The Princess and the Bear

The Princess and the Bear

Author's Disclaimer: ""CHiPs" and its characters © Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Inc. All rights reserved. No infringement on any trademarks or copyrights is intended or should be inferred. This is a work of fiction, and any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.

Chapter One

If the assortment of thuds, thumps, crashes, and snarls issuing from the Men's Locker Room was any indication, Officer Barry "Bear" Baricza was having one of those days. . .even if it hadn't officially started yet. Jon Baker and his partner Frank Poncherello stood outside in the corridor, listening to Baricza's disgruntled dissertation on the treachery of certain so-called 'friends.' And at the moment, the name of one Francis Llewylln Poncherello kept reoccurring in that monologue with the regularity of a metronome.

"Well, no point in putting it off any longer, partner," Baker grinned diabolically at Ponch. "You might as well go in there and face the music. . ."

Ponch glared at Jon, but the blond officer was blithely unrepentant. Baker made a sweeping bow, then gestured for Ponch to go on into the locker room ahead of him.

"Thanks a lot, partner," Ponch muttered under his breath. "Are you always this cheerful before an execution?"

But before Baker and Ponch could walk into the room, Artie Grossman shoved the door open, nearly knocking Jon over in his haste to escape. Now all three officers winced at the loud crash of a locker being slammed shut, and Grossman gestured over his shoulder.

"I wouldn't go in there if I were you, Ponch," Grossman made a little throat-cutting gesture. "Baricza's on the warpath --and he says it's all your fault."

"Me? What did I do?" Ponch shrugged with what he hoped was a suitably innocent expression. "And besides which, if I don't go in there, where am I supposed to change clothes?"

"Bear says you set him up with that blind date. . .in more ways than one," Grossman called over his shoulder as he walked away at a considerably faster pace than he usually did. "And if I were you, Ponch, I'd change clothes out in the middle of the parking lot if it meant that I didn't have to face Baricza right about now."

Ponch waited until Grossman was out of earshot, then sighed heavily and looked over at his partner with a woebegone expression. But far from being sympathetic, Baker grinned wickedly again and nodded towards the door. . .just as another loud crash made Ponch jump.

"Ponch, I keep telling you to stay out of other people's business -- especially when it comes to their love lives," Baker held the door open for his partner. "From the sounds of it, I'd say that Bear didn't think too much of his blind date with your neighbor last night."

Ponch glared at Baker with the expression that most people usually reserved for executioners and IRS agents, then made a grab for the door handle. He managed to wrestle control of the door away from his partner just long enough to quietly shut it again. Very quietly. When Ponch spoke, his voice was barely above a whisper. . .and if he could have waved a magic wand to make himself invisible, he would have no doubt done that, as well.

"I don't know why Bear would be sore at me. I mean, you remember June from that time you were at my place, and she came over to borrow a cup of bean sprouts. You thought she was drop dead gorgeous, right?" Ponch looked hopefully at his partner for confirmation. "She and Bear like the same things -- photography, exotic restaurants, all that kind of stuff. So why wouldn't they have hit it off?"

But before Baker could reply, a voice from the other side of the door made Ponch jump like a flea on a hot griddle -- again. Baricza pushed the door open with a shove that nearly knocked Ponch off his feet, then glared at his fellow officer and erstwhile friend.

"You want me to give you the reasons alphabetically, chronologically, or in order of importance, Ponch?" Baricza snapped, folding his arms across his chest.

"Uh. . .hi, Bear," Ponch smiled meekly up at the tall, dark-haired officer, who now towered over him like a storm cloud above an otherwise peaceful landscape. "Jon and I were just talking about what a great time you and June must have had last night, weren't we, Jon?"

"Thanks a lot, partner," Baker muttered, and indignation showed in every line of his face at being used as a human lightening rod.

Baricza was still fuming under his breath as he held the door open for his fellow officers. Reluctantly, Ponch slipped past him, trying to compress himself into as small a space as possible until he reached the relative safety of his own locker. Baker followed his partner, then smiled with questionable innocence at Baricza.

"Oh, come on, Bear, how bad could it have been? " Jon neatly managed to ignore Ponch's frantic little signals to avoid that particular subject at all costs. "I met June once, and she seemed nice enough to me."

"Well, for starters, her name isn't June, anymore. She's having it legally changed to Moon -- Moon Feather Waldowski. She said her inner child told her she needed a name that was more in keeping with her karma for this lifetime. . .or something like that," Baricza rolled his eyes. "I could have lived with that, though. I mean, Baricza isn't exactly the most common name in the telephone book, either."

"There you go, Bear. . .that's something else you two have in common," Ponch grinned cheerfully -- even though his expression that had more to do with chutzpa than genuine amusement at the moment. "So where did you two go for dinner? Someplace exotic and mysterious?"

"Oh, you bet we did, Ponch. She wanted to go to that new Chinese restaurant, The Pearl of the Orient," Baricza patted the wallet in his back pocket.

A wallet that was now much thinner than it had been yesterday at this time, if Bear's disgusted expression was any indication. Baker nodded sympathetically: he'd heard rumors about how expensive the trendy new eatery really was. Baricza saw Jon's questioning look and nodded in confirmation.

"Jon, I'm not a cheapskate, you know that. I always try to treat my date right," Bear sighed heavily. "But seventy five dollars for some half-cooked vegetables, a dab of brown rice, and a Peking 'duck' made out of tofu? Give me a break!"

Still trying to back paddle his way through treacherous waters, Ponch shrugged. "June. . .I mean, Moon is a vegetarian. She's the one who convinced me that I ought to treat my body with the respect it deserves. You know, like a temple. And besides which, Bear, thirty-seven bucks a person isn't too bad for a fancy meal like that."

"I'd like to add a couple of new skylights to that 'temple' right about now," Baricza's hand curled into a fist at his side. "And that was seventy five dollars per person, Ponch. . .a hundred and fifty bucks for the meal, plus tip and valet parking!"

"OK, so maybe dinner was a little pricey," Ponch conceded reluctantly, still avoiding Bear's cool stare. "But you said you were going to take her to see that exhibit of Matthew What's-his-name's Civil War pictures down at the Galleria after I told you that she's into photography. How expensive could that have been?"

"Oh, she's 'into' photography, all right, Ponch . . .from the neck on down! As a matter of fact, she told me that she's the centerfold for this month's issue of Party Dolls magazine," Baricza winced a little at the thought, two vivid splotches of red showing above his cheekbones. "But that's not even the worst of it. When I drove her home last night, she didn't get out of the car right away -- she said she wanted to tell me something first."

"Don't tell me, let me guess," Ponch paused as he pulled on his boots, and his voice was bright and cheerful. A little too bright and cheerful, as a matter of fact. "She wanted to tell you what a great time she had and that she hoped you'd call her again soon."

"She wanted to tell me that she'd never had a more boring evening in her entire life and not to bother asking her out again," Baricza said glumly. "And then to top it all off, she called me a bunch of names."

Poncherello might have had more brass than the average East Indian import shop, but the even the thought of someone hurting his friend's feelings was enough to make anger flare in his face. And not only in Ponch's expression now. . .but in Jon Baker's eyes, as well.

"She insulted you?" Baker frowned indignantly. "What did she say to you, Bear?"

"She said I was sensible and level-headed," Baricza's lower lip quivered a little. "And if that wasn't bad enough, then she called me a nice guy!"

"But, Bear, you are sensible and level-headed," Ponch protested in confusion. "And you're a nice guy, too. . .so what's wrong with that?"

"She made me sound like a pair of warm, fuzzy house slippers! You know. . .the kind that your grandma gives you for Christmas every year," Baricza groaned as he stood up and followed his fellow officers out into the corridor. "Apparently I was a little too nice and easy-going for her. She said she'd rather go out with someone more exciting."

Ponch instinctively knew what was coming, but it didn't stop him from flinching again when Baricza added, "Like her neighbor, Frank Poncherello!"

Still muttering to himself, Baricza set off down the corridor towards the Briefing Room, followed at a respectful distance by Jon and Ponch. Ahead of them, Artie Grossman stood outside the Briefing Room door, talking to Jed Turner and Bonnie Clark. Now all three officers took one look at Bear's expression. . .and immediately found reasons to be somewhere else.

"So much for the 'white knight on a shining steed' bit. No princess for you, Bear -- not even one named Moon Feather," Baricza shook his head sadly. " Not for good old Barry Baricza, Mr. Sane and Sensible himself."

He paused outside the Briefing Room door and then looked back at Ponch and Jon. "Just for once, I wish everybody thought that I was a little wild and crazy. . .maybe even a little off the wall," he sighed. "Just once!"

It was Jon Baker's turn to flinch now, although he couldn't explain why. And even though the station's heating system was set at a comfortable temperature, for a second or two, Baker shivered as if someone had left the door open, and a damp gust of January air had just swept over him.

Better watch what you wish for, Bear, old buddy -- because sometimes fairy tales do come true, Jon aimed the thought at the back of Baricza's head as he followed Bear into the Briefing Room. Everybody remembers the princess, all right. . .

. . .but they completely forget about the dragon!


Two hours into the morning watch, Baricza's mood hadn't improved at all. . .if anything, it had gotten worse. Bear recoiled nervously when a few bits of newspaper blew across the windshield, carried there by a chilly wind. Those scraps of paper seemed as scattered as his thoughts, but now there was a much more serious reason for his doldrums as he sat and watched the traffic along his assigned patrol area.

Traffic? Yeah, right, Bear shook his head. Everyone gripes about how busy the highways are in Los Angeles, so what do you get stuck with today? Miles and miles. . .of nothing but miles and miles! At least Jon and Ponch aren't too far away, which is good -- especially after everything that's gone on out in this area, lately.

And now Baricza was ashamed of his earlier attitude over something as minor as a bad evening -- especially when he considered the real reason he'd been assigned to watch this lonely stretch of highway, lined by dense clusters of trees. In the last three months, four women had been raped and murdered, their bodies casually dumped into the culverts along the road

DNA tests had proven that the perpetrator was the same man in each case, but beyond that, forensics hadn't turned up anything that might lead to capturing the killer. The Highway Patrol increased the number of units and stepped up the frequency with which they patrolled the area, but so far there hadn't been a break in the case.

Bear's knuckles whitened as he clutched the steering wheel. Even now, he dreaded looking along the side of the road at the thought of what he might see there while he made his routine patrol of the area.

And speaking of that, he thought reluctantly as he glanced down at his watch. Time to make another run.

He checked the side mirror at the road and saw what he'd seen there for most of the morning -- nothing. Bear looked up at the sky and sighed: his "weather arm," the one he'd broken during a high school basketball game, was now sending aching reminders up to him that the weather forecasters were calling for rain. Ordinarily, a little drizzle wouldn't have bothered him. . .except that the four murdered women had all been found after gray, rainy days like this one was shaping up to be.

It was one of two common denominators in the case: the only other similarity in the deaths of the four women was that they had all been forced to stop and change flat tires along this stretch of smooth, well-maintained pavement. Their abandoned vehicles had been mute testimony to the reason the women had fallen prey to the "Goodyear Killer," as he'd been dubbed by the press.

Nothing about this case made a great deal of sense to Bear at the moment. It seemed ridiculous to use a clearly marked squad car and uniformed cop for this assignment, as well as having two motor officers covering the other end of the sector, too.

Which meant that the odds of the murderer striking again were almost zero. It would have made more sense to Baricza to use an unmarked vehicle and a plainclothes officer as bait for the killer -- but that decision hadn't been his to make, either.

Ours is not to question why, ours is but to do. . . he shrugged uneasily, then let the rest of that thought fade away.

A haze of raindrops shrouded the windshield of his car as he pulled onto the pavement, and his movements were so cautious that the gravel on the shoulder was barely disturbed. The only sounds were the quiet hum of the tires and the soft hiss of the car's heater: even the engine noise seemed curiously muted, as if the vehicle itself was reluctant to break the silence and alert some lurking menace to its presence.

Along the sides of the road, the outlines of the trees were blurred by the mist until their wet black trunks were like ghostly giants as he drove by them. . .he half-expected one of them to reach down with its twiggy 'arms' and make a grab for his car. And for a moment, Baricza felt a strange sense of dislocation, as if he had somehow left the ordinary, everyday world and stepped into another time and place altogether -- one far different than his own.

Get your head together, Bear, he admonished himself with a wry smile. The road is getting slick, and you'd better pay attention to what's going on around you. Otherwise, the only fire-breathing beastie you're going to have to face is Getraer if you manage to wipe out another car!

Ordinarily, there was nothing amusing about accidents: Baricza had seen far too many of them over an entirely too short span of time -- some of them involving his own friends and fellow officers. But then again, his own experience with vehicular mishaps didn't exactly fall into any known category of fender benders or bumper thumpers, either.

It had been bad enough when his parked squad car was annihilated by two men with high-caliber weapons and low-caliber intellects. . .he'd been razzed by his fellow officers for weeks after that incident. But if Bear thought his cup of humiliation was full to the brim at that point, he was badly mistaken.

