn to the right, his shadow shrinking beneath the fierce scrutiny of the arc light, the crunch of his footsteps receding. The thunder should disappear into the blank night, allowing the prisoner to continue unseen on his precarious way to, to what exactly? To a sort of freedom? To a firing squad? Or to lethal injection, sodium thiopental bubbling in the vein, in keeping with the times?

5995 waited for the footfalls to pass.

But, silence. The thunder had halted, and now stood adjacent to Prisoner 5995’s hiding place.

A crackle from the walkie-talkie, and an electronic pip sound.

What was this pea-brain doing?

5995 sought to compress his sizeable girth, his thick thighs and neck, his bristled head and muscular hands, into invisibility, into stillness. A slow crunch of gravel, as if the thunder were turning or shifting his weight. Then a murmur, another crackle. Pip.


5995 exhaled an iota, took a tiny breath. Still. Still. Stay still.

Then, slowly, the gravelly footsteps resumed. 5995 closed his eyes, felt a prickling of sweat on his scalp. And the footsteps were, were what, getting closer?

The thunder was not turning away from 5995, as predicted by months of routine and all the intelligence a practiced operative like 5995 could gather. The thunder was confounding reason and turning towards 5995 and his grossly inadequate cover. Screw his mother. Had 5995, in his reconnoitering, missed a security camera? Or had the treacherous, conniving bitches with whom he had shared two decades of life in this labour reform facility already turned him in?

The footsteps came closer, boot on concrete, grit, particulate.

Fear stopped his breath, shredded his thoughts. He forced himself against the wall, into stillness, crushing an overwhelming desire to bolt, to run, to move.

The thunder stepped off the path, out of the light, his back to 5995. From where he stood a sudden arc of red light flashed through the darkness, then a scatter of sparks.

His cigarette.

The thunder stood still, then seemed to be reaching for something in his clothing. Silence, then a liquid hiss and spatter, a whiff of ammonia and alcohol.

The man is pissing, thought 5995. He is pissing against the wall.

The spatter turned sporadic, and stopped. The thunder arranged himself and coughed, the sound a shocking bark in the darkness. 5995 imagined himself encased in clay, eternally silent and still like some tomb warrior, buried, invisible since the days of Qin.

The thunder was yawning, feeling in his pocket. He pulled out a packet of cigarettes. 5995 heard its cellophane rustle. The thunder shook the packet, held it up to the arc light, made a pincer with his forefinger and thumb and drew from it a bent cigarette. He placed the cigarette between his lips. Now the lighter, its raspy snick. 5995 blinked at the flame, and saw the thunder tilt his head back, inhale noisily. The thunder crumpled the empty cigarette packet in his hand, turned, raised his arm and hurled it into the shadows. The empty packet hit 5995 on the chin, causing him to jerk reflexively, as if he had been struck. The packet fell to the ground, and the thunder turned quickly and peered into the darkness. He cannot see me, thought 5995. He has no night vision. The thunder tilted his head, looked again. Very, very still now.

The walkie-talkie crackled.

The thunder looked down, pressed the talk key, and in a desultory movement brought the walkie talkie up to his mouth, mumbled, and let it fall. The man sighed and turned away. His footsteps receded into the night.

1.48. Twelve minutes until the next patrol.

Now, move.

Delicately, and with a degree of light-footedness and quiet surprising in such a big man, Prisoner 5995 ran through the savage arc light, across the path, to the windowless two story boiler house opposite. A grey door. The door must be unlocked, from the inside. All the planning dictates that the door is unlocked from the inside, and it must be so if I am to live. 5995 slowed as he approached the boiler house, reached for the door handle, twisted it downwards and shoved.

The door gave. His momentum carried him through, and he was inside. A dim, cool interior, damp concrete under his feet, a sulphurous smell. He closed the door behind him gently, breathing heavily, allowed his eyes to readjust to darkness.

