EXTRACT FOR AFTER DARKNESS FELL (David Berardelli)
After Darkness Fell
Nearly three months have passed since the plague of death had wiped
out most of the world’s population. The exact numbers, of course, could not be
calculated, since there was no one left to work the computers or maintain the
databanks. Even so, most computers were rendered inoperable due to mass power
failures, and those still capable of using their mental facilities realized
long ago that such responsibilities no longer mattered in the great scheme of
things. Survival had taken precedence, and the phrase “survival of the
fittest,” trampled years ago and left in the cloud of indifference generated by
the mass chaos of modern technology and sophisticated living, had returned
triumphantly, bringing with it a primordial behavior that had long been hidden
I felt rather than heard someone wandering around outside.
Under normal conditions, such a sensation didn’t warrant immediate
attention. However, since conditions hadn’t been normal for some time, I knew I
had to investigate.
The early hour of the day most likely contributed to the red flag
that went off in my head. The clock on the kitchen wall said 8:42. I hadn’t
been sleeping soundly the last couple of months; knowing I had to be on my
guard twenty-four hours a day made the natural process of sleeping a thing of
the past. By the time I’d gotten up, showered and dressed, I was fully alert.
As I stood in front of the gas stove, the eggs simmering quietly in
the skillet, the familiar tingling in the back of my head jolted me, and I
abruptly put down the spatula, turned off the burner and placed a cover on the
I’d learned twenty years earlier to listen to my senses; they’d
served me well during my three-year stint in the Army. They’d also served me
well during my trip from Orlando three very long, arduous months ago. Using my
instincts—and also aided by Reed McCallum and Brooke Fields, my two best
friends—I managed to escape the underground Government facility run by a
handful of psychos intent on creating a superior civilization by killing off
most of the population.
The last three months had been unbearably grim. Living quietly with
your partner in normal conditions can be a wonderful thing, but in a world
where everyone is dead or dying, life becomes a nightmare. You’re on constant
alert, and fully aware that every move you make could be your last. When you
stumble upon someone who doesn’t appear to be doped, your defenses immediately
go up. If this person seems okay and is armed for his own protection, he can
accidentally kill you if he panics, or is unfamiliar with his weapon. If he is
acting sick or doped, he can have an accomplice hiding close by, ready to kill
In the last three months, Fields and I had killed six people—four
men and two women. The men ambushed us when Fields and I were at an abandoned
filling station in Bakerstown, pushing containers of gas onto the bed of Uncle
Joe’s Silverado. Luckily, we managed to kill all four without blowing up the
truck or the station.
The women we encountered had faked a breakdown on the
Bakerstown-Culmerville Road, as we were coming home from the first of our two
monthly shopping excursions. The older of the two distracted us by asking
directions while her sister rushed at Fields with a machete when our backs were
Surviving a holocaust is horrible. Its effects are so far-reaching,
the survivor spends much of his time angry with himself for surviving and
longing for a peaceful death. But the will to survive takes precedence, and
feelings of guilt and self-pity quickly return to the back of the mind.
The will to survive manifests itself in many forms, often becoming
paranoia in times of extreme stress. I kept loaded guns in each and every room
in the house. I’d nailed certain windows and doors shut, locked others and
rigged simple booby traps inside the front and back doors that would cause a
string of empty tin cans to come crashing down onto the linoleum.
Although Fields was still sleeping when I’d slipped out of the bed,
I heard the shower going only minutes after I’d gone downstairs to fix
breakfast. It was still going, and I saw no reason to disturb her. I wasn’t a
hundred percent sure there was anything to worry about. For all I knew, a stray
dog or coyote could be roaming the property, sniffing for food. Besides, I
didn’t want to waste time running up the stairs and telling her my intentions.
She’d argue with me and tell me to wait until she put on some clothes so she
could investigate with me. It would take too long. If someone was
prowling around, I needed to find out as quickly as possible. And since I was
over forty, the extra scrambling would tire me unnecessarily, giving a would-be
trespasser a deadly edge.