The ultimate in mortification had been a year or so later, when he'd stopped to assist a broken-down circus vehicle. . . and a performing elephant sat on the hood of his car. Now, almost four years later, the mere mention of peanuts or circus clowns by one of his slyly-smiling fellow officers was still enough to infuriate Bear to the point of spluttering incoherence.

Especially when the main perpetrator of such indignities was Frank Poncherello. He'd seen the whole incident -- then talked Baker into categorically denying it when Bear appealed to them for confirmation of his story to Sergeant Getraer.

The joke had worn thin after awhile as far as Jon was concerned, and he'd told Getraer what had really happened. That got Baricza off the hook, at least as far as his sergeant was concerned. Bear's fellow officers were a different matter altogether -- particularly Ponch and Artie.

I'll find a way to get even with Ponch and Grossman if it takes me the rest of my life! Bear thought to himself with a wry grin as he negotiated a particularly sharp, steep turn in the road.

And at that instant, the front right tire blew out with a sound like the crack of a pistol being fired. It was the worst possible time and place for such an accident to happen: now the car bucked and fought like a wild mustang as Baricza strained to bring it out of its skid.

His efforts were precise, well-trained. . .and completely futile. For a fraction of a second, the car seemed to come out of the skid, then teetered at the top of the embankment before beginning the inevitable downhill slide.

Then there was no time to concentrate or even to pray. The car tobogganed down the slope and came to rest upside down, leaving Bear dangling helplessly in his seat belt and shoulder harness. He was vaguely aware of the sounds of shattering glass and crumpling metal all around him, and he felt a warm trickle of blood at one side of his forehead.

Baricza tried to reach the microphone to radio for help -- if indeed the equipment was still working at all. But it might as well have been at the bottom of the ocean for all of his ability to grasp it, and even that small movement was enough to send flares of pain through his skull.

Bear cried out softly under his breath. . .almost without knowing that he was the one who had made the sound. Now something dark and looming seemed to be rushing up towards him, something that swallowed up his thoughts entirely. With a little groan, he fell into the soft blackness of oblivion -- but not before a chance gust of wind blew a delicious fragrance into the car through the shattered windshield.

Lilacs? Baricza frowned as the darkness engulfed him. Lilacs blooming here in January?

It might have been minutes or it might have been hours later when Baricza's eyes finally fluttered open again: however, getting them to focus was far beyond his ability at the moment. His head ached fiercely, but at least it was resting on something soft --something that smelled wonderfully of flowers.

It took him a moment or two to place the scent again -- lilacs. Yes, definitely lilacs. And with that thought, Bear looked up. . .

. . .only to find himself gazing into the most enormous violet-colored eyes he had ever seen in his life -- eyes that were the same color as the velvet cape whose hood framed them. Somehow, he'd managed to get out of the wrecked vehicle, and now he rested on the ground with his head pillowed on the lap of the purple cape's owner.

And if the woman's eyes were amazing, the rest of her was equally so. Baricza found himself looking up into a delicate, heart-shaped face surrounded by a mass of soft blond curls so fair that they appeared to have a silver sheen.

She wore an ornate amethyst and diamond tiara: the gold and jewels seemed to gather what little light there was on such a gray, damp winter afternoon and threw it back in bursts of color that dazzled Bear's already befuddled eyes. But if the apparition's appearance was extraordinary, the words that it spoke next were even more improbable.

"Gently, sire. . .you've suffered a grievous blow to the pate, I fear," the woman's voice was rich and deep, like melted honey or late afternoon sunlight in June. "Do not be alarmed -- I've summoned aid. Indeed, my lord, I think I hear them now."

It might have been an emergency vehicle's siren that Bear now heard in the distance, or it could just as easily have been a trumpet sounding the alarm from the parapet of a far-away castle. Not that any of it really mattered to Baricza at the moment -- just as long as the magnificent vision above him continued to stroke his hair gently and murmur comforting words to him in that incredible voice of hers.

Bear suspected that his bewildered mind wasn't making a great deal of sense out of what was happening to him. . .and that it had no intention of trying for much longer, either. Even so, he managed one last thought before he drifted down into the pleasant, pain-free darkness again.

OK, so maybe I was wrong and there are a few princesses left, he thought with a fuzzy little grin.

But this is sure one heck of a way to meet them!

Chapter Two

Once again, Baricza struggled to awaken, but the experience was far less enjoyable this time. Someone had tucked a blanket around him, but even so, he was still resting on cold gravel and mud. His head was one large ache at the moment, and he could feel assorted bruises, scrapes, and cuts all over his body. And this time, no delightful fragrance of lilacs floated down to him. . .only the acrid odor of antiseptics and bandages.

He'd been having a wonderful, if slightly discombobulated dream: something about sitting on a chair made from an enormous pearl, eating purple egg rolls with a princess who was wearing a cape made out of feathers and a Confederate flag. But now the sharp sting of an IV needle brought him out of the misty, half-lit world in which he was floating, and he looked up in annoyance at the person who had disturbed such pleasant reveries.

Two thoughts ran through Bear's mind as he tried to make sense of what was going on around him. What did you do with my princess? he grumbled at the face that bobbed above him like a balloon on a string.

That thought was quickly followed by another equally befuddled notion. I know you. . .I think.

The face did indeed belong to someone that he knew, although it took him a moment to match a name to it. Even so, Bear was inordinately proud of himself for remembering that elusive information.

"Hey, Johnny," he grinned at the Station 51 paramedic who'd been his best friend for years.

"Easy does it, Bear," Gage put a restraining hand on Baricza's shoulder as the dark-haired officer tried to sit up. "You took a pretty good jolt down there. As soon as the ambulance gets here, we're going to transport you to Rampart and have the docs check you out."

"But in the meantime, maybe you'd like to say hello to your buddies," Gage's partner Roy Desoto thumbed over his shoulder at a pair of blurry shapes. "They've been pretty worried about you."

The two shapes -- one blond and the other with dark hair -- gradually drifted into focus above him. But real fear was gnawing at Baricza now: something about Gage's innocuous comment had triggered a panicked association in his mind.

"The princess. . .is she still down there by my car?" Baricza appealed frantically to Baker. "It's not safe for her to be wandering around here by herself. Not with that maniac still on the loose."

"The. . uh. . .what did you say, Bear?" Jon Baker bent down over his fallen co-worker -- surely he hadn't heard Baricza correctly.

"The princess. . .the blonde woman," Bear hastily corrected himself, seeing the disbelief in Jon's face. "The one in the long velvet cape. She must have been the one who helped me get out of the car. Where is she, Jon?"

He saw the looks that the paramedics and the two motor officers exchanged between themselves -- looks that clearly said, 'Humor him.' Ponch nodded at Bear, trying to appear suitably serious, but Baricza could still see the amusement dancing in the other officer's eyes. Poncherello took a step forward, then bent down over Bear and spoke in a confidential tone of voice.

"Oh yeah, right, Bear -- that princess," Ponch fought back a little grin, although Jon could have almost sworn that there was a nervous edge in his partner's voice. "She'll be just fine. We won't let a dragon eat her. . .don't you worry about a thing."

Indignation flared in Baricza's heart at such apparent callousness. "Fine, Ponch. If you guys won't help me, then I'll go find her myself and make sure that she's OK!"

He struggled to sit up, but even without Desoto and Gage there to restrain him, the sheer effort would have quickly exhausted his small reserves of strength, anyway. Baricza collapsed once more, and his dark eyes were full of pain that had nothing to do with his physical injuries.

"Bear, when we got here, you were by yourself. You were laying on the ground, and you were out of it," Jon shook his head, and unlike his partner, there was nothing but compassion in his voice. "You must've been hurting pretty bad after you got out of the car. Maybe you just dreamed that there was someone here to help you."

Baricza started to protest, then saw the obvious looks of disbelief in his friends' faces. With that, he turned his head away, unwilling to let either of his co-workers see the unhappiness in his eyes -- especially Ponch, who now grinned openly at his partner above Bear's head.

Gage saw the distress in Baricza's face, and he quickly moved in to prevent any further comments from Ponch. "Bear, the ambulance is here. Roy and I will meet up with you at the hospital a little later. OK, buddy?"

Bear nodded reluctantly and allowed himself to be lifted onto the gurney without a struggle. As the ambulance crew wheeled him towards their waiting vehicle, he glanced down at his own wrecked car. The car looked like a crumpled wad of paper instead of a solid steel vehicle: the door and quarter panels on the driver's side all appeared to have been compressed into a single piece of metal from the force of the impact.

And for the first time, Baricza realized exactly how lucky he'd been to escape with only minor injuries. . .especially when he saw the shattered window on the driver's side. There was nothing left of the glass in its metal framework, and he shuddered as he was loaded aboard the ambulance.

The vehicle's interior was comfortably warm, especially compared to the cold ground he'd been lying on. Now Bear nodded in drowsy relief as the pain medication began to take effect, and his head drooped a little to one side.

But after a moment, his eyes opened suddenly. His face was warmer, especially the cheek nearest the pillow, and now he caught a whiff of something on his skin that wasn't his own spicy brand of aftershave -- more of a floral scent. And there was something else that danced just outside his ability to focus on it. . .something about his car and how he must have gotten out of it.

Or what's left of it, anyway, he grimaced.

But before Baricza could pursue that thought to anything approaching its logical conclusion, the full effects of the drugs rolled over him like a fog. With a sigh of relief, he allowed himself to drift into the mist once again, and for a time, nothing else mattered. Nothing at all.


An hour and a half later at Rampart Hospital, Dr. Kelly Brackett emerged from a examination room in the ER, and for once, the craggy-faced physician permitted himself a small smile when he saw the crowded waiting room. The area looked like a sea of khaki as officers milled around the room, waiting for news about Baricza.

"Is anyone out making the streets safe for us civilians?" he teased the officers good-naturedly. "Or is the entire watch using this as an excuse for a coffee break?"

"Not with coffee like this," Sergeant Joe Getraer grimaced as he held up a cardboard container containing some lukewarm tan liquid that might have been coffee. . .or not. "How's Baricza doing, Doc?"

"He suffered a mild concussion and two cracked ribs, as well as some contusions and lacerations. Other than that, he's in remarkably good condition," Brackett nodded. And for a second or two, he could have sworn that a tornado was blowing across the room as Bear's fellow officers heaved a collective sigh of relief.

Quietly, the doctor added, "Especially considering how serious the accident really was. Roy and Johnny described Baricza's car to me. I thought you CHP officers took better care of your vehicles than that, Joe."

"There'll be a full investigation into the accident, you can count on it," Getraer nodded. "The tires on that car were less than a month old. . .there's no reason one of them should have blown the way that it did. But at least Baricza's going to be all right."

"Are you planning on keeping him overnight for observation?" Bonnie Clark stepped forward -- apparently the little blonde officer had been appointed spokeswoman for the rest of the group.

"Bonnie, I swear you've spent too much time here at Rampart. You're starting to sound like one of the nurses! But you're absolutely right. There're no symptoms of hemorrhaging, but even with a comparatively mild head injury, it's better to be safe than sorry," Brackett smiled at her. "We'll admit him overnight and keep an eye on him. If he's doing all right tomorrow afternoon, we'll release him, and after a little down time, he ought to be ready to go back to work and destroy another car or two. The way you people spend my tax dollars just to keep Baricza in vehicles ought to be against the law!"

A wave of laughter spread across the waiting room, and the two loudest participants in that amusement were Ponch and Grossman. . .no doubt they were already planning ways to make Bear's life rough with their teasing and practical jokes. Jon Baker wasn't chuckling at Brackett's wry humor, however, as he stepped forward quietly and caught the doctor's attention with a small gesture.

"Doc, did Roy or Johnny tell you that Bear was hallucinating after the wreck?" Jon asked, trying to keep his voice down so that Grossman couldn't hear every word. "He told us that some woman in a long velvet cape was the one who helped him out of the car before we got there. But Ponch and I were at the scene within five minutes after the call first came in from Dispatch, and there was no sign of a woman anywhere. There were no other tire tracks in the mud except the skid marks from Bear's car, and there's no place to go out there that I know of. That's a long, open stretch of highway, and I just can't see how anyone could have disappeared so quickly -- much less why she wouldn't have stuck around until she knew Bear was OK. "

Grossman had still managed to listen in on the conversation, despite Baker's efforts to prevent that very thing. Now he announced in a loud, jocular voice, "Who knows, Jon -- maybe the 'princess' was captured by an evil wizard who wants to sacrifice her to a dragon. She could still be out there somewhere, waiting for her shining knight to get out of the hospital and rescue her. If he'd just stop wrecking his white steeds, that is!"

The other officers laughed at Grossman's humor, especially Ponch: he'd spent part of the time in the hospital waiting room telling the rest of the watch about Baricza's illusionary 'princess.' But once again, Baker didn't join in the laughter, and now he frowned at Artie: in Jon's opinion, there wasn't anything particularly funny about Bear's injuries -- physical or psychological.

Dr. Brackett saw Baker's expression, and he put a steadying hand on the officer's arm for a moment until some of the anger faded out of Jon's face. Baker nodded gratefully, and when Brackett turned back to the rest of the group, the medic's expression made it clear that he wouldn't tolerate any more dubious humor at Baricza's expense.