Before him he made out a pile of coal. Beyond it a doorway, through which came the hissing and ticking of the boiler. The boiler room was festooned with pipe work, lit by a single dim bulb, water pooling on the floor. He stopped in the doorway, listened. Nothing. He passed the boiler soundlessly, and slowly pushed to one side a dense plastic curtain. Beyond it a dingy corridor, in darkness, leading to double doors.


His hands on the handles of the double doors now, silently turning, inching them open, peering through the crack into a dim office space of six or seven desks, grey filing cabinets, a smell of old cardboard, cigarettes. He eased the door closed behind him, stood, collecting himself. Dear God, this might work. This might…

A hand on his shoulder.

Adrenalin like lightning in his muscles, anger and shock flickering in the brain, 5995 turned fast, reaching for anything, cloth, flesh, hair. He forced his weight forward, a shout strangled in his throat. The body before him gave, unresisting. 5995 slammed it into the wall.

The body grunted with the impact, and then spoke, a quavering whisper.

“Bit less noise, if I were you.”

With one hand to its neck, the other raised to strike, 5995 regarded this creature, its flickering eyes.

“What, what in God’s name are you doing here?” he whispered.

“I did everything you said.”

“I nearly killed you.”

“The locks, everything. And all the stuff is over there on the floor.”

“God in heaven.” 5995 let it go, this trembling scrap of humanity, in its labour camp grey, its cotton shoes. He rolled his head back, caught his breath.

“It’s all there, you can check it,” said the man.

“Oh, I will.”

5995 turned. Between the desks lay a miserable pile of objects. He knelt and checked off each one. Two large plastic containers, of the sort that might have contained cooking oil, with screw tops, filled with water and linked together with a length of green nylon cord. A carrier bag. Inside it, a paper bag half filled with corn bread and cooked greens, the grease rendering the paper bag translucent. Two bars of the atrocious chocolate they sold at the camp commissary. Nine packs of cigarettes. A lighter. A few yuan notes, barely enough to buy a bowl of noodles in the real world. A small clear plastic bag, cinched at the top with an elastic band, containing what appeared to be a yellowed newspaper clipping. And a brick. That was it. His escape equipment. His plan.

“It’s all there, isn’t it?”

5995 looked at him hard.

“Yes, it’s all there,” he said.


“And why are you here?” said 5995.

“We have a deal, don’t we? Peanut?”

That was what they called him. Peanut.

“Yes, we have a deal,” he said.

“You will stick to it, yes?” said the man.

“For God’s sake, yes.” It was, in truth, less of a deal, and more, well, blackmail, Peanut reflected briefly. He had found this creature – a trusty with a job in the camp administration — behind the kitchen storage bins, eyes wide with panic, pants round ankles and manhood pointing to the stars, while the cookhouse thunder knelt and gaped. Peanut had offered his silence in exchange for access to the camp offices and the loading dock.

“You won’t say anything, Peanut. About me, my mistakes. When you’re…out.”

5995 rolled his eyes.

“I will not tell anyone that you sold sexual favours in a labour camp.”

“That’s a harsh way of putting it, Peanut. Unkind.”

“Screw unkind. Now lock the doors behind you, and keep your mouth shut.”

The man sighed.

5995 shook his head, shoved the supplies in his pockets, draped the water bottles over his shoulder, picked up the brick. The man’s eyes held his for a second, a half smile.

“Good luck, Peanut.”

“Screw luck.”

And Prisoner 5995, alias Peanut, was gone.

Behind the offices, the loading dock, flanked by seven foot walls. Beyond the loading dock, a series of three locked gates, and the road to the main camp complex, forty miles away.

But on the other side of the seven foot wall, nothing. No fences, no perimeter, no wire. Just two hundred miles of desert. Not so hard to escape the camp, but the desert? No one escaped the desert. No one tried.

The loading dock was in darkness. Peanut listened to the night. Nothing.

Three blue plastic crates of the sort that might have held beer bottles were in their prearranged position. Peanut set them one atop the other, quietly, next to the wall. Standing on the crates he could rest his elbows on top of the wall, into which some thoughtful comrade had cemented jagged chunks of broken glass. Peanut took off the stained blue track suit top that he wore. He laid it atop the wall to cover a swathe of broken glass perhaps eighteen inches wide. Very gently, the tracksuit muffling the noise, he used the brick to chip away at the glass. Within a few minutes he had created a narrow, navigable pathway across the top of the wall.

