Wolf Winterby Clare Francis
In this “galloping good read” that blends “Stephen King horror and Ingmar Bergman darkness,” Jan Johansen heads to Finland on a seemingly routine/b>/i>
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Two Norwegians are murdered in the Soviet wilderness, setting off a web of intrigue in this “consistently superior” Cold War spy thriller (Chicago Tribune).
In this “galloping good read” that blends “Stephen King horror and Ingmar Bergman darkness,” Jan Johansen heads to Finland on a seemingly routine intelligence operation—but when he and his companion wander over the Russian border, they are gunned down in cold blood (The Washington Post Book World).
Halvard Starheim, an experienced explorer and Jan’s good friend, is determined to find out what went wrong. He is joined by Jan’s beautiful widow and a journalist, who is hiding his own dangerous secret. Their journey will slowly undercover an international conspiracy—and lead to a terrifying showdown in the freezing Arctic winter.
Interweaving the stories of these three characters and revealing the complex political tensions in the region where northern Europe meets the USSR, the international bestselling author of Unforgotten and Homeland offers a suspenseful tale of adventure and espionage: “The classically structured spy thriller has rarely been better done” (The New York Times).
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By Clare Francis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Clare Francis
All rights reserved.
The major pulled up the hood of his parka and stepped out into the night. The cold snapped him awake as he'd hoped it would and, though his body was still warm from sleep, he stamped his feet and clasped his gloved hands to get his circulation moving.
He wandered idly away from the hut. It was four in the morning, but the dawn, such as it was, wouldn't come for a long time. Even then the day would be over almost before it had begun. What a godforsaken place this was! Too remote and lonely for his taste. Even the cold felt different — harsher, unforgiving, like the landscape.
The north had a sort of fascination, of course — he wouldn't be a good Norwegian if he didn't believe that — and on a night like this he had to admit that it had a stark, if severe, beauty.
The air was astonishingly clear. The outlines of the surrounding hills and distant mountains were hard-rimmed against the night sky. To one side the main body of the camp lay quiet, dark except for the perimeter lights and sentry posts, the huts clearly outlined against the soft reflections of the snow. Below, he could just make out the rough winter road from the Arctic coast running up the floor of the valley, a ribbon of white through the sparse birchwood. The road was, of course, quite devoid of traffic. It continued southward past the camp until, somewhere deep in the interior, it rose clear of hills and trees and disappeared into the wilderness of the plateau.
The major had never been on the plateau. On the rare occasions when he came up here to Finnmark he went straight to some garrison or military installation on the coast. It was such a distance — the best part of a thousand miles from Oslo to the Arctic coast of northern Norway — and travel was so difficult and time-consuming that, once his business was finished, he usually wasted no time in getting back.
He shivered and checked the time: 0410. Five minutes to the weather forecast and forty-five minutes to the time of departure. He stamped about for another minute then went back into the hut to see what was going on.
In the mess the two travelers and their driver were eating breakfast, talking quietly. The major did not join them. He was too tense to eat, and would anyway have felt out of place: the three had already formed themselves into a group, friendly but exclusive.
Instead the major asked shortly: "All right?"
Jan Johansen, the leader, looked up and smiled. "Fine." It was a reassuring smile and the major took comfort from it. The success of the venture lay with these men, yet the major was only too well aware of where the blame would fall if anything went wrong.
In the passageway a door banged. A staff sergeant appeared with a written forecast. Strong northerly winds and a sharp drop in temperature. The major passed it to Jan Johansen, who gave a slight dismissive shrug. The major, however, felt a twinge of concern: It didn't sound too good to him. He found himself wishing that Starheim were still around to discuss it.
Aware that he was hovering over the breakfasting men, the major went outside again. Two soldiers from the local battalion were loading the Land-Rover.
"Is that the lot?" the major asked.
"Apart from the skis."
The major inspected the gear. There didn't seem to be very much of it. "Has this been checked?" he asked.
The soldier nodded. "By Major Starheim."
"Starheim? Oh, you mean — yesterday?"
"No, about an hour ago."
