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Thank you to those that have bought Edge of Eternity. The novel is continuing to do well on the charts, world wide. If you have read the novel, please leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. It would be greatly appreciated!

 

Enjoy the beginning of the Glen Beckett series.


Sneak Peek of

OPERATIONS: RECON

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Present day. Athens, Greece.

23:59 Hours

 

To some, navigating an inflatable assault raft on foreign waters at night would be a nightmare, but for others, it was familiar as an old blanket. The outboard was replaced by a fifty-pound electric trolling motor, not for efficiency, but for stealth. Most importantly, the prop was nearly silent when submerged, and the Minnkota motor was powerful enough to get the job done. The twelve-volt battery would last six hours, depending on the speed.

The black assault raft only held one occupant, Glenn Beckett.

He had been a soldier, a husband, and a father in his past, but now he was ready to appease his inner demons with a single life. The motivation of revenge is powerful, and when you’ve lost everything, all-encompassing.

The six-foot man kept one eye on the sky above and the waters behind him. No one knew he was here, but the man he had been hunting shouldn’t be underestimated. To be so close and fail would push his mind over the edge, not that he wasn’t close.

“Almost there,” Beckett whispered as he ran a hand over the week-long scruff on his jaw while the other guided the tiller. After his dishonorable discharge ten years ago, he kept his hair short on the sides and back, reminiscent of a crewcut. He was in top physical condition, with slabs of muscle across his chest and shoulders like an Olympic swimmer, giving him a tapered look. A series of tattoos on his left arm began at the shoulder and encircled his wrist. Some of the ink was completed professionally at a studio, while a homemade tattoo gun did the remainder at C Block during his last tour of USP Florence ADMAX (maximum federal prison in Colorado). Big D was an artist, and his work was solid.

“Finally.” Beckett turned the motor off as the raft lightly bumped into the marker buoy. “Showtime.”

He used the rope to secure the raft and slipped off his shirt and pants, revealing a partial wet suit underneath. A lifetime ago, Beckett would review all his equipment for a final check, obtain confirmation that the mission was greenlighted, and provide a final briefing to his team. But things have changed, and this mission wasn’t sanctioned—if you could call enacting his revenge a mission.

Contrary to what you see in the movies, diving underwater with a knife held in your teeth is unpleasant, and saltwater seeps in, no matter how tight your lips remain around the cold steel. The tip of Glenn’s tongue flicked across the blade’s edge as a small trail of bubbles rose to the surface from his bent nose. He left the raft tied to a marker buoy a quarter mile into the Mediterranean before slipping over the side dressed in a skin-tight bathing suit. The distant city of Athens rose like a palace of lights against the night sky, and a trillion stars covered the world in a celestial blanket.

Despite the warm June off-shore breeze, the water was cool, but Glenn had grown up south of Portland, Maine. The Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Higgins Beach, never truly warmed, even in the hot summer months. Icebergs have been spotted in the waters in the southern currents as they rounded Nova Scotia, Canada. He also had swam in the frigid waters off Argentina and Alaska on numerous occasions—this was tropical in comparison. However, there was a difference. Previously, Glenn had the backing of the United States government, and after nine years in federal prison, the only thing left to his name was the Ka-bar knife and the change of clothes left in the raft.

He sold everything to get the location of one man—including his soul. The private investigator in Paris had connections with Interpol and was worth every cent.

Four hundred yards later, Beckett paused, treading water. Yachts were moored next to sailing vessels in the harbor, and many were decorated with strings of white fairy lights strung from the mast and lines, giving the illusion of a magical park. If he were going to get caught, this would be the place. While no one was staring into the dark waters, if he drew too close, there was enough ambient light to reveal a six-foot white male swimming. One drunken sailor pissing into the ocean would sound the alarm.

Time to be the tip of the spear.

Three months of planning, begging, and stealing will come to fruition in the next few minutes. Or he’ll be dead. Either way, the nightmare will be over.

