Read Near Dark: A Thriller Online

Authors: Brad Thor

Tags: #Fiction, #Policital Thriller, #Thriller/Action & Adventure

Near Dark: A Thriller (12 page)

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CHAPTER 18

N
icholas was where Harvath had left him, sitting behind his laptop in the conference room. Lawlor was nowhere to be seen.

As the dogs rose to greet him, Harvath showed them a little attention and then asked, “What do you have?”

“I think I found your truck driver.”

“The Lithuanian?”

Nicholas nodded. “Apparently, he had a somewhat nasty accident. Except nobody thinks it was an accident.”

“Is he dead?”

“No, he’s alive, but pretty banged up.”

The little man turned his laptop around so Harvath could get a look at the screen. It showed a man with two black eyes, a fat lip, and a nose that appeared as if it had been broken. “Is this your guy?”

“Yeah, that’s him,” Harvath replied. “What happened? Where’d you get that photo?”

“The Lithuanian state health database. All medical records
in the country are electronic. According to his file, two weeks ago Mr. Antanas Lukša said he had been in a car accident.”

“He looks like he went through the windshield.”

“In addition to his facial injuries, he had four broken ribs, and his right hand and left knee had been shattered.”

Harvath watched as Nicholas scrolled through the rest of the injury
photos. When he was done, Harvath asked,
“What did you mean by
nobody thinks it was an accident
?”

“Mr. Lukša changed his story to the doctor. First, he said he had been driving his truck when it happened. Then, when the doctor told him he would need verification from his employer for a work-related injury, he said he had actually been driving his personal vehicle at the time.”

“That’s weird.”

“It gets weirder,” Nicholas continued.
“I’ve managed to track down both vehicles, but I can’t find any police or insurance reports dealing with the alleged accident.”

“The guy was a smuggler. We couldn’t have been the first load of cargo he had ever helped sneak into or out of Kaliningrad. Maybe something happened and he didn’t want his legit employer to know. If he damaged his boss’s truck, maybe he paid in cash to get it fixed and
keep it quiet.”

“Whatever it was, he definitely wanted to keep it quiet.”

“What do you mean?” asked Harvath.

“If I’m translating the file correctly, before he went to the hospital for treatment, Mrs. Lukša had reached out to their general practice doctor. She didn’t mention any car accident. Instead, she claimed that he’d had a fall, but was okay and merely in pain. She wanted the doctor to
prescribe painkillers. But because it was a weekend and his office was closed, the doc recommended he go to the emergency room.”

“Interesting.”

“There’s more. Not only did Mr. Lukša change his story with the ER physician, he was also evasive when it came to providing details. The physician said the whole visit was ‘suspicious.’ In fact, he wrote in his notes that it looked like Mr. Lukša had
been beaten up. Drawing attention to his patient’s shattered right hand and left knee, he indicated that it looked like Mr. Lukša had been struck, repeatedly, with a blunt instrument—most likely a hammer.”

“And like I told you,” said Harvath, “his truck was a manual. It’s one thing to beat a guy up, but if you break his right hand and left knee, he’s not going to be working the stick and the
clutch for a while.”

“If that was someone’s goal, that means they knew what kind of equipment he operated. Do you know if he had any enemies?”

“He wasn’t much of a talker.”

“What if,” Nicholas responded, scrolling back through the photos, “this wasn’t about settling a score?”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s say this wasn’t about some angry border guards not getting their monthly payoff. What if
the Russians did exactly what we were talking about? What if they went back and reviewed all their CCTV footage from ports of entry, made a list, and Lukša was on it? What if they then decided to pay him a visit? And during that visit, the Russians decided they’ve got the right guy and put the screws—or in this case—the hammer to him?”

“And he gives up that he was working for Lithuanian Intelligence?”

Nicholas shook his head. “It wouldn’t be a straight line, they understand proper tradecraft, there’d be cutouts along the way. But the Russians are smart—smart enough to reverse engineer it. All Lukša would have had to do was admit that he picked up a team of Americans and they’d be off to the races.”

He had a point. A good one. Once the Russians started pulling on that thread, it wasn’t impossible
to believe that they could unravel the entire thing—right up to Landsbergis at Lithuania’s State Security Department.

“I need to get to Vilnius,” said Harvath.

“Lithuania? Are you kidding me?” Nicholas replied. “When you very well may have a one-hundred-million-dollar bounty on your head? Are you insane? No way.”

