BY STEVE BAILEY
This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
ROCKY SLIPPED out of his bunk and did a low crawl across the barrack floor as the snoring sounds of sleeping Uyghurs permeated the air. He raised himself to a crouching position when he reached a window he had managed to unlock earlier. Then, carefully lifting the lower sash, the incarcerated detective sneaked through the window and resumed a low crawl into the yard, where he concealed himself under one of the benches and watched the guards. He had been doing this for several nights, looking for an opening in the guard’s procedures that would aid him in an escape. He had their pattern memorized.
Whoever ran the night shift for the guards was either too rigid or lazy and maintained the same schedule. It made it easier for Rocky to look for an opening. On this night, he was able to confirm that there was such an opening.
A blind spot was created at 2 am when the guards rotated positions. It was not much of an opportunity, a shadow near a door that would be unattended for at least thirty seconds, long enough for him to pick the lock and run for it. Rocky had replaced his lost lock-picking tools with bits of wire he found around the compound.
The following morning tired and congested from spending most of the night outside on the cold, wet ground, Rocky marched out into that same courtyard with his fellow inmates for another day of brainwashing. He had made several attempts to get to the back of the yard, where he had seen Kalihs Almas sitting in the same place daily. He had been pushed back every time by the sheer density of men coming into the yard. But on this day, he caught a break.
His group was among the first into the yard when an altercation near the lecturer’s platform broke out, sending the guards running towards the front of the yard, and Rocky, unencumbered by the mob that was beginning to show itself, managed to move to the bench where he had seen Kalihs previously. When he saw Kalihs enter the yard, Rocky moved over, inviting him to sit.
During the lecture, he said nothing, hardly looking at Kalihs. But when it came time to sing the patriotic songs, he stood with the rest and gave Kalihs a telling look. Then, as the songs began, he sang the tune with his own lyrics.
“You are Kalihs Almas, and your brother is Yakub. He lives in Hangzhou. Keep singing, and don’t look at me.”
Rocky glanced over at Kalihs. He was still singing, but there was the look of confusion on his face that Rocky was hoping to see. Kalihs was listening. The song continued.
“Keep singing,” The detective sang, smiling at how ridiculous his song must have sounded. “You are being set up for something bad, and the only way to save you is to get you out of here before that bad thing happens. Nod your head if you understand.”
He glanced at Kalihs long enough to see his head bob up and down to the rhythm of the music. Then, Kalihs surprised the detective by singing:
“Who are you?”
At that moment, the patriotic song reached its climax, the actual lines wishing long life to the glorious Communist Party, and right in with the pinnacle, Rocky sang:
“An honest Chinese policeman.”
The guards on the side began to get curious about the two men and walked toward them. Rocky switched back to the actual lyrics of the next song and was grateful to see that Kalihs was astute enough to do the same.
After that, the two men would try to seek each other out in the yard or the dining hall. During those meetings, Rocky shared his plan with Kalihs, who was willing to do anything to change his situation. When Kalihs discovered an open window in the latrine of his bunkhouse and successfully got in and out of the yard one night, Rocky decided they were as ready as they would ever be.
“We should have a new moon tomorrow night,” Rocky told him. “It will be the best time to go. The blind spot is back where your bench is but on the opposite side. Low crawl your way there before 2 am. That is when we will make our move.”
That night, they lay beside each other under benches until the rotation shift began. Then, as planned, they dashed for the dark corner near the door. Within seconds Rocky had picked the lock. He pushed and then pulled the door. It didn’t open. Frantically he moved his hands up and down the door, feeling for a latch. There wasn’t any. The door, he came to realize, was latched from the outside. He had no contingency plan for failure.
“It’s not working,” he told Kalihs. “We need to make our way back to the bunkhouses now.”
But time had run out. The guard rotation was finishing, and two guards responsible for the door almost bumped headlong into them as the two inmates tried to head back. The guards called out and rushed the two men with their electronic batons. Kalihs attempted to dodge them, hoping to hide in the dark, but searchlights from the guard towers were turned on and aimed toward the shouting guards. They illuminated the area around him and Rocky. More guards appeared, and the collection of electronic batons knocked the two inmates to the ground rendering them helpless.
Guards lifted Rocky and Kalihs and dragged them into their security office. One briefed the officer of the day, who picked up the phone to report the incident to the camp commander
“Shì de,” the guard repeatedly said as his boss, irritated at being awakened from a deep sleep, issued a series of commands.
Finally, the guard hung up the phone and turned to the four men holding the prisoners.
