an excerpt from the latest installment in the Slough House Series
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Her morning turned out shorter than she’d planned. Wearing her fur-lined coat against a biting wind, she’d been heading for a team meeting at the new facility, a granite complex on the city’s edge. If it looked like the local headquarters of an insurance company, that was fine. Some things hid best in the open.
The sky was grey but unthreatening. The streets, their usual city-selves.
Driving in wasn’t encouraged. There was a regular shuttle, though, twice an hour, looping through the inner suburbs, and she’d pass a pharmacy on the way to her stop. She needed bath salts. Three times a week, days were full-on physical: 15K in the morning, then gym-work, then four times across the lake— twice in a boat, twice in the water—then another 15K. You needed long baths afterwards . . . Yesterday she’d dozed off in the tub, its lapping a sense-reminder of the movement of the lake, into which, rumour had it, leeches had once been poured, to keep swimmers on their mettle. But she’d never encountered one. This was a relief. Even the thought of leeches gave her the creeps; the way they were jelly, and mostly mouth. The way, if you stepped on one, it would burst like a blood-filled balloon.
Seriously, she thought: sooner this hunter on my tail than one of those nightmares
fastened to my skin.
Because she’d spotted him now. Should have done sooner, but she was no more than fifteen seconds off the beat; an allowable laxity, even by the standards of her department.
Already, she was re-mapping her route, and the first detour was here: through the indoor market, a vast amphitheatre where chickens hung from hooks and sacks of vegetables formed battlements along the aisles. These were too narrow for a follower to remain hidden, though he did his best: when she paused to examine a tray of ducks’ eggs, the passage behind her remained empty save for an elderly woman on sticks. But he was somewhere back there, in a black leather jacket; a little noticeable for pavement-work, which was a neat double bluff.
And the nature of her task was clear—another test. She had to ditch her tracker before reaching the shuttle-bus stop. Because you could swim a hundred laps of the lake, run more K than there were minutes in the hour, and none of it would count if you couldn’t shake a shadow on a city street. And if you led the shadow home, well . . . She’d heard of a department made up of failures: losers assigned to a dead-end desk, spending the rest of forever in a mist of thwarted ambition. You only got to mess up once. This was harsh but—until it happened to you—it was fair.
But it wasn’t going to happen to her.
On her last job, in a foreign city, she had been the hunter. This felt curiously similar.
Exiting the market, she crossed the road in the wake of a woman wearing a grey jacket and matching skirt and followed her into a lingerie shop on the opposite pavement: female territory. They were the only customers. Outside, the leather-jacketed man loitered, pretending to study his phone. She’d bottled herself in but forced him to reveal himself, and once that dawned on him, he’d have little choice but to give up. Which ideally would happen in time for her to catch the shuttle.
So what was to stop her simply tapping on the window and waving at him?
“. . . Excuse me?”
The woman was addressing her.
“Is he following you? Outside? In the leather jacket?”
She thought: okay, let’s see where this leads. There were clues for future behaviour in allowing situations to play themselves out.
“He is, yes.”
The woman had quick dark eyes. “A stalker . . . ?”
“He’s been following me since I left home.”
“Shall I call the police?”
She was already reaching for a phone.
“No, I . . . No. He’s an ex-boyfriend. Last time I called the police, he came round later and beat me up.”
It was shaky, but didn’t need to stand up in court.
The sales assistant was watching from behind the counter.
“Is there a problem, ladies?”
The woman in grey said, “There’s a troublesome man. Outside.”
The assistant expressed no surprise. This was a lingerie store.
“So we wondered, is there a back way?”
“It’s not really for customers.”
“But we’re not customers, are we? We’re victims of a man hanging round your shop.”
It was sweetly said, but with a menacing undertone.
“Well . . .”
But it was a surrender, and a graceful one.
“Of course. Maybe now, while his back’s turned.”
For the man in black was facing the street, his head cocked phonewards.
She checked her watch. She could still make the shuttle. And this would be more satisfying than simply tagging him, and telling him he was busted . . . As they were ushered towards the goods entrance, the woman in grey beamed at her, as if this were an adventure. Something to share with the team: members of the public can be a resource.
When the door closed behind them and they were alone in an alleyway thronged with wheelie-bins, she said, “Thanks.”
The woman in grey said, “My pleasure,” and stepped forward to envelop her in a hug.
