Read Near Dark: A Thriller Online
Authors: Brad Thor
Tags: #Fiction, #Policital Thriller, #Thriller/Action & Adventure
eturning to the dock, Harvath put out the bumpers and tied off the Riva. He then brought his drone in for a landing and packed everything up. Once they were ready, he and Sølvi unloaded the Contessa from the boat.
Nicholas had warned them not to take their eyes off her, and they were heeding his advice. They had absolutely no reason to trust her. In fact, if anything, they had plenty
of reasons to believe she might attempt to double-cross them.
With Harvath hanging on to their prisoner, Sølvi retrieved the Jeep and drove down to the dock. After he and the Contessa climbed in, it was a quick drive to her villa.
They parked out on the street, fully aware that they were in plain view of her security cameras and were being recorded. Harvath dropped his head so as not to reveal
“Don’t worry,” she offered. “I’ll erase all the footage once we get inside.”
He’d have to see it to believe it. For the moment, he simply nodded as he took her arm and led her forward. A sweater had been draped over her hands secured behind her back so as not to reveal the restraints.
Sølvi hung back a couple of feet, watching their six. She had her weapon drawn, but concealed—ready
to engage if need be, but out of sight so as not to rouse any suspicion from any neighbors or passersby.
Pulling the keys from the Contessa’s pocket, Harvath unlocked the
heavy oak doors facing the street and they all stepped into a Moorish-style paved courtyard flanked by arched arcades and a splashing fountain in the center. From the second story, flower boxes overflowed with bright purple
hibiscus and electric pink gardenias. Their scent filled the space. Nearby, an alarm panel had started beeping.
The Contessa directed Harvath to it. Then, indicating that she wanted to be cut loose, said, “I need to enter the code.”
“I’ll enter it,” he replied. Adding, “Don’t worry. You can change it after we’re gone.”
She gave him the sequence of numbers.
Before he plugged them in, he warned
her that he had people watching for a response from her alarm company. If this was not a code that legitimately disarmed the alarm, but rather turned the alarm off while simultaneously sending a distress signal, there’d be hell to pay.
He searched her face, looking for any sign of a tell as the beeping increased in intensity.
“Is the code safe?” he demanded.
“You’re running out of time. Yes,”
she replied. “It’s safe.”
He didn’t see anything that suggested she was lying, but to be absolutely sure, he would have needed more time—something he was all but out of.
He decided to punch in the code. Instantly, the beeping stopped.
“We’re in,” he said, over his earbud to Nicholas. “No dogs. No guards. Nothing so far.”
Once his colleague had acknowledged the transmission, Harvath had everyone
stop while he pulled out the drone and launched it from the courtyard. This way, if and when trouble did show up, they’d have eyes on it.
Harvath relocked the oak doors and the Contessa directed her “guests” across the courtyard to an Arabesque entryway which gave way to the main portion of the villa. At a set of tall glass doors that looked to be hundreds of years old, Harvath found the corresponding
key on her ring and opened them.
Entering the house, the woman nodded toward another alarm panel that was beeping. “Same code, but backwards,” she said.
Harvath entered the digits and as the panel fell silent, he took a look at the place. Nicholas obviously had his reasons for disliking her, but it certainly couldn’t have been because she lacked taste. Her home was quite stylish.
looked like a cross between
Lawrence of Arabia.
There were low-slung couches covered with pillows in an array of colors and fronted by ornate, hand-carved, antique tables. Sheer white muslin draperies were offset by potted palms. Large lanterns made of hammered metal hung at different heights from the ceiling. Somewhere, deeper in the villa, came the sound of another fountain.
“My office is that way,” said the Contessa, pointing with her chin down a long hallway to the right.
“In a minute,” said Harvath, as he unslung his pack and transitioned to his short-barrel rifle. “I’m going to take a look around first.”
Montecalvo looked like she was about to say something, but Sølvi cut her off. Gesturing with her pistol to a nearby chair, she said, “Take a seat.” After which,
she looked at Harvath and added, “Keep your eyes peeled for ninjas.”
“Try not to shoot her while I’m gone,” he quipped back before turning and disappearing down the hall.
The house, with all of its closets, nooks, crannies, and other potential hiding places, felt like it took forever to clear. Finally, after checking out the cellar, he returned to his Norwegian counterpart and gave her the all
“Now we can go to your office,” said Sølvi, gesturing with her pistol again.
The Contessa stood up and led the way. Sølvi followed her and Harvath brought up the rear, constantly checking their six.
