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The Triumph of the King of Crackland

by Devon Pitlor
Prologue: It was a major happening in the court of King Zack and Queen Xenia of Crackland. The multiple rapist and putative serial killer Tavaris Murgal had been caught by the Midnight Riders and was led before the flower-strewn throne of King Zack by the leather-clad brothers Wade and Wyndal Thorne, who had always led the Midnight Rider pack. Tavaris Murgal was obviously crazed and darted his bulging eyes from side to side like a trapped rat, eyeballing the assembly. Zack of Wampaugh glanced at the criminal prostate at his knees and decided, as was his nature, not to show any mercy. He gave a simple signal with a flick of his wrist, and the court executioner Butch McGreevey who had once been the most frightening bully in high school came forward hefting a huge cleaving axe in his hands. Butch was powerfully built and dressed appropriately in executioner's black, although he had not bothered to pull down his ceremonial face mask. As the contented court looked on, Butch prepared to exact justice for his king and queen. "This will be a first

for me," he muttered, "but it looks like fun." He grabbed the chain that bound the wrists of the unfortunate Tavaris and dragged him across the wood floor to a small patio off from the side of the main, knotty-pine paneled throne room. King Zack and his entourage followed his every move, but Queen Xenia profited by the distraction to glance seductively at her page, a lithe young boy who was standing behind a nearby curtain. She gave him a nod which seemed to say "Later in the usual place." Then she turned her eyes sharply upward to another person half-hidden behind one of the curving bowers of flowers that stood behind the two thrones. To this older, more ominous person she gave another sort of nod, and the eminence vanished into a cloak room behind without waiting for the execution. Some of the others in the court drifted out of the throne room as well, but most stayed. The capture and execution of Tavaris Murgal was something that they wanted and needed to see. And they saw it. Summarily, Butch McGreevey, who had never hesitated to do violence, thrust Murgal to his knees and pinned his neck against a huge stump which seemed freshly cut from a fallen tree somewhere. The condemned man groaned and chattered his nonsense nervously. He was obviously insane. Down in one stroke came McGreevey's axe, and the man's head tumbled away from his still quivering body. Blood squirted from the headless neck in several directions, forming sticky puddles around the axe block. It spurted until it stopped, fizzling out in volume.

Justice, in the Monarchy of Crackland, had been carried out. The House of Wampaugh was firmly in charge. The public was satisfied. Xenia the queen rose and excused herself. Few noticed that the underaged page followed shortly behind. King Zack busied himself with some other issues on documents presented ceremoniously to him by squires, many of whom had known him in high school---Wampaugh Preparatory High School in Carverton, New York, one of the finest schools in all of the Hudson River Valley, but that was another story from a time past. The head and carcass of Tavaris Murgal were dragged away by attendants who also began mopping up the clotted blood pools. Had King Zack of the House of Wampaugh been in any way curious, however, he might have wondered how a four-time convicted killer from Pennsylvania, a man sentenced to life imprisonment for reasons of insanity, had ever been released and brought to the Kingdom of Crackland and why. But it was not in Zack's nature to be curious. That was why he made a good king.

I. People in high places

On the quiet morning of Monday, the twenty-seventh of March, 2000, a red, scratched and dented Ford F-150 pickup truck caused a minor commotion when it navigated through the dense traffic of Seventh Avenue in the financial district and attempted to enter a private parking garage situated under the towering steel and glass edifice of power known as Lyric Station. In a time of rumored terror, it was natural for the attendants to be wary of such anomalous visitors, and the truck was immediately halted by a uniformed man with a telephone stuck to his mouth. Other uniformed persons arrived. All of them looked with unabashed suspicion at the visitors and their shabby vehicle. Inside the truck was a strapping man with a shaved head and a woman who looked to be about sixty-five and was dressed in black as if to emphasize the gravity of her age. In the rear seat of the vehicle sat another man, dressed in a seedy brown, ill-fitting suit and paging through some sort of thick paper file. More shockingly, a thin girl with long straight hair and thick plastic framed glasses sat, illegally as it were, in the truckbed, oblivious to her surroundings and staring downward toward a large leather-bound book she held in her lap. For some reason, the police had let the group go unmolested through the teeming heart of the most affluent area of the city. The burly driver casually rolled down the window and extended a bare arm,

proffering only a New York city drivers license. "I am Florian Erant," he said with a chesty gruffness, "and my passengers all have their identification if you need it. We have an appointment with Ryder Rylan and Associates on the forty-third floor.” The attendant, somewhat taken aback, made no attempt to hide his contempt for the group and their unseemly truck. He dialed a code on his phone and confirmed the appointment then begrudgingly motioned the bald driver into a numbered parking space marked "guest" to the side of the entrance. "The elevator is over there," he grunted. "You will have to pass through metal detection. So do not carry any weapons or steel objects over two inches in length. The elevator only goes to the forty-second floor. After that, you will have to clear yourselves again through another security post." And then, curling his lip in obvious repugnance, he added, "People who come to see Mr. Rylan usually...well usually look a little more the part. His agency is not a drop-in storefront. I mean..." The shaved-skull man cut him off by manually rolling up the truck window and driving without further prologue into the space assigned. He briskly exited the truck and walked around to aid the old woman. The other two passengers withdrew on their own, each carrying either briefcases or large books. The parking attendants watched them somewhat mystified. Who on

Earth were these people, and why would a high-flyer like Ryder Rylan have granted them an appointment? Ryder was famous for his exclusiveness and the select nature of his business. He occupied the entire forty-third floor and admitted no one that didn't look the part of the clients he serviced, which is to say some of the leading corporate CEOs and CFOs in America, not to mention the owners of enterprises so large that they often came accompanied by nattily dressed bodyguards and an entourage of neatly-pressed secretarial types. The four visitors looked tattered and shopworn and far less than significant. They exuded the aura of street riff-raff, and it was finally noted as they boarded the elevator that the old woman hobbled with what appeared to be a very badly fitted prosthetic leg. The man in the frayed brown ensemble looked like an angular farmer who had just wedged himself into a second-hand suit for the occasion, and the bald driver looked like a exhibition champ from the world of wrestling. The skinny girl may have been, however, slightly appealing without the grotesque glasses and her persistently bowed head. The security force on the forty-second floor where the elevator stopped were even more contemptuous of the group but were already prepared to call down a woman known to them only as Ms. Clementis to escort them to Rylan's sprawling quarters above. Ariadne Clementis, dressed in a crisp business suit, arrived on the private elevator. Visually, she fit the part required for such an environment. She was a stunner. Her short functional skirt showed off a pair

of shapely. sculptured legs, and her more than ample bosom beaconed a world that was not only above the masses physically but in cultural aloofness as well. And that, in effect, was what Ryder Rylan wanted in all his employees, a kind of aesthetic conformity that was definitely not evident in the present visiting body of mismatched and variegated clowns. The elevator door closed on the group. Ariadne Clementis had spoken not a word. The last one to board was the old lady, who shambled on a leg that looked for all the world as if it was going to fly off at any minute. And that was the last the security personnel ever saw of this group. Later they would leave the offices of Ryder Rylan by Rylan's own private elevator which bypassed all attendants. Their departure was, therefore, not seen, leaving security with nothing more to speculate on other than how the Yankees might do this upcoming season. The red Ford pickup slid out of the parking garage on a private pass and was seen no more. II. Ryder Rylan and Ariadne Clementis Ryder Rylan was in his middle thirties and one of the most thriving men in the city. He was athletic, handsome, married to some kind of glamorous cosmetics model, and screwing his prime associate Ariadne Clementis on the side and as

often as he could, and given the immense libido of Ryder Rylan, that was quite often. But today, as they sat in a neighborhood cafe which admitted only the well-attired by house policy, they were not planning sex. Rather they were, not uncharacteristically, discussing their trade. Ryder had clawed his way to the top of the corporate headhunter pile and was known to have the most elite agency in all of North America. His clients were the towering giants of American industry, those who required looks, brains, shrewdness and ability to maintain the wealth of their organizations. Ryder provided all of these. His data banks were full of only the finest and most proven corporate managers. In short, Ryder did not just have a track record of pinpointing brilliance, he was brilliance. And Ariadne would not have been there with him or in his bed either for that matter if she didn't follow suit. That was about all one could say about Ryder and Ariadne and anyone else connected with the personnel agency. They were what they were. Nothing more. Nothing really got past them, especially imposters. In a world where appearance counted, therefore, they had just been presented with a dilemma by some very uncommon people. The admissions ticket to Ryder Rylan Enterprises had been steep, but the price paid in advance had even been steeper. Ryder once again repeated to Ariadne the fact that this group, who was apparently spearheaded by the old woman, Aurora-somebody, had put the valid sum of two million US dollars into the agency's account long before

the meeting had occurred. Money meant everything to Ryder and Ariadne. It trumped things like sartorial perfection and even natural curiosity. But on that rainy March evening, as Ryder and Ariadne sat under the lush fronds of hanging plants drinking pink zombies, some curiosity did come forth. Ryder was genuinely puzzled. III. The search for mediocrity Aurora, the old lady, had been the spokesperson for the callers, and she had laid out the matter quite clearly. Under a cranky, ancient voice, she shoved some papers in front of Ryder over his nearly bare, polished metal desk and then proceeded to summarize what the papers said. "We are looking for some kids," she said. "Not too bright either. Mediocre, at least intellectually. They need to be about seventeen or eighteen and seniors in high school right now. They need to come from one of the better families....families that can pay their way anywhere they want to go. They need to be each of them very eyecatching and popular, white, Caucasian, from rich and careless homes of old money. We don't need any valedictorians, either. You need to check their grades. Respectably average would be nice. They should have never worked a day in their lives nor have any desire to do so."