The major hid his surprise. "I see." Starheim had left after the briefing the previous afternoon, giving every indication that he wouldn't be returning. Yet here he was again, unannounced. The major should have been annoyed — if it had been anyone else he would have been — but in truth he was rather relieved.
"Where is Starheim?" he asked.
"Gone skiing, Major."
This time the major blinked visibly. "When is he expected back?"
The soldier pointed up the hill behind the hut. "He just went up to the top. He said he wouldn't be long."
The major scanned the slope above. He couldn't imagine climbing it in less than half an hour. But then he was neither an Arctic explorer nor a mountaineer.
He sauntered off until he was clear of the lights and sounds of the hut. The night was swathed in silence. Nothing stirred save the wisps of snow drawn from the peaks by the hard cold breeze. It was difficult to believe that anything existed on the wind-scoured slopes. Yet he didn't doubt that Starheim was up there somewhere. The major pictured him moving silently and invisibly across the snow, a mountain man in his element. He tried to imagine himself like that: inured to cold and hardship, self-sufficient to the point of total independence, at home in the most desolate of places. But his imagination failed him, and he gave a sudden violent shiver.
Halvard Starheim stood high on the hill and looked down the length of the valley, toward the north and the distant mountains that stood above the Arctic fjords.
The air was cold, and it was going to get even colder. All the signs were there. The night was hard and clear. The surface of the snow, glowing luminously in the brilliant starlight, was powder dry. And now a wind had sprung up, as yet no more than a sharp breeze, but already frost cold against his skin.
He turned his face to it. Northerly. With perhaps a touch of east in it. Ice-bearing wind from the Arctic Ocean and the Pole beyond; a wind that was capable of taking the temperature down really low. Not a problem in itself — he and Jan had been through minus seventy degrees Fahrenheit overwintering in the Northwest Passage — but something to be borne in mind all the same.
He wished it were the only thing there was to worry about.
Over the Arctic horizon the northern lights shimmered in an iridescent curtain and, even as he watched, the aurora leapt outward until the sky was filled with a silvery radiance. Instinctively he thought: Radio contact will be bad. Then he remembered that there wasn't going to be any radio contact and he exhaled harshly, his breath vaporizing in a milky cloud.
He liked nothing about this expedition, as the major from military intelligence insisted on calling it. He disliked clandestine activities at the best of times. But most of all he disliked not having had a bigger say in the planning of it. Weather, ice, blizzard, terrain: he could deal with those. But this, with all its polities and subterfuge — this was distinctly tricky ground.
Sounds drifted up from the camp below. There were lights and movements outside the hut. Time was getting on. He pulled the drawstrings of his hood tighter over his face, checked his ski bindings, and looped his poles over his wrists.
Out of long habit he paused briefly for one last look around before setting off. Then he began a long traverse, the narrow skis hissing softly through the deep virgin snow, occasionally rasping noisily as they touched some unseen rock. Approaching a bank of what might have been soft drift, he prepared to turn. Pushing his uphill ski well out, he made a long sweeping telemark turn, then straightened again for the next long traverse.
As he dropped fast toward the hut he came onto hard crust and risked a jump turn, a difficult maneuver when wearing narrow cross-country skis and soft boots attached by the toe alone. But the turn went well and he allowed himself a moment of satisfaction.
He came to a neat stop on a knoll just above the hut and bent down to unfasten his skis. The quiet was disturbed by the sound of an engine whirring. The Land-Rover warming up. Fifteen minutes to go.
More sounds: the crunch of hard boots on snow. Hal looked up and saw a figure shrouded in a parka making his way carefully toward him. He recognized the man from military intelligence: Major Thrane.
Hal picked up his skis and went to meet him.
"How was it up there?" the major asked pleasantly.
"Oh — good."
"The weathermen seem to think it's going to get cold."
"I've no doubt they're right."
"But that won't be a problem?"
Hal suppressed a wry smile. Desk men always fretted about the wrong things. "No, not on its own," he replied.
The major nodded. "I wasn't expecting you back." His voice was friendly but curious.
