This is another try-before-you-buy post. The digital equivalent of standing in a bookstore and reading the opening chapters of a book to see if you want to read more. Below you’ll find the opening 4 chapters to my three novel THE ASH. It’s a bit more than you’d get on Amazon and I hope will hook you in to Jim Castle’s story. This is basically a story about a man trying to find his way home when the obstacles aren’t just the end of the world…
Here’s the blurb to start you off:
You know the drill: mushroom clouds, end of the world, only the clichés survive. This isn’t that…
Even on the day of his divorce, Constable Jim Castle just wants to get back to his family, but no one can risk going outside. Not anymore. Worse still, when the fallout starts, Jim is hostage to a gang of armed thieves in a rundown farmhouse. Their plan is simple: wait it out as the radioactive ash piles higher and try not to kill each other. But they don’t have to worry about any of that. Because all their assumptions about what caused the end of the world are about to be snatched away – like a body into the ash.
A blend of The Road meets Alien in the English countryside, The Ash is a breakneck horror ride. Another of Dan Soule’s Fright Night tales, where even if one man can face his demons, it still might not be enough. So turn the page and get pulled screaming into… The Ash.
AND NOW FOR THE BOOK ITSELF. ENJOY!
‘In the darkness you could hear the crying of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men. Some prayed for help. Others wished for death. But still more imagined that there were no Gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness.’
― Pliny the Younger, The Letters of Pliny the Younger
‘I have heard the languages of apocalypse, and now I shall embrace the silence.’
― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman: Endless Nights
And so it begins: the end…
The world hadn’t ended, but divorce felt like it. A letter, confirming Constable Jim Castle’s failings as a man, had arrived that morning. The effects of drinking the night before furred his mouth and made his head pound as he sat alone in his police car at the side of the road, staring at the breathalyser in his hands.
With a sigh, he decided against another bitter reminder of his failings and put the breathalyser away. Instead, he threw a handful of Polo Mints in his mouth and crunched them into oblivion. After a swig of water and rubbing at his face, he felt no more refreshed.
The lawyer’s letter, accompanying the decree that outlined the dissolution of his world, lay open on the passenger seat, pinned in place by the bulky CB radio his son, Simon, had given him. Simon had built the short-wave transmitter from scratch with Nigel, Karen’s not-so-new man. That hurt, but the boy was so happy with their creation, and Nigel had diplomatically left them to it. Simon talked at a hundred miles an hour, explaining to Jim how they built the transmitter, pointing out important parts of the circuit board, the soldering Nigel let him do, the knobs, dials, and speakers they’d cannibalised from broken electrical goods bought at a junk shop in Nottingham. And it was all housed in a handmade pine casing Nigel made in his “workshop”, which used to be Jim’s garage. Jim only ever used the garage for its proper function in life: as a limbo for the things he didn’t want to deal with. Over Nigel’s protests of ‘I’m sure your dad won’t want to see that,’ Simon insisted on showing Jim the new and improved dad-cave. The garage was immaculate. Everything had its place. Simon bounded over to the workbench and picked up a bulky CB handset and thrust it into his dad’s hands. ‘We made it for you. That way we can talk whenever we want. Just me and you.’
That was six months ago, when Karen’s bump had started to show. Now, three weeks overdue, and on today of all days, the hospital had scheduled for her to be induced.
The universe was as funny as a road traffic accident, and Jim had seen enough of those. Too many. If he wasn’t at work, he would have a drink. Nothing strong this early. A beer, possibly two, while he caught up on paperwork and got lost in the job.
Lost, he thought, and snorted. ‘And no way back home for James.’ Karen was the only one who called him James. He’d always been Jim, but even at school Karen only ever called him by his given name, like she knew something everyone else didn’t. Eventually, even she forgot what that was, leaving them irreconcilable, according to the letter.
Jim put the window down. The sun was already making the car warm, and the breeze was nice. A red Mini Cooper drove by, registering fifty-seven miles per hour on the speed gun. Three miles under the speed limit on this long stretch of country road. Jim had parked his police car in the layby, making sure he was clearly visible, acting as a reminder as much as a speed trap. This stretch of road lent itself to the joys of speed: stepping on the pedal and leaning into the winding bends as hedgerows streaked by in a blur of green. Heck, he’d done it as a young man, with Karen in the passenger seat, Oasis blasting on the tape deck of his banged-up Toyota Corolla. The thing could barely hit sixty, but it felt supersonic.
