By Adam Brookes
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Journalist Philip Mangan is trying to stay out of trouble in East Africa, his reputation and his life in tatters. But when he is caught in a terrorist attack in East Africa and a shadowy Chinese figure approaches him in the dead of night with information on the origins of the attack, Mangan is suddenly back in the eye of the storm.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away on a humid Hong Kong night, a key British Intelligence source is murdered minutes after meeting spy Trish Patterson. From Washington, D.C. to the hallowed halls of Oxford University and dusty African streets, a sinister power is stirring, one which will use Mangan and Patterson as pawns — if they survive.
Deeply steeped in tension and paranoia, Adam Brookes’s second novel is a remarkable, groundbreaking spy thriller.
Table of Contents
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The recent past
She moves well, thought the watcher.
She moves so that her size seems to diminish. She conceals her strength. She flits by a wall, a storefront, and she is gone before you give her a second glance. You don't notice her, he thought.
You don't notice how dangerous she is.
The wind was quickening, the sky the color of slate. The woman was well ahead of him now, making for the park's lurid front gate. The watcher quickened his pace, reeling himself in.
She wore a scarf of beige linen that covered her hair and left her face in shadow. She wore a loose shirt and trousers in dull colors, and sensible shoes. From a distance, her silhouette was that of a woman from the Malay Peninsula or Indonesia, one of Hong Kong's faceless migrants, a domestic, a housekeeper on her day off, perhaps. So, a trip to Ocean Park, for the aquarium, candy floss, a rollercoaster. A treat! Even on this bleak day, with a typhoon churning in from the South China Sea. The woman hid her eyes behind sunglasses. Her skin was very dark.
She made for the ticket booth. The watcher stopped and searched passersby for an anomaly, the flicker of intention that, to his eye, would betray the presence of hostile surveillance.
He reached into his pocket and clicked Send.
"Amber, amber," he said. Proceed. You're clean.
Patterson heard the signal, sudden and sharp in her earpiece. She responded with a double click. Understood.
She ran her hand over her headscarf, tugged it forward a little, eased her face farther into its recesses. She walked to the window, turned her face down.
"One, please," she said.
The girl at the ticket counter looked at her, confused.
"Typhoon coming," she said. She pointed at a sign taped to the glass. It read: "Typhoon Signal Number 3 Is Hoisted."
"Yes, I know," said Patterson.
The girl raised her eyebrows, then looked to her screen and tapped. Patterson paid in cash, turned and walked to the turnstiles.
She took the famous cable car up the headland, hundreds of feet above the rocks and crashing surf, sitting alone in a tiny car that bucked and jittered in the wind. Unnerved, she gripped the bars, looked out at a venomous green sea and watched the freighters fading in the gloom.
Another two hours of this at least, she thought. More. Surveillance detection runs are sent by the intelligence gods to try the soul. Dogging her steps since morning was the wiry little man with the baseball cap and wispy goatee, his speech incised with the clipped sing-song of the Pearl River delta—her street artist, her watcher. They had come together through Kowloon on foot, then taken the Star Ferry across the heaving waters of Hong Kong harbor. She'd walked the deck while he scanned the eyes of the passengers. More footwork, then a bus. He sat near the door, monitoring the comings and goings.
Amber, amber. His voice thin in her ear, distant, yet intimate.
The cable car slowed, deposited her on a platform. The watcher was there ahead of her. How had he managed that? He sat on a bench smoking a cigarette, looking at a map of Ocean Park's recreational delights. She walked on, past the Sea Jelly Spectacular, the Rainforest Exhibit. The watcher inscribed wide arcs around her as the wind hissed in the palm trees. After this there would be another bus to take them through the Aberdeen Tunnel, followed by a taxi, then more pavement work in the rain, hour after dreary hour of it until the watchers pronounced her utterly, definitively, conclusively clean.
For this was China, where the streets were so saturated with surveillance that agent and case officer moved with the caution of divers in some deep sea, silent, swimming slowly toward each other in the dark.