After a deep breath, Glenn slowly submerged five feet below the surface, then powerful arms swept outward, and his body undulated in a slow dolphin kick. He glided beneath the surface several body lengths before repeating the maneuver. While it’s been several years, his body didn’t forget the combat dive training. Pain will pass. Fight the desire to breathe. You are in control of your body, not the other way around. The gentle tug of the tide and currents were familiar, and he compensated for the drift. After four minutes, Beckett slowly rotated face up, and when his lips crested the water, he didn’t gulp air but slowly inhaled. Once again, he submerged. His muscles were used to lifting weights in a prison yard, and while Glenn was stronger, he lacked endurance. The burning began in his deep chest, then his shoulders.

I’m in control. Not my broken body. The unwritten motto his instructors had pushed on him during the dive training.

His jaw muscles cramped, and he switched the blade to his right hand, or he would lose it to the depths. On his third breath, he allowed one eye to rotate out of the water. The sailboat ahead was dark, except for a white glimmer behind the drawn curtains. He closed the distance to the stern anchor line with a left side stroke.

Gentle waves lapped at the thirty-two-foot sailboat’s hull, and the creaking of the guy lines reminded Glenn of boards in an old home. Midnight was still early for the tourists, and a party was underway on a distant yacht. The bass notes carried across the water like a rock concert. Glenn rested his fingertips against the hull and waited. The faint thuds and rocking of the boat weren’t due to the water or external sounds—someone was inside.

Perfect.

Boarding a small vessel without detection is a game of patience. You have to be synchronized with the ebb and flow of the water, and any weight placement must be done over the keel. But Glenn grinned at his luck when a tender for one of the larger yachts came through the harbor. Despite the area being a no-wake zone, the results made the moored vessels rock. There are assholes everywhere.

A hand gripped the edge beside the outboard motor firmly, and Beckett slowly shifted his weight, then waited until the second concussive wave hit before pulling himself over the transom. Balanced on the balls of his feet, he paused as water dripped from his frame. His eyes remained glued to the below-deck hatch. The top would slide forward, and the interior door swings in to be secured with a stainless-steel latch. Beckett was intimately familiar with varying styles of the boat, and Amber Waves was the same model as his parents once owned.

The Ka-bar was reversed in his right hand, and the seven-inch blade rested along his forearm while waiting for the adrenalin to ease the shaking of his muscles. The three-day beard itched, and Glenn’s left hand wiped the salt water from his face. Before prison, he was in top physical shape—the Marine training guaranteed that—but the reflexes were dulled. Glenn counted on the fact that Eli wasn’t in top fighting condition, or he would be slaughtered. Not that the spooks trained as hard.

Bare feet rocked forward as the wake eased, and Glenn ducked under the main sail boom, left hand resting on the mainsheet ropes. They were taunt and tied through the cleats properly, along with all lines, and a full minute passed as he took the three remaining steps across the cockpit to the hatch. If Eli had secured the latches, Glenn would be killed, and rushing inside would be the equivalent of committing suicide. Dulled reflexes or not, Eli wouldn’t be unarmed.

Time to find out.

Beckett placed a thumb on the hatch and slowly applied pressure. The gentle rocking of the boat covered any noise he made. The hatch slid forward half an inch.

Unlocked.

Without waiting, Glenn Beckett flung the hatch forward and rushed inside.

The galley was on the left, storage on the right, and a U-shaped dinette was opposite the head. Eli Hernandez sat at the table with his back to the door, an open laptop next to half a dozen empty green beer bottles. The former CIA operative barely had time to turn his head before Glenn collided with a grunt. While Glenn had remained in solid physical shape, his target had been enjoying life, food, and beer to excess. He slammed Eli’s head against the table, sending bottles flying. The knife reversed in his hand, and the edge dug into the many folds of his throat as another hand wrapped in the dark greasy hair at the base of his skull.

“Don’t fucking move,” Glenn growled.