He hauled himself up, knelt on the wall, swaying for a moment, clutching the water bottles and the carrier bag. Then he jumped.

Stillness, he knew, was enemy to him.

So he ran.

He ran for hours in the night. The desert plain was strewn with sharp shale. The shale rattled and clinked beneath each footfall, and his cotton shoes were too thin, and the shale jutted and forced his ankles to odd angles and his feet were an agony. The two plastic water bottles grew heavier, and swung and slapped against him, queering his movement, and the nylon cord that held them cut a welt in his shoulder. He’d brought these things why, exactly? Because without them he’d die. Quickly. The air was cold in his throat and his breath came in gasps.

Ahead, low hills against the night sky.

He stopped in the dark, squatted, tried to calm his breathing and hold his balance. Faint starlight, the wind sharp. Could he risk a cigarette? He cupped his hands around the flare of the lighter. The tobacco stank in the clear air. They would smell it a mile away.

Screw them.

A deep, cold billow of fear.

You’re exhausted, he thought. Fear is born of loneliness and exhaustion. Where had he read that?

Stillness is the enemy.


Up and running, stumbling over the jagged ground, the water bottles flailing, towards the dark hills. As he ran, a beautiful, stupid song from childhood shimmered in his head.

Er yue li lai ya! Hao chun guan! February’s coming! A fine spring beckons! The families are at work in the fields! We hand grain to the troops!

Idiocy, but he loved that song. He’d sung it the day he got his red scarf, scrubbed raw and on parade outside the neighbourhood committee offices. Afterwards, Father, walking stiffly by then, subdued, had taken him and his sister, Mei, to the park. It was 1969. They’d sat on a stone bench under a luminous willow, ice cream dripping from the stick, cicadas whirring in the still, thundery air.

He had, he thought, about two hours until dawn, and the sirens and the dogs.

His absence had already been noted, of course. Back in the barracks, Prisoner Number 7775, fraudster, rapist and light sleeper, was awake and contemplating the empty bunk above him. Peanut often got up in the night to piss. They’d fought about it for years. But this time Peanut had not reappeared. It had been a good hour and a half, and if the thunders came in at dawn and found Peanut gone, then Prisoner 7775 was going to be asked about it, as was everyone else in Production Squad 20. Asked forcefully.

Prisoner 7775 turned the problem over in his mind. He liked his absent neighbour, which was rare, because in general 7775 didn’t hold with the intellectuals and the politicals. He didn’t trust them, all their bold words evaporating into the labour camp cringe at the first sign of trouble.

But Peanut was different. He was, resourceful. While most of Production Squad 20 were skin and bone, laced with taught, wiry muscle, Peanut remained fleshy. While 7775 struggled to accumulate items of value in the camp economy — cigarettes, letter paper, antibiotics — Peanut seemed always to have a supply. Which he would share, sometimes.

Prisoner 7775 reflected on his acquaintance with his calculating companion. Their years together in the camp were indistinguishable one from another, punctuated only by occasional, strange, memorable episodes. 7775 spooled them through his mind.

Once, years ago, a weedy little political had arrived in the camp, trembly and weepy, eyes sunken. A lawyer of some sort, who’d tried too hard. On a work party up in the hills, he’d got knocked about because he was useless with a shovel, and because he had straggly hairs on his upper lip, and because it was raining. Nothing serious, but a couple of thunders had joined in with their batons and his nose had gone and the blood was running down his chin, gobbets in it, and he was all weepy again. Peanut had watched it unfold, and when it was over, stood the little political on his feet, and half carried him back to the camp and cleaned him up.

And then Peanut told the little political to write a letter, to address it to foreign journalists. In Beijing. There were lots of them, he said, and they lived in a big compound near Altar of the Sun Park. So the two of them composed a letter, and the little political, in spidery characters blotched with tears, told of the terror and degradation that was reform through labour, spiced up a bit, and Peanut got it smuggled out in the laundry run and sent to Beijing. And some foreign newspaper printed it! Big exposé! Horrors of China’s gulag! And, soon after, inspection teams showed up, and the camp commandant disappeared and the thunders’ faces were a treat.