I told myself that even if I was imagining things, it still
wouldn’t hurt to check the property. It would only take a minute, and I’d come
right back and finish making breakfast. Anyway, I knew I couldn’t concentrate
on anything else until I’d gone outside and found out if my instincts were
Before leaving the house, I picked up the compact .380 Beretta
Cheetah lying beneath the towel on the kitchen counter less than a foot from
the rear door. It was small enough to keep hidden in my hand but quite capable
of knocking someone down at forty or fifty yards. I’d used it before and was
willing to use it again if the occasion arose.
I sincerely hoped my instincts were wrong. If they were right, and
someone was indeed outside, Fields would never forgive me. But I knew that if
the latter rang true, time was of the essence, and I had to find out as quickly
I pushed open the screen door an inch at a time and slipped
outside, into the back yard, moving quietly up the walk leading to the stone steps
that extended to the long, winding gravel drive. I stopped about ten feet from
the door and stood there, listening. I heard a few birds singing from the trees
and a distant barking dog.
So far, so good. I resumed my trip to the end of the walk.
As soon as I cleared the corner of the house, I saw a lone slender
figure wandering up the drive.
It was Reed McCallum.
My heart stopped. I could only stand there numbly and watch as the
apparition drew nearer. Was it Reed? No. It simply couldn’t be.
Fields and I had buried Reed in the shade of the buckeye tree my
mother had climbed as a child, up the hill at the end of the drive. Mom’s body
rested there as well, right beside Uncle Joe, whom Fields, Reed, and I had
buried earlier. Shortly after Uncle Joe had died, one of my mother’s Quarter
Horse mares accidentally killed Reed when something spooked her in her stall,
slamming Reed into the wall. Reed died shortly after, filling our dark,
frightening world with an overwhelming sadness I’d never experienced before. I
thought of him every day since, feeling his presence at odd moments and
reminding myself that even though he’d gone, his spirit would remain with us.
Perhaps this was why I thought the stranger walking up our drive
was Reed. The image of his slenderness, his unkempt reddish-brown hair, would
forever remain fixed in my consciousness. The sight alarmed me, and it was then
that I suddenly remembered the gun in my hand. When reality intervened, I knew
I should pull myself together. The man coming up the drive was trespassing, and
I needed to take full control of the situation immediately.
Once the morning sunlight poking between the trees that lined the
driveway had settled on the stranger’s features, I knew right then that this
wasn’t Reed at all, just someone resembling him.
I faced him at an angle, with my right side turned toward the
right, my right arm hidden from his view. The .380 rested snugly in my hand,
pressing comfortably against my thigh. As a precaution, I carefully pulled back
the hammer while keeping my gaze steady on the stranger. I sincerely hoped this
would turn out innocently. I hadn’t yet been forced to kill anyone on my own
property and hoped the trend would continue.
“Nice morning,” he said, coming up the drive.
I nodded. As he drew nearer, his resemblance to Reed diminished
totally, and I knew then that the only thing they had in common was their hair
and slenderness. He wore a white tee shirt beneath a light-blue windbreaker,
jeans a little large around the waist, and black tennis shoes.
I knew full well that I could be facing a psychopath. He moved
normally, which told me he was obviously not doped. This, of course, made him
even more dangerous. I stopped thinking of Reed altogether and concentrated on
the here and now.
When he was about twenty feet away, I motioned for him to stop.
He took two more steps—which I didn’t like. It was most likely a
control thing, suggesting that he was playing a head game with me. He was
trespassing and I wasn’t in the mood for games.
“Where are you coming from and why are you here?” I asked.
“Don’t get tense. I’m not here to cause any trouble.”
“Then answer my question.”
“I’m just down the road.” He jabbed a thumb to his left, toward the
intersection at the top of the hill. “I had a breakdown and was wonderin’ if
you could give me a jump.”
This didn’t feel right. Our house sat nearly a hundred yards off
the road, hidden by pines and buckeyes. The pasture was just as secluded, the
line of pines spanning the perimeter providing the farm with heavy camouflage.
This stranger had either been watching the property with binoculars or had
followed us from our shopping excursion last week.
Either way, this was not good. The idea of someone watching us
intensified the tingling in my neck. The trees keeping the front yard of the
house hidden from view could easily conceal others this man may have brought
with him. For all I knew, there could be half a dozen others hiding in the
woods, waiting for his signal. I didn’t dare take my eyes off him.
