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Authors: Brad Thor

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BOOK: Near Dark: A Thriller
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It wasn’t meant as an insult and Beni didn’t take it as such. Rich people, in his experience, were simply direct.

Pocketing the card, he stepped back as the man gave a command in Russian and the driver pulled away from the curb.

He stood watching until the huge car turned a corner and disappeared from view. Then he did the same, calmly making his way down the nearest
side street. He doubted the cops were coming. If they had actually been on their way, he would have already begun hearing the staccato, high-pitched wail of their klaxons. Besides, they had better things to do than break up groups of teenagers fighting. Nice was awash in drugs, gambling, human trafficking, and organized crime—industries he suspected his new benefactor was all too familiar with.

In the back of the Bentley, Nekrasov’s thoughts should have returned to Eva and her oncology appointment. But they didn’t. Instead, his mind was focused on a bigger problem.

He had fronted one hundred million dollars to activate the most lucrative murder-for-hire contract in history. His assumption had been that by opening it up to multiple assassins, the rush would be on to kill the target as
quickly as possible and be the first to claim the prize.

The contract, though, was still open. The target had yet to be taken out. He was not happy. In fact, the more he thought about it, the angrier he became.

By the time Valery had brought the Bentley to a stop in front of the Centre Antoine Lacassagne, Nekrasov knew what he had to do.

It was time to start letting people know what would happen
if he didn’t soon see results.

CHAPTER 20

V
ILNIUS
, L
ITHUANIA

S
ølvi Kolstad hadn’t been to the Baltics in a long time—and for good reason. The last time she’d run an operation here, she had almost been killed.

It should have been easy. A foreign diplomat, with information valuable to Norway, wanted to make a trade. In exchange for a list of Norwegian diplomats who were actively being recruited by his government’s intelligence
service, the man wanted to be smuggled out of Lithuania, along with his family, and given a new life in Norway.

Carl Pedersen had put Sølvi in charge. It had been her first major operation and from the word go, everything had gone wrong.

For starters, the diplomat was a sexist. He had refused to work with a woman, especially one who, at the time, appeared so young and inexperienced. As soon
as Sølvi was introduced as his handler, he had threatened to call off the deal.

“You dictate the terms of the relationship,” Carl had instructed her, “or they do. You never want it to be them.
Always
make sure it’s you.”

She tried everything she could think of, but nothing would change the diplomat’s mind. Finally, Carl had encouraged her to call the man’s bluff and cut off all contact.

The
gambit worked. Within only a couple of days, the man finally came around. Multiple hurdles, though, had still remained.

One of the biggest sticking points was whether the diplomat’s intelligence was authentic. His story jibed with bits and pieces of information
the NIS had picked up over the prior year, but the man refused to say how he had come across it. What’s worse, he refused to provide
any solid evidence of his claim, nor a plan for how he would secure a copy of the list. Everything, he stated, would be handed over, once he and his family were safely in Norway.

Sølvi didn’t need to be told that it was a lousy deal. Instead, unauthorized, she had gone out on a limb and had made a counteroffer. Once he had provided evidence of his claim, she would get the diplomat’s family to
Norway. Then, once he had produced the actual list, she would arrange for him to follow.

When she reported back to Carl the new agreement, he had done two things. First, he had complimented her. Then, he asked how she planned on getting the diplomat’s family out of Lithuania. To her credit, she had come up with an excellent ruse. Norway would invite a range of diplomats and their families, from
several of the embassies in Lithuania, on an all-expense-paid energy, tourism, and climate delegation.

As part of the arrangement, the diplomat’s family would leave Vilnius with the rest of the guests. It would be up to him to come up with a legitimate excuse as to why he would be a day late in joining the delegation. If he tried to show up at the airport with his family having not honored his
end of the agreement, a problem with his passport would materialize in order to bar his travel. Sølvi, though, didn’t think it would come to that. The diplomat was desperate to leave his country and start over in Norway.

It took some arm-twisting, but the Norwegian government eventually came around and agreed not only to host, but more importantly to pay for the delegation and the visit around
the north of Norway.

