88° North

The deadliest kind of assassin is one who is already dying…


As the radiation poisoning that Nadia Laksheva was exposed to in Chernobyl takes hold of her body, she knows she has mere weeks to live. But Salamander, the terrorist who murdered her father and sister has a deadly new plan to ‘make the sky bleed’. Nadia is determined to stop him again, even if it is the last thing she ever does.
The only clue she has are the coordinates 88˚ North, a ridge in the Arctic right above one of the largest oil fields in the world, three thousand metres below the ice. If Salamander takes hold of the oil field, he could change the climate of the whole planet for generations to come…
But can Nadia stop him before her own time runs out?
The gripping third and final novel in J.F. Kirwan’s brilliant spy thriller series. Perfect for fans of Charles Cumming, Mark Dawson and Adam Brookes.


The rain fell thick and fast, like dull blades. Blue Fan stared down at the tangle of silver carp wriggling in a white plastic box, protected from the downpour by a tarpaulin. Their sharp eyes accusing, their mouths gaped, barely able to breathe. Soon to be bought, cooked, digested, excreted, chemically treated, and flushed back into the sea. She selected the healthiest, most vigorous one. The fishmonger, a stooped and crinkly old woman with dyed red hair in a bun, snatched the fish out of the bucket with bony fingers, quick as a heron, then went back into slow motion. Blue Fan regularly saw this woman teaching tai chi fan at six every morning in Victoria Park. Funny, in the West, people flaunted their talents. Here, they concealed them. 
The open-air food market in Wan Chai bustled as always, Blue Fan’s nostrils assaulted on all fronts by pungent spices and glutinous stews. She didn’t need to buy food. She was the acting head of the Green Dragon triad, its enforcer. She could breeze into any one of a hundred homes and they would let their children go hungry in order to feed her. Yet every day she walked the streets on which she’d grown up, reminding herself who she was, how far she’d come, and how easy it would be to fall back there. She glanced up through the torrent to the overpass, clogged with taxis on their way to the snail’s-pace undersea tunnel to Kowloon. Turning back, she scanned the apartment windows, each with its dim aluminium box housing an aircon unit, searching for a thin sniper’s barrel. Nothing. The attempt would be close-quarters. Triad custom. A knife, or a butcher’s cleaver, perhaps even a spear. Or a death-touch, though that skill was almost lost now.
The sea of faces around her were all normal; people hurried on account of the rain and the imminent threat of a cyclone – it was August, the season for them – whereupon everything would be quickly battened down and all the streets would empty. A few confused tourists sheltered their phones more than their heads in order to translate shopping requests. Triad assassins would never masquerade as foreigners. There was a code, after all. They lived and died by it, herself included. She searched for men with tattoos. Nothing. The warning had said noon.
It was 12:03.
She heard it before she saw it: the stuttered hum of a bladed weapon tomahawking through the air. She dropped down low into a snake posture, right leg outstretched on the soggy ground, left leg bent double, as the axe sailed past her and squelched into the forehead of a balding man with an umbrella, his shirt spattered by rain, a sheen of sweat on his face from the intense humidity. Until a moment ago he’d been next in line to buy fish. He keeled over, rigid, silent, already dead, eyes unseeing, the umbrella falling with him like a frozen parachute. Blue Fan triangulated the position of the attacker behind her, and was about to let one of her razor fan-knives slip from her fingers, when a ragged child ran across her path. 
Her eyes met the assassin’s: an athletic male, jet black hair in a ponytail, a tiger tattoo on his inner forearm, its front claws outstretched, its jaw set in an eternal, angry roar. Others around her suddenly caught up with events. A woman screamed. The fishmonger vanished into the dark recesses of her shop, while another shopkeeper stumbled backwards and tripped over his wares, upsetting water-filled cartons, spilling gawping koi and angry crabs onto the cobbled pavement. People ran. The attacker removed two more short axes from his belt, one in each hand, and crossed them in front of him as he faced her. A male tourist tried to video them, until Blue Fan skewered his smartphone with one of her blades. He stared at it a moment, then dashed off.
Thunder cracked, loud and close. Warm rain lashed down, drenching everything. Wind whipped water into her eyes. The cyclone was early. On cue, the siren wailed, and everyone vanished.
Now it was just the two of them.
She hadn’t moved from her snake-stance, a fresh blade in each hand, four more in reserve. He uncrossed his arms, yelled a warrior’s cry and scythed through the rain, arms whirling like propellers, slashing the air, leaving no space. He was good. She pulled her legs together to stand upright. No mean feat, but she trained every day, she had since she’d been a child. She watched, perceiving the pattern, looking for an opening. There was none. Make that very good. She raised her arms ready to throw, and timed it so that one blade would follow a fraction of a second after the first. It might be possible to block the first, but almost impossible to dodge the second. She launched her two blades. They clanged as he deflected them, sending them skittering across the ground.
Make that exceptional.