"I thought I'd come and see them off. I hope that's all right."
"Of course," the major said quickly. "Glad you stayed."
They walked slowly toward the waiting vehicle.
The major cleared his throat and said a little awkwardly: "Last night I had the feeling you were still unhappy about something. Was I right?"
Hal hesitated. He often made the mistake of speaking too plainly. It was his greatest failing, at least as far as his career in the army was concerned. It had made him at least one enemy in high places. And he couldn't afford that at the moment.
The major waited expectantly. "Please feel free," he pressed. "Say what's on your mind."
Hal stopped and faced him. Thrane was in his early thirties, about the same age as Hal, with sharp watchful eyes suggesting a deep intelligence. "Well, if you really want to know," Hal said finally, "I don't like the idea at all."
"I see," Thrane said stiffly. "Well, I'm sorry about that." There was a pause. "Obviously if there'd been another way ..."
"It can't be right to use civilians on a military operation."
"But it's not a military operation. It's an intelligence expedition."
Hal gave him a hard stare. "Come on."
The major conceded the point with a reluctant shrug. "Well — all right. Semimilitary, then." They began to walk again.
"In which case I should be going," Hal said.
"You know that's out of the question," Thrane said in a soft patient voice.
Hal gritted his teeth. Whether on exercise or one of his own expeditions he was used to being up there with his men. Staying behind went right against the grain.
Thrane murmured: "You're a serving officer. You know you can't be found — outside."
"Outside?" Hal echoed, shaking his head. Like all intelligence personnel, the major had a gift for euphemism. "You mean, it would be embarrassing if I were caught, but all right if they are?"
"They're civilians and more importantly Lapps — or part Lapp at least. They have a right to be there."
"They'll still be spies."
Thrane winced at Starheim's choice of word. "Hardly. In fact, no, definitely not! No one could call them that." He sounded quite hurt. "Besides, no one will ever know they were there." There was a finality to his words and he changed the subject briskly. "Now, about this cold — it isn't going to slow them down, is it?"
They came to a halt some yards from the Land-Rover. "Maybe. If it falls below minus forty."
"But they'll be able to keep going?"
"Difficult to say. Other things are more likely to slow them down — strong winds, heavy snow, a sudden thaw. It's not just the cold. But we've allowed for it. They've got time to spare." Hal added, almost to himself: "I'd be more worried about the other chap getting there on time, if I were you."
Someone was gently revving the Land-Rover's engine, so that clouds of vapor spewed out of the exhaust into the night air. Thrane murmured: "Well, one can only make plans and assume everyone will do his best to carry them through." He exhaled sharply, and added with sudden intensity: "Look, he's important to us, this man. Believe me. Otherwise we wouldn't be going to all this trouble."
Hal thought: I'd love to know why. But he didn't bother to ask. Secrecy was Thrane's stock in trade. Like the others, Hal had been briefed on the need-to-know principle. In his role as survival expert Hal had needed to know where Jan and Mattis were going, and that was about all. He'd been told nothing about the man that Jan and Mattis were to meet and bring back — not his name, age, language, or nationality, nor even his ability as a skier.
Hal disliked secrecy because in his experience it always led to misunderstandings and mistakes. On his own expeditions he always insisted on each man being fully aware of what he was doing and why.
A door opened. The soldier who was to be the driver for the first leg of the trip emerged from the hut and climbed into the vehicle.
While they waited for the others the major stamped his feet, making a full circle, and said in a conciliatory tone: "My God, I'd hate to be up on the plateau when the weather's bad. How on earth do you survive it?"
Hal gave a small smile. "We survive." People from the south always thought of the northern interior as empty and hostile, but then they had been fed on the richer diet of forests and pastures and couldn't see the plain beauty of simple things. The north might be relatively bleak, even harsh, but it certainly wasn't the barren uninteresting place people believed it to be.
"I first came up here in '45," Thrane was saying. "Helping to rebuild things. There was nothing left. I was posted to Alta. Hardly a house standing. At the time I wondered if people would ever bother to come back. But they did, of course." He shot Hal an apologetic glance. "But of course you come from this region, don't you?"