“I want to speak to Landsbergis myself. I want to look him in the face.”

“Negative.
We can send the Ghost.”

The Ghost was a deep-cover operative who had been brought over to The Carlton Group from CIA. His real name was Steve Kost. Because his last name rhymed perfectly with “ghost,” the call sign had practically selected itself.

“And what do you expect me to do?” asked Harvath.

Nicholas threw up his hands. “I don’t know. Stay here? Survive? Take up a hobby. I don’t really
care. All I know is that you’re not leaving.”

Harvath was nothing if not obstinate. The surest way to get him to do
something was to tell him he couldn’t. Nicholas knew that, yet he had still dropped the hammer on him.

“Listen,” said Harvath, “if you needed to insert someone over there for a long-term reconnaissance, or to build an extensive human network, Kost would be one of the top people
on my list. Sending him over to do an interrogation? That’s like asking Rembrandt to do welding.”

Nicholas chuckled. “I’m writing that down. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone pay Kost that high a compliment.”

“Come on, Nick. You know I’m right. He’s not an interrogator. That’s not what he does.”

“Maybe not, but he’s good at reading people.”

“What he’s good at is building rapport. All of
his assets would go to the ends of the earth for him. They love the guy. And they love him because they know he has their back. That’s not what this is about. If Landsbergis did give up Pedersen to the Russians, whoever confronts him is going to have to be ready to do anything to pry that information out of him.”

The little man thought for a moment and said, “I’ll send Preisler with him.”

“Wait,”
said Harvath, recognizing the name. “Peter Preisler is an Agency guy. Ground Branch. He was part of McGee’s protective detail when I was at their safe house.”

“He’s with us now.”

Nicholas might have been better at running The Carlton Group than he himself believed. Harvath had taken to Preisler. Not only was he squared away with an impressive Special Operations pedigree, but he had also been
one hell of a cook. He had taken responsibility for most of the meals while they had been holed up on the Eastern Shore.

“You’re going to put something this big on a guy you just hired?”

“Fine,” Nicholas responded, “I’ll send Johnson.”

Harvath’s eyes went wide. “You send Kenneth Johnson and he’ll kill him. I guarantee it.”

“You’re being overdramatic. We haven’t had a problem with Johnson for
some time.”

“No? How about Beirut?”

“That was an accident.”

“Okay,” said Harvath. “What about Bangkok?”

“Also an accident.”

“And Auckland?”

Nicholas paused. “Auckland,” he conceded, “wasn’t an accident. Not even close.”

“Listen, I get it. Everybody loves Johnson. But you have to let him do what he does best. And it isn’t interrogations. They’re like heart surgery. They’re delicate and can
get very messy very quickly.”

“Then who? Haney? Staelin? Who am I supposed to send?”

“Me,” Harvath declared. “If Landsbergis gave up Carl to the Russians, the moment he sees me, it’ll be written all over his face. I won’t even need to interrogate him.”

Nicholas had heard Harvath go on ad nauseam about microexpressions, the barely perceptible tells subjects gave off when they were lying and
under stress. The U.S. Secret Service, as well as Harvath, swore by them.

Nicholas, though, wasn’t the best reader of human emotions, much less facial cues. He preferred cold, hard data. There was no gray in data. Only black and white.

“Even if you were the best person to send,” the little man asserted, “there’s still the problem of the contract out on you.”


Alleged
contract.”

Nicholas shook
his head. “I love you, like a brother, but you’re an idiot. A well-meaning, driven, highly determined idiot. The answer is no, so stop asking me. You’re not going.”

Harvath didn’t want to lock horns with Nicholas, but as far as he saw it, they had two choices. They could sit around hoping to get another piece of actionable intel, or they could act on this one. “What if
I
didn’t go?”

The way
he said “
I
” caught Nicholas off guard. “What do you mean?”

“I operate under an alias. I don’t travel as Scot Harvath.”

The little man shook his head. “If it were twenty years ago… hell, if it were only ten years ago, that might have worked. With all the retinal scans and facial recognition technology these days, it’s impossible to get into or out of a country as anything else but who you are.”

“So we skirt the borders,” Harvath replied. “We slip in and out at the edges. Take advantage of those gray areas that are under-monitored or not monitored at all.”

Nicholas again shook his head. “Not worth it. It’s too risky.”

“Risk is exactly why The Carlton Group exists. The Old Man established this organization precisely because the CIA was shying away from risk.”