The agent's distress signal had come into London at 2:47 a.m. on a Tuesday: an email from an innocuous address purporting to be an enquiry concerning the sale of a second-hand book. I am in jeopardy, it said. I request a crash meeting. But the Hong Kong station of the UK Secret Intelligence Service, the officers of which usually handled this particular agent's needs, offered a tepid apology and declined. Too difficult, they said. Too much Chinese surveillance of the consulate building on Supreme Court Road where the station resided. Too few officers. Nothing to be done. Sorry, and good afternoon.
So it fell to Patterson, who was dragged from sleep and isolation in her north London flat by the juddering of her secure handheld. She had dressed quickly in the darkness, opened a small safe in her wardrobe, checked a preprepared list of clothing and accoutrements. She crept down the stairs and slipped from the house by the back. It was May and the night air was cool and damp, washed with fragrance from gardens and window boxes. Two streets away, a car waited for her.
In the SIS headquarters building at Vauxhall Cross, or VX as they called it, Patterson drew documents that underpinned a useful, current and very familiar identity: passport, business cards, pocket litter, a wallet handed to her in a yellow envelope by a nervous, tired boy from the second floor. She was an accountant, one with regular business in Hong Kong, backstopped by an association with a local company long friendly to the Service. Maria Todd. Hello, Maria.
The car drove at speed to Heathrow. In the ladies' lavatory, she checked her pockets one last time. And then again. She consumed a bacon sandwich and a coffee at a loathsome faux pub in Departures, and boarded the long flight to Hong Kong.
"Amber, amber," said the watcher.
She crossed the street, the traffic sparse now as the typhoon bore down, the rain clattering on the pavement. A stairway led her into an MTR metro station, and on into a damp underground shopping precinct, garishly lit corridors of sunglasses, shoes, magazines, sullen shop girls staring at their phones. And there, a bank of elevators, their steel doors scratched and greasy. Up, to the fifteenth floor of a vast apartment complex above and a preliminary pass of the door to apartment 1527. No cameras here, she'd been assured, but might something have changed? She moved quickly along a claustrophobic corridor of neon and linoleum, passed the flat, walked on.
Around her the background noise of cramped humanity. A television. A crying child. A smell of sesame and cooking fat was cloying on the humid air.
She stopped and walked back. The key turned and she was in. The safe flat appeared to be inhabited, though no one was here now. Patterson closed the door quietly, pulled the scarf from her head and went from room to room. A living room with a sofa in peeling green vinyl, a television, dusty surfaces. Kitchen, the remnants of a breakfast, congee with shredded chicken, tea. A bedroom with a futon, a pink duvet lying askew, blinds down. A bathroom, a woman's underwear hanging limp on a rack, a frosted glass window. Hair in the sink. The flat smelled of sleep, unwashed laundry.
Who lives here? she wondered. An officer? An access agent?
Well, she's a bloody slob.
Patterson stopped, took a breath, steadied herself.
In the army there would have been two of them, steadying each other. One to debrief the agent, the other hanging back, listening, maintaining situational awareness.
But the Service sent you in alone.
Two's insecure, said the trainers. Oh, and in the army she would have had enough weaponry concealed about her person to destroy half a city block should the need arise. But weapons are insecure, said the trainers. So she carried a device that looked like a pen, which when activated would administer to an assailant an electric shock, one barely sufficient, Patterson reckoned, to knock out an apathetic hamster. Would she get used to it, this naked feeling, this solitude? The Service valued those who worked well alone. She had yet to show she was among their number.
She put her hand in her trouser pocket and clicked Send.
"Tricycle, tricycle," she said. I am at the rendezvous.
A double click came back.
She sat and went over the agent's record in her mind. Codename CAMBER. Fifty-eight years of age. Keung, his name. Dr. Keung was how he liked it; he had a Ph.D. in econometrics from an Australian university. Patterson had looked up the term econometrics.