On the appointed day, the diplomat drove his family to the airport and saw them off. Later that night, he met with Sølvi and presented both the list and the underlying intelligence files for each person on it—all of which she copied and transmitted to Carl for verification.

When word came back that everything was in order, Sølvi informed the diplomat that he had been cleared
to travel to Norway and join his family. The man was overjoyed.

After entreating him to act normal and get a good night’s sleep, she wished him safe travels.

“You’re not taking me to the plane tomorrow?” he had asked.

“Absolutely not,” she had replied. “You delayed a trip with your wife and kids. The last thing you want is to be seen with some strange woman. That goes double if anyone from
your intelligence service is watching you.”

“Watching me? Why would they be watching me?”

She had been speaking candidly, but it had spooked him. It was important to calm him down. “You have nothing to worry about. Nobody is watching you. Everything’s going to be okay.”

“How could you possibly know that?” he asked, growing more tense with each passing exchange.

“Think of Norway,” she replied,
trying to soothe him. “You and your family are going to have a wonderful life there. Keep your mind focused on that and everything will be okay.”

“How do you know we’ll be safe?” he asked, his anxiety still getting the better of him.

“We talked about this. No one will know you are in Norway. A trail of evidence will show that you had arranged for a car to meet you at the delegation hotel and
that it drove you and your family to a private airfield. There, a private jet was waiting, which flew all of you to South Africa. Outside Cape Town your trail will go cold, except for a few conflicting rumors that a foreign family was trying to figure out how to quietly get to Botswana. Or was it Namibia? No, wait. I think the family was trying to get into Zimbabwe.”

It had taken a
lot
of handholding,
but she felt she had gotten him to the right point. All he had to do was get through the night and get to the airport the next morning.

When the time came for him to leave his apartment building, she was sitting in her car, watching, from a half block down. He never appeared.

A million things raced through her mind.
Had he overslept? Was he sick? Hungover? Had he suffered a heart attack? A stroke?
What the hell was going on?

She waited for as long as she could and then gave in to the character trait that killed the cat. She had to know why the diplomat hadn’t left.

Locking her car, she walked casually up the street, pretending to be engrossed in her phone.

They had established a way to signal each other through Instagram. Based on what she could see, he hadn’t been active since they
had spoken yesterday. Something was definitely up. He should have logged onto his account before doing anything else this morning. He hadn’t.

Walking past the apartment building, she kept a casual watch for anything out of the ordinary—stray figures in doorways, occupied parked cars, or anything else that might signal some sort of surveillance. She didn’t see anything. As far as she could tell,
the street was clean.

Against her better instincts, and with no team to back her up, she had decided to check out his apartment.

It was an old building. It wouldn’t have been hard for her to break into. As it turned out, that hadn’t been necessary.

In their push to get to work, a stream of residents had been pouring out. None of them even bothered looking behind them to make sure the lobby
door had closed and locked shut. All Sølvi had to do was stand nearby and wait. When the next person exited, she slipped inside.

The diplomat lived on the third floor. Shunning the elevator, she took the stairs, making sure to be as quiet as possible.

She could hear the sounds of a struggle coming from inside the apartment before she had even arrived at the door at the end of the hall.

While
the NIS had issued her a firearm, Carl had told her to leave it in Oslo. Any weapon she carried abroad should never be traceable—and whenever possible, should always be standard issue of a foreign, hostile government. For her work in the Baltics, he had recommended several types of pistols. He had then handed her an envelope with a thousand U.S. dollars and the name of a black-market arms dealer
he trusted.

Based on what the man had available at the time, she had selected a Russian-made Pistolet Besshumnyy, which translated to “Pistol Silent” in English, and was also known as a “PB” for short.

A Soviet design from the late 1960s, it was still in service and manufactured by Kalashnikov—Russia’s largest arms manufacturer. Built for the 9x18mm Makarov round, it used an integral suppressor,
which consisted of two parts. This meant that the PB could be easily concealed. The pistol, with half its suppressor already attached, could be placed in one coat pocket—the remaining half in another.

It took minimal training to become adept at rapidly drawing, assembling, and firing the weapon. Sølvi had practiced the routine so many times that she could do it in her sleep. By the time she was
halfway down the hall, she had already put it together.