"Hallucinations after a trauma like the one Baricza suffered are common, Jon," ostensibly, Brackett was speaking to Baker. . .but his words were clearly aimed at the rest of the CHP officers, especially Ponch and Grossman. "It's the mind's way of protecting itself against pain and stress. Barry went through a lot out there this afternoon, and his mind must have invented a temporary buffer against a situation that he wasn't capable of handling at the time. Once someone else was there to take care of him, the need for the buffer was gone and his imaginary 'princess' vanished along with it."

"I hope you're right, Doc," Baker muttered to himself as he gathered up his helmet and gloves from a small table. "For Bear's sake, I hope you're right."


Visiting hours were finally over, and Baricza permitted himself a noisy sigh of relief. Friends and family members had been filing in and out of his room all evening. . .and even though he'd been glad to see everyone, Bear's eyes were already starting to drift shut almost before the last person was gone.

Well, he'd been glad to see almost everyone, anyway. Unless Bear very much missed his guess, Grossman and Ponch's barely concealed grins were only harbingers of the teasing that lay ahead for him in the weeks to come.

I did see a princess this afternoon. . .I really did! Baricza thought to himself. And when I told Bonnie about the lilac perfume, she said she thought she could smell it when she gave me a good night kiss on the cheek.

Even if nobody else believed me.

But his protests were starting to sound hollow, even to himself, and with another sigh, Bear rolled over carefully onto his left side -- the least bruised portion of his body at the moment. His back was now towards the door. . .a situation that made him uncomfortable, to say the least.

From the time he was a rookie, certain habits had become second nature to Baricza, and monitoring entrances and exits for any potential trouble was one of them. There was no particular need for such hypervigilance at the moment, but then again, the mind set hadn't magically vanished just because he was in the hospital now, either.

Who am I kidding, anyway? Baricza shrugged to himself. Even if an army of ogres or goblins came marching in here tonight, there wouldn't be a whole lot that I could do about it -- not in the shape that I'm in.

He'd been given pain medication several times throughout the day, despite his protests that he "really didn't need it." Those assertions were accompanied by barely-concealed grimaces, however, and they hadn't fooled anyone. . .least of all, Baricza himself.

But now he was paying the price for that relief. Even the smallest arm or leg movements made him feel as if he was trying to do the backstroke in a pool filled with cream cheese.

Not that being able to move quickly was a major concern of his at the moment, anyway, he thought with a little shrug. The only parts of his body that needed relocating were his eyelids, and they were doing a perfectly good job of that on their own.

He was just about to drift off to a peaceful and much-deserved sleep, when a small noise somewhere over near the door brought him instantly awake again. He could hear the faint squeak of leather shoe soles against the tile floors, followed by the whispering sound of cloth. . . no doubt one of the nurses needed to check his vital signs or draw blood.

But try as he might, Baricza couldn't muster up the strength to turn over and say something to her. His legs and arms felt as if they'd been dunked in concrete, and his mind was much too fogged to force the issue. The steady flow of warm air from the heating ducts only compounded the problem, and for a moment, Bear felt as if he was drifting away on a soft tropical sea current. . .

. . .at least until the first wave of lilac fragrance poured over him. Now he struggled frantically to roll over onto his back, but his muscles remained adamant in their refusal to cooperate.

Even if this wasn't just another hallucination brought on by stress and drugs, no one except hospital personnel should have been in his room after visiting hours -- and Baricza was desperately aware of that fact. A half dozen thoughts ran through his mind, none of them particularly pleasant.

What if the Goodyear Killer isn't a guy, after all? the thought hit Bear like the blow from a mailed fist. What if my 'princess' turns out to be the real killer, and she's after me now? I saw her face, and I can ID her -- she must know that. Maybe she was just waiting for everyone to leave so she can come in here and. . .

Desperation gave him the incentive that he needed, and with an effort that was almost superhuman, Baricza managed to roll over onto his back. As fighting stances went, the position didn't have much to recommend it, but it was certainly better than waiting to have a garrote twisted around his neck or a knife shoved into his back.

A small figure moved out of the shadows and into the circle of illumination cast by the light above Baricza's bed. It was the princess . . .and she did have something in her hands as she crept silently towards him, he could see that now.

Even if the call button had been within his reach, there was no way that Bear could have summoned help in time. But he still had one weapon left -- the simplest means of defense that anyone could 'carry' with them and often the most effective one, as well.

Noise. Preferably lots of it. He opened his mouth, intending to yell for help at the top of his lungs. . .

. . .but instead of a bellow of anger, what emerged from Bear's dry lips sounded more like a mouse with a megaphone. But at least that tiny squeak accomplished part of what it was intended to do. The intruder stopped instantly and looked down at Baricza in alarm, her slender body trembling under the flowing velvet cape. No doubt she was panicked to discover that her intended victim was awake. . .and that thought alone gave Bear a moment of satisfaction.

Or at least until he realized that she was laughing silently to herself, not shivering in fear. She managed to control her mirth long enough to walk towards him once more, and as she reached the side of his bed, she held out something towards him. Something thin like a coil of wire. . .no doubt the same wire that she'd used to strangle her other victims.

Baricza frantically tried to force his hands and arms to obey his orders, but they might as well have been carved from wood for all the response that they made. The woman smiled at Bear, then reached towards him with that lethal little loop of wire still in one hand.

Something wasn't quite right about that 'garrote,' Baricza suddenly realized. For one thing, it was a strange color of brown, completely unlike any copper wiring that he'd ever seen before, and for another, it seemed to be covered in dozens of tiny purple blossoms.

That's not wire, he thought to himself. That's lilac. . .she's carrying a wreath of lilacs!

It was indeed a small lilac wreath, and now the woman sat it on the nightstand beside Bear's bed. She reached into the pocket of her cape and took out a delicately embroidered linen handkerchief -- then blew her nose with a sound that any air horn would have envied.

"A thousand apologies for such unseemly mirth, my lord," she made a 'humble' bow, even though laughter still sparkled in her eyes.

"Who. . .are. . .you?" Baricza managed to choke out the words.

"Nay, sire, you may not know the princess' name until the dragon has been overcome," she pulled the hood of the cape down, so that her face was shadowed by it. "Sufficed to say that I am of your own people, although mine is a different clan altogether in this kingdom of the angels. Be content in the knowledge that we have a common purpose in this matter, and when the monster has been banished to his own appointed place, mayhap we shall meet again. Then we shall lay aside our armor and our shields and speak as friends over right many a good flagon of mead."

Bear shook his head: for a moment, he felt as he'd awakened in the middle of some old 1940's swashbuckler. . .that, or else he was actually asleep and dreaming one. The woman smiled at him and then turned to go, but with an effort that left him gasping a little, Baricza managed to reach out and catch the woman's right hand in his.

Her fingers were surprising strong despite their delicate appearance, and now Bear could see that a long, thin scar ran the length of her forearm and curved around her wrist. That mark was strangely familiar to him, but it took him a moment to realize the probable origin of such a scar.

The princess has been in a knife fight? he frowned, and now he could mentally picture the woman blocking the slash of a knife with her forearm. And she wasn't just a' kidding about laying aside the armor, was she?

The woman had already pulled back from Baricza's weak grasp on her wrist, and as he let go, his knuckles accidentally brushed against her ribs. The lilac-colored cape completely concealed her garments, but from the feel of it, she must have been wearing a chain mail shirt under all that velvet.

But there was no time to consider that now. With a smile that made her look as if she had stepped out of a medieval tapestry, the princess took a single step forward again and then bent down over Baricza.

If Bear was hallucinating, then it was an amazingly realistic -- not to mention delightful -- phantasm that now kissed him. Her touch was gentle, and she was careful to avoid hurting his bruised mouth. . .but even so, she managed to convey kindness, warmth, and yes, even a hint of passion in that simple gesture.

With another of those heartbreakingly beautiful smiles, the princess stepped back into the shadows. . .then simply seemed to vanish. Baricza tried to call out to her, but the medication combined with the earlier rush of adrenaline now made him feel like a strand of spaghetti that had been boiled for five hours.

Despite his best efforts to stay awake, his eyelids began the inevitable descent, and in another moment or two, he was asleep. But the last thing that he saw was the wreath of lilac sitting on the bedside table, and that alone was enough to make him smile to himself.

There. . .that's the proof I need to convince everyone that I'm not crazy! Bear laughed triumphantly just as sleep overtook him.

That thought was still with him when he awoke the next morning, even though he'd slept so deeply that he hadn't even awakened when the nurses had come in to check his vital signs. The night's rest had done more for him than any medication could have, and now he felt a temporary rush of energy -- mentally as well as physically.

Although his newfound strength might've had something to do with having tangible evidence of the princess' existence, now that Bear stopped to consider it. With that thought in mind, he sat up and reached for the phone, intending to call Sergeant Getraer. He automatically started to move the wreath of lilacs to one side, then stopped in dismay as he surveyed the nightstand.

The bedside table still held the usual hospital paraphernalia: a plastic water pitcher and glass, a small box of tissues, the telephone, and a few of Baricza's personal possessions. But there was no sign of the flower wreath -- nothing at all.

Not even the smallest petal or the tiniest fallen leaf remained to prove the existence of Baricza's late night visitor. And as far as he could tell, nothing had been disturbed from its original place on the nightstand, either. He stared incredulously at the table. . .then fell back against the pillows with a sigh.

Better start getting ready for the inevitable, Bear, old son, he admonished himself as he pictured Ponch and Grossman's grinning faces. Because if you thought the razzing you took when the elephant sat on your car was bad enough. . .

. . . you ain't seen nothing yet!

Chapter Three

It was almost four o'clock the following afternoon before Dr. Brackett agreed to release Baricza from the hospital. Bear's earlier rush of energy had long since dissipated, leaving him weak and dizzy. Every muscle in his body may have ached, but by the time that Bonnie Clark came by to pick him up, he was as restless as a sock full of spiders.

"Relax, Bear," Bonnie teased him as she helped him out of the wheelchair and into her waiting Camaro. "It's not like you're going anywhere except straight home and right back to bed this evening. . .and before you give me any grief, those were Dr. Brackett's orders."

Baricza snorted in disgust -- but not so loudly that Bonnie could hear him. If the truth was to be told, he'd planned a little covert expedition out to the accident scene that afternoon, once the MAIT team was done for the day. However, one look at Bonnie's expression told him that she'd already appointed herself as his cook, nurse, and warden until he was steadier on his feet. . .which could take days, at the rate things were going right now.

But thinking about the investigation had reminded him of a question that he wanted to ask her. Bear waited until Bonnie pulled away from the curb and was concentrating on her driving before he said anything else.

"How's the MAIT investigation going so far?" he asked with what he hoped was a casual tone. "Nobody stopped by the hospital this morning to interview me. . .I guess they're all too busy with the field work, huh?"

With any luck, maybe he could persuade her to drive him out to the accident scene for a field interview. And if there was even the smallest scrap of evidence to prove that the princess was real, Baricza intended to find it.

Such an action might very well have been termed interference with an ongoing investigation -- something that the CHP took a very dim view of. But the prospect of being teased endlessly by Ponch and Grossman had made Baricza a desperate man. And if worst came to worst, he could always attribute any lapse of judgment to the concussion and the drugs he'd been given, he thought with a wry shrug.

He started to turn towards Bonnie, intending to charm her with one of his justifiably famous smiles. . .or more specifically, the grin that Bonnie always referred to as a real 'girdle melter.' Unfortunately for the sake of Bear's scheme, his "chauffeur" hadn't been born yesterday -- much less in the dark.

"Forget it, Bear -- the investigators aren't going to talk to you until tomorrow morning at the very earliest. And there's no way that I'm going to drive you out there for a field interview, either," Bonnie gave Baricza a look that would have wilted the average cactus in a matter of seconds.

Bear dropped his head a little and sighed. But when Bonnie saw his woebegone expression, she added in a gentler tone, "The only 'investigation' you're going to participate in this afternoon is figuring out which you'd rather have for dinner: a bowl of Grossie's famous chicken noodle soup or some of my homemade beef stew. I stopped off at your apartment and left a bowl of stew in the refrigerator before I came to pick you up. Artie showed up right before I left, and he was getting a big pot of his soup started so that it'd be ready for you when you got home."

"You left Grossman at my place. . .alone?" Bear groaned, and for the first time in all the years that they'd been friends, he regretted giving Bonnie a key to his apartment in case of emergencies.

"Well, no -- he wasn't alone. Ponch came over right before I left. Today is his day off, too," Bonnie frowned a little at Baricza's question. "He said he wanted to do something special to welcome you home from the hospital. Why, what's the big deal?"

After all, it wasn't as if Grossman and Ponch were the neighborhood cat burglars, Bonnie shrugged to herself. Granted, their practical jokes were annoying, but they never actually hurt any. . .

"Oh no!" she yelped as the real reason for Grossman's 'charitable' gesture suddenly became clear to her.

"Lo, the dawn cometh," Bear tapped his forehead knowingly. . .and he even remembered not to hit the bruised side.

