Terror from the Deep
(A "CHiPs"/"Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" Crossover)
by China Jade
It had been that rarest of Mondays in the life of a California Highway Patrol officer -- just an ordinary day.
No major accidents on the Los Angeles freeway; no smog advisories or major gridlocks. . .but best of all, no bizarre behavior from the motorists. Or at least not by "normal" Southern California standards, anyway.
Now the Men's Locker Room at CHP Central hummed with the sound of relaxed conversation as the officers changed into their street clothes at the end of the watch. But one voice was far louder than the others, and for several moments, a powerfully-built Hispanic man poured out a steady barrage of words.
"So Lisa asked me. . .uh, you do remember Lisa, right? She's that little red-haired waitress who works down at the Burrito Barn. She's the one with the 'I love Elvis' tattoo on her right arm, just in case you had her confused with Amy. Amy's the other waitress with blonde hair -- it's reddish blonde, so that's why I thought you might have the two of them mixed up. Just remember that Amy is the one with the pierced nostril and the unicorn tattoo on her left shoulder. Anyway, Lisa asked me what I thought she ought to wear to Grossie's pool party tonight, her gold lace-up bikini or the one piece leatherette suit with the hot pink tassels. I tried to tell her that it was pool as in 'eight ball,' not pool as in 'swimming,' but I don't think she was paying any attention. . ."
The overall effect of Frank Poncherello's monologue was very much like heavy artillery shelling above a peaceful English rose garden. And in a matter of seconds, the area around his locker was almost deserted, as his fellow officers found perfectly plausible reasons to be somewhere -- anywhere -- else.
Only one man still sat on the bench, and as he placed his neatly folded uniform in a canvas laundry bag, he appeared to be listening raptly to Ponch's verbal blitzkrieg. But as Ponch stuffed his own crumpled uniform into an equally crinkled paper sack, he glanced up and saw the glazed look in his audience's eyes.
"And speaking of people who aren't paying attention," he snapped. "Bear, did you hear anything I just told you?"
"Uh, sure, Ponch," Barry 'Bear' Baricza murmured. "Grossie got a hot pink Elvis tattoo just in time for his swimsuit party at the Burrito Barn. See, I didn't miss a word."
Ponch's snort of disgust was louder than an old fashioned steam calliope, and Baricza gave him a startled look. Ordinarily, Bear was one of the few people in the entire patrol (if not the entire planet) who could maintain a seamless concentration when forced to deal with a Poncherello runaway train of thought. But now he seemed to be lost in a world of his own -- one that had nothing to do with pool parties or tattoos.
Ponch frowned in annoyance at such uncharacteristic absentmindedness on Bear's part. . .at least until he took a closer look at his fellow officer and noticed the details that he had missed earlier. Baricza's face was flushed with fever, but he still shivered and huddled down into his heavy sweater, even when the station's heating system sent warm air pouring through the vents. His dark brown eyes were dull, and when he tried to smile at Ponch, his lips were dry and cracked.
"Sorry, Ponch. . . I'm not feeling very good right now," he said apologetically. "I was stuck in court for most of the morning, just so Mrs. Chesterfield's lawyers could chew me into shreds. Can you believe that woman? When I pulled her over, it was because she was all over the road. Turns out that she had a blood alcohol level of .18! But then she had the nerve to stand there in court this morning and tell the judge that the only reason I cited her is because I'm prejudiced against upper class people who can afford to drive a Mercedes. I just hope she has plenty of money for a chauffeur, that's all. She sure won't be driving that Mercedes anywhere for awhile. . .not after the judge yanked her license this morning."
"Well, I guess that just goes to prove that some things are definitely worth waiting for," Jon Baker chuckled as he walked around a freestanding bank of lockers and headed toward his friends. "I think you had the whole patrol cheering for you this morning, Bear. That was Elaine Chesterfield's third DUI in the last three months. Back in September, Grossie clocked her doing 72 miles an hour in a work zone. Then three weeks later, Turner stopped her because she almost ran a couple of cars and a semi off the road. A semi, if you can believe that!"
Baker shook his head, then added with uncharacteristic rancor, "But both times, her son-in-law managed to get her off with nothing but a slap on the wrist. . .who else, but our very own Lieutenant Ledwith. Can you believe that guy? He's supposed to be protecting us while we protect the citizens, and instead, he's using his friendship with the judge to get his mother-in-law off the hook for a DUI!"
"Talk about clout," Baricza said. "My friend Darlene in Dispatch knows Ledwith's wife, Cynthia. Cynthia told Darlene that Ledwith and the judge went to college together, and they play golf at the same country club. Kind of hard to win a case when your boss is a friend of the judge and a character witness for the defense."
"Not this time," Ponch gave Bear a wide grin and a thumbs-up salute. " Not with Barry 'the Man' Baricza on the witness stand. Way to go, buddy!"
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Ponch, but I think it probably had more to do with the fact that Ledwith had to go to Sacramento today than anything I said or did, " Baricza said as he finished tying his shoelaces. "Not to mention the fact that one of those civilian watchdog groups had a representative in the courtroom today. Since this was Mrs. Chesterfield's third DUI cite in less than three months, the judge couldn't exactly let her off this time -- not without drawing down a lot of heat on himself and maybe losing his own job. Guess the Lieutenant's not that good of a friend, huh?"
"Poor Mrs. Chesterfield. . .what's the use of having all that money if it can't buy your way out of trouble?" Baker laughed in derision.
"Yeah, and if the lifestyles of the rich and famous means getting sloshed and risking innocent people's lives, then I'm glad I'm just a poor, ignorant peon," Bear said. "Anyway, when I finally did get back on patrol, I ended up making a whole bunch of traffic stops in just a couple of hours. Going back and forth from a warm cruiser into the rain and cold probably didn't do me much good. I think I'm coming down with the flu or something."
The tall, dark-haired officer stood up, but he was forced to make a dizzy grab for his open locker door. He clung to it for a moment until the wave of vertigo passed, then shrugged wryly at his friends.
"See what I mean?" he managed a grin for their benefit, but despite his cheerful expression, it was obvious that his long legs were still wobbly. "The only 'hot' date I've got for tonight is with an electric blanket."
"It's a shame you're going to miss Grossie's party, Bear," Baker said. "He's having it at that new place, Froggie's Pad. It used to be the Curtis Street Tavern, but now it's under new management. They're trying for a little more upscale clientele, so they've completely redecorated it in a marine motif -- blue walls and green carpets, the whole bit."
"Trust Grossman to find someplace like that to have a 'pool' party!" Baricza groaned. "I don't think that guy ever met a pun he didn't like. And apparently the people that own the place feel the same way."
"Yeah, just the place I've always wanted to spend an evening -- a giant lily pad," Ponch grumbled, then watched in concern as Baricza fumbled with his car keys and almost dropped them. "Hey, Bear, you want me or Jon to take you home? I can drive, and Jon can follow us in his truck. It wouldn't be a problem. My car's in the shop, and we rode in together this morning."
"I'll be OK, Ponch, but thanks for asking," Baricza said as he retrieved his jacket from the locker and closed the door. "Hey, I'm keeping you guys from getting over to Grossie's party. . . and I wouldn't want you to miss Lisa's grand entrance!"
He winked knowingly at his two friends, then walked out of the Locker Room and headed down the corridor toward the parking lot. Jon frowned at the sight of Baricza's unsteady gait, but he waited until Bear was out of hearing range before he said anything to Ponch.
"I think you were right, partner. From the looks of it, Bear's in no shape to be driving," Baker gestured in the direction of the parking lot. "Maybe we ought to catch up with him and try to talk him into letting one of us take him home."
"Hey, you heard the man," Ponch said philosophically. "Baricza is Mr. Sane and Sensible, himself. He's not going to pull a Mrs. Chesterfield and try to drive if he thinks he'd be endangering other people's lives."
"Ordinarily, I'd agree with you, Ponch," Jon said as they left the Locker Room and walked down the hallway. "But that theory only works if Bear's not too sick to know how sick he really is. And if that dizzy spell a minute ago was any indication, he may not have his head together as much as he thinks he does."
"Listen, I've got coupons for that dry cleaning place over by Baricza's apartment building," Ponch held up the grocery sack that contained his laundry. "If we time it just right, we could follow him and make sure that he gets home OK. And even if he does spot us, we can always say that we were just dropping our uniforms off at the cleaner's, right?"
"You know, partner, there are times when I can almost appreciate the way your evil mind works," Baker shook his head with a smile, then held open the door for Ponch. "Maybe not when you're trying to pull a fast one on Sarge, and I end up in the middle of one of your crazy schemes. But right about now, sneaky is definitely good. And when it comes to being devious, no one does it better than Francis Llewylln Poncherello!"
As he climbed into Baker's truck, Ponch preened at the 'compliment,' then grimaced to himself as he mentally replayed Jon's words. Something wasn't quite right about that accolade -- he was sure of it. Or almost, anyway.
Fifteen minutes later, Ponch's forehead was still furrowed in concentration as they drove past Baricza's apartment complex. But when he saw Baricza's big silver Dodge pick-up sitting in its usual parking space, he gestured cheerfully at his partner.
"See, what did I tell you?" he said. "Bear made it home just fine. So, now can we drop off the dry cleaning and head over to Grossie's party? I don't want to miss a minute of the action!"
"And playing pool probably won't be so bad, either," Baker snorted under his breath as he stopped at a traffic light and glanced over at Ponch.
At the moment, his partner was admiring the local scenery. . .or more specifically, a blonde woman standing at the corner bus stop. The woman's blouse made Jon think of two tie-dyed Band-Aids held together by string and imagination, while her leather miniskirt could have probably redefined any number of indecent exposure ordinances. Ponch sighed in heart-felt appreciation, and he tore his gaze away with obvious reluctance when Baker's voice jolted him out of his pleasant reverie.
"What was that, partner?" he looked blankly at Baker for a second or two. "Did you say something?"
"Never mind, Ponch," Baker rolled his eyes. "At least we know that Baricza's going to be OK."
Seldom had he been more wrong about anything in his entire life. . .even if he had no way of knowing it at the moment.
There was a jaunty bounce to Jon Baker's step as he walked down the corridor on his way to Thursday morning's Briefing session. He paused long enough to check his mailbox, and when he found nothing unpleasant among its contents, he set off for the Briefing Room once more, whistling cheerfully to himself.
Tuesday's watch had been unusually busy, but the luck of the previous day still seemed to be holding, and nothing out of the ordinary had taken place. And his day off on Wednesday had been a particularly enjoyable one -- although now that he stopped to think about it, almost any day that didn't involve dealing with Ponch's antics was apt to be a good one.
But when he looked up and saw Sergeant Joe Getraer waiting for him, Jon's tranquil mood vanished as quickly as a diamond ring accidentally left on a bathroom sink in New York City. Getraer's lips were tightly compressed, and a deep frown line cut between his eyebrows as he gestured for Baker to follow him into his office.
Reluctantly, Jon walked into the cubicle and waited until the sergeant sat down at his desk. Baker groaned to himself when he saw the look in Getraer's eyes. . .ordinarily, that particular look was reserved for times when Poncherello had done something even more absurd than usual.
"What's up, Sarge?" he asked with a studied cheerfulness -- even as he carefully avoided even the mention of Ponch's name.
"Relax, Jon," Getraer saw Baker's nervous expression. "This has nothing to do with Poncherello. . .for a change. Actually, it's about Baricza. Briefing's due to start in less than ten minutes, and he hasn't shown up or called in sick. That's just not like Barry."
"When he left here on Monday afternoon, he said that he felt like he was coming down with the flu," Jon said. "Maybe he's just so worn out that he forgot to set the alarm, or else he slept right through it."
"I heard you talking to Grossman about that on the night of the, ah, 'pool' party," Getraer smiled wickedly at the thought of Grossman's ill-fated soiree and its spectacular -- if unplanned -- main event.
But then the sergeant's face quickly grew somber once more. "Tuesday was Barry's regular day off, and then he called in sick yesterday morning. I tried to call him yesterday afternoon, just to check on him and see if he needed anything, but he didn't answer the phone. I thought maybe he'd gone over to his folks while he wasn't feeling good, but they said they hadn't heard from him for a few days. And unfortunately, Timmy picked yesterday evening to play Tarzan off the garage roof. We spent four hours in the Emergency Room at Rampart Hospital last night while they X-rayed his arm and then set it. I didn't have a chance to go over to Baricza's place and make sure that he's OK."
"How about if Ponch and I swing past Bear's apartment after Briefing and check on him?" Baker asked. "We'll have him give you a call and let you know what's going on."
Getraer stood up and started to walk out of his office, then turned back to Jon. "You read my mind, Jon. The last thing that Barry needs right now is to get in more trouble with the Lieutenant than he already is. Needless to say, Ledwith's mother-in-law wasn't too happy about losing her driver's license, and you know what they say. 'When Mama ain't happy. . .'"
". . .ain't nobody happy," Baker sighed as he followed Getraer out into the corridor.
"Who's not happy?" someone said behind them, and both men flinched at the sound of Craig Ledwith's booming voice. "Have you got a problem with the way things are being done around here, Baker?"
"No, sir," Baker managed to keep his tone level as he turned to face Ledwith. "Things are just fine."
"Well, isn't that nice?" Ledwith's smile was syrupy enough to be poured over waffles. "He approves of the way that I'm running this station, Joe. Such a lovely vote of confidence."
"Things have been running smoothly around here for the last six months since you've been here, Lieutenant," Getraer said in a pleasant tone -- one that belied the strain in his eyes.
"And I intend to see that it stays that way, too," Ledwith snarled. "I came to Central with a perfect record, and that's how I'm going to leave here. You might want to pass the word to your friends, Baker. There won't be any tolerance for screw-ups, not while I'm in command."
"I've known most of these people for a long time, Lieutenant," Baker's voice was deceptively calm. "These are good, loyal officers. No one would deliberately want to cause problems for you or Sergeant Getraer."
"Oh, you think so, do you?" Ledwith said coldly. "Well, I don't happen to share your opinion -- especially when it comes to your friend Baricza. I had that one pegged as a troublemaker right from the start, and it looks like I was right, after all."
The accusation was blatantly unfair. . .if anything, the calm, soft-spoken Bear would have been the last person in the Patrol to cause trouble for a superior officer. Now Jon swallowed hard to keep angry words from spilling out, and only a faint headshake and warning look from Getraer kept him from lashing out verbally at Ledwith.
"If you'll excuse us, Lieutenant, we need to get to Briefing so that these guys can hit the streets," Getraer said with a conciliatory smile.
An expression that was just little too placating -- at least from Baker's viewpoint, anyway. Ledwith gave Getraer a hard stare, then grunted a monosyllable that might have been consent. Getraer nodded cheerfully at the big black-haired officer, then turned and gave Jon another of those strange cautionary frowns.
Shaking his head at such uncharacteristic capitulation on Getraer's part, Baker held open the Briefing Room door for his superior officers and started to follow them inside. But before Jon could take more than a step or two, Ledwith turned and blocked the doorway with his own massive frame, leaving Baker no choice but to face him directly.
"Just remember, Baker, I'm keeping my eye on you, just the same way that I'm watching Baricza," Ledwith's blunt features were creased with a smug little smile, and it took all of Baker's formidable self control to keep his hand from curling into a fist at his side. "You two may have everybody else snowed, but that little goodie two-shoes act you put on for Getraer doesn't fool me for a minute. I'm not going to have my command record threatened by a couple of foul-ups. Is that understood?"
"Yes, it is," Baker said through clenched teeth.
"Yes, what, Baker?" Ledwith raised an eyebrow meaningfully.
"Yes, sir," Jon managed to choke out the term of respect. . .but only with an effort that left him gasping slightly.
With that, Ledwith swaggered into the Briefing Room, and Jon waited until the Lieutenant was seated before he made his way to his usual table. Baker sat down and then gave Getraer a questioning look, but the sergeant's only response was to shrug imperceptibly towards Ledwith in a gesture of surrender.
And this time, there could be no mistake: now Getraer dropped his head in fear or hesitation as he glanced over at Ledwith. The sergeant hastily busied himself rearranging some papers on the podium -- but whether to avoid the Lieutenant's smirking eyes or Baker's intense gaze, no one but Getraer knew.
Ponch had been doodling hearts and women's names in the margin of his notepad, but when Jon sighed sharply, he looked up at his friend and fellow officer in concern. He was startled to see anger burning in Baker's face, and he leaned toward his partner with a worried frown.
"Hey, Jon, what's wrong?" he asked. "You look like you just lost your best friend."
"Close, Ponch -- real close," Baker shook his head grimly. "I never thought I'd see the day that Joe would roll over and play dead when it came to protecting 'his' people. But it's finally happened. He's running scared like the rest of us, and now there's nothing standing between us and Ledwith. Better hang onto your helmet, partner. . .we're in for a long rough ride."
Half an hour later, Jon and Ponch parked their motorcycles in front of Baricza's apartment complex, then took off their helmets and headed toward the building. They climbed the flight of stairs that led to Bear's second floor apartment, but as they approached Baricza's door, Ponch stopped and grimaced in distaste.
"Whew, smells like somebody needs to take the trash out!" he shook his head, trying not to breath any more deeply than necessary. "That can't be coming from Baricza's apartment. Not the way that Mr. Clean takes care of his place."
"I wouldn't be so sure about that if I were you, Ponch," Baker gestured at several newspapers and advertising flyers that were piled up outside Baricza's door. "Looks like he hasn't even felt good enough for the last couple of days to pick up his newspapers, much less take the trash down to the chute."
They stopped outside the door, and now there was no question in their minds. The unmistakable sour stench of spoiled food was definitely coming from inside Bear's apartment, and now Jon felt an uneasy sensation in the pit of his stomach.
"Hey, Bear," he called as he rapped sharply on the door. "Open up, buddy. It's just Jon and Ponch."
