Central Valley, California
Kyle Roberts sucked in a deep breath of air and willed the fire in his leg muscles to ease.
He’d been running for what seemed an age, sliding over exposed stones and rocks, all the time straining his ears to listen for signs of his pursuers.
His jeans, dirty and torn, stuck to his legs, the ends of his shirt flapping from under a faded black leather jacket.
He stopped and squinted over his shoulder, paranoia squeezing his gut.
Intermittent flashes of lightning illuminated the landscape, casting an eerie purple-yellow hue across the terrain. Clouds tumbled over each other, hastening towards the valley, churning the sky into darkening shades of grey.
They’d heard the storm warnings on the radio earlier that afternoon – news of a drought-breaker, with the accompanying instructions to secure loose outdoor items and seek shelter.
The men had worked more urgently, the whole team desperate to keep the operation on schedule. Tempers had frayed, his real identity had been compromised, and then Kyle had found out what it was like to be on the receiving end of a sharp knife.
His hand traveled to his shoulder and came away sticky. The wound would never stop bleeding all the time he remained in motion, but he had little choice.
He ran a dirty hand through his hair and wondered if John had managed to get away from the men who wanted them dead, whether he was now steering the stolen car along the dirt track that ran between the farming properties across the ridge towards town.
They’d heard rumours that the creek had been likely to flood, taking out the bridge that spanned the wide expanse of water, and in turn wiping out any hope they’d held to get help.
They’d only managed to escape with one vehicle, Kyle choosing to jump out and send John on his way while he escaped on foot in the opposite direction, hoping to distract their pursuers.
If he did make it as far as the highway without being caught, Kyle planned to flag down the first available vehicle and disappear in the opposite direction, over the range and away from the valley.
He’d ruled out heading to the neighbouring farm to raise the alarm – their pursuers would likely check there first.
Trouble brewed over his shoulder, in the shape of an angry grey and purple storm front. The storm head billowed towards him, darkening the skies, while the rocky escarpment beyond had become a blue-grey hue.
A flock of birds screeched overhead, their route taking them away from the encroaching onslaught.
The air had turned oppressive, viscous with charged ozone and a stifling humidity. On the horizon, patches of pale sunlight shone through the grey clouds, attempting a last stand against the approaching storm.
Fat raindrops hit the ground, the coolness hissing against the hot earth.
His head twitched as, to his left, half a mile below him on the incline, a dark shape lurched forwards through the gloom and began to gain height, the far-off roar of a powerful engine reaching his ears.
They were closing in on him.
He gritted his teeth and swore in frustration as his waterlogged boots sank into the mud, slowing him down. He wrenched his foot from the soaked earth and began to stagger towards the upper part of the ridge. With any luck, he’d be able to get his bearings from there, rather than struggling over the landscape with little sense of direction. He had to concentrate, to act on his survival skills and cunning, if he was going to survive the next few hours and complete his mission.
He paused, plunged his hand into his pocket, and pulled out a mobile phone. Holding it up, he spun round trying to get a single bar of signal to appear at the top of the screen.
‘Come on,’ he urged, before turning in a different direction and trying again.
He had to warn them, to tell them he’d failed, that what they had been so desperately trying to prevent was happening, now.
A strangled curse of frustration escaped his lips. Either the incoming electrical storm had scrambled the signal, or the emergency services were receiving so many calls from people living in the valley that the service was overloaded.
In any event, he wasn’t going to be making a phone call any time soon.
He swore under his breath. Everything about the plan had turned to shit. He’d spent six months setting it up, but his plan hadn’t factored in the possibility that he’d be stabbed trying to prevent a catastrophe from taking place, or that a drought-breaking storm would descend on the valley, sending his target into a panic.
He snorted at the irony, began to put the phone back in his pocket, and then shouted in alarm as the ground gave way under his feet.
He lashed out with his arms and legs to slow his descent, swore as the branch of a tree sapling whipped his cheek, and then slid to a halt, breathing hard.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He lay still for a moment, letting the rain wash the blood from his torn face and hands while he caught his breath, before he hauled himself up into a crouching position. He strained his ears to hear above the pounding of the rain, trying to get his bearings.
