The Next Level
by C.W.Smoke © 1999
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"Reality wears many faces..." -- Chen Wa


"Are you aware that humans are telepathic?"

"What do you take me for? Any raw recruit can recite the lesson."

"Yes, but do you know how their telepathic awareness has been subverted?"

"Is this relevant or merely more memorization?"

"That depends on whether you seek the next level."

"How so?"

"The approaching millennium finds humanity being prodded to discard its blinders."


"A comet has broken apart and impacted the sixth planet, exploding brilliantly for all to see. Another fiery comet lights up the night sky fueling superstition. Images of apocalypse are being transmitted to overly-sensitive humans. Tales of global destruction abound throughout their media. Ancient, dire prophecies have been exhumed and propelled into mass consciousness. A conspiracy exists to arouse humanity!"

"How does this concern me?"

"You have been selected to achieve the next level by keeping humans in the dark. Their slumber serves us."

"And my reward?"

"Foolish beginner! Enlightenment shall be your reward!"

"Will you not enlighten me, then as to how their telepathic awareness has been subverted, Your Omniscience?"

"A clue, pretentious acolyte. Try religion. But enough! You are hereby commanded to begin your journey immediately. You must be in position before one planetary revolution around their star is completed. Learn quickly, for others seek the path that only one may tread. May Devron sustain you."

"Peace to all He smiles upon."

"And to all who honor Him."

And so it came to pass that an Acolyte of Devron travelled the Earth as a pilgrim seeking illumination to light the darkened pathway bending to the next level...

* * *

"Yo! Bro! Sniff that! Check the bitch! Why this honky bitch walkin our spot?"

"Must be Rudo's new honky ho'. Better watch his fat black-ass, sendin his ho' fo the sco' in this hood. Check the bitch fo the itch, bro!"

"Yo! Fox! Blow or rocks? Party here with no fear! I got what you want and what you need! Talk to me, mama!"

"Excuse me, sir. Are you speaking some quaint dialect? I am having difficulty understanding your words."

"I be showin yo honky white-ass some dialeck, bitch! Yo man better scoot his fat black-ass on down here, fo I whips his smart-mouth ho'!"

"Man? No man accompanies me. I seek religion in a structure called a church. Perhaps you can assist me with directions?"

"Pac Man! Yo! Scope this! This po little white girl is lost, an she needs a brother's ass-sistance fo a relig-i-ous experience!"

"Yo lucky day, mama! Mos'ways there right now! The church of the blasted white virgin be real close. Right this way! Watch yo step through the alley here..."

* * *

She left the men in torn, bloody pieces inside the burned-out, abandoned apartment building. They had lied! They hadn't brought her to a church. She thought that they had understood her request, but she couldn't be certain because of their strange dialect. She was no closer to illumination, but at least she had eaten...

* CHAPTER -- 1 -- ASH *

Damn! He was late, his schedule shot. He'd waited too long for an end to the rain and the pain. As he stepped from the shelter of the concrete viaduct onto the rain-slicked side street, a sharp pain shot upward from his right knee to his hip. Damn! Damn! Dammit! He hurt. But he couldn't wait. Today was Tuesday, and the lunch garbage was already out. Now it would be messy. He'd have to climb and dig....for lunch.

He rounded the corner and hurried along the wet pavement toward the big, brown dumpster that hulked wet and alone, half-blocking the alleyway between the dirty brick buildings, midway down the block. Across the dumpster's flat, high, rusted end, brushed in bold, blue strokes, the word 'Angel' was grasped and held aloft by a garish graffiti figure endowed with goat horns and an arrowheaded tail. The painted blue devil grinned back at him.

Suddenly Ash remembered another time....another place. A l'extremite', he thought. How the mighty have fallen. What if they saw me now?

Like smoke the thought dissipated in the drizzle, replaced by the steamy smell of warm Mexican food as he drew abreast of the dumpster. A kinky, gray-haired head poked out from around the back corner of the trash bin. Dark eyes surrounded by dark skin stared straight at Ashgard Staunton.

"Damn you Frizz!" Ash shouted. "Get the hell outta my dumpster!"

"Doan see yo name on it, Ashes. Sides, you ain been around. Could be dead and passed on, fo all I knowed."

"Do I look dead? Been away, is all. Now get outta my dumpster!"

