Read Near Dark: A Thriller Online

Authors: Brad Thor

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

Near Dark: A Thriller (14 page)

She needed
to see him, to look him in the eye and put the question directly to him about Carl’s murder. Only then would she be satisfied. Only then could she know what her next move would be.

CHAPTER 22

S
OMEWHERE OVER THE
A
TLANTIC

A
ge hadn’t softened Gary Lawlor. In fact, if anything, it had made him more of a pain in the ass.

He had hated Harvath’s plan—had hated it with a passion. The symphony of profanity he had composed upon hearing it would have shamed the hardest of hard-core sailors. The more Lawlor had raged against it, though, the more Harvath knew he was right on the money.

Nicholas, on the other hand, liked it, but wasn’t convinced it could be pulled off in time. There were a ton of hurdles that would need to be surmounted, all of them by him. It was a technological nightmare and would take days, if not weeks, to pull together.

Similar to the military’s use of chaff to distract radar-guided missiles, Harvath wanted to flood the zone with disinformation. Using deepfake
technology, he wanted to be “seen” on CCTV cameras at multiple airports and train stations around the world.

To make it look like the same person traveling under different identities, he also wanted Nicholas to insert his legit biometric information into each corresponding port of entry computer system, but always attached to a different, fake passport.

Any professional worth their salt would
eventually uncover the breadcrumb trail. And, if The Carlton Group played their cards right, they could funnel one, if not more, of the assassins into a trap. Meanwhile, Harvath would be freed up to pursue his own, parallel agenda.

The plan was classic Harvath—audacious, difficult to implement, and
likely to change a million times once under way. He had an undeniable talent for getting out ahead
of the curve, though. Often, his genius didn’t fully reveal itself until the battle was on and the chess pieces had begun to fall. The big question now was—could he stay ahead of the curve?

Like Nicholas, Lawlor appreciated Harvath’s capabilities. But he also knew that, right now, Harvath was far from being one hundred percent. He was physically, emotionally, and mentally ground down. And on
top of that, he had developed one hell of a drinking problem. In short, the guy was a mess.

Only a fool would have sent him out into the field. Only a fool like Lawlor.

He knew that at 65 or even as low as 45 percent, Harvath was still better than almost any other operative on the planet. It didn’t mean, however, that he didn’t have his reservations. Lawlor had plenty of them. Harvath was a
nuclear reactor of rage. He could see it just by looking at him. The clenching of his hands into and out of fists, the tightening and releasing of his jaw, the grinding of his teeth—Harvath was a hate-filled wreck and his intentions were clear.

Everyone at The Carlton Group wanted Carl Pedersen’s killer to get what was coming to him. But could Harvath be depended upon to get the job done? Lawlor
was having his doubts.

No matter what he said, though, Harvath was going to do what he wanted to do. If Lawlor knew nothing about him, he knew that much, which was why—in the end—he had agreed to set him loose.

Harvath thrived on adversity. The worse his circumstances, the deeper he drew from himself and the greater his performance. He would turn everything that had happened into fuel, boosting
his chances for success. Lawlor was certain of it.

In any other organization, a man that damaged would have been sent home, checked into a hospital, or nailed to a desk. But not at The Carlton Group. Their entire raison d’être was risk-taking.
Calculated
risk-taking, but risk-taking nonetheless.

Putting Harvath in the field was like dropping a malfunctioning nuclear weapon over an enemy city—depending
on how the stars were
aligned, it could all go stunningly right or spectacularly wrong. And until you had your answer, the wait would be excruciating.

Harvath’s plan involved leap-frogging his way into Europe and killing three birds with one stone. A Black Hawk would return him to Andrews where he’d hop a private jet from the U.S. Air Force fleet. The jet would fly him to Chièvres Air Base in
Belgium—a short drive from NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.

There’d he’d meet privately with Admiral David Proctor as well as Monika Jasinski—just to reassure himself, as well as everyone back at The Carlton Group, that neither of them had sold out Carl Pedersen.

