Next to Die

By: Marliss Melton

Acknowlegments





There are so many souls who deserve credit for helping me write this story. The most outstanding contributor would be a reader-turned-collaborator, Janie Hawkins. Janie, you have painted my world in Technicolor! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your contributions to my characters, their stories, and every last line of this book. Here’s to the next project; I can’t wait!

Thank you, Kevin McPartland, Special Agent FBI, retired. You were with me at the conception of this story and answered all of my silly questions along the way, with patient faithfulness. I’m thinking you deserve a story of your own . . .

Commander Mark Divine, thank you, sir, for checking the accuracy of my facts and for your unintentional influence when you wrote in your Tribute, “What if it were me?” In some ways, this story answers that question.

Thank you, Sam the SEAL, for taking the time to hash out details that changed the whole gist of my story and made it more real.

For Sharon, who helped tremendously in determining the personality types of my characters and for the articles you’ve sent my way.

For Cathy, Kerri, and Lisa P., who helped me get started, and everyone else who has contributed a portion of this shared project.

Thanks to physical therapist, Carrie Hewitt, for contributing your expertise and making Joe’s therapy more credible.

Above all, thank you, loyal readers, for urging me to carry on with the SEAL series. Without you, I’d be writing to myself. Bless you all!





Prologue





Northern Afghanistan



“Break contact,” Joe whispered through the interteam radio, and he and the three SEALs in his command stepped off the trail to descend as quietly as possible into the wooded ravine. Wending through the cypress forest that glowed green in his night vision goggles, Joe counted the seconds that elapsed before the staybehind—the claymore that he’d placed on the trail—exploded.

“. . . nineteen, twenty.”

Bang! The loud crack was accompanied by the screams of Taliban insurgents, the same men who’d surprised them four miles up the trail when they swarmed from an underground cave. The SEALs had retreated, taking and returning heavy fire. It was a long way back to the landing zone, made longer still with forty men or more, equipped with night vision capabilities, raining bullets at them in a firestorm that echoed off the surrounding mountains.

The SEALs had dropped their backpacks on the trail to speed their retreat. And with just six rounds of ammo per man, they were running low on both ammunition and energy by the time the landing zone, or LZ, came into view.

There it was, on a plateau on the adjacent mountain, the side of which had been riddled by aerial cannon fire that incinerated the scrub brush and cratered the earth. The only way to access the LZ was to pass through a precipitous wooded ravine and climb the other side.

Once deep within the ravine, the SEALs remained hidden and, for the time being, safe. In the wake of the claymore’s destruction, gunfire gave way to moans and shouts. Wind whistled eerily through the limbs of stunted evergreens.

If the SEALs were lucky, the explosion and their subsequent disappearance would send the insurgents back into their caves, away from the LZ.

This reconnaissance mission, thought Joe, darkly, had been cursed from the moment Chief Harlan spiked a high fever, prompting Joe to take his place. The Spectre gunship that had swept this mountain an hour prior to their drop-off had completely overlooked the presence of unfriendlies on the trail. Worse still, the gunship was nowhere within range of the four SEALs now. If it were, one simple radio call would bring the AC-130 screaming to their rescue like a mother eagle protecting her fledglings. Its minigun was capable of knocking out the forty or so insurgents with the precision of a surgeon’s blade.

Driven into retreat, Joe’s squad had only one option remaining: to call for extraction. If the insurgents didn’t leave before the helicopter’s arrival, and if—God forbid—they were carrying rocket-propelled grenades in their arsenal, then this cursed mission would officially be classified a goatfuck.

At the bottom of the ravine, Joe checked his watch. The window was open, the satellite in position, for Curry to get on the SATCOM radio and request a hot extract.

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