Blood trickled down Eli’s neck and into a dirty green T-shirt. The five-foot-eight man was wedged against the seat back, and his large gut dug into the table. He couldn’t move if he wanted to.

“I don’t have anything! Help yourself! Just don’t kill me,” Eli whined.

“You fucking sold me out.”

“Sergeant Beckett?” Despite the sharp edge digging into his neck, Eli turned his head as his eyes widened. “I swear I did nothing!”

Glenn’s eyes flicked to the open laptop and questionable pornography. “Get up.”

He didn’t have to shout, and the former CIA officer jerked like a puppet on a string before being led outside. “I have money! It’s yours. The boat too. I was just taking care of it for you.”

Sweat rolled down Eli’s face in sheets, and that was when Glenn’s left hand slipped off his neck. Eli didn’t hesitate and dove an elbow back into his chest. Startled, Glenn stumbled back while Eli plunged over the side. The knife edge must have cut the large man, but not enough to disable him.

Glenn followed.

Despite the extra weight Eli had gained over the years, self-preservation rejuvenated his body. The fear of death also gave him an extra incentive, but Glenn wasn’t worried. The plan had changed, and he would adapt.

Glenn dove ten feet down and placed the blade in his teeth. He needed both arms to close the distance. Like a shark circling its prey, he swam under Eli’s frantic attempt at escape.

When he was within arm’s reach, the Ka-bar flicked outward, scoring along the outer thigh and slicing through the light cotton pants. That slowed Eli, and Glenn grasped his ankle and pulled him below the surface. The knife tip plunged into the man’s side twice within a second, and the struggles grew more frantic. Despite five tours of duty, Glenn had never stabbed anyone—shot, yes, but stabbed? This was a first. A moment he had been dreaming of for years was over within seconds.

A stream of bubbles rose to the surface—Eli’s screams would have altered everyone within a mile, but underwater the muted cry sounded like a siren. When the former CIA officer’s struggles ceased, Eli plunged the blade into each lung, then stomach. Expanding gasses would make a corpse rise to the surface. Perforating the body will keep it submerged longer, giving Glenn time to leave the area undetected. Not something they taught in recon school but had picked up in a prison yard chat.

As Eli slowly sank to the harbor bottom, Glenn dropped the Ka-bar. The job was done, and carrying a murder weapon wasn’t brilliant. Glenn was surprised to find Amber Waves fifty yards behind his left shoulder when he bobbed to the surface.

“It’s over,” he whispered. Slow strokes brought him back to the sailboat, and he climbed aboard. After exacting his revenge, Glenn expected a feeling of exhilaration or accomplishment, but he felt like he would vomit. “Now what?” he whispered.

Glenn’s plans didn’t include ‘happy ever after.’ In truth, he didn’t expect to survive the encounter and was strangely disappointed there wasn’t more of a fight. He grabbed two bottles of Mythos from the ice chest and sat at the table. The first beer he guzzled in seconds, then cracked the second. Anything will help numb the pain and allow him to forget what happened, but it didn’t work.

“Fuck you, Eli.”

The man that set him up for killing innocent civilians was dead. After a deep mission, his recon team was on rotation for an easier assignment. Twelve miles north of Kandahar, Sergeant Beckett led an escort to a small village where a government official was negotiating for information on the insurgents—the government official was Eli Hernandez. At that time and place, he was known as Mr. Jones.

Beckett set up an all-round defensive position on the small village, with a machine gunner watching the road and his second-in-command overlooking the northern approach. The remainder were spread out ‘watching the clock’. As the thirty-minute meeting stretched into an hour, Beckett grew restless and went to the elder’s hut to check on Eli. That was when the bullets flew and bad decisions were made, but what he had seen haunted his dreams for over a decade. Neither his commanding officer nor the judge believed his story and sided with the shining star of the Central Intelligence Agency. Glenn Beckett’s council advised him to opt for a civilian trial, not a military judge, and nine years later, he had killed a man with a knife and was drinking Eli’s beers on the Mediterranean.

