Read Near Dark: A Thriller Online

Authors: Brad Thor

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

Near Dark: A Thriller (6 page)

BOOK: Near Dark: A Thriller
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Stepping inside Hawthorn, the first thing he noticed was the smell.
Oranges
. Back when he had been working the President’s detail, all the cabins had smelled like soap. Irish Spring to be exact. This was definitely an improvement.

The furnishings,
though, were still the same—simple and
understated. The bed had crisp linens. There were bottles of water. The bathroom, though dated, sparkled. It wasn’t the Ritz. Not by a long shot. Harvath didn’t care.

Inside the slim wardrobe, an array of clothes had been left for him. Someone had obviously been alerted that he would be arriving without luggage.

What they hadn’t been alerted to was that
in addition to needing something to wear, he would also be needing something to drink.

Just because he hadn’t wanted to step off the Black Hawk with a roadie in his hand, didn’t mean that now that he was in his cabin he didn’t want to recommence his pain management routine.

Walking over to the telephone, he was about to ring for a steward, when there was a knock at his door.

The stewards at
Camp David were good at anticipating guests’ desires, but he doubted they were
that
good.

Crossing to the door, he opened it. There, standing between two enormous dogs, was the person he had been brought to see.

CHAPTER 8

T
he dogs whined, eager to get at Harvath. Their owner, though, was having none of it. He issued a quick, one-word command and the incredible animals fell silent.

Standing less than three feet tall, the little man—who suffered from primordial dwarfism—didn’t even come up to the shoulders of his two, massive Caucasian Ovcharkas. The physical juxtaposition was impressive. Even more impressive
was the intelligence, discipline, and fealty shown by the creatures.

“I thought you might want a nightcap,” said the little man. “Along with some answers.”

“I could use both,” Harvath replied.

Nicholas smiled and, with another quick, one-word command, released the dogs from discipline and allowed them to rush Harvath.

Throughout global intelligence circles, the little man was known as the
“Troll.” To his friends, he was known simply as Nicholas.

He had once been one of the world’s leading purveyors of black-market intelligence. He had also once been Harvath’s nemesis. Time and circumstance had a way of changing things, as well as people.

It was an odd, crooked path—filled with treachery, deceit, retribution, and penance—that led to where they were now. They had gone from being
directly opposed to each other; combatants to comrades in arms. As their mutual respect and appreciation had grown, they had formed an unbreakable bond. They had become like brothers. Family.

After greeting Argos and Draco, and doling out plenty of head patting and behind-the-ears scratching, Harvath let Nicholas know he was ready for that drink.

Their party decamped for the cabin next door
where Nicholas and his dogs had been installed.

Per their training, Argos and Draco stayed close to their master as they traversed the short distance through the trees. The little man had made powerful enemies over his career. The fact that he had joined The Carlton Group and had changed many of his ways made no difference to them. There were certain grudges, certain wrongs that could never be
forgiven. Lives had been destroyed by the information he had trafficked in. The dogs were in place to protect him should anyone show up on his doorstep looking to settle an old score. As Harvath was currently being hunted down himself, he completely understood.

They made small talk as they walked—Harvath dreading the inevitable question he knew was coming.
How are you doing?

It was why Key West—and
Little Palm Island until he had been kicked off—had been good. No one knew him. No one asked him difficult, painful questions. In a way, it had felt as if he had outrun his old life. Then, just like that, it had caught up to him again. And now here he was.

Nicholas, who had been born in Soviet Georgia, abandoned by his parents, and raised in a brothel, was no stranger to pain either. He had no
desire to inflict any, unnecessarily, on Harvath.

The Carlton Group had become the little man’s home. The losses of Reed Carlton and Lydia Ryan had been devastating for him too. He had also cared very deeply for Lara and his heart broke for his friend at losing his new wife. With that said, they had a serious problem to deal with—and Harvath needed to face it head-on.

Entering the Holly cabin,
Nicholas led his friend out onto the screened-in porch. There, he had an ice bucket, bottles of water, a bottle of Blanton’s Gold bourbon, and a box of Cohiba cigars.

“You got the best berth at Camp David,” Harvath remarked as they sat down.

“I wanted Aspen,” Nicholas joked, “but President Porter said no.”

A brief smiled flashed across Harvath’s face. He wouldn’t have put it
past Nicholas to
have asked for the President’s personal cabin. He was a man of incredibly fine taste and boundless appetites—particularly when it came to food, wine, and, until recently, extremely expensive women. He had been tamed—or so it had appeared—and Harvath felt terrible for not having asked about his girlfriend, Nina.

They had been on again, off again so many times, it was hard to know what the exact
status of their relationship was. Before everything had gone upside down at The Carlton Group, Lydia had told Harvath that, in her opinion, the volatility in the relationship was what drew Nicholas and Nina so passionately to each other.