It might have been imagination. But that would have meant everything else was unreal too; not just the sudden stiletto-shaped pain in her heart, but the intake of breath that the whole world took. The woman in grey lowered her to the ground then stepped away smartly, leaving her to grasp, in her final moment, that this had not been a test, or, if it were, it was one in which failure cost more than she’d expected. But that was a brief epiphany, long over by the time news of her death had been composed, encrypted, and sent hurtling through the ether to arrive in a busy room half the globe away, where it was delivered by an earnest young man to an older woman, who wore her authority as she might an ermine gown: it kept her warm, and people noticed it.
She took the tablet he offered, read the message on its screen, and smiled.
“Smiert spionam,” she said.
“. . . Ma’am?”
“Ian Fleming,” said Diana Taverner. “Means ‘Death to spies.’’’
And then, because he still looked blank, said, “Google it.”
Let’s be honest. Frontal aspect, first reaction: it’s not the best-looking property on the market.
But consider the potential.
Conveniently located above a Chinese restaurant and a newsagent whose enterprises occupy the ground-floorage, these upper three storeys present a rare opportunity to acquire a toe-hold in this up-and-coming area. (Nice little mention in the mail not long ago. Not the property pages, but still.) East-facing, but sheltered from morning dazzle by an imposing view of the iconic Barbican Centre, and offered further protection by being on Aldersgate Street, in the London borough of Finsbury, renowned for its temperate climate. Traffic calmed by nearby lights; buses a regular fixture. And the tube on the doorstep, with the popular Hammersmith & City, Circle and Metropolitan lines literally a minute away.
The front door’s not in use but never mind. We’ll go round the back.
To this nicely low-maintenance yard, with ample room for wheelie-bins and broken furniture. Ignore the smell, that’s a temporary blockage. Through this back door, sticking a bit today—doesn’t usually do that—but a bit of shoulder work and Bob’s your uncle. Then up the stairs, but best not put weight on that banister. It’s more ornamental than load-bearing. Original feature, mind.
And so we come to the first floor, a matching pair of offices, with a view of the heritage brickwork opposite. All unspoilt, very much on-plan. Notice the fixtures and fittings. Authentic period detail there, and the ’70s is a decade that’s coming back, isn’t it, what with the riots, the recession, the racism—ha! Our little joke. But no, really. Nice lick of paint, put your own stamp on it. Splash of yellow, splash of grey. Nothing like a touch of colour to bring out the natural warmth of a room.
But time’s wingèd chariot, eh? Onwards and upwards, onwards and upwards.
Which means another flight of stairs, a little cardio-work-out. That’s not damp on the plasterwork, just the discolouration you get with age. Two more offices on this level, plus a compact kitchen: bit of surface area for your kettle and your microwave, storage space for your crockery and whatnot. Washer needs a tighten, but that’s easily sorted. Your facilities through here, and—oh. Eco-conscious, the previous user. Just give it a flush.
And up we go to the final two offices. Crying out to be bedroomed, our opinion. You’ve got your sloping roof, adds character, but leaves ample space to maximise your lifestyle requirements, once you look past the telephone directories and the overflowing ashtrays and the mess on the carpet there. Nothing a deep-clean won’t set to rights. Ideally the premises would be decluttered before a viewing, but access was an issue, apologies.
Window appears to be jammed shut too. But a quick minute with a screwdriver’ll see to that.
Anyway, there you have it. It’s quirky—little bit different—and benefits from a colourful history. A department of the secret service, though not an especially active one. Paperwork, we gather. Current occupants have been in possession for an eternity, though it probably feels longer. You’d think spies would have better things to do, but then again, maybe they were never the best sort of spy. Maybe that’s why they’re here in the first place.
But we can see you’re not convinced—it was the toilet, wasn’t it? —so maybe we should head west, where more traditional premises are available, over towards Regent’s Park. No, don’t worry about the door. Security’s never been a major concern here, which is a bit peculiar now we come to think of it.
Not that that’s our business—all that matters is getting this place off the books. But sooner or later, we’ll find a taker. That’s the thing about this line of work; the same in yours, we’ll be bound. The same the world over. When something’s for sale, eventually someone’ll buy it.
Just a matter of time, really.
Just a matter of time.
Looking for donor sperm? read the ad above her head.
Definitely not, though on the Central Line at rush hour, you couldn’t rule it out.
But for the moment, Louisa Guy hoped herself impregnable. She was jammed into a corner, true, but had her back to the enveloping mass, and her attention fixed on the door she was pressed against. In its reflection all became disjointed, like a 3D movie without the specs, but she could make out human features: blurred mouths lip-syncing to music, faces shuttered against contact. While the chances of a stranger-on stranger encounter turning nasty were rare—a million passenger journeys for every incident, said the stats—you’d hate to be the one to buck the trend. Take deep breaths. Don’t think about bad outcomes. And then they were at Oxford Circus, where the crowd split apart like murmurating starlings, her half spilling onto the platform, heading for exits.
