Read Near Dark: A Thriller Online

Authors: Brad Thor

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BOOK: Near Dark: A Thriller
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“So that’s what you’re offering me? Plausible deniability?”

“I’m offering you a chance to hunt down Carl’s killer. That’s what you want, isn’t it? All I am asking in return is that you give us a
head start on whatever you uncover. Quid pro quo. I don’t care what you share with NIS, as long as my agency gets it first. Fair?”

Sølvi was being co-opted. If she said yes to this deal, she’d be placing the CIA ahead of her own organization—completely contrary to her oath.

By the same token, she was intrigued. She had no idea what information Hayes had, nor whether any of it would be helpful.
The proof would be in the pudding.

“Okay,” she said, refilling their glasses and signaling the waiter to bring another bottle. “I’ll bite. What have you got?”

Taking a sip, the CIA operative scanned the patrons around them to make sure no one was listening. Once Hayes was confident that it was safe to speak, she said, “What I’m about to tell you goes no further. If you ever mention my name in
connection with this intel, I’ll deny this conversation ever took place. Are we clear?”

Slowly, Sølvi nodded.

CHAPTER 15

C
AMP
D
AVID
, M
ARYLAND

O
kay,” Lawlor said. “Walk me through it. Everything that had to do with Pedersen—and anyone who knew you were connected.”

Nicholas had turned the Laurel cabin, which was where most of Camp David’s official meetings took place, into a makeshift operations center. It had three conference rooms, a kitchen, a dining room, and a small presidential office.

Though
the structure had been built under President Nixon in 1972, the main conference room boasted technology on par with the Situation Room back at the White House. There were not only multiple flat-panel monitors, capable of broadcasting television and live encrypted video feeds, but also large glass screens, which could display visuals such as maps or satellite imagery and be annotated by touch.

The glass screens were on tracks and could be slid in either direction, revealing a huge whiteboard bolted to the wall. Though Lawlor appreciated all the tech, he preferred the whiteboard—especially when brainstorming.

Nearby, a sideboard had been loaded with soft drinks, bottled water, a samovar of coffee, and an array of snacks.

As Harvath talked, Lawlor paced. In one hand he carried a green
dry-erase marker, and in the other a mug of coffee. When a new name was mentioned, he added it to the whiteboard.

Once Harvath had finished speaking, Lawlor stood back, and looked at their list. He read it aloud, hoping that they had missed someone.

“Admiral David Proctor—NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Monika Jasinski of Polish Military Intelligence, and Filip Landsbergis of the VSD—Lithuania’s
State Security Department. That’s it? That’s the entire cast of characters?”

“That’s it,” Harvath responded. “Those are all the people who knew about the op Carl and I ran.”

Lawlor referred to a file on the table. “Proctor is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and, among his many achievements, he has commanded Destroyer Squadron 21, as well as the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group,
has served as a special assistant to the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and ended up heading the Special Operations Command before taking over at U.S. Central Command. He was nominated for the SACEUR position by President Porter two years ago, and was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Impressive résumé.”

Harvath agreed. “I knew him back when he was at SOCOM.
He’s solid. President Porter spoke to him once. After that, only I spoke with the Admiral. No staff were allowed to listen in, nor were any brought into the loop.”

“Did Carl’s name come up?”

“Once or twice, but solely in the context of the mission.”

“Any chance that–”

Harvath held his hand up and cut him off. “Zero. The man is a bank vault.”

“Vaults can be cracked.”

“Not this one, and especially
not over the name of an allied Intelligence officer. The Admiral was a fanatic about operational security. You can ask anyone he worked with at SOCOM or CENTCOM. He oversaw some of the biggest post-9/11 ops we have undertaken. Not a word ever leaked to the press or to our enemies. Like I said, he’s
solid
. Full stop.”

“And he recommended Jasinski?”

“Correct,” said Harvath. “She had been billeted
to NATO’s
terrorism intelligence cell in Belgium. Admiral Proctor had tapped her personally. She legitimized my cover so I could be part of the raid on the cell in Norway. Afterward, Jasinski and I met up with Carl at Værnes Air Station in Stjørdal and debriefed him on the operation. There were some things with the cops and the Norwegian military that needed to be mopped up, but Carl told us he’d
take care of them.”

