Premiered – April Fools' Day, 2004
Earl strode about town, ready to barter, confident in his ability to find an evening's nourishment for Varenna and himself. 'This was going to be no problem at all. Yes sir! This was going to be duck soup! Easy as pie! Like slicing through hot butter! Delicious, melted butter. Apple pie and...' Why was everything reminding him of food? 'No matter! Everything was looking up! Everything was going to be fine!'
Well, maybe. Eventually, Earl realized that he had no idea of where he was going or how he was supposed to barter. Or with what. Or, inasmuch as he was still a victim of the "Shunning", with whom. It occurred to him that these minor difficulties might very well pose a slight problem.
As he stopped to look around, all the while a hint of bewilderment trying to reassert itself, Earl noticed that he was near the "greenbelt", that lovely patch of underground sewage systems lined up neatly behind the rows of aristocratic homes of the upper, upper -- but nevertheless, lower than Earl's -- class. Nowhere else in the fiefdom did there exist such a lovely patch of green. Clearly the pretenders to aristocracy knew how to nourish their green belt.
It was a decidedly pleasant place, he thought, with all the trees, shrubs, and flowers, not to mention the small, discrete signs promising imminent doom for trespassers. It was an idyllic place where young deer could be befriended by small rabbits. Where small rodents could raise families and strive to be discovered by Walt Disney. Where small kittens could roam free, rolling in the grass, playing with balls of brightly colored knitting yarn. Where undesirables could be kept out with barbed wire, guard dogs, and claymore land mines.
Earl could not help but smile and enjoy the atmosphere. There was the sense of calm and cool mountain greenery. With a sense of relaxation and expectation, he took a deep breath of the pervading aroma.
He very nearly gagged. Earl's breathing and sensory apparatus were not detecting just the natural smells of such natural aromas as stockyards and putrefying barnyards, but an odd assortment of artificial and man-made odors, any one of which could sear an unsuspecting lung. For a moment he thought that perhaps the wind had shifted and was now blowing from the direction of the local and quaint, beauty salon. Or the aristocratic sewage lagoons had backed up. Or the air of the formerly semi-enchanted valley and its fiefdom was now simply foul. In any case, Earl took greater care in his next breath.
But that too was unpleasant. Abruptly, he coughed in response to the air, or whatever it was that was temporarily suspended in the billowing currents. Then his side raised storm warnings with a series of sharp pains. His neck sided with his side and became sore in three places at once. Then his lower back decided to join his pain in the neck and dared him to even think about bending over. 'What was going on,' Earl wondered? 'What was happening?'
Earl's intuition rushed to the rescue, promising to explain the rapid series of physical signals his body was now sending forth. He had asked and his body was now going to tell him. Earl, his intuition stated in its most explicit terms, was feeling bad. His intuition might have termed the condition, psychosomatic, brought on by the stress of the day's events, but figured that his conscious mind was not quite ready for that. His intuition would start with feeling bad and move on to the advanced concepts for his conscious mind at a later time.
Such a condition of feeling bad might not seem to be all that astonishing to the average reader. But royalty being what it was, and Earl being royalty, our hero had never before experienced feeling bad. In the circles of wealth and aristocracy, it just wasn't done. Being rich had always prevented all manner of pain and suffering.
But Earl felt it now. The only question in his mind was: What does one do under these circumstances? He tried to think, to search in his mind, to recall some hint of advice bestowed upon his receptive youth while on his grandmother's knee -- his kindly and wise old Grandmother.
"Get the hell off of my knee!" came to mind, but Earl suspected that such advice was not especially relevant to the current problem. But then he remembered the advertisements of Apothecaries' Unlimited, a fledgling company into which he had invested a considerable amount of money.
'Have a headache?' Earl heard the clever jingle in his mind repeat itself, 'Not to worry. Keep doing what you're doing even though it's a pain. And take Destructoache ! That way, you can continue whatever caused the headache, and charge ahead! Don't listen to those awful warning signals from your body! What does your body know? Let Destructoache put them all to flight! Destructoache ! For whatever ails you! It can wipe out anything, including headaches, bodily functions, whatever!'
'Wow!' Earl thought. 'Just what I need. And even better, now I know where to go!'
Earl fairly skipped away, ignoring the pains, singing to himself. "I'm off to see the apothecary. The wonderful apothecary of Earl. Because, because, because, because. Because of all the..." Earl slowed as he realized that he didn't know the reason. Fortunately, it didn't matter inasmuch as he soon arrived at the very source of Destructoache !