Then the skinny girl, who had been sitting with her head bowed during the entirely of the meeting, suddenly perked up and placed one of her thick leather-bound books on Ryder's desktop. With a surprisingly energetic voice she suddenly blurted "Look on page 92. This is the yearbook of Abercorn Valley High School in Abercorn, New York. It is just a suggestion. Abercorn is old money, all of it. Look on page 92." Agreeable but still mystified, Ryder flipped pages until he reached page 92. The page began what was a photo documentary of the senior prom of 1999, something tritely called The Beach Ball. Like all senior proms, it had a king and a queen, and they were both attractive and presumably trendy teenagers who sat under a flowered bower and were lavished by the attention of tuxedo and gown-clad attendees of their own age and most assuredly their own social class. "A prom king and queen might do nicely," the girl added with a piercing earnestness behind her thick lens. "Not these two. They have both gone off to college, one at Swarthmore and the other to some different place. Too smart for us probably. College-bound is no good. Education. That will never do. We need a couple who are blithe about things like education. Self-assured rich kids who don't do much thinking. This yearbook is only a suggestion. I have another one too if you want more of an idea. The East Coast is dotted with

communities like Abercorn as well as high schools like this one. As Aurora said, we need confident mediocrity...yes, that is it confident mediocrity." The girl seemed very pleased with this term and said it again and again under her breath, as the old woman continued to outline some other details. "The rich are destructive," she said. "They do not live like us. That is more or less what F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. "We need the destructive rich. We need a couple born to ease and money. Are you starting to get the picture?" "I don't deal in minors," said Ryder, still dumbfounded. "By the time we will use them," said Aurora, "they should both be eighteen and legal adults. That is why we need you to start looking now." "Use them for what?" inquired Ryder. "My clients usually have precise positions, businesses, and let me know accurately what role my candidates are going to fulfill." "That is one thing we cannot tell you," said the old woman. "All we can do is promise you that it will be quite legal and that once you have located and introduced us to such a couple, it will be up to us to convince them to either work or not work for us."

Ryder rolled his eyes at Ariadne as if seeking permission to take on this rather odd contract. Ariadne, who liked the smell of both Ryder's cologne and his money, nodded her head. She looked over at each of the two silent members of the group. The driver Florian was obviously some sort of body guard. He seemed rough and ready and prepared for action. It was also evident that he carried cash in case any were needed to make a point. The fourth member of the entourage seemed the most pathetic. He was, as noted, a little angular man, naturally balding and stuffed into an ill-fitting suit with patches on the elbows of the coat. He had watched the proceedings very carefully, taking in everything. When the girl had displayed the prom king and queen of Abercorn High School, he had nodded approvingly at her. It occurred to Ariadne that, like all silent listeners, this man may have been the real architect behind whatever plan the group was hatching. And, strangely, she was right. Within two years the man's face would be all over the general media revealing some shocking facts to the world about a newfound place called Crackland and how this colony, despite its ludicrous and provocative name, would become the first valid model of Utopia ever created by mankind. This man, sitting so silently now in Rylan's sprawling office, was none other than the university mastermind who had advised and led the founders of the Autonomous American Colony of Crackland. His name was Aaron Arvicher, professor Aaron Arvicher, a man distinguished by several universities for his immense

knowledge of history and sociology and his futuristic ability to plan the social architecture of new states. But all that would come later. After the others had become only veiled memories leaving behind with Rylan and Clementis only the weight of their huge commissions in the agency's bank holdings. IV. An incomplete but adequate summary of the history of Crackland In 2002, when Crackland finally became known to the world at large, its evocative name spawned a million jokes, and somehow that too had been a part of the founders' plan, which read in part Don't make Crackland seem too real or there will be a rush on the place despite what we do. Professor Aaron Arvicher, who by now had devoted his entire career to working for the huge, invisible and seemingly nameless American-Canadian consortium whose sole mission it was to establish, develop and maintain this sought-after Utopian place, had agreed with the idea too. The fact that there was still a popular street drug called crack passed far under Professor Arvicher’s academic radar. Rather, he joined in spirit with those who found the name of the new place both a fitting tribute to its resoundingly white and necessarily Protestant discoverer, a rogue Arctic explorer of the 1950s whose real name was John Crack, and the fact that the secreted and heretofore unknown entrance to what was now officially Crackland was an unseen crack in the crust of the Earth hidden from aerial detection on a subglacial Canadian island almost

contingent with the North Pole. Beyond and beneath the "crack," the maw of a huge, undiscovered, temperate paradise opened into a lush and fertile subterranean world, illuminated warmly by what the geo-scientists could only call a "second sun" and admirably suited for colonization and agricultural exploitation by humans of all sorts. John Crack had done his best to conceal his discovery, moreover, because like so many others, Crack did not want his Utopian Valley of Paradise to be penetrated by humans of all sorts. White Canadians, not Inuits or Natives, and equally White Americans were the only homo sapiens the staunchly Protestant Crack admitted as human, and it was decided long before Crack was "accidentally" electrocuted by a falling cable in San Francisco in 1969 that this new vista of paradise and venue of colonization would become and remain the sole property of what are commonly known as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The cover up had gone very well. Except for an almost invisible bronze bust of John Crack erected just at the inside of the aperture's lip as a memorial to its founder, the opening was generally out of sight, and the Consortium which wielded untold amounts of capital and social clout was able to keep it that way until the establishment of a bona fide colony in 2002 was finally achieved. Money and power have ways of hiding things, even the most obvious things. And the legacy of John Crack was a prime example of how unicorns can be hidden in a basement providing the keepers are smart enough and disciplined enough to keep unicorn existence private.

Crackland, therefore, became the sole property of a silent group of human beings who remained exceedingly low-key and met in places like the back rooms of public libraries and recruited colonists of a like confidentiality. The adherence to such respectable religious affiliations as the deceptively innocuous Methodism and membership in fraternal organizations like the ubiquitous Elks and Eastern Star also bought one or one's children a ticket. Agriculture came first followed by mining and then the beginnings of manufacturing. By 2002, when its existence was officially announced, Crackland had a prolific, industrious and happy population of over two hundred thousand men, women and children---people who had little by little over the years simply gone off on their own and become inconspicuously part of the mission to colonize. The governance of the new colony with its homogenous population of was, however, starting to become a rather snarled problem. Men and women of various talents had, of course, been imported, and not all of them turned out to be staunch Protestants or members of the Elks Club. Many became quite individualistic, and some even began demanding more rights and more say in the incomes they received and the inevitable upkeep taxes they paid to the founding Consortium, which itself had acted from the outset like a kind of benevolent dictatorship and had time and time again drawn up multiple sets of rules that the colonists were obliged to follow in order to ensure harmony and prosperity. These rules naturally included the denial of admission to nonAmericans, and some of the colonists had families that wished to migrate,

families which did not all originate in the Euro expanses of North America. Immigration by non-whites and non-Americans, thus, became only one of the pressing issues facing the new colony---where one might add it was nearly always a Mediterranean spring and both familiar and new crops grew in abundance almost without human intervention. In short, Utopia was hard to maintain socially, and the normal response was to allow the colonists to form committees and think tanks in order to solve their problems. Some of these assemblies were characteristically called Crackland Congresses or Crackland Parliaments. Others bore more modern and detached names like Superior Council or Steering Coterie, but all quibbled as citizen conferences do and continued to bicker and fight over the fate of the new colony. Around 1998, Professor Aaron Arvicher, whom we have already met, stepped forward from his department chairmanship of Political Science at Stanford University and addressed the main body of the Invisible Consortium which even then held all power over its budding colony. The founders knew that they were even then on the verge of creating an almost perfect world, despite the internal disagreements and bickerings of the initial settlers, and they sought a way to maintain this perfection. Arvicher was renown for the study of effective government. He was a true and documented expert in political science. At first, he had advocated simple clans and tribes as the highest and most stable forms of human organization, but the educated and overly Americanized