She didn’t normally come into town after work. Her bar-hopping days were largely over, largely unregretted; shopping expeditions were for weekends; and cultural outings—theatre, museums, concerts—let’s face it, didn’t happen: she was a Londoner, not a bloody tourist. But she needed new trainers after a ten-mile outing in the rain last week; a stupid idea but she’d been having a bad day, thoughts of Emma Flyte refusing to leave her alone. You couldn’t run away from your memories, but you could tire yourself to the point where the details blurred. So anyway, the trainers had either shrunk or changed shape so fundamentally they belonged on different feet, which meant here she was, heading into town after work; the evenings lighter now the clocks had gone forward, but the air still bearing shades of winter. On the escalator, video ads encouraged her to rethink fundamental choices: change bank, change phone, change job. In a perfect world she’d have managed all three by the time she reached street-level.
Where the pavements were damp from rain. Louisa circum-navigated clumps of pedestrians, crossed Regent Street at a trot while the LED warned 3-2-1, and dipped into a sporting goods store, its neon logo a pale imitation of itself in the watery light, its tiled floor slick with grime. A yellow bollard exhorted her to take care. If she’d taken care, Emma Flyte would still be alive. But it was pointless to think such things; the clocks had gone forward since then, and only ever went so far back. Trainers were in the basement. She took an elevator again; she was always going up or down, it seemed. Always up or down.
On the back wall, running shoes were displayed like ranks of heads in Game of Thrones. As always there was a sale on, high-street retail being mostly zombie since You Know-What, but even at reduced prices, trainers were mad. The ones that looked good were, anyway. And while the main thing about trainers was they had to feel right, not look good, still: they had to look good. So she picked the pair that most impressed on the wall, which proved nothing but was a sensible starting point, and sat and tried them on.
They felt okay. She walked up and down and they pinched a bit, more than when sitting, but it was hard to tell whether that was a new-shoe thing or a fitting issue. These places should have a treadmill. She flexed her leg to see if that helped, and noticed a guy noticing this—he was down the far end, examining a Nike—so did it again, and he kept on noticing, though studiously pretended not to. She crouched, and pressed the toe end of each trainer, checking for fit. He replaced the Nike on the wall and took a step back, his face a studied neutrality. Yeah, right, thought Louisa, awarding herself a mental high-five.
Still got it.
She sat again, removed the trainers. They cost more than she wanted to spend, and while that had rarely stopped her in the past, it would be an idea to try on a few more pairs first. As if agreeing with this notion, her mobile trembled in her pocket, and at precisely the same moment she heard a nearby ping—someone else’s phone registering an incoming text. It was the guy who’d been watching her, or pretending not to, and he stepped out of sight behind a rack of socks and wristbands, reaching into his jacket as he did so. Could’ve been a meet-cute, she thought, self-mockingly. Hey, simultaneous texts—what are the odds? And she reached for her own mobile while having the thought, and checked her message.
. . . Fuck!
Louisa leaped up, shoeless, and raced to the far wall, slipping a little, steadying herself by grabbing the rack, but he was gone already—was that him on the escalator? Taking the stairs two at a time, as if alerted to a sudden emergency—yeah, she thought. You and me both. There was no point following, not with nothing on her feet. He was out of sight now anyway; would be on the street, picking the busiest direction to disappear in.
Bastard, she thought. You sly cunning bastard.
And then thought: So what the hell’s going on here then?, as she padded back to her shoes, the wet floor working through her socks with every step.
If you didn’t count the text that pinged in five minutes ago, this was the first action River Cartwright’s phone had seen in days.
He seriously needed to do something about his social life.
“. . . Mr. Cartwright?”
“It’s Jennifer Knox?”
River kept a mental list of the women he’d had contact with over the past few years, and it didn’t take long to scroll through.
B—K was a blank.
“From next door to your grandfather’s?”
And that explained the senior wobble in her voice, which was a relief.
Not that desperate, whatever anyone thought.
So “Of course” was what he now said. Jennifer Knox. A caller-in on the O.B.: supplier of casseroles and local gossip, though the visits had tailed off as the Old Bastard’s grasp on gossip and solids, and such fripperies as who this woman he’d known for years might be, had slackened to nothing. She had River’s number because River was who you called when the O.B. had an emergency, though the old man was beyond such contingencies now. Which Jennifer Knox knew very well, having been at the funeral.