If Earl had been impressed with the bank's decor, Apothecaries' Unlimited put the bank to shame. The sheer massiveness of the towering funnels, belching out the residues from the production of a billion Destructoache tabs, combined with the glass curtained, years-ahead-of-its-time, modern architectural world corporate headquarters, was enough to make anyone gasp. Mostly for air. Flower gardens sprung up everywhere, trees lined the boulevard, small herds of laboratory animals grazed nonchalantly in the surrounding rolling hills, and everything, I mean everything, was spotlessly clean.
Earl, being used to the glory of Cameseldom, was still quite impressed. In fact, the castle had never been quite this brilliant, quite this overwhelming. Earl could even feel the slightest sense of inferiority for his beloved Cameseldom when stacked up against the edifice now standing before him. As he walked with less confidence to the front doors, he turned his head first one way and then the other, gawking at the luxurious grounds and the magnificent architecture.
Then without warning, the great crystalline doors opened at his approach, welcoming him in Earl's accustomed royal fashion. The breath of cool, refreshing and scented air greeted him as he walked into the largest lobby he had ever seen! Broad trails of imported marble meandered through acres of carefully manicured grass. Small lakes and forests were scattered about the room, along with at least one large animal preserve and three aviaries. Grand staircases extended in all directions, some to upper floors, some to basement laboratories, some going nowhere, just for show. The place was huge!
To his left, along an immaculate marble counter, running perhaps half the length of an average soccer field, sat a single person, a young lady, who seemed particularly amused. Earl gauged this by the fact she kept laughing and giggling, but about what, he had no clue. She was simply laughing to herself, with barely pause for breath. Obviously a very happy child, Earl thought. Her title on the gold and black plaque before her said, "Receptionist." As he walked up to the laughing receptionist, he felt himself already beginning to share in her mirth.
"Hello," he said, and then chuckled himself. The young receptionist seemed not to hear him, giggled and then rolled her eyes. Earl assumed that he would have to be more explicit.
"I'm here to see Doug."
The lady turned to Earl and giggled some more. But still said nothing.
"Doug... The company president..."
Finally, the lady mumbled something which could be construed to sound like, "Doug," thereby providing the first hint of mental activity of her part.
"Yes," Earl encouraged. "I'm here to see Doug!"
"Okay," was her summary response.
Earl thought for a moment. Then, "Where is he?'
"Oh! Penthouse," the lady struggled to convey. "Follow the red line. On the green staircase. And stop on the blue floor."
"Thank you," Earl answered.
Then the receptionist began laughing harder and slid like a drugged snake to the floor behind the long counter, holding her sides all the way. Earl walked away, wondering, while he followed the red line, up the green staircase, etcetera.
After an extended climb (one suitable for training Himalayan mountaineers), and during which Earl's various pains made themselves known in ever increasing degrees, he came upon the sought after blue floor. There he found two ornate, double doors. Earl being Earl, he simply walked right in. Having neglected to knock, he found Doug with a drink in one hand and a beautiful woman in the other. The best thing that could be said under the circumstances was that both were fully clothed and sitting on a lone bar stool in front of a marble and glass, wet bar.
Earl was at first somewhat embarrassed, until Doug, turning and looking at him with sleepy eyes and through a heavy fog, managed to recognize the intruder. Then with an imitating voice sufficient to impress John Wayne himself, Doug said, "Hey! Look who's here! It's the Great Earl himself!"
"No shit, Red Rider!?" The woman was obviously wiped and slowly wilting even as she mouthed the words.
Doug rose from his bar stool, shed the woman (who then began to collapse in slow motion), and approached Earl with a big smile and outstretched hand. "Hey man! What brings you way out here in the boonies?" Then Doug winked. "You huntin' for bunnies?" With that, Doug reared back with laughter, spilling his drink. Whereupon, he immediately took one last swig of the now empty glass and, licking his chops on the now-imaginary liquid refreshment, tossed the glass over his shoulder. The glass bounced on the floor, as plastic glass is apt to do, and rolled to rest beside the woman, now uncomfortably draped in a small heap upon the floor.
Earl smiled at the reference to bunnies (he had always called his twin chambermaids, bunnies, whenever he was feeling frisky) and said with as much wit and casualness as possible, "Just dropped by..."
"Well hells bells, Earl's babies! Come on in and sit a spell." Doug waved his arms inward. Then back outward. "Or better yet, let me show you around!" With that he turned Earl and maneuvered him out of the suite with about as much grace as a drunken bull elephant -- which was understandable, considering bull-headed Doug's slightly inebriated condition. Within seconds, they were leaning down the hall, in something of a headlong race, designed to prevent Doug from falling on his face. "How's things going, old buddy?"
