Welcome to the thrilling and unnervingly prescient world of the slow horses. This team of MI5 agents is united by one common bond: They've screwed up royally and will do anything to redeem themselves.
This special tenth-anniversary deluxe edition of a modern classic includes a foreword by the author, discussion questions for book clubs, and an exclusive short story featuring the slow horses.
London, England: Slough House is where washed-up MI5 spies go to while away what’s left of their failed careers. The “slow horses,” as they’re called, have all disgraced themselves in some way to get relegated there. Maybe they botched an Op so badly they can’t be trusted anymore. Maybe they got in the way of an ambitious colleague and had the rug yanked out from under them. Maybe they just got too dependent on the bottle—not unusual in this line of work. One thing they have in common, though, is they want to be back in the action. And most of them would do anything to get there─even if it means having to collaborate with one another.
When a young man is abducted and his kidnappers threaten to broadcast his beheading live on the Internet, the slow horses see an opportunity to redeem themselves. But is the victim really who he appears to be?
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses.
Eight twenty Tuesday morning, and King’s Cross crammed with what the O.B. called other people: ‘Non-combatants, River. Perfectly honourable occupation in peacetime.’ He had a codicil. ‘We’ve not been at peace since September ’14.’
The O.B.’s delivery turning this to Roman numerals in River’s head. MCMXIV.
Stopping, he pretended to check his watch; a manoeuvre indistinguishable from actually checking his watch. Commuters washed round him like water round a rock,
their irritation evident in clicking of tongues and expulsions of breath. At the nearest exit – a bright space through which weak January daylight splashed – two of the blackclad achievers stood like statues, their heavy weaponry unremarked by non-combatants, who’d come a long way since 1914.
The achievers – so called because they got the job done – were keeping well back, as per instructions.
Twenty yards ahead was the target. ‘White tee under a blue shirt,’ River repeated under his breath. Adding details, now, to Spider’s skeleton outline: young, male, Middle Eastern looking; the blue shirt’s sleeves rolled up; the black jeans stiff and new. Would you buy new trousers for a jaunt like this? He stuffed the information away; a question to be asked later.
A rucksack on the target’s right shoulder listed, suggesting weight. The wire coiled into his ear, like River’s own, might have been an iPod.
River, touching his left ear with his left hand, spoke quietly into what looked like a button on his cuff. ‘Confirmed.’
A gaggle of tourists crowded the concourse, their distribution of luggage suggesting they were circling the wagons. River skirted them without taking his eyes off the target, who was heading for the annexe platforms; those which waved off trains towards Cambridge, and points east.
Trains generally less packed than the northbound HSTs.
Unbidden images arrived: of twisted metal scattered along miles of broken rails. Of trackside bushes lit with flame, and hung with scraps of meat.
‘What you have to bear in mind’ – the O.B.’s words – ‘is that worst sometimes does come to worst.’
The worst had increased exponentially over the last few years.
Two transport cops by a ticket barrier ignored the target but studied River. Don’t approach, he warned silently. Don’t come anywhere near me. It was the small details on which enterprises foundered. Last thing he wanted was an audible altercation; anything that startled the target.
The cops went back to their conversation.
River paused, and mentally regrouped.
He was of average height, this young man River Cartwright; was fair-haired and pale-skinned, with grey eyes that often seemed inward-looking, a sharpish nose and a small mole on his upper lip. When he concentrated, his brow furrowed in a way that led some to suspect him of puzzlement. Today he wore blue jeans and a dark jacket. But if you’d asked him that morning about his appearance, he’d have mentioned his hair. Lately, he’d favoured a Turkish barber, where they go in close with the scissors, then apply a naked flame to the ears. They give no warning that this is about to happen. River emerged from the chair scoured and scalded like a doorstep. Even now, his scalp tingled in a draught.
Without taking his eyes off the target, now forty yards ahead – without, specifically, taking his eyes off the rucksack – River spoke again into his button. ‘Follow. But give him room.’
If the worst was a detonation on a train, next worst was one on a platform. Recent history showed that people on their way to work were at their most vulnerable. Not because they were weaker. But because there were a lot of them, packed in enclosed spaces.
He didn’t look round, trusting that the black-clad achievers were not far behind.
To River’s left were sandwich outlets and coffee bars; a pub; a pie stall. To his right, a long train lingered. At intervals along the platform travellers negotiated suitcases through its doors, while pigeons noisily changed rafters overhead. A tannoy issued instructions, and the crowd on the concourse behind River swelled, as individuals broke away.
Always, in railway stations, there was this sense of pent-up movement. A crowd was an explosion waiting to happen. People were fragments. They just didn’t know it yet.