Jon listened for a moment, expecting to hear Baricza's footsteps and then the sounds of various locks and safety chains being unfastened. Instead, the door swung open under the pressure of his knuckles, and he looked over at Ponch in confusion. This apartment complex didn't have a particularly high crime rate. . .nevertheless, the security-conscious Baricza wouldn't have left the door unlocked, even for the short time that it took to check the mail or throw a load of laundry into the drier.
"Bear?" Jon called as he cautiously stepped into the apartment. "Where are you? Hey, Bear!"
Baker stopped in mid-sentence, and now it was Ponch's turn to give his partner a concerned frown. He tried to peer around the solidly-built Baker, but the blond officer seemed too stunned to move. Finally, Jon managed to take a few steps forward, and Ponch followed him into the living room.
"Madre de Dios! " Ponch whistled as he caught his first glimpse of the apartment. "What's going on around here? This place looks like a tornado hit it!"
For a few seconds, the two officers could only stand and stare at the wreckage around them. Books, clothing, bowls of food from the refrigerator, and even Bear's treasured collection of scale model biplanes had all been strewn from one end of the living room to the other. Several days' worth of soup cans and TV dinner trays spilled out of a torn plastic garbage bag sitting by the front door, while every newspaper and magazine in the apartment had been shredded into small squares that now littered the carpet.
"I don't believe this," Ponch said angrily. "Whoever did this couldn't have been very quiet about it. How could people hear this and not call the police or even the manager? Or for that matter, why didn't they check it out themselves?"
"We don't have time to worry about a civic lesson right now, Ponch," Baker gestured toward the back of the apartment. "We've got to check the rest of the apartment and see if Bear's still somewhere in the middle of this whole. . ."
But before he could finish his sentence, a hollow moan echoed throughout the apartment from the direction of the master bedroom. There was an eerie quality to the sound -- one that made Baker shudder unthinkingly. He'd heard that sound before in emergencies rooms and out on the streets, but this was the last place in the world that he would have expected it.
Given the rest of what he was seeing, it all made sense, though. . .especially when he looked at the living room window and saw that strips of aluminum foil had been taped around the casing. The entire situation had the feel of a bad comedy skit, but there was nothing funny about the set of conclusions that Baker was now drawing, particularly when it came to the health and well being of a friend.
He glanced over at Ponch, who was still staring in disbelief at the wrecked apartment, and it was obvious to Jon that his partner hadn't quite put all the pieces of the puzzle together, yet. He started to say something to Ponch, but at that moment, another groan interrupted him. . .and this time, there could be no question about the source of that sound.
"That's Baricza!" Ponch yelped, then ran down the hallway toward the bedroom. "Come on, Jon, what are you waiting for?"
"Ponch, just hang on for a second, will you?" Baker called out, but his warning came too late.
Ponch took a step into the bedroom, then staggered back as if he had been punched in the stomach. As Baker unwillingly made his way down the hall, Ponch turned toward him. . .and even in such a short time, the Hispanic officer's olive complexion had gone ashen.
"Jon, you've got to see this for yourself," he said in a voice that was muted with shock.
Baker nodded, then side-stepped his partner and walked into the bedroom. Like the rest of the apartment, Baricza's bedroom was covered in debris. Every item of clothing in the closet seemed to have been torn from its hanger or swept off the shelves, while all the dresser drawers had been ripped out of the casing and their contents dumped out onto the bed.
Over in one corner, sheets and blankets had been heaped together to form a kind of tent. Now the sound of sobbing or moaning once again filled the room and drew Baker's attention toward the source of the noise.
Baricza was huddled in a tight package under the blankets, and if he was aware of anyone else's presence in the room, there was no indication of it in his face or eyes. The temperature in the room could have been no more than sixty degrees, but he was dressed in a thin pair of nylon shorts and a ripped tee shirt covered with food stains. Incongruously, his badge and name tag were pinned onto the filthy fabric, just exactly as they would have been on one of his uniform shirts.
As Baker took a few steps toward him, Bear continued to rock back and forth on the floor, muttering to himself in unintelligible monosyllables. But when he finally noticed Jon, his head went up like that of a trapped animal, and he jumped to his feet with a cry of rage and fear.
As he wavered there, Baricza suddenly winced. He turned away slightly, and the reason for the grimace quickly became obvious -- the skin above his elbow was red and badly swollen. The fever that accompanied such a massive infection was no doubt the reason that he had turned down the thermostat in the first place. . .now sweat poured down his face as he cradled the injured arm.
But when he saw that Jon was watching him, he shrank back against the wall in panic. Baker started to take another step toward him, but without warning, Bear lashed out wildly at his friend and fellow officer.
"Get out! Just get out of here, and stay out!" he snarled as Jon jumped back to avoid a blow. "I know why you're here. He sent you, didn't he?"
"Easy, Bear," Baker spoke soothingly to the distraught man. "You can talk to Ponch and me about whatever's bothering you. Let's go take care of that arm, and you can tell us what's going on."
"You must really think I'm stupid," Baricza glared at Baker, then gestured at Jon's badge. "Lieutenant Ledwith sent you here, didn't he? He hates me. . .he's always hated me. He thinks I'm just some low class slob that doesn't deserve to be in the CHP. That's what he said when he got back from Sacramento and found out that his mother-in-law lost her license because of me. He stood right there in my living room Tuesday morning and cussed me out. He told me to watch my back from now on because if I ever slip up, he's going to see to it that I don't make it to retirement."
When he finished speaking, there was a momentary lucidity in his face that was undeniable. But then his eyes filled with terror once more, and his voice was shrill with panic. "Ledwith is the one who put the cameras and the microphones in my apartment, so he could get evidence against me. But I was too smart for him."
"I'm not sure I understand," Jon said. "What kind of cameras and microphones are you talking about, Bear?"
"Surveillance equipment -- as if you didn't already know! Ledwith had my apartment bugged, but I found all the cameras and got rid of them," Baricza's voice was full of pride for a few seconds, but then he began to shiver. "He wants to take my job away from me, but I won't let him. Do you hear me? I won't let him!"
Baricza fiercely clutched the badge pinned to his shirt, but without warning, his bitter expression crumbled. Sweat poured down his face again, and he looked desperately around the room, looking for any means to escape his tormentors -- both visible and invisible. But when he saw that there was no way out, he dropped his head and began to sob in helpless frustration and pain.
"It's going to be OK, Bear," Baker said quietly. "Ponch and I won't let anybody hurt you. You've got our word on that."
For the second or two, Baricza's face was a kaleidoscope of emotions as he pondered Baker's promises. He dropped his head in what could have been either shyness or fear, but then pain flooded his eyes as he clutched his arm again. He gritted his teeth in anger for a few seconds, but at last, he lifted his head and met Baker's gaze directly for the first time that morning.
"You promise, Jon?" his face and voice were as innocent as a small child's, and he tried to smile at Baker. "You won't let Lieutenant Ledwith take away my job?"
"Yeah, buddy, I promise," Baker smiled at him with a calmness that he really didn't feel. "It's going to be all right."
Apparently Jon's words of reassurance were enough to satisfy Baricza. . .for the time being, at least. Baker cautiously reached toward him, and this time, Bear permitted himself to be led toward the living room. Ponch stepped back into the hallway to let the two men walk past him, then followed them at a distance of a few feet -- close enough to help Baker if necessary, but not so close that his presence would send Baricza into panic again.
Jon pushed a stack of plastic bowls and torn books off the couch and gestured for Baricza to lie down. He waited until the trembling Bear collapsed onto the sofa, then covered him with a heavy afghan that had somehow managed to escape the rest of the destruction.
The earlier fear and panic had clearly drained what few reserves of strength that Baricza still possessed, and now the warmth and comfort of the afghan proved to be irresistible. In another moment or two, his eyes started to drift shut, and when Jon nodded approvingly at him, he managed a small smile for his friend's benefit.
"That's it, Bear. Try to get some sleep," Baker's voice was deliberately calculated to be soothing "You just rest now, and we'll see to it that nothing else happens to you."
Baker waited until Baricza's breathing was deep and regular, then turned around and started to walk toward the kitchen. He had only taken a step or two when Ponch interposed himself between Baker and the kitchen door. To his everlasting credit, the Hispanic officer had managed to remain calm throughout the entire incident, but now he aimed a pointed look in Jon's direction.
"OK, so now what do we do?" Ponch gestured over his shoulder toward the sleeping Baricza, and there was a strange anger glimmering in his eyes that Baker didn't understand.
"Ponch, we just don't have a whole lot of options left," Baker shook his head in weary resignation. "I'm going to go call an ambulance, and then I'll let Getraer know what's happened."
"And just exactly what would that be?" Ponch demanded, and again, there was an undercurrent of hostility in his voice.
"Oh, come on, Ponch!" Baker snapped in frustration. "You've been a cop long enough to recognize a full blown psychotic episode when you see one. I don't know what triggered it, but Bear's obviously had some kind of nervous breakdown. Face it, partner -- this one is a lot bigger than we can handle."
"I figured that's what you were going to say," Ponch shook his head bitterly. "But aren't you forgetting something? You just stood right there and promised Bear that we'd take care of him. You said that we'd see to it that nobody else hurt him."
Now, even Baker's legendary self-control was reaching its limits. He kicked aside a pile of pots and pans that blocked the doorway, then gestured for Ponch to follow him into the relative privacy of the kitchen.
"Give me a break, will you?" Jon managed to keep his voice and his temper under control -- but only with considerable effort. "This isn't exactly the kind of thing that we can hide from the rest of the world. And besides, when I said that you and I would see to it that nothing else happened to Bear, that also included letting him hurt himself!"
"The minute that you pick up that phone and call Getraer, Baricza's career with the CHP is over, and you know it," Ponch said, and his voice was full of desperation. "Even if he only ends up on a psych ward for a day or two of observation, that'll be all they wrote. Ledwith will see to it that Bear will never be allowed to work as a street cop again. And not only is it the end of his career with the Patrol, but the whole mental patient thing will follow him for the rest of his life. How can you do that to someone who trusted us to watch out for him, the same way that he would have watched out for us?"
"Ponch, just look at this place, and then think about the things that Bear said a few minutes ago," Baker gestured at the trash and broken possessions scattered on the floor. "He really believes that Ledwith had this place bugged. And you can bet that he put those aluminum strips around all the windows because he thought it would keep Ledwith from beaming some kind of 'mind control ray' into the building."
Jon waited long enough for that information to filter through Ponch's agitated mind, then added, "If you saw that kind of behavior from someone out on the streets, you wouldn't hesitate to get the person the kind of psychiatric help that he needed, would you? This is a lot harder to deal with because it involves someone we know and care about. But we wouldn't be Bear's friends if we didn't do whatever it takes to help him. And the sooner that we get him to the hospital, the sooner that the doctors can figure out what caused all this."
Baker paused and waited for a reply. . .then threw up his hands in a gesture of frustration. To all appearances, Poncherello hadn't heard a word that he'd just said: instead, the black-haired officer picked up a small lead crystal airplane laying amid the pile of broken dishes on the countertop. Miraculously, the fragile figure had somehow survived Baricza's rampage through the apartment, and now Ponch stared down at the glittering bit of crystal, lost in thought for a moment. Finally he looked up, but his eyes were still narrowed in concentration when he spoke.
"And what if it turns out to be something physical, instead of mental?" he said as he put the little plane back in its usual spot on the counter. "Bear's been really sick these last few days. Maybe something about the virus triggered the delusions. And you saw the way that his arm is all red and swollen. If he's got a bad infection throughout his system, the fever from that could be enough to make him hallucinate, too."
"Then that's all the more reason to get some help for him, instead of standing around here and wasting time," Baker nodded as he reached for the telephone. "A few days in the hospital, a couple of rounds of antibiotics, and Bear'll be back on his feet in no time."
"Yeah, and that's exactly when he'll be back on patrol, too. . .no time," Ponch said cynically. "You know how Ledwith is. He's not going to care about what caused Bear to go off the deep end, much less go to bat for him if this really is just a physical reaction to something. Especially not after Baricza testified against Ledwith's mother-in-law. The only thing the Lieutenant is going to be worried about is protecting his own rump and making sure that nothing gets in the way of his next promotion. And you said it yourself this morning -- Sarge is running scared of Ledwith, just like the rest of us. I don't think we're going to get much help from him when it comes to protecting Bear."
"Good old Craig Ledwith, the only man I know who'd sell out Mother Teresa if she got in the way of his career," Baker rolled his eyes, then sighed regretfully as he reached for the telephone. "And you're right. Ledwith is going to make sure that none of this ever comes back to haunt him somewhere further on down the line. But we can't just sit here and not do anything. For Bear's sake, we've got to call this in and get him some help."
"Fine. You want to get some help for Bear, then we'll get help for Bear, all right. Except we'll do it our way," Ponch put his hand down on the hook just as Baker started to dial Getraer's number at the station. "I've got a friend who's a doctor out in Pacific Palisades. Dr. Sanchez owes me a couple of favors, so if I called him and told him what's going on, I know he'd come over here and take a look at Baricza for us."
"And then what?" Baker asked. . .and now he was more intrigued by Ponch's game plan than he cared to admit.
"If Bear just needs some antibiotics, Sanchez would prescribe them for him, and nobody'd ever have to be the wiser," Ponch said calmly. "But if Tadeo does think that there's more to all this than just hallucinations caused by a fever -- well then, at least we tried to protect a friend, the same way that Bear would have done for us."
"And in the meantime, what are we going to tell Getraer?" Baker looked up meaningfully at the wall clock. "In case you've forgotten, we're supposed to be out hitting the bricks right about now. Who's going to keep an eye on Bear until your friend the doctor does get here? Grossman is off today, and he's the only one who might go along with this whole crazy scheme of yours. But if we call Grossie, you might as well do a feature length article in tonight's newspaper, as much he loves to gossip. He's worse than six little old ladies on a party line right after their favorite soap opera!"
"One thing at a time, partner. . .one thing at a time," Ponch said triumphantly. "We'll call Sarge and tell him that Baricza's been too sick with the flu to even feel like answering the phone, but that he's going to see the doctor today and everything is going to be fine. And today is Bonnie's day off, too. You and I both know she loves Bear like he was her own brother, so she'd do whatever it takes to protect him. She'll stay with him until Tadeo gets here. We'll check in with her on our lunch hour, and find out what's going on."
"Ponch, this is crazy," Jon groaned, but his protest lacked real conviction. "If Getraer ever finds out about this, he'll nail our hides to the barn door!"
Ponch's only answer was a knowing smile, and now Baker could almost feel the jaws of the steel trap brush against the back of his neck. Outwardly, he appeared unruffled as he carefully weighed every angle of Ponch's plan. . .but that calmness was only a thin veneer above the war that was going on inside his heart and mind at the moment.
For several long seconds, both halves of his nature -- the cop and the friend -- fought against each other in a battle that only one could win. Baker's truthful nature rebelled against the idea of deliberately concealing the truth from a superior officer, especially someone that he admired and respected as much as Joe Getraer.
But compassion was an equally strong part of Baker's personality, and now he could clearly picture the vulnerable look that Baricza had worn a few minutes ago as he followed Jon down the hallway. Even if Ponch was wrong and there was no physical component to the illness that now devastated Bear's mind, Baker was still reluctant to do anything that would mean the end of a fellow officer's career -- not until all other options had been exhausted.
But before Jon was forced to make a choice, a small noise from the living room interrupted his uneasy thoughts. He was still clutching the telephone receiver in one hand, but now he sighed and replaced the handset on its hook.
Without meeting Ponch's intense gaze, Baker sidestepped his partner and took a few steps toward the kitchen door, intending to check on Baricza. He cautiously glanced around the edge of the doorway, but it appeared that his concerns were unfounded. When Jon looked toward the sofa, he saw that Bear had merely shifted positions so that the afghan no longer touched his sore arm.
Now he rested on his side, and even in sleep, his hand rested protectively over the CHP badge pinned to his grimy tee shirt. His lips were curved in a quiet smile as some pleasant memory once more played across the theater of his dreams. . .and Jon knew that the war was over.
"All right, I give up! We'll do it your way," Baker turned to face Ponch once more. "If Getraer ever finds out about this, he's going to use both of our backsides for a chew toy. But if Sanchez can help Baricza without getting Ledwith and the CHP involved, then I think we owe it to Bear to let him try first. You're right, Ponch. I did promise him that we'd take care of him, and that's exactly what we're going to do."
"Good choice, partner," Ponch gave him a thumbs-up gesture and a smile. "There's a pay phone in the lobby. Why don't you go call Sarge from there, just in case Bear wakes up and starts yelling again. And while you're calling Getraer, I'll call Tadeo and Bonnie and ask them to get over here just as fast as they can."
"Sounds like a plan," Jon said as he headed toward the living room. "I'll be right back."
Something just didn't seem quite right about that last conversation, Jon thought to himself as he walked down the corridor toward the stairwell leading to the ground floor. He had already walked down the entire flight of stairs before he realized what was bothering him. . .and the shock was enough to make him stop in mid-step.
"Now I'm the one who's giving the OK for a crazy scheme like this, and Ponch is thinking ahead to avoid trouble?" Baker shook his head in rueful disbelief as he opened the stairwell door and walked into the lobby. "I was afraid this would happen someday. We're starting to rub off on each other!"
"Uh, Jon, do you always go around talking to yourself out in public these days?" a playful voice interrupted his ruminations. "Better watch that. If 'Leadbutt Ledwith' ever hears you doing that, he'll have you up for a psychiatric evaluation before you can say 'Rorschach.'"
Baker was startled by that familiar voice -- to say nothing of the relevance of the comment. He looked up from his ponderings just in time to see Bonnie Clark cross the lobby and walk toward him. He hadn't been expecting to see her so soon, and it took a few seconds before he realized that she hadn't just miraculously materialized in the middle of the lobby.
The little blonde policewoman was carrying a large object wrapped in several layers of dish towels, and now a chance gust of air carried the smell of warm chicken broth toward Jon. With that, his momentary disorientation vanished, and he understood the real reason for her sudden appearance here.