“Do you think he may have mentioned you to them by name?” Lawlor asked.

“Carl? Not a chance. I was traveling under an alias and it had been provided to him. He wouldn’t have given me away.”

“What about once he returned to Oslo? Do you think he told anyone at NIS?”

“The Norwegian Intelligence Service knew better than to ask Carl too many questions—especially ones they didn’t
want the answers to.”

“That’s not what I asked you,” said Lawlor. “Do you think he revealed your presence in Norway to anyone at NIS?”

“Officially?” Harvath replied. “No.”

“What about
unofficially
?”

“Unofficially, he could have been running an all-male review out of the NIS parking lot. The point is that the Old Man trusted him and so did I. Carl understood that our relationship functioned
best as long as knowledge of it was kept limited. If he brought someone into his confidence, I have no reason to doubt his judgment. More importantly, if the killer we’re looking for came from inside NIS, why would they need to torture Carl in order to access his files, his phone, and the NIS database?”

It was a sensible argument and though Lawlor could come up with some thin reasoning as to
why someone might, it would have been a waste of their time to pursue. So, he moved on. “Okay, let’s focus on Jasinski then,” he stated. “Do you think she spoke to anyone about you or Carl?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” Harvath replied, “she was working on direct, classified orders from the SACEUR himself. Admiral Proctor had directed her not to discuss the operation with anyone else, not even
her colleagues back at Polish Military Intelligence.”

“And you trust her?”

“Fully.”

“Based on what? A couple of operations in the field with her?”

Harvath shook his head. “She hates Russia with a passion. Her number one pastime at NATO headquarters has been rooting out their spies. It’s personal for her.”

“Why is it personal?”

“Because the Russians killed her husband.”

Harvath let his words
hang there, knowing the effect they would have. Decades ago, Lawlor’s wife, Heide, had been killed by the Russians in Berlin. Scot, Gary, and Monika had all been dragged, unwillingly, into a horrific club.

“I’m happy to send someone to question her,” Harvath finally offered, “but I’m telling you, she didn’t give up Carl.”

Temporarily unable to speak, Lawlor waved the offer away. It wouldn’t
be necessary.

It may get better
, Harvath thought, watching the older man and replaying his words in his head.
But the pain, obviously, will never, ever be gone. It was always going to be there, right under the surface.
He was certain of it.

Harvath hadn’t had a drink since sitting on the porch with Nicholas. He was beginning to want one again, badly, and tried to ignore the urge.

“For what
it’s worth,” he said, focusing on Lawlor and hoping to ease the man’s mind regarding Jasinski, “Monika had a special affinity for Carl. As Poland borders Kaliningrad, they’re in a similar situation vis-à-vis Norway and its border with Russia. She appreciated what he was willing to do for his country and there’s much of it she wants to emulate on behalf of Poland.”

Composing himself, Lawlor said,
“Then that leaves us with Landsbergis of the Lithuanian VSD. Tell me about him.”

Now they were getting into dangerous, highly classified waters. Harvath wasn’t sure they should be headed in this direction.

Sensing his reluctance, Nicholas spoke up. “Gary’s clearances are all up to date. The President has authorized him to have full access to anything The Carlton Group has worked on. Nothing
is off limits. You can tell him everything.”

It wasn’t until that moment that Harvath understood how much had been decided in his absence. It didn’t feel like he had been gone long, but he had been gone long enough. The world
had
continued to spin without him. But slowly, its gravitational pull was drawing him back.

“So, you want me to talk about the op?”

Nicholas nodded.

CHAPTER 16

A
s Harvath prepared to speak about the op, Nicholas activated one of the screens and pulled up a map of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

A spoil from World War II along the Baltic Sea, it was geographically cut off from Russia, pinched between NATO members Lithuania to the north and Poland to the south.