“We don’t do suicide missions.”

“Agreed, but we also don’t say no just because something is complicated or difficult. We do our research, we plan, we take as much risk out of the equation as possible, but danger and the unexpected are always going to be there. We can’t insulate against Murphy’s Law. Besides, if the assignments were easy, why would anyone need us?”

“You’re changing the subject,” Nicholas countered. “The Old
Man said you were too valuable to keep going into the field. He wanted you back here, permanently. But for some reason you couldn’t do that. And like an overindulgent parent, he caved. He let you keep conducting ops. If you go back out now, we can’t protect you. You’ll be exposed.”

“So what’s new?”

The little man smiled. “You’re committed to ignoring God only knows how many professional assassins,
all competing to be the first to kill you in order to bag a once-in-a-lifetime, one-hundred-million-dollar prize.”

Suddenly an idea began to form in Harvath’s mind. Smiling even more broadly, he asked, “What if we didn’t ignore it?”

“Excuse me?”

“What if we leaned into it? Better yet, what if we actively encouraged it?”

“I’d say you need to be locked in a room with Dr. Levi.”

“Where’s Lawlor?”
Harvath asked, changing the subject back.

“He had to make a call to Langley. Why?”

“Once he’s off, let’s get him back in here,” said Harvath. “I think I’ve got a plan.”

CHAPTER 19

N
ICE
, F
RANCE

M
ONDAY

N
ikolai Nekrasov, the billionaire owner of the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, told his driver, Valery, to pull over. Nekrasov had grown up on the rough streets of Moscow and still enjoyed a good brawl.

“A thousand euros on the Arab,” he said, pointing to a group of teens that had gathered in a trash-strewn vacant lot.

The only thing Nekrasov liked more than
watching a fight, was betting on its outcome. He had an uncanny ability to assess a conflict and immediately know who was going to win. It was a skill that had served him well—not only recreationally, but also as he had scaled the sharp heights of one of Russia’s deadliest crime syndicates.

And while it was his gifted mind for strategy that had gotten him to the top, it was his unflinching willingness
to resort to absolute brutality that had kept him there—and for far longer than anyone would have ever imagined possible.

Of course, if you had asked Nekrasov the true secret to his success, his sophistic response would have been that he placed loyalty—particularly to friends and family—above all else.

It would be a bullshit answer, but in addition to overflowing with money, the man was also
overflowing with bravado. No matter how far he had risen above the gutter into which he’d been born, he still maintained a cavernous insecurity over who he was and where he had come from.

That insecurity drove him to put forth a façade that even the most decent, upstanding Russian couldn’t compete with. For instance, wanting to appear ever the perfect family man, Nekrasov would have others believe
he had left his hotel on a busy workday to meet his wife at the Centre Antoine Lacassagne—a leading cancer research institute in Nice—in order to discuss her oncologist’s plan for her ongoing treatment. But nothing could have been further from the truth. Nekrasov was going along for one reason and one reason only.

Believing her breast implants were the source of her illness, Eva wanted them removed.
Nekrasov had made it clear, though, that the only way that was happening was over his dead body. He had spent good money getting her tits absolutely perfect and he would be damned if she was going to have some French doctor cast the deciding vote for having them yanked out.

What’s more, after several years of marriage and a couple of kids, it was about the only part of her that he still found
attractive.

Eva drank like a fish, smoked like factory chimney, and ate whatever the hell she pleased. Early in their marriage, she had been stunning—the toast of Moscow. The Russian President himself, Nikolai’s best friend since childhood, had not so subtly hinted that if not for their friendship, he would have wooed her as his mistress. But then, suddenly, she had just given up.

Perhaps it
was the stress of motherhood. But as Nikolai had looked around, he had seen plenty of his contemporaries’ wives taking exceptional care of themselves. They had armies of nutritionists, private chefs, personal trainers, and plastic surgeons. As they dieted, worked out, cool-sculpted, and Botoxed themselves without end, they seemed to not only hold aging at bay, but in some cases to reverse the process
altogether. Not Eva, though.

Even before her cancer diagnosis, she had been slipping. It was sad to watch. No matter how much he had tried to encourage her, she hadn’t been interested in taking care of herself. Her health and her appearance had taken an obvious turn for the worse. Now, she wanted to get rid of the implants.

