Darker days, p.1

Darker Days, page 1

 part  #2 of  As the Ash Fell Series


Darker Days

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Darker Days

  Darker Days


  AJ Powers

  Copyright © 2017 AJ Powers

  All rights reserved.

  Editing by: Talia Philips & Edits by V

  Cover design by: AJ Powers

  Stock Photography: Adobe Stock Images


  To my Creator and King.

  To my loving wife, Talia. There is no other person I would rather share this journey with than you. I am so blessed to have you as my wife. I love you.

  To my daughters and son. Thank you for being the best children a dad could ask for. I love you so much.


  Deborah O’Connell. A wonderful woman who always went above and beyond. You are deeply missed.


  To Doug and Melanie. Thank you for your friendship, feedback, and expertise. I am deeply grateful.

  To Joe O’Connell, thank you for pushing me to become a better writer. Your feedback is priceless and appreciated.

  To Robert. I also have you to thank for pushing me to become a better writer. Your encouragement and support have been nothing short of astounding. Thank you. PS – Get more Roberts down!

  Brad. Thank you for sharing some of your winter experiences in the Dakotas.

  To Faxon Firearms. Thank you for graciously allowing me to use the likeness of the ARAK-21 in this book. I look forward to owning one of my own someday!

  To Geoff and Phil…What can I say? You guys are great. Thanks for your friendship and support.


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Chapter 47

  Chapter 48

  Chapter 49

  Chapter 50

  Chapter 51

  Chapter 52

  Chapter 1

  “I don’t like this,” Clay said while looking through a pair of binoculars.

  “What’s the matter?” Geoff asked.

  Clay lowered the binoculars and wiped the lenses with his sleeve. The light rain—virtually a mist—quickly collected on the optics, distorting the image on the other side. Handing them to Geoff, Clay pointed towards a parking lot about a half mile away.

  “Hmmm,” Geoff grunted, echoing Clay’s concern.

  If the deal didn’t seem too good to be true or wasn’t fifteen miles east of Dallas in Mesquite, Clay might have been a little less edgy about the arrangement. At first, he balked at the notion of traveling so far to do business with a man he had just met a few months ago, but his sister’s persistence quickly convinced the whole group.

  I really need to stop listening to her, Clay thought.

  Geoff handed the binoculars back to Clay who promptly looked through them again, studying every aspect of the location they would visit at dawn. Nothing about it seemed out of the ordinary, but then again, Clay wasn’t sure if anything qualified as “ordinary” anymore. His gut told him this trade couldn’t be taken at face value. Every unknown situation needed to be treated cautiously, and in this situation, that meant there probably was an ulterior motive at play.

  As he continued gazing through the binoculars, Clay wiped at the lenses again, leaving behind a trail of smudges and a slight scratch from the metal snap on his cuff. He sighed because of the stupid mistake, but continued scanning the target up ahead. They were to meet the man in the Sears parking lot at the Mesquite Towne Mall on the morning of August 2nd. The man said he lived in Wichita Falls, and felt Mesquite would be a reasonable halfway point for both parties.

  The location wasn’t bad, actually. It was a wide-open parking lot, though still filled with many abandoned vehicles that hadn’t turned over since the ash fell a decade ago. After spotting a Stingray, Clay was consumed by the memory of announcing to his dad that the Stingray would be the perfect graduation gift. He could still hear his dad’s roaring laughter at the thought of buying a $60,000 car for his son because he completed high school. “Besides,” his father said to him, “we’re a Ford family.” There was no denying that fact, but there was something about that particular Corvette’s design that justified an exception.

  “So, what’s the plan?” Dusty spoke up, pulling Clay back from his memory.

  Clay was tempted to give into the nagging feeling telling him to abort and find a place to camp for the night before starting the first leg of the nearly 200-mile trip back to Northfield. But it had taken the three of them over two weeks to get up there, and Clay was reluctant to scrub the effort based on a hunch. And now that they had arrived, Clay’s hope that the trade was legitimate trumped his cynicism.

  Deciding once again to continue with the trade, Clay responded, “We need to be in place at least an hour before sunrise so we can watch the parking lot beforehand.” Clay looked to his left, “Dust, you see that pylon over there?” Clay asked as he pointed to an overpass on Interstate 635.

  Dusty nodded. “Yup.”

  “That looks like the best spot for you to perch with the .270. Use that column as cover and watch our backs.”

  “No problem.”

  Clay looked through the binoculars at the bridge and then over to the parking lot. “That’s probably close to a two-hundred-yard shot. Maybe more. You good with that distance?”

  “Pffft!” Dusty scoffed. “Remember that doe I dragged home last month? I nailed that sucker from at least two-fifty,” she said as she held up her Browning X-Bolt.

  “Sure ya did,” Geoff interjected with a friendly grin.

  “Oh, I’m sorry. When was the last time you bagged a buck, Geoffrey?” Dusty shot back.

  “Touchè,” Geoff quickly conceded.

