A Miracle or Two

"Dammit. . .dammit. . .dammit!"

Sergeant Joe Getraer seldom swore, but this afternoon, he slammed his fist against the dashboard of his station wagon in a rare display of frustration. There were times when he hated his job almost as much as he loved it. . .and this was one of them.

Fortunately, it seemed as if most of Los Angeles was doing its Christmas shopping at the malls. At the moment, there weren't many people on the rain-slicked streets to observe a CHP officer engaged in such 'unbecoming' conduct.

It didn't matter to Getraer that his shift had ended an hour ago. . .according to one of his instructors at the Academy, there was no such thing as an 'off-duty' cop. That same instructor had been fond of a certain expression, and it had seldom seemed more appropriate than right now.

For small mercies, we are grateful, O Lord, Getraer shrugged. And we haven't exactly been overloaded in that department, lately.

To put it mildly, he thought with a rueful sigh. For the past two months, the entire calendar had been one long Friday the thirteenth, and even a boxcar full of four leaf clovers wouldn't have been enough to make a difference.

Four Hispanic women murdered and their bodies dumped beside the freeway in broad daylight. An auto theft ring specializing in expensive imports like BMW and Lamborghini. Three motor officers injured in separate traffic accidents. A gang-related shooting that had left car officer Dave McPherson permanently disabled. One officer accused of taking bribes, and another arrested for domestic violence.

And now this.

Baricza had been off-duty at the time, so technically, the accident wasn't part of the malaise that had been affecting CHP Central. And as Grossman had pointed out with his usual annoying accuracy, it was also true that Barry could have called a tow truck instead of stopping to change the flat tire himself.

However, Baricza's tender-hearted concern for the helpless was the stuff of legend among the Patrol, and the sight of an elderly woman stranded on the freeway in the rain had undoubtedly brought out his protective nature. And with his customary meticulousness, he'd done everything by the book: warning flares, orange vest, and all the other safety precautions.

But no amount of vigilance could have prepared him for the big silver Mercedes that plowed into him as he knelt beside Mrs. Sanchez's ancient Ford van. The eyewitnesses all agreed that it hadn't been an accident -- in fact, the Mercedes' driver had almost run a semi off the road in his haste to cross three lanes of traffic and reach the median.

Unfortunately, that information and the first letter of the tag were the only details that the witnesses could agree upon. Fourteen days later, the CHP was no closer to solving the hit and run case than they had been in the beginning, and like his fellow officers, Getraer's temper constantly seemed to be at the boiling point.

Los Angeles is up to its eyebrows in silver Mercedes, and most of the tags start with "Mary," he shook his head bitterly. And as if that isn't bad enough, this one had tinted windows, so nobody got a good look at the driver.

With only one letter of the tag, we don't have much to work with. Which means that someone may just get away with murder if Barry doesn't. . .

He batted that thought aside as he cautiously pulled around a city vehicle. The lift truck was parked beside a light pole, while workers hung holiday decorations from brackets. Getraer flinched at the sight of the tinsel-wrapped candy canes and sleighs. . .given everything that had happened lately, the prospects for a merry Christmas at Central were fading fast.

He stopped at a red light, then glanced over at another fixture of Christmas: the ubiquitous sidewalk Santa Claus collecting money for charity. As the sergeant watched, a small brown-haired boy tugged eagerly at his mother's hand, pulling her toward the donation kettle.

There was a gentle compassion about the child's smile that made Getraer swallow hard. Over the past seven years, he'd seen that same expression on a certain young CHP officer's face more times than he wanted to think about. He rolled the car window down a few inches so that he could hear the conversation between mother and son.

"Can I, Mama? Can I, please?" the little boy's dark eyes were bright with anticipation. "I have lots of money -- almost three whole dollars. I want to give some of my birthday money to the little kids who won't get any Christmas presents this year. The ones that Mrs. Johnson told us about in Sunday school last week."

The windshield was covered in raindrops, but Getraer suspected that the weather had nothing to do with the way that the entire scene suddenly seemed to be bathed in mist. At that moment, the traffic light changed, and as he pulled away from the corner, he glanced back in the rearview mirror.

He caught a glimpse of the little boy's delighted expression as he poured a handful of coins into the kettle. The words that he'd heard in his own church last Sunday came back to him with even greater poignancy. . .and now he was almost certain that the haze was in his own eyes.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy, Getraer's smile was tinged with sadness as he drove toward Rampart Hospital. And if that's the case, then I can't think of a more likely candidate than the guy who's been in that hospital bed for the last two weeks.

Lord, we could use a miracle or two down here, if You've got a few to spare.

There was no answer to his plea -- not that he was expecting to hear a Voice from beyond. He'd been a cop for too long, and he'd seen too many of the horrors that the human race could inflict on itself to believe in miracles any more.

He signaled a right hand turn, then pulled into the hospital parking lot. It took several minutes before he found an empty space, and by the time that he shut off the engine, his mood was as bleak as the gray December sky.

All right, Getraer, get your head together, he admonished himself. Pete and Vera need your support -- not the CHP's very own Sergeant Grinch.

He unfastened his seatbelt and then pocketed the keys, but he made no move to get out of the car. Instead, he sat there for a few minutes, staring at the imposing glass and chrome building in front of him. And even though he wasn't sure why, he automatically glanced up toward a particular room on the seventh floor.

Ordinarily, the window was easy to spot, thanks to the "Get Well Soon" banner and the smiley-face balloon that Bonnie had put up right after the accident. The tough little blond policewoman had tried to make a joke about the decorations, but Getraer and Bonnie's fellow officers could see the hard line of tears in her eyes.

"You know how much Baricza hates the smiley face," she gestured at the yellow balloon dancing in the currents of warm air from the vent. "He always says that it's the perfect symbol for this generation -- big, dumb, and meaningless. I figure that ought to make him mad enough to wake up and read me the riot act, don't you, Sarge?"

But today, a heavy bank of clouds pressed down on Rampart Hospital, shrouding the upper floors in mist. The window was lost in the silent gray fog, and any momentary hope that might have gone through Getraer's heart now seemed as distant and hidden as the cheerful balloon. He sighed again as he got out of the car, then trudged through the puddles toward the hospital's main entrance.

He paused just inside the door to wipe the mud from his shoes, and he shook his head as he glanced around the lobby. He wasn't fond of hospitals to begin with, and there was something about Christmas that made Rampart seem even more depressing than usual.

In the waiting area, a television set endlessly droned commercials for "Turnip Patch" dolls and "G-Man Jack" action figures, and the noise was enough to drown out the soft strains of "Silent Night" on the PA system. Orderlies pushed patients past the twelve foot tall Scotch pine in the middle of the lobby, but no one stopped to take an appreciative breath of its rich perfume or admire its twinkling white lights.

Everybody's too caught up in greed or misery to see beyond themselves, he thought to himself. And the one person who'd be trying to cheer everybody else up may not live to see Christmas this year.

Even the sprig of holly hanging above the Information Desk drooped dispiritedly, and as Getraer walked by, the last red berry fell onto the floor in front of him. He could picture a cane or walker sliding on it, and he bent down to pick it up.

But at that instant, a powerful voice made him jump, and he muffled another "Dammit!" as the little pellet went skittering out of his grasp. He stood up and turned around -- only to find himself staring into a pair of blue eyes that were as clear and warm as an August sky.

The elderly man stood by the elevators, waiting for a car to arrive, and he smiled calmly at the flustered sergeant. Getraer automatically smiled back at him, but with the practiced eye of a cop, he had already recorded a dozen details of the other man's appearance.

His patrician profile might have graced an ancient gold coin, but that air of dignity was tempered by his luxurious beard and the soft white curls that framed his face. His cheeks were flushed as though he had just walked a long distance in the damp December air, but he wasn't carrying an umbrella, and his expensive Burberry overcoat appeared to be dry.

He wore a beautifully tailored suit made from rich green velvet fabric, and a gold brocade vest stretched tightly over his ample midsection. He leaned on a wooden cane with a high, curved handle, and when he gestured at the berry, an ornate gold and amethyst ring gleamed softly on his index finger.

"Holly berries are good luck, you know," he winked at Getraer, and there was a trace of an accent in his cultured voice. "When they fall of their own accord, you're entitled to a wish or a kiss. And at the moment, it appears that you could use the wish more than the kiss."

"I think I'm just a little too old for holly berries and wishbones and lucky pennies, don't you, sir?" Getraer said curtly. "And besides, Christmas magic is for lovers and little kids. Not some poor dumb cop with eighteen long, rough years under his belt."

That wasn't what he'd meant to say at all -- even if it was the way that he really felt. He was surprised at the rancor in his own voice, and he started to stammer an apology.

But far from being offended, the man smiled calmly at him. He bent down and picked up the berry, then handed it to the sergeant with a solemn gesture that would have done credit to a priest or a shaman.

"Ah, but at this time of the year, we're all a bit of both," he said quietly as the elevator door slid open. "And when you use the term Christmas 'magic,' that's not exactly what you mean, is it?"

He stepped inside the car, then met Getraer's gaze again just before the door closed. This time, his accent was more noticeable, and there was a hint of sternness in his eyes. "Remember, Sergeant -- no one is ever too old for a miracle or two."

The elevator door slid shut, and for a fraction of a second, Getraer could only stare at his own blurred reflection in the silver metal surface. If the old man's words had suddenly appeared in letters of fire above his head, Joe wouldn't have been shocked, and he shuddered a little when he thought of his earlier 'prayer.'

But at that instant, the hospital PA system crackled to life, paging Dr. Kelly Brackett to the Emergency Room. The reality of his surroundings came back to Getraer, and he was annoyed at his own naïveté. This was Los Angeles, not Bethlehem, for crying out loud! The days of miracles were long past . .assuming that they'd ever existed at all.

He hit the Up button, hoping to catch the same elevator car before it started its ascent, and for once, he was in luck As the door slid open, he put on his best "no nonsense" expression -- the same one that had been known to send veteran officers cowering to the sanctuary of the nearest bathroom.

He didn't know what he was going to say to the old man, but he'd think of something logical and reasonable. And preferably not involving holly berries, Christmas, or miracles. With that thought in mind, Getraer stepped into the elevator. . .

. . .only to find himself alone. No one else was in the car, and once again, he could only stand there and stare. The elevator hadn't moved since the old man got into it, and he couldn't have slipped past Getraer without being seen. And even if he had managed to sneak past Joe, he wouldn't have been able to cross the lobby and make his way outside so quickly.

That guy must be at least six three, and he's got to weigh over two hundred pounds, Getraer thought. In that green velvet suit, he'd be about as easy to lose as a rhinoceros in a shoebox!

And come to think about it, how did he know that I'm a sergeant?

Feeling especially foolish, he stuck his head out of the elevator and looked all around the waiting room. Just as he suspected, there was no sign of the old man anywhere, and he shook his head as he stepped back into the waiting car. There had to be a perfectly logical explanation. At least he hoped there was a logical explanation, anyway.

He thoroughly inspected the elevator like a member of the audience who has been asked to examine a magician's prop, then frowned as the car started to rise. He didn't remember pushing the seventh floor button, but under the circumstances, that wasn't exactly surprising. He'd probably just been so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he'd hit the button without realizing it.

He must be a hospital employee who has a key to unlock the other service door, he decided at last. Yeah, that has to be it. He got into the car, then changed his mind and let himself out the other side.

That theory would have been more comforting if the back of the elevator hadn't looked so. . .well, so solid. There should have been a line where the door opened, but from Getraer's angle, there didn't appear to be a break in the panel anywhere. Just to be certain, he ran his hand over the wall, trying to locate the seam.

Nothing.

His fingers encountered only smooth silver metal, and once again, he found himself studying his own distorted reflection. He shook his head like a man waking up from a particularly vivid dream, then turned around quickly. He stared up at the glowing numbers above the door. . .anything to avoid looking over his shoulder again.

No one else stopped the elevator, so the trip to the seventh floor only took a few seconds -- barely long enough to notice the air temperature. And even if Joe hadn't been wearing a heavy jacket, the car would still have been comfortably warm by almost anyone's standards.

Which made it doubly odd that by the time he stepped out of the elevator, he was shivering like a man who had fallen into an icy lake.

******

There was a deadly dull monotony about every hospital waiting room that he'd ever seen, Getraer decided as he headed towards what had to be one of the ugliest sofas in creation. And this particular waiting room was certainly no exception to the rule. . .

The same cream-colored wallpaper; the same bland pastel landscapes; the same five year old copies of Popular Mechanics and Readers' Digest. Inevitably, someone would be playing solitaire with a dog-eared deck of fifty one, and in the corner, there was bound to be a television that no one was really watching.

At the moment, the waiting room was filled with officers from Getraer's shift, and they all looked as if they could have gone home and slept for several days. And it was little wonder, too. . .like their sergeant, they had spent most of their off-duty time at Rampart over the past two weeks.

No wonder we're all a little punchy, he sighed. Life has really been taking its toll on us, lately. And from the looks of this outfit, we don't have exact change, either!

In this case, Artie Grossman had just dealt himself the worst hand of Klondike that Getraer had ever seen. . .and that was even before the missing King of Hearts was taken into consideration. Bonnie Clark stared blankly at the television screen where two soap opera stars were either making passionate love or trying to suffocate each other. Jon Baker leafed through an ancient copy of the Soybean Grower's Journal, while Frank Poncherello did a more than passable imitation of a Siberian tiger trapped in a broom closet.

Only Pete and Vera Baricza seemed to notice when Getraer joined the bleak little gathering, and they both managed a weary smile for his benefit. For the moment, there were more important things than solving the earlier mystery, and he turned his full attention to the Bariczas.

Just as they were doing for him, he realized with a wry smile. Almost before he sat down, Pete handed him a cup of coffee, while Vera put a few sugar-dusted rosquillas and biscochitos on a paper plate. Getraer took the plate from her with a grateful nod, then gestured at the platter of traditional holiday sweets sitting conveniently close to Grossman's left hand.

"Thanks, Vera," he said through a mouthful of crisp pastry. "And I bet I can guess where these came from, too. Mrs. Sanchez ought to start her own bakery."

"That poor woman feels so bad about everything that's happened, and we can't convince her that she's not responsible," Pete said as he sat down on the other end of the sofa. "From the looks of that old clunker she drives, I don't think she's got much money to spare, but she insists on bringing a great big batch of cookies up here every afternoon. She drops them off after the twelve o'clock Mass at St. Martin de Porres so we'll have something 'to keep up our strength' until dinner."

"She has the entire congregation praying for Barry, too," Vera smiled sadly at Getraer, then gestured at a large canvas mail bag sitting by the door. "And apparently, they aren't alone. There must be a thousand cards and letters in that sack, and at least half of them are from elementary schools where he's talked to the children about traffic safety."

"How's Barry doing today?" Getraer asked, even though he wasn't sure that he wanted to hear the answer. "Anything new from the doctors?"

"About the same as yesterday, Joe," Pete shook his head, then added with pathetic eagerness, "But they ran some more tests this morning, and they said that he's holding his own. He may not be improving, but at least he's not losing ground. And about an hour ago, Vera thought that he tried to squeeze her hand when she asked him to. So that's good. . .right?"

"Sure it is, Pete," Getraer said, but if he could detect the hollowness in his own optimistic tone, then he seriously doubted if he was fooling anyone else.

"And speaking of anything new, have the detectives come up with any new information about guy who hit Bear?" Baker tossed the magazine aside, then walked over to Getraer and the others. "They were supposed to do a another interview with the witnesses this afternoon. Did they turn up something that might help us nail this creep?"

Grossman had been listening halfheartedly to the conversation, but now he threw a limp ace of spades onto the discard pile and turned toward Getraer. Bonnie walked over to the recliner and stood beside Vera with her hand on the older woman's shoulder in a gesture of comfort. Even Ponch stopped pacing long enough to listen to what the sergeant had to say, and like the others, he wore a hopeful expression.

Getraer looked at the ring of expectant faces, then groaned quietly to himself. Right now, he would have given a sizeable chunk of his savings account to be the bearer of good news, but that particular wish was doomed to go unfulfilled. Feeling like Benedict Arnold with a badge, he reluctantly shook his head.

"Jon, I wish I could tell you that there's been a breakthrough, but that's not the case," he said. "The woman who first stopped to see if she could help Mrs. Sanchez thought that the driver 'might' have been a woman wearing a hooded jacket. But the truck driver who almost got run off the road said that he was 'almost' sure that it was a guy wearing one of those peaked chauffeur's caps. And he thought that someone else 'might' have been huddled down in the back seat, too. But like any other accident, it happened so quickly that no one can be sure about all the details."

CHP tempers had been doing a slow boil for the past two weeks, but at the moment, Frank Poncherello's disposition was more like a pressure cooker with a plugged steam vent. He snarled a pungent oath in Spanish, then hit the wall with enough force to knock a bland pastel landscape off its hook.

"This is ridiculous, Sarge!" he snapped. "It's not like we're out there looking for one white Ford out of the forty thousand or so in Los Angeles. We're talking about a Mercedes here -- some rich guy's car. The investigators said that the driver hit Bear with enough force to break off part of the side trim, and that means that the quarter panel was probably dented, too. You can't just hide damage like that from your hoity-toity friends out at the country club!"

"These thing just take time, Poncherello," Getraer said. "Do you know how many Mercedes dealerships there are in California alone?  And that doesn't even take into consideration the possibility that the owner of the vehicle took it to an out-of-state dealer to have it repaired. We've notified all of the import dealers and specialty repair shops in a five state area, but so far, nothing's turned up."