His hand moved to his pocket, and he closed his eyes as he realized what had happened.
He’d lost the phone.
He raised his eyes to the tracks of his fall and searched the undergrowth, moving swiftly, left to right across the path of destruction his body had made as he’d fallen.
He clasped his hands over his head and pivoted in a circle, cursing.
He glanced over his shoulder. The top of the ridge was now even further away from him, the tracks of his fall evident in the next blinding flash of lightning that swept across the darkening sky and illuminated the stark landscape. He couldn’t afford to waste time. If the phone was gone, then he had to escape. It was the only way.
An engine revved, its throaty roar filling the air.
He spun round, searching in all directions, trying to pinpoint his pursuers.
The hillside exploded with light as headlight beams criss-crossed the ground in front of him. Spotlights swept the mist, seeking him out.
They’d split up, trying to catch him in a classic pincer movement.
He turned and ran.
Behind him, he heard a shout, and then the vehicle changed gear and began its pursuit.
He weaved across the rugged hillside, grabbing tree branches and exposed rocks to work his way higher, away from the vehicle.
His leg muscles aching from the swift ascent, he sucked in air as he reached the summit.
He hauled himself over the edge, and saw the lights of the small town in the distance where, only three days ago, he’d ventured into the camping store for supplies. Through the gloom, the sickly orange glow of halogen streetlights bobbed in and out of view between swaying trees as the prevailing wind lashed the surrounding countryside.
He groaned – it was too far.
He checked over his shoulder.
Below, the pursuit vehicle steadily moved across the ridge, gaining on him, the whine of its engine carrying over the wind as it climbed towards him, and then stalled.
Kyle turned his attention back to the valley below. He was running out of time. He could only hope that John had made it to the highway, and that the creek hadn’t burst its banks before he’d made it into town.
He squinted at the road leading from the town up to the ridge, where it joined the main highway. No traffic moved except for a single headlight beam, and he frowned, wondering if the run-off from the surrounding water catchment had already burst the creek’s banks and blocked the road.
A faint light towards the bottom of the ridge caught his eye, and he shielded his eyes from the rain and squinted. In the next flash of lightning that shot across the valley he saw a low-set building with some sort of canopy at the front.
He wracked his memory until he remembered a run-down truck stop, a ‘for sale’ sign across its front window.
Adrenalin surged through his body as he realized he’d have to make a run for it and pray the building still had a working telephone.
The tree trunk next to him exploded a split second before he heard the gunshot reverberate in his ears.
He threw himself to the ground and began to crawl away on his elbows and knees, keeping his head down.
The vehicle’s engine roared to life again, the headlights seeking him out. He scrambled up and slid down the ridge towards the valley, ducking behind trees and boulders.
He tripped and curled up as he fell, gritting his teeth as sharp stones dug into his back before he slowed to a stop. He eased himself up onto all fours and lifted his head.
The vehicle crested the ridge above him before it braked to a standstill. The driver’s door swung open, and a figure stepped out into the rain.
Kyle groaned, his lungs aching from the exertion, and watched, helpless, while the figure leaned into the cab of the four-wheel drive and emerged, holding a rifle.
‘You should’ve stayed away,’ yelled the figure. ‘You should’ve minded your own damn business.’
‘I was,’ he murmured.
He jumped sideways as the rifle bucked once in the figure’s hands, and then everything went black
‘Nina, let me do that – you’re going to fall.’
‘I’ll be okay. Keep your foot on the ladder and stop staring at my backside.’
‘It’s hard not to. It’s right in my face.’
‘Hold on to the ladder and keep your eyes lowered, Ross.’
She ignored the laugh below her, the rich tones filling the air. Instead, she slid the tarpaulin over the last of the loose tin panels, adjusted her balance on the ladder, and fired the nail-gun, sealing the plastic sheeting into place.
‘Okay, we’re all done on this side.’
She glanced behind. Already, the wind was picking up, shaking the corn stalks in the fenced-off field on the opposite side of the road.
She changed her grip on the nail-gun and then descended the length of the ladder. As she reached the bottom, Ross stood aside, one hand gripping the frame. She smiled up at him. ‘See, I’m quite capable.’