For years, under British rule, the doctor had toiled in the colonial government's finance department, but when the colony was blithely handed to China in 1997, Dr. Keung had taken his leave of government and joined a bank. A very quiet, very wealthy, very privately owned bank. Dr. Keung assisted in managing the bank's government relations. To his surprise, he found himself courted by officials of the Chinese Communist Party. The officials appeared anxious to placate and reassure the inhabitants of their new, wealthy, stroppy possession in the south. Dr. Keung found himself on trips to Beijing. He attended private dinners at the State Guest House, held confidential conversations with men whose names were unfamiliar.
Dr. Keung came to know the men with unfamiliar names. He came to know their needs. Dr. Keung came to know a lot.
And Dr. Keung discovered a further, equally surprising side to this new life. He found that, if he were occasionally to assist in some delicate task, as a favor to some senior Beijing official, or their son or daughter—help with an overseas account, say, in London or New York or the Caymans, or the quiet management of some funds, transfers for school fees or a new property abroad—he was rewarded. A nice watch. An expensive restaurant. Dr. Keung, you must come to Macau with us! A suite at the Lisboa! We insist! Dr. Keung had not previously experienced such things, but he surprised himself by the speed at which he developed a taste for them. He discovered the casino floor, the sauna, the "little friend" waiting sleek and pouting and perfumed in the air-conditioned blankness of the hotel room.
To Patterson, the rest of the story read like one of the case histories from her Intelligence Officer New Entry Course, a study in execrable choices and male idiocy. The doctor had got in a little deep at the tables. The little friends had become a little too demanding. The requests from Beijing kept coming, and seemed to grow less polite with each passing year. His wife divorced him. His children left for Canada.
And just as Dr. Keung sweated at the edge of ruin, the Service stepped in, pulled him back from the brink of disgrace, covered some debts and warned off some little friends. And in return, well, some favors for his erstwhile masters in Her Majesty's Government.
To the Service's surprise, Dr. Keung responded with enthusiasm. He began providing regular—if dull—intelligence on Hong Kong's finance and economics. And he provided occasional—and very interesting indeed—intelligence on the quiet doings of China's power elite with regard to their bank accounts, intelligence that provided a view of rifts and points of vulnerability in China's ruling class, the sort of intelligence the Service prided itself on, the sort that satisfied its predatory instincts.
Dr. Keung spied for seven years without incident, retaining his position in society, and in the casinos and saunas of Macau. A succession of case officers reported him businesslike, methodical and, very occasionally, brave.
All of which, Patterson reflected as the doctor stood dripping in the doorway of the safe flat, made the expression of near-hysterical panic on his face so surprising.
She reached into her pocket and clicked Send three times, then twice more. The meeting is underway.
"Amber, amber," came the voice.
She ushered him into the flat, moving to take his coat. He pulled away from her.
"Who are you?" he said. "Where's… where is he?"
He stood with his back to the wall. His eyes searched the room behind her.
"It's just me here," she said.
She gestured for him to sit. Let him settle, she thought. He sat on the green sofa and took off his coat. His hands were trembling.
"I don't know you," he said.
"Your usual contact was unable to come to this meeting, so I have come. It's safer this way. Much safer."
His eyes rested on her, uncomprehending.
"Where have you come from?" he said.
"Best I don't tell you that."
"Why do they send… you?"
Me, she thought, why not me? She smiled at him, this trembling little man, hair plastered to his scalp, an ageing child with a suit that wrinkled and pooled on his sparse frame, his pouchy cheeks.
"Dr. Keung, I know your case very well. I have been a great admirer of your work for a long time." She paused to look at him in a way she hoped was reassuring. He shrank back slightly on the sofa.
"Now, first let me ask you: do you think you are under surveillance now? Right now?"
"I… I don't know. That's why I need to meet… I…"
"All right. Listen to me, Dr. Keung. If this meeting is interrupted, you will leave first. You will turn right out of the front door of the apartment and walk to the elevators on the west side of the building. There's a big sign. It says, 'West Elevators.' Do you understand?"
He nodded, his mouth slightly open.