Jim tried to put on talk radio to have the comfort of other voices droning on in the background. But when he pressed the button, BBC Radio Nottingham crackled and hissed with static. He tried to find Radio Two. They might be playing something decent. Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ stuttered with interference. Implementing the universal fix for everything, Jim gave the console two bangs with the heel of his hand. Nigel would know how to fix it, the prick. Ah, come on. You’re picking on the good guy, Jim boy. So he’s shagging my missus. Karen’s not your missus any more though, is she? Hasn’t been for two years. And whose fault is that?
Jabbing at the button, Jim changed stations again. The happy dance beats that blared out unimpeded by static stopped him arguing with himself, and he switched off the radio in disgust.
A silver BMW 3 Series coupe doing sixty-one hit the brakes when he saw Jim’s police car. Jim let it go. Too close to the limit, and the driver could easily contest it. Somewhere a tractor cut grass for haylage. Jim caught a faint whiff of pig shit on the breeze and closed his window. Digby’s pig farm lay a few miles away. Jim planned to put in an hour here and then head over to an accident black spot on the A614 near Bilsthorpe. Today, he needed it to be a quiet one. Hand out a few tickets, help a few fender benders. As long as there wasn’t a major accident, then traffic duty on the back roads was an easier shift to pull, and Jim needed that.
The Airwave radio on Jim’s chest let out a scream of static. He winced. In his nearly twenty years as a policeman, an Airwave radio had never done that. Jim picked the terminal off his chest, holding it like a large bug with pinching mandibles. A cross between an old mobile phone and a small CB radio, the Airwave looked to be fine. With a frown, Jim went back to watching the road.
A tractor trundled one way, a motorbike the other. A transit van, two lorries loaded with freight, and a handful of cars all drove by obeying the law. It was a slow day with too much time to think. The aching white admonishment from the passenger seat reflected the sunshine, the decree absolute, with the lawyer’s letter, glaring at him. Jim tugged it free from under Simon’s CB. The Lion and the Unicorn in one corner. The stamp of the family court in the other. Official. Unemotive. Brief. So brief a letter, considering what it ended: sixteen years of marriage.
Most of them had been good ones, especially at the start, which wasn’t really the start. Karen and Jim were childhood sweethearts. They’d been together since they were sixteen. Twenty-two years. Everyone said it wouldn’t last. But it did, at least for a long while. They’d waited until they’d finished college, and Jim joined the police, before they got married, and even longer before starting a family, which hadn’t been as easy as they thought. Had things started to go wrong then? No. Maybe.
There was a bad RTC the day Karen told Jim she was pregnant with Simon. He was happy, he really was, but jumping for joy after he’d seen a mother and two children obliterated by a truck driver distracted on his mobile phone was too much. The car was a quarter of its original length when pried from the wreckage. It had been sandwiched between a parked bus and the truck, which had rammed into them on the A1, two miles from Newark. From a little arm in the wreckage, they knew straight away children were involved. The little fist still clutched a comforter with an elephant’s head. Detective work from the licence plate led the police to the ID, and Jim had the responsibility of delivering the news to the husband. When he drove home from his shift, he needed a stiff drink and the anaesthetic of TV reruns. Instead, Karen stood at the door before Jim was even out of the car, fidgeting, barely able to contain herself. She’d bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate. They toasted. Jim put on a good show. Karen only drank a sip. Jim finished the bottle.
‘Papa Blue, it’s Mad Scientist. Over.’ The CB on the passenger seat gave a snap.
Jim picked up the CB and held down the send button. ‘Hey, Si! You’re going to be a big brother today.’
‘Dad, you’re supposed to say “over” when you’re finished.’ A whistle of feedback preceded the static snap.
‘I thought I was Papa Blue, and you didn’t say over. Over.’