The target disappeared behind a huddle of travellers.
River shifted left, and the target appeared again.
He passed one of the coffee bars, and a sitting couple triggered a memory. This time yesterday River had been in Islington. His upgrading assessment involved compiling a dossier on a public figure: River had been allocated a Shadow Cabinet Minister who’d promptly had two small strokes, and was in a private ward in Hertfordshire. There seemed no process for nominating a substitute, so River had picked one off his own bat, and had followed Lady Di two days straight without being spotted – office/gym/office/wine bar/office/home/coffee bar/office/gym . . . This place’s logo sparked that memory. Inside his head, the O.B. barked a reprimand: ‘Mind. Job. Same place, good idea?’
The target bore left.
‘Potterville,’ River muttered to himself.
He passed under the bridge, and turned left too.
A brief glimpse of overhead sky – grey and damp as a dishcloth – and River was entering the mini-concourse that housed platforms 9, 10 and 11. From its outside wall half a luggage trolley protruded: platform 93/4 was where the Hogwarts Express docked. River passed inside. The target was already heading down Platform 10.
Everything speeded up.
There weren’t many people around – the next train wasn’t due to leave for fifteen minutes. A man on a bench was reading a paper, and that was about it. River picked up his pace, closing the gap. From behind him came a shift in the quality of the noise – from all-over babble to focused murmur – and he knew the achievers were drawing comment.
But the target didn’t look back. The target kept moving, as if his intention was to climb into the furthest carriage: white tee, blue shirt, rucksack and all.
River spoke into his button again. Said the words – Take him – and began to run.
The man on the bench rose to his feet, and was knocked off them by a figure in black.
Up ahead, two more men dropped from the train’s roof into the target’s path. Who turned to see River, arm outstretched, waving him to the floor with the flat of his hand. The achievers were shouting commands:
Drop the bag!
‘Put the bag on the ground,’ River said. ‘And get to your knees.’
‘But I don’t –’
‘Drop the bag!’
The target dropped the bag. A hand scooped it up. Other hands grabbed at limbs: the target was flattened, spreadeagled, wiped on the tiles, while the rucksack was passed to River. Who set it carefully on the now vacant bench, and unzipped it.
Overhead, an automated message unspooled around the rafters. Would Inspector Samms please report to the operations room.
Books, an A4 notepad, a pencil tin.
Would Inspector Samms
A Tupperware box holding a cheese sandwich and an apple.
please report to
River looked up. His lip twitched. He said, quite calmly –
the operations room
‘Don’t hurt me!’ The boy’s voice was muffled: he had a faceful of floor, and guns pointing at his head.
Target, River reminded himself. Not boy. Target.
Would Inspector Samms
‘Search him!’ He turned back to the rucksack. The pencil tin held three biros and a paperclip.
please report to
River dropped the tin to the bench and upended the sack. Books, notepad, a stray pencil, a pocket-sized pack of tissues.
the operations room
They scattered on the floor. He shook the rucksack. Nothing in its pockets.
‘Check him again.’
Would Inspector Samms
‘Will somebody turn that bloody thing off?’
Catching his own note of panic, he clamped his mouth shut.
‘He’s clean. Sir.’
please report to
River again shook the rucksack like a rat, then let it drop. the operations room
One of the achievers began speaking, quietly but urgently, into a collar-mic.
River became aware of someone staring at him through the window of the waiting train. Ignoring her, he began to trot down the platform.
There was a certain sarcasm to that.
Would Inspector Samms please report to the operations room.
Blue shirt, white tee, River thought.
White shirt, blue tee?
He picked up speed. A transport policeman stepped forward as he reached the ticket bay but River looped round him, shouted an incoherent instruction, then ran full pelt back to the main concourse.
Would Inspector Samms – and the recorded announcement, a coded message to staff that a security alert was taking place, switched off. A human voice took its place:
‘Due to a security incident, this station is being evacuated. Please make your way to the nearest exit.’
He had three minutes tops before the Dogs arrived.
River’s feet had a direction of their own, propelling him towards the concourse while he still had room to move. But all around, people were getting off trains, onboard announcements having brought sudden halts to journeys that hadn’t yet begun, and panic was only a heartbeat away – mass panic was never deep beneath the surface, not in railways stations and airports. The phlegmatic cool of the British crowd was oft-remarked, and frequently absent.
Static burst in his ear.
The tannoy said: ‘Please make your way calmly to the nearest exit. This station is now closed.’
He shouted into his button. ‘Spider? You idiot, you called the wrong colours!’
