|Cover art by Meredith Russell|
chance with his lover Nathan Richardson he is caught up in the biggest
earthquake to hit the city since records began.
It is a race against time and the powerful all consuming destruction
of nature for Ryan to find Nathan, trapped in the ruins of his home in
the hills, and to get both of them to help before the fire reaches them.
“….I can’t do justice to the sense of awe you feel when reading All The
Kings Men. Nathan and Ryan are just two small insignificant people when
compared to the disaster that has overcome LA, the descriptions of the
devastation are horrifying, and you really get a sense of the immense
disaster unfolding throughout the story….”
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Top To Bottom Reviews – 4.5/5 – (review of first edition, 2011) – “….All the King’s Men is a perilous journey that’ll take your breath away as you turn the pages. Often poignant, endlessly entertaining, it will leave you with the faith that hope, perseverance, and the promise of love will always work its magic….”
Mrs Condit & Friends Reads Books – 5/5 – “….I can’t do justice to the sense of awe you feel when reading All The Kings Men. Nathan and Ryan are just two small insignificant people when compared to the disaster that has overcome LA, the descriptions of the devastation are horrifying, and you really get a sense of the immense disaster unfolding throughout the story….”
California is one of America’s most earthquake-prone states.
The boundary between the massive Pacific and North American tectonic plates, the notorious San Andreas Fault, runs roughly southeast to northwest through much of California. In addition, a jumble of lesser transverse faults clutters the map of the state.
Sides of the San Andreas Fault move in the opposite direction, but at different speeds, causing geologic tension to build. That tension is released in the form of an earthquake. The possibility is always present for associated earthquakes among the nearby transform faults.
The U.S. Geological Survey says the state faces a forty-six percent chance of being hit by a Richter Scale magnitude 7.5 or higher earthquake in the next thirty years.
Possibly even today.
Thursday 6:52 a.m.
I’m coming to you… Early morning flight to LAX… I don’t want to play phone tag anymore… I just want to see you face to face and talk… I miss you, Nate… I’m sorry… I love you.
Nathan Richardson leaned against the park gates and pocketed his cell after listening to his lover’s voicemail for what must be at least the twentieth time. The message was emotional and Ryan’s voice was choked as he spoke. Still, in the few words Nathan heard he got the message. He and Ryan needed to do one hell of a lot of talking.
They’d been together two years, Ryan a photographer and Nathan his model. It was the worst cliché ever and surely destined to fail. But not them. They were in love and going strong. Nathan wanted forever, commitment, a place they owned together, hell, even a ring. Ryan, older than Nathan by five years, had too many breakups under his belt to think that a happy ever after was even possible.
When Nathan was offered a part in a small independent movie, it had been the beginning of the end. Nathan had used modeling to finance acting classes and he jumped at the chance to join the cast of an independent gay film with a contract for two months’ work and an audition for a soap as a new love interest in some kind of triangle.
Nathan expected Ryan to protest—for his lover to tell Nathan he couldn’t live without him and not to go. Instead Ryan grew quieter by the day and merely encouraged Nathan to take the role. Nathan could see what was happening—Ryan was subtly saying he didn’t want a forever kind of thing anyway. Ryan was ending their love affair while he had the chance to be in control of how it ended. They didn’t fight. They drifted apart and Nathan let it happen.
That had been two months ago.
Two days ago Ryan had texted him. I miss you. So much.
Nathan didn’t know what to type in return. Ryan wasn’t exactly offering endless love and a ring. But when Nathan read those few words he knew getting over Ryan was unachievable. He loved the man, and always would. His friend Jason wanted him to move on. He could no more move on from Ryan than he could turn straight.
Ryan was the other half of him.
I love you, Nathan sent in reply.
I want forever, Ryan texted back.
I can go for that, Nathan replied quickly.
I can get a flight. Unspoken was asking if Ryan could visit Nathan.
Despite staring at the screen for an hour, there were no more messages.
Then the voicemail came when Nathan was on his run. Heartfelt and perfect. The two of them could make this real. Not long and his lover would be here, then they could clear the air and maybe he and Ryan could find a way to move on.
Ryan Ortiz said he was ready for forever and Nathan wanted that so badly.