“Of course,” he said. “Mrs. Knox. How can I help you?”
“There’s someone in the house.”
His grandfather’s house, she meant, which had been unoccupied for a while. It belonged to River now, technically, as his mother kept stressing —“technically” apparently meaning in every possible sense, including the legal, barring his mother’s own feeling that the natural order had been disturbed—and was, equally technically, on the market, though at a price the agent had declared “way too optimistic.” Way, in these post-You-Know-What times. Its refusal to budge suited River, for the moment. He’d grown up in his grandparents’ house, having been abandoned there by a mother whose horizons hadn’t, at the time, included future property rights. He’d been seven. That was a lot of history to sell.
Jennifer Knox was still talking. “I thought about calling the police, but then I thought, well, what if they’re friends of yours? Or, you know, potential buyers?”
“Thanks, Mrs. Knox. I should have let you know. Yes, they’re old friends passing through, in need of somewhere to spend the night. And I know the furniture’s gone, but—”
“It’s still a roof and four walls, isn’t it?”
“Exactly, and cheaper than a hotel. They’re travelling at the moment, and—”
“We all do what we can, don’t we? To keep the costs down.”
“They’ll be gone in the morning. Thanks, Mrs. Knox. I’m grateful you took the trouble.”
His flat was a rented one-bedder, “nicely off the tourist track,” as some smug git had once put it. He might have inherited a country pile, but his actual living conditions remained urban haemorrhoid. The flat was cold most times of year, and even in daylight felt dark. The nightclub over the way hosted live bands twice a week, and a nearby manhole cover had loosened; every time a car ran over it, the resulting ka-chunk ka-chunk made River’s jaw spasm. It happened now, as he tucked his phone in his pocket. Not so much a soundtrack; more an audible toothache.
River raised a middle finger in the world’s general direction. Then went to see who’d broken into his dead grandfather’s home.
Meanwhile, Roddy Ho was doing what Roddy Ho did best.
What Roddy Ho did best was everything.
Which did tend to make such moments busy, but hey: if being Roddy Ho was easy, everyone would do it—there’d be fat-thumbed Roddy Hos, bad-haired Roddy Hos; even chick-retardant Roddy Hos. Which you had to love the comic possibilities, but Roddy Ho didn’t have time to dwell on them because Roddy Ho had his skinny-thumbed, good-haired, chick-delighting hands full.
And the everything he was currently deployed on involved saving
Slough House from whatever deep-impact shit was headed its way. As usual.
That shit was incoming was a given: this was Slough House. But also and anyway, it had been the Rodster himself who’d alerted Jackson Lamb to the Weird Wiping, as he’d dubbed it. The Weird Wiping meant incoming shit, no question, and that the shit would be deep-impact, well: it didn’t take a genius. This was the spook trade, and when things went awry on Spook Street, they generally went the full Chris Grayling. So Roddy was checking the shit for depth and durability; trying to ascertain exactly which direction the shit was travelling in, and if, by now, he’d gone past the stage where the whole shit metaphor was proving useful, he’d at least made his point. Shit was coming, and everyone was looking to Roddy Ho to provide the double-ply bog roll.
Though actually, when you thought about it, that would involve Roddy doing the wiping.
Momentarily derailed, he reached for a slice of pizza. Roddy was in his office; it was way past sayonara-time, but when the HotRod was on a mission, he didn’t watch the clock. Besides, some things you don’t want showing on your domestic hard drive, and tinkering around in Service records was one of them. Because the first problem he’d identified, the direction of travel of the incoming effluent, was a no-brainer: anytime Slough House was under the hammer, you could bet your chocolate buttons it was Regent’s Park at the anvil. And in this particular instance, the Weird Wiping, what had been wiped was Slough House itself.
By wiped, Roddy meant erased from the Service database. Not just Slough House but the horses themselves, from the new guy Wicinski to Jackson Lamb; each and every one of them taken off the board. Oh, they were still around on the deep-level data sets; the ones involving salaries and bank accounts, all of which—after a nasty hack some years ago—were ascribed to employee numbers rather than names, so they were still getting paid, and still had jobs to do, but their personal files, their personnel jackets: they were gone, baby, gone. Anyone checking out Roddy Ho on the Service database would find zero, nada, zilch. Like the RodBod had ceased to exist.
Everything came to an end, he knew that. Take those huge statues of Jedi Knights the Taliban bombed to dust. But he’d figured his own legend would remain intact for a while yet.
