Read Near Dark: A Thriller Online

Authors: Brad Thor

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

Near Dark: A Thriller (3 page)

BOOK: Near Dark: A Thriller
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CHAPTER 3

H
arvath knew better than to fight inside the bar. There were too many things that could go wrong. There were also too many witnesses—any number of whom could have whipped out a phone, filmed what was taking place, and posted it to the internet, or worse—shared it with the police, who would share it with a jury. No matter how justified Harvath might have been, his fighting style was
brutal. For average people unaccustomed to violence, it was difficult to watch and would win him little, if any, sympathy in a courtroom. It wouldn’t matter who had started the fight, all a transfixed jury would be focused on was how he had ended it. Taking it outside was the smart move.

Outside there weren’t any cameras. Outside he could do whatever he wanted. Outside he could let his rage off
its chain.

Whoever these assholes were, he was going to make them pay for everything bad that had happened to him.

It didn’t matter that they had nothing to do with any of it. They were begging for an ass-kicking and ass-kickings happened to be one of his specialties. Suggesting the bartender call for two ambulances wasn’t hyperbole, it was a courtesy. He was going to beat the shit out of both
of them. The sooner they got this over with, the better.

The night was thick with humidity as they squared up behind the building. Harvath did a quick scan for any cameras he may have missed, as well as for any stray items that might get picked up and used as weapons.
Nothing
. It was time to get to work.

Already taunting him with a string of insults, the smaller of the two men had made a critical
error. Puffing out his chest, he had also foolishly raised his chin. Harvath stepped right in and delivered a devastating throat punch.

The man’s hands reflexively flew to his neck as he stumbled backward, struggling to breathe.

Harvath spun to face the guy’s partner, but didn’t move fast enough. The larger man had already shifted to the left and landed a massive punch to the side of his head
that caused him to see stars. He felt his knees buckle as he fell to the ground.

It was a stupid mistake. Harvath should have seen it coming, but his rage and his ego had gotten the better of him. He had been overconfident and now he was in trouble.
Big
trouble.

In a street fight the ground was the deadliest place to be. His opponent, well aware that he had the upper hand, took full advantage;
kicking him over and over as hard as he could.

Within the first couple of kicks, the smaller man—having recovered his ability to breathe—reappeared and put the boot to him as well. It would only be a matter of time before one of them began kicking him in the head. Once that happened, the fight would be over. Harvath had to do something.
Fast
.

He rolled onto his side, and as he did the two men
increased the intensity of the kicking.

Rocking onto his elbow as he absorbed the blows, he used his hand to brace himself and began to push up and off the ground. As soon as he had his legs beneath him, all he needed was enough space to get back onto his feet.

As his attackers moved in a circle around him, Harvath spun as well. Using his free arm to parry the punches and kicks, he searched
for an opening. When it presented itself, he exploded into a standing position, hammering the larger man in the groin on the way up.

The move took both assailants by surprise. Harvath was back in the fight and showed no mercy. Slipping away from a poorly aimed punch by the smaller man, Scot pounded him with a vicious jab-cross-hook combination.

There was the crack of cartilage and a spray of
blood as he broke the man’s nose with the first punch and sent him, unconscious, to the ground with the hook.

Careful not to make the mistake he had made previously, he kept both of his hands up to protect his head. He was already moving as the bigger man closed the distance and slammed him with a series of heavy punches. No matter what he did to stay outside his reach, his opponent still found
a way to land his blows.

The man was an exceptional fighter and Harvath was forced to keep his hands up to protect his face and head. As he did, he left his body exposed and took a wave of painful strikes in many of the same areas he had already been kicked. When the man landed two solid kidney punches, Harvath was sure he’d be pissing blood for a week.

This fight had been much harder than he
had anticipated. He needed to bring an end to it.

As his opponent stepped forward to deliver another series of punches, Harvath unleashed a blistering side kick, destroying the man’s left knee. From there, he moved in and lit the guy up.

It was a flurry of knees, fists, and elbows. Every single blow found its target. As each strike landed, Harvath’s rage erupted out of him like an uncapped oil
well.

The assault came so fast and from so many different directions that the larger man couldn’t even defend himself. When he put up his hands and arms to protect his head, Harvath attacked his body. When he tried to protect his body, Harvath went after his head and face.

All the while, the man kept his remaining good knee protected, knowing that if Harvath connected with it, that would be
the end of the fight.