"You know, if the guy was really running scared, maybe he didn't try to have the car fixed at all," Grossman frowned thoughtfully. "He could've abandoned it somewhere and then reported that it was stolen. That way, he could show up at the impound lot and claim the car later."

"Good thinking, Grossman," Getraer nodded. "Keep it up, and you might make detective someday. I'll call Detective Slater and see if anyone has checked out that possibility."

Through the entire exchange, Bonnie Clark had been silent, but now she spoke with quiet authority. "If the second witness is right and there really was another person in the back seat, that means the driver probably wasn't acting alone. A professional chauffeur isn't going to risk his license just to go after someone standing at the side of the road -- especially not with his boss sitting in the back seat. I'd be willing to bet that the guy who hit Bear was acting on someone else's orders."

"Maybe someone's been stalking him, and he just didn't realize it," Baker nodded. "Somebody might have a grudge against Bear, and he's just been waiting for a chance like this to get revenge. We ought to go over all of Baricza's reports again and see what we can come up with. We've got a personal interest in what's going on, and we might just spot something that the investigators missed."

"Sounds like a plan to me, Jon," Ponch grabbed his jacket from the coat rack, then gestured at the door. "Pete, Vera, do you mind if we take off for a few hours? We've got some serious reading to do."

"I'll go with you," Bonnie said. "That way, we can get the job done even faster. We can always take a break in a few hours and check in back here. The hospital security people know all of us, and they'll let us in, even if regular visiting hours are over."

"You could all use a break from this place," Vera said. "And I don't mean sifting through paperwork until the wee hours of the morning, either. But thank you for caring about Barry. That means more to his dad and me than we can tell you."

"And just as soon as that kid of ours is on the mend, we'll find a way to make it up to you, too," Pete smiled at Jon and the other CHP officers. "I figure a great big 'Welcome Home' party with plenty of beer and barbeque ought to be a good start."

"Speaking of compensation, I think I can come up some overtime for tonight's little project," Getraer began, but Jon gave the others a questioning look and then shook his head.

"This one's on the house, Joe," Jon said as he walked toward the door. "Bear would do the same thing for one of us and not expect any OT for it. We'll give you a call if we spot something in his paperwork that looks like it might be important. Grossie, you want to come with us?"

Grossman shook his head and then picked a thick volume whose gilt edges seemed permanently embalmed in a layer of dust. "Nah, I think I'll stay here and read a few more chapters of Plutarch's Lives to Bear. I've always heard that it's important to read to someone who's in. . ."

Getraer aimed a warning look at his officer, then gestured imperceptibly at the Bariczas. Hastily, Grossman decided that discretion was the better part of no station duty. . .and from Getraer's angle, Artie's nervous smile gave him an uncanny resemblance to an opossum on Quaaludes.

"It's important to read to someone who's interested in classical literature," Grossman held up the crumbling book. "I was just talking about that to a guy who stopped by this afternoon. Pete and Vera, you were down getting some lunch at the cafeteria, but I figured that it'd be OK with you if he spent a few minutes with Bear. He said that his name was Miklós and that he was an old friend of Barry's. Seemed like a real nice guy."

"I don't remember Barry ever mentioning someone named Miklós, do you, dear?" Vera shrugged at her husband.

"No, but then again, that kid's got more friends than the guy who won last year's Irish Sweepstakes," Pete shook his head. "Even when he was a little boy and we'd take him to the park, everybody would make a beeline for him. We'd look up, and he'd be talking to five or six people instead of playing."

Something about Pete's last comment brought back the memory of Getraer's encounter with the old man, and he suddenly realized where he had seen a similar smile before. It was the look that the young boy had worn earlier as he proudly put his coins in the kettle. . .the same grin that Baricza always gave his fellow officers at the end of a good day's work. An irrational surge of hope went through him, and for the first time in days, a little of the tension in his neck and shoulders began to ease.

But an orderly chose that moment to push a cart with a squeaky wheel past the waiting room, and the high-pitched squeal sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard. It wasn't one of Getraer's favorite sounds under the best of circumstances, and it was enough to bring him out of his woolgathering.

Now he could picture a big silver Mercedes as it bore down relentlessly on its prey at the side of the road. He had also had no trouble imagining a certain shadowy figure in the back seat, the man's aristocratic features concealed behind the tinted windows.

That guy's suit and overcoat didn't come from the markdown rack at Sear's, he thought uneasily. And that amethyst ring must have set him back a few bills, too.

Good Lord, what if Miklós was the person in the back seat of that Mercedes? He could be wandering around Rampart, just looking for a chance to finish the job!

"Uh, this Mr. Miklós wouldn't happen to be a tall, heavy-set guy in a dark green suit, would he?" he asked, and it was his turn to smile anxiously at Artie. "Long white hair and beard? Carries a cane and wears a big gold and amethyst ring."

"He's tall, all right, but he isn't heavy set," Grossman said. "In fact, he's pretty skinny, and his hair and beard are gray, not white. And he was wearing this funky-looking red and green plaid leisure suit. He has a really thin, pinched face, and when you first meet him, he looks kind of grouchy. But after I got to know him, I could tell that he's an OK guy. He said that we need to talk to Bear because he can probably hear us, and he needs the reassurance that we're going to be there for him."

Getraer mumbled a monosyllabic reply, but his mind was working so quickly that he almost didn't hear Grossman's last few sentences. Abruptly, he realized that even if this Miklós character wasn't the same person as the man in the lobby, it didn't mean that he wasn't still a suspect. And for that matter, either one of the elderly men could have been the driver or the passenger in the Mercedes that night.

I'd better let the Watch Commander know about this, he frowned to himself. Miklós and that other guy may be perfectly legit, but there's no point in taking chances.

He looked up from his troubled thoughts to see six pairs of eyes staring at him with identical concerned expressions. Pete Baricza was the first to speak up, and he tried to make a joke to ease the tension that filled the waiting room.

"Something wrong, Joe?" he asked. "You were awfully quiet there for a minute. I remember what always happened in the Air Force whenever a sergeant got too quiet. Trust me -- it wasn't a pretty picture!"

"I was just thinking about what your Mr. Miklós said," Getraer smiled at the others with a calmness that he didn't genuinely feel. "If there's even the slightest chance that Barry can hear us, then we probably shouldn't leave him alone for very long. Grossman, I'm sure you're tired from wading through all that classical literature today, so I'll go down to his room and take my turn at reading to him. I bet he'd love to know all about bioluminescence in the common American firefly, don't you?"

He picked up an eight year old National Geographic from the end table, then stood up and walked toward the door. He could almost feel those same six pairs of eyes boring into the back of his head, but he chose to ignore them for the time being. He headed towards the set of double doors outside the Intensive Care Unit. . .and even midway down the corridor, he could still hear comments from the waiting room.

There was a pay phone in an alcove just outside ICU, and he paused long enough to place a call to the Watch Commander at Central. He explained the situation to Lieutenant Keefe and received her promise to issue a description of the suspects to the officers guarding Baricza's room. He hung up the phone and walked past the swinging doors, then paused at the main desk to greet the nurses and orderlies on duty that afternoon.

By now, he knew most of the ICU staff -- especially the two who seemed to take particularly good care of Baricza. There was Jamie Reece, the little Respiratory Therapist with the sweet smile, and Deirdre Finnegan, the fiery-tempered Irish nurse who'd tossed a drunken and abusive visitor through both sets of swinging doors before Security could arrive two nights ago. He greeted them and spent a moment talking to them before he went to visit Barry.

But as Getraer started to walk into Baricza's cubicle, an unfamiliar voice called his name, and he turned around with a quizzical half-smile. There was no one standing behind him, and when he looked at the duty station, all of the nurses were engrossed in charting or preparing medications.

He walked over to the desk and stood there for a few seconds, but no one looked up to see what he wanted. At last, he resorted to clearing his throat loudly, and Deirdre glanced up from her paperwork.

"Is there something you'd be needing, Sergeant?" the red-haired woman said in a voice that always reminded Getraer of a soft summer rain.

"I. . .uh. . .thought one of you called me," he stammered.

"I didn't hear a thing, Sarge," Jamie flashed one of her famous grins at him. "Maybe you heard the PA system outside. The sound can really be distorted in here."

"Maybe that was it," he nodded, then gestured over his shoulder at Baricza's cubicle. "Listen, there's been a new development in this case, and the officer who's standing watch tonight will have a printout with a description of two possible suspects. If you two could notify the rest of the staff, I'd appreciate it."

"We'll be sure to do that," Deirdre said. "I can't explain it in a way that a level-headed, no-nonsense garda like yourself would understand, but Barry's become a great favorite around this place. And him unconscious, for all of that! But when you've been a nurse as long as I have, you recognize the ones who appreciate what you're doing for them, even if they can't say a blessed word to you."

"I've been Barry's sergeant for seven years, and believe me, I understand what you mean," Getraer said. "But as far as the appreciation part is concerned, it works the other way, too. Just wait until he's awake and you do something that he doesn't like. When he gives you one of those, 'You do know you're being a great big oumethaune, don't you?' looks, you'll know exactly what he thinks about the situation. And he won't even have to say a word!"

His Irish grandmother's favorite expression was far less than complimentary, and Deirdre chuckled at his sardonic grin. "Now don't be trying any of your sauce with me, Sergeant. Otherwise, I'll give you what Larry gave the drum!"

"And she's the perfect woman to deliver a good beating, too," Jamie thumbed at the swinging doors, then winked at Getraer. "Just ask the guy who did such a great impersonation of a 747 taking off through those doors the other night."

Getraer started to say something, but without warning, those same doors were flung wide open. The sergeant flattened himself against the wall to avoid being run over by two orderlies pushing a gurney toward a cubicle on the other side of the nurses' station.

A blond teenager moaned piteously and clutched his bandaged chest as they wheeled him past the desk. Getraer had no real way of knowing, but as far as he could tell, the boy didn't appear to be as badly injured as some of the other patients that he'd seen on the ward. However, the gurney was followed by a huge entourage of doctors and nurses -- at least twice the number of people who'd taken care of Baricza when he'd first arrived on the ICU.

Across the corridor, the canvas curtain had been taken down between two cubicles to accommodate all the equipment that was being set up. A harried-looking doctor snapped orders, and in a few more seconds, the patient was wheeled into the double room.

An orderly pulled the curtain shut to block the view, but the hubbub continued to disrupt the otherwise peaceful ward. Getraer had seen major earthquakes that were more organized --  to say nothing of quieter -- and he shook his head regretfully at his own lack of medical knowledge.

Guess that goes to show what I know, he thought. With all the commotion going on, that poor kid must be in a lot worse shape than he looks.

"ER called about an hour ago, so we've been expecting this one," Deirdre stood up and tossed her clipboard onto the desk. "He was tinkering with something underneath his Corvette, and the car fell on him. Luckily enough for him, the wheels were on blocks, so the full weight didn't come down on top of his chest. Otherwise, we'd not be having this conversation. But he still has a shattered collarbone and broken ribs -- not to mention a collection of contusions and lacerations that would do Muhammad Ali proud."

But like Jamie, she didn't seem to be in any hurry to join the pandemonium, and Getraer gave her a puzzled look. She saw his quizzical expression and motioned for him to come closer, then spoke in a low, confidential tone.

"If the truth were to be told, he probably shouldn't be in ICU at all," she said in a voice that dripped icicles of disgust. "But his father is a member of the Board here at Rampart, and he's also one of the wealthiest men in Los Angeles. Some sort of export business, I believe. And so it's only the best of care for Da's precious little boyo. Speaking of that, I suppose we'd better attend to His Nibs, eh, Jamie?"

The therapist nodded halfheartedly, and the two women joined their colleagues, leaving Getraer alone with his thoughts. For a moment, he indulged himself in a little idle speculation about the number of doctors who would've been assigned to Mrs. Sanchez under similar circumstances. And he didn't particularly like the conclusion that he was drawing, either.

His right hand was starting to ache, and he looked down -- only to discover that he was clutching the National Geographic so tightly that his knuckles were turning white. He hadn't really intended to read to Baricza, but at the time, it had seemed like the best way to talk to the officer on watch without alarming the others.

From now on, anyone standing watch will have a description of Miklós and the other guy that I saw down in the lobby, he thought as he pushed the canvas curtain back on its curved rod. But since I'm down here, I might as well read to Barry.

Maybe Grossman is right and he really can hear us.

Getraer quickly briefed the officer on duty about the latest developments, then checked his off-duty weapon in its concealed holster and took a single step into Baricza's cubicle. The room's lighting was subdued, and he waited until his eyes adjusted before he glanced toward the bed and its occupant. But no matter how prepared he thought he was, the sight was always a fresh shock to him.

Baricza had always been slender, but in the past two weeks, the 6'4" officer had dwindled away until the sheets covering him barely seemed to rise above the mattress. His face, ordinarily so strong and tanned and full of life, was now gray and pinched, and there didn't seem to be a part of his body that wasn't bandaged or sutured or in some kind of cast.

Getraer tried to say a brief prayer, but his voice cracked on the first word, as if refusing to be a party to such hypocrisy. That Benedict Arnold feeling was back, as well, and he sighed as he started to walk over to the chair beside the bed.

But with the usual wariness of a veteran cop, he inspected the room carefully before he let the curtain fall shut behind him. Flower arrangements; oxygen tanks; smiley-face balloon; monitors -- everything seemed to be in order.

Only the little wind-up police car at the foot of the bed was new, and he inspected the gift tag hanging from the vintage toy's front bumper. He whistled softly as he inspected the elegant handwriting. . .he hadn't seen such perfect copperplate script since his own grandfather had passed away. He sat down beside Baricza's bed, then quietly read the words aloud:

"'To my good friend, Barry. Remember the bells, and believe. With much affection, M.'"

The mysterious Mr. Miklós, no doubt, Getraer nodded to himself. But what does he mean about the. . .hey, wait just a darned minute! Did I really see what I think I just saw?

For a fraction of a second, he could have sworn that there was a change in Baricza's expression -- something that might have been the smallest of smiles. He carefully studied Barry's still, pale face, trying to detect any difference in those battered features. Reluctantly, he decided that the young officer's expression was the same as it had always been, and he leaned back in his chair with a heavy sigh.

Getraer, you're turning into a head case, he admonished himself. You want Barry to wake up, so you're imagining that you saw him smile.

For that matter, I could have been so tired and punchy this afternoon that I dreamed the whole episode with the guy in the elevator.

He opened the magazine and glanced down at a picture of an elderly Russian immigrant, rapt in prayer before an icon of the Blessed Virgin. Even in the photograph, Getraer could see the peace in the woman's clear blue eyes -- eyes that had no doubt witnessed more than their share of human suffering over the years.

It must be nice to have that kind of faith, he sighed. You used to have it, too. . .remember, Joe? Once, anyway.

He quickly turned past the picture of the woman and settled for an article on industrial pollution, instead. He read the first line aloud, but at that instant, the cubicle was lit up by a brilliant flash of lightening. It was immediately followed by a roar of thunder that made his heart lurch, and the magazine slithered out of his grasp, then landed on the floor.

"In my village, the old people say that thunder is the voice of der Teufel, crying out in anger because he was defeated by God's lightening bolt in the hands of St. Michael," a voice said from somewhere near the curtain. "Oh, and by the way, you weren't mistaken a few minutes ago. I, too, saw Officer Baricza smile. It almost seemed as if he was responding to the message that you read to him."

Another burst of lightening lit up the room, and Getraer snarled under his breath when he saw the tall, thin man who stood just inside the cubicle. He was on his feet almost before he realized that he was moving, and his hand hovered above the concealed nine millimeter Beretta under his jacket.

He lunged toward the intruder, then slid to a stop when he saw an official hospital ID badge clipped to the man's lapel. Getraer tried to stammer a few words of explanation or apology, but the newcomer didn't seem disturbed by what had just happened.

"My apologies, sir," he said with a bow that would have done credit to any nobleman. "I fear that I have startled you."

"And I'm sorry, too," Getraer smiled sheepishly at him. "I didn't see your ID at first. I'm Sergeant Joe Getraer with the CHP. And you are. . .?"

"Schwartz, Pieter Schwartz," he held up the badge so that Getraer could see the photo and the name beneath it. "I believe you've already met my friend, Mr. Miklós. Mr. Miklós said that you might not remember him, but he recognized you when he met you in the lobby a little while ago."

Huh? Getraer frowned to himself. Grossman, if you think that Miklós is skinny and has gray hair, then I take back what I said about your chances of making detective some day!

At least he knew that the man in the lobby and Baricza's visitor were one and the same. But for the life of him, he couldn't ever remember meeting anyone like Miklos. . .as if forgetting someone like that was likely, he thought to himself.

Schwartz smiled as if he could somehow guess the sergeant's thoughts, and the pleasant expression made his dark face look less stern than it usually did. But he was quiet for a moment, and Getraer could have sworn that he was listening to something that only he could hear -- as impossible as that might have seemed. Then he shook his head and once again smiled calmly at the baffled sergeant.

"Mr. Miklós told me that it's been a number of years since you last be. . .since the two of you last met," he started to say something else, then quickly corrected himself. "I'm his assistant. We're juvenile workers, and I'm a corrections officer, as well."

