Part 2

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Ken was mopping the kitchen floor one afternoon in late December when a distraught young woman burst into the room.

"You must come quickly!" she urged, speaking with a heavy Russian accent. "Ask no questions, and please hurry--follow me!" She beckoned frantically to Ken, who took this heavenly opportunity to escape from his drudgery, no questions asked.

They quickly sped across the road. Hoping that no one would apprehend him, Ken raced on, trying to keep up with her brisk pace. Their sprint ended at the door of the infirmary, where he hesitated a fraction of a second.

The building's interior was even bleaker than that overcast December day. 'Where am I?' thought Ken. 'It looks like something out of the X- Files.' The walls, green in color, appeared dingy from the dim fluorescent lighting. The corridors stretched out into eternity, or what seemed like it. A low humming sounded in his ears, the nature of which slowly graduated to a pulsing, unnerving rhythm.

"There is something I must show you," said the mysterious young woman. "Our research facilities are just around the corner...."

"Wait a second," said Ken. "I don't know if I should be here."

"I have my orders. They come straight from the top," continued the Russian. Her silky brown hair perfectly framed her oval face; her neck a graceful pillar of white attracted Ken's attention. He studied her luxurious eyelashes in contented wonderment. "My name is Renata Zerlowski. And yours?" Of course, she already knew very well who he was.

Ken forced himself to ignore the rapturous voice. "Who are those men in lab coats?" he asked, glancing nervously over his shoulder.

"They are doctors, of course. Who else would they be?" Renata laughed softly. She stopped in front of a beige colored door and withdrew some keys from her pocket.

"What's in there?"

"You will see." She unlocked the door and stepped in. "Would you like to know what happened to Gary?"

Ken looked up sharply. "How do you know about that?"

Renata shrugged. "We see many patients in the infirmary."

"They never found him-"

"Ah! But someone did--someone who took great pains to conceal the body."

Ken shouted, "I don't know what happened to Gary, and neither do you. Stay away from me! I mean it!"

The young woman retained her calm composure. "Look around. What do you see?"

"Snakes!"

"Are they not beautiful? This is my very own gallery of exotic, poisonous snakes. Twenty years ago, the CIA began conducting experiments on these poor creatures. But the experiments went wrong," said Renata. "Dreadfully wrong."

Ken did not speak. Obviously, this was just another cover-up by the federal government. But why did she let him see it? And exactly what went wrong with the experiments? While Ken pondered these questions, Renata inconspicuously made her exit.

A loud voice startled Ken. "Hey, you! Are you authorized to be here?" inquired the MP.

"Yes, sir," answered Ken.

"By whose authority?"

"Doctor Zerlowski let me in, sir."

"Zerlowski? I've never heard that name before," said the MP. "I'm taking you in!"

"But you can't!" exclaimed Ken. "I've never been near a jail in my whole life! I never even smoked or drank or gambled! Honestly!"

"Well, I'll let you off this time with a warning," said the MP grudgingly. He gave Ken a hostile look as the latter fled down the corridor.

Ken ran all the way back to the mess hall. His forehead and chest were covered in sweat, and he breathed a sigh of relief when at last he returned to familiar surroundings.

"You look as if you'd seen a ghost," Frankie said.

"I don't know what the hell I've seen!" Ken checked his watch; the hands pointed to twelve forty-five. "It's only been twenty minutes."

Frankie had one qualm about joining the Marines. He still missed his long hair. He just didn't feel the same since they shaved it off. "Dude, Ken. Aren't these brush cuts a bummer deal?"

"Not really," said Ken.

"How can you say that? They're totally conforming."

"I've always had a brush cut."

"Oh," said Frankie. Even though he'd been off drugs for almost two months, he still had trouble understanding Ken. 'Why would anyone want to look like Forrest Gump?' he thought.

"Where's Eddie?" asked Ken.

"Now, don't start up with that again," warned Frankie. "Eddie's right over there--well, he was a minute ago."

Eddie was standing directly behind Ken at the moment. He and Frankie conspired to have a little fun with their comrade.

"Um, actually," Frankie went on, "I don't remember seeing him at all today. Maybe he wandered off somewhere. Anyway, this ravioli is sublime. To die for."

"You can't be serious! Swamp Guy's still loose, and you're raving about the ravioli!"

"What? Swamp Guy's still loose? Well, there you have it! Between him and World War III in the making, I can't keep track of everyone, can I?"

"World War III? Damn hippie, you can't even keep your wars straight!" yelled Ken. "First Gary, now Eddie's gone! Who's next, Frankie? It's sure not going to be me!"

"Jesus Christ, calm down!" Eddie interjected. Ken jumped. "We were just fooling around.