She had never been inside the diplomat’s apartment. The handful of times they had met, it had always been in an NIS safe house on the outskirts of the Lithuanian capital. She had no way of knowing how it was laid out. If it was like most of the other apartments of its age she had seen in Vilnius, the door would open onto a corridor leading
to a living room, dining room, and kitchen. Along the way, there’d be a bathroom and, likely, two bedrooms.

Stopping at the door, she steadied her breathing and listened. All she could hear were thuds and angry, muffled voices.

She would have given a year’s pay for a sack full of flashbangs. Making entry without some sort of distraction device was doubling the danger she was about to encounter.
The only way this could possibly work was if she maintained the element of surprise.

Reaching down, she tried the door handle. It was locked.

Think
, she said to herself.

All the old buildings, at least the nice ones like this, had an on-site superintendent. Such a person would have keys to each apartment. But by the time she found the superintendent, it could be too late. She needed to get
inside that unit
now
. The only question was how.

If her diplomat was being beaten, the people doing the beating were going to be on edge—suspicious of every sound they heard—even a simple knock at the door.

That gave her an idea. The key was to be anything
but
simple.

CHAPTER 21

W
hen foreign missions selected residences for their diplomats, they did so with the cooperation of the host country. In addition to the quality of the dwelling and the safety of the neighborhood, one of the biggest considerations was the ability for local police, fire, and EMS to quickly respond to any calls. All diplomats and their addresses would be flagged in the emergency response
database.

What Sølvi wanted to do was to pound on the door like an angry neighbor, demanding to know what all the noise was about. But that would have destroyed her element of surprise. Whoever was inside could go silent and just choose to ignore her, hoping she’d go away.

She could have called in a robbery, a fire, or a medical event, but if Vilnius first responders were like those in most
major European cities, they were seven to ten minutes away. If she wanted to waste that kind of time, she would have already begun looking for the superintendent. Besides, there was no guarantee that if she sent the cops or fire department in, that she’d be able to peel her diplomat away.

She needed to stack the odds in her favor. Looking at the solid wooden door and its carved iron lock once
more, that’s when it had hit her.

The building reminded her of the one in which she had lived in Paris as an au pair. From its façade, to the cage elevator, marble staircase, and hallways they were practically identical. She hoped the attic space was as well.

Measuring her paces back down the hall, she found a utility door, and was able to open it with a single kick. Behind it, was a set of
wooden “servant’s stairs” that led up to the attic area under the roof.

It was dusty, scattered with boxes and other junk that must have belonged to the superintendent or the property owner, and ran the length of the building—just like the one she knew from Paris. From the north end of the building to the south, a plank walkway traversed the exposed, hand-hewn joists.

Retracing her steps, she
picked up things along the way she thought might be helpful and kept moving until she was standing right above where the diplomat’s apartment should be.

There, careful not to cause anything to creak, she knelt down and listened. Lowering her head between two of the beams she was able to pick up the same muffled noises she had heard downstairs in the hallway. All she needed to do now was to zero
in on her entry point.

Between two different sets of joists, spaced many meters apart, she located the mounting hardware for two separate chandeliers.
Living room
and
dining room
, she figured.

Straight back from the living room she found another.
Entry hall
. What she was looking for now was one additional set of hardware, just off that axis. Moments later, she found it.
Master bedroom
.

Unlike
the French, who turned their attics into tiny living spaces for their maids, many Eastern European buildings had unfinished attics. Thankfully, this was one of them. That meant Sølvi didn’t have to deal with pulling up a subfloor. She could go right to work on the plaster and lath between the two joists she had selected.

Using the chandelier hardware as her “zero,” which she figured would be
centered over the master bedroom, she had kept going until she assumed she was over the bed. Then, with the tools she had gathered, she went to work making a hole.

Had she been overly ambitious, she could have jumped straight through, hoping for the best, but she knew that posh, top-floor luxury apartments could have ceilings up to fifteen feet high. Even with all her experience jumping out of
airplanes, if she didn’t nail the landing, she could be looking at a broken ankle, broken leg, or worse.

It was like a punching through spring ice on a shallow pond. She made a little hole at first so she could see where she was. To her credit, she was right above the bed. Widening the hole a bit further, and peeling out the chunks of plaster and stucco, she could see that the master door was
shut.