  Clay chuckled at the healthy dose of camaraderie the three of them shared. Although Dusty had grown into a beautiful young woman, she never bothered to try and pretty herself up—to be like the other girls back home. Instead, she was always more interested in hunting, security detail, and other tasks that the guys on the farm usually handled. She always said she would rather get her hands bloodied and dirty than cook, clean, and swoon over babies. She often wore a cowboy hat and was pining for a pair of boots Vlad had agreed to set aside for her. She was a tomboy through and through and could more than hold her own. So, both Geoff and Clay just looked at her as one of the guys most of the time.

  “Anyway,” Clay continued. “Geoff and I are going to hide beneath that same overpass. We’ll keep an eye out for anything strange. We will not head to the parking lot until the man arrives. If he doesn’t show up, we don’t move.”

  Both Geoff and Dusty nodded.

  “Man, I really hope this works out. I’m gonna be pissed if we walked all this way f
or nothing,” Geoff commented.

  “Me too,” Clay agreed as he stuffed the binoculars into his pack. He grasped on to his Larue AR-15 hanging from the sling and said, “All right, let’s go find some shelter for the night.”

  It didn’t take long to find adequate lodging. As they were coming in, they spotted a large movie theater just south of the I-635/Highway 80 junction. Movie theaters were always a goldmine for Clay in the past. He never walked out of one empty-handed, and the projector rooms always made for cozy sleeping spots, typically with only one entrance to cover. This theater, however, broke Clay’s streak. Though he didn’t spend a whole lot of time searching, he was surprised with how little there was inside. It was clear that numerous people had been through the multiplex, and he was going to be hard-pressed to find anything of real value. Most pre-packaged foods had become nearly unpalatable anyway. From time to time, they found an item that still retained some of its original taste and nutrition, and on rare occasions, they discovered freeze-dried foods that were as good as the day they were canned. By and large, however, they needed to rely on food they could grow or butcher themselves, which was why they were in Dallas in the first place.

  With his Arsenal SLR-95 at the ready, Geoff cleared the projectionist’s room. Much to Clay’s surprise—and frustration—it wasn’t the little chamber he expected at all. The theater, having been remodeled a short time before Yellowstone’s caldera exploded, was state of the art and built for efficiency. This meant all the projectors on that side of the building were in one long room—five screens on either side. There were doors at both ends, too. The ceiling was riddled with water stains, several of which had small holes toward the center, allowing the rain to trickle in.

  So much for cozy.

  Despite the unwelcoming accommodations, it was the best spot in the theater to hole up for the night. And since daylight had already departed, it would have to do.

  “All right, let’s get to work. Dust, you want to get started on a small fire and dinner?” Clay said, realizing such a large room provided at least one benefit—ventilation for a fire. “Geoff, help me block off one of these doors so we don’t have to worry about covering both.”

  Swallowing her retort about such domestic responsibilities, Dusty dropped her pack and fished through it for her supplies. Geoff also dropped his pack, which produced a hefty thud as it hit the floor. The pair of spam cans—each containing 640 rounds of 7.62x39, which was part of the trade tomorrow—weighed close to fifty pounds. The other items they were parting with in the morning only added to the weight of his pack. Geoff stood up and stretched his back trying to work out some of the kinks that had developed during their travels.

  “Help me move this,” Clay said as he rested his hand on a large metal cabinet.

  Clay and Geoff lifted the cabinet and walked several feet before putting it down to rest. It weighed far more than either expected, and instead of making a lot of noise to drag it across the floor, they hauled it in twenty-foot increments. They eventually placed the large metal box in front of the door and both leaned up against it, panting for air.

  “That ought to do it,” Clay said as he gasped between the words.

  Clay felt out of shape. It had been three years since his average day consisted of climbing hundreds of stairs and hoisting up gallons of water 160 feet. Though he was still extremely fit, the daily tasks that came with living at the top of an office building for years gave Clay a workout unlike any routine he had established on the farm. Still, he thought, I wouldn’t trade Northfield for anything.

  “Whoa!” Dusty shouted from the other side of the room as the fire roared to life inside a metal wastebasket.

  Clay and Geoff walked over and sat down next to the fire. Though the summer temperatures were still present, nightfall was always accompanied by a chill in the air. Clay took his gloves off and stuck his hands out by the flame while Dusty prepared the rabbit she had killed earlier that morning. Geoff popped off the top of his AK-47’s receiver and wiped down the insides with a rag. When out “in the wild” as he called it, he never fully fieldstripped his rifle unless it was absolutely necessary. Even though the inner workings of the weapon were exposed, it was still a fully functional gun in the event they were ambushed.

  After dinner, the three of them played cards for a couple of hours. As always, Dusty had the most bullets—their form of poker chips. Clay looked down at his pocket watch. It was a little after 9:00, so he forced an exaggerated yawn and stretched his arms over his head. “We should get to bed. Need to be out the door early tomorrow.”