"Easy Ashes! Plenty fo both of us. You doan look so hot. Where you be keepin yo'sef? Daughter tryin' to save yo worthless white-ass again?"

"No, not my daughter this time. Some gang-sters didn't take kindly to the color of my skin. Been on R&R at County for the last few weeks."

"Shit, man! I tol you to stay 'way from dat hood!"

"Not there! It happened right here in this alley! They didn't want whitey scopin' their turf. Bad for business."


"You know Pac Man and Paco?"

"They bad! Whatchoo got, honky? Shit fo brains? Doan be messin' wit' no Lords. They never scope me 'cause I blends wit the bricks when they be around."

"I was keepin' a low profile, but they were layin' for me."

"Ashes, you ain been on the street long 'nuff fo dem eyes to sprout in the back of yo head. Maybe you better move yo operation 'cross the 'spressway. If dey is after you, woan be safe fo you on dis side!"

"I'm not movin'! Why move? The Kings 'cross the expressway are just as bad! Maybe the Lords will finish it right next time!"

"Ashes, you goan gets yo death wish if you stays. An dat ain no lie!"

"Couldn't be much worse than this. Hey, Frizz! That taco is mine! The big one!"

"Sho 'nuff, Ashes. Didn mean to pack it in my sack. Jes slipped my mind 'cause we be talkin' so much. Hey, what dat white woman be doin walkin' in dis alley?"

"Don't know. You expect me to know just 'cause she's white?"

"No, Ashes. I 'spects you to panhandle her, so my black-ass doan scare the woman off. Give her yo high-class, ed-u-cated voice. Maybe we gets enough so we be mellow soon."

"Fair enough," said Ash. "You split the food. I'll choose mine when I get back. Now let's see if the lady wants to help the homeless." He jogged after the young woman, who had turned and walked away from him after exiting a weed-snarled walkway that led into the alley.

"Hey, lady!" he shouted. "You lost? Can I help?" He advanced toward her as she halted and turned to face him. "Holy shit, lady! What happened? Are you all right?" Ash gasped, gulping air and fear after his short, choppy run. The attractive, dark-haired young woman and her clothing were blood spattered nearly from head to foot!

"A man called Pac Man and his companion offered to assist me, but they lied," she replied calmly.

"Do you want me to call a cop?" he asked, staring in awe, transfixed, held immobile from fleeing the blood-spattered woman by the roll of large bills, the heroin bag ten-pack and the crack rocks that she held openly in both hands.

His ex-mistress, Katrina, had shown him the delights of sex mixed with cocaine, and his life had gone to hell in a hurry as she quickly exited, observing his demise with long distance amusement from her newfound lover's Caribbean hacienda. Money and drugs. He'd had plenty of both. Just not recently.

"Call a cop?" she repeated. "But you are an adept..." Her words trailed off. "Oh, you mean a police officer? No, I do not need a public servant policeman. I merely seek the nearest church." He stared at her. She she was barely past her teens, early twenties at most.

"I know where there's a church," he said gruffly. "What's it worth?" He stood directly in front of her, half-blocking the alley, forcing her to go around.

"Pac Man and his companion no longer have need of these objects, but they apparently believed them valuable," she said, shoving both the dope and wadded money toward Ash. "I shall give you this plastic, powder and paper if you will be so kind as to direct me to a church."

"You got a deal, lady!" he said, pocketing the payment without missing a beat. He took her right elbow with his left hand and turned the young woman to face the near end of the alleyway.

"Sir! What is that horrible smell?" she asked, wrinkling her nose and drawing his eyes to her smooth face.

"That must be me," he said with a grimace. "I haven't had a chance to shower yet today." For the first time in a long time, he was suddenly self-conscious.

"Unlike Pac Man and his companion, your speech is easily understood, so I know when you speak the truth. You need not accompany me. Simply give me directions, and I shall locate the structure myself." She turned toward him with a warm, friendly smile.

"You know that you are not safe, alone in this neighborhood," he said, gazing directly into the girl's eyes for the first time. His heart skipped a beat as a soothing numbness swept away his fear. He felt calm, but he couldn't recall the last time he looked a feracious, ferine woman in the eye like this. Her eyes held his and drew him toward her like magnets controlling a compass needle.

