In Slough House, the London outpost for disgraced MI5 spies, memories are stirring, all of them bad. Catherine Standish is buying booze again, Louisa Guy is raking over the ashes of lost love, and new recruit Lech Wicinski, whose sins make him an outcast even among the slow horses, is determined to discover who destroyed his career, even if he tears his life apart in the process.
Meanwhile, in Regent’s Park, Diana Taverner’s tenure as First Desk is running into difficulties. If she’s going to make the Service fit for purpose, she might have to make deals with a familiar old devil . . .
And with winter taking its grip, Jackson Lamb would sooner be left brooding in peace, but even he can’t ignore the dried blood on his carpets. So when the man responsible for killing a slow horse breaks cover at last, Lamb sends the slow horses out to even the score.
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Cities sleep with their lights on, as if they’re afraid of the dark. Up and down their roads, clustering at junctions, streetlights make daisy chains out of the night, illuminating pavements and hiding the stars. And if, from above—from the perspective of an astronaut, say, or a reader—these chains resemble neural pathways, forging connections between a city’s hemispheres, that seems an accurate picture. For a city is made of memories, stored recollections packed into boxes of stone and metal, brick and glass, and the brighter its pathways pulse with light, the stronger those memories are. On its wider, busier thoroughfares the traces of grand events linger—royal progressions, wartime rallies, victory celebrations—while the circuses where its big roads meet nurture shades of less seemly occasions: riots and lynchings and public executions. Along its riverbanks, quiet moments promenade—a hundred thousand engagements and cuckoldings—and in the explosive glow of its transport terminals, a billion arrivals and a billion departures are recalled one by one. Some of these have left scars on its memory, others a faint graze, but all contribute to the whole, for this is what makes a city: the slow accumulation of history, of a near-infinite number of happenings in a network of streets that light up at night.
But if the grandest of these memories warrant plaques and statuary, the more private are kept out of view; or at least, stored in such plain sight that they’re unseen. Take Aldersgate Street, in the London borough of Finsbury, upon which the gross bulk of the Barbican squats like a toad. Even on the main drag, the dull weight of mediocrity hangs heavy: of all London’s memories, this undistinguished array of shops and offices is least likely to ring bells; those bright connections, firing through the night, are at their weakest here. But briefly lit by their flare, not far from the entrance to the Underground, is a block four storeys tall, though it appears shorter. Its pavement-level frontage comprises a black door dusty with neglect, sandwiched between a newsagent’s and a Chinese restaurant; its façade is distempered, its guttering a mess, and the local pigeons have shown their contempt for it in the traditional manner. The one stab at respectability—the legend WW Henderson, Solicitor and Commissioner for Oaths tattooed in gilt on a second-storey window—has long since started to peel, and the unlettered windows above and below it are smeary and grey. The building is a bad tooth set in a failing mouth. Here is where nothing happens: nothing to see here. Move along.
Which is how it’s supposed to be, for this is Slough House, and Slough House deserves no attention. Should a historian attempt to penetrate its mysteries, she’d first have to negotiate a back door which sticks in all weathers, then a staircase whose creaking suggests imminent collapse, but having done so, she’d find little to exercise her notebook: just a succession of offices equipped to face the 1990s, crumbling plasterwork, and rotting splinters in the window frames. The metallic odour of an overused kettle will taint the air, and in the corners of the flaking ceilings, mould spores congregate. She’ll creep from room to room on carpets thin as motel bedsheets, place a hopeful hand on radiators that are lumps of unresponsive steel, and find no history but the desultory kind, which carries on happening out of habit alone. So she’ll pack her pen away and head back down the rackety staircase, through the mildewed yard where the dustbins live, and out into the alley, then the street, then London beyond. There’s plenty of history elsewhere. There are memories minted every minute in the wider world. There’s no reason to waste her time on this.
And once she’s gone a sigh will pass through the building, a barely noticeable exhalation that rustles papers and wobbles doors, and Slough House will know its secrets remain intact. For it has secrets: like every building in every city, Slough House is a neuron in an urban hippocampus, and retains the echo of all it’s seen and heard. Memories have stained its walls and seeped into its stairwell; they reek of failure, and have been scrubbed from the public record, but they persist, and they’re not for intruders’ eyes. Deep within the building’s bones is the knowledge that some of its rooms that held two characters now hold only one; that formerly familiar impressions—the weight of a shadow on a wall; the pressure of a foot on a staircase—occur no more. This is what memory is: an abiding awareness that some things have vanished. And this is what consciousness is: the knowledge that more absences will come.
Time passes, and the city’s lights wink out as it heaves itself awake. Memories, stirred by sleep, subside with the dawn. Snow will arrive before the week’s end, but today there is only cold grey normality. Soon the slow horses will troop in, and settle to the mind-numbing grind; mental forced marches through a landscape undistinguished by points of interest. With such tasks in front of them, the real challenge is remembering why they bother.
And while they do, Slough House goes about the daily chore of trying to forget.
The thing to remember about Roddy Ho—Roddy Ho remembered—was that Roddy was a spook, a spy, an agent. Roddy was a player.
This was why he was rustling through someone else’s wastepaper bin.
