The Next Level
by C.W.Smoke © 1999
Visit Castle Smoke

* CHAPTER -- 2 -- ART *

Arlis close! He reached for her arm. The bum came from nowhere...

Arthur blinked and looked around. He lay naked in bed, under the blankets, curled in a fetal ball on his side, his head driving the sweat soaked pillow against the carved headboard.

All his favors were used up. Today. They'd given him till today, and Arlis Staunton was the missing her father. And Arthur's shot at a Pulitzer.

And she was still missing....thanks to that homeless bum.

Arthur slid his shorts on before putting his feet on the cold tile floor.

Ouch! Dammit!

He stared at the bandage wrapped around his right hand.

Like photographs, last night's images clicked before his eyes. Bum, that goddamn bum....falling to the sidewalk....broken wine bottle....blood, lots of blood....confusion, bum entangled, trying to help....Arlis Staunton disappearing into the crowd....flashing lights, ambulance....stale, inner-city emergency room.

Favoring his bandaged hand, he made the bed and drew open the double window curtains. He basked in the early morning sun shining brightly off to his right. His backyard's green lawn lit up and sparkled like diamonds as sunlight touched the morning dew. Dame Spring pushed mightily, but Old Man Winter held her down, temporarily throttling new life, refusing to relinquish his icy grip. The new leaves hadn't yet sprouted out of the weeping willow's yellow-green, wispy dreadlocks that hung vertically, nearly to the ground, in the rear corner of Arthur's back yard.

During the night, a raucous flock of migrating blackbirds had staked out the oak tree beside Arthur's second floor bedroom window, and when the curtains flew open, half the flock stayed to scold the rude interruption while the other half claimed Neighbor Sam's oak tree directly beyond the untamed lilac hedge separating their back-to-back yards.

Neighbor Sam's attractive, young wife Wendy glanced up from pooper-scooper duty with Neighbor Sam's Dalmation, Sam Junior, as the noisy blackbirds alighted above her head on their latest oak perch. Sam Junior completed nature's call and reared up on his hind paws, his front paws scraping noisily against the rough oak tree bark while he admonished the blackbirds in noisy dog-barkese to seek another purchase.

Arthur's hand halted lamely, midway through a friendly, good morning wave to pink slippered, v-neck-bathrobe-clad Wendy as the squawking blackbirds found Sam Junior's yelping admonitions offensive and deposited their purple-and-white displeasure on Wendy's upturned face.

Clawing menacingly at the tree trunk while remaining safe from aerial bombardment, Sam Junior adamantly demanded the blackbirds' immediate departure, and the birds' second-rite-of-refusal found its way into Wendy-wife's long blonde hair as she fled toward Neighbor Sam's back patio.

One pink slipper remained behind on the slippery grass beneath the irate blackbirds, and Arthur decided that this would be an excellent time to answer a natural call of his own, so he pulled a clean T-shirt over his head, ducked away from the back bedroom window, and went to use the front bathroom.

As Arthur stood facing the toilet, he glanced out the shoulder-high bathroom window to his left.

Directly across the street, coed Karen, sexy-college-student-just-returned-home-for-Spring-break, casually towel-dried her splendid young body while posing naked right in front of her wide open, second floor bathroom window.

Gazing wistfully back across the street toward Arthur's house, Karen began jumping up and down and waving her red towel, gesturing for Arthur to come over quickly when she spotted his ruggedly handsome, suntanned face at the bathroom window. Arthur nearly pinched himself to see if he was awake before he realized the consequence. As he quickly zipped-up his pants and ran a comb through his long, curly blonde hair, the telephone downstairs began ringing insistently. He quickly rechecked across the street, and Karen's red towel still urged him on.

Arthur ran down the stairs two-at-a-time and was halfway out the front door when he remembered the flight and the airport. He stuck his head out the front door and held up one forefinger, trying to tell Karen that he'd only be a minute, then he turned around, ran into the kitchen, and picked-up the ringing telephone.

"What took you so long? In the bathroom or something? I saw you all alone in your bed last night before you closed the curtains. Bet you didn't know that I was all alone too," cooed Wendy. "Could you do me a favor?"

"Sure, Wendy. Anything for you. What do you need?" he asked eagerly because ever since their hands had touched during a brief introduction a month ago, he'd wanted her so badly that every thought of Wendy was accompanied by stiff, sexual arousal. He unconsciously covered the rising lump in his pants with his free hand while he visualized Wendy at the other end of the phone line.