He had run here, the opposite side of the US, to give Ryan time to think about what he felt and what he wanted. It had killed him not to be calling Ryan every day, but Nathan knew Ryan and knew his best bet was to not pressure his lover. His gaze passed over where he now lived, a place so very different from his and Ryan’s former home in the chaos and noise of New York.
A small complex of four apartments, quiet and remote, the peace and solitude suited his frame of mind perfectly. He lived in this two-bedroom apartment in the hills beyond LA, rented from an absentee landlord, and had made it his own with photos of family and even one of him and Ryan in happier times. As much as he wished he could, he hadn’t been able to cut Ryan out of his thoughts, or his life.
He stood in the roughhewn park carved out across the road from his home and looked away from his sanctuary to the nature that surrounded him. The park itself was a jumble of trees and rocks, grass and pathways, some steeply climbing higher into the hills, some gently curving and ideal for his attempted runs. The nearest main road was a quarter-mile away, and most people drove past the entrance to the small complex without realizing the road led to people’s homes.
Jason and his girlfriend had put an offer on one of the two empty apartments. Having his best friend in LA living next door was a good thing. He needed that connection if he couldn’t have Ryan in his life on a permanent basis. Although…maybe…somehow he and Ryan could make it work?
Nathan smiled as a cloud of birds rose gracefully from the oak at the edge of the park, heading skyward at an incredible speed. He loved that he was so close to the peace of nature, and the sight of the birds was both eerie and fascinating. He couldn’t stop looking at it, wishing he had his camera with him, cursing at another amazing photo opportunity lost.
Suddenly, he couldn’t wait to share what he’d seen with Ryan.
* * * * *
Thursday 6:59 am
Ryan Ortiz sat forward in the cab as they rounded a corner. He was desperate to get his Nathan into his arms where Ryan could hold him and tell him that he loved him. The cab was moving too slowly and all the driver wanted to do was talk to him.
“What brings you to LA?”
“My boyfriend lives here.” Nathan.
“So you’re not a resident?”
“No, I’m here from New York, just for a few days.” Hopefully longer if Nathan will take me back.
The questions continued to come. What did he think of the spate of forest fires in the LA hills? Did he think that Lindsay Lohan was for real? Did he have pets? Was he married? Did he want to get married? Was he fighting for equal rights? For the most part, Ryan managed to keep up until he realized that the driver wasn’t actually listening to his answers, and so he was able to subside to a new level of tired grunts in answer to each new question. Still dazed from his early morning flight from New York, his mind limped through thought and memory, attempting to make order out of chaos. The views from the taxi, the vista of the city laid out through the misty smog, were gorgeous, and he itched for his camera. It was a very strange feeling not to have it with him, but the rush to get here, to see Nathan, had precluded organizing his extensive camera equipment. It was the first time in his memory he’d gone anywhere without at least one camera.
He missed taking photos of Nate. His gorgeous lover had started as his model for Style and hell, Ryan loved every minute of seeing Nate through the viewfinder. They’d slipped into a relationship, a fiery, intense love affair. Then his beautiful lover had revealed he wanted to try acting and even had a role lined up. Although when that had happened Ryan didn’t know, as Nathan hadn’t told him a thing.
“It’s such a cliché,” Ryan told him. “Model turned actor.”
He was only teasing but Nathan took him so seriously. “It’s just a dream of mine, and I’m lucky they let me try for it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you had done this?”
“I thought they’d laugh me out of the door, I never imagined they’d say yes.”
Ryan had pulled Nathan into a hug. “I’m proud of you, babe,” he said firmly. Of course, inside he’d faced the finality that he was losing Nathan. No point in a future when they were separated on opposite sides of the US, and he certainly wasn’t going to hold Nathan back. It had been easier for Ryan to assume they were ending with Nathan’s move to LA.
Ultimately Nathan left his position with Style and moved permanently to LA, embracing his burgeoning acting career. The arguments increased at the same rate as the distance between them. Ryan had always been the one who picked the fights. Fucking idiot. Ryan fought insecurity and jealousy and the only way he could do that was to pretend Nathan leaving for a new career meant nothing to him.