“How’s Nina?” Harvath asked.

Nicholas paused for a moment before responding, searching for the right words. Finally, he replied, “She’s good.”

There was something
about the little man’s expression, something that caught Harvath’s attention. “Just
good
?”

“We don’t know yet.”

“What does that mean?”

Nicholas picked up the box of Cohibas and offered him one. “It looks like I’m going to be a father.”

Harvath was dumbstruck and, for a moment, didn’t know how to respond. All Harvath had ever wanted was a family of his own. He had almost, finally, had one with
Lara and her son, but it had been snatched from him.

Now, here was Nicholas, on the verge of being given that priceless gift, yet the downbeat tone with which he delivered the news suggested he was anything but happy.

“What’s wrong with you?” asked Harvath. “That’s wonderful news. You make it sound like you’ve just been diagnosed with a terminal illness.”

“What’s wrong with
me
? All you have
to do is look,” he said, waving his hand over his body, emphasizing how small he was. “What if the baby is born like this?”

“What if it isn’t?”

“What if it
is
?”

Harvath understood his friend’s concern, but the chances that
Nicholas and Nina’s baby would also suffer from primordial dwarfism were so small they were almost nonexistent. The condition required a mutant gene from
both
parents and
therefore was incredibly rare.

“Everything is going to be okay,” said Harvath as he chose a cigar. “When is she due?”

“In seven months. Give or take.”

“Your baby is going to be beautiful. Trust me. You’re going to be a great father.”

Nicholas began laughing so hard, he nearly dropped the box. “From Marquis de Sade to Mother Goose. Sounds like a seamless transition.”

Again, Harvath smiled.
He had missed him. “I didn’t say it would be easy. I said you’d be great at it. And you will be. Congratulations.”

“Thank you for the vote of confidence,” he replied. Selecting a cigar for himself, he then placed the box on the small table between them and offered Harvath the cutter.

“You first,” his friend said.

After Nicholas had snipped his cigar, he tossed the cutter over to Harvath followed
by the lighter.

The tips of their cigars glowed a bright orange as the men puffed away in the semidarkness of the porch and blew heavy clouds of smoke into the air.

Nodding toward the bourbon, the bottled water, and the ice, Nicholas intimated that it was time for Harvath to pour.

Once the drinks were made, they quietly clinked glasses and then settled back in their chairs. There was no toast.
Neither wanted to break the silence that had settled over them. For the moment, they enjoyed not saying anything at all.

It could last only so long. Finally, it was Harvath who spoke. “Okay, what the hell is going on?”

CHAPTER 9

W
ith the Old Man dead, Lydia Ryan dead, and Harvath not interested, the management of The Carlton Group had fallen upon Nicholas. Right after the murders, when Harvath had gone missing, he had proven himself more than worthy of the challenge. He had worked tirelessly to get him back. This new threat they were facing, though, frightened him even more—and he didn’t scare easily.

Exhaling
a cloud of smoke, he asked, “Where do you want me to start?”

“Who was the assassin in Key West?”

“We don’t know, yet.”

“Is it the same person who killed Carl Pedersen?”

“We don’t know that either.”

“Chase said there may be more than one assassin. He also said we have intel the Norwegians don’t.”

Nicholas set his cigar in the ashtray and looked at his friend. “It’s only RUMINT. Nothing confirmed.”

Harvath was familiar with the term. RUMINT stood for Rumor Intelligence. He waited for Nicholas to fill him in, and when he didn’t, he cocked an eyebrow as if to say,
spill it
.

“Allegedly, someone, or some organization, took out a one-hundred-million-dollar contract on a single individual. At this point, it’s just whispers. Barely audible chatter on the Dark Web and in other
remote places. We
didn’t share it with the Norwegians because in our opinion it was too vague.”

“And you think the subject of this contract is me?” asked Harvath.

Nicholas nodded. “That’s my concern. That’s why we brought you here.”

“But why not one of our safe houses? Or one of the Agency’s?”

“Do you want the tactical or the practical answer first?”

“Tactical,” Harvath replied.

“One hundred million dollars
can buy even the worst kind of person a lot of friends. It’s such a huge bounty, we didn’t know whom we could trust.”

“Even within our organization?”

“Somehow, an assassin picked up your trail and tracked you to Key West. Only a handful of us knew you were in Florida.”

“I had my cell phone. Used my credit cards now and then. I wasn’t exactly trying to disappear.”

“Nope,” said Nicholas. “But
if there really is this kind of a contract out on you, we have to assume it’s only being shopped to the best.”

“More than one assassin, though? That’s not normally how this is done.”