Bonnie's homemade chicken noodle soup was legendary among the Patrol for its ability to cure everything from the flu to a hangover: no doubt, she was on her way upstairs to deliver a pot of the marvelous decoction to the ailing Baricza. But the timing of her visit could scarcely have been more opportune, and Jon quietly breathed a sigh of relief as he held the stairwell door open for her.
"Oh, man, Bonnie -- am I ever glad to see you!" he said as he followed her up the stairs. "You're just the person Ponch and I needed to talk to."
A minute or two later, Bonnie perched gingerly on the edge of a damaged recliner and listened while Jon and Ponch tersely explained the situation to her. She stared at the debris that littered the floor, and despite her best effort to control her emotions, the other two officers could still see the shock and dismay in her eyes.
"So anyway, Dr. Sanchez is on his way over here right now," Ponch said when Jon had finished his part of the story. "He said that there are a couple of nasty viruses going around over the past few weeks, and one of them can cause a fever high enough to trigger hallucinations. And he said that could be the problem with Bear right now. He'll know more after he takes a look at him."
"But why all the secrecy?" Bonnie asked. "I mean, anybody can get sick and run a fever high enough to cause something like this. That's nothing to be ashamed of. As a matter of fact, I remember this friend of mine who ended up with pneumonia and a high fever a couple of years ago. Poor guy was so out of it that he thought he was back in Vietnam, and he ended up kicking a car door off its hinges before we could get him into the Emergency Room. Now what was his name, anyway -- Barker, Baxter? Or something like that."
"Bonnie, that was before King Craig and his Reign of Terror," Jon said. . .and now he was certain that he didn't want to replace his own vague memories of that evening with the actual facts.
He shrugged ruefully at Bonnie, then continued, "A paramedic or an emergency room doctor is going to take one look at Bear and want to ship him up to the Psych Ward for observation right away. And it won't matter to Ledwith if the problem does turn out to be physical, instead of psychological. As far as he's concerned, Baricza will always be a liability to the Patrol and a potential threat to Ledwith's career. Not to mention the fact that that this would be the perfect way for Ledwith to get back at Bear for testifying against Mrs. Chesterfield. . .and there's nothing anybody could do about it, either."
"And Ledwith would be just that low down and dirty, too," Bonnie said in exasperation. " But why didn't you guys just call Joe and tell him what's going on? He needs to know, and he'd be the logical one to deal with Ledwith if there's a problem."
"You didn't see the way he backed down this morning at Briefing, Bonnie," Baker's eyes were full of anger and sadness. "He fell all over himself trying to keep Ledwith from throwing a temper tantrum. As far as I can tell, Joe is as scared of the Lieutenant as the rest of us."
Bonnie hesitated for a few seconds, and Baker could sense the same struggle taking place in her heart and mind that he had gone through earlier. She looked around the apartment, and her glance fell on a small framed photograph hanging on one wall: like the lead crystal biplane, the picture, too, had somehow survived the destruction that had taken place all around it.
In the photo, a younger Bear wore his CHP dress uniform as he sat on the edge of a hospital bed with his arm around the bent shoulders of an elderly man. Baricza smiled proudly for the camera, but the old man's fond gaze was directed only towards Bear. Ponch and Jon exchanged glances as Bonnie continued to stare at the photograph for a moment, lost in thought.
Judging from Bonnie's intense expression, Baricza had explained the picture's significance to her earlier, and apparently she understood something about it that her fellow officers didn't. Finally she looked up and saw the questioning looks that Jon and Ponch now gave her, and she nodded reluctantly in agreement.
"OK, you can count me in," she said. "I hate to keep something like this from Joe, but right now, I don't think we've got a whole lot of choice. I'll keep an eye on Bear until Dr. Sanchez gets here. And in the meantime, I'll try to get some of this mess cleaned up before the landlord or some nosy neighbor comes knocking on the door."
"Do you think you'll be all right if we leave you here alone with him?" Ponch asked. . .
. . .and then flinched when he saw the cool stare that Bonnie aimed in his direction at such a blatantly macho comment. But if thinking on his feet was not a Poncherello long suit, backpedaling definitely was, and now he frantically tried to undo his earlier mistake.
He flashed his best grin at her and said, "Uh, not that a tough, strong, smart cop like you would ever have any problems doing a take-down on someone -- even if he is almost a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier than you are. Nope, that wouldn't ever be a problem for our Bonnie Clark. No siree. Not ever."
"Nice try, but no cigar," Bonnie snapped. "Frank Poncherello, you are a disgusting male chauvinist!"
"Aw, come on, Bon-Bon," Ponch held up his hands in surrender and gave her a pleading look. "Give a guy a break, will you?"
Despite Ponch's best efforts to placate her, Bonnie still drew herself up to her full height and huffed in annoyance at him. But something about that tiny sound of disapproval seemed to disturb Baricza, even in the depths of an exhausted sleep. He groaned and twisted restlessly, as if trying to force himself awake, but before he could open his eyes, Bonnie stood up from her chair.
She made her way over to him, and just as Baricza became alert, she knelt down beside the sofa. He tried to sit up, but Bonnie put a small hand on his shoulder, and in spite of Ponch's earlier reservations, even that gentle restraint was enough to momentarily 'subdue' him. For a second or two, Baricza stared vacantly at her. . .but without warning, panic suddenly flooded his face.
Before he could strike out at her, however, she gently smoothed his hair with one hand and quietly murmured a few words of comfort to him. He made a small questioning noise deep in his throat as he studied her face intently, and when he saw nothing but love and compassion in her eyes, he wrapped his arms around her neck and pulled her closer to him.
"It's OK, Bear," Bonnie said softly. "You're safe now. No one is going to hurt you."
With a small, strangled cry, Baricza buried his face against her shoulder and wept for a moment, as if all the terror of the past few days now flooded his mind once more. But his muffled sobs gradually faded away, and when he raised his head, his face was alight with a smile.
"I knew you'd be here when I needed you, Bonnie. I knew it!" he whispered joyfully as he rested the side of his face against her hair. "You and Jon and Ponch are my best friends."
"Darn straight we are!" Bonnie smiled at him, then said in a voice that was almost subliminal in its calmness. "Everything's going to be OK, Bear. Shh, go back to sleep now. . .that's it."
She continued to speak quietly to him, and in another moment, his eyes slowly began to close. Gradually, his arms loosened around her neck, and she carefully lowered him back onto the sofa. She waited until he had settled into a deep sleep once more, then looked up at Jon and Ponch with a shrug.
"Well, I guess that pretty well answers the question of whether or not I can handle him while you guys are gone," she grinned wickedly at Ponch, then gestured toward the living room door. "And speaking of that, shouldn't you guys get back on patrol before Getraer shows up here looking for you? I'll call the station and tell them that Bear was just too sick to report in this morning."
"Thanks, Bonnie," Jon nodded. "We'll keep in touch with you this morning as much as we can. And by the time we can take a break for lunch, the doctor should have already been here. After we hear what he has to say about Bear, we'll take it from there and figure out what we need. . ."
But before he could finish his sentence, the telephone began to ring, and the three officers exchanged dismayed looks. No matter who was on the other end of the line, the odds were good that the person could pose a serious threat to their plan --a fact that they knew only too well. Reluctantly, Jon stood up and walked toward the kitchen, then picked up the receiver.
"Baricza residence," he said in his best professional voice. "This is Jon Baker. How may I help you?"
"For starters, you and that partner of yours can hit the bricks. . .and I mean pronto!" Getraer said without any of the usual social niceties. "In case you've forgotten, you two are on duty this morning, and that doesn't mean babysitting Baricza just because he's got a flu bug."
"It's a little more serious than just a virus, Joe," Jon took a deep breath before he launched into his carefully rehearsed explanation. "Bear's really sick. He's weak, dehydrated, the whole nine yards. But he's going to see a doctor this morning, and we were. . ."
". . .just about to get back on patrol," Getraer interrupted impatiently. "Someone else is going to have to help Baricza this time. Give Bonnie Clark a call. She's off duty today, and maybe she can take care of him if he's that sick."
Baker shook his head at the sergeant's words -- such an apparent lack of interest in 'his' officer's health and welfare was completely unlike Getraer. But under the circumstances, there was no point in saying or doing anything that might provoke Getraer into stopping by the apartment later to check on Baricza, and now Jon concentrated on maintaining his calm demeanor.
"Bonnie's already here, Sarge, and she's got things under control," he said quietly. "Ponch and I just were headed out the door when the phone rang. But you sound like something big has gone down this morning. What happened?"
"Jon, all hell has just broken loose in our little corner of the world over the last hour or so," Getraer's words crackled with tension. "About forty-five minutes ago, a private plane took a nose dive into a gymnasium over at St. Bartholomew High School. All the witnesses said that the engine sounded fine, and there were no obvious signs of trouble. But that didn't stop the guy from doing a couple of barrel rolls and then slamming through the roof. Fortunately, the teachers were having an in-house workshop today, so there were no students in the gym at the time. But traffic is backed up all around that area while the engine companies and the paramedics take care of the situation."
"OK, Joe, Ponch and I will get right over there and. . ." Baker began, but once again, the sergeant interrupted him.
"Oh, that's not the half of it," he said. "Fifteen minutes after the report first came in about the plane crash, we got a call from the owner of a restaurant about three blocks from the high school. The owner of the Burrito Barn told us he'd been gone for about ten minutes to do a bank run, and when he walked in, the breakfast customers and the employees were having a food fight. He said that everyone involved acted like they were either drunk or high on something. He called in the paramedics, and they hauled everyone over to Rampart Hospital for observation."
A sudden chill brushed the back of Baker's neck as he looked around at the remains of Baricza's living room. "That's crazy, Sarge. . .just plain crazy. Is that all, or do you have some more good news for us?"
"I thought you'd never ask," Getraer's voice was heavy with irony. "To top it all off, a couple of construction workers were pouring concrete over at that new Northpointe apartment complex, when all of a sudden, they decided to borrow a cement mixer. They took it out on the freeway and tried to play cowboy with it. But unfortunately for us, the only 'cattle' that they could find were the kind with four tires and a transmission. We've got a twenty seven car pile up with known fatalities. I want you and Poncherello to assist the officers who are already at the scene."
Getraer paused for a second, then added, "But you're absolutely right about one thing, Jon. It does seems like the world's gone crazy. . .and now we're in charge of the asylum."
Fifteen minutes later, Jon and Ponch cautiously threaded their motors through a scene that looked as if it might have been taken straight out of Dante's "Inferno." Vehicles were scattered across the freeway like a handful of Matchbox cars peevishly tossed aside by a gigantic child, while oily black smoke from two burning trucks and a car blanketed the area.
"Can you believe this mess?" Ponch groaned to Baker as he swerved to avoid a sharp piece of metal in the road. "We're going to be out here for the rest of our lives. . .if not longer!"
"You always were an optimist, partner," Jon shook his head grimly.
A car hauler had plowed into the back of a tanker truck and tipped it onto its side, and now a thick yellow goo oozed out of the ruptured container. As they cautiously approached the tanker, Baker inspected its placard, and he sighed in relief when he saw that it contained no hazardous materials.
"Well, at least we don't have a HazMat incident on top of everything else," he said. "No corrosives, flammables, or explosives. Probably some kind of food product, from the looks of it."
As the two motor officers slowly drove past, they could see the way that the red lights from the fire trucks and ambulances added their own flickering counterpoint to the hellish glow of burning vehicles. Terse commands from the emergency personnel punctuated the screams and moans of the injured, while the air was filled with the sounds of rending metal and shattering glass as fire fighters fought to extricate victims still trapped in their vehicles.
In the middle of the freeway ahead, Jon and Ponch could see a cement mixer that had flipped over and was now upside down. Worse still, the heavy construction vehicle had come to rest on top of what had once been a bright red pickup truck. . .but that was only a twisted, blackened lump of metal now. As they approached the scene, the two CHP officers paused long enough to allow two grim-faced paramedics to wheel a gurney past them toward the waiting ambulance.
But there was nothing hurried about the men's movements, and it was obvious that there would be no need for lights and sirens on this journey, either. Baker touched his helmet in a salute as the paramedics passed by -- but whether in respect for the victims or in honor of the heroes of this tragedy, no one but the officer himself could have said.
A tall CHP officer waved to them from the side of the road, and they parked their motorcycles behind Jed Turner's squad car. As he walked toward them, Jon and Ponch could see that Turner's brown skin was streaked with dust, and his uniform was stained with splotches of sweat, oil, and blood.
"Man, am I glad to see the two of you!" he breathed an enormous sigh of relief. "I was the first one on the scene, and with all the other crazy stuff that's happened over the last hour or so, it's just been Grossman and me out here. And believe me, we've had our hands full. The accident itself was bad enough, but I swear that tanker truck must have been carrying LSD instead of corn syrup. Take a look over there."
He gestured toward the side of the road, and for a second or two, Jon and Ponch could only stand and stare at what was now a very familiar scene. There were perhaps eight or nine motorists who had escaped injury in the accident. . .and to a person, they all appeared to be escaped mental patients. A handful of luckless paramedics and LAPD officers attempted to restrain them, but their efforts were meeting with only marginal success, at best.
Several of the motorists sat on the pavement, muttering unintelligibly to themselves as they rocked back and forth. Two teens seemed bent on strangling each other, while a small, balding man screamed obscenities and lashed out at a woman who was almost six inches taller and seventy pounds heavier than he was. For her part, the woman shredded a Kleenex into small squares and stared placidly into space -- seemingly oblivious to the presence of her assailant.
An elderly woman in an expensive fur coat sobbed in obvious terror, then attempted to run onto the pavement, directly into the path of an oncoming ambulance. It was only with considerable effort that two paramedics and a police officer managed to restrain her, and she fell to her knees, sobbing and cursing.
Without warning, she yawned once and then stretched out full length on the side of the road, as if the concrete was the most comfortable mattress in the world. As she closed her eyes and began to snore loudly, one of paramedics covered her with a blanket from one of the gurneys, then shook his head in disbelief at his partner and the LAPD officers.
"See what I mean?" Turner shook his head. "Listen, can you guys give the paramedics a hand with this bunch until the rest of the ambulance crews get here? Rampart is stacked up to the rafters with cases just like this, and they're going to have to ship these people to different hospitals all over the city. I promised Grossman I'd give him a hand with traffic control just as soon as I could. We need a couple of people up there on the overpass to divert traffic and clear a path for the rest of the emergency vehicles."
"Hey, no problem, man," Ponch nodded. "We've got it covered."
Turner nodded his thanks and set off at a run toward the waiting Grossman. Ponch waited until Turner was out of earshot, then turned back to Jon with a look of disbelief.
"Talk about déjà vu all over again," Ponch muttered. "Didn't we just do this a few minutes ago?"
"Yeah, but some of these people make Bear look like the textbook definition of 'normal' right about now," Jon gestured toward the milling group of people. "What on earth is going on around here, anyway? Contaminated water? Mass hypnosis? Somebody spot Elvis getting out of a UFO down at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken?"
Ponch started to say something, but at that moment, he looked up and saw two men making their way through the smoke toward the cluster of motorists. They were definitely out of place in this setting: instead of turn out gear or police uniforms, they wore dark gray suits and heavy overcoats whose cut and style suggested the finest haberdashery that New York had to offer.
"Hey, get a load of the two stiffs!" Ponch muttered to Jon. "LAPD detectives, maybe? But I sure don't recognize those guys, do you?"
"Nope, never saw them before," Jon said as he put the kickstand down and got off his bike. "And trust me -- if I'd seen those two guys before, I'd remember them. You don't forget faces like those."
"I wonder if they're newspaper reporters, or maybe ambulance chasers that managed to get past Turner and Grossman?" Ponch growled in exasperation. "Because if they are, I'm going to see to it that they get a nice, all expense paid tour of downtown Los Angeles. . .in the back of a squad car! Ambulance chasers are the lowest of the low, and we've got enough problems out here right now without this kind of hassle."
"Take it easy, Ponch," Jon said quietly. "I don't think these guys are police, but I'd be willing to bet that they aren't civilians, either."
"Huh?" Ponch started to make a sarcastic reply, but when he saw Baker's intense expression, his voice died away.
Baker watched closely as the two men stopped and inspected the strange antics of the motorists. The older man exchanged a few words with his companion, then jotted something down on a small notepad. He spoke to one of the paramedics, who nodded toward Jon and Ponch: apparently, he had just asked a question about who was in charge of the accident scene at the moment.
As far as Baker could tell, it looked as if the two of them were conducting their own private investigation -- preferably without any 'interference' from the police. But when Jon gestured at them, they nodded at each other and reluctantly obeyed the CHP officer's summons. And as they walked toward him, Baker quickly assessed them with the skilled eye of a seasoned cop.
To a Vietnam veteran like Jon, the stocky, red-haired man's expression and body language all but shouted "military." Baker frowned to himself as he tried to guess the other man's rank: judging by his age and authoritative bearing, Jon would have put him at the rank of colonel, if not higher.
His tall, dark-haired companion also had the disciplined look of a career military man, but there was a faintly deferential air about him, as if he was the first man's subordinate. Something about his face and eyes reminded Jon of Joe Getraer -- a kind of tightly-controlled edginess that could only come from making life and death decisions on a regular basis.
And as far as Jon could tell, both men looked as if they were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, no matter what the circumstances might be. If a confrontation was inevitable, even a minor factor might be enough to tip the balance in one direction or the other. . .and he intended to see that the home court advantage went to the CHP.
As he and Ponch walked toward the newcomers, Baker's stance may have been relaxed, but the resolution in his eyes was unmistakable. And judging from the half-smile that the older man now wore, he had taken note of the police officer's stance and understood the unspoken meaning that lay behind it.
"Hi, I'm Officer Jon Baker, and this is Officer Frank Poncherello," Jon's smile was pleasant but firm as he approached them. "I'm sorry, but right now, this area is off-limits to everyone except emergency personnel. Could I see some identification, please?"
"Gentlemen, we're here on official government business," the red-haired man said. "We'll stay out of the way of the work crews, you have our word on that."
His tone of voice would have intimidated almost anyone else into instant submission, but Baker had been a cop for too many years to allow himself to be bullied by anyone. Now his smile became just a little too pleasant, and he rested his hand on his gun belt meaningfully as he took another step toward them.
