Home > Maverick (North Ridge #2)

Maverick (North Ridge #2)
Author: Karina Halle

Two years ago—Aspen, Colorado


Such a simple word, one-syllable, with harsh intonation, yet it can be used for a multitude of meanings. In fact, I think it might be my favorite word (right behind Scrumtrulescent, which, spoiler alert, isn’t actually a word).

I love to fuck, I love to get fucked, I love using it instead of the word really (I like to get fucking fucked), I like how it can capture every element of surprise, and I really love it when people get creative with it (who can forget “fuck me gently with a chainsaw” from Heathers?).

But right now, hovering beside a pine tree with the wind, howling and angry, pushing scratchy snow across my face and obliterating my vision, my limbs dangerously numb, fuck seems like the only word possible.

As in I’m fucked, we’re all fucked.

We might fucking die up here.

And here is a place I shouldn’t even be. It was supposed to be my day off, Levi’s too. We were going to drive to Denver, hope to score tickets to a Bronco’s game. Instead, there was a call this morning. One of our team members called in sick, which didn’t help, and then the alert was sounded.

Two heli-skiers were dropped off yesterday afternoon on one of the more challenging peaks (though, yes, all heli-skiing is challenging, I mean you’re being dropped on a wild mountain face by a helicopter). They never returned to the ski lodge and the helicopter company only reported them missing this morning.

It doesn’t help that a wicked front whipped up overnight, causing white-out conditions that cancelled all the runs. Right now, all the skiers and snowboarders are holed up in their fancy châteaux, drinking hot buttered rum and complaining about how they can’t hit the slopes. I really hate that part of my job, the fact that I live in Aspen, and while I’m living with my best friend and two of our colleagues in a damp, shitty house on the outskirts of town, the people I’m usually rescuing are living it up in the lavish chalets and lodges, spending money like it’s worth nothing at all.

Not only that, but Levi and I are the ones risking our neck every single time we head out on a call, to rescue the ignorant, spoiled tourists who blatantly ignore the rules and trail markers. Yes, sometimes the unthinkable happens out of the blue and tragedies can strike anyone and everyone, but most of the time, it’s because of pure carelessness.

Today, though, I don’t think it’s the case. When skiers are heading down the side of a mountain without ski runs and basically creating their own path, it’s not unheard of for them to get lost, which is bad news. But when the fucking company doesn’t report them missing for almost a whole day, that’s when things go from bad to worse. It doesn’t matter how well someone is equipped and dressed for something like heli-skiing, a night out in the elements has the ability to rob even the most experienced souls.

Like me. Right now, I’m holding onto this tree and waiting for Levi, my eyes trying to scan the endless white in hopes of finding him, finding anyone. My cell has no service but our radios work and, despite my constant communication with Brett, our team leader back at the base, no one can seem to pull up Levi. And I’m not going anywhere without him.

“Riley, come in,” my radio crackles as if on cue.

I fumble for it and bring it up to my mouth, my voice shaking as I push the button and say, “Riley here. Over.”

“How is the visibility? Over,” Brett says.

“Complete shit,” I tell him. “And I’m not sure how fast the temperature is dropping, but it’s dropping. I can’t see Levi, can’t reach him, can’t see anyone, can’t hear anything. His transceiver isn’t even coming through. Over.” I’m trying not to sound panicked, but just relaying my situation out loud has it hitting home for me.

“Don’t worry about, Levi. You know better than anyone that he can take care of himself. Give me your coordinates and stay exactly where you are. Once there’s a break in the weather, we’ll send the chopper out to get you and find Levi.” He pauses. “Then we continue the search for the skiers. But you’re our priority. Over.”

I sigh and slip the device back in the front pocket of my parka which is crusted over with snow. He’s right in that I shouldn’t worry. We’ve been in worse situations before. There was the time I fell down a crevice and had to wait for several hours before they found me. Once, Levi struck a tree while skiing and suffered a concussion that affected his ability to find his way off the mountain. This is just a storm and it’s not the first time we’ve been separated while out on the job.

Still, something in my heart squeezes, a vice of unease. Levi and I have been friends since high school, bonding together over the love of snow and the Washington outdoors. Since I was dirt poor and practically trailer trash back then and couldn’t afford a snowboard, let alone lift tickets, Levi, who worked part-time as a lift-operator at Mount Baker, pretty much supported my habit. He gave me his old board, would get me on the lifts for free, and taught me everything about the mountains.

After we graduated, I wanted to get as far away from my family as possible and start a new life somewhere else. When Levi said he wanted to join a search and rescue team, I decided I wanted that too. When he went to Utah to train, I went to Utah. Wherever he got a job, I would follow. That’s how we both ended up in Aspen.

I love working for SAR. It gives me a sense of purpose, combined with a love for nature and a great respect for the elements. I’m at once powerless and at the mountain’s mercy, and yet I’m able to battle against it in order to save lives.

But the truth is, sometimes I wish I didn’t work with someone I love. Because that’s the fucking truth. Levi might be my best friend, but I love him more than I’ll ever be able to tell him. And in moments just like this one, when his own life is at stake, I’m almost paralyzed by the fear of losing him. It’s moments like this that I know I should do what Brett is telling me to do, that I need to stay where I am and wait. But each second that ticks past with the slice of snow across my face feels like a second I could be too late.

I need to find him.

I let go of the tree I’ve been cowering beside and decide to keep going. My boots sink into the snow, all the way to my knee, as I leave the relative shelter of the pines behind and trudge out across the open slope. Though I can barely see more than a few yards in front of me, I’m somewhat familiar with this terrain. Earlier, the chopper had dropped us just to the northeast of here. Levi and I were together for only twenty minutes before we split up. By the time I reached a dead-end against a cliff face and the storm started to worsen, I lost communication with him.

But knowing Levi, he probably kept going, determined to find the skiers. He probably crossed this section of the mountain that I’m crossing right now, a steep open part of the slope devoid of trees and piled high with snow drifts. With the spring, the snow loosens, making this area an avalanche hazard, not to mention the fact that this faux run breaks off into crevasses and drop-offs at the lower elevation.

When I’m halfway across the slope and can make out the shapes of the trees on the other side—shifting shadows that flicker in and out through the ongoing white—a noise makes me stop in my tracks.

It’s not a loud noise, kind of a soft poof that is barely heard above the roar of the wind and snow, but then I see it. The sky glows a faint pink with a red-hot ember in the middle of it.

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