  Even though Geoff and Dusty agreed, none of them were all that tired. Clay really missed his MP3 player whenever sleep evaded him. He hoped to find a working replacement someday, but he had little hope he ever would since the last three years yielded nothing. Dusty had made a makeshift bed out of seat cushions she found in a storage closet. She slept relatively close to the door, putting herself between Clay and Geoff and the only entrance into the room. Clay always gave her grief about it, but she never took the hint that he wasn’t a fan of her placement. Or, maybe, she didn’t care.

  The sound of the dripping water coming in through various holes in the ceiling was almost maddening. Normally, Clay found the rain relaxing, but the sound of individual droplets splashing incessantly into a pool of water grated his nerves.

  “So, you think he’ll show?” Geoff asked quietly, uncertain whether Dusty had fallen asleep or not.

  “Dunno,” Clay said. Part of him hoped he would, another part of him hoped he wouldn’t. Situations like this were uncharted territory for all three of them, and while Clay wanted to believe the best in the stranger, he found it increasingly more difficult to find good in humanity anymore. “Show or no show, all that matters is we get back home in one piece.”

  “No arguments here,” Geoff said before rolling over.

  Clay eventually fell asleep, but a loud crack of thunder woke all of them up. He heard Geoff shout something, but it was incoherent. Clay was uncertain if Geoff’s words were the disjointed babble of someone waking from a deep sleep or his own mind lagging in its ability to process the nonsense. He looked down at his watch, certain he had just fallen asleep, to find it was 4:45. They had overslept and Clay was thankful for nature’s wakeup call.

  As his adrenaline picked up in anticipation for the morning, Clay pulled himself from his sleepy stupor and prepared to leave. They took a few minutes to pack everything up and chow down on a few bits of leftover rabbit before leaving the projection room. As they walked through the lobby, Geoff’s flashlight hovered over some garbage on the floor.

  “What is it?” Clay asked as he walked up next to Geoff. Clay looked down at the floor and saw a faded cardboard cutout of a woman. He strained his eyes then racked his brain to remember the name. “Sigourney Weaver?”

  “I have no idea who she is,” Geoff said as he looked on, “but she’s freakin’ hot.”

  “Yeah. Not bad for a seventy-year-old,” Clay said with a grin as he smacked Geoff’s shoulder. Dusty silently rolled her eyes as she scanned the empty lobby.

  Geoff’s smile twisted into a look of confusion. “Seventy? Really?” he asked, seemingly disappointed as if that fact ruined his chances of meeting her someday.

  “Come on,” Clay said as he headed for the door.

  The storm had weakened a little, and the random zaps of lightning in the sky provided them with sporadic light to help navigate. They reached the I-635 junction, and Clay stopped to go over the plan one more time.

  “Dusty, take this ramp and get yourself set up on the bridge we talked about yesterday.”

  “Got it,” Dusty replied.

  “Make sure you take that thing off once you’re in position,” Clay said as he smacked the brim of her hat. “Make yourself blend in as much as possible, okay?”

  “I will, I will,” she sighed.

  “Remember, if he doesn’t show an hour after sunrise or if Geoff and I don’t go out to meet him, the
n regroup at the theater and we’ll head home. Nothing this guy has is worth dying for,” Clay said with a serious tone. “All right?”

  “You got that right,” Geoff said.

  “And Dusty, one more thing,” Clay said as he gently grabbed her arm, all joking replaced with a serious, protective tone. “That spot on the bridge may be the best vantage point for our meeting, but you are also very exposed up there. Don’t forget to watch your own back, okay?”

  “This ain’t my first rodeo, Clay,” she said with a confidence that no sixteen-year-old girl should have about being a sniper. “Don’t get in over your head,” she jabbed as she started up the exit ramp onto I-635 north, heading toward the mall.

  Clay and Geoff followed the access road, walking cautiously and quietly. Once they reached the bridge that was soon to be Dusty’s perch, they climbed into the cab of a stalled out semi-truck. The painfully slow passage of time increased their anxiety as they waited in near silence for several minutes. Before long, they started whispering back and forth to distract themselves. They talked about their families from before the earthquakes, which was something they rarely did, but it helped the daylight come faster. As the sun rose, their conversation died down, and Clay kept his eyes glued to the binoculars

  With the rising sun, the rain began to fall again and the visibility worsened as the rain picked up. Clay didn’t feel like going out in it, but in all reality, it was a light drizzle compared to some of the storms they slogged through on the way up. It wasn’t even the cold that bothered him so much as the sticky film that covered his skin after the rain evaporated. Nobody knew for sure what it was—most people just assumed it had something to do with the ash—but it made for an unpleasant, itchy experience. One time, after an extended hike through a heavy downpour, Clay actually peeled it off his skin—much like a bored fourth grader with access to a bottle of Elmer’s glue.

  An hour passed and the man was still a no-show. Despite being a little disappointed, Clay’s stomach started to unknot. He had been so indecisive about the whole exchange that his thinking had become muddled and he second-guessed every decision. And when Clay’s judgment was impaired, he made mistakes; missing minute details that could be the difference between life and death.

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