I realized I could be dead very shortly. If I managed to survive,
Fields was going to kill me. At the very least, I’d never hear the end of it.
But her safety was my big concern. Hopefully she’d stay in the house and would
be close enough to a gun when she heard gunshots. If there were only a couple
of trespassers, I had no doubt she’d be able to get them all. I didn’t want to
consider the possibility that there could be a dozen or more.
I took a deep breath and forced myself not to show fear. I knew all
about fear and how to handle it. In the military, we all learned that you
ignored it and worked through it. You grabbed it and shoved it out of the way
as quickly as possible. It was necessary. Once the enemy saw it, you were dead.
“How’d you know anyone lives here?”
He grinned. “Just took a wild guess. Car’s just a quarter-mile up
the road, near the intersection. That gas station didn’t look occupied. Neither
did the tire place across the road. Nothing in either place. Guess they’ve both
been picked clean.”
There were more than a dozen houses at the top of that hill. It
didn’t make sense for him to walk all the way back here when he could have just
gone a little farther up the hill and checked any of the dwellings there.
“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t help you.”
“You don’t have something to jump me with?”
“You’ve got a barn.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“How ‘bout that garage up that hill behind you?” He pointed.
I could tell he wanted me to turn around, but I didn’t have to; I
knew where it was. “What about it?”
“No battery charger? Cables?”
“I’m not exactly a car guy.”
He laughed. “Nowadays? Everyone’s gotta know a little about
I didn’t reply. I’d managed to sneak a peek at the pine grove in
front of the house. I didn’t see anything move, didn’t see glints of anything.
But that didn’t mean much. The growth ran pretty wild and thick in spots.
“Maybe you could give me directions.”
He was obviously stalling, possibly making sure someone was getting
into position for a clear shot. I relaxed the tension in my knees and gripped
the .380 more tightly. I was now ready to move quickly. If I didn’t get hit by
someone in the grove, he’d get my first shot. “Where to?”
“I’m just headin’ through, but I don’t know where Route 8 is from
here. I’ve got a friend—well; I used to have a buddy up near Butler, but who
knows anymore? Anyway, I’m tryin’ to look him up so maybe we can…”
“West of here, two miles.” I used my left hand to point to my
“West?” Without taking his eyes off me, he turned to his left. “And
you say it’s that way?” He extended his right arm across his chest. I couldn’t
see his left.
Then I saw the tip of his left elbow rising behind his back. This
told me he was doing basically the same thing I was. The issue of his baggy
jeans came into the equation. Baggy jeans meant more room to conceal a small
firearm as well as more ease in getting it out in a hurry.
In that same instant, I heard the crunch of dead leaves about
twenty feet to my left, near the hedges at the corner of the house in the front
yard. Two loud, familiar clicks snapped in my ears—one from the hedges, another
from the upstairs bedroom window. I knew instantly that they were the sounds of
gun hammers being cocked.
The harsh bark of Fields’ voice, about twenty feet above my head
and forty feet to my left, chilled the marrow in my bones: “Duck!”
I put a .380 hollow-oint slug neatly into
the center of the stranger’s forehead and fell face-first to the hard gravel.
Two loud shots exploded almost simultaneously. The first buzzed inches above my
head. The second echoed down the drive, to the wall of the barn, coming back up
again and reverberating. I heard a loud gasp, and something slammed into the
hedges near the house.
I lay motionless on the gravel, but all I could hear was my heart
hammering deafeningly in my chest. I didn’t want to get up and show myself;
these two might have brought along someone else. But once my heart finally
settled down and I still heard nothing, I decided I might be in the clear.
Besides, Fields was probably still watching.
I crawled over to the dead man. A quick search revealed that he was
heavily armed. In addition to the compact .22 revolver he’d tried taking from
his left side pocket, I found a tiny long-barreled .25 derringer in his right,
a .45 snub-nosed automatic in a pancake holster in the small of his back,
beneath his windbreaker, and a 9 millimeter automatic in an ankle holster. When
I found the courage to look at his face, I realized that despite the hair color
and build, he didn’t remotely resemble Reed. He was much younger, probably no
more than thirty, and I saw nothing warm or inviting in the gaping chestnut
I took the 9 millimeter and checked the mag for ammo. One was
missing from the mag; one remained in the pipe. Ready to go, obviously, and a quick
sniff of the barrel told me it had recently been fired. I tossed the others
into the hedges near the stone walk.