‘Oh, I know that.’ He pushed his hat back on his head, his green eyes sparkling. ‘But I’ll bet this side comes unstuck the moment that storm hits, whereas the other side will be fine.’ He grinned. ‘That’ll be the side I sorted out, of course.’
He laughed and took a step back as Nina aimed a playful punch at his arm. ‘Too slow, Nina O’Brien. Way too slow.’
Nina ran a hand through her hair and raised her gaze to the roof. ‘Seriously, Ross – do you think it’ll be okay?’
‘Time will tell. You’re doing all you can.’ He bent and gathered up the pile of folded plastic sheets. ‘Come on, one more to do.’ He snatched the nail-gun from her hand and passed her the last tarpaulin. ‘And I’ll go up the ladder this time.’ He lowered the ladder and swung it over his shoulder.
The sound of a hammer against wood echoed off the nearby accommodation block.
Nina and Ross had been joined half an hour ago by Phil Allison. A long-distance truck driver, Phil had dropped off a delivery in town and had decided to call it quits for the day after hearing about a landslide that had blocked the highway leading out of the valley and through the hills towards the city. A regular customer of Nina’s father’s, Phil had been only too happy to stop and help in return for free overnight accommodation.
Now, he was helping them prepare the property for the worst, boarding up windows on the other side of the truck stop and removing anything that could be whipped up by the wind and cause damage.
As the storm had progressed southwards towards Mistake Creek, it had swelled rivers and streams, waterlogging the topsoil until it weakened and collapsed, pulling trees and scrubby undergrowth with it.
As Nina walked, she took in the state of the building, the paint peeling, and the accommodation block that would need tidying up – if the property didn’t get ravaged by the incoming storm. A groan escaped her lips.
‘Are you okay?’ asked Ross, concern creasing his brow.
‘I keep seeing more stuff that needs sorting out before I can sell this place. It’s never-ending.’
‘On the plus side, that means you stay longer.’
‘Maybe,’ said Nina. ‘I need to concentrate on finding a new job and getting Dad’s treatment sorted out first.’
Ross started walking again. ‘Well, you’re better off out of the city anyway. You could do with a bit of country air to put some color in your face. You look as pale as a vampire.’
‘Some would say pale and interesting, you know.’
‘Is that right? What – just after they order a chai latte or whatever?’
Nina shook her head as she followed him. He still insisted on wearing the battered brown felt hat her father had given him the last year he and Nina were in school together, although its edges were frayed, the shape only just held together by the contours of his head.
She’d told him three days ago when she’d first arrived that her trip here had to be brief. Her job loss had been a blow, and she had to find a new employer fast. She’d calculated that her meagre savings gave her enough time to make any necessary repairs to the truck stop, put it on the market, and cross her fingers that it sold quickly so that she could pay her father’s medical bills.
She let her gaze drift to the back of Ross’s head. He’d changed a lot since she’d left. Hell, they’d both changed a lot. In Ross’s case, the lanky awkward farmer’s son had gone. In his place stood a man who seemed strong, capable, and definitely good-looking.
Ross dropped the tarpaulin and the nail-gun on the ground before swinging the ladder off his shoulder. Once he had set it straight on the ground, he handed the nail-gun to Nina.
‘Okay, pass that and a tarp up when I get to the top.’ He looked over her head. ‘That storm’s moving fast.’
‘Will your place be okay?’
He nodded. ‘Dad’s got Tim, and a couple of the hired hands stayed to help them before they headed home.’ He raised his gaze. ‘And our roof is in a lot better condition than yours, it has to be said.’
Nina held on to the sides of the ladder as he climbed, the frame swaying under his weight. She stood on tiptoe, passed him the nail-gun, and then let her mind wander as he worked, the punch of the steel tacks beating a rhythm to her thoughts.
The Flanagan property was a twenty-minute drive from where she stood. Growing up, Ross and his younger brother Tim were the nearest neighbours to her home, often saving a space for her on the school bus as it belched fumes and idled at the now-derelict bus stop opposite the truck stop, the driver impatient as she’d hurried towards it, before continuing its onward journey into the town a further eight miles up the road.