Then, he’d climb aboard an 86th Airlift Wing flight for Šiauliai International Airport in Lithuania and NATO’s Baltic
Air Policing mission—pick up a car, and make the two-and-a-half-hour drive into Vilnius to accost Landsbergis.

He’d be traveling under an assumed name with fake documents. By using NATO-supported air bases, he would avoid normal ports of entry with their CCTV cameras and biometric scanners. The only people in Europe who would know that he was there would be Proctor and Jasinski, and for them,
not until he showed up. It was a risk Harvath, Lawlor, and Nicholas were all willing to take.

In addition, there was also a backup plan he wanted to run—an insurance policy of sorts. If someone was willing to murder Carl to get to him, they’d likely be willing to go after other people close to Harvath. He wanted to make sure certain people were protected.

Once everything was settled, Lance Corporal
Garcia picked him up and drove him down to the helipad to meet his ride.

The Black Hawk made the trip from Camp David in just over a half hour. By the time Harvath touched down at Andrews, everything he had asked for was waiting for him. All of it, including the fake documents, were handed over to him in person by CIA Director Bob McGee.

A modified Gulfstream 550 jet—owned and operated by the
U.S. Air Force and referred to as a C-37B—was fueled and standing by to make the trip to Belgium. On board were the pilot, copilot, crew chief, and a flight attendant.

The C-37B’s primary function was to provide worldwide airlift for senior American leadership and dignitaries. It was an all-weather, long-range aircraft capable of high-speed, nonstop flights. Its elegant interior was designed
with comfort in mind and its crew was extensively trained in catering to VIP passengers.

After spending forty-five minutes in the hangar reviewing everything and getting a briefing from McGee, Harvath had boarded the aircraft, kicked off his shoes, and asked for a drink.

The flight attendant brought him a bourbon, handed over a printed menu card, and asked what his preferences were and when
he would like his meals to be served. When she spoke, she addressed Scot as “Mr. Brenner.” “Donovan Reed Brenner” was the name that had been created for him on his fake documents. McGee had chosen it himself.

Donovan was a nod to Wild Bill Donovan, founder of the CIA’s precursor, the OSS. Brenner was a reference to the Brenner assignment—the most daring spy mission undertaken in World War II.
McGee knew that the book by the same name was one of Harvath’s favorites. And also because he was one of Harvath’s favorite people, the name Reed had been chosen as a homage to the Old Man.

None of the names served any strategic purpose, they were merely symbolic, but as Harvath had learned while fighting for his life in the subzero wilderness of Russia, the smallest of things could often supply
the most inspiration.

Considering some of the lousy names he had been given to work with over the years, he appreciated McGee putting so much thought into it.

After committing his false identity and background, or “legend” as it was known in the espionage business, to memory, he asked the flight attendant for another bourbon. He didn’t intend to pass the flight stupid drunk, but he sure as hell
wasn’t going to pass it stupid sober either.

Airplanes were weird spaces. Private planes were even weirder—especially if you were traveling alone. Perhaps it was the quiet speed with which they moved, or maybe the soft cocoon of luxury that gave them an unusual, contemplative pull. You couldn’t help but be sucked in, to be lulled by the steady hum of the engines, into an almost trancelike state.
Alone, tens of thousands of feet up in the air, knifing through the sky, your mind could open and swallow you alive.

Harvath wasn’t ready for his mind to open. He wanted it to remain closed. And the only way to guarantee that was to drink. Because if he allowed himself to feel the true degree of his pain—how bitter and deep and raw it was, he would have to face it, deal with it. He wasn’t ready
for that. Not now. Maybe not ever. And so, he drank.

The drinking allowed him to be a bystander, to stand on the rim of his soul and peer over the edge. The alcohol allowed him to take measure of his personal landscape, to stare at it good and long and unflinchingly. It was as if he was sitting on a jury, visiting dispassionate judgment on a total stranger. The verdict—
guilty
.