Earl was rather pleased at the camaraderie, but wondered why Doug was so noticeably different from everyone else. Still, Earl could think of no reason not to enjoy the offered friendliness. 'Might as well play along,' he thought. "Well, to be quite honest, things haven't been going too well. At least today."
"Really!? I wouldn't know much about it. I've been high all morning." Then Doug chuckled. "Up here on the top floor, you know. I'm always higher than most. Get it?"
Earl said he did. But he didn't.
"With so much work piling up, I have to keep the old nostrils to the grindstone, plugging away, day after day!" Doug's 'hard-work tape' quickly replayed itself. Several times. After those several renditions, Doug abruptly stopped Earl in his tracks and leaned toward a long stretch of windows that they had just come upon. "See out there? Those big jobbers? Those are what it's all about, Earl baby! The backbone of our company! The things that make it all worthwhile! Yes Sir!" Doug paused for just a second, grabbing breath to get the next line right. "Those are the Vast Vats of Veritable Visions of Virus Vindicators!" Doug smiled. "Not only are they making tons of medicine, but the fumes are enough to make the entire fiefdom sick." Doug winked at Earl. "And thereby ensure a ready market for our chemicals, eh what?" Doug roared with laughter. Then in a mellow, self-pleased mood, he added, "Just love to point that little irony out!"
Earl was impressed. Primarily with the Vast Vats. "Heavens! I never realized it was such a big plant. This is quite an operation you've got here!"
"Oh hell yes! And this is just a small fraction." For a moment Doug tried to remember what constituted the other fractions, but then surged ahead to the finale. "So what else did you have in mind laying your eyeballs on, eh?"
Earl glanced around, but Doug was quicker on the uptake.
"This here's the hallway! Pretty classy, huh?
"Oh yes," Earl answered, "Very nice." Then while Doug laughed at his own private joke, Earl glanced around with a more discerning eye. Then seeing someone he thought he recognized and trying to do his part to keep the conversation going, he asked Doug, "Who is that handsome fellow over there?"
"Where? Oh yes! I see him. Hey! I really do see him! Amazing!"
"Yes, but who is he?"
"Professor Twaddle, one of our glorious University's finest researchers. Damn fine guy! Finest kind all the way!"
"Yes, I think I've heard of him."
"I'm sure you have! He's the best! Really top drawer! Finest kind all the way, as they say! First came into prominence by the invention of the Pneumatic Pill Funnel, that wonderful little device for taking up to 50 pills at a time. Uses an aerosol spray to flat blow them little suckers down into the belly! You've undoubtedly heard about it! Helluva piece of technology!"
"Can't say that I have."
"SURE you have! It was in all the journals! Brilliant piece of work! I just can't tell you the respect I have for that man. He's so top drawer that when he came along, they had to add drawers for him!"
"Oh, I see. He's an inventor?"
"And a researcher!" Doug emphasized. "One top-drawer researcher! Finest kind! Why just recently, at our glorious University's laboratories -- where by the way he is the Head Honcho -- Professor Twaddle came up with conclusive evidence that our company's recently patented Serpentine Salving Solution can, in fact, cure ringworm, spotted giraffe syndrome, and fourteen kinds of cold sores. Incredible stuff! And Professor Twaddle's work proved it all! Great research!! Not to mention the fact that his work has made our triple S formula the absolute darling of the stock market."
"Sounds very impressive!"
"Worth a whole load of Whoopees, too!"
Earl tried to smile, no longer quite following the conversation's gist. Then, gesturing to the departing professor, he asked, "What's in the bag he's carrying? It looks very heavy."
"Gold, I imagine. Undoubtedly his payment as a consultant to our fair company. The professor usually makes about three trips a week here, just to pick up his fees."
Earl came up short on that one. "He's a consultant for your company?"
"Yup. Been one for years."
"And he supposedly did the independent verification on your drugs?"
"Absolutely! The man is really top drawer!"
"Isn't that a conflict of interest?"
"I mean... If he's paid by you... He can't really be independent..."
"Sure he can! There's no conflict! Besides, it's all been disclosed! Plus which, the man has ethics!! I mean, hells bells Earl's babies, Professor Twaddle would never deign to fudge any results just in order to make a few extra bucks! Ridiculous! This is the man who formalized both the famous 'Finagler's Theorem' and ‘Fudge's Factor'. You're talking about a man of the highest possible caliber."
"We're talking about the same man, aren't we? The guy who just shoved that old crippled woman out of his way?"