“That’s part of the RUMINT as well. Supposedly, the contract was put out to a pool. Whoever closes it out first, gets the bounty. That’s why we came so hard and fast to get you.”

“So, out of an abundance of caution,
you said no to our portfolio of safe houses, no to the CIA’s, but yes to Camp David?”

“That’s the practical side of this. I wanted one location with no additional movements. None of the ‘different bed every night’ scenarios like some sort of Mexican drug lord or Middle Eastern dictator. Place you and encase you. That’s the plan.

“What’s more, I didn’t want to be cooped up in some house, especially
not with the dogs. Here, we’ve got two hundred of the most secure acres in the world. A squirrel can’t even get within one hundred feet of the perimeter without the Marines knowing about it.”

“Aren’t you afraid of one of
them
being bought off?”

“A, no, and B, by whom? No one knows we’re here except for McGee,
who made the request, and President Porter, who gave his approval. I guarantee you,
neither of them is going to be bought off.”

Nicholas was right about that. Bob McGee was the Director of the CIA and Lydia Ryan’s boss before she had moved over to The Carlton Group. Harvath trusted McGee. He also knew that the Marines who served at Camp David were not only exemplary, but also rigorously vetted.

“Plus,” Nicholas continued, “only if we were camped out at the NSA or the Situation
Room back at the White House, could we access faster and more secure networks. This is the perfect bolt-hole.”

Harvath agreed. It made sense on several levels. Nodding, he steered the conversation back to his earlier questioning. “Let’s say the contract does exist and I’m the target. Who’s behind it? Who have I pissed off badly enough to put up one hundred million dollars to take me out?”

“Even
at their most flush, bin Laden and al Qaeda wouldn’t have been able to come up with one hundred million, much less give it away. ISIS, though, is a different story.”

“How so?”

“They’re the Goldman Sachs of the terrorism world. They may have lost the land that made up their caliphate, but they didn’t lose their bank accounts. According to an Iraqi Intelligence report, they still have access to
over two and a half billion dollars.
And
, they hate your guts.”

Harvath began to make a mental list. “Okay, they’re contestant number one. Keep going. Who else?”

“As far as terrorism organizations?” Nicholas asked. “Ones that have those kinds of funds and enough reason to want to spend that kind of money on you? That’s all I’ve got at the moment.”

“How about non-terrorism-related organizations?”

“There are various crime organizations around the world that could launch a hundred-million-dollar contract. But to be honest, I can’t think of one you’ve pissed off badly enough to warrant it.”

“So what does that leave us with?”

“You’ve dispatched some exceedingly wealthy bad actors. These people left behind enormous sums of money. If their heirs were smart, they’d be out living it up, but
sometimes heirs aren’t smart, they’re vengeful.”

Harvath swirled the ice in his glass and said, “You could probably track that money, though, correct?”

“I’ve already started looking into it.”

“Good.”

“Which brings us to state actors,” said Nicholas. “And there’s one country in particular that jumps right to the top of my list.”

Harvath took a long pull off his Cohiba and then slowly blew
the smoke into the air. “Russia,” he stated.

The little man nodded. “They hate you even more than the jihadists.”

“The feeling is mutual. Believe me.”

“It doesn’t make sense, though.”

“Why not?” asked Harvath. “I killed the Russian president’s son.”

“And he was a sociopathic monster. He deserved it—as did the rest of them. But you had been absolutely clear what would happen to President Peshkov
if he sent anyone after you. You even put it in writing to him.”

“We’re still watching all of his money, aren’t we?”

“Day and night, but that’s the thing.
None
of it has moved. Not a ruble, a dollar, a euro, a rand—none of it.”

“Could he have a hundred million we don’t know about?” Harvath asked.

“Is it possible? Sure. Anything’s possible. He’s been stealing from his country for decades. But
is it
likely
? With how hard we’ve worked to uncover every single one of his assets? I just don’t know.”

“What about a cutout? Somebody close to him. An associate of some sort.”

Nicholas thought about it. “Someone willing to put up one hundred million dollars of their own money?”

“It would definitely get his attention. Who knows what kind of favor that would curry?”

“In Russia, doing the president
that kind of a service could buy almost anything—a ministry position, mining rights, who knows?”

“This sure feels like the Russians to me,” said Harvath, refilling his glass. “Carl Pedersen helped me to not only halt their Baltic plot, but also to snatch their chief of covert operations for Eastern Europe.”

Nicholas nodded. “Two for one. They got whatever intel they needed to track you down,
and
they killed Pedersen.”

Harvath felt the pain over his losing friend stab at his heart once more. He took a long sip of bourbon before responding. “Why put out a contract then? Why not just assign it to Russian Intelligence—GRU or FSB—and let them handle it?”

