If he won’t kill her, will they kill him?
Michael North, assassin and spy-for-hire, is very good at killing bad guys. But now his shadowy bosses at the dark heart of the British government have ordered him to kill an innocent woman – and North can’t bring himself to do it.
The woman is Honor Jones MP, a rising star in Westminster politics. She has started asking dangerous questions about the powerful men running her country. The trouble is, Honor doesn’t know when to stop. And, now that he’s met her, neither does North.
Book 1 of the Michael North Series
Buy Killing State, book 1 of the Michael North series on
“high octane… Great debut.” SUNDAY TIMES CRIME CLUB
Thriller of the Week: MAIL ON SUNDAY
“Thought-provoking, pacy and thrilling.” SUNDAY MIRROR
“A terrific future-shock thriller full of pace, tension, character, and emotion. Highly recommended.” LEE CHILD, The Jack Reacher novels
“Killing State is a psychological thriller with more twists than a pretzel. The author’s first novel is a gritty, action-packed page-turner.” ANDY MCNAB, Bravo Two Zero
“A worryingly plausible portrait of Britain in the near-future, Judith O’Reilly’s debut novel is fast-paced, packed with action, and introduces a series hero to watch.” MICK HERRON, Slow Horses, Spook Street
“New thriller writers come and go. I suspect this lady will stick around.” FREDERICK FORSYTH, The Day of the Jackal
“Grabs you from page one and won’t let you go. What a brilliant debut from Judith O’Reilly – reading it is like watching an action movie. Action packed from start to finish – but with tenderness and great characterisation too. Fast, sharply-written, clever and intense.” JEREMY VINE, BBC Radio 2.
“Gripping and twisty.” INDIA KNIGHT , Recommended Read, Sunday Times Magazine
“Smart, action-packed and totally immersive, Killing State is set to be one of the biggest thrillers of the year. Don’t miss it!” T.R.RICHMOND , What She Left
“A superb political thriller written with aplomb...Former soldier, Michael North is a terrific creation – a hitman with a bullet already lodged in his brain with no time to waste. This is page-turning stuff and Killing State is a story you will keep reading right till the end.” HOWARD LINSKEY, The Drop, The Search.
“Killing State chronicles anti-hero Michael North’s desperate struggle to absolve his sins against an all-too-real conspiracy. In a Dexter meets House of Cards battle, this gritty thriller will appeal to readers with a sophisticated palate for political intrigue.” K.J.HOWE, The Freedom Broker.
“I was hooked from the first pages...Brilliant crime thriller which just hooks you straight in and keeps you on the edge of your seat through every chapter! I do genuinely love it and hope it will be a massive success!! I certainly think it will appeal to fans of Lee Child and David Baldacci”. @fionamsharp, wwww.independentbookreviews.
This morning for Honor Jones MP was unremarkable, except in one respect. She was going to die.
In a dark fleece and trainers, a black docker’s cap pulled over his ears, her killer looked like any other jogger as he waited. It wouldn’t be long now. She liked to run when the streets were quiet and the park was empty.
The day before he watched her as she stepped out with her shiny blonde hair in a ponytail and white ear-buds. She was alone. He could have told her that was dangerous. When there’s a predator about, you’re safest in the herd.
She’d eased the door shut behind her – a considerate neighbour – and yawning, she fiddled with the iPod. He could have told the Tory MP for Mile End that she should vary her habits. That routine would be the death of her. Down the short herringbone path, through the cast-iron gate which creaked, and on to the street. Stretching out her hamstrings, her long slim leg doubled as she pulled her foot up behind her. She did the same with the other leg and then set off. Running steadily down her street, across the road, ducking under the railway bridge, into the park where small-time dealers did small-time deals, by the canal, past the graffitied lock and right into Majesty Park. By the time she was round the far edge of the lake, she was breathing hard but even.
It was there he planned to move in behind her, and, listening to her music, he hoped she wouldn’t hear him. He would slide the blade once through the heart, and once through the wall of the stomach, aiming to catch the artery so she would bleed out before help came. Precise. Efficient. Professional. He had been through it in his mind a hundred times, counting it out, she would die forty-two seconds after she first felt his breath on her neck under the swing of that blonde ponytail. He would be careful not to get blood on his running shoes.