"If you but give me directions, kind sir, I shall certainly find my way to the church before dark," she replied with a quick, flirtatious wink. Her bright eyes sparkled....with amusement.

"OK. But stay on the main drags. No more alleys," he added, suddenly protective, pointing toward the near street and whispering the directions to Father O'Malley's church. As he gazed into her deep blue eyes, he felt himself once more being drawn....pulled toward this woman. Blood and fear were forgotten. Perhaps later, when the crack sharpened his need, he would seek out this intriguing, young wench...

Wench? Ash could not recall ever using that word to describe a real, flesh-and-blood female. He watched the slender girl as she walked away. When she reached the corner, she turned left and was gone. A new yearning filled him, making him want to cry out -- to stop her, to bring her back.

His heart tugged at his feet to follow...

* * *

"Yo, Ashes! Right on or what? What'd we get?" shouted Frizz, shattering the spell and poking his kinky, gray-haired head out of the dumpster. He waved his arm for Ash to hurry back.

"Enough," replied Ash quietly, shaking his head, suddenly awake. He palmed the heroin ten-pack in his pocket and reached down, pretending to retrieve the dope from the gutter. "Your choice, Frizz! Ripple or Thunderbird?" he asked as he arrived alongside the brown dumpster.

"Whatchoo gots in yo han', Ashes?"

"Oh, just somethin' the lady dropped. You got my tacos?"

"Sho I gots yo food," said Frizz with a sly smile, handing Ash the larger bag. "Lessee yo hand!"

"Here. She dropped this," said Ash, pushing the heroin ten-pack toward Frizz, who quickly shied away, retreating backwards further into the dumpster.

"Sheet! Honky! You knows what dat is? The White Lady! In person! Dat white bitch, she be a junkie! Prob'ly gots AIDS! Her money prob'ly gots AIDS! Her dope prob'ly gots AIDS!"

"What should we do?"

"You puts dat junk in dis bag an I be disposin' of it real quick fo da bitch she be back fo it! You gets rid of dat AIDS money at the liquor sto'. Wash yo han's! I'll meechoo under the viadock in a half-hour. We gots to lay low fo a spell! Dat bitch an her man goan be lookin' under rocks fo you! Did she see me?"

"Yeah, I think she did, Frizz. I think she did."

"Dis be a fine mess, Ashes! A fine mess!"

"I could always toss the dope back where I found it."

"You doan know nuthin', honky! Dis be real serious! No matter wha' happen, our names be comin' up soon as she be missin' dat junk! We gots to split! Doan even know her main man!" he wailed, jumping energetically out of the dumpster.

"She mentioned Pac Man."

"Suweet Jee-zus! Now, we both gots to cross the 'spressway and take our chances wit' the Kings! Meechoo at the viadock!" yelled Frizz, glancing back over his shoulder at the near street while he hurried away, carrying the brown paper bag with the heroin. He loped away down the alley turning left and quickly disappearing at the far street.

Opening his grease-covered, dumpster-doggie-bag, Ash glanced inside, but he tossed the paper bag back into the dumpster when no tacos large or small could be seen. He smiled. Bigger wasn't always better...

* * *

The liquor store was halfway to Father O'Malley's church and soup kitchen, and Ash hurried along, hoping to catch up with the woman, but she didn't turn up before he got there.

Along the way, he'd found the smallest bill in the payoff wad, a ten. He'd also found a whole slew of new Ben Franklins, at least fifty! Wow! Pac Man must have been holding Lords drug money. Ash had to get off the street before someone slit his throat!

What the hell? Until today, death was his welcome, sought after companion. Now, suddenly, life beckoned...

One Arab counter-man reached for his under-the-counter, sawed-off shotgun when he spotted Ash entering the liquor store, but Ash flashed Alexander Hamilton's smiling visage, and the counter man relaxed, his hand resting below the counter on the shotgun's wooden handgrip. Red wine, as usual, was on special, and the other Arab converted the ten-spot into rotgut with a vodka half-pint chaser, leaving Ash to carry a cardboard whiskey box half-filled with two brown-paper-bag wrapped wine bottles through the alleys, back the way he came.

Ash arrived at the viaduct ten minutes early.

Like old times, his plan was off and running smoothly, like clockwork...

What a laugh! Old times. Yeah, before his failed marriage, his failed life, his successful plunge into the dark, sunless depths of drug addiction...