‘What the hell’s happening? There are crowds coming out of every –’
‘White tee under a blue shirt. That’s what you said.’
‘No, I said blue tee under –’
‘Fuck you, Spider.’ River yanked his earpiece out.
He’d reached the stairs, where the crowd sucks into the underground. Now, it was streaming out. Irritation was its main emotion, but it carried other whispers: fear, suppressed panic. Most of us hold that some things only happen to other people. Many of us hold that one such thing is death. The tannoy’s words chipped away at this belief.
‘The station is now closed. Please make your way to the nearest exit.’
The tube was the city’s heartbeat, thought River. Not an east-bound platform. The tube.
He pushed into the evacuating crowd, ignoring its hostility. Let me through. This had minimal impact. Security. Let me through. That was better. No path opened, but people stopped pushing him back.
Two minutes before the Dogs. Less.
The corridor widened at the foot of the stairs. River raced round the corner, where a broader space waited – ticket machines against walls; ticket windows with blinds drawn down; their recent queues absorbed into the mass of people heading elsewhere. Already, the crowd had thinned. Escalators had been halted; tape strung across to keep fools off. The platforms below were emptying of passengers.
River was stopped by a transport cop.
‘Station’s being cleared. Can’t you hear the bloody tannoy?’
‘I’m with intelligence. Are the platforms clear?’
‘Are the platforms clear?’
‘They’re being evacuated.’
‘It’s what I’ve been –’
‘You have CC?’
‘Well of course we –’
The surrounding noises grew rounder; echoes of departing travellers swam across the ceilings. But other sounds were approaching: quick footsteps, heavy on the tiled floor. The Dogs. River had little time to put this right.
The cop blinked, but caught River’s urgency – could hardly miss it – and pointed over his own shoulder at a door marked No Access. River was through it before the footsteps’ owner appeared.
The small windowless room smelled of bacon, and looked like a voyeur’s den. A swivel chair faced a bank of TV monitors. Each blinked regularly, shifting focus on the same repeated scene: a deserted underground platform. It was like a dull science fiction film.
A draught told him the cop had come in.
‘Which platforms are which?’
The cop pointed: groups of four. ‘Northern. Piccadilly. Victoria.’
River scanned them. Every two seconds, another blink.
From underfoot came a distant rumble.
The cop stared.
‘That would be a tube train.’
‘Station’s closed,’ the cop said, as if to an idiot. ‘But the lines are open.’
‘All of them?’
‘Yes. But the trains won’t stop.’
They wouldn’t need to.
‘Next train, damn it. Which platform?’
River was out of the door.
At the top of the shallow flight of stairs, barring the way back to the mainline station, a short dark man stood, talking into a headset. His tone changed abruptly when he saw River.
But River wasn’t. He’d leaped the barrier and was at the top of the nearest escalator; snapping back the security tape; heading down the motionless staircase, two deep steps at a time.
At the bottom, it was eerily empty. That sci-fi vibe again.
Tube trains pass closed stations at a crawl. River reached the deserted platform as the train pulled into it like a big slow animal, with eyes for him alone. And it had plenty of eyes. River felt all of them, all those pairs of eyes trapped in the belly of the beast; intent on him as he stared down the platform, at someone who’d just appeared from an exit at the far end.
White shirt. Blue tee.
Behind him someone else ran too, calling his name, but that didn’t matter. River was racing a train. Racing it and winning – drawing level with it, outpacing it; he could hear its slow motion noise; a grinding mechanical feedback underpinned by the terror growing within. He could hear thumping on windows. Was aware that the driver was looking at him in horror, thinking he was about to hurl himself on to the tracks. But River couldn’t help what anyone thought – River could only do what he was doing, which was run down the platform at exactly this speed.
Up ahead – blue tee, white shirt – someone else was also doing the only thing he could do.
River didn’t have breath to shout. He barely had breath to push himself onwards, but he managed . . .
Almost managed. Almost managed to be fast enough.
Behind him, his name was shouted again. Behind him, the tube train was picking up pace.
He was aware of the driver’s cabin overhauling him, five yards from the target.
Because this was the target. This had always been the target. And the swiftly narrowing distance between them showed him for the youngster he was: eighteen? Nineteen? Black hair. Brown skin. And a blue tee under a white shirt – fuck you, Spider – that he was unbuttoning to reveal a belt packed tight with . . .
The train pulled level with the target.
River stretched out an arm, as if he could bring the finishing line closer.
The footsteps behind him slowed and stopped. Someone swore.
River was almost on the target – was half a second away.
But close wasn’t nearly enough.
The target pulled a cord on his belt.
And that was that.