Nathan got the role in the TV series, up and away from his independent film part, starting with a six-month contract. His picture was emblazoned on page twenty-nine of a teen magazine that Ryan’s assistant left on his desk. The photo was one of Ryan’s, and it was one of his favorites. Nathan, beautiful, shirtless, his lean body stretched with catlike grace, leaning back on his elbows. His jeans were pushed down and his hipbones teased at what was hidden. He was pictured gazing away from the camera thoughtfully, his soft dark hair in disarray around his face. The lighting had been faultless, each coppery highlight in Nathan’s hair picked out in detail. The photo was simply perfect.
They had gone home after that shoot and made love and it was the moment Ryan knew he was head over heels for Nathan. They’d exchanged I love you’s and Nathan began to make plans for a future together, a house outside the city maybe, adoption, hell, the whole family thing. Ryan wasn’t sure he was capable of all that, but he’d nodded and listened. Then he saw the damn photo again and he knew at that moment he should never have let his fears stop him from believing in what they had.
Ryan didn’t hesitate when he saw that photo. He loved Nathan and they had been apart too long. Sure there was a relationship to save, he texted Nathan and Nathan had answered. Ryan impulsively booked a flight immediately—the first flight he could get to LA. He called Nathan from the airport and left a voicemail when Nathan didn’t answer. Now he sat in the taxi as the driver steered it up into the hills. He needed to push aside his insecurities, drop to his knees, and beg forgiveness of the one person who made him whole. He hoped he wasn’t too late.
* * * * *
After his pathetic, half-hearted stumble-run, Nathan decided he needed to get indoors and get a shower. He wasn’t sure what time Ryan would get here but Nathan wanted to be at least halfway decent when he did.
He couldn’t help the excitement that flooded him. He really wanted to see if maybe his ex-lover would want to find some kind of resolution. Maybe they could agree to split their time between the two cities?
He was just inside the main door when the floor beneath his feet moved, subtly the first time, slowly, a groaning, a creaking, and a soft shaking. The ground shift left him holding the doorframe. It only lasted a few seconds and was over before he could force a thought about it through the rest of the clutter in his mind. The checklist in his head clicked in automatically before the shaking had stopped. He smiled briefly. That earth movement would be dominating the news today. Hey, maybe today was a good day for him to walk proudly out of the closet! Surely revealing his sexual preferences would never be more newsworthy than an earthquake in Tinseltown.
He thumbed to the number of his brother out of state and hit Send. The phone at the other end rang once, twice, a third time, and voicemail kicked in. He decided not to leave a message. No one really needed to know that a minor shock had hit his apartment in the hills above LA. The trembler hadn’t been strong enough to be worthy of hitting the news anywhere outside of California. Nathan had just been trying to be a good citizen, letting a family member know like the government said he should. He made a mental note to charge the damn cell when he finished his shower.
Seconds later, just as Nathan pocketed his cell, the earth around him ripped apart with such savagery that it was impossible to stand upright. Nathan scrabbled to hold the side of the doorframe, trying to find his feet. His vision blurred as dust and concrete fell about his head, knocking him to the ground. Before the shaking stopped, before the ceiling joists cascaded down and trapped his legs, he slammed into unconsciousness.
They were about ten minutes away from Nathan’s apartment when the pre-shock hit. The driver cursed as the car skittered sideways, and Ryan grabbed on to the door and his belt in confusion.
“What the hell?”
“S’okay, just a small one. We get them all the time out here.”
Ryan knew what he meant. Earthquake. He’d never really experienced an earthquake before and it had felt weird, like the whole of the earth beneath the car had slid sideways, stones and loose gravel from the hills above them dropping onto the car in a crashing, rattling rain.
Ryan peered out the window at the sweeping vista of LA sleeping below him, wondering how many people woke up to the sound that was like distant thunder and to the shaking of the earth. The car had skidded to the edge of the road, and he shot a quick glance down the slope, thanking God that it hadn’t been a major quake. Smiling ruefully, he sat back in the seat as the driver pulled away and angled back onto his side of the road.
A breath-stealing jolt yanked him from his musings.
The car was moving; no, the hill was moving…shuddering and falling…pushing the hapless car ahead of it. The rocks, vegetation…the sky tumbled. The car neared the edge, the driver shouting hysterically as it tilted sideways, large chunks of hillside falling to dent the car, beat at the car, push the car to the edge, to the drop, to the shaking and dancing of the moving earth.