After yesterday’s run, the banker who lived in the flat above hers came out as she left for Westminster. She smiled, her hand on his forearm as she said something that made him laugh, leaving him staring after her as she headed for the tube station. The police would question the City boy after the body was found. Had he found her attractive and did she reject him? Did that make him angry? He’d be appalled at her death, distraught, and then outraged that anyone would think that he could do such a thing.
Across the road, Honor pulled the front door behind her, and the watcher felt the oak-thud of it. She yawned as she opened the creaking gate, and behind the privet hedge, in the shadowed doorway, he flexed his muscles. He let her go, drawing out the two purple horse-pills from his fleece pocket, chewing them, swallowing. He could hear the sound of her trainers against the wet pavement. And then he moved out from the shadows.Read more.Excerpted from Killing State by Judith O’Reilly. Copyright ©2017 Judith O’Reilly. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.
At first, he kept his distance.
She was a quarter of a mile ahead of him, then 500 paces, then 400. As she breathed in, so did he, and out again, in and out, drawing the air down deeper as she did. Her stride was shorter than his, but across the water, he knew the exact moment her breath grew ragged and a light sweat broke out on her forehead. She wasn’t as fit as he was but she was fitter than most. Fifty paces between them, she kicked up her heels, pushing herself and forcing him to move up a gear. She was flying.
She was in sight until the moment she disappeared into the trees. A less experienced man might have panicked, but the run through the woods took two and a half minutes, time enough to catch her, and he had the knife ready. Six inches, serrated, he would make it quick, make it a mercy.
His pace was fast and steady. But as he entered the woods and rounded the bend, she wasn’t running ahead of him, but sitting on the park bench alongside the path. Smoke curled up from her mouth and for a moment he thought she might be on fire, till he realised there was a cigarette between her fingers. The burning tip, the sudden centre of the world.
He broke his stride, hesitated, stopped.
Honor Jones had eyes which were sea-glass green and gold close-up and there were smudges under them that looked like bruises. She’d been crying. She pulled first one bud and then the other from her ears, watching him all the while.
“I have to finish the cigarette,” she said, and with the tip of her thumb nail flicked the ash from the barrel on to the damp ground.
From behind the trees, there was a squawking and a clatter as four Canada geese rose from the lake up into the air. And it came to him that she knew what he was. She’d known he was there all along. Waiting for her. Pursuing her. Which meant that she knew what he was there to do. But why wasn’t she screaming?
His right hand lay alongside the knife, the thin polyester tracksuit the only thing between his cold flesh and the warm blade.
He was still six feet away from her, and she could run. Twenty feet beyond the shadowed bench was open ground and she might be lucky. A man might be walking a dog. It might have been a dog which spooked the geese. An Alsatian lapping at the water’s edge between the concrete and the slime. He didn’t think she would run though, her muscles weren’t bunched and ready for flight. Her left arm was stretched out along the bench, and he imagined her sitting relaxed on the green benches of the Commons chamber waiting for her turn to speak.
Her chest rose as she inhaled again. He moved closer and her jaw tightened.
She flicked the cigarette on to the ground and stood with a sigh. “I was warned you’d come and I didn’t believe it,” she said using her trainer to grind the cigarette end into the path.
The blade was cold now – enough to burn the quad muscle down to the bone. She tilted the blonde head to one side.
“Have you been sent to kill me?”
There was a note of inquiry to her voice rather than panic. Curiosity rather than fear. She took a step closer into the silence between them, and North smelled the Chanel on her skin. She reached for him, but didn’t touch him.
Honor’s voice was soft – persuasive.
He had no idea where Peggy was. No idea who she was.
All he knew was that when he broke into the MP’s flat yesterday, Honor had scrawled the name Peggy in scarlet lipstick over and over again on her bathroom mirror.
She dropped her attempt at persuasion, glaring at him, her hands on her hips. “You’re going to kill me because I’m looking for her aren’t you? That’s the only possible explanation.”
Her friend Peggy was missing and she was trying to find her. Someone didn’t want Honor to find Peggy.