nature of the early inhabitants quickly overruled this, as they were steeped in ideas of participatory democracy and collective vote. An assortment of autonomous tribes was not going to work, and the only one ever successfully established was that of a brutal and shadowy motorcycle outfit known as the Midnight Riders, who were introduced early on to police the colony. Much protest had arisen over the role and resulting muscle of the Midnight Riders. As a police force, dressed in decorated leather cycle club clothes and often wearing helmets sporting horns or spikes, they seemed to do their job. But their excesses were many, and complaints arose from all sectors over the cruelty the club was allowed to exercise over what were people seeking to build a new and better world--as opposed to a den of drug-using brutes with special powers. So little by little, the Midnight Riders were circumscribed in their supremacy, and some were even deported back to whatever American state or Canadian province they issued from. Arvicher, studied and studied and talked and talked, and finally decided to present a huge research paper at a meeting of the founding principals in the back of a bowling alley in Waukegan, Illinois early in 2000. The bowling alley was closed for the event, which was private and attracted very little notice. The founding principals arrived by either private cars, vans, unmarked busses, on foot or on public transportation. They wore clothes appropriate to a protracted bowling match and drove vehicles that had been purposely

proletarized in order to not draw undue public attention. After all the entrances in and out of the bowling alley had been secured, Aaron Arvicher, looking as ever seedy and professorial, took the podium and began speaking about the seventy-two plus years of the monarchy of Louis XIV of France, who had been one of the longest lasting royal figures in human history. "France prospered," he droned. "It relished its grandest golden age, and its king was supreme. It was a small sacrifice to create such a great power using such an absolute but stable head of state." Many of the conference participants did not need Arvicher to elaborate further. They had enough insight at this point to know exactly where he was headed. A couple of them, prime stakeholders, slipped out of the meeting hall and over to the bar, where a rented bartender of their own ilk poured them bourbon on the rocks and strained his own ears to catch the drift of Arvicher's presentation, the gist which he himself had not so quickly divined. One of the stakeholders, a middle-aged man wearing a striped polo shirt, said to the other, an old woman known only as Aurora who walked on a plastic right leg: "He is going to opt for a king and a royal house. It is only natural. And it is genius."

And, sure enough, within the next hour of droning on about various governments, Arvicher slipped his cat out of the bag and began extolling the virtues of absolute monarchy, a royal family with all of its attendant trappings complete with a imperial court. Arvicher was more than convincing, and when the bowling alley assembly broke up at midnight and returned the building keys to their unsuspecting owners, the Consortium had decided to identify a functional king and queen who could reign with absolute power over their new and then still-secret colony. As the one-legged woman Aurora said upon boarding a taxi in the parking lot: "No form of government has ever worked as well in the West as that of an absolute monarchy." And so the search for a king, queen and possibly an entire court was on. V. Scenes from the Wampaugh Preparatory High School senior prom of 2000. The gymnasium of the quaint little school nestled in the rolling hills of the Hudson River Valley was filled with the usual raucous merriment associated with perfunctory end of year celebrations. Most of the students sprang from families that could trace their origins back to the colonial settlement of the region and therefore had no particular reason to behave in any sort of

respectful manner in the presence of the hired hands, as was the accustomed view of the administration and staff at Wampaugh. The year had been most uneventful, especially after the failure of the Y2K threat to materialize and set American society back to the Bronze Age. Somewhere in central Asia a meteorite had impacted the Earth, and the Middle East was filled with the usual uneasy stirrings which would soon boil into an open conflict with the West. Unbeknown to the celebrants on the very night of the prom, May 11th, the billionth living person in India was born, and earlier that year Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, published his last comic strip and died. The Wambaugh prom did nonetheless reflect the spirit of the year in its unique Y2K theme, which featured burnt out computers spewing dry ice smoke spread out across the entire dance floor. None of the budding year's events, however, touched the privileged lives of the tuxedo and gown-clad young men and women who were about to emerge into a tiny, non-functional wing of what some people in other places may have called the "working world," because, in effect, so few of these scions of New York's finest families actually had to work. Some had college plans; some did not. With old money it really didn't matter. The prom, a rather low key and otherwise traditional event, wound its way into the sticky May night rocked only slightly by the tunes of the ubiquitous Faith Hill and a constant redux of "Bye Bye Bye" by the irreproachable 'N Sync. Occasionally, at the whim of

the hired-hand disc jockey, Toni Braxton managed to wedge in with her unique version of "He Wasn't Man Enough," and it was hard to escape the haunting notes of "Kyptonite" by the apotheotic Three Doors Down. And then, without much a display of originality, it was back to Faith again rendering her number one hit "Breathe." Some of the rowdy celebrants were smoking very heady pot in the lavatories. Others were lodged in crevasses and corners and touching one another's privates. Yet others attempted to navigate around the ribbons, balloons and bunting and stumble onto some danceable tunes. But the focal point and centerpiece of the entire event was naturally this year's prom king and queen, who both looking wax-mold perfect sat languidly under an enormous bower of real flowers on actual thrones that the old timers said had been stored in the basement of the school since Grover Cleveland's second presidency in 1885. Tradition mattered at Wampaugh, and the thrones proved it. So did the attractive young couple who occupied them, Zack HammerTwift, whose family had done not a scrap of useful work since the dawn of the railroad, which they owned, and the lovely Xenia Vanderlaan, the final genetic production of a family of enterprising Dutch farmers who had preceded the American Revolution. A strolling photographer at the event, and there were plenty of these, may have snapped a photo of a rather out of place couple sitting at the principal's guest table. This couple, Ryder Rylan and his assistant Ariadne Clementis, had been

secretly hanging around the school at the finagled invitation of several administrators. They represented a well-known recruiting firm and had found a way into the proceedings under the guise of "casually looking for quality talent," something that most Wampaugh administrators secretly knew did not really exist except in vignetted showcase at the school. Ariadne eyed the prom queen Xenia with a kind of veiled disgust. "She's pregnant," Ariadne whispered to her handsome companion, "and starting to show. That dress doesn't cover much." It was true. Xenia Vanderlaan, who was of course known to sleep around, had been rendered pregnant sometime in February by another reckless boy named Taz Ten Zolen. Her admiring classmates had nonetheless voted her 2000 prom queen, and her gown was made with a set of special darts that allowed her already protruding stomach to bulge forward in a rather fecund-looking manner. As the night wore on, Ryder and Ariadne learned that Taz Ten Zolen was inconsolable and healing his wounds about forty yards away from the dance, outside in his Oldsmobile with a couple of misfit buddies from downriver getting stinking drunk. He had lost Xenia to Zack, and there were no definite plans on exactly what would become of the baby. "My son," he kept whispering out loud. "My son." However, it was clear that his concern for the unborn was far less than that of his injured pride in the loss of Xenia.

The reason why Ryder and Ariadne learned of the absence of Taz Ten Zolen was that their clients, a shadowy consortium that seemed extremely interested in everything done by the Wampaugh families, had also asked them to keep an eye on him because, like Zack and Xenia, he might be useful later. At the time of the prom, neither Ryder nor his charming assistant had any idea of what "useful" meant or why in fact they were scouting a couple of soon to be eighteen year olds in an upper crust Hudson Valley prom. All they knew was that these clients, who seemed totally anomalous in their dress and choices of meeting places, were paying them more than the entirety of their agency's pending roster of headhunting corporate effendis. And with such funds at their disposal, curiosity could be kept at a minimum. Like all the progeny of the super-rich, King Zack and Queen Xenia were hopelessly average in everything but managed nicely to remain gilded fringe participants in life. Xenia played a mediocre game of tennis at her father's club, more to show off her pre-pregnancy figure than to hit a ball over a net. Zack had served as a linebacker on the school's rather pathetic football team for two years, and this mostly to look good in his jersey colors. He was often known to dodge blocks and even passes just in order to keep his colors clean, and this was his expected role on the team. Wampaugh only played against like schools in a tiny league where pedigree mattered more than muscle, so the