“They are to be kept here tonight and beaten about the face. Wounds from this beating are to be visible. Tomorrow, we will put them on display, so all the other prisoners will know what happens when an escape is attempted.”
Years of training and experience in martial arts kicked in for Rocky, and within seconds he had all four guards either on the ground or holding onto a body part and groaning. The officer of the day attempted to unstrap his holster and access his firearm, but Kalihs caught up in the moment, slammed the man up against a wall. The two inmates then ran out of the office.
They ran down a corridor, searching for the door guards would use to come into work. Suddenly there was the sound of an alarm. Ceiling lights came on and began flashing. Seeing no door to the outside, Rocky and Kalihs ran down a flight of stairs into a T-shaped corridor with no exits. Rocky was about to signal Kalihs to turn right when two guards armed with automatic rifles stepped in front of them. Rocky could see the safeties on both weapons were off. He raised his hand to signal Kalihs to stop.
The armed guards ordered the two men back to the office, where Rocky’s victims were off the floor and attending to their wounds. When they saw Rocky, they lunged at him with their batons and began furiously beating him. The beatings on both men went until dawn, with brief pauses to allow the assailants a chance to rest.
As the Uyghurs moved into the yard for the morning brainwashing session, they rubbed their arms against the cold morning air. The inmates were chattier than usual. Awakened during the night by the sound of alarms, many speculated about what had happened. Unease and fear added to their excitement when they noticed the camp commander on the stage. He hardly made appearances at the brainwashing lectures.
An officer at the podium ordered them to be silent and stood aside for the commander. The commander motioned to a guard standing in front of the entrance to the yard. In the hush, a procession of men came through the doors.
First came the night watch officer, who had not been allowed to go off duty and return home. Kalihs and Rocky followed behind him, flanked on either side by guards. Both prisoners were in shackles, and gasps went out from the incarcerated audience when they saw their swollen faces. Both limped as they walked and hunched their bodies to reduce the pain from broken ribs.
“Good morning,” Began the camp commander. “We have a different lesson for you to start this morning.”
He waved his hand, and guards pushed Rocky and Kalihs to the front.
“These two men created much disharmony last night. They are the ones who made you lose sleep last night. Jeer at them.”
No one responded. The hapless Uyghurs stared silently at the two beat-up men standing on the stage in filthy, bloodstained blue overalls. Their faces were so swollen it was impossible to see their eyes.
“Jeer at them!” the commander screamed. “Or none of you will eat anything all day!”
The crowd became more animated, but the jeering was still feeble. The commander continued.
“Last night, these two men attempted to leave our camp before their education was completed. It was a foolish thing for them to do. Look at them. This,” he waved his hand dramatically at Rocky and Kalihs, “is what happens to anyone who tries to leave before we are ready to release them. Do you want this to happen to you? Of course not. So be smart. Not stupid like these two. Call them stupid.”
“O.K.,” the commander shouted. “No breakfast for you. Shall we try again?”
“Stupid,” shouted someone from the benches.
“Fools. You prevented us from sleeping. Now you prevent us from eating. Shame, Shame.” came other voices.
The commander continued his tirade, threatening punishment to any man giving comfort to these “two villains.”
Rocky wasn’t listening. He had two loose teeth he could move with his tongue. Instead, he focused on the pale blue sky above the wall at the back of the yard. He wondered if he would ever get on the other side of that wall, and if so, how? To reveal himself as a policeman now would be met with complete disbelief.
Through his swollen eyes, he noticed a small object in the air. A plane, perhaps some great distance away? No, it was getting closer. Without moving his head, his eyes followed the object as it approached the yard, still very high in the sky.
Suddenly the object dropped straight down into the yard, no more than ten feet off the ground, and starting from the wall in the back, raced straight towards him. Now he recognized what it was, a drone. He had seen young people fly them in parks in Beijing. The guards and the officer of the day ducked. The commander lost his balance and fell over backward. The crowd in front of him began to laugh. Guards in the tower turned their guns on the drone but realized they couldn’t fire without risking hitting the people on the platform. The drone was just about to collide with the wall behind the stage when it shot straight up in the air and disappeared.
The camp’s commander became hysterical, shouting at his captured audience, who were laughing, some of them for the first time since their incarceration began. Then, he ordered the guards to move into the crowd and beat those still laughing.
“No food!” He shouted to the mass of men in blue coveralls. “No food for you all day!” He stomped off the platform.
Guards grabbed the two beaten men and set them down on a bench in front of the platform. The regular lectures were about to start, and they would attend.