He wasn’t a murderer or a mercenary. He was duty-bound to follow orders, and this was nothing personal. The MP was a target, and she was dead already if only she knew it.
His weight on the balls of his feet.
Honor’s death would happen in seconds. Merciful. She wouldn’t suffer more than she had to. North made a deal with himself.
5.45am. Saturday, 4th November
He heard the messenger slide the black envelope under the door during the night, but he ignored it. An exercise in discipline.
Sun fought against charcoal clouds through the window of the Marylebone flat as a scowling Michael North emerged from the bedroom. His head pounded. He ran through in his mind a fight the week earlier, several sledge hammer punches to his temple and jaw before he closed the guy down. Not clever bearing in mind his situation.
And it was too bright in here. He pressed a button and the Venetian blind slid half- way down the glass. For a split second, he glimpsed a figure on the street gazing up at the building, but the falling wooden slats moved too quickly and when he checked again, the figure had gone.
He popped the blister packet he pulled from his back pocket, chewing the two purple tablets en route to the kitchen, the taste bitter on his tongue. He didn’t know what was in them – the Harley Street medic prescribed them. “In the circumstances Michael…” that is to say “bearing in mind you’ll be dead soon, you can have these experimental drugs”. He didn’t ask the medics questions but sometimes they told him anyway. Things like “Watch for an escalation in the insomnia and migraines or any obsessive behaviours – that may well mean the bullet has shifted”. And when the bullet in his brain shifted, he didn’t need anyone telling him – he was a dead man.
He was shot on patrol outside Lashkar-Gah in southern Afghanistan five years ago.
The sniper made his own ammunition and the doctors told him he was ‘freakishly lucky’ in the bullet’s trajectory and position – just short of the posterior parietal artery in the right temporo-parietal junction. North didn’t feel lucky. Neuro-surgeons removed fragments of bone but couldn’t extract the bullet without further catastrophic damage. They were sorry. Instead they induced a three-month-long coma and let the inflammation of the brain subside. Would he like them to operate again? He’d said no but he often thought he should have said yes. Because what the doctors didn’t know was that he suspected the bullet was driving him mad.
On the upside, there was as yet no sign of the loss of cognitive and motor decline they warned him of. And he doubted he would live long enough for the epilepsy and dementia to kill him.
On the downside, the bullet affected his brain processing – new neural pathways establishing themselves, heightening his intuition when it came to other people, a sixth sense so to speak. At least that’s how he rationalised it when he left the hospital and did the research. Neuroplasticity it was called. The brain’s ability to heal and to compensate. He trawled through academic papers, medical journals, and books he barely understood till it didn’t frighten him. Till he could make himself believe it was possible, probable even. Till he could comfort himself that he was as normal as the next person. Though the next person didn’t have a bullet in the brain.
If he was wrong about the re-wiring, then he was suffering from the hallucinations and delusions common after traumatic brain injury and the bullet had triggered full-blown psychosis.
He didn’t know which was worse.
With a boost like someone knocking him sideways, the drugs kicked in, spangles and the sensation of annihilating pain fading, and North relaxed.
He crossed to the door and picked up the black envelope and with it a copy of the day’s papers. Scanning the front pages as he switched on the coffee maker – interest from the Balkans in the New Army, Friday’s G8 summit in London, and a Newcastle barman who threw himself from Westminster Bridge, killing himself and a tourist on a Thames cruise. He read the suicide story twice against the racket of steel blades grinding single estate beans.
There was a prolonged and dangerous-sounding hissing and a solitary stream of espresso poured into a white cup.
Edward Fellowes jumped from the bridge late on Thursday night. But there were any number of bridges along the Tyne, why would a 21-year-old Geordie travel 300 miles to jump off a London bridge? North shrugged. The problem with his job was he couldn’t read about anyone dying without wondering who killed them, and whether he’d have done it better.
He carried the cup across to his desk, and sat staring at the envelope.
There was no name on it, but then there never was. The name that mattered was inside. Who was it this time? Would he recognise the face? He felt the familiar rush of adrenalin.
