While on an intelligence operation in the Soviet wilderness, two Norwegians—Jan Johansen and his companion Mattis—cross the Russian border and pay with their lives. But what really went wrong? Was it a trap, or an honest mistake?
Hal Starheim, an explorer and Jan’s friend—together with Jan’s widow, Ragna—are determined to uncover the mystery behind the pair’s murder. But they’re not the only ones hoping to get to the crux of the confusing deaths. A journalist with secrets of his own is also searching for answers. And as they each continue to fall deeper and deeper into the mystery, they uncover an international conspiracy that will send chills up readers’ spines.
Read on for an excerpt from Wolf Winter, and then download the book.
The men halted. They had come about two miles from the lake. The border lay just ahead, though it was impossible to be absolutely certain as to its position. There were no posts or fences; the landscape looked like any other stretch of snow-covered taiga. The only certainty was that ski troops regularly patrolled its far side and that beyond lay many, many miles of forbidden territory where interlopers—Russian, Lapp, or otherwise—risked instant arrest or worse.
Jan wrestled with indecision. The choice was impossible. Was it a trap? Was this man genuine?
Impossible. But then if he was going to be wrong whatever he did, he might as well try to save the man he had come to meet.
Torn with doubt yet keen to get the matter over and done with, he waved the others forward and the decision was made.
They were crossing the border.
The two Norwegians were uncomfortably aware that each stride was a step away from safety; a step, furthermore, that would have to be retraced. They were also acutely aware of the stillness and the growing clarity of the light and how conspicuous they must be, and how even the sleepiest patrol would be able to track them with ease.
Jan had wanted to leave Mattis at the lake, but according to their strange companion the sick man was too weak to ski, so Mattis had come after all, armed with a makeshift litter made of birchwood and padded with sleeping bags.
The Russian led the way, following his outward tracks, which were etched deeply into the snow.
Easy to follow.
Jan knew they must be approaching the Pasvik River, an area that would be heavily patrolled. Nervously he called a halt and questioned the Russian again. The man was adamant: his companion was very close now.
They continued through sparse woodland. With a cold sense of foreboding Jan noticed that the Russian’s tiredness seemed to have mysteriously vanished and that his outward tracks were very straight for those of an exhausted man.
New doubts gnawed at his stomach. He thought of questioning the man again, but the Russian turned excitedly, indicating a point just ahead.
Motioning the others to halt, Jan went cautiously forward. As he approached the brow of a hillock he crouched low on his skis and peered over.
Below him was a slight hollow in which grew dwarf willow and low scrub. Under a gnarled bent willow something protruded from the snow. A sort of bundle. Covered in what looked like a dirty white anorak.
To one side of the bundle was a rucksack and a pair of skis, and to the other an area of well-trampled snow where people had walked in boots. He thought he could see a set of tracks leading into the hollow from the east in addition to the tracks coming out to the west. But that proved nothing: it was impossible to tell how many pairs of skis had used them.
He made a half-circle around the hollow, his ears straining, his eyes scanning every inch of terrain. Toward the river the trees were taller and denser: Anything could be hidden there.
Taking a last look around, he beckoned to the others and skied down into the hollow.
He went straight to the half-buried shape in the snow.
It was a man all right.
Removing his skis Jan knelt beside him and pulled the hood back from his face.
He stared. Realization came instantly. There could be no doubt: the eyes were only partially closed, the skin was marble-gray and strangely smooth, as if the man had never had a worry in his life. But he went through the motions all the same, feeling the pulse at the neck and wrist, lifting the eyelids to examine the pupils.
Jan put his fingers against the man’s cheek. The skin yielded, not yet frozen by the air temperature, which was at least minus twenty. He hadn’t been dead long then, probably less than half an hour.
A suspicion began to form in Jan’s mind. He rolled the body on its back. Then he saw that he was right: the anorak and the snow beneath were stained brilliant pink; there was a large wound in his chest.
He examined the man’s clothing and found the neat entry mark of a high-velocity bullet in his back.
Jan spun around and grabbed the Russian by the collar. “What happened! What happened?”
The Russian stared at the figure in the snow and his face crumpled in despair.
Jan shook him violently. “What happened?”
“At the river. They shoot at us. We escape in the night. We come back on our track and we walk close to the river. We travel all night. Then he cannot travel no more.…” He bowed his head.
“Why didn’t you say?”
“I think you will not come.…”
Jan closed his eyes in exasperation.
Suddenly he became aware of the silence again. It seemed alive, as if some mysterious movement were taking place within it.
Gesturing to Mattis, he began to search the body.
They went hastily through the rucksack, then the anorak, shirt, and trousers. Because they knew only that the man was carrying something important but not what it was, they pocketed everything they could find: a map, a knife, a pistol, a bar of chocolate, a wallet, a pair of binoculars. They left the clothing with the remaining food.