"Of course. But hey, don't worry about Ole Cripple! She's been like that for as long as anybody here can remember. She just hangs around here, waiting for a cure. We just keep telling her it won't be long. And it won't. Just as soon as she rustles up a couple of billion Whoopees, we'll throw a complete research effort at her problem and definitely come up with something! As a matter of fact, I've already got a brand name for it. I'm going to call it Placebo! What do you think of that, Earl's babies?"
Doug agreed, matter-of-factly, "Hey! They always have been!" Then he abruptly began laughing out of control -- except for the wall he was leaning his head against.
"But I wonder," Earl countered, "Don't you have enough money to develop a cure for her already?"
Doug straightened slightly. "Naaah. Wouldn't be cost effective. There just ain't enough people with money who have her problem. It would take months -- maybe even a year or two -- for us to recover our costs."
"But your last quarter's profits were enormous! As an investor, I was very
impressed! We've been making money hand over fist!"
"Oh yeah. The company. Right." Doug thought for a moment. "We did do right well. Of course, that was mostly from our running drugs on the side. The legitimate drug business is not quite the obscene money maker it used to be." He gave Earl a quick wink, as if to a true comrade and coconspirator.
The wink failed to reach Earl. "Drug running?"
"Used to run dogs, but running drugs is a lot more fun. You get to meet so many interesting people. Foreigners and the like. Or the fanatics from the Prince's Perennial Paupers Precinct, who always want to shut down your operation. Of course, they change their minds pretty quick when they find out they can get richer than the Prince by just looking the other way."
"But aren't those drugs illegal?"
"Why do you think there's so much money in them? Make them legal and they'd be a dime a dozen. No profit in that."
"I can imagine." But he couldn't. Earl simply looked bewildered.
Doug reared back again. "What else can I show you?"
Earl recalled his original reason for the visit. "Oh! Actually, I had been feeling rather poorly and thought perhaps I might pick up some medicinal cure."
"Perhaps a Destructoache tab or two."
"Don't be absurd! We don't heal people! We only provide the drugs. For healing, you need a prescription!"
"From one of our greatest fans and supporters. I'm afraid you will have to visit a licensed, ordained, authorized, and legally reputable, bloodsucker."
"You know… a medico. They're the guys with the healing franchise. We never tread on their territory, and they never tread on ours!"
"Only way to do business. Avoid competing. Competition really fouls up the bottom line."
"I didn't know," Earl offered, thinking he should perhaps apologize for his lack of worldly understanding.
"Ain't too many people who do… which is damn fortunate. Otherwise, the whole house of cards would come a-tumbling down."
Earl grimaced. "So, you think I need to see a..."
"Bloodsucker. Just be sure to ask for Apothecaries' Unlimited's especially cultured and immaculately bred leeches. They're the best that money can buy! Which is, of course, the only way you can get them." Doug roared again.
"Leeches?" Earl tried to smile, even though he couldn't quite make it.
"Best way to suck blood! Of course, it's not the only way, but it usually elicits less resistance from the suckee."
After a brief lecture on the advantages of blood letting, things began to move more rapidly. Doug began by pleading a very heavy schedule of work in order to shorten Earl's visit. And before Earl became even aware of what was happening, "Druggie Doug" (as he liked to be called) had graciously escorted Earl to the exit chute and quickly bid him farewell. Before Earl could turn to thank his drugged friend, Earl was already cruising downward at increasingly higher speeds. In fact, Earl's thank you, due to Doppler shift, was probably not even intelligible to Druggie Doug, who was still standing on the blue floor watching his guest plummet downward and trying to remember what he was supposed to do next.
The chute was a marvelous exit, Earl thought, as he whizzed past the multi-colored floors. At the same time though, the loop at the end was a bit much. And of course, the small pond in which one ultimately landed was just a trifle overgrown with algae. Still, Earl had to admit that the exit chute was preferable to trekking down the stairs from the blue floor all the way to the lobby. His friend had really saved him a long, downward journey.
For several minutes, Earl remained sitting in the pond, up to his shoulders with what was turning out to be strangely aggressive algae. (You never know what you're going to create with waste products.) Then Earl spotted his old companion, the stork-like, dragon-flying, faulty rudder controlled creature of his dream and day, as the aerial threat made a few loops about the belching, towering infernos. The poor creature seemed to be coughing a lot. And there was something else about its appearance that was different. Earl didn't know what it was, but something was different.
No matter, Earl thought, time to find a bloodsucker. Maybe a licensed one in lieu of what was apparently living in the small pond, disguised as algae.
Chapter 4 – A Flight of Friends
Chapter 6 – B. S.
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