Rocky was amazed! Someone had dared to fly a drone into the compound air space. Why? Was it someone from the western press? A prankster? Or something else? He wanted to crack a smile thinking about the pandemonium the drone had created, but his lips were too swollen. Besides, he thought, I’ve had enough beatings for one day. Then, looking blankly at the lecturer, he thought he heard a trumpet in the distance.
“Oh no!” Sally Peyton whispered aloud from her hilltop hideaway as she watched the screen recording everything in front of her drone. “It’s coming in the wrong way! All I am seeing is the backs of heads.” She knew from the beginning that it would be a one-pass event. They would be ready and shoot it down from the towers before it ever got inside if she tried a second time.
She called her drone home, and when it arrived, she quickly dismantled it and stored parts of it in a first aid kit in her backpack and the rest in her baggy cargo pants. She then began the hike back over the mountain she had spent the night before hiking over.
Dressed like a hiker/tourist; in kaki cargo pants and hiking boots, Sally had replaced her head scarfs with a wide-brimmed floppy khaki hat. The beautiful spy traveled into the Xinjiang region acting the part of a naive American tourist, deliberately testing the limits and apologizing in her worse Mandarin when confronted with authority.
The school was closed for Thanksgiving, a concession to the American-dominated PTA. It was a short break, and to keep her cover intact, she had to catch a flight back to Hangzhou that night. The video images, such as they were, would be waiting for her on her computer.
Sally Peyton reached the bottom of the hill in the early afternoon. There was a wide-open flatland between her and her hotel. As she walked along, she saw a government truck approach and stop in front of her, blocking her way. Two policemen got out of the truck and walked towards her. One asked for her passport, which she promptly handed over; her charming smile fully engaged.
“Why are you here?” the first policeman asked her.
“I don’t understand,” She replied in Mandarin so poorly that she was sure she saw them flinch. “My Mandarin not good.”
“Why?” he said in awkward English.” You here?”
“The Pandas,” she replied in English.
“Pandas?” the two policemen looked at each other, puzzled. “No Pandas here.”
“Yeah, so I noticed. Do you know where I can find Pandas?”
Her English was getting ahead of them. She switched to her bad Mandarin and asked again.
“Sichuen. Your bag, please.”
“Is that far from here?” she replied in English as though she did not understand his command.
“Bag,” he repeated in English, pointing at her backpack.
“Oh yeah. I heard y’all did this, but it’s the first time it has happened to me,” she said in English as she pulled the backpack off her shoulders and handed it to them.
As the first police officer began to open her bag, she continued,
“It’s a bit gross in there. My period started, and I have been wandering around these hills for days, and I really didn’t want to pollute your beautiful country, so….”
The two men opened the backpack and stared in horror at tampons soaked in stage blood scattered inside Sally’s pack.
“You know,” she went on in English, “I think my friends from Hangzhou pulled a fast one on me. They said the Pandas were here. “
She took heart when she heard the first policeman say to the second in Mandarin: “This girl is really dumb!”
“Hey, can I have my passport back, please?” Sally repeated the word passport in her bad Mandarin. It was the moment of truth. If they held her passport, it was time for a plan B she didn’t have. Are the keys in that truck, or will she have to go through pockets after neutralizing these two clowns?
But news of the drone had not yet reached the local police. The camp commander concealed the information out of fear for his job and the humiliation accompanying its loss. The first policeman handed her the backpack. The second handed her back her passport.
“Sichuen, you say?” She said as she resumed her trek by walking around the truck, “Well, Xiè Xiè for that.”
Her journey from there back to the airport in Ürümq was uneventful. She liberated her backpack from its disgusting contents before going through security. Once settled in her seat, Sally fell fast asleep before the plane took off and awoke when it descended into Hangzhou.
After some food and a shower, Sally Peyton sat down in front of her computer. It was the afternoon of a Thanksgiving Sunday, and school would resume the next day. She had lessons to prepare, but first, she wanted to look at the drone video in hopes there might be something in it of use. She had her doubts.
Sally slowed the video down and watched row after row of heads, some with dark hair, some with light hair, and some with no hair. As the people on the platform got closer, she could see that two of them were in the blue coveralls of the inmates, several were in guard uniforms, and one in a business suit appeared to be doing all the talking. The two in the coveralls looked in bad shape.
“What did they do to those poor guys?” She said to her empty apartment. She froze the two men’s image and expanded it so she could see their battered faces. ” I wonder what those two did to get such a beating.”
She played the tape again. The row of heads revealed nothing to help her, but she found herself drawn back to the battered faces of the men on the platform. Again, she froze the image on the screen and expanded it. She looked closely at the face of the man on the left. Could it be?