"Sam's going to be away all week, and I'm afraid of those birds in the yard. Could you please bring me my slipper? I just got out of the shower, and I need it," she pleaded.

Before he could answer, call-waiting began beeping at him from the receiver, and without thinking he said, "Could you hold on a minute? I've got another call."

He depressed the phone switch.

"Oh, Arthur. I'm so glad I caught you," said Mary Ann, his soon-to-be fiancee. "Just checked my luggage through. I'm on flight 847 at the United terminal, and I'll be there in an hour. I'm so excited! I can hardly wait, but please be there. You know how upset I get waiting alone in strange airports."

"Mary Ann! I'll have to leave right now and drive like a bat out of hell just to make it to the airport in an hour!"

"I'll make it up to you, Arthur. I promise. See you soon. I love you. 'Bye!"

He clicked back on call-waiting, but Wendy was gone, replaced by a dial-tone. Arthur started for the back patio door just as the front doorbell began ringing loudly. He hurried to the front door and pulled the curtain aside.

Twin fourteen-year-old Girl Scouts carrying handcuffs and leather whips and wearing tight, little leather miniskirts, held up a box of cookies and smiled provocatively back at him through the leaded glass.

Arthur grabbed the doorknob to pull the door open, but it came off in his hand.

One fourteen-year-old began impatiently ringing the doorbell while the other hiked her miniskirt and began unbuttoning her lace blouse. Arthur stood there, doorknob clutched in his hand, impotently staring at the disrobing Girl Scout. The doorbell rang insistently, louder and louder...

* * *

Art opened his eyes. The old-fashioned alarm clock rang loudly atop the bedside table. He was lying naked in bed half-under the silk sheets, and that wasn't a doorknob he held in his hand. His pillow was damp with sweat and the black-and-white striped sheets were damp and sticky with perspiration and who-knows-what-else.

He sat up in bed, unpleasantly greeted by simultaneous natural urges as gravity pushed his too-full bladder south. Art killed the alarm with his bandaged hand, threw back the sheets, pulled on his shorts and T-shirt, and headed for the front bathroom.

As he faced the toilet, he quickly glanced out the shoulder-high bathroom window on his left, and just as quickly ducked his head back when he saw Susan, coed Karen's grumpy, frumpy mother, dressed in hair-net and housecoat, Rotweiler George's leash in one hand and pooper-scooper in the other. Unfortunately, sexually liberated Karen's upstairs windows and curtains were all closed tight.

Art finished, flushed the toilet, and turned to face the mirrored bathroom wall. His stomach was still hard and flat, but his love-handles were coming back, now that he, not ex-wife Mary Ann, was in charge of his carbohydrates again, and his not-as-blonde-as-it-used-to-be, long, curly hair was getting noticeably thinner on top.

He glanced at his bandaged hand and shrugged his broad shoulders. No time for the past now. He had a deadline, and Old Faithful, his news-nose told him that Arlis Staunton would be gone when he returned to her apartment. Damn! She was his best lead....his only lead...

Back in the bedroom, he changed the sheets, made the bed, and drew open the double window curtains.

Sullen, gray clouds scudded angrily across a bleak, late winter sky. Along with luck, even the warming sun had deserted him. The roof rafter joints creaked overhead, tugged by sudden, surly wind gusts. Tiny, gritty ice pellets bounced tick-tick off his window pane, sending an icy, unexpected shiver straight down Art's spine to his bare feet, pressed flat against the cold, tile floor.

Outside, beyond the lilac hedge, Neighbor Sam and Sam Junior huddled together against the wind at the base of their oak tree, taking care of business. Wendy's bedroom window shades, directly across from Art's bedroom window, were pulled down tighter than a nun's nooky.

Art waved good morning to Neighbor Sam, but his greeting apparently went unnoticed as Neighbor Sam quickly bent over and used the pooper-scooper before roughly dragging Sam Junior by the collar back toward the patio doors. Halfway to the house Sam Junior let out a blood curdling, hound-from-hell howl as a sharp peal of winter thunder shook the air, rattling both Arthur and his window panes.

Shivering, with arms folded and hands tucked beneath her arms, pink-slippered, bathrobe-clad Wendy stood waiting beside the half-open patio door as Neighbor Sam rigorously yanked yelping Sam Junior into the warm family room.

Come to think of it, Neighbor Sam had been downright secretive lately; he hadn't returned Art's daily greetings, and neither car had moved from their driveway in over two weeks. Unless, of course, someone moved the cars in the dark. What about his job? Why was he home all the time? Didn't Neighbor Sam trust young Wendy-wife anymore?