Now, as Peanut pointed out, the higher ups did not care one whit about conditions in the camp, or beatings, or whether the little political lived or died. But they cared that they had been humiliated by foreigners. And they were going to make everyone else in the Labour Reform Bureau care too. The little political was given a cushy job in the kitchen, and no one said a word, and Peanut just looked at the thunders with a knowing expression, an I-can-fuck-you-up-if-I-try expression.

How the hell did Peanut know about foreign journalists, anyway?

7775 lay in the fetid air of the barracks, the night pressing in on him, listening to the whispered breathing of the other prisoners. He clutched at his blanket and thought of a home he’d once had and a little girl in pigtails cracking sunflower seeds in her teeth. Her face was almost gone now. He pawed away the desperation.

7775 wouldn’t turn Peanut in.

Not yet, anyway. Wait another hour.

He was on the slope now, heading up into the hills, the ground less stony, a little easier. The darkness was holding, and it was colder. Exhaustion took his mind in discursive, pointless directions. He wondered idly if he was leaving scent, if they even had dogs. He’d never seen a dog in the camp. Any dog to come within range of Production Squad 20 would have been beaten to death and grilled with the cumin that 1414’s mother sent. 1414 — yao si yao si. It wasn’t his number; it just rhymed with want to die, want to die, which was what he shouted at night, and it stuck. Early on 1414 had been in the shackles, hands chained to the waist, and a wooden bar two feet long affixed each end to an ankle, so that when he walked each foot described a half circle. A couple of the Christians had fed him and wiped his arse.

He stopped and looked behind him. He was gaining height. He saw the lights of the camp across the plain, faint now, silver in the night. No sound, no activity, yet. No trucks. Of course no one escaped. Where the hell would anyone go? He looked up again, breathing hard. The slope would steepen, he knew, and then he’d almost be there. Move.

7775 looked again at the empty bedroll beside him, then sat up. Time now, Peanut. Sorry, but needs must. In the darkness he felt for the grey jacket hanging from the peg above him, the white stripes across the shoulders. He padded down the center of the barracks, quietly for a big man, the concrete cold against his bare feet, biding his time. The next few hours would be tricky.

He leant over the familiar sleeping form. “Section chief, wake up! Prisoner number 7775 wishes to report.”

From the section chief, nothing, just the hiss of sleep. 7775 bit his lip, then shook a shoulder. “Prisoner number 7775 wishes to report.”

One baleful eye opened, grasping for meaning at this dead hour.

“Section chief!” 7775 stood upright now. Better make it official. “Prisoner number 7775 wishes to report that prisoner number 5995 is absent.”

“What time is it?”

“Five, section chief.”

A yawn, a thick smell rising from the bedroll. “What do you mean he’s absent?”

“He’s not there, section chief.”

“Well, where’s he gone? Isn’t it Peanut?”

“Prisoner number 7775 does not know where prisoner number 5995 has gone, section chief.”

“Why are you talking like that? Have you been to look for him?”

“No, section chief.”

Over the section chief’s sleep-sodden face, a slow shadow of realization spread. He blinked and struggled out of his bedroll. Their balding, affable section chief, himself a prisoner — saboteur apparently, though no one knew of what — was oppressor and friend both. Now he was pulling on a vest and standing pot-bellied in the dark rubbing his hand across his chin.

“Screw his mother. Where’s he gone?”

“I don’t know where he’s gone, section chief,” which got a direct look.

“Screw his mother.” The section chief turned, and looked out of the window at the dust and the glow from the arc lights, breath steaming the glass, fingers splayed against the pane, hopeful.

“What do we do?”

7775 said nothing.

“Screw. His. Mother.”

7775 opened his mouth, then shut it again.

“Yes? What?”

“7775 would suggest reporting to the duty guard officer, section chief.”