"We will be with you, watching your back. You will take the lift down to the second floor, then the staircase down to the MTR station."
His face was creasing.
"You will board a train to Admiralty."
He was waving his hand in the air, looking down.
"Stop. Listen… please."
"Dr. Keung, I will listen to everything you have to say, and we will resolve this situation. But first we must discuss emergency procedures and fallbacks. Just as normal." She could feel herself starting to speak fast. She slowed, tried to take the urgency from her voice. "Let's just—"
"Stop!" he shouted. "You can't! You don't know!"
Patterson swallowed. This was not supposed to happen—the spindly, diminutive agent yelling at her, the encounter spiralling out of her control. She took a breath. In case of panicking and noncompliant agents, said the trainers, bring a sense of reassurance and calm. Take their fears seriously. Suggest that the full resources of the Service are being brought to bear on their case.
But never lose control of the meeting.
He had his head in his hands.
"Dr. Keung, we will resolve this situation and ensure you are safe. Is that clear? Now, as long as you understand the emergency procedures, let us move forward."
Let us move forward? For Christ's sake. She licked her lips.
"They know," he said. He made a chopping motion in the air with his hand. "They know, they know, they know. Move forward with that."
She waited a beat, heard the wind pounding against the windows.
"Who knows and what do they know?"
"They know. They came."
"Please start at the beginning. Tell me."
"They came to my apartment two days ago. In the morning."
"Did they identify themselves? How many of them? What did they look like?"
"No, no identification. They just expect me to know. Three of them."
"Mainlanders. From the north. Beijing, maybe. The one who spoke, anyway."
"How could you tell?"
"What do you mean, how could I tell?" He looked at her, wild-eyed. "Because he spoke Mandarin! With that accent they have. And that tone. So polite. So… threatening." He put a shaking hand to his forehead.
"And what did they look like? What were they wearing?"
"What were they wearing?" He looked at her with incredulity. He was clenching and unclenching his fists.
Patterson cleared her throat, put her hand in front of her mouth for a moment.
"Well, would you say they looked like military men, for example? Or something else?"
He stood up, raised his hands in a gesture of despair. He leaned toward her, shouted at her.
"I tell you! They know. Why do you just sit there? Fuck!" The obscenity sounded incongruous, unfamiliar, as if he hadn't used it before.
"Tell me exactly what they said."
He started to pace.
"You get me out of here first. Then I'll tell you everything."
"I beg your pardon?" said Patterson.
"Get me out."
"Dr. Keung, we may not have much time. Tell me what they said. Now."
He stopped, pinched his forehead with one hand.
"He said, the northern one, that they wanted me to do a job. That I should use my 'contacts.' My guanxi. He had this smirk."
Patterson was silent, waited for more.
"He said they had a message."
"A message? For who?"
"For you, who the fuck do you think!"
"Did he actually say it was for us? Explicitly?"
"No, of course not. He just said it was for my guanxi."
"No. No 'well.'" He jabbed his finger at her. "You get me the fuck out of here. I am blown, and I am not going back and you owe me, whatever the fuck your name is." He was warming to his obscenities now, thrusting his despair and anger at her.
"What message?" she said.
"They said I had to go to meet someone, okay? Some big wheel guy. He'd give the message."
But Patterson wasn't listening.
Because in her earpiece was a voice as close as a lover's, saying, "Magazine. Magazine. Magazine. Acknowledge."
She sent nothing, waiting for confirmation.
"Magazine. Magazine. Magazine. Acknowledge."
Abort. The meeting is compromised. Abort.
First, say the trainers, choose your attitude. Choose calm, clear-headedness, optimism. Do not rush your movements. Rushing will make you immediately conspicuous. Move at the pace of those around you, or more slowly. Do not become visibly vigilant. When you are compromised in a denied area, resoluteness and a good cover story are your friends.
All the pabulum of training revolved slowly in her mind like detritus around a drain.
Just give it a minute, she thought. In a minute, the instinct will kick in. The rush of cold clarity will come. It will come. It will come to the soldier in me.