Guilty of every
sin imaginable. His list of offenses was long and, in some cases, quite shocking. While the worst had been visited upon him, so too had he visited the worst upon others.

Of course, he had justified those actions by blaming the conduct of his victims. They were “bad men”—his shorthand for those who had earned the retribution he had meted out to them. He had accepted every one of his assignments
willingly and, more often than not, had been the chief architect of the punishments that had been delivered.

He had taken more than a professional interest in the details. His desire to see justice done had usually bordered on the obsessive. Good didn’t need to just triumph over evil in his mind, it needed to make evil pay—dearly. That was the crux of his job and who he was. That was why he had
continued to go into the field, had continued to take the most dangerous assignments.

Evil so offended him that he didn’t trust anyone else to teach it the lesson it so rightly deserved. No one was willing to inflict the pain that he was more than capable of delivering. Maybe that was why he was so screwed up. The most incredible evil possible had been done to him and despite the vengeance he
had wreaked, he still didn’t feel like the debt had been fully paid.

Maybe that was why he had agreed to leave the bars of Key West and hunt down Carl Pedersen’s killer. It certainly wasn’t out of self-
preservation. They could send an army of assassins after him. He didn’t care. It was when people harmed others—those he saw as innocents, or those undeserving of their fates, that he was most offended
by and most wanted to make evil pay the steepest price he could exact.

He could sense that he had tipped over the rim, that he was falling into the blackness of the abyss.

When the flight attendant arrived with his meal, it was a welcome and much needed interruption, a respite from the storm-tossed sea of his unchecked thoughts.

He switched from bourbon to red wine and tried to focus on the
flavors of the food. It had been a while since he had eaten this well. There was a tender, lean filet of beef, roasted potatoes, and thin, sautéed French green beans. The roll was crispy and warm. The butter soft, salty. Even the salad was exceptional.

The only other time he had eaten this well on a government aircraft was aboard Air Force One. Considering the level of passengers who were flown
on C-37Bs, he wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the same culinary team was involved in planning the dishes.

But as much as he enjoyed the food, his mind was eventually pulled back to the same place it always was—Lara.

Part of the curse of being a detail guy was that he could remember everything about her. He remembered the beautiful way she had smelled. He remembered the way her body
had felt in his arms. He remembered the sensation of her hair brushing across his chest and the sensation of her lips on his mouth. He remembered all of it and it drove him crazy.

Signaling the flight attendant for another glass of wine, he tried to think of something less devastating. Something good. Something pure.

His mind went to Lara’s beautiful son, Marco. They would have made such a wonderful
family together.

They had all needed each other. But when Lara had been taken, it had all fallen apart.

The last time Harvath had seen Marco was the day of Lara’s funeral. He had taken the little boy out to eat, then to the Lego store, and finally to a spot on the Charles River in Boston where he liked to feed the ducks.

It had been heart-wrenching for him, but also heartwarming as there was
a wonderful spark of Lara that lived on inside Marco. Lara’s aging parents were taking care of him.

During a couple of alcohol-fueled episodes, Harvath had reached for his phone, intending to call his in-laws and tell them that he wanted to adopt Marco and raise him himself.

It was, of course, totally insane. Harvath couldn’t even take care of himself, much less a four-year-old boy. Nevertheless,
it had felt like the right thing to do and something he wanted.

As the flight attendant refilled his glass and cleared the dishes, he settled back in his seat and closed his eyes. He was remembering the first vacation he and Lara and Marco had taken together. It had been to Cape Cod and they had spent every waking hour on the beach, riding bikes, or eating ice cream.

The trip had been cut short
by work. A crisis had popped up and Harvath had to leave. Lara, though, had understood. She had been grateful for their time together and she had assured him that there’d be many more vacations to come. And he, because he loved her and her little boy so much, had believed her. If only, somehow, he could go back in time and warn himself.