Much as it had been during the Cold War, Kaliningrad had remained a serious
militarized threat, capable of hitting Scandinavia and Central Europe at a moment’s notice. It was heavily armed with air-defense missiles, antiship missiles, and surface-to-surface missiles, which enabled the Russians to engage NATO air, sea, and ground forces for hundreds of miles in all directions.

Approaching the touch panel, Harvath drew a circle around Kaliningrad with his finger. “All
of the anti-NATO terror cells were being run from here by a high-ranking GRU operative. His name was Colonel Oleg Tretyakov.”

Lawlor knew the area well. “Kaliningrad. Not an easy spot to get into or out of.”

Harvath agreed. “No, it isn’t.”

“What was the op?”

“Get in, grab Tretyakov, and get back out.”

“How’d you do it?”

“Because Kaliningrad is such a heavily guarded territory, we knew
normal
ports of entry were off-limits, especially for me. The Russians had been given CCTV footage of me and we were certain that I’d be nailed the minute we attempted a normal border crossing. So, we decided to parachute in.

“We flew the company jet into Šiauliai International Airport in Lithuania. Carl met us there and introduced us to Landsbergis, who was his primary contact in Lithuanian State Security.

“Landsbergis runs agents into Kaliningrad on a regular basis. He not only paved the way for a U.S. Super Hercules full of gear to land at Šiauliai, but he also helped select our drop zone and arrange for a Lithuanian truck driver who moves in and out of the exclave to pick us up, get us into the capital, and then transport us back out again.”

“Did you exfil back across the border via the truck?”
asked Lawlor.

Harvath shook his head. “It’s a long story, but no. We didn’t go out via Lithuania. Part of the border between Kaliningrad and Poland runs through a lake. That’s how we got out.”


Barely
got out,” Nicholas clarified.

“Yeah. It turned ugly fast. We made it, though.”


Barely
,” Nicholas added once more.

“All right,” said Lawlor, trying to get them to focus. “If you don’t think
Jasinski would have given up Carl, what about this Landsbergis guy? Someone must have connected Carl to you. Of the three possible, Landsbergis is the one you’re least able to vouch for.”

“I only spent a few hours with him,” Harvath admitted, “but he seemed reliable. Without his help, we never would have been able to get into Kaliningrad, much less snatch Tretyakov and get back out. He was critical.”

“Do we know of anyone he might have spoken with? Colleagues at the VSD?”

“Landsbergis said one of the recurring problems Lithuania faced was penetration by Russian spies. Like the Norwegians, he didn’t want Moscow to know his country was helping us. In order to do that, he claimed that he limited any knowledge of the operation to just himself. And even then, just to be safe, he insisted on not
knowing all of the details.”

“That’s admirable, but he would have needed to involve other Lithuanians. You landed a giant C-130 right at one of their air bases.”

“Thankfully,” said Harvath, “Šiauliai is where the air policing for NATO’s Baltic member states is based. U.S. planes go in and out of there all the time. One more probably wasn’t going to raise a lot of eyebrows—especially a transport
aircraft—but, again, it was Landsbergis who got it cleared. He basically hid the plane in plain sight.”

Nicholas raised his coffee mug. “Here’s to Landsbergis and hiding in plain sight.”

Harvath understood what his colleague was trying to say, but the way Nicholas had said it gave him pause and raised a question in his mind.

Lawlor recognized the look on Harvath’s face. “What is it? What are
you thinking?” he asked.

“I’m wondering, if the situation were reversed, how would we piece together what had happened?”

“I can tell you exactly what we’d do,” said Nicholas. “When the Russians took you, we vacuumed up every piece of evidence, kicked over every rock, and broke every rule until we found you and figured out how to get you back.”

“So do you think that’s what this is all about?”
asked Lawlor. “Them trying to get Tretyakov back?”

Harvath shook his head. “If that were the case, if they wanted to extract information from me, they would’ve sent in a team, not a lone hitter. The shooter in Key West wasn’t there to interrogate me. He was there to kill me.”

“You seem pretty certain.”