He wasn’t drinking alone. The ghosts of his brothers were always at his side.

Glenn tossed the empty bottle in the galley sink and opened another. He turned to the laptop and began to search the files. Eli had been watching underage pornography through a server, and Glenn deleted every video off the computer. Even if Eli hadn’t framed him, he would have gladly killed him after seeing the content.

“Fuck you, Eli,” Glenn repeated. His brain was numb, and his body would soon follow when the beer did its job.

He was about to format the entire computer when an incoming email chimed.

The sender’s address was a string of number and letter combinations that appeared random through the Gmail server, as was Eli’s account. The subject line read: Update. Curious, Glenn opened the message.

We have lost the subject in Paris, and there is a possibility he could be headed in your direction. Take appropriate measures. We are setting up surveillance on our end in EH, IA.

 – C

Glenn gripped the beer bottle until he was white-knuckled as his breathing became labored. Elk Horn, Iowa, had a population of six-hundred people and was midway between Omaha and Des Moines. There was nothing of note in the small town except a Dutch windmill and museum, and it was surrounded by farmland. But one thing in Elk Horn was close to Glenn’s heart.

The beer bottle fell from numb fingers, rolled off the table, then shattered on the floor.

“Hold on, Cassie. Daddy’s coming.”

Chapter 2

 

When Eli mentioned he had cash, Glenn soon found out he wasn’t bluffing. Hidden throughout the interior were bundles of money stored in water-proof bags. A quick search on the laptop revealed shortcuts to several banking institutions, but Glenn didn’t have the passwords and had to abandon that avenue, but with the Euros, he was set.

While in prison, the former force recon sergeant had made connections and friendships with knowledgeable men who understood various systems and methods of circumventing the law. There were three different levels or grades for false identifications. The first was usually used for underage kids to buy alcohol and would pass casual inspection. Law enforcement could easily spot and identify such fake IDs. The second level was worth considerably more to secure, up to five thousand dollars, but it carried authenticity that would pass scrutiny. Usually, the documents were not just a driver’s license but also credit and bank cards. Most forged passports were in the second category. A detailed examination by the police or customs would prove the identification false. However, the third category was in a different division entirely, and the cost was reflected. A fictitious history was created, including public school records, library cards, to a driver’s license from an official at the Department of motor vehicles. The passport was real, including the security features embedded in the document.

Stealing identifications, then submitting a proper name change through government officials made the false papers real. No one would know until the FBI knocked on the address and asked the homeowner to speak to a certain individual.

While Glenn had sold everything, leaving his previous life behind, they had still tracked him to Paris. That meant they were physically following him since the identification was solid and couldn’t be traced back to his real name. Unless the forger had given him up? Why? There was no way that Eli Hernandez was that important within the CIA, and Glenn assumed he had left sometime over the last decade if he had ever worked there. Uploading pornography doesn’t sound viable for the federal government, even if it were a cover job.

Glenn pulled anchor, retrieved his clothing, and sank the raft as the sun crested the horizon. He had to clear the harbor before everyone else awakened. At times the aqua-marine waters were crystal clear, and despite the forty-foot depth, you could see the bottom. The corpse would be spotted. Glenn couldn’t count on a breeze to ripple the water and obscure his deeds.

Under power, he followed the coastline west, leaving the white sand beaches as he crossed the cruise ship channel. An island on the port side temporarily blocked the brilliant shimmering reflection of the water as gulls clustered on shore in the thousands. Along the route, Glenn periodically dropped items over the side: the laptop, Eli’s now empty wallet and cell phones. While searching the cabin, he found the original title and registry of Amber Waves, and he signed the ownership, backdating the point of sale to Troy Harris, his alias. After his first tour in Iraq, Glenn bought a sailboat much like Amber Waves, and nostalgia wrapped him in a cloak of memories.