But of course, he couldn’t do that. All he could do was
relive those wonderful moments in his mind. So that was exactly what he did.

He fell asleep, remembering one of the happier times in his life—having no idea of the incredible danger he was flying into.

CHAPTER 23

C
HIÈVRES
A
IR
B
ASE

B
ELGIUM

W
hen the jet touched down at Chièvres, Harvath descended the air stairs and was met on the tarmac by Lieutenant Colonel James Mitchell, Commander of the 424th Air Base Squadron. The 424th was a geographically separated unit of the 86th Airlift Wing out of Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Mitchell was in charge of everything that happened at Chièvres.

As Harvath
had been identified as a Department of Defense adviser and was dressed as a civilian, Mitchell greeted him with a firm handshake, saying, “Welcome to Belgium, Mr. Brenner.”

“Thank you, Colonel,” he replied.

“I understand you won’t be with us long.”

“Just a quick meeting and then I’m on my way to Šiauliai.” Nodding toward a waiting car and driver, he asked, “Is that for us?”

“I thought you
might want to get cleaned up before your meeting,” the Base Commander said. “We’ve got a VIP lounge, complete with shower, set aside for you. Airman Williams can take you over and then bring you back to my office whenever you’re ready. You’ll be using our secure conference facility.”

Lawlor had gone directly to the President with Harvath’s request. The President had then put Lawlor in touch with
the Secretary of Defense, who had set everything up. He had definitely instructed Mitchell to pull out all the stops. This was first-class treatment.

Looking at his watch, Harvath rubbed the stubble on his cheeks. He had more than enough time for a hot shower and a shave before his meeting with Proctor and Jasinski.

“That sounds excellent,” he responded. “Thank you.”

Airman Williams helped
transfer Harvath’s gear from the jet to his vehicle while Harvath thanked the flight crew. They planned on spending the night in Belgium and flying back to the States in the morning. He wished them safe travels, thanked Mitchell again, and hopped into the passenger seat of the car.

Williams was a courteous, professional young man originally from the Florida Panhandle near Destin. The building
they were headed for was so close, they barely had any time for small talk.

Parking out front, Williams popped the trunk and insisted on carrying Harvath’s personal bag inside.

“Not necessary, Airman,” Harvath replied. “But thank you. All I need is for you to make sure the rest of my gear is here when I come out.”

“Yes, sir. It will be,” said the airman. “I promise.”

Williams walked Harvath
up to the door and swiped his keycard through the electronic reader. “Down the hall, first door on your left. Take all the time you need. I’ll be here.”

Harvath thanked him and headed inside.

The space looked like it might have been an officer’s club at one point. The walls were paneled with wood and there were plenty of framed photos and pieces of art depicting military aviation.

The furnishings,
while tasteful, were several decades old. It had the same industrial cleaning supplies smell that most U.S. installations had—probably because Uncle Sam bought those supplies in bulk.

Walking down the hall, Harvath found the door he had been told to look for and stepped inside.

The lounge was about the size of a small studio apartment. There was a sitting area complete with TV, a desk, a snack
station cum kitchenette with a minifridge, coffeemaker, and a microwave, as well as a small bathroom with a shower.

In addition to sourcing gear for Harvath, McGee had been kind
enough to have someone pack him a go-bag with clothes and toiletries. It was all comfortable, middle-of-the-road casual stuff. Nothing that would make him stick out and get noticed.

He laid out a few things, turned on
the hot water in the shower, and crossed over to the kitchenette. Opening the fridge, he checked out the contents.

It had been stocked just like a hotel minibar. There were waters, soft drinks, juices, beer, and mini-bottles of hard liquor. The Maker’s Mark bourbon, with its signature cap dipped in red wax, immediately caught his attention.

“Just one,” he said to himself as he pulled it out,
kneed the fridge shut, and searched the cabinets for a glass.

The glasses were all the way to the right, along with the coffee cups. Taking one down, he opened the bourbon, and poured.