danger of getting injured or disfigured was, naturally, minimal. On cue, the music changed to a march "of honor." This year's procession like last year's and year before it was the well-worn Walk of Fame. In stunning red prom gowns this year’s queen's court blanketed the center carpet (also a relic from the second Cleveland administration) as the glowing and lucent debutantes they were meant to be. As each gorgeous female celebrity passed in front of Queen Xenia with a curtsey, the queen touched her on the head with a starry wand and a deep voiced "pageboy" rumbled out their names, which collectively could account for most of the stored wealth of the entire East Coast altogether in one spot. Ariadne, who had also been assigned to taking notes on these lovely young ladies in Xenia's court detected as well that several other girls were quite pregnant, some in anticipation of an earlier arrival than the queen herself. The male entourage followed behind their glittering dates and paused briefly in front of King Zack Hammer-Twift, who tapped them casually with a silver-painted wooden sword and motioned them onward toward the drink and snacks table, upon which barely disguised bottles of hard liquor were attired in soft drink wrappings but still resonated the strength of the brew they concealed within. A bit of gentlemanly drinking was always in order for such a significant event, and the school administration's main duty was to escort the occasional abuser back to whichever riverside chateau he or she belonged. By longstanding consensus there were no police present, nothing

that would embarrass families that been the solid and lasting keystones of the community since...well, you get it, since long, long ago in a place called history. After the words "your majesties" had been amply uttered by all present multiple times, Zack rose somewhat unsteadily from his throne, almost tripping on the folds of the red carpet bunched over the legs of his satinate footstool. He took Xenia's hand and pulled her down rather clumsily onto the dance floor which cleared immediately for the regal couple. The disc jockey on cue slid "Higher" by Creed into the booming audio system, and with some jerky movements and sartorial adjustments, the couple, now strewn with handfuls of glittering gold confetti ambled across the dance floor. Previously crowned, they were careful to retain their coronets on their bobbling heads as they boogied. A roar of approval went up through the crowd, this joined by the rather muted voices of the attending headhunters, who were more naturally involved in taking notes than in joining into any sort of senior dance. In the surging strobe lights which streaked the across the ballroom, strange distorted and often anguished faces appeared and disappeared. The king and queen danced on and on and others enlisted. The music changed to the livelier "There You Go" by Pink, and the level of animation picked up slightly. When the hired-hand disc jockey announced his final break, the teenage crowd began pairing up. Ariadne scribbled fast notes about who paired with whom, and Ryder fixed his attention on Zack and Xenia. The Royal Couple was now taking leave. It was the main cue that everyone else who wanted could do the

same. Couples intent on being couples, therefore, vanished into the shadows behind the gymnasium walls, some routing themselves through utility rooms and the abandoned cafeteria enclave. Many grabbed bottles from the buffet tables as they left. A few dateless loners milled about for some time after the main party had dispersed, and Ariadne noted that Taz Ten Zolen, looking very drunk and disheveled had wandered back into the merriment perhaps keyed up for a fight or at least a confrontation with King Zack. But by this time Zack and Xenia were long gone and far away in places where even their parents would not dare seek them. The end of prom spelled the beginning of sex, and Wampaugh was no stranger over the ages to post-prom sexual trysts. At this moment, Ryder Rylan held a huge brick shaped telephone to his ear and shouted over the dying music to someone called Aurora who was arranging an early morning meeting with Rylan and Clementis in the back room of a twenty-four hour road house about eight miles out of Carverton. Rylan learned that there was one more person he needed to report on, an incurable bully named Butch McGreevey, who ranged around the outside of the school and through the parked cars looking as it were for some final victims for his irrepressible aggression, an animalesque predatory sense that he had exercised in the Carverton community since he and the entire class of 2000 had been in junior high school. McGreevey had special deals cut with all members of the king and queen's court, deals which specified cash sums

payable in advance to keep his fists away from their beautiful faces. King Zack and Queen Xenia had, of course, paid the highest price. Ryder rose from his folding chair, hardly a throne, and said to Ariadne that he needed to go outside, have cigarette and talk to Butch McGreevey. Like with everything else, Ariadne didn't understand anything but the money, and that was flowing in torrents now, so if her partner and the firm's owner needed to speak outside with a grungy wolfman who wore knuckle dusters, it was no more weird than her keeping tabs and gathering information on the cuckolded Taz Ten Zolen. Once the tap of weirdness had been turned on, it was impossible to shut off. It was known in Carverton that Butch came from the roughest of the rough and spared no victims in his abusive bullying. If a seventeen year old boy had plans to mess up the face of her handsome companion and lover, then so be it. The money was just too swell to pull out now or ask questions that they had been warned not to ask. Rylan, however, stepped back into the gym just as the final clean up was getting underway. He looked as crisp and unflustered as ever, and a vague smile of contentment creased his lips. His meeting with the class bully must have gone well. "There's a son of a bitch like that in every school," he sighed. "Money, social

class, prominence...but he is always there, like a haunting demon kept around to remind even the most secure ones of the potential dangers which lay outside the familial nest. Anyway, you-know-who wants to know all about him too. I guess I got the details they need. It cost me a few bucks, but what the hell?" Ariadne Clementis, now fully immersed in the eeriness of the situation, smiled weakly. "Let's go grab an hour of sleep and then get onto that meeting," she said taking Ryder's hand in hers. Unnoticed, the couple left without even a perfunctory thank you to the administrative "hired hands" whom they had convinced to invite them. As they walked to their car, the final track on the abandoned music reel began chirping Celine Dion's "That's The Way It Is." And for the Y2K prom of 2000, that was the way it was. VI. Four AM Saturday, May 13th 2000, a meeting in a truckers roadhouse Ryder Rylan and Ariadne Clementis were the only couple to enter the Scratchberry Inn and attract any attention whatever, and that was primarily because of the pressed quality of their attire which contrasted sharply with the shirtless asphalt haulers and over the road truckers who lurked at the twin bars in the seedy inn. Most of them were men, and most were drunk enough by four am to make sure that Ariadne saw them ogling her and heard their coarse catcalls. A beautiful woman in a formal gown just did not walk into the

Scratchberry Inn off Route 84 at four in the morning with some pressed dude carrying an oversized briefcase. But before any social class based violence could erupt, a swarthy little man with a Smokey the Bear bib ushered them past the early morning drinkers into a wood paneled room behind a secure and above-all lockable solid oak door. Drinks and sandwiches were spread out on the picnic bench which sat in the middle of the room. On the walls were the dead heads of horned animals looking out from all directions. A few rifles and muskets hung over the shuttered windows as well. Inside, the room was the same dour assemblage that had visited the Rylan Personnel Agency on Seventh Avenue only months before. There was the bald guy, Florian, who looked like he could handle himself in any situation. There was the thin stringy-haired and bookish girl, whose name had never been offered nor requested. She still carried a stack of high school yearbooks with her, but this time the Wampaugh annual was displayed prominently on top. The most verbal person of the group was still the wobbly-legged Aurora, who herself had never gained a last name, and sitting quietly in a ragged stuffed chair in the far corner was the man known as Professor Aaron Arvicher. Instinctively, Ryder knew that Arvicher was going to be the real judge of the night's success. He handed him a ream of notes taken on a yellow legal pad without saying a word, and Arvicher, also without speaking as much as a thank you, buried his balding head into the notes. Silence reigned for a few moments

while Ryder and Ariadne settled. "Nice prom?" said Aurora at length. "I went to one myself once. Horrid affair. I didn't have a date either. So I danced with the girls. That must have been over fifty years ago." Then without warning she clambered out of her chair and shambled over to the professor. "Well...Aaron?" she said. "I think it is all here," mumbled the professor, still shuffling Ryder and Ariadne's yellow legal notes. "They've got the other ones too. That McGreevy beast and above all the Bastard's father, Taz somebody. That guy is going to play a huge role, and he will probably love it." "Not as much as good old Butch will love the role he's gonna have," spouted the muscular Florian with a twinge of malevolence in his voice. "As for the king and queen, Zack and Xenia, you've documented enough tonight and before to show that they are convincingly mediocre. Look at these Cs and C-minuses. We could not have asked for better. And from the looks of them, they are spoiled and arrogant and don't give a shit about anything much at all anywhere. That's what you wanted, right Professor."

Professor Arvicher nodded his head. He was still scrutinizing the file on Taz Ten Zolan. Then Ariadne opened her portfolio and brought forth a host of polaroid pictures that one of her hired, strolling photographers had been taking all night. She spread the pictures on the picnic table and each of the principals walked around examining them while mumbling hushed words to each other. "What do you think?" said Rylan suddenly. "Are you going to go with these or do Ari and I have to attend another upriver prom?" Aurora glanced again at the professor and the skinny girl. Both nodded somberly. Almost as if speaking to herself, the girl said "Zack, Xenia, their friends, their court, Taz, Butch and of course the Bastard." Ariadne had not been raised in an environment where out of wedlock children were automatically called bastards, so she burst out "Why do you keep referring to the baby as a bastard? She has plans to keep it. Turn it over to her family. She also has plans to marry Zack, and they have discussed supporting the child as their own, but Zack doesn't like the idea."

