In 2072 a pandemic caused by a bacterial infection that does not respond to antibiotics kills the vast majority of humanity. Too few people survive to maintain civilization. Governments collapse. The few stunned survivors struggle on in an empty, unsympathetic world which many come to call the Afterworld. Thirteen years pass. John Moore and the sisters Alicia and Jaclyn Coleridge are among the generation born too late to remember the civilized times. They come from disparate backgrounds. He is an orphan and member of a scrounger gang that roams the vacant, sometimes brutal, lands. The gang contends with others in scavenging usable goods to sell and confront the dangers of dead, collapsing cities. The sisters are daughters of a powerful mayor who rules the settlement of Coleridge Gardens as autocratically as a feudal lord.
The scrounger gang’s routine is much the same every year. They spend summers collecting pre-pandemic goods to sell at the Coleridge Gardens harvest market. They stay at the town’s only hotel, Haas House, during the market, then go to the larger town of Nellie’s Fair, situated on an island in a lake near the ruins of St. Louis, Missouri. They deposit their earnings from the market in its bank and enjoy its pleasures for a few weeks, then spend the rest of the winter at Haas House where John works as the hotel’s brewer.
As he reaches manhood John wearies of gang life, settles in Coleridge Gardens and works at the hotel as a full time brewer. He readily adapts to the settled life and finds love with Alicia Coleridge. The town, however, is not without tension. Its fiery young fundamentalist preacher, Paul Gephardt, keeps his congregation, which includes most of the townspeople, terrified of the End Times. The pandemic, he claims, was its first stage. Suddenly Gephardt disappears; at the same time Alicia is missing. Jaclyn tells John they left together but, given Alicia’s dislike of the preacher, John knows she would not have gone willingly with him. Believing the preacher must have kidnapped her he leaves to look for them.
His search takes him to Nellie’s Fair where he finds no sign of them. He happens upon Murdoch, a former gang member he met at Haas House. The following day Murdoch tells John that someone from Coleridge Gardens wants to meet them. To John’s great surprise it is Ronald Gelden, Alicia’s father-in-law. John learns that Gephardt had not kidnapped Alicia after all. While the Mayor was out of town he and Ronald drugged the sisters and stole the town’s money that had been in the Mayor’s keeping. Then the preacher had taken the money and abandoned Ronald. He was due to arrive in Nellie’s Fair any day and Ronald wanted help in taking it from him.
Murdoch says he can get the money back from Gephardt after he arrives and they will split it three ways. When John and he are alone Murdoch confides that he will give John Ronald’s share to return to the Mayor. John, of course, will give her his portion as well. In a few days the preacher arrives, sets up his tent and begins preaching. One night John, Murdoch and one of Murdoch’s men abduct him. Murdoch keeps him captive without food or water until he turns over the stolen money. In the process John finds the identity of at least one shadow that darkens the Afterworld.
At last Gephardt capitulates and gives them the money. Murdoch releases him on the south shore of the lake, returns to Nellie’s Fair about midnight and sends for John to meet to split the money. Gephardt’s followers have been upset by their leader’s absence. That night they initiate a religious riot throughout the town. A frenzied mob starts a fire near where John and Murdoch meet. Injured and alone, John nevertheless escapes the island in an appropriated canoe as fire engulfs the town and starts back to Coleridge Gardens.
He is not to find peace, however, until the sisters decide how to resolve the conundrum caused by the love they both feel for him.