He knew it was a bad idea the same way he knew it wouldn’t be “just one.” It’d be one now, then another when he got out of the shower. He’d try to cover up the odor of alcohol by brushing his teeth, gargling with
mouthwash, and taking a strong, black coffee to go.

No sooner had he raised the glass to his lips than his conscience got the better of him. He couldn’t let his demons hold sway over him like that. He was working, for God’s sake. The President had personally signed off on this operation and had set all the wheels in motion. The last thing he needed—no matter how good he thought he might be at
hiding it—was for Proctor to report back to the Secretary of Defense that he had shown up with booze on his breath.

Setting the glass down, he fired up the coffeemaker, grabbed a mug, and inserted a pod.

As the machine brewed his coffee, he carried his glass of bourbon into the bathroom and dumped it down the sink. There’d be plenty of time for drinking later.

Retrieving his coffee, he carried
it back to the bathroom and took off his clothes. Climbing into the shower, he let the hot water pound against his body. He let himself be in the present, appreciating the warmth. There was no telling how long it would be until he had another relaxing, unguarded moment.

Assignments had a way of going sideways in the blink of an eye, the tension spiking off the charts. He had learned a long time
ago to appreciate the little things and take nothing for granted.

That sense of thankfulness seemed to always be heightened right before he underwent an operation. It was as if time slowed down and, as it did, his senses grew more acute. He could experience things in greater detail. Tastes, sounds, sensations—all of them were more richly available as they passed by in slow motion.

It was the
exact opposite of what happened in the field, where everything sped up, and information—sights, sounds, movement—had to be rapidly processed and decisions made in a fraction of a second.

It was almost as if this was his mind’s way of taking deep breaths and limbering up—like a sprinter, preparing to climb into the blocks. And as with a sprinter, it was always a gun that set everything off.

Throwing the temperature selector all the way to cold, he stood under the spray for as long as he could. Sometimes referred to as a “Scottish Shower,” the shock of the freezing water sent a jolt through his body. It was like consuming a couple of espressos back-to-back. He felt energized, his mind sharpened.

Stepping out of the shower, he toweled off and shaved at the sink. When he was done, he
polished off his coffee, brushed his teeth, and slowly got dressed.

Despite the jolt from the caffeine, as well as the cold water, he was dragging his feet. The meeting he faced wasn’t going to be easy.

He had no clue whether Proctor and Jasinski had heard about Carl’s death. He suspected, though, that they hadn’t. The Norwegians had been keeping it quiet while they continued their investigation.

That meant he was going to have to read them in on all of it, including Carl’s torture and the killer’s search for information via all his devices and the NIS database. But as bad as that was going to be, it wasn’t even the worst of it.

He had not seen Proctor, nor Jasinski since his torturous personal nightmare had begun. His wife, along with his colleague and mentor had all been murdered. The
Russians had then dragged him back to Russia to interrogate and kill him.

They would begin by sharing their condolences, because that was what good, decent people did. Then, they would do the next thing good, decent people did—they would ask him how he was doing.

That was still the part he found the most painful. Not because it was offensive or overly intrusive, but because it asked him to look
inward, to examine how he was feeling. He didn’t know if he’d ever be able to do it.

Picking up his pace, he packed his bag and ignored the impulse to make a second coffee to go. He needed to get out of the building. He was starting to think twice about having poured that bourbon down the sink. He knew if he got anywhere near the coffeemaker, he was going to open the minifridge. And if that happened,
he wouldn’t be having just one.

He needed to keep himself together—compartmentalize. That used to be something he was good at.
Really
good.

He could put everything in an iron box, lock it shut, and hide it away in the furthest corners of his mind. It was he how he survived. It was what made him such an exceptional hunter of men—an apex predator. If he were to lose that ability, none of his other
skills would matter. Like a sick animal on the edge of the herd, he’d be as good as dead. The lions would come for him first. He refused to let that happen.

Grabbing his bag, he pushed down his pain and headed out to meet Williams.

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