So he’d thought about putting himself back up there—easy enough when you had the Rodinator’s talent set: he could hoist a dick-pic as the Service’s screensaver if he had a mind to—but best not. Over at the Park, they had to know who they were messing with, and it stood to reason they’d have extra security in place for when Roddy-O came putting their wrongs to rights. Which meant ninja skills were called for, stealth and cunning, and that was basically Roddy’s user profile. He was near-invisible was the plain fact. Half the time, people didn’t notice he was in the room. So for now he trod pantherlike among the pixels, melding with the matrix. Gathering information was one thing; gathering the absence of information called for a whole different kind of cool. And Roddy Ho was cooler than a bowl of Frosties.
Pausing for a moment to wipe pizza topping from his keyboard, he summed up his progress so far.
What he’d mostly discovered was that whoever’d done the wiping had made an impressively thorough job of it.
In fact, it occurred to him, any newbies out there—any junior spooks just starting at the Park—would have no idea Slough House existed at all.
And the image came to his mind of an empty space on the street, an unfilled gap ignored by passersby; and Roderick Ho found himself wondering, just for half a moment, what difference that would make to anyone.
Dance like no one’s watching, thought Shirley Dander.
What cockwomble came up with that?
Because the point of dancing is everyone’s watching, or they are if you’re doing it right. The wallflowers chugging flavoured gin, and wishing they had the moves. The wannabe rocking the bow-tie-and-specs on the balcony. That cute pair of kids in the corner, sizing each other up: seriously, she thought. Get a wiggle on. Before I toss a coin to choose which of you to take home.
Which could happen, she promised herself. Could so easily happen, she ought to have a sign around her neck: Danger, Woman at Work. Let these sad sacks know what they were dealing with.
But meanwhile, check these moves. There was no high like a natural high, and she was pretty sure the coke had worn off. What was flowing through her veins was pure Shirley-power.
That afternoon, she’d been in Slough House. Every afternoon, face it, she was in Slough House, and even the afternoons when she wasn’t felt like she was. Slough House cast a portable shadow: you could hike halfway to Watford and still feel it on your back. Because Slough House sucked the juice from your veins, or tried to. The trick was showing you were juicier than it knew. So anyway: blah. That afternoon, she’d been in Slough House, working on one of Jackson Lamb’s pet projects: the hooligan hinterland, he called it. His notion being, you didn’t strap on a suicide vest and wander down your local high street without your antisocial tendencies having manifested in some way beforehand, like unpaid parking tickets, or using a mobile in the quiet carriage. Shirley wasn’t so sure, but that wasn’t the point: the point was, when you were in Slough House, you did what Jackson Lamb told you. The alternative was accepting that your career in the secret service was over, and like every slow horse before her, and every slow horse to come, Shirley Dander thought she’d be the exception to the rule that Regent’s Park didn’t take you back. She thought they were secretly waiting for her. She thought that somewhere in a stationery cupboard, they already had the banner they’d prepared for her homecoming.
On that day too, she’d dance.
Here and now, but doubtless also in that glorious future, a woman kept catching her eye and pretending it was accidental. Who knew, she might get lucky, but right at the moment she could simply gawp like everyone else, because this was Strictly Come Dander, and every other fucker better get their ass off the dancefloor. At rest she might resemble, in the words of a former colleague, a concrete bollard with an attitude, but that was only half the story: Shirley was on the underwhelming side where height was concerned, and more cylindrical than traditionally associated with beauty, but the simple physics of it was, every body exerts gravitational pull, and when she was dancing Shirley’s pulling power was up there with Newton’s other laws. As for the former colleague, if he’d been asked to repeat his description a moment later, he’d have been too busy wondering what just happened to his lungs. Shirley could handle criticism as well as the next guy, but the next guy was a touchy bastard.
And still that woman was watching, and still pretending not to. You had to admire a trier, thought Shirley. You had to admire an admirer, and perhaps she should take pity on her, drag her from the crowd and jump-start her on the dancefloor, but that might lead to awkwardness later, because a thing about Shirley’s partners—and she meant her professional partners, but there was such a thing as mission-creep—a thing about Shirley Dander’s partners was that they tended to die; their brains misted against an office wall, or their insides spilt on snowy Welsh hillsides . . . Shirley had never thought of herself as a jinx, but that hardly mattered, did it? What mattered was what everyone else thought, and—two partners down—it would be an uphill task dismantling gossip. Team up with Shirley and start counting the days. Not the kind of come-on you wanted to broadcast to those watching you from the sidelines, and pretending not to.
And the lights span, and the dancefloor pounded, and the weight of electric bass thrummed in her frame. All eyes were on Shirley Dander, and that was fine by her. Just so long as nobody started dying again.