Aurora adjusted her prosthetic leg and twisted her face up to address Ariadne. "In some societies in history, the word bastard was a title, and a title worn proudly in some cases. We're going to make sure that this bastard is well taken care of, but Zack won't need to worry about that. He can fuck Xenia right away if he already hasn't and make his own children. He won't need to worry about the Bastard, but the Bastard will always be there, and so will his father." Rylan could no longer restrain his curiosity. "Where?" he inquired. "Oh, a place," said Aurora. "You'll find out about it soon enough, but for the time being, I think your job is done. Of course, the Professor has the final say and he may want.....” "Well," he began, "they certainly look and act like a king and queen. About this fucking. They need to get on with that right away." "I think they already have," said Rylan confidently. "In fact, you can be sure of it. A girl like that...a guy like him...." "We know," said Aurora. Then to the group at large. "Well, then it's settled. Your work with us is

nearly finished. We may need a touch up from time to time, some small additional services, maybe some other personnel, but they will all come from Wampaugh. Let's settle up and get out of this place. Graciela will give you a banker's check for the rest of the commission, and we can go our separate ways for a time. Everyone has a confidentiality statement on file. Be sure to honor it and say nothing to no one. As for these kids, we will take it from here." With that, the motley, ill-dressed group rose to their feet. The scraggly-haired girl handed Rylan a check that briefly made his eyes bulge out and lose their usual steely composure. But he was quick to hide that. "It's everything we agreed on," said Aurora. "Yes, it is and more," added Rylan. Without leavetaking or handshaking of any type, the company parted, all going out through a back door and to their separate vehicles without attracting the notice of the malingerers in the front bar. The consortium members had once again come in their scratched and dented F-150 pickup. Ariadne and Ryder drove off, somewhat squeezed together in Ryder's late model Corvette convertible. Fifty miles down the road, the couple found a quality motel and spent what was left of the night and early morning in a clean bed celebrating

what was, in effect, a huge windfall profit. Scouting at a high school prom had been a most rewarding endeavor. VII. Queen Xenia of Wampaugh Twelve years following the glittering senior class prom of 2000, Xenia of the House of Wampaugh, née Vanderlaan, lived in a magical world over which she and her husband King Zack, also of the House of Wampaugh, held absolute sway over a peaceful kingdom of several hundred thousand kindred souls who worshipped her ever whim and fawned over what Xenia was starting to see as her own fading beauty. Indeed, just following her thirtieth birth the previous June, Xenia had chanced to see a slight wrinkle near the corner of her right eye, a crease that the royal beautician had obviously missed in her daily skin ministrations. Xenia, somewhat bored with the planned luxury which surrounded her in Crackland, examined the wrinkle time and time again with a hand mirror and at length decided that a trip to the Forbidden City might once again be a temporary cure for her lassitude. The Forbidden City, of course, was not forbidden to Xenia because...because, well, she was the reigning queen of Crackland, and essentially nothing was forbidden to her. She had also won the right of visiting the Forbidden City without asking permission of King Zack or just plain old Zack Hammer-Twift, as she had once known him and occasionally still called him. In the Forbidden City lived a

whole variety of individuals whom Xenia knew very little about, but like the other inhabitants of the Autonomous Colony of Crackland, they all appeared to be happy, prosperous and content. Her reason for visiting the Forbidden City involved mostly a visit to her firstborn child, a handsome boy of twelve known only as Micah the Bastard. Micah, like all members of the royal family, held a certain political power and social prominence and was being schooled just like her second son, Prince Jeremiah of Wampaugh. He lived in a huge wooden house (all houses in Crackland were made of wood) with Xenia's parents, the Royal Consorts, who years before had been only too happy to pick up their lives of leisure and diversion and relocate to a beautiful land that was not only untouched by civil strife, wars and depressions but also one in which they enjoyed the privilege of being part of a royal contingent. Also, there was the issue of another colonist, a man of her age with no rank whose name was Taz Ten Zolen, Micah's father, who along with her parents had been seamlessly removed to the new colony almost from the start. Of course, Xenia had known Taz many years before in Carterton, New York, where both had come from well to do families and had formed an early bond with one another around the age of fourteen each. Her affair with Taz had lasted only long enough to get her with child, but given the manly beauty of their offspring, Xenia was grateful for that indiscretion and had even come to find herself often dreaming of Taz during the dreamy hours of her daily palace routine.

Xenia knew only too well that her life may have indeed been happier with Taz than it was with Zack, but Zack had become a king and Taz hadn't. That mattered a great deal to Xenia. What Xenia had never known was exactly why the Great Powers who founded Crackland had admitted Taz in the first place. It most likely had something to do with Micah, but there were---truth be told--dilemmas that Queen Xenia did not want to think too much about at present. Her own adviser, the Grand Vizier Aaron, had often made suggestions to Xenia about Taz, suggestions which had made Xenia blush at first, but after time became more and more judicious in her view. She was, after all, a queen of a new and protected land, a happy land, and she enjoyed certain rights. One of them was to slip away and sleep with Taz from time to time. And today, as she pulled at the newfound line in her face, was one of those times. Zack had mistresses all over Crackland. Some had been ex-girlfriends of his, who, like Taz, had been mysteriously and sometimes secretly admitted to Crackland. Xenia knew that Aaron, who always knew what was best for the country, had probably been behind that too. In fact, Aaron was behind many, many things. And Xenia did not want to think of all of them at once. An essentially simple girl, her mind was easily confounded, and those who surrounded her as court advisors had often convinced her that too much thought was unbecoming of such an important regal personage as she. Her education following high school graduation had centered mostly on how to be

graceful and retain the natural beauty that had been hers since childhood. Multiple court and public appearances dictated a knowledge of the cosmetic and sartorial arts. Aside from that, Xenia had learned to ride her horses much better than she had as a child and had become a very proficient archer from horseback, where she scored far better than the attendant ladies in waiting with the bow and arrow. Her reading had been severely limited, mostly to romantic novels and of course a lot of unrelated things about the discovery and colonization of Crackland. She knew Crackland for what it was: a beautiful and seemingly never ending fault under the outer crust of the Earth, one that supported life and was controlled by an absolute monarch to whom she had been partnered even before leaving New York to assume the throne of the new and florid colony. As for her marriage to Zack, it had seemed logical at the time. The Vanderlaans and the Hammer-Twifts had for generations lived side by side as country squires in the pleasant vales surrounding Carterton in the Hudson Valley. Zack had been handsome, strong, disdainful, proud and one of her own social class. Taz, whose family fortune only went back two generations, had been slightly beneath Zack, but, as Xenia knew, an actual marriage between her and Taz would not have been impossible, at least if they had all stayed in New York.

But they had not. Fate had made Xenia and Zack the stunning and magical ruling family of what was the Earth's first new colony, and it was their business to maintain the flawlessness of this land through the performance of royal duties. In Crackland, Zack's word was law, and Zack executed this law---aided by his host of advisors----with canny prudence, occasional recklessness and middling skill. Unhesitatingly, he had signed edicts preventing the inflow of new immigrants without a Nordic pedigree. Xenia had learned some French and then a smattering of Russian and Chinese because some said it was the cultured thing for a queen to do, but also because there had always been talk about admitting some new colonists from Russia and China, at least as engineers to tame the lush forest lands which spread out beneath the inhabited regions or to build new houses, factories, energy plants or whatever else was needed. But Zack's ruling on these matters was tempered with much hesitation and caution. Diversity had been the bane of the Old World, and few colonists of Crackland wanted to re-create the chaotic societies that still swarmed on the surface of the planet. No, Crackland could be logically maintained and reasonably populated without opening its doors to hoards of immigrants. That had been the American mistake, and no one in the royal house or in the Consortium was prepared to repeat it in Crackland. By mutual agreement the United States and Canada guarded the tiny crevasse border

which Crackland shared with the outside world, and within were the ever present Warriors, the Midnight Riders, who had once been a motorcycle club on the surface and now were the only colonists permitted to have motor vehicles or weapons of any sort. Oh sure, Zack wore a slim rapier at his waist, but that was not a real weapon. The Midnight Riders had both their motorcycles and their side arms, but they obeyed royal edict with precision and asked for nothing more than a trickling supply of opium, cocaine and other substances which were not widely permitted but never abused among the upper and royal classes of the colony. The ordinary commoner citizens of the new colony eschewed all drugs and were almost in total accord that such diversionary substances should rightfully be only the property of the Warriors and the ruling class---which was to say Zack and his royal court, most of whom had gotten their start at the senior prom of 2000 at Wampaugh Preparatory High School, for which monarchial house was appropriately named. As with all arrangements of perfection or near perfection, the specter of discontent occasionally peeped out from the corners. While the vast majority of common citizens were blithely at ease with the strictures of their new world, some would occasionally clamor for certain amenities they had once enjoyed on the surface. Automobiles of all sorts were missed by many. Travel in Crackland was, by Zack's royal edict---a thing he had done at age nineteen shortly after his coronation---banned in Crackland, as were all materials made