Nekrasov supposed he loved his wife. She was the mother of his
children
after all, but in addition to her appearance going downhill, so had their sex life. They used to make incredible, passionate, swing-from-the-chandelier love. In the early days, they would make so much noise the neighbors would call the police. Those were good times. Those times, though, were gone. Long gone.

Her breasts, on the rare occasions that they made love, were the only part of their marriage
that he still felt passionate about.

In fact, despite his well-crafted image, he had recently begun toying with the idea of getting a divorce. Then, Eva’s cancer diagnosis had arrived.

He couldn’t leave her in light of such news. That wasn’t the kind of man he wanted others to see him as. So, he had stayed.

And now here he was—late to his wife’s oncology appointment, double-parked in a shitty
part of Nice, a part the tourists and wealthy residents rarely saw, waiting for a street fight to take place.

“Are you in?” he asked again. “One thousand euros on the Arab.”

Valery, the driver, counted the number of young Frenchmen arrayed against the skinny Arab. He couldn’t understand why his boss was backing such a hopeless cause. But he had been working for Nekrasov long enough to know he
was never wrong in these matters. “I know better than to bet against you, boss.”

“For Christ’s sake, Valery. Come on. It’s five to one. Even you have to like those odds.”

Putting the pearl-white, bullet-proof Bentley Mulsanne in Park, the beefy driver turned to face his boss. “In my heart, I
love
those odds. Even in my gut, I know there’s no way he can win. But in my head—”

“In your head,
what
?” Nekrasov prodded.

“In my head, I know you’re like an old witch. You see things before they happen. Somehow, you know. You
always
know. So, I’m not betting. Not on this.”

Nikolai enjoyed the compliment, but at the same time he was disappointed that his driver had refused to bite. As much of a dumb beast as he understood Valery to be, perhaps, in the end, there was a little wisdom hiding
inside the man.

Depressing the button for the refrigerator behind his armrest, he
removed two chilled shot glasses and a small bottle of exquisite Polish vodka. Though it was considered a sacrilege to drink anything but Russian vodka, he and Valery had an understanding—what no one else knew wouldn’t hurt them. Pouring one for himself, he handed the other forward. The two men clinked glasses,
then settled back in their seats to watch the fight. Things didn’t take long to kick off.

Normally in these situations, there was a lot of posturing—taunts, a bit of shoving, and a wait for an antagonist to identify himself as the chief aggressor against the victim, who in this case was the Arab.

Unlike the French, Nekrasov didn’t look down his nose at the country’s Arabs. Most of them were
descendants of Arabs from the French colonies of North Africa who had come over in the 1960s and 70s looking for better lives for themselves and their families. They had worked in the most thankless, most menial jobs imaginable, hoping their kids would have it better. But even their children, who had been born and raised in France, were never accepted by the French as full French men and women.

Nekrasov loved France and loved all of its people. He didn’t give a damn what color or what religion they were. If you could hold your own, you were worth giving a shit about. It was why he wanted to watch this fight.

The Arab couldn’t have been more than fifteen. The other boys gathered around him were about the same age, but Nekrasov couldn’t be sure. A couple of them looked like they might
have been a year or two older.

It didn’t make a difference. What mattered was that the Arab was outnumbered five to one. You never would have known it looking at him. He stood in front of the French teens, his birdlike chest puffed out, defiant.

He didn’t stare at the ground, eyes downcast, already beaten; hoping they’d take pity on him. He glared at all of them, his face a stony mask, giving
nothing away. His confidence radiated all the way into the plush interior of the armor-plated Bentley. This young man was something special.

Nekrasov couldn’t wait to see him fight. If his fists were anything like his attitude, he was going to be a full-on force of nature. It didn’t take long to find out.

Like most mobs, a member of the pack, emboldened by the presence
of his comrades, eventually
develops enough confidence to step forward and act. When it happened, the skinny Arab was ready and knocked him out cold.

For a moment, the rest of pack was stunned, unsure of what to do. But the moment quickly passed and they set upon the young man en masse.

He seemed to be expecting it, because out of a pocket of his jeans, he produced a straight razor and as the pack attacked him, he slashed
back and forth.

It was bloody. It was barbaric. And Nikolai Nekrasov
loved
it.

It was like watching some crazy form of ballet. He had never seen anyone move like this kid. He parried and pirouetted—moving from one attacker to the next as if he was some master swordsman, marking his hapless opponents with whatever cuts he saw fit to deliver.

