Do all those who suffer abuse as children grow up to be killers? This is a pivotal question in this novel. Billy Summers, an adult and Iraq veteran, is now a killer for hire. His only caveat: The person he kills must be evil.
Billy and his younger sister, Cathy, suffered cruelty from their mother's boyfriend, Bob Raines, and their mother never stood up for them. One day, Bob returns home, drunk as usual, and becomes furious, seeing smoke filling the kitchen where Cathy is baking cookies. Probably absorbed in something else, nine-year-old Cathy forgets to check the cookies, so he slams her to the floor, then beats her and steps on her, crushing her to death.
After facing so much abuse, Billy's anger gets the better of him. He runs into the trailer's master bedroom, locks the door, and grabs his stepdad's gun. When the raging man busts down the door, Billy opens fire, shooting his stepfather square in the chest.
Billy goes into foster care, but the cruelty and violence remain in Billy's mind. He joins the Marines at 17, where he becomes a sharpshooter. Stationed in Iraq, his past and the horrors of war never leave him, and when released from the service, he dedicates his life to wiping out bad guys. Now, after 17 killings, Billy wants out of this way of life.
Soon Billy is approached to do another hit. This one is for Joel Allen, who once beat a rape charge, but now is in custody in California as an alleged killer who is due to be extradited to Red Bluff, where the crime occurred. Though Billy is hesitant, the lure of $500,000 is very tempting. Deciding this is it, the last job he'll do, why not?
His "employers" are criminals, but ones who don't get their hands dirty, so this is where Billy fits into the picture. Billy's new identity is as David Lockridge, an author, and he is granted a house in a middle-class neighborhood. He will work in a fifth-floor suite in an office building with direct access to the courthouse, where the defendant will be arraigned. This space offers the perfect vantage point to shoot his subject.
The irony of his disguise is that Billy's always wanted to be a writer. Though he never finished high school, he wonders how he can pass this off. The old saying that writers should pen their life story is what Billy does, though changing the characters' names. He has enough fodder for a great-selling book, but can he do this?
Every day he heads to his "office" using a laptop given to him by his boss, which he uses for gaming. He perceives the machine is rigged and monitoring his online usage, so he brings his personal computer to pen his life story. Billy laughs, considering the guys who hired him believe he's a Podunk farm boy who is too stupid to catch on to their tricks. Billy is determined to show them he's more intelligent than they think he is.
Billy retains another identity and disguise, and with the down payment given him, he rents an apartment closer to town under the name of Dalton Smith. He understands this last job could prove disastrous, so he needs to prepare himself for any scenario.
Encouraged by his "bosses," he becomes friends with the neighbors in the house where he lives as David and gets close to them, especially the children next door. In his apartment, he befriends the couple who live upstairs. Something new to Billy makes him conclude he wants a normal life.
On a rainy night in his apartment—and one no one he works for knows about—he hears screeching tires. Looking out the window, he sees a girl unceremoniously dumped into the street in the pouring rain. Though against his better judgment, he rushes out to rescue her only to find she's been brutally beaten and raped. She is barely conscious, so Billy gets her inside, dries her off, and consoles her.
When she realizes he wasn't her attacker, she opens up to him, identifying herself as Alice Maxwell. Young and naïve at only 21, she left her Rhode Island home to be on her own and succumbed to the "charms" of a young man who assaulted her along with two of his pals.
She is in shock but refuses medical help, which would be hard for Billy to explain, so she stays with him for a while. They become close, and Billy divulges his true identity, which frightens her, but soon she comes to trust him.
Several months pass as Billy awaits the arrival of Joel Allen. He sits in his office, writing his life story, though changing the characters' names. His novel commences with this paragraph:
"I went over to him and said to myself I might have to shoot him again. If I had to I would. He was my mother's boyfriend but he was wrong. He looked dead but I had to make sure so I lick my hand good and wet and kneeled down beside him. I put my wet hand in front of his mouth and nose so I could feel if there was still any breath in him. There wasn't so then I knew for sure he was dead."
Billy writes in a childish hand to give credence to his story, and before long, he decides to remain writing in this manner. After penning several chapters, he ascertains his work isn't half bad but wonders if it could ever be published. Though he is an assassin by occupation, he still is a criminal.
This novel is a change from King's usual genre, for it would be considered a suspense thriller and not horror, his usual forte. Somewhat long on the tooth and slow-moving, it works well documented in the first person. In addition, the book the the protagonist writes, also in the first person, could almost be a separate novel in itself.
The "constant reader," as it lists several times, is taken on a long journey dealing with murder, rape, and criminals and containing heartache, guilt, and grief. A downside to this is the many derogatory political references that do not add to the prose but impose the author's feelings on his readers. However, the many characters are well-structured, and locations are aptly described. The conclusion is slightly unexpected, yet one written in true King fashion.