He was already dreading whatever he would find when he opened his apartment door. Given Grossman and Poncherello's idea of a practical joke, that could mean almost anything from short-sheeting his bed to repainting the walls in some particularly bilious combination of colors like purple and orange.

And if the way that Bonnie's foot hit the accelerator with an audible thump was any indication, she had just come to a similar conclusion. Bonnie might not have been in her squad car, running her lights and siren. . .but nevertheless, she managed to thread her way through ten miles of early rush hour traffic at a speed that made Bear a little dizzier than he already was.

She swung into the parking lot and swooped into the only available visitor parking space, then jumped out of the car and ran around to Baricza's side of the car. She threw the door open and helped Bear out of the car, supporting him a little until he was steadier on his feet.

And in another second or two, Baricza was rapidly propelled across the parking lot and into his apartment building -- all thanks to Bonnie's firm grip on his arm. He was already dreading the long climb up to his second story apartment, but before he could voice his concerns to Bonnie, Baricza found himself being half-dragged, half-carried up the flight of stairs.

"Thanks, Bonnie. . ." Bear clutched the railing at the top of the stairs for a moment until his legs no longer felt like sponges. Bonnie was already at the door of his apartment, fumbling with the spare key, and as a result, she didn't hear him mutter under his breath, ". . .I think."

At that moment, the key turned in the lock, and Bonnie stepped into his apartment just ahead of him. Baricza started to follow her inside, but he stopped when he heard her snarl, "Grossman, I am going to hunt you and that rotten Frank Poncherello down and carve lace tablecloths out of your hides, if it's the last thing I ever do!"

And when he did walk into his living room, Baricza knew exactly why Bonnie was so infuriated. Ordinarily, Bear's apartment was almost Oriental in its simplicity: a few carefully chosen pictures were arranged neatly on the walls, and only a handful of personal treasures were displayed on the tables and shelves.

But now the room looked like something that had been taken from the pages of "Better Moats and Castles." Every available inch of furniture was covered in objects with a medieval motif. On the couch, an enormous stuffed dragon sprawled out full length as if taking a nap after a hard knight's work, while dozens of tasteless porcelain castles and plaster knights were scattered across the coffee table and on top of the television set.

Bonnie saw the stricken look in Bear's eyes, and she angrily swept a pile of stuffed unicorns out of the big recliner next to the fireplace. She could feel him shaking a little as she led him over to the chair. . .no doubt it was as much from anger as exhaustion, thanks to Grossman and Poncherello's little joke.

"Bear, I am so sorry about this," she apologized with a little wince. "I should have. . ."

". . .it's not your fault, Bonnie. I figured I was going to get razzed about everything that went on yesterday," Baricza interrupted quietly. "I just didn't think Ponch and Grossie would go to so much trouble in such a short time, that's all."

He managed a small, sad smile for her, then added, "Hey, all that stair climbing really made me thirsty. Unless Grossman got to them first, there should be a couple of cans of root beer in the refrigerator. Your favorite brand, too."

"I'll get us something to drink, Bear. You just sit there and try to relax," Bonnie nodded and disappeared around the corner into the kitchen.

Baricza leaned back in the chair, more than willing to obey Bonnie's "orders." Even a small effort as climbing the stairs had left him too exhausted to worry about anything else -- including his pillaged apartment. But as he stared down at the small figurines on the table beside him, one of them in particular caught his eye.

It was probably the least insipid of the Woolworth-style knick-knacks now littering his living room, and he managed another weary smile when he looked down at it. There was something about the little china princess' long blonde curls and delicate face that reminded him of his own princess. . . even if she was just some illusion concocted by his own mind.

Fantasy or no, just the thought of her face and the memory of her perfume were enough to make him smile peacefully to himself for a moment. Unfortunately, his tranquil mood was shattered abruptly when Bonnie let out a shriek from the kitchen.

He knew that panicked cry. . .it was the one Bonnie made whenever she was badly startled by something or someone. With more energy than he even knew he possessed, Baricza stood up and crossed the living room in a few swift steps. But before he reached the kitchen door, a large and vaguely human-shaped object came hurtling past him and landed noiselessly against the opposite wall.

"That does it," Bonnie spluttered as she staggered out of the kitchen. "I am going to kill those two little weasels with my bare hands the next time I see them! I almost had a heart attack when I turned on the kitchen light and saw that thing!"

The world spun in dizzy arcs as Baricza bent over and picked up the cutout, and as a result, it took him a moment to realize what he was seeing. But when he did finally understand what the object was, his expression crumpled as badly as the cardboard in his hands.

It was a photographer's backdrop -- the comedic kind with caricature bodies and a hole cut out for the face of the person being photographed. Someone had taken a snapshot of Baricza's face and enlarged it, then pasted it above the handsome prince's grotesquely-muscled body.

Even that might not have been so bad in and of itself. But in the place where the beautiful princess' face should have been, that same person had glued an image of a certain popular puppet: a smiling female pig wearing a long, curly blond wig.

Rage of a kind that he had seldom experienced before now threatened to engulf Baricza completely. It was as if Grossman and Poncherello had found a hidden journal containing his deepest thoughts and most private emotions, then turned those things into a slapstick comedy for everyone to see and laugh at.

Bonnie saw the fury in Baricza's eyes, but his expression quickly gave way to a look of pain and panic. She could almost tell what he was thinking now. . .questions about his own sanity and speculations about ever fully recovering from the injuries that had spawned the hallucinations in the first place. Bonnie reached for his arm, hoping to calm him by her touch, but with the strength born of desperation and anger, Baricza pulled away from her and stumbled back into the living room.

"Bear, wait up!" Bonnie cried, but there was no response except the sound of the front door being slammed. "Barry, no!"

Somehow, Baricza summoned up enough energy to make it to the bottom of the steps by himself -- and well ahead of his fellow officer, at that. Bonnie took the flight of stairs three steps at a time, but in spite of her Olympic-caliber sprint, she was barely in time to see Bear disappear through the main entrance and out onto the parking lot.

Jon Baker had driven Baricza's truck back from the station last night: now Bear stumbled towards his vehicle, the keys already in his hand. It didn't take much guess work on Bonnie's part to know where he wanted to go. . .and why.

Even though she was still too far away to physically restrain him, she still had one 'weapon' left at her disposal: all the years of trust and friendship that she'd shared with Baricza. She skidded to a halt less than six feet away from Bear's truck, and she gestured frantically at him, trying to make him listen to her appeal.

"Barry, wait. . .I believe you!" she cried out, straining to be heard above the truck's engine as Baricza threw the vehicle into reverse. "You don't have to go looking for the princess by yourself -- I'll drive you back to the scene of the accident right now. Bear!"

If Baricza heard her plea, there was no sign of it as he drove past her, dust and pebbles spraying out from under the truck tires in his haste to get away. Bonnie had time for one glimpse of his face, and she could have almost sworn that she saw a hard line of angry tears in his eyes as he looked down at her.

But then all that Bonnie saw were the truck's tail lights as Baricza turned out of the parking lot and disappeared down the street. She stood in the parking lot for a few seconds until the truck was gone from sight, then trudged back towards the pay phone in the apartment building's lobby.

It was a good thing that Baricza's bed at Rampart was empty now, she thought to herself as she dialed Sergeant Getraer's extension at the station. . .

. . .because when she caught up with Artie Grossman, he was definitely going to need it!


By the time that Bonnie pulled into the station parking lot, Sergeant Getraer was already waiting for her. And he wasn't alone, either: Harlan Arliss, the station mechanic, and Jon Baker were with him. . .as well as a sheepish-looking Frank Poncherello.

There was no sign of Grossman, and that was probably just as well, Bonnie thought to herself as she parked her car. Because if Artie had been within fifty yards of her at the moment, his life expectancy would have been considerably shorter than that of a raccoon on an LA road at rush hour.

In the meantime, though, Ponch was well within her target range. . .and one look at Bonnie's face told him exactly how much trouble he was really in. He quickly reviewed his strategy and decided that rolling over and playing dead was probably his best option at the moment.

If not his only choice. But hey, it worked for wolves, didn't it. . .and at this point, Ponch was willing to do almost anything to get off the hook. Especially one with Bonnie Clark's fingerprints on it.

"Bon-Bon, I'm sorry. I really didn't think. . .I mean, Grossie really didn't think Bear would. . ." Ponch began as Bonnie stormed towards him, but one look from her was enough to make him forget his hastily-rehearsed apology.

"Don't you 'Bon-Bon' me, Francis Llewylln Poncherello!" she snapped. "What you and Artie did to Bear was ignorance gone to seed! That poor man had just gotten out of the hospital, and then the two of you pulled a low-down dirty rotten stunt like that! You both ought to be strung up by your earlobes and have your fingernails pulled out one by one with a pair of rusty pliers. . ."

". . .uh, Bonnie?" Getraer cautiously broke into the middle of her tirade. . . then held his breath when she turned around and glared at him for a second.

But the anger melted out of her face when she saw who had interrupted her, and she shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry, Sarge. Have any of our guys found Bear, yet?"

"Not yet, but half the patrol is out looking for him, and you can bet we're going to find him before he gets himself hurt again," Getraer said somberly, then gestured at Jon and Harlan. "We were just getting ready to go over to the garage and take a look at Baricza's car when you pulled up. Jon's on the MAIT team that's investigating the accident, and he and Harlan have found some things that they think we're going to find very interesting."

"From what we can tell, the accident was caused by a defect in the right front tire. . .it looks like it must have had a flaw in it when it came from the factory," Baker nodded. "But what's really interesting is that Bear might not have been as out of it yesterday as everyone thought he was. It'd probably be easier to for us to show you than try to explain it, though."

Bonnie nodded, then followed her co-workers out to the garage. Baricza's wrecked car now sat in one of the maintenance bays, so that investigators could perform the painstaking job of inspecting every inch of the vehicle.

Bonnie repressed a little shiver when she caught her first glimpse of the car: in her book, it was nothing less than a miracle that Bear had gotten out alive -- much less with only minor injuries. She gave Jon a questioning look, but the blond motor officer merely smiled and gestured at Harlan to go ahead, as if acknowledging that this was the mechanic's turf. Harlan preened for a moment at the recognition, then motioned for Bonnie and Getraer to step closer to the wrecked car.

"At first, I thought Bear was off the wall when he said that someone helped him get out of the car -- I mean, all that talk about princesses and. . ." Harlan started to snicker, but he hastily rearranged his expression when Bonnie aimed one of those looks at him. "But after they towed his car in and I took a good look at it, I'm starting to think Baricza might have been right. I don't think there's any way that he could have gotten out of that car by himself. Notice anything about the door?"

Bonnie bent down and inspected the door. Or what passed for a door, anyway -- it was nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the crumpled and dented metal surrounding it.

"That door must be jammed tighter than the lid on a jar of dill pickles!" she exclaimed as she stood up and shook her head. "There's no way Bear got out of the car through that."

"You got that right, Bonnie. Four of us tried to pry it open this afternoon, and it wouldn't budge," Jon nodded in agreement, then gestured at the metal grill that separated the front of the compartment from the back. "The passenger side door is just as bad, and since the cage is still intact, he couldn't have crawled over the seat and gotten out through the back. Not to mention the fact that the back doors don't open from the inside, anyway."

Ponch muffled a snort of amusement at Jon's pronouncement: it was clear to him that his fellow officers were allowing their friendship with Baricza to cloud their judgement. He suspected that he might just be pushing his luck, especially where Bonnie was concerned, but even so, someone had to point out the solution to the "mystery."

"Oh, come on you guys," he snorted. "Isn't it obvious? Bear must have broken the window out, climbed out of the car, and then collapsed."

"We thought that, too, Ponch. . .at least until we started looking at where the glass landed," Baker said mildly. "See for yourself."

Ponch leaned closer to the car and looked down through the space where the window had once been. Bright bits of safety glass glittered on the floorboard and front seat --fragments that should have already been scooped up from the ground and bagged at the accident scene.

"I get it!" Ponch exclaimed. "If Bear had broken the window from the inside out, most of the glass would have landed on the ground beside the car. But if most of the glass is on the inside, then that must mean. . ."

"Give that man a cigar. . .but not in my garage," Harlan thumbed over his shoulder at the big "No Smoking" sign on the wall. "Baricza didn't break that window out. Someone else did. . .someone who was standing outside the car."

Bonnie nodded, and her expression was fiercely loyal. "See, Baricza wasn't as far out of it as you all thought he was!" she said triumphantly.

"Give me a break!" Ponch was clearly unconvinced. "You guys really believe that a princess in a long velvet cloak just happened to ride by in her golden coach and rescued Bear? How did she break the window out. . .wave her magic nightstick?"

For a second or two, it appeared that Bonnie was ready to rearrange Ponch's headlights -- and not the ones on his car, either. But then she frowned a little: his remark had triggered an association in her mind, and now she struggled to bring the image into focus.

"What do you have, Clark?" Getraer asked quietly, knowing that Bonnie's agile mind was following a line of thought that wasn't immediately obvious to everyone else.

"Sarge, I just thought of something. Maybe Bear did see a princess. . .or at least someone dressed up like one," she said slowly, and her gaze was intense. "Isn't there a big re-enactment group that has a camp ground not too far from where Bear went off the road? Some kind of crazy medieval outfit or something?"