The CB’s static fizzed and cleared, and Simon’s voice came through. ‘Damn it! Sorry. Can you hear me, Papa B-’ The fizzing drowned Simon out again. ‘-wrong with this?’ More static.
‘Simon… I mean, Mad Scientist, can you hear me? Over.’
The CB squealed and crackled angrily. Jim clicked the send button twice in a muted version of the “hit the console” solution. The static calmed.
Simon’s voice came through. ‘-don’t know. There’s interference.’
‘Let me have a try.’ That was Nigel, barely audible.
The static dropped in tone, like an old box television set being tuned, and then rose again, bringing with it voices.
‘There. How’s that? Strange. Jim, can you hear us? Over.’
‘I can hear you.’
But they couldn’t hear Jim.
‘We’ll try you again later, Jim.’
And over the top of Nigel, Simon said, ‘What’s that in the sky?’
The CB buzzed with a rising pitch that ended in an abrupt silence.
Jim clicked ineffectually at the button on the side of the CB. But he didn’t have time to wonder at Simon’s comment, because a blue Ford Mondeo drove by at seventy-one miles per hour. It was nothing too alarming, but Jim couldn’t let it pass. He quickly put the CB in the passenger footwell, along with the letter, and pulled out onto the road. The Mondeo hadn’t got too far ahead, and Jim soon closed the distance. However, when he put on his blue lights, the effect was instantaneous.
The Mondeo took off.
Jim matched their speed and hit the button to contact Control.
‘PC Jim Castle in pursuit of a blue Ford Mondeo on the A616 between Caunton and Kneesall. Over.’
Jim’s Airwave answered immediately. ‘Received. Standing by.’
The Mondeo put on another burst of speed, hitting close to ninety. Jim could vaguely see two faces looking out of the back window. Their speed, along with the way the heads urgently turned to the driver and then back out of the rear window, told Jim that this wasn’t simply a speeding offence.
They weren’t going to slow down, and Jim put on his siren to join the lights. It didn’t convince them to stop. The after-effects of last night’s drinking were pushed aside by the rush of adrenaline. Jim was trained in advanced driving techniques, but that didn’t stop the blood surging through his veins. The thought that alcohol could still be in his bloodstream flickered at the back of his mind. It would only be a problem if there was an accident, and he was probably under the limit, he lied to himself.
The blue Mondeo took a sweeping corner too wide, and a black Audi four-by-four faced them on the other side of the road. Horns blared, and the Mondeo swerved back on the left side of the road just in time. Jim had already tempered his speed, anticipating the blind spot of the bend, and slid safely past the black Audi, with its driver ashen at the wheel. The Mondeo had lost a step, showing the driver’s experience. The shock of their near miss had affected them too, and Jim pressed his advantage, closing the distance.
He was near enough now to make out the features of the two men in the back seat. One was a bull of a man, with a shaved head sitting like a cannonball on top of boulders of shoulder muscle, his neck having long since been sacrificed to steroids and the pumping of heavy iron. The other man had short-cropped hair on a square head like a pit bull and looked Jim dead in the eye. Now that he made eye contact, the pit bull wasn’t going to be the one that looked away first.
Jim knew these roads well, and there was a tight bend coming up. He eased back a touch, remaining close enough to make them feel they were still being pursued, but giving them space to take a risk to gain the advantage. If they hit that bend with enough speed, they could well end up in the hedgerow. It was a risky calculation. If they did wrap themselves around a tree, Jim would definitely be breathalysed and that would be his career over along with the rest of his marriage. Worse than that, what if some poor bugger was on the other side of the road again, like the black Audi?
Jim’s job was to preserve life, and so his training overrode the adrenaline, and he eased back on the gas a little bit more.
Jim was right. They did take their advantage and press their luck. They took the corner wide and clipped a grass verge, but they kept the road and didn’t meet another car. Jim fully expected to round the bend and to see them trailing off into the distance. Better to call in the cavalry and track these boys down in the long run than risk anyone, including them, getting hurt. He put the call in to Control, but his Airwave radio let out another piercing squeal of feedback. When he took the bend, things weren’t as he expected.