She opened an encrypted folder of photos and pulled up one she had of Rocky. Her eyes moved back and forth between that photo and the battered face on the left. She pulled up her facial recognition software and got it to make a comparison. It was not a perfect match, but it was close on so many points that the irregularities probably came from the swelling and bruising.
Sally leaned back in her chair, her eyes still glued to the computer screen. She had gone to Dabancheny with her drone to see if she could find Kalihs Almas. Instead, she found the missing Chinese detective. Why was he an inmate in a Uyghur re-education camp? He is not Uyghur, not even Muslim. Why was he in that part of China, and why did no one in his police station in Beijing know he had been arrested? And who is his fellow sufferer?
She sat bolt upright in her chair and focused on the injured face on the right of the picture. It was a Uyghur face, young but not familiar to her. On a hunch, she retrieved a photo from her file of Kalihs Almas and ran the facial recognition software. This time the match was closer. There was only one way to resolve this.
Sally cropped the frozen image to remove Rocky and enlarged the picture of the face of the battered young Uyghur. Then, she printed it out on photographic paper and let it sit in the printer to dry while she wrapped her light blue scarf around her head and retrieved her jacket. The photo, now dry, was stuffed into her shoulder bag as she headed out the door to Yakub’s restaurant.
When Sally Peyton arrived, a few customers were enjoying a late lunch at Yakub’s. Yakub was attending to them while Ismael made pasta in the window. Seeing that none of the customers were from the school, and all looked Han, not Turkish, she went in and motioned Yakub to the little office room. As the young Muslim woman glanced at the prayer rug, guilt rushed over her. She had not been keeping up with her prayers. Yakub followed her into the office. She pulled the photo out of her handbag and handed it to Yakub.
“I need you to look at this and tell me if it is Kalihs,” she said in Turkish.
Yakub looked at the picture. His face paled. He became dizzy and bumped up against the small desk with the computer. The proprietor began to weep.
“What happened to him? Is he alive? He looks dead in this picture. Who would do such a thing to my brother?”
His voice was loud, his sentences broken by sobs. Customers looked up from their meals at him. Sally gently touched him on the arm.
“Yes, he is alive,” she said in almost a whisper. “He is being held in a re-education camp in Xinjiang. It appears he committed some infraction of the rules, but I don’t know what.”
“What camp? I must go to him.” Yakub said, almost shouting. Ismael looked away from the street towards his father, seeing him visibly upset, put down the pasta, and wiped his hands on his apron.
“That would not be wise,” Sally replied.” If you go there, they will probably arrest you as well. You should stay here and let my team help your brother. We already have a man on site who is working on it.” Thanks to Rocky, that was not a lie.
Ismael came alongside his father, and Yakub showed him the picture.
“It’s your uncle Kalihs,” he said, tapping the photo. The police have taken him and beaten him.”
The boy looked at the photo, then at Sally, and then at his father. His face was a mask of confusion. Sally looked the teenager in the eye.
“I have promised your father that, God willing, I will free your uncle and reunite him with the two of you.”
“How?” the boy asked in disbelief, his eyes welling up with tears. “You’re just a girl!”
“I found him, didn’t I?” she said with a calm and soothing voice. She gave them a reassuring smile while fighting back the urge to set the young Ismael straight on what a woman could do.
“Trust me. My people are good at this sort of thing. But you two must remain here and talk about this to no one.”
The boy began to weep, and his father, crying too, put his arm around his son to console him.
“I guess your plans for going to western China during Christmas break aren’t going too well,” came a voice in English.
Sally looked at Richard Grant standing in the middle of the restaurant. He had come in unnoticed by the three of them. She couldn’t tell if he had been drinking again, but either way, she was annoyed.
“This is a family matter,” she said. “And it’s none of your business.” She turned her back on Grant so he couldn’t see her take the picture out of the boy’s hand and return it to her shoulder bag.
“Yeah? Well, it seems you are into a lot of business; that’s none of my business,” Grant huffed.
“The trip to Xinjiang for Christmas break is still on,” she said as she brushed by him on her way out the door. Then, without turning around, she added: “I was going to ask you if you wanted to come with me, but since you are acting like such an ass, I don’t think I will.”
She went out into the street with not her usual smile but a cruel grin. She knew how to manipulate guys infatuated with her. Unfortunately for him, Richard Grant was about to become one of her dupes.
Steve Bailey grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, went to school in Minnesota, and taught history for 32 years in Virginia. For the last three years, he has been a freelance writer. He lists his published works, fiction, and nonfiction, on his website vamarcopolo.com. Steve lives in Richmond, Virginia. Find him on Twitter: @vamarcopolo