British spy master Mick Herron returns with an explosive novella set in the same world as his multiple CWA Dagger–winning Slough House series
John Bachelor is the saddest kind of spy: not a joe in the field, not even a desk jockey, but a milkman—a part-time pension administrator whose main job is to check in on aging retired spies. Late in his career and having lost his wife, his house, and his savings after a series of unlucky choices, John's been living in a dead man's London apartment, hoping the bureaucracy isn't going to catch up with him and leave him homeless. But keeping a secret among spies is a fool's errand, and now John has made himself eminently blackmailable.
About the Author
Mick Herron is a British novelist and short story writer who was born in Newcastle and studied English at Oxford. He is the author of the Slough House espionage series, four Oxford mysteries, and several standalone novels. His work has won the CWA Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel, the Steel Dagger for Best Thriller, and the Ellery Queen Readers Award, and been nominated for the Macavity, Barry, Shamus, and Theakstons Novel of the Year Awards. He currently lives in Oxford and writes full-time.
Read an Excerpt
They came for him at dawn, just as he’d feared they would. But instead of using the Big Red Key so beloved of SWAT teams—the miniature battering ram that reduces a front door to matchsticks—they entered in civilised fashion, and when he opened his eyes they were in his bedroom, one regarding him as if he were a carving on a tomb, and the other examining a photograph on the dressing table that showed Solomon Dortmund when young, a mere fifty or so, holding hands with a woman the same age, and whose quiet smile for the camera could pull a drowning man ashore. Surrounding this photograph were a pair of beloved relics: a hairbrush and a small velvet drawstring bag, an inch square, containing three baby teeth and an adult molar. This was disturbing, but when you appropriate a man’s life without his blessing, you leave his family treasures where you find them.
“Two minutes, John. You’ll be on the pavement in two minutes.”
“Could you make it five?” His voice was scratchy, and badly dubbed. “I could do with—”
“Two minutes. Richard here will keep you company.”
And then it was just John Bachelor and this man Richard, a large, shaven-headed thirtysomething with thick-framed spectacles, who gazed at him unsmiling. It seemed unlikely that they would arrive at an odd-couple friendship in the time allowed.
When he shifted, a sour smell escaped from the blankets.
“You couldn’t pass me my trousers?”
Richard patently regarded this as either rhetorical enquiry or statement of fact.
There is a peculiar humiliation in dressing in front of a hostile stranger, particularly when one’s body is an increasingly rackety collection of limbs attached to a soft, baggy frame, and one’s clothing a medley of items purchased at bargain prices. Bachelor’s corduroy trousers were shiny at the knee, and his shirt had a faint spray of blood on the collar. His own, it’s important to note. Even so, it was a relief not to be standing in his briefs in front of someone whose own physical decline, if already etched in outline beneath his dark blue suit, had yet to be framed and hung for all to see.
Squeezing his feet into socks produced the kind of hyperventilation that running up stairs once triggered.
He stood up. “I need to, ah . . .”
Richard affected incomprehension.
“To piss, man. I need to piss.”
John could see him thinking about it—actually thinking about it. When did we grow so hard? He was too young to be former-Stasi.
“It’s your two minutes,” he said at last. “But leave the door open.”
Of course. In case John used the precious moments to retrieve the handgun from the toilet cistern, or assemble the miniature helicopter secreted beneath the floorboards.
It was an old man’s bathroom, with an old man’s shaving gear on a shelf, an old man’s mirror on the wall, and an old man’s reflection residing there, so Bachelor ignored it, raised the toilet lid and pissed. Lately, he had been dosing himself with Solly Dortmund’s sleeping tablets, a large number of which he had found in the medicine cabinet housing that same mirror. Solly Solly Solly. Old men have trouble sleeping, and medication was an obvious recourse. But if he had been prescribed pills, why were they still here? Solly had been a hoarder, but to collect sleeping pills spoke of building himself an escape hatch, equivalent to a handgun in a cistern, or a miniature helicopter. In the end, of course, he had needed neither, which meant that his trove remained intact for John to plunder. Which, in turn, meant side effects: John’s urine had acquired a metallic odour, and he wondered now if it were drifting out through the open door, assaulting Richard’s nostrils. He hoped not, and at the same time tried to convince himself of the upside to the worst happening: that he need no longer await its appearance.