The Mondeo was there, still quite a way in front of him, but they’d slowed right down. Perhaps they’d blown a tyre or wrecked their suspension when they hit the grass. Jim didn’t question his luck, and with blues and twos in full voice, he closed in. He pulled up behind them, assuming they were ready to capitulate, but Jim was still cautious. They didn’t respond, neither slowing or speeding up. They merely maintained a steady forty-five miles an hour. The two people in the back of the car weren’t looking out the rear window any more, and they weren’t shouting urgently at the driver. Instead, all four suspects were looking out of the right-hand side window, and not only looking out, they were looking up. Jim followed their gaze and knew why they were so distracted.
An object streaked across the sky. It could have been mistaken for a small meteor or an asteroid, but it didn’t ignite the atmosphere around it. Instead, it left a contrail of vapour, implying there was some combustion-based engine behind it. Jim didn’t know much about engines, not like Nigel and Simon, but he knew enough to realise this, and something more. It was no passenger jet, and it wasn’t travelling parallel to the ground. No. Jim rubbernecked as though he was about to witness the worst road traffic collision he could ever imagine. The contrail was arcing down towards the ground, racing miles away from them and towards the town of Newark-on-Trent, with its population of over thirty-seven thousand souls. Jim and the men in the Mondeo all flinched as the supersonic boom hit them, far in the wake of the projectile.
Nine years ago, Jim had been kitted up in a full hazmat suit and war-gamed a chemical attack. He had spent years on the force, involved in regional and national response exercises for terrorist incidents. All of this was now leading him to a cold conclusion, one that was so awful, he didn’t want to accept it. There had to be some other explanation. This nightmare couldn’t be coming true. Jim was just old enough to remember the 1980s and American movies where the USSR were the stock bad guys, where kids still learnt about the Cold War and intercontinental missiles that could end the world many times over. That all ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. No one was worried about nuclear war now. But that old fear returned as the contrail drew a line through the sky and to the ground.
There was a moment of silence on impact, as though the world held its breath. Then came the flash of light. Jim had already closed his eyes and turned his head, no longer thinking about driving his police car. He covered his face with his arm and turned away. The ground shook, and a shockwave was coming. A hand of God tearing across the land, the wall of compressed airbrushed away everything in its path.
It hit Jim’s police car and the Ford Mondeo, shattering glass and tossing them from the road.
Sound came first, a ringing in Jim’s ears. Then the warm breath of wind on his skin, foetid and burnt, along with the whip of dust. The car creaked, and Jim opened his eyes to a confusing world he didn’t understand. There were moans somewhere close by, snatched away in the wind.
Pain came next, adding to Jim’s confusion. Was he the one moaning? No. As his senses came back, he realised his pain was localised in his head, chest, and knees, but wasn’t bad enough to cause him to cry out. The world rocked from side to side, and his head throbbed in time with the movement. He was looking at the ceiling of the car, shards of glass apparently suspended above his head. Up was now down, and Jim was hanging inverted, held in place by his seatbelt. He assessed the damage to the car, which lay on its roof, the passenger side buried into a hawthorn hedge, which stuffed its way through the shattered windows. When Jim looked out of the other side, his topsy-turvy world showed a mushroom cloud seemingly growing like a stalactite from the roof of a cave and billowing down towards the ground. With that image came the memory of how this came to be.
Jim put a hand on the roof of the car and released the seatbelt with his other hand, falling in a heap. The nightmare of the mushroom cloud was now turned the right way up, coiling in on itself, like serpents of ash diving in and out of a ball of fire in a perpetual cycle. He checked himself, and whilst bruised, his injuries were superficial. The airbags had deployed and the hedge had seemingly cushioned the crash. Dust scratched Jim’s eyes, and he tried to rub them clear, before pressing the number two button on his Airwave to show his availability to Control. There was no answer, only static. He tried his police-issued mobile phone, still stuffed in his trouser pocket, which was to act as a backup to the Airwave, as well as a means to update logs and perform intelligence checks on the move. The phone was smashed. A web of cracks criss-crossed its blank screen. Jim tried to power it back on but to no effect. There was one other thing he could try.