Glenn continued west to the marina, passing cargo ships unloaded shipping containers at massive piers. Fifty-foot yachts were moored at the end of the docks while smaller vessels were tied off in the slips. Despite the early morning hours, crews were ready to hit the open water. He had been here hours earlier, under the cover of darkness, and Glenn never expected to return. After dropping the bumpers over the port side, he tied up in the first empty berth. Glenn left a note taped to the hatch: Free to a good home.

As a cover, he packed some essential items that used to belong to Eli, and the money, into a coyote-tan backpack. Glenn left the hatch unlocked and the keys on the table next to the ownership and registration. Barefoot, he shouldered the pack and walked along the docks. At the garbage can, he removed the lid and dug inside. His shoes and false identification were recovered under a newspaper. Many of his black missions had been completed without rankings, identification, or personal items so that they couldn’t be used against him in the event of capture. He never expected to recover his things. His plan was simple. Convert the nearly twenty-thousand Euros cash into prepaid credit cards, a burner phone, and take the next plane home.

In theater, missions were usually classified into two different types—green or black. A green mission with Force Recon was to gather intelligence, avoid detection, and report the findings back to command. Direct action missions to find and engage the enemy, like seizing an airfield, or a ship, were well beyond enemy lines and considered black. Glenn had been so far behind enemy lines with his team, where the only resources were carried on their backs, and resupply was a dream.

During his twenty years as a citizen, fourteen years in the Marines, and even nine years in jail, Glenn Beckett had never considered the United States the enemy.

Until now.

Mentally, he was preparing himself for a black mission, but this time he was without resources, resupply, or any legitimate backing. Since he failed to report to his probation officer, law enforcement would also be looking for him, and a warrant for his arrest is likely. With a final look over his shoulder at Amber Waves, the former Force Recon Marine knew one thing he had in his favor—determination.

 

*****

 

The farmhouse windows were dark, except for a dim light above the stove in the kitchen. At the same time, an email was sent to Eli Hernandez; two men were in the roadside drainage ditch studying the two-story home through night vision binoculars. Despite light rain, the NODS brought the building into focus. A covered porch and overhang hid a fieldstone foundation on the north side. Three bedroom windows with storm shutters framing the opening overlooking the front yard were also dark. On the west side, a stone chimney rose above the roofline next to a rooster-topped weathervane.

Both men were dressed similarly in black with camo paint across their features. Had they been carrying weapons or a sidearm, they wouldn’t have been out of place in a military training area, but besides the NODS, each had a small pack slung over a shoulder.

The first man was older, in his late thirties, with a flat nose and rounded chin. His partner was ten years younger and sported a dark beard hiding sharp angular features.

“Dogs?” The older man asked.

“Nothing.” The binos swept left to right, lingering on the porch.

“Okay. Let’s do it.”

The NODS were stored in a belt pouch while bolting from the ditch and along the driveway. The older man ignored the mud at the dark blue pickup truck and crawled underneath. A magnetic box was secured underneath the Ford’s engine. The same procedure was followed when they approached the brown Dodge Caravan.

To the east of the home, the driveway ended at a double car garage, but they were not interested in the contents, but the antenna tower on the south side. The fifty-foot structure sported two parabolic dishes—a common occurrence in the country where internet and television reception was poor or non-existent.

The younger man wiped the sweat and rain from his beard as his partner produced a screwdriver from the belt pouch. At the base of the antenna tower, the wiring was consolidated in a black-waterproof relay box. Once opened, a circuit board was removed, and a new one was installed with a click.

“Done.”

The deep growl was more felt than heard over the rain and both men froze. Slowly they turned as a dark shadow detached from the side of the garage and blocked any access to the driveway. Even without night vision, the creature stood taller than the older man’s waist.

“Oh shit.” The younger man took a step back.

A hand closed on the screwdriver as the darkness launched toward them.

Chapter 3

 

 

11 March 2013

13:45 Hours.