"I'm sorry, sir, but the CHP is conducting an official investigation right now," he shook his head. "Unless you can produce some paperwork that tells me why you have a right to be here, I'm going to have to ask you to leave the area immediately."
"And as I just told you, Officer, this is an official government matter," the man said, and now there could be no mistake about the quiet undercurrent of threat in his voice. "Under the circumstances, I'm afraid that our jurisdiction supercedes yours."
"I've worked with Federal agents before, and none of them have ever had a problem with showing ID when they've been asked," Jon said coolly, and his next sentence was not phrased as a question. "May I see your identification, please."
"Didn't you hear what he just said?" the second man said with more than a hint of annoyance. "He just told you that. . ."
"And didn't you hear what my partner just said?" Ponch took a step forward, clearly nettled by the men's air of authority. "He asked you for some identification. Either you lay some paper on us right now, or you're headed to jail for interfering with an official police investigation."
"We don't have time for this," the younger man snapped and started to reach for something that was concealed under his jacket. "I'm going to. . ."
True to Baker's suspicions, his opponent moved with the swift precision of someone who had been frequently forced to fight for his life. But that same kind of mind set was as natural as breathing to the two CHP officers, as well, and now they simultaneously reached for their weapons.
"Put your hands up, and don't move," Baker ordered sharply, then nodded at his partner. "Ponch, why don't you do the honors while I cover you."
Warily, Ponch approached them and started to pat them down, but before he could touch either of them, the red-haired man shook his head. He met Baker's eyes, and once again, Jon could feel the authority that radiated from him.
"I'll save us all the time and trouble, Officer," he said calmly. "Both of us are wearing concealed weapons, although I suspect that my friend here was actually reaching for the multi-band transceiver that each of us is carrying. Our identification papers and weapons permits are in our inside jacket pockets. Go ahead and take them and our guns, but be quick about it, man. Time is a luxury that none of us can afford to squander right now."
"Hey, buddy, just who the heck do you think you're talking to, anyway?" Ponch snarled. "In case you haven't noticed, this is the California Highway Patrol you're dealing with -- not the Podunk County Sheriff's Department!"
"Ponch, just get their guns and identification, OK?" Jon said, but his gaze never left the older man's face.
Grumbling to himself, Ponch retrieved a pair of .45's and two small leather folders from them, then took a step back toward his partner. He handed the documents to Jon, and he kept a watchful eye on the others while Baker inspected their ID cards and concealed weapons permits.
Jon whistled softly under his breath and walked over to his motor, leaving a thoroughly bewildered Ponch to guard the two men. Baker deliberately turned his back on the trio to prevent them from overhearing him, then keyed the microphone and spoke to the dispatcher.
Three minutes, then four and five minutes slowly ticked by as Baker waited for the reply to his question. After almost ten minutes of waiting, the radio finally crackled on, and Jon listened intently to the information that the dispatcher now gave him. His face was expressionless as he acknowledged the transmission with a tense, "10-4."
Still shaking his head, Baker hung up the microphone and walked back over to the others. He handed the leather folders back to their owners, and all traces of his earlier coolness toward them were now gone.
"All right, Admiral Nelson, how can we help you and Captain Crane while you conduct your investigation?" he asked.
"Oh, get serious, partner!" Ponch's voice was full of ridicule. "Surely you don't believe that these guys are some kind of high and mighty Navy muckety mucks, do you? Where are they supposed to be from, anyway. . .the Good Ship Lollypop?""
"Ponch, these two men are who they say they are," Baker said. "This is Admiral Harriman Nelson of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research and Captain Lee Crane, commanding officer of the submarine S.S.R.N. Seaview. We just got the word straight from Sacramento. . .we're supposed to fully co-operate with them during their investigation. It's a top-priority security matter."
"Thank you, Officer Baker," Nelson nodded, then gestured at the dozens of people milling around the scene of the accident. "Can we go somewhere and discuss this privately?"
"How about over there, behind that tanker truck?" Crane said. "It looks as if everyone is trying to avoid that area until the fire department can hose all the corn syrup off the pavement.
"That's fine, Captain. . .but we're just going to be trading one sticky situation for another one," Baker smiled.
Nelson and Crane smiled at Baker's humor, then followed the two officers across the freeway, gingerly picking their way through puddles of sticky yellow syrup until they reached the back of the overturned truck. The Admiral waited until the other three men had gathered around him, then spoke in a low, confidential tone.
"Gentlemen, what I'm about to tell you may strain credibility to the breaking point, but I assure you that every word of it is true," he said. "For the last week and a half, Captain Crane and I have been investigating the theft of an experimental substance from the laboratories of N.I.M.R. in Santa Barbara. We have reason to believe that a group of terrorists from a small Asian country masterminded the entire operation. A woman posing as a biomedical specialist somehow managed to make her way past all our security procedures and was hired as an assistant to Dr. Michael Chen."
"Dr. Chen?" Baker said. "I remember hearing something about him on the news a couple of months ago. Isn't he the scientist who's doing research on increasing learning ability by the use of chemical stimulants?"
"Precisely," Nelson smiled and gave Baker a small nod of approval. "Recently, Dr. Chen has been experimenting with a group of trace elements and chemical compounds that are normally only found on the ocean floor. That was the reason for N.I.M.R. and the Seaview's involvement with his experiments in the first place. His research could have far-reaching impact on many areas of human development in the future. Just think of it -- a world where mental retardation is unknown and an IQ of 200 is the norm, instead of the rare exception."
"So what does all this have to do with a twenty-seven car pile on the Los Angeles freeway?" Ponch asked in bewilderment.
"Dr. Chen developed a drug called Cerebronol from those compounds. In minute amounts, it can stimulate certain areas in the brain and enhance learning ability," Nelson said. "But in larger doses, Cerebronol can be extremely dangerous. At first, the subject experiences flu-like symptoms: body aches, chills, fever, dizziness, and so on. Those symptoms are quickly followed by a variety of mental disorders, such as panic attacks, delusions, irritability, and depression. If left untreated, the condition continues to deteriorate until the individual appears to have suffered a complete psychotic breakdown."
"Just like those people back there?" Baker gestured over his shoulder at the group of motorists who were now being herded into waiting ambulances.
"Exactly," Crane nodded. "We traced Chen's assistant to Los Angeles, but then the trail went completely cold. At least until two hours ago. That's when the mayor and city council received a message from the terrorists with a list of demands. They don't want much -- just ten million dollars in diamonds and the release of three of their imprisoned comrades. The message also said that they intended to give Los Angeles a small taste of the havoc that they can cause."
"Right now, the Seaview is sitting on the surface a mile off shore, and our radio operator has been monitoring the local radio frequencies ever since the threat was first made," Nelson patted the handheld transceiver clipped to his belt. "A short time ago, we got a call from Sparks. Judging from the reports that he was hearing on police and emergency bands, the terrorists were following through just as they said they would."
"We have reason to believe that they're also responsible for the plane crash, the incident at the restaurant, and the theft of the cement mixer, as well," Crane's face was full of weary anger. "We think that they were still somewhere in the vicinity when the initial accident took place, and they decided to test the Cerebronol on a large group of people, instead of just a few individuals here and there. The accident provided them with plenty of subjects -- ones who weren't going to be able to get away very easily."
"So you came out here, thinking that maybe one of the accident victims might be able to tell you something that would help you find the terrorists' base of operations?" Jon said.
"That was the plan. . .at least until we got here and realized that none of these people are coherent enough to be interviewed," Nelson smiled approvingly at Baker's ability to extrapolate information -- a talent not unlike his own. "The terrorists have given the Mayor and the Council until five o'clock this evening to meet their demands, or else they're going to unleash the chemical on a city-wide basis. And at this point, our investigation has been nothing but one stone wall after another."
"So how do they use the drug, anyway?" Jon asked. "In water, maybe, or as some kind of a spray? And how much of this stuff did they steal?"
"Cerebronol can be administered in a variety of ways. And unfortunately, all of them can be done without the other person's knowledge," Nelson sighed. "The terrorists have approximately three quarters of a pound of Cerebronol at their disposal. That doesn't sound like much. . .until you realize that three tablespoons added to a town's water supply could be enough to send the entire population of Denver into a psychotic episode. If knowledge of the theft became widespread, there could be major panic, and in the interests of national security, we've kept this investigation top secret. Only the upper echelons of state and local law enforcement are aware of what is going on."
The Admiral paused until Ponch and Jon recovered from their shock, then added, "In its basic form, the drug is a tasteless, odorless white powder. It can be added to water or fruit juice and taken orally, or it can be dissolved and administered in a hypodermic. This is purely speculation on my part, but I believe that with the addition of a dispersant, the liquid Cerebronol could be dispensed like a smoke bomb. If that's true, then the terrorists may have been testing that method here this morning. The drug can even be administered over a period of days via a small subcutaneous device."
"A subcu-what-eous?" Ponch gave Jon a look of complete confusion.
"That means that the drug can put in something like a miniature dart and then embedded under the skin," Baker said, but then his eyes narrowed as something occurred to him. "If the Cerebronol is administered subcutaneously, would the person know what had happened? And what if the dosage was too strong or the person didn't react well to it?"
"The individual wouldn't necessarily realize that the time release device had been implanted in the skin," Crane shook his head. "After the temporary amnesia wore off, the skin would have already closed over the entrance site, and he'd probably just mistake it for an insect bite. The most likely symptoms would be some itching or swelling."
"And unlike direct contact with the Cerebronol, the effects of the drug would be much less dramatic when administered slowly into the bloodstream," Nelson added. "There would only be a brief period of amnesia, followed by the flu-like symptoms. But if the dosage was too high or the subject reacted unfavorably to the drug, then his mental and emotional state would continue to deteriorate over the course of the next several days."
"That sounds just like Baricza!" Ponch looked knowingly at Jon. "His arm is all red and swollen like some kind of bug bit him. And he's definitely got all the other symptoms, too!"
"You mean to tell us that you think you know someone else who's been affected by the drug?" the Admiral spluttered at Ponch, and for once, the Hispanic officer was too intimidated to answer. "Why didn't you say something before now? Who is this person? What are his symptoms, and how long has he had them?"
"His name is Barry Baricza. He's a friend of ours and a fellow CHP officer," Jon answered for the dumbfounded Ponch. "When he got back to the station at the end of watch on Monday, he said he thought he was coming down with the flu. He'd made a lot of traffic stops and gone back and forth from a warm car into the cold and rain all afternoon, so we didn't think much about it. But when Ponch and I went over to his apartment this morning, Bear was completely out of it. I really don't think he remembers what happened to him. And as far as his symptoms are concerned. . .well, let's just say that he'd fit in perfectly with the rest of this crowd."
"And you say that his arm was swollen and inflamed?" Nelson said. "That's certainly in keeping with the symptoms of an allergic reaction, either to the drug or the metal in the time release capsule. In any event, where can we find this Officer Baricza? Maybe he has some information that will help us pinpoint the terrorists' location."
Nelson paused and stared intensely at Ponch for a few seconds, but when no information was immediately forthcoming, he aimed another glare at the luckless CHP officer. "Well. . .out with it, man! We don't have much time left if we're going to find them in time to stop them from turning Los Angeles into more of a zoo than it already is."
But the Admiral's forceful approach merely reduced Ponch to quivering speechlessness, and to avert a Nelson explosion, Jon once more spoke up on his partner's behalf. "It might be easier to show you than try to explain it to you, Admiral. If you'll follow us in your vehicle, sir, we'll take you to Baricza's apartment. Ponch, I'm going to go talk to Turner and tell him what's going on. Maybe I can convince him to cover for us for a little while."
Without further comment, Nelson and Crane nodded in assent and then headed toward their waiting Ford sedan. When they were out of hearing range, Ponch turned to Jon with a worried frown.
"Are you sure this is such a hot idea, partner?" he asked. "How does Sacramento know that those two really are who they say they are? And as far as that goes, they might be the real terrorists. Maybe they're the ones who attacked Bear in the first place, and now they're going back to make sure that he can't identify them."
"Relax, Ponch, I know what I'm doing," Baker said firmly. "There's no way that I'm going to let either of those two browbeat poor Bear with a bunch of questions. And besides, can't you just picture Bonnie "Mama Tiger" Clark's reaction if two strange men just suddenly appeared at Baricza's door -- especially someone like the Admiral? Talk about the irresistible force meeting the immovable object!"
Ponch laughed reluctantly at Jon's humor, but his mind was clearly elsewhere. "I just wish we knew more about those two, that's all. We don't know if we can trust them or not."
"Ponch, we don't have any other choice right about now," Baker said as they walked back to their waiting motorcycles. "The Admiral is right about one thing. This accident and everything else that's happened this morning was just a taste of what somebody out there can do. If somebody doesn't stop them before they turn that drug loose on Los Angeles, what's going to happen at five o'clock tonight will make the Watts riots look like a day in the park."
It was no easy task to smuggle two distinguished looking military men and two uniformed CHP officers through the back entrance and then up the building's freight elevator without being seen. But Nelson had insisted on the maximum amount of secrecy possible under the circumstances, and now the four men crept quietly down the hallway toward Baricza's apartment.
As they drew closer, Jon and Ponch were relieved to find that the odor of garbage no longer wafted out from under the door. The newspapers and flyers were gone, as well, and Ponch nudged Jon quietly.
"Looks like Bonnie's getting the place straightened up and the garbage taken out," he said in a voice that was barely audible. "But man, I sure hate to walk in on her unannounced like this!"
But Nelson stopped in mid-stride, and his face turned the same fiery shade as his hair. "What the devil . . .? You didn't say anything about anyone else being involved! Who is this woman, and what is her connection to Officer Baricza?"
"The name is Bonnie Clark, Officer Bonnie Clark of the California Highway Patrol, and I could ask you the same questions," an icy voice came from the end of the hallway near the stairwell.
Bonnie emerged from the small alcove that contained the garbage chute, and her hand hovered near the off-duty gun that she wore in a holster under her denim blazer. For several long seconds, she gave the newcomers a coolly-appraising look, until even Nelson found himself starting to fidget under those ice-edged eyes.
"Well, so much for keeping this our little secret," Bonnie grumbled at Jon and Ponch. "Jon. . .Ponch? Will one of you mind telling me who these people are, and what they're doing here?"
"We'll explain everything once we get inside Bear's apartment." Jon aimed his best appeasing smile at her -- the one that she always referred to as his 'Aw, shucks, ma'am' grin. "These men need his help. They think he may have some information that will help them with an investigation that they're conducting."
"Good luck," she shrugged wryly at the two newcomers and then turned toward Jon. "I assume that you've explained everything to them, then? Bear is doing better, but that's still not saying a whole lot. I can't see how he'd be much help to them, and being questioned by a bunch of strangers is only going to upset him more than he already is."
"This is really important, Bonnie," Baker pleaded. "Just trust me on this one, OK?"
"Fine," she nodded reluctantly. "But let me be the one to tell Baricza that someone else wants to talk to him. When Dr. Sanchez walked in, Bear almost went through the roof. He thought Ledwith had sent a doctor over here to collect evidence against him."
Jon nodded in agreement, then gestured for the other three men to follow him. Bonnie walked down the hallway toward them and then unlocked the door, but she continued to watch Nelson and Crane out of the corner of her eye until they were all safely inside Baricza's apartment.
In less than an hour, the living room and kitchen had been restored to some semblance of order, thanks to her customary efficiency. Nelson and Crane sat down on the sofa, while Jon and Ponch continued to stand a few feet away from the door, and a tension that was almost palpable filled the apartment as each group covertly tried to assess the other.
"Bonnie, this is Admiral Harriman Nelson and Captain Lee Crane," Jon made the introductions. "Admiral Nelson, Captain Crane, this is. . ."
"Yes, yes, we know -- the inexorable Officer Clark," Nelson finished Baker's sentence, then glanced impatiently down the hallway. "It's imperative that we speak to Officer Baricza right away. We have very little time left before the deadline, and there's no telling how long it will take us to locate the terrorists' base. Assuming that your friend can give us any information at all, that is."
"These guys are investigating some kind of crazy terrorist plot," Ponch spoke up quickly when he saw Bonnie's stony expression -- the one that usually proceeded a major explosion. "Something to do with a stolen drug that produces the same kind of symptoms as the ones Bear's got right now. The terrorists are going to turn that stuff loose on Los Angeles at five o'clock tonight if their demands aren't met."
"You're putting me on," Bonnie rolled her eyes at Ponch. "If this is some kind of joke, Frank Poncherello, it's not very funny. Especially not after what poor Bear has been through these past few days."
"I wish all this was just a joke, Officer Clark, but it's definitely real," Crane shook his head. "We're up against a brick wall right now, and we were hoping that your friend might be able to give us some help. It sounds like he's been through a lot lately, and we hate to have to question him like this. But he may be the only person who can help us avert a full-scale catastrophe."
Crane's words seemed to mollify Bonnie, and he took advantage of the momentary cease-fire to fill her in on all the details. When he finished his explanation, she nodded thoughtfully, then gestured toward the kitchen.
"All right, but we're going to do this my way," she said. "I've got the tea kettle on, and I'll make a pot of tea for everyone. When Bear comes out of his room, I don't want anyone snapping a bunch of questions at him right off the bat. As far as he's concerned, you two are friends of Jon and Ponch, and this is just a friendly call. Is that understood?"
Nelson started to voice a protest, but a warning look from Bonnie made him pause and then nod reluctantly in agreement. The blonde police woman disappeared into the kitchen where a battered tea kettle now whistled merrily, and in a few minutes, she re-emerged with a tray of ceramic mugs, a pot of tea, a small plate of cookies, and some paper plates.
"Jon, will you do the honors while I try to coax Bear out of his room?" Bonnie gestured at the tea pot. "Like I said, he's still pretty shook up after Dr. Sanchez's visit."
"And speaking of that, what did Tadeo have to say?" Ponch asked as he helped himself to a handful of the cookies.