"You think it's funny?" Ken yelled.

Frankie sobered up. "I'm sorry, man. I never knew you were taking it this badly."

Ken avoided any eye contact. "There's someplace you don't know about," he said, "where scientific experiments are being done. I think they know what happened to Gary."

Eddie said cautiously, "There's some secret research laboratory here? On the base?"

"In the infirmary," said Ken. "Some of their experiments went wrong. At least, that's what Renata told me."

"Who's Renata?"

"The one who dragged me into the room full of snakes. I think she's Russian. And to think how much I hated that song 'Snakes.'" (Snakes was the song that Ken refused to play in high school, and so, he quit band.)

Frankie had no idea what Ken was talking about, but as he rarely did, it was of no consequence.

Ken went on. "Then the Renata lady disappeared, and this MP nearly arrested me! I ran out of that place as fast as I could!"

Eddie found his testament hard to believe. 'Oh, well,' he thought. 'The shock of Gary's death has finally got to him.' Out loud he said, "We better get to band practice now. You know how Wilkinson is about tardiness."

Lieutenant Wilkinson was in a bad temper when they arrived. Someone had put a frog in her desk, and she went into hysterics at the mere sight of it. Even her wig was in disarray.

"All right, you sorry excuses for men. Today we're going to play the 'Star Spangled Banner'--for three whole hours! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!"

"Excuse me, sir, I mean, madam," interrupted Ken. "Aren't you breaking a law here? It has to be a violation of some kind."

"Shut-up! I will not tolerate your impudence!" declared the lieutenant. Setting her mouth in a grim line, Wilkinson gesticulated with her arms in a wild manner.

Forty minutes later, when Ken had lost all hope of surviving to his nineteenth year, a knock miraculously sounded on the door. Their savior was General Custard, a favorite among the soldiers.

"Lieutenant Wilkinson, may I speak with you privately?" he said.

"Why, certainly." She blushed and readjusted her wig.

They stood talking outside for several minutes. When the lieutenant returned, she looked very sad indeed. "I'm afraid there's been a murder," she announced.

Gasps of astonishment arose from the ensemble.

"An employee from the CIA was poisoned. The name has not been released yet."

'I knew the CIA was here,' thought Ken. 'I just knew it.'

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"The only people who would have access to poison on this base are those in chemical warfare or the medical profession," Eddie reasoned. They were in the dormitory, and it was ten to midnight.

"Yeah, that's right," said Frankie. "Doctors know how to poison people to make it look like a heart attack."

"The victim probably knew too much about the snake experiment cover up thing, so they got murdered," said Ken. "That's the way I see it."

"Heavy man," said Frankie. "I wish I could see that place. You should've stayed longer, entered some top-secret confidential areas. Maybe Area 51 is somewhere in that building."

"Area 51? That can't be here!" Eddie snapped.

"How do you know?"

"Because it's not--we'd know if it were."

"Not necessarily." Frankie lowered his voice to an eerie baritone. "We could be standing on Area 51 as we speak!"

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In a little town up north of there, somewhere in New York State, three college freshmen were preparing for a road trip. They were going to visit Clara's aunt in Florida during the holiday season.

"This is going to be the best Christmas vacation ever!" exclaimed Clara. "No snow, no blizzards-"

"You're the only one of us with a car," said Shannon a little enviously. "Of course my family is so poor."

"Like mine's not? We got our first computer last year, and it all came out of my savings," said Clara.

Angie dragged her suitcases into the hall. "We have everything, right?"

"No," said Shannon. "We forgot the Illustrious One." She and Clara giggled hysterically, while Angie rolled her eyes.

"Talk all you want about him; I don't care," said Angie.

"I still can't believe he joined the Marines," said Shannon.

"No, it's the 'Marine Corps Band,'" Clara laughed. "Be all you can be!"

"Don't ask, don't tell!" added Shannon.

Angie paused to pet her dog, Molson. "He's shedding like crazy! Remind me to buy some fur control."

"Ok, sure. How's it going, Sergeant Molson the Beer?" greeted Clara, using his nickname. "See you in about two weeks, we're hitting the road!"

The three musketeers piled into Clara's auto and started their journey.

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"We have to get to the bottom of this!" whispered Ken feverishly. Frankie nodded absentmindedly. He was busy loading the barrel of his automatic rifle.

"Private Witman!" shouted Major Thomas. "Stop talking immediately."

Ken bowed his head and went back to scrutinizing his weapon. Despite his first apprehension about fighting, he soon became enthralled with the power it gave him. To feel that cold steel in his bare hands and pull back the trigger...slowly; then hear the loud report as the gun fired. It was somewhat exciting.