A few more whacks and she had enough space to slide between the joists. Taking one final look to make sure the room was empty, she slid into the hole, feet first, and dropped athletically onto the bed below.

She landed hard, concerned that the bed frame might give way and crash onto the floor. It didn’t.

Even so, it had still created some noise. If not for the door being closed, she would
have given herself away.

Raising her weapon, she hopped off the bed and hurried across the room. As best she could tell, the voices were coming from what she assumed to be the dining room area—out the door, at the end of the hall, and to the right.

Pressing herself against the wall, she reached for the door and slowly depressed the handle. When she felt the lock release, she drew the door back.
It glided soundlessly on well-oiled hinges.

She peered into the hall, weapon up and at the ready—first right and then left. There were no targets in sight.

Moving toward the living room, she kept her pistol in tight, yet ready to engage. The closer she got, the better she could discern the different voices.

There was her guy—the diplomat, as well as two other men. They were all three arguing
in what she assumed was their native language.

At the end of the hall, she pulled up short. She still had the element of surprise. As soon as she stepped into the living room, though, it would be gone and all bets would be off.

She didn’t want to go in blind, but she didn’t have any alternative. She couldn’t see anyone from where she had taken her position. Best-case scenario, the men—whom she
assumed were armed—didn’t have their weapons drawn.

Applying pressure to her trigger, she took a deep breath, and button-hooked into the living room.

As soon as she did, she could see everything. In the dining room, her diplomat had been bound, hands behind his back, to the thick pull handle of the swinging door into the kitchen. He was being assaulted by two very large men. She had to stop
herself from firing. All of it was being played out in the reflection of a large mirror at the boundary between the two rooms.

Without her even being conscious of it, Sølvi’s mind did the calculations, reversing everything she was seeing, in order to tell where the bad guys actually were. Adjusting her pistol, she aimed as best she could and began firing through the wall.

The closest of the
two men dropped instantly. She had drilled two rounds through his head. The second man had only been grazed and a fraction of a second later returned fire.

He seemed to be using the mirror too because as Sølvi dove for cover, he was able to pinpoint her location and fire three times.

Two of his shots went wide, but one found its target. It went through her abdomen, near her right hip, and out
through her lower back.

The pain was sharper than anything she had ever felt, but she had to push it down, ignore it as she had been trained. Which is exactly what she did.

She tried to use the mirror again, but she could only see a sliver of her opponent. The man had scrambled under the dining room table and was barely visible. Nevertheless, she aimed for what she could see and let the rounds
fly as she rushed for a better position.

The man cried out as she shot him in his right foot, the round going through the sole of his boot and out the top.

She looked down at her own wound and saw that she was bleeding. She needed to put pressure on the wound, but first she had to finish this guy off.

Getting one more look at the mirror to see where he was, she fired at it, and shattered its
glass, so that he couldn’t track her. Moving to a new position, she ejected her nearly spent magazine and slammed home a fresh one.

Whoever this guy was, she didn’t want to give him time to regroup, much less to crawl over to the diplomat, grab on to him like a shield, and
place his gun to his head in order to use him as a bargaining chip. It was time to act.

Reversing course, she returned to
where she had previously been, dropped to the floor, and began firing low, through the wall, toward the base of the dining room table.

The room was already thick with gun smoke, and grew thicker still. Chips of paint, pieces of drywall, and splinters of wood went flying everywhere.

She heard the man cry out in pain twice more. He fired three rounds in her general direction, but then he and his
weapon fell silent.

“Help me!” the diplomat yelled.

“Are they dead?” she shouted back, her ears ringing from the booming cracks of her opponents’ weapons.

“Yes,” he shouted.


Both
of them?”

“The one nearest me is definitely dead,” the diplomat replied. “The other crawled out from under the table and has collapsed in the corner of the room. Near the window. He isn’t moving.”

Sølvi swapped
out her current magazine with a new one, struggled to the far side of the living room, and then slowly moved behind the furniture toward the side with the windows.

Once she was confident that she’d be able to get a good line of sight into the dining room, she readied her pistol and risked a look.