Still wary, I crawled over to the long row of bushes lining the
drive. I hoped Fields would stay in the house so I could concentrate on the
yard. If someone tried sneaking in through the front or back, she’d nail them.
I moved over to the bushes. Pushing a jagged clump aside, I peered
through the small opening and scanned the front yard.
No movement. No glints from glasses, binoculars, plastic or
gunmetal. No rustling sounds from the bushes or the pine grove.
I crawled along the hedge line, toward the barn, and stopped at the
break in the hedges leading to the sidewalk extending to the front of the
house. I continued listening but heard nothing louder than the heavy beating of
my own heart.
As far as I could tell, there were only two of them. But I knew
better than leave anything to chance. I decided to continue to crawl to the end
of the hedge line, where it stopped at the corner of the barn. I could then
slip through the gap and, using the wild underbrush as cover, veer toward the
I began crawling.
“There were only two of them.”
The sound of her voice startled me. I pushed myself up and
carefully snuck a peek over the top of the hedges. Fields stood on the front
porch, a hunting rifle cradled in her arms. She wore a pink tank top and faded
jeans. Her hair was loose and wet from her shower, and glistened in the morning
sun. Less than ten feet from her, the body of the second intruder lay face-down
in the bush. Fields didn’t seem to care about him; she was much too busy
glaring at me. I’d seen that expression before; each time I saw it, I felt my
testicles quiver and knew I was in serious trouble.
I approached the house. Fields remained stock-still; her glare did
not soften. Even though I was nearly a hundred feet from her, I could feel the
dark vibes coming from her. For a moment I feared she might even raise the
rifle and shoot me. But she merely watched me as I drew closer.
I knew that my most sensible option was to walk up the steps and
apologize. If I was lucky, the matter would be closed and eventually forgotten.
I’d been married before and had learned that an apology went a long way in a
relationship. Hopefully, an apology would be all Fields wanted.
Still, I realized how stupid I’d been about handling this, and that
a mere apology might not be enough. I’d done something we’d promised one
another we’d never do: I’d taken an unnecessary, dangerous risk. And no matter
how I explained my reasoning, I knew it wouldn’t suffice. I’d crossed the line
and had to face the consequences.
I reached the top step and stopped about five feet from her. Her
glare still hadn’t softened, and I knew right then just how upset she actually
was. This worried me much more than someone hiding in the grove behind me. “You
sure no one else is...”
“I guess you would have seen someone if...”
“Listen, Fields. I know what I did was...”
“Why’d you do it?”
I shrugged. “I didn’t want to disturb you. You were taking your
shower, and I wasn’t really sure anything was wrong.”
“You came real close to never disturbing me again.”
“I know, and I’m really...”
“The eggs are probably burnt.”
“So is the coffee.”
“I’ll make fresh...”
“You owe me breakfast.”
“I owe you much more than that.”
She turned toward the front door. “Right now I’ll settle for
breakfast.” She opened the door and turned back around. For long moments she
stared at me, that same coldness penetrating my flesh. Her anger seemed to
resonate the same way it had in Breezewood, when she’d aimed a giant revolver
at my face. But this was different. Her cold green eyes were moist. I almost
expected her to start crying. Fields didn’t cry much, but it sure looked like
she was about to do something along those lines.
She glared at me a little while longer. Then, without warning, her
right hand came up and swatted me.
A knot of fire exploded in my jaw. My eyes snapped shut; when they
opened, they were wet, and I noticed my vision had gone double. I closed them
again and waited for the pain to subside. It took its time, and I finally
opened my eyes. She was still standing there. The glare remained, and her eyes
were still wet.
“Understand now?” she asked, her sandy brows rising.
“Sure do.” I knew better than say or do anything to heat her up
“I think one of those is plenty, thanks.”
“You needed it.”
“If it’ll keep you from doing it again, it was worth it, don’t you
She moved closer and planted a warm kiss on my lips. “You can be a
bastard, you know.”
“Let’s have breakfast. Then we have some unpleasant work to do.”