Ryan clung with both hands to the grab handle over the cab’s door and jerked at every noise, every motion. This wasn’t good, not good at all. He stared out, snatching a quick look down at LA, and what he saw was burned into his mind. Explosions. He thought he saw buildings shattering and imploding, but that had to be his imagination. What the fuck is happening?
The car ceased its crazy ride and, for one second, remained poised on the edge, overhanging the drop. Then a final shove of moving dirt sent it careening, tumbling down the rise.
The car lodged against a natural outcrop and came to a sudden and bone-crunching stop, the thunder and passion of the earthquake still warring around it, the hill subsiding, plummeting, and falling in a haphazard storm of rocks and debris. The seatbelt saved Ryan’s life. It stopped him from being thrown from the car and crushed under it as it rolled and slid, but it also ultimately trapped him inside the vehicle as the chassis twisted and buckled against the onslaught of the hillside. All too soon the noises around him started to slow, and he was left in the dark surrounded by dust and earth, his eyes burning with fumes. He needed to get out of the taxi now.
With a powerful resolution born of a desire to live, he heaved himself out of the belt and pushed at the door with his booted feet, tumbling out as it burst open. He crab-walked away from the compacted car, his eyes taking in what was essentially half a car. The front had been flattened and the driver crushed.
He was trapped in a nightmare. The remains of the cab perched precariously on a bed of dirt and rocks of all sizes. Flames licked up leaking fuel, eating at the crushed metal. Ryan knew he could do nothing for the driver. He was gone…crushed…dead…fuck.
Stumbling to his feet, he clutched at his forehead, pulling his hand away and staring in a shocked stupor at the blood. A head injury. Crap.
The car groaned as the metal heated. Half out of his mind with horror and dread, believing the car would explode, he twisted and scrambled his way up over the remains of the road, feeling the heat on his back as the fire continued to eat away at the mutilated car. The cab wasn’t the only car destroyed. One that had been ahead of them lay crushed so badly no one could have escaped. Another vehicle that they’d passed on the freeway had plowed into an embankment and burst into flames. All of the vehicles had been tossed around like toys in the hands of Nature.
Finally he crashed to his knees, his back to the view below. There was nothing he could do for anyone in any vehicle here, and his gaze focused on what was left of the road. Reluctantly, spurred by horrified fascination and the need to face what had happened, Ryan pushed himself to his feet and turned slowly. Shielding his eyes with his hand and coughing, he faced the nightmare vista of LA laid out before him. Fire. He could see fire, drifts of dark gray smoke, and clouds of dust. Debris. The ground still stirred uneasily beneath his feet. This was a living disaster movie, surreal, unbelievable. LA was unrecognizable. Everything had gone eerily silent where he stood above the rage of the distant fires and destruction, the motion of the earth around him having finally faded.
The taxi burned brightly, and he shuddered at the thought of the dead driver. Ryan didn’t want to think about a world where death could be a blessing. He could have been trapped in that car, trapped in the flames. Fire: his worst fear, his nightmare.
Living, breathing fire tracked steadily on its way up the hillside following a dirty trail of oil and fuel that speeded its path. He really needed to move and now, but for a second, he stopped, dazed, still watching LA shattered by the ground on which it had risen. Jesus, this looks worse than the Northridge quake of ’94. He recalled a spread in National Geographic that said the quake had only lasted thirty seconds, but he remembered it killed about sixty people and injured several thousand. Images of collapsed freeways and fires flashed across his thoughts, quick jumbled images of death and destruction. This looked bad, and this wasn’t just a small part of the city. The entire LA downtown looked to be destroyed.
Below him lay LA, and around him, but not too near, he heard sirens and smelled smoke. Nathan was somewhere above him, perhaps hit as hard as he’d been. Maybe he was trapped, possibly dead—Ryan froze and refused to think of the worst scenario any more.
Should he try to contact someone? Who? Emergency services? If the situation hadn’t been so horrendous, Ryan might have laughed at the stupidity of his thought. There was no one else that could be right here and now; Nathan had him and him alone to depend upon.
He checked his pocket. Fuck, his cell was in the car, along with a hastily packed flight bag.