The man was propped up in the corner, right where the diplomat had said he was. His shirt and his
trousers were covered with blood. There was also a trickle dripping from his mouth. His hand, still wrapped around the butt of his gun, lay in his lap. His eyes were wide open and he was staring right at her—as if he knew exactly where she was going to reappear.

Pressing her trigger, she fired in two controlled pairs—two shots to his head, two shots to his chest.

Blood, skull fragments, and
bits of brain splattered on the wall behind him. The gun fell from his hand. Slowly, his heavy body, slick with blood, tilted to the left and slid along the wallpaper until he landed on the floor with a thud.

Getting cautiously to her feet, Sølvi scanned for additional threats. As the ringing in her ears started to recede, she thought she could hear the wail of police klaxons.

“Is there anyone
else here?” she asked.

The diplomat shook his head. “Only them. Untie me. Please.”

Motioning for him to be quiet as she slipped into the dining room, she checked the assailants and kicked their weapons away. They were both dead.

Cutting the diplomat loose, she gestured for him to stay put and stay quiet. Opening the kitchen door, she made sure no one else was hiding nearby. She then did the
same thing with the bathrooms, the closets, and the children’s room.

Returning to the diplomat, she asked. “Are you injured?”

The man shook his head. “No.”

“Can you move?”

He nodded and Sølvi helped get him to his feet.

“You’ve been shot,” he said, eyeballing the dark spread of crimson across her midsection.

“I’ll be okay. Do you have any bandages?”

The man nodded again.

“Go grab them.
And then we need to get the hell out of here.”

As the man went to do as she had instructed, Sølvi patted down the corpses. There was nothing on them—no passports, no wallets, no cell phones. Nothing.

When the diplomat came back into the dining room, Sølvi had trouble standing up and he had to assist her. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?”

“I’m fine,” she lied. “Let’s go.”

Buttoning her
jacket to hide the blood, Sølvi checked the hallway first before signaling to the diplomat that it was safe to follow.

Taking the stairs down to the ground level in her condition was out of the question, so she, the diplomat, and the one suitcase she had told him he could bring when they had originally hatched their plan, all crammed into the little cage elevator and headed down.

She kept her
weapon handy in case any more assailants might be waiting, but the lobby was empty. Plenty of neighbors had heard the gunfire and many could be seen peeking out of doorways and peering over the stairwell railing.

Outside on the street, she guided the diplomat to her vehicle and reluctantly agreed to let him drive. After getting her into the passenger seat, he threw his bag in back and they took
off for the airport.

“Slow down,” she admonished, as she kept one eye on her side mirror while bandaging her wound. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

“Are you sure? It looks bad.”

“I’ve seen worse. Just get us to the airport in one piece and you’ll be back with your family before you know it.”

Once the bandage was in place, she took out her cell phone and sent Pedersen an encrypted message.
She had been shot and had lost a lot of blood. She was now traveling with the diplomat and they were on the way to the private aviation side of the airport. She needed a doctor.

Pedersen had only one thing to say in response—
I’ll take care of it.

And that’s exactly what he had done. It wasn’t until days later, recuperating in a private hospital in Oslo, that she learned how he had made it happen.

Carl had reached out to his number one contact in Lithuanian Intelligence—Filip Landsbergis of the VSD.

It was Landsbergis who had rushed a trauma physician to the jet Carl had chartered for her to fly home on. Without that doctor’s expert care, she wouldn’t have survived. She owed Landsbergis her life.

But based on what Holidae Hayes had told her, specifically that Harvath and Carl had been
recently involved in an operation in Lithuania, that made Landsbergis a suspect in her book.

If he had compromised Carl, or had played any role whatsoever in his murder—she didn’t give a damn if the man had helped save her life. He was going to die. That’s why she had come back to Lithuania, all these years later.

According to Hayes, Carl had helped pave the way for two aircraft to secretly
land at an air base in Lithuania. One was a private jet from
Scot Harvath’s company, The Carlton Group. The other, which arrived shortly thereafter, belonged to the U.S. military. Whatever they had been up to, the entire mission had been highly classified.

Sølvi knew that there was only one person Carl would have trusted enough to put something like that together—Filip Landsbergis.

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