Harlan Arliss drew himself up to his full height, such as it was, and harrumphed under his breath. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared up at Bonnie indignantly.

"I'll have you know that I'm a member of that 'crazy' outfit," he snapped. "It's called S.A.G.A. -- the Society for the Advancement of Gaelic Anachronism. It's like S.C.A., the Society for Creative Anachronism, except that S.A.G.A is mostly for people of Scottish and Irish descent. We get together once or twice a month and recreate life in a medieval fortress. I'm Chief Keeper of the Mews."

"That figures," Getraer muttered under his breath. "Talk about your busman's holiday."

And as usual, Ponch was several steps behind everyone else in any given waltz -- this one included. He looked at Harlan and shrugged in confusion.

"I don't get it," he frowned. "What do cats have to do with Bear's imaginary princess?"

"Horses, you idiot. . .I'm in charge of the Stables. And not as a member of the Mystic Knights of the Golden Shovel, if that's what you're thinking, Jon," Harlan rolled his eyes in annoyance when he saw Baker trying hard not to laugh. "We dress up in authentic costumes while we're out at the 'fortress,' and we have to stay in character. Just your usual re-enactment stuff."

In spite of his concern for Baricza, Jon permitted himself a small grin. "Oh sure, Harlan. A bunch of grown men running around in velvet smoking jackets and pantyhose. Nothing strange about that."

"Very funny, Jon," Harlan grumbled. "There may be a couple of people who get carried away with the fantasy element, but we try to keep an eye on them and keep them in line. But for the most part, we're all perfectly normal people with 9 to 5 jobs. Heck, we even have an LAPD homicide detective that comes out and joins us whenever her schedule permits. She's a gorgeous lady, too -- a little too tall for my taste, but still a real knock-out. And she's sharp, too. . .nothing gets past her. Her S.A.G.A. name is Lady Deidre, but her real name is Deidre O'Connor. Detective Sergeant Dee O'Connor."

The same thought occurred to Bonnie, Getraer, and Baker at almost the same instant. Getraer was the first to respond, and he headed out of the garage at a dead run.

When he reached the bay doors, he paused only long enough to call back to the others over his shoulder, "Jon, take my motor and get a head start. Bonnie, you and Ponch take one of the black and whites and follow him. I'll join you in an unmarked unit as soon as I talk to the lieutenant. I've had my suspicions all along about those extra patrols he ordered us to run."

Ordinarily, Ponch's mind worked along the lines of a refrigerator door: the light seldom came on until the half-way point in any given conversation. Now he and Harlan exchanged bewildered shrugs, and there was a hint of annoyance in Ponch's voice when he looked at Bonnie and Jon.

"Will somebody explain what's going on around here?" he demanded.

"The Goodyear Killer, Ponch. . .Detective O'Connor is probably investigating the case, using the whole S.A.G.A. bit as her cover," Bonnie explained. "For all we know, she may even be wandering around out there, trying to bait the killer into attacking her. And if that's the case, I think we all know who Bear's 'princess' really is!"

"And this is just the kind of weather that the Goodyear Killer always picks, too. I just hope this O'Connor woman is as on the ball as you say she is, Harlan. . .because she may be the only thing that keeps Baricza from getting in over his head," Baker called as he trotted towards the door, followed by Bonnie and Ponch. "There could be a real live monster loose out there somewhere tonight. And if that's the case, Bear's headed straight for it."

Chapter Four

Keeping his truck on the road was taking every bit of concentration that Baricza could summon up at the moment. His vision was still a little blurry from the concussion, and the gray half-light of early evening wasn't helping matters, either. Solid objects like cars and trees appeared to waver like candle flames, and several times, he swerved to avoid something that turned out to be nothing more than a shadow when he drove past it.

But there wasn't time to think about that at the moment. Baricza would have been willing to bet that Bonnie had long since called the station and alerted Sergeant Getraer to what was going on. And even though Bear had been devious enough to take the back roads, it was still just a matter of time before one of his fellow officers stopped him. . .if indeed someone wasn't already waiting at the accident scene for him.

That was a chance he was just going to have to take, though. Under ordinary circumstances, Bear would have been the first one to admit that what he was doing was foolish, at best: all evidence at the scene would have already been collected by the MAIT team. . . including any proof of the princess' existence.

Even so, he felt compelled to return to the place he had first "seen" her, and now he stubbornly struggled to stay alert. Perhaps there was something that the investigators had overlooked -- some tiny detail that might help him decide whether or not he'd gone off the deep end.

I have to do this, he told himself as he turned onto the highway and headed towards the accident scene. If she's real, then I have to know. And if she's not. . .

Bear let that thought fade away. He didn't particularly want to finish it, anyway. . .and besides, he needed every bit of his concentration for the road ahead, if he was going to avoid a repeat of yesterday's accident. Tree shadows stretched eerily across the road, making it even more difficult for him to see, and the daylight, such as it was, had already begun to disappear.

To keep himself alert, he turned on the truck's headlights, then flipped on the radio. It was set to his favorite news station, and now, the weather forecaster was in the middle of his prediction for the evening.

". . .chance of rain, near one hundred percent," the meteorologist was saying, and Baricza shuddered at those innocuous words.

Another night just like the ones that the Goodyear Killer likes, Bear thought to himself uneasily.

Bear wasn't completely unprepared for emergencies: there was a heavy duty flashlight behind the seat, and he was wearing his off-duty gun in an ankle holster. But as weak as he still felt, he wouldn't be much good if things came down to an actual physical confrontation -- a fact that he now unwillingly admitted to himself.

Just concentrate on your driving, Baricza, he admonished himself, forcing himself to focus on the road ahead of him. Whoa, Nelly . . .what in the world was that thing?

He caught a glimpse of a strange, metallic-looking object in his lane, and he was forced to swerve sharply in order to avoid hitting it. He stopped the truck and got out, then walked the short distance back to the spot where he thought he'd seen something.

Assuming for a moment that it isn't just another optical illusion, he thought with a sigh.

No. . .it was definitely real, and Baricza stared at it for a moment, trying to figure out what it was. He'd never seen anything quite like it: the object was made up of a few pieces of thick steel cable intertwined to form a kind of three-dimensional triangle.

Except that the points of this particular 'triangle' were shaped like oversized fish hooks -- and particularly nasty ones, at that. Whatever the thing was, it was a tow truck driver's dream. . .and a motorist's worst nightmare.

Man, that would have done a number on my tires if I'd run over it. . . he shook his head as he walked back to his truck and tossed the piece of metal onto the bed liner. Now that's funny -- that thing just landed point up again, the way it was when I first found it. Wonder what the odds are of that happening again?

Apparently the odds were considerably better than fair, if the results of Baricza's impromptu experiment were any indication. For a moment, he continued to toss the bits of wire onto the bed of the truck, and each time, the little object landed with at least one spike pointing up.

"A caltrop. . .I should have known that the knave would employ such oafish tricks whereby to ensnare his victims!" a voice from somewhere behind the line of trees made Bear jump. "Doubtlessly he removes the evidence of his perfidiousness after he commits his foul crimes."

With that, the princess stepped out from behind the line of trees, but she remained within their shadows until she reached the spot where Baricza stood. The natural color gradients of the cape's velvet material made it blend perfectly into the blue and purple shadows of early evening. . .and suddenly he understood exactly how she could seemingly vanish into thin air.

Camouflage -- medieval style, he thought with a wry smile.

The woman walked over to the truck and picked up the piece of metal, then inspected it carefully for a moment. But when Baricza made a small questioning sound under his breath, she looked up at him in concern. She saw the incomprehension in his eyes and chuckled lightly, but there was no hint of mockery in her warm, gentle laugher.

"A caltrop, my lord -- a device employed by the Scots on the field of battle," she held up the object, then tossed it back into the bed of the truck. "As you have doubtlessly already remarked to yourself, the caltrop always falls with one point up, and those points are kept as sharp as any huntsman's blade. I fancy that the Sassenach -- the Englysshe, as you call them -- found that stepping on such a thing in the midst of battle was not greatly to their liking. Nor did it greatly improve the footing of their steeds. . .and nowadays, I fear that it discomfits the hooves of even great metal beasts such as these."

She patted the side of Bear's truck as if it had been a faithful horse, then laughed again in those sweet tones that made Baricza think of little silver bells. But her amusement died away quickly when she saw how Baricza was beginning to shiver in the damp air and the way that his legs were shaking from exhaustion.

"Come, sire, let us return to your conveyance. You are weary, and I see in your eyes that you have many questions you wish to ask of me," she smiled gently at him.

She reached out to take his arm and steady him, and this time, there was no doubt in Bear's mind. The hand on his arm was indeed warm, living flesh. . .and not just the delusion of a pain or drug-fogged mind. He smiled at her, and relief that bordered on giddiness showed in every line of his face.

"You are real!" he laughed as she slipped an arm around his waist and led him back to the passenger side of his truck. "Whoa there, Princess. . .wrong side of the horse. The rider -- that's me -- always mounts up from the left."

"Under the circumstances, my lord, I think it perhaps best if I served as coachman for us both. Doubtless there are other caltrops spread along this road, and we would do well to avoid them," the woman smiled as she opened the truck door, and Baricza found himself sitting in the passenger seat almost before he knew what had happened.

Under the circumstances, there was nothing to do but acquiesce: Baricza waited until she climbed into the driver's seat and then handed her the car keys. Truthfully, it would be a relief to let someone else do the driving: his head was starting to ache badly again, and his night vision was almost non-existent at the moment.

The princess gestured at the road ahead of them. "Too, there is the matter of several of your comrades-in-arms, who have prepared an ambuscade for you several lengths around the next turn. I listened to them whilst concealed from their sight, and judging from their words, they mean to apprehend you and take you back to your rightful dwelling place."

Even as Bear's 'chauffeur' was speaking, she had already performed a neat three-point turn on the narrow highway, carefully managing to avoid the steep embankments. She set off in the direction that Baricza had just come from, and her touch on the steering wheel was so light that the gravel under the tires was barely disturbed.

The truck had just been tuned up a week or so ago, and the engine was running so quietly that it was barely audible. But the sound of gravel spraying out from under the tires would have carried well in the silence along this stretch of road -- no doubt alerting the CHP officers waiting for him around the bend in the road.

Only movements like the ones that the princess was making would give them a better chance of escaping undetected. There was something hauntingly familiar about the way that she handled a vehicle -- something that danced just outside Baricza's ability to focus on it.

Well, for someone who looks like she's more used to riding in a royal coach, the lady sure knows how to crack the whip when it comes to a completely different kind of "horse power!" he grinned to himself. Way to go, Princess!

And if the woman's intense expression was any indication, she had some destination of her own in mind -- although Bear couldn't imagine where that might be. In any event, there wasn't much he could do except go along for the ride, he shrugged to himself as he fastened his seatbelt.

Even though he was a passenger, he found himself automatically scanning both sides of the highway, just as he would have done if he'd been on patrol. But after a moment or so, he caught a brief movement out of the corner of his eye, and when he turned towards his companion, he was startled to see that the princess was watching the road exactly as he'd been doing.

With that, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. The knife scar on her wrist, the way she handled a car, and her constant alertness could only add up to one possible answer -- and Bear had already done the math.

"OK, it's about time you came clean with me," he said firmly, and the woman's smile was charmingly sheepish as she glanced over at him. "That scar on your wrist looks like you got it in a knife fight somewhere along the way. You watch the highway like you're keeping an eye out for trouble, and you're as quiet as if you're responding to a 2-11 in a warehouse. That's because you are a cop, aren't you. . .and can we please just forget the 'my lord' and 'sire' routine for a few minutes?"

"Busted. . .and by a Chippie, at that," she grinned ruefully at him, then pushed the hood of her cape back so that Baricza could get a good look at her face. "The name is Deidre O'Connor. Detective Sergeant Dee O'Connor, LAPD Homicide."

She nodded, then held up her wrist so that he could see it more clearly. "And you're right about the scar on my arm. I got it when I was a rookie. . .I was trying to break up a bar fight. Some nine foot tall, gazillion pound gorilla in a Marine uniform took a swing at me with a shiv he'd picked up during his tour of duty in Vietnam. It took fifty three stitches to close up the cut. . .after I busted that guy's chops and threw him head-first into the back of my squad car, I might add!"

Bear grinned at O'Connor's tart phraseology, but even if her words hadn't ID'd her as a cop, her reference to Baricza as a "Chippie" definitely would have. There was an ongoing rivalry between the LAPD and the CHP -- one that encompassed everything from basketball games to the number of times that each organization was mentioned in the newspaper in conjunction with any given case.

But none of us would hesitate to go to the aid of a fellow officer when the, uh, chips are down. . . so to speak, Bear nodded fiercely. No matter what color uniform the other guy is wearing!

Or gal, as the case might be. In any event, one good introduction deserved another, and Baricza gave O'Connor his best garter-curling grin.

"I'm Barry -- Barry Baricza. . ." he started to say, but O'Connor held up a restraining hand before he could add any more biographical details.