He gestured at Baricza, and when he spoke again, his heavy accent was even more noticeable. There was something familiar about that deep, powerful voice, but for the moment, the sergeant was still too shaken to remember where he had heard it before.

"Officer Baricza is an old friend of ours," Schwartz said. "And since I, too, was at Rampart on a case, I thought I'd stop by and check on him. I also have a message from my employer for you."

"For me?" Getraer spluttered. "But how did he know. . .I mean, how did you recognize. . ?"

"He said to tell you that seeing is not necessarily believing, but believing is often seeing," he replied as if he hadn't heard Getraer's gabbling. "To which, I might add that oldest of police adages -- only trust what you observe for yourself, not what someone else tells you to be true."

"I'll remember that," Getraer shivered as if a bucket of snow had been dumped down his shirt collar, even though he couldn't have said why.

"If you'll excuse me, I must be getting back to work," Schwartz gestured toward the corridor. "This time of year is very busy for us, and it seems as if everyone is trying to enter a plea bargain. It's been nice to meet you, Sergeant."

Getraer managed an uneasy nod in reply, but when he tried to shake Schwartz's hand, he was unable to move. He struggled with all his strength against the paralysis, but his legs seemed to be encased in heavy blocks of ice, and his hands were as numb as if they'd been frostbitten.

What is wrong with me? he thought desperately. Am I having a stroke or a heart attack?

Schwartz's expression hadn't changed, and there was no indication that he was aware of what was taking place. But Getraer had a strange hunch that the other man was aware of what was happening. . .and might even have had something to do with it. Thoughts of nerve gas and exotic drugs filled his mind, and he frantically looked around the room, trying to find anything that might help him break free.

His gaze fell on the little Nativity scene that Mrs. Sanchez had left on the nightstand after yesterday's visit. The plaster figurine had none of the artistic merits of its more expensive counterparts, but it had been lovingly hand-painted by Mrs. Sanchez and blessed by the priest at St. Martin's.

"For our Barry," she had smiled shyly as she put the crèche down beside his bed. "May the angels will watch over him like they did the little Holy One and His blessed Madre."

As Getraer struggled against the bitter cold, he found that he was unable to look away from the manger scene. But something else seemed to be superimposed over it, and he tried to bring the mental image into focus.

Nothing much, really -- just the little sampler that his grandmother had embroidered with her usual wry sense of humor and hung on the kitchen wall by the stove. He hadn't thought about it in years, but now he could clearly picture the cross-stitched motto:

"A prayer to be said when the world has gotten you down, and you've just tied a knot in the rope that you've been hanging onto. . .Dear Lord, help!"

And even though he smiled when he thought about the sampler, he felt a sense of purpose behind its words. He hesitated for another second or two, then bowed his head and acknowledged the truth in the motto. Like the Nativity scene, his 'prayer' might have lacked technical skill, but he hoped that its sincerity -- not to mention desperation -- might make up for its other shortcomings.

A tiny noise from the window drew his attention, and he saw that the little yellow balloon was bobbing merrily above the register and tapping against the glass. The sound was enough to bring him back to the present, and he felt a soft current of air sweep over him from the register.

With that, a little warmth returned to his icy body, and he found that he was able to move again. Outside the window, the storm had intensified, and an enormous flash of lightening lit up the room. It was immediately followed by a snarl of thunder that echoed and re-echoed through the corridors of Rampart like an angry shout from a mountaintop.

Getraer waited until the last rumble died away, then gave Schwartz a respectful nod. The sergeant's calm expression and relaxed stance gave no hint of those few seconds of turmoil that he had just endured, and he met the other man's gaze without blinking.

But once again, he had a strange hunch that Miklós' assistant understood everything that had happened. . .understood it far better than Joe did, as a matter of fact. He summoned up all of his formidable powers of concentration and managed to stammer a few words, even though they weren't precisely what he wanted to say

"It's been nice to meet you, too, Herr Schwartz," he said. "And please tell Mr. Miklós that I'm sorry if I didn't recognize him this afternoon. I meet so many people in my line of work that I sometimes forget a face or a name. And then again, I'm not as young as I used to be, either."

"Few of us are," the other man winked gently at him. "But I'm sure that he understands perfectly, as always. And in this case, it is far better to be known than to know. Barry, God bless you, my young friend. A good day to you, as well, Sergeant."

He inclined his head in a graceful farewell, then started to turn around. But he glanced at the magazine on the floor, and he grimaced when he saw the cover photograph of brightly-colored industrial chemicals pouring into a river.

"One last bit of advice, if I may?" he smiled at Getraer, but the sternness was back in his eyes. "If you're going to read to Barry, you might choose something a little more interesting. I think he's listened to enough tedious material today, thanks to Messrs. Grossman and Plutarch. Why don't you try this, instead? Page 1091 would be a good place to start."

He picked up a book from the nightstand, then walked around the end of bed. He handed it to Getraer with another of those courtly bows, but for a second or two, the sergeant could only stare at the leather-bound volume in confusion. He didn't remember seeing it on the table just a moment ago when he'd first come in. And unless Schwartz was another Houdini, it would have been difficult for him to produce the thick book from under his trim-fitting raincoat.

Getraer looked up, intending to ask him about the Bible, but he was startled to see that the room was empty. Ordinarily, the curtain hooks made a little jingling noise as they slid back on the rod overhead, but Schwartz's exit had been just as silent as his entrance.

Hey, I know where I heard that voice before! Getraer realized with an uneasy frown. Schwartz is the one who called my name out in the corridor, right before they brought that teen-aged kid in.

But why didn't he wait for me to answer him?

At the moment, he felt as disoriented as if he had just tried to listen to Wagnerian opera, a Rolling Stones concert, and a football game, all at the same time. There had been a surrealistic quality about the entire exchange that only Picasso or Camus could have appreciated. . .but certainly not a level-headed, no-nonsense garda like himself.

But at least the Bible was real and solid, and as he opened it, he savored the rich smell of its new leather binding. It had always been one of his favorite scents, and for a brief second, he seemed to be standing in his grandfather's library, watching eagerly as Grandpa Getraer unwrapped his latest purchase. Something by Sir Walter Scott, perhaps, or a volume from Charles Dickens' collected works.

As Getraer turned the gilt-edged pages, they seemed to give off the scent of cinnamon and bayberry and pine, but there was another fragrance, as well. It was far more subtle than the others -- just a hint of roses and lilies, mixed with something spicier like an exotic oil or incense.

Once again, he seemed to be standing in another time and another place, and he could see himself as a small boy in his grandmother's kitchen, right before Christmas. The house always seemed to smell of molasses cookies and cinnamon rolls, mixed with the warm perfume of the bayberry candles that she burned every year.

Even across all the years, he could still hear her solemnly reciting, "A bayberry candle burned to the socket brings health to the body and wealth to the pocket."

But that same flowery fragrance had always clung to her apron and clothing, even though she didn't wear cologne or use scented soap. As a boy, he'd thought that it had something to do with the floral bouquets that Grandma always brought to decorate the church, but now he had his doubts. Even when she'd been in the nursing home and separated from the flower garden that she loved so much, the scent of roses and lilies still surrounded her hair and clothes.

Whatever it was, the scent seemed to clear Getraer's muddled thoughts, and he chuckled when he reached page 1091 and saw what was written there. He still wasn't sure what had just taken place a few minutes ago, but the words that he read were like a healing balm to his wounded spirit.

Grandma Getraer had always read them to him on Christmas Eve, and he could have quoted them with the pages shut. Even now, he could hear her soft Irish voice as clearly as if she stood before him with her own tattered Bible in hand.

Peace slowly stole over him as he read for a moment, and once again, a quiet warmth spread through his entire body. But far from making him sleepy, the gentle glow seemed to give him new energy. And when he spoke, his voice was clear and strong like that of Pieter Schwartz and his associate, the elusive Mr. Miklós.

"'And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed,'" Joe read the familiar words to Baricza. "'And Joseph also went up from Galilee unto the city of David which is called Bethlehem, to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, who was great with child. . .'"

A faint sigh came from somewhere in front of him, and he looked up from the page. And this time, he wasn't particularly surprised to see that Baricza's lips were curved in a quiet, contented smile.

******

By the time that Jeb Turner arrived almost an hour and a half later to relieve the officer on watch, Getraer was well into the Transfiguration. He was starting to feel the strain on his throat. . .but even so, he was still breathing more easily than the panting Turner. Jeb ran into the cubicle and skidded to a halt at the end of the bed, then tried unsuccessfully to gasp a few words.

Getraer stood up and motioned for the officer to sit down in the chair until he could recuperate. Turner gratefully accepted the offer, but it was still a moment or two before he could speak. His uniform was soaked in sweat as if he had just run a marathon, but his face was split by a wide grin.

"Where have you been?" Getraer tapped his watch before he noticed the ugly lump on Turner's forehead and the cuts on his arms. "I finally ended up letting Anderson go home, and I took over until. . .what in the world happened to you?"

"Sorry I'm late, Joe, but it's good news for a change," Turner gave him a thumbs-up. "We finally got him. We nailed the SOB who killed those four Hispanic women! Right now, he's sitting down at the jail, spilling his guts to the detectives about the other murders."

Getraer had read of someone's knees going weak with relief, but this was the first time that he had ever actually experienced it for himself. He clutched the guard rail on the side of Baricza's bed, and it was his turn to grin like a man who had just won the lottery.

"But how?" he asked as he picked up the plastic pitcher sitting on the nightstand. "We haven't had a break in that case for the last two months. And then all of a sudden, this guy just drops into our laps like a ripe plum? I don't get it."

"I know what you mean," Turner took the little paper cup of water that Getraer held out to him and drained it in two gulps. "All the time and manpower that the CHP has poured into this case. . .and in the end, it still comes down to sheer dumb luck. But at least now I can get back to my regular shift. I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but I've even missed Ponch and Artie's constant bickering."

"You are a desperate man," Getraer rolled his eyes. "So how did you manage to nail this guy?"

"A couple of the guys who've had the flu finally came back to work today," Turner said, then thumbed in the direction of the parking lot. "That's why Lt. Keefe sent me to relieve Anderson, instead of putting me out on one of the extra patrols. It must be peak visiting hours around here, and I had a hard time finding a parking space. The only slot was next to this old rusted-out Ford van parked out in Diddleysquat, Egypt. Actually, it was more like East Diddleysquat!"

Getraer snorted at Jeb's wry choice of words, but suddenly, he could picture Mrs. Sanchez's ancient van sitting in the lot at Central while she gave her testimony to the detectives. And when he stopped to think about it, he remembered hearing the wail of sirens somewhere outside Rampart about an hour ago.

He hadn't paid much attention at the time -- this was a hospital, after all, and sirens were practically a lullaby around Rampart. But now he looked at Turner with a sinking feeling, and it was a few seconds before he could ask the questions that were troubling him.

"Is the owner of the van all right?" he said quietly. "And it wouldn't happen to have been a friend of ours, would it?"

"Mrs. Sanchez?" Turner said with another grin. "She's just fine. As a matter of fact, she's in a lot better shape than the punk who pulled the knife on her in the first place. If it wouldn't have looked so bad for the CHP, I swear I would've let her take the guy down. When I got out of my car, I heard a lot of yelling and cussing inside the van, so I put in a quick call for backup, then broke out the back window and opened the door."

"Don't tell me, let me guess," Getraer's evil smile was the twin of Turner's. "Mrs. Sanchez wasn't the one doing all the screaming and swearing?"

"You got it, Joe!" Jeb's dark eyes twinkled with laughter. "Timothy Caldwell may have grabbed her at knife point and dragged her into her own van, but as soon as she got her breath back, all hell broke loose. Apparently, she came back to Rampart to invite Pete and Vera over for dinner tonight, just to get them away from here for a little while. But first, she made a stop-off at that new kitchen store in Southpointe Mall."

"So what was the weapon of choice?" Getraer raised an eyebrow mildly. "A cast iron skillet, a rolling pin, or a nice big, heavy china platter?"

"Fifteen inches of solid maple rolling pin, guaranteed not to crack or splinter when pounding knobs on the human skull," Turner said. "As soon as I got the door open, Caldwell jumped out of the van like his rump was on fire and his hair was catching. And when he saw my CHP uniform, he grabbed my arm and begged me to get that 'crazy wetback' away from him before she killed him."

"OK, I'm following you so far," Getraer leaned back and inspected the damage to Turner's face and arms. "But why do you look like you've been bobbing for apples in a tank full of barracudas?"

"Uh, remember I said that I would've let Mrs. Sanchez apprehend the guy if it wouldn't have embarrassed the Patrol?" Turner winced, and his expression was delightfully sheepish. "It only took three minutes for my backup to arrive, but Mrs. Sanchez almost killed Caldwell before Shane and Fritz could separate the two of them. Between Caldwell using me for a human shield and Mrs. Sanchez swinging that rolling pin and missing him every once in awhile, I'm going to be some chiropractor's ticket to the Bahamas this year!"

Getraer chuckled at the other man's sardonic expression, but he quickly sobered. "I don't suppose our nominee for 'Dirtbag of the Year' mentioned why he targeted Hispanic women, did he? And what was he doing in the parking lot here at Rampart in the first place?"

"I didn't have to ask him. Mrs. Sanchez beat it out of him before Shane and Fritz got here," Turner said. "The guy has been posing as an orderly at the hospitals around this area, targeting victims among the staff and visitors. He blames a Hispanic woman for his wife's death a couple of months ago. She and a migrant worker were brought into St. Anthony's Hospital together after a car wreck. The Valdez girl lived; Mrs. Caldwell didn't. Caldwell seems to think that the Emergency Room doctors gave preferential treatment to the other woman, and that's why his wife died."

"Why do I have my doubts about that logic?" Getraer muttered under his breath, then gestured at the corridor outside. "Do you feel up to standing watch, or should I call for a replacement that doesn't look like he's been arm-wrestling with alligators?"

"I'm fine," Jeb stood up and stretched. "As a matter of fact, I feel pretty good. Catching Caldwell was like getting an early Christmas present. Now, if we could just nail the creep that hit Bear, Santa wouldn't have to bring me a blessed thing this year. I'd have everything that I could possibly want."

"Well, almost, anyway," Getraer said. "If Barry would wake up, then I'd cheerfully give up eggnog and fruitcake for the next ten years."

He followed Turner into the corridor, then added, "Listen, if you think you can handle things down here, I'm going to go back to the waiting room and check on Pete and Vera. If they've already heard about the attack on Mrs. Sanchez, I imagine they're pretty shaken up about it. And the last thing those poor people need is a little more stress in their lives."

"No problem, Joe," he nodded as Getraer walked away. "Like I said before, I'll be just fine."

But the sergeant had only taken a few steps when something occurred to Turner. "Hey, wait a minute! You don't even like eggnog and fruitcake."

"I know," Getraer called over his shoulder. "That's why it'd be so easy to give them up!"

He was still chuckling as he stopped by the nurses' station to tell Deirdre and Jamie about Baricza's response to the reading. They were in the middle of a discussion with the boy's doctors, however, and he decided to check on Mrs. Sanchez and the Bariczas first, then talk to the ICU staff later.

But as he turned toward the swinging doors, he heard an angry shout from somewhere on the other side of the corridor. He looked up just as a short, pudgy man in a gray Brooks Brothers suit lunged past the staff members -- straight towards Baricza's cubicle.

At first, Getraer thought that the man's anger was directed at him, but then he saw that his real focus was on Turner, who sat outside Baricza's room. As he swept past Joe, the sergeant was almost suffocated in a cloud of expensive men's cologne, and he hoped that he'd remembered to bring antihistamines for his notorious allergies.

"What's the meaning of this?" the man snapped, and even to Joe's untrained ear, his English accent was as authentic as a Japanese Rolex. "If you're guarding some felon, then see to it that he's transferred out of Rampart immediately. I won't have my son's recovery hampered or his life put at risk by police presence here!"

"Sir, I can assure you that your son's life is in no danger," Turner tried to say, but the man's wide face turned an alarming shade of reddish purple.

"Oh, I suppose that the CHP is hiring psychics now, right?" he snarled. "Just go call your little friends at headquarters and tell them that Harrison Albright gave you orders to move that trash out of this hospital right this minute. Besides, St. Anthony's is plenty good enough for the likes of some criminal. There's nothing but a bunch of Catholics and migrant workers and foreigners over there, anyway."

"Excuse me, " Getraer tried to break into Albright's monologue. "I'm. . ."

Getraer's dark blue jacket was similar to those worn by hospital security guards, and even though the man had noticed that detail, he didn't wait to hear the rest of the sergeant's explanation. He spluttered a few choice expletives under his breath, and his 'English' accent caved in under the weight of his indignation, exposing its original Brooklyn underpinnings.

"If you want to keep your job, you can just wait until I'm through," he snapped. "I have a few things to say to Officer Know-it-all, here, and then it's your turn. . ."

He pivoted towards Turner, clearly intending to pick up the harangue where he had left off. But another cloying wave of cologne hit Getraer's sinuses, and this time, there was no way to stave off the explosion.

Like all of his fellow officers, Turner was accustomed to Getraer's allergies, and he didn't pay any attention when the sergeant unleashed a series of sneezes that sounded like howitzer fire. But Albright was caught off-guard by the blasts of sound, and for the first time in years, he was completely speechless.

When he was done, Getraer took advantage of the temporary silence to reach into his jacket pocket. He took out a handkerchief and his badge, then made ample use of the former before he deployed the latter. He saw Albright's uneasy glance toward the black leather badge case, and he secretly relished the other man's discomfiture for as long as possible.

