Read Near Dark: A Thriller Online
Authors: Brad Thor
Tags: #Fiction, #Policital Thriller, #Thriller/Action & Adventure
“Are you sure?”
“I may need even more help, but it’ll depend on how everything unfolds.”
The Admiral smiled. “If it involves violating Russian airspace, providing close air support, or repositioning highly specialized aircraft to get you out, you know who to call.”
“I do,” said Harvath. “And by the way, I remain very grateful.”
“Why the hell would you go back to Lithuania?” Jasinski asked, changing the subject. “What thread could be that important?”
“It was our launching point for Kaliningrad—and was the last place Carl and I ever saw each other. There are a couple of leads there I want to run down. If I’m right, I’ll be on top of Carl’s killer in the next
twenty-four to forty-eight hours.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
Harvath looked at her. “Then we should say our goodbyes here, because that means he’s going to be on top of me.”
fter wrapping up his meeting, Harvath had Williams drive him to the Chièvres PX to pick up food for his flight to Šiauliai. Proctor and Jasinski had offered to take him out for a meal, but he declined. He wasn’t in the mood to be social. His head was in the game, and that’s where it needed to stay.
When the C-130 Hercules was ready for takeoff, Williams
pulled up as close as he could to the enormous aircraft and helped Harvath transfer his gear.
Once everything was stowed, they shook hands, Harvath thanked him, and they wished each other well.
As he boarded and found a seat, an aircrew member handed Harvath a pack of foam earplugs. Normally on missions, he brought his own. This time, though, someone else had put together his kit and he had
forgotten to ask for them. The noise level in the four-engine turboprop cargo plane could be quite high. Thankfully, this crew had thought ahead. That wasn’t always the case. He had been on plenty of ops where if you weren’t prepared, you were out of luck.
The nylon webbing seats bolted to the fuselage were a far cry from the plush leather seats of the C-37B he had crossed the Atlantic on, but
all that mattered was the destination, not the journey.
He rolled his earplugs and stuck them in as the C-130 thundered down the runway and lifted off. Once it was level, he unpacked his lunch and ate. He had thought about picking up a six-pack to bring on board,
but had decided against it. All he needed was some overzealous MP at Šiauliai smelling beer on his breath and preventing him from driving
off the base. He had too much work to do and time was of the essence.
While Landsbergis was his ultimate target, he wanted to pay Lukša, the Lithuanian truck driver, a visit first. If he really had been beaten up by the Russians, Harvath wanted that intel straight from the horse’s mouth. He wanted to confront Landsbergis having assembled as much information as possible.
Besides, going to speak
with Lukša wasn’t too much of a detour. According to Nicholas, he lived in a working-class suburb of the capital. And considering the extent of his injuries, Harvath felt relatively certain the man wouldn’t be tough to track down. In fact, he would have been surprised if he wasn’t laid up at home, watching TV, and being taken care of by his wife.
Landing at Šiauliai, he was met by an Air Force
officer who checked his ID and handed him the keys to a black Toyota Land Cruiser, idling on the tarmac. No further words were exchanged. After Harvath had loaded his gear, he plugged Lukša’s address into his GPS, headed for the nearest gate, and exited the base.
The first thing he noticed was a sign for a popular attraction called the Hill of Crosses, about twelve kilometers northeast of town.
It had popped up when he had been online researching the best route to Vilnius. From what he understood, it was a small hill covered by a vast collection of over 200,000 wooden crosses. Like the Lithuanians themselves, some were plain, some were very ornate. A pilgrimage site dating back to the nineteenth century, it was meant to symbolize resistance to Russian rule.
It was a noble part of the
country’s heritage—a solid, passionate part of its DNA. But like the human body, sometimes DNA could become corrupted and that corruption could bring forth incredible sickness, even death.
Heading southeast of town, Harvath made himself and Šiauliai a promise. He already knew what he was going to do to every person he tracked down who was responsible for Carl’s death. In addition to putting each
of them in the ground, no matter where in the world he was, he would send Šiauliai a cross to place upon its hill.
In a warped, messed-up way, he’d at least be leaving something behind—a legacy of sorts—his own little family of wooden crosses.
Like a lot of espionage work, the drive to Vilnius was dull and uneventful. Halfway there, he noticed a farmer’s market, and pulled off the highway.
Lithuania might no longer be part of Russia and the old Soviet Union, but Russia and the old Soviet Union were still very much a part of Lithuania. Neighbors still took an unhealthy interest in what other neighbors were doing, strangers were regarded with suspicion, and gossip spread faster than a fire in dry grass.