'Not as exciting as playing the saxophone, though,' Ken thought. 'Or unraveling that pesky murder business.'

He received an anonymous letter the following morning. His fingers trembled as they ripped it open; the piece of paper inside was neatly folded.

Ken read silently:

Private Witman, 1st class: My name is Renata Zerlowski, formerly involved in the KGB. I have been working in this country for several years and have made an important discovery that you will find very interesting. I have chosen you to share with the world my scientific breakthrough for three reasons. First of all, we are distant relations. Secondly, you seem to possess intellect and common sense. Thirdly, you are the sexiest man I have ever met. Meet me at the airbase this evening at nineteen hundred hours, and I will give you the rest of your instructions. Yours Faithfully, Renata Zerlowski

Ken did not know what to make of this.

"Hey, let me see that." Frankie snatched it out of his hands. "'The sexiest man'--what the hell is that about?" He quite doubled up from laughing. "I guess it comes from living in Russia all those years."

"Are you going?" Eddie asked eagerly.

"I don't know, it seems pretty dangerous," said Ken.

"Danger? With an exotic, Russian, woman scientist?"

"How old is she?" asked Frankie.

Ken looked flabbergasted. "How am I supposed to know that?"

"Twenty? Thirty? Forty?"

"No, no. Somewhere around twenty-eight," Ken guessed.

"Dude, I'll go with you," Frankie volunteered.

"Not me," said Eddie. "It sounds like a trap. You two go on without me; I've got my honor to think about."

They decided to go along with Renata's instructions and bribed an officer in order to avoid duties that evening, then snuck off to the airbase.

Ken searched everywhere for the elusive woman, but she was nowhere to be seen. Eventually they relinquished hope and sat down upon a large crate.

"What do you think it would be like to fly one of these planes?" said Frankie.

"Like heaven," sighed Ken. "Like flying away from all of my worries."

"Deep, man."

One of the pilots happened to be passing by and asked for the time.

"Seven thirty," answered Ken.

"Oh, and one more thing," the pilot said. "If you're waiting for that Russian woman, look no further. She's been thoroughly disposed of."

"What?"

"You're sitting on top of her."

"WHAT?" The boys quickly jumped to their feet. "In there--in the crate?" cried Frankie incredulously.

The man smiled maliciously. "You came too late. Now she's dead; they'll never know what happened to her. I'll fly this crate off to Zimbabwe and have the money all to myself."

"Like hell you will!" screamed Frankie. "You can't just go around murdering young, alluring, mysterious women scientists!"

"You want a bet? Now get out of here before I kill you, too!"

"C'mon, Frankie. Let the Swamp Guy catch him." Ken noticed the pilot's startled glance. "Yeah, that's right. I know about those experiments that went wrong before Renata made her final discovery. There's a monster running around somewhere, isn't there?

"You think you're pretty smart, don't you?"

"I'm smarter than you."

Ken went a little overboard there.

The pilot sneered. "Are you implying that a skinny little runt with nothing more to show for his life than an uncanny talent for music could possibly outwit the likes of moi?" The man snickered. "I have better things to do--my semi-automatic should take care of the job." The metallic gleam of the pistol showed dazzlingly in the moonlight, reminding Ken of his beloved saxophone.

"It's time to die for your country!" He fired the gun.

"I'm too young to die!" yelled Ken.

Ken and Frankie ran as they had never run before. With the speed of greyhounds their feet hardly touched the ground. After a while, running became the only thing they knew in the world, and everything else was forgotten in their race for survival.

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"How's medical school, Angie?" Clara wanted to know.

"Oh, it's great," said Ange enthusiastically. "My partner in lab is a really gorgeous surfer guy, and he's smart, too--I think he likes me."

"Angie! You ought to be paying more attention to your studies," chided Shannon.

"What do you think I'm doing? I have a 93% average."

Clara swerved to the right and slammed on her brakes, narrowly avoiding a body lying in the middle of the road.

"That's a person!"

"Is he dead?"

"How should I know? I'm not psychic!" Clara snapped.

"Angie's a med student. She can go check," said Shan.

Angie sprang to the rescue and knelt beside the prone body. She felt for his pulse and breathed a sigh of relief. "He's alive."

"A hit and run?" Clara was pacing back and forth anxiously.

"Doesn't look like it." The boy opened his eyes, seeing Angie's face for the first time.

"Where am I? Frankie--where's Frankie?" He made an attempt to rise, but fell back into Angie's outstretched arms.

"Get him something to drink," Angie ordered. Clara brought a cup of lemonade, which he consumed at once.

"Who are you?" he asked. "Where am I?"

"I'm Angelina, and you're in the middle of a road."

"Listen," said the boy. "Me and my friend were almost killed by this maniac last night, and you have to find him!"