"He didn't seem to think that Baricza has the flu at all -- which fits right in with what you told us a few minutes ago, Captain," Bonnie said. "Bear has some of the same symptoms, but his fever isn't high enough to cause the kind of disorientation that we've been seeing this morning. Dr. Sanchez called in a prescription for antibiotics, but he really didn't think they were going to do much good. But he did find something strange while he was examining Baricza. Take a look at this. . .he took this out of Bear's arm, right in the middle of that infected area above his elbow."
She reached into the pocket of her blazer and pulled out a small Baggie, then held it up for everyone to see. A tiny metallic object with one sharp point rested in a corner of the plastic bag, and Nelson exchanged knowing glances with Crane and the others.
"You were right, Admiral," Crane said. "That's the same kind of time release capsule that Dr. Chen developed to administer the Cerebronol. In the correct dosage, the drug is much more effective when it's slowly introduced into the blood stream, rather than by hypodermic injection or oral ingestion. The terrorists stole a box of these time release devices, along with the Cerebronol."
"As I explained to Officer Baker and Officer Poncherello earlier, some subjects have had allergic reactions, either to the Cerebronol or the metal of the time release capsule," Nelson said as he took the cup of tea that Bonnie handed to him. "From the sounds of it, it would seem that your friend has had just such a reaction -- to say nothing of suffering from the selective amnesia component. But the good news is that once the implant is removed from under the skin, the individual starts to recover within twenty-four hours. Unfortunately, that's the most serious flaw in Dr. Chen's research, so far. . .the effects of Cerebronol are only temporary."
"There may be residual symptoms for another day or two: difficulties with speech; physical weakness; or mood swings. But after seventy-two hours, the drug is completely eliminated from the body, and there are no after-effects," Crane nodded reassuringly at the CHP officers. "Plenty of rest, some extra fluids, some TLC, and your friend will be back on duty in a matter of a few days."
"Thank God!" Bonnie breathed an enormous sigh of relief. "The only thing that Bear has ever wanted in his entire life is to be the best cop in the CHP. He doesn't care about promotions or departmental politics -- all he wants to do is protect his friends and the people he serves. And the idea that someone could have taken that away from him just makes me sick."
A small noise from the darkened hallway made Crane and the others look up from their tea. Bonnie turned around just in time to see Baricza stagger out of his bedroom at the sound of his name, and she made a frantic lunge for him before his legs could buckle underneath him entirely. She managed to slip an arm around his waist, but he pulled away from her and leaned heavily against the wall.
"I heard you talking to Jon and Ponch, but I don't recognize those other voices," Bear's voice was ragged with terror, and his gaze darted wildly around the room. "Who are these people, Bonnie? Did Ledwith send them over here?"
"No, sweetie, they're Jon and Ponch's friends," Bonnie said calmly. "Come on -- let's go have a cup of tea, and I'll introduce you to them. And then if you feel up to it after awhile, I'll fix you a big bowl of my homemade chicken noodle soup."
"Bonnie's penicillin," he chuckled at what was clearly an old joke between them.
Bonnie winked at him, then turned and walked nonchalantly down the hallway, as if baiting him into following her. Baricza hesitated for a few seconds, then stumbled after her until he reached the edge of the living room. He clutched the door facing for support, and fear was evident in every line of his face and body as he peered at Crane and Nelson.
Jon started to walk toward Baricza, but before he could cross the room, Lee Crane stood up and smiled reassuringly at Bear. He walked toward the shivering Baricza with the calm movements of a man in complete control of the situation, and when he spoke, his voice was as soothing as rain pattering down on a tin roof.
"I bet I got your favorite spot, didn't I? Sorry about that," Lee said as he reached out and took Baricza's arm. "My name is Lee Crane, and this is my friend, Harriman Nelson. Thanks for having us over."
Almost before he realized what was happening, Bear found himself deftly propelled toward the seat that the Captain had just vacated. Crane waited until Baricza sat down on the sofa, then poured a cup of the steaming tea and held it out toward him with a reassuring smile.
"How about some of this tea that Bonnie was nice enough to fix for all of us?" he continued to distract Baricza from any panicked thoughts of escape, while Jon and the other CHP officers watched admiringly. "Jon says that you've had the flu for the last few days, and it's easy to become dehydrated. Here you go, Barry."
Bear took the cup of tea and shyly nodded his thanks, then glanced uncertainly toward Jon and Bonnie, as if waiting for one of them to tell him what he should do next. Jon winked encouragingly and gestured for him to remain seated. . .even as he took advantage of the opportunity to assess Bear's condition.
Like most police officers, Jon had developed the ability to watch other people without appearing to look at them at all. Now he was relieved to see that Baricza seemed much improved, even in the short space of an hour. Bear's face was pale, but the feverish glitter was gone from his eyes, and his arm was already less swollen. Instead of the torn shorts and dirty tee shirt, he wore a pair of clean white pajamas, and he smelled of soap and aftershave -- all at Bonnie's urging, no doubt.
But even more importantly, he appeared far more alert and capable of focusing on the things that were taking place around him. As he sipped his tea, it was obvious that he was trying to follow the conversation between Lee, Ponch, and Bonnie: he occasionally smiled or tilted his head questioningly at something one of them had just said. After a few minutes, some of the tension seemed to leave his shoulders, and he leaned back against the sofa with a relaxed yawn.
But it was equally obvious to Baker that at least one person in the room was not enjoying the quiet little social gathering.
Nelson drummed his fingers on the arm of the sofa, and his lips were tightly compressed over the questions that he clearly wanted to ask. Seeing the impatience in the Admiral's face, Jon quickly moved to intervene before Nelson could begin his verbal bombardment.
"Hey, buddy, you look like you're feeling a lot better," he smiled quietly at Bear, then tried to give the disoriented officer's memory a gentle nudge. "How's that arm doing? That must have been some mosquito that bit you! I bet it was big enough to have propellers and landing gear."
"Not a mosquito, Jon. . .a frog," Baricza shook his head as he unthinkingly reached up and touched the white gauze bandage over the spot. "A big blue frog bit me."
Nelson muffled a derisive snort into his mug of tea. . .only to look up and find himself staring into the stormy eyes of an exasperated police woman. Bonnie quickly picked up a paper plate and put a few cookies on it, then handed it to Baricza in the obvious hope of distracting him.
But Bear had heard Nelson's 'comment,' and his eyes were full of unhappiness as he took the plate from Bonnie and sat down on the end table beside him. With a wistful smile, he reached for Bonnie's hand and held it against the side of his face in wordless thanks.
"You're welcome, Bear," Bonnie said, then muttered under her breath, "No matter what happens to you, you're always a gentleman. . .which is more than I can say for some people around here!"
Several days of false hopes and dead end trails had already taken their toll on Nelson's small fund of patience, and what had been such a promising lead only a short time earlier was apparently turning into just another stone wall. Between Baricza's irrationality and Bonnie's overprotectiveness, any hope of gaining new information seemed to be fading rapidly -- a situation that the Admiral found intolerable.
He could clearly envision the looming catastrophe that he seemed powerless to prevent, and he ran his fingers through his short-cropped red hair in exasperation. Helplessness was not a role that Nelson had been born to play, and under the circumstances, Bonnie's comment was enough to make him completely lose any tenuous grip that he might have still had on his temper.
He grunted in scorn, then gave Bonnie a curt, dismissing glance. . .and somehow those two simple acts were more scathing than any sardonic comment could have been. The police woman's cheeks flamed with color, and she dropped her head at Nelson's unspoken rebuke -- a sight that was not lost on Baricza.
His powerful shoulders stiffened when he saw the unhappiness in Bonnie's eyes, and anger flickered behind every movement as he stood up. He walked over to the entertainment center that sat along one wall of the living room and rummaged through a stack of records until he found the one that he wanted.
"It was a big blue frog," he glared at Nelson as he walked back to the sofa and then displayed the album cover to the others. "Just like the song."
Nelson and Crane exchanged brief glances as Baricza continued to hold up the Peter, Paul, and Mary album. He saw their looks of disbelief, and his face was full of agitation as he struggled to find the words to explain the jumble of thoughts that were going through his mind at the moment. He put the record down beside the cookies, then turned to Ponch and Jon in frustration.
"A blue frog," he shook his head in obvious distress. "You know, Ponch. . .just like we talked about."
Ponch raised an eyebrow almost imperceptibly at Jon, who sighed and shook his head. Baker's glance clearly said, "Humor him," and Ponch turned back to Baricza with a cheerful smile.
"Hey, don't worry about it, Bear," he said as picked up the tea pot. "How about another cup of tea to go with those cookies?"
"No!" Bear shouted and held up the plate of cookies. "Bonnie, can I have a froggie bag?"
"Sweetie, I don't understand," Bonnie said in bewilderment. "I can get you a plastic bag, but I didn't see anything that even looked like a doggie bag when I was cleaning up the kitchen."
"Not doggie. . .froggie," Baricza insisted. Seeing nothing but incomprehension in Bonnie's face, he began to sing, "I'm in love with a big blue frog; a big blue frog loves me."
"It almost sounds as if he's speaking in some kind of code, doesn't it, Admiral?" Crane looked at Nelson. "I knew that an overdose of Cerebronol can do some strange things to a person's mind, but it's even more frightening when you see the proof in front of your own eyes."
"And unless this man can stop babbling long enough to tell us what we need to know, you're going to have the opportunity to see that proof multiplied by the entire population of a major city, Lee," Nelson said curtly, then turned to Baricza. "I know this won't be easy, but I want you to try to stay calm and focus your thoughts. Can you tell us where you were or what you were doing when you first started to feel ill?"
"The frog bit me when I was out on patrol Monday, and that's when I got sick," Baricza's response was quick, and for a few seconds, there was no trace of disorientation in his eyes. "I didn't even get to finish my sandwich and cup of coffee from that new deli in the Northpointe Mall. I had to talk to the frog first. . .the tail lights on his Buick weren't working."
"Wonderful," Nelson muttered sarcastically to himself. "Now all we need is a palomino and a mule named Francis to go along with our talking blue frog, and then our little menagerie will be complete."
"But it's true," Bear protested. "I really did talk to a big blue frog, and it bit me on the arm. But I didn't remember until just now."
He looked around the room and saw nothing but blank faces, then turned to Ponch in frustration. "You know what I mean, Ponch. You were the one who told me about the unicorn in the bikini, remember?"
"I think we've heard enough," the Admiral shook his head as he stood up and put his mug of tea down on the coffee table. "It's obvious that there's still too much Cerebronol in this man's system, and he's incapable of thinking rationally at the moment. We'll just have to contact our agents here in Los Angeles and hope that they've had some sort of breakthrough in over the past few hours."
The Admiral nodded at Crane, who stood up with a weary sigh and prepared to follow his commanding officer. But despite the terror that threatened to overwhelm his already overloaded senses, Baricza suddenly reached out and clutched the sleeve of Nelson's jacket. His eyes were full of pain as he struggled to find the right words, and for once, even Nelson was taken aback at the desperation that he read so clearly in Baricza's face.
"Don't go. I have to tell you something first," Bear begged. "They didn't want me to see the froggie bag, but it was too late, and that's why I got bit. Please, Ponch -- please tell him about the blue frog."
"It's all right, Barry," Nelson's expression softened a little as he attempted to disentangle Baricza's fingers from his sleeve. "You tried to help us, and we appreciate that. . ."
The sound of someone sighing sharply interrupted Nelson's no-apology apology, and the Admiral looked up just as Jon Baker walked over to the coffee table. Baker picked up the record and studied it for a moment, then looked at the others.
"What if Bear is telling us exactly what happened to him, and we're the ones who're too dumb to know what he's saying?" Baker asked. "He obviously thinks you should understand him, Ponch. What does the Peter, Paul, and Mary song 'I'm In Love with a Big Blue Frog' have to do with a doggie bag and a unicorn in a bikini?"
For a few seconds, Ponch said nothing as he stared thoughtfully at the record album in Jon's hand. But for once, the famous convoluted Poncherello logic seemed to have deserted him, and he shrugged blankly at the others.
"Sorry, Jon, I don't have a clue," he started to say, then looked up with a wide smile. "Hey, wait a minute! I do remember telling Baricza something about a unicorn and a bikini. But I don't remember when or why."
"Think, man!" Nelson commanded brusquely. "A great deal is at stake here, and there's no time to lose."
Even with an admiral's orders to spur him on, there was still a delay of almost thirty seconds as Ponch's mental gears clanked and clashed together. Finally, he looked up at the others and yelped in triumph, "I remember now! It was Monday afternoon, right after we got off duty. I was telling Bear about Amy and Lisa, the two waitresses down at the Burrito Barn."
"The Burrito Barn?" Crane raised an eyebrow mildly. "Well, I guess it does fit in pretty well with blue frogs and unicorns in bikinis."
"Not a unicorn in a bikini. Amy has a unicorn tattoo on her shoulder," Ponch shook his head. "But anyway, I was telling Bear about Lisa asking me whether she should wear her gold bikini or her one piece leatherette suit with the hot pink tassels to Grossman's pool party at. . ."
"Froggie's Pad!" Jon, Ponch, and Bonnie chorused as the last piece of the puzzle fell into place.
"That's what you've been trying to tell us, isn't it?" Bonnie playfully ruffled Baricza's hair, and he smiled at her in quiet delight. "You just couldn't find the right words to get it through our thick heads, that's all. "
"Uh huh," Bear's forehead was furrowed in concentration as he tried to finish his explanation. "Back seat. . .jar of white powder sticking out of a paper bag. Blue frog on the bag."
Now Jon could easily follow Baricza's explanation. "And you thought it might have been cocaine in the Froggie's bag, so you were going to call it in. But before you could get back to your car, somebody in the car nailed you with one of those pellets."
"Silver tube. . .like a pen," Bear nodded in agreement. "My head hurt, and I got sick. I remember now."
"You'd think that one of us would have figured this out sooner. After all, we were just in the place on Monday night," Bonnie planted a kiss on top of Baricza's head, then gave Nelson a pointed look. "So, it looks like some people I could mention aren't nearly as quick on the uptake as the guy who's supposed to be so out of it!"
Jon quickly turned away to hide a grin -- but whether from Bonnie or the Admiral, only Baker himself could have said for certain. But when he glanced up again, he saw the look of incomprehension that now passed between Nelson and Crane: judging from his expression, the Admiral seemed convinced that the entire CHP had gone stark raving mad.
"Froggie's Pad is a new billiard room and restaurant here in Los Angeles," Jon explained patiently. "It's done in a blue and green décor, and the interior is supposed to look like a big lily pad surrounded by water. Their logo is a stylized blue frog. It's printed on all their menus and cocktail napkins. Come to think about it, one of the waitresses even made a joke about a 'froggie' bag instead of a doggie bag when Turner's wife couldn't finish her sandwich."
Nelson nodded thoughtfully and eyed Baricza with a respect that hadn't been there a moment ago. "I understand now. The terrorists thought they were about to be arrested for drug possession and used the Cerebronol in an effort to escape. They must have hoped that it would induce disorientation and temporary amnesia so that they could avoid capture."
"And if the vehicle tags came back with no wants or warrants, there wouldn't have been any reason for anyone to suspect anything," Ponch said. "Especially if Bear didn't write them up for a violation. Anybody that looked at his paperwork would just figure that he gave the driver a verbal warning and let him go without issuing a written citation."
"That makes sense," Crane said. "Admiral, why don't you contact our sources and find out more about this place while I go down to the lobby and use the pay phone down there? I'll call the CHP and get a list of the traffic stops that Barry made on Monday. Who knows -- maybe one of the names will match up with something else that we've got. After all, this is the closest thing to a real lead that we've had in days."
"Good idea, Lee," Nelson said, then turned to Baricza. "I need to make a few calls. Would it be all right if I used your telephone?"
"Use the phone in the bedroom," he said with a proud lift of his head. "Close the door. . .keeps out the blue frogs that way."
"Thank you, Barry," Nelson smiled, and this time, his interpretation of Bear's garbled words was flawless. "I appreciate the offer of privacy."
He turned and started to walk down the hallway, but before he had taken more than three or four steps, he turned around again. He nodded at Baricza in gruff approval, and now Bear's smile was bright enough to pierce even a Gulf Coast fog.
"Bravo zulu, lad -- job well done," Nelson said quietly. "I'd venture to say that there aren't many people who could have accomplished as much with the kind of handicap that you're working under right now. And that includes some admirals that I could name."
Bonnie grinned wickedly at Nelson when she heard the whisper of emphasis that he placed on the word, and they could hear the Admiral chuckling to himself all the way down the hall. But then Bonnie's expression quickly grew somber, and she gestured at the clock sitting on the fireplace mantel.
"And speaking of working under a handicap, why don't you let one of us go down to the lobby and call the station for a list of Bear's traffic stops on Monday?" she said to Crane. "It would save some time if you didn't have to go through official channels, and it sounds like time is something that we're running short on."
"Or, I could save all of you the trouble and make that call for you," a voice said pleasantly from somewhere behind them.
A little too pleasantly, as a matter of fact. Jon and the other CHP officers winced sheepishly as they turned to face Joe Getraer. The sergeant now stood just inside the front door -- the same door that Ponch had forgotten to lock behind him.
"Of course, in return, I'd like a few of my questions answered," Getraer continued in those sweet tones. "Nothing much, really. Just things like, who are these people? Why aren't you and Poncherello on duty like you're supposed to be, Baker? What's wrong with Baricza? What does all of this have to do with the terrorist threat that Los Angeles is under at the moment. . .and what on earth is going on around here?"
"Uh, hi, Sarge," Jon smiled nervously at his superior officer. "We didn't hear you come in. How long have you been here?"
"Let's just say that I've been standing outside the door long enough to know that there are four CHP officers who are in more trouble than they can get out of -- not even working holidays and overtime," Getraer said. "Now, will one of you tell me what's going on? Start at the beginning, and don't leave out a single thing."
Despite the sergeant's edict, there was a lengthy pause while CHP and military personnel alike scrambled for an explanation. When no answers were instantly forthcoming, Getraer gave his officers a look that would have reduced Attila the Hun to quivering sobs in a matter of seconds.