Old times. What a joke!

Plan? Shit! He hadn't had a plan for a long time! Why suddenly now, today was he thinking and scheming again? Well, it didn't take a genius to identify the catalyst...

But what was the goal? Plans needed a focal point, a goal. Hell, he could just smoke the crack and spend the money for more till one of the local predators caught up with him. Why not? That plan simply resonated with reason! Take the money and run! Go out with a bang!

But no! Somehow that blood-spattered girl had short-circuited his self-destruct mechanism and activated his ON-switch. Here he was dressed in rags, all revved-up and ready to go, just like during those razor-sharp, death-defying days before disillusionment and despair. Ready, you bet. But for what?

This was familiar. He'd been in a dire contest before. Everything was at risk. He just couldn't remember exactly, but with memory gaps lately commonplace, no longer extraordinary, Ash wasted little time trying to recall. Probably he should at least try to find out what was happening before he fell backwards again into his own dumpster of despair...

OK! Tonight....tomorrow night, tops! He would postpone numbing regression and seek answers until then. Besides, he had to see the girl again! Why? What drew him to her? He didn't have the lock, but she was the key.

First things first...

Yeah, Frizz was going to dispose of the dope, all right. For some green folding money! At least he knew where not to unload the junk, and he could handle a little extra cash without getting his throat slit...

Up to a point, Frizz was OK; he'd watch your back, but his mouth drew unwanted attention like a flame drew moths, so Ash let his black friend take himself out of danger.

Of course, on the street, everyday, in-your-face danger was never far away, a constant companion, frequently lurking in shadow, sometimes staring down from the tarred, flat rooftops, often waiting patiently in silence and seclusion. Danger also grouped on porches, sidewalks and street corners or passed by in cruising automobiles and patrol cars. Blood and money simply meant greater danger with more and larger predators swooping like vultures once they smelled either.

But street people quickly learned how to sidestep the danger they lived with, or else they didn't last long. Frizz knew when to disappear, so Ash stoked the flames.

Long ago, when Ashgard Staunton played another sharper, more intense survival game, the other players all unknowingly marched to his drumbeat, simply because he used selective, chemically targeted misinformation, something his former bosses referred to as C.M.P. -- Ash was the last player who knew that C.M.P. meant creatively-managed-perception. The right drug....a small nudge. The trick was administering the proper dose...

Lacking the sophisticated, reality-altering drugs from his past life, Ash hoped he still had his master's touch because with night fast approaching, it was time for him to disappear again, just like before when he had become a disillusioned liability after discovering the truth.

He laid the cardboard carton on its side under the viaduct and removed one brown-paper-bag-wrapped wine bottle. He walked over to the low, blind side of the viaduct, scrambled up the damp, graffiti-covered, concrete wall and hid, lying prone in the tall weeds that grew profusely alongside the unused railroad tracks. Frizz would arrive by one of two routes, and Ash had a good view of both.

Unscheduled dope transactions seldom occurred as planned, even when the participants had functioning brains, so he expected Frizz to be late. While Ash waited, he opened the wine bottle and took a swig of cheap red wine, dropping the cap to land directly below on the sidewalk. The bottle cap bounced off the concrete and rolled to a halt beside the half-overturned cardboard whiskey box.

His elaborate precautions were almost certainly overkill. After all, who kept tabs on homeless bums, anyway? But attention to detail had saved his skin more than once long ago, and besides, Ashgard Staunton hated loose ends...

He set the wine bottle out of sight on a flat railroad tie, opened the vodka half-pint, and chased the wine with a sharp slug of vodka. More than three weeks in County Hospital and he still ached from the vicious beating. As the one-hundred-ninety proof vodka warmed his throat, he spotted Frizz walking warily along the cracked sidewalk toward the shadowy viaduct a half-block away. Ash quickly capped the half-pint, sliding the bottle back into his jacket pocket. He waited till Frizz was nearly close enough to see the cardboard box, well within earshot.

"Pac Man! I don't know nuthin'! Don't!" yelled Ash, dropping the brown-bagged wine bottle to shatter loudly on the concrete sidewalk below. "Pac Man! Please!" he shouted again, directing his voice to reverberate beneath the viaduct while he watched Frizz melt into the shadows between the abandoned brick buildings near the corner.

End of Chapter One

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