"As I was saying, I'm Sergeant Joe Getraer from the CHP, and this man is here at my orders," he displayed the gold shield, and his smile took on a decidedly frosty edge. "Officer Turner isn't guarding a felon, Mr. Albright. He's protecting one of our people. Maybe you read about the case in the newspaper -- the off-duty CHP officer who was hit by a Mercedes while he was assisting an elderly woman? We have reason to believe that it was done deliberately."

Getraer hadn't intended to tell him anything, but the words seemed to spill out of his mouth before he could stop them. But whatever the reason for the explanation, it seemed to have a far different effect on Albright than anyone could have predicted.

He was unaccountably silent again, and he stared down at the tips of his Italian leather loafers for a few seconds. His sandy blond hair was plastered in thin wisps across his forehead, and as he fanned himself with a copy of the Wall Street Journal, Getraer and Turner saw half-moons of perspiration under the arms of his jacket.

"Hot as hell for December, isn't it?" he muttered to no one in particular, then aimed a cold glare at Getraer. "But to answer your question, Officer, I never read the newspaper except for the financial section. The headlines are always about those gangs of black hoodlums and some store robbery or murder that they've. . ."

Turner made a small noise under his breath, and Getraer saw the way Jeb's massive hand curled into a fist at his side. And when Albright paused to take a quick breath, he, too, saw the steely glint in the tall black man's eyes. Joe had seen his officer quell a potential riot using nothing but that expression, and he really didn't want to think about what might happen if Jeb was pushed any further.

"Easy, Turner," Getraer said so softly that the words almost seemed subliminal. "He's not worth it."

Albright might not have exactly lived up to the promise of his last name, but he also hadn't amassed an enormous fortune by taking foolish chances, either. His voice died away, and he took a step back, having apparently decided that caution was in order.

But when he looked down and saw the large diamond pin glinting against his black silk tie, he seemed to regain some of his earlier bravado. He threw back his shoulders, then stuck out his round balloon of a chest. . .and from Getraer's perspective, Albright looked like a flattened tree frog that had just been re-inflated with a bicycle pump.

Turner had apparently reached a similar conclusion, and it took all of the CHP officers' self-control to maintain their impassive façades. They carefully avoided looking at each other, but Albright saw the laughter sparkling in their eyes, and he knew that he'd just lost the battle.

"All right, Sergeant, have it your way," he grumbled, trying to salvage something of the war. "But I'm warning you, I won't tolerate any disturbances on this floor. Edward has been terribly traumatized, and he must have his rest. I know your Commissioner. . .in fact, I've often had the opportunity to tell him about the ways that he could improve law enforcement in this state. I won't hesitate to call him, and I'm going to hold you personally responsible if anything happens while Edward is here at Rampart."

"I'm sure that the Commissioner would be delighted to hear from you again, Mr. Albright," Getraer bit back the retort that he wanted to make -- something to do with the fair market value of certain people's opinions and a pound of spit.

Instead, he smiled calmly and added with a straight face, "In fact, I'll be sure to tell him that you said 'Hello' when I have lunch with him next week in Sacramento. You said your first name is Harrison? But then again, how could he forget someone who's so unselfishly shared of his time and opinions to improve California law enforcement?"

"No matter how much he might want to," Turner murmured under his breath as he walked back to the chair and sat down.

Albright's pallid face was already a wide constellation of freckles, but now they all seemed to run together and form a large crimson galaxy on either cheek. He muttered something under his breath, then turned on his heel like a Prussian general and stomped back to his son's cubicle.

Getraer waited until Albright blundered through the canvas curtains, then turned and winked broadly at Jeb. Turner 'replied' with a grin and a thumbs-up, and for a moment, both officers shook with silent laughter. At last, Getraer wiped his streaming eyes and gestured in the direction of the waiting room.

Turner nodded again, then settled down to the business of guarding the silent cubicle and its vulnerable occupant. And it might just have been some trick of the lighting, but when Getraer looked back at his fellow officer, Jeb seemed to be surrounded by a quiet golden haze. His face was set in stern, proud lines, and every line of his tall, muscled body was alert to the possibility of danger.

Earlier, Getraer would have rejected the idea that flashed through his mind as fantasy and certainly not worthy of a veteran police officer. But now, he wouldn't have been surprised to see another figure standing behind Turner -- a certain Champion of champions who had once defeated the enemy of mankind with weapons not forged by human hands.

In fact, the world seemed full of wonderful possibilities, and Getraer found himself looking forward to the holidays in a way that he hadn't done in years. Not since his grandmother had gone into the nursing home, now that he stopped to think about it. He could picture Timmy's face on Christmas morning when he saw the model train set under the tree, and he could hear his daughter's squeals of delight as she unwrapped her "Turnip Patch" doll.

He also made a mental note to return the blender and electric can opener that he'd bought for his wife. He had a more appropriate gift in mind for Betty -- about half a carat's worth of appropriate, as a matter of fact. As he walked toward the doors, he started to hum his favorite Christmas carol, and there was a firmness to his step that hadn't been there two hours ago.

However, a casual listener might have found it difficult to recognize "Joy to the World" as rendered by a certain tired, but triumphant CHP sergeant. At times, there was a martial quality about his interpretation of the hymn that didn't exactly sound like the standard church rendition.

More like "La Marseillaise."

******

It's going to be all right, Getraer reminded himself as he approached the waiting room. No matter what happens, we'll all get through this together.

And besides, he had some good news to report for a change. It didn't matter that Baricza's response hadn't been confirmed by a doctor -- Getraer was as certain of what he had seen as if it had been caught on instant replay. He took a deep breath and then walked into the waiting room with a calm smile. And for once, even the bland landscapes and cream-colored wallpaper didn't seem quite as annoying.

There were no signs of the Bariczas, however, and he could only conclude that Mrs. Sanchez had followed through with her intentions of fixing dinner for them. But Jon and the other CHP officers were already back from the station, and now they sat eagerly on the edge of their chairs, as if they were waiting for his return. As he paced the small area, Ponch clutched a manila folder in one hand, and his face exploded into a grin when he saw Getraer.

"We did it, Sarge!" he held up the folder as if it was a torch of freedom. "We think we may have found the guy who hurt Bear!"

"Or at least we may have located the hit and run vehicle, anyway," Jon said calmly. "Grossie was right, and there was a silver Mercedes in the impound lot. Seems the owner reported it stolen about six hours after Bear was hit. Somebody gave it a shove over the edge of Latigo Canyon out in Malibu, and it's nothing but a burnt-out shell. All the trim is missing on the passenger side, and there's more dents than quarter panel left."

"But what's weird is that the owner never even showed up to take pictures of it for his insurance company," Grossman shook his head. "You'd think that the guy would want to recover some of the money he sank into an expensive car, wouldn't you? But according to the report, he just called the impound lot and said that he was too busy to deal with it. He told them to dispose of the Mercedes and send him the bill for it."

"So we did a little checking into the owner's background," Bonnie gestured at a computer printout sitting on the table beside the platter of cookies. "Not a thing. This guy is as squeaky clean as my grandmother's kitchen linoleum. He hasn't even gotten a speeding ticket in the last twenty years."

Any spark of hope in Getraer's heart was immediately extinguished, and he sighed as he sat down on the sofa. "So what you're saying is that we've got nothing except a wrecked car and no way to link it to the owner. His report may be as bogus as they come, but with no hard evidence and no priors, we might as well be spitting into the ocean."

"Well, the guy that owns the Mercedes may be clean, but his son sure isn't!" Grossman said. "Junior's one of these poor little rich kids, and he's got an arrest record the size of Ponch's little black book. Shop-lifting; vandalism; assaulting one of his teachers -- the whole nine yards. To say nothing of a list of traffic cites that you'd have to see to believe! He's not even eighteen yet, and he's already had his driver's license suspended."

"Don't tell me, let me guess," Getraer's eyes were narrowed with anger. "One of those tickets was issued by a certain CHP officer named Baricza."

"You got it, Joe," Jon nodded. "Three months ago, Bear stopped the kid for doing sixty five. . .in a school zone! It was his third strike, and it cost him his driver's license. Daddy's money may have bought him out of all of the other criminal charges, but Judge Nichols threw the book at him in traffic court."

There was a collective chuckle of appreciation from the CHP officers for the tough old judge and her knife-edged tongue -- as long as they weren't on the receiving end of it, anyway. Ponch took a drink of his soda, then picked up the story where Jon had left off.

"Anyway, I called a friend of mine who does valet parking out at the country club and did some checking," he said. "Seems that Junior's got his own private chauffeur now. And that might be why the witnesses thought they saw two people in the car Maybe he ordered his driver to go after Bear, and the guy got scared and flipped out. That, or else the kid was actually driving, and somebody else was in the back seat."

"So at least we've got a motive," Bonnie said. "It's still not enough to buy us a warrant for his arrest, but it's more of a break than we've gotten in the past two weeks."

"What I want to know is how you managed to find all of this information so quickly," Getraer shrugged. "Barry always has plenty of activity, and he generates a lot of paperwork because of it. You three must've had the luck of the Irish on your side tonight."

"Nope, not luck. Just your good buddy, Mr. Miklós," Ponch shook his head. "And if you don't mind me saying so, Sarge, maybe you and Grossman ought to get new bifocals or something. Miklós isn't much taller than Bonnie, and he must weigh three hundred pounds. And he wasn't wearing a suit, either. He had on the biggest pair of bellbottoms that I've ever seen and this red tee shirt with 'Official Sponsor of the 1980 Reindeer Games' printed on the front."

For a moment, Getraer's exhausted mind was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that Miklós had somehow mastered the ninja art of altering his appearance to fit the situation. The height difference was a little harder to explain than the apparent weight change, but he was sure that there was a perfectly good explanation for that, too. Somewhere, anyway.

But there were more important issues to consider, and he reluctantly nodded at Poncherello. "All right, so how does Miklós fit into this equation? Start at the beginning, Poncherello, and don't leave anything out."

"Well, I was going down to the Break Room to get us some coffee and a candy bar for Grossman because he said that his blood sugar was low and he was going to pass out if he didn't. . ." he said all on one breath.

But before Ponch could gasp in enough air to continue, Getraer held up a restraining hand. "When I told you not to leave anything out, Frank, I meant the action -- not the dialogue."

"Oh, OK, Sarge," Ponch nodded blankly. "Anyway, I never made it to the Break Room because Jennifer was looking for me. She's on desk duty this week, and she said that there were a couple of really weird guys up front. They were making her nervous, so she wanted to know if I would go with her and talk to them. When I got there, the short guy introduced himself as Barry's friend, Mr. Miklós. He wasn't so bad, I guess, but his assistant gave me the creeps."

"Then what happened?" Getraer hid a smile at the thought of Ponch's reaction to Schwartz. . .and vice versa.

"Miklós said that he was a juvenile worker and he'd just been reviewing a case that he thought we ought to know about," Ponch went on. "He knew we were still looking for the person who hit Bear, and he thought that the Albright kid might be withholding information that we. . ."

"Wait a minute!" Getraer yelped. "Did you just say 'Albright?'"

"Yeah, Sarge," Grossman gestured at the folder in Ponch's hand. "That's why we were waiting for you to get back here. When Ponch told us what Miklós said, I got the idea of posing as an insurance salesman and calling the Albright place. You know, just to see if he was at home tonight. But the housekeeper told me that Eddie Albright had gotten hurt while he was working on his car, and his dad had ridden with him in the ambulance to Rampart."

"And when we got here, Dr. Early said that Eddie had already been taken up to ICU," Bonnie added. "We didn't want to make a move until we talked to you first, so we came up here. That's when we found out about Mrs. Sanchez. Pete and Vera took her home about ten minutes ago."

"We thought that too many people showing up down in ICU might spook Harrison Albright into pulling his son out of the hospital," Jon said. "We don't have a warrant for the boy's arrest, and he's still a few months shy of being eighteen. Albright could move a minor child into a private clinic any time that he wants to, whether Eddie wants to go or not."

"According to Dixie McCall, he's got plenty of money, and he wouldn't think twice about it, either," Grossman said. "And from there, Daddy could see to it that his baby boy skips the country -- at least until the statute of limitations is up. It's not like he doesn't have a lot of places overseas where he could stash Junior until the heat dies down."

"So, anyway, Sarge, that's how we made the connection so fast," Ponch grinned through a mouthful of brightly-frosted Christmas cookie. "That Pieter Schwartz guy told us to do a little checking on both the father and the son. He said that Harrison Albright might be tougher, but he'd dealt with him before, and he was sure that we'd find something on him, too. Schwartz sure didn't look old enough to have had Albright as a juvie case, but he sounded like he knew what he was talking about. We've got people looking into it."

"Good thinking, all of you," Getraer nodded in approval, then stood up again. "They brought the Albright boy into ICU a little while ago. Let me go make a couple of phone calls, and then we'll just have a little chat with the charming Messrs. Albright."

"Sorry, Joe, but it looks like us local boys aren't going to get first crack at that bunch of skunks after all," a booming voice said from the doorway.

Getraer looked up just as LAPD Sergeant Bill MacDonald walked into the room, followed by Officers Jim Reed and Pete Malloy. As always, Malloy flashed a boyish grin at Bonnie when he first saw her, and the expression made his freckled face look younger than it really was. Jim Reed acknowledged the CHP officers with his usual serious nod and shy smile, then took up a watchful pose outside the door to prevent interruptions.

There was even a hint of wicked amusement in MacDonald's steel-blue eyes that made him look a little less like a despondent mastiff than he usually did. But there were someone else with the LAPD officers -- a lean, copper-skinned man with a mane of jet black hair and eyes like a hunting hawk.

He was dressed completely in charcoal gray except for the gleam of a turquoise bracelet on his left wrist and a glint of silver on his black tie. He wore a tiny "war braid" in his hair, and the coral bead that held it in place was like a dot of fire against the ebony all around it.

The nonconformist touches were obviously meant to divert the public's attention from his real occupation, but the man's severely-cut suit and London Fog overcoat were a dead give-away to someone who'd been in law enforcement as long as Getraer had. MacDonald saw Joe's amused eyes and shrugged his massive shoulders as if to say, "Government types -- go figure."

He might as well be wearing one of those stick-on ID tags, Getraer thought. "Hi, my name is Mr. Federal Agent." The only question is what department is he from, and what's the government's percentage in all of this?

The man said nothing for a few seconds, and his eyes narrowed as he inspected Getraer. It took Joe a moment to remember where he had seen that particular expression before. But then the memory came back to him as clearly as if he was standing on the front porch of his uncle's home, thirty years ago.

Ajax, Getraer thought. He's got eyes just like Uncle Dan's German Shepherd, Ajax.

Dan Getraer had been a San Diego K-9 officer and Joe's boyhood hero -- not to mention a large part of the reason that he'd become a cop. After his dad's death, he'd spent most of his summers with Uncle Dan and Aunt Eileen, and he'd gotten to know Dan's big black and silver Shepherd very well.

He could still picture the way that the police dog tried to pull Dan over to the car every morning in his eagerness to go to work. And when he'd been on the trail of an escaped convict or a missing child, Ajax had always worn a look of tightly-focused concentration on the task at hand. Or paw, as the case might be.

It was same look that was in the Native American man's eyes now. His nostrils flared slightly as he sampled the air currents, and he nodded knowingly as he caught a trace of something familiar. Finally, he seemed to come back to himself, but if he noticed the uneasy looks that some of the officers gave him, he said nothing. Getraer and the others had apparently met with his approval, however, and he gave Joe a good solid crunch of a handshake.

"Sorry about that," he said, then added in a straightforward tone, "For a minute there, I thought I caught a whiff of someone I used to know when I was growing up on the reservation. He always smelled like cinnamon and fresh-cut pine boughs, if you can believe that. Guy by the name of Miklós."

Ordinarily, Getraer would have said something to his personnel about their inappropriate responses -- particularly the open-mouthed Poncherello, who was doing an excellent imitation of a Venus flytrap. But Joe suspected that his own expression was only slightly less dumbfounded than those of his officers, and he wisely chose to say nothing.

"Joe, this is DEA Special Agent Mike Lighthorse," MacDonald gestured at the man. "He's been working with us for the last couple of months in connection with that auto theft case. Mike, this is Sergeant Joe Getraer and some of the CHP's finest. From right to left, we've got officers Jon Baker, Frank Poncherello, Artie Grossman, and Bonnie Clark."

"Pleased to meet you, Agent Lighthorse," Getraer managed to keep his voice level, but he was aware of the other man's keenly-appraising eyes. "But if you don't mind me asking, why is the DEA investigating a bunch of stolen cars? I'm afraid that I just don't get the connection between your line of work and ours."

"You're right, Sergeant," Lighthorse said. "If auto theft was all that's involved, we would have left the investigation in the capable hands of LAPD and the CHP Unfortunately, there's a little more to it than that. It seems that Harrison Albright has been running an exporting business, all right. We have reason to believe that he's been shipping all those expensive stolen cars to rich oil-producing countries where the local sheiks couldn't care less if the American registration is phony."

"Yeah, and word on the street has it that he's been doing a little importing on the side, too," Reed said from his spot by the door. "He's got his own line of freighters, and the Feds think that he's been bringing back heroin from the Middle East after he delivers the stolen cars. The problem is that no one's ever been able to come up with any hard evidence that would link him to either the stolen cars or the dope-dealing."

