Read Near Dark: A Thriller Online
Authors: Brad Thor
Tags: #Fiction, #Policital Thriller, #Thriller/Action & Adventure
His plan was to serve for three years and then take advantage of the opportunity to apply for French citizenship. Two years in, on a mission in Kosovo, he was wounded and rotated back to France for a series of lengthy surgeries.
Per a provision in French law, any soldier of the Foreign Legion who gets injured in battle can immediately apply to become
par le sang versé
—“French by spilled blood.” A social worker helped him fill out the application from his hospital bed.
By the time his physical therapy was complete, his application had been approved.
After his naturalization ceremony in Paris, he decided to stay for a while. He took extension classes at the Sorbonne, immersed himself in the city’s museums, and devoured every history book he
could find from the stalls along the Seine near Notre-Dame, as well as the Abbey and Shakespeare and Company bookstores of the Latin Quarter.
The more he read, the more he fell in love with the Normandy region to the north. That was where his truest passion lay—Deauville, Rouen, the beaches of D-Day, and the most mesmerizing abbey he had ever seen, Mont-Saint-Michel.
The dramatic medieval monastery
and fairy-tale village sat on a fortified island in the middle of a tidal basin at the coast—abutted by the mouth of the Couesnon River.
It was a UNESCO World Heritage Site that looked like it had been torn out of a Harry Potter movie. Attracting over three million people a year, it was considered one of the most awe-inspiring attractions in all of
Europe. With all the books he had read about
it and all the pictures he had seen over the years, nothing compared to viewing it in person.
According to legend, the original site had been founded by an Irish hermit. Then, in the eighth century, the archangel Michael had appeared to Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, and told him to build a church on the island. It was why Michael McElhone had taken the name “Aubertin.” He had always felt a
special kinship with Mont-Saint-Michel. The fact that it had been founded by an Irishman only made that kinship stronger.
After visiting a couple of times while still living in Paris, he realized this was where he belonged. Packing up his meager belongings, he moved to Normandy.
He survived on a small pension from the Foreign Legion, which he augmented by working as a private tour guide for
wealthy tourists. The business, though, was spotty—and he had his eyes set on a beautiful house with a view of the ocean. So, to pump up his bank account, he fell back on what he did best—killing.
Being a tour guide was a great cover, and he actually enjoyed it. The challenge was saying no to wet work contracts during tourist season.
None of the other guides disappeared during the spring and
summer. That was bread-and-butter time. They normally bumped into each other several times a week, if not a day, making the rounds at the same sights. Often, when things got really booked up, they even referred clients to each other.
Dropping off the grid would have been highly unusual, and something he wouldn’t have been predisposed to do. But then, Lieu Van Trang had contacted him.
of a better term, Trang was his business manager. On those off-season occasions when he did take contracts, that’s who they came from. This time, though, he had offered something quite different. He wasn’t operating as his business manager, but rather he wanted to be partners.
The eccentric and notoriously security-conscious Vietnamese would only discuss the deal face-to-face. He had family in
Paris and would use the opportunity to see them as cover for their meeting. It was only a train ride for Aubertin and so he had agreed.
Because of its colonial past, Paris was home to the oldest Vietnamese community in the Western world. There were said to be, at any given time, more than 100,000 people of Vietnamese descent within the city limits. Unlike the Chinese or North Africans, they weren’t
congregated in one particular neighborhood. Instead, they were spread out, many of them having even married into traditional French families.
Trang had access to a Buddhist temple in the 17th arrondissement and had suggested they meet there. It was safe and no one would bother them. Aubertin, though, didn’t like it—for the same reason he would never take a meeting in a French mosque.
services in France were granted a lot of latitude when it came to bugging and surveilling houses of worship. Perhaps they weren’t interested in anyone at Trang’s temple, but he wasn’t willing to roll the dice. He told him to find another location.
Trang came back to him with a restaurant owned by one of his cousins. It was a much better idea. Unlike Buddhist temples, fair-skinned, blue-eyed Westerners
walked into Asian restaurants all the time in Paris.
They had met in a private room in the back. Trang had been in high spirits. In fact, Aubertin didn’t know that he had ever seen him like that. After ordering food and drinks, Trang had gotten down to business.
He had just been assigned the largest contract killing in history—one hundred million dollars. The target was an American intelligence
operative. He had no idea who the client was. It had been arranged by a middleman, someone Trang had worked with before.
Allegedly, the client was so eager for the contract to be filled, the middleman had instructed Trang to put it out to a select pool of assassins, simultaneously. Whoever killed the intel operative first would receive the money. Trang, though, had his own idea.