Patterson stood up.
"I'm afraid we have to end this meeting," she said, with a regretful smile.
Dr. Keung turned and faced her, panic flaring in his eyes.
"Our people tell me it's for the best. Now, you remember the procedures?"
She gestured toward the door. His eyes followed. He looked at the door and then back at her.
"We will be in touch. Try not to worry. We will meet again very soon and we will resolve this situation."
He didn't move.
"Dr. Keung, we need to go now."
"They're here, aren't they?"
"Follow the procedures. Someone is waiting for you. They will ensure you get away cleanly."
She opened the door and looked quickly both ways down the corridor.
"Dr. Keung. Go." She held his damp coat for him.
The spirit seemed to go out of him. His shoulders slumped, his hands hanging at his sides.
He walked listlessly to her, took the coat. He walked out of the door. He didn't speak to her or look at her again as he headed down the corridor.
Patterson wrapped the scarf tight around her hair, put the sunglasses back on, clicked Send.
"Sitrep," she said.
A single click came back. Maintain silence.
Her own egress procedure called for a complicated weave through the apartment block, cutting across the width of the building from stairwell to stairwell, taking a street-level exit through a fire door, where a watcher would pick her up. She walked through a labyrinth of corridors, slowing herself, keeping it natural. She clattered down the concrete stairwells. It took her nearly eight minutes to get to street level—where the fire door she was supposed to use was locked, a padlocked chain linking the crash bars.
A good officer expects such things.
She put her ear to the door, heard the thump of the wind, the rain spattering the concrete.
A good officer anticipates that the door will be chained shut, or the road will be blocked by construction or the electricity will go out at precisely the moment the operation reaches its climax.
She checked the time. The watchers should have picked up the doctor by now. They would be on the MTR train with him, seeing him to safety.
Why the panic? she wondered. What had the watchers seen? Who?
She turned and made her way onward through the dim corridors, looking for another exit to the street, finding none.
A figure was coming toward her. She heard the footsteps on the linoleum. She turned her face down and walked on. A man, carrying something. A phone? He was short, of Chinese appearance, with a wrestler's sloping shoulders, thick fingers. He wore a T-shirt and running shoes. He had stopped, was watching her. She kept walking. He stood to one side, let her pass, said nothing.
The man was standing stock still some twenty feet behind her in the corridor. She could sense more than see him.
Patterson pushed the lift call button.
She waited, every sense strung taut. The lift pinged and the doors slid open. It was empty. She stepped in, pressing the button marked "Basement 2"—the underground shopping precinct, she hoped. The doors began to close, but a thick hand wedged itself between them and they opened again to reveal the wrestler, looking straight at her.
Was this the opposition? Or an opportunist mugger?
He stepped into the lift, his eyes still on her. The doors closed. She moved carefully onto the balls of her feet.
He was reaching for her.
Choose your attitude. Make your move. Understand that it may hurt, but know that you can win, she thought.
He was reaching for her clothing. What did he want to do? Grapple?
She jogged slightly to the side, waited for him to compensate. His hand was extended, open, searching for a grip on her. She breathed out, then clamped his wrist in her left hand, steadied it, and with her right grasped his index and middle fingers and twisted hard, sinking her elbow and shoulder into the movement, feeling the bone crackle, the tendons go.
He ripped himself away, the flutter of astonishment on his face giving way to pain. He staggered back and leaned against the wall of the lift, looking at his hand, the ruined fingers.
"Give me the phone," she said.
He looked at her, blinking. She tried in Mandarin.
"Shouji gei wo."
She held out her hand. He didn't move. The lift was approaching Basement 2. She took a step into him and executed a sharp kick to the knee, angled so that the knee buckled and he went straight down, cracking his head on the control panel as he did so. She reached down and took the phone from him. He didn't resist, just lay still, breathing hard.
The doors slid open.