As soon as he’d heard the storm warning on the radio, Ross had driven over to her father’s truck stop, his pick-up truck laden with wooden planks and spare tarpaulins. They’d spent the morning boarding up the large floor-to-ceiling windows, moving the old plastic outdoor furniture into one of the dilapidated storage sheds behind the property, and removing anything that could become a missile in the height of the storm.
Nina lifted her face and inhaled. The tang of ozone filled her senses as a low rumble of thunder resonated in the distance. She jumped at the sound of Phil’s voice breaking into her reverie.
‘You’ve got plenty of fuel for the generator, right?’
She frowned and bit her lip. ‘I checked batteries, torches, candles, and matches. I didn’t see any fuel cans.’
Ross snorted. ‘It’d be kind of ironic if the only truck stop for miles ran out of petrol for its own generator.’
‘Dad hasn’t sold petrol for weeks, Ross – you know that.’
None of them mentioned the incident that had put paid to the possibility of her father continuing to run the business – and nearly killed him in the process.
Nina moved to one side as a swathe of plastic rippled above her head. ‘You okay up there?’
Nina held the ladder while it wobbled under Ross’s weight. She took a step back as he joined her at ground level.
Wiping a bead of sweat from his forehead, he peered up at the black clouds tumbling towards them. ‘We should have a final walk around to make sure we’ve got everything covered.’
Phil began to pick up the leftover planks of wood they’d been using to board up the windows around the building.
‘I’ll get these stowed away in the barn,’ he said. ‘Last thing you need is the wind getting hold of them.’
‘Great, thanks. Put a couple by the back door, though, in case we need to do running repairs.’
Nina led Ross back to the front of the property. The two fuel bowsers stood sentinel under a steel-framed canopy, dust obliterating the faded logos that covered their surfaces. The oil company had sent out a mechanic and driver to remove the hoses and drain the tanks within days of her father’s enforced decision to close the business. At the thought of the tanker truck pulling out of the dirt courtyard and onto the main road for the last time, she fought back tears.
Ross had told her yesterday that he’d driven across to be with her father at that time. The older man had scowled and grumbled about the mess the mechanic had made of the courtyard and the paltry sum of money the oil company had sent him for the recovered fuel. Afterwards, he’d sat in the old wooden rocking chair next to the front door, lost in thought, only raising a hand in farewell when Ross’s vehicle pulled away.
Nina shook her head, the reality of selling the place where she’d grown up hitting her harder than she liked to admit. Although she knew it wasn’t a home like some people’s, it had been one to her.
The soft tones of Ross’s voice interrupted her thoughts. She wiped her fingers across her eyes. ‘I’m okay, really, I am.’
He reached out and rubbed her arm. ‘It was always going to be tough coming back here, Nina.’
She sniffed and shifted the weight of the tools in her arms. ‘Come on – before I feel the need to aim that nail-gun at something.’
Ross grinned. ‘Atta girl.’
Nina looked up as the first raindrops hit the tin roof, wet splashes striking the dirt unprotected by the building’s canopy. She blinked as forked lightning lit up the furthest edge of the weather front, and the rain began to fall in earnest.
With the truck stop bordered by a creek bed six miles away in the direction of town and only the one paved road twisting and narrow in the other direction now blocked by a landslide, she could be stranded for a number of days.
‘Remind me to check the cupboards for food supplies,’ she said as they hurried to shelter under the canopy. ‘And water.’
‘Right. Although I don’t think you’re going to have time to get to town and back for supplies now. If you’re worried, we could always drive over to my place in the morning. Dad and Tim would love to see you.’
The rain fell harder, gathering momentum as thunder shook the hills surrounding the property, pelting the fibreglass roof over their heads.
‘That’d be nice.’ Nina rubbed her hands over her eyes to clear the water that was running through her hair and onto her face, before squinting through the deluge of rain that cast a mist through the valley. She glanced over her shoulder and frowned. ‘Hey – look at that.’
She pointed along the road behind, its winding path leading back along the valley towards the ridge in the distance. A single headlight beam shone through the gloom.
Ross held on to his hat as the wind tried to lift it off his head. ‘Someone’s in a hurry, aren’t they?’ He hefted the ladder onto his shoulder. ‘I’m going to get this put away and make sure Phil’s got everything else sorted out.’