He had already been inside the woman’s office and had swept it for weapons and other potential hazards. There had been another Beretta, like the one she had brought to the boat, mounted under
her desk, as well as a “baby” Glock 26 in a lower drawer.
On the off chance he had missed anything, he had rearranged her computer monitor, as well as her wireless mouse and keyboard, so that
she’d have to work from the other side of the desk. If she had been contemplating something stupid, it would be a lot harder now.
Dragging over a side chair, he set it in front of the desk and told her
to sit down. He then handed Sølvi his rifle and had her watch the hallway while he cut the Contessa loose and relayed to Nicholas that they were ready to go.
Back in the United States, the little man prepared to return to Montecalvo her most prized piece of intelligence—one of the gems that he had stolen from her.
Though Nicholas could have sold it for a fortune, he had kept it as an insurance
policy. It was pure blackmail gold; an explosive Get Out of Jail Free card implicating some very powerful people in a serious scandal.
And while it had been worth more to him sitting in his digital vault than he ever could have cashed it in for, he owed Harvath his life. It was time to play this card.
To facilitate the exchange, they set up a virtual meeting on the Dark Web. There, they traded
files and took time to authenticate what each had been sent.
Each file contained a fail-safe; a sort of digital self-destruct feature. Only when both had agreed that the deal was satisfactory, could they exit the meeting with what the other party had given them.
In exchange for the return of the prized piece of intelligence Nicholas had stolen from her, the Contessa had handed over what Harvath
and Sølvi wanted—the file on the person who had purchased the information about Carl and Harvath. That was who they were looking for. That was their assassin. Harvath was certain of it.
“What she sent looks good,” Nicholas said. “It will take me a little time to run it all down, but it appears authentic.”
“Are you happy with what you received?” Harvath asked the Contessa.
“Yes,” the woman replied.
“Okay, we’re good on this end too,” he stated over his earbud.
The next part of the puzzle, though, introduced a new problem—how to make sure that after they left, the Contessa didn’t tip off her client.
Allegedly, she didn’t even know who the client was. She had never
met him and the encrypted means of communication he used were constantly changing. Normally, he contacted her when he wanted
something. That was what he had done in regard to Harvath. In return, she had put the blanket word out to her “collectors” that she was looking for anything they had on the American. Kovalyov, it turned out, had something very valuable. And he had been paid well for that information, in no small part because she had been paid
With each client, she had developed a unique follow-up
protocol—a way she could alert them if anything else bubbled up that she thought they might find interesting. Because clients burned even encrypted email addresses after each transaction, she needed another way to ping them.
She used predetermined online auction sites, placing obscure items up for bid, which would trigger alerts to the client in question. It was the modern equivalent of old-school
tradecraft, back when coded messages used to be placed in the classified sections of newspapers around the world. Even today, in the age of modern technology, the simplest solutions were often still the best.
That didn’t change Harvath’s problem, though. How could they know that she wasn’t holding out on them? That she didn’t have another way to reach the client? That she might send out a warning?
In short, there was no way they could know. Their only option was to lock her up—physically or professionally.
Physically meant exactly what it sounded like—they could tie her up, put a bag over her head, and stash her away until they nailed her client.
Professionally it meant offering her something so valuable that she wouldn’t dare jeopardize it by sending out an alert.
Needless to say, Nicholas
was an instant fan of operation “bag-over-the-head.”
Harvath, though, didn’t want to wait around for an extraction team to show up in order to move her to a safe house and sit on her. Depending on where they came from, that could take a while—even if they used The Carlton Group’s Quick Reaction Force.
As soon as the information on the Contessa’s client provided a lead,
he wanted to be wheels
up. Thankfully, back in the United States, Lawlor had agreed with him.
In fact, Lawlor had gone so far as to suggest calling in a favor from the Italians and to have them ready to raid her villa with a terrorism, espionage, or sex-trafficking warrant—anything that would allow Italy to cut her off and throw her in a hole for the next seventy-two hours.
With that said, nothing was supposed to
happen until Harvath gave the green light. Which was why it was so startling to suddenly have four plainclothes gunmen in the hallway.
“Contact right!” Sølvi yelled as they began firing at her. “They’re coming up from the cellar!”
One of the alarm codes
been a distress code. Cops or a security company would have come in through the front door, not up from the basement. In fact, he hadn’t
even seen an entrance down there. There had to have been some hidden door, which only reinforced that she had double-crossed them.