The section chief stared at him. “But he must be somewhere.”

“It’s been, a while.”

Panic flaring now.

“A while?”

The section chief was out of the barracks at a splay-footed run, heading towards the guard house, where the thunders were dozing in front of a Hong Kong movie, brave monks chopping down the enemies of China.

He had a pain in his chest. The last half hour had him stopping often, bent double, breath rasping, knees shaking. But now he looked down on a little, flooded gravel pit, its black water a mirror for the stars.

You’d hardly know it was there. On three sides were jagged low cliffs, the track the only way in or out. He picked his way down to the water’s edge. To the east the sky was just starting to lighten.

The water wasn’t just cold. It was sickening. He was in up to his waist, his clothes in a bundle on his shoulder, the bottles around his neck. The cold crept up his spine making him gag. Up to his chest. The rock walls enclosing the water had gone from steep to sheer, and, there, a sapling clung on. Just, there. Reaching up, he felt the lip of the blasting tunnel, eighteen inches above his head. His clothes went in first, then the water bottles. Bare feet scratching for purchase on the submerged rock face, fingertips clawing for grip, shoulders screaming, one elbow in and a desperate, horrible scrabble, and he was up, dripping and shaking.

The tunnel was narrower than he remembered, but deep. On the work party, what, two years ago, he’d noticed it, and stored away the details, as he was prone to doing. He dried off with his shirt, crouching, put the damp clothes back on, zipped up the blue track suit top, and shook some more. If he moved crabwise, backwards, he could disappear twenty feet into the rock.

This is where he would sit it out, the sirens and the dogs and the whatever, all the thunders buzzing around like flies in a shithouse, terrified of losing their bonuses. They must be looking by now, surely.

Heaven, he was hungry. The paper bag of crumbling cornmeal bread and greens looked tiny and woeful. What had he been thinking? Save it. Cigarette instead, then sleep.

Or maybe not. Maybe he should keep moving. Move.

They’ll be looking, he thought. He rubbed himself, blew on his hands.

Nobody escaped. Escapees died in the grey desert miles from anywhere, their tongues engorged, their flesh like putty.

But then someone had built a railway.

The sky was lightening, the water was streaked red.

Thunders were stumbling out of the guard block, doing up their belts, working the slides on their AKs, shielding their eyes against cool morning sun. Dust hung in the air. A jeep whined out of the front gate, the driver gesticulating, then stopped, then started again and headed out onto the grey plain.

7775 and the others were in ranks in front of the barracks. They’d been that way for forty minutes now. The section chief, wide-eyed and sweating, stood in front of them. Three times already 7775 had told the story they’d settled on. I woke and he was gone. It was 5:00 and I reported immediately. Blurt it. Look contrite.

The camp commandant was murmuring into a mobile phone, affecting calm. The thunders looked confused and pissed off, a dangerous combination for Peanut when they found him. Which they would, 7775 was sure.

The sun was up.

He’d scraped his fingers raw clearing the tunnel floor of shale. He sat on a circle of exposed rock, dank and cold, his pathetic stores in a pile beside him.

Think of the cave as a cell, a scholar’s cell, a writer’s studio, he told himself, somewhere for reflection, for rediscovering intellectual purpose.

In the camp, they called intellectuals ‘shit-eaters’. The two terms, intellectual and shit-eater, sounded almost identical, zhishifenzi/chishifenzi, their confusion irresistible. The other inmates had pegged Peanut as a shit-eater the minute he stumbled through the front gate. His soft hands gave him away.

But when the other inmates found out that Peanut’s offense was not political, but was attempted murder, they backed off a little. The question of whom Peanut had attempted to murder, and why, preoccupied them. Over time, it became known that Peanut’s offence had been committed on the hot night of June 3rd, 1989, as gunfire rang through Beijing and the very foundations of China’s state shook. Peanut had, it was learned, in a moment of terror and fury, brought a lump of paving slab down upon the face of a little soldier who lay screaming at his feet. The little soldier had blinked and convulsed, and Peanut had seen the blood spatter on the asphalt. The inmates puzzled over this. How could a shit-eater, a professor, do such a thing?