‘Okay,’ said Nina as he walked away, before she slipped a spare elastic band off her wrist and tied her long black strands into a loose ponytail.
She watched the motorbike as it drew level with the truck stop, the engine now audible over the onslaught of rain, and then it shot past, heading towards town, its two passengers hunkered low in their seats.
Ross reappeared and joined her under the shelter of the canopy, his shirt soaked, water dripping from his hat.
Nina noticed how his wet shirt clung to his chest before clearing her throat, and then her attention was caught by a flash of lightning as it zig-zagged across the purple clouds. Long arching trails of blinding white light flickered against the darkening sky. A thick curtain of rain blanketed her view of the ridgeline as it descended towards the valley.
A gust of wind blew under the canopy, and Nina rocked on her feet to keep her balance. ‘I think we’d better move inside.’
She led the way into the shop area of the truck stop. Empty shelves lined the walls, and an old threadbare sofa nestled in a space between them where she and Ross had pulled it from the living area. She’d managed to sell the commercial refrigerators last week to an interstate business. The owner had haggled over the price with her until she’d simply given in, too exhausted to argue with the man.
A counter encircled one back corner of the room, where her father had set up the till and the coffee-making facilities. In later years, he’d acquired a liquor licence to sell beer and spirits, but only once the authorities had sent a representative out to check that he had accommodation facilities on site.
She crossed the tiled floor, working through lists in her head. What to sell, what needed to be cleaned, and what needed to be repaired – or thrown into the huge trash bin outside that was already overflowing under a tarpaulin.
Ross and Phil flicked switches on panels lining the walls, and the overhead lights came on, illuminating the space in a dull yellow hue.
Bright light flashed through the front door, a loud rumble shaking the building.
Now inside, they could hear the radio, the excited tones of the announcer warning about the landslide, heavy rain, and flash flooding of the creek caused by run-off from higher areas already soaked by the deluge, before static hissed and spat through the airwaves, obliterating his voice.
Ross threw his hat onto the counter and ruffled his hair before peeling his shirt off and hanging it over a chair.
She turned away. He hadn’t said anything yet, but she wondered how Ross felt about her being back after so many years. Since her arrival, they’d been so busy making lists and working through what needed to be done before the truck stop was put up for sale, they’d had no time to talk properly.
With the storm fast approaching, and Phil’s presence, it was unlikely they’d get that chance any time soon.
Nina moved to the window next to the front door and peered through the gaps in the wooden boards she and Ross had finished nailing into place earlier that afternoon. The strength of the wind outside buffeted against the glass, and she felt the pulse of its energy through the panes.
She frowned as a light shone through the exposed glass that they’d left to use as a peep-hole.
The two men wandered across to stand with her as the throaty roar of a motorbike engine rumbled to a halt outside.
‘Sounds like we’re going to have more company,’ said Nina, and opened the door.
‘They must’ve decided it was too risky to keep going,’ agreed Phil.
Outside, a woman was dismounting the pillion seat of a large adventure motorbike while a man switched off the engine and removed his helmet.
The woman slipped her helmet off, brushed her fingers through her hair, and hurried towards Nina.
‘Can you help us?’ she said, her voice taut. ‘We were trying to get into town but this weather, it’s just…’
‘Of course, we can. Come in.’ Nina stood back as the diminutive blonde stepped over the threshold, and guessed her to be in her forties. She started at the sight of the man as he followed.
Older, perhaps in his fifties, he had hair clipped close to his head, silver in color. He towered over Nina, and she realized he was taller than Ross. A small scar ran from his brow to his hairline above his left eye.
As he drew closer, his gaze met Nina’s, and his eyes narrowed before he seemed to catch himself. A split second later, his face transformed as he smiled, walked into the truck stop, and pushed the door shut.
‘Thanks,’ he said, and turned to them. ‘I wasn’t sure whether anyone was here.’ He glanced over at the woman. ‘Although I think we should’ve pushed on into town.’
Ross stepped forward next to Nina and made the introductions.
‘Sean,’ said the motorcyclist. ‘And this is Dani.’
The woman shook hands, then peeled off her leather jacket and draped it over a chair.