Sensing what the man was doing, Harvath feigned dropping his guard.

It presented such a perfect target, that even in his bloody, battered state, the man couldn’t resist taking one powerful, final swing in the hope of knocking Harvath out. It was the last mistake he made.

No sooner had he stepped into his punch, than Harvath pivoted off the line of attack and took out his
opponent’s right knee with another side kick.

As the giant fell, Harvath met his face halfway down with an
enormous uppercut, snapping the attacker’s head straight back, knocking him unconscious. The fight was over.

Or so Harvath had thought.

One of the number-one rules in a street brawl was to always watch for other assailants. Just because you couldn’t see them, didn’t mean they weren’t out
there—friends of the combatants, eagerly waiting to jump in, or even sadistic onlookers hoping to land a cheap shot when your guard was down.

Usually, Harvath had good situational awareness. He knew to look for these kinds of things. This time, though, he had failed to.

Maybe it was the bourbon. Maybe it was the sweat stinging his eyes. Maybe he had simply lost a step.

Whatever it was, when
a figure stepped out of the shadows and pointed a suppressed pistol at him, he knew he was going to die.

CHAPTER 4

H
arvath had no idea who had come to kill him. He had made so many enemies over his career that it could have been anyone, or any organization, or just a random asshole.

He had cheated death so often, though, that it was hard to believe it had finally caught up with him. He only hoped that it would be quick. And, that if there was a heaven on the other side, that Lara would be waiting
for him there. Straightening up, he turned to fully face his killer.

The man holding the weapon stood about five-foot-ten, so they were essentially eye-to-eye. He was slim but fit, with brown hair, brown eyes, and pale skin. His features were nondescript and of indeterminate origin. In a word, he was utterly forgettable—a quintessential “gray man” if Harvath had ever seen one.

He radiated an
icy calm. His breathing was steady and his weapon didn’t tremble. Clearly, he was a professional and had done this kind of work before.

There was nothing in his eyes, nothing in his face that signaled a motivation—no rage, no vengeance, no passion. He didn’t look like someone Harvath had directly wronged. No, this was a
transaction
—cold, detached, and impersonal.

While Harvath wanted to know
who had sent the man and why, he refrained from asking. He wasn’t going to give the killer, or more importantly his employer, the satisfaction.

Besides, there was no need to drag the whole thing out. If this was
how his life was going to end, he planned to exhibit some modicum of stoicism. Might as well just do it and get it over with.

Stopping just at the edge of the shadows, the killer maintained
his distance, bolstering Harvath’s assessment that he was a professional. He didn’t need to come any nearer. He had watched Harvath fight and would know that getting too close could end badly. Better to stay where he was, take the shot, and disappear back into the darkness before anyone knew what had happened.

What’s more, if he was a pro, he would have done his homework. He would have known
Harvath was too smart and too well trained to have risked sneaking up on him.

Sending two knuckle-draggers to lure him outside was smart. They’d probably been paid to beat him within an inch of his life and take off before the cops got there. What the hooligans wouldn’t have known, was that once they had fled, the hitter’s plan was to materialize and finish the job. Smarter still, the cops wouldn’t
have been looking for a lone, mysterious gunman. Based on the accounts of everyone in the bar, the knuckle-draggers would have been the prime suspects. The hitter would have walked away clean. Harvath had completely thrown a wrench in that plan.

No doubt, the two bruisers were expendable. Whether they regained consciousness and escaped before the police arrived was their problem. The killer had
only one priority at this moment—taking out his target.

In the distance, the klaxons of emergency vehicles could already be heard. The assassin was running out of time. It was now or never.

As if reading his mind, the man took a deep breath, looked down the slide of his pistol, and adjusted his sight picture.

Harvath wasn’t afraid to die. He didn’t look away or close his eyes. In fact, he kept
them locked right on his killer.

The assassin began to apply pressure to the trigger and Harvath knew the moment had arrived. He braced for the worst. And then it came.

There was a muffled pop followed by silence. That was it. He felt no pain. In fact, he was still very much alive.

How was that possible? Had the assassin missed? Had his weapon malfunctioned? A fraction of a second later, Harvath
had his answer.

Blood began to trickle from a hole in the would-be killer’s forehead.
And as he collapsed to the ground, Harvath realized the man had been shot by someone else.
But by whom?