He would make
it look like he had followed all of the instructions, but in reality he and Aubertin would take the money for themselves and split it fifty-fifty.
“You should never steal from the people you work for.”
“It’s not stealing if the job gets done,” Trang had said. And then, he had laid out his plan.
It was a bold collection of double crosses. Not only would the client’s
wishes be ignored, but the
assassin who bagged Scot Harvath would end up getting a bullet in the head.
Aubertin would be a fool not to wonder whether Trang had a final double cross prepared for him. If he chose to follow this path, he would have to tread very carefully. With a potential fifty-million-dollar payday, how could he not?
In order to insulate himself, Trang wanted Aubertin to run everything—the selecting and
tasking of the assassins, all of it.
Then, when the successful assassin came to collect his pay, Aubertin would debrief him, kill him, and use the information to collect the bounty for himself—splitting it later with Trang.
“It’s all upside,” the Vietnamese had said. “You’re not labor on this one, you’re management.”
The offer was incredible—one he knew he would never see the likes of again.
“I get to do it my way, with the people I want?” said Aubertin. “No strings attached?”
“No strings attached,” Trang had replied.
For the next twenty minutes they talked. Finally, with all of their issues resolved, they clinked glasses, and sealed their deal.
he Thief Hotel was one of the coolest, most opulent hotels in the world. It took its name from its location—Tjuvholmen, or Thief Islet. Once known as a haven for bandits, pirates, and prostitutes, today it was a trendy waterfront neighborhood jutting out into the Oslo Fjord filled with restaurants, yacht harbors, condos, and office buildings.
Built by a Norwegian billionaire
and adjacent to the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, the chic, splashy hotel functioned like a swanky additional wing. It displayed a rotating array of the museum’s most impressive contemporary pieces. But the art was nothing compared to The Thief’s guest list.
The six-star property, famed for “treating rock stars as guests and guests as rock stars,” attracted a powerhouse, international
clientele, as well as the crème de la crème of Oslo’s cultural, financial, and political elite. It also had a kickass rooftop bar and restaurant, which was why Sølvi Kolstad had chosen it for her rendezvous.
She had loved The Thief since before it had even opened. As part of the waterfront renovation, it was an ambitious urban-renewal project and she was proud of what it said about Oslo’s commitment
to always move forward.
The whole area, packed with financial, advertising, and media executives, dripped with money and was incredibly glamorous. In fact, she had suggested to Gunnar that this was where they should live, but he had
brushed it off. He wanted to be in one of the older, more established quarters of the city—like Briskeby with its shops and luxury apartment blocks, or leafy, park-studded
It was too bad. Had he jumped in when she had suggested, they probably would have doubled their money by the time they divorced.
None of that mattered now. Or maybe it did still matter, a little, but she knew better than to dwell on it. Nothing good would come from thinking about Gunnar and what could have been. It only served to upset her.
Parking in the underground garage, she came
up to the street level, walked to the bridge in front of the hotel, and peered over the railing. There were always beautiful boats moored along the dock below. Today was no exception.
An exquisite Riva bobbed against its fenders in the sparkling water. She had to be almost fifteen meters long. The sparkling, silver paint job stood in perfect harmony with the caramel-colored teak decking and highly
polished chrome railings, cleats, and assorted fixtures.
Sølvi loved boats and loved getting out on the water. Despite everything else they had in common, the fact that Gunnar didn’t, should have been a sign.
Entering The Thief through its massive, automated revolving door, she breathed in the delicious, rarefied air. Simply walking into the lobby, she felt like a VIP. Crossing to the elevators,
she took it all in, the art, the décor, the staff—there was no other way to phrase it, the whole place was just so damn sexy. It only got better once she got to the roof.
Walking down a narrow hallway, she stepped out onto the deck and into the open-air restaurant. The young manager greeted her with a bright smile and treated her as if she was a regular. She gave the man her name, he consulted
his tablet, and then, picking up two menus, led her to the exact table she had requested.
As she walked, she could feel the eyes of most of the male, as well as the female customers on her. It was a sensation that used to make her uncomfortable and self-conscious. But if anything good had come from her otherwise disastrous time abroad as a model, it was getting used to people noticing her.
In the intelligence game, one normally didn’t want to be noticed. To put it more succinctly, one especially didn’t want to be remembered. She had ways of downplaying everything, including her height. When she wanted to slip by unnoticed, she wasn’t half bad. On the occasions when she wanted to catch someone’s attention and stand out, she was exceptional.