He was about to ask Nicholas if he knew what the hell was going on, when he saw the Contessa lunge for something. That something was yet another hidden pistol.
Harvath pulled his Sig and shot her twice.
“What are we going to do here?” Sølvi shouted from the door.
“Engage!” Harvath yelled back.
As he rushed to join her, he grabbed a flashbang from his pack, pulled the pin, and tossed it into the hall.
“Flashbang!” he yelled, as he and Sølvi pulled back to be protected from the flash, as well as the concussion wave.
Once the device detonated, they swung around the door frame and laid down fire—Sølvi high and Harvath low.
They drilled all four men, filling
them with rounds.
Ducking back into the room, they dropped their mags. Harvath slammed home a fresh one, while Sølvi did the same after grabbing one from the pack.
Over his earbud, Nicholas was demanding to know what had just happened. Harvath told him to stand by.
First, they checked the Contessa. She was dead and already headed toward room temperature.
Cautiously, they swung into the hall
and approached each of the gunmen. Harvath checked them for pulses, but they were dead too.
Studying them, it was obvious that these weren’t cops or security guards sent by an alarm company. They were relatively well dressed, with expensive shoes and gold jewelry. They looked more like mafia, pulled from a party at a local nightclub. And based on Montecalvo’s Sicilian roots, it wouldn’t have
surprised Harvath to learn that she had recruited her own militia—even if she’d had to import them from Sicily.
He gave Nicholas a quick SITREP and then repeated to Sølvi the words that had been said to him in Key West only days ago when his teammates had rescued him, “Time to go.”
“Wait!” Nicholas said, over his earbud. “Check her computer screen. Is she still logged in?”
Harvath looked at
“Okay, before you leave, I need you to do something.”
ith five bodies stacked up at the Contessa’s, Harvath wanted to put as much distance between them and Sirmione as quickly as possible. Sølvi concurred.
After setting Nicholas up so he could remotely delete the footage from the CCTV cameras, they picked up all of their brass, wiped down anything they may have touched, and returned to their hotel.
There, they packed their things,
left a tip for the housekeeper, and, using the back stairs, disappeared.
They lingered in town only long enough for Sølvi to pilot the boat back to the marina, tie it up, and drop the keys in the mailbox of the charter office.
The return journey to Aviano was going to be a little over two and a half hours. And while it would have been a safe idea to go someplace new and unpredictable, the air
base was the most secure. Sølvi offered to drive so that Harvath could work his phone.
His first call was to Admiral Proctor to arrange discreet access back onto the base, a place to hole up, and an aircraft once they knew where they were headed next. Proctor told him he would get it taken care of and ping him back as soon as he had everything set.
Harvath then reached out to Lawlor, who had
asked for a debrief once he was on the road. Though they were using secure, encrypted communications, he was wiped out and kept it short. Lawlor understood and didn’t give him any pushback.
After their call ended, he traded texts with Nicholas. While he was certain his colleague was taking total advantage of being inside the Contessa’s system, grabbing everything he could find, he wanted to make
sure he was focused on the big picture—identifying the assassin who had murdered Carl.
Nicholas assured him that was indeed the case and that they had already begun processing the information from the file. He promised to get back to him as soon as he had something. And with that, Harvath was officially in a holding pattern.
“I’m happy to take over driving if you’d like,” he said.
she replied. “I’m good. Why don’t you get some sleep? This may be your only chance for a bit.”
A part of him wanted to chat and get to know her even better, but he really was exhausted—his jet lag still weighing on him. She was offering him a gift. He decided to take it. Leaning the seat back, he closed his eyes.
When he awoke to the sound of his phone, he thought he had been out for only a
few minutes. Looking at the clock, he saw that he had been asleep for well over an hour.
It was Admiral Proctor, calling to give him the details of who would be meeting them and where, as well as what their aircraft options were and how best to lock that in once they knew their destination.
After everything had been explained, Harvath thanked him and disconnected the call.
Proctor would have
a team meet them in the nearby town of Sacile, take care of the Jeep, and handle getting them onto the base.
With more than fifty nuclear weapons housed at Aviano, security was incredibly tight. But there was a reason Proctor had been so good at helming both SOCOM and CENTCOM. He had an excellent mind for clandestine operations.
Harvath plugged the new destination into his GPS and filled Sølvi
in on the change of plan.
She had no problem with the detour. In fact, it made a lot of sense.