Nicholas shrugged and picked his cigar back up. It had gone out and he needed to relight it. “If,” he said as he activated the lighter,
“Peshkov really didn’t want this to look like it came from him, he’d have to carry the charade all the way through—a cutout for the money and a cutout for the killing.”

It was a good point. “Okay, let’s say that’s what happened. How did the Russians know Carl and I were connected, much less that he helped me with everything?”

“Simple. He messed up.”

Harvath shook his head. “No way. Not him.”

Turning his attention away from his Cohiba, Nicholas looked at his friend. “Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mine. The Old Man made his. And you’ve definitely made more than your share.”

“I’m not saying he was incapable of making mistakes. I’m just saying I never saw it. I never heard about any, either. The Old Man said Carl was one of the best he’d ever seen. The Norwegians are neighbors
with the Russians. They can’t afford mistakes. Not even small ones.”

“Okay. For the sake of argument, let’s say Carl Pedersen was perfect. He never made a mistake. What does that leave you with?”

Harvath swirled the ice in his glass again as he reflected. “Someone else made the mistake. Someone close to him.”

The little man nodded and went back to puffing on his cigar. “If that thread exists,
then you need to find it so we can pull on it.
Hard
.”

Even in its alcohol-soaked state, Harvath’s brain began running through the possibilities, ruling in and out a myriad of different scenarios.

What quickly became clear was that as with any complicated equation, if you were missing data, it made it nearly impossible to solve the problem. Harvath knew Carl Pedersen, but he had no clue who Pedersen
trusted and may have talked to. They had kept their relationship tightly compartmentalized—for the safety of them both.

With the dogs sleeping nearby, the porch fell quiet again. Harvath and Nicholas, captive to their own thoughts, smoked their cigars and sipped their drinks in silence.

After a few minutes had passed, Nicholas said, “There’s something else I need to tell you.”

“What is it?”
Harvath asked, staring off into the darkness.

“When the murders happened and you disappeared, Bob McGee brought me a copy of the documents the Old Man had drawn up. They laid out how he wanted the company run after he was gone. It turns out that I was his third choice. And like a good prodigal son, I stepped up. I felt it was my duty, especially after everything that had happened.”

“And?”

“And now I’m stepping down.”

Harvath, somewhat shocked, turned to face him. “You’re what?”

“I have zero qualifications to run this organization; or
any
organization, to be honest. I appreciate the faith he showed in me, but this isn’t my métier. Where I excel is behind a keyboard, in the ether, moving highly sensitive pieces on a digital chessboard. That’s why you brought me in to begin with.
You gave me a chance to be part of something bigger than just myself. And I’ll always be grateful.”

“So, you’re quitting?”

Nicholas shook his head. “You guys are my family. I’m not going anywhere except back to the job I was brought on board to do. I can’t track money, listen to the whispers of the Dark Web, and run down leads while I’m dealing with payroll questions, quarterly projections,
and sales targets.”

Harvath waved his hand like he was brushing off a mosquito. “That’s not what you’re supposed to be focused on. That’s why we have a CEO and a CFO—to deal with all the C-Suite issues. You’re supposed be the heart and the brains of the outfit. That’s why the Old Man selected you.”

“That’s why the Old Man selected
you
,” Nicholas reminded his friend. “I’m not a leader. You
are
. I stepped up when there was a void, but
I never intended for this to be permanent. Now that Nina and I have a baby coming, my capacity for added responsibility is going to diminish pretty quickly.”

This was the last thing Harvath needed. He had been done caring—about everything. He didn’t want to be responsible for Reed Carlton’s legacy, much less the direction of his namesake company.

It made
him feel guilty. Not enough to jump in, grasp the mantle of leadership, and save all of it, but guilty nonetheless.

“If you step down, who’s going to take over?” he asked.

“Well,” Nicholas replied, “per the Old Man, the company can be put up for sale and the new owner can decide. Or, you and I can agree to bring somebody else in to do the job.”

“Right now? In the middle of everything that has
happened? In the middle of everything that
is
happening?”

“I would argue we need somebody now, more than ever.”

Harvath had always carried a certain burden of guilt for not agreeing to replace the Old Man. But he had made it very clear that he wasn’t ready to leave the field. Now, with Nicholas saying he wanted to step down, he felt even worse.

“Where in the world are we going to find somebody?
It’s not like we can just post this kind of a job on the internet.”

“I’ve already got somebody in mind, but let’s discuss this in the morning. You look exhausted.”

“I am.”

“Can you do seven a.m.? The Hickory Lodge?”

“I’ll be there,” Harvath replied, grinding his cigar into the ashtray and standing up.

Nicholas gestured toward the bottle. “It’s yours. If you want it.”

“No thanks,” he said
as he left for his cabin. “I’m done.”

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