Tensing his muscles one by one, he tested for injuries. Each limb seemed bruised but worked. He was relatively uninjured, and nothing appeared broken. His breathing had become easy and regular. He thanked the heavens for the fact that he went running every day and was fit. Picking his way carefully, he started up the hill. Climbing over piles of stone and tossed trees and foliage, he managed to trace parts of the broken road, breaking into a run when he could. He’d been running for ten minutes when he came to an abrupt stop.
Mother Nature had destroyed all that Ryan knew as right and normal. The road twisted in on itself, decimated and ripped apart. It was difficult to see where he needed to scramble but as long as he moved uphill, he was going in the right direction. He imagined he was just over two miles from Nathan’s apartment, in normal circumstances about twenty minutes at a steady uphill run. Over the unsettled wasteland he traversed, he knew the trip would last much longer.
Nathan could be hurt up there. Over the next rise could be total devastation. Ryan quickened his jog, his heart pounding as he jumped and climbed the fallen hillside. He didn’t pass any other cars that had signs of life in them, just burned, twisted wreckage and bodies he couldn’t stand to look at.
As he topped the last hill, to the place where Nathan’s complex had sat, he stopped, horrified. The last time he’d been here, when Nathan first came to LA, the whole area was beautiful—landscaped and artistic design nestled into the hills. But now…
He gaped at a scene that looked like something out of a war movie. Everything was flat. Half the mountain had crushed the private entrance. The gates and what had been the parking area were torn in two.
Coughing and moaning pushed Nathan to consciousness, and it took him a few desperate minutes to realize it was him making the noises.
A bad one if the destruction around him was anything to go by. He couldn’t see much farther than he could reach. The masonry dust drifted around him heavily, and the ground still shook beneath him, dislodging cement and bricks. He could see light above him, daylight where there should have been another apartment. Shit, this must be bad, really bad.
He knew the apartment was empty, had been empty since Christmas, but the sky… That didn’t seem right. It wasn’t right.
He reached out with one hand trying to gauge what he could feel, what he could understand of the debris around him, but his movement was limited and the ground was still moving. It was surreal, frightening, and he could feel the edges of panic start to cloud his thoughts as he tested his extremities and realized he couldn’t move his legs. Heavy steel lay across his hip and down past his knees. Breathing slowly and deeply, he pushed at the steel, but he might as well have been pushing a solid wall for all it gave under his attempts. All it did was raise more choking dust.
He decided to lie still, very still, until the earth stopped moving and the dust settled, maybe wait for emergency services. They wouldn’t be far. They wouldn’t take long; they’d be here soon. Jason would let them know. His friend and fellow actor was in downtown LA, quite a few miles from here. But he would know that Nathan was up in the hills if he couldn’t get hold of him.
So, shit, he needed to let his out-of-state contacts know what had happened so they would stop worrying.
His cell. If he could get to his cell in the left pocket of his sweats… He could maybe tell Jason where he was, that he needed help, talk to his brother as well. He pushed his hand down, feeling his way, not even sure how far his hand was from the pocket, just knowing with enough grim determination he would get to the cell.
He could feel the cell, feel it in his pocket, the outline of it, but shit. The material was bunched and he couldn’t get it out. Frustration made him whimper. This was not good, and he started pulling at the seam, desperate to reach inside. Picking, pulling, trying to ease the material apart. The ground had stopped shaking, and a sudden peace surrounded him that was unnatural. He heard no noises at all, and he held in a breath in anticipation of any sound at all, not wanting to move and miss it, as if any movement could be the death of him.
Nathan had managed to pick his way through to the inner lining of the pocket, cursing Nike for their fucking stitching. The pain in his legs was numbing, and he knew that was a bad sign. He had realized straight away that he couldn’t sit up, and a combination of twisted steel and masonry made the space he was lying in impossibly small. He could still see the daylight, the early morning light spilling in to cast eerie shadows over his limited space. Taking stock of the situation, he knew two things for certain: he wasn’t going anywhere under his own steam and aftershocks were inevitable.
There was very little between his fragile human body and the remains of his apartment torn apart by the forces of Nature. He hoped to hell that the shifting earth echoes didn’t dislodge the steel that was holding together his cocoon of safety.
He heard his cell ring, the unique ring he had for his brother, Adam. He wanted to shout, “I’m here, I’m okay, someone help me.” He just needed to get to the phone. Ease the threads apart…pull…pull…ease them apart, visualize the seam. His hand slowly made its way in, and he moaned in relief as his cramped fingers closed around his cell. He couldn’t move his arm enough to see the phone, but he keyed speed dial from memory and hit speakerphone. His brother’s voice was instant and threaded with fear.