This was a NATO air base they were headed to, but it was under Italian jurisdiction. The Carabinieri, who were one of Italy’s main law enforcement agencies, fell under Italy’s Ministry of Defense. They had a wide purview and could cause a lot of trouble if police in Sirmione put out an alert and somehow
their vehicle was reported as having been seen at Aviano.
There was no telling how long they’d have to be on the base. The best course of action was to adopt a low profile and not give the Carabinieri, or any other Italian authorities, a reason to come looking for them there.
Proctor’s team met them in Sacile with a row of three SUVs. The team leader introduced himself and explained that Harvath
and Sølvi had been cleared onto the base by Brigadier General Sandra Collins, commander of the 31st Fighter Wing. He explained their cover story, and asked for their passports, as well as the keys to the Jeep.
Like Harvath, Sølvi was also traveling under an assumed identity—one of the many Carl had created for her.
She and Harvath handed over their passports and, after transferring their gear
into their SUV, the column got rolling.
They moved with the tight precision of a team that had repeatedly driven in combat. Even in their tiny cars, no Italian was going to be able to slide in between any of their vehicles.
It took just under fifteen minutes to make the drive from Sacile to Aviano. Bollards, chain link fencing, and razor wire surrounded the entire base. At the gate, they swung,
en masse, into a lane reserved for VIPs.
The team leader handed over the passports for Harvath and Sølvi, while all the other team members presented their Installation Access Control System passes and ID cards.
While one guard used a handheld scanner to verify all the IACS documentation, another approached the center SUV with a clipboard to compare the names on it to the passports and faces
of the two VIPs about to enter.
As the verification was being conducted, more guards, including two canine units, swept the vehicles, including their cargo areas.
Harvath knew that this was standard operating procedure. The dogs were searching for high-grade explosives, not small arms. He and Sølvi
were being escorted by a protective detail. If the dogs were looking for guns, they’d be going
crazy over this team. Every one of them was armed.
Almost as soon as the security screening had begun, the passports were handed back, and the gate guards were waving the column through.
They drove to an admin building with holding rooms similar to the one Harvath had been placed in at Chièvres Air Base, though nicer and much more modern.
The team helped unload their gear and get them checked
in. The team leader provided them with his cell number and told them to reach out if they needed anything else. Harvath thanked everyone and said good night.
Sølvi had been assigned the room next to Harvath’s. They agreed to try to get a few hours of sleep and then find breakfast.
After chugging a bottle of water and downing a couple of small packages of almonds, Harvath lay down on the couch
in his room. He thought about brushing his teeth, but found he didn’t even have the energy to get back up. All he cared about was getting some sleep.
Kicking off his boots, he adjusted the cushion under his head and closed his eyes. His thoughts, though, wouldn’t let him rest.
He had heard it referred to as “monkey mind”—the way everything kept jumping around.
Normally when he closed his eyes,
he saw Lara. That happened this time too, but then his mind switched to Marco and what the little boy had been through. Not only had his father died just before he was born, but he had also lost his mom and had been caught up in some sort of failed, violent attempted kidnapping, accompanied by plenty of gunfire.
Harvath couldn’t even to begin to imagine what all the long-term impacts would be.
How do you even begin to have a “normal” childhood, much less grow into a healthy, fully functioning adult with that kind of stuff in your past?
What worried Harvath even more was what was to come. Lara’s parents were wonderful people, but they were much older. What would happen if one or, God forbid, both of them passed before Marco was old enough to be on his own? How much pain could a child
take? Just thinking about it threatened to shatter his heart into a thousand more pieces.
He needed to put his thoughts about Marco and Lara in that iron box, weld it shut again, and shove it as far back into his mental attic as it would go. The pain only served to drain his energy and exhaust him further.
An unhealthy part of him suggested a nightcap would be worth getting up for and would
quiet his mind. He knew, though, that it wouldn’t end well. He shoved that thought down too.
Looking for anything else he could lose himself in, he allowed his mind to drift. It landed on the woman next door.
As he thought about Sølvi, their lunch on the boat, and how her smile had dazzled him, everything else slipped away and he slowly began to unwind.
Not long after, he drifted off, sleep
having locked him firmly in its grasp.
It was dark and dreamless, like tumbling off a cliff into a bottomless, midnight pit. He slept hard and deep.
At some point, the brain needed to power down—if only for a little while. Shock, trauma, and constant threats created an environment where the central nervous system—without periods of rest—could begin to deteriorate. Sleep was the key to remaining
sharp. And his ability to remain sharp—to function at his absolute optimal limit—was what gave him his edge.