Suddenly, four men carrying suppressed weapons appeared out of nowhere. Their faces were obscured by balaclavas and night vision goggles.
What the hell was going on?

“Time to go,” one of them ordered. Harvath
instantly recognized the voice.

Before he could reply, two of the men had grabbed him under the arms and were steering him toward a narrow gangway.

Glancing over his shoulder, he caught a glimpse of the other men swiftly unfurling a body bag and placing the dead man inside.

When they emerged from the gangway, a dark panel van was idling at the curb. As they approached it, the door slid open
and he climbed in. The two men with him stood guard outside. It smelled like disinfectant.

Seconds later, the other men arrived with the body bag. Once the corpse was loaded, everyone piled in, and the van took off. As it did, the occupants began removing their night vision goggles and balaclavas. One by one, the faces of his teammates were revealed.

The first one belonged to the man whose voice
he had recognized—Mike Haney. With his square jaw and close-cropped hair, the six-foot-tall Force Recon Marine looked like he had stepped out of a recruiting ad.

“What the hell just happened?” Harvath asked.

“We saved your life,” Haney replied. “
Again
.”

The man was right of course. If it hadn’t been for them, Harvath wouldn’t have made it back to the United States from his last mission alive.
But what were they doing here?

Tyler Staelin, the team’s de facto medic, removed a penlight from his medical kit, clicked it on, and asked Harvath to follow it with his eyes. Once the five-foot-ten former Delta Force operative was satisfied with his colleague’s neurological function, he began running through a checklist of questions to assess other possible injuries.

Harvath replied to about
three of them before growing frustrated. “I’m fine,” he said. “Answer my question.”

Staelin cracked a pair of cold packs and handed them to him. “Place these wherever you need them.”

Harvath slid them under his shirt and, with great discomfort, held them against his rib cage. “What the hell’s going on?” he repeated. “What are you doing here?”

Their silence was unsettling. Gallows humor came
with the territory and ran deep with this crew. Normally, he couldn’t get them to shut up. The fact that nobody was answering could only mean one thing. They had bad news.

It was Chase Palmer, the team’s other ex–Delta Force operative, who finally spoke up. In addition to looking like a younger version of Harvath, he had also been personally recruited by the Old Man. “We got a tip from the Norwegian
Intelligence Service,” he stated.

Harvath’s frustration was growing. “What kind of tip?”

“Carl Pedersen was murdered.”

CHAPTER 5

I
t was like being hit by a truck. Carl Pedersen was not only Harvath’s best intelligence contact in Scandinavia, but he had also been a friend. The Old Man had introduced them and, despite their age difference, they had become close. Pedersen’s loss was devastating, especially on the heels of losing his wife and two dear friends.

“When did it happen?”

“Four days ago,” Chase replied.
“Maybe more. His body wasn’t discovered until today. A neighbor found him. At his country house.”

“How was he killed?”

“From what the Norwegians say, it wasn’t pretty. He had been tied up and tortured. Then he was shot, once, in the chest. The round went straight through his heart.”

Not one prone to showing his cards—particularly his emotional ones—Harvath blanched. That was a shitty way to
go, especially for someone like Pedersen.

He had been a good man. Old-school. Willing to bend and even break a few rules here and there if it meant saving lives. He had been a spy’s spy. There weren’t a lot like him at the Norwegian Intelligence Service. Sharing a border with Russia—and all the malign activity therein—Norway had been lucky to have him. He wouldn’t be easy to replace.

It sounded
like a professional job. What didn’t make sense, though, was why the Norwegians had notified them. “What prompted the call?” he asked. “Why reach out to us?”

Reluctant to let the other shoe drop, Chase didn’t respond. He knew what a blow it was going to be.

Piloting the van toward Naval Air Station Key West, Sloane Ashby was the team’s lone female operative and also another one of its youngest.
Ex-Army, she had been recruited by the Old Man as well. She was not only attractive, but she could also be quite funny. Now, though, wasn’t a time for jokes. It was time to tear the Band-Aid off and give it to Harvath straight.

“The working theory at NIS is that Pedersen was tortured in order to get access to his phone and laptop.”

Harvath caught her eyes in the rearview mirror. “Why? What for?”

“According to their computer forensics people, the killer was building a dossier.”

“On what?”

“Not on
what
. On
who
.”