“I could hear the police cars getting closer. Believe me, he didn’t have time to ask questions.”

“Let’s go back to Kaliningrad then,” said Lawlor, tapping the cap of his green dry-erase marker against his chin. “You said it ‘turned ugly fast.’ What did you mean?”

“The only thing that went correctly,” Harvath replied, “was our insertion. We managed to breach their airspace without being detected. We landed in a farmer’s field, spent the night in a barn, and the Lithuanian truck driver met
us along a nearby road the next morning.”

Lawlor made a note on the whiteboard. “The drop zone had been selected with assistance from Landsbergis, correct?”

Harvath nodded.

“Presumably, if he had been working for the Russians, this would have been the perfect time to roll up you and your team?”

Again, Harvath nodded.

“Keep going.”

“The truck driver was hauling a load of fruits and vegetables
in a refrigerated trailer. He had blankets stacked up in back for us and we all piled in. When we arrived in the city, he dropped us off, handed us four public transportation tickets, and we didn’t see him again until our exfiltration.”

“And then what happened?”

“We set up surveillance on Tretyakov’s apartment. We knew where he lived, where he worked, and a small park he occasionally went to.
That was it. There was no intel about any girlfriends, boyfriends, bars, restaurants, or hobbies. We had very little to work with and knew we were going to have to improvise. Which is exactly what I did when we saw him leave his apartment. Instead of getting inside and wiring the place, I decided to follow him.”

“Why?” asked Lawlor.

“Call it a hunch.”

Nicholas hopped off his chair ostensibly
to get some more coffee, but more to walk off a wave of nervous energy. What had happened following Harvath’s “hunch” still bothered him. Harvath had acted with incredible recklessness.

“What would you call it?” Lawlor asked the little man, sensing this had been an inflection point in the operation.

Nicholas didn’t even bother to turn around. Stepping onto a footstool to get more coffee he answered,
“I don’t second-guess people in the field.”

Loyalty
. Lawlor liked that. He pressed on.

“What was your hunch?”

“That it was time to grab him.”

Lawlor looked at him. “Right there? On the street in front of his apartment?”

Harvath shook his head. “In the park. If that’s where he was headed.”

“And was it?”

“It was
exactly
where he was headed,” Nicholas replied, topping off his mug and turning
off the spigot with a little too much flourish.

There was tension between these two. Lawlor wanted to know why.

“Let’s skip ahead to where it started getting ugly.”

Nicholas expelled a burst of air through his nostrils and shook his head as he climbed down from the footstool and returned to his seat at the conference table.

“I found Tretyakov sitting on a bench,” said Harvath. “I thought I
had the drop on him. In reality, he had the drop on me.”

“He knew you were coming.”

“Yes. It was an ambush. I walked right into it.”

“How did he know?”

“We had cracked the Norway cell and not long after, the cell on Gotland Island,” said Harvath. “Gotland was not just another cell, it was his most
important
cell. Their job was to help defeat the Swedish garrison and hold off reinforcements
until Russia could take complete control. Once they had their missile batteries in place, they would have been in a position to prevent any ships from entering the Baltic. That was the final domino they needed to fall before invading Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. By taking down that cell, we denied the Russians the strategic advantage they needed to carry out their plan.”

“But it didn’t end
there, did it?”

Harvath shook his head. “We didn’t know what Plan B was, much less whether they had a Plan C, D, or E. Without Tretyakov, we couldn’t be totally sure we had scuttled the invasion. We had no choice but to go into Kaliningrad and pull him out.”

“Again, how would he have known you were coming?”

“I think he was also playing a hunch. Two of his cells got taken down, right in a row.
The leader of the Gotland cell was a colleague of his—someone who knew where he lived and where he worked. Tretyakov had to have known it was only a matter of time before we got to him.”

“So he sets a trap and waits for whoever shows up.”

“Exactly.”

Lawlor looked at him. “When the Russians grabbed you, did they ask about Tretyakov?”

“They asked me a lot of things.”

“I’m sure they did. You’ve
been a thorn in their side for a long time. But what about Tretyakov?”