Unlike in the Jeep, this time he was able to get several hours of shut-eye. But when he awoke, he thought he had overslept. It sounded like Sølvi was knocking on his door.
After a few moments, he realized that the sound he was hearing wasn’t someone knocking at his door, but rather his
cell phone vibrating atop the wooden coffee table next to him.
Reaching over, he picked it up and squinted at the caller ID. It was Nicholas. He couldn’t imagine what time it was back in the States.
Activating the call, he said, “You must have something.”
“I absolutely do,” the little man replied.
“What is it?”
“I think I know who the assassin is.”
Harvath sat up on the couch. “Talk to me.”
“In order to catch Carl’s killer, I thought maybe we should set loose the most terrifying organization the United States has ever created.”
“Which is?” he replied, eyeing the coffee machine.
“The Internal Revenue Service.”
He smiled. They certainly were disliked by a lot of people in the United States. That said, Harvath would have guessed that Nicholas would have taken a shot like that at
his old nemesis, the National Security Agency.
Nevertheless, maybe the IRS did make sense. After all, the most relevant data in the Contessa’s file had to do with financial transactions.
“So, lay it out for me. What’s the connection?”
“Remember OAKSTAR?” Nicholas asked.
“The NSA’s internet surveillance program that Snowden revealed?”
“Precisely. While everyone was freaking out about their
Facebook posts, emails, and private messages being gobbled up by the government, there was a whole other vein the U.S. government was mining. Uncle Sam was tracking all senders and receivers of bitcoin—
“According to the documents Snowden released, it went deeper than just the records contained in the blockchain—the ledger where users are designated via ‘anonymous’ identifiers.
The NSA had actually collected passwords, years’ worth of internet activity, IP addresses, and unique device identification numbers also referred to as MAC addresses. In short, if you ever even googled the word
, chances were the NSA had targeted your computer and had sucked up all the data they could pull from it.”
Harvath had dealt with the NSA on multiple occasions. They had always
been super people to work with. That said, there were more than a few high-level executives there who gave him pause.
“Snowden’s revelation,” Nicholas continued, “spooked a lot of users and sent them scrambling for added layers of encryption and protection. That’s where the IRS comes in.
“They had been working on something, a software program capable of tracking financial transactions that was
light-years ahead of OAKSTAR. They just needed a partner with enough computing muscle and a network with an all-powerful, global reach.”
“Enter the NSA.”
“You got it,” the little man replied. “It’s a brilliant joint venture. Together, they can outthink, outsmart, and outreach even the best criminals.”
“Which is how you got our assassin?”
“Sending you his picture now,” said Nicholas, transmitting
the photo. “Meet Paul Vincent Aubertin.”
Harvath watched as the photo appeared on his phone.
“His financial transactions were super murky and very convoluted,” the little man admitted. “But the IRS program loves those kinds of challenges. Eats them for breakfast. As soon as we fed it the information we got from the Contessa, it began to unspool every transaction.
“He was good.
He used a combination of anonymous bank and cryptocurrency accounts, particularly bitcoin, to move money around and make payments. But deep in his banking history, he set up an account with a one-time transfer from another, rather interesting account.”
“What made it so interesting?” Harvath asked.
“The account received a pension payment from the French Foreign Legion before the payment was directed
That wasn’t something Harvath had seen coming. First, Irish mobsters in Boston and now the French Foreign Legion? What the hell was going on?
“That’s how you sourced the name Paul Aubertin?”
“Correct,” Nicholas replied. “I may have accessed a certain French military database, which is where I got the photo. But that’s just the start. When I searched for a facial match to any
photos online, I discovered a private, password-protected Foreign Legion website. In a group photo, you can see Aubertin. But three people to his left is someone else I think you might recognize. I’m sending it now.”
Harvath waited for it to come through and when it did, he said, “The assassin who tried to kill me in Key West.”
“His name is Didier Defraigne. He’s Belgian. He and Aubertin served
in the Foreign Legion at the same time.”
“Is Aubertin also Belgian?” Harvath asked, backing up.
“No. Are you ready for this? He’s actually Irish—at least that was what his passport said when he joined the Foreign Legion. He was injured in Kosovo and per French law, he was able to apply for and receive French citizenship.”
“What do the Irish say about him?”
“According to Ireland’s Directorate
of Military Intelligence, there was a passport issued in that name at the end of 1999, but they have no record of any citizen named Paul Vincent Aubertin.”