As a pair of police cars went racing past them, it all came crashing down on him. “Me?”

Haney put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “That’s why the Norwegians reached out. They wanted to warn you. The killer accessed Pedersen’s phone, his laptop, and the secure NIS database.
Every recent search appears to be related to you.”

Harvath didn’t want to believe what he was hearing.
Not because of him. Not another murder.

It was like having the truck that had just hit you, back up, and do it all over again. He needed another drink—a big one. Probably more than one.

Turning his gaze to the body bag, he managed, “So that’s the guy.”

“We think so, but there’s not much to
go on. The killer didn’t leave any evidence at the scene in Norway.”

It had to be him
, Harvath thought. He didn’t believe in coincidences.

“How did you know he was going to be here, tonight, on Key West?”

“We didn’t,” said Haney.

“Then how did you find me?”

“When you didn’t pick up your phone, we were worried it might already be too late.”

“I’ve had it turned off. It’s in a drawer back in—”

“Back in your room,” Haney said, interrupting him. “Yeah, we know. We found it. That’s the first place we hit when we got here.”

Harvath knew that the phone didn’t need to be turned on for it to be tracked.

“In order to get word to you,” Haney continued, “we asked Key West PD to go by and do a wellness check. They did, but your room was empty. Eventually, they tracked down the property manager,
who said he’d seen you earlier and everything appeared fine. The cops left a note in your room, as well as with the property manager to call Uncle Paul.”

Call Uncle Paul
was a distress code. Had Harvath received that message, he would have known that he was in danger and should make contact as quickly as possible.

“How did you figure out to come by the bar?” he asked. “I’ve never brought my
phone there and I always pay cash.”

Haney withdrew the receipt upon which the bartender had written her name and cell number and handed it to Harvath. “Her phone wasn’t turned on either.”

“Probably because she was tending bar,” said Harvath.

“We didn’t know what to think. Because it was off, we couldn’t call, but we could track it. Once we got a lock, we headed straight over.”

Harvath had
thought about throwing the woman’s number away, but in the end had hung on to it. He wasn’t planning on sleeping with her. At least he hadn’t thought he was. But in all of his despair and loneliness, there was part of him that craved the touch of another human being.

That phone number had saved his life. And even though The Carlton Group had its own private jet, they must have moved heaven and
earth to get to him as fast as they had. A few seconds later and he would have been dead. At the very least, he owed his teammates a thank-you.

“Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” Haney replied. “No more funerals.”

Harvath nodded. It was a noble ambition, but he didn’t know how realistic it was. Death was an occupational hazard in their line of work. It came with the territory.

The goal,
of course, was to make sure the bad guys were the ones
doing the dying. But, as evidenced by Lara, the Old Man, Lydia, and now Carl Pedersen, that wasn’t always possible.

Gesturing toward the body bag again, Harvath stated, “This has got to be the same guy. There must be something that ties him to Carl.”

Haney agreed. “This is priority one for the Norwegians. Who knows what evidence they’ve
developed since we last heard from them. We’ll take prints, a retinal scan, and photos for facial recognition on the flight home.”

Home
. The term didn’t resonate with him the way it once had. Home used to be a place he longed to return to after dangerous assignments abroad. It was what he had been building with Lara and Marco—a life, a family—something worth living for and coming back to. Now,
he had nothing.

As he teetered on the edge of an all-consuming darkness that threatened to swallow him whole, he needed to face his demons—in his time, in his own way. If he survived, great. If not, then so be it. It wasn’t time for his self-imposed exile to end.

“Drop me off at the next corner,” he ordered.

Sloane caught his eyes in the rearview mirror and then flicked her gaze to Haney.

“Scot,” said Haney. “It’s not safe for you to stay here.”

“I don’t plan on staying. But I’m a big boy and can handle myself. Maybe I’ll follow in Hemingway’s footsteps. Head down to Cuba. Do some fishing.”
And a hell of a lot more drinking.

“That’d be a bad idea,” Staelin interjected.

“Why’s that?”

“Besides Cuba being a communist dictatorship and you being one of the most anticommunist people
I’ve ever known?”

“Yeah, besides that.”

Staelin glanced at Haney as if seeking permission to answer the question. But before he could, Chase jumped back in. “There may be more than one assassin out there looking for you.”

Harvath turned to him. “What are you talking about?”

“We have a piece of information that the Norwegians don’t.”

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