"Not quite. From Tromsø."
"Ah," the major grunted. "I read that somewhere." He added, almost accusingly: "It's impossible not to read about you nowadays. All the magazines and papers. Doesn't it bother you?"
"Not anymore." It wasn't quite true, but Hal didn't feel like going into that now.
"And you're planning another expedition, I suppose?"
"The North Pole again?"
The major wasn't going to be put off. "What sort of expedition, then?"
"Ah." The major smiled. "A tall one no doubt."
A figure emerged from the hut. It was Mattis. Hal went to meet him, grinning broadly. "Okay?"
"Okay, Hal." They had known each other a long time. Mattis was a nomadic Lapp from a family that wintered in the middle of the plateau at Kautokeino and summered at Kåfjord, not far from Tromsø. He was also an ex-army cross-country ski champion. Like many nomadic Lapps he was small, barely a couple of inches over five feet, and characteristically bandy-legged. He was dressed in traditional winter costume, a luhkka of reindeer fur, reindeer-skin leggings, and finnesko, which are large grass-lined moccasins.
He climbed into the Land-Rover and laughed. "We'll be there too soon in this weather!" Hal didn't doubt it. Mattis had once skied ninety miles in twenty-four hours.
Hal wandered back toward the major, who immediately picked up the conversation again. "So where's this mountain?"
Hal took his time. "In the Himalayas."
Hal tried not to feel annoyed at Thrane's astonishment. "Yes. The West Ridge."
"Ah. Is that difficult?"
"It's never been climbed."
Thrane nodded as if he'd known all along. "An army expedition?"
"Oh. I assumed —"
"The army gives me leave, that's all. And the odd piece of equipment when it wants something tested. I get no financial help." He was always explaining this. Outsiders seemed to believe that money for expeditions grew on government trees.
Thrane considered for a moment. "Tell me, I can understand doing the Northwest Passage — in the footsteps of Amundsen and all that — but why did you try for the Pole?"
This was a popular question. Hal pretended to consider his answer, although he knew it by heart. "Because I wanted to show that, if one was sufficiently well prepared, it was possible to travel fast and light to anywhere in the Arctic, even the North Pole."
"There were just the two of you, you and Johansen? And dogs?"
"Yes," Hal said patiently.
"But the supply plane didn't find you?"
"Well — something like that."
Their radio had packed up and, reaching a drop zone three days late, they'd found that the Canadian Air Force plane had been and gone, having dropped a few supplies blind. Though they'd managed to retrieve some of the scattered packages, they didn't have enough supplies to continue the attempt. Just a hundred miles from the Pole they'd been forced to turn back for Ellesmere Island.
But, then, you couldn't expect to win them all.
Jan appeared at last, much taller and looser-limbed than Mattis. He wore an entire outfit of reindeer skin, complete with leggings and finnesko, while on his head perched a stylish and gaily colored Lappish hat. Hal screwed up his face and laughed. "A real Lapp!"
Excerpted from Wolf Winter by Clare Francis. Copyright © 1987 Clare Francis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Clare Francis (b. 1946) is a bestselling writer of crime novels and thrillers, and a former yachtswoman. After studying at the Royal Ballet School and University College London, she set off on an unplanned five-year career in sailing. Francis sailed solo across the Atlantic, and took part in several high-profile races, including the Whitbread Round the World Race. After writing three works of nonfiction about her adventures, she started writing novels. Her first novel, Night Sky, was a number one Sunday Times bestseller and spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. More thrillers followed, and her first crime novel, Deceit, was dramatized for television. Since then she has written crime, suspense, and historical literary fiction. Her books have been translated into twenty languages and published in over thirty countries. Francis is a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a Fellow of University College London, and an Honorary Fellow of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. For the past eighteen years she has been committed to the charity Action for ME, and she herself has had ME (also known as post viral fatigue syndrome, or chronic fatigue syndrome) for many years. Francis lives in London and the Isle of Wight.
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