"Nothing -- not one thing that we can take to the DA and get him to run with it," Malloy sighed. "As far as the law is concerned, Albright is so clean that he makes Ivory soap look like dirt."

"Until now, I take it?" Getraer asked mildly.

"You got it, Joe," MacDonald nodded. "We've been busting our tails, the same as you guys, but there hasn't been a peep out of anybody on the street. We put the heat on some of our snitches, but even the bad boys are running scared. Albright's usually got a couple of so-called 'bodyguards' with him wherever he goes, but rumor has it that they're just a bunch of kneecap relocation specialists. All the loose lips in this town are sealed tighter than a twenty year old jar of my Aunt Mabel's pickles."

"So what finally broke up the log jam?" Jon Baker asked. "The CHP sure hasn't had much luck in that department."

"We got an anonymous tip two hours ago," MacDonald said. "The guy said that if we checked a certain auto body shop out in Pacific Palisades, we might find something very interesting. And man, did we ever! The way I figure it, there's got to be at least three or four million bucks' worth of hot merchandise in a warehouse behind that body shop. Jaguars and Lamborghinis and even a Silver Cloud -- all waiting to be repainted and have their serial numbers altered."

"Our informant also told us to watch for a particular freighter that's due in at midnight down in San Francisco," Lighthorse added. "Thanks to Albright's ex-friend, the owner of the body shop, we've got enough to hold him for the auto thefts. That will buy us some time until the freighter get into port and my people can go over that ship with a fine-toothed comb."

A strange idea had just occurred to Getraer, and now he struggled to think of a way to ask his question. Preferably one that wouldn't give his colleagues reason to put in an emergency call to the tenth floor Psychiatric Unit.

"This anonymous informant wouldn't happen to have an accent, would he?" he looked at MacDonald and Lighthorse, trying to gauge their reactions to his question. "Dutch or German, maybe?"

"How did you know about that?" MacDonald gave him a puzzled frown. "Although it wasn't a German accent by any stretch. More like French or French Canadian. My great-grandmother was from Quebec, and the guy sure sounded like he could have been Canadian."

"I'm sorry, but I can't concur this time, Mac. Our informer was definitely English," Lighthorse shook his head. "I went to school at Oxford, and I'm quite familiar with the British Received pronunciation. Our informant had a veddy, veddy proper English accent."

Getraer wasn't quite sure which was the more mind-boggling of the two concepts -- their informant's capricious accent or a full-blooded Navajo wandering the hallowed halls of Oxford. But as with Miklós' changeable appearance, there were more pressing issues to deal with at the moment, and Getraer gestured toward the ICU.

"The Feds and LAPD may want Daddy, but the CHP would like to have a word with Sonny Boy, too," he said. "We have reason to believe that he was driving the car that hit Baricza."

"You're kidding?" MacDonald whistled sharply, then turned to Lighthorse. "Barry Baricza is the kid I was telling you about -- the one that some scumbag ran over while he was trying to help a little old lady out on the freeway. He's a good guy, Mike. . .one of the best cops you'd ever want to meet. And if there's any way we can nail the SOB that did this to him, I'd sure like to be in on it."

"Mac, Joe, I can understand that, and he's all yours," Lighthorse said. "Now, let's get down to the business of figuring out how we're going to smoke those two wasps out of their cozy little nest down in ICU."

"Jim and I can cover the main entrance," Malloy volunteered. "Maybe a couple of the CHP guys can guard the two emergency exits."

"I can handle that," Grossman said with a wink.

"Count me in, too," Bonnie smiled. "If Ponch and Jon cover the other emergency exit, we should have plenty of people to handle anything that Albright tries to pull."

"Mac, I've already got a man standing watch on Baricza's room," Getraer said. "Turner can always give us some backup if we need it. That leaves you, Agent Lighthorse, and me to nail Albright and make sure that his kid doesn't take off on us. You think the three of us can handle the job?"

"Sounds like a pretty good plan to me," Mac's craggy face was split by a mischievous smile. "Man, I just love interagency cooperation, don't you?"

"Agreed," Lighthorse chuckled. "All right, here's what we're going to do. We'll give everyone ten minutes to get into position around the exits. Joe, you'll go in next and alert your officer to what's going down. Mac, I want you to act like you're just visiting Officer Baricza and let the staff know what's going on while I get a visual on the targets."

He waited for the LAPD and CHP officers to acknowledge their instructions, then went on, "Once we've spotted Albright, Mac and I will take him into custody. That leaves Joe to have a little discussion with Junior. And just remember, our first priority is the safety of the patients and staff. Any questions?"

"I think we've got it," Getraer said. "I wish that there was a way to lure Albright off the ward, rather than going in after him. It might've been less risky for the civilians that way, but I guess it would've also given him more of a chance to get away from us, too. We'll just have to make sure that nothing goes wrong."

"Good point," MacDonald nodded. "We don't know for sure if Albright is carrying a gun or not. Word on the street is that he's so sure of himself and his goons that he doesn't bother with it. But like you said, Joe, we'll just have to see to it that everything goes down by the numbers. OK, everybody, let's move out!"

Malloy headed toward the door, followed by Baker and the others. Lighthorse waited until they were gone, then turned back to the two sergeants and gestured at the waiting room chairs. He sat down on the edge of the sofa and consulted his gold Elgin pocket watch for a few seconds, then replaced it in his vest pocket.

"Might as well sit down for a few minutes until everyone is in place," he told Mac and Joe. "There's no point in rushing right down to ICU and maybe spooking Albright in the process."

MacDonald collapsed onto one of the overstuffed chairs and then yanked impatiently at the collar of his blue shirt. His neck was only slightly smaller than that of a full grown grizzly bear, and Joe heard him grumble something about a warm Hereafter for the blankety-blank idiot who invented police uniforms in the first place. Clearly, standard issue was not one of the burly sergeant's favorite parts of being a cop.

For his part, Lighthorse leaned back on the sofa and closed his eyes, but his muscles were as taunt as if he was standing guard. And even though Getraer had no way to prove his theory, he had an idea that the DEA agent was more alert with his eyes shut than someone else would have been with his eyes wide open.

You can bet that he knows everything that's going on around him, Getraer thought. Including some stuff that probably wouldn't show up on any measuring device known to man.

As if he had heard everything that Getraer hadn't said, Lighthorse opened his eyes and gave Joe a shrewd smile. He nodded once in acknowledgment, then closed his eyes again. And this time, he was careful to make it appear that he was as relaxed as the average rag doll -- Turnip Patch or otherwise.

That left Getraer alone at the card table with the plate of Christmas cookies and his thoughts. A few hours ago, he would have been full of apprehension, but now he felt nothing except the adrenaline rush that always accompanied this kind of police work.

No, that wasn't entirely true, he decided as he toyed with a few crumbs on the table. There was another emotion just beneath the excitement. And after eighteen years, he finally recognized it for what it was -- the pride of doing a job that very few men had the wit and heart to do.

Not only doing my job, but doing it to the best of my ability, Getraer suddenly realized, but there was no egotism in that thought.

No, just a heartfelt thankfulness that he'd been given the chance to live out the words on the side of every CHP vehicle. He felt a momentary pang of guilt when he tried to remember the last time that he'd taken a good look at that motto, instead of just glancing at the words in passing.

But thinking about squad cars inevitably led back to the officers who drove them. . .and one officer in specific. Getraer smiled quietly as the last of the afternoon's revelations made itself known to him, and for the first time in years, a wave of genuine gratitude to his Creator broke over his healing spirit.

The best part of the job wasn't catching criminals or keeping civilians safe, he decided. It was the friendship and loyalty that came with being a cop -- something that Baricza had seemed to know from the very beginning.

'To protect and serve' isn't just another catch-phrase to you, is it, Barry? Getraer addressed the absent officer. It's the way you live your life, on duty and off.

And that's why you've got to come back. We still have a lot to learn from you, my friend.

There was no perceptible change in the atmosphere of the waiting room, but for a fraction of a second, Getraer felt something like an answering warmth in his spirit. It was only the tiniest of sensations, like the brush of a peregrine's wings as it returned to the falconer's glove, but it left the sergeant with an unshakable feeling that all was well.

Only a short time before, he would have passed off that newfound peace as the product of stress and wishful thinking. But now he instinctively turned towards its true Source, intending to say a quick prayer of thanks. He closed his eyes, but before he could offer his gratitude, a shadow fell across his face.

He looked up into the black eyes of Mike Lighthorse, just as the agent reached down and took a cookie from the platter. He bit into the biscochito, then winked quietly at Getraer as he brushed the crumbs from his tie. He leaned forward so that Mac couldn't hear him, and when he spoke, it was in the same matter-of-fact tone that most people used to discuss the weather.

"You weren't imagining it," he smiled knowingly at Getraer. "I felt it, too. Some people would say that it was a spirit returning home to take care of unfinished business. The only question is, was it your friend. . .or maybe someone a little closer? Like the guy who looks back at you in the mirror every morning?"

"Yeah, Mike," Getraer nodded firmly. "As a matter of fact, it was. Dealer's choice."

As Lighthorse roared with laughter, MacDonald gave Getraer a look implying that the agent might just be a few arrows shy of a full quiver. But then Lighthorse glanced at the wall clock, and all traces of amusement vanished from his expression. He took a few steps towards the door and gestured at the others to follow him.

"All right, gentlemen, it's show time," he said. "Let's get going, shall we?"

Getraer was the last one out of the waiting room, and he paused at the threshold long enough to take one last look behind him. He only had a few seconds to offer his delayed prayer of thanks, and this time, he chose his words very carefully.

Thank you, Lord, for Christmas time, he smiled quietly. And thank You for miracles, too. The ones that we can see. . .

. . .and the ones that we can't.

******

By the time he reached ICU, Getraer was completely focused on the task ahead. He hadn't felt this calm and relaxed in years. . .and even though he had no way of knowing it, his eyes were like those of a hunting hawk as he walked onto the unit.

He paused only long enough to take a quick inventory of the area, and within a few seconds, he had a mental map of everyone's location on the floor. Judging from the way most of the staff had quietly taken up secluded positions in alcoves and behind hospital equipment, MacDonald had already delivered his message, and the word had gotten around.

To avoid suspicion, Jamie and Deirdre sat at the nurses' station, going about their usual business. And even though they appeared to be doing nothing more important than routine paperwork, Getraer could tell by their body language that both women were tensed to head for safety at the first signs of trouble.

MacDonald stood in front of Baricza's cubicle and chatted with Turner, but it was clear that both officers were monitoring everything taking place around them. Mike Lighthorse was several yards ahead of him, and the Federal agent paused outside Eddie Albright's cubicle, then waited for Joe to get into position to cover him.

Getraer took up a stance a few feet behind and slightly to the right of Lighthorse. It was the best possible angle to get a clear shot, if necessary -- although he desperately hoped that it wouldn't be necessary.

He still wasn't comfortable with the possibility of a take-down when there were so many civilians crowded into such a small area, but he'd already conceded that there wasn't much of a choice. And as he stood there, he found himself repeating the words on his grandmother's sampler.

Dear Lord, help! he aimed one last thought skyward as Lighthorse nodded at him. Just one more miracle, please?

Lighthorse stood to one side of the curtain opening and pushed it aside just enough to be able to see Harrison Albright. "Mr. Albright, we have the results of your son's X-rays. I'd like to discuss them with you, sir, if you'd be good enough to step outside, please."

His voice had just the right amount of obsequiousness, and Getraer mentally applauded his performance. He heard a few muttered expletives, followed by the creaking of overstressed rivets as Albright stood up from his chair. In a few seconds, the curtain rods jingled wildly against the support pole, and Albright emerged from the cubicle.

Even while they had been formulating their plans, something had been troubling Getraer. . .and now he knew what it was. Still grumbling to himself, Albright drew himself up to his full height and started to rebuke the person who had dared to interrupt him.

"This could have waited until I was finished talking to my. . ." he began.

But at that moment, he noticed both the absence of X-ray film in Lighthorse's hand and the agent's clothing. Albright's watery blue eyes went wide with surprise, and his gaze darted wildly around the ICU as he looked for an escape route.

I knew that suit and coat were a dead give-away -- I just knew it! Getraer sighed as he grabbed for his gun. Lighthorse might as well have announced, "I am Federale, hear me roar!" over the PA system.

"You lousy cop!" Albright snarled. "You've got no right to be here. What the hell do you and the rest of your pig buddies think that you're. . .?"

"Aww, will you just shut up for once, Dad?" a voice came from inside the cubicle. "They don't want you. It's me that they're after. They must've finally figured out that I'm the one who hit that cop."

"Edward, don't say another word," Albright said coldly. "They don't have any proof of anything."

"Give it a rest, old man!" Eddie snapped. "I don't care if you did cover for me the night that I hit Baricza. Nobody asked you to lie for me, then, and I'm not asking you to do it now."

"Edward," Albright turned toward the bed just as the teenager got out of bed and staggered toward him. "Now you just listen to me. . ."

"No, you listen to me for once!" Eddie clutched the edge of the curtain for support. "It was your idea to hire surveillance people to watch every move that Baricza guy made -- just like it was your idea to run him over that night. I may have been the one who actually hit him, but you're the one who got cold feet afterward and. . ."

"Shut up!" Albright hissed at his son. "Just shut the hell up! I'm not taking the fall for some snot-nosed brat, even if you are supposedly my kid. I guess only your mother can be sure of that, though, can't she? Her and all of her tennis coaches and golf pros and chauffeurs. Hell, you could be the gardener's kid, for all I know!"

"Yeah, and from what Mom says about you, I guess we both know why, too," Eddie inspected his father's chubby frame with a cold smile, then turned to Lighthorse. "You might want to take notes, cop. I hit your buddy, all right. But Daddy dearest was in the back seat, telling me that I was a wimp and a loser if I didn't take Baricza out when I had the chance. And it was Pop's idea to shove the car over the canyon and then report that somebody stole it, too."

This is better than a soap opera, Getraer thought. We have a room full of witnesses who just heard the kid admit to hitting Baricza. And his father is an accomplice!

"It's all a bunch of lies," Albright's eyes were flat and cold. "I was in San Diego on the night that Officer What's-his-name was hit, and I can prove it. Don't listen to this insufferable little monster. He's exactly like his mother -- a pair of blood-sucking harpies!"

"Yeah, grease the wheels with enough money, and you can 'prove' anything," Eddie sneered. "Just like you've dumped enough money into charities just to make everybody think that you're some kind of a saint. So why not pay somebody to claim that you were with them that night in San Diego? You probably know enough hookers who'd be happy to help you out. . ."

"Actually, Mr. Albright, we wanted to talk to both you and your son," Lighthorse interrupted the verbal catfight between father and son. "You're under arrest for grand theft auto. . ."

"I'll have your badge for this!" Albright snarled. "And I'll sue your department for false arrest, too. By the time I'm through, LAPD won't have enough in the till to buy coffee and donuts! Or in your case, more like tortillas and refried beans, you miserable little tamale sucker."

"Wrong ethnicity and definitely the wrong department," Lighthorse made an angry grab for Albright's wrist. "Try Navajo and the DEA. . ."

Bad move, Mike, Getraer watched as Albright's face turned a sickly shade of white at even the mention of the Federal drug agency. Seriously bad move. . .

Desperation gave Albright a speed that he couldn't have managed for any other reason, and he lunged to one side, breaking Lighthorse's hold on his arm. He grabbed a fistful of Eddie's long blond hair and sent him hurtling toward the DEA agent, then feigned to one side to avoid Getraer.

Eddie and Lighthorse both groaned as they lay sprawled on the floor, but at the moment, Getraer was too busy with other things to help them. He sprinted toward Albright, just as MacDonald lumbered into range, but before either sergeant could stop him, Albright darted behind the nurses' station.

Deirdre and Jamie had seen trouble headed in their direction, and the women were already on their feet, trying to get out of the way. But like everyone else, they had underestimated Albright's ability to move quickly, and he made a grab for Jamie's shoulder.

He missed her arm, but in the process, his hand became entangled in her long black hair. He pulled her in front of him, and as if by magic, he produced a gun from somewhere inside his voluminous jacket. He pressed the .38's barrel against the side of her head, then hissed at the police officers like a cornered rattlesnake.

"Get back, or I'll kill her," he snapped as Getraer and the others approached him. "I'm not going to prison for drug smuggling -- not when I can live like royalty over there with that bunch of camel jockeys that I deal with. I'm sure you've got people guarding the exits, so you tell them that I'm coming out and that I won't hesitate to kill the hostage if they try anything stupid."

"Let her go," MacDonald said coldly. "How far do you think you're going to get once you leave this hospital, anyway? You can't drive and keep an eye on a hostage at the same time. Just put the gun down. . ."

"Not a chance," Albright shook his head. "She's my ticket out of here. You call your people and tell them that I want a helicopter up on Rampart's helipad in thirty minutes. Tell the pilot that he's going to fly out to my private airstrip, then call my people and have my personal jet fueled up and ready to by the time I get there. And no tricks, either, or the broad dies! Now put down your guns and kick them over to me."

"You know we can't do that," Getraer said in his calmest voice. "And if you do anything to harm Miss Reece, we can't guarantee your safety afterwards."

It was a nice way of saying that Albright would be dead before he could take another step, and Harrison's arm shook a little as he continued to hold Jamie by the throat. But when he saw Getraer's cool stare, he clutched the gun even more tightly and tried one last bit of bravado.