Jan glanced at the dead man’s face and paused. A distant memory stirred, so faint, so indistinct, that he shrugged it off. And yet …
He stared down at the empty gray features and tried to picture the face as it must have been …
The memory fluttered again, faint yet persistent. He tried to place it but failed. Yet there was no doubt: the features were vaguely familiar. Or maybe they reminded him of someone else?
There was a loud hiss. He spun around.
It was the Russian, standing on the hillock, gesticulating in the direction of the unseen river, a look of panic on his face.
Jan and Mattis exchanged glances. Hastily they refastened their skis and grabbed their poles. Mattis tapped Jan’s arm. The Russian was leaving fast in the direction of the border, ducking and twisting away, poling off with rapid jerky arm movements, like a rabbit on the run.
Jan and Mattis did not follow him. Instinctively they made a fresh trail well to the north of their old track. They purposely chose difficult ground, through frozen marshland covered with myriad hummocks and waist-high scrub. They used other tricks, too, skirting even the smallest hills to avoid putting their profiles against the sky, keeping close to denser cover where it existed, forcing themselves to their limits, pushing forward in long thrusting strides, faster than their pursuers could ever achieve.
And they listened.
The endless landscape was shrouded in silence, a silence broken only by the steady swish of their skis and the sucking and panting of their breath.
Minutes passed. Jan made calculations. They must be within a mile of the border.
Softly now, softly.
The scrub was thinning. Ahead it petered out altogether and gave way to the openness of a frozen lake.
Jan conjured up the area map from his memory. The border—it must be on the far side of this lake.
Both men gave a sudden start and paused like animals scenting the wind.
A single sharp crack! floated on the air, muffled by distance and snow. Then again and again. Crack! Crack!
They listened for the last echoes, trying to gauge distance and direction.
Then they poled forward again, but swinging to the left, to skirt the terrible nakedness of the lake.
The silence pressed in, heavy and vibrant.
The horizon beckoned, the landscape opened out, wide and bare and naked around them.
They went on. They had no choice.
The border. So close, so close.
Even as Jan thought it, he froze in his stride and jerked his head up, his senses reaching out. He felt a moment of animal fear. His hand went to his rifle.
A movement. Away, away to the right.
The two men crouched and watched.
Suddenly they saw them.
A group of men, as yet tiny gray dots but approaching fast.
Jan and Mattis raced off again, instinctively arcing farther to the left to diverge even more from the patrol, creating distance.
But distance had little meaning, for there was no cover.
There was a muffled shout, a distant call. The two men’s hearts lurched, but they did not turn.
A sudden crack! very loud, the bullet very close; then the echoing thump! of the detonation.
The two men sped on, their lungs rasping with pain.
More shots: crack! crack! thump! thump!
They were halfway around the lake. Ahead was a dip in the fold of the hills: freedom. So near.
Another volley of shots. But though Jan braced himself, his skin alive with fear, nothing came near. It occurred to him that the shots might be intended to miss …
More calls echoing feebly across the empty air.
The two men sped on. So near.
A new leap of fear. The sound came from the left.
Jan couldn’t see them yet. Where were they?
He pressed on, the slow-burning terror pushing his aching limbs forward, forward.
There were no more shouts. For some moments there were no more shots either. Just the pounding of their hearts in their ears.
A cry split the air. A moment of disbelief. The voice was his own, shrill and unrecognizable. The breath was knocked out of him. A terrible pain pierced his lungs.
He was not aware of falling, only of the burning pain and breathlessness, and a lightness in the head, like he was floating.
The snow pressed into his face. His mouth was liquid. A pink stain spread slowly across the whiteness. He coughed and cleared his mouth.
A part of his brain registered the crack! crack! of continuous shooting.
A cloudiness was creeping up on him. Fighting it back, he coughed and swallowed and tried to clear the choking in his throat. With a vast effort he called Mattis’s name. His voice was infuriatingly faint.
There was no response. Silence. Even the shooting had stopped. He tried to turn his head. It was heavy, heavy. He twisted his body a little so that he could see past his feet.
He stared, blinked, refocused, and stared again.
For the first time he was overwhelmed by despair.
Mattis. He lay crumpled in the snow, his legs twisted under him, a ski protruding oddly into the air.
Struggling for breath Jan called again. Mattis remained infinitely still.
The cloud closed in again. The liquid rose inexorably in his throat; he fought for breath. He heard a gurgling sound. He knew he was drowning. His head was filled with a hot sweet roar.
One further moment of dim awareness … Voices murmuring, a sensation of hands turning him.
He made a last effort to open his eyes but saw nothing but shadows and the approach of a greater darkness.
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