So Peanut had lived the life of a hybrid in the camp, part criminal of unfathomable violence, part shit-eater. He had employed his bulk and his vengeful temperament to his advantage in dealing with the other inmates. And once he had carved out a tolerable space in the camp hierarchy, he turned his attention, over the years, to shoring up the identity bequeathed him by his parents and his classmates: one who created with the mind, who exercised an acute moral understanding of justice and power: an intellectual of China. He was, he told himself, much more than inmate; he was the wronged, exiled thinker of legend, a modern Qu Yuan, a dealer in truth reviled by the state, and never mind the paving slab.

He craned his neck and saw the gleaming water of the gravel pit.

Early on in his sentence he had decided that to preserve his sense of himself as intellectual/shit-eater, measures were required. A book. A prison memoir! Something desperate and passionate, to be smuggled out of the camp, published abroad, circulated illicitly at home. Something with a fancy, despairing title. Superfluous Words from the Desert Garret, perhaps.

Over years, on thin, grainy, squared paper of the sort children use to practice their characters, Peanut observed and recorded. Every name, every routine; every load of wilting cabbage dumped on the loading dock, every ton of coal from the withered little mine; every rotation of young thunders, bumping in by truck, the grey dust in their hair; every square metre of dry, grey desert dust picked clear of rock; every stint in the xiaohao, the punishment cell; every facet of this desiccated hive deep in the Qinghai desert, Peanut tallied it and noted it down. He did this in the latrine, late at night, and built an extended, minutely detailed narrative of incarceration in modern China which would, he was certain, shock the world’s conscience, and cement his place in history. He kept the pages in his bedroll, until the thunders found them.

The camp commandant was flummoxed, flimsy papers in his hands, some strewn across the floor of the barracks. Prisoner 5995, real name Li Huasheng, known as Peanut, stood, a thunder on each arm, his head forced downward, calculating.

“Prisoner 5995” said the commandant. “You do realize these are state secrets?”

Prisoner 5995, known as Peanut, stared at the floor, hard. The commandant handed the pages to a cadaverous deputy and licked his lips. He walked absently over to the prisoner and, one finger under the chin, forced Peanut’s head up.

“Why are you gathering state secrets?”

Peanut said nothing.

“Are you spying on us?”

Peanut felt the world rock, kept his footing, just.

“Are you a spy?”

Well, strictly speaking, camp commandant, the answer to that is complicated.

“I didn’t understand these were state secrets, camp commandant.” The words were thick now in his dry mouth. “I will confess all my mistakes.”

So he did.

First to a spiky little ‘investigator’ from the Bureau of Labour Reform, who made notes. They sat in an echoing concrete ‘investigation’ room next to the camp office. Peanut talked, searched for an angle, talked more. And when he stopped talking, a bored, overweight thunder standing behind him jammed an electric baton to his neck and sparked him up.

Then a drive to the main camp complex, forty miles shackled in a van with no windows. Peanut vomited on his trousers.

Followed by a surprise visit to his old friend, the xiaohao punishment cell. This one was nothing more than an iron cage on the floor in an empty brick barracks with broken windows. The cage was not quite tall enough to sit up in. He marveled at his response, just as in the weeks after his arrest: a faint gratitude that they were, at least, leaving him alone for a few days. The thirst was very bad.

More confession, this time in a smart conference room with blonde wood fittings and a window that looked out on parched poplars.

“I like to make lists, keep diaries, write. Sir.” He noticed a camera mounted on the wall, a bead of red light.

“Why would you keep lists?” This from a senior uniform, barking, the anger contrived.

Build walls, and hold them as long as you can. That was what they’d once told him. Did it apply now, here?

“It is just a way of keeping busy. Sir. Just lists, writing, observing. I confess my mistakes.”

“You were gathering state secrets.”

He stayed silent.

“If you confess you can expect leniency. If you do not confess, your punishment will be severe.”

Words for the generations of China. Words for my father. Words for me.

“Yes. I confess my mistakes and my crimes,” he repeated.