"I know who you are, Bear," she returned his grin with one of her own. "Barry Baricza, the 6'4" terror of rival LAPD and LAFD basketball squads. Also a talented photographer, pilot, skydiver, and all-round good guy."

Baricza raised an eyebrow mildly: O'Connor had done her homework as thoroughly as a good cop should, but even so, it was a bit disconcerting to find himself as the subject of her 'investigation.' She saw his puzzled expression, then started to chuckle.

"Relax, Bear -- you're not being kidnapped by some crazed stalker," she shook her head. "My next-door neighbor just happens to be your good buddy Johnny Gage. I've seen pictures of you and heard all about you from him. Johnny keeps talking about trying to set you and me up on a date, but between your schedule and mine, things just haven't quite worked out yet."

Johnny, old buddy, I owe you a beer! Bear grinned to himself. A couple of cases, as a matter of fact!

O'Connor paused at an intersection, then turned left past a small sign whose weather-beaten Gothic lettering proclaimed, 'S.A.G.A. Members Only. Trespassers will be turned into toads.'

Baricza had driven past the sign several times on the previous day. He vaguely remembered Harlan mentioning the S.A.G.A. group to him a few months ago, but he hadn't been paying enough attention to the mechanic's perpetual nattering to recall what Arliss had actually said.

I could have saved myself a lot of worry about my own mental health if I'd remembered, Baricza shrugged. Guess that's what I get for not listening!

But even with another piece of the puzzle in place, Bear was still confused by O'Connor's behavior. The detective shut off the truck lights and drove the last three hundred yards down the long driveway in almost total darkness. As they neared a large wooden building with a semi-circle of trees surrounding it, she killed the engine and let the truck coast the last few yards. The vehicle came to rest at the side of the structure, and now the truck was half-hidden by the low branches above it.

Silently, O'Connor handed the keys back to Baricza, and her expression was grim as she stared out into the darkness for a moment. The detective's earlier reference to a stalker made Baricza think of that nasty-looking piece of metal rolling around in the back of his truck, and he looked at O'Connor for a moment before understanding filled his eyes.

"Ah, the penny drops at last," O'Connor teased gently, but she quickly grew somber again. "But you're absolutely right. I've been out here for the last few months, posing as a S.A.G.A. player in order to investigate a suspect in the Goodyear case."

She sighed sharply, then undid the clasps on her cape and pulled half of the concealing garment aside to reveal a heavy leather gear belt. Bear could see that its sturdy loops held a canister of Mace, a small transceiver, her shield in its leather case, and a Walther PPK. And from the looks of it, she was also wearing a Kevlar vest under her dark green peasant blouse. . .no doubt that was the 'armor' he'd felt when his hand had brushed against her side last night.

"So you're wandering around out here, trying to bait him into attacking you, is that it?" Baricza kept his voice as quiet as O'Connor's had been, although he couldn't have said why at the moment. "But isn't that a little bit risky? I mean, does your department even know that you're running around in the middle of nowhere with no back-up and a killer on the loose?"

"Uh, you're making a couple of rather large assumptions there, Baricza. . .to say nothing of calling my professional judgement into question," she shook her head. "Believe me, my department knows exactly what I'm doing out here -- and not only my department, but some of the higher ups in your department, as well. LAPD requested that the CHP act as high visibility decoys to take some of the heat off of us. That way, maybe our primary suspect would be more concerned about avoiding you guys and end up playing right into our hands."

"So that's what all the extra patrols were about!" Bear nodded. . .now it all made sense to him.

"And my job description doesn't include being fodder for some psycho dirtbag with a taste for killing stranded women motorists, by the way," O'Connor said crisply. "Just because you haven't seen my back-up doesn't mean that it's not out there. Going on "cattle raids" as part of the S.A.G.A. re-enactments has taught me quite a bit about how to move without being seen, and I've passed that information along to a lot of other people, too."

O'Connor gestured towards the woods surrounding the building. "People like the plainclothes officers who are hiding out there behind the trees along the highway, for example. You can bet that they're watching every car that goes by -- all without being seen themselves. Of course, all the latest high-tech surveillance gear doesn't hurt anything, either, especially when you're dealing with a full-fledged psycho like Wayne McMurvey."

"But I don't understand why. . ." Baricza started to protest, but O'Connor shook her head and gestured at the big, barn-like wooden building in front of them.

"Come on inside, and I'll explain it all to you. . .or as much of it as we've been able to figured out, anyway. That's why I brought you in the first place, so we could talk someplace that's fairly safe and out of sight," she said softly. "From the looks of that caltrop, I'd say the Goodyear Killer's got something planned for this evening. I just hope that your buddies haven't scared him off while they've been running around looking for you. We've got an operation already in place, and we were hoping to nail the SOB before the night's out."

Baricza nodded unhappily as he slipped out of the truck and followed O'Connor towards the building, moving as silently as he possibly could. It had been a fool's move on his part to come out here this evening: even though he may have found the answers to his own questions, that knowledge might very well have been obtained at the expense of someone else's life.

If this McMurvey character gets spooked, he may never come back out here, Bear thought, waiting for O'Connor to unlock the big wooden door. He'll move somewhere else, maybe to another town or state. . .and more women will die until the police can figure out the connection. Way to go, Baricza.

He followed her inside, then paused just inside the threshold until his eyes adjusted somewhat to the darkness. From the sounds of it, O'Connor knew her way around the place well enough to function in these conditions. . .that, or else she'd learned not to need the amount of light that most city dwellers did to see where they were going at night.

His suspicions were confirmed in a moment when he heard the very un-medieval sound of a match being struck, and in another second or two, a candle wick flared and caught, sending out its soft golden light. O'Connor moved towards Baricza, carrying the candleholder, and she paused at a door off to the left of the large entryway.

"Sorry about the illumination or lack thereof. . .this building isn't wired for electricity," she gestured for Baricza to follow her. "Let's go inside here. This particular room has no outside windows, and if McMurvey is wandering around out there somewhere, he won't see the light from the candle."

Bear moved as quietly as he could, wincing a little whenever a floorboard squeaked in spite of his caution. He slipped inside the room and O'Connor followed him, still carefully shielding the light as well as she could with one hand. She noiselessly closed the door after her, then sat the candlestick down on a low wooden bench along one wall.

"That's better," O'Connor nodded. When she spoke, her voice still barely above a whisper, but Baricza could still hear the laughter behind her 'somber' pronouncement. "Welcome to the castle scullery, my lord. Take heed that thou slippest not on the shell of a nutmeat or the core of a pippin. . .and thereby breaketh thy keister."

Bear managed to keep his groan of amusement to a reasonably quiet level as he looked around the room. It was indeed a medieval kitchen scullery: dozens of enormous copper pots waited to be polished to a soft glow, while the table was loaded down with a variety of wooden and cast iron cooking utensils. Heavy cast iron utensils, at that.

"McDonalds, eat your heart out," O'Connor grinned at Baricza. "OK, enough with the funky retro bit. Have a seat, and I'll try to explain everything to you."

She gestured at the wooden bench, and she waited until Bear sat down with a quiet groan of relief before she continued. "Of all of our suspects, McMurvey fits the Goodyear Killer profile best. He's got a history of mental illness, and we think he's probably a heavy drug and alcohol user, too. He's always trying to act out a lot of his fantasies whenever he's at S.A.G.A. meetings. It's mostly dungeons and dragons type stuff, but with some really sick torture elements. The rest of the S.A.G.A. members try to keep him in line, though, and now we think he may be going elsewhere to do his acting --with real people. But because the problem started out here, he keeps returning to this area to commit the murders."

Her face momentarily filled with anger before she continued, "About three months ago, the Chief Wizard had had enough of McMurvey and cast a "spell" on him, which he has the right to do if a player breaks the rules or is uncooperative. The gist of the curse was that McMurvey's character could only be "alive" on rainy days. It limits the amount of time he can interact with other people. And since he has trouble separating fact from fantasy. . ."

"That would go a long way to explain why he only commits crimes when it's raining," Baricza nodded. "So how were you guys planning on trapping him tonight?"

"Well, since it's the kind of weather that the Goodyear Killer likes, we've currently got four different women officers out in unmarked vehicles. They'll each take a turn driving the entire length of this highway at random intervals, and with any luck, maybe McMurvey will bite the bait, if he really is the perp," O'Connor said. "He works at a gas station not far from here, and we think he may have been acquainted with the victims -- at least well enough to know their work schedules and approximately when they'd be driving this stretch of road on their way home."

"Were you scheduled to be one of the four women out there tonight. . .at least before I screwed up and came barging into the middle of the whole operation, anyway?" Baricza asked bitterly.

"No, Bear, I wasn't. McMurvey would have recognized me in a heartbeat if I'd been one of the drivers. It might not have scared him off since I do have a reason to be out here. But after what happened yesterday, I didn't want to run the risk of spooking him, just in case he is getting suspicious of me," she shook her head.

She walked over to Bear and put her hand on his shoulder, then looked deeply into his eyes. "And I don't want to hear any more of this guilt trip routine from you, either, Baricza. You had no way of knowing what you were getting into the middle of when you came out here this afternoon. So, any more questions for the detective before Briefing is over?"

"Yeah, there are a couple of things that I'd like to know," Bear nodded as O'Connor sat down beside him on the bench.

For reasons that he didn't even understand himself, a hard knot of anger had suddenly made him feel as if he was about to suffocate. All the fear and stress of the last twenty four hours now came rushing back to him, and somehow, those feelings now seemed to center on O'Connor. The jokes at his expense, being afraid for his own sanity. . .all of it seemed to be linked in his mind now to the detective's strange behavior.

"How come you just took off and left me yesterday after I wrecked my car?" he demanded. "Why didn't you at least wait until someone else showed up? And what was the bit at the hospital last night with the flowers? Not to mention the kiss -- or was that just some kind of joke, too?"

O'Connor turned towards him, hearing the angry -- if somewhat plaintive -- note in his voice. "Bear, I stuck around until I heard the motor officers headed towards the scene," she said quietly.

She started to put her hand on his arm, but Baricza pulled away from her bitterly. O'Connor waited for a moment until Bear calmed down a little, but the detective could still read the anger that glimmered in his face and eyes.

"I was a field observer yesterday -- I was just dressed up in my S.A.G.A. outfit to throw McMurvey off track, in case he spotted me. You know, make it look like I had an 'official' reason to be wandering out there, setting up an event or something. But I had orders not to move from my assigned position even if I was attacked by a sore-tailed bear. . .you should pardon the expression," she shrugged wryly, but Baricza didn't respond to her humor.

O'Connor dropped her head for a moment, then continued, "Baricza, I had my radio with me, and I was the one who called in the accident. But that wasn't good enough as far as I was concerned. I couldn't stand by and just watch you there in the middle of that wreck -- orders or no orders. I figured that you'd be hurt and scared when you woke up. . .not to mention laying there wondering how long it was going to be before anyone came looking for you."

"Gee, thanks. . .I think," Baricza snapped, although he couldn't have explained his current animosity even if he'd tried.

"Will you climb down off your high horse for a minute and just listen to me?" O'Connor stood up and crossed her arms over her chest. "I compromised a three month long homicide investigation in order to help a fellow officer. I was willing to take the flak, though -- especially when I recognized you from the pictures that Johnny Gage has shown me. I got you out of the wreck and stayed with you as long as I possibly could before I had to hide out from your buddies. In fact, I'm pretty sure that one of those two motor officers -- the dark-haired one -- got a glimpse of me as I was leaving."

So Ponch had an idea all along that there was something to my story? This is the second time that he's known I was telling the truth and didn't back me up on it! Baricza thought. Ponch, I'm going to get you for this!

Aloud, Bear said, "OK, I can buy that. . .and by the way, thanks for getting me out of the wreck. I appreciate that. But you still haven't explained what happened at the hospital last night."

"You're welcome, by the way," O'Connor teased, but then her expression became somber as she stared at the floor for a moment. "The reason that I came to the hospital is because I was worried about you. I tried calling Rampart just as soon as I got back to the station last night, but they wouldn't give me any information over the telephone. I was so worried about you that I even forgot to change clothes before I called a friend of mine who works at Rampart as an orderly. "

She tried to smile, but it was obvious that she was still upset about everything that had happened to Bear. A line of tears glittered in her eyes for a few seconds. . .and with that, the anger melted out of Baricza's expression. He reached out and held O'Connor's small hand against the side of his face for a moment, then smiled quietly at her before he let her go.

It took O'Connor a moment to master her emotions, and when she did, she continued with her story. "About half-way over to the hospital, I realized that I was still in my S.A.G.A. costume, and I didn't want to attract that much attention to myself. So I waited until everyone else cleared out after visiting hours, and then Dave helped me get onto the wing and into your room without anyone else spotting me. I started to leave the flowers for you, but then I figured that there might be trouble if one of the nurses saw them and realized that they hadn't been there before. So I had Dave go back to your room and smuggle the wreath out before someone saw it."

There was a moment of silence while Bear took in everything that O'Connor had said. He struggled to find the right words to say, then decided that the only possible choice was the simple truth.