"I'm still not going to prison," he asserted defiantly. "And if I'm going to die, then I'm taking as many of you with me as I can. So, what's it going to be? Either I walk out of here, or a whole lot of people are going to die. Who knows, maybe your cop buddy over there will pick up a stray bullet, even if he is in a coma. And wouldn't that be appropriate? I mean, he's the one who got this whole mess started in the first place -- the lousy pig!"

As he talked, Albright had been trying to edge closer to the emergency exit located behind the nurses' station. Getraer snapped an expletive in the privacy of his own mind, then signaled to MacDonald with his eyes. Mac shrugged, and Getraer reluctantly admitted that his fellow sergeant was right about their lack of options.

If he gets out that door, one of two things is going to happen, he thought. Either Jon and Ponch are going to have to do a take-down and risk Jamie's life, or else they'll let Albright walk.

And either way, Jamie doesn't stand a chance.

Despite Getraer's gloomy predictions, there was about to be another twist to the hostage drama. He and his fellow police officers may have underestimated Harrison Albright, but then again, Albright had made a few serious miscalculations of his own. As any hero of Celtic legend could have told him, it was never a wise idea to leave an irate Irishwoman out of one's battle plans.

A fact that the luckless Albright was about to discover for himself.

While he'd been busy presenting the police officers with his list of demands, Deirdre had quietly edged her way into place behind him. She held something behind her back, and her smile was knife-edged.

"Ah, Mr. Albright, it's a naughty boy you've been, I'm thinking," she said calmly. "And even if you'd been as pure-hearted as a wee angel, it's not likely Santa Claus will be able to find you over there in one of those heathenish countries. So perhaps I should give you a present from Jamie and me right now. Just as soon as she's done with her 'fainting' spell, that is."

"What the. . .?" Albright tried to spin around to face this latest threat.

A task that was considerably easier at the planning stage than the actual operations level. Without warning, Jamie went limp in a simulated faint, and he suddenly found himself trying to support one hundred and ten pounds with one hand. His arm shook violently from the effort, and the gun wavered in his other hand as he struggled to maintain control of the situation.

He started to pull the trigger, but before his finger could tighten down on it, three things happened in rapid succession. In a move that was almost faster than the eye could follow, Deirdre brought the object out from behind her back. She let out a jubilant whoop and then sent a heavy metal bedpan crashing down onto the top of Albright's head.

The bedpan bounced off his skull with a sound that was remarkably similar to a pumpkin falling out of a two story window. Albright screeched in rage, and as he staggered backward, his hold on Jamie's neck was loosened. Seeing her chance, she bit down hard on his wrist, and he let out another shriek, then dropped the gun.

The revolver skittered across the tile floor and came to a stop halfway between Albright and Getraer. Harrison scrambled to retrieve his weapon, but blood from his lacerated scalp almost blinded him and slowed him down. Getraer and MacDonald both lunged for the weapon, but even with a slight advantage, they knew that they would never reach it in time.

Albright snarled triumphantly as he swooped down on the gun and started to pick it up. Before he could retrieve it, a second mighty whack with the bedpan sent him stumbling back against the desk, and he grabbed it for support. He tottered for a second or two, but it appeared that he would remain upright.

Then, without warning, his left foot suddenly flew out from under him, and he tumbled backward. He fell heavily to the floor, while every seam of his trousers shrieked a protest at the added strain, and shirt buttons rained down on the tiles like hail.

The last time I heard that much material being ripped apart was when Grandma was getting ready to braid a rag rug, Getraer shook his head. Come to think about it, there's probably enough fabric in those slacks for wall to wall carpet!

Albright was too dazed to move for a few seconds, but he recovered just enough to cringe as Deirdre glared at him. She kicked the gun over to MacDonald, then stood watchfully above Albright until the officers could handcuff him. She proudly brandished the bedpan, and Getraer briefly considered writing an epic poem to commemorate the occasion.

I could call it "The Battle of Finnegan's Bedpan," he nodded to himself. Not quite the same ring as "Cooley's Cattle Raid," but not bad. Not bad at all!

He chuckled at that thought, then took out his handcuffs and bent down over Albright. As far as Joe could tell, there had been absolutely no reason for him to fall at that time and place. . . but then again, he'd learned not to question a quiet little miracle when he saw one, either.

He rolled Albright face down and quickly snapped the restraints around his wrists. MacDonald waited until Joe was done, then hauled his prisoner up by the collar of his suit coat and began to read him his rights.

"You have the right to remain silent," he snapped at Albright, and his face was livid from anger and exertion. "And I think it'd be a real good idea if you used it, too."

MacDonald started to drag the limp, unresisting man down to Reed and Malloy's waiting squad car. But before they had taken more than few steps, Albright's suspenders chose that moment to resign from what had obviously been a thankless job. The tattered remains of his trousers fluttered down around his ankles -- only to reveal a pair of red silk boxer shorts.

By itself, the sight of Albright's pudgy frame in red silk undies would have been enough to send even Ebenezer Scrooge into gales of laughter. But this particular pair of boxer shorts had been hand-embroidered with white hearts, and the words "Love from Mother" were prominently stitched just below the waistband.

A roar of laughter went through the ICU and brought the other police officers running in from the stairwells. Mike Lighthorse had also recovered, and now he called out to Albright in what was arguably the worst Mexican accent that Getraer had ever heard outside of a "Cisco Kid" movie.

"Hey, senor, I theenk you forgeet your pantaloons," the agent grinned. "I theenk you forgeet your bedpan, too. And if you make the nice Senorita nurse lady loco again, you gonna need it!"

His wry humor and bad accent were enough to ignite another firestorm of laughter, and it was several more minutes before anyone could stop giggling. Jamie was the first to recover, and she thumbed in the direction of the parking lot, where Mac and the others were loading Albright into a squad car.

"Albright. . .was. . .right," she finally managed to gasp. "On both accounts!"

"Jamie, are you sure you're all right?" Getraer frowned in concern.

"No, Sarge, I haven't gone off the deep end," she snorted. "He said that either he walked out of here, or else a lot of people were going to die. What he didn't tell us was that we were all going to die laughing when he did it!"

Her comment set off a third fit of giggles, and by the time it was over, Bonnie Clark helplessly clutched Jon Baker's arm for support. Grossman held his aching sides, and Ponch blew his nose loudly, then wiped his streaming eyes. Even Deirdre's fair complexion had taken on an alarming brick red hue, and she was draped over the desk in a perfect imitation of a limp dishrag.

Gradually, the laughter died down, and the ICU was restored to some semblance of its usual peace and quiet. Mike Lighthorse was the first to be able to speak, but Getraer suspected that embarrassment, not laughter, was the reason that his face had taken on a deeper hue of copper.

"Forget it, Mike," Getraer held up a hand before the DEA agent could stammer an apology. "It's Christmas time. Let's just chalk this one off as a holiday miracle and not worry about anything else, OK?"

"Thanks, Joe," he said simply. "I knew better, but I still let Albright get under my skin there for a minute. I guess that just goes to prove that nobody is perfect."

"No, we're not -- thank God," Getraer ignored his officers' raised eyebrows and confused looks. "If I've learned anything in the past few weeks, it's to accept myself and everybody else, imperfections and all."

"Bear taught me that a few years ago," Baker said, and as always, the others turned their full attention to the soft-spoken officer. "We were out at the Bariczas' airstrip one Saturday. We'd spent all afternoon working on an old Travel Air, and I was getting frustrated because I couldn't get everything just exactly according to specs. Bear grinned at me and said, 'Jon, all that plane has to do is stay in the air while I'm in it. It doesn't have to impress every single pigeon in Los Angeles County with how perfectly the engine is running!'"

"Only Baricza," Joe chuckled at the mental image of pigeons carrying score cards. "But he's right. This may not be a perfect world, but it's still a pretty darned good one, and I intend to enjoy every minute of it to the fullest!"

"That's great," Lighthorse gave Getraer one of those deep-eyed smiles, then gestured toward the door. "And speaking of Albright, I'm going to take off. I need to be there when they question him. Joe, everyone -- it's been good to meet you. Good night, and a merry Christmas to all of you. And somehow, I think it really is going to be merry for you, too."

He slipped out of ICU so quickly that the CHP officers barely had time to return the holiday greetings. Getraer smiled to himself, then turned around, intending to make sure that Jamie and Deirdre were recovering from their ordeal. But when he glanced at the red-haired nurse, he saw that she was staring at the floor with a puzzled frown.

"And speaking of miracles, I wonder why Albright just slipped and fell like that?" Deirdre shrugged. "At least he got one thing right when he tried to copy the Sassenagh -- you have to hit him between the eyes with a sledge hammer just to get his attention! Surely that dainty little tap that I gave him wasn't enough to send him sprawling. And him with the size of an ox on him!"

"I think I know why he slipped," Bonnie knelt down and inspected a small crimson smear on the gray tiles, then picked up a small object that had been flattened under Albright's shoe. "But I wonder where it came from and why it just happened to be right where it would do the most good? I don't see any plants or decorations that it could have fallen off."

Getraer inspected the little pellet that she handed to him, then nodded knowingly to himself. He had a very good idea of where it might have come from, but he chose to say nothing. Instead, he gave his fellow officers a mysterious smile and then pocketed the crushed holly berry.

"It's Christmas time," he repeated. "It's the season for magic and miracles. Let's not question them, OK?"

"Sarge, are you sure you're all right?" Grossman asked with a worried frown.

But before the sergeant could reply, the peace and quiet of ICU was once more shattered -- this time, by a resounding crash from the opposite side of the hallway. It was followed by a second loud thump and then a third, much as if someone was throwing every object within grabbing distance against the wall.

"That sounds like it's coming from Baricza's room!" Ponch called over his shoulder as he and the others scrambled for Baricza's cubicle. "So help me, if one of Albright's people managed to sneak past us and hurt Bear again, I'm going to break somebody in half!"

"Take a number and get in line, Poncherello," Getraer snapped. "And the line forms right behind your sergeant, I might add!"

It only took a few seconds for them to converge on the cubicle, but by that time, Turner had already dashed past the canvas curtains. He and several members of the ICU staff stood inside the room. . .and to a person, they all wore wide grins. Turner winked broadly at Getraer, then stepped aside so that his fellow officers could get a glimpse of the room's occupant.

Baricza's broken jaw may still have been wired shut, but there was no way to disguise the look of disgust in his brown eyes. He had somehow managed to pull himself into an upright position, and now Getraer and the others understood the source of those thuds and crashes.

His aim was reasonably accurate, but his throwing arm was still too shaky to do any real damage, and the plastic water pitcher bounced harmlessly off the window. It was enough to disturb the air, however, and the little yellow balloon went into a frenzy of motion. It bobbed wildly on its long string, then settled down again until Baricza's next assault on its health and well-being.

Getraer managed to edge his way through the crowd, intending to calm down his 'distraught' officer. But before he could say anything, Baricza pointed imperiously at the pencil and small pad of paper in the sergeant's shirt pocket.

"Take it easy, Barry," Getraer said as he held out the pad of paper. "It's just a little decoration to cheer you up -- nothing to be worried about. Right now, I want you to lie back down and let the doctors take a look at you."

For one of the few times in his life, Baricza disobeyed a direct order from his sergeant. And if the aggravated officer could have made a sound, Getraer knew that he would have just been the recipient of the world's loudest, "Hmmph!"

Instead, Baricza was forced to satisfy himself with writing his message, and for a few seconds, the pencil flew across the paper. When he was done, he held out the notebook so that Getraer could see it. The printing was a little wobbly, but there was absolutely no way to mistake the indignation behind it.

"'I know WHAT it is, Sarge!'" he read Baricza's words aloud. "I was unconscious, not lost out in Dumbville. But what I do want to know is. . .WHO PUT THAT BLANKETY-BLANK THING IN MY ROOM IN THE FIRST PLACE???'"

With that, the Rampart staff and the other CHP officers once again broke into laughter -- particularly Bonnie Clark. When she knew that she had Baricza's attention, she stared up at the ceiling in an elaborate show of innocence. He rolled his eyes in mock disgust, then allowed Deirdre and the others to help him into a more comfortable position.

His eyes slowly drifted shut, but this time, it was into a peaceful sleep that would do more than all the medicines in the world to heal his injured body. Getraer gestured at Jon and the others to follow him into the corridor so that the doctors and nurses would have enough room to work.

And for a moment, they stood together in the hallway, all trying to talk at once. Ponch teased Bonnie about the balloon, while Turner traded insults with Grossman about Plutarch. Only Jon Baker stood to one side, and like Getraer, he seemed to be trying to permanently fix the scene in his mind.

The sergeant had seen a similar scenario played out dozens of times in the corridors of Central, but today, something about the laughter and jokes brought a lump to his throat. He stepped back and closed his eyes, and once again, he could picture the little Nativity scene sitting beside Baricza's bed.

Now I know what Miklós really meant, he closed his eyes again for a moment. He's right, and we are all lovers and children at Christmas. That's because You sent us Your Love in the form of a child. . .and love is the greatest miracle of all.

When he looked up, he found himself gazing into a pair of quiet blue eyes that had seen much of the horror that the human race could inflict on itself and yet still managed to retain their compassion for that same humanity. Jon Baker smiled at him, and the Vietnam veteran nodded fondly at his fellow officers.

"It is like magic, isn't it, Joe?" he said quietly so that the others couldn't hear him. "And I'm not just talking about Bear coming out of the coma, either. Every day that we get to spend here with our family and friends is like being handed a miracle. Nobody knows that better than someone who's come within a few inches of losing his life. . .or his faith."

"Amen to that, Jon," Getraer nodded fervently. "Amen to that."

And for the second time that day, the scene in front of him seemed to be bathed in a misty glow. But this time, there was no question in his mind about whether the haze was in his own eyes or not.

No question at all.

******

Christmas Eve might have been an unorthodox time for a cook-out and "Welcome Home" party. But none of the CHP officers who laughed and joked with each other in the Bariczas' back yard that afternoon seemed to mind the unusually chilly temperatures and overcast skies.

Clouds of fragrant hickory smoke rose from the barbeque grill where Pete and Joe tended thick steaks and slabs of juicy ribs. Both men wore jackets, and from time to time, one of the other guests would linger long enough to check on the progress of dinner and warm their hands over the coals.

Children chased each other through the yard with squeals of pre-Christmas excitement, and in one corner of the yard, someone had set up a volleyball net. A lively game was in progress, but play was occasionally halted to accommodate a fit of giggles whenever gloved hands sent the ball off in a different direction than the player had intended.

Each time, the ball seemed to head unerringly for the deck, and Dave McPherson was usually the one who returned the serve from his wheelchair. Getraer smiled when he saw the how the dispatcher trainee laughed and teased as he joined in the fun.

He was never really happy as a car cop, Getraer thought as he took a sip of coffee from an insulated mug. He's going to make a great dispatcher, though. So it looks like everything is going to work out for the best.

In fact, that was only one of the many good things that had happened around Central in the past few weeks. The officer accused of taking bribes had been cleared of all wrongdoing, and the wife of the man charged with domestic violence had recanted her story on the witness stand.

The three motor officers who'd been injured in LOD accidents were now among the most active of the volleyball players. And according to the latest word from the District Attorney's office, Timothy Caldwell and both of the Albrights were definitely headed for long prison terms.

All in all, I think we've got a pretty good forecast for a merry Christmas! Getraer smiled quietly to himself.

Well. . .almost, anyway. Baricza had been released from the hospital four days ago, but the left side of his body still wasn't responding to therapy in the way that the doctors had hoped.

Slurred speech, impaired vision in one eye, partial paralysis, Getraer ran through the catalogue of symptoms with a weary nod. And the worst part is that they can't find a reason for it. At least not physically, anyway.

Baricza wore a smile as he sat on the deck beside McPherson and watched the volleyball game, but even at a distance of fifteen feet, Getraer could see the sadness behind that cheerful expression. His head was tilted at a slight angle so that he could watch the action with his good eye, and he clutched the arm of his wheelchair with his stronger hand just to keep himself upright.

The cuts and bruises were almost gone, but Joe had a hunch that the worst injuries weren't the kind that could be treated with antiseptics and bandages. Bear's powerful shoulders were slumped in defeat, and his whole body seemed to be tightly curled around an inner core of pain. But he hadn't shared his feelings with anyone, and Getraer knew that there were some places in the human heart and soul where not even a sergeant dared to trespass.

Pete had been basting the ribs with barbeque sauce, but he looked up when he heard Joe's sigh. He glanced in the same direction as Getraer, then correctly guessed the reason for the other man's worried expression.

"He'll bounce back, Joe," Pete said. "He's a Baricza, and we're as tough as it gets."

Sure, you are, Pete! Getraer carefully hid his smile so that the other man couldn't see it. These steaks should be as 'tough' as you and Barry!

Pete walked over to the picnic table and rummaged among its contents, looking for another bottle of barbeque sauce. He shook his head in annoyance when he didn't find one, then started to walk back to the kitchen. But Getraer saw how the Korean War veteran was limping from old injuries and the cold weather, and he gestured toward the house with the dripping spatula.

"Hang on, and I'll go get some more barbeque sauce," he handed the utensil to Pete. "Vera still keeps it in the pantry, doesn't she?"