 

Sergeant Beckett led his six-man reconnaissance team through the Daman District of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, finally stopping for a meal mid-day after a four-hour journey. Despite the torrential rainfall, he was comfortable under his poncho shelter. After changing into a pair of dry socks and eating an MRE, Glenn was ready to cover another twenty miles with his six-person team before nightfall. His second-in-command, Sergeant Tucker (Tuck), checked on the others while Glenn confirmed their position with the GPS. Despite the accuracy of the technology, he removed the laminated contour map from the chest pocket of his ballistic vest. A gloved finger traced the ridgeline to the north of his position and the mountain range ahead. Once the sun had set, they would be safe in the foothills and could travel southwest to the objective—the abandoned airfield created by the Soviet Union nearly forty years ago. Command wanted to know how much work would be required to make the landing strip viable, and Beckett’s team, Romeo Foxtrot, was next in the rotation.

The assignment was considered a piece of cake. No insurgents were reported within the grid square, and the risk of contact risk assessment was very low. While the torrential rains turned the province into a mud bowl, the weather also provided concealment. During his fourteen years in the Marines, dealing with the rain or cold was easy and something he preferred over the heat if given a choice. You could always dress for the inclement weather, but you couldn’t remove your uniform, helmet, or vest, no matter how warm.

“Sarge.” Mills, a young man from Montana, carried the AN/PRC-117G radio with the antenna whip extended. He joined Glenn and crouched, holding out the receiver. “Sunray.”

For the platoon commander to call didn’t bode well.

“Foxtrot Romeo, alpha. Go.” Beckett pulled out his notepad and pen and furiously wrote. Two minutes later, he confirmed the orders and signed off. “Roger. Out.”

“Tuck, gather everyone around. Change of plans. The cakewalk is over.” Beckett entered the new coordinates into the GPS unit and studied the contour map. A gust of wind lifted his shelter, and a quick hand held down the paperwork before it blew away. Despite the hour, black clouds towered across the skies in a line like battleships flying to war in the heavens.

His second-in-command arrived, with Phillips acting as sentry. Mills kept one ear to the radio as everyone else gathered around. Beckett nodded as he studied the recon patrol. Everyone had finished or stowed their MREs and carried their gear, ready to move. Tuck, Phillips, and Mills crouched to his left. Chandler and Gomez are on his right. M4 Carbine rifles were trained outward in the huddle, maintaining their all-around defense. Gomez watched his back while Beckett kept an eye forward—habits ingrained through training and in the field were now considered second nature in theater.

“The recce to the airfield is on hold. We have a downed Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, and we’re the closest in the area. With the growing weather conditions, no one else can get here until morning. We’re going to the crash site and holding the position until higher gets boots on the ground in the morning. Five crew members were on board, and we expect casualties and fatalities.” Beckett’s finger traced a route on the map and added, “We are six miles out. I hope we can arrive in time to make a difference. Questions?”

He folded the map, replacing it in his vest as Mills collapsed the antenna for travel.

Tuck spoke up, “ROE?”

“Defensive only. We are to maintain a low profile.” The standard rules of engagement for the force recon team. “Single file. Watch your arcs. No insurgents are reported in the area, but helicopters don’t randomly fall from the skies either.”

Beckett studied each team member, and with no further questions, he slipped the poncho off the expedient ridgeline and stowed the cordage. A trickle of water sneaked down his back as he tightened the Gortex raincoat, but it was ignored. He briefed Gomez on the route and GPS coordinates. “Stay in the low ground, and don’t spare the horse. Marines, head out.”

Gomez nodded, pulled his bush cap low, and took point as Tuck watched their six. Beckett was second in the line of march, with Mills at his back, followed by Chandler and Phillips. They maintained a ten-foot spacing cross country. Had the weather been more pleasant, they would have increased the distance and at night, closed it up.