Harvath knew that the moment he appeared in the truck driver’s neighborhood, tongues
were going to wag. He couldn’t control that. What he could control was what the neighbors were whispering. That was why he didn’t intend to hide his presence. In fact, he wanted to be as obvious as possible about why he was there and who he was going to see.
Just like a private investigator throwing on a utility worker’s reflective vest to get a closer look at a house, Harvath figured—human nature
being what it was—that he could run a version of the same ruse; give the neighbors something
to be suspicious of.
He paid for his purchase, returned to the Land Cruiser, and got back on the highway. There was still over an hour left to go.
With the endless road unfolding in front of him, he could sense his jet lag trying to kick in. Rolling down the window, he turned on the radio to help
him focus and stay awake.
Sandwiched between countless Europop offerings and local folk music channels, he found one playing American classic rock—on vinyl, no less, with all of the original hisses and pops.
He tuned in just as the needle was dropped on “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones.
If you paid attention to the lyrics, it was an incredibly dark song. If you tuned them out,
it was—as Mick Jagger stated—one hell of a hypnotic groove, a samba that doesn’t speed up or slow down—just a sinister constant, which was what Harvath needed at the moment.
And the DJ didn’t let up. After the Stones, there were high-energy songs by The James Gang, Eric Clapton, Jefferson Airplane, Aerosmith, and even KISS. The next hour passed without his eyelids getting any heavier, or his
mind wandering to things he didn’t want to think about.
By the time his exit came up, he was looking forward to getting out of the car. The sooner he could question Lukša, the sooner he could get the answers he had come here for.
Checking his GPS, he found a gas station a bit off the beaten path. There, wearing a baseball cap he had pulled from his bag and keeping his head down to avoid any
CCTV cameras, he refilled his tank and bought an energy drink.
He cracked it as he pulled back out into traffic and slowly snaked his way toward the truck driver’s home.
The outskirts of Vilnius were like any other major Baltic city he’d ever visited—industrial, rough, and very poor. This was definitely where the have-nots lived.
Graffiti was everywhere. The streets were dirty. Weeds sprouted
up from the cracked sidewalks. Steel shutters and bars over windows spoke to a high level of crime. This was not a good place to live.
As he got closer in, the neighborhoods began to get nicer, but only by a degree. They were still poor, but the properties were better kept. Graffiti was no longer evident. Many homes had modest landscaping. And while some had bars over the windows, many did not.
This was a buffer zone—the working-class ring that surrounded Vilnius’s more affluent neighborhoods and its bustling city center. This was where Mr. and Mrs. Lukša lived.
Seeing the truck driver’s home now clearly marked on his GPS, Harvath did a wide reconnaissance sweep of the surrounding area. His eyes took in everything.
He wanted to know what businesses there were, if any. What about police
or fire stations? If something went wrong and he had to flee on foot, what direction would he run and where might he hide out?
All of it was necessary, pre-approach surveillance. If anything went sideways, no one was coming to save him. He was on his own. The better
he knew the lay of the land, the better he could handle any problems that might pop up. And knowing what he knew about field operations,
problems were almost a sure thing.
He drove in ever tightening circles, until it was finally time to drive down Lukša’s street. One pass was all he’d be able to make. Anything more than that was asking for trouble.
Not only would he be given one shot to study the truck driver’s house, but simultaneously he’d need to figure out where to park the Land Cruiser.
His preference was to stash it someplace
out of sight and walk up to the house. That said, he didn’t want to leave it anyplace that might be tempting for thieves to break into. He had too much stuff in the cargo area that he didn’t want to lose.
In the end, as was so often the case, fate handed him his answer. One of the side streets was involved in a public works project and was off-limits. That had pushed cars onto the next side street,
where they were parked along the curb almost bumper to bumper. The only open parking was on Lukša’s street and based on the posted signs, it was permit-only. Harvath found an empty spot at the beginning of the block and pulled in. Now, he had a decision to make.
Murphy’s Law being what it was, he felt certain that the moment he stepped out of his vehicle and walked away, a cop or a parking enforcement
officer would come by and notice the infraction. Not knowing what kind of sticklers they were for enforcement, at best he was looking at a ticket, at worst—getting towed. Either way, there would be a record of his vehicle being in the area.
Depending on how his meeting with the truck driver went, that might not be a problem. But his job was to prepare for the worst. And there was actually something
worse than getting towed. If the cops forced their way into his vehicle and went through his gear, it would no longer be a parking enforcement issue. It would become much more serious.