"Top shelf, behind the pickles," Pete said as he pulled up a chair and then sat down with a grateful sigh. "Just keep an eye out for the womenfolk while you're in the house, that's all. It's safer to step between a mama tiger and her cubs than it is to interrupt a bunch of women while they're shopping!"

"Isn't that the truth," Getraer nodded knowingly. "I'll be back in a few minutes, and if I'm not, call out the Marines to come in after me."

"Forget it, buddy," Pete shook his head. "There are some things that not even the Marines will tackle, and a Tupperware party is one of them!"

Getraer was still chuckling to himself as he walked into the house. Like everything else about the Baricza home, the kitchen was comfortably cluttered, and he had to move the vacuum cleaner and an assortment of grocery bags just to reach the pantry. He finally located the bottle of barbeque sauce, then turned around and started to go outside.

But before he could take more than a few steps, the front doorbell shrilled loudly, and he hesitated. The Tupperware party was in full swing out in the sunroom, and he doubted that Vera could hear the doorbell above all the laughter and voices -- Mrs. Sanchez's among them.

Getraer chuckled as he put the bottle of sauce down on the table and made his way to the front of the house. When he reached the living room, he threaded his way through a collection of overstuffed furniture from the '40s, then walked to the front door. There was no peephole, so he unlocked the door and cautiously opened it. . .

. . .only to find himself looking into a pair of blue eyes that were as clear and warm as an August sky. Miklós smiled at him, and Getraer automatically returned the wordless greeting. But with the practiced eye of a cop, he had again recorded every detail of the other man's appearance.

Despite the variations in Grossman and Poncherello's descriptions, Miklós looked the same as he had at the hospital. The only difference in his appearance was that the hunter green suit had been replaced by its maroon twin, and he now carried a cane with a gleaming gold handle. He balanced a large metal clipboard with a thick sheaf of paper, and he consulted it several times while he waited for Joe to greet him.

And as he stood there, the sun chose that moment to peep out from behind the clouds. Getraer's eyes must have been playing tricks on him because it seemed that Miklós' white hair gathered all of the light to itself, forming a golden nimbus around his head. The sight was particularly impressive against the backdrop of dark gray clouds, and for a moment, the sergeant could only stare in wonder.

At last, Miklós cleared his throat gently and glanced at the grandfather clock in the foyer. At the same time, the sun disappeared behind the clouds again, and together, the two things were enough to bring Getraer out of his trance.

"Mr. Miklós!" he shook the cobwebs from his mind, then smiled warmly at this most unexpected of guests. "It's good to see you again, sir! Won't you come in? The Bariczas are having a 'Welcome Home' party for Barry, and I know they'd love to have you join us."

"Ah, Joe, thank you, but I just wanted to stop by and give Barry something," Miklós returned the smile. "I'd left it for him at the hospital, but one of the nurses stopped me this morning and told me that they'd found this under the bed. They were going to mail it to him, but since Pieter and I were in the neighborhood, we decided to drop it off so that he'd have it in time for Christmas."

For the first time, Getraer noticed the bright red Cadillac parked at the end of the driveway. Schwartz sat in the front passenger seat next to what was definitely the shortest chauffeur that Joe had ever seen. Both men waved when they saw that he was staring at them, then turned back to the large map that they had been consulting.

Miklós cleared his throat again, and once more, Getraer shook himself awake. He took the brown paper bag from the other man, then recoiled when something inside the parcel began to buzz like an angry wasp.

Now he remembered the toy police car that had been sitting on the end of Baricza's bed, and it occurred to him that someone must have partially wound up the toy. When he'd taken it from Miklós, he'd probably bumped the lever that activated the mechanism.

"I see Miss Finnegan couldn't resist playing with the little car before she returned it," Miklós said with a fatherly smile. "But no one is ever too old for toys, I suppose -- especially not at Christmas. As I told you before, Joe, we're all children and lovers at this time of the year. And I think you've learned that for yourself, haven't you?

"That I have, Mr. Miklós," Getraer nodded fervently. "That, I have."

"I thought so," he replied. "Pieter felt that was the case, and he's seldom wrong about these things. At any rate, I have a number of other stops to make this evening, and I'd appreciate it if you'd give that package to Barry. As I understand it, his recovery isn't going as well as hoped, and I thought that a little souvenir from his childhood might cheer him up. As I'm sure you've realized, he's been fighting quite a battle against anger and bitterness."

"That makes a lot of sense," Joe nodded. "Cops are used to people hating us, but it's usually impersonal. We're just the faceless irritation that pulled you over and spoiled your day with a traffic ticket. But what the Albrights did to Barry was unspeakable, and when you're as tender-hearted as he is, that kind of personal hatred must be tough to handle. Sometimes I'm not sure why he even wanted to be a cop in the first place. He would've probably been a lot happier as a social worker."

"I don't mean to argue with you, Joe, but that's precisely the reason that he is such a good police officer," Miklós said. "Under ordinary circumstances, he can balance his emotions and his logic in a way that most of us can't. That's an excellent skill for someone in your field because it allows him to be both empathetic and scrupulously fair in any given situation."

He paused long enough to let Getraer absorb that idea, then added, "You see, most of us can either understand someone or love that person, but we can seldom do both at the same time. That's why Pieter and I work so well together -- he understands the children, and I simply love them. But our Barry has a rare gift for knowing why people do all the terrible things that they do, and yet he still cares about them in spite of it."

"Until now, anyway," Joe said. "His heart and his mind must be at war with each other because of what was done to him, and his body is paying the price. Until he can forgive the Albrights, he may never get any better."

"Exactly," Miklós' smile was tinged with weariness, and for a fraction of a second, his eyes seemed to hold all the sorrow in the world. "Joe, this tired old planet of ours can't afford to lose a man like Barry. I think you know that even better than most people do. Something has to be done and done soon."

But then the fleeting sadness disappeared, and once again, his expression was warm and tender. He gestured at the package and smiled again. "Tell him that I said to read the gift tag and believe."

The toy's motor stopped buzzing as suddenly as it had started, and Joe glanced down at it to make sure that it hadn't somehow gotten stuck. When he looked up again, he intended to ask Miklós a question about the mysterious message. . .but instead, he found himself staring at an impossibly empty porch.

He caught a flash of movement at the end of the long driveway, and he turned his head just as the Cadillac pulled away. He saw one last glimpse of Miklós' shining blue eyes as the rear window slid shut, and the older man raised his hand in what might have been a farewell or a blessing.

When the car reached the end of the block, the chauffeur waved at Joe, then lightly tapped the horn. But the sound that emerged wasn't the usual obnoxious blare or some tinny-sounding melody that set one's teeth on edge. For a moment, the cold, crisp December air was filled with the opening strains of "White Christmas," a song that seldom failed to make Getraer wipe his eyes and then blame it on his allergies.

And as the Cadillac turned the corner, he caught a brief glimpse of the oddest set of tags that he had ever seen. He thought he knew almost all of the license plate designs in the United States, but even if he had been able to get a closer look, he wasn't sure that he would have recognized that one.

What was the funny-looking brown thing on that tag -- some kind of elk or moose, maybe? he thought as he closed the door again. And why did it have a big red blob in the middle of it?

He was still shaking his head as he made his way through the house, and he walked past the bottle of barbeque sauce without seeing it. The sensation of being awake and yet still dreaming was back, and as he stepped outside, not even the sharp bite of the wind was enough to disturb him.

He walked back over to the grill, and Pete automatically reached out to take the bottle of barbeque sauce. Getraer was oblivious to the meaning of that outstretched hand, however, and he smiled blankly as he sat down beside Pete.

"What's the matter, Joe?" he asked. "Couldn't you find the barbeque sauce, or did Vera say that we don't have any more? If that's the case, maybe we can talk Jon or Artie into running up to that little convenience store on the corner. It's probably the closest place that's still open on Christmas Eve."

"Huh?" Getraer shook his head before he realized what the topic of conversation was. "Oh, sorry, Pete. Yeah, there was another bottle in the pantry, but I walked off and completely forgot about it."

"How can you forget the only thing you went inside to get?" Pete teased, but then he frowned when he saw the paper bag in Joe's hand. "What've you got there -- a Tupperware Rutabaga Keeper? Good grief, don't tell me that the gals kidnapped you and initiated you into the mysteries of the hen party!"

"No, thank goodness!" he snorted wryly. "Just a Christmas present for Barry from our friend, Mr. Miklós. He dropped it off a few minutes ago and asked me to give it to him."

He'd originally planned to hand the package to Bear and let him explain it to the others, if he chose. But he was moved by a sudden inner compulsion, and he leaned forward so that no one else could hear what he was about to ask.

"Miklós left a message with the gift," he asked. "He said something about remembering the bells and believing. Does that mean anything to you?"

"Yeah, it does," Pete answered without hesitation, and his expression was wistful. "Barry must've told him about that. Parents usually want to remember the holidays with their kids, but that was one Christmas Eve that I've always wished I could forget. Barry had just turned five in October, and the wisenheimer kid next door just had to make sure that he knew that there was no Santa Claus. It upset Vera a lot worse than it did me. . .I mean, he was plenty old enough to know the truth."

I wouldn't be so sure about that particular 'truth,' Pete, Getraer thought mildly.

"Vera was singing in the Christmas Eve service, but Barry had a bad cold, and she didn't want to take him out of the house," Pete went on. "He loved to go to church and see baby Jesus in the manger and listen to the Christmas carols. So when he found out that he had to stay at home that night, he was really upset. He curled up under the Mighty Mouse quilt that his Grandma had made him for his birthday, and he wouldn't come out of his bedroom for anything. Not even for a glass of eggnog and some of Mama's sugar cookies. And when that kid wouldn't drink eggnog, I should've known something was really wrong."

Getraer grimaced at even the mention of the 'E' word, then said, "Then what happened?"

"I was sitting downstairs, dreading the idea of putting that stupid bicycle together after he finally fell asleep," he said. "He'd been up in his room for about an hour, and then all of a sudden, he came running down the steps. He had the biggest grin on his face, and he looked like someone had just given him the best present of all."

Now it was Pete's turn to wince, and it was a few seconds before he could go on. "I asked him why he was so happy, and he said that Jimmy Dobson was wrong and there really was a Santa Claus. He told me that Santa had waved to him as he drove by and that he'd heard sleigh bells, too."

Something about the casual phrase 'drove by' sent a shiver down Joe's neck, and he tried with only moderate success to convince himself that it was because he was sitting in a draft. He loosened his shirt collar against the heat from the barbeque grill, then nodded at Pete to continue.

"I told him that he must've imagined all of that, but he insisted that he really did see Santa and hear the bells," Pete leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. "I should have known better than to push the issue. I mean, Barry was like all kids, and he had his faults. But lying to his parents was never one of them. It didn't even occur to me until later that he might have seen someone dressed up in a Santa outfit driving by on his way to a party."

"That's one possibility, Pete," Getraer nodded -- although he could think of other less rational explanations.

"Well, it turned into a battle of wills, and that's one war I wasn't about to win, either," Pete said. "You've got kids, Joe, so you know what I mean. I was in a whale of a mood because I'd put in a hard day out at the airstrip. And I knew it was going to be three or four o'clock in the morning before I got that bicycle put together and finally dragged my fanny up to bed."

"Sounds about right to me," Joe nodded, thinking of the model train set that he still had to assemble at home that night. "And then you have to get up in a couple of hours and try to look like you're enjoying all the festivities."

"Finally, I told him that if he didn't tell Daddy the truth, I was going to spank him," Pete reluctantly confessed. "But he still wouldn't admit that he'd made the whole thing up, and I could see how bad it hurt him that I didn't believe him. And when he looked at you with those big brown eyes full of tears, it'd just about rip the heart out of a rock. But not that night -- oh, no, not Pete Baricza."

His voice cracked, and it was a moment before he could go on. "See, I was on my high horse about the 'lying,' and I wasn't paying any attention to anything else. Including the fact that he could hardly breathe without coughing and especially not when he was crying so hard."

"Ouch," Getraer said quietly.

"Yeah, that pretty well covers the subject, Joe, " he sighed. "I spanked him and put him to bed without reading The Night Before Christmas to him like we did every year. He was still crying when Vera got home, and when she found out what had happened, she lit into me, but good. She said that Barry was sick and he'd been already upset by that big-mouthed Jimmy Dobson. She called me a hard-hearted SOB and told me that I wasn't fit to have kids -- let alone a good little guy like the one who was up there crying his heart out because he loved his daddy so much. I mean, she really read me the riot act that night."

Once again, Getraer said nothing, but his sympathetic expression gave Pete enough encouragement to go on. He took a deep, shuddering breath, and his eyes were fierce as he stared down at the deck.

"And the worst part of it was that she was absolute right," he said with a bitter smile. "That little boy sobbed for another two hours until he finally cried himself to sleep. By the time that morning rolled around, he had a fever of a hundred and four. We spent Christmas in the Pediatric ward at St. Anthony's while they pumped him full of antibiotics and tried to keep him breathing. That 'cold' was actually pneumonia, and he almost didn't make it."

The intense expression suddenly crumpled, and Pete's eyes were filled with hard tears. "Joe, that's all I could think about when we were sitting there at Rampart, right after the accident last month. Not again -- please, dear God, not another Christmas that I might lose my boy."

There was no way that Barry could have heard his father's quiet groan, especially not above the shrieks of happy children and the shouts of the volleyball players. Nevertheless, he pivoted the wheelchair as well as he could with one hand and looked toward Pete. The older man tried to wave and smile, but even at that distance, his brave expression wasn't enough to fool his son.

Bear made his way across the deck with painful slowness, pausing every three feet or so to rest. At last, he stopped in front of Pete and Joe, and his forehead was furrowed as he tried to read their expressions. Getraer sighed again when he saw the anger and hopelessness in Bear's eyes -- a far cry from his usual cheerful smile.

Miklós is absolutely right, he thought. Barry's body isn't going to heal as long as his heart is still hurting.

But there was one lighter note among the gloom, and it came from an unexpected source. This was the first time that he'd had the chance to inspect the tattered old quilt that barely covered Baricza's long legs, and he would have been willing to bet that there was a certain cartoon rodent on the other side of that faded plaid backing.

Bear looked up and saw the hint of a smile that touched the corners of Joe's mouth. He may not have understood how Getraer knew about the quilt, but he recognized that teasing half-smile when he saw it, and he rolled his eyes in mock-annoyance.

He sighed loudly enough to rattle the last leaves on the trees and gave the sergeant a look that clearly said, 'You do know you're being a great big oumethaune, don't you?' Pete saw Getraer's bemused expression and guessed its cause, then reached for the barbeque tongs to hide a grin of his own.

However, a muscle spasm in his back almost doubled him over, and it was a moment before he recovered enough to straighten up. Bear tried to support his father with one hand on Pete's shoulder, but without warning, his own weakened arm buckled under the extra strain.

He cried out at the stab of pain that went through his bandaged ribs, and he clutched his side until he could breathe normally again. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, then glanced furtively toward Getraer to see if the sergeant had noticed the single tear that trickled down his face.

The answer to that question was obviously "Yes," and he tried to divert attention away from himself and onto Pete as quickly as possible. But the added stress made his speech even more slurred, and he frequently hesitated between words as if he couldn't always find the one that he wanted.

"Whass. . .matter?" he asked anxiously. "Mom. . .was right. Should have waited for this. . .'til better weather. How bad. . .is your back. . .hurting you?"

"Hey, don't you worry about your old man," Pete stood up with a show of bravado. "There may be snow on the roof, but there's still plenty of. . ."

"Fire in the furnace," Bear rolled his eyes in mock disgust. "Gotta get you. . .some new material. Your jokes are staler. . .than lass year's Chrissmas cookies. Almos' as bad. . .as listening to Grossie read. . .that Plutarch guy for hours. If you're not in a coma. . .when he starts. . .you will be. . .by the time he's done!"

Getraer threw his head back in laughter, and Barry gave him a lop-sided grin before he noticed the package in Joe's hand. He nodded at it, and there was a wicked sparkle in his eyes.

"Whas that, Joe?" he asked with dubious innocence. "Somebody give you. . a nice big fruitcake. . .for Chrissmas?"

Getraer's groaned and looked up at the sky as if appealing for divine intervention. "No, actually it's a present for you. Your friend, Mr. Miklós, stopped by and left it for you."

"Nice guy," he nodded. "Met him at St. Anthony's. . .that year I was so sick. You remember that, Pop?"

"As if I could ever forget it," Pete grumbled under his breath, then added, "You never told us about this guy, Barry."

"Never thought 'bout it," Bear said. "Figured you an' Mom. . .already knew him. He sure keeps tabs. . . on you two. Still see him. . .every once in awhile. Always seems to know. . .when I need to talk."

He reached out to take the package from Joe, but it skittered out of his hand and landed against the deck. Shame fought with anger in his face as he tried to lean forward and pick up the parcel. But his balance was too uncertain, and only Getraer's well-timed grab for his shoulder kept him from tumbling out of the wheelchair.

"Easy, Barry!" Joe steadied him for a moment until he could sit upright without assistance. "Here, let me get that for you. I know that left hand is giving you problems."

"Thanks," Baricza muttered as he took the parcel from him. "Maybe I should ask. . .the Albrights. . .to hit me again. You know. . .jus' to even out the damage. . .on both sides."

He smiled cynically and then unwrapped the package, balancing it with his good hand and trying to unfasten the string with the weaker one. And as a result, he didn't see the worried looks that passed between Joe and Pete as they watched him struggling with what should have been the simplest of tasks. He gritted his teeth in irritation, and bits of paper littered the deck as he took out his frustration on the wrapping.