At times the rugged landscape resembled Mars, with a lack of vegetation and stone outcrops, but where they had rested was a park in comparison—pockets of grass stood waist-high next to towering shrubs dotted the countryside like an oasis. Visibility lowered as the rains and wind increased, making his scarf snap like a flag at his back. Beckett hadn’t seen a storm like this since he was a teenager and grinned at the memory. The sleepless night swaying back and forth in a treehouse during a hurricane was an experience that changed the twelve-year-old’s life. Glenn wasn’t afraid but was in awe at the power of nature. When he was older, he learned that his mother watched him all night from a bedroom window while his father slept like a rock. There was something about pitting yourself against the elements, nature, that made him rise to the occasion.

The dry riverbeds crisscrossed the landscape during the summer, making excellent pathways for low-profile traveling. However, with the steady rain over the last twenty-four hours, the riverbeds were rapidly filling, but Gomez unerringly found the route to keep their feet dry. Their objective was due south of Kandahar and the only mountain range within the area, on the northern slope. With the weather conditions, the peaks were not visible.

In favorable conditions, they could have been at the objective within the hour, but Beckett was pleased with the ninty-minute timing. Gomez was told not to spare the horses, and with the burning in Beckett’s calves and lungs, they had done well.

The foothills were rugged, and the screaming winds increased when they arrived. Beckett dropped his pack and pulled on his headset. The others followed his lead. The bush cap was soaked and threatened to fly away every few minutes. He had to shout to be heard over the howling wind and rain. “Mills, update Sunray on our location. Gomez, let’s find that helicopter!”

Plugging in the comms unit, Beckett performed a radio check with the patrol. With the ear flaps down, the signals were loud and clear—much better than shouting to be heard. There was no satellite imagery, just the coordinates being broadcast by the emergency transmitter. But after climbing a winding goat path for two-hundred feet, there was no way they could have missed the wreckage.

Pieces of rotor blade were scattered along the slope, in a direct route to where the Black Hawk lay on its left side. The rain was washing the pool of jet fuel (JP-8) downhill, and there was no danger of a fire.

“Tuck! Two sentries, one above and one below. I don’t want to be caught with our pants down. Mills, you’re with me. Chandler, get in there. I need a sitrep ASAP.” Beckett gave a flurry of orders. While they all had enough training to handle most first-aid situations, Chandler had completed two years of medical schooling before joining the Marines and had become their defacto physician. Additionally, the slim and wirey man could fit in places others would find uncomfortable.

Chandler dropped his pack before scrambling on top the wreckage. Gomez climbed the slope for an overwatch advantage while Phillips took shelter behind two large boulders with a view of the ground below. Tuck tried to see through the shattered windscreen, but the myriad of cracks made it opaque.

“Sarge, you’ll want to see this.” Over the radio, Chandler’s Texan accent made it sound like y’all.

Beckett left his rifle on the ground and placed his pack on top. He used the fixed landing gear like a ladder to climb and found the right side was crushed. The Black Hawk had landed on the right side before coming to a halt. Glenn steeled himself as he dropped inside next to Chandler.

Cords, headsets, and wires crisscrossed the interior like vines hanging from a jungle canopy. The cloying scent of blood, shit, and jet fuel clung to every surface despite the rain and howling wind. A steady beep sounded from the cockpit. Beckett’s tac-light joined Chandler’s as he studied the helicopter. The two pilots were in their harnesses, limp. Three others in dark green flight suits had taken a beating and rested at unnatural angles throughout the interior. The middle seats were removed, leaving only the rear bench and two chairs behind the pilots.

Beckett asked, despite knowing the answer. “Vitals?”

“Absent.” However, Chandler wasn’t focused on the bodies but on the seat behind the pilot, and Beckett stepped over a crewman to get a closer look.

The five-point harness was cut through at the belt, and fresh vomit stained the interior door—but no body.

“Oh my God,” Beckett whispered as he processed the scene in a split-second. A thumb hit the PTT switch. “Tuck, bring the sentries with you on a grid pattern search of the hillside. We may have a survivor. Go! Every second counts.”

“Roger.” Tuck gave the orders while Beckett checked the gear strewn in the helicopter. Only one item stood out. A dark brown briefcase under the rear seats. Stylized in gold between the latches was a name. Karzai.

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