But before Getraer's temper could reach the point of detonation, Baricza looked at his fellow officers and said in a small voice, "Uh-oh. . .we're busted."
It was almost more than Jon and the other could do to contain their amusement at the sight of Bear's woebegone face, and their ribs ached with the effort. Even Getraer struggled to maintain his exasperated façade, but laughter danced in his eyes at Baricza's studied look of innocence. With an expression that would have done credit to a beagle puppy caught chewing on its owner's favorite pair of shoes, Bear meekly held out his plate of cookies as an impromptu peace offering. . .
. . .and with that, Getraer's 'stern' exterior crumbled altogether. As the others roared with laughter, he took the proffered plate of cookies and sat down in the recliner by the fireplace, still shaking his head.
"I give up! Anyone who's as much of a sucker for the big, sad 'puppy dog eyes' routine as I am should never have become a sergeant," he groaned in mock exasperation, but then he grew somber once more. "In all seriousness, what is going on, Jon? Turner said that you left the accident scene because a F.B.I. agent needed your help. And I presume that would be this gentleman?"
"Well, I'm not exactly a F.B.I. agent, although this mission does involve a national security matter," Crane stood up and walked over to Getraer, then shook hands with the sergeant. "I'm Captain Lee Crane of the S.S.R.N. Seaview. As you probably overheard, my commanding officer, Admiral Harriman Nelson, is in the other room, making some phone calls. He'll be joining us again in a few minutes. We're from the Nelson Institute of Marine Research in Santa Barbara."
"Sergeant Joe Getraer," Getraer acknowledged Crane with a small nod. "I've read about some of the research that your people have done and the technological advancements you've made. Is it safe to assume that your presence here in Los Angeles has something to do with the high alert that we're currently under? And don't think that I've forgotten that two of my motor officers disappeared during that alert without being completely straightforward with me about what they were doing. That means you, Baker and Poncherello."
"Please don't be upset with them, Sergeant," Crane said as he sat back down. "If my hunch is correct, then Officer Baker and Officer Poncherello may have just given us the only solid lead that we've had all week."
"Aren't you forgetting the real hero here, Captain?" Jon asked quietly, then nodded at Baricza. "Ponch and I wouldn't have been much help to you on our own. It was Bear that gave you the break you needed, not us."
"And speaking of that. . .what's going on here, Baricza?" Getraer gestured at the furniture and possessions that were still in disarray. "Lieutenant Ledwith came into my office a couple of hours ago, wanting to talk to me. He said he came over here to see you on his day off. Knowing Craig, that probably meant that he was checking to make sure that you were really sick and not just goldbricking. He told me that you weren't acting like yourself at all."
Baricza had no answer, and Getraer spread his hands in a gesture of frustration. "Barry, I don't understand much of what I just heard a few minutes ago, but I don't think I have to remind you that you're not exactly one of Craig's favorite people right now. You can't afford to do anything that will give him a reason to take action against you. Why didn't you come to me if there was something wrong?"
Bear dropped his head, but this time, Getraer didn't allow himself to be swayed. The sergeant looked sternly at Bear for several long seconds, but Baricza began to tremble as the right words once more eluded him. Bonnie saw the frustration in his face, then sat down beside him on the sofa and put her arm around his shoulders.
"Sarge, Bear couldn't help it," Bonnie took a deep breath and met Getraer's gaze without flinching. "He was drugged and out of it, but we didn't know that until just a few minutes ago. Before we found out about the drug, we were all afraid that if we told you, you would have had him taken in for a psychiatric evaluation. And when Ledwith got wind of it, that would have meant the end of Bear's career with the CHP."
"All right, Barry, I don't understand everything Bonnie just said, but I'll let the rest of the lecture go by the boards," Getraer nodded at Baricza, then turned to the other CHP officers. "But what I'm about to say to goes for all three of you -- Clark; Baker; Poncherello. How long did the three of you think you could hide Barry's real condition from me? Not only am I hurt that you didn't trust me enough to confide in me, but you could have endangered Baricza's life by not seeking treatment for him immediately when you first realized the seriousness of his condition. That showed a lack of judgment on your parts, and I'm extremely disappointed in all of you."
"Sarge, we trust you. . .it's Ledwith that has everybody ducking and running for cover," Baker nodded grimly. "And knowing how you go by the book, we figured that you'd feel obligated to give him a full report about what was really going on with Bear."
"Oh, so now it's guilt by association," Getraer's expression was a perfect blend of anger and sorrow. "Craig and I are both in command positions, so that means I'm going to sell out one of the best officers in the Patrol, not to mention a good friend? And for what -- to salve my hyperactive conscience? Jon, I don't ever think I've been so hurt or upset before in. . ."
"Belay that, Sergeant, if you would, please," Nelson's booming voice made Getraer jump, and in a few seconds, the Admiral emerged from the bedroom and walked down the hallway toward them.
With a smile of triumph, he held up a piece of paper inscribed with his crabbed handwriting. "Your officers' decisions may not have been strictly by the book, but they've unwittingly given us the only solid piece of information that we've had all week about the location of the terrorists' base."
"That certainly didn't take long, Admiral," Crane said in mild surprise. "What were our contacts able to tell you?"
"It didn't take long because they already have the owners of Froggie's Pad under surveillance -- although not for anything related to this case," Nelson nodded. "The owners are suspected of drug smuggling, money laundering, and a number of other criminal activities. And not only that, but they just 'happen' to be the same nationality as the group that we're after."
"All right, Admiral, I'll, ah, belay any further discussion with my officers about this matter, at least until the crisis is over," Getraer stood up and started to walk toward the kitchen telephone. "And speaking of that, I'd better call in and get a list of the traffic stops that Barry made on Monday. Unfortunately, this could take a few minutes. . ."
"Kang, James L.," Baricza suddenly spoke up in a voice that was almost toneless. "11896 Larkspur Trail. Five ten; one hundred and forty-five pounds. Black hair, black eyes. DOB: 6-7-41. No restrictions."
He closed his eyes, then continued to recite information as if he was reading it directly from his report. "1976 Buick Electra. Two tone, red over black. California tag: Ocean Nora Ida one-four-seven-three. Tail lights and turn signals inoperable; missing side mirror."
"Whoa!" Ponch shook his head in awe. "That's awesome, Bear. How'd you do that, anyway?"
"Among other things, Cerebronol stimulates the centers of the brain that govern memory," Nelson said to the others, then turned to Baricza once more. "But thank you again, Barry. Not only did you just save us valuable time, but that information happens to be the icing on this particular 'rice cake.' The owners of Froggie's Pad are brothers -- William and George Kang. The fact that they have the same surname as the driver of the Buick may just be a coincidence. . .but I have my doubts."
"All right, Admiral, what's our game plan?" Lee asked somberly.
"I just put in a call to Chip and Chief Sharkey," Nelson explained. "They'll be coming ashore soon, and I told them to meet us here. Once they arrive, we'll discuss what I had in mind. I also took the liberty of asking Doc to come with them. He's dealt with a case of accidental Cerebronol overdose when Dr. Chen and his assistant were aboard the Seaview several months ago. We developed several intervention strategies that will make the detoxification process much easier on Barry."
The Admiral paused, then added with laughter in his eyes, "And besides, Doc's presence here would free up Officer Clark to work with us on a little covert raid that I have in mind. If she's willing, that is. . .and if I can count on the CHP for some back-up in this little scheme that I've concocted. Purely off the record, of course, Sergeant."
"Of course," Getraer replied, and his bemused expression was the twin of Nelson's. "Now all I have to do is think of a perfectly good reason why three officers disappeared in the middle of an alert. Preferably something that will make Lieutenant Ledwith a happy little camper."
"Let me make a few more phone calls, and I don't think that the good Lieutenant will be a problem for us," Nelson said knowingly, then turned to Bonnie and the other CHP officers. "So, can I count on the support of the Highway Patrol?"
"I'm game," Bonnie winked at Nelson.
"I'm in," Ponch grinned, while Jon Baker gave his assent with a smile and a nod.
"Well, that makes it unanimous, then," the Admiral nodded. "Lieutenant Commander Chip Morton is the Seaview's Executive Officer and a good man to have in a situation like this. So is CPO Francis Sharkey. Between your people and mine, Sergeant, I think we have a good chance of averting a major catastrophe. And speaking of preventing another kind of disaster, I'll go make those phone calls now. I intend to see to it that this Lieutenant Ledwith of yours is neutralized, as it were."
Despite Nelson's confident tone, Baricza flinched at even the mention of the word 'lieutenant,' and that fearful little movement was not lost on the Admiral. He leaned closer to Bear, then spoke in a confidential tone.
"Trust me on this, Barry," the Admiral said with a twinkle in his eyes. "Some things are universally true. A straight beats a pair; one good turn deserves another; the Kentucky Derby won't ever be won by a three-legged mule; it's not what you know, but who you know. . .and an Admiral outranks a lieutenant, every time."
Nelson turned and walked back to the bedroom, cheerfully whistling "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Baricza looked over at Crane with a bewildered tilt of his head, but Lee merely touched the side of his nose with his index finger and winked broadly.
"Blue frogs," Bear shook his head in disgust as he stretched out on the sofa once more.
He rolled onto his side with his back toward the others, then pulled the afghan tightly around him and closed his eyes. But Getraer, Crane, and the others could still hear him muttering as he drifted off to sleep, "The whole world is full of big blue frogs."
A sentiment that everyone in the room could wholeheartedly endorse at the moment. **********
Forty-five minutes later, three men knocked at the apartment door, then quickly slipped inside. Like Crane and Nelson, they were dressed in civilian clothes, and each of them carried an assortment of packages. After introductions had been made all around, Lt. Commander Chip Morton turned apologetically to the Admiral.
"I'm sorry it took us so long to get here, Admiral, but the freeway was a motorist's nightmare," the tall blond officer said as he carefully laid a velvet box and a leather brief case on the coffee table. "First, we had to pick up those items you requested, sir, and by the time we were done, there had been three more accidents. All of them were similar to the first one that Sparks reported, but fortunately, none of them involved fatalities. And since you ordered us to take special precautions to prevent people from following us, I thought it would be best if we parked a few blocks away and then did some backtracking."
The second member of the trio, a man with a face like that of a disillusioned bulldog, unceremoniously dumped several large, lumpy parcels onto the nearest flat surface, then collapsed onto a chair. He wore a plaid polyester leisure suit and a pair of loafers, and now he groaned as he flexed an aching foot. Clearly, the non-regulation footwear was not to the Chief Petty Officer's liking.
"But did we really have to park out in East Purgatory and hike the rest of the way over here?" Francis Sharkey muttered quietly to himself.
Not quietly enough, it would seem. Morton turned toward the Chief, crossed his arms over his chest, and impaled Sharkey with one superbly-sardonic look.
"Did you say something, Chief?" Morton said as he continued to transfix Sharkey with what were surely the iciest blue eyes in the history of the military -- if not the planet.
"Uh, I was just saying that it's a good thing all this craziness didn't happen out in East Pasadena, sir," Sharkey wriggled uncomfortably under Morton's stare. "I heard that there's a big biker convention over there. I mean, that's all we'd need right about now is a bunch of spaced-out Hells Angels. Isn't that right, Mr. Morton? Sir."
Mollified, Morton nodded and then turned to face Nelson and Crane once more -- but not before Getraer and the others saw the barely-concealed laughter dancing in the Exec's eyes. Only one person didn't share in the others' amusement. . .like Sharkey, Ponch was a master of the necessary art of backpedaling, and now he gave the Chief a look of complete understanding and sympathy.
A tall, thin man stood beside the sofa where Baricza was still asleep, and Doc paused as he opened his medical kit. He listened to the exchange between Morton and Sharkey, and for an instant, the physician's somber face was lit up with a smile that hardly seemed possible for someone so grave. But then his expression became completely professional once more as he bent over to take Bear's vital signs, and his touch was so deft that Baricza continued to sleep peacefully. In moment, Doc straightened up, then nodded toward the Admiral.
"Admiral, this man is showing the same symptoms as Dr. Chen's lab assistant -- elevated heart rate and temperature; mild respiratory distress; etcetera," he said as he took out a hypodermic and filled it from a small glass bottle. "I think that we can safely use the detoxification strategies that we developed to treat Taylor. Sedation to control the periods of excess neurological activity; an IV to combat the dehydration; and a short course of antidepressants to control the fluctuating levels of neurotransmitters in his brain while his body readapts to the pre-Cerebronol state."
"Very good, Doc. Carry on, then," Nelson nodded, then turned back to the others. "Sergeant, you and your fellow officers can be assured that Barry is in very capable hands now."
"There wasn't any doubt in our minds, Admiral," Getraer said with a quiet smile, then gestured at the carriage clock sitting on the fireplace mantle. "But I think we need to hear that plan of yours now. Every minute we sit here is another minute closer to the deadline."
"What I had in mind involves splitting up our numbers into three groups," Nelson said. "Sergeant, since there's an excellent chance that the staff at Froggie's may remember you, I suggest that we put you, Officer Baker, Officer Poncherello in the low-visibility group. Captain Crane, Commander Morton, and Chief Sharkey are an unknown quantity to them, so we'll put them inside the restaurant."
"And how do you and I fit into this plan, Admiral?" Bonnie asked warily.
"That will leave us to act as bait," Nelson gestured at the assortment of packages scattered across the apartment. "The items that Commander Morton picked up on his way here will guarantee that we attract plenty of attention to ourselves."
"And this is a good thing?" Bonnie raised an eyebrow in mild disbelief.
"Trust me -- the plan will work. I'll explain all the details to you on our way to the restaurant," Nelson said, then turned to the others. "And needless to say, it require a perfectly coordinated team effort between the CHP and the Seaview personnel."
"You've got the playbook, Admiral," Getraer said. "The CHP will follow your calls."
"Thank you, Sergeant, but we're all on the same team," Nelson gestured for the rest of the group to come closer. "No one player is any more or less important than another here. And if all goes well, we'll sack the quarterback and score a touchdown of our own."
They gathered around him, and the Admiral's smile was positively Machiavellian as he said, "Now here's what we're going to do. . ."
The afternoon sun was thin and chill as befitted the month of December, but the three men standing behind the brown brick building occasionally paused to wipe sweat away from their faces. Their red coveralls were streaked with water from melting ice as they piled crates of fish and seafood onto a pallet sitting on a high wooden loading dock, and after nearly an hour of such work, Ponch signaled to the others that he was taking a break.
He took off his baseball cap and ran his fingers through his dark hair in exasperation as he glared at the almost empty truck. But when he made no move to resume work after a few moments, Jon Baker winked at Getraer. . .then blithely tossed a big cardboard carton marked "Mackerel" at his partner.
"Holy mackerel, Ponch!" Jon chuckled in an effort to coax Ponch out of his sour mood. "Talk about real 'sole' food. . .I think I might just moonlight at this job from now on. Not for the money -- just for the 'halibut.'"
"How come the hoity-toity Navy characters get to have a nice dinner, and us CHP types have to unload a stupid truck full of dead fish?" Ponch ignored his partner's attempts at humor as he handed the box to Getraer. "A great big stupid truck crammed full of nasty, smelly dead fish. Why do we have to wear these dumb red coveralls, anyway. . .and just what did the Admiral mean when he said that we should be glad they aren't the blue ones?"
"Relax, Ponch," Baker said with a sly grin as he tossed another heavy crate onto the loading dock. "It could have been worse. You could have been the one who had to wear that slinky little red designer number and those great big pearl earrings, instead of Bonnie. I guess a truck full of fish isn't too hard for a bunch of submariners to come up with, but the Halston dress is going some. Man, if that's the kind of stuff they have laying around the Seaview, I don't think I want to know the details!"
"Belay that. . .I mean, knock it off, you two!" Getraer hissed under his breath. "Do you want everyone in the place to know our business?"
At the moment, 'everyone' consisted of a large black cat that rubbed against their legs and almost tripped them as it begged for the fish that it could smell. But Baker knew better than to argue with his sergeant, and he turned back to his work with a smile that he wisely hid from Getraer.
The three CHP officers worked in silence for a few more minutes, trying to prolong the job of unloading the truck. Getraer glanced down at his watch with a quiet groan: it was now almost four o'clock, and there had been no sign of unusual activity in the past hour.
"That's the last of it," Ponch said as he handed Getraer another crate of seafood. "Now what do we. . .?"
"Heads up, you guys!" Baker hissed from the back of the truck. "Take a look at what's headed our direction."
He nodded almost imperceptibly toward the end of the alley, and as Getraer bent over to tie his shoe, he casually glanced in the direction that Jon had just pointed. A red and black Buick slowly made its way toward them, and as the car passed them, it slowed down. The tinted window slid down a few inches, and now a pair of the coldest black eyes that they had ever seen in a human face stared out at them through the narrow opening.
Ponch managed to smile at the driver, then picked up the truck manifest and elaborately inspected it. Baker yawned and stretched, while Getraer finished tying his shoelace. Apparently, those gestures seemed normal enough to convince the driver that this was nothing more than a routine delivery, and he rolled the window up again.
He drove another ten feet, then stopped in front of a large cargo bay door beside the loading dock. He honked his horn twice, and the door slowly slid upward on its metal tracks. He did a neat three point turn, then backed into the cargo bay, and as soon as the Buick's front bumper was clear, the door began its descent.
"It's the same car that Baricza stopped," Getraer said quietly to Jon and Ponch. "The tag matches the one he gave us -- Ocean Nora Ida one-four-seven-three. I'll go use that pay phone across the street to let the Admiral and the others know that everything is green and go at our end. While I'm gone, you two go ahead and get things set up here."
"With pleasure, Sarge," Jon nodded as he reached under a tarp in the back of the truck and handed several long strips of metal down to Ponch. "With pleasure!"
The black-haired man in the expensive three piece suit might not have been a Hollywood producer, but he certainly exuded the condescending air that came with great wealth and power. Harried waiters ran back and forth at the man's imperious summons, while three other patrons sitting at a table in the back of the restaurant watched with amused expressions.