He was methodical, focused, a thresher bearing down on her. She couldn’t see a way through, and so, not for the first time, she knew she would have to kill him using psychology, as her grandfather, Salamander, had taught her.
She turned and ran.
He chased her into a blind alley. She let her gait falter, just a fraction, giving the impression of fear. She glanced left and right, as if in panic, felt him close on her, heard the fast helicopter rhythm of his axes. She needed to make him break his stride, accelerate for the kill, create an opening. It wasn’t happening. Somewhere deep inside her, panic tried to rise, but years of brutal training pulped it.
The most difficult martial art she’d mastered was, Mind Boxing, a linear mode of attack, whereas his movements were circular. But it was only partly about movements. She was out of space, and out of time. Never put your back against the wall, Salamander had told her, because you might as well be stood up in a coffin, and this assassin almost had her there. Almost. She raised her right leg behind her, planting her foot against the wall, her standing leg vertical and straight. She faced her attacker, her hands in fists close to her chest, blades pointing upwards. His eyes narrowed. He’d not seen this move. How could he? Only Salamander knew it. A lost North Korean technique. She added the final, necessary touch.
She closed her eyes. A shift in his rhythm created that split-second opening she needed. He accelerated forward. She sank backwards, both legs arcing like bows, opened her eyes and locked onto the axes, computing the timing. He lunged forwards, his left axe aiming the killer blow to her head, the right whirling behind for the follow-up. She kicked off from the wall. Her turn to yell now, a dragon’s roar. Her right blade spiked through his descending wrist, while her body twisted, giving her that extra reach. Her left blade punctured his throat and severed his spine, cutting his brain off from his limbs. Blood spattered her face. The assassin’s second axe, momentum still guiding its course, slammed into her shoulder. But it was devoid of power and precision, and struck her with a glancing blow, the axe toppling from his fist. A flesh-wound. A gash she’d stitch later. A scar for the rest of her life.
But at least she still had a life.
She extracted the blades from his neck and wrist as he sagged onto the ground. Collecting herself into a formal standing posture, a soldier standing to attention, she bowed to her dead assailant.
She heard a slow clap. The Judge. He was dressed in a hooded orange robe, like the Buddhist monk he professed to be. Those denim-blue eyes still sparkled, though he was at least eighty. He approached, and stood at the other side of the corpse, gazing downwards.
‘He was one of the best,’ he said.
Not the best, then.
‘Your role will be unchallenged for another year,’ he said. ‘At least amongst the five.’
The five triads who still held to the old ways.
He passed her a rag from one of his robe pockets. For the blood. She took it. Her grandfather would have beaten her for being cut, locked her in a dark cell with no food, water or shit-hole for three days. After all, the axe’s edge could have been poisoned.
A group of police skidded to a halt at the open end of the alley, each wearing head-to-toe transparent waterproofs over their uniforms. She tensed, but the Judge remained serene. The four officers came over, picked up the body and the axes, and took everything away. As if she and the Judge were invisible. Thunder cracked again. She shivered. She wasn’t cold; it was still thirty degrees, but she was bleeding.
‘I must go,’ she said, asking permission, because with the Judge, that’s how it was.
‘Your grandfather failed.’
Of course he’d failed. Otherwise she’d know. Everyone would know. London would be ash. The question was …
‘He escaped.’
Now she really wanted to go.
‘They are looking for him. And you.’
Finally he nodded, and she left.
‘Till next time,’ he said, in a mocking tone, his words washed onto the street by the rain.
She’d been wary before, knowing an assassin was after her. But now her grandfather – Salamander – would return. Shamed. Disgraced. Which made him more lethal than ever. And he would have plans for her, as always. Plans she would hate to the core. Like London. She’d pretended until now, gone along with his ideas, worn a mask. But now he would see through her. Then he would kill her.
She trudged up waterlogged steps to the overpass, devoid of cars due to the cyclone. Rain pelted the steaming asphalt, the skyscrapers of Tsim Sha Tsui barely visible across the bay. She took in a long, deep breath. This was her city, her home. She would never leave. Her father had long ago secured a plot for her grave on the hill overlooking Victoria Park and the bay. She lifted her bare face to the rain. Stark white bolts forked down, catching the lightning rods of the most beautiful skyline in the world, the intense thunder sending a tremor through her body. A thought occurred. She could not kill Salamander because, despite everything, he was still head of her triad so even if she succeeded, her life would be forfeit.
The answer was simple, as it often was. Find someone else, someone outside the triad system, to do it for her.

Author Bio
J. F. Kirwan is the author of the Nadia Laksheva thriller series for HarperCollins. Having worked in accident investigation and prevention in nuclear, offshore oil and gas and aviation sectors, he uses his experience of how accidents initially build slowly, then race towards a climax, to plot his novels. An instructor in both scuba diving and martial arts, he travels extensively all over the world, and loves to set his novels in exotic locations. He is also an insomniac who writes in the dead of night. His favourite authors include Lee Child, David Baldacci and Andy McNab.