Shuffling amongst the detritus of the crash, broken glass, an empty coffee cup, his bottle of water, Jim looked for the CB radio Simon had given him. He moved across the roof to the back of the car, over the seats. His knee crumpled the decree absolute. The more he looked, the more he worried the CB had been thrown from the car and his only means of contacting Simon was gone. But he found it, lying hidden under the fleece top he’d thrown in the back seat at the start of his shift. Clutching the handset, he clicked the button on the side. Hope came at the click of static. It was still working.
‘Simon, Simon, are you there? It’s Dad.’ Closing his eyes, Jim pressed the CB to his forehead. ‘Please be okay,’ he said to himself, turning his eyes back to the mushroom cloud, waiting for an answer.
Between him and it lay the small town of Southwell. Could they still be alive? Southwell was eight, maybe nine miles from Newark. Was that far enough outside of the blast radius? Jim thought so. They were not far from Caunton when they crashed. Jim guessed that was maybe twelve or so miles from Newark. Therefore, the warhead couldn’t be that big. Tiny, in fact. Euphemistically tactical. But there was nothing tactical about fallout, and they were closer to the blast than Jim. There would be a lot of damage. House fires. Ruptured gas and water mains. Fallen debris. Trapped people, screaming, crying for help. Jim pushed away the images.
‘Mad Scientist, come in. It’s Papa Blue. Can you hear me? If you can, stay inside. I’m coming for you.’
Jim released the button. A cough of static was the only answer. Simon wouldn’t have gone to school yet, and Karen and Nigel couldn’t have left for the hospital either, could they?
The moaning Jim heard when he first woke was still drifting over the scene. He was still a policeman. Taking the CB with him, he crawled to the side window and pulled himself out across the glass-sprayed asphalt. The wind was still hot and filled with particles, and Jim shielded his face and looked towards the direction of the moans.
The blue Mondeo lay the right way up, but the entire bodywork of the vehicle was dented and crumpled, telling Jim that, like his own vehicle, they had flipped and rolled many times. Unlike Jim, they hadn’t been lucky enough to hit the hedge. They were twenty metres (elsewhere you use feet) off, slammed headlong into a chestnut tree which grew in the middle of the hawthorn bushes edging the fields. Jim went round to the back of his car and popped the boot. The contents tumbled out as the lid dropped open, slack-jawed. Attaching the CB to his utility belt, Jim swung the first aid rucksack onto his shoulder, and with the cautious habit of a man used to going to the aid of those who didn’t always realise they needed his help, Jim touched the Taser holstered to his right hip and the pepper spray clicked into his belt. That was when he noticed things were far worse than he first thought.
Looking over the underside of his upturned car, a second mushroom cloud rose from the direction of the town of Mansfield. He swung back towards Newark and then turned again and saw a third cloud on the horizon. A great column of ash grew out of the city of Nottingham. Jim stood as if at the centre of the triangle of hell whose corners were held up with the incinerated ashes of countless souls. He swallowed hard and pushed down his own fear and the desire to run back to his family. He had a job to do, the same job which had led to that letter arriving this morning. Now, at the end of the world, wishing he could have taken so many things back, he made the same choice he had for the last two decades and went towards trouble and away from his family.
Cautiously, Jim approached the crumpled Ford Mondeo. Glass crunched underfoot, and the hot sandpaper-wind tousled his hair. This close, the moans of pain were clearer and accompanied by other voices. Urgent whispers. Grunts of struggle. The spitting of swear words.
Several metres (later you use feet) from the car, Jim slowed. ‘Constable Jim Castle here. I’ve a first-aid kit. I just want to-’
The twin barrels of a shotgun slid through the shattered back window. Fire blazed from its muzzle, cutting short Jim’s words.
Jim saw the barrel levelling at him and went sprawling to the dirt. With a crack like tropical thunder, the twelve-gauge punctured the driver’s-side door of the police car. Jim didn’t hang around. He crawled through broken glass and blast debris, squirming behind the Mondeo, taking him out of a clear line of sight away from the shooter. A second shot rang out, and sprays of dust kicked up inches from Jim’s thigh. Wriggling faster on his belly, scraping his knees and elbows, he reached the grass verge and dived into the ditch, taking cover.