True, he’d had a bad year. Kim, his girlfriend, had turned out not to be his girlfriend, and while that particular rock had been a long time falling down the well, the splash it eventually made wasn’t one he’d forget in a hurry. He’d felt betrayed. Hurt. Had felt, moreover, unnerved when it had been pointed out how very nearly treasonous his actions had been—good job Lamb wasn’t going to see his trusted lieutenant flushed down the pipe without a fight. But now the waters were calmer two things were certain: Kim—his girlfriend—was history, and he, the Rodster, was still the brain pumping Clever through Slough House.
while the charges pertaining to your behaviour are fully investigated you will remain assigned to
But for a while, man, he’d gone to pieces. He’d let his beard go to hell, from soul patch to hipster mess. He’d crashed out of TerraWar VII on level two, so knew how Andy Murray had felt catching the early bus home from Wimbledon. And he’d barely bothered to bring the outrage when it was announced that the new Doctor would be a woman: let others fight the good fight. The RodMan had hung up his cape.
shall not, until investigations have been completed to the satisfaction of this department, have contact with colleagues
And if he’d been waiting for someone—probably Louisa; he’d have settled for Catherine—to take him aside and say concerned and soothing things, that hadn’t happened either. Then again, this made sense. You had a wounded lion in your pack—the king of the pride; your alpha beast—you didn’t fuss about it while it healed. You waited until it was strong again was what you did. And then heaved a sigh of relief that order had been restored. So that was what had been happening lately: a quiet period of recovery, respected by all around him—
your salary and benefits to be frozen at their current
—which was now over: he was back in the game. Women could hurt you, but they couldn’t break you. Ask Batman. Walking alone was the warrior’s way. And besides, in the days of Mama Internet, anyone can get laid—or at the very least, anyone had access to many vivid pictures of what getting laid looked like. So it could have been worse.
And what he was doing now, part of his recovery if you like, was regaining control of his environment. Because although a warrior walked alone, Ho had been assigned a stablemate. Alec Wicinski, the new guy’s name was, or Leck—Lek?—which sounded like Star Wars. Two days he’d been here, and already he’d insisted Roddy move his stuff to “his own side of the room,” muttering about how this was his desk, “for the time being.” Yeah, right. Evidently he needed a lesson about respecting his betters, which meant Roddy had to do what Roddy did best, which was saddle up, ride the Wild Web, and find out who this Wicinski guy was, and what he’d done to warrant gate-crashing Roddy’s manor.
So he’d done the obvious and dived into Service records, looking for the back story on this new comedian; info not open to casual viewers, but there was no firewall the RodMan couldn’t walk through . . . Except the info didn’t exist. Not just the redacted chatter about whatever mess he’d left on Regent’s Park’s carpet, but anything at all—no date of hire, no job description, no photo; nothing. It was like Alec (Lech?) Wicinski didn’t exist, or at least, hadn’t existed before setting foot in Slough House.
Which was interesting. And Roderick Ho didn’t like interesting.
What Roddy Ho liked was things done properly.
But Wicinski had been getting letters, so at least somebody thought he existed. He’d sat at Roddy’s other desk and read them sourly, as if they weren’t just bad news but confirmation of something worse, then torn them up and tossed the bits in his wastepaper basket.
You didn’t, Roderick Ho sneered, have to be Sherlock Holmes.
So he’d waited until Wicinski cleared off for the day, collected the scraps and pieced them together. Only took him forty minutes. And what he’d got was evidence, no doubt about it: a letter from HR. Stuff about not setting foot in Regent’s Park, not contacting colleagues; about “ongoing investigation.” “Charges.” That shit sounded serious. But no clues had been offered as to the nature of his sins.
Still interesting, then. Not orderly yet.
Roddy had put the pieces back in the bin, or most of them. He was on the case now. And there’d be no stopping the Rodster, now he was back in the game.
Anyway, that had been yesterday. This morning, Wicinski had sat drinking black tea, scowling and reading another letter, pages long. You could almost feel sorry for him, if that was your bag—up to the moment, anyway, that he scrumpled the pages, tossed them into the wastebasket, and stormed out the room like a monkey with a rage on.
Ho waited, but he didn’t storm back.
The pages had all landed cleanly in the basket, so props for that, but seriously, Roddy thought: the dude had looked undignified, stamping out. Gotta have respect for yourself, he thought, getting down on his knees by the bin. Gotta keep your standards up, as he started rifling through it.
He pulled out the first page, uncrumpled it.
He pulled out another, did the same thing.
. . . What was Wicinski, some kind of fucked-up origami artist? Was that why he’d been sent to Slough House, for wasting paper? It took all kinds, Roddy would be first to admit, but seriously: this was weird shit and he didn’t like it.
And then another. It wasn’t until he got to the seventh sheet that Roddy found one with actual words on, and this rocked him back on his haunches a second, while he took them in.
Fuck you, you little snoop.
Now what the hell was that about?
But before he could decipher it there were other pages to uncrumple, so he plunged his hand back into the bin, touched something solid and snap—Roderick Ho screamed, as pain ate him from the fingers up, Jesus, what just happened? He pulled his hand clear, throbbing in agony, and when he saw through a curtain of tears what was dangling from it, another puzzle joined the cryptic message he’d just uncovered.
Why the hell had the stupid bastard thrown away a perfectly good mousetrap?