She signalled fallback, and after a decent interval on the street, drenched and chilled by the wind, she was picked up outside a 7-Eleven a mile or so away. The driver—her rail-thin, goateed watcher—had the air conditioning on, and she lay on the back seat and shivered as they ploughed through the typhoon, the windscreen wipers working hard.
"So tell me," she said.
"They just turned up. Two cars. Two in each. Some guys on foot. I counted three. They covered the main entrance and the MTR station. And, well, there they were."
He had turned into an underground car park and the car was circling down into its echoing, concrete belly. He parked and checked his mirrors.
"We wait here for a while," he said. Patterson sat up. His eyes were on her in the rearview mirror. "You okay?"
She nodded, giving him a wry look.
"Sorry about the fire door," he said.
She bit back a response. Frederick Poon was his name, she knew from the file. A watcher, a street artist.
"Who were they?" she said.
He sighed, shifted in his seat.
"I don't know. Clumsy. Not State Security. They could be military maybe. Had the build. The haircuts. But… I don't know."
She waited a moment.
"Private?" she said.
"Could be. I guess."
"Did they make you?"
He turned in his seat and cocked an eyebrow.
"Not a chance, lady."
"Oh, I'm sure."
"Did any of them enter the building? A short one, looked like a fighter. T-shirt."
He frowned, shook his head. "Not that I saw. But could have come from another entrance."
"And the agent?"
Frederick Poon was silent. Then:
"Didn't turn up. We were in position. But he didn't come to the platform."
She waited for more.
"He's tricky, you know, that one. Probably took his own route. Don't worry too much."
She was hungry. He gave her a bar of chocolate.
The phone was a burner. Nothing on it. No numbers, no calls dialled, no calls received, nothing in the contacts. They'd send it to Cheltenham for a proper going over, but it was, the two of them agreed, of no operational intelligence value. Frederick even had a gizmo for reading the SIM card, and he fiddled with it while they sat there and the car windows fogged up. But, again, nothing.
Which meant, of course, that the wrestler, whoever he was, was practicing communications security. In the way a professional might.
"Okay, time now," said Frederick Poon. "They'll be here in five."
And after exactly five minutes, a white SUV swung in next to them. Patterson opened the rear door of the car.
"Bye, Frederick. Next time." She moved to get out. The SUV was waiting. Frederick turned in his seat.
"Hey," he said.
"Sorry about the fire door."
"Whatever," she said.
They drove fast to Chek Lap Kok in the gathering night. Patterson watched Hong Kong recede under the storm, its lights strewn into the darkness, the city tensed on the edge of the sea. Such power in this place, she thought.
She turned to the driver, another Poon. Winston, this one, wiry like his cousin, forty-ish.
"How's your aunt?" said Patterson.
"Eternal," said Winston. Granny Poon, Eileen, presided over this little jewel of a family network. Eileen Poon, possessed of a will of iron, a taste for the foul Indian cigarillos known as bidi and a gift for operational security, had given the Service more than three decades. In the late seventies, as a guileless factory girl, she had penetrated and laid waste to the Communist Party cells that infested the Crown colony. Her Majesty's Government had given her a codename, HAVOC
- "A smarter or more exciting mystery likely won't be released this year."—Kirkus (starred review) on Spy Games
- "Brookes shows that his impressive debut was no fluke, and readers will look forward to Mangan's next adventure."—Publishers Weekly on Spy Games
- "[Adam Brookes] does an excellent job of keeping the action moving and the tension high, making Spy Games a difficult book to put down.... Brookes has separated himself from the pack: I've read a lot of very good China books by excellent journalists, but I've never before stayed up far too late on a work night to finish one, unwilling to go to sleep until I knew how it ended."—Los Angeles Review of Books on Spy Games
- "A rich, can't-put-it-down thriller... terrific."—Joseph Kanon on Spy Games
- "The must-read thriller of the year."—NPR Books on Night Heron
- "Outstanding."—Washington Post on Night Heron
- "Pulsing with power and danger."—New York Times on Night Heron
- On Sale
- Oct 25, 2016
- Page Count
- 496 pages