Nekrasov chuckled. No matter how pissed Eva might
end up being with his tardiness, this was worth it. Totally worth it.

He had known the young Arab had something up his sleeve. He could tell just by watching him.

To be honest, he had figured there were seven or more Arabs just around the corner, waiting for their signal to pop out and overwhelm the French teens in support of their buddy. But that wasn’t what happened.

The fact that the lone
teen had stood up to such a larger force and was prevailing, impressed the hell out of the Russian billionaire. This kid, properly mentored, would go places.

Pouring another shot of vodka for himself and his driver, Nekrasov continued to enjoy the display.

The French teens were pissing their pants with fear. They had all been slashed, though not as bad as the Arab probably could have delivered.
They were also shocked. They had the greater force and should have already won this fight. Their egos had gotten the better of them—and were continuing to do so. Self-preservation dictated that they disengage, but they were young and stupid and had apparently not yet endured enough punishment.

Scouring the lot for weapons, the French teens picked up whatever they could find—rocks, sticks, broken
bottles, even broken pieces of
concrete—and dabbed at their bloody wounds with dirty hands and tee-shirts as they prepared to finish off their victim.

Standing his ground, the young Arab smiled and beckoned them forward with his razor.

The leader of the mob had been cut badly enough that he had dropped back. Now, a new leader had taken over. After giving his colleagues a few instructions, he
turned to face their opponent.

If the skinny, brown-skinned teen was frightened, he gave no indication. His face retained its inscrutable visage. His apparent calm must have been terrifying for his enemies.

Nevertheless, the French teens mustered their courage and came at him from multiple angles.

Once more, the Arab spun and slipped their strikes, like an experienced surfer allowing a wave
to pass overhead. What he didn’t do this time, though, was strike back. He allowed them all to pass by unscathed. Nekrasov sat riveted, fascinated by the spectacle of it all.

The young Arab had them exactly where he wanted them. He could have ended the fight right there, but instead he had danced away from their attack and had allowed them all to move right by without consequence.

The only explanation
was that he enjoyed toying with them; that he enjoyed flaunting his superior skills.

At some point, though, he was going to have to bring things to a close. That’s what Nikolai wanted to watch. Unfortunately, it never came.

From a building nearby, an old woman leaned out her third-story window and shouted that she had called the police. The French teens froze. The threat, if real, presented
a problem. It also presented an opportunity.

Judging by the looks of them, these were neither local honor students nor altar boys. These were rough young men. It was likely they’d all had run-ins with law enforcement—possibly multiple times. If the cops were on their way and they didn’t disperse, who knew what kind of trouble they could be in. This was the “problem” part.

The “opportunity” part
was that they had been handed an excuse to flee, before the Arab could finish them off. Later, they could buck
themselves up and soothe their wounded egos by claiming that if it wasn’t for the old lady calling the cops, they would have finished off the Arab and left him in a bloody heap.

And so, like a murmuration of starlings, they turned together and fled down a narrow alley.

Discretion being
the better part of valor, the Arab turned in the opposite direction, and ran as well.

To Nikolai’s amusement, he was headed right toward him. Rolling down the Bentley’s window, the Russian beckoned the boy over.

Wary of the myriad of wealthy sexual predators who trolled the Riviera, the teen approached the expensive car cautiously.

“That was quite impressive,” said Nekrasov. “Where’d you learn
to fight like that?”

“From my brother,” the young Arab said, the pride evident in his voice.

“Sounds like someone I might be interested in hiring. Where can I find him?”

“Clairvaux.”

Nekrasov knew the high-security prison well. Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin—who had helped to establish socialism in France—had been housed there, as well as the international terrorist Carlos the Jackal. It
was not a nice place and was reserved for some of the most serious criminals in France.

“What does your father do?” the Russian asked.

“He’s dead.”

“Your mother?”

“She cleans the houses of rich people like you.”

Nekrasov smiled. The boy was fearless and also highly intelligent. He reminded him of himself at that age.

“Do you work? Go to school?”

The teen shrugged. “Work, yes. School, sometimes.”

“Do you want a better job?” the Russian asked.

“You don’t even know what I do.”

“I don’t care. I’m giving you one chance. Take it or leave it. Do you want a better job?”

The young man nodded.

Removing his business card, Nekrasov wrote something on the back. “What’s your name?”

“Beni.”

“Come by the hotel Friday,” he said as he handed the card out the window. “You’re not a guest, so make sure
to use the service entrance.”

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