"The maniac?"

"No! My friend Frankie!"

"Okay, we'll do our best," said Shannon without any hope.

"More water," he whispered.

Somehow they managed to get the stranger to his feet, and they returned to the side of the road. It was a lonely region where few passersby ever drove through.

Shannon and Clara went off to look for Frankie, calling his name at brief intervals. The swamp answered them with an eerie silence. The girls didn't realize how close they were to the spot where Frankie was hiding. He became puzzled by unfamiliar voices yelling his name. "Dude, how scary is that?" he mumbled.

"Frankie!" called Shannon one more time. In despair, she said dejectedly, "Clara, let's give it up. He's not out there."

"Yes I am," retorted Frankie, dismayed at her lack of faith.

"Oh, so you must be Frankie," said Clara, the rocket scientist.

"That other guy is pretty worried about you," said Shannon. "Are you all right?"

"Sure," said Frankie. "Just a little tired, that's all."

We interrupt this dialogue with a comment from Shannon Bardot. Shannon: I have to protest against typecasting. I am really not a pessimistic person. I am a feminist. And why does Angie get the cute med student? She's such a ditz. (Don't tell her I said that.) Furthermore, why did Gary have to die? He was cool.

Clara smiled at Frankie reassuringly, but he took this sign of friendship to mean something quite different.

"Gwendolyn? Is that you?"

"Um, no. My name is Clara."

"Really? Cause you look a lot like someone I used to know." Frankie gazed up at her emerald green eyes. "Clara--what a beautiful name."

Shannon tossed her silky black hair in a show of impatience. "Will you two cut out the mushy love scene and get on with it? We left Angie all alone back there with that hot guy. You know, he looks kind of familiar, come to think of it...."

Clara shrugged and held out her hand to Frankie. He allowed himself to be treated like an invalid as they waded out of the swampy meadow, his head on Clara's shoulder.

"Hey, Ken," Frankie called. "What in the world happened to you?"

"What the hell happened to you?" Ken shouted back.

"Well..." Frankie looked down at his mud coated uniform.

"My aunt's house isn't that much farther," said Clara. "You two can come with us, if you like. She lives in a groovy mansion."

They all agreed to visit the mansion, and twenty minutes later, Clara was standing on the front porch ringing the doorbell. In a few moments, the five youths were ushered into the immense parlor. Frankie and Ken gazed at everything in amazement, so diverse was the transition from the military base to the grandeur of her aunt's manor.

"I've never seen a finer abode," said Frankie.

"Oh, this is nothing. You should see the bedrooms upstairs," said Clara.

"Are you giving tours?" He grinned shyly.

"Oh, here comes Aunt Renata!" yelled Clara.

"What?" Ken exclaimed out of nowhere. "What's her name?"

The young woman entering the room had the same silky brown hair and luxurious eyelashes that Ken's Renata Zerlowski had. Was it? Yes, it was the same young, alluring, mysterious woman scientist! And Clara was--oh, no! Why didn't he recognize her before? She was the really weird psycho artist!

"Clara, dear, introduce me to your friends," said Renata.

"This is Shannon; she's majoring in environmental design. This is Angelina; she's a medical student. And Frankie and Ken are deserters we encountered on the way."

"You're Clara Darling! The weird girl from high school," Ken shouted with an accusing tone of voice.

Her face clouded in confusion. "What?"

"I remember you. We used to fight in Music Theory, and you called me Forrest Gump-"

"And you called me Cousin It." Clara smiled. "I remember you, Kenneth Witman. You haven't changed a bit. Well, maybe you're an inch shorter than I recall-"

"Private Witman, I demand an explanation," said Renata.

"What? It wasn't me; I didn't do it."

"You abandoned your post," she went on. "And to think I was about to trust you to deliver my top-secret biochemical formulas to the Canadian Prime Minister."

Shannon interrupted. "Ms. Zerlowski, do you mean to say that he is none other than Kenneth John Witman, also known as The Illustrious One?"

"Of course he's Ken Witman! Who did you think he was? My mailman?"

"Wait a second," said Ken. "Who was that guy who tried to shoot us?"

"My nemesis," Renata said. "He actually made you think I was dead? As if they could lay their hands on Renata Zerlowski. Good Lord, Ken, you have to stop believing everything you hear."

All ended well for the five companions. Renata eventually received the Noble Prize for her ground breaking discovery. (Nobody ever understood exactly what it was.) Angie got engaged to her really gorgeous surfer dude, and Frankie asked Clara to be his girl. The Swamp Guy got a role in George Lucas' new Star Wars movie. Shannon finally met her equal in life, a stockbroker in New York City, and Ken realized that no one is quite normal.