of plastic. But how much sacrifice were a few malcontents going to make over cars and plastic when their world was virtually crime free and governed justly by a monarch as attractive as King Zack? Yes, monarchy worked, as Grand Vizier Aaron never missed a chance to proclaim. King Louis XIV of France, about whom Aaron boasted almost continuously, had brought peace and prosperity to his nation and had remained its absolute monarch for nearly seventy-three years, the longest and most prosperous documented reign of any European king. Louis XIV was Aaron's model for nearly everything, and, as Xenia little by little learned, absolute monarchy by its very nature required a certain amount of insider intrigue. Zack's royal agents had over the past decade discovered and disposed of several minor plots against His Majesty, and Zack was quick to administer justice, which usually came by the executioner's axe. Xenia knew as she took the little train out to the Forbidden City that it was Aaron who from time to time had promoted the secret introduction of some petty criminal or another for the sole reason of providing a minor threat to the stability of the reign. In every case, the anaemic plots were uncovered and Zack was given the opportunity call upon his old nemesis, Butch McGreevy, once the town bully of Carterton, to function as executioner and decapitate the guilty parties, who in most cases were not totally sure of exactly why they had been let into Crackland to begin with. It was all a matter of maintaining the

monarchy, proclaimed Aaron, who knew a lot about monarchy because he knew a lot about Louis XIV. And before the silent and electrically powered train pulled into the delightful little station at the heart of the Forbidden City, Xenia came to admit to herself that now she too was part of Aaron's grand plan. Little by little Aaron, now growing old in years, had convinced her that not only was her casual affair with Taz Ten Zolen normal but even logical. Her son by Zack, Prince Jeremiah, would one day be king as the arrangement went, but according to Aaron that was not the only way things had to unfold. Multiple intrigues often marked the inner workings of royal courts, and Aaron had gradually insinuated the idea that perhaps Micah the Bastard would make a better heir to the throne than Jeremiah. Micah was, after all, in her direct lineage, and while royal law would definitively prevent her as a woman or Taz Ten Zolen from ever ascending to the throne, Micah, known as The Bastard, could if the situation were played right assume this role quite lawfully. As long as Zack and of course Jeremiah were out of the picture. And so the little sprout of a plan was growing into a vine and finally a tree in Xenia's mind.

Thoughts she had repressed for years began to take concrete form in her psyche, and for over a year now she had been casually plotting along with Micah's forsaken father to poison Zack. The poisoning of kings was part and parcel of successful monarchy. In fact, a monarchy was better maintained when the threat of regicide was present. Aaron had dropped the hint on several occasions that the sainted Louis XIV had successfully survived seven plots to poison him during his long reign. Like Louis XIV, Zack, perhaps getting wind of some expected plot, had even gone as far as to import certain convicted criminals from the U.S. and Canada to serve as food testers at royal banquets and palace meals. Only one had died, and Xenia had not planted the poison, so it was obvious that some other plot must have also been afoot---and that Aaron deemed as totally normal, and what pleased him immensely was not the just fact that Zack had survived but the fact that a plot of some sort was underway. That was how successful monarchies were supposed to work. It was not long before Xenia found her way to Taz’s rather opulent quarters. The two, falling at once into each other’s arms, joined in a quick burst of passionate lovemaking before walking to another house to visit their son Micah the Bastard and pay their regards to his state-appointed caretaker, a friendly older lady who had once hailed from Minnesota and had frankly no particular

idea of why she had been invited to live in the colony of Crackland after her husband’s death. Micah was practicing his archery, something royal and semiroyal children did daily, and had very little time or conversation for either parent. He also had an unfinished video-game conquest to complete. This made it easier for the couple to regain Taz’s apartment and resume their previously rushed lovemaking at a point more or less where they had left it. When they reached its climax, they lay in bed together and talked about what they thought was their plan, which was actually that of one Aaron Arvicher, Grand Vizier to the court of King Zack of Wampaugh and personal adviser to his queen. VIII. A quick trip to the surface and a royal banquet While practically nothing of note was happening in the felicitous Colony of Crackland, the United States and Canada were, characteristically, undergoing yet another spike in petty crime which had accompanied yet another fiscal crisis which was again washing softly over the world. In a municipal jail in Tucson, Arizona there was a twenty-seven year old, self-admitted motorcycle thief with the strangely predictive name of Casey Rong-Paladino. Casey had been stealing vehicles all his life, but a fondness for methamphetamine and high speed chases had finally landed him in jail with numerous charges proven against him. Casey pacing back and forth in his small cement-walled cell was

awaiting transport to a state prison when a sheriff’s officer announced to him that he had a visitor. Casey, who was not from Tucson and had no living relatives in any state, wondered who might be visiting him so late at night. The visitor, whose name does not matter as much as the apparent authority he wielded, showed Casey a strange looking badge and told him that he represented a private consortium which managed the internal security of some odd place called Crackland, which Casey naturally had never heard of. “Crackland, cool,” said Casey. “I like crack.” “I’m sure you do,” said the strangely uniformed visitor, “and it is apparent that you like motorcycles too. We have lots of motorcycles in Crackland.” “Cool,” said Casey. “Would you like to visit our country and possibly live there? It would give you a chance to start over.” “Anything to get out of going to prison,” said Casey without reflection. Then he added flippantly “Crackland, here I come!” Sixteen hours later after a rather laborious small aircraft ride, Casey Rong-

Paladino found himself wide awake and unshackled in a pretty country of rolling green hillsides and speckled with pastoral farmlands. He was riding on the back of another official’s motorcycle toward a central city and a place called the House of Wampaugh Palace where, he had been told, there was a real king who awaited his presence. Casey’s only reaction was “A king. Cool. I like kings.” In short, Casey had no idea of why he’d been freed from jail, where exactly he was or why he was there. All he knew was that the man escorting him drove a mean Triumph chopper and carried a gun on his side. Everything else was meaningless to the one time drifter and motorcycle thief. Crackland, wherever it was, was certainly better than any jail or prison. Besides, it was spring here. Casey’s freedom and removal to Crackland only served as an example of one of the many new settlers drawn from the ranks of petty criminals in the U.S. and Canada who were suddenly being transported to the Kingdom of Crackland. It was, of course, part of the Grand Vizier’s plan to add drama and an element of danger to the court. Aaron Arvicher, student of the Bourbon monarchy, by now was deep into fancying himself another Cardinal Richelieu, and like the éminence grise himself, was at all times very busy behind the scenes of what the Crackland public felt to be a very just and balanced regime. It was Arvicher’s plan to keep it that way, and Casey Rong-Paladino was only

a small part of that plan. Arvicher had introduced criminals of far greater magnitude into the fresh society, and from all appearances it was clear that he planned to introduce even more. Casey did meet King Zack in the sprawling one floored knotty-pine paneled palace on the same day as his arrival. Zack extended a ring toward Casey and a Midnight Rider guard motioned for Casey to kiss it. If Casey had been more interested or even aware, he may have noted that the bulging ring was from a place called Wampaugh Preparatory School, class of 2000. The meeting was no longer than the kiss of Zack’s ring, and Casey was bustled off to a comfortable apartment located down one of the myriad hallways of the huge palace. He was provided with an opium pipe and a rather young prostitute, and we shall see no more of him until seven days later during one of King Zack and Queen Xenia’s interminable state banquets, a banquet to which Casey had been informed he was to attend as a court worker. The banquet was to commemorate some minor event in the life of the legendary John Crack, who, as we know, had long ago discovered the fault in the Earth’s surface which was to become Crackland in his honor but this, alas, came some time after his untimely and unexplained death. Spaghetti, baked ham, pizza and---surprisingly---hamburgers were spread out across the table.