After the fourth or fifth time that an appetizer or entree had been dismissed as cold or improperly prepared, the man's companion shook her long red tresses and rolled her eyes in annoyance. She smiled apologetically at the hapless waiter who filled her water glass, then picked at her salad of crab meat and artichoke hearts.
A private telephone sat on the table, and when it rang, the man picked the receiver up with an annoyed frown. He listened for a moment, then sighed impatiently and nodded.
"Very well, then, go ahead with the transaction," he said in chill tones as he consulted a large gold pocket watch hanging on a chain from his vest. "I don't think I have to remind you of the ramifications if you don't keep your part of the bargain, now do I? No. . .I didn't think so. Good day."
He put the phone down and then looked up just as a waiter pushed a cart full of pastries and desserts toward them. The waiter's back was toward the three men sitting at the other table, and they were too far away to hear what he was saying. But Crane had known Nelson for far too many years not to recognize the little glimmer of awareness in the Admiral's otherwise perfect poker face, and the Captain whispered something to his companions.
"Good evening," the waiter nodded at Nelson and Bonnie. "I trust that everything was to your satisfaction. For dessert tonight, we have a lovely crème Brulé with ginger wafers, our own Black Forest cake, or the specialty of the house. . ."
A spotless white napkin was draped over his arm, and now he smiled at them, then flipped the piece of cloth back slightly to reveal what was underneath it. The last few inches of a small silver tube gleamed softly the overhead light, and he made a tiny gesture with the weapon toward a hallway.
"You will get up and walk down the hall as if you were going to the restroom," he said in a pleasant voice, but there was nothing friendly about the look in his eyes. "There is a door marked 'Private' at the end of the hallway, and I will follow you there. I warn you, Admiral. . .this gun contains a small dart loaded with an extremely fast acting poison that is undetectable by standard autopsy methods. The other patrons will simply think that you've had a heart attack, and all evidence of the dart will be gone by the time that the paramedics arrive."
"And what if I scream?" Bonnie said as Nelson nudged her under the table to play along with him. "Do you really think that the rest of the patrons won't notice?"
"I wouldn't do that, if I were you, Madame -- especially since you seem to have eaten something that disagreed with you," he chuckled coldly, then gestured toward the restaurant's hostess, who stood near-by. "You should be feeling the effects of the Cerebronol almost any moment now. . ."
Bonnie suddenly went pale, and she grabbed the edge of the table for support, as if a wave of dizziness had flooded over her. Nelson met her gaze for a fraction of a second, and a knowing glance passed between them, as if some suspicion about the food or the water had just been confirmed.
But then the Admiral's expression shifted, and he looked at Bonnie with concern. He reluctantly nodded at the waiter, then stood up and tossed his napkin down beside his barely-touched plate of food.
"All right, we'll do it your way," Nelson said. "Just don't harm my friend."
"A wise decision, Admiral," he bowed, then gestured at the hostess. "Su-ling, our guest is feeling faint. Perhaps you would be so kind as to help her to the Ladies Room. I'm quite sure she'll feel much better soon. And remember, Admiral. . .if you value the young lady's life, you won't do anything foolish."
The hostess nodded and slipped her arm around Bonnie's waist, then helped her to her feet. With an elaborate show of worry, Nelson got up and followed them down the hallway. The waiter paused at the edge of the corridor as Crane and the others exchanged carefully-staged comments and questioning looks among themselves.
"It's nothing to worry about, gentlemen," he bowed slightly toward them. "The young woman is merely feeling faint. Please, enjoy your dinner. I assure you that everything is under control."
Crane nodded at the others, and they turned back to their food with a few muttered comments for the other man's benefit. The Captain casually reached into his jacket pocket and produced a 'transistor radio,' then made an elaborate show of tuning the innocuous-looking transceiver before he put the tiny earplug in his ear.
"Almost time for the pre-game show," he said loudly enough for anyone in the vicinity to hear him. "I don't want to miss a word of it."
It took several minutes for Su-ling to half-drag, half-carry a mumbling Bonnie down the length of the hallway. They vanished through the door at the end of the corridor, and in a few more seconds, Nelson was shoved roughly through that same door.
Su-ling dumped Bonnie onto an intricately-carved chair, where the dazed policewoman continued to mutter incoherently to herself, just as Baricza had done earlier. The Oriental woman turned to the waiter and said, "When those other three men are done eating, I will close the restaurant to any other patrons until we have dealt with this situation. I will tell anyone who asks that we are having problems with the plumbing."
"Good," the man nodded as he took up a watchful position just inside the door. "We can't afford to have anyone asking questions -- especially not now."
Su-Ling bowed slightly, then left the room as silently as a whisper of drifting snow. During the exchange between the other two, Nelson had sat down on a heavy mahogany and velvet sofa, and now he quickly took stock of his new 'prison.'
The room was small, but almost every inch of it was covered with priceless objects d' art -- from the collection of antique snuff bottles in a brass and glass étagère to the delicately-painted scrolls that were the product of some ancient master's brush.
On a lacquer table in one corner, the overhead lights sparkled on a green porcelain "roof god" that had once frightened demons away from some Ming dynasty house, while on the rosewood desk, a jade horse arched its delicate neck and fiercely stamped its hoof, as if ready for battle.
A small black-haired man sat behind the desk, and now he picked up the jade statue. He looked at it for a moment without speaking, then carefully replaced it in the exact spot it had occupied before. Only then did he deign to glance at Nelson and Clark, and the Admiral immediately noticed the strong resemblance between the man's features and those of the other man.
"Admiral Nelson," the man stood up from behind the desk and bowed slightly in acknowledgement. "My name is William Kang, and this is my younger brother, George. Welcome to our humble establishment."
"I wish I could say that the pleasure was mine," Nelson smiled sardonically as George produced a handgun from a holster under his tuxedo jacket. "It's obvious from your high 'caliber' of welcome that you know why I'm here."
"Such levity from a condemned man would be considered blasphemous in my country, Admiral -- an affront to the gods that he is about to join for all eternity," William Kang said. "But you are correct. We know that you are here to recover the Cerebronol that we recently liberated from N.I.M.R. Really, I must congratulate you and your staff on such an outstanding scientific accomplishment. . .especially since it will be the last one you'll ever make."
"I'm in no position to stop you from killing me, but at least let this young woman go," Nelson said. "She doesn't know anything about the Cerebronol. She just came along with me as a diversion."
"Really, Admiral, do you think that her disguise was any more effective than your own?" Kang shook his head, as George roughly yanked the wig from Bonnie's head and tossed the tangle of red curls to the ground. "I'm afraid that she has quite a memorable face. She came here not long ago with a group of California Highway Patrol officers. . .I have no reason to believe that she isn't one of them."
Nelson sighed as he removed his own wig and tossed it onto the floor beside the one that Bonnie had been wearing. George Kang laughed in derision as he prodded the limp black wig with the toe of his immaculate patent leather pump, and even the otherwise impassive William chuckled at the sight.
"Since you've already decided that you're going to kill me, the least you can do for a condemned man is tell me how you plan to use the Cerebronol," the Admiral said with a shrug. "All state and local agencies are on alert. You won't get near a public works building without being stopped, so that means you can't contaminate the water supplies. And the police helicopters are looking for any signs of suspicious activity in the air. So just how do you intend to disperse the chemical -- via smoke bomb, like you did on the freeways this morning?"
"Admiral, you disappoint me," William clicked his tongue disapprovingly and shook his head. "Given your intellect, I thought you might have anticipated our next move. But in any event, the incidents on the freeway were mere child's play compared to the devastation that we have planned for this city. And even at that, Los Angeles will escape relatively unscathed, compared to the destruction that will be visited on the nations which threaten my people."
He stood up and walked around the desk, then took a few steps toward a small row of buttons on one wall. He pushed one of them, and one of the wall panels opened to reveal a slide projector. He pushed a second button, and a small screen slid down from a concealed slot in the ceiling.
"Several of my countrymen have been experimenting with ways to eradicate the undesirable elements that surround our borders like wolves," Kang said coldly as he clicked the projector's button. "And what better way than to let the enemy's own madness and folly destroy him from within?"
Nelson watched as scene after scene was displayed in front of him, but each slide had two chilling similarities to all the others. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that the men and women in the photographs were lost their own personal hell of madness. . .
. . .but even more unnerving was the fact that each individual wore some kind of official-looking uniform. Kang paused only long enough to let Nelson absorb the silent message that the slides so clearly portrayed, then gestured for George to change the tray. Now the slides depicted every kind of violent act possible -- from riots and looting to rape, torture, and murder. And in each case, the perpetrators were the same individuals portrayed in the previous set of slides: police officers, soldiers, government agents, and all the rest.
"You see, our scientists have been experimenting with substances similar to your Cerebronol," Kang's chuckle was thin and dry like the sound of a rattlesnake about to strike. "We were planning on using our own version of the drug here, but when your slightly more refined product became available, we decided to use it and save our own limited resources."
"Slightly more refined product?" Nelson said contemptuously. "What you mean is that you don't have the equipment or the skills to refine the compounds to as pure a state as possible. It probably took days -- if not weeks -- for your contaminated cchemicals to take full effect."
"Do not overstep your bounds, American dog, or you will die before you hear the rest of our plans for this pathetic city of yours," Kang glared at the Admiral. "As I was saying, several of the enemies' villages have provided us with excellent proving grounds. Simply by infiltrating the enemy's ranks and contaminating their water or food supplies, we've been able to perfect our dispersal methods."
"And this is what you've done here in Los Angeles?" Nelson said as the full implication of Kang's words came crashing down on him.
"Of course," he laughed. "The five o'clock deadline was merely a cover for our real intentions. Your government has a history of disrespect for my country and its forward-looking policies. Your country has consistently opposed our efforts to better the lot of our people, and it is time that you learned a lesson. You cannot interfere with our government's actions without paying the price for your folly."
"Forward-looking policies -- is that your new name for the same old lies and propaganda?" the Admiral's voice was full of mocking. "What you really mean is the genocide of neighboring nations, along with ethnic and racial cleansing within your own borders?"
"By now, the first effects of the Cerebronol should be beginning to be felt in every police station and government office throughout Los Angeles," the Oriental man continued as if the Admiral had never spoken at all, but his narrowed eyes betrayed his rage. "Your own people's erratic behavior will trigger panic and chaos among those they are supposed to be leading and protecting."
"Do you really think you can just walk into those places and contaminate the food and water supplies with Cerebronol?" Nelson shook his head. "Your people will never get away with this insane plan."
"Of course we will," Kang glanced knowingly at Nelson. "In fact, we already have. Who looks at the face of the man who delivers the water cooler bottles? How many people know the name of the woman who serves them their food in the cafeteria or the canteen? It has taken almost a year of work to bring this plan to fruition, and in that time, our agents have infiltrated many organizations and companies here in Los Angeles."
He paused to let Nelson feel the full impact of his words, then said, "Unlike my government, which has only the welfare of its citizens in mind, your people have no regard for ordinary men -- those who must struggle to throw off the yoke of their oppressors. And where better to strike a blow for their liberty than here, in a city that worships the rich and powerful at the expense of the weak and enslaved?"
"And after Los Angeles is torn apart by riots and murders and all the other kinds of hell that mankind can inflict on itself, who benefits from the chaos?" Nelson shook his head bitterly. "The common man that you claim to be so concerned about? He'll be the one who suffers the most when there's no one to protect him from the looters and murderers and the rest of their ilk. No, there's only one group of people who will profit by your scheme -- all the cowardly, sneaking jackals that prey on others in the middle of a crisis. People like you and your so-called 'altruistic' government, in other words."
"You filthy American swine. . .you will regret this self-righteous posturing of yours!" Kang hissed as he turned off the slide projector. "In view of my respect for you as a scientist and scholar, I was inclined to give you a swift and merciful death. But now you have insulted my country and its people. Take this man and the female to the warehouse, and we will show them what happens to those who oppose our glorious regime!"
George grabbed for the groaning Bonnie's arm and dragged her off the sofa, then roughly supported her with an arm around her waist. But instead of snapping a protest, Nelson looked at Kang. . .and smiled coolly.
"Now, Bonnie!" the Admiral shouted.
In a single smooth movement, the 'drugged' police woman wrenched free of George's grasp on her arm and then reached for the ornate clip-on earrings that she wore. As she and the Admiral both turned their heads and closed their eyes, she hurled the 'pearls' against the top of a nearby ebony table.
The resulting flashes of light were enough to blind anyone who was not prepared for it, and a dense cloud of smoke billowed from the ruptured spheres. Coughing and spluttering, George stumbled toward the door. . .only to find himself on a collision course with Bonnie's fist.
Her first blow to his midsection sent him reeling backward with a grunt as the air was driven out of his lungs, and as he fought to recover his balance, a second punch to the jaw made him wobble back and forth like a child's inflatable punching bag. A right hook nearly drove him to his knees, but he shook his head and tried to make another feeble lunge for her.
As George teetered in front of her, Bonnie aimed one last uppercut at her opponent's narrow chin, and the blow connected with the sodden thud of knuckles against flesh. George's narrow eyes suddenly grew much wider, and he sagged onto his knees, then collapsed face-down like that same toy punching bag with a slow leak.
But at the moment, William Kang was faring far better than his brother. Nelson made a desperate grab for his arm, but Kang managed to side step him. Choking on the acrid smoke and half-blinded by the tiny flash-bang grenade, the Oriental man lunged toward the row of buttons on the wall.
"All storage bay personnel, Code Red," Kang clutched the back of a chair for support, then hit the intercom button with his palm. "Repeat, Code Red!"
He released the button, then turned to Nelson with a sullen look of triumph. "You're too late to save your precious Cerebronol, Admiral. Our escape route was planned out from the very beginning. My cousin James is the true mastermind behind this plan. He will take the drug back to our country and see to it that. . ."
But Kang's smug smile quickly vanished as Nelson removed his gold pocket watch and turned it onto its side. He pushed the small sapphire stem cover, and with that, the winding stem popped out to form a miniature telescoping antenna.
"Team One, the target is headed in your direction," he spoke into a tiny microphone on the back of the watch. "Do you copy, over?"
"10-4," Getraer answered quickly. "We're in position outside the building, Admiral. Team Two, be advised that the storage bay is accessed through a door in the back of the kitchen area."
"We copy you, Team One," Crane's reply was equally swift. "Admiral, we're on our way."
"Affirmative, Team One and Two," Nelson said, then returned the antenna to its concealed position and replaced the tiny transceiver on its chain.
When he looked up again, Bonnie had neatly handcuffed William with her own set of restraints and then repeated the operation with George, using a second set of handcuffs that she had borrowed earlier from Baricza. She casually picked up George as though the well-muscled man weighed no more than a puppy and dumped him on the sofa.
She gestured at William to sit down in the chair that Nelson had vacated, but he spat in contempt at her and turned his head to one side. Bonnie sighed. . .then gave Kang a shove backward with the palm of one hand. He landed against the chair with a loud grunt, then swore viciously at the police woman in his own language.
"It's a good thing that we only pretended to drink the water and eat the food," Bonnie nodded at the Admiral knowingly. "And thanks to poor Bear, I knew how to fake the effects of Cerebronol well enough to fool even these two."
"His initial involvement may have been unwitting, but it seems that Barry is the real hero of the hour -- in more ways than one," Nelson said with a quiet smile. "Bonnie, since it's obvious that you have this situation well under control, would you object if I went to check on our other team members? There's no telling what kind of trouble they've gotten themselves into."
"Be my guest, Admiral," Bonnie said as she dialed the telephone on the desk. "Assuming that there's anyone at Central who's still put together enough to respond, I'll call in and have someone from the station pick up these two. I'll also give them a heads-up about what to expect this evening."
"Very good," Nelson nodded, then sprinted for the door. "Carry on, then."
He ran down the corridor, but just as he reached the main dining area, a sudden uneasiness made him pause. He cautiously peered around the end of the hallway. . .then snapped a pungent sailor's oath as something buzzed past his ear and embedded itself into the opposite wall.
Even without looking at it, he was positive that it was the same kind of dart that George had threatened to use against him earlier, and he was equally certain that the dart gun had been wielded by Su-ling. He pressed himself as tightly as possible against the wall, then removed a heavy gold cufflink from his shirt's French cuffs.
The bit of jewelry appeared to be little more than a plain gold bar, but Nelson reached down and carefully turned the monogrammed plaque at a 180 degree angle to its original position. He counted to three. . .then ducked and tossed the cufflink in the same direction that the dart had come.
This time, the flash of light and explosion were more intense than the ones produced by Bonnie's 'pearl' earrings. Nelson heard a shriek of panic as Su-ling stumbled into the middle of the room. She was half-blinded by the miniature flash-bang grenade that had gone off almost in her face, and now she collapsed on top of a table.
She slid off the edge of the table and landed on the floor, pulling the tablecloth down with her. Silverware, dishes, and glassware all cascaded around her, but she was too dazed to do anything but groan and curse as Nelson approached her.
"Well, my mother always did say a pair of monogrammed gold cufflinks were an indispensable part of the well-dressed man's wardrobe," Nelson smiled grimly as he tied Su-ling's hands behind her back with a napkin.
He picked up the dart gun and put it in his jacket pocket, intending to study it in more detail at his leisure. He ran into the deserted kitchen, trying not to fall on the grease and water-slicked floor, then veered toward the storage bay door. He had learned his lesson earlier, and now he cautiously eased the door open and peered out into the area below.
The high metal ceiling buzzed with the sound of angry voices, as if a nest of hornets had been disturbed, but surprisingly, there was no noise of gun fire. Nelson trotted out the door and onto the concrete stairs that led down into the storage bay. . .then stopped abruptly on the top step.
And for a few seconds, he could only stand there and smile as he looked down at the mayhem taking place below him. The scene was enough to warm the heart of any true son of Eire: in fact, Nelson hadn't seen such a glorious brawl since his own grandfather's wake.