Her table was in the back corner. It had
both privacy and amazing views. The glass doors had all been retracted, lanai style, as had the long fabric awnings above. Planter boxes filled with herbs and wildflowers ran along the edges of the roof and provided a riot of color as well as a sweet perfume.
After she had sat down, the manager unfolded her napkin and handed it to her, followed by a menu and a wine list. Before he had even finished
wishing her a good lunch, her waiter had appeared, but stood a respectful distance away. Once the manager had departed, he stepped forward and introduced himself.
They chatted pleasantly, Sølvi ordered a kokekaffe, and the man disappeared to place her order. Norwegians were the second largest consumers of coffee in the world—imbibing over twenty-one pounds per capita annually. Only the Finns
drank more. And when it came to how Norwegians liked their favorite caffeinated beverage prepared, they were rabidly passionate.
Kokekaffe was one of the most popular methods and came from coarsely ground beans steeped in boiling water. Because it used a lighter roast, it produced a lighter coffee than most of the world was used to, but Norway’s citizens loved it.
As she waited, Sølvi looked
out over the fjord. Weekends were always the busiest, especially when the weather was nice. Sailboats, with their bright white sails, tacked back and forth as gleaming motorboats and large passenger ferries pushed through the light chop. If she had to be stuck on land, she couldn’t think of a better place with a better view in which to be stuck.
When the waiter returned with her coffee, she thanked
him, took the porcelain cup in both hands, and continued looking out over the water. It was a good thing, she mused, that her office was surrounded
by trees. If she could look at boats all day, she probably wouldn’t get any work done.
As much as she enjoyed taking in the fjord, she was still a professional intelligence officer who had been trained to maintain her situational awareness. Therefore,
she made sure to keep one eye on her surroundings.
A few minutes after her coffee arrived, she saw her guest step out onto the deck and approach the host stand. Catching her CIA colleague’s eye, she waved. Her old friend waved back and, thanking the manager, headed her way.
Sølvi sat up straighter. She was nervous and suddenly wished she had ordered something alcoholic. As she watched her colleague
getting closer, she knew it was too late. The moment of truth had arrived.
olidae H. Hayes was who Sølvi Kolstadt wanted to be. The raven-haired CIA Oslo station chief was not only exceedingly attractive, but she was also whip-smart, highly respected, and, after the next American election, was actually being considered for an ambassadorial post. Langley’s loss would be the State Department’s gain—and it was the right move.
“Triple H,” or “H3” as she was
known, was eminently qualified. She had paid her dues in some of the best, as well as some of the worst postings around the world. She had steered ambassadors with half her intelligence and a fraction of her experience through moments of great crisis, never once taking credit, nor asking for any recognition. All that had ever mattered was the mission as she zealously served the United States abroad.
She was a legend in D.C. and the President had taken notice.
Sølvi had no idea how much she had missed her until she walked up to the table, opened her arms, and said, “Carl was one of a kind. I am so sorry for your loss.”
Without giving it another thought, Sølvi stood and embraced her friend. She thought, alone in the privacy of her office, that she had exhausted herself of tears, but there
were still a few more left. Quietly, she let them out.
They stood there together for several moments, not caring what anyone else thought. Then, it was Sølvi who stepped back and invited her friend to sit.
As they did, she touched her napkin to the corners of her eyes, drying the remaining tears, just as the waiter walked up.
“Can I get you ladies something to drink?”
Sølvi looked at her colleague.
“Are you okay with that?”
It was a well-intentioned question. Sølvi’s weakness had never been alcohol. It had always been drugs. And while alcohol could loosen one’s inhibitions, it would take a lot more than a couple glasses of champagne to push her back into that dark world.
Nodding, Sølvi looked at the waiter and said, “We’ll take a bottle of the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and
a dozen oysters.”
She was delighted to hear that they had just received a shipment of fresh oysters from near Sarpsborg, where she was from. “We’ll take those, please,” she replied.
As soon as the waiter had left the table, it was time to start rebuilding bridges. To her surprise, though, Holidae went first. “I can’t tell you how happy I was to get your email. I didn’t know if you were ever
going to speak to me again. I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too,” Sølvi replied.
“I can’t imagine what you’re going through. What can I do for you? Better yet, how are you?”
“Still in shock, to be honest. Carl’s death was quite gruesome.”
“I spoke with the head of NIS and I’m not going to lie, I agree. It sounded terrible. I’m so sorry.”
“We’re beside ourselves. And I’m sure you can understand,
that as an organization, this is a priority. But for me personally…”
Holidae jumped in as her friend’s voice trailed off. “Of course. Carl was your mentor. I’ve got to imagine you want to get to the bottom of this more than anyone else.”