I know, John thought.
He’d known it for a while.
They took him not to Regent’s Park, the home of the Service, but to Marylebone High Street. Richard drove. The other man sat in the back with John. He looked to be in his fifties, a man with some years’ secret experience behind him, and not unused to collecting the wayward and conveying them somewhere like this: an empty office above London’s favourite bookshop, its white walls newly decorated, its carpet squares not yet bedded in, so that the joins could be seen crisscrossing the floor, as if marking out a board game. For the players, there were two chairs, dining-room variety. There were no blinds, and light streamed through the windows while the city yawned. It was all very—John strained, momentarily, for the precise word. It was all very alarming. If they’d been thugs, he’d have known he was in for a kicking. But they were suits, which suggested a more vicious outcome. In other circumstances, he’d have been wondering what he’d done to deserve this. As it was, he knew full well.
Not an invitation.
He took the chair indicated, and the older man sat in the other, a clean metre or so between them. The younger man took station by the door. There could be no mistaking this for anything but what it was: the interrogation of a wrongdoer. It would be sweeter, quicker, if he simply confessed and saved everyone time. Whatever it is you think I’ve done, I’ve done it. Can we go home now? Though he had, of course, no home to go to. A fact which lay at the heart of what it was he’d done.
“So, John. John Bachelor.”
“Yes, John. We know it’s you, John. Otherwise we’d look a right pair of nanas, wouldn’t we, collecting someone who isn’t John Bachelor this bright summer morning. So you’re who you are, and we’re us. Richard there, you already know his name. And I’m Edward. Eddie to my friends. Very much Edward to you.”
“Edward it is.”
Edward sighed. “I recognise that you’re eager to cooperate, John, and that’s going to save a lot of inconvenience. But don’t waste breath on things that don’t need saying. Which is a polite way, John, of telling you not to speak except to answer questions.” He clasped his hands. “If you want to hear a less polite way of being told that, go ahead with the irrelevant interruptions. Clear enough?”
“Nods aren’t going to cut it, John. When I ask a direct question, I’m going to need to hear words coming out of your mouth. So once again, was that clear enough?”
“That’s better.” Edward smiled, though not in a realistic way. Edward, thought John, was less of a suit than he appeared. Edward might have put on jacket and tie at some ungodly hour this morning, but that was as far as it went.
Edward unclasped his hands. Even at this distance, John was getting a hint of a fragrance he’d first detected in the car; a robust, peppery smell, from a soap that doubtless came in masculine packaging. He imagined waxed paper wrapping a weighty disc, its surface embossed with an heraldic design. All of this was offset by his awareness of his own body odour, never alluring first thing in the morning, and worsened by fear and interrupted sleep. His stomach churned repeatedly. His chin felt rubbery. His whole body, when you got down to it, was a sad disappointment. But Edward was speaking again:
“Before we start, there’s something you should know. When an action like the one we are currently undertaking is mandated, a certain amount of administration occurs. Acceptable limits are signed off on. Mission parameters defined. What I’m saying, John, is that the worst-case scenario has been budgeted for, so I’m not looking at reputational damage if things turn sour this morning. Nor is Richard. I thought it might help if you were in possession of that information. There’s no need to acknowledge your understanding. You don’t get to sign a waiver or anything. What happens, happens.”
John thought, All this, really? He’d been expecting some kind of bureaucratic retribution, but this melodrama? An empty office, a sinister warning? And yet it was working, because he was scared.
Edward nodded, confident his words had hit home. He tugged at his lapels, straightening his suit jacket. “So let’s get down to business, shall we? Benny Manors, John. What can you tell me about Benny Manors?”
Well, okay. He hadn’t been expecting that.