King Zack, once in a fit of uncontrolled and unaccountable authority, had signed a royal edict banning the consumption of hamburgers and closing the already thriving chains of hamburger counters which had started dotting the streets and byways of Crackland. Like so many others of his edicts, Zack had done this on a whim. “People eat too many hamburgers,” he had said to the assembled court. “Wipe them out.” So as an added detail on the new society, hamburgers were illegal----except to the royal court and the privileged nobles who populated it. In all, the spread looked very Twenty-First Century American and therefore very tasty to Casey Rong-Paladino, who stood beside an armed Midnight Rider watching the guests take their seats and glancing quite observably at the pretty queen who sat alongside of the man whose ring he had once kissed as a greeting to a king. “Cool,” he said. “Hamburgers. Is there a chair here where I am supposed to sit?” “Yes” replied the Midnight Rider. “In fact, you have your own little table over at the side, and you will get to eat a little before even the royal family and their esteemed guest do.” “Cool,” said Casey, sliding into a schoolroom sort of desk upon which a uniformed servant placed a heaping tray of every food on the banquet table along with a goblet of red wine and a coke.

“I don’t drink wine,” said Casey, a bit overawed at his food. “You will need to take a sip today in honor of King Zack and Queen Xenia,” said the Midnight Rider gruffly. Casey did as requested and smacked his lips. Then the leather-clad Midnight Rider whispered in his ear that it was now his duty to take at least one bite of everything on the platter. “Cool,” said Casey, and he then complied by tasting each item of food. The entire assembly of noblemen and women were all staring at him, but Casey being Casey hardly noticed. “The pizza is terrible,” he grumbled. “Not enough cheese, too much crust.” The noble attendees continued to watch him and nod their heads. “I’m saving my appetite for the hamburger,” he exclaimed. “I haven’t had one of those sons of bitches since I was arrested.” The Grand Vizier nodded, giving the signal for everyone else to do the same. Little by little, Casey Rong-Paladino tried a little of each meat, fruit, soup and vegetable placed in front of him. “Don’t forget the coke,” said one of the young noblemen seated at the corner of the main table nearest Casey’s desk. Casey took a long swallow and sat back satisfied. “Well, do I get to dig in?” he asked. “Is anyone else here going to eat but me?” Another Midnight Rider standing to Casey’s opposite side pointed to the hamburger as if to say “Don’t forget that.”

Casey, who was raised on McDonalds and Burger Kings, wasted no time in grabbing the huge burger in two hands and taking a large bite. Then suddenly his mind went blank. He became unconscious and within seconds tumbled out of the desk seat, stone cold dead. The poison, most likely strychnine, worked very fast. A gasping hush fell over the assemblage as they watched the boy’s body careen to the floor. King Zack rose to his feet and glared at his guests. “Clear the table,” he roared and bring in the next round and don’t forget the next taster. As bad as things are getting, this could take all night.” The next taster, a small-time shoplifter from Montreal, was brought out. She tasted everything from the new serving and emerged smiling. King, Queen, nobles and Midnight Riders breathed a sigh of relief and settled down to a long meal, followed by even a longer speech by King Zack, a speech which assailed the would-be assassins and lavished self-praise on himself for having the prescience to have each morsel of his provender pre-tasted. Queen Xenia, sweet and enthralling as ever, patted her husband’s knee and

smiled. She searched through the crowd for her young pageboy consort, and then met the glance of her mentor the Grand Vizier Aaron Arvicher. Once again their scheme had failed. In one section of the massive kitchen, Taz Ten Zolan, who had slipped in wearing a disguise, darted unseen out of a side door and boarded the electric train for the Forbidden City. Having the most at stake, it was certain that he was also the most disappointed. IX. The erudite reflections of Professor Aaron Arvicher Aaron Arvicher PhD, political science Stanford University and one of the grand architects of the new colonial society of the Kingdom of Crackland, had always been very pleased with himself and his ability to construct a nearly perfect social order by staffing it with a monarchy and introducing basically harmless elements of threat and destruction. In his private diary dated in February of the year 2013, he wrote the following: Not only have I more than adequately proven that absolute monarchy in the style of Louis XIV of the House of Bourbon is the most stable and effective method of state governance, but I have maintained the fascination of the ordinary citizen with the smooth and sure workings of such an order by supplementing its essential sameness with elements that if left unchecked and unregulated could have caused major upheaval. Once again, I was inspired by the solidity of the

House of Bourbon under the Sun King Louis. Multiple plots had also swirled around his father Louis XIII, but in every case they were foiled by the actions of the shrewd ministers of the regime, namely the Cardinal Richelieu, to whom I personally owe a great debt of inspiration. I have brought to this new and uncharted world ultimately conquerable personages of disruption which have been, to the fascination of the general public eye, summarily and handily dealt with by a king who, having no particular qualms about squelching resistance, has emerged finally and completely as a hero in the public eye. The moth to the flame fascination with our King Zack and his less than trustable queen Xenia by the inhabitants of this land have, in effect, eliminated the need for debate in the long and slow-moving bowels of committees and councils and have caused our ruler to appear almost godlike in the eyes of modern Americans who came here to establish a new order and found its most effective genesis in an old one. I congratulate myself on this account and shall continue, as ever, to provide both admirable distractions and needed intrigue to a state order that could have descended into the vaporous pits of public debate but which instead has risen like a giant and omnipotent hawk, face to the sun, against all threats imposed upon it. In a somewhat later and more concrete entry into his memoirs the aging professor wrote tersely: I have ultimately concluded that the noble act of regicide, which in past eras was

so often accomplished through the medium of poisoned food, should now be finally replaced with a more modern technique, one that involves a lethal dose of fatal poison delivered on a small and subtle dart, shot from a distance into the body of the monarch, a poison which will deliver to its victim, in this case Zack Hammer-Twift, King of Crackland, a painless exit from both life and the burdens of kingship. I believe that such is in keeping with the precepts of the 17th and early 18th Centuries, that period which has always the most profoundly interested me with its incisive wisdom regarding the correct and lasting royal governance of states. By some chance of espionage, Taz Ten Zolan, father of Micah the Bastard, had surreptitiously procured a printed copy of these musings and others and thus learned why a court adherent had been sent purposely to him to teach him something about the art of the blowgun and its lethal darts. At first, his response was "bullshit," but as days passed he came to see the definitive wisdom in the Grand Vizier's words. Food poisoning was getting him nowhere, and his life's obsession, the beautiful Xenia, was getting bored with the evident futility of the exercise itself. If his son Micah the Bastard were ever to ascend to the throne, a more creative methodology was required, so Taz began, at first reluctantly, practicing with a small straw-sized "pea shooter" and darts dipped in yet another fast-acting toxic brew.

As for the general and usually blissful populace of Crackland, the machinations behind the throne provided very little cause for concern and were, as correctly predicted by Professor Aaron, simply a "court diversion," an intrigue which kept the citizens temporarily in thrall and caused many of them to stop missing the often raucous variety of the world they had abandoned for this one. Small controversies arose from time to time and action committees of no power or sway assumed the spotlight for brief moments, but much of what passed for culture in the new colony was exactly as Professor Arvicher had prognosticated: a mild and somewhat humorous interest in court intrigue and its ultimate resolution by a monarch, who although young, seemed perfect for the role and always escaped unscathed. And Xenia: Her attraction to Taz was, admittedly, mild, but he provided for her another distraction in an idyllic life that seemed to have no peaks or valleys. For some maternal reason she actually did prefer Micah to Prince Jeremiah, and as time passed became impatient with the failed attempts of her once-teenage lover to dispose of her husband. It was hard to judge exactly what Xenia felt because in reality she did not know herself. Having been reared in the lap of upper class luxury in the Hudson Valley, she retained a general and lasting disdain for what she called the "common folk" and wished

only that Taz would somehow succeed and make the humdrum world of her court life evolve into something new and more exciting. And finally Professor Arvicher wrote in one of his final entries that States are maintained mostly by the unrestrained awe of the masses. The existence or nonexistence of a king is an arbitrary thing. One king can be replaced by another and nothing changes except the general thrall in which the public is held. It may be Zack's time to go, or it may not. The mass populace will accept, as it always has, the results of highborn actions which hover above them, and all will prosper. It was on this note that Taz Ten Zolan blew one of his poisoned darts into an embezzler named Camcomet and witnessed how fast his target died. Taz became enthusiastic. Xenia became enthusiastic. Micah the Bastard continued with his archery and video war games and took little notice. It was sure at that moment that soon he would become heir to a throne. This was the ardent wish of Xenia and Taz. But not entirely of Aaron Arvicher, as we shall shortly see. Aaron Arvicher was indeed functioning as the éminence grise, the darkness behind the throne of King Zack. His Rasputin-like qualities had already sufficiently convinced Queen Xenia that her life would be more secure, fun-