In one corner of the storage bay, Sharkey gave a exultant whoop as he charged into a group of three men and then sent them scattering in all directions like so many human bowling pins. They staggered back, then shook their heads and tottered toward him again -- only to run into a fist that was marginally smaller and less unyielding than the average sledge hammer.
"Mess with one of the Admiral's experiments, will you?" the Chief crowed as his opponents fled in panic.
In the opposite corner, Lee Crane appeared to be giving a demonstration of the finer points of karate, as first one opponent and then another fell victim to his spinning back kicks and precisely aimed blows. Three of the four men quickly collapsed in a tangle of arms and legs under the ferocity of Captain's attack.
The fourth man was made of sterner stuff than his companions, however. Undeterred by Crane's assault, he reached down into his boot and produced a thin knife whose blade gleamed in the overhead lights. He swung the weapon like a scythe at Crane, but the Captain neatly ducked under the blade's deadly arc and sent it skittering across the concrete floor with a well-placed kick.
The knife was followed in short order by its erstwhile possessor, who slid across the oil-slicked floor. He came to a stop less than two feet away from Chip Morton's spit-polished black shoe, then looked up with a sickly smile as the Seaview's Executive Officer loomed over him.
"If I'd known you were coming, I would have baked a cake," Morton's voice dripped sarcasm.
The man made a dizzy lunge for the knife, but before his fingers could close around the handle, that same black shoe came down hard on his hand. The terrorist had time to screech once before the Exec's fist connected with his jaw and nearly tore his head from his body.
Then Morton resumed his position in the middle of the chaos. . .and from Nelson' angle, the unruffled XO resembled a statue of Buddha serenely enshrined above a battle field. But whenever one of Crane or Sharkey's former attackers reeled toward him, Morton took a single step forward and promptly added one more to the total number of unconscious bodies piled in a heap around him.
As the fight drew to a close, Nelson trotted down the stairs and headed toward the others. He had almost reached the front bumper of the red and black Buick parked near the entrance to the storage bay, when the large overhead door's motor suddenly kicked on. As the door slid upward on its track, the Admiral turned around. . .
. . .only to land heavily on the concrete floor as an uppercut ripped into his jaw. With a groan, Nelson fell a few feet away from the car's front tires and then lay there, too dazed to move.
"What the devil. . .?" he muttered as he tried to shake the cobwebs from his mind.
A small Oriental man in black coveralls ran past him, clutching a bottle wrapped in a white paper bag. James Kang jumped into the car and started the engine, then gunned it impatiently as he pushed a button on the overhead door's remote control. Without waiting for the storage bay door to open completely, Kang hit the accelerator and sped forward -- heedless of anyone or anything in his path.
"Admiral, look out!" Morton cried as he lunged toward Nelson.
Like a linebacker recovering a fumble, Morton made a frantic grab for the Admiral's shoulders, and the Exec's backward leap carried them both out of harm's way just as the car roared past them in a cloud of exhaust fumes. For a second or two, they could only lay there and gasp in a few precious breaths as they watched Kang's frantic attempt to escape.
The outside door was less than half open, but in his desperation, Kang seemed oblivious to that fact. The radio antenna snapped in two, and the edge of the door scraped the roof of the car with a shriek of metal against metal, but he still managed to wedge the car through the narrow opening.
He wore a smug look of triumph as he started to turn down the alley. . .but his moment of gloating was short-lived. As the car's back tires cleared the storage bay entrance, its front wheels ran over the long pieces of metal that Baker and the others had taken from the back of the delivery truck.
With a sound like that of gunfire, the tires exploded as they hit the spike strips. That sound was the cue for Getraer and the other CHP officers to appear from either side of the storage bay door where they had been concealed, and now they ran toward the vehicle, intending to arrest Kang as soon as he stepped outside.
Instead, they were forced to leap aside as the Oriental man gunned the engine once again and aimed his car at them. They flattened themselves against the side of the building as the Buick screeched past them, and Getraer reached for his handheld radio.
"All units be advised," he said. "Target vehicle is eastbound in the alley behind the restaurant."
Now the area was littered with bits of rubber from the Buick's disintegrating tires, and sparks shot out in all directions as the rims scraped along the pavement. A hubcap flew across the alley like a silver Frisbee and clanged against the side of a building as Kang desperately fought to keep the Buick from skidding.
But before Kang could reach the freedom of the open road, Turner pulled his car across the end of the alley, blocking off the fugitive's escape route, while a second CHP officer performed the same maneuver at the other end. Frantically, Kang stepped down hard on the brakes, trying to avoid hitting the cruiser, but the Buick fishtailed wildly as it spun out of control.
It hit the side of a building and bounced off the brick surface, then slid for several feet and finally wrapped itself around a telephone pole. The air was filled with the sound of shattering glass and crumpling metal as the car was nearly torn in two from the force of the impact. The metal frame groaned as it buckled and twisted, and an eddy of wind carried the heavy odor of gasoline from the ruptured tank toward the observers.
Getraer, Nelson, and the others ran toward the vehicle, intending to free the screaming Kang from the wreckage. But before they had gone more than a few feet, a spurt of flame darted out from underneath the engine compartment and then ran along the stream of gasoline that poured out from the back of the Buick.
"Get down!" Getraer frantically gestured at Nelson and his officers. "It's going to blow. . ."
The last word had barely left his lips when a powerful shockwave slammed into them like a blow from an invisible giant's fist. An enormous orange fireball leaped skyward, and in a matter of minutes, there was nothing left of the Buick except a twisted and blackened shell smoldering at the end of the alley.
The CHP officers were resigned to such sights, and they paused for only a brief second or two out of respect for the dead. Then they scurried to divert traffic and direct the emergency vehicles whose sirens they could already hear in the distance.
But Nelson and his men could only stand there in silence for a moment and stare at the shapeless mass of steel.
Despite his sigh, Crane's face was stoic, while Sharkey muttered something that might have been a prayer or an oath under his breath. But of the three, Nelson seemed most deeply affected by the senseless accident, and now he shook his head regretfully. Always sensitive to the Admiral's slightest mood change, Sharkey turned toward his commanding officer with a sympathetic expression.
"Begging the Admiral's pardon, but if losing the Cerebronol has got you upset. . .well, maybe it would help to think of it like this, sir," the Chief said. "At least the police know what's going on now, and they can do something about it before a lot of innocent people get hurt. And you can always make more Cerebronol. It'll be just like the last time -- a few trips out with the Seaview, and we'll have plenty of those fancy compounds for you and Dr. Chen to work with again. All's well that ends well. That's my motto, sir!"
"I wasn't thinking about the loss of the Cerebronol, Chief," Nelson shook his head. "I was just thinking about how appropriate it is that all of this took place in a restaurant."
"Appropriate?" Crane asked, as the Seaview officers turned and started to walk back to their waiting vehicles. "In what way, Admiral?"
"A very wise king once said it perfectly, Lee," the Admiral said with a wry smile. "'Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men. . .for they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.' And it's sad to say, but that's one menu that has never changed, even after all these years."
Judging from the weather forecast on the radio, Tuesday morning would dawn bright and clear in Los Angeles -- whenever it finally got around to dawning at all, that is. But at the moment, the sky above CHP Central was still shrouded in darkness as a tall, dark-haired man pulled his truck into the parking lot and shut off the engine.
Baricza sat there for a few minutes, listening to the news report on his favorite station. Nothing major, so far. . . just a traffic accident involving a naked motorcyclist and a truck full of chickens; a liquor store robbed by a man dressed in an aardvark costume; and reports of a UFO sighting above a local Druid temple.
All in all, it was shaping up to be just another Tuesday morning in Southern California.
Bear shook his head with an ironic smile as he thought back over the past few days. Thanks to the early warning, Cerebronol-related problems had been kept to a minimum: despite Kang's bragging, the total number of people who had unwittingly ingested the substance was comparatively small. Affected individuals were quietly treated at Rampart Hospital for a virulent form of the "flu" and their strange behavior explained away as the product of high fever and delirium.
In light of UFO's and naked motorcyclists on the freeway, it was easy to understand why the average Los Angeles resident hadn't questioned the official explanation, either. Apparently there wasn't much difference in most people's minds between a "flu-stricken" CHP lieutenant dancing in a fountain while wearing nothing but his skivvies and your average gun-toting aardvark.
And local politics being what they were, it had been difficult at times to determine where normal behavior ended and abnormal behavior began. As Baricza himself had said in one of his more lucid moments during de-tox, "What's one more snowflake in an avalanche?"
Bear chuckled at that thought as he pocketed the truck keys and climbed out of his vehicle. But now there were more important matters to occupy his attention, and he focused his concentration on the task ahead. With the stealthy tread of a Green Beret on long range recon patrol, he made his way across the parking lot, then cautiously opened the door. He peered inside the building, and when he was convinced that the coast was clear, he slipped inside with the deftness of a conjurer doing a vanishing act.
He quickly made his way down the corridor, trying to stifle a mighty yawn as he tiptoed past the Watch Commander's office. When he reached the end of the hallway, he looked up at the wall clock and groaned quietly. . .its hands pointed to numbers that no one but owls, bats, and CHP officers with a serious backlog of paperwork usually ever saw.
And even though the morning watch was still almost two hours away, Bear walked softly into the Locker Room, carrying his uniform and duffle bag. The room was somewhat darker than the corridor outside, and he paused for a few seconds until his eyes had a chance to adjust to the lower levels of light.
The area was deserted, and as he walked toward his own locker, long fingers of shadow seemed to stretch out from the benches and grab at his ankles when he passed by. Those same shadows huddled menacingly in the corners of the room or swooped down on him from the ceiling, and by the time he reached his locker, his chest ached from holding his breath.
He spun the dial on the lock, then winced as the mechanism popped open with a click that sounded as loud as gunfire in the silence. He reached for the locker door's handle, already dreading the faint rusty "creech" that he knew he would hear when it swung open on its hinges. Slowly, cautiously, he eased the metal door open. . .
. . .and with that, the Locker Room was flooded with light as someone turned the dimmer switch all the way up. At the same time, a bright cascade of balloons, confetti, and streamers poured out of Bear's open locker, and half a dozen voices chorused, "Surprise!"
If adrenaline had been enough to win the Triathlon, Baricza would have been a serious contender at the moment. He whirled around and found himself looking into the smiling faces of his best friends at Central -- Getraer, Baker, Poncherello, Clark, Turner, and Grossman.
"How did. . .who told. . .I mean, why are. . .?" Baricza spluttered incoherently, as his heart did a kind of demented foxtrot.
"Hey, buddy -- just our little way of saying that we're glad you're back," Baker said. "Grossie, you want to do the honors?"
Baricza sat down on the bench with a heavy sigh just as Grossman stepped forward, carrying a tray in both hands. Artie held out the tray as if it held the Crown Jewels, and Bear groaned again when he saw what it contained.
The large cup of expresso from his favorite all-night coffee shop was the perfect way to start the morning. . .which was far more than could be said of the object sitting beside it. The donut's frosting had been tinted a particularly bilious shade of blue, and a tiny ceramic frog perched in the center, surrounded by green sprinkles that were meant to suggest a lily pad.
"Welcome back, Bear," Ponch grinned as Baricza accepted his dubious 'prize' from Grossman.
"Bet you thought you were just going to sneak in here past us and just 'appear' at Briefing this morning, didn't you?" Bonnie chuckled at his discomfited look. "Well, let me tell you something, Mister. . .you have to get up mighty early to pull one over on the men and women of the CHP!"
"I thought I had gotten up pretty early," Bear muttered to himself. "Obviously not early enough, though. I think you guys really do have a surveillance camera hidden in my apartment!"
"Take it easy, Barry -- we had more than enough of the James Bond routine last week," Getraer said. "Your folks were the stool pigeons. They told us what you had planned for this morning."
"Well, if a guy can't trust his own mom and dad, then who can he trust?" Baricza said ruefully, then looked up at his friends with a smile. "But thanks for the welcoming committee, you guys. It's nice to be back. I thought I'd try to get some paperwork done before, uh, someone gets on my case about it. . ."
"Why, who on earth could you possibly mean?" Grossman's voice was innocent, but there was nothing guileless about the wink that he gave the others.
"Him," Baricza's voice was barely above a whisper as he gestured in the direction of Ledwith's locker. "You know -- him."
"What are you talking about, Bear?" Turner said, and his eyes were bright with mischief, despite his otherwise serious expression.
"Aw come on, you guys know who I mean," Baricza moaned. "The Lieutenant."
"Lieutenant who, Barry?" Getraer raised an eyebrow mildly. "If the Watch Commander changes clothes in here this morning, it's going to be a moot point as to who's more embarrassed. Us guys. . .or Lieutenant Keefe."
"Lieu. . .Keefe?" Baricza's voice faded away, but then shock was replaced by delight. "Ledwith is still off duty because of the Cerebronol, and Keefe is filling in for him? Oh man, this is like Christmas morning and your birthday and winning the lottery, all wrapped up in one! Lieutenant Keefe is a neat lady, and she really cares about what happens to 'her' people. So, how long do you think Ledwith will be off duty, anyway?"
"Uh, that's not exactly the way the story goes, Bear," Jon said as he sat down on the bench beside Baricza. "Ledwith is still out, but it's because he's busy packing and getting his house ready for sale."
"Yeah, seems that he got a call yesterday that he's being transferred back to Sacramento," Ponch said. "So it's 'Adios, Leadbutt Ledwith,' and 'Buenas Dias, Lieutenant Keefe!'"
"So long, farewell, auf weidersen, adieu," Grossman warbled the familiar tune. . .at least until his voice cracked with laughter at Bear's stunned look. "Ledwith has wanted to go back to Sacramento for a couple of months now to get away from his mother-in-law, and we've all wanted to see the rear tag on the U-Haul trailer as he's headed there. Talk about your win-win situation!"
"I don't get it," Bear said as he brushed a few bits of glittering gold confetti from his hair and jacket. "It can take until the twelfth of never for a transfer to go through like that. And yet you say that Sacramento just called him up all of a sudden and told him to put the 'For Sale' sign out on his front lawn? Surely they know that what happened on Thursday wasn't his fault? I mean, I don't like the guy, but it's not fair to blame him for something that he couldn't help doing. And believe me, I know what I'm talking about when I say that. I'd be willing to explain it to them if you think it'd help Ledwith's case, Joe."
"Only you would volunteer to help that man out, Barry. . .only you," Getraer shook his head in mild disbelief at Baricza's indignation -- especially under the circumstances. "Let's just say that the fountain episode didn't help matters any, but it certainly wasn't the only reason for the transfer. Sacramento wasn't happy about some of the reports it's been getting from a certain CHP Central sergeant about Ledwith's misuse of his authority. That's why I wanted you to get a grip on your temper the other day when the Lieutenant was on your case, Jon. I knew what was in the works, and I didn't want you to end up in trouble before we could get rid of Craig once and for all."
Baker nodded in understanding, and now he dropped his head apologetically. Getraer smiled reassuringly at him, then continued, "I predict a bright future for Craig as a paper pusher in the most obscure section of the CHP that they can possibly find to put him. And if it's somewhere that he can't embarrass the Patrol by pulling another Brussels Boy routine again, so much the better!"
"Now I ask you, is that fair?" Turner looked at the others in mock-dismay. "I mean, just let a guy dance half-naked in one little fountain opposite a convent, and they never let you live it down."
For a moment, the Locker Room echoed with the sounds of laughter, but when some of the mirth died away, Getraer took a small envelope from his jacket pocket and held it out to Baricza. Bear raised an eyebrow questioningly at his superior officer, but the sergeant merely nodded at the card.
"I have an idea that another part of the explanation behind Craig's transfer might just be in this envelope, too," the sergeant said quietly. "This was left for you at the front desk yesterday, Barry. The officer on duty said that the two men didn't leave a message, but they just asked him to give you this. He also said that one of them was a dark haired man, and the other was an older man with red hair. Sound familiar?"
Baricza nodded his thanks as he took the envelope from Getraer and then looked down at his own name scrawled across the paper's ivory surface. As the others watched, he opened the envelope and took out a small card with the words "Thank You" printed on the outside in elegant gold lettering.
He opened the card and then smiled to himself as he read the message written in the Admiral's crabbed script. The words might have sounded strange to most people, but they were familiar ones to him. . .he'd heard his grandfather, a Navy man and WWI veteran, use them whenever Bear had scored another touch down in a high school football game or brought home an Honor Roll report card.
Now Baricza's eyes misted over when he thought of the last time that he'd heard his grandfather tell him, "Bravo zulu, son! Job well done!"
It had been that day when a newly-sworn officer of the California Highway Patrol had stopped by the nursing home to show his grandfather the uniform, the gun. . .and most of all, the simple CHP badge pinned above the pocket of his crisply pressed shirt. The memory of that afternoon had gotten him through his grandfather's funeral two weeks later, but even now, Bear swallowed hard as his thoughts slowly returned to the present.
He started to close the card, but before he could fold it up again, a small piece of string fell out. He caught it just before it could tumble to the ground, then held it for a few seconds as his fellow CHP officers watched in bewilderment.
"String?" Bonnie asked in confusion. "Why would the Admiral put something like that in a 'Thank You' card?"
Still without speaking, Bear held the knotted end of the cord and gave the other end a sharp tug. Bonnie looked at Turner, Baker, and Grossman with a confused shrug, but they were equally bewildered. But Getraer was no stranger himself to the fine art of pulling strings, and he chuckled quietly at Bear's knowing expression.
Bonnie saw the glances that passed between the two of them, then shook her head and muttered something under her breath about being "surrounded by 'em." But as Bear reverently laid the card on the shelf in his locker, he wore a wide -- if somewhat Machiavellian -- smile.
"Well, Bonnie, let's just say that Admiral Nelson was right when he said that some things are true, straight across the board," he turned around and winked at her. "An ounce of pull beats a pound of clout; a terrorist in the back of the squad car is better than one on the freeway; new friends are silver, but old friends are gold . . .and an Admiral still beats a lieutenant, every single time!"
Copyright 2000 by China Jade
Please send comments to China at: email@example.com
Back to the Bravo Zulu main page