‘I still say that we’d be fine on the bike,’ said Sean, frowning at the gesture.
‘Is everything okay?’ asked Nina.
‘I’m trying to convince my wife that we should keep moving.’
A loud rumble of thunder rolled around the sky outside.
‘Listen,’ said Nina. ‘I know it might seem an inconvenience – it’s pretty basic after all – but trust me, stay here.’ She moved along the counter, gathered the tools, and placed them on the floor out of the way. ‘That storm sounds like it’s moving on, but from what we’ve been hearing on the weather reports, this is only the start of it. It’s going to get pretty rough out there.’
Sean held up his hand. ‘I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful for your hospitality.’
‘No offence taken.’
‘It’s just that, well, we were hoping to be further along on our journey by now.’
‘Where have you been staying?’ asked Ross.
‘We tried sheltering at the Hudson property but decided to press on.’
Ross laughed. ‘I’d have been surprised if he’d let you stay there; he’s not known for his hospitality.’ He turned to Nina. ‘I got a new neighbour three years ago – he’s a bit strange and tends to keep to himself. He doesn’t even take part in any of the community events held in town.’
The motorcyclist nodded. ‘It was a bit awkward, so we made our excuses after half an hour and left.’
‘As long as it’s not putting you out of your way, us being here?’ Dani’s hopeful expression belied her words.
‘You’re better off waiting it out,’ said Phil. ‘It must be a bad weather front – all I had on the radio coming through the valley was static.’ He held up his mobile phone. ‘I can’t even get a signal on this.’
‘Which would make it impossible for anyone to help you if you did get into trouble,’ added Nina. She jerked her head towards the telephone fixed to the wall behind the counter. ‘Our landline’s out too.’
‘She’s right,’ said Ross. ‘Wait it out in the dry.’ He peered through the door at the motorbike parked next to the building. ‘I’d hate to see a beautiful machine like that ruined in this weather.’
Sean sighed. ‘True. And thanks again,’ he said to Nina.
‘Let’s move your bike now, before it gets worse out there,’ said Ross, putting his shirt back on. ‘We can put it in the barn – there’s plenty of room, and it’ll stay dry.’
Nina watched the two men push through the front door; then she turned to Dani, who had reached into her bag, pulled out a compact case, and was fussing with her hair and checking her mobile phone for a signal. She glanced up when she realized she was being watched.
‘I don’t want to sound rude,’ she said, ‘but I don’t suppose there’s any chance of a hot drink, is there? I’m freezing.’
‘Sure. We’d just finished boarding up the place when the storm hit, so I’ll make some coffee for everyone.’
Nina pushed through a gate in the counter and made her way towards the small kitchen built between the business end of the building and the accommodation.
The old fluorescent lights stuttered before flickering to life, and as she waited for the kettle to boil, Nina began to forage through the cupboards. By the time the hot water was ready, she’d made a small pile on the kitchen counter consisting of cookies, nuts, and dried fruit to sustain them through the night. To this, she added six more candles and a box of matches she’d overlooked while hunting through the cupboards earlier that afternoon.
She walked back to the front of the building with a tray of steaming mugs balanced in her hands and handed out the coffee to everyone as Ross and Sean returned.
As Dani took hers, she thanked Nina again. ‘You’re sure this isn’t too much hassle for you? I feel like we’re imposing.’
‘Stay with us,’ said Nina. ‘I’d only worry if you left now.’ She jumped as a loud crash of thunder shook the building.
‘Jesus, this is going to be rough,’ said Ross.
A look of relief passed across Dani’s face as the vibration subsided.
Nina walked towards the front door. ‘Well,’ she said, slipping the bolt across the door, ‘now that’s settled, I’d be a really bad hostess if I didn’t offer you some food, although I warn you, there’s not much…’
A loud hammering on the front door startled her, and she spun to face it.
The hammering continued, and she turned to Ross.
He moved across to her, and then shot the bolt back.
Nina cried out as a man collapsed across the threshold, soaked through to the skin, blood covering his face and shoulder. She crouched down, ignoring the rain driving in through the opening, and gently turned the man’s face towards her.
‘Help me,’ he said, and passed out.