North never liked to hurry opening his orders. There was, after all, a man’s life at stake. It merited some ritual – a degree of reflection. He sipped the scalding coffee, savoured the earthy roast, tasting the promised notes of dark chocolate. He put down the cup, then slid the butcher’s knife under the flap, opening its crimson throat in one smooth sweep. There were no ragged edges.
The dozen 10 X 8s were snapped in a hotel foyer. An oversized lamp was on, so it had to be late. He lifted the first photograph. It was of a couple and he scrutinised the man. Twenties. Denim jacket. Full-blown hipster beard. His phone must have rung at some point because he took a call, turning away from the coffee table to face the camera. But instead of closing in on him, the pictures were suddenly all about the woman. Confused, North fanned them over the table looking for more close-ups of the man, but photo after photo were of the woman. She was dressed in an evening gown, and even in the black and white of the photography, it shimmered. The draped folds of its cowl neck exposing the elegant shoulders, chin resting on her fist, slim fingers covering her mouth as she listened to her companion. Her glance to one side, a slight smile. Even in two dimensions North felt the pull of her.
North flipped the photos with the knife – reluctant suddenly to touch them. On the reverse of the best one was a label written across in cramped moss-green ink. “Honor Jones (31), Tory MP for Mile End, East London. Extreme security risk. Status: critical. Termination: essential. Proposed disposal: random/sexual attack in public space. Deadline: one week. Authorisation: Tarn.”
The iPhone lay on his desk.
North had worked for the arms-length, extra-judicial, government agency known as the Board for four years. He was going to die young – the bullet guaranteed it. He told them he wanted to do something useful with the time he had left. And they took him at his word.
He scrolled through his phone to tap the Crypt app with its skull and bones icon – a series of numbers and letters spun out through space then lined up, one banging into the next, shuffling and jumping, till the tail-end Charlie arrived and they shuddered to a stop. His private key – good for a 60 second window to break the encryption of the incoming email. He pressed his fingertips together as he swung gently on his chair, waiting for the ping of an incoming email. The digits and letters crumbled to dust in the silence. He refreshed the inbox but it stayed empty.
In the email he expected a briefing on his target of between two and thirty pages – aliases, addresses, known associates, places frequented, crimes, convictions, employment records, recreational activities, usernames, passwords, bank accounts, more photographs and videos, private surveillance and acquired CCTV. Nowhere in the encrypted text would it repeat the instruction to kill – that only came written in moss-green ink in a tar-black envelope. Perhaps there was a change in procedures and they’d sent hard copy instead along with the commission? He turned the envelope upside down and shook it to make sure, then peered into its emptiness. Perhaps intelligence on her came in late? More likely the threat was so immediate there wasn’t time to do the background breakdown – but, he couldn’t leave it like that.
Pulling the laptop towards him, North took a DVD from a drawer, sliding it into the slot to load the virtual machine he used for sensitive work. These days you couldn’t be too careful. When he finished the work, and closed down the laptop, everything would disappear with it. There was a micro-second pause while he wondered if the Board hacked his computer despite his best precautions. He shrugged – he didn’t have anything to hide from them. But without the email’s unique digital signature, he had no authentication of the hand-written instruction. Unless you count money.
The manager of his account at the Austrian bank spoke English with only the barest trace of an accent. Yes, £100,000 was paid in late last night. Yes they were sure, Mr Wilde (the name he kept his account in). The normal reference code. Could they help with anything else? Unctuous. Smooth. Unless they could explain why he was paid before, rather than after the job, he didn’t need their help. He shouldn’t complain. He had his orders, and he would earn the money.
On first sweep, Honor Jones MP appeared to be a model citizen – a law degree from Oxford, Fullbright scholar, pupillage, tenancy in a leading Chambers specializing in criminal and regulatory law, with a special interest in domestic violence and child protection. Ambitious, smart, connected and charming – no great surprise when a London Tory constituency association selected her for a safe seat. Since then – four years’ steady media-savvy work, tipped for promotion at the next reshuffle, even mentioned by futurologists as a Prime Minister-in-waiting.
He almost missed it.
An online interview in a newsletter for a children’s mental health charity in North London. The article introducing the charity’s new trustees. A chartered accountant, a clinical psychologist and lawyer Honor Jones. What’s your interest in children’s mental health? the journalist asked. “Let’s say I have a special interest in resilience. How children who’ve been the victims of domestic violence or witnessed that trauma close up are affected long-term.” May I ask? Is that something you have personal experience of? “Unfortunately, that would be correct.”