A nod from the uniform, and Peanut was taken back to the xiaohao, where a plate of vegetable soup, still warm, awaited him.

The final act had come a week later. He was led, shackled, across a courtyard. A leathery old woman in a grey tunic splashed water on the concrete to keep the dust down. It was morning, late in the summer. In the air, behind the heat, a whisper of cold to come.

A jaundiced, balding judge asked cursory questions into a microphone, which stood on a table covered with green baize. A prosecutor mumbled.

He stood in the dock. To his left was a woman he had not seen before, with gray hair in a bun, who looked at her notes and said nothing. His defence lawyer, he realised. He leant over and tried to speak to her. She pursed her lips and shook her head, a tight, definitive movement. Stay away from me. There was business about Article 32 of the State Secrets Law, and Article 111 of the Criminal Law, and they added five years to his sentence.

Back in the barracks, they’d showed him something approaching sympathy. 7775 had taken him out for a cigarette and laid a colossal hand on his shoulder. Peanut had to stop himself laughing.

And then he’d walked off by himself, by the wall, as the dark came down. No shadowy celebrity for him, then. He watched a bat dip and flicker against the sky.

So fuck it. He’d spy.

© Hachette Book Group | Adam Brooks





Qinghai Province, western China. The recent past.

1:37 a.m.

Prisoner 5995 was where he should not be, and his fear was congealing in his mouth.

Any second now.

The thought flickered across his mind, sent adrenalin thrumming through his gut.

He stood in darkness. Around the corner of the barrack block an arc light saturated the camp with silvery light, turned the razor wire to coils of iridescence against the night sky.

Any second now. Any bitching second.

He flattened his bulk against the wall, the brick cool against his hands. He willed himself into shadow, willed himself to stillness. His breathing came fast. In his nostrils the cool, desert, night air, flecked with kerosene and dust. In his mouth, fear, a rancid, viscous paste.

Any second now.


“Adam Brookes has produced a masterful debut novel. It has all the hallmarks of a great page-turner, but with a richness of detail that feels authentic. There are a prisoner escape, an unwitting conduit between the prisoner and the British Secret Intelligence Service, and competition between British and U.S. spy agencies that doesn't feel obligatory. The richly textured picture of modern Beijing is a bonus. You will be captivated by it all. This is the must-read thriller of the year."—N.P.R



The pace is frenetic and Brookes does a wonderful job with both the high-tech world of cyber intelligence and survival on Beijing's gritty, smog-smothered streets. Highly recommended. —The Bookseller

“NIGHT HERON is a fascinating portrait of the dangerous complexities of spying in a restricted country, the competing agendas driving international intelligence, and China's startlingly varied social realities. A must-read for fans of espionage and smart global fiction in general.” Booklist

“NIGHT HERON is a wonderfully cinematic novel — I felt myself visually transported into every scene, watching the action unfold — that also immersed me in the sounds and smells and feel of China, all the while telling a rich, complex espionage story. A remarkable accomplishment.” —Chris Pavone, author of the international bestseller The Expats

“Brookes, a correspondent for BBC News in Washington, D.C., who was formerly based in China, takes readers deep inside the culture and daily routines of that country in his outstanding fiction debut . . . Good chase scenes and tense dialogue, coupled with a convincing picture of what actually happens in the corridors of power, make Brookes a thriller writer to watch.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Fans of the international espionage genre will inhale this fast tale in a few suspenseful breaths. Brookes uses multiple narrators—the spy, the engineer, the journalist, the agent, the boss—whose conflicting alliances tell the real story.” —Library Journal

As the BBC's China Correspondent, Adam Brookes received repeated visits from an anonymous man offering to sell him military secrets to pass to British Secret Services - a likely 'dangle' designed to entrap him. This event inspired the writing of Night Heron, a game-changing thriller ripped from today's headlines. Having been a foreign correspondent for many years, Adam Brookes is deeply engrained in the world of government secrets. He was based in China, the United States and Indonesia for the BBC, and reported from many of the world's most dangerous countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea and Mongolia.