“They asked,” Harvath replied, “about him and a bunch of other Russians we had gone after over the years.”

“The important thing,” Nicholas offered, “is that Scot didn’t tell them anything.”

“Nothing of value, at least,” Harvath clarified. “I gave them a lot of disinformation—stuff I knew was going to be hard to source—in
order to buy myself time. Had I not escaped when I did, I don’t know what would have happened.”

“I can tell you what would have happened,” said Lawlor. “It would have gotten worse. Beyond your imagination
worse
. They know what we know—everyone breaks, eventually.”

Harvath, his expression grim, nodded in response.

“All right, then. Let’s say this isn’t about Tretyakov—not directly. This is,
though, about you. And, let’s say the Russian President
is
behind it. This time, instead of taking you alive so he can interrogate you and eventually put a bullet in your head, he’s skipping right to the bullet part. But to do that, he needs to find you. How’d he do it the first time?”

“I led him right to me.”

“I don’t understand. How?”

“Matterhorn,” Nicholas interjected.

“What’s Matterhorn?”

“Not
what
,” the little man replied. “Who. He’s a European intelligence officer who had been doubled back on his home country by the Russians. When the Old Man figured it out, he decided that instead of exposing him, he’d play dumb and draw the man, whom he had become friends with, even deeper into his confidence. From time to time, he provided the Russian spy with high-level intelligence.”

Lawlor
didn’t know how to take that. “He did? Why?”

“So that when he fed him bogus intel, the European not only bought it, he ran with it straight to Moscow.”

Harvath, who felt compelled to defend his mentor, added, “Reed only handed over intel that we believed the Russians already had, would
eventually have, or that we felt was worth surrendering. For our disinformation to continue to be pumped straight
into the Kremlin, we needed to make Matterhorn appear to be a superstar.”

“I assume the Russians gobbled it up.”

“Hook, line, and sinker.”

“What does Matterhorn have to do with leading them to you?”

“Not long after the Old Man was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, his brakes started failing. He started regaling his caretakers with tales of derring-do, chock-full of classified, national security
information. We likened the situation to a loose nuke. If the enemy got a hold of him, there was no telling what damage it might do.

“Word of his illness had begun to spread and so I made the decision to move him. He had spent summers as a boy at his grandparents’ cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. As the oldest memories tended to be the last to fade, we thought that he might enjoy
returning. I rented a place for him up there and the President okayed a request for a team of Navy corpsmen to rotate shifts around the clock. They all had security clearance, so he got the care he needed and, no matter what he might say, we knew nothing would go beyond the cottage.”

“Good plan,” said Lawlor.

“That’s what we thought,” Harvath replied. “Under the guise of having been ‘friends’
for such a long time, Matterhorn had been pressing to see him.”

“Do you think it was genuine?”

“Maybe. I also think Moscow was pushing for Matterhorn to do an assessment and report back. Both reasons served my purposes, so I agreed.”

“Served your purposes how?”

“Matterhorn was still useful to us. It had been the Old Man’s intention that he become my asset and that I start running him. Allowing
him to say a final goodbye was a good way to build rapport. I also hoped that if he could see for himself how far gone Reed was, that the Russians would write Reed off and not attempt to get to him.”

“So you set up a meeting.”

“I did,” said Harvath. “Short of throwing a bag over his head, I took as many safeguards as I thought were warranted. Not until now would I
have believed the Russians
could pull together the hit murdering Lara, Lydia, and Reed that quickly. It happened in a matter of hours.”

“Have you talked to this Matterhorn since then?” Lawlor asked.

“No.”

“Did he speak with anyone who would have known you were in Key West?”

“No,” Harvath repeated.

“Did he know about your relationship with Carl Pedersen?”

“No.”

Lawlor pulled the cap off the green marker and wrote
the codename Matterhorn on the whiteboard, only to draw a line through it.

“Okay,” Lawlor continued, “for the moment, let’s take him off our list of active suspects and go back to something Nicholas was just talking about. If you were the Russians, how would you go about reverse engineering what happened to Tretyakov?”

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