Home > Maelstrom (World Fallen #2)

Maelstrom (World Fallen #2)
Author: Susanna Strom

 

ONE

 

 

Kenzie


Half an hour outside of Portland, Sahdev flashed the jeep’s headlights, the signal that we needed to pull over. I glanced back over my shoulder. The jeep slowed down and eased onto the side of the freeway. Ripper met my eyes in the Harley’s side mirror, then nodded. He saw the signal, too. No need to tap his thigh to get his attention. He released the throttle and braked, steering the bike onto the freeway shoulder. He cut the engine and put down the kickstand.

Cars whizzed past us, more cars than I’d seen in weeks. Lately, it felt as if Portland were a ghost town, stripped bare of souls by the same virus that had laid waste to the rest of the world. Apparently not. The survivors must have hidden behind locked doors and drawn curtains, but now, with flames consuming the city, anyone with a vehicle had fled the inferno.

Kyle hopped out of the jeep and opened the rear passenger door. Hector bolted from the vehicle, dashed toward a tree, and lifted a leg. Kyle threw his hands in the air and shrugged. When a dog’s gotta go, a dog’s gotta go. Kyle ambled toward the trees and disappeared from sight, probably feeling the same call of nature.

Balancing on Ripper’s shoulder, I climbed off the bike, then stretched. I wrinkled my nose. Smoke from the fires in Portland discolored the air, bathing the landscape in a stifling gray haze that even the brisk Gorge winds couldn’t dissipate. Blinking against the acrid smoke, I unbuckled my retro-style helmet and tugged it from my head. Within seconds, moisture flooded my stinging eyes.

Ripper swung off the bike, pulled off his helmet, and glanced at me. He frowned. Two long strides brought him to my side. He touched the moisture seeping from the corner of my eye, concern creasing his features. “You all right?”

The simple question undid me, and genuine tears welled in my eyes. Was it really just an hour ago that I thought I’d lost him forever? Not knowing if he was alive or dead would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Yet here he stood, our reunion little short of a miracle. If I blinked, if I looked the other way, would he disappear like a phantom?

“Mac...darlin’, what’s wrong?”

I shook my head, not trusting my voice. So close. We’d come so damned close to losing everything. Since our unlikely reunion, we’d barely had time to talk, to reconnect. A quick kiss, a few words before we’d jumped on his bike and abandoned the burning city. I snaked my arms around Ripper’s waist, burying my face in his chest.

He wrapped his arms around me, bracketing my trembling body in his reassuring strength. Beneath my cheek, his chest rose and fell, his heart beating in a steady, unhurried pace. When I inhaled, his familiar scent—leather, musk, a hint of exhaust—flooded my nostrils.

He was really here. Not a phantom. Not a figment of my imagination.

I tilted my head back to meet his eyes and finally asked the question that had been preying on my mind. “What happened? Where were you?”

Ripper sighed. “A cop with a vendetta against the Janissaries got the drop on me. Locked me up. Tried to kill me. We fought. He died, and I got injured. Took me awhile to get back on my feet.” He released me and shoved a hand through his hair. “I want you to know that I never stopped trying, Mac. Never stopped trying to come back to you. To you and to Miles.”

At the mention of my dead cousin, the tears brimming in my eyes spilled over onto my cheeks. Shit. Not now. We had to keep moving, and this was no time to break down. I scrubbed my cheek with the back of my hand. My throat ached, and I swallowed back the tears. “And I never stopped believing you’d come back, not until the very end when it looked hopeless.”

He hauled me against his chest again, and we clutched each other, rocking back and forth to the rhythm of our heartbeats.

His business done, Hector trotted over and sniffed Ripper’s leg. Hector whined and head-butted Ripper, as if the dog, too, couldn’t believe that he was back. Ripper dropped into a squat and threw his arms around the German shepherd’s neck, scritching his ruff. “Missed you, too, Hector.”

Hector barked, and I sank to my knees next to him.

“Good boy.” I kissed the top of his head. “You know, if it wasn’t for Hector, we would’ve been gone by the time you showed up. He ran away when I tried to put him in the jeep. I bet he heard your bike.”

Ripper’s cheeks puffed when he blew out a breath. “That was too fucking close.”

“Yeah.”

He offered me a hand and pulled me to my feet.

Sahdev climbed out of the jeep and approached us, his steps hesitant. “I’m sorry to interrupt.”

“No problem,” Ripper said.

Sahdev unfolded one of Uncle Mel’s old-school paper maps and held it up. A yellow line highlighted our proposed route to Valhalla. “The ranch is here.” He pointed to a yellow star at the terminus of the route. “We plan to turn south onto Highway 97 at The Dalles. The turnoff is just before the dam.”

Valhalla truly was at the ass end of nowhere, like Bear had told Kyle. No major roads crisscrossed the area. There were no nearby towns. Instead, a yellow star floating in a sea of white marked our destination on the map, as if Valhalla existed in a void. Good. The ass end of nowhere, the back of beyond, the sticks, whatever you wanted to call it, an isolated, self-sufficient ranch sounded like the perfect apocalyptic retreat.

“Makes sense,” Ripper said. “Looks like the shortest route. No point in turning south too soon and going the long way around Mt. Hood.”

Kyle walked out from behind the trees, fastening his belt. “What’s up?”

“Sahdev was showing me the route to Valhalla. We’re less than an hour from The Dalles. Can’t say I’ll be sorry to get off the freeway.”

A pickup flew past, stirring up dust on the side of the road. Kyle nodded. “I hear you. Too many people we don’t know on the freeway.”

“We have hours of daylight left, but I doubt we’ll make it to the ranch before dark,” Sahdev said. “Maybe we should stop for the night at a town closer to the ranch.”

“Good idea.” Ripper slipped his helmet back over his head. “Don’t wanna head off into the boonies when the sun’s going down.”

“It’s a plan.” Kyle patted his leg, summoning Hector. The dog obediently followed him to the jeep and hopped into the back. Kyle slammed the door shut, then turned to us again. “Good to have you back, man.”

Ripper nodded and swung onto the bike. I put on my helmet and held onto Ripper’s shoulders while I climbed on behind him. Ripper kicked the engine into life, and we pulled back onto the freeway. Once again, our small caravan raced east along the Columbia River.

Less than an hour later, we rounded a sharp bend in the road and The Dalles came into view. Last September—a lifetime ago—Kyle and I had toured the visitor center at the dam on our way home from the big rodeo in Pendleton. What stuck with me from that visit was the shocking cost of progress. Construction of the dam came at a price—a site sacred to indigenous people buried under tons of water.

For a small town, The Dalles had witnessed a lot of action. The biggest bioterrorist attack in American history—the crown jewel of harebrained schemes—happened there. It was before my time, but I remember Aunt Debbie telling the story. A group of crazy cultists sprinkled salmonella over salad bars, all part of their convoluted plan to win a local election by making the good citizens too sick to vote. Jeez. Gullible people were capable of the weirdest things.

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