His other option was to find a car that was unlocked and steal that person’s parking permit. That was asking for just as much trouble. There was no telling how many pairs of eyes were looking out from behind
and upstairs bedroom windows. It would only take one person to call the authorities and all the aforementioned problems would come crashing down on top of him.
Picking up his encrypted phone, he texted Nicholas a request. As he waited for the answer to come back, he pulled a piece of blank paper and a Sharpie from his laptop bag.
Two minutes later, he had his response. Zooming in on the picture
Nicholas had sent, Harvath copied the sentences exactly as they had been written in Lithuanian.
This vehicle belongs to a home healthcare nurse. I am visiting a patient. I will return shortly. Thank you for your understanding.
From the armrest, he retrieved the Sig Sauer P226 9mm pistol McGee had given him, as well as two of the additional magazines. Removing it from its Sticky holster, he did
a press check to make sure a round was in the chamber. Then he returned it to its holster and placed it inside his waistband at the small of his back. The mags went into his pocket.
Placing the note on the dashboard, he knew it was contradictory to the image he was about to present the neighbors. Hopefully, he could get in and out before anyone noticed.
Leaning back, he grabbed his purchase
from the farmer’s market and then unlocked the Land Cruiser’s door.
Stepping onto the street, he looked slowly around and didn’t see anyone. Because it was a weekday, most of the residents were likely at work.
Shutting the door, he armed the vehicle’s alarm system, and headed toward Lukša’s home. He didn’t like the fact that he was going to have to confront the man while his wife was there.
He liked even less what he might have to do—to both of them.
Nevertheless, there was no way around it. The ball was in the truck driver’s court. How the game played out would be entirely dependent upon what happened the moment Harvath rang his bell.
aking his time, Harvath walked up the street toward the narrow, two-story home. It was a warm day and the windows facing the street were open. There was a light breeze and, when it picked up, striped yellow curtains could be seen billowing in and out.
As he got closer, he could hear a television on inside. It sounded like someone was watching sports. Based on the enthusiasm of the
broadcaster, he assumed it was soccer.
Approaching the front door, he peeked in one of the windows and saw Lukša—one leg propped up, lying on the couch. He was indeed watching sports, but it wasn’t soccer. It was rugby.
He positioned himself so that the truck driver couldn’t see his face and then rang the bell. As he heard Mrs. Lukša come near, he held up the bouquet of flowers he had bought
at the farmer’s market. Upon opening the door, it was the first thing she saw.
Harvath smiled as she said something to him in Lithuanian. He assumed she was asking who he was.
“I’m an old friend of your husband’s,” he replied, in English. Not knowing and, actually, not caring if he had gotten the question right. Already, he had placed his foot inside the door frame so she couldn’t close it.
The shift in his body frightened her and the color drained from her face. The truck driver yelled something from their living room.
Mrs. Lukša’s words again were in Lithuanian, but this time Harvath understood one of them—“
In any other situation, Harvath might have been worried about his subject bolting out the back, but based on his injuries Mr. Lukša wasn’t running anywhere.
“You should put these in some water,” said Harvath, offering the lady of the house the flowers and gently pushing past her.
When he entered the living room, the truck driver had already picked up his crutch and was struggling to get off the couch.
He was wearing a stained tank top and brown cargo pants. His left knee was in a brace, his right hand in a cast. His hair was matted and it looked
like he hadn’t shaved in a while. Movement was probably quite painful for him.
Harvath told him to sit back down and the man obeyed.
In addition to the TV remote, some magazines, and two empty bottles of beer, there was a plate of half-eaten food on the coffee table along with several bottles of prescription medication. The house, even with all of its windows open, smelled like fried fish.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Lukša demanded.
“I heard you were in a car accident. I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“I’m fine. Now you can go. Same way you came in.”
Harvath smiled. The man was just as gruff as he had been on their operation in Kaliningrad.
There was something else about him, though. Once he had recognized Harvath, he had stopped looking him in the eye. At first he
thought it was guilt, but then he realized it was something even more intense—shame.
Harvath studied him, allowing several moments to pass, which only added to the man’s discomfort. “Do you want to tell me what really happened?” he finally asked.
“Like you said,
The doctor had been right. Lukša was lying. Harvath was positive. Like any good smuggler, he was good at hiding his
lies, but he wasn’t perfect—
at least not when it came to hiding them from Harvath. There was a subtle microexpression—a twitch near his left temple—that gave him away.
“Antanas,” Harvath replied, using the man’s first name to further unsettle him, “you have a pretty good idea of who I am or, at the very least, the kinds of things I do for a living. Which means you know I didn’t come all this
way to be lied to. So, in order to save us both a lot of time, I’m going to give you a choice. You either tell me the truth, or I’m going to drag your wife in here by the hair and make her pay for your lies. What’s it going to be?”