Perhaps it was only Art's imagination, but he felt suddenly threatened, hemmed in. Precognition? Premonition? Tight shorts? What?

And why was Neighbor Sam's sixteen-inch-diameter, wall-mounted satellite antenna, the reflector dish that normally aimed obliquely at some distant, unseen point in the sky, now focused directly at Arthur's bedroom window? Actually, to be more precise, why was the parabolic reflector pointed directly at the rear of his computer monitor where Art usually gazed out the window at the scenery, preferably bare-skinned Wendy scenery, and relaxed his eyes between typing bouts? Why indeed?

A sudden, chilly gust blew the willow's wispy dreadlocks nearly horizontal, sculpting their leafless ends into a living straightedge that pointed arrow-straight, right at the rear utility power-pole.

Arthur's gaze subconsciously sought the windcrafted pointer's power-pole destination and halted immediately upon discovering the round, gray, electrical transformer recently fastened there. At least he assumed that the gray thing was a transformer, but whatever it was, he was certain that it hadn't been there yesterday! Freelance writer-slash-reporters noticed stuff like that! Well, most of the time they did, at least when it suited their purpose, anyway.

The gray transformer-thing was about eighteen inches in diameter, about three feet long and thru-bolted, vertically fastened by two bolts driven through the wood near the top of the power pole. Two electrical insulators, twelve inches long and twelve inches apart, projected straight upward from the flat, circular transformer top like horizontally striated, white chubby corncobs or maybe stalagmites, judging by the taper.

Two heavily insulated wires were connected to the transformer-thing. One thick, insulated wire ran from beneath Neighbor Sam's parabolic satellite dish and his second floor bedroom window to the top of one transformer insulator, and the second, fat, insulated wire ran from the top of the second insulator to just beneath Art's second floor bedroom window. Their houses were connected through the transformer!

If that damn Neighbor Sam wasn't home all the damn time, Art could use the transformer as an excuse to call Wendy. Of course, he could just take his ax and chop that damn wire down from his outside wall if worse came to worst, but before that improbable, drastic action he'd much rather talk to Wendy about their houses being linked together first! He really wanted to do a lot more than just talk, but conversation would get his foot in the door, so to speak.

Wait! Wait just a cotton-pickin' minute! Linked together! Yeah, that's it! Arlis Staunton couldn't just disappear. Anyone could be traced! They always left a trail. Now, where in cyber-space did he see that?

He walked over to the power strip and turned on his bedroom computer.

The blank monitor screen lit up quickly, but suddenly the screen was filled with a white, bloodshot eyeball floating in a black void. The unlidded eyeball stared back malevolently, straight at Art!

He double-clicked his mouse. Nothing. The eyeball followed his movements.

Simultaneous Ctl/Alt/Del. Nothing! Hard reset. Nothing! The damned computer wouldn't reboot. The eyeball stared right at him, silently, axially rotating in blackness on invisible, multi-planed gimbals to align with him when he moved. The eye followed him as he grabbed the telephone.

Not even static. The phone was dead.

He dropped the phone, quickly reached beneath his desk, and pulled the computer's plug. Nothing. The eyeball had rotated down, now staring malevolently downward from the screen above his desktop.

He ripped the computer phone line out of the wall. Still nothing except the ever-present eyeball staring at Arthur, following him.

Impossible! The damned computer had no power!

Panicking, Arthur ran out of the bedroom and downstairs, pausing to lift the first floor phone from its cradle. Dead too.

He ran from the kitchen into the attached garage, jumped in and started his four-wheel-drive pickup truck, only to discover the electrically controlled garage door immovable, without power! Now! He had to get out now! Irrational fear and panic drove him. Primal urgency clouded his thoughts. Now! Get out now! Screw the door opener!

Preparing to crash the truck backwards through the wooden garage door, Arthur jammed gears, grinding into four-wheel-drive, then reverse, hastily glancing into his rear-view mirror before backing-up.

The bloodshot eyeball stared back malignantly from the truck's rear-view mirror!

Screaming, Arthur flung the door open and leapt clear of the truck, landing awkwardly on his hands and knees, leaving bloody skin on the rough, concrete floor. As the truck rolled backwards, crashing loudly into the unyielding garage door, Arthur spotted the long handled woodsman's ax hanging against the wall.

Suddenly recalling his jest about worst case scenario, Arthur snatched the ax from the wall, ran through the house, fumbled open the back patio door and scrambled outside.