“I do. Thank you.”
“So,” said Holidae as the waiter appeared for a moment, set down an ice bucket, and left again. “Is that why I’m here?”
Sølvi nodded. “But
first I want to apologize.”
“For the fact that we haven’t spoken.”
“You know I only went to Carl—”
“Because you were concerned about me,” Sølvi interrupted, finishing her friend’s sentence for her. “I know that. It was a very difficult time for me.”
“I can’t even begin to imagine,” stated Holidae. “But let’s just pretend, for a moment, that I have. Suffice it to say, I have zero
doubt that we could snuff that d-bag, ex-husband of yours, dump the body, and be drinking Chablis an hour later without anybody ever being the wiser.”
Sølvi smiled. She knew her friend was kidding, but at the same time she didn’t doubt that she was capable of it. “You’re a good friend. Thank you. Right now, though, I have my mind set on a different man.”
The Norwegian nodded.
“I thought that’s where this might be headed,” said Holidae.
“What can you tell me about him?”
Hayes smiled. “First thing’s first. How is it that you got reinstated at NIS? I found drug paraphernalia in your apartment.”
“Which was part of a case I was working.”
“Okay,” said the American. “But how do you explain your behavior?”
“The divorce was very hard on me.”
Hayes smiled again. “I love
you, Sølvi, I really do. But you were always Carl’s favorite. If I had to guess, I’d wager that he cooked up some sort of story that saved you from losing your job. And now, instead of being honest with me, you expect me to believe it too.”
“You can believe what you want. I’m telling you the truth,” Sølvi insisted. It was a lie, but one which Carl had stressed was necessary if she was to keep
going in the espionage business.
It would hurt to tell it, he had said, especially to colleagues and close friends, but it was necessary. Without the lie, she was done for. Her career was over.
“I’m not asking you for state secrets,” she continued.
“Actually, that’s exactly what you’re asking for,” Hayes replied.
“My God, Holidae. What does a friend have to do to get a favor?”
, needs to tell the truth. Come clean.”
“I’m desperate,” said Sølvi.
“I knew that when I received your email. I haven’t heard from you since I told Carl I thought you had a problem. After that, you went completely off the grid. Even when you came back to work, though, you didn’t reach out to me. I got the message loud and clear. It took Carl being killed for you to reestablish contact.”
“Don’t make it sound like—”
“Like I froze you out.”
“But that’s exactly what you did,” said Hayes. “And you know what? If you did have a substance abuse problem, and if going to ground was what it took to get everything straightened out, as your friend, I’m okay with that.”
Sølvi was about to protest, when the waiter returned, set two glasses on the table, and then presented her
with the bottle of champagne.
She nodded, but remained quiet as he removed the foil and the cage. Releasing the cork, there was only the faintest hiss.
Like a lover’s sigh
, as they used to say in France.
He poured, she tasted, and then nodded again. Once their glasses were filled and he had left the table, she raised hers in a toast. “To Carl,” she said.
,” Hayes replied.
glasses and took a long sip of champagne. It was cold and popped on their tongues. Not too sweet, not too dry. In fact, it was as it had always been—perfect.
How many times had they gone through this ritual? How many lunches, or brunches, or nights had they gotten together after work to split a bottle, or just grab a glass because they were racing to something else?
As NATO allies, they were
expected to work together, but their friendship had gone beyond a work relationship. They enjoyed being together. Jogging, working out, movies, shopping, they had been tight. Very tight.
It was all the more reason that Holidae going to Carl with suspicions over her drug use had felt like such a betrayal. Friends didn’t turn each other in.
In fairness—and if pressed—Sølvi would likely be forced
to admit that friends also didn’t sit idly by and watch their friends descend into a narcotic pit there was little hope of climbing out of.
Nonetheless, Holidae could have come to her first. She didn’t need to go over her head to her boss. It was something, right or wrong, she still was struggling to forgive.
It felt as if they’d had this great friendship, but the moment something had gone wrong,
something that potentially could have impacted work, Holidae had been all business.
It had made their friendship feel false, hollow. It had also made Sølvi feel betrayed. Having just lost her husband, the betrayal of such a close friend had been even more bitter and difficult to absorb.
“What is it you say in English?” Sølvi inquired. “I’d like us to bury the hatchet?”
Hayes smiled. “Interesting
choice of idioms. I didn’t know we had been at war. I thought we just weren’t on speaking terms.”
The Norwegian smiled back. “I’m a Viking.
Å grave ned stridsøksen
is what we say. I think burying war axes sounds better than offering olive branches. Peace?”
The CIA operative raised her glass. “To peace.”