He didn’t stop.
Scrambling through inches of thick silt topped with an equal amount of ditch water, Jim crawled until he reached his police car. There was a small gap between the roof and the top of the ditch, but not enough room to haul his six-feet two-inches through, let alone with a rucksack strapped on his back. He turned in the ditch and risked bobbing his head up and into the line of fire.
From his quick peek, he hadn’t seen a gun barrel tracked on his position. No shot rang out when his head popped up. Jim listened. Whomever was moaning was badly injured and in need of attention, and there were still the sounds of struggle from the others.
Jim took another quick look.
The entire Mondeo was battered and badly damaged at the front. It was possible all four men inside were trapped. If Jim was going to move, he had to do it fast. Not wanting to give them any more warning than he already had, he didn’t look first. Springing from the ditch, his boots made a sucking noise as he pulled them from the mud. His uniform, now wet and filthy, clung to his body as he sprinted with everything that he had across the upturned front of his own car, skidding and putting a hand down to make the turn and then a dash for the back. He was just making the final turn, ducking down, when the third blast of the shotgun cracked, blowing off half the tyre of the back wheel, instead of Jim’s head.
He fell with his back against the open boot, panting. With adrenaline adding lead to his limbs, Jim looked around for a way to safety. Going through the hedge was a possibility, but he’d have to run across open fields. Heading back down the road ran the same possibility of a shot in the back. Or your skull being blown to pieces like a car tyre. Jim shook his head. He didn’t have many options.
He could see the mushroom clouds over Newark and the other above Nottingham. They reached into the stratosphere, where their deathly caps spread out, beginning to block out the sun, imposing night on morning. He didn’t have long. The ash would fall soon, bringing with it the slow death of radiation poisoning. The wind was still warm and acrid, but it was also dying. Jim knew from the Disasters and Emergency Committee Manual he had read for training exercises that survivors should head perpendicular to the direction of the wind. Until the wind created by the blasts died down, it wouldn’t be possible to tell which direction that would be. He needed to get home, gather his family, and get them to safety. Wherever that was. If they, whomever they were, had hit small towns like Mansfield and Newark, as well as cities like Nottingham, was anywhere going to be safe? Jim needed information.
He pressed two on his Airwave. There was no response. A direct call next. ‘PC Jim Castle to Control. Over. Control, do you read me? Over.’ Still no response.
Jim reached for Simon’s CB and paled. His hand groped thin air. Frantically, he searched the ground near him, seeing only glass, branches, and leaves, the flotsam of plastic bags and fast food wrappers thrown from car windows, all whipped up in the shockwave. His mouth went dry. Edging to the corner of the car, the tattered remnants of the tyre hanging above him, Jim peeked back towards the Mondeo. He drew his head back in time as the shotgun blast peppered the rear panel of the car, stray shot fizzing overhead like angry wasps.
Simon’s CB lay where Jim sprawled at the first gunshot. It must have come loose from his belt, either as he fell or crawled away.
‘Think!’ Jim pounded his forehead with the top of his fists. ‘Think! Think!’
There was a yawning sound, like a crypt door opening on rusted hinges. Whoever was in the Mondeo had finally managed to force open one of the doors.
Footsteps on glass.
‘Argh! My knee!’
‘Shut your gob,’ someone hissed.
Jim reached for his Taser. It was marginally better than a knife in a gun fight but only marginally. He needed to go first, and if they were all armed his reload better be fast. Making up his mind to shoot first, Jim drew the Taser. There would be no warning, police investigation be damned. If those mushroom clouds were anything to go by, there might not be a police force any more.
Branches snapped to Jim’s right. They were circling behind him, through the hedge and along the edge of the field. He’d be ready and waiting for them.
Duck-walking on his haunches, Jim kept his head low. He reached the hedge. Sliding back into the ditch and through the gaps at the bottom of the foliage, he levelled the Taser, ready to shoot them in the legs and give them the shock of their lives.
From behind the police car, a shotgun hammer clicked.
‘Drop the cattle prod, little piggy.’
TO READ MORE YOU CAN FIND THE ASH IN EBOOK, PAPERBACK AND HARDBACK ON AMAZON