The truck driver glared at him. Involving his wife was beyond the pale. “I didn’t think Americans played so dirty.”
Harvath smiled again, but there was no mirth in
it. “You have no idea
He waited for Lukša to say something and when he didn’t, asked, “Who did this to you? And for the record, before you answer and I have to go fetch Mrs. Lukša, no one believes you were in a car accident. I’d be willing to bet that she doesn’t even believe that. Now, tell me what happened.”
The truck driver exhaled a long breath of air and his tense body sank
into the couch cushions. His eyes looked up at the ceiling. The fight had gone out of him. He wasn’t going to put his wife through any sort of pain—not even the threat of it.
“A couple of weeks ago, men came.”
“What kind of men?”
“Big men,” said Lukša. “Russians.”
“They came here? To your house?”
The truck driver nodded.
“What did they want?”
The response was what Harvath had feared.
Russian intelligence had reverse engineered—at least partially—his assignment in Kaliningrad.
“What did you tell them?” he asked.
“At first, nothing,” said the truck driver. “That’s when they started beating me. Two of them held me down—the two biggest ones—while a
third man, with a shaved head and a thick red beard, did his worst to me. Yet, I still said nothing. Then he broke my hand. Next,
Though he kept a stoic expression, Harvath felt terrible. He had been the source of so much pain and so much death for so many people. Looking at Lukša, he said the only thing he could say, “I’m very sorry that happened to you.”
The Lithuanian grew terse. “What you should be sorry about is coming to my house with your threats and disrespecting not only me, but also my wife.”
understood the man’s anger. “You’re right. I apologize. To you and your wife.”
The response seemed to mollify the man, at least a little bit, and he went from staring daggers at Harvath to once again studying his ceiling.
“I’m sorry to have to ask you this, but I need to know what you told them.”
Lukša took his time gathering his thoughts. Finally, he said, “Even when they were beating me,
breaking my bones, I tried to lie. Then the man asking the questions removed a phone and showed me a video.”
“What kind of video?”
“It was a video of me, buying the public transportation tickets I gave you.”
The Russians really had done their research. Not only had they identified Lukša as a potential suspect, they had gone through all of their CCTV footage, looking for corroborating evidence.
And they had found it.
“The man asking the questions, what did he look like?”
“Big like the others, but slimmer. He had black hair, like a raven, and a mustache with a small beard that wasn’t connected.
“A Vandyke?” Harvath asked, pantomiming on his own face what one looked like.
Lukša nodded and Harvath encouraged him to continue. “What happened after the man with the black hair showed you
“He knew my wife was away, visiting her sister in the countryside. If
I didn’t tell him what he wanted to know, he threatened to wait for her to come back and do horrible things to her.”
Harvath now felt even worse for threatening the man’s wife.
“So you told them. Everything.”
“Wouldn’t you?” Lukša asked. “If it had been your wife?”
“They never gave me that choice,” Harvath admitted,
seeing an opportunity—through his pain—to hopefully secure more cooperation from the man. “They murdered my wife right in front of me and forced me to watch.”
The truck driver became indignant. “Animals,” he spat. “You see why we hate them? They have always been like this. They are absolute animals.”
Harvath appreciated the man’s fury. He needed the rest of the story, though. “What, specifically,
did they ask you, Antanas—and what exactly did you tell them?”
“As you said, I told them everything. Where I picked you up. Where I dropped you off. How many of you there were. What, if any, equipment I could identify. How we communicated. What, if any, discussions of yours I overheard. And then, where I picked you up later that night and where I dropped you off before I left Kaliningrad and
crossed back into Lithuania.”
“I assume they also asked how we were even connected in the first place.”
The truck driver nodded. “The man had lots of questions about that. He accused me, repeatedly, of working for the CIA. This was after I had told him everything else about that day. No matter what I said, he still wasn’t satisfied. He started talking about my wife again, explaining in disgusting
detail what they were going to do to her. He even threatened to go after my grandchildren. Animals.”
“So, what did you tell him?”
“The truth. That I was working for the VSD.”
“Did you tell him who, at State Security you were working for?”
“Of course,” Lukša replied. “He demanded it. I had no choice.”
“I understand,” Harvath said, and he meant it. “What name did you give him?”
“The only name
I had—Filip Landsbergis.”
“Did you tell Landsbergis about what happened?”
The truck driver lowered his eyes. “No.”
“Why not?” asked Harvath.
“Because they told me that if I did, they would kill my entire family and his.”