Standing barefoot in his underwear and hefting the ax beneath his bedroom window, Arthur took a practice swing. The wind and gritty ice pellets stung his bare skin; his palms and knees throbbed with blood and pain, but the thick, insulated wire connecting their houses would soon be history. The ax would do its work without a ladder.

Ignoring the cold and the pain, feeling sudden, resolute calm, Arthur glanced at Neighbor Sam's house across their back yards, and he was certain that the bedroom window shade moved! There! The lower left-hand corner moved aside again! Yes, he was sure of it!

Aiming a toothy grin toward Neighbor Sam's bedroom window, Art flashed Neighbor Sam a one-fingered, visual epithet before swinging the axhead back...

When the ax blade cleaved the two-hundred-twenty volt power line, all hell broke loose...

* * *

Art opened his mind. He floated disembodied in a silent, eternally dark void.

What was that smell? Stale urine and something vaguely, antiseptically familiar...

He opened his eyes, temporarily blinded by the bare light bulb in the gray ceiling high above. Blinking rapidly, Arthur shaded his eyes with his hand.

Straight across the strategically padded room, Art could see a lidless toilet with a small, shoulder-high, barred window above it. Outside sunlight illuminated the heavily wired, glass-block window.

Oh, shit! He thought. Not HERE! Not again!

* * *

"Naah boss, nuthin' serious like that....slipped it in through a cut in his hand. Yeah, the reporter's outta the picture now....a vacation to the funny farm, is all. You were right. Wasn't the first time.....Naah, the daughter didn't spook.....didn't even notice. Yeah, she's still covered." The cabbie casually glanced around, hung up the pay phone and clipped the ball-point-pennish looking scrambler into his shirt pocket before sauntering back to his double-parked cab with his foot-long hot dog...

* CHAPTER -- 3 -- ARLIS *

He watched her through the telescope as she stepped into the bathtub and disappeared, pulling the shower curtain tight. Yeah, every so often surveillance had an upside.

He listened to the running water through his headphones, visualizing the warm water running down her bare skin and wishing he was Arlis Staunton's bar of soap. She was something special. A real looker. His eyes lost focus. His mind carried him wet and ready into the steamy shower with Arlis. His skin basked in the warmth of her invitation as their wet bodies touched.

A furtive scraping sound behind him instantly vented steam from his dream-shower, deflating conjugal heat with a startled hiss. He whirled to face the door as it slowly swung open.

Ted entered the tiny apartment, backing in slowly and laughing at some private joke while he juggled brown paper bags, styrofoam cups, and plastic silverware.

Freaking freaking damn! He thought. I'm always starving before freaking Teddy boy gets back. Why did he have to pick today to be so freaking fast?

"What's so goddamn freaking funny?" he asked. "Ever freaking hear of knocking?"

"Charlie! You oldtimers are hilarious! Really funny! Like you think I don't know she gets naked and walks around the place before she showers every Monday morning at ten o'clock sharp? Like I'm not gonna notice you rushin' me outta here for food an hour early?"

"Scheduling is one perk for experience."

"Imagine that! Somethin' to look forward to. So, Charlie. What you been up to, huh? Some on the job experience you wanna share with your Junior partner? Or maybe your wife? Bet Annie would be very interested in your little voyeuristic hobby."

"What? You want to take turns? Is that it?"

"Sure. Why not? We're all professionals here. What's she doin' now?"

"Don't you worry about now or next Monday since you think it's freaking funny to ruin my day. You get your taste in two weeks. No sooner. Hope you're freaking happy, you asshole."

"Hey, I just try to make the time go by. Joey says we all get a little something extra in our pay envelopes this week because the boss is tickled pink with the way we took out that reporter."

"Yeah, well a reporter is one thing. Her old man is another."

"I'd sure like to get a crack at The Great Ashgard Staunton, but I don't think it's gonna happen."


"I've heard all the spook stories about him. Don't think he'd be dumb enough to contact her. Heard he was king of the spooks before he went south."

"Well, he can stay south as far as I'm concerned. Me, I'll just enjoy the view and count the days till my pension. Don't make waves and rock the boat with your youthful piss and vigor, Teddy me boy-o."

"Well, if he shows, I'm gonna nail him. His scalp in my package would get me some real action. Not to mention a hefty promotion. Besides, it's high time 'Old Legends' find out there's a new crop that's smarter, faster, and tougher."

"And you're the one to set the record straight?"

"Sure, and why not?"

"Well, just warn me when you're going on the warpath so I can stand aside and take accurate historical notes."

"Hey, I'm serious!"

"So am I. The food's getting cold."

End for now

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