"Thanks, Dee. . .thanks for caring about me," Baricza dropped his head, ashamed now of his momentary fit of temper. There was one more question that he wanted to ask -- but he was almost afraid to know the answer. "And the kiss? Was that real, or was I so fogged out on painkillers that I just imagined it?"

By way of answer, the small blonde woman put her hands on Bear's shoulders for a moment, then leaned towards him with a mysterious smile. And this time when she kissed Baricza, there was no question about the passion that lay behind her touch -- a long, lingering kiss that made him reach out and pull her closer to him with an answering passion of his own.

But just when Baricza was convinced that he was going to have to learn to breath through his ears or else figure out how to do without oxygen altogether, O'Connor backed away from him slightly. She gently touched his face and hair with one hand, but there was still a 'wicked' sparkle in her eyes as she looked down at him.

"I trust that answers your question?" she grinned. "And before you get the wrong idea about me, I don't usually go around kissing guys on the first couple of dates. Even if they do take me to high-class joints like this and Rampart Hospital."

She gestured around her at the scullery and waited until Bear stopped laughing, then added quietly, "It's just that Gage has told me so much about his best friend Barry Baricza that I feel like I already know you. He's told me all about what a good buddy you are, how you've always been there for him through the good times and the bad. He's always talking about the way you really care about people, both the ones you work with and the ones that you protect."

O'Connor smiled at him, then gestured at a rust colored stain on one side of her cloak and added, "And you were so sweet yesterday after the accident. While I was getting you out of the wreck, you were only semi-conscious -- I doubt if you even knew what you were saying. But you told me how much you appreciated everything that I was doing to help you, and you kept on apologizing for getting dirt and blood on my clothes. The way I figure it, if you're that much of a gentleman when you're out of it, I want to stick around and see what you're like when you're awake!"

Bear chuckled ruefully for a moment, but then frowned a little as something else occurred to him. "I wonder why Johnny never mentioned you to me, though? He's been holding out on me. . .that turkey!"

"Bear, up until four months ago, I was assigned to a major case -- one that they're still trying to sort out all the facts. I can't go into the details, but let's just say that I was undercover and into something deep. . .real deep," O'Connor sighed sharply. "That's why I asked Johnny not to tell you about me when he first wanted to, just in case there were some problems afterwa. . ."

She stopped in mid-word, her face furrowed with concern as she listened intently to something outside the door. She put her finger to her lips for silence, but the gesture was unnecessary. Baricza had already heard the squeak of a floorboard as someone walked across it.

Quickly, O'Connor blew out the candle, then waited for a few seconds until her eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness. She gestured at Baricza to stay where he was for the time being, then crouched low and moved over to the door as silently as a curl of mist across a Scottish moor.

Cautiously, the detective opened the door but by no more than the thinnest sliver. She peered out cautiously. . .and even in the darkness, Baricza saw the way that her expression tightened into a mask of anger as she recognized the intruder.

Wayne McMurvey, no doubt. He must have spotted some of the CHP officers out looking for me and decided to hide out here until the heat is off, Bear bent down and took his off-duty gun out of its ankle holster -- but even that small movement made his head spin.

With a little bit of luck, maybe Dee and I can see to it that this is one monster whose days of terrorizing the countryside are over. Because if we don't, we could both end up as Purina Dragon Chow!

Chapter Five

Silently, O'Connor slipped back to Baricza and bent down until her lips were only an inch or two away from his ear. "It's McMurvey. He may have been hiding out here all along. . .that, or else he was out in the woods, waiting to do his thing, and your guys spooked him. My guess is that he's got this 'raiding' business down to a science -- he knows just when to stay and when to run. I'm going to call for some back up, then try to keep an eye on him from a distance."

"Like heck I'm going to let you go charging off after some maniac by yourself!" Bear snapped softly.

"This building is one huge maze of chambers and corridors -- not to mention a bunch of concealed rooms and secret passages leading to the outside. Even if you were in better shape, you'd get lost in a heartbeat," O'Connor whispered. "And I sure as the heck don't want McMurvey pulling a hey-presto vanishing act on us in here. . .he could be outside and gone before we know it. That's why I want you to stay here and make sure that he doesn't double back and get out the front way before my buddies get here."

"Like I said, Detective, not a chance," Baricza shook his head again. "I'm going with you as your back up."

He stood up, but then had to make a dizzy grab for O'Connor's shoulder until the world stopped doing cartwheels and back flips all around him. O'Connor looked up at him with a wry shake of her head, then snorted in a thoroughly unprincess-like fashion.

"Case in point, Chippie," she shrugged, then added in a gentler tone of voice, "Bear, I can either take care of you or track McMurvey, but I can't do both. Which will it be?"

"Go," Bear gestured firmly towards the door. . .then added with a wistful smile, "Carefully."

O'Connor nodded her approval of his decision, then gently brushed his face once more with the back of her hand. Despite his brave words, Baricza still swallowed hard as he watched O'Connor draw her Walther out of its holster and vanish through the door. The detective was immediately engulfed by the darkness, but for a moment, Baricza heard her soft voice as she called in the information over the radio.

Then even that tiny sound was gone. . .leaving Bear alone in the darkness with nothing but his thoughts and a gun that he wasn't sure he would have been able to aim properly -- assuming that he could have actually seen what he was pointing it at, in the first place. And that wasn't highly likely at the moment, he admitted to himself with a sigh.

Currently, his hearing was his most accurate sense, and now he struggled to put together the sounds around him to make a recognizable pattern. He could hear assorted creaks and groans that might have been nothing more than the building's wooden timbers moving slightly in the wind. . .or at least Baricza hoped that was what all those noises were, anyway.

The waiting was the worst part, though: the tiny glowing hands on his watch inched slowly towards the two minute mark since O'Connor had called for help. . .then three and the four minutes. There were still no sounds of Dee's back-up arriving: in fact, now there were no sounds in the old building at all. Which was either a very good sign, Bear knew -- or else a very bad one.

But then a tiny scratching noise over in the far corner made Baricza jump. In a building like this one, Bear knew that he'd be doing good if a mouse was all that he had to contend with. . .especially in a scullery full of things like bacon rinds and cooking grease. They might have just been garbage to a human, but to an animal like a rat or a raccoon, they were real dainties -- and woe to the unlucky person who disturbed them at their stolen meals.

To make matters worse, whatever it was now sounded big -- certainly big enough to make the floor squeak a little under its feet. Immediately visions of a wild dog came to Baricza's mind: packs of stray or abandoned pets roaming these woods were a common enough occurrence.

Whatever it is, that critter must be huge! Bear groaned to himself as he cautiously felt along the bench for the candle holder that O'Connor had sat down beside him.

But before he could find the candlestick, a dank blast of air swept over him, as if a secret door had suddenly opened up somewhere. With a muffled snarl, Baricza realized that was exactly what had just happened over along the room's far wall.

He started to jump to his feet, but at that instant, a dark figure loomed over him. Now he could hear the whisper of cloth and smell the odor of alcohol -- just before as the intruder's fist connected heavily with his jaw. The force of the blow drove Baricza backward onto the ground. . .and with that, he knew exactly what kind of 'wild animal' he was dealing with.

Somehow, McMurvey must've figured out that someone was after him, the thought flashed through Bear's mind. He must've doubled back through a secret passage in order to get out through the main entrance.

And at the moment, it appeared that Wayne McMurvey was also far better equipped than his opponent in the war of survival of the fittest. Unlike Baricza, the wiry little man in the black ceremonial robe was at the peak of his physical strength: now he pinned Bear against the ground with no difficulty at all, despite the CHP officer's best attempts to defend himself.

"Give it up, McMurvey!" Baricza snarled as he struggled to free himself. "There are going to be cops swarming this place in a few minutes. . .you can't get past all of them without being spotted!"

But if the glassy-eyed McMurvey heard Bear's words, he gave no sign of it. He continued to chant under his breath in an eerie sing-song. . .probably some kind of a 'magical spell,' Baricza realized dimly.

Got. . .to. . .hang. . .on, he thought, despite the dizziness that made McMurvey's pinched little face look as if Bear was seeing it through a kaleidoscope. Help will be here soon. I hope.

Baricza fought desperately to shake aside his attacker, whose fingers were now buried in the CHP officer's throat. With an effort that made his heart feel as if it would burst, Baricza managed to gain enough leverage to topple McMurvey to one side. McMurvey screeched in fury as he landed against the scullery table, sending a rain of cooking implements down on top of the two men.

"You are not one of the Brotherhood!" McMurvey snarled at the gasping Baricza, who had managed to drag himself partially upright by holding onto the bench. "You must die for your sacrilege against our ancient Gods. . .the Gods of fire and steel!"

McMurvey snatched up a long kitchen knife whose hand-forged blade looked as if it had recently honed to a lethal sharpness. Like many cops, Bear was even more wary of a knife than he was of a gun: over the years, he'd probably seen more people fatally stabbed than shot to death. Guns needed reloading and had to be aimed -- never the easiest task when the pressure was on, by any means -- but knives were consistently available and deadly accurate.

And from the way that he carried the blade, it looked as if McMurvey'd had plenty of experience handling just such a weapon. Baricza's off-duty gun had gone flying out of his hand when he'd first been hit, and even though he could now see well enough in the darkened room to spot it laying over by the wall, there was no way that he could evade McMurvey long enough to retrieve it.

Think, Baricza, think! he demanded of himself as McMurvey lunged towards him.

But Bear's mind, like his body, seemed to be working in slow motion. He tried to duck to one side as McMurvey raised the knife, but the best that he could manage was to fall sideways onto the floor again. The knife buried itself into the wood of the bench -- only a fraction of an inch from where Baricza had been leaning a moment before.

Just that small amount of effort drained the last of Bear's strength, however, and now he lay on the ground, gasping for air. He'd hit his head on the table leg, which wasn't helping his dizziness in the least. And to add insult to what was surely going to be the last ignominious moments of his life, Bear found that he'd landed directly on top of the fallen kitchen utensils.

Still chanting wildly under his breath, McMurvey freed the knife from the bench, then turned towards his intended victim. Even in the darkness, Baricza could see the insane glitter in the other man's narrow little eyes as he rocked back and forth a little.

"Receive the blood sacrifice from your true disciple, O my Masters!" McMurvey bent down over the dazed Baricza and raised the knife again, then plunged it straight towards Bear's chest. . .

. . .just as Bear desperately swung up at his assailant with one of the cast iron ladles. The knife blade hit the ladle's solid metal handle and flew out of McMurvey's hand. He stumbled forward, almost landing on top of Baricza again, then frantically tried to right himself.

But before McMurvey could regain his balance, Baricza brought the ladle crashing down on top of the other man's head with a satisfying thump. The hood of McMurvey's robe provided just enough padding to keep the cast iron from splitting his skull, but the force of the blow was enough to drop him where he stood.

At least I won't be the only one with a headache tomorrow! Bear's grin was a little wobbly around the edges as he tried to stagger to his feet.

The effort was more than he could manage, however, and he slumped down on the floor, not far from the unconscious McMurvey. But at that moment, the room lit up with the glow from half a dozen flashlights. Dee O'Connor burst into the room, followed by what appeared to be at least half of the Los Angeles Police Department. Bear looked up and gave O'Connor a kind of victory salute -- with the hand that still clutched the ladle.

"Right here he is, Lieutenant," O'Connor gestured at McMurvey, and a tall blond man in camouflage coveralls grinned broadly at the sight. "Looks like Baricza pulled off another last minute slam dunk for the CHP!"

"Good job, Baricza," Lieutenant Harris nodded, as two of his own men handcuffed McMurvey.

Baricza smiled and once more tried to stand up, but Harris shook his head. "You just stay where you are for the time being, Bear. One of my guys will call the paramedics, and we'll have them take a look at both you and your suspect, there. Joe Getraer would have my hide if I let one of his people wander around with possible injuries. . .especially the MVP of tonight's game!"

"Thanks, Lieutenant Harris," Bear smiled blearily at the officer who was one of his chief basketball rivals. "But as far as this match going to the CHP, we've all been on the same team right from the start. Just chalk this up as another upset victory for all the good guys! And speaking of the CHP, would somebody call Sergeant Getraer for me and tell him that I'm doing OK. . .sort of."

"Why don't you tell him for yourself?" Getraer's voice came from somewhere behind the LAPD officers.

The sergeant managed to work his way to the front of the group, followed by Jon, Bonnie, and Ponch. They were in time to see Dee O'Connor kneel beside Bear and cradle his head in her lap, just as she had done the day before. And there wasn't even a hint of self consciousness on the little blonde detective's part as she affectionately ruffled Baricza's hair.

"Hey, who's minding the store?" Baricza looked up and yawned. "Looks like most of the patrol is here right now, instead of out catching the bad guys. Or did you just decide to take it easy tonight and leave that all up to me?"

"Why should we sweat it when you're doing such a great job, Bear?" Bonnie winked at Baricza. "And speaking of taking it easy. . ."

Bonnie gestured at Bear's 'pillow,' and he blushed a little. "Uh, you guys, this is Detective Sergeant Dee O'Connor. She's the one who pulled me out of the wreck yesterday. . . and see, I told you I wasn't just making all that up!"