She could have capitalized on it but she never mentioned it again. Not in any speech.
Not in any national interview. Though there were traces of it. A radioactive legacy if you knew what to look for. He went back into her parliamentary record. A hardline speech in a Commons debate on sentencing in cases involving domestic violence. An amendment to a housing bill to make it easier for victims to retain benefit when they moved into a refuge. Written Questions on the value of psychiatric counselling for the families of murderers.
Whatever had happened to her as a child – she’d survived. Thrived. Gone into politics, and made a difference.
He’d gone into prison. The Army. Almost died, and killed people for a living.
They had their ‘resilience’ then in common aside from the fact he was going to be there at her death.
His mind turned to his mother. His drug-addled, booze-soaked, child-beating, ruinous mother. Starvation. Bruises. Darkness and cold. Willing to sell herself for a wrap of heroin or a can of strong lager – the fact North loved her, worth nothing at all.
Honor’s face in the photograph looked different to him now he could read the past in her. The smile still a thing of wonder. But once he looked harder, he thought he could see the hurt in her don’t-touch-me eyes. Harm that couldn’t be undone.
He was curious. Not professionally. Personally.
Looking in on her life from the outside, Honor was living up to her name. She was working to make the world a better place. Just like he was.
So what turned her from a public servant into an imminent danger to the security of a nation?
Status offered no defense, he knew that. Power. Wealth. Nothing could protect you if your name came up. He’d taken out a philanthropist-come-arms-dealer at a black-tie charity ball – a tiny injection as he shook the man’s hand, solid gold cufflinks in the shape of guns, a heart attack, ‘terrible’ everybody said. A corrupt chief constable – driving too fast, narrow road, knew it like the back of his hand but the shame of it – no seat belt, and him ‘normally such a stickler’. Logically, killing an MP was not such a stretch, was not so very different. Forget the fact she was a beautiful woman. Forget her childhood. Fix instead on her adult guilt, on the wrong she had done. But he had no idea what she’d done – why should she be terminated?
He leaned back into the oblique angle of the chair – staring at the laptop willing it to explain something to him. He just didn’t know what.
Occasionally on an operation in Iraq, hair would rise on the back of his neck as if the air itself carried a message, an electric charge. On those days, at those moments, he stepped more lightly on the sandy roads under his boots.
Something was off. His bosses thought he could improvise – and he could. When he needed to. But North liked routine, because routine minimised the scope for errors. The messenger brought an envelope with photos and a name in green ink and an order to execute. An email spelled out the reason and the details. An unfortunate death came about – restoring a sense of how- it-should-be, of the world brought back into alignment. Only then did the noughts on his bank account ratchet up.
He had a code. He didn’t kill women. This time, worse yet, the Board wanted it to look like a “random/sexual attack”. And that left a bad taste, because there were things you didn’t do, even for King and Country. Remorse and shame weren’t feelings he ever experienced. Not as a child and not as a soldier. Not now. Never. But he feared Honor Jones was a game changer. Honor Jones would haunt him.
Only hunger made him realise the best of the day was gone. Sirens blared, the noise falling away as quickly as it came. His eyes snagged on the crucifix hanging on the wall before he closed them. After five years, North was used to his insomnia. Daylight torpor, night-time fading in and out of reality, and, when he did sleep for an hour or so at a time – the shuddering and falling through space into nightmares of blood and sand and fear. He let out a breath and as he did, every page he’d viewed downloaded again in his brain, one after the other. Twelve hours. Hundreds of screens. Headlines. Photographs. Hansard reports. Local press. Shaking hands. National stories. Helpful speeches. Maverick blogs.
Honor’s smile. The line of her cheek. North’s brain shuddered as if caught in an earthquake. He felt it like a stroke coming on him. Once. Twice. Three times. The sensation of flat moving silver sweeping over his consciousness, his memories, coming fast like the sea over a causeway, covering everything. He fought it and he lost; his last thought was Honor, killing her, and then he slept.