“Nathan, what the fuck, the news… Are you okay?”
“Adam.” Nathan knew his voice sounded small. It echoed in the silence around him. He needed to push his voice, use what he knew from acting and project his desperation and need for help.
“Nathan, for fuck’s sake—”
“Adam, I need help…trapped, man.”
“Shit. Fuck. In the apartment?”
“I’m on it, Nathan. Hold on.” He heard Adam talking to his wife.
“Nathan, Mary is calling this in. Hang tight, little brother. They’ve added your name and location.”
“My cell.” Nathan whimpered softly, hoping no one heard his fear. “I can’t stay—s’battery…”
“Nathan, can you tell me what you see, what you know?”
“Light, I can see…light…trapped…steel and concrete…I think the rest is gone, Adam. I can see light.”
“Okay, man, save the cell, help is on the way.”
Soon please, Adam, soon.
* * * * *
Fear thick in his throat, Ryan clambered down broken floors and through smashed glass, his bare skin tearing on exposed masonry and steel. Only a small part of the apartment complex had survived. The top floor had sheared off and lay in pieces. He had already found one body—a young woman, a brunette. She’d looked to simply be sleeping, but clearly she was gone from this world, because he felt for a pulse and found nothing. She was surrounded by photos and linens—life—but there was nothing he could do for her. She was way past any kind of help he could provide.
He tried to visualize where Nathan’s apartment had been on the lower south corner facing the garden, but the whole site had slid, crumbling and snapping and tearing as it was swallowed by the hungry earth. There was only a small part of the structure left, buried in mud and debris, and Ryan was hoping for one thing—to find his ex-lover alive and unharmed.
He slid the last few meters to a pile of stones and wood—a fireplace. Electric cables twisted and popped as they snaked and touched each other, and carefully he picked his way to the final structure standing. He recognized nothing, no photos, no decoration, nothing that marked this as Nathan’s in any way, but he knew somehow that this was Nathan’s apartment. Knew? More like hoped—prayed.
Glass from a smashed window sliced into his hand, and he yelped as it dug and twisted into him. He stopped, pulling the glass out carefully, blood oozing to the surface. Distracted, he wiped it on his jeans, and judging where he stood, he carefully made his way into the sculpture of steel.
“Nathan…Nathan.” Come on, man, please be here somewhere. Please still be alive. “Nathan, Nathan, Nathan,” he repeated over and over, pausing in between to hear an answer. He picked his way past doorframes and kitchen cupboards forced open under pressure, spilling cans and crockery onto the floor. It was strangely intimate seeing the contents thrown and smashed around him, imagining them lined up carefully in the cupboard, Nathan putting them away, his gentle touches, his pride in his possessions, all destroyed in seconds. Ryan moved slowly over the broken cupboards, calling Nathan’s name, stumbling, trying not to knock anything that might cause a mini landslide.
He stopped, realizing he was making so much noise that he wouldn’t hear if Nathan was there trapped under the rubble. He had to stop panicking. He had to go against his instinct to scream and shout and just stand still.
* * * * *
Nathan gripped the cell like a lifeline. Adam knew he was trapped; Adam would try and get help for him. He just needed to wait. He coughed; he tried not to, but his throat was lined with dust, and it was getting damned difficult to breathe.
Jeez, now he was hallucinating. Ryan’s voice. He wouldn’t be here at this moment. He’d still be on his way from the airport. God, he hoped Ryan was okay. It was stupid that he even began to worry about Ryan over and above all the other things he should be focusing on. Like survival. Like getting out of here to go and find Ryan. He really expected to die here. It was a remote location, time wasn’t on his side, and he had no feeling in his legs. What did it say that this close to death all he could imagine was the panicked voice of his lover? He was seriously losing it big time.
He heard the voice again. “Nathan, Nathan.”
“Stop it, leave me alone,” Nathan said softly to himself. If he was going to die, it wasn’t going to be with Ryan’s panicked voice and regrets that they had been apart for the last two months. He wanted to focus on their friendship, on the love he had for Ryan, not on the time he had been lonely. He wanted to think about his family.