The doctors said that his moods would probably fluctuate while he was recuperating, but I wouldn't exactly call this a mood 'swing,'  Getraer watched as Baricza continued to demolish the paper with unnecessary vehemence. More like a seesaw. . .up one minute, and down the next!

At last, Bear managed to undo the parcel, and as he reached inside it, he wore the happy expression of a child on Christmas morning. He took the little wind-up car out of the brown paper, and his eyes were full of surprise and delight. He clutched the toy against his chest for a moment, but neither Pete nor Joe noticed that he held it securely with his left hand.

"Look, Pop!  It's like the one. . .you an' Mom gave me," he grinned. "When I was there. . .in St. Anthony's. 'Cause I told you. . .that I wanted to be a cop. . .when I grew up."

"Let me see that," Pete took it from him, then whistled softly. "Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle! You're right, son -- it is just like the one you had when you were little. That's the one that Jimmy Dobson broke the next year at Christmas because he was mad at you. He started in with that 'no Santa Claus' bit again, and you told him that he was a liar."

"Yeah, thas. . .the one," Bear said between gasps. "You tried to fix it. . .but it wouldn't run. Finally had. . .to throw it away."

"That's not the only thing that I tried to fix but couldn't," Pete said under his breath, then started to hand the car back to Barry. "And as I recall, you didn't exactly get rid of it the same day. One of your college roommates came back to the dorm drunk as a skunk and knocked it off your bookshelf. Then he tripped over it and smashed it flat. And that's when it 'finally' got thrown away!"

As he reached out to take the toy back from his father, Bear wore a charmingly sheepish expression. But as his fingers closed over the little car, something on its underside caught Pete's attention, and he took it back. He turned it upside down, then inspected the black paint carefully. He shook his head, and when he looked up at the other two men, he wore a stunned expression.

"Whas. . .matter, Pop?" Barry frowned at his father. "Something wrong?"

"You aren't going to believe this!" he said. "Remember how the nurses told us to put your name on any of your toys that we brought to the hospital so they wouldn't get lost? But you were afraid that if we put tape on it, the paint would come off and ruin your 'powice' car. So I took an old scratch awl and carved your name on the bottom, out of sight. And will you just take a look at this!"

He held out the toy so that Barry could see it, and it was his turn to shake his head in confusion. Joe looked down at the underside of the car, then raised an eyebrow. The scratches had been shiny once, and even though the tiny letters were now pitted with rust, they were still legible -- "B. Baricza."

"Do you think it could. . .but how. . .?" Bear stammered. "Leo did flatten mine. . .an' I finally threw it away. So how could this be. . .the same one that I had. . .when I was little?"

"Son, what are the odds that a whole lot of these things have survived over the years?" Pete shook his head in awe. "They weren't very expensive to begin with, and I imagine most of them got broken and ended up being pitched in the trash. And even if this Mr. Miklós did somehow know that your name was on the bottom of the original one, those letters couldn't have rusted out overnight."

He took a closer look at the lettering, then pointed at something that he hadn't noticed before. "Take a look at that 'R,' will you? See how wobbly it is? I was just about to write that letter when your mom walked into the waiting room with some lunch that she'd just gotten for us down in the cafeteria. She tripped over a corner of the rug and dumped hot coffee all over my leg. I jumped about a foot, and the awl slipped. This one has to be yours, Barry. I mean, what else could it be?"

Getraer made a small noise, and the Bariczas, père et fils, suddenly seemed to remember that he was standing there. Pete smiled at Joe in embarrassment, then gestured at the wind-up toy. Once again, he seemed to be staring across the years at a very different kind of Christmas, and he sighed as he turned the steaks again.

"Barry went into convulsions from the fever at one point," he quietly explained to Getraer. "He was unconscious after that and didn't wake up for almost two days. But when he finally did come out of it, all he'd talk about was wanting to be a policeman. They had those little wind-up police cars in the hospital gift shop, and Vera bought one for him. It was his favorite toy."

"Until I grew up," Bear winked. "Then it came in third. . .right after girls an' real cars. But it was still. . .a close contest."

Pete laughed, but when he looked at Getraer, his expression was serious again. "We asked him how he knew what he wanted to be, and he said that the shiny man told him that he was going to be a policeman when he grew up. Even when he got older, the guidance counselors tried to get him to think about other careers, but his mind was made up. Stubborn -- just like his old man."

"Did you ever find out who the 'shiny man' was?" Getraer asked, then held his breath as he waited for the answer.

 "We never did figure out who he was talking about," Pete shook his head. "We just thought he'd dreamed it, that's all."

Suddenly, Getraer could picture Miklós as he'd stood there on the front porch, his white hair shimmering in the sunlight. And just as before, he could think of a less logical -- but infinitely more satisfying -- explanation for Barry's encounter.

"I didn't dream it," Bear shook his head, then added firmly, "Jus' like I didn't. . .imagine the bells. . .that Chrissmas Eve, either."

"You never have forgiven me for that, have you, son?" Pete shook his head in remorse.

"Forgave you. . .a long time ago," he tried to smile at his father. "Talked to Grandma. . .when I got out of the hospital. I was still pretty mad at you. . .an' hurt 'cause you didn't believe me."

"I remember that, too," the elder Baricza sighed again. "You wouldn't talk to me for days after we brought you home."

"I couldn't. . .talk to you," Bear's eyes were full of sadness. "Still hurt too much. Felt like. . .the words were stuck. . .in my throat. But then I asked Grandma Baricza. . .about it. She told me. . .why grownups do. . .what they do."

"That's good," Pete avoided meeting Getraer's bemused gaze. "Maybe someday you can explain it to me, and then we'll both know. Sixty some years on this planet, and I still haven't figured it out."

"I still remember. . .what she said," Bear nodded somberly, and his voice was steadier than it had been all day. "She said grownups only believe. . .in what's real. Kids believe. . .in what's true.  Adults sometimes think. . .that kids are lying. . .because what's real isn't always true. . .an' what's true isn't always real.  She told me. . .something else, too. She said that grownups forget to forgive. . .when they ought to forgive to forget.  I always tried. . .to live my life by that."

He hesitated for a second or two, then added with the honesty that Getraer had come to expect from him, "Until las' month. . .anyway. Sure wish. . .I could talk to Grandma now. Maybe she could explain. . .how I'm supposed to forgive the Albrights. . .for what they did to me."

Although he seemed unaware of it, his face was suddenly contorted by a grimace, and he stammered so badly that his last few words were almost unintelligible. But when the muscle spasm passed, he picked up the dropped stitch of conversation as smoothly as if he had never mentioned the attack at all.

"So, see, Pop. . . nothing to worry about," he said. "Jus' wish. . .there was some way. . .to make you believe me. . .about the bells. . .thas all."

He sighed as he glanced down at the dead brown marigolds in the flowerbeds around the deck, and he seemed to be staring into a past that was as real as the present. Then a flare-up on the grill sent smoke billowing into the air, and it was enough to momentarily distract him from his memories. He waited while Joe doused the flames with water from a spray bottle, then turned slightly in his chair to ask his father a question.

But before he could say anything, he saw that the other two men were watching him again, and he summoned up a sad-eyed smile for their benefit. And for a fraction of a second, Getraer caught a glimpse of the little boy who'd cried himself to sleep one Christmas Eve long ago.

Your dad couldn't help it, Barry, he thought. Some people are blessed enough to have the faith of a child all their lives, and some of us have to relearn what we lost.

In spite of all the odds, you managed to keep your faith when you were little. . .and you've got to hang onto it now, too.

Someone had once described Pete Baricza as a "steel-plated marshmallow," and that description had seldom seemed more accurate than now. The sight of his son's wistful expression was more than he could stand, and he resorted to the one tactic in a parent's arsenal that always got results -- teasing.

"Of course you heard the sleigh bells, son," he said in a syrupy voice, then winked at Joe. "And if you leave cookies and milk out for him tonight, maybe Santa will stop off at your apartment and. . .what the heck was that?"

The sound was so faint that Joe could barely hear it above the clamor in the back yard. He tried to block out the noise of voices, but even so, he heard only the wind and the hiss of the meat cooking on the grill.

But no, there it was again -- a distant shimmer like the ripple of tiny bells on the cold December air. Getraer turned to Pete, intending to ask him what he had heard. . .if for no other reason than to reassure himself of his own sanity. But he abruptly stopped when he saw what was taking place in front of him.

In one smooth movement, Barry was on his feet, still holding onto the toy car. He stood up so quickly that the wheelchair rolled backwards and bumped up against the side of the house. The thud made him glance back over his shoulder for a brief instant, but then he turned around again and looked up at the sky.

And for a moment, he seemed to be listening to something that only he was privileged to hear. He swallowed hard, then nodded solemnly in acknowledgement of the 'message' that he had just been given.

He closed his eyes, and even though his right hand was still clenched in anger, a little color came back into his face. Gradually, his fist relaxed, and his breathing became slow and regular. Then his expression began to change, as well, and it took Getraer a moment to realize where he had seen something similar before.

It's like that moment when you first touch a match to a piece of kindling, he thought. You'd swear that nothing is happening at first. Then all of a sudden, there's that little bit of flame, and before you know it, you're warming your hands in front of a nice big fire.

That very thing appeared to be happening to Baricza, even now. As he bowed his head, the sun came out from behind the clouds, making his dark hair glimmer like polished mahogany, and there was a measure of peace in his face that hadn't been present earlier.

His lips moved quietly, but the only words that Getraer could understand were, ". . .forgive them, Father. . ."

And as the sergeant watched in awe, the pain faded out of Bear's eyes completely. His grip on the toy car was steady, even with his 'weak' hand, and his legs weren't shaking as they had during physical therapy. His shoulders were no longer slumped, and his face was once more full of animation as he turned to Pete and Joe with a triumphant grin.

"I told you, Pop!" he exclaimed happily. "That's the same sound I heard that Christmas Eve. You got sore at me because you thought I was lying to you, but I did hear the bells. I really did!"

The volleyball hit the deck near the grill, then rolled a few feet and came to a stop beneath the glider. But when Jon and the others heard Barry speaking in a normal voice and saw that he was standing without assistance, the game was instantly forgotten. As if moved by the same inner impulse, the adults and children alike gathered around the deck, then stood silently as they watched the miraculous events unfolding before them.

For his part, Baricza shifted uneasily under their open-mouthed scrutiny, but he quickly recovered his usual aplomb. He grinned at his fellow officers, then gestured at the barbeque grill where the steaks had just finished sizzling to perfection.

"So, what're you guys waiting for -- Christmas or something?" he said in a perfect imitation of Getraer's ritual question after Briefing. "Grab a plate, and get in line for the best steak dinner you've ever had, courtesy of the Baricza clan! Might as well start dishing it out, Pop. . .because we know you can't take it!"

Baker and the others spontaneously broke into a round of applause, but Barry pretended that their appreciation was really meant for the two cooks. He gestured toward them like the master of ceremonies at some Hollywood gala, and they bowed in mock gratitude. But when Getraer glanced at Pete, he saw that he wasn't the only one who was having trouble with his 'allergies' at the moment.

All of the commotion had attracted the attention of the Tupperware shoppers, and they emerged from the house to see what the fuss was about. Vera was the last one to step outside, and the first thing that she saw was the empty wheelchair.

For a few seconds, she was too stunned at the sight to realize what it actually meant, and she started to ask her husband a question. Pete's only response was a small nod toward Barry, who was now surrounded by a crowd of his friends. Vera started to turn in the direction that Pete had pointed. . .then stopped in joyful disbelief when she saw the tall figure who walked with such firm steps toward her.

Bear grinned as he stopped in front of his mother and slipped his arms around her. He pulled her close in a hug, and she unthinkingly reached up to touch his cheek, just as she had always done when he was younger. She blinked back her tears, then resorted to the same surefire parental 'weapon' to hide her feelings that Pete had used earlier.

"So, now that you've finally decided to stop goldbricking, why don't make yourself useful and open those jars of pickles?" she thumbed toward the picnic table. "You don't think I raised a great big drink of water like you for no good reason, do you?"

"Vera, for crying out loud! Go easy on the kid, will ya?" Pete shrugged at her in disbelief, but Getraer touched his arm.

"Forget it, Pete -- it's a lost cause," he said with a mysterious grin. "Women and little kids just accept miracles a lot easier than most of us poor, hard-headed guys. God bless 'em."

"God bless 'em, everyone," a small voice echoed from somewhere around knee level.

Joe reached down and scooped up his five year old daughter, then held her tightly. As always, he marveled at the resemblance that she bore to her great-grandmother, Margaret Ellen Getraer. . .and not just physically, either.

Ellen rested her head against his shoulder for a moment, then wriggled out of his arms and ran across the deck to Barry. She held out her arms to be picked up, and as he balanced her on his hip, there was no trace of the unsteadiness that had plagued him earlier.

"Did you hear Santa's sleigh bells, too, Uncle Barry?" she asked.

"I sure did, sweetheart," he smiled as he fed her a treat from the tray of cookies and fudge on the picnic table. "So what did you ask Santa to bring you tonight? I know you've been a good girl all year, so I hope you asked him for something special."

"I asked him for something just for you 'cause Daddy said you weren't feeling so good," Ellen confided in a whisper. "But it didn't get here yet, so I wanted you to have this. You know -- just in case Santa is busy tonight and your real present is a little late."

She'd slipped inside the house while everyone else was still stunned by Baricza's instantaneous recovery. Now she shyly handed him a lumpy parcel that was wrapped in the Sunday comics section and stuck together with what looked like several yards of Scotch tape. Bear put her down on the deck and then knelt beside her, oblivious to what anyone else might have thought.

He unwrapped the package with the same care that most people would have used for a box marked "Tiffany," or "Cartier," and in a moment, the smudged paper tumbled to the deck. He proudly held up the stuffed Santa figure for everyone to see, then turned back to Ellen with a wide smile.

"Wow -- how did you know that this is exactly what I wanted for Christmas?" he put just the right amount of awe in his voice, then feigned indignation. "Hey! Did you peek at my list before I sent it to the North Pole?"

"No!" she protested vehemently until she realized that he was only teasing her. "Uncle Barry, you're silly!"

"All the girls tell me that," Bear winked at Bonnie as he displayed the well-loved doll to her.

Ellen gently patted his face, then reached out and turned a key in the back of the tattered little toy. "I wanted you to have it 'cause it's my favorite. It plays pretty music, too. And if you don't feel good or you get scared at night, then you can listen to it, and it makes you feel better."

There was a sudden hush as the music box began to play its soft, sweet melody. The notes of "Silent Night" were like bits of crystal tinkling together, and everyone stopped what they were doing long enough to listen to the beloved Christmas carol.

"Sleep in heavenly peace," Ellen sang in the clear, pure voice of childhood.

It was a well-known meteorological fact that Los Angeles was not the Snow Capital of the world. Nevertheless, as the music box played the last note of "Silent Night," a few delicate white snowflakes began to drift down from the clouds. Ellen's big brown eyes grew wide, and she clapped her hands in delight.

"It's your real present, and Santa wasn't late after all!" she threw her arms around Bear's neck. "I asked him for some snow for you 'cause I 'membered you really like it. And he did it, Uncle Barry! Santa made it snow, just for you."

"That's because he loves it when you ask for good things for somebody else, sweetie," Baricza nodded happily. . .and even though he had no way of knowing it, his eyes were as deep and warm as those of his friend, Mr. Miklós.

For the next hour, a casual passerby would have been amazed to see the CHP's finest behaving like small children as they pelted each other with handfuls of powdery snow that they scooped up from the deck and sidewalks before it could melt. And no one was enjoying "his" snowfall any more than Bear as he ran and romped with the others.

In one corner of the yard, Bonnie Clark and Ellen caught snowflakes on their tongues, while Jon demonstrated the fine art of making a snow slide on the slippery concrete walkway. Not surprisingly, his star pupil was Frank Poncherello, who also demonstrated the fine art of landing on one's rump with at least a modicum of good grace.

On the abandoned volleyball "court," Artie Grossman and Timmy Getraer were busy constructing an entire army of snowmen, none of them over six inches tall. Even Pete and Vera were snuggled up on the glider, but they were too busy watching their son laugh and play to notice anything else.

Only Joe Getraer stood apart from the fun, and as he watched from his spot on the deck, no one could have guessed the thoughts that were going through his mind. The wind was chilly, but he felt as warm as if he had just stepped into a bubbling spa.

Lord, I was wrong when I asked for "just" a miracle or two, he smiled to himself. The truth is that there are as many miracles as there are minutes in the day.

Please be with all of us -- now and for many, many more Christmases to come.

But something seemed to be missing from that prayer, and he suddenly realized what it was. He felt a little foolish at first, but then it was replaced by the solemn joy of what he was about to do. He raised his hand slightly, just as Miklós had done, and when he spoke, the air itself seemed to tremble with the power of his words.

"God bless us," he said softly. "God bless us, every one."

There was no response to his prayer -- not that he needed one to know that he had been heard. He started to step down from the deck and join the snowball fight, but then he stopped when he heard a faint sound. It seemed to come from a great distance, and it carried with it just a hint of cinnamon and freshly-cut pine boughs.

And as he stood there and listened, he heard it again. A small, sweet sound like the jingle of silver bells.

The End