filled and happy with Zack out of the way and the direct line of succession handed over to her first son Micah the Bastard. The problem of her legitimate child Jeremiah was something he was prepared to deal with as well. Jeremiah, now 12 years old, had not shown much interest in kingship as a boy. He lacked the physical charisma to interest the masses and was generally mediocre in horsemanship, archery and the other matters which counted, and Arvicher was already plotting to have him confined to either an early grave or a role in Crackland that would subordinate his authority to that of a crown prince instead of a king. But one day, while watching him play a video war game much favored on the surface, Arvicher realized at length that Jeremiah would probably be less trouble and far more malleable as a monarch than Micah, who had been reared in the Forbidden City as a pampered brat. Jeremiah displayed the right degree of mediocrity, an element of personality that was much desired in the ruling family of Crackland. Micah, from all appearances, lacked humility, called him an old man, which he now was, and started showing nascent signs of becoming a festering problem. On the same day, following an outdoor festival staged by the royal family to honor the first generation of children born in Crackland, Arvicher, dressed appropriately in flowing purple robes embroidered with crescent moons, a design that he himself had concocted for the office of Grand Vizier, milled about the strolling crowds in which nobles from the court of King Zack, most

of whom had simply been Zack's high school buddies thirteen years before in Carverton, mingled openly with the fresh-faced settlers and their young families, Arvicher noted a caped figure darting about in the crowds. It was odd to see someone wearing a large brimmed hat and a shiny cape, as the outdoor occasion was not a costume event. In fact, few were. The king and queen had a kind of modified uniform that each wore, and Arvicher as Grand Vizier wore robes as we have noted, but in general the accepted dress style for all sorts of work in Crackland was what was once known on the surface as "reduced business casual," which meant essentially loose fitting sleeveless shirts for both men and women and blue jeans, which were the standard uniform of nearly everyone in the kingdom, and this by royal edict. Arvicher stood his ground behind a tamale stand and watched as the caped man darted here and there, acting as if he were invisible, which he certainly was not. Already a couple of the Midnight Riders, who wore leather vests and chaps appropriate to their motorcycle utility, had taken notice of this odd intruder. Arvicher observed long enough to identify the man as none other than Taz Ten Zolen, who was clumsily manipulating around with a tiny blowgun in his hand in an evident attempt to get within shooting range of Zack Hammer-Twift, his old Wampaugh classmate and one time rival. Arvicher fell into a rage of disgust. It would be only a matter of minutes before Taz became as obvious as a rat in a cradle. How had Arvicher ever pinned his state upheaval hopes on such a dope? How did Taz feel he would accomplish a neat and seamless

assassination dressed like a Halloween idiot? He was playing some kind of fantasy role, based on movieland stereotypes that simply had no place in the new colony. Suddenly, Professor Arvicher felt a slight tug at the side of his robe. It was Queen Xenia who had slipped away from her husband found Arvicher in the crowd. Without saying a word, Xenia rolled her eyes admiringly at Taz Ten Zolen. "He's going to do it," she whispered. "Today is the day." Then she blended back into the crowds and began sampling pre-taste-tested food items once again and chatting with the ladies in waiting, who like everyone else were wearing blouses and jeans. Somewhere off on a hill nearby, Jeremiah shot past rather skillfully on his hulking quarter horse. The boy was actually learning to ride. Perhaps he could learn other things too, thought Arvicher. Within milliseconds, Arvicher changed his mind on the entire plan. He would spread a different sort of mayhem in the royal entourage, one that would make a lasting impression on the public. He made a quick gesture with his thumb to Wade Thorne, president of the Midnight Riders. It didn't take Thorne long to see what the gray eminence wanted. The intruder had been obvious from the start, and Thorne as well as his terrifying brother Wyndall had been watching him since the outset. Acting on cue, the two moto-clubbers surrounded the unhappy Taz Ten Zolen and apprehended him in full sight of all present. One

of them raised the dart gun above his shoulders and extracted the poisoned shaft from its mouth. "Another would-be assassin," shouted Wade loud enough that nearly everyone around could see and hear him. "Take him into safe keeping." Queen Xenia's jaw dropped as her lover was dragged forcibly away from the gathering and back toward the knotty-pine palace. Her consternation was not lost on King Zack either. He studied her expression for several seconds, and it seemed to dawn on him suddenly that Xenia may have been involved in several of the recent attempts on his life. It would be just like her, he thought. But he said nothing and turned back to his guests, confident that those who attended him would handle the situation with ease. Later that day he would proclaim yet another public holiday to commemorate the capture of another assassin. Professor Aaron Arvicher had by now vanished into the crowd, his prolific mind filled with a much different scheme. His first move was to take an elevator to the first near-surface landing into the crack of Crackland, a place where he could almost feel the knife blades of the Arctic cold. From this vantage point, he did what every other citizen did when allowed access to an upper ledge. He pulled out his mobile phone and made a call. It was, not unsurprisingly, to an agency in New York City, several thousand kilometers distant from the polar winds which blew just over his head at the mouth of

felicitous Crackland. A woman answered his call without screening. It was Ariadne Clementis, who now owned the agency, a coup she had handily carried off after exposing Ryder Rylan to his wife as a fraud and an adulterer, as such had been her plan all along. X. Conclusion: The Peaceful Continuation of the Crackland Monarchy The successful resolution of court intrigue, as Arvicher knew, more than effectively proved the value of the monarchy to the masses, and within hours after his capture, Taz Ten Zolen, bereft of his ridiculous costume, was brought into the throne room in front of King Zack and a full audience of both royal and common observers. Queen Xenia had pled some illness and was not present when, without trial, Ten Zolen confessed his entire role in the assassination attempt and this without implicating his co-conspirators Xenia and Arvicher, who he felt would intervene at any time and find a way to exculpate him---perhaps in the last minute. But the regime required swift justice, something always lacking in America, and the one-time bully Butch McGreevey appeared almost instantly after the King's ruling for a death penalty. Zack had always wanted to rid himself of

Taz anyway, ever since early high school, and he had no clear idea of just why the father of his wife's illegitimate child had been living in Crackland anyway, but his curiosity was cut short when McGreevey, now an inveterate slayer with a big chipped axe to prove it, showed up with a contingent of Midnight Riders and dragged Taz into the courtyard. Those who wanted to watch, and they were many, did so. Those who didn't turned their backs or made excuses for leaving the palace court room. Only a slight shriek arose from the standing audience when the steel of McGreevey's experienced blade chunked into the now blood drenched tree stump, severing forever the head of yet another rich boy from the Hudson Valley who had no doubt been living the wrong fantasy in the wrong place for a long, long time, and during a wrong time at that. Ariadne Clementis enjoyed the full hospitality of the former prom king that she had once helped elevate to a throne in a place that for years she didn't even know existed. Escorted around the country like a visiting princess, she sampled the bounty of the new colony and was met with unflagging respect and deference everywhere. Her companion, a rather dazzling girl from Usher Hills, New York, a girl who heretofore had made weak plans to attend Swarthmore, was given the same spectacular luxury, but not in the countryside but rather in a plush palace apartment reserved for only the highest of visiting dignitaries. Her ego flattered, for she too had once and recently been a prom queen, she began to like the place and its inhabitants. And although her suitor,

a king, was a decade older than her, she began to like him too and look forward to his almost daily visits. A chambermaid or some other ungoverned or perhaps planted mouthpiece informed her in confidence that yes, she would most likely become his queen some day. The thought of becoming yet another queen in a place as warm and lovely as this one pleased her more than the idea of college. Besides, her mother and father would have the privilege of living, at least part time, with her here too. Surely this must be paradise. "Surely this must be paradise," cooed Ariadne Clementis at the start of what was to become that year's most glamorous royal event. Languidly, she stretched out on a royal davenport next to King Zack as the seedy Stanford professor whose name she had never really known, now dressed in some strange get-up that contrasted with the polo shirt casual of the attending crowd, stood up and calmly read a list of charges against one Xenia Vanderlaan, former Wampaugh Preparatory High School senior prom queen, and of late Queen of the New Colony of the Kingdom of Crackland and its Associated Territories. The list was long, and Arvicher droned impressively over every syllable. Collusion, adultery, sloth, etc. The main charge was, naturally, attempted conspiracy to regicide. Ariadne, who had clawed her way to the top once in another world far removed, was not stirred by the severity of the crimes. Rather she admired the

fact that Xenia still wore what looked like her 2000 prom dress without her stomach bulging this time. She toasted as a round of drinks were passed to all present. Then she became one of the standing observers as Butch McGreevey's axe did what Butch McGreevey's axe was designed to do. Seeing the gratification and merriment which surged forward following the death of Xenia, she sensed a general awareness of peace, order and, above all, happiness. She rolled over on her settee and looked into the eyes of King Zack. "Surely this must be paradise," she said. And for most in attendance on that most festive day, it certainly was. ____________________________ Devon Pitlor ////** -- November, 2010

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