"We believed every word you said, Bear, didn't we. . .oww!!" Ponch yelped, then asked plaintively, "What did I do to deserve getting slugged like that, Bonnie?"

"You'll have to forgive them, Dee," Bear chuckled. "The rest of my CHP buddies are all a lot crazier and more off the wall than I am."

"And speaking of that! Baricza, it's a good thing you're already down. . .because if you weren't, you would be when I got done with you!" Getraer shook his head. "You've always been too reasonable and level-headed to pull a stunt like this! Now if it had been Ponch, I would have expected something like this. But not from you, Barry."

Ponch started to protest, then saw the look that Getraer aimed at him and thought better of it. O'Connor waited until the laughter subsided, then gestured down at Baricza.

"Well, Sarge, what Bear did here tonight just goes to prove a saying that we have in S.A.G.A.," O'Connor nodded seriously at the CHP officers, although from his angle, Bear could see the hint of a smile on her lips. "You really do have to be crazy to go chasing dragons after dark, but it's still included in the job description."

She paused long enough to wink down at Bear, then added, "In fact, you might say that it's all just part of a good knight's work!"

Chapter Six

The warm October sunlight poured down like melted gold over a pavilion where a celebration was taking place. . .but this was a festive occasion unlike anything that Los Angeles had seen in a considerable length of time. And for California, that was saying quite a bit.

Long trestle tables had been set up for the event, and now the boards groaned under an assortment of delicacies. Partridges stuffed with truffles; enormous meat pies; sizzling roasts still smoking from the spit. . .in short, anything that would have pleased a feudal lord's palate now waited in heavy silver chargers for the guests' pleasure.

And there was more than enough entertainment to amuse the guests, as well. Jesters and wandering minstrels stopped by each of the tables in turn for a joke or a ballad, while a juggler amused the gathering by adding another ball or hoop to the already astonishing number of those items that he managed to keep in the air.

The crowd roared with approval as the juggler finished his act and bowed to them with a small flourish. Only one couple was oblivious to the sights and sounds all around them as they sat together at the table of honor. For his part, the tall dark-haired man in the wide-sleeved green satin shirt and black velvet slacks seemed too distracted by the presence of his companion to pay any attention to anything else.

The small, slender woman smiled up at him, and in the sunlight, her eyes were the same misty shade of violet as her robe. Her jewels had been carefully chosen to complement her garments with their fine tracery of lace and embroidery: a delicate filigree coronet encircled her long blonde curls, while ornate gold bracelets set with amethyst cabochons flashed on her wrists.

But the only item of jewelry that she seemed to be paying any attention to at the moment was the magnificent gold and amethyst ring on the index finger of her right hand. With its curiously cut gems and ornate workmanship, the ring was clearly of considerable antiquity -- the perfect addition to the rest of her garments and jewels. The woman gazed at the ring, then reached out and squeezed Baricza's hand lovingly.

"Only you, Bear," Dee O'Connor smiled gently at Baricza. "I still don't know how you managed to come up with an authentic Elizabethan gimmel band for my birthday present, but you did it. And when you throw a party, you throw a Party with a capital 'P'!"

"Hey, I couldn't let all your S.A.G.A. buddies think I was a cheapskate, now could I?" Baricza grinned. "To say nothing of having to explain it to half of the LAPD and the Station 51 guys!"

"And speaking of the troops, it looks like the CHP is really enjoying the party. Especially Grossman," O'Connor nodded at one of the tables where Artie was doing a more than passable imitation of Henry the Eighth at a banquet -- complete with an enormous drumstick in either hand.

"Yeah, looks like there's plenty of good will between LAPD, the fire department, and the CHP here this afternoon," Baricza looked out over the crowd with a satisfied nod, then added, "I figure it ought to last until about the first basketball game of the season!"

At the moment, Bonnie was arm in arm with Lieutenant Harris as they stood talking to Jon and his date, a little black-haired dispatcher from the fire department. Sergeant Getraer and his wife were having a lively discussion with Captain Hank Stanley over brimming tankards of honey mead, while in another corner of the pavilion, Roy and Joann Desoto demonstrated a particularly complicated medieval dance step to Jed Turner and his girlfriend, a K-9 handler for LAPD.

There was one lone hold-out against all the togetherness that surrounded him, however. Wearing a rented costume that looked like an explosion in a silk factory, Ponch wandered through the crowd like a man cruising the buffet table at a luxurious restaurant. Except that the only "hors d'oeuvres" he had in mind at the moment were all wearing low cut gowns.

Which reminded Bear of something. He gestured for Gage to join them, and Johnny threaded his way through the crowd until he stood in front of the guests of honor.

"Did you bring what I asked you to?" Bear's dark eyes were alight with mischief.

"Oh, you bet I did," Gage winked at his best friend. "It wasn't quite as tough as helping you find a certain gorgeous lady's birthday present, but it still took some doing to get just one with just the right amount of, uh, personality, shall we say?"

O'Connor nodded her approval. "We've waited a long time for this, haven't we, Bear? I was all in favor of dropping him in his tracks when you told me what he'd done to you, but I'm glad we waited until now."

"You and me both, sweetheart. Old buddy Ponch is about to find out that there are a lot of dishes that are best when served ice cold!" Baricza smiled mysteriously. "Johnny, my friend, will you do the honors?"

"With pleasure, Bear. . .with pleasure," Gage nodded. He returned to his table for a moment, then bent down and retrieved something that had been concealed by the table cloth's long silky fringe.

He walked back over to his friends and surreptitiously handed Bear a small cardboard box -- one whose lid sported a number of small, carefully punched holes. With a wink, Gage picked up a heavy iron serving spoon from a nearby dish and rapped sharply on the table with it.

"Can I have everyone's attention for a moment, please?" he called out above the noise. "Your attention, please."

In a moment, the pavilion was hushed, and Gage gave the crowd his best grin -- the one that never failed to remind Dee of a certain handsome CHP officer's smile. The paramedic made a small, formal bow and began to address the audience.

"Thank you," Johnny smiled at the assembly. "As most of you know, Harlan Arliss and I were the ones who helped Barry organize this birthday party for Dee. Dee's fellow S.A.G.A. players have all helped to make this the memorable occasion that it's been, so let's give these good folks a big hand, shall we?"

The applause was thunderous, and Gage once again waited until there was silence. "But when I asked S.A.G.A. to sponsor this celebration, I didn't realize that there were certain protocols that needed to be followed. At this point, I'm going to turn things over to Sir Harlan and let him explain."

Harlan strolled towards the front of the tent, and like his three friends, he, too, wore a mysterious little smile. But he managed to look suitably serious as he bowed towards Dee and Bear, then turned back to the crowd.

"S.A.G.A.'s philosophy is that life should be a magnificent fairy tale, complete with handsome knights and beautiful princesses, mythical beasts and mighty wizards. We particularly enjoy involving our guests in the games and rituals that have evolved over the years. So on a festive occasion such as this, it's S.A.G.A.'s custom to appoint a Lord or Lady of Ceremonies from among its guests," Harlan announced. "For reasons that I'll explain here in a few minutes, we'll be choosing a name from among all you lucky lords and knights of the kingdom out there. But don't worry if you're chosen for the job. It's not hard . . and it definitely has its own rewards. And now, if our own lovely Lady Bonnie will now assist me by drawing someone's name out of the basket. . ."

Bonnie stood up and bowed to the crowd as one of the S.A.G.A. players handed her a small basket full of tightly rolled pieces of paper. She closed her eyes tightly, then reached into the basket and took out one scroll with a flourish.

"And the Master of Ceremonies is. . ." she unrolled the tiny scroll and then paused for dramatic effect, ". . .Frank Poncherello!"

Ponch looked startled for a moment as another roar of applause filled the tent. But he quickly recovered, then preened a little as he strutted towards Harlan.

"Thank you, thank you," he bowed to the audience like a third rate Shakespearean actor. "OK, Your Royal Shortness, what does the Lord of Ceremonies have to do? Slay a dragon? Rescue a princess or two? I can certainly think of a couple of princesses here this afternoon that I wouldn't mind saving!"

For a moment, it appeared that the mechanic was about to stretch to his full height and punch Frank in the kneecap: only a small noise and a warning glance from Johnny made Harlan settle down with just a mumble or two under his breath. Moving in quickly, Gage took over where Harlan had left off.

"Thank you for your help, Lady Bonnie and Sir Harlan," Gage smiled at them, then turned to Frank. "Actually, Ponch you're pretty close. One of the first 'duties' of the Lord of Ceremonies involves making sure that all the ladies are having a good time. That means that if a fair damsel presents herself to you, you're obligated to give her a kiss. But before you do that, you have one more sacred obligation to fulfill."

He paused dramatically and turned to a blushing Dee. "As Lord of Ceremonies, it's your duty to give the birthday celebrant a kiss in honor of her special day. Ah, Sir Barry, no argument now. . .those are the rules!"

Bear had jumped to his feet after Gage's pronouncement, one fist clenched at his side in 'fury.' Trying to conceal a grin, Baricza continued to mutter 'angrily' under his breath, then sat down while Ponch swaggered towards Dee.

"All right!" Ponch grinned. "Lay one on me, Princess!"

"But of course, Lord Poncherello," she smiled graciously at him, motioning for him to lean over the table. "Ah, my lord, only an oafish fellow kisses a fair maiden with his eyes open. Art thou a knave or a gentleman?"

"Who cares as long as I get to kiss the beautiful damsel?" Ponch snorted, then closed his eyes tightly and leaned forward for his kiss.

Now that was strange. . . really strange, Ponch thought to himself. He would have never figured Dee for such a cold fish, but kissing her was like puckering up to the inside of a refrigerator door. Come to think about it, her lips had about the same consistency as the piece of rubber seal around a refrigerator door, too.

Man, why on earth is Bear always bragging about how great a kisser Dee is? Ponch shrugged to himself as he hastily finished the kiss and started to back away. . .

. . .and just as he opened his eyes, the erstwhile object of his affections let out an enormous "Ribbett!"

Ponch leaped backward -- a move that carried him almost six feet away from the huge bullfrog in Dee's hand. But when he landed on top of one of the tables, it was with a squish, not a thud. Unfortunately for the sake of his rented costume, he had come to rest in the middle of a large, juicy blackberry pie that one of the S.A.G.A. serving women had just placed in front of Grossman.

Pie splattered in spectacular arcs, drenching Artie with juice, berries, and bits of crust. But Grossman continued to sit there for a few seconds longer with his fork in his hand, still staring at the empty dish . . . and looking for all the world as if he was posing for a statue of Little Jack Horner.

And when he finally could move again, Grossman's first response was almost inevitable. Without saying a word, he picked up a nearby tureen of lemon custard. . .and dumped it over Poncherello's head.

Well, Grossie, you always did 'get into' your food, Baricza thought to himself with a grin -- at the moment, Artie resembled nothing more than a blackberry with arms and legs. And don't worry, Ponch. . .you wear it so well!

It took several moments for Ponch and Grossman to wipe assorted drips and splatters out of their eyes well enough to see anything going on around them. But finally Ponch managed to stagger forward, one fist clenched at his side.

"This whole thing was a set-up! You were all in on this right from the start!" Ponch snarled above the assorted gasps, chortles, chuckles, and roars of laughter from the people around him. " Baricza, I'll get you for this if it's the last thing I ever do!"

"Funny, Ponch, that's how I felt back in January. Especially when Dee told me that you had a pretty good idea all along that I was telling the truth about seeing a 'princess' out here," Bear folded his arms over his chest. "I don't suppose you'd mind telling me why you let everybody think I was hallucinating after the car accident?"

"You mean you knew about Dee all along and you didn't tell anyone. . .?" Jon Baker demanded indignantly.

"All right, all right, already!" Ponch held up a hand in protest, and his expression resembled that of a basset hound caught doing something unspeakable on the living room rug. "Yeah, I thought I saw something. . .someone running away from the scene. And yeah, she did look sort of like a princess. But I figured if I told anybody, they might think I was, uh. . .crazy or something."

His explanation did little to mollify his friends and fellow officers, who now glared at him as they stood around him in a circle. No matter where he looked, all Ponch saw was disapproval, and he sighed heavily.

"OK, Bear, I admit I was wrong. . .and I'm sorry," he held out a hand towards Baricza -- the hand that had the least amount of custard on it, at that. "Friends?"

Bear hesitated for a moment, then looked over at Dee. Ponch died several deaths inside while the detective deliberated his fate, but finally, she nodded and gave the thumbs up gesture. Baricza shook Ponch's hand, and with that, the entire crowd spontaneously broke into cheers. When a little of the noise died down, Ponch nodded towards the table where the frog still sat in his box.

"I know I was a real rat for not telling you that I thought I saw something," Ponch sighed as he once more wiped his lips vigorously with the end of his pie-splattered shirt. "But did you really have to make me kiss a frog? I mean, I could end up with warts on my lips or something."

"Of course I made you kiss a frog, Ponch," Baricza grinned, then winked at the rest of his friends. "Don't you remember? I always toad you that I'd get even with you some day!"

The End